Debbie Macomber, faith

Choosing a Word for 2021

I can’t remember where I heard about the practice of choosing a word for the year, but I’ve done it every year since 2011.

Until 2020, that is. Rereading my journals this weekend, I noted the last time I’d chosen a word for the year was January 7, 2019, when I chose Selah, which means pause. I never did settle on a word for 2020. Maybe because there would be no word for the year we’ve had.

For those who are new to the idea of choosing a word, it is basically a meditative practice. By asking God to reveal the perfect word for the year, we then spend 365 days pondering its meaning in our life, a form of Lectio Divina that we can employ as we study, listen, ponder and pray while also delving into God’s Word.

I take this process seriously, as I have seen the difference in my life since I began the practice. Over the next few days I will be taking time to pray, ponder, and prayerfully discern what word God wants me to concentrate on in 2021.

As part of that process, I re-read Debbie Macomber’s One Perfect Word, taking copious notes.

This wasn’t my first exposure to the book. In fact, I can tell you the exact date I first read it, because I blogged about it on March 8, 2012:

“Yesterday my daughter Elizabeth called her house shortly before noon to inform me that the surgeon had, indeed, found cancer in Jacob’s lung. No bigger than a lima bean, the cancerous growth meant that, just six months after his treatment, Jacob’s Wilms’ tumor had returned. He will now be facing additional treatment that likely involves a stem cell transplant and stronger chemotherapy drugs.

Time stopped as I stood there holding the phone, long after Elizabeth had hung up.  I was startled out of my reverie by a slight movement from the couch. I looked down at the little boy staring up at me; my three-year-old grandson, Jo-Jo, bleary-eyed from having abruptly woken from a nap by the ringing phone. As if in slow motion, I sat down beside him, pulled him close and sobbed quietly into his back. He struggled a little against my tight embrace, and I loosened my grip, kissing the top of his head. “I love you,” I whispered hoarsely, and a little voice whispered back “I love you, too.”  Then he pulled back to look at my face, and I forced a gentle smile, lightening my tone, “So, how about those corn dogs Grandma promised? Should we go get them?”  He nodded his head, jumped from my lap, and ran to get his shoes.

I remember not wanting to face David, knowing how close he and Jacob were. I wanted to give him just a few more minutes of not knowing, to protect him from the news for just a little longer. Instead of heading home, I drove to my sister’s consignment store.

There was a parking space right in front, and I couldn’t see any shoppers through the window. Jo-Jo was quiet as I pulled him from the back seat. Stepping inside the doorway of the store, I saw the two smiling faces of my sisters Denise and Pat as they looked up from their lunch. “Mary!” one of them called out in welcome.

“It’s back. The cancer is back.” I blurted out, and they left their chairs to come hug me. Joseph, clinging to me like a little monkey, was hugged inside their embrace. Joseph, I thought to myself as I buckled him in again. Nearing four years of age, and facing weeks without his mother as she stays in the hospital with his older brother, he’d suddenly become Joseph.  It would forever be the first time he’d told me he loved me. It would also be the last time I called him Jo-Jo.

The library was our next stop. Joe still clung to me, uncharacteristically quiet. The stairway down to the children’s room seemed longer than usual, and I prayed my sister had returned from her lunch. Angie, who had become Angela and my best friend after our mother’s death, came around the corner from her office area. She knew as soon as she saw my face. We hugged, and again I began sobbing; poor Jacob. Poor Elizabeth. Poor Ben. Poor little Joe, who silently observed the adults around him crumple one by one.

Bolstered by the collective strength of my sisters, I was ready to face David. But he must have already known.

My husband stood on the porch. Joe ran ahead of me into the house. David held his arms out to me, and we clung to each other for a few moments.

I don’t remember either one of us saying anything. What could we say? David’s agony was palpable as we embraced, mirroring my own. Having gone through cancer treatment himself, David and Jacob were comrades, sharing a special bond. David retreated to the back yard and began raking. I retreated to the house to watch the children. The sharp pain David began experiencing in his shoulder that night never did abate, and would eventually move to his chest. We would later learn the shoulder pain was likely the first in a series of small heart attacks, not muscle aches we attributed to the yardwork. But we didn’t know that yet.

I just went through the motions the rest of the day, unable to stop thinking of Jacob, Elizabeth and Ben. Katie, at 12, seemed to intuitively know what I needed; she made Joe’s corn dogs and pizza rolls for the girls. Emily kept hugging me. Even Matt, 18, hugged me several times. The girls played as usual, Joe joining them. Several times throughout that afternoon, I picked up a pen and pad of paper to write, but to no avail. Words wouldn’t come. Instead, I picked up a book that had been recommended to me by a friend that very morning. I began reading Debbie Macomber’s “One Perfect Word.” The book pulled me in, despite, or maybe because of, the anguish I was experiencing. In it, Macomber discusses how concentrating on one single word each year has become a tool for God to work in her life. In 1999, her word was BELIEVE. She shared how belief can become a lifeline when grief or tragedy strikes. I read those passages several times. Macomber uses C. S. Lewis as an example. While grieving the death of his wife, Lewis wrote about belief in the face of fear in his book, “A Grief Observed”:

‘You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it…Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief.

I had to ponder this for awhile. If I believe, truly believe, that God has a purpose and a plan for everything, then this trial has to be for a reason. My marriage has never been as good as it has been since David’s cancer, my faith never as strong as it has been since my mother’s death. But to know a child, an innocent child, is facing something that knocks grown men to their knees! What purpose could there be in that? I continued reading, searching for answers.

I found an answer I needed in the story of Annie Beiler, founder of Aunt Annie’s Hand-Rolled Soft Pretzels. Annie had tragically lost her nineteen-month-old daughter in a farming accident.

Anne coped with the loss of her beloved daughter as best she could, but inside, something cold had begun to grow. Depression set in, and with it, a crisis of faith. In an article she wrote, ‘Had it not been for God’s grace and mercy, and the wonderful godly husband who loved me as Christ loves him, I never would have climbed out of depression. I believe Angela was sent to me and my family for many reasons, but a key purpose was for me to become the kind of person that Christ wants me to be.

Even before Elizabeth and Ben returned from Iowa City, e-mails were arriving in my inbox: family and friends asking what they could do.

I think of that rope that C.S. Lewis mentions, the one that Elizabeth and Ben must hang onto in the coming days. I think of the friends, the loved ones and even the strangers who care about this little boy and his family. I think of the little boy himself, who wakes from surgery, pulls out the IV lines, and even amidst his pain, asks when he can buy his sister a toy from the gift shop. This little boy who trusts with a childlike faith, whose life is the epitome of the goodness we all search for. I look to my family for assurance that they will be there, and they protectively circle around me, embracing me. I turn to friends, and their answering prayers are lifted to the heavens. In the darkness of these days, I reach out and feel the rope. It feels thick and strong. I tug tentatively. Why, Lord? Why this little boy? Why?

I step out in faith, and the rope holds.

When I wrote those words in March 2012, I had no idea how much I’d need that rope twenty days later, when I would discover my husband had died sometime during the night, three days after coming home from the hospital following heart stent surgery, or again, in August 2013, when we lost Jacob.

Now, just days before the end of a year that has been tough on everyone, I am reminded of how One Perfect Word was the one perfect book for me to have on my end table that fateful March day when we’d discovered Jacob’s cancer had returned. How it helped tremendously to know parents who had lost a child survived, and eventually thrived. To read words from C. S. Lewis that I would turn to repeatedly in the coming months, that I still turn to when facing tough situations. It was no coincidence that Debbie Macomber’s book was sitting there, waiting for me. It was exactly what I needed.

It is no stretch of the imagination then, to believe that a God who cares enough about me to guide me to the perfect words back in March 2012 can lead me to the perfect WORD for 2021.

faith, grief, hope


Last year, it was patience; the word I chose to concentrate on for an entire year, following the advice of author Debbie Macomber in her book, One Perfect Word.  I chose the word “patience” on February 27, 2012, exactly one month before I would lose my husband. The word seemed a perfect choice at the time, considering I was very impatiently waiting to hear from a literary agent who was reviewing my book proposal. For a non-writer, David was incredibly savvy in the ways of the publishing world, and he’d learned how to diffuse the tension inherent in a lifestyle of submission and rejection. I counted on him to “talk me down” when I was particularly anxious.

I taped the word to my desk, where it remains today.

be still and patience 061

The word hardly seemed to fit after David’s death; how could patience help me now?

“Why do you always have to be in such a hurry?” David would often ask me, yearning for his wife to be able to take things at a slower pace, enjoy them more; not worry so much.

When I lost David, I wanted nothing more than to hurry through the process of grief, to get through to the other side. The initial pain cut through me like a knife and I didn’t think I could endure it for long. Ironically, the very person I wanted to talk to about the overwhelming process of grief was the very one I grieved. I could not escape the pain. I had nowhere to turn except towards the ONE who had gifted me with David in the first place. Through the loss of David, I developed a closer relationship with God. For that, I will always be grateful.

One of the first books I picked up after David’s death was Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage. In it, author Madeleine L’Engle wrote these words that warned me of what was to come;

“But grief still has to be worked through. It is like walking through water. Sometimes there are little waves lapping about my feet. Sometimes there is an enormous breaker that knocks me down. Sometimes there is a sudden and fierce squall. But I know that many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” (page 229)

It would not be possible to “hurry” through grief. Unexpectedly, I had to learn patience as I’ve slogged through the floods of grief. I cannot rush grieving, nor can I avoid it. As others have said more eloquently than me, one cannot go over, around or under grief; we have to go through it.

As I look back on 2012, I can see how patience worked in my life. When I signed with an agent in May, I dropped all worry and anxiety about my book in his more than capable lap. For four solid months, I did not worry about a book that had originally been my spouse’s inspiration and idea. I was free to grieve. By the time the responsibility of the book’s sale was returned to me in late September, I’d been to the bottom, emotionally. I’d lost my spouse, my best friend, my partner in life. Losing an agent hardly seemed to matter, in the scheme of things. Besides, in the ensuing four months, I’d been learning a very valuable lesson; I was learning to let God lead me in my life. If that agent wasn’t meant to be mine, then God surely had better plans for me and my book. If nothing else, I’d obtained four worry-free months from the relationship. I amazed myself, and  my long-time friend Mary, with my lack of worry or anxiety over the latest development in a two-year publishing journey with my book. My reaction would have pleased the dear husband who’d so often felt powerless over my anxiety. Within two weeks of the break-up with an agent, I’d signed a book contract. My long-awaited book, Coupon Crazy, will be released in August.

Patience worked well for me in 2012.

January has been a difficult month. While I’d meant to choose a word to concentrate on for the coming year, my grandson’s cancer recurrence and a virulent bout of Influenza A in our house kind of sideswiped me completely. January 2013 will forever remain a big blur in my mind, a month that I accomplished very little in the way of writing, platform building, or anything else, for that matter. Other than a well-dressed trip to Mayo, I’ve pretty much spent the entire month in yoga pants and a sweatshirt, aimlessly wandering from couch to table, and making half-hearted attempts at organizing photos for a scrapbook, cleaning out files, and sorting through piles of papers; the sort of thing one does in the middle of winter in Iowa when one has nothing on their schedule.  With all the time in the world, I still hadn’t managed to choose a word for the year.

But then, the word chose me.

I did not feel well enough for much reading this month, but as I’d mentioned in an earlier blog posting, I had sloughed through A Widow’s Story, a decision I regretted even as I continued reading. I was incensed by the lack of hope in the true account of grieving. My anger was provoked again by the doctors at the University of Iowa when they left my daughter and son-in-law with no hope for their seven-year-old son, my grandson, Jacob.  Grief, I can handle. I have grown accustomed to grief; it has been my constant companion for the past ten months. But lack of hope? There is nothing darker, more oppressing, than despair.

There are many words I could have chosen for this year that I will face the one-year anniversary of my husband’s death; strength, stoicism, even sorrow.  For as the March date approaches, I do feel a looming sense of sadness and yes, dread. The woman who so impatiently wished to complete that first year of mourning, now dreads the milestone. I will not be alone; there are friends and family to call on if I need reinforcements. Besides the first anniversary of my husband’s death, I must continue to face the unknown of my grandson’s cancer this year. There are words I could choose in regards to that, as well, including the seemingly appropriate “FEAR.”

But, instead, having learned far more than just patience this past year, I am choosing a word that embodies my new relationship with Jesus Christ.

The word for the coming year should have been obvious after I read A Widow’s Story. Our experience with the new doctor at Mayo clinic and her choice of words; “miracle,” and “hope,” could have reinforced my choice. Then this gift from my sister Pat would have validated it;

hope 006

But it was yesterday, after a big snowstorm here in Iowa and a fun moment spent outside with my sixteen-year-old where we lay in the snow making snow angels, that I passed this sign I’d hung on my porch last summer, and I knew, without a doubt, what my word for 2013 would be.

hope 008

The word is HOPE.

I choose HOPE.

Psalm 62:5 (NIV)

Yes, my soul, find rest in God;
    my hope comes from him.

What about you? Do you choose a word each year? What word would you choose for 2013?