“The art of writing is applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

Mary Heaton Vorse

The theme of my new book, Unearthing Heaven, is finding life motivation by imagining ourselves standing before Jesus at a coming event in heaven known as the “Judgment Seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10). This is a day of honor for believers and not punishment, much like a proud coach on awards banquet night is looking to reward his hard-working players and not bring up their failures. Orienting our lives toward the smile of Jesus at the Judgment Seat of Christ, and even meditating on our coming reward in heaven, is supposed to deeply motivate and stir us. Honor from God feels awkward for us, and this treasure chest of life motivation has been lost in recent church history, but it is still the highest-octane way to run life’s race. This teaching gripped me way back in my college days, and I wanted to “unearth” it, recapturing that holy awe and painting a more vivid and rewarding picture of eternity.

You can read a free sample to get a fuller sense of where the book is going in the introduction: Missing Treasure Chest. 

So that’s the motivation behind the book. Getting to the finish line—turning that motivation into an actual book—is another story.

On my old blog, Faith Activators, I found myself over the years returning again and again to the theme of the “bema” (Greek word for Judgment Seat). Probably one out of every five blog posts went there.

In the summer of 2018, I was in a writers’ group in Austin made up of some friends who were working on their manuscripts and needed a little encouragement along the way. Each writer got the hot-seat focus once a month, and when it was my turn I stitched some of those blog posts together and made a sample first chapter. They were very encouraging, which is what I really need to hear. (Writers struggle a lot with insecurity, as it feels so vulnerable to turn over your poured-out soul on pages to outside eyes.) They cheered me on and I thought, huh, maybe I will keep working and get this message out.

A few months later, we moved back to Indonesia and I kept poking around with the manuscript here and there, but wasn’t getting much headway beyond that sample first chapter. That December, our two older kids came out to visit us for Christmas vacation, and our family of six took a trip to Bali, just a one-day drive away from where we lived on the island of Java.

During one part of that family vacation, Stephanie and I got away for a night at a cute little hotel right on the beach, while our kids (now old enough to be left on their own) stayed back at a more inland hotel. Our beach had gorgeous island paradise views and it was a nice and relaxing getaway for us. It was also a popular spot for surfers, and we enjoyed watching them dare large waves from our cottage balcony.

Early the next morning, I took a long walk down the beach, enjoying a gentle island sunrise and cool mist from waves crashing against large rocks. After walking for a while, I came upon a two-story unfinished house right on a desolate stretch of the beach, tucked behind some beautiful rock formations. The elements had definitely taken their toll on this unfinished structure. It looked sort of a like an open doll house, each room visible without the covering of a front wall.

I felt a strong urge to climb inside and take a peek, wondering what the ocean view would be like from the house’s higher vantage point. It didn’t feel like trespassing to me, as no one obviously lived there and the owners seemed to have abandoned it long ago. There was no easy path to get to the house, no sidewalk or even stairs to climb up to the first floor, conveniences that I assumed were meant to be put in later. I navigated my way around piles of wood and tried to be careful not to cut my feet on broken concrete pieces or rusty nails. Hoisting myself up to the first floor, I tested the damp plywood with a tentative step and it felt like the landing would support my weight. Safe to explore, I decided.

The rooms were not much to see, mostly frames and half-done walls…but that view.

Wow, that view.

Such a gorgeous vista of pounding surf and tropical paradise. I sat for a while and took in the view, thanking God for the treat of enjoying His colorful and spectacular creation.

It also made me a little sad somehow. This beautiful view would probably not be enjoyed by the people who were meant to live here, because their house had never been finished. Their vision started well, I could see, but they likely would miss out on enjoying this unbroken ocean view.

I sensed an internal whisper: This is your book.

It felt to me like the Lord’s voice, a gentle challenge. My manuscript was like this house, off to a good start but never finished. Some flooring, a few half-made walls, an incomplete roof, but not really livable for anyone else.

If anyone were to enjoy this house, the builder would have to finish. This subjective metaphor to me meant I would have to do the hard work, room-by-room, wall-by-wall, and floor-by-floor to finish my manuscript. I felt God had invested something precious in me a long time ago—a view of eternity—and I would have to keep plodding along for that beautiful view to ever see the light of day. My end goal would be to make it easier for the next visitor to come on in and enjoy an inviting house, complete with a trimmed sidewalk and a welcoming staircase.

I took a little seashell from the beach as a reminder of this metaphor, and vowed to start plugging away. Just get words down on the page. My mantra became a sentence is better than no sentence. Celebrate progress, even if it’s just a little bit.

I started keeping track of my word count, which was key for me to chart progress. My stitched-together chapter of blog posts was about 10,000 words, and I vowed to start making a little progress when I could, usually in the mornings. It wasn’t easy with all our transition. A few months after that Bali vacation, we moved from Indonesia back to the U.S. for a few months, and then six months later to a different country in Southeast Asia for four months. We planned to be there longer, but a worldwide pandemic had other plans, and as of this writing we are still trying to get back. All of that transition has equaled 22 moves since we left our home in Indonesia in the summer of 2019. We are weary with transition, for sure, but the writing has given me a nice little thread of joy to hold on to through the long journey.

10,000 words slowly became 12,0000 words. Starts and stops. 12,000 words slowly became 18,000 words. A little here, a little there. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, to quote Finding Nemo. Just keep building, just keep roofing, just keep writing.

18,000 words to 25,000 words. Rooms taking shape. Window put in.

I got to the halfway mark (the final word count came to 53,000 words), and I could start to see the end. It was like a massive jigsaw puzzle, after you turn all the pieces right-side up, make the borders, and start filling in major chunks, and then you finally start seeing the end. That’s how it’s felt for the last several months.

I finished the first draft in November and my family took me out to a fun restaurant in Austin to celebrate. Gotta mark those milestones.

Editing. Feedback. Revising. More Editing. More feedback. More revising. Formatting. I have so appreciated the many people who have given input, both theological and editorial.

Days ago I put the final touches of paint on the shutters and trimmed the hedges out front along the sidewalk. Wow, that was a good feeling.

Sitting and resting and looking over the ocean now. Excited for you to come in and enjoy this view with me.

Available now in paperback and Kindle e-book on Amazon.

P.S. Contact me if you would be willing to join my book launch team, which would mean reading it and posting a review on Amazon before the major launch date of June 25. Also, to help me get the word out, if you post on social media about how it impacted you, using the hashtag #UnearthingHeaven between now and then, I’ll send you the Kindle versions of my first two books for free as a thank you!

More here: Facebook Group Book Launch Team

He must have gotten out the night before, when Jordan came home after we had already gone to bed. Our Maine Coon cat Toby often lurks by the front door when someone enters or exits, looking for an easy escape and a chance for adventure. Jordan was distracted getting the keys to lock up the gate, and that is when Toby probably made his break for it.

He’s done that before, gone out on some night adventures, but he has always come back the next morning. Usually I find him hiding under a nearby car. His previous owners, who loved him dearly and had to move back to the U.S., had installed chicken wire around our fence when they gave him to us, fearing he might be able to slip through the fence bars. It worked for a few weeks, but clever Toby figured out the lowest point on the gate to jump right over.

As a result we tried to be diligent to keep him inside when we opened the door, not always easy for a busy family coming and going. But thankfully when there was an escape from “Cat Alcatraz,” as one of my friends called it, he could always be found the next day.

Not so this Thursday morning. I looked up and down the street for a few minutes but had to get to campus to teach my morning class. I came back in a break between classes and looked a little wider and asked a few neighbors. Still no luck.

By late afternoon still no sign, so Naomi and I went around the neighborhood and put missing cat fliers on the light posts. We asked more neighbors. Jordan took a tour on his motorcycle and looked under more cars farther away.

Our social and fluffy cat didn’t come back the next day. And the next.

We went to the local bird market, where people sell cats in some stalls, showed pictures and asked around. We were told by a bird seller to ask in a round-about way…not “Did someone steal my cat and you are trying to sell it?” But more of a “Hey, here’s a picture of a cat that we would love to buy…do you have any of these or no anyone who is selling them?” I practiced that indirect cultural deftness, but still no large grey Maine Coon cats were for sale at the bird market. We exchanged phone numbers with the sellers, went back a second time, but still no sightings. I made a suggestion that we get a new cat at the bird market, to fill that Toby-shaped hole in our hearts, but Naomi gave an adamant NO. How would Toby feel if he came back and there were a new cat in our house?? Good point. Keep hoping against hope.

We prayed of course. We felt a little silly, but we also asked friends to pray as well for a miracle in us being reunited with Toby.

Day 4. Day 5. Stephanie and Naomi took it the hardest…they love that cat so much. I’ve joked before with friends that if there were ever a fire in our house and I was in one end of a hallway and Toby was on the other, and Stephanie had enough time to save only one of us…she would eventually make the right decision but would have to think about it for a second (for the record she doesn’t like that joke).

Day 6. Day 7. Now we are moving into cat grieving stage. I told Naomi probably someone found him, a beautiful rare cat like that, and are either taking care of him and sold him to a family able to do that. Let’s pray that he will find a good home. Her little heart was broken and at the same time struggled with anger…how could someone take our cat like that and not even try to find the owner with fliers up around the neighborhood?

Day 8. Another sad day. Rainy season is in full force, with deluges of rain every day, and we figured there is no way he could make it in the wet and wild. Someone surely must have found him by now. We’ve got to move on…

Day 9, a Saturday. Stephanie, Jordan and I were watching a movie in our living room that evening and Stephanie got up to get a snack midway through. While she was in the kitchen she heard a faint meow, and Jordan joked maybe it was Toby. She opened the door and sure enough, it was! Dirty, thinner and with matted fur, but there he was. He meowed and meowed as she picked him up. Tears of joy in the reunion. Lots of petting and meowing and I-can’t-believe-it’s. Stephanie wanted to wake up Naomi and let her know right away, but I cautioned against it…she had already been in bed for an hour and it would be hard getting her back to sleep. But both Stephanie and Jordan overruled my protest. We went upstairs and put Toby next to Naomi, who woke up with a startle and then unimagined joy. The next morning she would tell us she thought she was dreaming!

Such a happy reunion. Still such shock that our spoiled cat survived in the wild that many days and found his way back home. To us it feel like a miracle.

And now we notice that Toby is not lurking by the door as much to go out on any more adventures…maybe he is convinced he has it pretty good here surrounded by all this love and free food.

I’ve been thinking how heartsick we were when our beloved Toby was lost, and how joyful we were when he returned. Just like that the sadness vanished and the celebration ensued.

It reminded me of parable of a good shepherd Jesus told us in Luke chapter 15:

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” – Luke 15: 3-7

Even in our Case of the Missing Cat episode, I can understand more of the Shepherd’s heart. He is heartsick over that beloved lost sheep and searches diligently until He finds it. He doesn’t just wait for it to come back home (although in our case that’s exactly what happened). The good shepherd keeps searching “until he finds it.”

After Toby came back, we couldn’t wait to tell the people who knew about our missing kitty and who had even prayed for us. We had that same “rejoice with me” feeling.

That’s the way our Father in heaven feels about lost people, those far from experiencing His love. His heart always beats for those still out there, still lost somewhere out in the wild and trying to make their way back. His joy knows no bounds when they are found.

Let’s join Him in that heartfelt quest, not just waiting for them to return, but to go with Him searching…

— Mike O’Quin, author of Java Wake and Growing Desperate