Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Action and Adventure + Faith and Forgiveness = A Great Summer Read

Part 2 of an Interview with Andrew Huff,
Author of Cross Shadow

Looking for a fast-paced, action-packed summer read? Look no further than Andrew Huff’s Cross Shadow, the follow-up to the A Cross to Kill, a nominee for ACFW’s Carol Award in the Debut category.

The Shepherd Suspense series features John Cross, a former CIA assassin turned small town pastor who keeps finding himself in precarious situations. As much as he wanted to leave his old life behind, he comes to the realization that you can never really leave the Central Intelligence Agency. Is he really where God wants him to be?

Huff’s characters wrestle with faith, forgiveness, and redemption in middle of a plot packed with danger. He wants his series to take the Bible and the church seriously while offering the same kind of jaw-dropping action some of his favorite novels and films such as Mission: Impossible, Jason Bourne, and James Bond excel at.

Q: How did John and Christine, the leading lady of Cross Shadow, meet?

On occasion, John would accept the call from the CIA to participate in rescue missions during his off time from serving the church. He was dropped into Amman, Jordan, on one such mission only to discover that the person he’d been sent to exfiltrate was Christine Lewis, a beautiful American journalist about to be executed by her captors. Using only a stun gun and his hand-to-hand combat skills, John stayed the execution and escaped with Christine. After he disappeared and all knowledge of his existence was denied, Christine made it her mission upon returning home to locate the man who saved her life.

Through a contact in Washington with mysterious ties to the intelligence community, Christine was given a hint to John’s true identity in the form of an address. She’s instructed to go there on Sunday, and when she arrived, she found John preaching a sermon in the small country church. John’s instinct was to run, but something caused him to trust her and reveal his story. Christine wanted to protect his secret, but forces beyond her control appeared, and she was caught in the middle as a choice from John’s past came back to haunt him.

Q: Trying to protect Christine from danger puts John in the middle of some moral quandaries. How does he handle himself mentally and spiritually in those situations?

The battle waging in John from the beginning is the tension between who he is now and who he was trained to be. His focus has been singularly placed on the act of killing. But what he’s suddenly faced with as he pursues a relationship with Christine and continues to serve as the pastor of his church is that the instincts drilled into him carry other moral prices as well. The more the situation in Dallas unravels, the more out of control John begins to feel with his own mental and spiritual status.

At the same time, he’s committed to protecting the innocent and preserving life, so he works to redirect his instincts to achieve those two goals. That’s what complicates his relationship with truth. If he’s convinced that what he’s doing is for the greater good, he’s quick to compromise on deception and manipulation. This is a struggle I have and have seen in others. By lying to ourselves about our intentions, we can sometimes make choices that are inconsistent with what we say we believe.

Q: Does John’s prior profession and the choices he made ever come back to haunt him?

Oh, all the time. The truth about the Central Intelligence Agency is that you never truly leave the Central Intelligence Agency. So, John keeps getting pulled back in, even when he says he doesn’t want to. The only problem is that he was really good at what he did. And not just the assassination part. Which begs the question: Should he go back? Was he only running from guilt when he decided to leave?

In Cross Shadow, we also examine his choice to accept the pastorate at his church despite being young in his faith and untrained for the ministry. From the outside looking in, he doesn’t seem like the best candidate to truly lead the church toward growth. Those were real questions that not only were present when I was writing the first book but have also been asked by readers afterward. I can’t wait for you to see how the story continues for him.

Q: What kind of research goes into writing about a CIA agent?

It does get tricky, especially when writing about members of the Special Activities Center (the CIA’s division for covert operations). The most important thing for me about writing these characters is to never make it feel like they’re learning any of it for the first time. Since we’re often in their perspective, there are certain actions they might take or things they might say that need to be second nature to them. That needs to be balanced with making sure the reader can follow along. This means I need to know my stuff!

A lot of my research comes from scouring the internet. (I’m sure the CIA knows how many times I visit their website.) But I also research movies and books too; other writers before me have done their homework, so I love to learn and be inspired by how someone else might have crafted the world of the United States Intelligence Community. A great book specifically on the CIA’s targeted killing programs is called Surprise, Kill, Vanish by Annie Jacobsen. It didn’t come out until 2019, so I didn’t have it as a resource for the first book, but I surprised myself with how accurately I was able to write some things with the then more limited knowledge about this particular aspect of the CIA.

Q: How long have you been working on the Shepherd Suspense series, and have you always wanted to write?

I worked on A Cross to Kill for several years beginning in 2014. The series didn’t start to take shape until two years ago after I signed with Kregel Publications for the book to be published. I originally wrote A Cross to Kill as a stand-alone novel, though I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t already thought about what I might do to continue the story with the characters. What I found most helpful in planning out the series was asking myself what lingering questions I had from the first story, and there were enough that the plots for the second and third books came relatively easy.

While I didn’t start attempting to write until I was an older teen, my passion for storytelling has been a part of my life from an early age. One of my favorite pastimes growing up was to tell stories using action figures (mainly to myself, but often with my brothers). I was also into art and would occasionally adapt those stories into drawings. I even made some short films based on stories I would write. In some ways, novels feel like a more recent addition to my repertoire of formats to tell stories in.

Q: What can readers expect from the final installment of the Shepherd Suspense trilogy, Right Cross?

A Cross to Kill featured a small-town setting with international intrigue. In Cross Shadow, I flip the script, and we get to go with John and Christine to a bigger city to solve a personal mystery. With Right Cross, both the locations and plot go big. I like to try and write the thrills of a Mission: Impossible movie onto the page with my novels, and the final book in the Shepherd Suspense series is the most M:I of them all.

At the same time, the characters have grown. They’re no longer wrestling with questions of identity and purpose. With a newfound confidence in their standing before God, they get a chance to be who they were ultimately created to be. And I’ve had so much watching that unfold. I can’t wait for readers to do the same!

Learn more about Andrew Huff and the Shepherd Suspense novels at www.andrewhuffbooks.com. He can also be found on Facebook (@huffwrites), Twitter (@andrewjohnhuff) and Instagram (@andyhuff).

Sunday, July 5, 2020

I'll Fly Away

SOMEDAY... Someday, we'll get to do new videos again.

I've never quite figured out exactly why kids love the song, "I'll Fly Away." Maybe it's just because they like the idea of flying. Maybe just the upbeat tune. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

A Guide to Me-Free Living

Part 2 of an interview with Shannon Popkin,
Author of Comparison Girl

Miss part 1 of the interview? Read it here.

Do you constantly compare yourself with others? On social media, in your neighborhood, at church, or in the school drop-off lane, do you push yourself to prove that you measure up . . . and then feel ashamed when you dont? Measuring yourself against others isnt healthy. And it isnt Gods plan. In fact, the way of Jesus is completely upside down from this measure-up world. He invites us to follow him and be restored to freedom, confidence, and joy.

In Comparison Girl, Shannon Popkin shares what she has discovered about her own measure-up fears and get-ahead pride. With humor and honesty, shes created this six-week Bible study to explore the conversations Jesus had and the stories he shared with people who—like us—were comparing themselves.

Q: Women comparing themselves to others has been around since the beginning of time—we read about it frequently in the Bible—so it isn’t anything new. Has social media in recent years made comparison an even bigger problem?

For sure. I remember a time, when my daughter was a little girl and hadn’t been invited to a birthday party. It was totally understandable; this neighbor girl was a different age and had only invited girls from her class, but still it was so painful. I said, “Honey, why don’t you come away from the window…” But today, with the dawn of social media, there are so many more “windows”. With Facebook and Instagram blowing back the curtains of a million friends, neighbors, and strangers at once, allowing us to gather tangible evidence on how we measure up, it’s much harder to “come away from the window.” 

And how does this anonymous measuring against each other from a distance affect our relationships? Think of my daughter at that window. After the party was over, she didn’t go running out the door to meet up with her little friend. She pulled back. Don’t we do the same, even as adults? If someone makes me feel inadequate, I pull away instead of leaning in. I do the same thing when I feel like I’m the one who’s superior and this other person is “beneath me.” Either way, comparing myself on social media causes isolation, not connection.

Q: The common response to this problem of comparison is: “Just stop comparing!” But is this what Jesus taught? 

It’s very common to be told, “Just stop comparing.” However, when Jesus came, encountering people who were plagued with just as much jealousy, condescension, and shame as we are today, that isn’t what he said. Not once! There is no verse which quotes Jesus saying, “Come follow me, and I will teach you not to compare.” In fact, Jesus’ teaching often invited people to compare.

Think of the story of the Good Samaritan and the one about the wise and foolish builders. Think of the time the widow gave her two copper coins and Jesus said she had given more than anyone else. How about the time Martha was complaining and Jesus said Mary had chosen what was better? Jesus used comparison words and stories all the time. He taught a new upside-down way of comparing which stands in stark contrast to what we’re used to. In Jesus’ kingdom, the last will be first. The greatest among us is the servant of all. The one who humbles herself will be exalted. This book is a study of these upside-down comparison statements of Jesus, which teach us to live today the way we’ll wish we had on the day all things become realigned under King Jesus.

Q: How does your book take the conversation on comparison in a new direction?

I have lots of books on my shelf which remind me when I’m obsessing over how I measure up to lift my attention to what God says about me, and my identity in Christ. I’m a daughter of the King! I’m accepted. I can enter the throne room boldly (Hebrews 4:16). I already have a seat with Christ (Ephesians 2:6). All of these are true and incredibly helpful. But I’ve noticed that sometimes, after relishing who God says I am with my Bible open on my lap, I can get up and enter a room full of people and fall right back into obsessing over how I measure up. So, I wrote this book for women like me, who want to find freedom from measure-up comparison, not just alone before God, but also in a room full of people. And I’ve invited Jesus to do the teaching.

It’s interesting that Jesus—when responding to his disciples’ argument over who was the greatest—didn’t say, “Guys, good grief. There’s a throne with your name on it. What more do you want?” Instead, he pulled a baby on his lap and said, “You want to be great? Be like this baby. Be the smallest person in the room.” In other words, Jesus didn’t remind them of their identity by telling them they already were great. He told them how to be great in the upside-down kingdom. Jesus modeled this upside-down kingdom greatness by making himself small, emptying himself, and lifting up his friends as he died so they might have life. So, when I’m obsessing over how I measure up, Jesus gives me the same instructions. He says I should start pouring, not posturing. I should make myself small and lift others up. For this is the way to be free of measure-up comparison in a room full of people.

Q: What does it mean to live “me-free”? How does a me-free outlook give our differences new meaning?

When I compare myself with others, I might be looking around or glancing sideways, but my focus always boomerangs back to me. Me-first comparison drives me to constantly be absorbed with self. But me-free comparison is completely different. Obviously, the contrasts between me and others remain, but when I’m free of self-focus, those differences don’t add or detract from my value; they offer me unique ways to serve!

In his wisdom, God has tucked unique gifts into our Comparison Girl hands and hearts. He gives one more of this and another more of that. He purposefully mismatches us so that we’ll be drawn together. He fills our measuring cups with gifts that are meant for each other. As we come together and tip our cups simultaneously—each pouring and receiving—a unique unity forms. As all the gifts are both offered and accepted, we give each other a place to belong.

Q: Tell us about the “Disgust Factor Challenge.” Why does disgust have no place in the church?

The pain of feeling inadequate causes my heart to crave superiority, as if I can somehow balance things out. It’s ugly to admit, but I intuitively seek out people that I can look down upon. Then, when I find them, it feels good to voice my disgust. So, I’m disgusted with cheating spouses. I’m disgusted with dirty politicians. I’m disgusted with the woman in the express checkout who has more than twenty items. I go through life muttering, “Ugh! I have never… I would never… I could never!” But by glaring down with condescending disgust, I’m also lifting myself up. The two are inextricable.

Recently, some friends and I participated in a three week “Disgust Factor Challenge” where we held ourselves accountable to report any disgust. We were surprised at how often disgust had crept into our faces, words, and hearts—and often over nothing but an arbitrary difference, such as manners at the table, parenting style, or taking the back roads instead of the highway. Other times our disgust was pointed at people we saw as “sinners.” Yet by looking down in condescension, were we not just sinning in a different way? In the world, it feels natural to group up and decide who is disgusting and why they don’t belong. But in the kingdom of heaven, everyone belongs. Everyone is celebrated—not because we are the same, but precisely because we are different. As the Church, our goal is unity, not uniformity. If everyone was uniform, why would we need unity? Our disgust—whether over differences or over sin—is completely out of place in a group whose unity is formed by the cross.

Q: As you were writing, which chapter of Comparison Girl impacted you most?

The chapter on comparing wealth. Tim Keller says, “When you’re greedy, you don’t know that you are.” I think this is particularly true of Americans. As women with more disposable income than any preceding generation, we’ve got to consider that greed might be more of a problem than we realize. Those of us who have excess money (that’s me) often think of ourselves as blessed by God. But what if we’re really being tested by him? What if—as God pads our purses and bank accounts—he’s asking, Will you love me most? Will you worship me, not this money? Will you serve me with what you have, instead of trying to differentiate yourself so that you can “measure up”?

Studying Jesus words about camels and needles, caused me to recognize something I hadn’t considered: my wealth puts me at a disadvantage. It continually pulls my eyes back to the lines. In my jealousy, greed, and measure-up frenzy I’m actually missing out! God, who sees everything and misses nothing, will reward every sacrifice—down to a little two-cent Dixie cup of cold water (Matthew 10:42). Every time we tip our measuring cups forward and pour out even a few drops, we send treasure to the place where moth and rust cannot destroy (Matthew 6:20). I find this so motivating! I want to dream big, with eyes of faith and what God is asking me to sacrifice. Who might need what’s in my cup? And what reward might await me, when I let my generosity flow?

Q: How does “flipping the ruler” help us when we become judgmental of others?

Remember Jesus’ imagery of specks and logs? It’s comical to think of yourself not even noticing a log sticking out of your eye, but even more so when you’re trying to lean in and help someone with their speck. Specks are tiny. To measure, you’d lean in with the millimeter side of your ruler. Logs are large. To measure, you’d flip your ruler around and measure by the foot. Those of us who are judgmental or critical of other people are the ones leaning in to measure others’ flaws by the millimeter. Yet, as we lean in to judge others with disgust, our critical spirit is log-sized. It should be measured by the foot.

We tend to magnify the flaws of others and minimize our own, but when we compare down with hyper-critical judgment, we’re the ones with the bigger problem. So, the next time you’re tempted to lean in and measure someone’s mistake by the minutia, instead flip your ruler and say, “It’s such a small thing. Look how tiny it is. Look how big my arrogance is when I judge her.”

Q: What final encouragement would you offer someone in the audience who may be struggling with comparison or jealousy?

You are different from other people by God’s intentional design. Anything in your measuring cup is a gift from Him. Your enemy presses you to use what’s in your cup to get ahead in the world and finally measure up; then he shames you when you don’t. But Jesus turns your attention to the spout. As you tip your cup and pour into others, the measuring stops. The measure-up lines become irrelevant. The more you pour, the more God fills your cup with freedom, confidence, and joy. This me-free living is the only way to break free from the system of our measure-up world.

Connect with Shannon Popkin by visiting www.shannonpopkin.com, following her on Facebook (shanpopkin) or following her via Twitter (@ShannonPopkin).

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Battle Belongs to the Lord

I went way back six year's ago on this one. This was on Peyton's 10th birthday, and she turns 16 next week. I won't talk about how hard that is to believe. All these kids are going to be sophmores and juniors when school starts back. 

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Find, Fellowship, Forgive and Fortify One Another

Part 2 of an Interview with Amberly Neese,
Author of The Belonging Project

Miss part 1? Read it here!

In The Belonging Project, speaker and comedian Amberly Neese combines Bible study with delightful humor to create a refreshing and engaging experience that will encourage and equip women to pursue deeper relationships and true belonging by loving and serving one another. She describes The Belonging Project as an exploration of the New Testament as it pertains to biblical community. “God has designed us to live in mutually beneficial relationships and has given us the blueprints to do so in his Word. The study is designed to encourage, empower, and equip participants to thrive in the community to which God has called them,” she shares.

Neese provides biblical and practical help for cultivating meaningful relationships that glorify God through an examination of the many “one another” scriptures throughout the New Testament. She groups more than fifty of them into themes in order to lead readers on an exploration of how to:
  1. Find One Another
  2. Fellowship with One Another
  3. Forgive One Another
  4. Fortify One Another

Having women in our lives to help us grow in our capacity to love, serve, and forgive is always important, regardless of what is going on in our lives and our world around us. However, now, more than ever, we’ve become keenly aware of the need to pursue and build an authentic tribe. She shares more about that in the interview below.

Q: We’ve been in the midst of social distancing for what seems like forever now. How has this period of time made meaningful relationships all the more important?

Social distancing has made us painfully aware of the pangs of loneliness and disconnection. Zoom parties and drive-by encouragement are wonderful, but they are no substitution for sitting knee-to-knee with a friend, sharing our hearts. In addition, for some, having a house full of family in quarantine can be fun (and loud), but it may not be a conducive place to be truly seen and heard.

The time away from others has helped us see the need for others in our life. Biblical community is more important than ever as we rebuild from the quarantine. One of my closest friends lost a child during this season and the inability to hug her family, have a service for her sweet daughter, mourn collectively, and support her clan in this tragedy have been salt in her wounds for sure.

The Belonging Project highlights some ways to love and serve others from the comfort of one’s living room as well as the sweet discomfort of sitting with a friend in her pain. Social distancing may put a damper on connection, but there are ways to encourage others without breaking quarantine. I am a hugger—more like a tackler—so this time has been hard for me, but it has allowed me the opportunity to explore new ways to comfort, encourage, and connect with others.

Q: Sometimes social media is the only way we keep up with our friends. How can social media be both a help and hindrance to our friendships?

Social media can serve as a wonderful way to stay in touch, but it can also serve as a source of discouragement. It is easy to get caught up in the “compare snare”—the heartache of being left out and/or comparing oneself to the feed of others. It is easy to believe that someone else’s feed, their social media gallery, is an accurate picture of their lives. I rarely see dirty dishes, marital discourse, unemployment, bad hair days, or depression on Facebook or Instagram. We only share good stuff and only after it has gone through a filter to remove our wrinkles and uneven skin tone.

We should avoid comparing our real life to the “reel” life of others because it begins to give us a false sense of reality, and we can suffer from envy, disappointment, and dissatisfaction—mindsets that erode a biblical community.

Recently, I found out on social media that many of my cronies (an old school word for friends) had started a Bible study. Without me. To try and keep the numbers reasonable, they had made a list, and I wasn’t on it. It crushed me. The ironic thing was I had already started writing the Belonging Project, my attempt to encourage women to seek community with others in Jesus’ name, and I was not invited. It took me a little while to recover, but my husband and I have also since started a Bible study with an amazing group of folks who were hungry for community as well.

Q: What can we learn from the life of Jesus about living in community? How was this so different from the political, social and religious culture of the day?

Jesus was counter-cultural as he set an example of including others that others cast aside. He loved those who were hurting, broken, and vulnerable. He chose to invite twelve others to do life alongside him and paved the way for us to do likewise.

Throughout his time on earth, Jesus said things that seemed revolutionary (and downright crazy) to his contemporaries. He broke through cultural, political, and social barriers during his thirty years of life and three years of public ministry. His followers (including the apostle Paul, who penned many of the letters in the New Testament) followed suit. Their behaviors, practices, and words often flew in the face of the culture and helped shape history.

God has designed us for community. In fact, Jesus was so passionate about community that He not only chose disciples—twelve guys of varying backgrounds, personalities, and gifts, to walk with him in his journey. He also instructed them to do likewise with others. He invited a myriad of others, including many women, to partner with him in ministry along his path. Through his teachings and the teachings of His followers, we have a blueprint for the community that he has designed for us. This blueprint can be found in the phrases in the New Testament that include the words one another, such as love one another, encourage one another, serve one another, forgive one another, and many more. Some of these concepts were certainly counter-cultural in the time of Jesus and are today as well. Jesus spoke these words in times of political, social, and religious tumult and they are so applicable in our current context as well.

Q: What are some tips on finding your tribe? As we search, what are some things we also need to find within ourselves?

Despite what we see in movies and magazines, where personal strength and winning are celebrated, we are created for community. We are meant to encourage one another, walk ahead of and behind one another, and create connections with one another. Yet even as part of a church, we often fall prey to societal patterns of comparison and competition and miss out on true community.

To find one’s tribe, we should first pray about it and ask God specifically for people alongside whom we can grow, serve others, and be willing to step outside of our comfort zone.

We need to make sure, however, that we also are willing to be vulnerable, humble, and a safe place for people. Biblical community is not for sissies. We are a broken people, and even when made holy by the blood of Jesus, we sometimes make broken choices. We speak unkindly, we act unfairly, we give grace unequally. Community with other believers can be challenging and can take a lot of faith, but it is a gift and it is worth the hard work of extending and embracing forgiveness.

Q: The last week in the study focuses on fortifying one another. What does that look like in a practical, daily way?

It can take all shapes and forms, but first, one should commit to spending time to find a body in which you can grow in your knowledge of God’s word, stretch your faith muscles, and be built up by other believers.

If we are going to find our tribe and learn to thrive, we need to be committed to encourage others. Not the “Oh my, what a cute dress!” encouragement (although that is always fun, not the wearing a dress part, but the compliment part), but the encouragement of others in their walk with Jesus. Ask yourself: How can I encourage someone in his or her spiritual walk today?

We live in a discouraging world. The political climate, the tragedies all over the nation, the starvation of children all over the world, the disregard of the value of human life, the threat of war, the rise in stress and anxiety—it is overwhelming. How do we keep our perspective? By focusing on Jesus and encouraging one another daily. Do one small thing today to encourage another believer. One could also consider encouraging someone you know who has left the church with a text, call, email, or letter.

Finally, one can easily develop a habit of gratitude through daily practice—perhaps by writing down all the things one is thankful for each day. Find a friend with which to share that list. It becomes a blessing to both parties!

Q: How is The Belonging Project designed to be used? What are the components of each week’s study?

The great thing about this study is its versatility. It can be done with a few friends or with hundreds of ladies. The format is designed to be easy and enjoyable—five days of lessons each week for four weeks.

There is a daily lesson, memory verses, calls to action, and questions to grapple with for each week’s teaching. The lessons are designed to be completed in about 20 minutes. Each day starts with a “One Another” verse, which sets the tone for the day, includes a scripture focus and questions for reflection, and ends with a Call to Action.

Since each of the days in the study covers another “one another” from the New Testament, if those doing the study have extra time, they can also read through the entirety of the chapter from which the verse comes to get a more full picture of the context in which it was written.

Then once a week, you’ll gather with your group to watch a video, discuss what you’re learning, and pray together. The session outlines, which provide options for both a 60-minute and a 90-minute session, include discussion questions, activities, prayer prompts, and notes for the video segment (available separately). You’ll find the outline for each session at the end of the personal lessons for that week.

For more information, visit her website www.amberlyneese.com. She is also active on Facebook (@Amberly Neese – Comedian/Speaker), Twitter (@amberlyneese), and Instagram (@amberlyneese).

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Kind Words Are Like Honey

Part 2 of an interview with Bonnie Clark,
Author of Taste Your Words

Teach kids about the power of words and the importance of kindness with Bonnie Clark’s charming picture book, Taste Your Words (Worthy Kids), that cleverly illustrates why we should think before we speak.

Amera’s having a bad day. Her best friend ruined her cupcake and they both said mean things. When Amera brings her bad mood home with her, her mom tells her to “taste her words.” Amera’s mean words taste like rotten eggs, spoiled milk, and lemons! As Amera realizes that her mean words make her feel bad and others feel worse, she starts saying the kindest, sweetest words she can find.

Taste Your Words is an excellent resource for parents who want to teach their kids to think before they speak. With humorous text and lively illustrations by Todd Bright make it easy for even the youngest children to understand the power of their words.

Q: The concept of tasting our words is Biblical. Where can we find that idea in scripture?

Proverbs 16:24 (NLT) says, “Kind words are like honey—sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.” This verse was a big inspiration when writing the manuscript for Taste Your Words because I loved the imagery of kind words tasting sweet!

I really wanted Proverbs 16:24 to show up subtly within the illustrations and not overtly in the text. In the spread when Amera is home sulking about her yucky day, there is a hand-lettered chalkboard hanging on the wall behind her with Proverbs 16:24 written on it. I hope it gets noticed by the readers, especially the adults. I actually have a chalkboard like that one hanging in our kitchen, and I hand-letter family verses often. This verse has made it “on the board” quite a few times.
While I chose that particular one as inspiration for the story, the Bible is full of verses about the power of words:
  • Proverbs 18:20 (NLT) – “Wise words satisfy like a good meal; the right words bring satisfaction.”
  • Proverbs 15:1 (NIV) – “Wise words satisfy like a good meal; the right words bring satisfaction.”
  • Proverbs 15:4 (ESV) – “A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.”
  • Proverbs 18:4 (NLT) – “Wise words are like deep waters; wisdom flows from the wise like a bubbling brook.”
  • Proverbs 18:21 (ESV) – “Death and Life are in the power of the tongue.”
  • Proverbs 25:11 (CEV) – “The right word at the right time is like precious gold set in silver.”
  • Ephesians 4:29 (NIV) – “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
We can impact the world and be a part of bringing God’s kingdom to earth, beginning with the words that we speak to one another.

Q: How can using the sense of taste help parents teach kind speaking habits?

Taste is a primal sense that is developed very early in life—infancy, in fact. It is after the introduction of food (what we put in our mouth) that kids learn about using their words to communicate (what comes out of our mouth), so it is an easy and fun mental leap for a child to imagine that words can have a taste. A yucky taste from food elicits a strong negative response in the mind and body. A yucky word can have the same effect on the person to whom the unkind word is spoken as the person who is doing the speaking. Taste Your Words creatively demonstrates that the words that we speak nourish our souls in the same way the foods that we eat nourish our bodies.

This review that came from the parent of a “sensory seeking” child, really means a lot to me. “This book totally captivated the attention of my two-year-old and my four-year-old and caused them to laugh out loud during the yucky parts. [It was a] super helpful tool for my sensory-seeking/sensory-avoiding (SPD) son who lacks natural empathy towards others. All other books are pushing kids to imagine what the other children feel when a mean word is said, but this book uniquely turns the experience inward in a sensory-rich way which totally resonated with my son (FINALLY!). This book is a gift for parents. We've been using, “How did that word taste?” successfully in my household already, and we just got the book yesterday.”

Q: How is the message of Taste Your Words relevant today in light of the current cultural climate?

I try to practice “social media distancing,” especially when it comes to controversial discussion and heated debate. I was already bracing myself for a stormy presidential election year because four years ago I had to get off all social media to stay sane. This year my first book debuted in the middle of COVID-19. I do have to be online to homeschool my three kids, sift through the news, and promote my book, but it’s hard to not see the hateful discourse.

While the book is a children’s book, the message has never been more relevant for adults as well: Taste Your Words. No matter your position or politics, choose your words carefully. Nothing is either/or. People are fearful about different things, and we should all be respectful. Listen and respond with love. That’s the only way we can possibly be the UNITED States. I’m hopeful. I’m grateful.  Taste Your Words is my contribution to 2020.

Q: The illustrations for the book are fantastic. Can you tell us about the illustrator for the book, Todd Bright?

This is my favorite part of my story to publication. My illustrator is Todd Bright, who I mentioned is my stepbrother. My dad and his mom married about 12 years ago, so we didn’t grow up together, but I have always admired his work as an animator. He has worked for Disney/Pixar and others on ridiculously big animation projects such as Tarzan, Lilo & Stitch, Curious George and others. When I started writing picture books years ago, I had the crazy idea that Todd could illustrate a book for me. (I’m driven remember?)

First of all, I was unaware that that’s not how it works—you don’t get to pick the illustrator when you’re an author. Second, I was a newbie, and he was a seasoned vet. And third, the book I pitched to him wasn’t very good. He politely declined. I kept on writing new stories (because the whole driven thing) and was well into the process when somehow the subject of my latest project was brought up between he and my sister on a family beach trip. This time he expressed an interest in illustrating the story, and I jumped at the opportunity.

Q:  Is there a special reason why the family depicted in the book is a blended family?

Taste Your Words has become a special gift—a blended family collaborative since I was able to work on the book with Todd. The main character, Amera, has the likeness of my youngest daughter Amera. I didn’t make this request because I wanted him to have creative liberty to see the illustrations as he wanted them to be, but it was a sweet surprise. I named the little brother in the story Remy, which is Todd’s son’s name, and he looks like him too! I love that the family depicted in the story is a blended one. Amera and Remy have different skin tones in the illustrations and in real life! I hope children who are a part of a blended family pick up on this subtle story within the story.

Q: How did you get into writing children’s books and why is it such a passion for you?

I’ve always enjoyed writing and journaling to get my thoughts out of my head. I feel lighter and clearer after I’ve poured my heart out on paper. In high school, my favorite classes were always literature and writing.  I have a business degree from Georgia Tech, but the only classes I remember enjoying were my English/writing classes and one on Shakespeare. I guess I didn’t pursue writing professionally because I didn’t think that was an adequate profession. So, I was over-educated and under-prepared for the toughest job of my life—stay at home mother to three kids (ages 3 and under).

My mom recently found the very first picture book I wrote and illustrated: The Lifeguard Who Couldn’t Swim. It was so fun coming across this and sharing it with my kids because truly the whisper of writing has followed me through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. This should have been a clue over the years to pursue writing as a career! Having children of my own made me fall in love with picture books again and re-discover what I wanted to be when I grew up.

When I had my firstborn, I wrote another picture book, Sleepy Town and had it printed and bound just for him. As I had more children, and we would frequent the library, I started to wonder what it would look like to be a “serious” writer of picture books. I was in the throes of raising littles, but I also call this stage “research.” In 2015, I joined a kid lit critique group and my pursuit and dream of becoming a published author began.

It is my hope that children who read my books will see themselves somehow in the story, the illustrations or in the emotions and feelings that come up. I want my books to be a safe space to explore emotion, to feel encouraged to like who they are, and to be inspired to make the world a better place by being themselves.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Small-town minister John Cross can’t seem to keep himself out of danger

 Part 1 of an Interview with Andrew Huff,
Author of Cross Shadow

All journalist Christine Lewis wants is the truth. There’s always more to the story, and she can’t rest until she uncovers it. All pastor John Cross wants is to avoid the truth. Given his prior life, he thinks hiding the truth can protect those he cares about. A journalist out for the truth and a pastor avoiding it sounds somewhat backward, but that’s where Christine and John find themselves in Andrew Huff’s Cross Shadow (Kregel Publications), the second installment of the Shepherd Suspense series.

When Christine hears that her stepbrother has been arrested for murder in Texas, she vows to get to the bottom of the crime and prove his innocence. Christine wants to investigate on her own, but when John arrives, they team up again to discover the truth about the crime. Untangling a web of intrigue, the couple finds themselves in the center of another dangerous situation and in trouble far deeper than they expected. A chain of events reveals a bigger conspiracy than either could have imagined involving a robotics defense contractor, a private military company, and an assassination plot.

With an assassin on the loose, a trusted colleague acting as a double agent, and unreliable artificial intelligence connected to mercenaries who have Cross on their hit list, these two may not get out of the Lone Star State alive. In the face of danger, will John’s former instincts kick in? Will he turn back to his old ways?

Q: For those who may not have read A Cross to Kill, tell us a little bit about John Cross and his past.

CIA assassin John Cross found himself at a crossroads in his life during a covert operation in Spain. He walked in on a Catholic Mass at a historic cathedral while tracking his target and couldn’t help but get caught up in the majesty of the building. Instead of fulfilling the requirements of the mission, John found an English Bible at a local bookshop and spent the night reading it. Convicted by his sin, he gave his life to Christ and resigned from the agency.

In an effort to pay penance for the targeted killings he was personally responsible for, John embedded himself in a small church community in rural Virginia and served the various needs of its members night and day. Impressed by his commitment to caring for them, and in need of leadership, the congregation offered him the chance to be their pastor. Thinking it might be another step toward paying the price of his past sins, he accepted, though he continues to hide the truth about who he used to be from the members of the church.

Q: What are some of the relationship challenges John and Christine contend with? Why does Christine seem to be second-guessing their dating relationship?

Throughout the events of A Cross to Kill, John and Christine are drawn to each other like two magnets. After Christine gives her life to Christ, they decide to see if a dating relationship will work. What they find, however, is that neither is sure what such a relationship should look like as new believers. While the chemistry is still strong, their dates are consumed by John’s compulsion to train Christine in survival skills. Christine loves the small community of Rural Grove Baptist Church, but blossoming spiritual relationships and potential job opportunities keep her tied to New York City. Christine begins to wonder if her connection to John was anything more than an infatuation with his story.

While both are struggling to separate their identity from each other, the biggest challenge in their relationship comes from the lack of communication, both in the sense of the distance between them and also a lack of trust. John struggles to reveal more of who he really is for fear of driving Christine away while Christine struggles with planning her life around John for fear his plans might not align with hers. The tension in their relationship stems from their hesitancy to be truthful with one another when simply sharing their feelings would bring many of these struggles to light.

Q: Both John and Christine seem to have a problem with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Why does this keeping popping up as an issue throughout the story?

John’s life prior to Christ was built on one lie after another, and he’s been oblivious to how that has continued to be the case, even in the wake of his conversion. For him, there’s also an objective to the lie, because he is convinced that he needs to deceive others in order to protect them. John thought his only lie was hiding his past from the members of his church when in reality he’s been lying to himself about who he is and what he should do about it. Finding forgiveness for the lives he took was only the first step of John’s journey toward becoming the new man God has called him to be.

Christine has less of a problem telling the truth and more of a problem obsessing over it. To her, there’s always more to the story, and she can’t rest until she uncovers it. Sometimes, however, she finds herself willing to bend the truth in order to get at the truth on something else. New to Christianity, Christine is still learning about the balance between grace and truth, too often erring on the side of the latter at the expense of the former.

Q: Without giving away too much, can you tell us about the situations they encounter this time around in Cross Shadow?

With the first story, A Cross to Kill, we were introduced to the characters and saw what happens when John’s cultivated small-town life clashes with the fallout from his previous career. For the second book in the series, I wanted us to spend more time with Christine and see how her past might draw them back into a world of danger. Only now she sees the world from a new perspective based on her relationship with John.

On her way to an interview with a new network, Christine spots a suspicious character on the subway who turns out to be a suicide bomber. With the aid of an off-duty NYPD officer, Christine “defuses” (not literally; John didn’t train her to do that!) the situation and is thrust into the spotlight a second time. As if that wasn’t enough, in the middle of it all she learns the shocking news that her stepbrother has been arrested for murder in Dallas, Texas. Christine vows to get to the bottom of the crime and prove his innocence. But when John arrives to shadow her, it starts a chain of events that reveals a far deeper conspiracy than either could’ve imagined involving a robotics defense contractor, a private military company, and an assassination plot.

Q: Christine is a national news reporter and in Cross Shadow has some opinions of her coworkers and how the network covers certain stories. What do you think her take would be about the current news of the day and coverage of events?

Before her kidnapping in Jordan, Christine felt at home among her colleagues at the network news division she works for. But upon her rescue and return, she can’t help but feel like most of the work happening in news is less about presenting truth and more about shaping it. I think she’d sense the same in the way news is covered currently, and she would be bothered by that. At the same time, she’s committed to the profession, and I think she would want to work to effect change from the inside.

When I created the character of Christine, I saw her as someone who went into the job believing she was an agent of change in the world, only to be stripped of her idealism by her captivity. Rather than turn cynical, the experience grounds her in reality and opens her eyes to the possibility that human beings can’t fix what feels broken about the world. That’s how her journey leads to John, then ultimately to Christ. She’s searching for something truly good and right. I think because of that, she’d be less interested in the sensationalism of today’s news and more in understanding the reality beneath the headlines.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise for you as a new author following the release of your first book?

The biggest surprise has been the season following the release. I looked at the specific date of release as something akin to a movie’s opening weekend and expected there to be a lot of excitement over it immediately. I don’t know if you know this, but a book is very different from a movie, and while the release day was exciting, it’s been really fun to watch new readers discover the book over the months following its debut last October. I’m still getting reviews and messages about it (which is probably laughable for other authors to hear, but hey, I’m still new at this).

Another surprise has been how much I enjoy hearing the varied aspects of the book that different readers enjoyed. Of course, I know and love that each reader is their own unique person, but as an author, you are always trying to reach as vast of an audience as possible. And while many readers have let me know how much they love similar things, it’s been a lot of fun to hear the personal connection each individual has to certain themes or characters.

Learn more about Andrew Huff and the Shepherd Suspense novels at www.andrewhuffbooks.com. He can also be found on Facebook (@huffwrites), Twitter (@andrewjohnhuff) and Instagram (@andyhuff).