2016 has been kind of terrible for so many of us that when I have the chance to share good news, I want to shout it from the rooftops or cling to it like a life preserver. This week I got some news like that.
My newest novel, Close To Home, came back from the ebook formatters way early. It wasn’t slated to be released until February, but since it was ready anyway, and since we can all use some good news right now, Bywater decided to get it up on their website a whole six weeks early!
You can get it and read it right now!
But wait, there’s more. Because of the early release date, it now falls under our holiday sale! So if you download it now (through January 4, 2017) and use the code yulesave25, we’ll take 25% off your entire purchase!
So yeah, you get an ebook more than a month earlier than expected and for cheaper than expected.
Honestly, I don’t know why you’re still reading this blog, because you should be in the Bywater web store by now, but if you really need more information. Here’s the blurb:
Kelly Rolen is a CPA—she’s smart, she’s focused, and she’s worked hard to build an orderly career and a respectable life in her hometown of Darlington, Illinois. Everything is precisely as it should be. Well, it is until her father suffers a debilitating stroke during the busiest time of her year—tax season. Suddenly, Kelly finds herself overworked, exhausted, behind schedule, and forced to hire an intern to meet her deadlines.
Elliot Garza is young and brash, but she’s also a talented accounting student who is charismatic, driven, and solely focused on completing her internship so she can escape from the bleak Midwestern town to Washington, DC and her dream job. She knows she has the professional skills necessary to do the job well, but she is less certain about her ability to handle her beautiful, prickly, demanding, and compelling new boss.
In this fresh new romance from one of the genre’s top young authors, will Kelly’s past and Elliot’s future add up to something greater than the sum of their escalating attraction, or will the answer to their equation end up hitting too close to home?
So there will be many more blogs about the story and the characters and the setting and the ways in which they all connect to my larger body of work, but by then the sale will be over, so really, go buy it now, and then make sure you sign up to follow this blog in the weeks ahead!
The gifts have all been opened, the food all eaten, the clamor of celebration has begun to fade. All that’s left to do is reflect. Reflect on this Christmas as well as the things of that first Christmas that still calls to us all through the ages.
Luke Chapter 2
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. 2 This was the first enrollment, when Quirin′i-us was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. 7 And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; 11 for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”[a]
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; 18 and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Merry Christmas to each and every one of you, and may the God of all creation, Emmanuel, be with you all, come what may.
Tonight is Christmas Eve. We will spend it with my in-laws. There will be food and there will be presents. We will avoid talking politics. It will be fun and hectic. Then we will wrestle the kid into a shirt and tie and hustle off to church. Church will be packed, and we’ll get there early because we take up a whole pew, and then we will keep my son, my godson, and his sister as calm as possible until the service starts.
And then the first strains of music will ring through the sanctuary, and I will lay it all down.
For 24 hours I will let it go. I will approach the manger tonight in trembling awe and coursing wondering. I will see the Christ child in the stable and in the faces of people around me. I take the burdens of my life off my back for a little while and lay them at His feet. I will bow my head and lift my voice and say, “Emmanuel, thank you for being with us. Thanks for loving us enough to stand by us, then, now and always.”
I hope each of you can find a similar sort of peace on this Holy Night.
Today’s song blog is yet another reminder of a time when the world seemed on the brink of destruction.
I don’t feel the need to elaborate much. The lyrics tell the story, but I will say that I chose it as a reminder to myself that “Heaven’s not beyond the clouds. It’s just beyond the fear. No, Heaven’s not beyond the clouds. It’s for us to find it here.”
That’s a Christmas message I’d like to carry with me, both as support and as a challenge, all year long.
Today we travel.
If all goes well, 11 hours of driving will carry us over roughly 600 miles of middle America to our family home. Despite the modern conveniences, at times it still feels like a journey of Biblical proportions. And when we arrive there will be room at the inn, but not necessarily peace. We will feel relief and joy, but our relationship with our destination, the town and the people who fill it, is complex (see my Darlington Romances for more on this). There will be more stress than usual this year due to the current political climate. And yet there will also be Christmas, with family and love and church filled with golden light. Today’s song blog is a reminder that we are heading toward something worth celebrating, and we are almost there. It will help me keep moving forward amid all the reasons I have not to.
But more than that, it reminds me that beyond this trip, beyond my own life and my own limited view, the angels can still see redemption’s plan still unfolding.
Lonely road, a willing heart, I pray for strength to do my part.
I want so badly to be a part of the solution, of the healing, of the redemption. I am trying to trust the Father to provide bread of heaven, prophesied, but it doesn’t feel like we’re almost there. It feels like there’s so much to be done and miles to go before we sleep. I feel helpless and frail and afraid of what comes next. I don’t know what that is. I don’t know where we go from there, but Christmas is a reminder that no matter what we are to encounter, we do not have to do it alone. Christmas is the answered prayer, Emmanuel. The plan is still unfolding. The prayer is still being answered.
Emmanuel. God with us.
God with us, as we travel this holiday and as we travel the long, winding road as a nation, as a world. And in that sense, the sense that Christmas has the power to bring hope and peace and renewed strength to face the journey ahead. We are almost there.
Today’s song is one of my modern favorites. Not for its joy (It almost always leaves me in tears.), but for its power. It’s based on a Longfellow poem written during the Civil War. His son had joined the Union army against his will and was severely wounded at the Battle for New Hope Church in Virginia. Longfellow spent that Christmas not knowing if Charles would heal or even live. He wrote of hearing Christmas bells and feeling disconnected.
And in dispair I bowed my head. “There is no peace on Earth,” I said. For hate is a strong and mocks the song of peace on Earth, goodwill to men.
This poem that was later turned into a song fits for me right now in so many ways. I do not feel the traditional Christmas joy. I do not identify with the angel’s message of peace on earth, goodwill to men. Our country is more divided than I have ever seen it. The wounds from the Civil War have been ripped open again, and added to them is a resurgence of hate and bigotry that culminated in the election of man representing all of those horrible ideals to the highest office. The darkness covers us now.
Today is the winter solstice. Light is in short supply, and in its absence the darkness overtakes me. I feel it in my bones. It seeps through my skin and settles over my heart. Tonight I will sit in the cold silence and pray for this night to end. It’s a prayer I have become all too familiar with, but I know that others before me have prayed it as well. Throughout our history, we have begged God to return us to the light.
Till ringing, singing on its way, the world revolved from night to day, A voice, a chime, a chant sublime.
The light returned for Longfellow. The light returned to America. The light will return for us, slowly, painfully, incrementally, sixty seconds a day. That’s the way the world works. It revolves from night to day. One minute of light at a time amid an ocean of darkness. So small it won’t be detectable at first. But like one candle that lights another, the next day it will double. Then bit-by-bit ,those minutes will become hours. One voice will become a choir. One protest will become a movement.
Then ring the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead nor does He sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth goodwill to men.
I used to hate today’s song. It didn’t fit with my understanding of Christmas. I use to think the manger was cute, with all those animals, and the shepherds, and the idyllic golden light. When I was a child I thought like a child, and this song is not childish.
Then I became an adult. I came out. I studied history and politics. The Bush administration lasted eight years. I saw how unfair the world could be. Christmas came to mean something less perfect and more radical. I saw the dirt and fear and oppression. Then I gave birth myself. It was scary and bloody and painful, and even with all the comforts of modern medicine, it was still dangerous. I think that’s when I really understood the horrors of the manger.
And still, I didn’t fully fall in love with this song until recently, because I didn’t see any real plus side in pointing out how awful giving birth in a manger really is until I let it sink in that this wasn’t just any sweet little baby who we made be born in a manger. This was God. The savior of the whole human race. The person born to bear the sins of the world. This was the long-awaited Christ child, and we didn’t know who He was.
Jesus came into the world of circumstances and still showed us how to love God and love neighbor. He taught us that the greatest among us must serve. He taught us that whatever we do to those least among us we do to God. He lived his life to show us how to be our best amid the worst the world has to offer. Two thousand years later we are singing prayers that say, “Please forgive us, Lord. We didn’t know it was You.”
That’s not for nothing. That’s a reminder, every day, no matter what else is going on in our own lives, to look into the depths of human despair, at the grimy, at the dirty, at the bloody, at the foreign and the frightening, and to say, “Is that You, Lord?”
Because the answer to the question is alway “yes.”
Another dark day. I fear the assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey will serve as another Archduke Franz Ferdinand type of moment on the path to a large-scale war. I pray that I am wrong, but I’ve studied a lot of history, and if history does, in fact, repeat itself, things don’t look good right now.
That thought has led me to reflect on the idea of peace. On a global scale. I don’t know what that looks like. The United States had been at war (or war-like states) for more than half of my lifetime. I started college less than a month before 9/11. My classmates were the first to go to Afghanistan and then Iraq. I have never known a time in the 15 years since then that I haven’t had a middle school, high school, or college classmate fighting overseas.
I want better for my son. I want better for all our sons and daughters. I don’t know how to go about that, though. I look at Russia and Turkey and ISIS and the US’s dependence on foreign oil, and I don’t see any way to avoid more bloodshed. The only comfort I have right now is knowing that I am not alone. I know there are other Americans out there who don’t want to rush to war. I know there are other parents out there working to raise our sons and daughters to value peace, both global and interpersonally. Most importantly, I know that I have God who so loved us that He sent down Jesus to be our Prince of Peace. I know that if we set aside everything that tries to hurt or divide us and focus exclusively on Jesus’s message of loving God and loving our neighbor, it is virtually impossible to end up at war.
I don’t really know that that’s a reasonable expectation for the world right now, but I do know that God rarely operates based on reasonable expectations. There is nothing reasonable about Christmas, but here we are, bracing to celebrate it even 2,000 years later. Maybe this time we’ll get it right for once. Peace on earth for my child, and your child, too.
Stranger things have happened.
Today I got to spend the morning working with our Sunday School children. They had dress rehearsals before church, then did their play for the whole congregation during the time normally reserved for the sermon.
I am sad to report that my camera shut off (card full) halfway through the performance, so I don’t have video (hopefully someone else got some), but the play went off really well. Aside from some nervous shoving between the sheep and the camel, everyone hit their marks and their lines, and the congregation seemed to enjoy themselves as much as the kids.
What made this play so special was that it was written by our children. We almost didn’t let them do it. We were crunched for time this year, we only have a handful of kids in Sunday school right now, and the adults were all pretty emotionally spent after the election. The grown ups all voted for a traditional pageant with an adult narrator. The kids, however, had other ideas. They wanted to do it all: write, direct, and star. Thankfully we have a policy of giving our kids a great deal of leeway in our congregation because they were right. When we wanted to pull back, they pushed us all forward, and that’s exactly what we needed right now.
They ended up writing a short, simple play about how messages from God get twisted around when humans get involved, and how what we want from God is rarely what we get, but what we get is usually what we really need.
They named the play A Different Kind of King, and I am sharing the (rough) script below.
Angel and Star at the front of the church
Angel: God told me there’s going to be a new king on earth. You have to go light the way for Him.
Star: A new king. There have been lots of kings all over the world. What’s so special about one more?
Angel: This is going to be a different kind of king. This king won’t come from men. This king will come from God. Go get ready.
Star: Okay. Where am I going?
Star: Bethlehem? That is different!
Star wanders up higher on the stage.
Star: A different kind of king? A different kind of king. I like that. Maybe this will be a fancy king. A shiny king. A glittery king. I sure would like that.
Wiseman and Camel come on and stare up at the Star.
Wiseman: Is that new star? It is! What does that mean?
Wiseman: What can it be? What can it be?
Wiseman: What can it be?
Star: Oh come on, it means a new king! A very different kind of king. REALLY different.
Wiseman: I think it might mean a new king. A very different kind of king. Maybe this king will be a smart king. A king that wants to learn. A king that surrounds himself with smart people.
Wiseman starts to walk off, but camel keeps looking at the star.
Wiseman: Come on, Camel. Let’s go look for a king.
Wiseman and Camel wander off, but Herod comes up from behind them.
Herod: A new king? Preposterous. I am the king. I am the best king. I do all the best things. No one has more respect for the poor and needy than I do…except what if the people like the new king better than me? I can’t let that happen. This new king must be stopped.
Herod exits. Camel and sheep walk up on stage
Camel Exits: Sheep runs over to Shepard, who is looking up at the star.
Shepard: That sure is a pretty star.
Shepard: What? A new king? I don’t want any more kings. Kings are mean. Kings don’t care about people like me.
Shepard: A different kind of king? Maybe I’d go see that.
Kids clear stage.
Choir sings “Who Would Imagine A King.”
Mary and the baby on stage, other characters come in one at at time and take a peek at the baby.
Angel: There He is. Your new king.
Star: That’s it? A baby? Wrapped in swaddling clothes? That’s not fancy. Where’s the glitter?
Wiseman comes in: A baby? Babies aren’t smart! Babies can’t even talk.
Animals come in, sniff baby.
Shepard: A baby? I don’t understand.
Mary: This is going to be a different kind of king. He will be called Emmanuel, which means God with us. He isn’t the kind of king the world is looking for right now, but he will be the kind of king the world needs. He has come to show us all how to love God and how to love our neighbor, and that is what will make Him the King of Kings.
Today is a busy day for the Spangler household. We are cooking and cleaning, and delivering Pampered Chef orders and Christmas cards, then we are off to a tennis tournament in Buffalo.
It’s nothing major, nothing we’ll likely even remember much of a few months from now. It’s just one of those days where we get to get a little done and have a little fun as a family. This season I’m working harder to try to recognize that these are good days. There have been so many bad days in 2016. And by bad I mean terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. I have found that the awesome, amazing, fantastic, very good days aren’t enough to even the score this year. This year I am learning that I have to find ways to take joy and comfort in the days when nothing major goes wrong. At first it felt like I was lowering the bar too much, and I wasn’t sure that was helpful in the long run.
Then one Saturday in November during one of those terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days I got a little wake-up call. Jackson started vomiting at about 1 am and continued to do so hourly until 6 am. And then our cat died. Susie had to go to church, so it fell to me to dig a grave. We live in a heavily wooded area with our fair share of digging animals, so I had to get down at least 4 feet in an area filled with big, old tree roots. I finally had to text my neighbor to see if he had an auger I could borrow. He didn’t, but he had a fence post digger and a sharp shovel and a willingness to work. We dug for about half an hour, both of us drenched in sweat by the time we finished. At which point I turned to him and said, “Hey, why aren’t you at church this morning?”
He very casually said, “It’s my birthday. My wife and kids gave me the morning off.”
My stomach sank and clenched at the same time. He’d just spent his birthday morning off digging a grave for my dead cat. I apologized profusely. He just laughed and said, “It’s okay.”
I kept apologizing.
He finally smiled and said, “Any day you get to spend helping someone is a good day.”
Ever since then I’ve been working as hard as I can to remember that lesson and even expand on it. Any day I help someone is a good day. Any day I get to talk to a friend is a good day. Any day I get to spend with my family being happy and healthy is a good day.
I don’t think I am ever going to look back on 2016 as a good year overall, but as I sat down and went through our photos to make our annual year-in-video, keeping those new lessons in mind, I did find that if I looked hard enough and kept the right mindset, I was able to find a lot of those good, quietly happy moments amid the mess and mayhem.
Here are a few of our good moments, in the hopes that they will help you find a few brights spots of your own in these dark days.