My December Book Stack

Best laid plans, y’all… I was hoping to get this written and posted last week, but as it turned out, our kiddos have had virtual school the past two weeks. Unfortunately, this meant that my computer was in use most of the week for Zoom classes, so there were very few opportunities for writing. 

Normally I would make up for it in the evenings, but we did a Family Harry Potter movie marathon, so my evenings were booked as well. (That part of it was well worth it— most of the fam had not seen all the movies, so while the books are MUCH better, it was still fun to take that adventure together!) We even had a Hogwarts-worthy feast when we watched the 8th movie, complete with Pumpkin Pasties, Hot Butter Beer, Pumpkin Juice, and a “snitch” cheese ball.  It was a great way to spend some family time and make a sweet memory before Sarah heads back to school. 

All that to say, I’m sorry this took longer to write and post than I anticipated! Thank you for your patience— hopefully, this December book stack will be worth it. Two separate quarantine periods allowed me some extra reading time, and I am thankful to have made the most of it. So enjoy!

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A Sky Beyond the Storm (and Books 1, 2, and 3 of the “An Ember in the Ashes” series) by Sabaa Tahir

What do you do when you have to quarantine on Christmas day? You curl up with a bunch of really long fiction books, of course! I love Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes series and have been waiting FOREVER for this final book to be released. I waited so long, in fact, that I needed to go back and re-read the first three books. I couldn’t remember some of the details or where the last book left off, so I was grateful for the extra free time to give myself a refresher before reading A Sky Beyond the Storm, which released in December. 

I found Sky to be a very satisfying end to the series. Tahir writes masterfully from different character’s POV’s and weaves them together to tell her story through a beautiful tapestry of different perspectives. After reading the first three books, I was ready for the battle. I longed for Laia to find her purpose, for Elias to find freedom, for Helene to find love, and for the Commandant to finally get what she deserves. The ending of this book was not unexpected, but it had enough surprises sprinkled in to keep it engaging. It got a little strange and far-fetched in some places, but that’s not unusual in YA fantasy. Overall, it kept me reading, wanting to know what would happen next. It is beautiful, haunting, and inspiring all at the same time.

One note of caution for younger or spiritually sensitive readers: This series gets a little dark. It deals quite a bit with the spirit world, and while good ultimately wins over evil, there were a few parts in the series that left me with an uneasy feeling. It wasn’t something I could put my finger on… it just felt a little off. Ultimately, I realized that underneath it all, the story has elements that do not fit well with a Christian worldview. For example, the Creator forces Elias to surrender his humanity, declaring love to be the greatest weakness of humans (yet, God’s love for humanity is what led Jesus to the cross). Also, in the climax of this last book, the creation becomes more powerful than the Creator; obviously, neither of these ideas is consistent with the life or teachings of Jesus. It did not ruin the series for me, but it is something to be aware of and a good thing to discuss with teen readers.

Keeper of the Lost Cities: Unlocked (Book 8.5) by Shannon Messenger

This middle-grade-turned-young-adult fantasy series by Shannon Messenger has been a favorite around our house for a long time. Shannon Messenger is a master at world-building, and her characters are easy to love (or hate, depending on the person!). This book is completely different than the others in the series; thus, the “8.5” title. It is 500 pages of facts and fun from all the previous books, followed by a novella, which will lead readers into Book 9. I’ll be honest—Shhhh!—Sarah and I both skipped the first 500 pages and went directly to the novella. We couldn’t help ourselves! And it was worth it. 

While I love this series, I have wrestled in the last two books with getting bogged down in the plethora of details, only to be disappointed in finishing them without much actually happening. For every “answer” given, there were several new questions left unanswered. Our lovable friend group didn’t seem to be making much progress. However, the tide seems to be changing! In only 235 pages, we received insightful new information, important character development, action scenes that move the plot forward, and still plenty of the witty and endearing interactions that we have grown to love and expect in a Keeper book. When I turned the final page of the novella, I felt at last like our young heroes are on the edge of something big. I am already holding my breath for Book 9—hurry up, Shannon!

**If you do skip ahead like we did, make sure you go back and check out the first part of Keeper of the Lost Cities: Unlocked. In addition to having detailed information on all the characters, there is also a pronunciation guide, glossary, fun fan quizzes, fantastic artwork (including a section with Keefe’s memory drawings and notes), and even some recipes for Sophie’s favorite elvin foods. Sarah and I especially enjoyed the Cinnacreme!

Secure in the Everlasting Arms by Elisabeth Elliot

I often read Elisabeth Elliot’s books as part of my devotional time. Since college, the Lord has used her solid teaching and faithful obedience to inspire me to live wholeheartedly surrendered to Him. I have no idea how many times I have read this particular book, but it found its way back into the rotation, and I am better for it. The short chapters make it easy to incorporate into daily reading, while still being deep enough to linger in your heart and mind as you seek to live out the truths of Scripture. This book contains sections on a variety of topics, including faith, contentment, suffering, singleness and marriage, knowing the will of God, and even some missionary stories (hers and others), and incorporates many great quotes and prayers by other authors. If you have never read any of Elliot’s books, Secure in the Everlasting Arms would be a great introduction to her overall style and teaching.

I have dozens of sentences underlined, but here is one of my favorite quotes from this book:

Jesus asks us to take up the cross—to take it up daily. What does this mean? Surely it is the quiet acceptance of disappointments, the willing performance of some hard task we’d prefer to avoid or some small duty which is distasteful to us. It is forgiveness to that one who has deeply wronged us and has not apologized (the Lord tells us to forgive those who trespass, not only those who apologize!). The cross is offered to us every day in some form, at times comparatively trivial, at other times real suffering, but it is always something which slashes straight across our human nature…  p. 106

The Garden and The Serpent- Book 3 and The Final Judgement- Book 4 (Dream Traveler’s Quest Series) by Ted and Kara Dekker

In these final two books in the Dream Traveller’s Quest series, our unlikely middle school hero, Theo, continues his pursuit of the five seals in the “other world.” He brings a new friend with him in the third book who happens to be blind, and who is instrumental in helping him figure out the third quest. At the end of book 3, their real-life bully, Asher, enters the picture and becomes part of the challenge they face in the final two quests. Annelee joins them again in the last book, and Theo finds himself faced with choosing between rescuing his friends and solving the quests. In the end, he is able to accomplish both, but only with the help of Elyon. Eventually he chooses love over fear, conquering the darkness and bringing light and love to an unexpected recipient. As mentioned in previous reviews, this is a great series for upper elementary and middle school readers. I found some of the spiritual metaphors in these two books a little more difficult to connect and understand, especially in the last book, so discussion is recommended. But overall it is a fun series with a great message, and my boys are loving it!

Becoming Elisabeth Elliot by Ellen Vaughn

Since this Book Stack was especially large and this blog post is already longer than usual, I have decided to wait and give this book its own separate review. For now, I will simply say that I loved it! Even having read as much of EE’s writing as I have, this biography gave me new insight into the woman who has probably shaped my faith more than anyone else. Becoming Elisabeth Elliot is a story worth reading, and I cannot recommend it enough.

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Whew! You made it! That was a lot to read, so thanks for sticking around. Hopefully you found something on this list to add to your own book stack. Stay tuned for a recap of my 2020 Reading Challenge List!

What’s on your nightstand?

My November Book Stack

I am obviously a little behind in posting my monthly book reviews, so I am going to use this week to catch up! 

Due to various Heath children being quarantined for direct COVID exposures—at different times, of course— I found myself with a little more time to read than I normally do at this time of year. I managed to get through four books in November and eight books in December! Whoo hoo! I am excited to share them with you.

Here’s what I read in November:

Storyworthy— Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life through the Power of Storytelling  by Matthew Dicks

This book was recommended by several people in the H*W Facebook group, and it did not disappoint! It is a craft book, meaning it is written specifically to help train people in the art of storytelling. Matthew Dicks is an expert at what he does, and his personal stories engage the reader throughout the book. I found the way he breaks down his craft into simple, bite-sized applications to be super helpful. This book is very engaging and reads less like a text-book than many other craft books of its kind. I definitely recommend it for authors, pastors, teachers, and anyone else who enjoys telling a good story! 

Mirror for the Soul: A Christian Guide to the Enneagram by Alice Fryling

If you follow my book reviews, you may remember that I started learning about the Enneagram this summer. With my psychology background, I am always interested in things that help us better understand and relate to God, ourselves, and others. I have found the Enneagram to be a very useful tool for learning to understand the differences in the way people think and providing language to explain some of our internal motivations, while also shedding light on our personal weaknesses and blindspots. 

A few of my friends were interested in learning more about the enneagram, so we decided to a study together. While I really like the descriptions and explanations found in Ian Morgan Kron’s book, The Road Back to You, I chose this book instead specifically because of its Biblical framework.

Fryling does a great job of reminding her readers that while the enneagram is a useful tool that God can use to help us live more fully into who He created us to be, it is ultimately just that— a tool, and nothing more. There are many people who take the enneagram into a mystical realm, giving it more power and weight than it deserves, so I appreciate that Fryling keeps it in the proper perspective. While she does a great job explaining the various “numbers” and descriptions, as well as how they overlap in both positive and negative ways, she always brings it back to Scriptural applications. I especially enjoyed her Biblical reflections at the end of each chapter.

If you’re looking for a study on the enneagram with a very solid, Biblical foundation, this is a great choice!

The Curse of the Shadowman (Dream Traveler’s Quest, Book 2) by Ted & Kara Dekker

I read the first book in this series last month, and was looking forward to reading more. This book continues where the first one left off, following our unlikely middle school hero, Theo, as he embarks on another quest in the “other world.” This time, his classmate, Annelee, joins him. This particular quest sheds light on how quick we are to (wrongly) judge ourselves and others. By the end, they learn to see themselves through Elyon’s eyes, building on what they learned in the first quest. This is a great series for upper-elementary and middle school readers, particularly boys. The spiritual allegory continues, and the books are filled with great spiritual metaphors to help middle readers better understand their faith journey.

The Gospel According to Satan: Eight Lies about God that Sound Like the Truth by Jared C. Wilson

I was so excited to read this book! A dear friend recommended it, and I found the topic so intriguing. The introduction outlined the Biblical account of Adam and Eve, emphasizing how Satan was able to deceive them using lies that sound like truth, and makes the case that we are still vulnerable to the same tricks. Each chapter confront a cultural “lie” that sounds like truth, and breaks it down to reveal the ways Satan uses it to draw us away from God.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the introduction was the best part of the whole book.  I really liked the first 2 chapters, but after that, I felt like Wilson was reaching. I didn’t necessarily disagree with him; in fact, I actually did agree with most of his points. But I feel like his focus often wasn’t the best application of the “lies” he chose, and he seemed to continually create unnecessary conflict in ways that actually detracted from his real points. He said a lot of good stuff; it just got lost in all his words and arguments. Also, he likes to slam others and tout himself (and his books), which annoys me. 

Still, it was an interesting read, and I am glad I read it. It introduced me to some theological viewpoints and ideologies I was not familiar with. And I always appreciate learning from voices and perspectives different from my own. If you ascribe to Reformed theology, his points and arguments may really resonate with you. Otherwise, you can decide for yourself whether to take or leave this book. I probably wouldn’t recommend it.

And that’s it for November! Stay tuned for my December Book Stack and my Year End Review & Recommendations. Hopefully both will be published in the next week or so!

What’s on your nightstand?

What I Learned to Embrace in 2020

We are two days into the New Year, and I find myself needing to wrap up 2020 somehow. I wish I could put a great big bow on it, but it wasn’t exactly that kind of year. Still, there was a lot of joy and a lot of growth, and I don’t want to accidentally leave those gifts behind.

I have never been one to choose a “word for the year” like so many others do, but last year a word chose me. I don’t even remember how it happened. I just know that as I prayed about whether or not I should consider choosing a word, God began to whisper the same word over and over to my heart. 

Embrace.

He whispered it in other places, too— songs on the radio, conversations with friends, in the pages of my devotional reading. Again and again the word appeared…. Embrace.

Immediately, it resonated with me, likely because I was filled with so much dread for 2020. Our oldest daughter was graduating from high school, and I was dreading all the “lasts”: her last show, her last prom, her graduation. And I couldn’t even begin to imagine driving her six and a half hours away to college and leaving her there without us! 

But God was telling me to EMBRACE those things, to soak them in and find joy instead of dread. 

So I learned to EMBRACE THE MOMENTS.

I prayed for time to slow down (and, boy, did it!). When the quarantine began, we were suddenly all home together, and I was prepared to embrace every moment. We baked cookies and made scones and watched movies together. We went on family hikes and made more cookies. We created videos and completed schoolwork and yes, we made more cookies. And we ate them. All. 

When Sarah’s Senior girls trip to Texas was cancelled, we went to the beach and swam with dolphins instead. When she missed our family Disney trip due to a Covid exposure, we snuck back down to the Mouse House for a couple days after Thanksgiving (yay for annual passes!). When yet another direct exposure ruined our Christmas day plans, we waved sadly to the grandparents and then embraced the moment, choosing to make a fun memory instead (it had something to do with chinese food and a crispy duck, but that’s a story for another day!).

And when Jeff and I dropped her off at college and I felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest, I embraced all the things I was grateful for— that she was still able to be on campus with Covid, that she was making new friends and thriving, that she missed her crazy family after all…

So I am grateful that God prepared me to embrace each of those moments. However, my word ended up applying to so much more than just Sarah! The Lord had many other lessons for me to EMBRACE.

When the world shut down, life changed drastically in our home. We went from everyone going in different directions every evening to having dinner (and lunch… and breakfast… and dessert!) together at home every day. Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months.

I learned to EMBRACE REST.

There were so many projects I could have done around the house. There were closets and cabinets and a basement full of stuff calling my name. But my soul needed something different— rest

And so, contrary to my normal nature, I embraced it. I left the clutter where it was and curled up in a chair with a book. I snuggled on the couch with the kids and watched movies. I laced up my sneakers and took long walks. And I spent extended time talking and listening to my Father

The strangest thing happened, y’all— my soul began to breathe. It was as if I had been on a ventilator for a very long time, maybe years, and was suddenly beginning to breathe on my own again. It was shallow at first; uneven, gasping, gulps of air followed by periods of holding my breath; but eventually, as I embraced my new normal, it began to settle into a more consistent rhythm. 

I also learned to EMBRACE WRITING.

I have always found clarity through writing my thoughts. Stacks and stacks of prayer journals line my bookshelves. There are even a few (hilarious!) middle school “diaries” thrown in the mix. I have written hundreds of letters to friends over the years, and I have a folder of (mostly embarrassing) poetry hidden in my closet that will hopefully never be read by other humans! 

But around Thanksgiving last year, God began to stir in my heart the urge to write more consistently… and to share my words.

There is something extremely vulnerable about sharing my words with others. I want them to be real, not contrived or impersonal. I want them to touch people, to inspire and encourage and help those who read them. And if I’m honest, I want people to like them (stupid pride). But mostly, I want them to draw people’s hearts to Jesus, just as He draws my own heart to Him. 

And I don’t often know how to do that. 

But suddenly I had nothing else to do except EMBRACE what God was calling me to do. So I wrote about a lot of random things, praying God would use them. I published things faithfully on my blog, even though I had no idea if anyone was reading it. I joined hope*writers and began to learn about the discipline of writing, the craft of storytelling, and the machine that is involved if one ever hopes to publish: building a brand, a platform, a social media following, an email list, etc. 

It still overwhelms me! But through the process…

I have learned to EMBRACE GROWTH. 

I have tried new things and failed. I have written pieces and cringed after I published them. With the help of some friends, I designed a totally new website— that I still haven’t launched. I even submitted two articles for publication, both of which were rejected. But I did it! 

(And I was actually just featured as a guest blogger on a fellow hope*writer’s blog, so that’s fun! You can read that article here.

Overall, I have learned so much. I have even been able to share some of it with others, and it is all a result of embracing something new, of not being afraid to try.

Above all else, I have EMBRACED JESUS.

This year has given me the gift of time and space to just be with Jesus. I have had the freedom to study the Word; to read deep, reflective books; to pour out my heart to my Father; and to sit at His feet and listen. He has convicted and encouraged me, and faithfully been present. I have asked Him for answers and direction, and He has repeatedly reminded me to open my hands and trust Him. So I embrace His goodness, his faithfulness, His love; and I place myself in His hands, like clay in the hands of the Potter. Have your way with me, Lord!

Looking back, it’s funny to think of 2020 as a year to be embraced. Yet, that is exactly what God asked me to do, and I am so grateful. Think of all I would have missed out on if I had stayed focused on what I was losing and if the world had not shut down! 

“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.” —Romans 8:28 (NLT)

God has given me a new word for 2021 (I’ll share it here soon!), but I intend to continue embracing whatever He places before me, and I pray you will as well! 

Looking Back and Moving Forward: 7 Questions to Guide You into 2021

Well friends, can you believe it? It’s the last day of 2020.

We made it!

Do you remember last New Year’s Eve? So many of us were looking forward to not only a new year, but a new decade! The beginning of a new beginning.  A chance to start fresh, to see things clearly, to create something new. We thought we were going to have “20/20” Vision, remember?

Instead, as the saying goes, it turns out “Hindsight is 20/20.”

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)

I don’t think anyone can say this year looked like what they expected. I mean, who expects Tiger King, a global pandemic, a toilet paper shortage, a disputed Presidential election, and murder hornets (whatever happened to those anyway? Wait, forget I asked!) all in one year?

And that is only the beginning of what many of you faced this year. Job loss, separation from or loss of loved ones, financial stress, cancelled milestones… it has been a way different year than we all expected, for sure.

Yet, even in the darkness, there are moments of joy and lessons of light to be grasped. If we focus on the darkness, that is all we see, and it’s easy to lose our way. But if, in the midst of darkness, we search for light, even the tiniest spark will illuminate our path. 

Jesus came into our world at a time of great political and social unrest. In fact, He assured us that as long as we live in this world, we will experience trouble, hardship, and suffering. (John 16:33) But He goes on to remind us that He has overcome the darkness of this world. He is the light we long for in the darkness! He is the peace we so desperately seek. He is where we find our hope.

I’m sure we are all more than ready to kiss 2020 good-bye, but the reality is that 2021 probably isn’t going to look much different. Masks, quarantines, cancelled events, social media madness, political chaos— I’m afraid they are all going to stick around for awhile. The difference this time around is they are not unexpected. 

And expectations can make all the difference!

More than anything, I believe this year has revealed to us the illusion of our own control. Going into 2020, we thought we controlled our time, our travel plans, our priorities, our activities, and even our health to a large extent. How quickly we learned how little control we actually have over our own lives! 

Friends, sometimes it’s good to be reminded that we are not in control. 

We can do all the right things and bad things still happen. We can plan things out perfectly and those plans can disappear in an instant. There is something about uncertainty that clarifies our priorities. When all the excess things are stripped away, we find ourselves grasping for what we value most. And sometimes we can’t discern those things any other way.

So, before we start a new year, I want to encourage you to take some time to peek back into the darkness of 2020 and search for the light. Here are a few questions I am asking myself that I thought might be helpful for you as well.

Looking back at 2020:

1. What am I grateful for?

2. What did I lose or miss out on last year that I am still grieving?  What did I gain?

3. What have I learned?

Pondering my answers to these questions is helping me discern who/what is most important to me, what I truly value, and what I need to prioritize as I move forward. It’s important to keep those priorities in mind as we answer the next set of questions.

Moving forward into 2021:

4. Who/what do I most value? How can I make sure those stay my top priority in the coming year (even in uncertain circumstances)?

5. What is God leading me to let go of? (This may be certain habits, relationships, thought patterns, labels, activities, etc.)

6.  What is God calling me to BE in 2021?

7. What is God calling me to DO in 2021?

As we were discussing how 2020 has affected our family, one of our girls declared that it really hasn’t affected us that much, and our other kids agreed. And in the grand scheme, they are correct— we have not lost any loved ones to COVID, Jeff’s job is still secure, we are financially stable and currently all healthy, all of which we are grateful for! 

But there were plenty of disappointments and cancelled plans, especially for the kids. So when I asked her why she thought we weren’t affected, she said, “Well, I guess it’s because our family is just really good at rolling with things!”

Jeff and I try to live our lives in a way that reflects that God is in control, no matter what. We don’t always do it perfectly, but this year has given us plenty of opportunities to practice it, that’s for sure! Our goal has been to feel the darkness and grieve the losses when necessary, but then to refocus our eyes and look for the light. 

And without fail, we have found it. There are always hidden blessings, secret sources of joy, and unexplainable peace waiting there in the darkness, if only we will look for them.  Sometimes that light shines like a lantern; other times it is no bigger than a birthday candle. But in the darkest room, even a tiny flame can dispel some of the darkness. And once we find it, it remains with us, casting light in other places of darkness, spreading its glow to those around us, slowly illuminating the way forward.

Friends, take a few minutes today or tomorrow to search the darkness of 2020 for the glimpses of light. Get alone with God and ask Him to speak truth to your heart. Let those glimmers shine into the new year and show you how to start. Don’t worry about making resolutions or planning anything out twelve  months ahead (or even two weeks, lol!). Just listen to your Father and hold your days with open hands. Let His voice and the truth you’ve gleaned in 2020 guide you one step at a time.

And do not fear.

“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” –John 1:5 (NIV)

Wishing you all the Light of Jesus to guide your steps in 2021~

Wrapped in the Unexpected

NOTE: This week’s guest blogger is my sweet friend, Lindsey Gibson. Lindsey was one of the first people to reach out to me when I joined Hope*Writers, and she quickly became a trusted friend. Her heart for Jesus and her passion for helping others is evident in everything she does. I am so grateful for her friendship and excited to share her words with you today!

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Like it was yesterday, I remember sneakily scooting as near to the Christmas tree as I could without touching it, as that was the rule. Each ornament had a story to tell, and the bubble lights were my absolute favorite. Hoping not to get caught, I’d quickly scan each gift placed carefully under the tree for my name and take note of each one’s size and shape. 

I’d think, dream, and guess what could be hiding behind the beautifully wrapped paper that was chosen just for me! 

Regarding gifts, what if I told you the ones most carefully chosen by our Heavenly Father aren’t always packaged in sparkle, but quite often, in unlikely, unpredictable, ill-timed packaging, while resembling nothing attractive and having little perceived value? 

UGH! Who wants that kind of gift? At first look, I’d say, absolutely no one. 

I’m sure you are saying, “Well, that’s encouraging, Lindsey! What else do you have to lift our hearts in the most fantastic year of 2020?” 

Glad you asked, sweet friend; let’s go to Isaiah 9:6-7 and read the promise given to God’s people: 

6 For to us, a child is born, to us, a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the greatness of his government and peace, there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.

The Messiah, or the “anointed one,” was a gift of relief, rescue, and redemption. This new KING and GOVERNOR would set the record straight and repair the broken bridge between a Holy God and man. 

Wow! A king is on the way! A palace. A throne. A Savior. 

However, God’s gift arrived a bit differently than anyone expected. Luke 1:26-38 and Luke 2:1-20 tell us the unlikely, yet heavenly, story of a common young virgin girl named Mary. She was chosen to birth the Promised child, conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her fiance, shocked and unsure, stepped up in humble obedience to become the earthly Father. 

There was no pampering preparation or luxurious birthing suite to anticipate the royal birth, just a long journey home on the back of a mule. Labor pains brought no room to welcome a baby properly. The company of livestock would have to do.

This type of “grand” entrance would be easy to overlook, dismiss, and reject, wouldn’t it? 

What about in our lives, now? Do we have promises we hold close? Are we waiting and believing that God will answer, reveal, and show up? Maybe we long to be a mother, have a healthy marriage, solid friendships, or a different career. 

Also, could we possibly miss the answer if it shows up looking more like a rock instead of the promised jewel?

In our lives, this may look a bit like:

Motherhood wrapped in infertility, 

A happy marriage layered under childhood baggage and bad choices. 

A treasured friendship walled off by trust issues.

A dream opportunity hidden behind a disappointing layoff. 

Did you know diamonds form when carbon deposits (rocks) deep within the earth are subject to extreme temperature and pressure?

It’s still the promise, yet unexpectedly unrefined.

1 Peter 1:6-7 tells us, “In this, you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, 7 so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which perishes though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ;”

Life’s heat and pressure slow a hurried stride. Trials push pause and position desperate hearts to receive. In the beauty of difficulty, our gaze adjusts to focus on the heart of our Father. Intimacy and trust deepen as we lean in a bit more. Through this, His reflection tells our story.

Upon it, His strength is magnified. His goodness outshines hopelessness. His healing is mending the shattered. His faithfulness is never denied. 

Can you believe it, the humble gift sent to save us chose to display HIS glory through the most unlikely….US!!! 

Be encouraged! 

Lindsey Gibson is your “life unpacking” specialist, encourager, writer of the “Moving Beyond Messy Blog”, speaker, wife, Mama of two (plus a few), Registered Nurse, former “Hot Mess Express” titleholder, and definite God’s grace dweller. You can find her in the following places:

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/moving_beyond_messy/

Facebook :https://www.facebook.com/LindseyGibsonWriter

Website: www.lindseygibson.com

I Need a Sign

The weather outside is gray and dreary, reflecting my soul. I am trying to get in the Christmas spirit… we are celebrating the greatest Gift ever given, after all! And You are my greatest gift, Jesus. Nothing in my life would mean anything without You. So I truly am grateful.

I just don’t feel like celebrating.

I don’t want any more stuff– I don’t want to buy it and I don’t want to receive it. I don’t want to eat the cookies I’m baking. I don’t want to buy an extension cord for the front porch decorations. And I’m tired of watching the same old movies for the hundredth time!

Everything just feels so… ordinary this year.

No magic. No wonder. No anticipation.

Change my heart, Lord!

I am like the shepherds of long ago, out in the fields, just going about their business. I’m doing what I always do, trapped in the rut of ordinary life. As the darkness of night settles in, everything looks the same as it always does. No angels. No star.

But wait… A star?

The star!

God, how did You know? Of all the years, how did You know we would need the reminder this year? 

A visible symbol declaring Your Presence with us; a light intended to draw our eyes and hearts to You. In 2020, the week of Christmas…

The Bethlehem Star.

If ever we needed something to lead us to You, Jesus, it is now!

Our world needs Your peace.

Our nation needs Your peace.

Our communities need Your peace.

Our families need Your peace.

I need Your peace.

“When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with His mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

– Matthew 2:10-11

Lord, whether I am caught in a cycle of busyness or muddling through the mundane, may I pause and lift my eyes tonight in search of something more.

May the star in the sky, the sign You have given (again), usher into my heart the joy and wonder I have been missing.

May it lead me into Your Presence, so I may bow down and worship You.

May I open my heart, my hands, my treasures, and lay them at Your feet. May all that I am and all that I have be used for Your glory.

“O Come, let us adore Him 

O Come, let us adore Him

O Come, let us adore Him,

Christ, the Lord!”

(-O Come, All Ye Faithful, John Francis Wade)

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Sweet friends, may you find wonder and joy in the coming of the Christ child this Christmas!

When You Find Yourself on Empty

NOTE: Friends, please welcome our next guest blogger, my sweet friend, Abi! She is in the throes of young motherhood, among many other adventures, so I am grateful she was able to find time to write for us (I mean, I barely found time to go to the bathroom when my kids were little!) When she sent me her post this weekend, I almost cried. It is so timely for Christmas time and 2020 in general, when we all find ourselves running on empty, and I know so many of us can relate. You can read more about Abi and find ways to follow her writing at the end of this post. Thank you for taking time to read her words today!

In the countdown to Christmas and new year, we find ourselves writing and reviewing more lists than usual. We regularly unpack our cluttered brains with all of the “to dos” of the busy season and take pleasure in crossing items off our lists. We might find ourselves deciphering items on our children’s handwritten gift lists, monitoring tight budgets and balances, googling seasonal recipes and scribbling “brussel sprouts, cranberry sauce, eggnog” on the backs of envelopes, which we stuff into pockets before spreading pleated fabric over our faces and dashing out to the store.  

In between curbside pick ups and scheduled package deliveries, maybe we are also finding time to pen gratitude lists and gather all of the memories and lessons of 2020, or returning to bullet point prayers and resolutions to reflect and evaluate. Perhaps we’re so desperate to exchange this challenging year for a fresh start, we’re already jotting down our dreams, plans, and projects for what we hope is a brighter year ahead. 

In the last few weeks, I’ve done many of these things. I’m an analog-loving fan of pen, paper, and post-it notes. There’s a good chance you’ll find me frantically sorting through the mental mess of the season by spreading sticky yellow squares all over the kitchen table. For me, list writing is an organizational strategy and a therapeutic exercise. I also consider it to be a sometimes-effective sleep aid.

One night when I was struggling to fall asleep, I sat up and began to write a grocery list for the next day (as you do). Frustratingly, as I was nearing the end, the pen I was using began to dry out. Blue, inky letters gradually turned to dry, colorless etchings on the page. I furiously scribbled circles in the margins, applying more pressure than necessary, but that didn’t work. I moved the pen back and forth in straight and wiggly lines, but still, no ink appeared. Then in a last-ditch effort, I shook the pen with a strong flick of my wrist, multiple times, hoping that any residual ink stuck in the inner tube would shift towards the nib. I was trying to get that last bit of remaining ink to move and flow out so that I could finish my list. I got a little more done, but it still wasn’t enough. None of my efforts proved entirely successful (and neither did my “sleep aid”). It seemed like a reflection of the state of my heart at the end this year. 

When we are coming to the end of a challenging season, it is easy to grow weary and despondent. We might know the finish line is coming, but we are limping and shuffling towards the blurry end with a pained expression. We feel dry and spent. We’ve run out of energy and motivation. We can feel like that dwindling ink pen, with nothing left to give. We don’t have the strength or supply to finish what we started, let alone finish it well. 

In response, we either settle for less, strive for more, or give up entirely. Some of us decide that we will just survive it, shrink back, and quietly, dutifully finish. Some of us see our fast-fading output and fight back by adding more pressure and movement, trying to force any remaining fuel to the surface. Others of us abandon efforts altogether. 

In frustration, we can force and we can press and shake. In weariness, we can settle for running out and barely there—or even nothing at all. But thankfully those aren’t our only options. We can also admit our weakness and seek the strength and supply only God can provide. 

Perhaps you have given up and put your efforts on hold. You’re pinning all of your hope onto an uncertain future and shutting down until it appears. God has more for you right now.

Maybe hard times have caused you to retreat into the comfort of nostalgia and you find yourself wistfully looking back more than you are eagerly looking forward. Remember—you still have a story to tell, a vital part to play. God has much more He wants to do through you.  

May God release what is stuck, refresh your supply, and free you to flow in the gifts He has given you, to love and serve well in the places He has called you. May you and the people around you be utterly surprised by the abundant overflow of His goodness and grace to you. We are not those who shrink back and diminish but those who press on, fight the good fight, and finish the race.

Bring your lack, your empty vessels, bring your unfinished lists and your fading letters to an unlimited and generous God. Lower your tired and trembling hand, point your dwindling ink pen to the page once again and let grace that’s sufficient flow.

Sometimes the best stories are written from a place of emptiness, and the greatest miracles happen in a time of drought. Just as the finest wine is brought out at the end—quite unexpectedly—maybe the most vibrant ink is reserved for the last few lines. Though you feel weak and empty, God’s power and life will flow through you as you commit to the blank spaces ahead and move forward in faith.  

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:19)

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Abi Marks is a British non-fiction writer who moved to the middle of America 12 years ago. She lives in Missouri with her husband and three lively daughters where she also works as an adjunct English instructor and freelance copy editor. She loves a good analogy, looks for meaning in ordinary things, and writes to inspire reflection about life, faith, and creativity. You can find her on Instagram @abi.m.marks and her blog abimarks.wordpress.com.

Finding Joy in the Simple Things

The clock approaches midnight as I wipe off the counters and look over my list one more time. The children, all four under the age of ten, have been tucked into bed for a few precious hours now, and I am trying to organize myself for the holiday rush. Between holiday decorating, class parties, cookie baking, and all the other things that come along with Christmas, my list keeps growing longer as my time grows shorter. 

I long for the simplicity I see on the front of the Hallmark Christmas cards: candles glowing through the windows of a quiet, peaceful home; warmly bundled children with red caps and mittens, holding hands and singing praises; a blanket of snow shimmering beneath the glow of the Christmas star.

Simple. Joy.

But my children are young; these days will fly by…

(Or so they tell me.)

It is imperative that I make the most of every moment. After all, their childhood will be ruined if they don’t assemble gingerbread houses and find the elf and sing Christmas carols in their PJ’s and…

So I find myself in Mom of the Year mode, making a list of every Instagram-worthy idea I can think of, and even scheduling them on a daily calendar to make sure we don’t forget to do them. “Simplicity is for lazy moms!” I tell myself. Not me. 

I am intentional

I am purposeful

I can handle this.

And yet…

I forgot to pick up the cookie ingredients at the grocery store today. Again. The pile of Christmas books calls out to me, reminding me that we forgot to read one tonight at bedtime. Again. And I forgot to pick up gift assignments for the nursing home service project. 

Again.

The self-inflicted weight of my “perfect Christmas requirements” is so heavy, I can barely breath. I glance at my list one more time, wondering why I ever loved the Christmas season, and stumble up the stairs to bed, switching off the lights behind me.

As I drift off to sleep, the lyrics of well-loved Christmas hymns echo in my mind:

Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me…

Oh Come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord…

I wonder briefly if I’m missing something. But before I can unpack that thought, the darkness claims me and I drift off to sleep.

*************

That was many years ago, nearly a decade, and I am grateful to say Christmas looks a little different around here now. The pressure I once felt to be the perfect mom and make every moment matter has given way to a more realistic way of living. 

If COVID has had any positive impact on our society, it has been to slow us down and remind us of what really matters. I am reminded of that famous line from our favorite green-skinned Santy-claus:

“It came without ribbons, it came without tags,

It came without packages, boxes, or bags!”

And he puzzled and puzzled ‘till his puzzler was sore.

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before.

“What if Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store?

What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?”

How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss

Somewhere along the way, my desire to be intentional about every moment sucked the life right out of Christmas and left my spirit starving. So, while we still incorporate many of the same traditions and experiences from those early years, the pressure to make sure every. single. thing. is accomplished no longer drives our days.

Instead, I have learned to find joy in the simple things. 2020 has reinforced that habit, and I find myself treasuring the little things even more this season.

Here are a few simple things that are breathing joy into my soul this December…

Christmas music

There is just something about Christmas music that can give even the grumpiest Grinch a happy heart! It’s amazing how music can determine our mood. When I find myself feeling the stress of the season and need something to make me smile, turning on some Christmas tunes usually does the trick. Buddy the Elf had it right when he said, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear!” Go search a Christmas playlist on Spotify and sing yourself into the Christmas spirit!

Our Nativity Set tradition

I don’t really even know how this started, but when I was growing up, my little brother used to hide baby Jesus in different places around the nativity until Christmas morning, when He would finally make His way into the manger. Somehow this tradition evolved in our own family to moving all the nativity characters around. Throughout the season, you might see Mary on one side talking to the angel, the three wise men on another shelf feeding their camels, or the shepherd off chasing a wayward sheep.  (One year, Mary went missing for several days. We eventually found her under the couch with the shepherd…) Walking by this particular nativity set always makes me pause to see what our little friends are up to, adding a bit of adventure to the ordinary. Sounds just like Jesus!

The Book of Isaiah

I started reading through the book of Isaiah in late October, simply because it’s been a few years since I’ve read it straight through, and I felt my heart drawn there. Had I been more purposeful, I might have realized it would put me reading the prophesies of the Messiah during December; instead, it was a delightful surprise! In a year like 2020, how encouraging it is to remember that nothing happens apart from the Lord’s knowledge and purposes. What seems random and unpredictable to us has its origin in the heavens and is intended to draw our hearts to our Father. His promises are certain; His timing is perfect; His mercies, though often disguised, are for our good and His glory. The One who promised is faithful! If you need something to read, check out Isaiah. There is so much to be gleaned.

Quilted Christmas stockings

I wish I could take credit for this idea, but I read it somewhere, I’m sure. Each stocking is made out of that child’s baby clothes, and I have a tree skirt stitched from all four of their clothes. When I look at those patches of color, I can picture their little faces in each little outfit, each pair of pj’s, and it makes my heart so happy! Our girls are nearly grown now, and our boys won’t be far behind. These stockings capture a moment of time and enable me to enjoy it every year. 

The fragrances of Christmas 

There is nothing like the smells of Christmas! Whether it’s the aroma of baking cookies filling the kitchen, or the scent of my favorite winter candle (thanks, Pam!) when I walk in the living room, something about it just makes a house feel like a home. For all you crunchy oil-users, I love to put Siberian Fir and Cinnamon in the diffuser (On Guard with Grapefruit is another fave). What smells bring Christmas to life for you?

Hot chocolate bar

This is new to us this year. Our kids are big enough now that we don’t have to monitor all their snacks (there are some advantages to being the baby of four!), so I pulled out all our hot chocolate ingredients, stuck them in containers, and put them on a tray on the kitchen counter. Suddenly everyone’s drinking hot chocolate every day, and I’m the mom that gets to say “Yes!” Super simple, but brings lots of joy!

Names of Jesus Advent cards

I am always looking for ways to keep our hearts centered on Jesus during the Christmas season. I found these cards online a year or two ago, and I love them! The set contains 24 numbered cards with names for Jesus, along with twine and mini-clothespins to hang them with. When you purchase the cards, the author emails you each day with a short devotion to go along with the name for that day. We were a few days late putting it up this year due to travelling, and before I knew it, we were ten days in without doing a single devotional. But no stress, right, because I no longer have to be the perfect mom!

Instead, I came up with a brilliant idea (if I do say so myself!)! Our boys need some money to buy Christmas presents, so I told them I would give them each a dollar per card if they look up and write out the corresponding Bible verse.  They could only use the concordance in the back of the Bible- Eli used the computer to type up his verses since he’s learning to type correctly, but not for searching Bible verses. Do you see what I did there, y’all? Hiding the Word in their hearts. That is $48 well spent, my friends!

There are other things I treasure, of course— Christmas cards from friends far and near, hand-made ornaments on the tree, handprint art from when the children were small. Maybe next year I should share one simple thing a day! (See, there I go, turning it into something purposeful… old habits die hard, friends!) But for now, I simply wanted to share these ideas as an encouragement to you. 

Take time to pause and find joy in the simple things.

Where do you find yourself this Christmas? Is it a season of busyness for you, filled with endless to-dos and must-haves? Or are you a little more settled this year, content to do less, but with more peace? Either way, my hope is that you will take a breath and allow the power of Christ to remove the pressure we so often place on ourselves. 

You don’t have to be perfect or do more. That’s the whole reason Jesus came in the first place!

Friends, I’d love to hear what’s bringing you joy this season, and how you are finding peace in a slower pace. Bonus points for sharing pics!

Christmas Eve at Granny’s

   NOTE: Christmas is filled with great nostalgia for many of us. Family heirlooms, special recipes, and cherished traditions all have their place among our celebrations. I am excited to share this story with you, written by my sweet friend, Mel. You can read more about her and find ways to follow her writing at the end of this post. I am so thankful she agreed to be our guest author today! Feel free to share about some of your special traditions or treasured family heirlooms in the comments!

 The worn box appeared like it always did on Christmas Eve. Sitting on the floor in its usual spot, just waiting to be opened and its treasures displayed. Just like the box, every Christmas Eve, my sister, cousins, and I would arrive at my Granny’s house to decorate for Christmas. 

     My little cousins were not allowed to touch the box. Its contents were too special to trust to tiny hands that had not learned the significance of the items inside. My sister and I were the only ones old enough. It did not matter, though, how long I had been helping with that box. My hands still shook when I unwrapped the delicate figurines from their tissue paper. I understood what these figures represented. They were also my Granny’s most cherished possession. I did not want to be the one who accidentally dropped one, breaking it, and ruining Christmas. 

     One by one, my sister and I would pull the figures from their wrappings, then would fuss over how to arrange them. Most were chipped and faded from time, but they were beautiful to me. My favorite one and the one I loved unwrapping the most was baby Jesus. He was always the last figurine to be pulled from the box. My sister or I would feel extra special if we were the one chosen to unwrap him and gently place him on his little bed of straw. 

    Then we would decorate the Christmas tree. It was a 4-foot artificial tree, which we always placed on a low table in order to make it taller. Old ornaments were hung from its branches that had been in the family for years. The tiny red horns were a favorite because they actually made noise if you blew into them. I also loved the green cylinders with little spinning fan blades, and the white snowflakes with intricate patterns. The entire tree was then covered in strands of silver tinsel. It always annoyed me when my little cousins placed all the ornaments in one spot, but Granny never let me move them. She said it was beautiful because we had decorated it together. She always loved how that little tree looked~ the lights twinkling off the tinsel making the entire tree shine. 

    

 Later that evening, we were all brought back for a traditional dinner of family favorites and Kolachie cookies for dessert. Then everyone would exchange presents. The best part of the evening finally arriving for us kids! Torn wrapping paper covered the floor as toys were opened and played with. Everyone would then sit around long after the food had been put away, talking and laughing into the night. We kids would fall asleep on some random corner of furniture or sometimes snuggled up on the floor at the base of the tree. I can never remember the presents I got, but I always remember how much love and laughter was bursting through that little house.

     It has been years since I celebrated Christmas Eve in my Granny’s tiny house in the small town I grew up in. But those memories of the holidays from my childhood are so special to me and come rushing back every Christmas when I pull out my decorations. My Nativity is not as delicate as Granny’s, but my hands still shake when I pull the figurines from their boxes. I still have those tiny red horns, green cylinders, and white snowflakes with their intricate designs. They are so special to me, and just like my little cousins, my own children would often put all the ornaments in one section of the tree. I never moved them because I could hear my Granny’s voice telling me not to. She was right; the tree was always beautiful, no matter how the ornaments were placed, because we decorated it together.

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     Melinda Casilli is small town girl who loves coffee, libraries, and stories that take you to faraway lands. She’s been married to her best friend for 27 years and is the mom to three girls. When she’s not organizing a closet or taming teenage drama you can find her writing under her pen name Mel Havens at MelHavens.com or on Instagram.com/mel.havens.author.

Waiting for Hope

(**Note: This blogpost was originally published last December, but I am sharing it again with a few revisions as we finish up the first week of Advent. In a year like 2020, it seems we can all use a little more hope!)

Hope.

That is the word God has been whispering to my heart this week.

It has been in my devotional readings everyday. It has popped up in several Facebook posts. It was the theme running through our Midweek service. It was even written in glowing Christmas lights on my neighbor’s yard when I drove home last night! (I’m not kidding…talk about a sign!)

We just completed the first week of Advent in the Christian calendar, and the focus for this week was—you guessed it— hope.

As I think back on the beginning of the Christmas story, I am reminded that God’s people had been waiting for what must have seemed like forever for the promised Messiah to appear. Hundreds of years had gone by since the prophets proclaimed God’s message of the One who was to come. Their land had been torn apart by savages, their government overthrown, their people scattered among the nations. So much time had gone by that the stories of old were just that… ancient stories, passed down through generations, of a time long before when God had favored their people. 

But it was clear that God must have changed His mind and turned His back on them. 

Their great-great-great-great (you get it) grandparents had let Him down one too many times, trading long-term loyalty for a fast-food faith, and they were left living the repercussions. Sure, even in the midst of their betrayal, the Father had promised the Messiah, the One who would change everything. How they longed for Him to come! 

But that was a long time ago… 

Perhaps they forgot what it was like to hope.

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 Jeff and I were married for 5 years before we had our oldest daughter, Sarah. We spent three of those years trying to have a baby. At first, we waited patiently, trusting in God’s timing and continuing on with life as usual. After awhile, though, we knew something wasn’t right. We read all the articles, counted the days on the calendar, met with the doctors, ran all the tests. It was in God’s hands, we knew; still, our hearts broke a little with every negative test result.

At the same time, it seemed like every other young couple in our social circle chose that moment to start having babies. I remember buying hooded bath towels and lavender bath wash, smiling through all the baby showers and joking about not drinking the water, only to hide my tears in the bathroom where no one could see.  

The days turned into weeks, which turned into months, which turned into years

remember what it was like to long for someone I wasn’t sure would ever come. 

I, too, almost forgot how to hope.

**********

But then one day, out of the blue, when everyone was just going about their business as usual, an angel appeared to a teenage girl, and the message he delivered breathed HOPE back into the world once again! God had heard His people and He would no longer turn away. It was time. There would be a baby!

Wait, a baby? 

Yes. That baby changed everything.

*******

Our baby changed everything too. I was so in shock when the test was positive, I ran straight to Jeff’s study and handed him the pee stick.  No cute t-shirt or video announcement for us! No, we just sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor and cried at God’s faithfulness. We were so busy having faith that we hadn’t even realized we had lost hope, until suddenly our hearts were flooded with it once again!

I think I took at least four more tests after that just to be sure. It’s amazing what a little hope can do! God could have chosen to answer our prayer in a different way, and that would have been okay. Truly. Our hope came in the form of two lines on a stick that day, but ultimately our hope came in the promise fulfilled all those years ago, when Love chose to put on skin and dwell among us. Emmanuel. God with us! We are not alone.

That is our hope

And so, as we journey through this season of Advent, I want to remember what it was like to wait so long that I almost lost hope, to be afraid to be expectant after so much disappointment. I have been there. Some of you are still there, I know. 2020 has wreaked havoc on our ability to hope!

“But we cannot lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” -2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Friends, we must remember God’s unfailing faithfulness…

A Promise made.

A Baby given.

A Savior sent.

“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful.” -Hebrews 10:23

“For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.” –Romans 15:4

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” –Romans 15:13

Let us remember… and hope.