In a Dark Place?

cat-on-the-prowlAs I raised our garage door one Sunday morning to begin our drive to church, my children spotted it. But, none of us could make out what it was. A bird? Lizard? Rodent? No use guessing…the animal had been completely mutilated. Since my husband was out of town (and my previous night had been restless) I was certain of one thing: I wouldn’t stick around long enough to fathom what happened in my driveway the night before. So, off to church I went.

In the days that followed, my mystery unraveled. I noticed a stray cat roaming through my back yard. On one occasion, I watched it crouch behind my neighbor’s garbage bin with its gaze fixed on something nearby. Another day, it pranced across my patio with a small animal swinging from its mouth. Finally, I saw the orange and white feline in action. It jumped on my retaining wall and chased a chipmunk into its burrow. Three days passed before I saw one of the tiny rodents surface from the hole. Even then, the chipmunk wouldn’t move more than a few inches away from the entrance.

Like the chipmunk in my back yardentrance to chipmunk burrow, many of us retreat to dark places when we feel threatened. Some folks become promiscuous once their hearts have been broken; they refuse to fall in love again. Others might turn to a gang for brotherhood or sisterhood when family has failed them. And, when our prayers aren’t answered according to our timetables, do we begin to practice self-reliance instead of waiting on God? Dark places … unfortunately, we can nestle in them so deeply that we forget our way out.

Still, I have good news: We don’t have to stay in a pit of despair. It’s natural to feel afraid, overwhelmed, and even overpowered after a devastating or hurtful experience. But continuing in such debilitating mindsets isn’t healthy. In time, as we seek help, healing, and encouragement, we can emerge with a plan to exit our dark places stronger and wiser than before. Do you have an escape plan?

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Since October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I’ve included links to sites that offer advice on developing escape or safety plans for those who are in dark places because of abuse.

A Shift of Focus

A Shift of FocusThe aroma of yeast rolls and fried chicken wafts out from the fellowship hall and travels into the sanctuary. Suddenly, our focus shifts. Instead of feasting on the preached word, we anticipate the mouthwatering spread we’ll soon face. Before we can say amen, we strategically place one foot into the aisle and gather our belongings. We hope to get first dibs on dinner and dessert—a pound cake or peach cobbler, of course.

Okay, this may be an exaggeration, but you get the picture. When we anticipate something good, we can hardly wait to receive it:  a new baby, a gift, a special meal, or maybe a visit from a distant loved one. But what happens when we receive something that leaves us puzzled, and consequently, we don’t know what to expect?

That’s the position I was in a few months ago. I was consistently drawn to two songs, “Safe in His Arms” by Rev. Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers and “He’s Preparing Me” by Daryl Coley. I purchased and downloaded copies of the music. (I still play the songs daily.) Around the same time frame, I kept seeing verses that reminded me God would sustain me. Still, I didn’t understand it all.

Weeks later, though, I experienced a sudden onset of a chronic illness. When I felt like my body was shutting down, those verses gave me strength. Plus, the songs God put in my Spirit encouraged me. He had prepared me in advance for the struggles He knew I’d face. Everything became clear: I was indeed “Safe in His Arms,” and I was comforted in knowing God would sustain me. (Praise report: I’m much better, now!)

In the months that followed, He gave me additional verses to increase my faith. He’s used them to draw me nearer to Him. I’m sharing some of them with you today in hopes that you, too, will gain strength from God’s Word.  Click here to read them.

Dear sister in Christ, you, too may have recently received some news you didn’t expect. Perhaps you anticipated something good, but it hasn’t yet occurred. If so, the stench of doubt and mistrust could easily waft into your personal space and change your focus. That’s why it’s important to have your own arsenal handy: Scriptures that speak to your unique situation. Gather them. Say them aloud. Then, trust God in the meantime, and know that whatever your concern, God is in control. He’s got this. Yes … even this.

It’s Available!

YOU curriculum, fall 2016

LifeWay’s YOU curriculum is a quarterly Bible study written for African American, urban, and multicultural Christians. The fall 2016 issue is now available, and guess who one of the contributors is?

I’m always humbled when I’m contracted to write a unit of study. This quarter, my assignment was about building godly relationships (unit 3:  learner/leader/object lessons and commentaries). There, you’ll find answers to the following questions:

  • Why should I invest my time in people in whom I have no interest?
  • How do you correct someone without ruining the relationship?
  • Why should I be loyal?
  • How can relationships thrive in difficult times?

Whew…I think we all could use a few biblical examples and insight on such tough topics. And, the thought-provoking questions I’ve included will help 21st century Christians see the Bible’s relevancy more clearly as we apply the Word of God to our lives.

I hope you’ll pick up a copy and tell me about your study time. Enjoy!

Gratefulness: Praise Report Anyone?

praiseWhen a good friend tagged me on Facebook requesting that I share three things daily that I was grateful for over the course of the upcoming week, I complained, “That’s just one more thing to put on my to-do list. Ugh.”

But, I had enjoyed reading others’ posts in this so-called Positivity Challenge. It couldn’t be so horrible, right? After all, it would force me to embrace a mindset of thankfulness.

By day five, I was hooked. Still, I debated whether I’d share what I was really thankful for that day: 20 pieces of chicken I’d cooked for dinner. Why? I didn’t always have food in abundance. I remembered my season as a single parent when funds were low. I could only afford about one meal per day while pregnant with my first child, and my weight had dropped to just over 100 lbs. Conversely, two decades later, as I wrote the Facebook post about it, I realized my situation had reversed completely. For that, I was grateful.Facebook Post on Gratefulness 14 Aug 2014

That Facebook status update  on August 27, 2014, ended up being one of my most popular posts. (See the corresponding image at the right.) And to think, I almost decided not to publish it. I nearly talked myself out of participating in the challenge altogether. I thought I wouldn’t have enough time to ponder which scenarios I’d post. I wondered if anyone would even care.

However, sometime during the challenge, I realized my efforts were worthwhile. Compiling my list of praises became the highlight of my day. Sometimes I had more praises than space to jot them down. And, soon, I realized not only had I encouraged myself, but others were uplifted, as well. My outlook had changed significantly in the course of seven days.

Now, more than ever, I realize we all can make time to be grateful … to remind ourselves how far we’ve come. What are you doing to challenge yourself to show gratitude and make it a priority daily?

The Invisible Woman

Invisible WomanLast week, I wrote about feeling invisible during a crisis. But, what about times when all is well, yet, we still feel unnoticed—even though we’ve brought our A-game? Giving her take on the issue, Andrea Merrell, an editing professional who encouraged writers at the Atlanta Christian Writer’s Conference last month, suggested that sometimes, God purposely “hides” us. During these times He’s equipping us and helping us to refine our craft.

When we work diligently toward our calling, God often allows us to “practice” in a safe environment first. At just the right time, He exposes us. Then, voila: Our fifth album is a hit. Our third book sells 100,000 copies. Or, after 12 years of barely keeping our business afloat, we get a contract with a fortune 100 company. Now, we’re ready.

In the meantime, let’s not despair because our walls aren’t decorated with congratulatory plaques. We can’t give up because our bank accounts aren’t brimming with cash from a recent promotion. And, although it seems the people we’ve helped don’t always remember to say “thank you,” let’s not become discouraged. We can be grateful in knowing that sometimes, God Himself is the One “hiding” us.

What talents are you glad God refined in you before you were “released” to the masses?

No Opportunity Wasted

Zion Baptist CShurch Marietta-Women's Retreat 2016This past weekend, about 50 Bible-toting women traveled by coach from the metropolitan Atlanta area to the mountains of Helen, Georgia. I was one of them. We planned to commune with God on a Christian retreat packed with sessions to enlighten us and encourage quiet reflection and fellowship. The theme for our weekend was “No Opportunity Wasted.” However, we never expected an “opportunity” to surface so quickly.

While en route, our coach’s air pressure malfunctioned and the horn began to blare uncontrollably. Then, the bus crept along until it no longer budged. About 45 minutes away from our destination, we found ourselves parked on a two-lane rural road with ditches on either side. Of course, the temperature onboard rose. With our cellular service spotty, we struggled to get help. Cars sped around us; we were seemingly invisible.

Still, we didn’t sit around wringing our hands. A couple of ministers exited the bus to direct traffic. Others ensured passengers with health concerns were able to move to an air conditioned vehicle. (I thank God for attendees who followed close behind in their personal cars!) Then something amazing happened: After we helped each other and served passersby, somehow, the bus began to idle. The horn quieted, and the A/C returned, too.

Like the ladies on retreat this weekend, many of us have felt invisible during a crisis. Maybe you’ve wondered whether anyone realizes your children are hungry. Perhaps you’ve secretly prayed your way home from work on an empty gas tank. Or, you’ve silently suffered through an impending eviction, car repossession, or failing marriage. Although help may seem distant, know that God is watching.

He certainly saw the 50 women on our broken down bus. Who else could’ve prepared us so aptly for our weekend retreat? After all, by the time we arrived at our lodge, our misfortune had already caused us to bond with each other, lift up silent prayers, sing songs, and be grateful for our safety. God allowed us to be humbled; and consequently, our hearts were thirsty for the messages we’d hear that weekend. Our temporary setback became a set up for praise and worship. (At least that was my experience.) Indeed, God makes sure no opportunity is wasted.

Have you recently noticed a bad situation take a turn for the better? How do you personally “know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NKJV)?

A Trophy-Worthy Effort

IA Trophy-Worthy Effort remember the faux wood shelving unit that lined the wall of our family’s dining area in the mid-1970s. Although I was a child then, I still have fond memories of how that piece of furniture was decorated. Trophies—seemingly dozens of them—lined its shelves. Although one or two of the statues were missing heads or arms from my misguided cartwheels, the awards validated my father’s success in basketball. Because of his accomplishments, my dad had earned some serious “street cred.” He even got a spot in the local newspaper.

As I sat in a conference a few weeks ago, an editor made a comment that caused me to reconnect with my childhood memory. This wise editing professional, Andrea Merrell, said that books shouldn’t merely be deemed as trophy pieces. “Having your name on the cover of a book,” she warned, “does not make you a writer.” She continued, saying that when we jot down what God gives us for the purpose of blessing someone else … that makes us writers.

Whether we’re writers, engineers, medical doctors, or even ballers, most of us want to be good at what we do. That’s why aptitude and diligence are important. And, when we show genuine concern for those we serve, everyone benefits.

Don’t we all want to be deemed as credible, proficient, or important? Sometimes, though, we employ drastic, unhealthy measures in the process. Now days, when we want our children to be successful we resort to helicopter parenting. We embellish our résumé to chase our dream career. And, when we seek significance, we belittle others or expose their faults. In the long run, we find that we’ve done ourselves—and others—a terrible disservice.

Folks, we may never earn a spot in the local paper, receive a trophy for a job well done, or get cheered by spectators like my dad did. But, be encouraged. When we walk in our calling, work diligently, and perfect our craft, we’re one step nearer to making the “goal—”or even sweeter—a slam dunk.

How do you stay encouraged when you haven’t been recognized for your efforts? How do you remain humble when your shelves are decorated with awards? What inspires you to keep it movin’?

Value Who You Are

Value Who You Are“You’re not a man if you don’t like sports.”

“Real women wear makeup.”

“I can’t believe you’re a woman and don’t like to shop!”

Whoa! Who would utter such hurtful things? Surprisingly, church members and friends—people close to my children and me—said them.

My teenage son, the avid video gamer, was introduced to soccer, swimming, and basketball early on, but never showed passion for these things. To him, sports are nothing more than recreation. He’d rather not play competitively and doesn’t watch professional games on TV. He knows that sports don’t make a man. Still, the comment he heard cut him deeply. He’s remembered it for years.

Likewise, makeup is not the mark of a real woman. But, don’t tell that to one of my daughter’s friends. A young adult who’s comfortable with a nice hairdo and the occasional hint of lip color, my daughter is comfortable with a more natural look. She embraces her smooth, clear skin and is satisfied because of who she is as an individual.

Speaking of individuality, am I really the only woman in the world who doesn’t like to shop? Ok, I do enjoy grocery shopping and scouting for aromatic, organic soaps and candles. Drop me off at a crowded mall, though, and watch my patience run thin … fast. Yes, I’m still very much a woman, and I embrace my femininity—just not at the mall. Born to shop? No, not me.

The fact is: People enjoy different things in life. God wires each one of us differently. Some characteristics may be found more readily in one group of people than others. However, condemning folks because they’re different from the masses only dampens their spirit. It reveals our own pride.

Instead of living up to everyone else’s ideals, we can strive to live out the purpose God has in mind for us. Doing so, we can operate in His grace. Our tasks seem easier as a result. Author Cecil Murphey offers more insight. In his February 2016 newsletter he wrote, “The more I value who I am, the less I have to prove who I am.” I totally agree.

Embrace Small Beginnings

Embrace small beginnings.A few weeks ago, I talked with a young woman who was experiencing mixed feelings. “Today, I was able to tithe,” she said. “I felt good because I could finally drop an envelope into the offering basket at church.” Then, her countenance fell. “But, I’m kind of embarrassed. It was only $5.”

This young woman, a full-time student, thrives off of student loans and sporadic, part-time work during holidays and seasonal breaks. She had recently earned $50 through her employer. She explained how she enjoyed being able to give back a portion of what God had so graciously provided to her. Yet, she couldn’t help but imagine what others would think, especially those who would be counting the offering that day … those who would encounter her small check.

I smiled. I had been in her shoes. I used the moment to encourage her. “Surely, God doesn’t need your $5 to carry out his plans. After all, Jesus fed over 5,000 people with two fish and five loaves of bread. However, regarding your tithe, it’s your obedience He’s after. Your tithe may be $5. Mine may be $50. Someone else’s may be $5,000 or more. However, in God’s economy, your $5 can stretch just as far as another person’s five-digit check.”

I went on to explain that by obeying God’s plan, we may be ridiculed, see a few raised eyebrows, or even experience persecution. Imagine what folks must have thought about Noah building an ark, Paul and Silas praising God in jail, or the three Hebrew boys who went into a fiery furnace trusting that God could deliver them. Yet, we find comfort in Jesus’ words about a widow who placed two tiny coins into the temple treasury: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on” (Mark 12:43-44, NIV).

Zechariah 4:10 encourages us not to despise small beginnings. Perhaps you’ve gotten your first check from a business you recently formed, and you’re humbled by the tiny payout. Maybe you held a webinar with a whopping three attendees present. Some folks may have only shed two pounds during an eight-week diet. Others have written books that sold to a handful of family and friends while no one else seemed interested. That’s okay. We must launch somewhere, and a place of obedience always makes for a good, strong start.

Retaining Customers: Inspiration for New Entrepreneurs

Retaining Customers-Inspiration for new entrepreneurs“Let’s not use that company anymore,” I suggested to my husband. “They’ve made too many errors.” Although the small company attempted to rectify the faulty service it occasionally provided to me, my patience had become thin. I could feel the repercussions of their carelessness in my wallet. Plus, I could no longer tolerate the extra time the “fixes” took away from my already packed schedule. Having patronized the company a few years, I’d hoped for improvements by now.

A small business owner myself, I enjoy seeing other entrepreneurs succeed. However, not everyone goes into business with the same drive for excellence. Some enter into an industry with nothing more than a dream or a desire to do what they love. They don’t realize how important it is to hone their skills, plan for success, prayerfully consider their purpose, or learn how to run a legitimate business. As a result, they inadvertently cheat themselves and their clients; the company’s reputation suffers.

But, customers want to know they matter … that they’re not just another digit on a deposit slip. And when a mishap does occur, we entrepreneurs can ditch the excuses. Instead, let’s focus on our customers’ satisfaction and peace of mind. Afterward, we can make policies and procedures to ensure the error doesn’t occur again.

The truth is: when we’ve done an outstanding job, we get rewarded with additional work. But, when our clients shrink away, something has gone terribly wrong. The following questions are designed to help new entrepreneurs begin thinking of ways to retain customers, especially when issues begin to surface.

  • How do you show customers you’re genuinely concerned about their satisfaction? In what ways have you devised permanent, agreeable resolutions?
  • How might you exceed your clients’ expectations? (Under promise and over deliver concept…)
  • How have your products or services improved? How have you invested in yourself professionally?
  • When are you more likely to deny fault? To blame others? What might you change in order to have customers view you in a more positive light?
  • When an issue surfaces, do you show genuine concern for your customers’ happiness, or is it clear you’re all about dollars and cents? Do you have processes in place to measure customer satisfaction?
  • How much is one client or customer worth to you? How have you managed to retain customers?
  • How might you attract new clients?

Essentially, once we identify our God-given purpose and begin to move toward that goal, it’s important to do so in excellence—whether we’re at home, school, or starting a new business. Why? The Bible offers the perfect insight:

  • “So no matter what your task is, work hard. Always do your best as the Lord’s servant, not as man’s” (Colossians 3:23, VOICE).
  • “Surely, no matter what you are doing (speaking, writing, or working), do it all in the name of Jesus our Master, sending thanks through Him to God our Father” (Colossians 3:17, VOICE).
  • “Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord [always doing your best and doing more than is needed], being continually aware that your labor [even to the point of exhaustion] in the Lord is not futile nor wasted [it is never without purpose]” (1 Corinthians 15:58, AMP).

We’d love to hear how you serve others in excellence. What keeps your customers coming back?