25 life lessons from 25 years in business

Twenty-five years ago today I made one of the scariest (and best) decisions of my life. I had a three-month old baby and one (count ‘em—one) freelance client who paid me a few hundred dollars a month. Oh, and a husband who fully believed I could do it—can’t overlook that. So I left my job ...

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Twenty-five years ago today I made one of the scariest (and best) decisions of my life. I had a three-month old baby and one (count ‘em—one) freelance client who paid me a few hundred dollars a month. Oh, and a husband who fully believed I could do it—can’t overlook that. So I left my job as an art director at an Indianapolis ad agency to start my own graphic design business. I designed logos with a sleeping baby in my arms. I formatted newsletters with one hand while wiping off pacifiers with the other. I closed doors and hunched around the telephone receiver so the client couldn’t hear the screaming toddler in the other room. I worked all day. I worked all night sometimes. I stressed about money (sometimes it poured in, other times it was several months late, and although my husband worked we also needed my income to make ends meet). I took my daughter to a babysitter two or three days a week so I could attend meetings and get some work done. But I made it work.

Then I had another daughter less than three years later. When she was born, I had my computer set up in the living room so I could keep an eye on both girls while I tried to get something done. I hired my sister to help for a while, answering phone calls and getting project estimates and doing my billing. I experimented with moving my office outside my home, thinking I would find separation between work and life. I didn’t. So I moved back home—and had my third child, a son.

Throughout these 25 years, I’ve kept on working. Through crazy levels of work and a variety of clients and sometimes virtually no work but almost always there was plenty to keep me as busy as I wanted to be. I started writing books (and the occasional copywriting project), but I kept on designing. I designed and sold sterling silver jewelry for a while. Once my first book was published, I developed what some would call a ministry of my own, and I did that stuff, too—some speaking, building a social media presence, and so on. I’ve attended writing conferences and retreats, but through it all, I’ve kept my business going. I’m fortunate because, for me, it all feels related. It’s all about creativity—in design, in writing (in whatever form), in prayer. Rather than keep all the pieces separate and distinct, I was able to merge it all into one. My thinking was this: it all comes from the same place, from the same skill set, and it’s too complicated to have multiple businesses. So whatever I do in the “creative” realm falls under the umbrella of my business. Some parts of it earn money, some don’t, but I do it all anyway.

One year ago, with two of my kids on their own now and my youngest in high school, I moved my office again—into the building that served as my dad’s art studio until he died. I love being in that space, and I’ve finally found a decent work-life balance. Over the years, I’ve learned plenty, and although many of these lessons are specific to me and the industry I work in, many of them apply across the board. So in celebration of 25 years of building my own life, I wanted to share 25 lessons I’ve learned, in no particular order.

  1. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Embrace who you are. Be real. Don’t exaggerate or puff yourself up. Authenticity makes up for a lot of other flaws. If you work at home, say so. Most people are jealous that you get to work from home, or that you’re able to set your own hours, or what have you.
  2. You’re in charge of “marketing” yourself. Figure out how you want to be known before people ask. “I own my own graphic design business, and I work from home.” For me it was important to establish that—not because it made me any less professional, but because my way of working was affected by my being at home. A client might hear my kids in the background. They might call while I’m at the grocery. But on the flip side, they also might send me a big project at 5 pm and have it waiting for them the next morning because I sometimes work crazy hours.
  3. Just because you’re self-employed doesn’t mean you’re less of a professional. Don’t act like it or be embarrassed. Working from home, working for yourself, is a legit way to do it.
  4. Put on makeup. Get dressed. Put on shoes. Go “in” to the office. Many people who work from home love the fact that they don’t have to do these things, but honestly, when I don’t, I feel unprofessional. When I get ready for the day, I feel like I’m on equal footing with the client… especially now that some of my clients like video calling.
  5. You don’t have to apologize when asking for payment. You earned it. The client agreed to it. It’s yours, so don’t be embarrassed to remind them when the payment is late. You don’t owe them reasons why you need the money—that isn’t any of their business. But getting paid is a crucial part of being in business, and they have to understand that.
  6. Just because you work from home or have a flexible schedule, you are not obligated to “volunteer” for anything and everything. If you want to volunteer, having a flexible schedule is one of the perks, so go for it. But if you don’t, don’t accept any perceived pressure from others about it.
  7. If you do want to volunteer, find ways to volunteer that tie in to your particular skill set. For instance, I don’t volunteer to chaperone groups of teenagers or work behind the scenes at a production my kids are in—but you need a t-shirt or an ad or a program designed? I’m your girl. These are legitimate ways to contribute, and they come with the added benefit of being able to do them on your own time.
  8. Sometimes you should ask questions, not because you don’t know, but because other people need the chance to weigh in and be the “experts.” Offer people the gift of not always being on the receiving end of your expertise.
  9. This business isn’t life and death. Some things are—but not this ad deadline or whether the layout is emailed to the client on Thursday or Friday. That’s not to say deadlines aren’t important. Part of succeeding in business is living up to your promises. But don’t get caught up in unnecessary drama because when a real life or death situation happens (you have to have your dad flown home from Florida because they just discovered the cancer is everywhere and he doesn’t have much time, for instance), you realize how non-crucial the other things are. They may be important, but they’re not the most important things.
  10. Don’t give away your work for free, unless you specifically want to. Maybe you believe in a cause and want to help. Great. But non-profits still earn money and can pay for services they need. And someone else’s charity or ministry does not have to become your own. You have bills to pay, and you are offering a professional service. When you let yourself do too many things for free (or discounted rates), you will become resentful.
  11. Sometimes, even when you want to help someone with a lower rate or no rate, you should still let them pay you. Yes, people appreciate cost savings, but if they’re not paying you, you may not be as diligent about deadlines or details. There are times when I insist on paying someone else more than they asked because I need to be able to know they’ll take the job seriously. Because free or not, it’s still important to me.
  12. When you hire someone to do sub-contracted work for you, ultimately you’re responsible if they do not come through. Prepare for that. Allow extra time in the schedule. But you don’t have to be a martyr and do everything yourself because no one else delivers at the same level as you do. If you need help, get it. And try to learn how to better direct others to give you what you need.
  13. Actually, in general, be prepared to accept responsibility. For success as well as failure. Don’t play the blame game. If you screw up, admit it and apologize. If it’s not your fault completely, own your role in it. Maybe it will cost you a client, but alternatively, it might earn you greater respect. Whatever happens, though, at least you’ll know you handled it well.
  14. If there are professional services you can hire out, do it. If you can afford it (even if it’s a stretch), let someone else—who is better and more efficient—do things to help. It’s not failure to “farm out” accounting or invoicing or cleaning or computer work. If it makes your schedule more manageable, or if it’s something you don’t know how to do (or don’t want to), don’t hesitate to get help.
  15. Don’t always let other people decide for you. Part of the reason you work for yourself is so you can make choices about your work conditions and quality of life—who you work for, what projects you accept, and what tasks you will do. So don’t hold on to clients way too long simply because you want the money. Or if you do, don’t blame the client. Acknowledge to yourself that you’ve made the choice to go through all of it because you want the income, then don’t waste energy being upset about how the client does things.
  16. Pray about it, whatever “it” is—whether to accept a new client, go in a different direction, end a long-term business relationship, move offices, put together a project estimate, whatever. I don’t always do this, and I don’t always stop in a busy day to remember to ask God if a particular situation is one I want to be in. But when I do, when I take that time to say, “God, ultimately, this business is yours. My talents come from you. My life is at your pleasure,” those are the times when God clearly directs me and helps me make the best choices.
  17. There’s no sense in trying to keep your spiritual life separate from your business life, because you are a spiritual person and your beliefs inform your morals, your work ethic, and how you treat people. Use wisdom and don’t talk about faith at inappropriate times, but you don’t have to hide it or apologize for it, either. It is part of who you are. If your clients don’t like it, they don’t have to hire you. Just don’t beat anyone over the head with it. (Ever. Even if it’s not a business situation.) I struggled with this for a while, because I wasn’t sure whether to let clients know I published a spiritual book—but I got nothing but respect from my clients when they found out.
  18. Know your limits. It’s one thing to stretch and grow. It’s another to get in way over your head. Don’t set yourself up to fail, and be humble enough to know when to admit failure or ask for help. (Those are two different things. Asking for help is not the same as failing.)
  19. Allow yourself to change. You can adapt and evolve your skills, your services, your way of doing business, the industries you work in, and how you charge people for your work. Just because you did it one way before doesn’t mean you have to do it that way forevermore.
  20. Believe in yourself. Not everyone else will support you the way you need them to, and not every client will be a good fit. Those things don’t mean you’re not qualified or competent. You have to have a sense of your inherent worth and hold onto that. I don’t mean you should be arrogant or boastful, just that you can’t let your sense of self-worth hinge on your clients’ responses to your work.
  21. Don’t take it personally. Not every client will like everything you do. The changes will seem arbitrary and frustrate the snot out of you. Some clients’ thought processes will baffle you. Chances are good, though, that they’re not rejecting you or saying you’re not a good designer—just that you haven’t yet given them what they had in mind.
  22. Learn to read between the lines. You’ll have to become proficient at understanding what a client is not saying, of figuring out what they can’t seem to articulate. This is one of the hardest things for me, because I don’t really do nuance—I am what you see, and I say what I mean. But recognize that people do not always communicate effectively, and part of your job is to learn to translate what they say into what they mean.
  23. This is business, not a social club. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the client or other contractors may become your friends. Feel free to let them into your life and ask about theirs—but watch for clues, don’t push that on someone who clearly maintains a line between personal life and business, and know when you need to get back to work. I’ve been fortunate to work with people who have become good friends—which is great, because when you work a lot, it’s nice to enjoy the people you’re working with. But being friends isn’t a requirement for working well together.
  24. Do unto others… If you want respect, offer it. If you want consideration, be considerate. If you want honesty, don’t make up lies and excuses. People are perceptive and they know when you are not sincere, when they’re being taken advantage of or when they’re barely tolerated.
  25. Live life with a spirit of generosity. I’m not just talking about money. Cultivate an attitude of “what can I offer to them?” Or “how can I leave them better off than when I got here?” Go the extra mile. Do that little bit of extra. Don’t be afraid to share tips and tricks—just because someone else can do something doesn’t threaten your job security. You still have talent and experience others might not. Do not hold tightly to your work, your clients, your ideas, your business model, your skill set, your time. Offer it to God and then respond when He nudges you to offer it to someone else. There’s always more (of whatever it is) where that came from. And giving freely cultivates an attitude of kindness and generosity that overflows into all of your life.

And Then I Blinked

My dear friend Terri DeVries agreed to let me use one of her posts on my blog. It’s been ten months since I lost my dad, and I’m still deep in the valley of grief. Terri lost her husband five years ago, which is a completely different thing—and yet I draw such solace from her ...

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My dear friend Terri DeVries agreed to let me use one of her posts on my blog. It’s been ten months since I lost my dad, and I’m still deep in the valley of grief. Terri lost her husband five years ago, which is a completely different thing—and yet I draw such solace from her wise observations and the truths she’s learned. I hope you do, too.

I’m not the same person I was five years ago. There are the obvious reasons, such as the fact that I am five years older, and my energy level has changed. But those things are not the real reasons. Five years ago I was one-half of a couple. Five years ago all the major decisions were made by two people. Five years ago we were both working; my husband full time and me part time. Five years ago we went on vacations and planned new ones to places we wanted to see. Five years ago I was grudgingly picking up socks and underwear and towels and papers and dishes…

And then.

It was a phone call. And a whole string of what-ifs. Followed by a thousand why, why, why, whys. It was a thundering of blood pumping in my ears, my heart beating so fast I thought I might pass out. It was my body shaking so hard I couldn’t imagine driving myself anywhere. And it was the end of normal as I knew it.

March 17, 2013. St. Patrick’s Day. Beautiful, sunny, deceptively peaceful and perfect. You can’t imagine such a thing happening to you on a day like this. But it did. Life as I had lived it for almost forty-seven years came to a halt.

It was entirely the fault of the widow-maker, that type of heart attack that kills quickly and surely. My husband was healthy, in great shape, training for his third marathon, eating well and doing everything right. Then I blinked, and he was gone.

Reality is like a sharp knife. It cuts your past from your future with an accuracy that stuns. Like magic, what was is gone and what is to be is hidden behind a curtain of grief, the sorrow weighing you down so that you find it impossible to stand. And then in that weak moment come the henchmen; anger, denial, depression.

Wow. So where was my faith in all of this, you ask? Great question. And I’m not sure I have a clear-cut answer. Looking back over these five years since I became a widow (a word I hate with all my heart), I’ve searched for the threads that lead back to that day. Five years ago I was indescribably angry. I spent day after day ranting at the God who took away my husband. Betrayed, let down, disappointed, heartbroken, so alone, discouraged, weary, and feeling deserted, I was certain God had left me. I couldn’t find Him or feel Him anywhere. What kind of God leaves you like that? Consequently, I lost the faith I’d had in Him my whole life, or so I thought.

But here’s the thing. Anger is black, opaque, un-see-through-able. And necessary. God stood beside me, watching, loving, and protecting all the while I was ranting at Him. As the anger diminished, His presence gradually became obvious. He’d never left my side as I thought He had. In fact, He had spent much of that time carrying me as He allowed the anger. And although my faith took a real beating in those weeks, it was always there. The result of my loss was to learn that no matter what happens in your life, no matter how bad it gets, if you believe in the same God I do, He will stay with you always. ALWAYS. Especially in the hard times. Even when you can’t understand the why of it all.

The best way to explain it is to refer to an old story describing our lives as a tapestry we see only from the back side. There is a dark and ugly mass of strings in varied colors, some cut and woven back in and others continuing on. It’s messy, with knots and jumbled threads. None of it makes sense. It isn’t until we see the finished workmanship on the right side of the tapestry that we realize what a magnificent masterpiece it is.

This is what I take from that; I’m still seeing the underside of the tapestry, and for the past five years I’ve been trying to follow the threads that run consistently through the it. The thread of faith can be hard to find because it’s hidden for a time under other threads, but it always reappears at some point. It always reappears. Imagine someday seeing the right side and saying, Oh, look what the Master Weaver did with my life!

I am not the person I was five years ago. I’m older, yes. But that’s not the point. I have learned so much about trust in God, a God who loves me more than I can fathom; I have learned about my own faith, a faith which has grown and blossomed and become the center of my life. I have learned about dependence, a complete surrender to the God who planned out every second of my life before I was even born, and who knows exactly what will happen every second of the life I have left. I have learned how strong I am. I have learned how hardships and difficult circumstances molded me. I have learned how much I still have to learn.

That thread of faith that seemed to disappear right after my husband’s death? It was there all along, and now I’m learning to embrace it, holding it close and letting go of all the doubts and fears, and yes, the anger, that I used to allow free reign.

Because I don’t have the ability to see what’s ahead for me. But I know Who does.

If you’d like to read more about her journey, or know someone else who’s on this road with her, check out her book. It’s wonderful (and so is she).

Color me confused

Jesus … said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” Mark 5:19 Modern art scares a lot of people. What is the blue square supposed to mean? The squiggly lines? The warped, misshapen body? I don’t always know, ...

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Jesus … said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” Mark 5:19

Modern art scares a lot of people. What is the blue square supposed to mean? The squiggly lines? The warped, misshapen body? I don’t always know, but there are some pieces that I like, just because I do. On a gut level, judging solely by emotion, something in them resonates with me.

But some pieces — well, it takes me back to my college honors humanities class, you know, the one at 1:00 in the afternoon during winter quarter, right after lunch, when the warm classroom and full stomach and last night’s all-nighter would catch up with me and I didn’t stand a chance. But on the rare occasion when I could stay awake, I was frustrated. How am I supposed to know that this author wrote his satirical essay in response to the politics of the day or that he composed this poem in response to the loss of his entire family to the plague? Why does a red hat have to mean anything besides that it’s a red hat? Did the author intend for all the symbolism we’re now studying, or is it just something made up by literature teachers everywhere?

In other words, I sure could’ve used a translator in that class. And that’s what I think occasionally as I stare at a piece of art, wondering what on earth qualified it to be placed in a museum. If you’re right there with me, don’t feel bad for your confusion or uncertainty. The art is simply speaking a language we don’t understand.

Language is designed to help us communicate, but sometimes it has the opposite effect.

Look back, all the way to the Tower of Babel, when God used language to separate us. In today’s high-tech society, global communication issues have been more or less solved, but in our towns, communities, schools, churches, and even on Facebook, language can be a giant barrier. Words of judgment, division, separation, accusation — of course those things push people away. But so do many innocuous-seeming words used by well-meaning, sincere believers.

On my walk… we must die daily… I’m broken… covered by the blood… I crucified my old man and put on my new man… feeding on the word… born again… I’ve been delivered… God has brought me to the Promised Land… I’ve been to the mountaintop… victory march… is she showing any fruit?

I confess, I’ve used Christianese myself. Sometimes the jargon just seems easier — it’s the shorthand we use among others who share our beliefs, simple phrases that communicate profound meanings. But here’s the danger: it can make other people feel like they’re not in the club. It becomes a tool for exclusion, not inclusion. Instead of sharing your testimony, you may have created a stumbling block, another way for someone to doubt their faith (I don’t know what she’s talking about; I’ve never felt that before; my faith must not be real or right; who are you to decide if I’m ‘saved’?).

As believers, we’re all looking at the same things: The same Bible. The same miracle-working God. The same Savior. But we’ve had different experiences. Different expectations. Different issues and prejudices and hurts and lives. Because of this, the same words won’t work for everyone — the one telling the story or the one listening. By all means, use whatever words you have to tell people about the wonderful God you serve. I’m not suggesting that you stop. But watch for eyes glazing over, people shifting in their chairs, glancing at their watches.

What people want — in art, in relationships, in their faith — is authenticity. Understanding. Connection. Something that will draw them in, not push them away. Something real, something true, something that will resonate with them at a gut level, way beyond intellectual understanding but with deep emotion. Something they can understand without a translator.

Church and the power of a shared story

One day during a writing workshop I attended, the teacher (a well-known author) assigned us the task of sitting for 30 minutes in three very different locations and writing down every single detail we observed. That evening, after we shared the details with each other, she told us that now they belonged to us. What ...

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One day during a writing workshop I attended, the teacher (a well-known author) assigned us the task of sitting for 30 minutes in three very different locations and writing down every single detail we observed. That evening, after we shared the details with each other, she told us that now they belonged to us. What the other women observed became part of my repertoire, and my observations became part of theirs. Now I can take these ideas and absorb them, hold them close, make them part of my story — weave them into the fabric of who I am.

There are a million reasons I could give for getting involved in a church — not because you have to be in church to have faith or practice it, but because it is the ideal place to learn from other people who are, at least in theory, trying to live out the faith we share. No, the people there won’t be perfect. They most likely will fail miserably, as we all do, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them. It also doesn’t mean you have to go early for Sunday school or sign up for all the Bible studies — although you can. It just means that it’s a good place to observe. Open your eyes. Listen. Talk. Share. Ask questions. See how someone clings to God in the darker moments of her life — or notice how she doesn’t — and watch how that changes her. Don’t hide your secrets. If you want to have a perfect little life on Facebook, be my guest. But somewhere in your life find people with whom you can be real.

Because it is in the sharing, in the seeing, that you find the knowing. And it is the knowing that strengthens you and develops a faith that is lasting. When you look through the eyes of faith and notice how God works, it will change what you see when no amount of money-juggling will prevent overdraft fees. It will help you distinguish Him when your nephew responds again to the siren song of his addiction, or your child fails another class, or a herniated disk cancels your golf vacation. It will help comfort you when the biopsy shows that you really did spend too much time in the sun or that there’s no getting around it, you have to seriously change your diet because your health has hit critical stages. No matter how much you love chocolate. Or salt. Or bacon. He will guide you when your reputation tanks, or your investments do, or when the tanker jackknives on the interstate and kills a four-year-old child. It will sustain you when you can’t please a boss or seem to make a smart decision or salvage your marriage. It’s not dependent on you — because the Bible tells us, “If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny who he is.” (2 Timothy 2:13, NLT)

Sweet and precious Lord, help us not to overlook the gifts you’ve given us, the ones surrounding us in the pews at church (or surrounding us in life, if we don’t go to church). Teach me, Lord, to see You, honor You, pay attention to You. Grant me Your unfathomable peace. And thank You for putting people in my life to walk alongside me. Help me learn from them, no matter what I’m going through. Amen.

P.S. If you don’t go to church, please don’t think I’m criticizing you. We each have to find our own way and our own place and I’m glad that my blog is part of your spiritual life. In fact, I wrote an article called Should You Feel Shame for Missing Church?, and the short answer is no :-). But I have been forever changed—in a good way—by the people at my church and I know the powerful things that can happen when you find a church to call home.

A peek into my journal

I thought about titling this “Naked and unashamed,” but that would make it look like I have a whole lot more confidence than I really have. With me, naked just is never a good thing! Whatever you want to call it, though, this post is about getting real. I wrote this in my journal recently, ...

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I thought about titling this “Naked and unashamed,” but that would make it look like I have a whole lot more confidence than I really have. With me, naked just is never a good thing! Whatever you want to call it, though, this post is about getting real.

I wrote this in my journal recently, and then the next time I picked it up I felt so strongly that I should share it—not because it’s amazing writing, and not because I have the answers, because I don’t—but because I think someone out there needs to know that they are not alone. Here’s the truth: We don’t all feel inspired all the time, and we don’t always know how to pray. Even me—and I’ve published two books on prayer. So please read on and know that each person’s faith life will ebb and flow. Prayer may come easily sometimes and be more difficult at other times. But God remains the same, and He always wants to hear from us. I am so grateful.

It’s Saturday morning—really almost noon—and I’m feeling that familiar resistance. I should work; I want to read. I should pray; I want to read. I should be productive—I have so much to do—but I’m tired and just want to indulge myself.

Lord, what is it in me that wants to do meaningless, selfish things over spending time with You? Is it the fear—the knowledge—that You know me? That You see through my BS? That You know how far my heart and thoughts are from You in the daily grind?

Revive that passion in me, Lord. Please. It was so good for me to spend the last few days with Cindy and share our stories about You, about our faith and discoveries. To be reminded, through my own words and experiences, how amazing You are. To remember what a gift You’ve given me and all the ways in which You’ve revealed Yourself to me.

I already know that my prayer life will probably never look like it used to. I’ve changed; You have not.

But what I have now feels stagnant and boring. Distinctly uninspiring.

The irony isn’t lost on me: I write about how to invigorate your prayer life, how to try again and again, to do something new to shake it up. I tell people I get to write, not because I am a better pray-er, but because I want You more than I want to stay where I am.

I do want You, Lord.

I want to hear You and see You—but I really want to know You. To let my days be changed by Your presence. To let my life be changed by Your participation and provision. To let You so permeate my being that every particle of me is transformed into something new—unrecognizable as me but fully recognizable as YOU.

Sometimes it seems as though the leap between where I am and where I want to be is impossible to traverse. No obvious path; seemingly impassible obstacles.

And yet I know—and believe—that nothing is impossible for You. My failings don’t even enter into the equation.

Do this impossible thing, Lord. Whisk me over the chasm I sense between us. I’m not asking You to deliver me from the hard work of it. Just for You to show me the footholds I need to navigate across. To inspire me, step by step. To coach me, coax me, whisper encouragement to me. To never leave my side—and yet, inexplicably, to be waiting on the other side when I arrive, arms wide open for a deep embrace.

Help me to get there, Lord. One tiny step at a time.

Dear Lord, thank You for hearing our prayers—and for always wanting to answer them when we’re simply wanting to grow closer to You. Help revive my passion; restore my lagging faith; remind me how amazing You are. I know these things, and I believe in my heart, but sometimes my head gets in the way. Thank You for loving us so much. Thank You for wanting us to lean on You. Thank You for always, always being there and for knowing the desires of our heart. Amen.

Everything you could possibly ever need

Well, maybe it’s not an entirely exhaustive list :-). As you think about what you will study, how you might adjust your prayer life (journaling habits, Bible study, and so on), and what you hope to accomplish this year, I thought it might be helpful to give you a list of some resources that are available here ...

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Well, maybe it’s not an entirely exhaustive list :-). As you think about what you will study, how you might adjust your prayer life (journaling habits, Bible study, and so on), and what you hope to accomplish this year, I thought it might be helpful to give you a list of some resources that are available here on my site.

Prayer Prompt Calendars—every month I create a new calendar, roughly centered on a random theme. By subscribing to my monthly e-newsletter, you will receive the link to download each calendar as soon as it’s ready. Print this and hang it on your fridge, tack it on the wall by your computer, or keep it in your journal or Bible to help you jump-start your prayers—and hopefully, along the way, expand your awareness of the importance of prayer and the needs all around us. Here is this month’s calendar for you to check out (without subscribing)—hope you like it enough to sign up to get new ones every month!

Designed to Pray

Praying Upside Down

A to Z prayer cards*—print these free downloads and use to help incorporate learning into prayer time with your child…or just for yourself!

Wallpaper downloads for your phone on computer—currently, I only have one design available, but hope to create more soon!

10 Ways to Love” printable—a list of scriptures to remind us of what’s important—how to show love in our daily life. Available in gray or in white.

*If you’re not already a subscriber, you’ll have to sign up for my newsletter to access these.


Searching for that elusive bigger room

The dream resurfaces, time and again. And it’s never quite the same, but it goes something like this. I’m in my house (which never looks like my real house). And there’s a door that I’ve forgotten to open, or maybe I just hadn’t noticed it. So I open it and am absolutely amazed because there’s ...

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The dream resurfaces, time and again. And it’s never quite the same, but it goes something like this.

I’m in my house (which never looks like my real house). And there’s a door that I’ve forgotten to open, or maybe I just hadn’t noticed it. So I open it and am absolutely amazed because there’s a whole wing to the house that I didn’t know about.

Sometimes there are bedrooms with lots and lots of closets and I start brainstorming the possible uses of all those rooms. Once in a while I discover a wing that looks almost exactly like the second floor of my grandparents’ house, but with additional bathrooms with giant showers. One time it was a beautiful writing room—sort of a screened in, second-floor porch with white trellises and wicker furniture and art on the walls and a peaceful wooded view. But most of the time—on its own or in addition to the other rooms—there is a ballroom. A great big, beautiful room. So large that I am shocked by the sheer volume of space. Shiny hardwood floors. So very much potential.

Imagine my surprise when I set foot in that ballroom—fully awake, although completely exhausted—last week. This ballroom exists on the 2nd level of the Ball State University Student Center, which is where we held the Midwest Writers Workshop this year.

I’d seen the room before, as an undergrad at Ball State 25 years ago. I think I was looking for a different room on that floor, where I was interviewing to be an arts and crafts counselor at a summer camp in northwest Pennsylvania. (Even then I wasn’t much of a kid person, but I really wanted to spend a summer not at home.) But for some reason, that room has stayed with me. In my dreams it’s dark and shadowy, unused. Last week, it was full of light and voices and smiling faces.

A quick, highly professional and scientific Google search tells me that in dream interpretation, discovering a new room has to do with expanding your territory, trying something new, branching out in a new direction.

Fitting, since that was what the Midwest Writers Workshop was about this year, on multiple levels. After more than 40 years, MWW is becoming a stand-alone, nonprofit entity. We’re expanding our tent stakes, now offering a membership organization, webinars, and various events throughout the year. I credit MWW with all of my so-called writing success because it feels like I’ve taken advanced courses in publishing, in all aspects of the book proposal and querying process, and in honing my craft. I knew how to navigate through these past few years because of what I learned at MWW. And I found my people there. A wonderful, inspiring group of writers who are exceptionally talented, but even so, are somehow even better at being friends than at writing.

A couple years ago I joined the MWW board and have loved being on the inside of the planning process. But this year was something new because for the first time I was officially part of the faculty. I got to stand in front of people—once, I was even in the ballroom—and pretend to be a real writer. (You don’t have to argue with me. I do know that I’m a real writer. I’ve published two books, so this writing thing is definitely real.)

Even so, there are times that I feel like an imposter. I love to write and I think I’m good at it (some of the awkward sentence constructions in this blog post notwithstanding). And yes, I’ve had the privilege of writing two books that a publisher believed in enough to publish them. But I’ll confess that I’m still a bit starry-eyed when confronted with people who have had more success than I have—they’ve been doing it longer, or written more books, or sold more copies, or simply are better writers. I feel good about what I do, but like any artist I harbor insecurities about my craft because it’s so personal. When I write, I feel as though I am most fully me, so when someone doesn’t like my writing, or when I don’t meet sales goals or have a monumentally huge blog following, it feels like I have failed. Like I’m somehow not enough.

Which is why last week at MWW was so good for me. As faculty, I taught some sessions. I got to talk about inspirational writing, creative book structures, and creative marketing and branding ideas. I realized that the content came naturally to me. That I have learned some things along the way.

And I saw a few people listening to me the way I’ve listened to so many others over the years. Taking notes. Eyes wide, intensely watching. Hesitant to ask questions, but hanging around in case there’s more to talk about. Treating me as though I have “made it” simply because I have two books to my name.

I felt legitimate. Accomplished. Like I had finally expanded into that shadowy, unknown space and become somehow fuller, more present, more real. The truth is, yes, I’ve accomplished my goal of being published, and not everyone can say that. In reality, whatever we achieve, most of us will probably never quite feel we’ve done all we were meant to do. Through MWW, I’ve learned that we aren’t competing with each other, but we’re better together simply because we share this love for writing and we’re pursuing it together. If we’ve been published, it’s because the stars were aligned or the timing was right and we happened to actually get a contract. We’re not better than those who don’t yet—or maybe will not ever—have one. At every stage, there’s more to strive for and tons of work required. And yet, as hard as it can be to reach the place where we finally feel accepted, the bottom line is that it’s the process that’s more important than the destination. We don’t write for money or fame, clearly, but because of the people we get to know and the chances we have to discover who we are and what we were designed to do.

Today, on the official release day for Designed to Pray, my overwhelming emotion is gratitude. I am humbled by the support so freely offered to me. And, although I’m happy with the rooms I’ve inhabited so far, I’m excited to see what will come next. Because there are endless possibilities, numerous other places to go. So many new rooms to explore—whole wings to discover.

And not only in my dreams.

How do I pray when ___?

Pray about it! I declare. Pray without ceasing, the Bible tells us. Prayer changes us, I promise. I write about prayer, but do I truly believe it? Absolutely. Except sometimes life gets in the way of our best intentions. When my mom was diagnosed with cancer and then passed away in spite of all the ...

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Pray about it! I declare. Pray without ceasing, the Bible tells us. Prayer changes us, I promise. I write about prayer, but do I truly believe it? Absolutely.

Except sometimes life gets in the way of our best intentions.

When my mom was diagnosed with cancer and then passed away in spite of all the prayers my family and friends prayed, I floundered. Not just floundered. I flopped. Fell, tumbled, stumbled away, pretending I was okay while knowing I’d never be okay again. God hadn’t saved her life. The only thing stronger than my anger was my denial about being angry.

When I watched my neighbor carry his six-year-old son Henry to the hearse parked in the driveway between our houses, after Henry had succumbed to the brain tumor that distorted his beautiful face, the ache in my heart was almost too much to bear. Even though he wasn’t my own child, my heart was broken. And I had trouble finding words.

When my daughter missed more school than she attended her senior year and had to be hospitalized three hours away from home for a week at a migraine specialty hospital, and clients needed brochures and ads turned around quickly, and my other daughter needed ankle surgery, and my dad was diagnosed with pre-cancerous cells, and money wasn’t coming in to my graphic design business account, I was more inclined to curl up in a ball and take a nap than I was to pray. It was too much to try to wade through it all.

When the British man who had devastated me in college by ending our two-year romance with a heartless letter found me online many years later, it threw me. As much as I loved my husband and my life, I had to reframe the way I’d thought about that relationship for the past twenty years, and figure out what any of it meant for my current life. My brain was a tangled-up mess. In prayer, I’d simply sit. I didn’t know how to put words to the chaos I felt inside.

Maybe for you it was a pastor or teacher or family friend who did unspeakable things and no one believed you. Or maybe it was a church who judged you—rightly or wrongly—and pushed you away. Your baby stopped breathing, or didn’t survive until birth. Your spouse cheated on you. Again and again. Your employee stole from you. Your boss spitefully reprimanded you, costing you the promotion you wanted. Or you admitted to being abused and nobody did a thing to stop it. Maybe you adore children and don’t understand why God hasn’t given you a baby of your own when so many who don’t want a baby get pregnant. Maybe you think the only way out of your financial mess is to file bankruptcy, but those debts don’t qualify, you don’t make enough to cover your expenses, and your job is a dead end. Or maybe you are an addict and can’t imagine God could ever deliver you from that.

You may not struggle with a traumatic event, but fight tangled emotions and insecuritieswhy would God want me after all I’ve done? Perhaps you’re waiting until you feel like you’re in a respectable place, with your life cleaned up. Maybe you can’t forgive yourself so you certainly don’t expect God to do so, and you’re certain He won’t want to hear from you.

It might be that you’ve watched holier-than-thou Christians judge and condemn and live hypocritical lives, and you just can’t bear to associate with them in any way because of the impression they convey to the world.

Or maybe you struggle with the age-old questions: How can God allow evil? What kind of God would let that happen? Is God really real? Why can’t I feel Him? Why doesn’t He answer me?

I could write pages and pages and never touch on half of the obstacles people face when it comes to prayer.

What I hope this tells you is that when—not if, but when—you struggle, you’re not alone. I’m right there with you.

In spite of the struggles, though, I’ve also seen answers. I’ve seen my life and attitudes and prejudices and beliefs transformed over time. I’ve witnessed what seem to be miraculous answers, unexplained by science and logic. I’ve watched science heal people, and found myself thanking God for working through medicine.

I haven’t seen God with my eyes, but I’ve witnessed His presence in one situation after another. He hasn’t spoken in an audible voice, but I’ve heard him loud and clear. He isn’t tangible, I can’t touch Him, but I’ve felt Him hold me tight and carry me through moments of unspeakable pain.

So how do we pray when there’s too much going on? When we can’t see God in it? When we don’t know where to begin? When we’re in pain? Sad? Depressed? Uninspired? When we don’t like the way God is answering? When we don’t feel like He’s listening? What do we do when we’re out of words or when our words are angry and don’t seem fitting to be used in a holy pursuit like prayer?

Try something new. Something to jolt our minds and our hearts, something to bypass established behaviors and patterns. We need to trick our minds out of relying on the known and instead seek the unknown.

Think of it as preparation for future situations. Just as an artist has to learn how to mix paint colors, or a basketball player has to focus on individual skills like dribbling and shooting, in order to practice prayer long-term we need to experiment. If you can find ways to strengthen and notice more of God in the everyday, then when it comes time for you to step up to the canvas (or get off the bench), you’re ready. You have all the tools you need to face the problem before you.

Today, and tomorrow, and possibly even the next day, I hope you will try something different. Stand up if you normally sit down. Speak out loud if you typically pray in silence. Read a liturgical prayer or spiritual poem. Write it down. Shake things up.

Designed to Pray coverYou can totally do this on your own, but if you would like to dedicate some time to exploring different approaches to prayer, I hope you’ll check out my new book. Designed to Pray: Creative Ways to Engage with God releases on August 1, and it’s an 8-week individual Bible study designed to lead women into a deeper relationship with God. (You can order it now.)

Whether you read my book or not, I’m excited to hear what you discover. I hope you’ll share your experiences with me here or on my blog.

Dear Lord, sometimes it’s a little intimidating to try something new. But I hold tight to the truth I’ve discovered as I’ve walked this path with You: As long as You are in it, I want to be there too. Change can be painful at times, and sometimes I fight it. But Your vision surpasses mine, so I surrender myself willingly. When You get involved, when You begin to refine me and smooth the rough edges, I don’t become less but more. Open my heart and mind to new possibilities, and teach me to express my creativity in ways that allow me to find You. Make connections for me between people and ideas and my awareness of You—let me see more of the ways You’ve woven us all together and connected us all with Your love. Amen.

When I found grace (it really is amazing)

Suzie Eller is hosting a #livefreeThursday linkup on her blog today, and the prompt is grace. She’s right that this is a conversation that we need to have right now—when do we show grace? Do we offer the same grace we’ve been given? What part of that (if any) does offering our opinions or correction have ...

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Suzie Eller is hosting a #livefreeThursday linkup on her blog today, and the prompt is grace. She’s right that this is a conversation that we need to have right now—when do we show grace? Do we offer the same grace we’ve been given? What part of that (if any) does offering our opinions or correction have of grace? Do we get to pick and choose who receives grace?

I don’t have answers, except to say that I want to err on the side of grace rather than judgment. On inclusion rather than exclusion.

Because here’s what I know: I don’t deserve God’s grace, and He gave it to me anyway.

Today I want to re-share a post from 2013. I wrote this while attending Elizabeth Berg’s Writers Workshop in Positano, Italy, in October 2012 (and it also happened to win the Writer’s Digest writing competition in inspirational writing). It’s from a time I was shown the depths of God’s grace, from a time when I was lost and truly felt like I had been found again. It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever written, probably because God made Himself so present in my grief and anger and enabled me to find Him again—in spite of the fact that I knew I didn’t deserve Him. I hope you enjoy.

Amazing grace

Lost, I wander down Positano’s serpentine winding roads, pulling in my toes and elbows as maniacal men on motorbikes speed past, honking their horns and weaving between two cars passing in opposite directions on a road barely wide enough for one. I am drawn to the crates of limone, peaches and braided onions taking their afternoon siesta, lazily awaiting transformation into culinary delights. A girl, whose long bronze legs aren’t obscured at all by her tiny miniskirt, kisses the cheeks of the brothers who run the fish shop, then climbs on her moped, leaving as quickly as she came. Now, though, she holds a white plastic bag sagging low with dense, moist meat.

Minutes later, I slow, stop, then sit on a sun-warmed, salmon-colored bench, transfixed by a woman across the piazza. In between bodies of darting boys, scrambling for the orange ball — a kick here, a header there, triumphant shouts, men in white shirts smoking on benches as they watch — she sits, massive bosoms spread as wide as her legs. These aren’t boobs, mind you; there’s nothing sexual about them. Lounging against her stomach, they’ve nurtured babies and gotten in the way of her kneading bread. Sighing, she takes up residence in her doorway, watching everything and yet nothing. Her knee-high pantyhose fight the urge to roll down her calves into her orthotic shoes. The elastic waist of her black polyester slacks cuts into her flesh beneath the embroidered pink flowers burgeoning across her chest. Forearm resting on her knees, still spread widely, her weariness echoes my own. She’s maybe 65, with coal black hair, the places where her face would be wrinkled made smooth by years of eating good food, made with oils and butters and fats. Nothing self-conscious in her manner, she is stolidly unaware that anyone would notice her. She is heavily present, loudly quiet, taking up all the space in her little corner of the world.

I want that, I think. To be solid again. Real. For months, measuring now more than a year, I’ve been lost. Oh, I can find my location on a map, but since my mom quit fighting the cancer that consumed not just her body but also my understanding of who I am, I’ve wandered, free of her anchor, devoid of direction. I wander quickly, mind you — racing from cheering on my daughter in backstroke to perching on aluminum bleachers as my son dribbles down the basketball court. I careen into the driveway, leaving the car running long enough to revise a client’s ad and answer three more e-mails, then head to the grocery for Pizza Rolls for dinner. I fill up squares on my calendar as quickly as the lifeblood drains from my soul. I replay over and over a conversation we had right after my mom’s diagnosis. “It is not tragic,” she insisted, “for a 70-year-old woman to die of cancer.”

“You are so wrong,” I muttered, as daughters have since time began.

The orange ball bounces my way and I jump out of its path. I turn away, beckoned by the sound of the sea drifting over the wall that surrounds the plaza. Roosters crow, birds call, and motorboats circle the deep blue, teal at the edges, that gently fades to the clear blue of sky, anchoring the majestic cliffs adorned with sorbet-colored buildings, clinging, climbing up the hills. The light here surrounds you, seeming to come from all sides. The life here surrounds you, seeming to come from all sides. Like the embrace of a mother. The softness of bosoms that nurtured babies and got in the way of kneading bread. A mother nothing like my own, yet completely mine.

positano composite1How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me

Hidden from view by the twists and turns of the stone stairway, cooler here in the shadows, I stop to peer through a rusted red gate, topped with a starburst of metal points, and I notice the jewel-colored tile cemented into the wall next to it. Number 11, it reads, crossed out with ochre paint, the numero 13 roughly stenciled below. A thing of beauty now marked and ugly. Redefined. What happened?

A very good question, my God whispers into my soul. Why have you changed, baby girl?

I picture my mom’s face, her bald-baby-bird head tilted up but no longer in need of sustenance, lips crusty, the whites of her eyes yellowing as the plastic bag beside her ceases to fill. My sister and father and two family friends sit in the kitchen, methodically lifting bites of meatloaf and buttering the rolls left behind by Mom’s friends, glancing occasionally into the next room, where she lies. My sister’s fork stops moving. “I think she stopped breathing.”

It’s just like my mom to do it this way. Two days earlier, as I sat beside her, she awoke, her brain poisoned by her body’s toxins, eyes crazed: “What are we gonna say?”

“What do you mean, Mom? About what?”

Dad rushed in, and looking from him to me to him to me, she insisted, “We can’t say ‘surrounded by family and friends.’ Promise me. Promise me!”

Her biggest fear was underlined by the standard obituary boilerplate: that we would have to watch her go. That that moment would be tattooed onto our psyches, indelibly scarring even the deepest layers. That her last act on earth would harm us rather than help.

My sister’s face traced by silky tears, she clutches Mom’s hands. “You did it, Mom. You did it well! I’m so proud of you. You did it!”

All I can do is gulp in sobs of air. I feel the nudge of my God, offering comfort. As he whispers, Oh, my sweet child, I shrug away his embrace, turning instead toward the relentless, stinging pain of the needles tattooing the image of her still form in pure, vivid color deep inside my mind.

positano composite 3I once was lost…

Another day in Positano, I walk down hundreds of stone steps toward the beach, peeking in doorways, looking behind the public façades for what is hidden. Green gates reveal empty crates jumbled in the corner, broken bottles, smelly trash. Water settles in the grout between misshapen stone blocks and I step around the puddles, pausing to give my aching knees a rest, letting the breeze dry my sweat. A man exits a courtyard (“Ciao, ciao-grazie”), and I consider sliding through the gate before it latches, stepping through the rooms to finger the softness of the worn towels and aprons fluttering on the balconies. Instead, I turn and let my eyes rove over his white shirt unbuttoned halfway down, sleeves rolled up, torso long and lean and trim and lovely, before he folds himself into a miniature military-looking truck and lurches down the crowded street, clutch popping and brakes squealing in protest.

I round another bend — they’re all bends here, no straight or level paths — and a shockwave of beauty presses me back to the wall. The tableau before me is spread with orange tiled terraces with curvy iron tables. Fuchsia bougainvillea climb and preen on this stage, gaudy showgirls begging for attention. The peach and pink and salmon and butter and gold and cream buildings with striped awnings beckon from their perches, while, inside, tourists sip bellinis. Lemons ripen in the sun and olives fall from their gnarled trees onto stretched, waiting nets. Relaxing my shoulders, I turn my face toward the sky, stretch my tight neck from side to side. Envisioning myself open, stretched open waiting to receive, I am able to breathe again.

I duck into a church, where street sounds are hushed and air stifles and Italian women genuflect, loudly kissing their fingertips and offering the gesture up to God. I automatically look up, to the tops of the beams and jewel-colored glass, knowing that the builders of these churches hid tiny details up high, where they could be seen only by the eyes of God. I see nothing, but I know He does. I can’t hide from Him forever. Closing my eyes, suddenly filled, I drop my chin and pray. Lord, I cry. That’s all — one word — Lord. In a rush of emotions lacking coherence, I quietly offer it up to Him, what little I have to give.

positano composite 2 …but now am found

The shops here beckon through tiny doorways. As white linen shirts flutter from hangers, silken scarves dance across baskets of fragrant lemon soaps. Shop owners greet me, so obviously a tourist, in my own language. Around me, couples discuss purchases in French, German, English and Italian. Behind glass cases, cheeses lie down with salamis. Mouthwatering smells of spicy paninis and buttery pastries filled with chocolate or peach further crowd the narrow pathways. Trinkets hang from placards as foreigners grab up postcards and wine stoppers with shaky “Positano” lettered around the pastel scenes. At the top of a hill, I find colorful tiles and bowls and olive oil containers, painted by hand with lemons and vines and intricate patterns. The women in the back stop chattering in their expressive, fluid ways long enough to nod hello, then go back to their tales of men and children and love and loss, voices swelling and expanding to fill the space.

Mom would love these tiles, I think. She was always the first person I bought for, her gifts the easiest and most obvious choices. She knew me the same way. I ask a shopkeeper, “Quanta costa?” What’s the cost? Will this loss simply change me or completely define me? Help me, Lord, to find value again — not just outside but within.

So very tired of navigating alone, I buy a ticket for the orange bus that will take me back. I hope. The driver doesn’t understand my question, but on impulse I climb on anyway, believing the bus to be pointed in the right direction. As we climb up and up, curving around cliffs with stunning buildings stretching toward the heavens, I feel lighter. We pick up speed as we near my stop and fly right on by. My stomach lurches, dropping down the sheer mountain faces into the sea. No, I decide. This is an adventure. I can do this. I take a deep breath to slow my rapid heartbeat and sit back. Minutes later we reach the turnaround which positions the bus the right way to follow the one-way (down) road, and within moments, the bus stops just feet from the entrance to my hotel.

Va bene. “See, it’s all good,” I hear Positano remind me. You just have to be willing to take chances now and again. Let the vibrant colors thrill you. Stop trying to make out words; listen instead for nuances. Kiss noisily, grasp shoulders and stand close to those you love. Savor delicate flavors, letting them thrill your tongue. Hurry all you want; get where you need to go. But once you’re there, once you finally arrive, linger. Open yourself, even to the pain. Because although the streets are busy and crowded, they run in both directions. And when you open to let out the pain, good things come rushing in. The outside world hushes and you find yourself behind that façade, in that secret place where not everyone can go, head nestled on that ample bosom, a beloved child once more.

Was blind, but now I see.

He whispers

My friend Cindy and I stepped inside the empty chapel, lowering our voices as we did so. A wooden structure with lots of windows, this humble building perched on the lake. The empty room was decorated with hardwood floors and a view of trees and water. The only furniture: three benches, a chair and a ...

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My friend Cindy and I stepped inside the empty chapel, lowering our voices as we did so. A wooden structure with lots of windows, this humble building perched on the lake. The empty room was decorated with hardwood floors and a view of trees and water. The only furniture: three benches, a chair and a desk. And on the desk, two leather journals.

I opened one, and tears blurred my vision. People who came here before me wrote their prayers on these pages. There was both childish handwriting and mature penmanship. Neat and sloppy. Short and long. Careful and scrawled.

But all were heartfelt.

Some penned cries to God to please hear them. One woman promised to forgive her husband. Others begged God to make Himself known. Some entries were signed “your prodigal son.” People talked of suicide, of loss, of loneliness. One teen wrote, “I’ve put off the old, but when will the new come?”

Desperation and gratitude filled the pages. A depth of feeling I could barely process, except by releasing a steady stream of tears.

I was standing on holy ground. This was a place where people met God.

And our God is a God who can handle all of these needs. Who loves each of those people and hears their cries.

Sanctified, holy ground.

Overwhelmed with His presence.

Bowed under the weight of God’s holiness.

I’ve never seen anything more beautiful. I flipped through the pages. Cindy and I read sentences out loud to each other, and smiled, and cried, and laughed, and prayed.

What a God, to inspire such devotion.

To motivate such surrender.

To cherish the depths of such raw emotion.

To answer the needs of people who are tired of hiding, who are desperate for answers, who will risk everything to hear from their God.

That moment is seared into my brain—really, into my heart.

Bet you wish you could go there. Here’s the truth: you can. Anywhere you are, when you drop the barriers and just get real with God—when you stop pretending you’re okay, when you face how badly you need help—that is holy ground.

Those are prayers that move God’s heart.

Those are words that He hears. Needs that He responds to.

Sometimes God has to shout to get our attention.

But other times—in these quiet moments, in these holy, sanctified times—God whispers.

He whispers just to you. Words for your ears only. Salve designed to heal your particular heart.

He whispers life, and hope, and light.

He whispers, “Thank you, my child, for coming home.”

51svFT1o0FL._SX321_BO1204203200_Today I’m linking up with Suzie Eller for her #livefreeThursday writing prompt. Click here to read other people’s responses to “He whispers.” Click here to get her wonderful new book, Come With Me.

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