Saturday, November 24, 2007

Count Your Blessings

When I'm worried and I can't sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings
When my bankroll is getting small
I think of when I had none at all
And I fall asleep counting my blessings
I think about a nursery and I picture curly heads
And one by one I count them as they slumber in their beds
If you're worried and you can't sleep
Just count your blessings instead of sheep
And you'll fall asleep counting your blessings.

Name that movie.

1954.   Vera-Ellen.   Rosemary Clooney.   Danny Kaye.   Bing Crosby.   The above song, written by Irving Berlin, was nominated for an Oscar.   Too easy?   It should be.   White Christmas.

I love that movie.   As far as I'm concerned, if there were a Canon of Christmas Movies, White Christmas would be among the greats – along with the Miracle on 34th Street (1947, Maureen O'Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwinn and Natalie Wood), It's a Wonderful Life (1946, James Stewart, Donna Reed), Scrooge (1951, Alistair Sim), A Christmas Story (1983, Melinda Dillon, Darin McGavin, Peter Billingsley) and Christmas Vacation (1989, Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo).

I love Christmas Vacation.   It's everything our celebrations generally are.   Lights that tangle and don't light.   Relatives that bicker.  Children that complain.   Kitty-Os in the jello salad.   Crazed squirrels.   (Or is that just my house?)   Clark Griswold is my soulmate.   We both have expectations we can never hope to meet.

Ellen: You set standards that no family activity can live up to.
Clark: When have I ever done that?
Ellen: Parties, weddings, anniversaries, funerals, holidays, vacations, graduations....

Clark Griswold has watched White Christmas too many times.

White Christmas is 1950s Utopia in Vistavision.   Vera-Ellen looks more put together in her flannel pjs after sleeping on a train or after sweating from a strenuous dance routine than I did on my wedding day.   She and Rosemary Clooney wear the most gorgeous dresses throughout the film, and they never get wrinkled or spill hot chocolate on themselves.  

In White Christmas, even World War II looks clean.   Patriotism is the norm.   Democrats in Vermont are rare.   {Giggle}   Dashing Danny Kaye dances into Vera-Ellen's life.   (The best things happen while you're dancing….)   White knight Bing Crosby croons his way into Rosemary Clooney's heart.   Soldiers from all over the country fill the lodge to honor of General Waverly, the boys get the girls, and the long-awaited snow falls to the strains of, what else, White Christmas.   I love a good romance.

What does any of this have to do with being thankful even in difficult circumstances?   I believe that if you look hard enough, you can find wisdom anywhere – even Hollywood.

  • When you're worried, depressed, or troubled, count your blessings.   Think of all the good things in your life.  Or as Paul wrote,

    Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.Philippians 4:8

  • When times are trying, remember when times were rough before – and how you came through them.   In the Old Testament, God's people are constantly instructed to remember, to repeat what God has done in their lives.   It's not that God needs our constant praise (although He deserves it) – it's that we need to remember who He is and what He has done in our lives and in the lives of others.   Remembering His faithfulness gives us courage to live.

  • Don't have unreasonable expectations.   Real life is more Family Vacation or A Christmas Story than White Christmas – which becomes very apparent when you dress up four children and try to keep them clean and looking at the camera for that family Christmas photo.   Strive for perfection in the areas that are meaningful – in love, in forgiveness, in humility, in faithfulness – and be flexible with all the other stuff.

  • Even when things aren't perfect, when circumstances aren't what we expect, when Cousin Eddie arrives unannounced, parks his RV in your front yard, and empties his chemical toilet in your sewer, you can still find joy.   When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.   Or to borrow from A Christmas Story, when the Bumpuses's hounds steal the Christmas turkey, find a Chinese restaurant and discover Peking Duck.   (Fa ra ra ra ra ra ra ra ra.)

    Remember these things, and you'll find joy and thankfulness.

    Oh, and one more thing – don't eat Aunt Bethany's jello.
  • Thursday, November 15, 2007

    Going through the Grits

    I have a theory.   Given enough time, patience, and sandpaper, a person can fell a full-grown oak tree.   I'm reasonably confident of this hypothesis. After all, wind and water can shape rock over time.   I'd say the chances are infinitely better than that of an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters completing the works of William Shakespeare.

    But even if it is possible, why would you do it?   It would be a silly use of your time and resources.   Even I know that if you want to cut down a large tree, you need a large saw with large sharp teeth – preferably powered by something other than muscle.

    A carpenter chooses the tools he needs to shape the wood into a beautiful, useful item.   One saw for cutting the tree, another for ripping boards.   A lathe for turning legs, a fine tool for carving designs.   Occasionally, a woodworker will shape wood by exposing it to boiling water or steam and pressing or stretching it over a form.

    When the item has been built, the carpenter will want to give it a beautiful finish.   Now is the time to reach for that sandpaper.   Woodworkers talk about "going through the grits."   Sadly, this has nothing to do with devouring Southern corn porridge seasoned with salt, pepper, butter, and maybe a bit of cheese.   To a woodworker, going through the grits means to move progressively from coarse to fine sandpaper to remove blemishes and leave a smooth finish.   As tempting as it might be to skip a few grades, this may not produce the best results.

    We are a lot like the oak.   Adversity may cut and scrape and pound and expose us to great heat and pressure.   Pain and loss and tears and grief are some of the tools that shape our lives into things of beauty and purpose.   The apostle Paul put it this way in Romans 5:3-4:
    …we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.
    If we follow Paul's advice, if we will offer a sacrifice of Thanksgiving through pain and adversity, adversity can transform us.   Helen Keller believed:
    Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet.  Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.

    There are no shortcuts – we can't bypass the saws for the sandpaper.   Trials can give us perspective, produce humility, drive us to a reliance on God, create hearts sensitive to the needs of others, teach patience, strengthen our character, and increase our appreciation for our blessings – but only if we embrace the lessons they teach.   Swiss writer/philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel once wrote,
    You desire to know the art of living, my friend? It is contained in one phrase: make use of suffering.
      We'll explore how we might make use of our suffering next.

    Tuesday, November 13, 2007


    I first heard of leprosy in Bible stories as a child.   I wasn't too clear on what it was, but if you had it, it was gross. and no one wanted to be near you.   I learned more about leprosy reading Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.   The anti-hero in this epic fantasy, Thomas Covenant, is a modern-day man with leprosy. That alone was a revelation.   Until then, I thought leprosy was a thing of the past.   Donaldson grew up in India where his father served as a medical missionary, and he injects his knowledge of the disease into his books.

    The other surprising thing I learned from Thomas Covenant is that leprosy damages the victim's peripheral nerves, leaving him unable to feel pain in those areas.   Diabetics face a similar problem with their feet.   If you can't feel pain, you don't realize if you've been hurt, and you may develop a serious injury or infection and be unaware of it.

    My brother-in-law is an avid golfer.   One day, an errant golf ball connected with his, um, family jewels.   Needless to say, he experienced excruciating pain. When the pain didn't go away a few days later, he visited his doctor, who subsequently discovered testicular cancer.   Until the golf ball made contact, he was completely unaware he had a problem.   Pain probably saved his life.

    The fundamental purpose of pain in our bodies is to make us aware we have a problem.   Pain reminds us to avoid touching a hot stove, to wear shoes, to seek shade on a hot day.   Pain is necessary to our safety.   Can we carry on this analogy to other types of adversity?

    Some of life's problems can serve as an early-warning sign.   When a teacher catches a student with drugs at school, his parents are devastated, but they also have the opportunity to seek help before the problem gets worse.   When an adult loses a job, it might signal the need for a career change.   A child's failing grade in reading may alert a parent to poor eyesight or dyslexia.

    As difficulties in life are inevitable, we'd like to believe they have a purpose.   We've looked at some purposes for pain and adversity – to help us relate to others, to test and reveal our character, to reveal the attributes of God, and to alert us to existing or impending underlying problems.   Trials can do more than alert us to the need for change; trials can be the agents of change.   We'll look at that next.

    Monday, November 12, 2007


    Before I joined TARA, if you had asked me about my GMC, I would have described the pick-up truck my dad drove during the '70s.

    But when a writer refers to the GMC, she is referring to Goal, Motivation and Conflict as described in the classic book by Debra Dixon.   The GMC drives the plot.   (Pun intended.)   It can be defined as follows:

    Goal – what the character wants
    Motivation – why the character wants it
    Conflict – why the character can't have it

    I've been contemplating whether or not I could apply the GMC model to real life.   We all have goals.   Simple goals.  Complex goals.   External goals and internal goals.   Whether it is to fix the kids a healthy lunch, lose weight, or get to work on time, we have hundreds of goals every single day.

    We all have motivations behind these goals as well.   We want to fix the kids a healthy lunch because we love them.   We want to lose weight because that 25th reunion is around the corner.   We want to get to work on time because we value our jobs.

    So far, so good.   Now we come to conflict.   We know we have plenty of that!   I want to fix the kids a healthy lunch because I love them, but the dog snagged the loaf of whole wheat bread from the counter and ate it.   I want to lose weight in order to look good for that reunion, but Thanksgiving and Christmas arrive first – with all that tempting food.   I want to get to work on time because I value my job, but I picked up a nail in my tire and have a flat.   Sometimes the conflict is a consequence of our action or inaction, other times it arises from sources beyond our control.   But wherever it comes from, we have it to spare!

    The difference between an author's GMC and real life is that in real life, we do not want conflict.   We do everything we can to avoid it.   We pray to be delivered from it.

    An author, on the other hand, creates characters she loves, then tortures them for your reading pleasure.   There are a few important reasons an author persecutes her characters.

    Without conflict, a story is boring.   Imagine a 400-page novelization of Teletubbies or the Wiggles.   No, even those shows have conflict of the mildest sort.   Four hundred pages of dialogue from a Wal-Mart greeter?

    Conflict helps readers connect with the characters in a story.   If you are divorced, you may relate to a character who is looking for love after a divorce.   If you are fighting cancer, you may understand a character who struggles with the disease.   If you are an archaeologist with an expertise in medieval weaponry who is chasing a serial killer who murders his victims in bizarre ways, you've been reading Karen Rose's Die for Me too long.   Put the book down and step away.   (Sorry.   I couldn't resist.)

    Conflict also helps an author reveal a character's moral fiber.   How do I show that the heroine is strong if she never struggles?   How can you learn that a hero is faithful if he is never tempted?   How will we know a character is courageous if he never faces difficult circumstances?

    Author Julie Leto writes "tough-cookie heroines" -- so tough, she needs some serious conflict to reveal any weaknesses.   "One of the only ways I can make my heroines vulnerable is to have them nearly electrocuted and put in the hospital."

    An author has great reasons to inject lots and lots of conflict into stories, but do we need adversity in real life?   A boring life doesn't sound so bad to me.   It reminds me of the supposed ancient Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times."

    Does adversity help us connect with others?   Look at the proliferation of support groups for your answer.   We all suffer in various ways, and no one understands our pain like someone who has been through it.

    After my ectopic pregnancy, I went through a period of serious depression.   My concerned husband called my OB/GYN, who referred us to a pregnancy and infant loss support group at our local hospital.   The group was led by a couple who had experienced two miscarriages.   We found tremendous healing in that group and became good friends with this couple.   Later on, our experiences in infertility led us to help start an infertility support group in our community.

    Experiencing infertility and losing a pregnancy made us more sensitive to others in the same situation.   We were helped by a couple who suffered before us, and in turn, we were able to help others in need.   In hindsight, I can see purpose in the pain we faced when we lost our first baby.

    Adversity definitely tests and reveals our moral fiber.   It can also reveal the character and nature of God.   In John 9:1-3, we read:

    As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"

    "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life."

    Jesus went on to give the blind man his sight.

    I don't want to carry this analogy too far.   I don't want to cast the Creator as some Cosmic Stephen King, merrily inflicting terror and disaster on His creations for His own entertainment.   I only want to illustrate that pain may have a purpose – to help us to relate to those in need, to test and reveal our own strengths and weaknesses, and to reveal the character of God.   Does pain serve any other purpose?   We'll continue exploring that soon.

    Pain with a Purpose

    In 1988, my husband and I attended natural childbirth classes in anticipation of the arrival of our firstborn child.   I remember one of the films we watched described labor as "pain with a purpose."

    Although I resented the statements that described labor pains as "discomfort" or "tightening" instead of mind-searing, gut-wrenching agony – I did appreciate the concept of pain with a purpose.   We marched into the labor room armed with a wedding photo as a focal point and tapes full of soothing music like Pachelbel's Canon in D Major and Handel's Water Music.   Hours and hours later, our son Christopher was born.   The concept of pain with a purpose helped me handle a difficult labor, and unlike Alex in A Clockwork Orange, I still enjoy classical music without experiencing physical pain.

    Labor was the most intense physical pain I've ever experienced, but it wasn't the worst pain I have experienced.   The worst pain came a year earlier, when I lost our first baby in an ectopic pregnancy.

    We had suffered through infertility treatments for 18 months before I had the joy of finding two faint blue lines on the home pregnancy test.   I was ecstatic.   Everything looked sharper.   Colors appeared brighter.   The world held great promise – for five glorious days.

    That's when I started spotting.   Then the pain began.   Five days, two trips to the emergency room, two ultrasounds, and a hospital stay later, the doctors told me I was probably miscarrying and sent me home.   The following day, I ruptured.   The pain was excruciating, right up until the time I passed out.   I was in surgery for two and a half hours.   In recovery, while I was still out of my head from the anesthesia, my husband recalls I chanted over and over "It hurts. It hurts. It hurts."

    But what really hurt was that, on top of all the physical pain, we had lost our baby, and I had lost a fallopian tube.   The chances of ever having another child were reduced, and I was desolate.   All that pain had no purpose, or at least no good purpose that I could discern.

    A friend recently reminded me of the story of Joseph (the one with the Technicolor Dreamcoat).   You can read the story in the book of Genesis, Chapters 37, and 39-48.   Joseph's envious brothers sold him into slavery.   Once in Egypt, his master Potiphar's wife falsely accused Joseph of attacking her.   Potiphar cast Joseph into prison.

    I can't imagine the pain of that betrayal by his own brothers or the fear that prison brought.   Personally, I would have been bitterly angry and would have railed against the injustice.   But Joseph was confident that God had a purpose for everything that happened, and he patiently continued to serve God in whatever way he could.

    Joseph's faith was rewarded.   God used Joseph to interpret Pharoah's dreams.   Because of Joseph, the nation of Egypt was saved from famine – as was the nation of Israel.   When Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers, they were afraid.   But Joseph told them:

    And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.   For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping.   But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.   Genesis 45:5-7.

    God eventually revealed His purpose to Joseph, but before he knew God's intent, Joseph trusted that the Lord had a purpose for his difficulties.   It is easier to handle pain, to give thanks through adversity, if you know there is a purpose.   Most of us don't have the luxury of knowing that our pain has a purpose.   Or do we?   Let's explore that next.

    Sunday, November 11, 2007

    The Sacrifice of Thanksgiving

    Thanksgiving.   The word brings to mind many things to a 21st century American.   Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.   Myles Standish and Massasoit.   Family gatherings.   Football.   And of course, an abundance of food.   For me, that food always includes roast turkey, cranberry sauce, my father's cornbread and sage dressing, my mother's fruit salad, and pumpkin pie.

    But the tradition of a thanksgiving meal goes back thousands of years before the Mayflower.   Back in the days of Leviticus, one of the sacrifices offered was the Sacrifice of Thanksgiving.   The thanksgiving sacrifice was a peace offering given to thank God for His grace and to restore a right relation between God and man – a relationship broken by man's sin.   According to, peace offerings were usually private offerings.   A family would present oxen, sheep or goats to be sacrificed.   The sacrifice was followed by a joyous sacrificial meal.

    Today, we don't thank God by sacrificing oxen, sheep, goats, or even turkeys.   In fact, sacrifice does not seem to be a word that goes well with the traditions of an American Thanksgiving.   Sacrifice involves the destruction, surrender or loss of something as an offering to God.   Thanksgiving is not about sacrifice but indulgence – isn't it?

    Even though our Thanksgiving traditions focus on celebration and even indulgence, the act of giving thanks can be a sacrifice.   Sometimes it is difficult to see and give thanks for our blessings when life seems full of uncertainty, pain, or grief.   Some of my family members, friends and acquaintances face some difficult times this holiday season.   I'm thinking of:

  • a woman spending her first Thanksgiving since her divorce
  • a boy who lost his beloved pet dog
  • a woman with breast cancer recovering from surgery
  • a woman confronting a life of pain with no relief in sight
  • a woman facing a hysterectomy and unemployment
  • siblings and parents who are estranged
  • a man struggling with drug and alcohol addictions
  • a woman striving to keep her family warm this winter.
  • a single mother fighting for child support for her daughter
  • a family who lost many possesions in a fire
  • a couple spending the holidays separated from their young son
  • spouses and parents serving in the military separated from their loved ones.

    What do we destroy, surrender, or lose in offering to God when we give thanks through difficulties?   Perhaps we destroy the idea that our present pain is significant in light of God's eternal purpose.   We surrender fear, loneliness, despair, longing, bitterness, and regret.   We lose the right to nurse our grief or grievances.   We surrender ourselves to joy and hope.

    With Thanksgiving around the corner, I am going to explore the meaning of thanksgiving over the next few days.   I hope you'll join in the journey.

  • Love Songs

    Romantic that I am, I love a good love story and a good love song.   The ultimate love story is one of a perfect love thwarted by separation, betrayal, or brokenness, redeemed by some great act of courage or sacrifice, culminating in reunion, restoration, and the obligatory happily ever after.

    In that light, here are some of my favorite love songs.

    This Fragile Breath – Todd Agnew
    Grace Like Rain

    I searched the world for a song that I could sing,
    Praise to my King, a gift that I could bring.
    But no music I found could compare to You
    Not one could do justice to Your glory.
    What are my songs compared to Yours?

    You speak with thunder and lightning
    Your voice shakes the mountains
    The foundations of the earth.
    All I can offer is this fragile breath,
    With each one I'll praise You
    With each one I'll praise You more.

    I searched the world for a poem I could read,
    A rhyme that would bring glory to my King.
    But no writing I found was worthy of
    This God high above all other gods.
    What are my words compared to Yours?


    Speak to me, speak to me please.
    Won't You speak to me?


    Look at Me – The Waiting
    Blue Belly Sky

    Golden bars of sunlight come sneaking through the shutters
    Laying stripes on my back like a zebra.
    Sweaty fingers turning pages, and clinging to the bed
    Like it's a bride and I never want to leave her.

    Paul calls me a saint and the mattress shakes with laughter
    And the sheets let out a chuckle while the pillow holds one in.
    I don't believe a word I read, but the man is so convincing
    Says You're calling me a winner of a game I never win.

    But with every word I read I feel Your eyes upon me
    And I don't mind at all.

    I love the way You look at me, the way You steer Your eyes
    To see the bride beneath the harlot's skin, the virtue underneath the sin.
    I love the way You look at me, when You lift the veil and You repeat Your vow.

    Get up for the shower, wash, and scrub, and scour every part
    As if a cleaner man could better bear the shame.
    Now, move out into the sunlight, a frightened fool
    There's reason for my fright, for I'm a messenger who's forgetting why he came.

    But with every step I take I feel Your eyes are on me,
    And I don't mind at all.

    For when You look at me, You see every drop of blood You spent.
    Like the color that comes creeping to my face.
    It is such sweet embarrassment to see the dowry that You paid for my cold embrace.
    But I'll never, never, never let You go because...


    Who Am I -- Casting Crowns
    Casting Crowns

    Who am I
    That the Lord of all the earth,
    Would care to know my name,
    Would care to feel my hurt?
    Who am I
    That the bright and morning star,
    Would choose to light the way,
    For my ever wandering heart?

    Not because of who I am,
    But because of what You've done.
    Not because of what I've done,
    But because of who You are.

    I am a flower quickly fading,
    Here today and gone tomorrow,
    A wave tossed in the ocean,
    A vapor in the wind.
    Still You hear me when I'm calling,
    Lord, You catch me when I'm falling,
    And You've told me who I am.
    I am Yours.
    I am Yours.

    Who am I
    That the eyes that see my sin
    Would look on me with love
    And watch me rise again?
    Who am I
    That the voice that calmed the sea,
    Would call out through the rain,
    And calm the storm in me?

    Not because of who I am,
    But because of what You've done.
    Not because of what I've done,
    But because of who You are.

    I am a flower quickly fading,
    Here today and gone tomorrow,
    A wave tossed in the ocean,
    A vapor in the wind.
    Still You hear me when I'm calling,
    Lord, You catch me when I'm falling,
    And You've told me who I am.
    I am Yours.

    Not because of who I am,
    But because of what You've done.
    Not because of what I've done,
    But because of who You are.

    I am a flower quickly fading,
    Here today and gone tomorrow,
    A wave tossed in the ocean,
    A vapor in the wind.
    Still You hear me when I'm calling,
    Lord, You catch me when I'm falling,
    And You've told me who I am.
    I am Yours.
    I am Yours.

    I am Yours.

    Whom shall I fear?
    Whom shall I fear?
    'Cause I am Yours.
    I am Yours.

    Saturday, November 10, 2007

    Auntie's Brag

    Just a plug for the new J. Calton Watters online store on Julie's a very talented artist -- and I'm not at all biased.

    J. Calton Watters -- Artist.

    Julie Calton Watters on Alabama Tourism site.