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Inspiration | Mary Biever | One Writing Mother
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A Single Light

In the painting of Rembrandt’s student, The Adoration of the Shepherds, in the National Gallery in London, we see more of the Christmas nativity story than we realize.  Darkness surrounds all those in the picture. Until we get to the light surrounding the Nativity scene.

Shepherds, straight from the fields are there with Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

There is a lantern someone tried to use to bring light to the darkness. But that light fades in comparison to that of the Christ Child.

So many of us live in worlds with darkness. They are worlds where we have been blindsided more times than we can count by disappointment and betrayal. Bad things happen. Things that aren’t fair happen. Those things hurt us, and we carry battle scars from lost battles. If I had only known the darkness, the pain, and the scars, I don’t think I could have born it.

When we, like the shepherds, open our eyes and see the Christ Child, there is a light that shines. It shows us with our flaws. Our faults and failings. And those painful scars.

The scars may remain, but with the light of Christ they are transformed into something beautiful.

I have lived my own verse of this story. As I told someone last night, the important part is that Jesus Christ took those scars, and transformed me by using them. He does make beauty from ashes.

The sorrows of the first verses of my life are now augmented by a refrain of alleluias of thanksgiving to Jesus.

This week, as we sing Oh Come, O Come Emmanuel, I invite you to gaze into the light of the Christ Child and listen to Him, so that you too can join the refrain of glorias that change everything.

Don’t get so taken with a world of darkness and pain that you miss the light of Christ.

A Pilgrim Melting Pot

My ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower in 1620. However, some of them arrived later.

Robert Shelley arrived in Boston in 1632, and Judith Garnet arrived in 1634, as did Dolar Davis. John Cary came to Masachusetts in 1634 as well  – he was the first Latin teacher in Plymouth colony and served as the first constable and then town clerk of Bridgewater. Some stories say that he taught William Brewster Hebrew. Robert Linnell arrived in 1639. Many were among the first families in Barnstable, Massachusetts.

On paper, that sounds very respectable. But there is more to the story. Judith Garnet was excommunicated from the Pilgrims. Why? It was written about her that she was “proud, tenacious of her own opinions, and had very little control over her tongue, which ran like a whip-saw, cutting everything it came in contact with.” She got mad when a group of women in the church held a private meeting, and she wasn’t invited. So she told them what she thought. And she got kicked out because of it. It was then written, “it was the standing topic of conversation for six months.”

And it got more colorful after that. Her daughter Hannah at age 16 fell in love with a 25 year old David Linnell. They got too close for comfort and were publicly whipped. The next year, they got married. David didn’t rejoin the church until the end of his life, and Hannah never did.

The migration continued. William Durkee was probably the first Irishman who settled in Massachusetts Bay Colony. When the Irish lost to Oliver Cromwell, Durkee was taken away and spent years as a slave in Barbados sugar plantations. Then he was released when Charles II came to power and indentured himself to Thomas Bishop to come to America. As a Catholic, Durkee had a hard time in the Pilgrim colony. He was fined for not attending church, and Bishop paid his fine.

Durkee fell in love with a girl named Martha Cross, who got pregnant. Her family didn’t want her to marry a poor servant. He was taken to court and they asked how he would support his wife. He told them his salary was 18 meals per week, and he would share them with her. Durkee was sentenced to 20 lashes for fornication. The resolution was that they got married, and their first child was born 2 weeks later.

Because Durkee was Catholic and would not renounce his faith, he could not own land. Still, he and Martha struggled together and had a large family.

Cary originally came to America because he was studying in Europe when his father died. His brothers got the land and left Cary with only 100 pounds of a large fortune. With nothing to lose, he came to America to build a new life for himself. In 1639, he was among the settlers who negotiated for land purchases with Massasoit. He and his wife had 12 children. In his mother’s final will in England, she willed him a single shilling – if he were still alive.

In these stories, I see glimmers of myself. Thirty years ago, I was told that with my mouth had I lived in Salem, I would have been burned as a witch. It turns out my ancestors weren’t burned. But they were flogged and excommunicated from the Pilgrims. I also see my love of Latin and culture in this story.

My point with this is most of our struggles are not new. Our ancestors and families have fought and struggled. They had their hearts broken and made their mistakes. They were dealt lousy hands and made the best of them. Sometimes they had to start a new life, which they did.

We can do the same. We can choose to blame injustices and bad experiences for our failures. Or we can recognize them as the things that toughened us and motivated us for the real American dream – to build a better tomorrow.

And for that, I give thanks.




Faith and Forgiveness in a Fallen World

Beware the carousel trap of hate and anger. It’s like an amusement park ride where you choose your horse, go up and down peaks and valleys, and hope that things will get better when you go around the next turn.

The problem is the carousel horse simply goes in a circle. As the music repeats itself, we ride up, and down, and up again, and sometimes get so preoccupied with the ups and downs that we fail to recognize we’re just going in a circle with no chance of betting out of the trap.

Life in a fallen world can be hard. We can be lied about, betrayed, hurt, shunned, or worse.

I have a lifetime of experience of the above and know how easy it is to respond first with anger and hurt. It’s important to feel and acknowledge the pain. When we are on the receiving end of those bad things, we can slip into self-pity and sometimes feel like what we are going through is unexplored territory in the history of humankind.

Wrong. People have done bad things to each other ever since Cain and Abel. Once we realize that, it makes forgiveness easier.

When we forgive those who did terrible things to us, we do not free the perpetrators from accountability. Forgiving does not mean we open ourselves to continued abuse. Sometimes, the only course we can take is to permanently remove ourselves from an abusive situation.

What do we do instead?

When we forgive those who are evil, we give ourselves the freedom to heal. And with the healing come opportunities to build something new.

In other words, there comes a time when the smartest thing we can do is say, “Stop the carousel. I want to get off.”

When we do, perhaps one day we will find a real horse and ride it into new adventures.

We must forgive in order to live. And when we do, we will discover that faith is possible in a fallen world.

I am still learning to ride off into the sunset. But as I learn, I’ve discovered the huge difference between a wooden carousel horse of hate and the real thing of joy, love, and learning.

Wanna join me?


The Outcasts of the Cafeteria Pack – and the Leadership Opportunities They Have

Bret Harte once wrote a tragic tale of what happened to “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” What they experience is familiar to anyone who didn’t quite fit in the mold in high school.

Often in teen-aged cliques (especially those with girls), those who are part of the “in” crowd have set rules for what they can and cannot do, speak to, or wear. If someone in the clique dares to venture an independent thought, the clique shuns the outsider, circles the wagons, and then self-congratulates in the inner circle that they kept  their tribe clean and intact.

And that’s rough for the girl who doesn’t fit in that crowd – or other crowds either.

I wish I could tell the girls in that position that they have a unique opportunity. They can mingle and get to know a diverse range of people. The more different people they meet, the more creative ideas they will encounter. They will experience different cultures, see unique ways to solve problems and will learn the first rule of true leadership:

Finding that spark of genius or excitement in everyone you meet and finding ways for those you meet to work together to create something new and wonderful.

When you meet those different people, you’ll discover a bigger world from the pristine popular illusion described above. It’s a world where people stumble, fall, fail, pick themselves up, and try again.

Another thing you will learn is how to spot wanna be leaders who never grew beyond the popular girl cafeteria table and spend their lives trying to recreate that world. That’s the world that Skeeter Phelan alienates in the movie The Help, when she reaches beyond the white world of segregation into a more diverse one that reflects compassion and understanding for those who are different from her.

Once she stepped outside those strictly set rules, she discovered her true talent and also found a niche where she could use it. She developed her voice and went to a new place, where her talents were valued and she could blossom and grow.

So my advice to those who walk into the cafeteria and find yourselves shunned by the in crowd and queen bees. Don’t get sucked into their game. You were born for a bigger world than the cafeteria, and now’s your chance to start developing the skills to get there.

Letting Go – A Cycle

Thirteen years ago, Richard and I left our kids with friends and went to our burned-out shell of a home to personally throw out the kids’ toys. Our home had burned, and we learned that the smoke from burning plastic during the fire could have adhered to their toys that we had thought would be saved.

We had a dumpster in our driveway, and we gritted our teeth as we threw out our kids’ favorite toys. We didn’t want them to see us throw out the toy kitchen, the Legos, and bins of toys I had so painstakingly found for them. Our kids, in kindergarten and second grade, didn’t know that that year, their Christmas toy replacements were paid for with our insurance claim.

That fall, as we tossed out most of our belongings, I hesitated to throw out my cookbook collection. I had spent a lifetime collecting my favorite cookbooks and had carefully marked them with notes. The books that were left were scorched and smoked. I hoped the smell would one day go away, so I put them in an air tight tub with fabric softener sheets. Maybe with time the smell would go away.

A few times over the next 13 years, I opened that tub, hoping the smell would be gone. It didn’t happen. Each time, the smell brought back all those bad memories.

Now, my kids are in college, and we’re reorganizing our empty nest. We’re making room for the next chapter in our lives.

Yesterday, I re-discovered the tub of charred cookbooks. They still smelled. In 13 years, I’ve never once been able to look at my notes or retrieve a favorite recipe. It was time.

Our son, who was 5 years old at the time of the fire and had just started kindergarten, was helping us move and re-arrange furniture. The tub was too heavy for me to lift to throw out.

I went with him to the trash can. As soon as I saw those old recipes, I knew I couldn’t watch.  “Throw them out,” I told him.

“Do you want to go through them?” He asked.

“Just get rid of them,” I said as I went back inside.

The little boy I helped a lifetime ago in the biggest loss of our lives was now helping me.

I thought of the other things in our lives that are broken that we sometimes hold onto. We hope they will change, and we wrap them up tightly in our hearts. The pain returns when we remember those packages.

Sometimes, we have to simply purge those charred remains in our hearts to make room for the joy in our present, in our now.

Beyond Thorns in the Flesh

When Paul writes about thorns in the flesh, I think his reference is an understatement. A thorn in the flesh is an annoyance.

Sometimes it feels like a knife in the heart. It could be a silent sorrow of a stabbing you’ve endured for 40 years. Or it could be the new and improved, 21st century rocker knife which rocks back and forth, slicing and dicing your feelings with each stroke. Like Paul, I asked God to remove them, but it didn’t happen.

The good in my life outweighs those thorns in the flesh – or the knives. Most of the time that’s what I focus on and talk about.

The thorns are still there. We sometimes forget the thorn is there and then something shifts and it hurts all over again. The pain gets easier with time. At first, it felt like a twisting of that knife in the heart, or a punch in the gut that would reduce me to tears. Now it fills me with a sadness as I long for what might have been but isn’t.

As I dealt with that thorn in the flesh yesterday, it was now an ache. I prayed for God to help me handle it, and Psalm 27 came to me – “the Lord is my light and my salvation.”

Then I turned on K-Love radio – my car radio and I have a special relationship. When I need it most, I can turn it on and the song that is playing matches perfectly what I need to hear. I was hurting too much to know what the song was that was playing, but basically, it was that Jesus shed His blood for me, and He loves me no matter what.

I knew as the song played that I was not alone, and I do have a light and a salvation that will carry me through the valleys of the shadows of despair.

Those thorns in the flesh are what opened my own heart to compassion for others. They help me see pain in others, even when they don’t discuss it , and my thorns help me help and inspire other people.

Like Paul said of his own thorns in the flesh – when I am weak, I am strong.  The things that should break us – but don’t – are the things that God uses for our greatest strengths.

Help and Hope

At least once a week, someone crosses my path in horrific circumstances. Sometimes, I can help them. Sometimes, I cannot, but I give them referrals to organizations and groups who can.

Though I may not be able to directly help them out of their circumstance, I work to give them what I can – hope.

I have often walked in their shoes.

  • I have been betrayed by some who should have loved me most and should have defended me from harm.
  • I have lost everything in my world twice in a lifetime.
  • I have struggled as a young person, couch-surfing from one friend’s house to another’s.
  • I have knelt in church on a Sunday morning, in borrowed clothes, with my husband and children, the morning after our home and business burned and we had no idea how we would survive.

The most powerful help we can give those in dire straits is wrapped in a package of hope and tied with a bow of encouragement.

Sometimes, short term help comes bundled in a straight-jacket of discouragement:

  • You can’t fix this.
  • You can’t solve this.
  • You are incapable of doing anything to improve your situation.
  • We will save you from yourself. And you will do what we tell you to do.

In the long run, the short term help given to nurture dependence becomes as much of a burden as the original problem.

I believe these people are sent across my path precisely because I can give them hope. I tell them I have lost everything, been desperate, and not known how I would survive. But with some help, I worked through those issues.

Then I add to my pep talk – “I have faith in you. I know you can work through these problems. Use the help you can find, and work your way through this one step at a time. There may be setbacks. Don’t let them stop you.” They are added to my prayer list.

We never know how our message of hope empowers others. This spring, I spoke with one man in a lose-lose situation with no way out. I had no idea what the resolution of his problems would be.

Several weeks later, he came to me and told me the afternoon of our talk, his burdens had gotten too heavy, and he was ready to end it. Our conversation convinced him to try a little longer.

His path is not easy, but he continues to work through his problems. Each month, his load is a little lighter.

In the Hunger Games, President Snow said, “Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective.”

As a caution to those who offer hope to others…Snow continued…”A lot of hope is dangerous. Spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.”

If you offer others too much hope and empower them to solve their own problems, there will be some who are threatened by your message. They may try to snuff your message. Ignore them.

Be the light in the darkness, the candle in the wind, and together we can raise the spirits of more people than we will ever realize. Never underestimate the power of faith.

6 Leadership Lessons in Guardians of the Galaxy and The Body of Christ

Guardians of the Galaxy has to be my favorite movie of the year. It’s not just because I like superheroes.

I love the messy world with imperfect heroes who work together and save everyone. Why do they succeed, despite the odds against them? They aren’t the perfect story book heroes. Nevertheless, they are a textbook example of effective teamwork. The most effective teams I have worked with share these characteristics.

  1. Divergent Backgrounds. When leaders make the mistake of assembling a team of like-minded people from the same circumstances, it makes sense in the short term because there is minimal conflict. Over time, these teams become stale, boring, and lose their edge. However, stronger teams are built from people from different backgrounds. They bring unique strengths, perspectives, and friends to the table. With nonprofits, this is particularly essential as each person from a different background bring potential volunteers from an entirely different circle. The wider the range of experiences in our circle, the more opportunities we have for creative solutions to unexpected problems.
  2. Difficult Past Challenges. Heartbreak, loss, and personal tragedies could have defined different guardians. They lost families and cultures, were tortured, were abused, and were used. Some would have been broken by these losses. But the Guardians work to overcome their pasts. Parts of their past come back to haunt them at times.
  3. Unique Abilities. The Guardians discover when they work together, the whole is stronger than their individual parts. Everyone, from the small racoon to the wooden Groot, can use those unique talents to solve problems. Some would underestimate their individual potential to help the team.
  4. Humor. We get by with a little help from our friends, and that’s a whole lot easier when we can laugh at ourselves.
  5. A Focus Towards the Future. Despite those past losses, the Guardians help each other keep a focus towards the future. As they help each other do that, the destructive potential of their toxic pasts diminishers.
  6. Self Sacrifice. Initially, Groot is a simple tree who can’t even talk. At the end, he’s the one who can save everyone else. He cares about the Guardians and willingly gives of himself to save everyone else.

Each of these things don’t just describe an effective team or why Guardians of the Galaxy save the day at the end of the team. They also describe the body of Christ and the real world in which I live.

The real world isn’t a place of perfect families and people that perfectly fit into neat boxes that are easily categorized. Instead, our world is often a mess of flawed, broken people in circumstances we cannot fathom.

With Jesus Christ, they and we are reminded of that flicker of light in each of us such that when we learn to use our talents and respect the talents of others around us, great things happen.

Jesus ate with thieves and spoke with prostitutes. When Pharisees tried to force him into their convenient little boxes, he turned their world on end. He didn’t let them stop him from serving others and teaching those around him. He teaches us today.

And when we let Him, He helps us work together as the Body of Christ, still making incredible things happen that transform the world.

And if we happen to laugh along the way with a great romp of a film like Guardians of the Galaxy, so much the better.



When Someone Who Should Love You Doesn’t

If we lived in a perfect land of unicorns leaping and feeding on marshmallows, we might have a best of all possible worlds where every child is born wanted, respected and loved.

Sadly, our world is different from that.

There are ways to survive and later to thrive, despite the lack of love from someone who should know better.

Even without realizing it, if you grow up with someone who should love you and doesn’t, you may go through the stages of grief:

  • Denial. This can take the form of pretending the world is perfect. It can also take the form of compartmentalizing. Sometimes the only way to survive the trauma of being unloved is to mentally or physically escape. This can take both constructive and destructive forms. It can also take the form of constant trying and attempting to be good enough or noble enough for that person to love you – and to let that person or those persons ignore all your personal boundaries.
  • Anger. If we deny the source of our grief, it is easy for it to come across as anger, sometimes in the form of displaced aggression.
  • Bargaining. This is an especially toxic stage for the person who tries for years if not decades to be good enough or to sacrifice enough to be loved. The risk is we can sacrifice ourselves and our souls into a toxic state where we have no personal boundaries. Another risk here is we learn a pattern of behavior and response that we may repeat with other people because this is what we grew up doing.
  • Depression. It is easy to internalize feelings of rejection and blame ourselves. Sometimes those who don’t love us will reinforce this by blaming us.

The challenge in maintaining relationships with toxic people who do not love us is that we will put ourselves into a self-imposed circle of hell, repeating cycles of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. It is easy to mistrust good people and attribute bad motives that aren’t there but are in our past.

  • Acceptance. This step can take a lifetime to reach. It’s when we realize this person does not love us and never did. Once we realize that, we can accept it. The time may come when we have to completely remove ourselves from toxic circumstances for our own self-preservation. There is no unwritten law that we must accept a lifetime of ridicule and insults. We deserve better. You deserve better. I deserve better. If we spend too much time on a self-destructive hamster wheel of the cycles listed above, it’s easy to get so consumed that we lack the time or energy to discover or cultivate positive relationships with people who will love us unconditionally.

The beauty of acceptance, or this final step, is that it’s possible to see how God took the pain and loss and found ways to bring other people in our lives to fill that gap. As Corrie ten Boom said, there is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.

With acceptance comes the ability to move forward and rediscover joy. When we reach that stage, it may even progress to where we feel compassion for those who cannot love unconditionally.

When you have faced – and accepted – the sorrow of not being loved by those who should, you will better be able to reach out in empathy to others in the same situation. You will recognize others who have had to create themselves despite a missing, foundational puzzle piece. I especially find myself called to encourage young people. The skills I learned as a mom – to fix the scraped knee and wipe away tears, or help a child learn to laugh despite a tough situation – will be put to use for a lifetime.

Aeschylus described how we can recover from searing, soul-shattering pain (translated from ancient Greek):

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart
until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

His grace is not awful. It is sufficient. As the pain drips from our hearts, a drop at a time, it is replaced with a wisdom and understanding.

And then, those who were unloved can love others.

Yes, Virginia, There is Still Integrity

Dear Virginia,

Some people in this world encourage us to think integrity is a term of the past, and that the world we live in is too grey for basic moral standards. I am here to tell you that we can still choose to do the right thing.

Sometimes, the decisions we make really are a choice between doing what is right and either doing what is wrong or sitting back and saying nothing when something we know is wrong is being done.

Choosing the honest path can be difficult. As Saint Thomas More wrote, “Tribulation is a gift from God that He gives to his special friends.” So if you are chosen to take this path in a difficult way keep the long view that good things can come from your struggle.

Those who seek to compromise your integrity may try all sorts of things to stop you. Here are common tactics used:

  • Appeal to compassion and pity. They will try to convince you that if you follow your conscience you are mean or heartless. Use this appeal to think through a way to make honest decisions with compassion.
  • Appeal to the crowd. They will tell you everyone else is ok with making a decision that violates your conscience. “Everybody else does it” neither is nor will be a reason to compromise your integrity. If this tactic is used with you, recognize it and resolve that doing the right thing is not a popularity contest. Saint Thomas More, who died for his convictions, also wrote, “If honor were profitable, everyone would be honorable.”
  • Make you question yourself. You will be told that you are confused, or misunderstand circumstances. When this tactic is used, use it to do your homework and make sure you have a logical basis for your choices and actions.
  • Bully you. You may be bullied or threatened. This could be a sign that you really are doing the right thing. Don’t cave to it.
  • Harass those you love. This tactic was recently used by someone trying to stop me from doing the right thing. Hold firm to your course. In my case, it backfired and resulted in enlightening others that what I was doing was right.

At every step you make on an honest path, when you are faced with choices, do so with prayerful discernment.

Then you may make a stand for what is right and see that temporal justice does not prevail. Take heart. God may have called you to push a rock up a hill, but He didn’t call you to move it. He will move it in His time and in His plan which we may never see nor understand. When you take the path of integrity, the important battle in your own soul is won.

When you choose the path of integrity, at the end of that path, you will discover something wonderful. It’s not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

It is instead the strength that comes from living by the courage of your convictions. There is a sense of accomplishment and also a relief.  As a French proverb reminds us, “There is no pillow so soft as a clear conscience.”


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