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118 – Compassion: A Lost Virtue

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Compassion A Lost Virtue on the Write from the Deep podcast with Karen Ball and Erin Taylor YoungMultitudes of voices are speaking up all over the world, the Twitterverse, the Internet. Social media is echoing with opinions, conspiracy theories, fear, and anger. Even believers are getting caught up in the negativity. But as believers, we cannot afford to join the fray. Not unless we’re armed with the one virtue that will change people: Compassion.

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What is Compassion?

As we record this, we’re still in the midst of stay-at-home orders in the United States and in many places around the world, and people are feeling the financial, emotional, social, and psychological effects. And something specific came to my mind as Karen and I were praying about what our next podcast topic should be. At this time, when all of us should be sympathetically bonding over our mutual problems, and some of that IS happening for sure, but at the same time, there’s more disagreement than ever in our society. Politics, religion, health, the economy, you name it, we’re disagreeing over it. Often vehemently.

It’s not that disagreement is wrong. It’s good to have discussion and debate about policies, ideas, and regulations. What’s wrong is the way we’re going about it. And this doesn’t just apply to what we say or think, but also to what we write.

We’re lacking something that, as Christians and writers, we have no excuse to be lacking: compassion.

Colossians 3:12 (NIV), tells us, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”

We wanted to talk about compassion in particular because it follows up on our last podcast with our guest Karen Stiller. She talked about having compassion on ourselves as writers. But now we want to spend some time talking about compassion for others, because it affects our relationship with God, and it’s a huge factor in our writing as well.

So first, what is compassion?

Merriam Webster says it’s “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Basically, “it refers to both an understanding of another’s pain and the desire to somehow mitigate that pain.”

We’ve lost the ability, or more accurately, the desire, to truly understand another person’s point of view. To put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to consider reasons why their opinion, their thoughts, might actually be valid. We seem less willing than ever to broaden our understanding, and far more determined to entrench ourselves deeper into our own position

To be fair, our motivation may be, as the definition of compassion suggests, that we want to mitigate others’ pain, and that’s great. But we want to do it OUR way. Because we’re convinced OUR way is the RIGHT way.

That sounds pretty close to Webster’s definition of conceit: “Excessive appreciation of one’s own worth or virtue.”

The consequences of a lack of compassion

Let’s talk a few minutes about how a lack of compassion affects us. The consequences.

It Makes Us Hard-Hearted

As writers, our job is to present truth. For that, we first have to humbly learn truth. But a lack of compassion affects our heart: It’s a hard-heartedness. How can God teach us truth if our heart is hard?

How can anyone teach us if our heart is hard? How will we handle critique? How will we learn from editors and agents and other industry professionals if we aren’t open to correction?

It Makes Us Poor Listeners

A lack of compassion makes us poor listeners. There is much wisdom to be gained from the journey of others. God gives us the gift of fellowship partly for that purpose: to share knowledge. To grow from the collective experience of others. To gain insights we wouldn’t gain in our own little world. Listening to others helps broaden our understanding of the human condition.

If we don’t listen to others, how will we truly understand their needs? Have you ever gotten a gift you didn’t really like from someone because they bought it with their own opinion and taste in mind instead of yours? They thought you should have it, whether you actually wanted it or not? How did that make you feel?

We come across writing like that more often than you’d think. That’s one of the reasons writers often struggle when they’re asked what “felt needs” their writing speaks to. They’re not in tune with what readers actually want, but instead they’re focused on what they want to say to readers whether readers think they need it or not.

It Makes Us Poor Sympathizers

Lack of compassion makes us hard-hearted and poor listeners, which then makes us poor sympathizers. Sympathizing is a step beyond just listening. It’s opening ourselves to feel what someone else feels, to enter into their pain, their sorrow, their delight, or their joy. To fully share with them. When you’re sympathizing, or empathizing for that matter, you have a much better grasp on how to help them, how to meet their needs. It’s the difference between truly helping someone and completely missing the boat.

As writers and Christians, our purpose is to serve. Without compassion, we don’t feel the need. Service becomes more a thing we do out of guilt, which is the wrong reason, or we don’t do it at all. But serving is about loving people. What better example do we have than Jesus, who came as a suffering servant, and as Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

I was listening to a sermon and the pastor said God was not only omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, but also omni-empathetic. Of course he made that word up, but I think it’s accurate. Jesus knows what we’re feeling. As Christ-followers, as imitators of Christ, how can we try to do less?

So we talked about the problems of a lack of compassion. Let’s turn the table. What does a world of compassionate people look like?

What does being more compassionate do for you?

1. Compassion makes you more Christ like.

2. Compassion leads you to pray for others as God calls us to do. And not just an obligatory prayer, but heart-felt prayers that put us better in tune with Christ’s heart.

3. If you’re writing nonfiction, Compassion helps you write in a way that makes people feel heard and understood because you DO hear and understand. You’re coming from a more vulnerable place yourself, and that helps readers connect with you. They want someone who relates to where they are and won’t judge them. If you give them compassion, they’ll follow you on the book’s journey and find the same hope you did.

4. If you’re writing fiction, compassion helps you write more multidimensional characters because you understand why they do the things they do. Your writing is at a deeper, more emotional level. It’s more nuanced, and all that combines to give the reader a stronger emotional connection, and that’s how your story can change lives.

Scriptures to reflect on and to inspire you

Yet he, being compassionate, atoned for their iniquity and did not destroy them; he restrained his anger often and did not stir up all his wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and comes not again. Psalm 78:38-39 (ESV)

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:22-23 (ESV) 

Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me. Isaiah 49:15-16 (ESV) 

But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Psalm 86:15 (ESV) 

As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. Psalm 103:13 (ESV) 

When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:36 (ESV)

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite. Isaiah 57:15 (ESV) 

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.” Luke 10:30-34 (ESV) 

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2 (ESV) 

As [Jesus] drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her. And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Luke 7:12-15 (ESV)

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Romans 12:9-18 (ESV) 

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 1Peter 3:8 

And the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” Zachariah 7:8-10

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil… 2 Timothy 2:24

Last but not least, Micah 6:8. Think on this verse as you consider your responsibility as a follower of Christ. Never forget your call to compassion. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Doing this costs you nothing. Not doing it could cost us all everything. #amwriting @karenball1 Click To Tweet
we want to hear from you

How has compassion, or a lack of it, affected your life?

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

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117 – The Gift of Transparency with Guest Karen Stiller

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Gift of Transparency with Karen Stiller on Write from the Deep PodcastWe all want our books to connect with our readers, to move them and even change their lives. So how can you be sure you’re writing in a way that will do all that? Guest Karen Stiller shares what God has taught her about this very thing in her writing journey—and in her life as a minister’s wife. Come listen in!

About Karen Stiller

Karen Stiller is a freelance writer, editor and a senior editor of Faith Today magazine. She is co-author of Craft, Cost & Call: How to Build a Life as a Christian Writer (2019) along with other books about the Church in Canada and the world. Stiller has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Non-Fiction from University of King’s College Dalhousie. Her latest book The Minister’s Wife: A Memoir of Faith, Doubt, Loneliness, Friendship, and More was published by Chicago-based Tyndale House Publishers in the Spring of 2020.

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

Erin: Welcome writers. Welcome to the deep. We’re so glad you’re here with us, and I’m delighted because we have a guest with us today. Yay!

Karen Ball: So happy to welcome Karen Stiller. She’s a writer with more than 20 years of experience, and she serves as senior editor of the Canadian magazine Faith Today, which I understand, Karen, is kind of compared to Christianity Today in the U. S. And she hosts the podcast of the Evangelical Fellowship Canada.

Very cool. As a journalist, Karen has shared stories from South Sudan, Uganda, Senegal, Cambodia, and all across North America. That is impressive. She also moderates the Religion and Society Series at the University of Toronto, and I love this: it’s a debate between leading atheists and theologians, and I bet you don’t even have to wear a flak jacket.

Karen Stiller: I probably should.

Karen Ball:  Karen loves to teach writing and coach and mentor writers on the journey. She and her husband, Brent, a priest with the Anglican Church live in Ottawa, Canada, and they have three adult children and a big hairy golden doodle, a beloved dog named Dewey. Welcome, Karen, to Write from the Deep.

Karen Stiller: Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here with you, too. I’m really excited about this.

Erin: We are too. We love having guests, and I love having a person from Canada. I was wanting to hear you say “about.”

Karen Stiller: I will. I’ll try to work “about” in many times.

Erin: No, no, I want it to be “aboot.”

Karen Ball: She already did it. We always chat before the podcast. She said “aboot” several times, and I’m like “ooh, there it is.”

Karen Stiller: Really?

Karen Ball: Yes, you did.

Karen Stiller: My goodness, this is a revelation. Okay, good. I’m going to be listening.

Erin: All right, Karen, you know that we love to ask, what does the deep mean to you?

Karen Stiller: Yeah, thank you. That is such a good question. And for me, the deep as a writer, and as a writer of faith, absolutely means the most honest place we can reach, where we no longer pretend to be something we’re not. And we view ourselves very clearly, but also very compassionately, for who we really are. And we embrace that beautiful freedom and the fact that that person—ourselves in our deepest, most honest place—that we’re deeply loved there by Jesus. That to me is what the deep means.

Karen Ball: That’s great.

Erin: That’s very articulate and well thought out. I’m really curious, how did you come to that? Because I think when we start heading for the deep and seeing ourselves for who we really are, compassion is the last thing that we come up with, you know? So I love that. How did that happen in your mind?

Karen Stiller: That is another great question. I had to learn to be compassionate with myself, and it links right away into my identity as a writer, but also as someone married to a minister.

Because of the position of minister’s wife and how it’s played out in my life, I was brought up very…like, I had my shortcomings and my failings really clearly demonstrated to me right from the beginning. I saw how kind of like ill suited I was, just by being a normal person with normal limitations, and I had to learn to just forgive myself and be who I really was.

And so I’ve learned to be compassionate with myself as I’ve learned to be compassionate with others, hopefully. To just accept who I am, and that I’m on the journey, and that God loves me, and that can just be so freeing.

Karen Ball: Well, it’s hard in a pastoral family. Being a preacher’s kid and a preacher’s grandkid myself, which I love, that’s my family heritage, but it’s hard because there are so many pressures on you that the people in the congregation don’t realize.

They have so many expectations of who you are and of how you will behave and the things that you will do and say. If you break those expectations, it can be a nightmare. In my case, fortunately, we were in a church that showed a lot of grace. But I’ve seen a lot of preachers kids and missionary kids who their parents were judged based on what their kids did and said.

I saw with my mom, my mom was the sweetest person in creation, but she still had to really work hard at being herself in the context of being a minister’s wife. It’s a tough row to hoe.

Karen Stiller: I think it is. I’ve heard really sad stories, too, particularly from the grown adult children of pastor’s families. So that’s something we really tried to be aware of with our own children. Just raising them to be who they really are.

I will say we’ve been in churches that have been very kind. I don’t have horror stories actually at all.

Karen Ball: I don’t either. From the church.

Karen Stiller: Good! So I deeply love the church, and the church has been a wonderful home for myself, for my husband, for our children. I think for me, the whole minister’s wife identity has…well, when people assume things about me, sometimes it’s more about what kind of a person I must be. That I must be an excellent listener and you know, always thinking nice thoughts and always available.

Inside, I know what I’m really thinking and feeling. And sometimes I may be thinking I need to just get home, or I’m just grocery shopping or whatever. That’s been the gap for me where I’ve had to be compassionate with myself and think it’s okay. You’re not perfect. It’s okay. Yeah, you’re not as nice as everyone thinks you are. It’s okay.

Erin: What do you think, as far as a writer goes, I’m feeling like there’s probably a lot of areas where writers need to learn to be compassionate for themselves.

What are your thoughts about that? What ways do you think a writer needs to learn to forgive themselves for, or have compassion?

Karen Stiller: Oh, that is a really great question. I think I’d like to tackle that in two ways. One would be on the writing journey. I have seen, and I bet you two have seen, a lot of writers give up too soon because they maybe don’t succeed right away, or they find being edited is too painful for them. Or their writing dream does not come true as quickly as they would like it to.

I’ve seen really gifted people stop too soon because their standards for themselves were too high or something. I think that it’s an act of compassion to forgive yourself for not succeeding super quickly. So there’s that.

Also, in my writing life, I’ve moved, shifted in the last few years, from twenty plus years of writing professionally about other people, mostly journalistic writing. Almost always stemmed in the church though. I’ve always worked within the world of the church press, and that’s been very important to me.

I’ve told stories of people of faith, and issues facing the church, and so on. But I’ve shifted into spiritual memoir and writing very honestly about my own experiences of faith in life, in the church. To do that well, and with transparency and vulnerability, I have to be compassionate with myself, or I wouldn’t be willing to tell such horrible stories about myself.

Erin: True.

Karen Stiller: I have to believe that you will hear those stories and read those stories and understand that we are in this together. I’m assuming a compassion on the part of the reader, which I do think is there and true. So we have to be gentle with each other as readers and as writers.

Karen Ball: I think it’s the shift from the Disney version of being a writer into the real world version of being a writer. In the Disney version, all we do is write and we send it out to one agent who takes it on and loves it and who sells it for millions of dollars. Then we live happily ever after.

In the real world version, it’s a lot of hard work. And it’s a lot of rejection coming into this field and writing. And especially, I know what it feels like in writing fiction to face rejection, but in writing a spiritual memoir, that’s you on the page. It is in fiction as well, but I mean, with memoir, you’re actually there and telling stories about yourself. Facing rejection with that would be even more difficult, I would think.

We have to learn, just like you said, rejection is a part of the process, and we have to trust God that he’s given us this task, and walk forward no matter what the reaction is to what we’ve done.

Karen Stiller: Yeah, absolutely. I remember early on in my writing journey, I’ve also written quite a bit for different charities along the way, copywriting, and lots of things that my name has not appeared on. There was one large charity that had me doing some work, and it was very much an “editing by committee” scenario.

Karen Ball: Ugh. So it was a horror movie.

Karen Stiller: Yeah. It was back in the days of landline phones, and I had on a sticky note, I wrote, “Don’t cry.” And I stuck it on my phone so that when I was doing this call, and I looked at that note a couple of times, it’s like, “Karen, pull yourself together.” And I didn’t cry, and I learned not to cry, and otherwise I would never have survived.

Karen Ball: Yeah.

Erin: Oh my. What would you say, you know, we’re talking about humility and transparency and being vulnerable on the page, especially in memoir, but in everything we write, what would you say to the writer who’s having trouble being compassionate to themselves?

Karen Stiller: I think right away about the writing friends I have in my life. I mean, you two model that so wonderfully, even in how you do the podcast, how you support each other, how you play off and bounce off each other. We need writing companions in our lives. I think that can help a lot to have someone, even just in a really practical way, to read our work, to interact with it, to speak honestly to us.

We’ve all been, I’m guessing, in writers’ groups where everything everyone shares is “fabulous.” And you know what? I think that’s a good and necessary step in the life of a writer. But you have to move past that with even just one trusted companion, who will be your writing friend, who will help you take that step of bravery.

I think that’s a big part of it. I think a lot about writing, especially this kind of personal writing, is pushing through the fear. Trusting the process. Doing the work. Doing all those things we’ve learned to do in our writing craft. You know: first draft, coming back, leaving it alone, coming back again, sharing, editing, rewriting. Keep trusting that process, and just keep pushing through, and have a good writing friend.

Karen Ball: I called those kinds of people in my life truth-speakers because they say the hard things, but they say it out of out of love and out of care for me and out of wanting me to be my best. Erin is a truth-speaker in my life.

God has used her a number of times, not just in the work that we’re doing but in my personal life, to speak truth at times when I really needed to hear it. Because I know where it comes from, I can hear it.

I may get a little ticked, and I may have to work through it a little bit. But I always come back to the fact that, you know, you’re right, what you said was right, and I need to change that.

Without those kinds of people keeping us, keeping our feet to the fire and keeping us on track, there’s no such thing as vulnerability and honesty in what we’re writing. It’s all just playing a part.

Karen Stiller: Yeah, I agree.

Erin: For me too, like when I wrote, Surviving Henry, that… I mean, I had to write things where I looked dumb. It was funny, it was humorous, but I did not look good. I did not look very bright, you know?

And for me, I had to get over some of that pride. I had to be willing to say, “Yeah. When nobody’s looking, I do dumb things.” Or “I do dumb things when people are looking, too.” I think that was a little bit of an issue for me. Getting past, “What will people think? Will they think less of me?”

It’s so interesting how it’s always opposite. How when we’re vulnerable, it always comes across opposite. Somebody will respect that struggle, you know? And they’ll relate to it.

Karen Stiller: Yeah.

Karen Ball: I liked something that you wrote us, Karen, when we were talking about you being on the podcast. You said, “Our true stories help connect us with each other.”

Our true stories help connect us with each other. @karenstiller1 #amwriting @karenball1 Click To Tweet

I think that’s so true, no matter what we’re writing. I’m part of an online writing group, and they were talking about sharing God’s truth with people, and what do we do when you come to speak to someone who doesn’t believe the Bible is real, doesn’t believe that it’s the word of God?

Christians are so focused on using Scripture to portray God in his love. How do we do that if this person is looking at us like, “Yeah, so you might as well just quote Hemingway to me because it has about the same import.”

One of the things that I’ve always believed is that we tell our stories. We tell our stories about our relationship in faith, and our relationship with God and with each other.

And we listen to their stories because people are desperate to be heard. When we do that, just like you said, our true stories help connect us. It’s the same thing with writing on the page.

Karen Stiller: Oh, man, you are preaching to the choir. I love that. I love everything you just said. I have a really great story, speaking about stories, that speaks to that point exactly.

When I did the bulk of the writing for my book, The Minister’s Wife, it was within the structure of a master of fine art and creative nonfiction that I was doing in a secular university. There was nothing Christian about the program I did. That was a little frightening for me at first.

I had to talk to the director of the program a couple of times. I was like, “I am a spiritual writer and I know that whatever I do—and I didn’t know what it was going to be then—it’s going to be, you know, ‘religious’ and is there a place for me?”

And they really encouraged me to come, and it worked out beautifully, and their input helped shape my writing, and it was invaluable.

But as part of the MFA, you have to do a public reading to your classmates, and it’s takes place in a loud, drunken pub-night. You’re talking on a microphone, trying to be heard over the rising din as the evening  progresses.

I chose a passage of my book to read where I talk about visiting with a 100-year-old minister’s wife named Millicent. My dog and I were a therapy dog team, and we would go into the seniors’ home, and I discovered that one of the ladies was a minister’s wife, a beautiful widow who lived there.

The passage I read out loud that night in the pub included an exchange with myself and Millicent, where I tell her, “Millicent, I’m moving and I’m not going to be back to see you, but I love you and thank you.”

And she blessed me. She raised her hand up in the air from the corner where she sat and she blessed me. “The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you…”

So I read this out loud in this loud party pub that night. As I left immediately after my reading, a friend of mine from the class—who I don’t think probably has ever been to church, like we talked about all these things very openly, faith was a mystery to her—as I walked by her, she grabbed hold of me, and she hugged me, and she pulled me in, and in my ear, she whispered, “Bless me, bless me. Like she blessed you.”

Erin: Wow.

Karen Stiller: And I did. I blessed her right there, you know, in the middle of this pub. And it was such a beautiful moment for me. I realized my story, my little story with Millicent has enabled me, given me this privilege to bless you, my friend.

Like it was just, I don’t know. I just learned so much from that moment of, yeah, stories matter, and yes, people want to be heard as well.

To your other point, my big lesson in the church in my years of being a minister’s wife—one of the biggies—has been that people want to be heard. They want someone to listen to them because that does not happen as a matter of course in our daily lives.

Erin: Yeah. Well, one other thing I wanted to ask you about, when we were talking about this book that you wrote, I’m looking at the subtitle. The title is The Minister’s Wife: A Memoir of Faith, Doubt, Friendship, Loneliness, Forgiveness, and More. You were writing about doubt. What gave you the courage to write about doubt?

I mean that’s great. Instead of being like, “Oh, I can’t say that I doubt because then non-Christians will not believe in God.” You know? So what gave you the courage to write about that?

Karen Stiller: Thank you for that question. I had no problem writing about doubt. I probably found my courage partly because I was with my classmates, and so on, as I wrote a lot of this book. I remember one professor said to me, “Explain to me. Explain to me how you can believe this stuff.”

So that was a fairly clear request. I know that doubt is part of everyone’s faith journey. I have found, again in my life as a minister’s wife, if I can share openly and honestly about my own doubts and my own questions, it actually opens up the room for people.

I don’t want that power, actually. But because sometimes people have the wrong idea about clergy and their families, thinking that they do have it all together, that when I say, “Actually, I struggle with this,” or “That passage is really difficult for me,” or “I don’t get that,” or, “Yeah, I’m having doubts,” because they have this idea we have it all together, that sort of surprises them, and they feel relieved.

They’re like, “Oh, thank you. I can then share my questions and I can share my doubts.” Then we’re journeying together. Then we’re finding our answers together. So yeah, I think it’s so important.

It’s so powerful just to be honest like that. Often it draws us closer to faith and it draws us closer to God together. So, yeah, I believe in that a lot.

Karen Ball: Well, this has been a marvelous conversation. I have so enjoyed having you here and hearing the things that you’re doing. I look forward to reading your book, as a preacher’s kid and preacher’s grandkid.

I want to thank you so much for coming and talking to us about these things because it’s so important for us to remember that we’re not supposed to play a part. We’re supposed to be who we are. God uses us as broken and as fallible as we are.

If we wear a mask or try to portray who we are as believers, as writers, as any of that, if we try to pretend, God cannot use that. The only reason that we’re doing any of this is that God can come and show himself to the world through us, and it’s hard for him to do that if we get in the way because of what we think we are.

Thank you so much for what has been affirmation and exhortation. We really appreciate that you’ve taken the time to come and spend with us.

Karen Stiller: Wow. Thank you Karen and Erin, I really appreciate it. I love your podcast. I’ve listened to it for a long time, so it’s wonderful for me to speak with both of you.

Karen Ball: Thank you.

Erin: Thanks for being here.

we want to hear from you!

What do you find most challenging about being transparent? How has God used your transparency?

Books mentioned in the podcast

The Minister's Wife by Karen Stiller

The Minister’s Wife: A Memoir of Faith, Doubt, Friendship, Loneliness, Forgiveness, and More by Karen Stiller

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116 – When Normal Goes out the Window: Dealing with Major Disruption

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Karen Ball and Erin Taylor Young The coronavirus outbreak has brought unprecedented change and disruption into our lives. What we consider normal has been thrown out the window, replaced by uncertainty and fear. But we, as writers, as Christians, can not just adjust, but actually thrive in the face of all disruptions, big or small!

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

As we record this, we have an unprecedented world situation with the coronavirus pandemic. State, county, and city governments are issuing stay at home orders or shelter in place orders. There’s massive disruption in our economy, our society, and our homes. The stock market is plummeting. Schools are closed, libraries are closed, stores are closed, restaurants are closed, and jobs and work hours have been slashed. Even most churches have closed their doors and have moved to online services.

All semblance of normal is gone.

As writers, as creatives, and most important, as Christians, how are we to respond?

What we’re going to talk about doesn’t just apply to the pandemic situation we currently have. There are plenty of other ways that normal goes out the window. Maybe you’ve unexpectedly become a caregiver to a grandchild, or an aging parent. Or maybe you or your spouse or child has just been diagnosed with a severe health condition. With so many things out there that can disrupt our “normal life,” why are we still so often caught unaware and unprepared?

And when we are facing disruption, how do we react? There are a plethora of good responses, and unfortunately, just as many poor choices. So, let’s look at some of those responses in a “do and do not” fashion. First the “do nots”:

DO NOT FEAR

Let me tell you, my hubby is a sociologist. He understands statistics and demographics and epidemiology, and he was telling me about the forecasts various institutions are doing for the spread of  COVID -19. It is scary. It’s dangerous, and there’s no way around that. Our normal response is often going to be fear.

Aside from the fear of getting sick ourselves, or our loved ones, there’s all the upheaval and financial ramifications of these shutdowns. And then there are plans that have all gone out the window. People who planned a big wedding ceremony, or a special vacation, or to retire with a comfortable nest egg in the stock market. Or to have a certain number of writing hours per week to meet your next book deadline. That’s all changed now.

Fear and anxiety are often our first response to change. We didn’t expect the change, we can’t control the change or the effects. This leads to frustration and anger, and it often brings out the worst in us. We forget that no disruption, no pandemic, is a surprise to God. Our plans were always subordinate to God’s plans.

“Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” Proverbs 19:21

The first step to overcoming fear is to stop and acknowledge that God is in control. This world is still his.

“To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it.” Deuteronomy 10:14 (NIV)

Then we have to do another hard thing. We have to trust. Fully. Completely. You may be facing one of the worst ordeals you’ve ever encountered, and as terrible as that is, you also have what may be your biggest opportunity to become more Christlike. To glorify God with your trust. Because no matter what we’re going through, we’ll always still have God with us, and He wants us to count on Him.

“Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10 (NASB) 

My pastor was talking about this verse last week and he made a point of how the language of the word “surely” is all about certainty. You can count on it. I know this isn’t easy, believe me. But these are the challenges that help us know if our faith is real. If we’ve built our faith on the solid rock of Christ or on shifting sand.

When normal goes out the window, it’s a chance to see just what we’ve been putting our trust in, what our hope is in. Is it in the stock market for retirement? In our job for our provision? Is it in our health, grocery stores, or even our society that is much more fragile than we knew?

Use this time for a check up on where your trust is. Chances are that every last one of us needs some growth in this area.

DO NOT BE HASTY

Remember, we each deal with crises in our own way. Some of us fight back, some of us isolate and hide, some of us do a little of each.

The only reaction you can control is your own. The second you try to impose what you think is right or godly on someone else, you’ve crossed the line into judgement. And we all know that’s not a good thing.

If you find yourself looking at a church group that is still meeting and thinking, “Don’t they care about infecting others?” stop. The second you start to ask things like, “Where’s your faith?” stop. It’s not your place to judge, friends.

You can share ideas and thoughts with those you know and love, or with those God asks you to share with, but it stops there. Believers have no business judging others, and when you fall into that self-righteous mode you do far more damage than any pandemic. To others, to yourself, and to the cause of Christ. We’re called to love, not judge.

“Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” Ecclesiastes 5:2 (NIV)

That’s talking more about taking rash vows, but the principle still applies.

When normal goes out the window, Your creative energy and motivation may feel depleted. That’s okay. Don’t worry over that. You’re not in some permanent creative void. Realize that right now, we’re all spending a lot of mental energy trying to figure out all the new rules of life and society.

All our presuppositions are called into question right now, and most of us are dealing with new logistics. We don’t know what things are going to look like in two days, let alone two weeks, two months, or two years. It changes everyday. Just dealing with that takes up brain power, so it’s hard to think about writing.

Don’t be hasty. Give yourself time and permission to mentally adjust. You will find a new stride eventually. But it may take awhile and it may need to remain flexible.

Not only that, so many of us are dealing with loss of some kind or another. Maybe it’s your job, your health, or income, but it can also be things like freedom, gathering with others, going to the gym, or a season of sports. There’s grief involved in that loss. Again, give yourself the time to grieve.

DO NOT GET STUCK IN QUESTIONING “WHY”

Listen to what the Bible says in the book of Job. You knew with a topic like this we’d have to pull out a verse from Job, right?

“For man is born for trouble, as sparks fly upward. But as for me, I would seek God, and I would place my cause before God; who does great and unsearchable things, wonders without number. He gives rain on the earth and sends water on the fields, so that He sets on high those who are lowly, And those who mourn are lifted to safety.” Job 5:7-11 (NASB)

The key there is “great and unsearchable things.” That means we can’t understand them. When our brains constantly question WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? that’s a trap we can’t escape, and we’ll just drive ourselves crazy or to despair because there will never be an answer that will satisfy us, or that we can understand.

God is not accountable to us. He doesn’t have to explain himself. We’re going to use up all our mental, emotional, and creative energy trying to figure out what our human minds were never equipped to fathom. It’s not that we’re stupid, it’s that we do not know all the ways of God.

Or sometimes we get bogged down in constantly rehashing: IF ONLY THIS DIDN’T HAPPEN. That’s another trap that keeps us stuck in an unhealthy place where we can’t move forward.

When normal goes out the window, we have the opportunity to see just how big our God is, and how limited we are. That’s not always a fun thing, but we can never appreciate God for who he is without that understanding.

We’ve talked about some do nots. Now for some dos. These are some good choices for our response when normal goes out the window.

DO Consider Pruning

Especially now, during this pandemic when everything is shut down, we have an opportunity for pruning. For those of you with kids, you may feel a little lost without all the soccer games, church activities, and school activities making you run from morning until night. Not to mention family activities that you may or may not have had time for.

One mom I know with four kids confessed to me that the cancellation of all these activities was, in some ways, actually a relief. I hear that.

This is a good time to reflect on the many activities that have taken up all our previous time. This is what it’s like to NOT rush around all the time. After you get over the weirdness, ask yourself what activities or commitments do you actually miss? And what are you glad you’re not doing? The answers might surprise you.

Take this opportunity to learn what you really value and what you need to prune.

Do take time to rest

Let’s face it. We’re not very good at rest. We’re too…busy. The same thing happened to the Israelites. They were supposed to give their land a sabbath rest every 7 years, but they didn’t do it. Ultimately God forced that rest. He took away their land and sent them into exile.

“[Nebuchadnezzar] carried into exile to Babylon the remnant [of Israel], who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power. The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested…” 2 Chronicles 36:20-21

Now, I’m not saying that when we find ourselves with a forced rest, it’s punishment. But I am saying that God clearly thinks rest is important because he mentions the concept over and over in the Bible.

Maybe now, when our ability to do STUFF is taken away, we should embrace the opportunity to rest. Get lots of practice. Make it a habit so it sticks with you and becomes a priority even when life gets busier again. Ultimately, a cycle of both rest and work is better for our productivity, better for our health, and better for our spirit.

Do watch expectantly for God to work in whatever ways he sees fit

I have a friend who was telling me about a difficult situation her family was going through—it was rough—and she was torn up about it. But she said, “I’m just asking God, ‘What are you doing in this, Lord?’”

And she told me, “I know it’s going to be something, I know he’s using this. So I’m just praying and waiting and watching.”

I loved that. She wasn’t asking like it was a demand for God to explain himself, but rather it was a reminder to watch for Him working. To be submitted to what he was doing, to his will. To want to grow from this and honor God. And to fully believe that God was working in it for their ultimate good, even when it was terrible right then.

The Old Testament prophet Micah has the same attitude.

“But as for me, I will watch expectantly for the Lord. I will wait for the God of my salvation. My God will hear me.” Micah 7:7

It’s when we’re watching that we see, that we have an opportunity to be amazed. Then we can give God the glory he deserves. Then we can find things to be thankful for even amidst upheaval.

Use this time to draw closer to him.

Do watch for opportunities to love and serve others

In our situation with COVID-19, do what the medical professionals tell you to do. Sanitize. Stay away from strangers. Don’t touch your face. Seriously, they’re telling us how to avoid spreading the virus, so do what they say.

With that in mind though, how do we then serve others, especially from 6 feet away?

Wave at someone. Call out a hello. Tell people you’re praying for them.

Run errands for those who are high-risk. They can email you a list and you can set the bags on their doorstep. No personal contact required.

Make N95 masks and share them with medical professionals or your neighbors.

Offer to order things online for those who are computer illiterate. Yes, they have to pay for it themselves, but you can be the bridge between them and getting what they need.

Send encouragement in email and on social media. Post positive and encouraging truths.

Offer to walk a neighbor’s dogs. Cut someone’s lawn or pull weeds. Set up a “little free library” in your neighborhood.

There are so many ways we can help in both little and small ways.

Do stay on course unless God directs you otherwise

Difficulty and disruption often make us question whether we’ve done something wrong, or whether we misheard God. But these things—challenges, problems, disruptions—do not necessarily indicate a change in your marching orders. They can just as easily be signaling the opposite, and you’re right on track.

Paul tells us 2 Corinthians 12:10 that he delights in “weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

This world is cursed with futility. Romans 8:20 tells us that.

We’re not going to have it easy here on earth, and thinking otherwise leads us astray. So when disruption hits, sure, take time to check your course, take time to seek God and pray, take time to adjust whatever needs adjusting, but then if you’re not hearing God tell you otherwise, press on with confidence.

Final Words

Bottom line, when normal goes out the window—could be your own health issues, a pandemic, industry upheaval, you name it—you find a new normal. You make adjustments. You re-evaluate. You overcome obstacles with God’s help. Prayerfully wait and watch and listen for his voice. And rest in him. Never let yourself get so caught up in the fear and anxiety that you make poor choices or say careless words. Instead, the minute normal goes out the window, turn to the one who will hold you, and uphold you, and supply everything you need in the midst of it.

And should the unthinkable happen, should we face death ourselves, or a loved one face death in the midst of this pandemic, do not fear. Because that next step is into eternity and face to face with the Master. That is great joy. I love to hold on to that scripture that tells me whether I live, I am the Lord’s, and whether I die, I am the Lord’s. Whether I live therefore or die, I am the Lord’s (Romans 14:8). You my friend, are the Lord’s and he has you firm and safe in his hands.

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WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU

Are you facing a major disruption? What helps you deal with major disruption in your writing life?

THANK YOU!

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

Thanks so much to our April sponsor of the month, Priscilla Sharrow! She’s working on her memoir called Bonked! Life, Love, and Laughter with Traumatic Brain Injury, which should come out later this year from Redemption Press. Learn more about Priscilla at her website priscillasharrow.com and follow her blog for the TBI/PTSD community.

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

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