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Ellen Vaughn

Ellen Vaughn Answers The Faithful Fifteen

April 2005

Ellen Vaughn is an award-winning author and speaker. Her books include THE STRAND, GIDEON'S TORCH (co-authored with Chuck Colson), and RADICAL GRATITUDE, her latest work of nonfiction. In this interview Vaughn talks about how she came to a saving knowledge of Jesus, explains the importance of the local church, and tells a touching story about her neighbor's gradual acceptance of Christ. What kind of testimony to your faith are you demonstrating in this book? If you are writing fiction, do you write fiction that is based upon your faith, or that has a message for the reader? Is your goal to demonstrate your faith in your writing?

Ellen Vaughn: I wrote RADICAL GRATITUDE directly out of my own surprising experience of God's overwhelming, refreshing grace. I had not planned to write it; I was set to do a different book. But God led me through such a wonderful journey that I felt I would be remiss if I didn't share it with others --- toward the end that they, too, might have a new, empowering sense of God's love.

FR: When did you come to a saving knowledge of Jesus? Where are you today in your walk? Is your faith an important part of what you do?

EV: I grew up in a Christian home. When I was about five, I remember sitting in our dining room, looking at a wordless book, which is a little book with no words, just colored pages. There was a page that was black for my sin, a page that was red for the blood of Jesus, a page that was white for the cleansing power of His blood, and a page that was shiny gold, for the streets of heaven.

I remember realizing that I was a small sinner and praying earnestly to ask Jesus to forgive me and come live in my heart. That event shaped my thinking from almost as far back as I can remember.

My faith grew through the teaching of the Bible in my home church, and through the ministry of Young Life when I was in high school. But during my years in college and graduate school, I wandered from my faith. It wasn't an intellectual crisis: I knew Christianity was true. I just didn't want to live like it was true.

During that time, it was as if I drifted far out to sea, carried by the waves. But God had a net, and gradually, inexorably, He drew me back to Himself. I was all banged up, had barnacles and seaweed in my hair, but I had a deeper, Prodigal-like understanding of the enormity of His grace.

FR: Tell us about your church experiences --- how you grew up (or maybe didn't grow up) in the church, where you attend now, your involvement in your local assembly, etc.

EV: My childhood experience was in a Christian and Missionary Alliance Church. We were there every time the doors or windows were open. I loved the emphasis on foreign missions; whenever missionaries were visiting, they would stay in our home. I loved their stories about people in faraway places coming to know Christ. And I think my great hunger for international travel probably grew out of my early exposure to believers who were so passionate about bringing the love of Jesus to people in need.

Since 1980 I've been a member at a local PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) church. I met my husband there. Our children were dedicated to the Lord there. My husband is an elder there, and I've taught adult and children's Sunday School classes sporadically over the years.

FR: Tell us about your current church family/fellowship. How does it influence your work?

EV: Because of the writing I did with Chuck Colson over the years, particularly books with themes related to the church like BEING THE BODY and THE BODY, I cannot over-emphasize the importance of the local church. My home church isn't absolutely ideal; it's populated by imperfect people like me. But it is an encouraging, challenging community of fellow believers who spur one another on toward what is Real and of eternal value --- which is sometimes hard to remember in the midst of a culture that so lulls us with tempting distractions.

Also, my church community has been so faithful to pray for me and with me in the challenges of my writing life --- just as we all cheer one another on in our various professions, that we might give glory to God in whatever sphere of influence He has placed us.

FR: Who are your spiritual mentors? Your professional mentors?

EV: As RADICAL GRATITUDE makes clear, my mother is my hero; she taught me many enduring truths, not by what she said, but by who she was and what she did. My dad was a mentor in different ways --- from him I received a huge love of books, Bible study, and a bubbling sort of curiosity about everything except taxes, car maintenance, and organizational skills.

For me, as for so many others, C. S. Lewis is a great hero. From the time that I was about 10 years old, he contributed enormously to my love of writing, of words, of the way that books can communicate truth, both didactically and through the great power of stories.

And in my professional life, Chuck Colson has been a tremendous mentor. I started working with Chuck when I was fresh out of graduate school, and continued writing with and for him for more than 20 years. I can't begin to list all the ways that Chuck has influenced me, and he continues to do so. In him I've seen a relentless work ethic that pushes for excellence to the glory of God, an intrinsic understanding of the big, historical picture, a bold love of Christ, and a twisted sense of humor.

FR: Discuss your calling/mission --- as a writer, and as a Christian.

EV: When I was about 10, I felt a magnetic pull to become a writer when I grew up. As I've said, this was because of C. S. Lewis's influence in my young life. As I grew older, that pull became a more distinct sense of calling, an assurance that despite my weaknesses, God had gifted me to write, and when I write to His glory, I feel His pleasure.

FR: What are your Scripture reading habits?

EV: Because I am often teaching or preparing material to share with others, I tend to read topically. So if I'm studying gratitude, for example, I read Scriptures about thankfulness. Or right now, as I'm writing a new book, I am thinking about the nature of time, how temporal human beings live in a relationship with a God who lives in eternity and transcends time. So I am reading many different sections of Scripture about time and eternity. It's so wonderful. Some days I miss altogether, but I usually do this in the mornings, after I've had about three big cups of coffee and have seen our 12-year-old daughter off to the bus stop and have taken our ten-year-old twins to school. After reading a long or short chunk of Scripture, I pray --- and lately, I have been convicted that I need to pray more boldly. With God, nothing is impossible. So every day, I am praying earnestly for miracles, large and small. I'll keep you posted!

FR: What books have most influenced your work?

EV: Almost everything by C. S. Lewis. Aside from Lewis, there are so many others, so I'll just mention a random sampling: G. K. Chesterton's ORTHODOXY, Anne Lamott's TRAVELING MERCIES, Dorothy Bass's RECEIVING THE DAY, Bill Bryson's A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING. I love history and biographies. Also, miscellaneous writings by Dorothy Sayers, John Piper, Philip Yancey, Paul Johnson, and, let's see, John Donne. I love the richness and layered meanings in Donne's 17th century metaphysical poetry, particularly his Holy Sonnets, which resonate with me in terms of how he expresses his relationship with God.

FR: Do you read secular fiction at all? If so, who are your favorite authors, and why?

EV: I read constantly. There is an enormous stack of books on my bedside table, just about to crash over. Right now I'm taking in more nonfiction, mostly history and material about the nature of time and the origins of the universe, which I have to start over rather frequently because I keep falling asleep. Regarding fiction, I've enjoyed Susan Howatch's novels that are set in a Church of England context and are rather witty and psychologically compelling.

FR: What are your other media habits --- television, movies, music, etc.?

EV: I don't tend to watch much television. It just doesn't interest me, or I get too perturbed about the crassness and banality of some of its content, so I end up making impassioned speeches in the family room about the disintegration of modern culture, which my family doesn't appreciate. Actually, I do watch TV news coverage, particularly on Fox since Fox tends to feature commentators who are coming from a faith-based worldview. And of course we watch things on cable channels about earthquakes and volcanoes and King Tut's tomb and other natural and historical wonders. Regarding the big screen, my husband and I like big movies with swords and togas and enormous battle scenes, or truly suspenseful thrillers, or odd, quirky films.

FR: Do you and your family have any special faith-based traditions?

EV: We slaughter chickens at midnight every new moon. No, no, not really. We pray together in specific ways to thank God for His faithfulness and to lift up our needs to Him. At the dinner table we talk about what we were grateful to God for in that day. We tend to set up Ebenezers --- physical reminders of spiritual truths. So we've planted trees around our home to remind us of loved ones who have passed on, like my mom. We go on missions trips whenever possible, to expose ourselves and our kids to people in real need. In RADICAL GRATITUDE I write about some of those opportunities.

FR: Tell us about your prayer life and habits.

EV: I mentioned this earlier in the context of Scripture reading. Also, since I spend a lot of time in the car these days --- driving my children to school, piano, soccer, church events, friends' houses, you name it --- after I've dropped them off, I often pray in the car. The great thing about cell phones is that no one thinks twice when they see you in the car, talking out loud; they assume you're on the phone. So I have great prayer times as I drive, talking with the Lord about all kinds of things. Also, in terms of praise and worship, I love certain Christian artists and use worship music to incline my heart to glorify God, even as I careen around in Washington-area traffic.

FR: Describe what you believe the role of writing in religion is.

EV: Well, God gifts us all in His service, whether we serve in a "Christian" vocation or in the secular mainstream. It's all His. So I don't think of myself as a Christian writer, in that I write about "Christian" topics; I think of myself as a writer who is a Christian. So I bring a biblically-informed world view to everything I experience and observe and learn and express in print.

In that, I think the big-picture purpose of writing is to tell the truth. To tell the great truths about who God is, how He created us, the real challenges we all face, how He meets us in the midst of our brokenness --- and I think the most powerful way to show those truths is through stories. Jesus used parables: pithy earthly stories that showed heavenly truths. In RADICAL GRATITUDE, and certainly in the books I wrote over the years with Chuck Colson, I've tried to do the same thing, writing stories that hopefully will showcase God's power and love in some pretty intense and wild situations.

I am very interested in how faith informs our everyday lives. In some ways it is easier to access our faith in times of crisis; a certain spiritual adrenaline seems to kick into gear. But what about day-to-day life, where we spend the great bulk of our time? How does God's power inform and flood and change us then? That's where I feel that a heart overflowing with gratitude is the key to living with an irrepressible sense of joy and worship and mission, one that will woo nonbelievers to the love of Christ.

FR: Tell us about one or more of your favorite encounters with readers.

EV: I was in a large, cosmopolitan city recently, speaking to a group of business professionals. I spoke about some of the themes from RADICAL GRATITUDE, most particularly the notion that gratitude is not just about thanking God for His blessings. That's wonderful, of course. But real biblical gratitude goes far deeper, for it thanks God not just for what He gives, but for who He is. Radical gratitude isn't dependent on things going well. In fact, it shines most brightly in times of darkness, brokenness, and pain --- when people have no earthly reason to be full of peace, and yet they are, because they are in a supernatural relationship with the God of the universe, who loves them and gave Himself for them.

Well, this man came to talk to me after the speech. He was tall, buff, handsome, highly successful --- and he wanted to nail down this idea of radical gratitude as if it was a business principle he could apply. The notion that we were talking about something that is supernatural, undeserved, a free gift of God's grace, not a habit of highly successful people, a skill he could learn, something he could do out of his own power --- that seemed to throw him for a loop.

The reason I mention this is that it reminded me so clearly that people all around us --- even if they look like they have it all together --- are so hungry for the love of God. We can have a holy confidence in our conversations, and God will give us what we need to draw people to Himself.

FR: Would you share a story about someone you've brought to Christ or share how your writing has helped someone?

EV: In RADICAL GRATITUDE I write about how God calls us to "go" --- and that doesn't necessarily mean going far away. Our mission fields are all around us, and often "going" just means getting outside the box of our own agendas, our comforts, our plans, in favor of what God is up to.

For example, once I was having a dinner party, and as I ran around making preparations, I kept thinking about a neighbor. I'll call her Carla, which is appropriate, since that is her name.

Carla was a loving, funny, generous friend. As we had spent time together, she had opened up more and more. She had a lot of questions about her past and uncertainties about her future. Coming from a works-and-guilt-oriented background, it was hard for her to fathom the free gift of God's grace.

Now, this particular afternoon, I couldn't get Carla off my mind. Meanwhile I had cuisine to cook and candles to light and corners to clean. Going to Carla's house was not on my to-do list.

But in the end, even I could tell that I had to go. I dropped in. She was alone, which was unusual. We sat on her white sofa. I asked her if she was ready to receive Christ.

She was. She did.

And I was quite glad that I went!

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Current Titles

RADICAL GRATITUDE: Discovering Joy Through Everyday Thankfulness
Ellen Vaughn
Christian Living/Personal Growth
ISBN: 0310257492

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Upcoming Titles

Ellen is currently writing IN HIS TIME, a nonfiction book that takes the reader on a journey of wonder through questions about the real nature of time, eternity, and the unfathomable love of God. IN HIS TIME will be published by Zondervan in early 2007.

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  • GIDEON'S TORCH (with Chuck Colson)
  • BEING THE BODY (with Chuck Colson)
  • KINGDOMS IN CONFLICT (with Chuck Colson)
  • THE BODY (with Chuck Colson)
  • AGAINST THE NIGHT (with Chuck Colson)
  • THE GOD WHO HUNG ON THE CROSS (with Dois Rosser)
  • RAGS, RICHES AND REAL SUCCESS (with Dallen Peterson)

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