The Identity Crisis of Blogging: What is our purpose?

By Sally Stap

Author Sally StapHow does a blog (technically the blogger) identify its audience? When is the target scope too broad or too narrow? How does each blog find its audience in the blogosphere? Some are by writers who write for other writers. Some are specific to a disease, a cause, or a population. Some are content-driven based on the mood of the writer. Some are inspirational with the blogger sharing a bit of wisdom and an observation about the world or their beliefs. I have two blogs and guest post on TheBlogPile each month. Sometimes I take a moment – or five – to think about what and why I am writing.

The first blog I established was www.smilingagainbook.com. When publishing a book, I learned the importance of social media. I learned that I needed to establish a “platform” for book exposure. So, when my book, Smiling Again: Coming Back to Life and Faith After Brain Surgery, was published, I became a reluctant blogger. Of course, it isn’t popular to write entry after entry that says “buy my book,” so I had to figure out why anyone would want to read anything I wrote. At first it was short little blips from my book, or a few lines of what I had experienced. However, after posting for a while I have established loyal readers in the Acoustic neuroma brain tumor world. I’ve found my posts keep getting longer and longer. I feel that, for this blog I have found my voice even though technically I’m breaking blog length rules. I know my purpose is contributing to the acoustic neuroma community.

My entries have gotten numerous comments from people who seemed to really benefit from what I wrote. Really? I’m blown away that anyone wants to read my writing, let alone what I, at times, consider redundant points. However, the brain tumor club welcomes unwilling members daily. There, unfortunately, is a continual flow of newly diagnosed people with questions. There are also recently treated and longtime survivors with chronic health issues. I’m not fixing anything in anyone’s life, but I’m giving people a feeling of not being alone on a tough journey.

Occasionally, people will take a bit of exception to the focus of one of my posts. It has been pointed out that what I write about isn’t limited to one type of brain tumor patient, or even to brain tumors at all. While I agree, does that mean that I should broaden my writing to more general health and life issues? My decision has been no, and hope that anyone who finds my blog and benefits from it will return regardless of their situation. If someone buys a book, that’s great, but that’s a one-time purchase. What I have gained is more than a book sale, but a connection with another person in this very impersonal and electronic world.

My second blog is www.sallystap.com, a blog I established to be “non-brain tumor stuff.” Well, okay, that is pretty broad! I write observations about life. I write about my faith in God on this more personal blog. I am not disciplined about new posts because I write when I feel like it, which is never a good deadline to give a writer. At the same time, I wonder who will find it, benefit, and why. What is my purpose in building a readership? I could say future books, but it’s actually my desire for community. When someone reads something that I wrote and gives me feedback, it makes me feel connected. If someone says, “You wrote what I feel but haven’t ever been able to put words into,” I feel accomplished. What will my voice be on this blog? Only time will tell what my purpose is with this blog.

TheBlogPile, which this post was actually written for, is “An anthology blog of Christian authors.” Several individuals post monthly, unless a month slips by here or there. We have been discussing the readership of this blog and are trying to determine a direction. Are we writing to promote writing? Are we writing to share our Christian beliefs? Or are we writing something in the hopes it will draw people to our individual blogs? We have Christian in the title but have agreed we don’t want to sound preachy – which is a word that I’m continually struggling with when determining what and how to write. What is our purpose? Which direction should we take if any different from the current one?

In the blog world we measure success by the number of subscribers and frequency of comments. There are statistics that tell us how many times a page was clicked. We get caught up in questions of value and purpose. We get more spam comments that need to be discarded than valid ones. We are willing to sort through the junk to get a few gems and affirmation back. Comments that tell us what we are writing is making a difference for even one person.

Sometimes when I get caught up in the definition of “success” as a blogger, I focus more on our purpose in life. We are here to honor God and to seek his wisdom. We are here to commune with each other and not to count statistics.

God is the blogger of the universe. He knows each one of us. He is focused on an individual relationship with each “reader.” I’m guessing he isn’t checking statistics. He’s measuring the closeness with which we hold our beliefs. He is not measuring how many trials we each face, but how we traverse them. He isn’t measuring the number of worries we have, but how well we hand them over to Him. Can you imagine how many “spam” prayers He gets? He listens for our individual heartfelt voice in the crowd, ready to make a difference in our lives.

What We Really Need to Make this Year New

By Jennifer Allen

Jennifer Allen: writer, blogger, wife, and momI had such high hopes for this week. After an amazing holiday season I planned to get back to my daily writing routine and homeschool schedule, to pack away Christmas, to unpack the box of baby clothes waiting anxiously in the basement. I planned to fix healthy meals and start my family’s new year with a healthy lifestyle.

Easy-peasy, right? After all, it’s the New Year. Every thing seems hopeful. Everything seems bright.

Well, as the week bumped along I didn’t get back to my writing.

I have yet to do my lesson plans and get back to school.

Christmas boxes fill my hallway.

The nursery closet sits unnervingly empty while that box of clothes remains neglected in the basement.

And I’ve fallen off the health-food bandwagon more times than I can count.

As I sit to write this blog and look back over the week I can’t think of a single thing I managed to accomplish.

And I don’t feel hopeful, I don’t feel bright. I feel discouraged and sick in my heart.

Just before Christmas I read a blog post about our longing for the ideal and how we sometimes get so wrapped up in wanting things to be perfect we miss the truth that the very first Christmas and Jesus’ life here on earth was anything but perfect, anything but ideal.

While this is an important truth to remember before Christmas, I am finding myself returning to it again and again at the start of this new year.

When it gets right down to it, ideal is what I long for, so often more than Christ.

And isn’t this the problem? When we long for the ideal we don’t have more than we long for the ideal Savior we do have, we miss the grace that exists all around us.

We miss the grace that He is enough…even when we’re not.

We miss the grace that He is our strength…even when we’re weak.

We miss the grace that He supplies beauty…even in our mess.

When I consider how discouraged I feel at the start of this new year I know this is not what God wants for me. I know this isn’t what God wants for any of His children when we fall short of our own expectations.

Instead of feeling discouraged over what we can’t or haven’t accomplished He wants us to draw close to who He is and remember what He can accomplish in us. In our failings, our weakness, our mess.

So if you’re like me, a little discouraged at the start of this new year, why not make a new resolution. A resolution to forget the ideal, to forget the discouragement, and remember the God who makes all things new.

Every year.

Every week.

Every morning.

Every moment we choose to turn to Him and find all we’ve ever longed for.

Which is Better, Setting Goals or Making New Year’s Resolutions?

By Peter DeHaan

Author Peter DeHaan

Author Peter DeHaan

Although I avoid making New Year’s resolutions, I do set annual goals. What’s the difference? Maybe nothing; maybe everything. To me, resolutions are akin to wishful thinking, with low expectation for success. Goals are concrete, with stated action and quantifiable results.

I don’t think I’ve ever made a New Year’s resolution. If I discover something about myself I want to change, I set about making the adjustment right away. Delaying change until January first makes no sense.

However, every year I do set annual goals. I write them down and may even share them with friends. Throughout the year, I work towards achieving those goals. Sometimes my goals morph into something else and other times they become irrelevant along the way, but I take each one as far as I can by December 31.

At the end of each year I look back with a sense of accomplishment over the goals I’ve reached, while not wallowing in remorse over the ones I’ve missed. Never once have I achieved every annual goal and never once have I failed at them all.

This year was a rough year. Life took an unexpected turn soon after the New Year began, and my goals necessarily assumed a lessor priority. Even though it was one of my worst showings ever, I still accomplished two of my six goals.

However, other people shun goal setting, but they always make New Year’s resolutions. Just as I dismiss resolutions, they dismiss goals with equal disdain. Just as I embrace goals, they embrace resolutions with equal fervor.

Maybe the difference between goal setting and resolutions is just semantics, but maybe the difference is one of substance. I don’t know.

What I do know is that, whether it’s a goal or a resolution, we need to do what we can to accomplish the result we want and then look to God for help with what is out of our control.

With him, we have a much better chance for success than without him.

Top 10 Posts for 2014

Here are the ten most popular posts on The Blog Pile for 2014.

The comments are still open, so feel free to add to the discussion.

  1. I’ve Got Nothing…
  2. Lighting Our Path
  3. Polish Your Memories
  4. Muscle Memory
  5. I Am a Writer
  6. Five Kernels of Corn
  7. That Darned Need to Know Basis
  8. Thoughts About Moving: Do You Leave Home or Take it With You?
  9. Life’s Balance: Actually Is A Balance
  10. 20 Things to Do Before the End of Summer

Which one is your favorite?

I Am an Artist

By Sally Stap

Author Sally StapIt 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

Author Sally StapI 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.