Dreams Coming True is a Thursday feature on my blog, a way to highlight those whose goal is to create community. The dream might be a blog, a published book, a small business, volunteering, or even fundraising for a charity. Something that makes the world a better place . . . for others.
“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin” (Zechariah 4:10, NLT).
Congratulations to winners of last week’s giveaway, Christie Stewart, Connie Saunders, Renee, Linda Baio, & Sonja.
Welcome Sharon Garlough Brown, author of Sensible Shoes (IVP Books) and co-pastor at Redeemer Covenant Church, to Dreams Coming True! Leave a comment on this post to enter to win a copy of Sensible Shoes!
Tell us a little about yourself, Sharon:
My husband, Jack, and I serve as co-pastors of Redeemer Covenant Church in Dutton, Michigan. Jack and I met as M.Div students at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1991 and married in 1993. Since graduation in 1994 we’ve served congregations in Glasgow, Scotland, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Southampton, England (in that inefficient Pond-crossing order). We’ve lived in West Michigan for almost eleven years, and our only child, David, just graduated from high school. I love my work as pastor, spiritual director, and retreat speaker. I’m also privileged to serve as an adjunct professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.
When did this creative dream begin?
The first thing I ever wanted to be as a little girl was an author. As a child, I spent hours writing stories and imagining plays. Later as a teenager, I began journaling and keeping notebooks filled with dialogue I recorded from significant conversations with friends or family. It was good practice in listening, both to my inner life and to my interactions with others.
How did this project/idea get started?
In September of 2008 I began leading a weekly spiritual formation group for twelve women at our church. Together we explored ways of deepening our intimacy with Christ through the practice of spiritual disciplines like prayerfully reading the Word (lectio divina), the prayer of examen, spiritual direction, and silence and solitude. Our time together became sacred space where we encountered the living God. The women grew to deeply trust one another, confessing their sins and heartaches so that they might receive God’s healing love, forgiveness, and power.
As we walked together, we began to witness stunning and breathtakingly beautiful transformation. The Lord was healing old wounds, opening blind eyes, and setting captives free. I sensed that God was inviting me to share the story of the group by creating characters who were also learning to walk closely with God. I began writing Sensible Shoes in December 2008, and five months later, my first draft was complete.
What makes your project stand out from the crowd?
Sensible Shoes is a novel about spiritual growth. The characters meet at a retreat center for six sessions, every other week, and learn ways to become more attentive to the presence of God in their lives. As part of the novel, the teaching “handouts” on spiritual practices are provided so that the reader is able to participate along with the characters. Jesus understood the power of story and imagination, and I’m always delighted to hear from readers who want me to know how the characters and their journeys impacted the ways they see themselves and God. Fiction has particular power to penetrate us when we’re least expecting it!
Knowing that my book wasn’t a typical work of Christian fiction, I decided to self-publish Sensible Shoes with WestBow Press in 2010. Sales of the book were surprisingly strong, and in the spring of 2012 I met an editor from InterVarsity Press at a writers’ conference. We had a brief conversation about my book, and even though IVP does not publish fiction, this editor was intrigued by the spiritual formation content and concept and agreed to read it. Six weeks later I signed a contract with them, and they released Sensible Shoes with a different cover in March 2013.
What are the goals and intentions of this project?
I long for the Holy Spirit to facilitate an encounter with God as readers engage with the story. I also long for the Spirit to stir readers toward desiring deeper and more intimate life with Christ. And I hope the book casts a vision and creates hunger for authentic, mask-free community.
How does your project create community?
I typically hear two things from readers. First, “I saw myself in each of the characters but especially in [fill in the blank],” and second, “There’s a group of us that wants to read this together and take the same journey the characters take.” I’m always excited when I hear that readers want to walk together in spiritual formation. The fiction provides a gentle entry point for people who have never explored different ways of prayer and reading Scripture. I frequently hear testimonies from groups of women who have encountered Christ together in significant ways by taking to heart some of the invitations in the book. That’s a deep joy for me.
Describe the behind-the-scenes effort of your project. Where do the ideas come from? How many are involved in the process? Does each contributer have a specific role?
Sensible Shoes emerged from four flashback scenes. When I started writing, I knew there would be four characters who would meet at the retreat, but I knew nothing about these women and didn’t plot any particular story arc for them. Instead, I prayed and asked God to reveal one thing that had happened to each character as a little girl so that I would have a sense of where each one might be struggling or stuck as an adult. (I know that sounds like a strange thing to pray, but it’s how the Spirit stirred my imagination.) Writing the book was a process of listening and praying. The characters did things that surprised me, delighted me, and made me cry. I was on the journey with them, with all of its unpredictable twists and turns.
I had a group of friends who read chapters and supported me in prayer as I wrote. Once my first draft was complete, a friend served as my content and copy editor, and my mom was my proofreader. The group that inspired the book walked closely with me as I wrote. Community was very important to the process.
What’s been the hardest part about getting it off the ground?
I think the hardest part was simply waiting until I was ready to write it. For years I’d hoped that I would someday write a book, but I needed to wait for the season when God was saying, “This is it. Give birth to this.” That waiting time was fruitful preparation, but it was a long and sometimes frustrating process of listening and prayer. Once the idea for a spiritual formation novel emerged, the book poured out very quickly.
What have you learned?
I’m continuing to learn how to let go of any desire for control, particularly control over reader’s responses. Just before I released the first version, a friend asked me what I was afraid of. I told her I was worried that someone could read the book and become overwhelmed by old pain surfacing, then not know where to go to process and pray through whatever was being stirred. I said that I wished I could put a particular page of the book into bold print, a part of the story where the retreat leader is pleading with the participants not to walk alone. My friend wisely discerned that I was attempting to control the work of the Spirit and invited me to trust God to bring anything he desired into bold print for any potential reader. That was an important moment of surrender for me.
The book tends not to provoke neutral responses—readers love it or hate it. And I need to continually place that into God’s hands. That’s a good spiritual discipline for me!
Yes! Two months before IVP was scheduled to release the book, we shut down publication of the WestBow version. During that limbo time, I received a phone call from someone I didn’t know, who wanted to tell me that she had been sharing my book with many of her friends. One of these friends, she said, had just finished reading it and wanted to feature it on national television the following week. Her friend was Kathie Lee Gifford from the Today Show. The self-published version of my book had managed to find its way to Kathie Lee, without any marketing or publicity. Thankfully, IVP was able to rush production, and on the day the book became available in stores, Kathie Lee was holding it up on national television, identifying it as her “favorite thing.”
What are some ways you promote your project?
From the beginning, my only marketing strategy has been prayer: I’ve asked the Lord to scatter my book and use it in whatever way bears the most fruit and brings him the most glory. My readers are my best publicists, and I’m delighted by their passion for sharing my book with their friends. I enjoy meeting with book clubs and leading retreats based on the content of my book.
What social network has worked best for you?
I’m very irregular about engaging with social media and sometimes remember to post things on Facebook!
What advice would you give someone else who has a creative dream like yours?
Pray. Ask God to stir the gifts he’s placed within you. Listen. Wait. Respond. Gather community for support and encouragement. Trust. Release. Take joy in the journey!
Where do you see this project in five years?
I hope the Lord continues to use it to reveal his heart to his people.
How can we find your creative dream come true?