I Am an Artist

By Sally Stap

Sally Stap, author of Smiling Again

Sally Stap

It took me a long time to say the words, “I am a writer” but once I did I was empowered. I am now experiencing the same thing with art. I recently discovered Encaustic Painting, which is working with wax. I’ve been guilty of saying, “I’m not an artist, and can’t draw, but love encaustic.” I’ve decided to correct myself. I am an artist. A beginner at the encaustic art form, but merely the act of “doing” it makes me an artist. I’m not required to be “Professional.” It isn’t necessary to be perfect to create beauty.

Encaustic painting is something I discovered last summer when visiting a friend in Rhode Island. We were wandering around art studios and a picture called out to me. No, I didn’t buy it given the huge size and price, but I was enthralled. The lady at the gallery explained to us that the artist used wax and a blow torch to melt the colors into what was a beautiful picture of frothy waves on the ocean. We wrote down the word “encaustic” because I had never heard of it and wanted to learn.

There is a perfectly good workbench in my basement I don’t do any “work” at, so I repurposed it as my encaustic bench. I ordered supplies and dove in. Encaustic is a form of art that ranges from abstract to detailed and intricate. I’m still on the abstract level and okay with that. As accomplished as I feel after completing a painting, I’m aware there is still more I don’t know than I do. I feel stretched to learn and grow; although I feel productive at the level I am at. I lose myself when I go downstairs to “paint”, which technically means melting wax in strange patterns on paper or wood. I now get what painting therapy gives to one’s soul.

Encaustic art by Sally StapI now own a couple of books, have watched numerous YouTube videos, and am in a Facebook Encaustic Art group. I am in awe of many of the paintings shared by talented and accomplished artists. I’ve even found myself brave enough – and proud enough — to share some of my fledgling pieces. The group is supportive to all skill levels and I feel welcome in the community.

I’ve learned through my painting is that a piece is never done. If I don’t like it, I merely take heat to the painting and remold the wax into a new shape. The parallel to our lives and God’s influence on who we become has not been lost on me. Once the wax is changed, it cannot go back to a previous version but is beautiful in new ways.

A picture is never completed until the artist decides it’s done — me in the case of wax and God in the case of me. Even as we are learning and growing in life, we can produce beauty at whatever skill level we find ourselves. We can know that God, as our artist, takes pride in the shape our lives take.

How to Save This Christmas

By Jennifer Allen

Jennifer Allen: writer, blogger, wife, and momFor the past few days I’ve been hearing this voice. Two voices, actually. One that sounds kind and gentle, sort of like a best friend and another that sounds demanding and anxious, like the voice of a stressed out boss.

As Christmas approaches the friendly voice in my head keeps saying, “You have plenty of time to get it all done. Don’t worry with perfection! Memories and a thankful heart are your top priorities this week.”

But that other voice…that angry, bossy, voice that won’t shut up until it’s heard…it goes something like this… “Ummm, hello? What are you thinking? You should be decorating, cleaning, wrapping presents. Remember that coupon expires on Wednesday. Oh, and one more thing…”

The scary thing is, this voice doesn’t go away. As Christmas gets closer, it thrives on expectations and disappointments. It wields its power in the lure of perfection. It strikes with the threat of not coming through.

But there in the ranting, the demands, the clamoring agendas, the friendly voice remains. While softer and harder to hear it never stops whispering the call, the invitation, the offer of peace, and stillness, and calm in the sales-driven, fruitcake, Santa lovin’ storm.

It reminds me that at the center of the Christmas season, there is still Savior…a Savior who still saves.

The balance between following the Christmas norm and following the Reason for Christmas is slippery as ice. But friends, it doesn’t have to be so. It can be as easy as online shopping.

Because in the end it comes down to a choice. A choice between two voices. A choice between two saviors.

We can listen to the Savior who brings life, who fills every desire, who meets every need. Or we can listen to the savior we find in our own abilities, in our cheap substitutes for the life we long for.

There is no shame in wanting a merry Christmas. It is right, and holy, and true to seek life and wholeness and homespun warmth throughout the holiday season. But this life we desire can only be found in seeking the Savior. By finding Christmas in Him.

This year let Christmas come. Not in coupons and sales. Not in presents we don’t need or standards we set too high. But in quiet moments with Him. In popsicle-ornament memories with kids. In the beauty of snow falling quiet to earth. In laughter and a perfectly-imperfect home.

Let Christmas come because He is coming, in beauty, in peace, in love, in joy.

He is coming for us, just as He came all those years ago. With passionate love that turned the world upside down. That made a King into an infant and darkness into light.

He is coming. And He is Christmas.

The only Christmas we long for. The only Christmas we need. The only Christmas worth celebrating.

It’s That Time of Year…to Make Your Annual Budget

By Peter DeHaan

Author Peter DeHaan

Author Peter DeHaan

With Thanksgiving behind me and Christmas cheer beckoning me forward, it’s hard to think about the new year and the task of making an annual budget. You do have an annual budget, don’t you? I do – and I encourage you to use one, too.

Although I’m an organized person with a penchant for planning, I don’t get too excited at the prospect of making my annual budget. But I know I must. After all, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” (Goodreads attributes this to Benjamin Franklin.)

I keep good records of my spending throughout the year, so developing next year’s budget only takes me about thirty minutes. For people without a good understanding of where they spent their money, planning for next year will take a bit more work. So invest some time in December to gather needed information to make a budget for the coming year. You’ll need most of this for your taxes anyway, so you need to do it at some point.

Here are some thoughts about budgets:

  • A budget is a guide, not a straightjacket.
  • A budget lets us know when we can indulge ourselves a bit and how much; it also alerts us when extra spending is a bad idea.
  • A budget reduces financial stress and removes a source of potential conflict.
  • A budget urges moderation now, allowing for more freedom later.
  • A budget is a plan that moves us towards financial contentment.
  • A budget helps us to live within our means, to be financially responsible, and to plan for future needs.
  • A budget is also biblical. See Luke 14:28-30.

To be of maximum use, our annual budgets need to be in place before the new year begins. For me, since I have all the information I need already organized, I’ll wait until after Christmas to make my annual budget, but it will be finished before New Year’s Day.

Of course having a budget is just the first step. The key to success is to follow it.

May you have a Merry Christmas, A Happy New Year…and a great budget to guide the way.

Polish Your Memories

By Sally Stap

Sally Stap, author of Smiling Again

Sally Stap

I was listening to a speaker this week who talked about how stress, negative emotions, and bad memories can affect our physical health. A term he used was to “polish your memories.” We have a lifetime of memories filling our heads. It’s worth taking some time to think about what thoughts and memories get the majority of our awareness.

Are we remembering life with regret over poor decisions? Are we wallowing in self-pity because of painful experiences?

Or are we focusing our hearts and minds toward the good in our lives and pasts? Not to deny negative experiences, but what can we do to let them go and give them less power in our minds? Are we treasuring and taking out precious memories and polishing them, fondling them like precious gems that they are?

How can we polish and find peace for the poor experiences in a way that doesn’t bury them but puts them away? Life isn’t fair – I assume you’ve figured that out by now. I sure have. However, our minds can be fair in the judgment of experiences and balance of our thoughts and memories.

I have to ask myself, “How will my day be shaped?” Will I focus on what I can’t do or will I put energy into what I can and will do?

Life is also precious. We need to make memories and polish those that we treasure. Other memories should be pushed away like a stone being skipped across a lake leaving smaller and smaller rings until it sinks to the bottom.

I have some precious moments that I pull out to polish when I’m having a rough day. What’s interesting is that I sometimes have a dilemma – which life moment should I polish today? I inhale, exhale, and feel the problem that seemed so daunting to be shrinking.

I visited my daughter in Germany recently. I had an incredible time. We walked miles and I snapped a lot of pictures. Oh, and by the way, I broke my kneecap and had to take a nap every day for my head. Yes, ouch, but as I heal, I’m polishing the memories of Kendra’s company and care – right up to the point where she handed me off to wheelchair people at the airport. I look forward to my return sometime in the future. Maybe I’ll pack kneepads?

When my older daughter Kayla broke her kneecap last winter (yes, both of us in one year), what I recall was the time I was able to spend helping her while she healed. Lunch on Thursdays, playing with my grandson, and sometimes falling fast asleep on her couch for a nap.

When I have a bad head day, I breathe and pull out a few memories. Maybe I’ll return to tropical beaches where I’ve relaxed with friends. In my mind, I see the bright sun, feel the warm breeze, and remember dipping my toes in ocean water.

What memories do you like to polish?

 

Five Kernels of Corn

By Jennifer Allen

Jennifer Allen: writer, blogger, wife, and momMy daughter and I recently had the delight of reading Mary’s First Thanksgiving, a picture book by Kathy-Jo Wargin.

In this book Wargin tells a story about a young girl named Mary and her family’s first Thanksgiving as American colonists in the early 1800’s.

Based on historical events, this sweet story draws from a speech Daniel Webster gave in 1820 at the bicentennial celebration of the Pilgrims’ landing on Plymouth Rock.

A banquet followed Webster’s speech and, per his request, five kernels of corn were placed at each place setting. These five kernels were to represent the “starving time,” that our nation’s first settlers endured and also served as reminder of the many blessings we enjoy each day.

“The first kernel represented the beauty and bounty of autumn. The second kernel represented their love for one another. The third kernel represented their love for their families. The fourth kernel represented their friendship with the Native Americans. The fifth kernel represented their freedom to worship God without fear,” (From Mary’s First Thanksgiving).

I love Thanksgiving, and I have my own traditions that make this holiday special. Wearing my grandmother’s turkey apron, baking my Aunt Becky’s mac-n-cheese, and singing the Doxology before Thanksgiving dinner are three of my favorites.

This year I hope to add a new practice to my list by adding the Five Kernel Tradition to my family’s Thanksgiving celebration. I hope this new tradition will encourage each guest at my Thanksgiving table to remember those less fortunate and give thanks for the blessings of beauty, community, family, friendship, and faith.

Whether it’s through five kernels of corn or another tradition that your family holds dear, may the blessings of beauty, community, family, friendship, and faith fill your Thanksgiving, your heart, and your home with joy.

No-Shave November

By Peter DeHaan

Author Peter DeHaan

Author Peter DeHaan

As a college freshman, my son’s dorm celebrated November by setting aside their shaving gear for the entire month. They called it “No-Shave November”; though the purpose was to raise cancer awareness, I suspect they just did it for fun.

My son embraced the challenge, relishing the comradery with his dorm mates as they tried to grow beards; his newfound girlfriend accepted his decision. Three and a half weeks later, he met her family for the first time, a scruffy-faced college student with an unruly mop on top, his appearance must have been questionable. But he won them over and shortly after graduation, became part of their family.

Most every year since, he has observed No-Shave November.

This year he asked me to join him. I surprised him by saying, “Yes!”

“Really, Dad?”

“Sure. Why not?”

This won’t be my first time with a beard. I had one before he was born. I started it in the fall, where it became a warming comfort to the assault of winter’s cold. I persisted through the summer, when it became a hot, scratchy irritant. But I kept it, looking forward to its warmth the following winter. The next spring, eighteen months after I started, I shaved it off, incrementally over the course of a week.

Today, I didn’t shave, and I plan not to for the rest of the month. As I recall, the first couple of days are itchy, but once I get past those, the rest will be easy. I don’t yet know what I’ll do on December first. I may shave, or I may wait until spring.

The more important thing is enjoying a shared experience with my son. Family is important and anything we do to bond with each other is a good thing.

Regardless of your shaving plans for November, may it be a good month, with great family moments.

Fear

By Sally Stap

Sally Stap, author of Smiling Again

Sally Stap

Some people like the charge they get from a “good” horror movie or scary Halloween costume. I am not one of them. Others love the thrill of a roller coaster. No, not that either. After going on numerous rides with my daughters years ago, one day I decided that it wasn’t a good thrill that I got when my stomach flipped while rapidly dropping dramatic distances. That was my last roller coaster ride. Whether you are a thrill seeker or a find life itself enough of a thrill, it’s okay.

Fear can be lighthearted fear at Halloween but also heart wrenching from life events. Fear fills our minds instantly and churns our insides when we get a hint that something is wrong. Fear triggers our autonomic nervous system – what controls our bodies below the level of consciousness. This effects our heart rate, breathing, digestion and even perspiration. Autonomic functions are involuntary but work with voluntary control in the somatic nervous system.

That was technical and I don’t fully understand what I just said. However, it means is that we are frustratingly not totally in control when facing fear. We each experience fear in our individual way, even when faced with the same situation. For some that means dry humor. For others it means prayer and meditation. For some it means curling up in a ball and for others it’s angry screaming.

Fear can take over our bodies such that we spend energy trying to control our physical reactions. We try to not shake, or cry, or stammer, but it happens. We may want to speak but words do not come. Everyone is different, but we all fight a balance of voluntary and involuntary when facing fear. Ranging from controlled worry to the desire to escape our bodies, fear is jarring.

I’ve faced fear in my life. As a kid I was cautiously fearful at Halloween. As an adult, I’ve experienced fear that was physically debilitating. What I learned is that when all is taken away, it is myself and God. I had to choose between the option of trusting my faith in God or giving in to theories of randomness.

I chose faith. Prayer calms me. Asking for guidance from God lightens the weight of my burden. I stepped out in faith believing verses like “For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.” (Isaiah 41:13 NIV) and “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (Philippians 4:6 NIV)

Only when I learned to accept that I’m truly not alone was I able to gain the gift of living and not fearing. Only with the gift of hindsight have I been able to see that I’ve never been alone.

Ghosts and goblins are not for me, but I’ll help with the Halloween candy. . .

Rotten

By Jennifer Allen

Jennifer Allen: writer, blogger, wife, and mom

Jennifer Allen

A few weekends ago, on a beautiful fall afternoon, my husband and I set to work at canning pears. The pears were picked about a month ago from a large pear tree that spans its branches over my in-laws front yard. With the help of our daughter Aletheia, Chris managed to fill a Rubbermaid trash can with hundreds of pears, free for the taking.

At first the pears were hard as rocks, and for several weeks they sat in our garage. Slowly they softened, with the last warm days of fall, and when the smell of ripened pear started to fill up the garage, we knew it was time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

My mom joined in the process, and for several hours we washed, peeled and canned the delicious fruit for use this fall and winter.

I wanted to peel, but my mom and husband ganged up on me. Apparently, they informed me, I “lack skill with the blade,” and was therefore banished to the sink to rinse, wash and dry.

One by one I washed the pears and set them on a large wooden tray. At first it was easy work, but as I got deeper and deeper into the pail more and more pears turned up spotted, molding, or altogether rotten.

I was able to salvage most of the pears by cutting away the spotted or moldy parts, but there were two or three, way down deep that were too far gone to save. I remember one in particular. Black with rot, it was soft, covered in mold and oozed with sticky juice. I didn’t want to touch it, let alone pick it up and throw it away. I avoided that one rotten pear for as long as I could.

That’s when I realized, with a flash of truth, that this rotten pear was a picture of grace. Here, in rotten, sticky, fruit: grace.

Scripture tells us that in comparison to God and His righteousness we are but filthy rags because of our sin. I looked at the pear and wondered, is this what my sin looks like to God? Rotten? Decrepit? Grotesque?

I mustered my courage and reached down deep for the pear. I grasped the rottenness and thankfulness poured from my heart.

I am thankful that, unlike me, God is never afraid to touch or deal with the rotten places in me. I am thankful that He is skilled with the blade. That He willingly stands over the sink, washing, cleansing, and cutting away, the bruised and deeply rotten places of my heart. I am thankful that He sees in me something worth keeping and therefore works in me to remove the rot and uncover the good.

I took one last look at the rotten pear before I tossed it away. And I saw that this too is grace, that no matter how rotten or deep the sin, God never declares us too far gone.

Living with Family: An Awesome Opportunity

By Peter DeHaan

Author Peter DeHaan

Author Peter DeHaan

For the past two months, my wife and I have been living with our son and daughter-in-law. It’s been a great experience for us and a wonderful time of connecting with our kids in a deeper, more meaningful way. After only eight weeks, we’ve gone through three phases:

1) The Honeymoon Phase: For the first few weeks, everything went smooth, dare I say perfect. Our sharing of one house, of melding two couples used to living by themselves into one family unit, flowed forth as a dream. We shared household duties and melded our schedules with ease. Eating together, going for walks, and having deep discussions all unfolded naturally. It was bliss.

2) The Adjustment Phase: Eventually a few cracks appeared. We began to expose our quirks and saw each other’s foibles. Whereas we once only saw one another’s strengths, now weaknesses poked through. We began adjusting what we did, how we did it, and when we did it for the sake of unity. Though we all made small sacrifices for one another since the first day, now we began to realize it. Just as living as a couple requires flexibility, even more so does living as an extended family.

3) The Settling Down Phase: While we will continue to make adjustments, we are settling into a comfortable, peaceful co-existence. It’s not perfect, as in the honeymoon phase, but it is really great. A stable arrangement has emerged; this is sustainable; and it is good.

An Awesome Opportunity: My wife and I view this as a great adventure, a time to connect more deeply with our kids and learn from each other. Though we expect this to be a five month living arrangement, a friend of mine did the same thing for five years. For her, when the parents moved on, there was a great sense of loss. I expect the same emotion. Though it will be good when my wife and I move on and resume living as one couple, I wonder if what we give up will be more profound.

In today’s modern society we celebrate individualism; we value our freedom. What we lose in the process is the opportunity to truly live as an extended family, to influence each other and learn from one another, to fully connect.

Our affluence actually serves to isolate us. Living as an extended family, whether by choice or circumstance, offers the opportunity to live more fully in community. If we can embrace this opportunity, we will emerge better and stronger as a result.

Life’s Balance: Actually Is A Balance

By Sally Stap

Sally Stap, author of Smiling Again

Sally Stap

Think of the many interviews of someone who lost a dream of being an athlete, actor, entrepreneur, or whatever? Disappointed, some struggle but find new passion. Disappointment still remains in hindsight, but a new perspective is gained over time for the importance of one lost dream. Countless other stories tell of people who lose their dream and become entangled in pain and fail to move forward, sometimes for years.

Acceptance of unwanted change is sticky and gooey. Anyone who has found success at something then lost it, churns for period of time. Risking full disclosure, I’ve found felt quite sorry for myself at times. I wake in the morning and find myself laying still, making an analysis of my options. Will I wallow over where I am, or move forward to seek an achievable goal for that specific day? Breaking down obstacles allows me to find joy in each step toward a new dream.

When making the decision to spiral down or up:

On my down pajama days, laying horizontal, staring out the window:

  • I allow the loss of a dream to loom over all other dreams and accomplishments.
  • I exaggerate to myself how lost and alone I am in the big, bad world.
  • I chaff at not being able to control everything in my life.
  • I compare myself/my life/my circumstance to others and minimize my own accomplishments.
  • I dislike being on a need to know basis with God.

On other, better days, I’m more balanced (admittedly maybe still a pajama day):

  • I allow myself time to regenerate if needed. I sleep a little more, read a book, or spend time in thought without allowing thought of misusing time.
  • I let my disappointment go, even if for a moment. Life is a series of days we must live.
  • Some will, frankly, be better than others. Each day takes us somewhere. No day takes us nowhere, even if we are still.
  • I think about God. Not how short I find myself in actions, but, quite simply, how big He is even while guiding my little life in the huge scheme of things.
  • I focus on others. How can I reach out to someone? What can I write to brighten someone else’s day?
  • I recognize the value in nature of a safe cocoon. How it provides protection to delicacy. I recognize how God puts us in a cocoon, kept from knowledge at times. A hedge of protection until we are stronger than we thought possible.

I’ve found it to be an interesting journey to transition from the corporate world with strategic plans, performance evaluations, and service level agreements to embracing the world of art. Touching someone’s day by writing a paragraph is as rewarding as achieving a corporate objective used to be. If I hadn’t had downward spirals mixed with some incredible upward ones, throughout my entire life, I wouldn’t be who I am. I wouldn’t appreciate what I dream today. I wonder who I’m yet to be.