Sharon Garlough Brown is a spiritual director, speaker, and cofounder of Abiding Way Ministries, providing spiritual formation retreats and resources. She is also the author of the bestselling Sensible Shoes Series, which includes the spiritual fiction novels Sensible Shoes, Two Steps Forward, Barefoot, An Extra Mile, and their study guides. In March 2013 her book Sensible Shoes was named one of television personality Kathie Lee Gifford‘s “favorite things.”
In this interview, Sharon shares some of her thoughts on her latest novel, Feathers of Hope.
FF: What inspired the story in your book?
Feathers of Hope is the third book in my Shades of Light Series, which explores issues of mental illness, grief, and loss from a spiritual formation angle. In Feathers of Hope I wanted to journey with the characters through a season of transition and change, much as we’ve been living through during the pandemic. Though the book takes place in the summer of 2018, the characters are wrestling with many of the questions and issues we’ve been facing: How do we navigate upheaval with hope? How do we experience God’s love and care for us when we’re worn out? How do we practice loving and forgiving well? What does the call to live justly and mercifully look like?
Feathers of Hope is a story about embracing discomfort and disequilibrium with hope. It’s about growing in confidence that the Lord is stretching and enlarging us into deeper Christlikeness through the circumstances and conflicts that test us. It’s about seeing God’s call with fresh eyes and being awake and receptive to the Holy Spirit’s work in us and among us. The themes are challenging, but the hope is real.
FF: What can you tell us about the main characters in Feathers of Hope?
Wren Crawford, a tenderhearted, burned-out social worker, battles with severe depression and anxiety and is enduring a season of intense grief and loss. While she tries to recover from a major depressive episode, she moves in with her great-aunt, Katherine Rhodes, the retreat director from my Sensible Shoes Series. Katherine is facing her own challenges as she prepares to retire from decades of ministry. Not only does she need to embrace the truth about some old hurts and buried resentment, but she is also called to confront her blind spots regarding ministries of racial justice and reconciliation. During a season of shedding and upheaval, both women have new opportunities to receive God’s grace and compassion and to offer his grace and compassion to others.
FF: Which character surprised you the most?
The one who surprised me most was the candidate for Katherine’s job. I met Logan for the first time along with Katherine, and I shared her skepticism regarding his experience and motivations. I thought I knew who he was: a young CEO-type hired to bring significant (and potentially unwelcome) changes to the retreat center. I expected Katherine to have to mentor him. Instead, the Lord worked through him to hold up a mirror for Katherine to see herself more clearly. Like all of us, Logan is flawed and has a lot to learn. But along with Katherine, I was confronted by my own quickness to judge and reject him rather than to receive the gifts he brought.
FF: Why do you think storytelling is such a powerful way to share truth?
Stories are invitational and stealthy. They can slip around our defenses and penetrate us when we’re least expecting it. Jesus understood the power of storytelling and used it to reveal the kingdom of God. Stories can stir us, confront us, comfort us, and inspire us. When we read stories, we’re invited into a journey of inhabiting the lives and worlds of people who are both different and similar to us. If we read well, we walk in someone else’s shoes for a while and emerge from the story with more empathy for others and perhaps for ourselves. Stories can linger with us and shape us long after we’ve read the final page. That’s the beauty and power of them. They pursue us.
FF: What can you tell us about your next book?
Right now I’m praying with some ideas for a children’s picture book to model the spiritual discipline of lament. I’ve met so many Christians who don’t realize we have permission to be brutally honest with God about all our disappointments, bewilderment, and anger. If we can teach our children that kind of freedom in prayer, it helps establish a foundation for deeper intimacy with him.
FF: How do you get into the right frame of mind to write for your genre/audience?
For me, writing is prayer and a journey of discovery. The only way I know how to write fiction is to take the posture of a pastor or spiritual director who creates space and listens deeply, both to the characters and to the Holy Spirit’s leadings. I ask questions and wait for the characters to reveal what they want me to know. Their journeys with God and with each other need to emerge in ways that are true to them. That means giving them freedom to walk on and off the page, to respond to God and resist God. I weep over their losses. I rejoice over their progress and healing. And I get frustrated when they refuse to say yes to God’s invitations. I have to practice patience and compassion along the way. And when I see myself reflected in their fears, sin, or resistance, I’m invited to receive God’s grace and compassion and patience for me, too.
FF: What do you want readers to take away after reading your book?
I long for readers to encounter God as they journey with the characters, to see themselves more clearly and to be awakened to God’s presence in their own lives. I long for them to glimpse the heart of God, to see how God is with us and for us and to grow in confidence in his love and grace. And I long for the Spirit to challenge readers into new ways of seeing, even if that process is uncomfortable.
FF: What are the biggest challenges for you as an author writing in your specific genre?
The invitation is always for me to remain prayerfully present and open without trying to impose my will or longings on the characters and story. And since I can only offer others what I myself have first received, I need to remain open to the work of the Spirit in my own life so that any journey I invite readers into is one that I’ve said yes to as well. I want my books to come from a place of deep authenticity and integration. Sometimes that means waiting to write about certain themes until the Lord has shaped me and equipped me to write about them.
FF: What authors or books have inspired you?
One of the first books I read as a new Christian was Hinds’ Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard. Looking back, I can see how profoundly the metaphor of journeying deep into God’s love impacted me. The Search for Significance by Robert McGee was also an important book for me, exposing the lies I had believed about achievement and approval as sources of my identity. Richard Foster, Henri Nouwen, and Adele Calhoun encouraged me to respond to God’s grace through the practice of spiritual disciplines, while Gerald Sittser, Ronald Dunn, Philip Yancey, and Michael Card mentored me in grief and practices of lament.
FF: How has your faith or world view impacted the way you tell stories?
Years ago, the Lord revealed that the air I was breathing wasn’t oxygen. Though I was giving lip-service to grace, I was driven by anxiety and fear over whether I was being “faithful enough.” My focus was on my faithfulness to God rather than God’s faithfulness to me. What I needed was a radical conversion to grace, a deliverance from my perfectionist, workaholic tendencies. I needed to practice resting in my identity as God’s beloved daughter. I needed to practice receiving the love of God, celebrating it, and then responding to the love which loved me—us—first.
My own journey toward being at rest in the love of God weaves its way into all my stories as my characters—different as they are from me and from one another—are each invited to know the height and depth, length and breadth of the love of God. I hope my readers say yes to that journey, too.
Feathers of Hope
Shades of Light Series #3
Sharon Garlough Brown
Release Date: April 19, 2022
“We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.” (2 Corinthians 4:18) In a season of loss and change, Wren Crawford and her great-aunt, Katherine Rhodes, share the journey as companions in sorrow and hope. As Katherine prepares to retire as the director of the New Hope Retreat Center, she faces both personal and professional challenges―especially after the arrival of the board’s candidate to replace her. Not only must she confront more unresolved grief from her past, but she’s invited to embrace painful and unsettling insights about her own blind spots. How might disruption become a gift that opens the way to new growth? Wren’s world is shifting and expanding as she presses forward in recovery from a period of deep depression. Still processing open questions around the death of her best friend, Casey, Wren stewards her grief by offering compassionate care to the residents of the nursing home where she now works. But the shedding of her old life is exhausting―especially as she doesn’t yet see what new life will emerge. How might art continue to provide a pathway for deepening her awareness of God’s presence with her? In this sequel to Shades of Light and Remember Me, fans of the Sensible Shoes Series will not only be able to attend Katherine’s final retreat sessions at New Hope but also encounter old and new friends along the way.
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