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The Power of 'What If...?'
'What if' we get our question and answers wrong?
In less than a week, my latest book, Frankinschool: Monster Match, comes out from Red Chair Press. It’s the first book in a series of three—so far. The chapter book is for young readers, perhaps grades 2-5 or ages 7-12. Truth be told, I kind of hate ages being assigned to books. We all read at different levels and appreciate different kinds of stories. No shame in any kind or level of reading!
Anyway, although I love all my books, this book is special.
Maybe because Frankinschool has been around—lingering, waiting, hoping, wondering—for so long. I queried and snagged my agent, the amazing Adria Goetz, with this book nearly seven years ago. Somehow, however, it shifted to the backburner, while other projects got cooking.
Maybe it’s because Frankinschool is set in a re-imagined, once-was school and because it satisfied my own curiosity about a weird door and a “secret” set of stairs that I used to wonder about while waiting for parent-teacher conferences to start.
Certainly it’s because this not-so-scary monster and ghost-y story with potions and mysterious transformation is “based on a true story.” At least, the truth of what happens when a kid is disappointed and their mom is a writer.
And definitely it’s because Frankinschool is all about the power of pretend and the wonders of one simple question: What if….?
A reporter friend of mine once said that “Wait. What?” is at the heart of journalism. Indeed, stopping and asking for clarity has propelled a great news story. Similarly, I’d argue asking “What if…?” is at the heart of creative writing—and fuels every great story, whether plot- or character-driven.
I love being a writer—whether writing here on Substack or writing for children—because I love the opportunity to explore what if, to allow myself the luxury of venturing down trails or around creepy corners and up creaky staircases and seeing what happens or who pops out.
Of course, asking what if comes with a lot of risk. Which is why the question is also at the heart of our anxiety. If we never asked what if in our regular lives, we wouldn’t worry because we would never wonder what might happen in the worst- or even just bad-case scenarios. So while as a writer, I let my what-if-ing run wild, as a human, I’ve had to learn to temper it, or more accurately, flip it—especially in my spiritual life.
Here’s what I mean:
Many of us Christians have built our theology and approach to God and life and the ways we treat or include (or don’t) others on fear. This fear—a terror, really—is a direct result of our what-if questions about God when we take them to the worst-case scenarios, i.e. “What if we get this wrong and God smites us?”
And so, since our what ifs often lead somewhere bad (i.e., smiting), our beliefs and doctrines and theologies and worldviews get shaped and shared to avoid that.
Believe me, I understand this inclination. I don’t want to be smited either.
But a while ago, as I wrestled with my anxiety-related what ifs, and meditated on the many (many, many…) “Do Not Fear” passages in the Scriptures, I felt the Spirit suggest another way, a more trusting way to consider my what ifs as I struggled to believe that God listened, healed, restored, and redeemed.
I realized in these terrible moments—where all my what ifs about God led to worst-case scenarios—that not only were my answers wrong, my questions were.
Not only does God seems to be largely out of the smiting business (though, was God really ever in it?), but also that kind of fear at any level constricts our reading of the Scriptures and our view of Jesus. Being terrified of one misstep dampens our ability to sense the Spirit and notice God at work.
This isn’t how God called us to live or be in relationship with God or one another. Our Creator, the God of the Scriptures, this God who sent God’s Son and Spirit to dwell among and within us, invites us reframe our what ifs—both the questions and the answers.
And when we do, those of us who take the Word at their word, who follow God’s love and God’s rescuing, redeeming hand at work throughout the pages of the Scriptures and through the history of this world, even our most difficult moments, our what ifs can be less about fear and terror of a big, angry God and more the absolute, unending delight and joy of a bigger, loving God.
Freed from the fear of getting something wrong (and being smited), we’re left open to wonder:
What if God is not only bigger but better than we imagine?
What if God is more gracious, more open, more loving, more restorative than we think?
What the stories of Jesus are true and God is less interested in us getting every i dotted and every t crossed (gotta put in a little evangelical, “Jesus took care of that cross, after all”) and more interested in our hearts?
What if Jesus was right and that loving our neighbors—as we’d want to be loved—is actually more important to God than anything?
What if rather than being angry at us all the time, what if God smiles at us a lot?
We could go on and on. Perhaps the biggest question is: what difference does flipping our what-if questions make to our theology, to our beliefs, and to our actions?
I hope a lot. Because of this, it’s a pretty decent spiritual practice.
Because God not only invites our questions but God gave us imaginations to unlock something powerful—sometimes fantastical play, as happens in Frankinschool—but also something powerful in knowing God and in understanding this world.
I’m forever grateful to live in a world where we don’t know or have all the answers. I’m grateful God invites us to question and trust in God’s goodness and love—even in our more difficult times.
As a writer, I love the places what if takes me. As a person of faith, I might love it even more.
If you have or know a child who loves slightly spooky (not really) stories of friendship, creativity, exploration, and imaginative mysteries, consider gifting them a copy of Frankinschool or letting your local library know about it. (Want a sneak peak? Click here for the first chapter!) They can be purchased from or requested at your favorite local bookstores, at Amazon, of course, or through Bookshop.org—an amazing site that offers online convenience while supporting local bookstores. If you let me know you’ve ordered it by sharing a bit of the receipt and a good mailing address, I’d be happy to send you or the child a special bookmark and bookplate.
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