Welcome to my blog...

Green trees, cool water, a gentle breeze...the perfect place to sit at the feet of the Master and learn. Jesus taught so often on the shoreline, and He's still speaking today.

This is where I share the lessons He teaches me, often during the time I spend on the shores of a local lake. I don't have all the answers...and some days I don't have any. But I go here when I need to draw near to Him in a tangible way. Come with me...

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Step of Faith

"We live between New York and Philly... surely there's got to be a writer's conference around here!"

I had been blogging for a year and had taken a stab at writing a memoir a year or so before that, but the burning desire to attend a writer's conference was suddenly all consuming and came out of nowhere.

I did some research, but the only ones I found cost hundreds of dollars and were far from home.  I shared my frustration with a friend about finding one locally...one that didn't require the additional expense of flight arrangements and hotel rooms.

A few days later, she sent me the name of a conference one of her friends had attended.  It was just 20 minutes from my home...the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writer's Conference.

The cost was much more reasonable, but still more than I could afford.  However, there was a scholarship available so I held out some hope.

Then I looked at the seminars being offered.  Terms like query letter and elevator pitch were sprinkled all over the page.  I had no idea what any of that meant.

And the scholarship essays?  My heart sank.  One of the questions was "If you could lay one of your works at Jesus' feet, which would it be and why?"

One of my "works"?  I had about 3 dozen blog posts and a half-written memoir.  Nothing published.  I was no author.  I had no real "works".

Man, I was in way over my head.  

Fear began to mount.

And doubt.

And self-deprecation.

Who was I to think I could be a writer?  Sure, I composed radio commercials for the past few years, but really, it was just 30 and 60 seconds of why you should buy a car from XYZ or why Spa ABC offered a more relaxing atmosphere.

Not exactly War and Peace.  Nothing of real consequence.

I pushed the thought away as a crazy dream.  

But God kept nudging.

So I picked up the application again, prayed about the questions and started writing.  

A few days later, I was shocked to learn I had been awarded a full scholarship for classes.

There were some early bird specials the day before the full conference, meals, and the opportunity to have my manuscript and blog critiqued, but each thing bore an additional cost.  

Then more miracles. 

My step-mother heard about what I wanted to do and sent a check to cover the meals and specials.  A friend gave me the money for the critiques.  Someone even slipped me a few bucks for gas.  God provided for every cost.

It sure was looking like this sudden burning desire...this crazy dream...was God orchestrated.

The application had one more thing.  A writing competition.  There were four categories - one each for published and non-published authors in poetry and prose.  The conference theme was "Write His Answer" based on Habakkuk 2:2, and the essay was to reflect the same theme.  Although I was beginning to believe God wanted me there, I still felt I was out of my league.  Doubt was still hanging on for dear life.  Finally, the deadline to submit the essay passed - the decision had been made for me.

That Sunday, I mentioned my lingering doubts to my pastor and he encouraged me with Joshua 1:9.  

"Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go."  

Even to a writer's conference when you fear you're not really a writer and you're discouraged by your lack of knowledge.

When I returned home from church I found an email from the woman who runs the conference.  The deadline for the essay was extended.  

I sat down and wrote.

A few weeks later, I attended the conference.  Not knowing what to expect, but not wanting to go to interviews with some of the conference staff empty-handed, I took two of my blog posts and reworked them into devotions.

They were both accepted and published by christiandevotions.us, an online devotional web site.  My blog and manuscript got favorable feedback.  In fact, eight months later, an editor I met at that conference reached out to me and I am now in the process of writing a second week of devotions for The Quiet Hour - the first week's worth will be published this June.  I also met some really amazing writers and established new friendships.

But the biggest surprise came the last day of the conference.

I won the essay competition for a non-published author in the prose category.  The prize?  Half off the following year's conference.  Maybe this writing thing wasn't just a one and done.

Taking the first step was hard.  It always is.  I can come up with a million reasons NOT to do something. But once I stepped out in faith...set aside the fear and doubt and believed if God was in it, He would make a way, things began to fall into place.  

What dream is God whispering in your ear that fear and doubt are trying to drown out?  

Lean in and listen...then step out in faith.

Once again, I'm pleased to link up with Godsizeddreams.com.  For more encouragement on stepping out in faith to follow the dream God has called you to, click on the link: God-sized Dreamers Link Up

Sunday, January 19, 2014

You Are Invited

In my last blog post, Broken Wings, I encouraged those who were hurting to allow God to use their brokenness to be an encouragement to others.  I also said when we expose that brokenness, then others have an opportunity to offer help and to pray for us.

Today, I am exposing some of that brokenness in me.  

I have battled a "weight problem" for more years than I care to remember.  But the problem is not my weight.  It is all the underlying causes - from my inability to battle the cravings that lead to the weight gain to the pride that keeps me from fully submitting the issues to God and a few more things in between.

There are a host of excuses I could offer up...totally justifiable explanations if you asked me just last week.

Like the fact that I deliberately started to gain so that false accusations of infidelity by a mentally and verbally abusive spouse would stop.  After all, men don't pay as much attention to the heavy girls, right?

But the mocking of and disgust over my weight gain by that very same person contributed to a downward spiral of emotional eating whenever I was depressed, happy, lonely, fearful, anxious or just disgusted with myself. Unfortunately, blaming the other party only holds so much water.  I've been out of that abusive relationship for 7 years, and I am still unable to drop anywhere near all the pounds for any length of time.

Sometimes I'd try to diet - all sensible approaches - but nothing gave lasting results.  30 pounds down, I would begin a slow but steady climb back up...over and over during the past 15 - 20 years.

Then, the other day, I read about  Proverbs 31 OBS - OBS for Online Bible Study - on the (in)courage web site.  The study?  "Made to Crave" by Lysa TerKeurst.

I saw the cover picture of the book and thought "I have that somewhere". Someone, at some point in time, had given it to me. Perhaps, for such a time as this.  I was amazed that in my extensive library of books, I was able to put my hands on it in just a minute or two.  Must be a sign.

The subtitle is "Satisfying your deepest desire with God, not food".  I need to know how to do that.

So, I went online and signed up.  It was easy.  Far easier than I'm assuming this study will be.  Submission is never a simple task.  It is a deliberate act of the will.  And remember, being willful is one of my "issues".

This quote from Chapter 1 told me that Lysa really understands what I'm dealing with..."The weight loss company's theory is to teach what foods are more filling and encourage consumption of those.  But does that really help overcome cravings?  For me, it does not.  The answer will never be found in only learning to modify my choices.  Choosing better foods is certainly a part of this journey.  However, simply telling me to eat healthier foods that will help me feel full longer doesn't address the heart of the matter.  I can feel full after a meal and still crave chocolate pie for dessert."

Yep, Lysa TerKeurst gets it...and I'm excited to read and discuss how she will address the heart of the matter.

The OBS starts today, Sunday, January 19th.  It goes for six weeks.  While the subtitle mentions food, this is a study that I am told will help you with whatever that craving is that you give in to and put before God.  You can read more about it by clicking through on the Proverbs 31 OBS link in this post.

Although I'd love to lose some weight, I'm more excited over the possibility of once and for all learning how I can take these misplaced cravings and transfer them into a greater craving for God.  I trust and believe the rest will follow.

I'm asking for your prayers as I embark on this journey.  Putting something like this out there for all to see is a scary step for me.  But there are over 36,000 women from all over the world who will be taking this path along with me over the next 6 weeks. You are invited too...will you join me?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Broken Wings

He was a seagull, same as the others.

Yet he sat a little way off, looking aloof.

There, on the edge of the group, nothing extraordinary seemed to set him apart.  

But then he stood, took a few steps, turned a bit, and I saw it...

The broken wing.

I focused my lens and moved nearer until I'd gotten too close.  

In his pain and fear, he tried to scurry away.  

He was unable to fly but struggled to hide his vulnerability.

How many of us are like that injured gull?

We desire to be part of the group...

                       To fit in.  

                                  To belong.  

We try our best to look put together. Try to hide what we believe sets us apart, makes us ugly, vulnerable. We linger on the periphery, hoping to be accepted.

But life has injured us.  Broken our wings.  Made us unable to fly and when someone looks a little too closely at us, we often tend to scurry quickly away in fear.

The truth is, no one goes through life unscathed.  Some hurts are more visible than others, but they still exist in us all. 

When we have the courage to stand up and expose our brokenness, several things can happen:

Those around us will know we need help. As long as we claim "everything's fine", people are robbed of the opportunity and blessing to pray for us and assist us. Galatians 6:2:  Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.  

God will use us.  Often others are hurting in exactly the same way. When you share your experience, it will encourage those around you.  Isaiah 40:31: but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on the wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint...  

What feels like vulnerability will become a strength.  Nothing goes wasted with God...not even your weakness.  2 Corinthians 12:9: "But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me."

Don't live life on the periphery.  

       We all have suffered a broken wing.  

                  Take your hurts to the Great Physician. 

                           He will not only provide healing, He will give you peace.

John 16:33 "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world."

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Dream Interrupted

Today I read a post called "When You Don't Know" in which the author talked about having some of her dreams interrupted by life, causing her to wonder if she had a dream anymore. 

Afterward, I opened the list of posts on my blog and my eye was caught by a draft I started almost a year ago.  I was surprised to read these words:

"I've been reading about God-sized dreams...and about a life interrupted through divine interventions...and I am confused because I'm not seeing how they intersect.  They seem to be at odds.

I have a dream.  To write.  To speak.  To change my little corner of the world.  It's God-sized to be sure.  Far loftier goals than I could ever hope to attain through my own feeble efforts.  But life hasn't been turning out like I thought it would. 

I can hear you now saying "c'mon Toni,.life rarely - if ever - turns out the way we expect".  I'm sure there's a lot of truth in that.  And yet..."

And that's as far as I got.

A year later and once again I've been reading a lot about God-sized dreams on sites like (in)courage and the newly launched God-Sized Dreams, so I think it's time not only to pick up where I left off, but to address my earlier confusion, because a year has clearly shown me how completely those two things - the God-sized dream and a life interrupted - can be totally connected...

As I met with the Pastor of Worship at my new church to discuss singing with the praise team, I mentioned my son.

"A son, so you're married?"

"Well, I've been separated for about a year now."

In the discussion that followed, he explained that while he didn't know me or the circumstances surrounding my separation, he had a policy.  He felt leading others while in the process of the divorce wasn't in my best interest, suggested attending Divorce Care, and said we could revisit the possibility of helping to lead worship once I was divorced and healing had taken place.

I was devastated.  I always believed singing was my God-given gift and calling.

It was "what I did".  

But there's a part of the story I haven't mentioned.  It's what happened before that encounter.  On my way to the meeting with that pastor, the strangest thing occurred.  I was rehearsing the song I was going to sing for him, but the closer I got to my destination, the more my voice weakened.  By the time I pulled into the church parking lot, I could barely speak let alone sing.  I sat in my car and cried out loud in a barely audible voice, "Lord, what's going on? What's happening to my voice?  Don't you want me to sing?"

I asked the question, but didn't listen for the answer because of course, it couldn't be 'no'.  I mean, after all, this is what I did in church.  

What I did do was leave that church angry.  Back in my car, it all came flooding out.  "God...what's with this guy?  He's right...he doesn't know me! Doesn't know my heart or my walk with you.  How can he judge me like that? Who better than me to minister to the brokenhearted and hurting God?  I've gone to hell and back this past year, Lord.  I've learned to trust you more than I ever did before.  I don't get this!!"

All the way home I seethed.  I didn't even realize my voice had returned as quickly as it had gone.

So, bam.  That was it.  Door closed.  

Slowly though, it did begin to dawn on me...the answer to my cry in the parking lot.  God didn't want me to sing - at least not at that particular time.  And He didn't want me to blame that pastor.  That's why my voice had disappeared just long enough to have the encounter...God wanted me to know He was in control of this situation.

But now what?  I was a fish out of water.

Despite that bitter disappointment, I really loved this church.  Sunday after Sunday since I had arrived, the words from the pulpit had been exactly what I needed to hear.  I truly felt God had given the senior pastor direct access to my heart and mind and was speaking to the hurts.  I was finally being fed in a way that hadn't happened in years.  

I realized I needed to listen and watch and pray to see what God did want me to do.  

Almost nine months passed.  That Christmas, the church held a "Family Photo Night" at a local women's shelter.  Instead of serving a Christmas dinner, we wanted to do something lasting...something that would make a real impact in the lives of those families.
Two photographers - one of whom was my daughter - set up holiday backdrops, and the place buzzed with excitement.  We photographed 35 families that evening.  A week later, a friend and I went back with a framed 5x7 photo and a dozen wallet sized pictures of each family.

It was a sight I will never forget.  Grown women running around like school girls exchanging the wallet photos with such joy! One woman reached out and put her hand on my friend's arm.

"Why are you doing this for us?" she asked with tears in her eyes.

"Because Jesus loves you, and we love you, and we just wanted you to know that," was my friend's reply.

I had read articles and books on ministry and they always said things like, 'you'll know where to plug in when you discover where your passion is...what breaks your heart.'

In that moment, I finally understood what that meant - and I knew what God was calling me to do.  

Closing the door on singing was a divine interruption.  If it hadn't happened, I would have joined the praise team and that would have been the end of it.  I would have done what I always did.

But God did interrupt my life, and He gave me a new dream.  One more far-reaching than I could have asked or imagined.

If you're asking questions, make sure you listen for the answer because very likely it will not be the one you expect.

And if you think God is taking your dream away...or you don't know whether you still have a dream because life's taken over...be still - and know that He is God. The Planter of dreams. The Giver of good things.  Just listen for His voice...

I'm pleased to link up today with God-sized Dreams and I invite you to read about the dream-seeking journey others are on too.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Repairing Potholes

It's been quite a year of wacky weather - and we're less than two weeks in.

It began here in the Northeastern U.S. with snow. And depending on just where in that area you live, total accumulations thus far vary from 6 inches to almost 6 feet.

Then came the Arctic blast, and we all added a new phrase to our vocabularies - polar vortex. Photos of rivers, oceans and lakes frozen over, filled the feed on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Yesterday, my 15 minute commute to work took five times as long because of unexpected freezing rain that made every road an ice rink.  It wasn't as bad as the ice storm we'd had a week or so before, but dangerous nonetheless, mostly because it came as a surprise.

Today, the temps hit almost 60 degrees...in January...in New Jersey...the day after freezing rain racked up several multi-car accidents in and around my neighborhood. But I can't really enjoy the outdoors and this unseasonable warm up because it's also raining buckets.  All. day. long.  And as I type this, I even hear thunder.

Yup...it's been quite a year for wacky weather.

But as I drove the roads that were now clear of snow and ice this morning, I noticed something just as dangerous left behind.


They are ubiquitous. Some small, some large, some huge. The tar has expanded and contracted, cracked and given way because of all the weather changes. Left untended, potholes continue to expand and can cause an accident or at very least, ruin the tires and the suspension of your car, leaving you stranded on the road.

One of the most insidious things about potholes is that often, you don't see them until it's too late and the damage is done.

And it got me thinking.

Our lives can be like that can't they?  

Filled with all manner of storms that can leave us damaged and dealing with the potholes of...Bitterness. Hurt.  Fear. Insecurity. Depression. Anger.

When that happens, the natural reaction is to try to patch the damage.  The problem is, a patch is a temporary fix and the pothole of issues remains underneath.

Because it's a weak spot in the road of our lives, when the next storm comes, that area is the first place to show damage again.  And so we try patching it again...maybe this time with something different.

The patches we reach for in our lives don't have to be something destructive like drugs, alcohol, excessive shopping, or overeating.  They could be something that seems innocuous on the surface like throwing yourself into work or church.

No matter what the patch is made up of, the area will crack again.

But have you ever seen a road resurfaced?  All the patches are scraped away and the road is exposed to its base. The roadway is then filled up with one continuous pouring of material to bind it together making it safe and strong.

That's the way it is when we turn those potholes over to God.  Psalm 147:3 tells us:  "He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds."  Healing is not patching.

If you've been patching up your potholes...dealing with the damage of life's storms with temporary fixes...it's time to let the master Engineer remove all the crushed and broken pieces so He can fill you up, bind you together, and make you strong.

"The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit."  Psalm 34:18

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Removing "Happy" from Happy New Year

Tuesday night, the ball dropped, glasses clinked, horns blew, kisses were exchanged and shouts of "Happy New Year" filled the air.  It was a hope-filled beginning to the next 365 days of the unknown.

But do we really want a "happy" new year? Dictionary.com provides this definition for happy:

1.  delighted, pleased, or glad, as over a particular thing: to be happy to see a person.

2.  characterized by or indicative of pleasure, contentment, or joy:  a happy mood; a happy frame of mind.  

Sounds like a good thing to wish someone, doesn't it?  

So what's my problem?  Why do I want to remove a word that's defined by other words like "delighted", "pleasure", "joy" and "contentment"?  Because I think we tend to use them interchangeably when there are real and significant differences in meaning.

Look at the examples given: "to be happy to see a person."  "A happy mood; a happy frame of mind." These examples are of temporal things.  Moods and frames of mind change from day to day - sometimes hour to hour.  Or, if we're being brutally honest - from minute to minute depending on circumstances.

It sounds cliche, but it IS true...happiness is fleeting.

On the other hand, the actual words "contentment" and "joy", go deeper.  They aren't dependent ON a situation or circumstance, but exist in spite of them.

The same definition source says of the word "content":  "assenting to or willing to accept circumstances.  Mentally or emotionally satisfied with things as they are.  Peace of mind."

The ultimate resource, the Bible, lists joy, not happiness, as a fruit of the spirit.  We are told in James 1:2 to "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds."  Happiness is not sticking around in the face of trials folks, happiness is a fair-weather friend.

And Philippians 4:11b-12 says:  "for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want."

When was the last time you were delighted, pleased or glad to be hungry and broke?  I'd guess never - but you can still have an overall joy within you knowing that God is in control of all circumstances, always.

So as you head back to work or greet others you're seeing for the first time this year, think about what wishing them a "happy new year" really means. Do you wish them temporal pleasure?  Or deep, lasting joy?

As much as we like to hope each new year is better than the last, the real truth is none of us knows what the new year holds - but we can assume it will not be 52 weeks of smooth sailing.

There will be moments of fleeting happiness in the next year, but the greater gift is to find contentment and joy in the exciting and mundane, the simple and the difficult.

My wish for you  is a Joyous New Year filled with God's blessings and deep-rooted contentment whatever comes your way!