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I can’t remember if my husband said it in his sermon on Christmas Eve at Zion Lutheran Church in Hudson, or if it was Pastor Mike from Faith E-Free Church in Austin, MN where we worshiped with my family on Sunday morning, but somewhere in the last two days I heard the phrase “Christmas is a time of new beginnings”.
Granted, there are aspects of the Christmas spirit that we should hold on to all year long – love, joy, peace, a spirit of generosity – but in many ways, Christmas is a spearhead that jump starts a whole host of events – a time to move on.
We all love a well-told story full of conflict followed by a happy ending, and certainly the Christmas story has it all… a tenuous engagement in which Joseph learned his virgin bride was pregnant with God’s son, a long, arduous, inconveniently timed journey to Bethlehem, the inability to find a place to stay the night, the stress of Mary’s impending delivery… and the grand culmination:  A baby born, a star shining in the night, a heavenly host singing “Alleluia,” shepherds bowing down in adoration, animals lowing, God’s incarnate presence in the flesh… The Christmas story is a masterpiece loved by all.
But the story does not end there. There is a sequel, and a great one at that.
Fast forward two years, and Mary and Joseph are visited by wise men, then warned in a dream that they should flee to Egypt. An evil King Herod is bent on killing Jesus – and is willing to go to great lengths to accomplish his goal. Perhaps an omen of things to come? The Bible says Mary pondered all of these things in her heart – I can only imagine what must have gone through her head – and Joseph’s – as these events unfolded. I love the song, “Mary, Did You Know?” because it looks past the Christmas story and forward to the miraculous transformation Jesus would bring into our lives as an adult, the Son of God.
If we only come to church at Christmastime – if we don’t ever read – and live out – the sequel to the Christmas story, we have missed the best part. If we don’t move on, past the sweet, little babe laying in a manger, to getting to know Jesus as a friend and Savior, we have missed the real story.
This Christmas season is also a time of moving on for my husband and I as he transitions to a new call at a new church, full of new possibilities, new growth, and new life. Although we hardly have King Herod hot on our tails, there have been some traumatic scenarios surrounding our decision to move. We’ve also said a lot of bittersweet good-byes in the last few weeks as we leave behind a church, a home and friends that we love dearly. But because we believe that God is calling us to live out a new chapter in our lives, we’re also excited and joyful about the sequel that is about to be written.
I am working on my own sequel, too. Almost three years ago, I wrote the last lines of my soon-to-be published book, Night and Day, and left Anders and Jensen in a happy place, planning a life together in either Denmark or Minnesota – maybe both. Hopes were high. Their future looked bright. A happy ending to their story was delivered as promised, and all was well.
But many of my readers wondered what happened next. They wanted to know the rest of the story. They wanted more.
For a long time, I was content, in my mind, to leave Anders and Jensen where they were. And then, a call from Pat Bertram, one of my fellow authors at Second Wind Publishing, for stories about springtime and renewal, got my mind going, and suddenly, I, too, felt a need to revisit Anders and Jensen, to find out what they were up to, and where they had been since I left off.
And so, Daybreak in Denmark was born, and the happily ever after has morphed into a complex new situation fraught with conflicts and less than perfect situations and — wondrous, magnificent, new life. Because life moves on, whether we want it to or not. At this Christmas season, let’s not forget the past – the sweet, inspirational message of the Christmas story – but let us also remember that seasonal sentimentality only goes so far, and that new life and growth will only thrive in our lives if we have the courage to move on and see what happens when we turn the next page, write a new chapter, and fully immerse ourselves in the sequel to the story.

It’s the day after Christmas, and it’s time to move on!

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I’ve been thinking a lot about love letters lately. For the last few weeks, I’ve been working on an inspirational novel I wrote a few years ago called Love Notes. This week, I started writing a sequel to Night and Day called Daybreak in Denmark.

Night and Day, my first book, contained some very special – and revealing – letters from Maren Jensen, who had recently immigrated to Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, written to her cousin, Sophie, back in Slagerup, Denmark.  Night and Day also contains some beautiful love notes from Anders Westerlund, sent from Denmark to Minnesota to Jensen Marie Christiansen, via email. One of my favorite scenes in Night and Day is when Jensen changes the font of an email she received from Anders to one that looks like handwriting, prints his letter on parchment paper, and lays it and a rose she picked from her garden on her pillow.

This morning on Facebook, my second cousin, Marcia, mentioned some letters that she received years ago from her Aunt Vic (my Grandma Victoria, who died at age 93, about 7 years ago). Her comment brought back a flood of memories, as I too used to get letters from my Grandma, special notes in birthday cards, then full-fledged, rambling epistles full of vignettes from her life and stories about aunts and uncles and cousins, even a few relatives I didn’t even know. The letters started when, at age 18, I went off to Wheaton College in Illinois, and followed me when I moved to Bar Harbor, Maine, Augsburg, Germany, Lawton, Oklahoma, and finally, Colorado Springs, Colorado. She stopped writing only when I stopped wandering and came home to northern Iowa / southern Minnesota. From that time on, I saw her and talked to her face to face almost every week.

Letters are a very interesting form of communication. In them, people sometimes dare to say things they would never say to someone were they talking to in person. An expression of love, a passionate – or angry – response, an accusation, a confession — why is it that many of us can say with our pen what we can’t with our lips?

Sometimes letters are simply a matter of practicality. Much as we wish never to be separated from the ones we love, it’s impossible to be two places at once, and sometimes we have to resort to letter writing to communicate. While cell phones, Skype and live chats on Facebook may have eradicated some of the impetus we used to have for writing letters, there is still a time and a place for a thoughtfully written, old-fashioned letter.

When I was in 5th grade, Roy Anderson and I got into trouble for writing love notes in class. We had to sit in the hall – together, on a small bench, just the two of us – over recess. We were so embarrassed by the end of the lunch period that I don’t think we spoke to each other again until graduation day.

The summer between my 7th and 8th grade years I wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote and finally mailed a love letter to a boy I had a crush on. Nothing ever came of it – I honestly can’t remember if I even signed it, but there was something very significant about the fact that I admitted my feelings.

When I was going through First Presbyterian’s Divorce Recovery Workshop, we were asked to write a letter to our ex-spouse, saying whatever we wanted or needed to say. At the end of the exercise, the letters were destroyed. Over 25 years later, I have no idea what I wrote, but I do remember that it was a very therapeutic way to clear the air.

When computers became the rage and internet dating- internet everything –  came of age, I had a good advantage in that I knew how to write. E-mails were suddenly key, and I excelled at them. I was lousy at flirting, and awkward as all get out when it came to first dates, job interviews and loan applications, but I knew how to write, and because of it, many doors opened to me that might not have.  I’ve always been better with words written than words said, and that simple fact has helped to shape my life.

There are everyday, run of the mill letters, and there are famous, life-changing  letters that are known worldwide. Thomas Jefferson’s letters helped shape the course of our country. The Apostle Paul’s letters to the Galatians, Ephesians, Corinthians, and Philippians and to a young  Timothy, written in the first century, still deeply influence the way many of us live our lives today.

My Grandma’s Danish cousin, Boyda, still has the real letters in which Maren Jensen poured out her heart to her cousin back in Denmark. They’re written in an old-world handwriting and cadence, and we may never know exactly what is said in them. But the mystery of those letters, and the little bit I do know of them, has already inspired a love story whose legend will live on. What is a book, if not a love letter written to our readers?

My husband, the pastor, has been practicing his sermon on me again. Maybe he thinks I need to hear it more than once so it really sinks in – I couldn’t say. But I’ve gotten kind of used to already knowing the punch line when it comes to church on Sunday. So a spoiler alert – if you’re going to worship at Emmanuel Lutheran in Grafton, Iowa tomorrow, read no further until you get home from church.

Actually, it’s only fair that Mark practices his sermons on me. When it comes time to edit my books, he’s my first line of defense. We start by reading the book out loud to each other. It’s amazing, the errors you hear, but don’t see. By the time I’m done writing and getting ready to send my book to my editor, he’s probably so sick of the storyline and the characters that he never wants to see or hear about them again. But being the good, loving husband he is, he is always willing to read a scene one more time just to make sure it’s the best it can be.

Tomorrow is the first day of Advent. The Scripture Mark is preaching on is Mark 13. In verse 31, Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” This verse has convicted me that I need to start putting first things first, or prioritizing.  Am I living my life for temporary, breakable things like my computer or cell phone, where I spend and waste untold hours of my expendable time?  Am I spending my leisure time playing Farmtown or Zoo World or Sorority Life, or in Christian terms, am I doing something meaningful like getting to know Jesus better? (In writing terms, am I getting my next book written or edited, am I getting down to business and doing what needs to be done, or am I frittering away my time doing something virtually worthless?) Am I obsessed with making more money or buying more land or building a bigger house to make room for the things I buy, or am I living for Jesus, spending time with the people who love me, accomplishing great and mighty things whose after-effects will last for generations, maybe even eternity?

In a few years – maybe even months or days – my electronic gadgetry will be broken, hopelessly outdated, stolen or lost. The new appliances in my house will quit working. Jesus will still be here. Nothing on this earth lasts forever – not our good health, our things we build, or the people we love. The only thing worth living for, the only one you can trust to be there FOREVER, is Jesus. I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to live my life in a way that reflects the important things. It makes me want to forget Farmville and write the book of my heart. My books are my legacy. They’re my chance to say what needs to be said, to touch people’s lives, to leave something to be remembered by.  I am so blessed to even have the option of how to spend my free time – and with that, comes an overwhelming sense of responsibility that whatever time I have left here on earth should be spent doing good things – helping others,  being true to myself, using my talents, and letting my light shine brightly in the night.

Merry Christmas.

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Daybreak – New Release! (Sequel to Night & Day)

Night and Day

Golden Rod

Sweet William

Shy Violet

Blue Belle

Wild Rose

Thistle Down

Love Notes

Stormy Weather

Water Lily

Merry Go Round

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