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112 – Where’s Our Happily Ever After? with Guest Linda S. Clare

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Where's Our Happily Ever After Guest Linda S ClareGuest Linda S. Clare has faced countless family crises, and begged God for deliverance. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, as she puts it, “In my life, God hardly ever delivers me out of a problem, but He carries me through it.” Come listen in as she shares all she’s learned about family, faith, and God’s love in the deep.

About Linda S. Clare

Linda S. Clare is the author or coauthor of seven books, including her latest, Prayers for Parents of Prodigals, from Harvest House Publishers. A longtime writing teacher and coach, Linda also contributes to Guideposts, Chicken Soup books, MomPower.org and The Addict’s Mom. She lives with her family in Oregon.

Thanks to our sponsors on Patreon, we’re able to offer an edited transcript of the podcast!

Erin: Hello, writers, and welcome to the deep. We are so glad you’re here with us. And we also have a guest. We have Linda S. Clare with us today, and I’m going to let Karen introduce her because she’s good at it!

Karen: I’ve known Linda for quite a few years. She was one of my clients when I was an agent, one of the first people that I signed, because she’s very talented as a writer.

If you haven’t read her books, get out there and read them. But she’s faced countless family crises, and she’s still been able to write books in the midst of all that. It’s been amazing to see what she’s accomplished in her life.

She’s been writing professionally since 1993, and she’s taught fiction, memoir, and essay writing for Lane Community College for more than a dozen years. So, she’s a prof! In addition to her published books and award-winning short stories, her articles and essays, she works as a writing advisor for George Fox University, which I think is very cool. She’s a frequent presenter at writer’s conferences with good reason.

In her spare time, all that spare time that she’s got, she dotes on her grand babies, collects too many cats, she gardens and walks on the beach. And Linda is a fellow Oregonian, so she lives in Oregon with her family and all those wayward cats. Linda, welcome to Write from the Deep.

Linda: Thank you for having me today, Erin and Karen. I’m so happy to be talking with you this morning because the deeper my writing goes, the better writer I am, so I know I’m in the right place.

Erin: Tell us, Linda, what does the deep mean to you?

Linda: The deep. Oh my gosh. It means everything to every writer, but especially to a Christian writer, because the deep is where you find him. That’s where Jesus hangs out. He hangs out in the deepest places. The places that hurt us, the places that make us say, “I can’t go on.” The places where we are so frustrated that we cry out for his presence.

That’s what the deep means to me. We have a little saying in the community college classes that I taught: crack it open. When I would teach, especially memoir writing about people’s lives, I would say, “This part is really good. Crack it open.”

When you crack something open, where does it go?”

It goes eventually––sometimes we have to have a few layers before we get there––but eventually we go to the deep.

Karen: Yup. Very good. Thank you.

Erin: Exactly. I love it. One of the reasons that we wanted to talk to you today is that you have some struggles that you face as a writer because of family issues and family members dealing with serious issues.

Talk a little bit about how you’ve written through that and how that affects your writing.

Linda: Even back in the 90s, addiction was already rearing its head in my family. I have a middle child who, I always say, is a beautiful boy, if there ever was one. He’s incredibly good looking. I mean, really.

When he began to show signs of addiction, even like in the sixth grade, then we were alarmed. At first we said, “Okay, it’s a phase. He’ll go through this and then he’ll be okay.” Just for the record, this child had had some mental health issues since first grade. So he had already been to social workers, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, you name it.

He had been on Prozac. He had been on all that stuff as a little boy. By 2000, around the turn of the century, he and his older brother, who was about two and a half years older, were still giving us problems. And we still believed it was a phase.

Two buddies of mine, Heather Kopp and Melody Carlson, we got together and we wrote a book called Lost Boys and the Moms who Love Them because we each had at least two boys.

I was the only one who has a girl. Because I have four children, not two like them. Anyway, it was going on even back then. Fast forward twenty years. At the time I thought that only one child had a problem, which turned into be a method addiction, which is one of the worst ones if you ask people.

Karen: Right.

Linda: No, it’s all three of my sons. I have four children altogether. Two of them are twins. I only asked for three, but I got four. I didn’t know I was having twins, by the way. All three of my sons have substance use disorder, which is the nice name that they give it now, instead of addiction.

Two are alcoholics. The middle son is still mostly a meth addict and he struggles mightily. All three of them struggle mightily against it. When I was having all three of my sons living with me about five years ago, my husband ended up in the hospital with a heart attack, and he received some stents. Those things that prop open your arteries when they’re all plugged up.

One of them blew during the procedure, so they had to rush him back in and do another. Somewhere in that big chaos, the plaque on the inside of his arteries caused something called a cholesterol embolism. Bottom line is that he’ll be on kidney dialysis for the rest of his life.

At that time, it was four days a week, and if you know anything about kidney disease, each dialysis time takes four hours.

Karen: Right.

Linda: In which they take all your blood out and cleanse it, remove toxins, and then put it all back in. Not all at once!

Erin: I’m assuming you’re the caregiver during this time.

Linda: I am the caregiver, and I had all three sons living with us. Boomerang kids. They’re all grown ups, but they were living with us. Different circumstances.

Erin: And you’re trying to write during this time?

Linda: I’m trying to write during this time. In fact, during that time, a friend of mine and four other editors put together––I wrote a once-a-month blog post that year for C.S. Laken and her Live, Write, Thrive blog, and then she put it all into a book and gosh, five years later, I’m still getting royalties off that.

Karen: That’s great.

Linda: It was. It was a wonderful way to put a lot of really solid writing advice into book form. I can’t believe how well that book has done. I think one of the secrets to it is that it has before and after examples for each thing.

Anyway, I was writing. I was also spending a lot of time at the hospital. My husband kept having crisis after crisis. I would come home at night from the hospital and expected my three grown sons to act like adults when I came home exhausted, knowing that their father was clinging to life.

No. They were out in my garage every night carrying on. Getting into arguments the way only Irish American people do.

I was flummoxed. I was so unprepared for that. And so what do you do with all that baggage? I think that’s where all that stuff, when we talk about writing from the deep, really comes in.

At the time I wrote about my experience as catharsis, as therapy for me. You’re going through a terrible part of your life. You know, somebody’s got cancer, somebody’s been cheated on, somebody’s kid’s got something bad wrong with them. There’s addiction. Whatever the issue is, even writing as a journal is a way for you to stay connected to God during that difficult time, just pouring out your thoughts.

But I also learned something. I wrote some pieces for Chicken Soup––different call out submissions. And they rejected every single one of them, because I was in this deep, dark place. I was in the deep. And of course those books are meant to be positive and optimistic, and I was just not there.

It taught me that maybe I didn’t need to be making money in that classical sense of the word at that time. I was writing more to God than I was as a professional writer for publication.

Karen: Right. When we were talking earlier, you made a comment that I think is so powerful. You were saying that, you know, you’d prayed for God to come and deliver you and your family from all these things.

You said, “In my life, God hardly ever delivers me out of a problem, but he carries me through it.”

In my life, God hardly ever delivers me out of a problem, but he carries me through it. @lindasclare #amwriting @karenball1 Click To Tweet

Linda: That’s right.

Karen: I think that’s such a powerful truth. That’s a truth that we all need to hold onto. We all want, and we’ve talked about this before in our podcast, we all want out of the deep as fast as possible, but sometimes God says, “This is where you need to tarry, and I will carry you through these struggles. I will be there and I will provide and supply for you.”

What were some of the ways that you saw God carrying you?

Linda: I saw God carrying me in all different ways. It was absolutely amazing, and it changed my life because I was so far in the deep, not only with my sons, but with my husband, whom I thought might die at any time. I was forced to really reevaluate, who do I think Jesus is?

Who do I think God is? What does that mean to me and why am I writing in this area? Why do I write as a Christian writer? It helped me redefine not only who I am, but who Jesus is for me. And it stopped being a, “Yeah, I believe in Jesus.” And I started walking with him.

And I noticed that when I would come home and have those horrible nights where the boys would be fighting, and I was all alone that there was somebody with me. It was almost as cheesy as those old bookstore posters of the footprints in the sand. You know? But it was real. It wasn’t just a poster anymore. It was something like, “Oh, he really is walking here with me.”

One of the things that has happened, although I’m sure it’s a little more slowly than God would prefer, is that I’m learning how to reject tough love when it means severing relationship with my sons, but I’m also learning how to create boundaries that are healthier for me.

I mean, just last week I ran into a woman who runs a ministry in Minnesota. She’s from Minnesota, anyway. I was asking her some questions, “Would you recommend my new book, Prayers for Parents of Prodigals coming out?” And she wrote back, “Yes, I would.”

Then I told her, “But my real book is called Not Tough Love, Just Love. That’s the one I get rejected all the time. She wrote back and she said, “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe this. I have already set aside the domain name of just love ministries.”

Karen: Oh my gosh.

Linda: Now we are planning to collaborate on the book. She has the letters after her name. She’s a licensed drug and alcohol counselor. I have no letters after my name except D-U-M-B sometimes.

Karen: Oh, stop it!

Linda: Or D-O-H like Homer, “Doh!” But I can write. I don’t know if this is where God’s leading me, but this is where I’ve been carried so far.

Karen: That’s so much like what happened with Erin and me when we first realized that we both had this passion for being chaplains to writers and encouraging them spiritually. God just orchestrated it so perfectly and we look back on that, how long ago was that? Five years, Erin?

Erin: Oh, seven maybe.

Karen: Seven years ago and we look back at that, and we’re just amazed at the way that he does things if we look to him instead of looking and trying to figure things out ourselves.

That’s probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my family crises and dealing with the things that we have is that it’s not my circus and not my monkeys, unless God tells me it is. It’s not my circus and not my monkeys, and he will take care of those details.

I just need to be obedient in the tasks he’s given me.

Linda: Yeah. And there is another thing that I really wanted the writers out there to hear today. One thing that I’ve learned as God carries me through all this is trust your gut. When you’re covering yourself, “Oh, I don’t want people to know that. I can’t let people see this.” Then you are not writing from the deep. I’m sorry.

You may have to be vulnerable, but here’s the thing. When Jesus calls us to follow him, he asks us to keep our hearts fresh and open and vulnerable. If you can’t be vulnerable in front of your readers, they aren’t going to see themselves. Because they are longing for somebody to see them.

They are longing to see themselves in what you write.

Karen: Amen.

Erin: Linda, how did you do that? How did you come to that ability given the terrible things you were going through and the loneliness and the difficulty? What are some ways that you were encouraging yourself to open up when you had to have been so pummeled? How’d you open up?

Linda: I feel like it all started with a little memoir that I wrote a while ago that’s still not published. It’s called One Hand Clapping. It’s all about several visits to a Shriner’s hospital in Salt Lake city that I underwent from about age nine to about age twelve.

I’m from Yuma, Arizona, but the hospital is in Salt Lake city, so I always had to go by myself. You would stay for like three months without any kind of parental family around. I learned to be self-reliant.

I remember when I first started writing this story, I was trying to ask my mother––I’m a polio survivor, and I’ve been disabled most of my life, I use one arm––and I asked Mom for some details of that time of when I was a kid going to that hospital.

She turned around to me and she said, “Oh, but Linda, that’s all over now.” And I remember thinking, “Well, not for me, it’s not.” By journeying back to that little girl who was the scared little girl. In that hospital at that time, I mean, they didn’t hand out teddy bears back then.

They would only allow you to keep your shoes, two books, and stationary. Everything else was hospital issue. Your clothing, you went to school there, everything. You weren’t allowed to have toys. Nothing from home.

Erin: Wow.

Linda: One of the things that was my precious possession was a little white Bible with a gold zipper on it and a cross for the pull.

Karen: I remember those.

Linda: Yeah. Jesus’ words in red letters, and I kept it under my pillow because I was so terrified. I was on a ward with 12 other girls. We all had major surgery. Major orthopedic surgery, I might say. They’ve expanded since.

But that experience I had sort of tucked away, and that’s what I’m getting at when I say, “Open your heart. Be willing to be vulnerable, because God says, ‘Love.'” God is love. And what is love if it is not vulnerable?

You have to be willing to open yourself. As I did that, all these memories came flooding back, and I had to deal with some stuff. I had to deal with the fact that I was in that place for three months and no one ever came to see me.

Erin: Yeah.

Linda: That I would sit on my bed every Sunday afternoon from 1:30 to 4:00 visiting hours and just sit there, you know?

I had to unpack all that. At first, of course, I was mad at everybody because I get mad easy. But now it’s part of the way that I understand how important it is not to hold back. How to reach other people.

I had a little saying when I taught memoir classes and it went like this: You say a memoir is about your life, but it’s really not about you.

It’s about your reader. It’s about what your reader sees in themselves as they’re reading and how they relate to what you’re saying and if you are holding back, if you are saying, “I’m only going to give you the nice Linda, the good Linda,” then you’re not going to be able to reach that place.

Karen: It’s authenticity, and we need that on the page. We need that in the church. We need that in our relationships. If you are hiding a part of yourself because you’re ashamed of it or because you’re afraid of what people will think, you’re cheating God out of being able to use that, not just to help others, but to help and refine you.

Linda: Yes.

Karen: If you’re not going to be honest about the things you’ve gone through and the struggles and who God has been to you in the midst of it, then why bother writing?

Linda: I feel like it’s also a good thing to remember though, too, that when you are vulnerable, it’s okay to be terrified. I’m still terrified. But you go back to that idea that he carries me. He carries me through it so that I can afford to be vulnerable.

Erin: There’s a great Bible verse that talks about that. It’s Isaiah 46:4, and this is the NIV version. It says, “Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you. I will sustain you and I will rescue you.”

I can’t think of a better promise than that.

Linda: No, I can’t either.

Karen: It’s so easy for us, especially if you’ve been in the church all your life, to read over those things and to say, “Yeah, yeah,” and to quote it, but you don’t really understand it. You don’t really embrace it.

When things get hard, we freak out and we wonder where God is instead of remembering that he’s right there with us, and he’s carrying us like you’ve shown so clearly, Linda.

Thank you so much for being here and for sharing what you’ve learned about God and family struggles and faith in the midst of it all. I know that you’ll bless our listeners because you’ve blessed me, and I’m sure you’ve blessed Erin in the midst of it.

God is good all the time. That’s a catch phrase, but it’s true. Friends, God is good all the time. You don’t have to doubt it. You don’t have to wonder if he’s with you. He is, and he will carry you. He’s made that promise and it’s a promise you can count on.

Erin: Yes. Amen. Thank you, Linda. We will have the links for your books in the show notes. Prayers for Parents of Prodigals and some of the other books we mentioned. Everyone, there’ll be links in the show notes. Thank you so much for being here, Linda.

Linda: All right, well, you guys are doing a good job. I really love what you’re doing. I mean, I honestly want to say thank you. Not only for having me on, but also to say this is a message that writers need to hear. I’ve been teaching at Mount Herman the last two or three years, and that’s all I ever tell people is, you know, be who you are.

Erin: Yes. Amen.

Books Mentioned in the Podcast:

Prayers for Parents of Prodigals by Linda S. Clare

Prayers for Parents of Prodigals by Linda S. Clare

Lost Boys and the Moms Who Love Them by Melody Carlson, Heather Kopp, and Linda S. Clare

Lost Boys and the Moms Who Love Them

We want to hear from you!

Do you have a prodigal? What gives you encouragement as you wait and pray?


Thanks to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!

Special thanks to our February sponsor of the month, Tammy Partlow! Tammy is a southern author and a speaker at women’s retreats. Her novel Blood Beneath the Pines is set mostly in the deep South and is a tale of prevailing justice. Find out more about Tammy at her website: Tammypartlow.com

Many thanks also to the folks at Podcast Production Services for their fabulous sound editing!


Want the latest news from Karen and Erin? Click here to join our newsletter and get an exclusive audio download.

111 – Hearing God, Part 2

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Hearing God Part 2 Write from the Deep podcast with Karen Ball and Erin Taylor Young

Too many of us want to hear from God, but don’t seem to do so. We’ve explored, in the previous podcast, Hearing God, Part 1, what some obstacles to hearing God are and how to overcome them. Now we’ll dig in to how you can recognize God when He speaks. What does He sound like? And how can you know if you’re truly hearing God? Or if it’s someone—or something—else?

But first, thank you to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!

Reasons We May Struggle with Hearing God – a brief review
  • We don’t know how to listen or how to focus. Or, we do know how, but we don’t take the time to do it.
  • We want to see big picture all at once. Or, we want a guaranteed outcome, or just an answer right now for what’s bothering us.
  • We don’t expect God to communicate with us. We believe we’re not important enough or spiritual enough. Or we’re expecting big flashing signs, rather than God’s still small voice.
  • We’re in sin, and that’s separating us from God and his voice.

We talked about how the foundation of hearing God is about relationship. He doesn’t want to give you a set of directions and leave you be. He wants you to walk with him.

Loneliness and the human condition

Dallas Willard, in his book Hearing God, talks about loneliness. Even when we’re in good relationships with people, we still struggle with loneliness. But with God, it’s a totally different story. He’s the only being who knows us perfectly, and who is with us always.

He’s in our thoughts, our spirit, our heart. It’s a closeness we can’t get with any other human. Through birth, death, and beyond, God is the only one who can be, and IS, with us through it all. Our human relationships will come and go, but not our relationship with God. He will never leave us nor forsake us. It makes sense that we should put as much effort as we can into cultivating that relationship.

Recognizing God’s Voice

How do we know when we’re hearing God and not our wishful thinking, or thoughts from Satan, or words from someone who’s misguided?

Characteristics of God’s Voice

—There’s a weight of authority, a sense of power to God’s voice as it impacts us.

—God’s voice doesn’t argue with us or try to talk us into doing something. It merely speaks with authority. His voice is not condemning or accusing. That’s a tactic of Satan or our flesh.

—We may notice a powerful effect God’s voice has on us. Even if, at the time, it didn’t seem like some huge revelation, it alters who we are and how we act.

—There is a deep love; a peace, a sureness, and a joy that is the spirit of the voice of God. Think of who Christ was as he walked the earth, the compassion and tenderness. He is still that person. Even if God is telling you of some wrong you’re doing, you should never feel belittled.

—The content of God’s voice must conform to the principles in Scripture and never contradict it.

“…what we discern when we learn to recognize God‘s voice in our heart is a certain weight or force, a certain spirit, and a certain content in the thoughts that come in God’s communication to us. These three things in combination mark the voice of God.”  Dallas Willard, Hearing God

There’s no quick and easy field test for recognizing God’s voice, unless what you hear clearly contradicts Scripture. Hearing God, learning to recognize his voice, especially within your own mind, takes time, practice, and experience.

After first meeting someone and talking to them for a few minutes, you wouldn’t presume you could recognize their voice if they called you on the phone.

But eventually, over time, you’d become familiar with the tone of their voice, the pitch, the spirit of who they are, the way they phrase things, and you’d learn to recognize them. For you fiction writers, this is what it means to establish character voice in your story, or your own voice as an author. Recognizing God’s voice isn’t an immediate thing. You grow to learn it.

Hearing God is an individual experience

How you experience hearing God is individual. Don’t expect your experience to be the same as someone else’s. You’re neither more nor less spiritual than someone else whom God works differently with. Your goal is to figure out how it works between you and God, and even then don’t expect it to always be the same!

In his book, Dallas Willard describes his own hearing of God as “a characteristic type of thought and impulse, which was to me the moving of God upon my mind and heart.”

Your experience may be more sensory, or more oriented to words and thoughts, or anywhere in between. There isn’t a right or wrong answer. It’s still about opening yourself to God’s presence in relationship.

Keep in mind that even after years of practice, after years of feeling like we can recognize God’s voice, we still aren’t infallible. God is the only one who is infallible. We can’t fixate on perfection, or stress, or give up if we make a mistake. God still desires the same thing no matter what: a continuing relationship.

FINAL TIPS for hearing God

There’s been so much in this topic, we could never cover it all, but here’s some final tips:

1. Walk in openness to God’s Spirit.

Be constantly open to God’s voice, with a listening posture that’s attentive and expectant all the time.

One of Webster’s definitions of listening is: to be alert to catch an expected sound. So if we want to hear God, we have to expect Him to speak.

2. Don’t be the one who’s always talking.

Remember, hearing God isn’t about “doing prayer.” It’s about being in relationship.

Don’t hear us saying you shouldn’t be praying. Look at how often the apostle Paul talks about praying.  Philippians 1:9, for example, says, “I pray this: that your love will keep on growing in knowledge and every kind of discernment.”

So it’s okay to “do prayer.” I (Erin) need to plan time in my day and week to meditate on God’s Word, to remember His works, to consider who He is, and to intercede for myself and others. It’s important to me to help ground me and feed my mind and spirit. But that’s only PART of my relationship with God.

Even when we have planned prayer times, we still need to try to walk in as constant of a connection with God as we can. In relationship and communication throughout our day, because relationship is a quality of being together in daily life.

3. God isn’t interested in making robots.

His goal isn’t to have us blindly carry out a detailed set of instructions all day long. Rather, he wants us to grow and learn who he is so that our lives are about our character continuing to conform to Christ, partnering with Him for the work of the Kingdom.

Hearing from God isn’t about doing things right, but it’s about being. Being in relationship with God. Spending time with him, trusting that he’s always there. Building familiarity and trust just as you do with your family and friends. There’s no better place to be than in God’s presence, and there’s no voice so sweet and loving and TRUE as God’s.

“The LORD your God is in your midst, A victorious warrior, He will exult over you with joy, He will be quiet in His love, He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.” Zephaniah 3:17


How do you recognize God’s voice? What helped you learn that?

Do you struggle to recognize God's voice? #amwriting Click To Tweet

Thanks to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!

Special thanks to our February sponsor of the month, Tammy Partlow! Tammy is a southern author and a speaker at women’s retreats. Her novel Blood Beneath the Pines is set mostly in the deep South and is a tale of prevailing justice. Find out more about Tammy at her website: Tammypartlow.com

Many thanks also to the folks at Podcast Production Services for their fabulous sound editing!


Want the latest news from Karen and Erin? Click here to join our newsletter and get an exclusive audio download.

110 – Hearing God, Part 1

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Hearing God part 1 Write from the Deep Podcast with Karen Ball and Erin Taylor YoungEver spent time praying and doing everything you know to do so that you can hear God speak to your heart? You listen and listen and…silence? Join us as we dig into the obstacles to hearing from God––and how to overcome them.

But first, thank you to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!

Today we want to talk about hearing God. We’re Christians, we’re followers of Christ, yet many of us struggle to hear God. To know where God is leading us. To know God’s will for us. Maybe we’ve got a big decision to make, or we simply need direction, or we want a closer relationship with Christ. We hear others say things like “God told me…this or that.” We ask, we pray, we seek, and yet we hear…nothing. Why?

Reasons we may struggle with hearing God
1. We don’t know how to listen

What is listening?

One of Webster’s definitions says:

  • to hear something with thoughtful attention

We would say listening is a state of thoughtful, receptive focus; sincere engagement. You’re focusing your mind AND your heart to give something your attention.

We live in a noisy world bombarding us every day. We’ve lost the ability to stop and focus, we’ve lost the ability to give quiet attention to anything, or careful consideration.

This is a skill many of us need to practice. Start by listening to people. You probably have co-workers, family, friends, who all want someone to listen to them. This will help you learn to listen to God.

There’s a difference in how I listened to tornado sirens in Oklahoma. Every Saturday at noon they tested them. When the sky was blue and the sun was shining I ignored their wailing for 5 solid minutes.

But when the sky went dark and the wind was whipping through my backyard trees swirling in scary circles, I tuned in to those sirens because they’re going to communicate when and if I needed to take shelter. Because in less than a minute, a mile-wide F-5 tornado could form and head straight for my house.

This is the kind of listening we need to do all the time. Someone might be telling you something––reaching out for help, or sharing wisdom you need. Or God might be speaking to your heart and you’re not tuned in. You’re too distracted.

2. We know how to listen, but we just don’t do it

Have you ever had a conversation where you know the other person is not listening, not considering anything you’re saying? They’re just waiting for their turn to talk? Have you had a friend who never lets you get a word in? That friendship doesn’t last long. It’s too one-sided. Sometimes we’re not hearing God because we’re too busy talking.

Or sometimes we’re too focused on our own worry. Have you ever tried to talk to someone who’s hysterical or anxious? They’re in no frame of mind to listen.

Or maybe we’re too focused on our own agenda. We come to God to give us a holy amen to our plans.

But God is about relationship, not feeding you step-by-step directions for your plans. When our attitude is that we just want an answer to our question right now, or help with a particular decision, that doesn’t build relationship. We’ll be talking more about this as the podcast goes on.

Dallas Willard’s book, Hearing God, gave us a lot of material for this podcast. We highly recommend you read it.

Willard gives an example in the book about how we can be so focused on simply wanting to follow directions that we miss the thing God wants with us: relationship.

I can fall into this because I’m duty oriented. I’m hyper responsible. But––and this is a paraphrased example from Willard’s book––imagine if you had a child who wanted to please you all the time and was constantly asking, “What do you want me to do next?”

Your joy as a parent isn’t about giving that kid orders all day long and watching them follow each one. Just as God’s delight in us is relationship. It’s in us knowing him, and in him watching our character grow so we know what pleases him. It’s in us participating with him in the work of his Kingdom.

3. We want or expect to see the big picture all at once

We want God to unfold the grand plan all at once so we can see if we like it, or so we know exactly where we’re going. If he did that, first of all, that grand plan might terrify you in its bigness and you’d run away.

Consider how Moses felt when God told him to go to Pharaoh in Egypt to lead the Israelites out. That was big enough, and it was terrifying. How much more so if Moses had known about all the plagues and that he’d be leading a rebellious multitude of Israelites around in the wilderness for 40 years?

What would become of your relationship with God if you had the grand plan all at once? Think about the other relationships in your life. They’re a process of getting to know each other, spending time together, going through a variety of experiences together. When we’ve been through tough situations with friends at our side, that’s when we develop trust and learn to appreciate each other. That’s where love for one another grows.

God wants relationship with us. He wants us spending time with him, talking to him, crying on his shoulder, rejoicing with him. He wants to be a part of every aspect of our lives, not just a master planner who gives directions and leaves us to it.

4. We’re seeking God’s direction because we want a guaranteed outcome

We think that if we’re sure God told us to write, then it’ll be worth it. It’ll be “successful.” Or if we know he wants us to go with agent A over agent B, or if he’s given the stamp of approval to a certain marketing strategy, or whatever, it’ll go well.

There again, we’ve lost the idea of hearing God in relationship. He doesn’t need our marketing success. That’s not his ultimate agenda.

5. We don’t expect him to communicate with us

We don’t expect that he’ll actually talk to us. Maybe we think we’re not important enough, or that it’s just for the extremely holy people, or leaders, or only the people in the Bible.

But in Mark chapter 10, Jesus rebukes the disciples because they were hindering the little children from coming to him and talking to him. But Jesus wanted that connection.

That’s not a random story in the Bible, that’s a picture of how God wants it to be. Every child of God is just that––his child. God sent his son to die for you so you could be in the family. There’s a bond, a communication that takes place in healthy families.

If you come from broken or dysfunctional families, or terrible parental relationships, you may have a hard time picturing this. If so, maybe it’ll help to think about Jesus as your shepherd, leading you, as it says in Psalm 23, beside quiet waters, refreshing your soul, guiding you in paths of righteousness, and in verse 5:

“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

There’s an intimacy of relationship in this whole psalm. Think of a quiet dinner for two at a nice restaurant, and it’s just you and God. Even in the midst of a noisy world, even with enemies around you, no one can intrude on your table. He’s focused on you and you alone for communication, for relationship.

6. We’re looking for big flashing signs rather than a still small voice

It’s true that God has used, and can use, many different ways to communicate with us. For example:

  • some type of big phenomenon like Moses and the burning bush, or Paul with the blinding flash and audible voice
  • dreams and visions
  • visits from angels

We can see this in the Bible and some of you may know people who’ve experienced things like this. But we tend to overvalue those things because they seem larger than life, and somehow more “spiritual.” As a result, we undervalue simple, direct communication.

However, God communicated to Elijah in a gentle whispering in 1 Kings 19:11-12, at one of the most terrible times in Elijah’s life. Also consider how God speaks to Samuel in 1Samuel 16, when he tells him to go anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the next king after Saul.

God and Samuel have a whole conversation as each of Jesse’s sons are paraded in front of Samuel. And Samuel is thinking about the first son, Eliab, “This must be the guy. He’s big and handsome.”

God’s like, “No, I look at the heart. This isn’t the guy.”

This isn’t communicated in a big flashing sign. It’s not like they have an audible conversation that Jesse and all his sons can hear. This is God speaking in Samuel’s heart and thoughts. It’s clear, easy to understand communication. And Samuel’s had a lifetime of experience listening to God’s voice, and becoming familiar with it.

This is probably the most common way God communicates with us. Through our own thoughts and words that we grow to recognize as his and not ours. There’s a different quality to them.

We’ll talk more about that, but let me also say that God speaks to us through others as well. Be tuned in to that possibility. Consider who the truth speakers are in your life. Consider how sometimes even a stranger says something that hits you hard. Helps you see something more clearly.

Friends, when that happens, it’s God. Of course, we always have to test these things, because people are fallible. But it does happen. Maybe a friend shares the perfect Scripture to minister to you, or a sermon, or book, or article, hits home in some particular way for you, in a way you feel is meant for you. It has a special emphasis, an authority that strikes home in your heart.

Or maybe––and this happened to me when I first met Karen and she was giving me feedback about who I was as a writer––it was like God was ringing a bell in my mind telling me, “Pay attention this is important.” And it was. He’s like, “Hellooo, this is what you need to hear.”

This is one of the things the body of Christ is all about. Speaking words of exhortation and encouragement from God to each other like it says in Colossians 3:16: “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”

7. We may be walking in sin of some sort

Sin separates us from God, and therefore from his voice. We see examples of this in Scripture and in our lives today.

Isaiah 59:1-2 (NIV) says, “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.”

James 4:4 (ESV) says, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

God’s people, again and again, turn to idols. An idol is anything that we value or treasure more than God. That comes out in subtle, or not so subtle, ways.

Are we truly asking for God’s direction because we want what HE wants, no matter what? That requires some soul-searching. I can guarantee that what God wants isn’t going to be about our glory, it’s going to be about his glory. And about how we can become a better servant, a better reflection of who God is.

Hearing God in Relationship with him

One last thought on listening to or hearing God. We’ve talked some about relationship with God, but some of us may have a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to listen to God and hear from Him. We see it as something we do, or need to do better.

But it’s far more about being. Being with God. Savoring time with God. Building relationship with Him. All of which we’ll dig into in our next podcast: Hearing God, Part 2.

We encourage you to ponder this prayerfully before going on to the next podcast episode where we’ll talk more specifically about how we recognize God’s voice.


Do you ever struggle to hear from God? What has helped you?


Thanks to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!

Thanks so much to our January sponsor of the month, Bobbi Updegraff! You can find out more about another important cause she sponsors at friendsofrenacer.com. It’s a wonderful organization that’s impacting the lives of children in Honduras.

Many thanks also to the folks at Podcast Production Services for their fabulous sound editing!


Want the latest news from Karen and Erin? Click here to join our newsletter and get an exclusive audio download.

109 – Make Your Life Matter with Guest Laura McClellan

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Make Your Life Matter with Guest Laura McClellan on the Write from the Deep Podcast

It’s 2020! Now is the time to ask yourself what you want this year to look like? What do you want to accomplish––and why? Guest Laura McClellan, a productivity pro, joins us to talk about that. But here’s the beauty of what Laura does: she doesn’t focus on “getting things done,” but on being productive so we can have a life that matters. Join us for a great start to the new year!

About Laura McClellan

Laura McClellan is a lawyer, a writer, a productivity enthusiast, and a tech geek. Married for 40 years to her high school sweetheart, with whom she’s raised five amazing kids, she’s passionate about encouraging women in their individual journeys as people, wives, mothers, citizens. Laura has been published both in professional publications and inspirational magazines and has been a contributor to the popular Stepcase Lifehack blog and she hosts a weekly podcast, The Productive Woman. Find out more at theproductivewoman.com.

Thanks to our sponsors on Patreon, we’re able to offer an edited transcript of the podcast!

Karen: Hello, everyone, and welcome into the deep with us today. We are just delighted to have a guest who is going to talk with you and help you as you start into a new year.

I cannot believe it’s 2020 already, can you? It’s crazy how fast time is going, but we have a wonderful guest who’s going to help you make the most of this new year. Erin, tell us about her.

Erin: Our guest is one of my good friends. I get to introduce her. Her name is Laura McClellan. Laura is a lawyer by day and a lover of the written word since childhood. Laura has been published both in professional publications and inspirational magazines, and she’s been a contributor to the popular Stepcase Lifehack blog.

She’s a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, and she’s a past women’s fiction category winner in the Phoenix Rattler Fiction Contest and the Olympia Fiction Contest. But she also hosts a weekly podcast called The Productive Woman. I love this podcast, you guys. The purpose of the podcast is to help women find the tools and encouragement they need to manage their time, life, stress, and stuff so they can accomplish the things they care about most and make a life that matters.

I’ll tell you, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Laura for a couple of years now, I think. I have to say, not only do I value her friendship, but I find her to be one of the most purposeful, intelligent, insightful women I know, seriously. I’m just delighted to have her with us today. Welcome, Laura!

Laura: Well, thank you, Erin. The pressure is on now.

Karen: We see each other on video while we’re talking and I’m watching Laura’s face as Erin is introducing her and she’s like, I’m being so set up here.

Laura: Hopefully I can sound intelligent and articulate.

Erin: Well, she does on the podcast and she does in person, so there you go. On her podcast, The Productive Woman, again, I’m going to encourage you guys to listen to that one. We’ll have a link in the show notes for that.

Karen: Laura, as you know, when our victims, I mean our guests come onto our podcast with us, we always ask them what the deep means to them. So Laura McClellan, what does the deep mean to you?

Laura: You know, I have been thinking about that ever since you all asked me to join you here. I know people have different takes on that. To me, the deep means that place, obviously beneath the surface, so that when I am in the deep, or, you know, if we’re writing from the deep, we’re going beneath the surface to––it’s hard for me to articulate this and I probably should have written it out––but it’s the more real place. Getting beyond the surface and the superficial into the depth of who we are, who God is, whatever it is, that deep place is there.

Karen: I like that. There’s way too much superficiality in the church, in Christian writing, in the Christian market. It’s hard because if you’re not authentic, if you’re not vulnerable, if you don’t go beneath the surface, our work really isn’t going to accomplish much of anything.

God is all about being authentic and vulnerable. So I really like that.

Laura: I guess that’s what I was trying to get at. I think for us to accomplish anything, for us to––and I guess we’ll get into this––to make a life that matters, we have to get to the deep. We have to go beneath the surface, beyond the superficial, to the reality of who we are.

I think a lot of that superficiality you mentioned came because going beyond that is scary.

Karen: Yeah. I was texting with a good friend of mine a couple of days ago who was talking to me about something that God had confronted him on and how he needed to confess to God the places that he had gone in this wrong thinking.

He said, “I had to tell him everything I’d been thinking and feeling. Everything.” Then he said, “But it’s not like God didn’t know it, and it’s not like I needed to say those things so that God would know them. What I needed to do was surrender those things and lay them before God, and in doing that, I realized the depth of God’s love for me and the freedom that comes from unburdening yourself from those things that you’re ashamed of.”

Erin: Yeah.

Laura: Yeah. I love that. And it’s so true and so much of what goes on in our world today, whether it’s fiction or in writing or in politics or anything, so much damage I think is done when we stay on that superficial level. We make judgements on other people based on superficiality, instead of going deeper with them. Trying to understand people that maybe have a different perspective than we do. We look at the outside and say, “They’re not like me. They’re wrong.”

Karen: Right.

Laura: “One of us has to be wrong. It must be them.” Instead of taking that space and that time to look inside more deeply and ask God those questions like your friend was talking about and confess to ourselves, first of all, what the truth is.

Erin: As we’re thinking about going deep and we’re thinking about the new year, let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about one of the reasons why I really wanted you on the show, Laura: to talk about your definition of productivity and what it’s all about as we’re thinking about this new year. Why don’t you share with us your philosophy there?

Laura: Sure. It has changed a lot over the years. I’ve been a productivity nerd since I was a kid. I’ve always liked checklists and charts and calendars. I’d go to the library and pull all the books about time management out and organization, all that stuff. To me, that’s just fun and it always has been.

As I’ve gotten older, and especially as I’ve looked into this more and more to make sure that when I put an episode of my podcast out, I’m adding some value in producing some content that’s going to be worthwhile, so there’s that piece of it, but also just my own life. I’ve come to go a little deeper in the concept of productivity, and I don’t believe anymore that it’s about how much you get done.

It’s not about getting more stuff done. It’s about getting the right stuff done. And how do you determine what that right stuff is? Because it may be different for everybody.

Productivity isn't about getting more stuff done. It's about getting the right stuff done. #amwriting @LauraMcMom Click To Tweet

The definition that I’ve come up with that I think you were referring to is what is a productive person? We’re three women on this conversation, but it applies to guys too. That to me, a productive woman, a productive person, is a person who orders his or her life in such a way as to maximize his or her positive impact on the world.

A productive person is a person who orders his or her life in such a way as to maximize his or her positive impact on the world. @LauraMcMom @KarenBall1 #amwriting Click To Tweet

To me, when you’re being productive, that’s what you’re doing. You’re ordering your life in such a way as to allow yourself to maximize that positive impact.

Because we all have an impact on the world around us. Whether it’s the people in our household, the person in the grocery store, or the world at large. And if you want to have a positive impact, there are things you can do to make that more likely.

Karen: I love that.

Erin: I do too.

Karen: I’ve never been a productivity person. I have a great poster in my office I’ve had for years and years. It says: I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they go by.

I make lists and then I lose them. It’s that whole idea of productivity being about completing the to do list. I’ve never connected with that, but what you’re saying, that definitely is something that would motivate me.

Erin: How does someone go about figuring that out?

Laura: That’s a great question. It’s a question that gets asked a lot, and the question I’ve been asking myself for years. To me, it started with reading books about how to do a good to do list and that sort of thing. But you have to go beyond that if you want to maximize your positive impact on the world. If that’s the goal. So it’s not just about being able to check things off a list, however satisfying that might be.

The instinct––especially if we’re overloaded, if we have too many things going on in our life and we’re feeling overwhelmed––the instinct is to find a tool that’s going to fix that, so we’ll make the perfect list, and then get all that stuff done.

But I think you have to take a breath. You have to take a step back. And again, not to be too cliche here, but you have to go deeper. You have to go beyond that superficial level of “How do I get all this stuff done” to “What is it I’m trying to accomplish here? What kind of life do I want to live? What kind of person do I want to be?”

And it goes beyond that. “What matters most to me?”

There are lots of questions you can ask yourself to get to that point, but I think if you want to be that kind of productive person, you want to maximize your positive impact on the world, then you have to start with asking yourself those questions.

The end of the year, the beginning of a new year, is a great time to do that. To take some time and sit down with a cup of tea or coffee or cocoa or whatever your choice is there, and a notebook and a pen, and do some thinking on paper about that. “Who do I want to be in this world? What difference do I want to make?”

Because we all make a difference. We can either just wing it. You know, be reactive to what’s coming at us and hope that we make the right choices and that our impact is positive, or we can be intentional about it. That requires some thought and prayer and all those sorts of things to get to the heart of “Who are you?”

“Who do you want to be in this world? What kind of life do you want to be living and what needs to change in order to be that person with that life?”

Who do you want to be in this world? What kind of life do you want to be living and what needs to change in order to be that person with that life? @LauraMcMom #amwriting @karenball1 Click To Tweet

Karen: And I think for our listeners and for all three of us, that the primary question too is, “God, who do you want me to be? God, what impact do you want me to have on the world?” And submitting it to his guidance and to his truth. Everything that we think about what we want to be and how we want to impact the world, and then measuring that against the truth of Scripture and letting God give us that inner amen from the Holy spirit.

If you can have a––I’m doing the quotation marks in the air––a productivity list that you’ve gotten that holy amen on, imagine what we could accomplish and how we would not be thrown off by things that come in and seem to be sidetracking us. You know?

It’s so easy to look at those unexpected things that happen and you’re thinking, “Oh, there goes my list out the window.” But instead say, “Okay, Lord, if you’re bringing this into my day, if you’re bringing this situation into my life, what do you want me to be in this and how do you want me to impact this?” Like you said, Laura, not being reactive, but instead submitting it all and then moving forward in the plan that God helps you develop.

Laura: Yeah. I mean, any of us, those of us who are people of faith, who have staked our life on the truth of God’s Word and who he is, that is the starting point. He doesn’t leave us blind in terms of what he wants from us in general. Then we take the time to go into those deep places and get quiet. That’s hard in the 21st century society to just be quiet enough to hear. “I’ve read your Word, I know what it says. What do you want me to do with it today? Right now?” We can get all big picture and come up with big plans, which, you know, who is it that said we make plans and God laughs?

But to get into the nitty gritty of ordering our lives in such a way as to maximize our positive impact, the question has to be, “Where do you want me right now? How should I spend my time and my energy and my attention today to maximize that positive impact?”

Erin: What I like though is that we’re really talking as much or more about being than doing. It’s so interesting when you think about the people who have affected you the most and have had the most positive impact on you. It isn’t always because, “Oh, they did this.” It’s more because they were this, they represented this, they lived this. It’s more about character and I really love that philosophy when we’re talking about productivity. It’s a radical paradigm shift.

One thing, though, because it’s the new year, I know that people are going to be thinking about priorities as we’ve been talking about maximizing your impact. Do you have any tips maybe on how to set priorities?

Laura: Oh, that’s such a loaded question. We can get all philosophical about the word priority as a singular or a plural word. At any given moment there can only be one priority. And it may be different because we really can only do, in any given instant, one thing. We think we can do more than one.

But I think as far as setting priorities in the way we use that in the world––and this is just my philosophy––that has to come out of your values and who you want to be in the world. So it goes back to the things that we were just talking about.

I think on a practical level, as part of your kicking off the year and trying to make the year the best that you can, to make the year that you want to have, you can sit down in that moment with your coffee or tea or whatever and your notebook and think about “What are the roles you play in the world?”

For me, I’m Mike’s wife, and I am the mom to five adult kids, and the grandmother to eight little kids. And I’m a lawyer and I am a podcaster, and I’m a friend to certain people.

Looking at all those roles, think about what you would like to accomplish in each of those and––I’m hesitating here because the sort of traditional productivity discussion about that is ranking them, and I don’t know how you can rank them. Y’all may disagree with me on this, but you know, the traditional sort of party line Christian approach is it’s God first and then, you know, I don’t know, my husband, whatever. Well, this is just my philosophy, but I don’t see anything that says that God wants to be first in my life. What I see is he wants to be my life.

Karen: Yeah.

Laura: And everything else flows out of that. I don’t know that I’m answering your question, Erin, because I struggle with the idea of how do I rank those roles and those commitments I’ve made and those goals I’ve set for myself. To me, it’s not this one, two, three, four, five, six, and I’ve got to figure out where each of those things I talked about fits into that list.

It starts with––and I’m not saying I’m really good at this––with always trying to anchor our life in God and having him be our life and having that listening ear. For me, part of the issue is about––and again, I’m not saying I’m really good at this, but it’s something I do try to get better at––about always having my life ordered enough that I can be quiet enough to hear that voice. That voice behind me saying, “This way, this way, turn here, go there. No, this is the way. Walk in it.”

I know that’s not very practical and I can’t write a book about that. But when I think about priorities, that’s what I think. There are the roles I play, the things I need and want to do in each of those roles, and then moment by moment trying to listen to the direction that I’m getting as to where my attention and my time and my energy should be going right now.

Karen: I think it’s a lot more practical than you realize. I knew, a person once who said to me that she made out a list of the things that she wanted to be or that she wanted to do, but each day she would have that quiet time and she’d say, “Lord, what do you want to accomplish today?”

Sometimes she felt the sense that it was on one of those lists, but sometimes it was something completely different. And as I’m listening to you, I’m thinking a good thing for someone who’s my personality, who’s just off the scale right brain, doesn’t believe in linear thought, who will sit down to make a to do list and completely forget why I’m doing it and what I wanted on it.

But to figure out my priorities based on who I want to be as a believer, who I want to be as Don’s wife, who I want to be as a podcaster or a writer.

What the impact is that I want to have and how will my life matter in the context of each of those things. And then to have that kind of figured out, and then again submit it every morning and say, “Okay, Lord, is today a day where we refine Karen as a believer? Or do you refine Karen as a dog owner? Or what do you want to do today?” Which to me, adds an element of adventure to the day.

Laura: Sure.

Erin: I think you’re both right in terms of focusing on listening. Productivity is so much more about simply listening to God and we’ve lost that in our culture. We’ve lost the ability to listen, to sit still. I mean, nobody seems to listen very much on social media. It’s more about talking.

Karen: No, it’s not about talking, it’s about yelling.

Erin: So yes, that’s in our culture right now. It’s very difficult to battle.

One other thing I wanted to cover, because we’re running out of time here. The three of us have been talking a little bit beforehand about pruning. When we’re thinking about priorities, it may come to pass that we have to prune some things.

Any thoughts on that, Laura? Any tips on pruning or what that’s like? I know you’re going through a little bit of a pruning process––as I have recently in moving––and you’re moving as well.

Laura: Yeah. Pruning as a concept, you could get into the whole thing of why pruning happens in gardening, for instance, and the parallels there in our lives. It can apply to our stuff. It can apply to our commitment. It can apply to our attitudes. All sorts of different things.

We were talking earlier about pruning our belongings because you’ve just moved and, as we were talking, we’re in the process of packing up and getting ready to move to a new home.

To me, it’s really helpful to keep in mind why we would be doing the pruning. We’re not getting rid of stuff just to get rid of stuff. That to me is part of ordering my life in such a way as to maximize my positive impact on the world. The more stuff we have, the more time, energy, and attention we have to spend on cleaning it, moving it around, taking care of it, all of that kind of stuff.

I’ve been trying over the last two or three years to little by little whittle down the amount of stuff we have. Some of that is harder for me than others. We were talking this morning about books. I love me some books. My mother said I came back from the first day of kindergarten just disgusted and said I wasn’t going back because I went there to learn to read, thank you very much, and they were wanting to talk about colors, and I already knew all my colors.

I’ve been collecting books since then, at least, and I have lots of them, but we went through this morning and boxed up a whole bunch of them that we’re going to donate for somebody else to enjoy.

Why do you do that? Why do you consider pruning something? Not just to be doing it, but this again goes back to being purposeful and intentional about it. What is this adding to my life to have it and what would be a good reason to get rid of it? Well, so that I don’t have to take care of it and I can put my time, my energy, and my attention on other things that matter more to me. If there are things that matter more than books, I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that on this podcast.

Karen: Of course you are.

Laura: I think it’s a matter of looking at the belongings you have and thinking about why you have them.

Karen: Right.

Laura: And do you like the reason you have? I don’t know that there’s a right or wrong answer, but the question you ask yourself is, “Why am I hanging on to this and how do I feel about that reason?”

If you like the reason you’re keeping it, then keep it. But if you go deeper, “I’m keeping this because I’m afraid I’ll need it some day and I won’t have it.”

Karen: So are you keeping it out of fear and if so, then what’s the fear? And dig deeper into helping God prune you on those emotions that can be damaging.

Laura: Exactly. Because a lot of what we keep, you know, everybody knows the statistics about how much stuff, especially we in America have, and how many households can’t park their car in their garage and they’re paying for outside storage. And I’m not condemning anybody for that. But the question is, if you are wanting to be intentional about living a productive life in that sense of making a meaningful life, a life that makes a positive impact, then maybe you want to think about it.

“All these things that I have, are they adding value to my life? Could I do something better with my life if I let some of this go?”

Karen: And, “Are they adding value to the impact that I’m having?”

We have some antiques that came from my husband’s family years and years ago. But the memories that they carry with them are not positive memories. They’re memories of the abuse that was also handed down from generation to generation. Whenever my husband sees them, he thinks of his grandfather, but those are not happy memories.

We are out of time. Laura, it’s been so much fun to talk with you and I think that we have so much more than we need to talk about, so we’ll look forward to maybe having you on again to dig deeper into all these ideas. Thank you so much for being here with us, the beginning of 2020, for being our first guest, who is helping our listeners to decide how to go into this new year and how to have a life that matters and what kind of impact they want.

Friends, as you’re thinking about those things, as you’re pondering that in relationship to your family, to your writing, to those people that you encounter in whatever role you play, remember the first and foremost thing to do is to ask God who he wants you to be and what he wants you to do. Then you can move forward in real freedom doing those things that help you to develop a life that matters in an eternal sense and not just a temporal sense.

So thanks again, Laura, for being here and getting us started off right for the new year.

Laura: My pleasure.

Erin: Thank you, Laura, and we’ll have a link, everybody, in the show notes to that podcast, The Productive Woman.

we want to hear from you

As you think about the new year, in what ways would you like to maximize your positive impact on the world? What steps can you take to help make that happen?


Thanks to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!

Thanks so much to our January sponsor of the month, Bobbi Updegraff! You can find out more about another important cause she sponsors at friendsofrenacer.com. It’s a wonderful organization that’s impacting the lives of children in Honduras.

Many thanks also to the folks at Podcast Production Services for their fabulous sound editing!


Want the latest news from Karen and Erin? Click here to join our newsletter and get an exclusive audio download.

108 – Who Wrote our Christmas Carols…and Why?

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Who Wrote the Christmas Carols on Write from the Deep podcast with Karen Ball and Erin Taylor YoungWe love our Christmas carols, don’t we? There’s just something about them that touches us, warms our hearts, and draws our focus back to God. So who are the writers who penned these songs? Listen in to these behind-the-scenes stories and see!

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One of the things many of us look forward to at Christmas time is singing or listening to our favorite Christmas carols. Many start listening to them as soon as the Thanksgiving turkey is put away in the fridge. Some of us––even some who are sitting here talking to you––listen to them all year long. So who are the writers who wrote these songs? And what inspired them to do so?

We’ve got stories behind three of the most loved Christmas carols. Our source for this podcast is a book called Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins.

The first Carol is one Karen’s dad loved to sing: I Wonder as I Wander.

For years, John Jacob Niles wandered around the Appalachian Mountains in search of the origins of songs. A composer and singer, Niles was born in Louisville Kentucky, on April 28, 1892. As an adult, though he longed to start his quest for music, John worked for an adding machine company to make ends meet. He then served as a pilot during World War I. It was during his days in Europe that he first put together an impressive catalog of American folk songs.

Begging every soldier he met to share a song, Niles wrote down the lyrics and memorized the music of each one. After the war, armed with the suitcase filled with folk music, Niles returned home and continued his education at the Cincinnati Conservatory. When he graduated, he moved to Chicago, where he sang with the lyric Opera and performed on Westinghouse radio.

In 1925 Niles moved to New York, where he not only sang on radio and stage, but began to publish music collections of both his original songs and the folksongs he had gathered during the war. By 1940 he was a recording artist on the RCA label and was recognized as one of the nation’s top opera singers. His two most successful original works were “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and “Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head.”

Money and fame made Niles the toast of New York. Yet even as he received standing ovations for his performances, and was dressed in the finest clothing, backstage the man sang folk ditties. There was something about simple American music that wouldn’t leave him alone. He finally decided he was more historian than performer, and moved back to Kentucky.

In his beloved Appalachian Mountains, Niles traveled from town to town, looking for undiscovered folk songs. The library of work he uncovered is still one of the most important in music history. One song in particular would become a monument to Niles’s years of hard work and a testament to the power of inspired creativity.

On a cold December day in North Carolina, Niles was visiting a poor community going about their daily lives. Just a few hundred miles away in New York, the chaos that was Christmas in the big city was in full force. Niles had seen it many times.

Yet in this village, Niles could hear snow crunching under feet and saw children in ragged clothes looking longingly into windows where a few small toys were displayed. Clearly, the modern world had never touched this unspoiled place. While Niles took in the simple beauty around him, a soft voice reached him. He scanned the street, and spotted a small girl sitting by herself on a bench, quietly singing a song Niles had never heard.

When she finished, Niles pulled out a pencil and tablet and went to ask the little girl about the song. All she knew was that her mother had taught it to her, like her grandmother had taught it to her mother before her. Niles asked her to please sing it again, and she smiled and quietly repeated the ballad’s short verses. The song, which the girl called “I Wonder as I Wander,” haunted Niles.

Long after the child disappeared into the evening, Niles continued to study the words. They were deeply spiritual, incredibly thoughtful. They embraced the joy and wonder of Christmas, but also lingered on the sacrifice of the babe, grown into a man, who died on the cross.

Both the words and music were perfect, simple, direct, and inspired. Even a master songwriter like Niles couldn’t imagine improving on them.

When Niles brought the song to prominence just before the beginning of World War II, he tried to capture the spirit of the child who had first shared the song with him. Even as he awed audiences with his discovery, the humble singer recognized that his version was not nearly as powerful as the original.

For the rest of his life, Niles tried to discover the origins of the song, but he could never trace it back farther than the girl in North Carolina, a child he never found again. It was as if she had been an angel sent to deliver a message, a message that embraced the wonder of the Savior’s birth and sacrifice. Because of a chance meeting between an unknown child and a man who spent his life wandering America in search of music, the world gained an unforgettable Christmas ballad that has never ceased to cause those who hear it to wonder.


I Wonder as I Wander

I wonder as I wander out under the sky

How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die

For poor on’ry people like you and like I;

I wonder as I wander out under the sky

When Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow’s stall

With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all

But high from God’s heaven, a star’s light did fall

And the promise of ages it then did recall.

If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing

A star in the sky or a bird on the wing

Or all of God’s angels in heaven for to sing

He surely could have it, ’cause he was the King

Cause He was the King.


Our next carol is one of the oldest and most beloved: O Come, All Ye Faithful.

John Francis Wade was a man of God caught in a holy war. In 1745, at the age of 35, Wade’s life was on the line. Strife between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church was at an all-time high. Many practicing Catholics were forced to take their faith underground.

To avoid prison or death, many priests fled Britain, including John Wade. He made his way to France where, in a city inundated by English Catholics and those who oppose the British royal family, he was given an important job: research and identify historical church music––which the Church of England was trying to erase from the world––then carefully record and preserve it for future generations.

Wade reclaimed old pieces but was also inspired to write new hymns. As a Catholic cleric, it was only natural that he composed new works in Latin. In or around 1750, Wade put the finishing touches on what would become his most famous tune, “Adeste de fidelis.”

It wouldn’t be until a decade later that he put lyrics to his melody and it was published. Yet, something strange happened. Though the carol was published at least two different times with John Wade credited as being the composer, credit for writing the Carol became––and remained––a mystery. Frederick Oakley translated the original lyrics into English in 1841, but the authorship of the song had spawned numerous legends as to its writer. None of which named John Wade.

Many of the world’s most famous singing groups and stars recorded the song, making it famous worldwide. But no credit was given to the man who had written it. “O Come, All Ye Faithful” was America’s favorite Christmas carol until Bing Crosby cut “White Christmas.” On that same album, though, Crosby included his version of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

And that is when a music historian finally sifted through all the legends and uncovered the song’s real writer, finally granting John Francis Wade the credit he so richly deserved. Wade lived in a time of great conflict between various branches of the Christian church. He’d been forced to give up the country he loved as a sacrifice of faith, and made to work long hours trying to preserve church records others were attempting to erase for all time.

Even so, Wade revelled in his role as a servant of his Lord. In every word and verse of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” the composer’s faith is not just verified, it is magnified. At a time when the church was literally at war, only someone who truly believed in the holiness of Christ could have written the carol that would bring all Christians together to the same place each Christmas bowing before Christ the Lord!

Here are the lyrics, some of which we’d never heard.


O Come All Ye Faithful

O come all ye faithful joyful and triumphant,

O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem.

Come and behold him, born the King of angels;


O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him,

O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.


True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal,

lo, he shuns not the Virgin’s womb;

Son of the Father, begotten not created;


Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation;

O sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!

Glory to God, all glory in the highest;


See how the shepherds, summoned to his cradle,

leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze;

we too will thither bend our joyful footsteps;


Child for us sinners, poor and in the manger,

we would embrace thee with love and awe.

Who would not love thee,  loving us so dearly?


Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning,

Jesus, to thee be all glory given.

Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing:


O come let us adore him, O come let us adore him,

O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.


Our last carol is one Karen loves to sing: O Little Town of Bethlehem.

On Dec 24, 1805, Phillips Brooks was a half a world away from home and feeling a lot older than 30. Already recognized as one of the most dynamic Christian speakers in America, it was Brooks, only six years into his ministry who had been called upon in May to give the funeral message over President Abraham Lincoln.

That solemn honor, in tandem with leading the congregation of Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Church through the bloody years of the Civil War, took its toll. Worn out and in need of spiritual rebirth, Brooks took a sabbatical and left the United States to tour the Middle East.

On Christmas Eve in Jerusalem, the American felt an urge to get away from the hundreds of other pilgrims who had journeyed to the Holy Land for the holidays.

Though warned that he might encounter thieves, the preacher borrowed a horse and set out across the desolate and unforgiving countryside. For many peaceful hours he was alone with his thoughts as he studied a land that had changed little since the days of Paul and Timothy. For the minister, December 24th was a wonderful time of prayer and meditation.

At dusk, a sudden sense of awe fell over Brooks. Under a clear sky, the first stars just beginning to emerge, he rode into the still-tiny and remote village of Bethlehem. He recalled the story of the birth of his Savior, and by being present in the place in which Jesus was born, was able to add vivid detail to the familiar tale in Scripture.

The great speaker was all but speechless as he considered the heavenly King, born in such modest surroundings. There, on the streets almost unchanged since biblical times, Brooks felt as if he were surrounded by the spirit of the first Christmas. He would later tell his family and friends that the experience was so overpowering that it would forever be ”singing in my soul.”

Like the path from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, Phillips Brooks’s own life had often been rocky and winding. At the age of 22, the Harvard graduate was a struggling teacher at Boston Latin school. Frustrated that his students wouldn’t put in the time he felt was necessary to do the coursework, Brooks finally gave up. He turned to prayer and Bible study to find his place in the world. Still unsure of his future, Brooks entered the Episcopal Theological Seminary and began pastoral studies. After graduating in 1859, he began his ministry in Philadelphia.

What he lacked in the classroom, he made up for in the pulpit. His messages were powerful and dynamic. In 1861 he was called to lead the congregation of the Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. Yet even as Holy Trinity grew, and Brooks’s fame spread far and wide, he was growing physically and spiritually tired.

By 1863, the national spirit was dying almost as quickly as the soldiers on the Civil War battlefields. Everyone knew someone who had been killed or gravely injured. Scores of women in the church wore black, mourning the loss of a husband or son.

Darkness fell over every facet of the services. Brooks’s congregation wanted him to be inspirational, to help them believe that the good things in life they had once known would someday be theirs again. They wanted an end to the war. Yet though Brooks made a valiant effort, the preacher couldn’t give his flock with they needed most: peace.

When the war finally ended, Brooks believed that the sweetness of life and soul would soon return to his flock. But the pain only intensified when President Lincoln was assassinated. Although Brooks was not Lincoln’s pastor, He was asked to speak at Lincoln’s funeral because of his reputation as an orator. Digging deep, he found words to fill the moment––but seeing a great leader senselessly slain, and the exhaustion of the effort itself, left him void of everything he needed as a pastor. And so he decided to take a sabbatical.

He kept a journal while in the Holy Land, and added this account of his visit in Bethlehem:

“I was standing in the old church in Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God…. Again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices I know well, telling each other of the Savior’s birth.”

Back in Philadelphia, Brooks longed to share those amazing moments with his flock, but he could not find the words to express all he’d seen and felt. In the holiday season of 1868, Brooks again thought of when he rode into Bethlehem at dusk, and the church service that had followed.

This time, he didn’t force the words out. He simply relived the experience and jotted down the lines that seemed to float in his head. His thoughts soon took the form of a poem.

When he finished writing, he hurried to share it with the church organist, Luis Redner. Redner spent hours at the piano trying to find a tune to fit the poem. Finally on December 24, as Redner went to bed, he was forced to admit he had failed.

Just as Brooks had been unable to find dynamic oratory to fully describe what he had experienced in Bethlehem, Redner was unable to compose a majestic Rhapsody to carry the preacher’s simple words.

It was only in his bed, long after he had given up, that the organist found an unadorned and straightforward tune. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Redner discovered the tune given to him in slumber perfectly fit Phillips Brooks’s words. As if blessed by God himself, on Christmas morning, ”O Little Town of Bethlehem” was complete.

Phillips Brooks is now recognized as the greatest American preacher of the 19th-century. His first published volume of sermons sold over 200 thousand copies when released in 1878, and it’s still read and studied today. Yet it is Brooks the songwriter, not the preacher, whose work millions now know and cherish. It is the simple language of the common traveler in search of spiritual renewal that continues to touch lives around the world.

How very appropriate these words are for us in this broken, angry world today.


O Little Town of Bethlehem

O little town of Bethlehem

How still we see thee lie

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by

Yet in thy dark streets shineth

The everlasting Light

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight

For Christ is born of Mary

And gathered all above

While mortals sleep, the angels keep

Their watch of wondering love

O morning stars together

Proclaim the holy birth

And praises sing to God the King

And peace to men on earth

How silently, how silently

The wondrous gift is given!

So God imparts to human hearts

The blessings of His heaven.

No ear may hear His coming,

But in this world of sin,

Where meek souls will receive Him still,

The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem

Descend to us, we pray

Cast out our sin and enter in

Be born to us today

We hear the Christmas angels

The great glad tidings tell

O come to us, abide with us

Our Lord Emmanuel


We want to hear from you!

What’s your favorite Christmas carol?

Behind-the-scenes stories about the people God used to share His story in Christmas carols. #amwriting @karenball1 Click To Tweet

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Many thanks also to the folks at Podcast Production Services for their fabulous sound editing!


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