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’?

The Writer’s Conference: A Wise Investment

ACWC Program BookletEven with freshly inked documents to declare their legitimacy as LLCs or S-Corps, new businesses can still fail to deliver on their promises. Although well-meaning, they sometimes experience one pitfall after another: overcommitting, growing too quickly, insufficient cash flow, a hastily designed product or botched service, and other tell-tale signs that scream, “Newbie!” Obviously, good intentions don’t guarantee success; we must hone our craft.

That’s why about two weeks ago, I was happy to see several writers alongside me at the Atlanta Christian Writers Conference (ACWC).  Attendees at all experience levels were present, especially since the faculty taught classes on everything from identifying the elements of a good story and writing for magazines to building a platform and writing a book proposal. There were even sessions on making podcasts and finding markets for children’s non-fiction. The personal appointments with agents and editors were invaluable, to boot. Surely, the conferees understood how their personal growth and success required such a wise investment—in this case, nearly three days of their time and a couple hundred dollars out-of-pocket.

Whether we’ve started a grassroots organization, mom and pop eatery, home daycare, or web design company, we thrive when we see training as an investment and not merely a time-sucker or an unnecessary expense.  When writers have this perception, everyone wins. The result: More folks will write devotionals that teach without being preachy. Authors will create novels with well-crafted, relatable characters. And, freelancers will pen articles that grab—and keep—readers’ attention. After all, what good is a published piece (whether it’s an indie book, blog post, or content on a professional web site) if it’s constructed so poorly no one wants to read it?

How do you invest in yourself? What rewards have you (or others) reaped as a result?

Grace: The Newest Album in My Collection

Cherise Bopape and Gospel artist Debra Prather

Gospel singer Debra Prather (L), Cherise Bopape (R)

“Do you still feel like going?” my husband asked this past Thursday evening.

I sighed. After all, for the past three months, I’ve been learning to cope with a not-so-common, chronic illness. But, after a short delay, I replied, “Yep. Count me in.”

Off we went, creeping through Atlanta’s rush hour traffic and braving the extreme temperatures (not good for my chronic condition, mind you). Finally, we arrived at the Twelve Hotel near Centennial Olympic Park. Somewhat winded, I gave a few perfunctory greetings and quickly scanned the room for a seat. Before making my way to a table near the hors d’oeuvres, I got a glimpse of the songbird herself: gospel inspirational recording artist, Debra Prather. Immediately, I knew my travel hadn’t been in vain.

Cherise Bopape and Husband Thabo at Debra Prather's Album Listening Party

Cherise Bopape & husband, Thabo

Sparkling with gold accessories and displaying an infectious smile, Debra wore an off-white sheath dress with an elegant cape. Obviously she was prepared to slay the crowd. But, since this was my first time attending a listening party, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

As the night progressed, folks gave testimonies of Debra’s diverse musical talent. The self-proclaimed president of Debra’s fan club provided humor for the crowd while praising the new album, Grace, and also, shared her envy of Debra’s skills as a grandmother. Another fan took the mic and admitted to skipping Sunday school to listen to the album in his car. Others offered additional comments, giving us a glimpse of Debra as a PK (preacher’s kid), wife, mother, and most important, a child of God.

But it was Debra’s own sister, Shelia, who described “lil’ Debra” as the one who had a surprisingly powerful alto (and sometimes tenor) voice when she sang alongside her siblings. “She had this growl,” Shelia said, as she affectionately described her sister’s melodious, soulful voice. “But you won’t hear that on Debra’s newest solo album” she revealed.

Shelia is right. Debra’s versatility shines in her new album. It showcases a “Vicki Yohe meets Mandisa” type of vibe. But, don’t be fooled; Debra’s style is all her own. When she stood before her guests to sing a sample from her title track, the room grew still. Within seconds, the crowd sported broad smiles, nodded their heads, and clapped their hands.

Cherise Bopape holding a copy of Debra Prather's Grace Album

Cherise Bopape has her copy of Grace by Debra Prather

After Debra’s performance, I purchased Grace without a hint of buyer’s remorse. I hope you’ll consider purchasing a copy, too. Besides, a portion of all proceeds will help fund local and international mission efforts through Serv International.

Still not convinced to buy? Visit Debra’s Web site (http://debraprather.com/) and listen to the promotional tracks including “Highest Mountain,” my favorite. Like me, you’ll soon be saying, “Count me in” as you hold your very own listening “party—” in your home, car, or during your morning workout.

#Grace

Christian Writers: Apply for LifeWay’s Writer Development Conference

BCLFC YOU Writer Development Conference 2016If you’re a lover of God’s Word and want to know what it takes to write curriculum for LifeWay, check out this opportunity. Back in 2014, I completed the first ever YOU Writer Development Conference. Then, in 2015, I was invited back as a faculty member for the Black Church Leadership and Family Conference (BCLFC). Since then, I’ve been contracted to write three feature articles and four units of Bible study for LifeWay’s YOU curriculum. What a wonderful experience! I absolutely love what I do.

Click here to learn more about the YOU curriculum. Serious inquiries may be directed to the LifeWay contact shown above. Don’t delay; apply now.