The Goodness of God

Sometimes the goodness of the Lord overwhelms me.

You and I both know life doesn’t always go the way we want it to. God doesn’t always answer our prayers the way we hope. Things don’t always work out the way we expect. Often we find ourselves in situations where God doesn’t seem to be present at all, or if He is, we can’t seem to figure out what in the world He is doing! 

That’s just real life. It’s hard and it’s messy, and it doesn’t always feel good.

But sometimes, on a rare occasion, we find ourselves overwhelmed with God’s goodness. Tonight is one of those moments for me.

After a crazy day of classes, Sarah called me from college, frustrated that her new schedule is going to greatly limit her ability to spend time with her friend group. Shifting to a music major means that she has lessons and rehearsals during the evenings when her friends normally hang out. I encouraged her to try to make some new friends in her music classes, but she wasn’t really in the mood to hear that yet. So after we hung up, I prayed. “Lord, you know what she needs more than I do. I want to ask You to shift her schedule or widen her friend group, but more than that, I want you to draw her heart to You. So whatever that looks like, that’s what I pray…”

Y’all.  

After rehearsal, a few of the music students—including Sarah— went back to one of the corridors and had an impromptu (socially distanced) time of worship together. They lifted their voices in praise and shared how God is working in their lives. Not how they got saved in middle school, or how they got saved again at camp, but how God is shaping them and growing them right now as college students. 

A few minutes ago, she sent me a voice recording of their worship. They weren’t just singing the latest trendy worship songs (which I love), but also songs we taught her a decade ago during “family church” in our basement—songs we sang at our church plant in the late 90’s/early 2000’s. Songs that make me close my eyes and lift my hands, taking me back to a different time, a different place. 

Reminding me of God’s faithfulness. His goodness.

So, here I sit, alone in my kitchen, remembering sweet times of worship with precious friends during college. We were so anxious to know what the future held back then, but it never stopped us from grasping onto God in the moment. Oh, how I treasure those memories! Our hearts were so open, our faith so strong, our worship so pure. Those glimpses of glory built the foundations of my faith.

As I listen to my daughter’s beautiful voice raised in worship to the very same King of Kings that I sang to all those years ago, my heart overflows with gratitude. What more could I ask for? What better gift for a momma’s heart than to know her child is walking in the truth? 

Who knows what tomorrow will bring.  I am not naïve enough to think that this moment determines her relationship with God forever or that nothing will shake her. There will be more bad days and plenty of frustrated phone calls. In fact, I am confident the enemy would like nothing more than to steal, kill, and destroy her sprouting faith. But I am ready for the fight, and so is she. The devil cannot stand where God is being worshiped. 

So tonight, I will sing of the goodness of God.

Transformation: A Different Way of Thinking

I am sitting in our host’s gorgeously furnished basement, surrounded by strangers. Jeff is talking to the nice middle-aged lady next to us, making her laugh about something random. There’s a spread of food on the tables behind us. I know I should probably be impressed by the professional sauna and enormous wine cellar next to the bathroom, but I have never really been one for fancy things. I am, however, second-guessing my decision to wear jeans!

My friend, Cindy, moves to the front of the room, and the crowd hushes. She begins to speak, sharing the story of how she first fell in love with the children of Swaziland. She tells us about her initial trip; of the people she met, the poverty she saw, and the myriad of emotions swirling inside her. On the screen behind her are photos of smiling women in colorful clothing weaving grass mats . There are beautiful, brown-skinned children with no shoes and dirt-smudged faces. Cindy tells us how her heart broke as she left that country, and how she struggled with the abundance surrounding her when she returned home. 

“I remember asking God, ‘What do you want me to do? How can I help? Am I like the rich young ruler who must give up everything he owns in order to follow You?’”  With tears in her eyes, she continued. “And as I looked around my living room, God whispered, ‘No. But what if you simply give me your excess…”

Cindy and her husband, Jared, already honored God with their every day life. The Lord didn’t need them to give everything away; He just wanted them to consider giving away what they didn’t actually need

Their excess.

That event was almost ten years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. My friend’s words have echoed in my heart ever since. What is my excess? How do I determine the difference between what I need and what I want?  Where is the line between enough and excess? I have continued to ask myself those questions in the years since that day.

What Cindy was talking about was a different way of thinking. God was “renewing her mind” by changing her thoughts about what she needed, what she valued, and what she could give.

If you follow my blog, you know my “word” for 2021 is transform. Along with that, I am using Romans 12:1-2 to guide me through whatever areas God chooses to focus on.  I often think of Cindy when I read these verses. Of all my friends, she is certainly one who offers herself wholeheartedly as a “living sacrifice” for God’s glory. 

Her compassion and heart for justice are evident in everything she does. She refuses to “conform to the patterns of this world,” and thinks so differently than our current culture. But most of all, she seeks to know and do the will of God by constantly allowing Him to renew her mind through His Holy Spirit and His Word. As a result, He has not only transformed Cindy’s life, but the lives of countless others. 

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What does it look like when we allow God to “renew our mind?” What does that even mean? Basically, it’s just a fancy way of saying we should let God determine how we think instead of depending on our own thoughts or the opinions of others. 

As I have been praying through the different areas I mentioned in my last blog post, I keep wondering why it is that some things are easy for me to keep ordered, while other areas of my life are prime pickings for a show like “Hoarders.” Why do my priorities get so out of whack? What is it that keeps me from being consistent?

After some introspection, I’ve decided a determining factor is excess.  

(Sound familiar?)

Too much of a good thing is actually not so good. Too much of a bad thing is even worse! Just think about it—

  • Too much sugar leads to weight gain and all kinds of other health problems.
  • Too much alcohol can destroy not just your liver, but your entire life. 
  • Too much “stuff” leads to untamable clutter. 
  • Too many activities in your schedule (even if they are good things) lead to an overwhelmed soul. 
  • Too much fear leads to anxiety. 
  • Too much social media leads to FOMO, isolation, and self-preoccupation. 
  • Too much focus on your children can lead to neglecting your spouse. 
  • Too much time with friends can interfere with your work/school/family life.
  • Too many voices lead to indecision and confusion.

It all gets to be too much after awhile!

The common factor in all these examples is excess. It’s simply too much! And as I look at the different areas of my life, I must admit that much of what I wrestle with is a result of drowning in excess. Too much stuff, too many choices, too many activities, too many distractions. 

So it leaves me asking, what if I give God my excess?

I heard a teaching recently by Greg McKeown on doing only the essential. I enjoyed it so much, I promptly bought his book, Essentialism (which is currently in my January book stack). Much of what he writes has helped clarify the way God wants me to think differently for the purpose of transformation. While there are many avenues through which He can renew our mind, these are the three main ideas God continues to impress upon my heart right now.

3 ways God is renewing my thinking for the purpose of transformation

1.  Less, but better

“… let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

In our over-achieving, super-sized culture, God is whispering, “Less, but better.” 

Do less. Spend less. Commit to less. Speak less…. but be more intentional about everything! Make what you do, what you buy, what you say, and what you commit to actually mean something. Get rid of clutter, indulgence, obligations, and distractions, so you can make the most of what really matters. Which leads me to the next thought…

2. Do what matters most

“Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial.” (1 Cor. 10:23)

One of the greatest lies of our culture is, “You can have it all!” The truth is, we may be able to do it all, but we can’t do it all well Our time, energy, and resources are finite. We cannot give 100 percent to our work, and our family, and our hobbies, and our friends, and our health, and our obligations, and God. We only have 100 percent to give, and like it or not, it must be divided between “all the things.” Something will suffer, no matter what the world tells us.

Which means we have to choose what matters most (and what doesn’t)…or let someone else choose for us.

While the world is yelling, “You can do it all!” God is whispering to me, “Do what matters most.” When I look back on my life in ten, twenty, fifty years, what is really going to matter? What will I regret? Changing the way I think about this will help me intentionally invest in what matters most.

3. Pray first

“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5)

You and I are completely surrounded by noise. The world around us is filled with voices shouting their opinions of who we are, what we should believe, what we should do, and how we should do it. Everyone has an opinion, and they are more than happy to share it!

But there is only One whose opinion really matters. When I am trying to discern the line between enough and excess, or what is hindering me, or what truly matters most, He is the only One qualified to answer. The author of my story is the only one who should determine my steps. 

But this requires stepping away from the noise and intentionally sitting at His feet. Consistently. Repeatedly. Purposefully. Before doing anything else. Even when it’s inconvenient. Even when I might not like the answer. Even when I think I already know what I need. Seeking His voice above the world, above my own even, is an act of worship, a way to acknowledge His lordship and authority in my life. 

If I truly long for transformation, I must surrender to the only One who has the power to transform me. I must think in terms of “less, but better.” I must choose to do what matters most. And above all, I must pray first.

Friends, this is my next step in allowing God to transform me in 2021— developing a different way of thinking. How is He changing the way you think?

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Now, to finish my story…

In case you were wondering, Cindy and Jared chose to give God their “excess,” and they went on to found the non-profit foundation, All 4 Jesus. “It’s mission is to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the lost, the hurting, the hungry, and orphaned.” Their heart for surrender continues to inspire other families (including ours) to think differently about how they can use their excess time and resources to honor Jesus. You can find out more about their ministry at https://www.all4jesusfoundation.org.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing, and perfect will.” 

Romans 12:1-2, NIV, *emphasis added

Determining Areas of Your Life that Need Transforming

Y’all, I finally broke down and did it… 

I ordered a planner. 

You know, the paper and pen kind, with a monthly calendar, weekly schedule, and hourly time slots. This one even came with fancy stickers and pretty pens! I realize we are living in a digital world, and like many of you, I depend on iCal to keep our family calendar straight. But I am tired of the random To-do lists and sticky note reminders scattered all over the place! I need it all in one place so I can see the whole picture. 

While I am a creative at heart, I tend to work best in a structured environment. Jeff has always been the visionary in our family; I am the details girl. I seriously get excited about bringing order to chaos! (But you wouldn’t know that if you peeked in my closet… Shhhh!)

See, I am super organized in many ways, but completely unorganized in others. I have been pondering this lately, through the lens of my word for the year: “transform.” Immediately, there were areas that sprang to mind that need some transformation— my closet, for example! And my bathroom cabinets. And my linen closet… 

Apparently, clutter is my friend—you know, the kind that shows up unannounced on your doorstep and sticks around several months (or years) longer than expected!

So, that was easy. My physical spaces definitely need some work. And there are other areas that need to change as well, such as my lack of an exercise plan and the way I manage my time. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized I need A LOT of work! Maybe God knew what He was doing after all when He chose that word for me. Ha!

As I have begun asking Him to transform me this year, He has been revealing various areas that need to look different. And they don’t just need a facelift—they need to be changed from the inside out. Your areas of struggle may be different from mine, and that’s okay! But I would venture to guess you can relate to at least a few of these. 

So, being the structure-loving person I am, I made a list of “transformation topics” I am praying about and working through this year. I have added a few topics that are not currently trouble areas for me, but might be helpful to consider.

Possible Areas for Transformation

  • Home/living spaces
  • Health & fitness
  • Marriage/Relationships
  • Family/parenting
  • Friendships/social life
  • Job/career
  • Finances
  • Time Management
  • Dreams/Goals
  • Priorities
  • Hobbies/volunteer time
  • Technology use
  • Spiritual/Prayer life
  • Mental/emotional health

When I considered each of these areas, I found myself returning again to the verses that go along with my word for 2021:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing, and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2, NIV)

These are some of the questions I have been asking:

1. Can my actions and attitudes in this area be considered “holy and pleasing to God?”

2. Do I approach this area selfishly (what I want) or sacrificially (what can I give)?

3. Are my thoughts, actions, or opinions in this area being shaped by “the patterns of this world” or by the Word of God?

4. God, how do you want to change the way I think and act in this area so I can be a better reflection of You? (Your grace, love, mercy, forgiveness, holiness, integrity, gentleness, truth, etc.)

If you are joining me on this journey of transformation in 2021, set aside some time in the next few days to think through these different areas and ask yourself these questions. Like me, you might be surprised to find you need a little more transforming than you expected! 

Upon reflection, I have realized I am drowning in clutter and need to drastically transform my “stuff.” I have been settling for good enough health, but I am ready for it to be better. I am grateful for a good marriage, but I desire it to be exceptional! I could keep going, but you get the point.

And the best part is that God is the One who does the transforming! I just have to make myself available and be obedient to whatever He reveals. Easier said than done, for sure, but certainly not as hard as trying to do it all myself. 

The next step is letting Him “renew my mind…” whatever that means, right?! Stay posted for more on that next time!

And somehow, I imagine it will all be easier now that I have my new planner! Ha ha!

4 Tools for Transforming Your Life in the New Year

Ah, the sound of silence. 

Our family just finished a much-needed transformation of our basement. Several months ago during a major downpour, water somehow seeped inside, ruining the carpet in Jeff’s office and causing minor water damage around the baseboards. 

While it was inconvenient, it wasn’t devastating. But it was enough of a disruption that it gave us an opportunity to make a change we’ve been talking about for awhile. Instead of just fixing his office, we ripped up all the carpet and had LVT wood flooring installed. 

Then last week, we had painters come in. Our basement walls were magnificent shades of (wait for it!) burnt orange, navy blue, and forest green, complimented by a lovely greenish-gold color on the cabinets.

 I know, I know… it really was too breathtaking for words. As much as we loved hated to see it go, it was definitely time!

A week (and several texts to my design-gifted friend) later, our basement looks like a totally different space! New flooring and a few coats of paint have totally transformed it into a beautiful haven. Jeff’s office looks clean and professional, clear of all the clutter and ready for him to work. All we need now are a few rugs and pillows, and the basement transformation will be complete!

Something about the New Year causes many of us to consider making changes. We all have things we’d like to transform— our bodies, our time, our closets. New beginnings seem like a good time to let go of the old and welcome the new. That’s why resolutions and challenges are so trendy during this time of year!

One way that people create focus for their changes in the New Year is to choose a “Word of the Year.” 

I did not initially jump into this trend; however, last year a word kind of chose me (you can read about that here). Having a specific direction in which to focus my heart and mind throughout 2020 was so helpful to me that I began praying in early December for a new word to guide me through 2021. 

There are so many good words out there: 

  • Encourage
  • Brave
  • Abundance
  • Grateful
  • Hope
  • Joy
  • Dream
  • Kindness
  • Persevere

(I could go on, and I’m sure there are plenty of words you could add to the list, too.)

So imagine my surprise when the word God gave me was…

TRANSFORM.

Wait, what??

Transform? 

How do you even use that as a “word”? It sounds like… I don’t know… work! Can’t I have a FUN word? Sheesh.

It first surfaced through a “Word of the Year” quiz, which I took primarily because I was curious about the questions it would ask. When my word came up as “transform,” I’ll be honest—I laughed and ignored it. But then, a few minutes later I was listening to a sermon by a good friend that just happened to be all about transformation. He preached on Romans 12:1-2 and the importance of allowing the Holy Spirit to transform us by renewing the way we think. 

Y’all, when I hear something more than once, I pay attention. 

When the word popped up several more times over the next few days, I knew the Lord was speaking.

So although my heart was initially resistant, I decided to EMBRACE (my 2020 word) this idea of transformation and began praying about how God might want to transform me in 2021.

The verses my friend preached on, Romans 12:1-2, have been some of my favorite verses since high school: 

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing, and perfect will.” (NIV)

I am using these verses in conjunction with my “word” to help guide me in the areas God may want to transform this year.

Y’all know I love Jesus. I have been a Jesus girl for over three decades now. There is not a single day I don’t wake up asking Him to use me for His glory! And yet… 

I get it wrong so much of the time. I am impatient and distracted and selfish. I have so many good intentions, but not enough follow through. I can tell you all the right things to do regarding your kids and your marriage and your family, but I rarely do them myself. 

In just two weeks of focusing on these verses, I have been convicted by how much of my life “conforms to the patterns of this world.” The way I often prioritize my kids over my marriage. The way I spend my time and money. The way I wrestle with God’s authority in my life, somehow thinking my way will be better. (Newsflash: it’s not!)

It is so tempting to measure our faithfulness by comparing ourselves to others. But God never asks us to be better than anyone else. He asks us to give ourselves to Him, to willingly sacrifice anything that might hinder our obedience. He asks us to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow Him. If we are willing to allow Him to change the way we think and align our priorities with His, He promises to transform us from the inside out.

That’s the kind of transformation I’m longing for in 2021.

Image from Raintree Community Church

TOOLS FOR TRANSFORMATION

There are many areas of my life that could stand to be transformed (we’ll talk about those in more detail in another blog post). As I have prayed about all that is involved in the process of transformation, I came up with four tools to use as a guide.

1. REVIEW

The first step in any transformation is to review where you are, where you’ve been, and where you want to go. We live in a results-oriented world, and it is so tempting to just jump on in and start working. But don’t skip this step! There is no use rushing if we don’t know where we are going. So I am making time to evaluate what is working in my life and what isn’t, where I’m strong and where I’m struggling, and where I most need God to do something new in my heart.

2. REMOVE

Most things require a process of removal in order to be transformed. Home transformations usually require de-cluttering, tearing out walls, ripping up old stained carpet, etc.  Healthy Eating Plans require removing foods that are harmful and addicting- sugar, fries, etc. Spiritual transformation requires removing habits and thought patterns that hinder us from following Jesus wholeheartedly. So I am asking God to reveal anything I need to remove in order for Him to transform me into His likeness.

3. RE-ORDER

Some things are transformed by simply rearranging/reordering what they already have. For some reason, this tool makes me think of “transformers,” those toys that start out as cars or airplanes, but then transform into really cool robots just by moving their parts around. The same thing happens in our lives. When we shift the right things into a different place or priority, it can lead to a completely different result. Sometimes I get so caught up in getting rid of old stuff or trying new stuff that I miss the opportunity to make better use of what I already have. Maybe my health or my prayer life or my marriage are lacking simply because I don’t have them prioritized correctly. A little rearranging can go a long way!

4. RENEW

Some things require rebuilding/renewing: adding something new in order to transform into something better. Fitness plans often involve adding in exercise, weight-lifting, or an element of consistency that wasn’t there previously. Home improvement projects often require adding in fresh colors and new furniture or décor. And in our spiritual lives, it is not enough to get rid of the old, ugly stuff; we must create new habits, new disciplines, and new ways of thinking. “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NLT)

In addition, almost all transformation requires outside intervention: a trainer, a counselor, a health coach, an accountability partner… and in this case, the Holy Spirit. I love that verse 12 uses the phrase be transformed.” That reminds me that, ultimately, God is the One who is doing the work. I don’t have to transform anything!

I simply need to offer myself to Him, continually, and then be obedient.

The rest is up to Jesus. 

Friend, do you have a word for the year or a verse that is directing your focus in 2021? If so, I’d love for you to share it in the comments!

And if not, why don’t you join me in allowing God to TRANSFORM you this year. I’ll be blogging my progress in different areas as I go, so feel free to follow along!

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!