31 Day Discipleship Challenge: How to Follow Jesus

My freshman year of college, a close friend gave me a book that had a profound impact on my spiritual life. In His Steps is a Christian fiction novel written in 1896 by Charles Sheldon. It tells the story of a town that is completely transformed when a stranger interrupts a church service one Sunday, questioning whether or not the Christ-followers are actually following Jesus at all. He calmly inquires:

I was wondering… if what you call following Jesus is the same thing as what He taught. What did He mean when He said: ‘Follow Me’? The minister said… it is necessary for the disciple of Jesus to follow His steps, and he said the steps are ‘obedience, faith, love, and imitation.’ But I did not hear him tell you just what he meant that to mean, especially the last step. What do you Christians mean by following the steps of Jesus… What do you mean when you sing, ‘I’ll go with Him, with Him, all the way?’ Do you mean that you are suffering and denying yourselves and trying to save lost, suffering humanity just as I understand Jesus did?… It seems to me there’s an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn’t exist if all the people who sing such songs went and lived them out. I suppose I don’t understand. But what would Jesus do? Is that what you mean by following His steps?

In His Steps, p.8-9

After pondering the stranger’s words, the minister discovers his entire concept of discipleship is in disarray. The next Sunday, he stands before his congregation and issues a challenge: Who will commit for one whole year to do nothing without first asking, “What would Jesus do?” and responding in obedience, regardless of the cost? The goal is not to judge anyone else’s interpretation, but simply to seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance on what Jesus would have you do in your current situation. 

The rest of the book unveils the difference it makes in people’s lives, both individually and collectively, when Christ’s followers live in obedience to the Master instead of by conforming to the world.

I pulled that same, worn copy out earlier this month and read it again. It challenged and inspired me just as much now as when I first read it thirty years ago! Since we are in Lent, a season of surrender and preparation leading up to Easter, and since many of you seem to be intrigued by my journey of allowing God to “transform” me this year, I have decided to issue a 31Day Discipleship Challenge for the month of March. If you desire to truly follow Jesus in a transformational way, this challenge is for you!

As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 reminds us, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” While I continue to use Romans 12:1-2 as my theme verse for 2021, for the purpose of this challenge, I want to focus on a different verse:

“Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.’” (Matthew 16:24, ESV)

Jesus is giving us the formula for discipleship: Deny yourself, Take up your cross, Follow in my steps. 

Obviously, it’s not as simple as it sounds. Jesus’ path led through great suffering and self-sacrifice, so it can be assumed ours will include similar elements. However, we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit (the Presence of God within us!) to be our guide and strength. We don’t have to try to figure it all out on our own! He promises to help us. We have everything we need!

So here’s the challenge.

For the next 31 days, I challenge you to spend time with the LORD every day (preferably first thing in the morning, but whatever works best for you) and ask Him these questions:

1. DENY YOURSELF

  • In what ways/areas do I need to deny myself?
  • Another way of asking this is what do I want to do or have that I need to surrender to You instead?
  • What are you asking me to give up that will cost me something?
  • What am I afraid to give up?

2. TAKE UP YOUR CROSS

  • What is the “cross” I need to take up?
  • What do I not want to do, but need to?
  • What am I afraid of?
  • How are you calling me to suffer or sacrifice for You?

3. FOLLOW IN HIS STEPS

  • How are you asking/calling me to follow you?
  • Where do I see or sense You at work, and how can I join You?
  • What is one step I can take towards You TODAY?

I encourage you to write down your answers everyday. If you are not a journaling person, you might want to just do bullet points under each topic. At first, simply write down whatever thoughts come to mind and see if there are any patterns that emerge. 

Then spend some time on this, truly listening for the Father’s voice. You might know instantly what next step God is calling you to; perhaps this exercise will give you the courage to move forward in obedience. Or you may not have any idea what you need to surrender or where He wants to take you, and that’s okay!

It is my prayer that praying this Scripture every day will open your eyes to seeing Jesus in a much deeper, more personal way. 

James promises us, “Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” (James 4:8, ESV) If you long for God to transform your life, your heart, your marriage, your finances, etc. into all He designed them to be, draw near to Him! He will meet you where you are and walk with you from there.

Can you imagine the difference it would make in this world if all who claim to follow Jesus actually did? If honoring Christ with our thoughts, words, and actions became more important to us than feeling comfortable, making money, or being accepted? 

Let’s find out together! Who’s in? 

If you’re up for the challenge, please comment below or send me a message. I’d love to walk this journey beside you and have a front row seat to what God is going to do!

Also, if you have a minute, check out these other “Challenge”-related blog posts from some of my friends:

https://www.ashleyolivine.com/the-motherhood-penalty-challenge/

https://www.epigenwellness.com/insomnia-with-anxiety-how-to-overcome-challenge/

Challenging Times: 3 Ways to Endure the Struggle

6 Scripture Verses for Heart Transformation

Have you ever read something in the Bible you may have read before, but suddenly something about it strikes you in a completely different way? You read it again, wondering how you ever could have missed it. 

Because this time it changes you. It makes you different. 

You can never read those verses the same again.

The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand found in John 6:1-15 is one of those passages for me.  I was familiar with the story, had read it more than once, and heard it preached on countless times. However, one night at a college Bible study, this one tiny verse stuck right in the middle of the passage jumped out at me for the first time ever. Jesus asks the disciples how they are going to feed all those people, and suddenly Andrew speaks up. In verse 9, he says, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

Normally, I jumped ahead to the miracle—how Jesus was able to feed all those people with that tiny amount of food. But this time, for the first time, I noticed the boy

That little boy must have overheard Jesus and his buddies talking about their dilemma. He may have looked around, wondering why the adults weren’t helping, or glanced towards town where the fishermen usually brought their daily catch. All we know, though, is that while the disciples complained and argued about their impossible situation, this little boy had the courage to offer a solution. 

Was he afraid to approach Jesus? Did he wonder if it was enough?

The Bible doesn’t say. It simply tells us that the little boy walked up and offered all he had to Jesus. And Jesus, likely giving him a wink and a secret smile, took that tiny offering and turned it into a miracle. Without the lunch, there would be no miracle. Without the boy, there would be no lunch. 

“Without the lunch, there would be no miracle.

Without the boy, there would be no lunch. “

What was it that made me suddenly notice the boy? Perhaps I noticed because I felt like him—small, unnoticeable, lost in the crowd, with not much to offer, but a great desire to help. I was about to graduate from college. All my plans had changed with a broken engagement (you can read a little more about that here), and I had accepted a job into full-time student ministry, for which I felt unqualified and ill-equipped.

Who was I to lead people to Jesus? What could I offer that was worth anything compared to those around me? I felt like a little kid in a grown-up’s world, and I wasn’t sure I had anything to offer that mattered.

But I loved Jesus. And there was nothing I wouldn’t give Him, nothing I wouldn’t do for Him, no matter how silly or insignificant it seemed.

So I noticed the little boy because he was me.

That little phrase stuck in the middle of the miracle was the Father’s way of whispering to me that my gifts, no matter how small or insignificant, mattered. He cared less about my ability and more about my availability. The boy didn’t make the miracle happen, Jesus did! But He did it with the little boy’s lunch. The offering makes all the difference.

That one little verse transformed the way I think about my gifts. I’ll be honest; even after all these years, what I have to offer still seems small and inconsequential. Even writing this blog post, I catch myself wondering who will want to read it and how it can possibly help anyone. But then I remind myself of the little boy who bravely brought his lunch to Jesus, trusting Him to do something worthwhile with it. I remind myself that the value lies not in the gift but in the giving. So I offer, and then I wait to see what God will do. (If you want to read more on the little boy, check out this blog post from Paul David Tripp: https://www.paultripp.com/articles/posts/dont-forget-about-the-boy)

As I lean into the idea of “transformation” this year, I am confident that it begins with Scripture. 

Nothing transforms our hearts like the Word of God. 

It changes the way we think, what we value, how we respond. So I want to share a few verses I am praying that help open my heart to whatever God wants to do in me, in the hope that they will help you, too.

6 Verses for Heart Transformation

Romans 12:1-2

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 conform to the pattern 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)

Ezekial 36:26

 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (NIV)

Psalm 51:10-12

Create in me a clean heart, O God.
    Renew a loyal spirit within me.
11 Do not banish me from your presence,
    and don’t take your Holy Spirit[
a] from me.

12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and make me willing to obey you. (NLT)

2 Timothy 3:16

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. (NLT)

Ephesians 4:22-24

You were taught to leave your old self—to stop living the evil way you lived before. That old self becomes worse, because people are fooled by the evil things they want to do. 23 But you were taught to be made new in your hearts, 24 to become a new person. That new person is made to be like God—made to be truly good and holy. (NCV)

James 1:22-25

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (NIV)

There are plenty more where these came from, and I will share more throughout the coming year, but this is a good place to start. 

Are there verses God is using to shape your heart to be more like Him? I’d love to hear them!

My January 2021 Book Stack

New year, new reading challenge… Let’s go!!

I am still adding books to my 2021 Reading Challenge. If you’re interested, you can follow my account on Goodreads. And feel free to leave book recommendations here in the comments! 

If you’re new around here, my word for 2021 is TRANSFORM, so you’ll notice that several of the books I read this year will contribute to that theme. Three books in my January book stack fit in that category; one was just for fun. I do not plan to be so ambitious every month; something about January always makes me start strong! 

I enjoyed all these books. If any of them sound interesting, you should definitely add them to your own reading challenge!

 Essentialsim: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

I ordered this book after listening to an interview with McKeown in my hope*writer’s group. He told his personal story of what led him to focus on what is most essential, and discussed the importance of not only knowing our true priorities, but making space to actually live them. 

In this book, McKeown takes those ideals and breaks them down into bite-size applications, making it a bit simpler for the rest of us to follow along. It is filled with inspiring quotes, such as: “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will,” “If it isn’t a clear yes, it’s a clear no,” and “Less, but better.” I claimed that last one as one of my transformation themes this year! 

I particularly enjoyed Part III (Eliminate: How can we cut out the trivial many) and Part IV (Execute: How can we make doing the vital few things almost effortless). While parts of the book seem repetitive, most of that repetition reinforces his main points and help to serve his purpose. It was a quick read for me, easy to pick up and put down in short spans of time, and I have a feeling I will return to it several times this year. If you read it and like it, McKeown just released a follow-up book, “Effortless,” which you might want to check out!

A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller

This book is so rich! I participated in a book exchange for Christmas (also through hope*writers… have I mentioned how much I love my writing group??), and this is the book I received. The reviews were fantastic, so I couldn’t wait to start reading!

This book is broken down into five sections: Learning to Pray Like a Child, Learning to Trust Again, Learning to Ask Your Father, Living in Your Father’s Story, and Praying in Real Life. The first section moved a little slow for me (perhaps because I don’t struggle so much in that area), so I feared I might be disappointed. I was not!

This book got better and better as it went along! On page 35, Miller says, 

“You don’t create intimacy; you make room for it. This is true whether you are talking about your spouse, your friend, or God. You need space to be together. Efficiency, multitasking, and busyness all kill intimacy. In short, you can’t get to know God on the fly. If Jesus has to pull away from people and noise in order to pray, then it makes sense that we need to as well.” 

The goal of this book is to help us create intimacy with God through our prayer life. In chapters 9-11, Miller discusses how cynicism has crept into our culture and into our spirit, often leaving us paralyzed and unable to live in faith. I found this whole concept fascinating, and appreciate his steps for recognizing this and moving forward. In chapter 18, “Surrender Completely,” he emphasizes our tendency to rely on ourselves, turning only to the Father out of desperation (which is the opposite of abiding). This was transformation for me.

My favorite part of this book, however, is his very practical concept of Prayer cards. I have written in a prayer journal almost daily since college (more sporadically before that), and have used several systems to help organize and encourage the act of praying for others. His prayer card system resonated with me so strongly, I quickly began making cards of my own. I will share about this soon in a Transformation Update on prayer, so watch for that!

 Two as One: Connecting Daily with Christ and Your Spouse by Ryan & Selena Frederick

This book actually started out as a series of Instagram posts. The Fredericks then turned them into a 30-day day devotional with the intent of helping couples connect daily with one another and Jesus. Each day consists of an inspirational image/quote, a few short paragraphs centered around that specific theme, and two relevant discussion questions, followed by a space for written prayers. 

Some of the images are extremely powerful. The devotional thoughts are short and sweet, but not too “surface-y”. So often I find Christian marriage devotionals cheesy and irrelevant to couples living in the real world, but the Fredericks do a great job of addressing some real issues and connecting them to spiritual/heart issues in a few short sentences. Jeff mentioned he would have liked them to dive deeper into many of these areas, and I agree. But alas, Instagram has a word limit! I think most of the discussion questions can actually lead to thoughtful conversation, but I find it unlikely that couples will write out their prayers in the same book. That aside, I really enjoyed this little devotional and have recommended it to several friends.

Fable by Adrienne Young

This was my “fun read” for this month and I loved it! The front sleeve reads, “Welcome to a world made dangerous by the sea and by those who wish to profit form it. Where a young girl must find her place and her family while trying to survive in a world built for men.” This Young Adult fantasy novel is a cross between Hunger Games and Pirates of the Caribbean, and the result is an adventure that kept me reading page after page. Fable is a strong, endearing protagonist in the same vein as Katniss (Hunger Games) and Tris (Divergent), and West drew me in from the beginning. As with most modern YA novels, two of the supporting characters are in a same-sex relationship, so this can open the door for great discussion if your teens are reading it. Otherwise, it ends with a cliffhanger, and I can’t wait for the sequel, which is supposed to release next month!

And that’s what was in my January 2021 book stack! What about you, friends?

What’s on your nightstand?

How to Love Your Middle School Boy

Photo Credit: Mandy Khoo

To my middle school boy, LOVE is…

Basketball

Nike shoes

A cool hat

Hours spent gaming

Freshly baked cookies

Fast food (and lots of it)

Sleepovers with friends

An extra hour of TV

Ice cream in the freezer

Whatever his friends own…

Today, I poured out my love for him by…

Helping him with Math

Driving him around

Spending 2 hours at the gym so he could play basketball with his friends

Making a healthy dinner

Washing his favorite sweatshirt

Laughing at his jokes

Reminding him to do his chores

Setting limits and saying no

Making him walk the dog. Twice.

Praying for him

Hugging him goodnight (as he squirmed away from me)…

We don’t always speak the same language,

my boy and I.

Sometimes he gets what he wants

and feels loved,

Sometimes he gets loved

instead of what he wants.

Often he wishes for a different mom,

One who would love him more… or less.

He’s not old enough yet to realize

that real love thinks long-term—

It chooses the eternal over the temporary

It chooses health over happiness

It chooses wisdom over being liked

It chooses God’s ways over the world’s

It chooses growth over popularity

It chooses to make the hard decisions

even when they are misunderstood…

Oh, how I love this boy! 

Maybe one day he will grasp just how much.

**********

I wrote this last week after a rough day with one of my boys. I must have whispered to myself, “Do not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed…” a million times that day! He told Jeff, “Mom and I quarreled, but then we worked it out.” (Extra points for a using a vocabulary word!!) I’m not sure that explanation fully captures the extent of our exchange or emotions, but that’s okay. It ended with teary-eyes and I love you’s, and that’s all that really matters. We came out better on the other side.

Parenting is hard, y’all.

H A R D!!!

But these battles for our children’s hearts are SO WORTH IT! Do not give up. Do not quit fighting for them. They need us to love them, even when they don’t know how to receive it. They need us to set boundaries, even when they struggle against them with every ounce of their being. They need us to fight through our hurt feelings and love them anyway. And they need us to keep pointing them to Jesus.

We will get it wrong half the time, and that’s okay. Just don’t give up. Keep loving them. That’s what we’re trying to do around here, however imperfectly; trusting the One who loves them most to fill in the gaps with His grace.

That’s all I know to do.

Transformation Update: Marriage Edition (Part 2)- How to Start Transforming Your Marriage

I have to be honest with y’all. I have written and rewritten this blog post multiple times trying to get it right. I can’t remember the last time I had such a hard time writing something! Why has it been so difficult?

I guess when it comes down to it it’s because I don’t feel qualified to write about marriage. 

Sure, Jeff and I have been married almost 25 years. We have a pretty great marriage, and we have even counseled many couples who are either just starting out or struggling. But mostly we just share truths we have learned along the way, most of them the hard way. That hardly makes me an expert!

In reality, though, there is no magic formula. There are no 7 steps to a fabulous marriage, no checklist to greatness, no one-size-fits-all solution for your marriage woes.

So what’s the secret, then? Honestly, I have no idea!

All I know is it has taken us a lot of prayer, grace, and intentionality to keep it all together. 

So, I guess that’s where we’ll start…

Transformation Update: How to Start Transforming Your Marriage 

As I have prayed over our marriage this past month, God has already begun transforming the way I think. There are so many ways my thoughts about marriage have mirrored our culture without me even realizing it. I hope sharing some of these revelations will encourage you to consider your own thought patterns and actions. In keeping with my previous posts on transformation, we’ll use the Four R’s as tools to help us move forward in this process.

REVIEW:

Just like when cleaning out a closet, it’s important to take assessment of our thoughts and feelings so we can figure out what is cluttering our hearts. That helps us determine where to start. If you answered the questions in my last post, you already have a head start on this part of the process. If not, this is a great time to start! You can find them HERE.

Positives:

For me, I began by thinking through all the things I love about Jeff and our marriage. I love that we laugh so much together, and that we have built a culture of joy and laughter into our family. I love that he is so committed to providing well for our family without compromising his involvement as a dad. I love that we both value Jesus above all else and strive to walk with Him daily, modeling a living faith and investing it in our children’s hearts. And I love that every once in awhile, usually when life is most crazy and I’m beside myself with the chaos, he still looks at me like I’m the only one in the room.

What is it that you love about your spouse and about your marriage? What are the “cornerstone pieces” of your marriage that you want to build everything else around? (Some of you may have to dig around a little or even go back to when you were first married. But if you try hard enough, you can find something!)

Challenges:

This is likely the easy part for most of us. This is what we gripe about to our friends or complain about to our kids. These are the things that bother us, the things we wish we could change (usually about our partner).

But remember, transformation never starts with someone else, only us!

So as I prayed about the challenging parts of our marriage, I asked the Lord to show me where I was at fault—how I have been conforming to the patterns of the world— and what I need to do differently. (Be careful with prayers like this, friends~ He always answers!) Much to my dismay, He revealed plenty, but most of it falls into two categories:

1. Wrong Attitudes

It’s so easy to focus on how someone else is not meeting your needs without recognizing or admitting how you are not meeting theirs. The world is quick to have us declare our “rights” and place blame on others, but marriage is about choosing to love selflessly and putting our spouse’s needs above our own. Let’s just say I have some work to do in this area!

2. Wrong Priority

If you ask what is most important to me, I would list my priorities without hesitation— God, Jeff, our kids, then everything else. Unfortunately, my actions would tell you differently!

Our culture equates being “busy” with being successful. And as a mom, my natural instinct is to put my kids before myself. As a result, my days are quickly consumed with activities and meals and schoolwork and volunteering, and before I know it, my sweet husband has been completely squeezed out. 

The greatest struggle Jeff and I face in our marriage is what we call, “Roommate Syndrome.” This is when we allow the craziness of life to pull us in different directions until we are basically just functioning as “roommates”—passing each other in the hallway, leaving notes on the fridge, occasionally meeting to co-parent, but not really connecting at all

At its core, this is an issue of prioritizing the wrong thing. Seriously, what matters more than our marriage? 

Friends, do you struggle with this, too? How is your attitude? Are you prioritizing the wrong things?

REMOVE:

Once we have an idea of where to start, the next step is to get rid of the things that are hindering us. (Hebrews 12:1) 

For me, this involves a few different areas. 

First, I am trying to be intentional about releasing my frustrations and expectations, as well as my “rights.” I need to stop focusing on what I want Jeff to do differently, so I can instead focus on myself and what I can do differently. (This addresses my wrong attitudes.)

Let’s be honest—this way of thinking directly contradicts the how the world tells us to respond. And I believe this is an area that is so easy for Satan to get a foothold into our marriages! But regardless of what the world tells us, we cannot control anyone else; we can only control ourselves. I have been married long enough to know my own actions often initiate a cycle of disharmony. The good news is this means changing my actions can also break the cycle and create a better one! Releasing negative thought patterns makes room for positive thoughts to fill their place.

After that, I need to address my wrong priorities. One way I am doing this is by clearing my schedule and eliminating some of my volunteer activities in order to give me more time at home. The pandemic has made this easier than it would have been otherwise, for sure! I also need to look at how I’m spending my free time, so I can remove (or at least reduce) activities that occupy time and energy which can be better invested. (Yeah, still working on this one…sigh.)

What is hindering you from having the kind of marriage you desire? What do you need to remove, reduce, or eliminate in order to make room for positive changes?

REORDER:

So, a crazy thing happened. Once I started getting rid of some of these things that have been hindering me, I noticed I wasn’t automatically investing that time and energy into my marriage. 

What? 

You mean I have to be intentional about making marriage my top priority? (Yeah, remember that part about marriage being hard work? Here it is!)

Friends, it’s a fact that we spend time and resources on what we love most. Lee Iacocca said, “If you want to make good use of your time, you’ve got to know what’s most important and then give it all you’ve got.” Once we eliminate the distractions and negative thoughts, we must choose to fill those spaces with what matters most.

Now, this is highly unromantic, but for me that means actually scheduling time in my planner for me to spend talking with Jeff.  With four kids and a dog, it is almost impossible for us to have an uninterrupted conversation when everyone is home. For the first time ever, we have a few days a week when all our children are out of the house at the same time (except when COVID interferes, but whatever). That time without children is extremely productive for us individually, but BECAUSE our marriage is so important, we are choosing to set aside the first hour or two on those mornings to just talk with each other. 

Full disclosure: I am embarrassed to admit that if I don’t actually plan to spend that time with Jeff, it can feel like a waste of time for me when it happens because I feel like I need to be doing other things (I know, I know. Give me some grace!). Writing “Jeff time” into my planner reminds me that it is the most important way I can spend that time and frees me to be fully present

How can you be more intentional about making time for what you love? What resources can you redirect towards investing in your marriage?

RENEW:

I was listening to a great podcast this week on marriage, and heard this statement: “If you don’t like what you’re harvesting, sow different seed!” This is the part where we purposefully add in new things that will help us move towards God’s design for our marriage. This might look like:

  • Resources: books, podcasts, etc. to help us grow in our relationship. Here are a few that I love: Rhythms for Life~Saving Your Marriage: Carey & Toni Nieuwhof, Two as One: Connecting Daily with Christ and Your Spouse, and this list has several that I have read and recommend— 20 Best Christian Books on Marriage.
  • Write down three things every day that you love about your spouse, things you are grateful for or appreciate. Even if it seems little or insignificant, write it down. 
  • Praying together. It’s cheesy, but true~ “The couple who prays together, stays together.” This adds another dimension of intimacy to your marriage that can’t be reached any other way.
  • Be intentional about spending time together, both quantity AND quality. COVID has given many of us more time together than we know what to do with! However, I have found this has actually made it more difficult for many of us to have QUALITY time together. So that’s something I am working on adding back in. (Also, sex fits in this category… and the next one! Just saying!)
  • HAVE FUN! Mundaneness can kill a marriage slowly over time. Try new things together! Research shows that sharing new experiences is one of the best ways to bond, particularly things that are out of our comfort zone. Have fun together… it might just remind you why you got married in the first place!

What is missing from your marriage? What can you add that God can use to transform your marriage into more of what He designed it to be?

I have already seen a difference in our marriage by implementing some of this, and I look forward to seeing where God wants to take us. Thanks for taking this journey with me! I’d love to hear how God is transforming you through this process!  

Feel free to comment below or message me on social media. You can find me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/kellyheathblogger) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/kel_kelheath/).

*Note: I know that some of you reading this are likely struggling with much deeper issues in your marriage. If you are in an abusive or dangerous situation, please prioritize your safety and seek help! If your marriage is not unsafe but is extremely difficult and you are losing hope, please prioritize counseling. It takes two people to make a relationship work. Sometimes you can do all the right things and it won’t be enough on your own (but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try!). A good Christian counselor can help you journey through this process and discern how God wants you to move forward.

Tuesday Transformation: (Part 1) 9 Questions to Help Take Assessment of Your Marriage

I met my husband when I was seventeen. 

The summer before I left for college, I went to lunch with my friend, Charles, and we just happened to be seated across from his mom. She was having lunch with one of her (extremely attractive) former piano students. After saying hello and introducing me to the (extremely attractive) 25 year old former piano student (Jeff), they invited us to eat with them, and I’m sure I spent the whole time trying not to stare or drool or say something stupid. 

When we left the restaurant, I turned to my friend and said, “Oh my gosh, I am going to marry him one day!”

Yep, I said it. The very first time we met. 

(Jeff loves that part of our story!)

Now, if I’m honest, I didn’t actually think I was going to marry him. When Charles told me he thought we would make a good couple, I laughed and replied, “Are you kidding? He’s a man and I’m a kid. But that’s the kind of guy I’m looking for!”

(Jeff loves that part of our story, too…)

It was three years before I saw him again, in a crowded lobby at a convention attended by thousands of people. It took me three days to get up the nerve to talk to him. After that, God crossed our paths again and again at various points, slowly building a foundation of friendship, until eventually, several years later, we both knew at the same time that we were supposed to get married. Our story is one of God’s perfect timing.

It turns out I really was going to marry him one day! 

On our next anniversary, we will have been married for 25 years. TWENTY-FIVE YEARS!!! Y’all, that’s a looooooong time! 

And this Sunday, in case you have forgotten, is Valentines Day. (Guys, you’re welcome.)

So I figured this might be a good week to talk a little bit about marriage. Since that was one of the first areas God brought to mind when He whispered the word “transform” to my heart, I thought I’d give y’all an update on how He’s growing me.

Jeff and I are probably one of the most compatible couples I know, and with both our ministry backgrounds, I think marriage in general comes a little bit easier to us. That said, we are also very different in a lot of ways. We have different preferences when it comes to how we parent, how we spend/save money, how we spend our free time, etc.  I know the way we balance one another is by divine design, but sometimes these differences can also be a source of frustration and conflict in our marriage instead. Add four children and work travel and hormones into the equation, and we often end up with a great big mess! 

If you are married, I’m pretty sure you can relate.

At times marriage can be really hard, even when you’re married to a great person. And the devil wants nothing more than to steal, kill, and destroy any relationship that reflects God’s goodness. So, while Jeff and I both feel like we have a really good marriage, we never want to take that for granted. And I have learned I am not always as intentional about investing in our marriage the way I should. 

Transformation Update: Marriage Edition

The Lord has been convicting me and changing the way I think about our marriage over the past month. Following the same pattern as my previous update, I am using four tools to help guide the process of allowing God to transform my marriage (Review, Remove, Reorder, Renew). I am asking Him to reveal how I am buying into the “patterns of this world” and to transform my thinking (Romans 12:2) so it better reflects His heart and not my own.

I want to update you on where I am in this process, but since this post is already getting long, I will wait and share my transformation update in my next post instead. For now, here are several questions I have been asking myself that might be helpful as you “review” where you currently are in your marriage and how you would like it to change.

9 Questions to Help Take Assessment of Your Marriage

  • What are three words that currently describe my marriage? 
  • How would our family/friends/children describe our marriage?
  • What are three words I wish described my marriage?
  • What do I want my marriage to look like 5 year from now? 20 years from now?
  • What is our biggest challenge area? (communication, finances, sex, parenting, emotional intimacy, quality time, praying together, etc.)
  • What are some things I loved about my spouse when we were dating and first married?
  • What are some things I love about my spouse now?
  • What are some things that hinder me from being a better wife/husband, and what steps can I take to change them?
  • How can I be more intentional about making my marriage a priority?

Some of my answers to these questions surprised me. A few made me sad, but most made me grateful. I am married to a really great man.

My friend, if after answering these questions, you are not overflowing with gratitude for your spouse, it’s okay. Really. God has changed many hearts in seemingly impossible situations before; He has changed MY heart for people when I thought it wasn’t possible. So don’t give up or be discouraged!

Our God is in the business of doing the impossible! Don’t be afraid to really pour your heart out to Him and come clean about how you feel. We have to acknowledge where we are starting before we can move forward. God is big enough— He can handle it!

In my next post, I will share more specifically how God is working to transform my marriage, so check back on Thursday! I hope you will use these questions to help you take assessment of where you are in your relationship and begin asking the Lord to transform your heart for your spouse.

Remember, transformation never starts with someone else… 

“Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24)

2020 Reading Challenge List and Recommendations

Image from Pixabay

Well friends, if there is one positive thing we can say about 2020, it’s that it was a good year for reading! This year’s list was longer than expected, largely due to ALL THAT EXTRA FREE TIME… but I’m not complaining! I am always grateful for more time to read! 

If you are new to my blog, I do a reading challenge every year to help direct and track my reading. I started a few years ago as a way to stretch myself, both in the quantity and quality of books I was reading, and the tradition stuck. I use http://www.goodreads.com to save books I want to read, track my progress, and write reviews (well, sometimes… most of my reviews end up here on my blog!). 

There is no right or wrong way to do a reading challenge—just do whatever works best for you! I try to balance fiction and non-fiction, maybe a few biographies, throw in some books written for younger readers and young adults (YA Dystopian/Fantasy is my jam!), and suddenly, I have a list! If we are travelling (you know, that thing we used to do back before COVID), I might choose books with our destination as the setting. I have read books by local authors, books set in my home state, books with one word titles… there are tons of ways to keep it interesting! And the majority of my recommendations come from many of you, so thanks for sharing!

Enough about that, though. Here is my 2020 Reading Challenge List, along with some brief reviews and recommendations. I definitely recommend all the ** books. If you just want my top picks for 2020, scroll down to the bottom!

Non-fiction (Spiritual/Devotional)

  • **The Armor of God for Teens (Priscilla Shirer)
  • **Be Still My Soul (Elisabeth Elliot)
  • **Celebration of Discipline (Richard Foster)
  • Choosing a Life that Matters (Dennis Rainey)
  • The Gospel According to Satan: Eight lies about God that Sound Like the Truth (Jared C. Wilson)
  • **Guy’s Guide to God, Girls, and the Phone in Your Pocket: 101 Real World Tips for Teenage Guys (Jonathan McKee)
  • **Intimate Moments with the Savior (Ken Gire)
  • A Lamp Unto My Feet (Elisabeth Elliot)
  • **Living Prayer (Robert Benson)
  • Love Does (Bob Goff)
  • **Made to Move Mountains: How God Uses Our Dreams and Disasters to Accomplish the Impossible (Kristen Welsch)
  • **Mansions of the Heart: Exploring the Seven Stages of Spiritual Growth (Thomas Ashbrook)
  • **Mirror for the Soul: A Christian Guide to the Enneagram (Alice Fryling)
  • Monks and Mystics, Volume 2: Chronicles of the Medieval Church (Mindy & Brandon Withrow)
  • **The Next Right Thing (Emily P. Freeman)
  • **None Like Him (Jen Wilkin)
  • **One Woman Can Change the World (Ronne Rock)
  • Present Over Perfect (Shauni Feldham?)
  • **Secure in the everlasting Arms (Elisabeth Elliot)
  • **Something Needs to Change (David Platt)
  • **The Road Back to You (Ian Morgan Krohn)

Non-fiction (Business/Writing)

  • **Creativity, Inc. (Ed Catmull)
  • Debt-Free Degree (Anthony O’neal)
  • **The Entitlement Cure (John Townsend)
  • On Writing (Stephen King)
  • **On Writing Well (William Zinsser)
  • **Start With Your People (Brian J. Dixon)
  • **Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life through the Power of Storytelling (Matthew Dicks)

Non-fiction (parenting)

  • **Experiencing God at Home (Tom and Richard Blackaby)
  • **Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles that can Radically Change Your Family (Paul David Tripp)
  • 10 Gifts of Wisdom: What Every Child Should Know Before They Leave Home (Sally Clarkson)

Fiction

  • **The Cowboy’s Twin Surprise (Stephanie Dees)
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (Gail Honeyman)
  • Memories of Glass (Melanie Dobson)
  • **Persuasion (Jane Austen)
  • **The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
  • **The Tattooist of Aushwitz (Heather Morris)
  • The Wedding Dress (Rachel Hauck)
  • When All is Said (Anne Griffin)
  • **Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens)

YA Fiction/Fantasy

  • **The Cage Series (3 books, Megan Shepherd)
  • **Four Dead Queens (Astrid Scholte)
  • **Divergent Series (4 books- Veronica Roth)
  • **The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (Suzanne Collins)
  • False Memory Series (3 books, Dan Krokos)
  • The Raft (S. A. Bodeen)
  • **A Sky Beyond the Storm (An Ember in the Ashes Series) (Sabaa Tahir)
  • **Keeper of the Lost Cities: Unlocked (Book 8.5) (Shannon Messenger)

Middle Grade Fiction/Fantasy

  • **The Mysterious Benedict Society (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  • **The Prince Warrior Series (3 books, Priscilla Shirer)
  • **The Winter War (Prince Warrior Series Sequel, Priscilla Shirer)
  • **Dream Traveler’s Quest series (4 books, Ted & Kara Dekker)

(Auto/)Biographies

  • **I am Malala (Malala Yousafzai)
  • **Becoming Elisabeth Elliot (Ellen Vaughn)
(Most of my top picks… just missing the Armor of God Study for Teens)

My Top 10 Picks of 2020:

(In no particular order… )

Something Needs to Change (David Platt)

If you need a reminder of what our calling is as followers of Jesus, read this book. The quality of writing is not exceptional; it is written more as journal entries detailing the events of David’s trip to ________________.  The content, however, is riveting, convicting, and inspiring. It is good to be reminded that there is still great suffering and persecution in the world, far beyond what we experience or can even imagine in the United States. Perhaps we are here for such a time as this!

Living Prayer (Robert Benson)

If your spiritual life feels a little dry and your devotional time has become more habit than heartfelt, this book might be just what you need. Robert has a folksy writing style that I find endearing, and his words have a way of opening my soul to Jesus. This book left me wanting more— more of his writing, but more importantly, more of Jesus.

Mansions of the Heart (Thomas Ashbrook)

Not everyone is interested in the process of spiritual formation, but if you are, this is an extremely interesting read. It is a modern take on classic writings from Saint Teresa of Avilla and Saint John of the Cross, and does a great job of describing the non-linear process of spiritual growth in different areas. I was especially intrigued by the later stages, as most churches and Christian circles never teach past the first few stages, and so many Christians are then left feeling like, “Is this all there is?” It does drift into some mysticism towards the end, but since God is so much greater than we can comprehend, it makes sense that deeper formation will be less concrete and more of the spirit. That said, if any element of mysticism bothers you, you will not like this book. And if you are a new Christian, this book will likely be more overwhelming than helpful for you. But if you have walked with Jesus for a long time, are consistent in spiritual disciplines, and wonder if you’re missing it, this might give you a glimpse of a roadmap for what lies before you.

Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles that Can Radically Change Your Family (Paul David Tripp)

Most of us appreciate parenting books that are practical in nature. We read them because we are struggling in certain areas of our parenting and we need someone to tell us what to do! This book is more philosophical than practical, but it actually may be my new favorite parenting book. Each of Tripp’s principles are Biblical in nature, and they will directly affect your parenting. More likely, though, God will use them to reveal areas in you that require growth. And when you surrender these areas to Him, He will transform your thinking and change the way you parent. I have found almost all of these principles to be true in my own life, and to impact the way I have parented our children, whether they were itty-bitty or about to fly the coop. I will be re-reading it in 2021, and recommend you do the same!

Guy’s Guide to God, Girls, and the Phone in Your Pocket (Jonathan McKee)

This book is set up in one-to-two page chapters, making it perfect for teen guys to use as a daily devotional. Each chapter includes questions to think about which help the guys apply what they are reading to their daily life. It would be easy for a leader to pull some of these questions out and use this as a guide for a small group or accountability group. The topics are super relevant, and McKee’s approach is both Biblical and authentic. He comes off like a big brother or older friend, giving guidance on subjects such as technology use, friendship, dating, prayer, and making wise choices. I recommend this easily for high school boys and with discretion for younger middle-school boys. (There are a few chapters on girls/sex-related themes that younger teens may or may not be ready for.) Otherwise, keep this in mind for the teen boys in your life!

The Armor of God Study for Teens (Priscilla Shirer)

I cannot say enough about this study! So often I find curriculum written for teens to be cheesy, un-relatable, or unhelpful. This study, however, is well-written, extremely relevant, and will get teens in the Word while teaching them about spiritual warfare and the armor of God. 

Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens)

I loved this book! This is the story of Kya, a young girl who is abandoned by her mother and older siblings and eventually by her abusive, alcoholic father, left to fend for herself in the North Carolina marsh. It is a coming of age tale, a beautiful story of abandonment, love, trust, betrayal, and friendship. Oh yeah, and then there’s a murder mystery, just for kicks! Seriously, the world building, character development, and storyline of this book are all top-notch, and the writing itself drew me in from the beginning. This was easily my favorite fiction book of the year.

Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

In this prequel to the original book, Collins takes us back to when President Snow is a teenager, living in the Capitol, struggling to survive after losing both parents in the war. He is chosen to be a mentor in the 10th annual Hunger Games and is assigned—you guessed it—the girl from District 12. Y’all, I loved this book! I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I’ll stop there, but Collins does a great job of weaving in so many elements from the original series, which made it an extremely fun read. The climax at the end felt just a little bit rushed (kind of like the end of Mockingjay, IMO), but overall, I definitely recommend it to Hunger Games fans!

(*Honorable Mention goes to A Sky Beyond the Storm because I love the entire Ember in the Ashes series, and to The Cowboy’s Twin Surprise because it is such a sweet story written by my friend, Stephanie Dees!)

The Prince Warrior Series by Priscilla Shirer

This series was not on my reading list for this year. However, our youngest son was given the first book for his birthday, and he enjoyed it so much, I ordered the next two for his Easter gift. They fall in the Christian fiction/fantasy genre for middle readers, and are great for upper elementary through middle school. The story follows a group of middle school boys and girls (and one younger brother) on their journey through a portal into the unseen world of Ahoratos. There they claim their titles as Prince/Princess Warriors and earn various pieces of armor while listening to their Guide and fighting the enemy. These books are full of action and adventure, and will be loved by both boys and girls alike. Priscilla Shirer also has a children’s Bible Study, “Unseen: The Armor of God for Kids,” and a 365 day Unseen devotional, which make great companions to this series.

Becoming Elisabeth Elliot by Ellen Vaughn

You can probably tell from my reading list that I am an Elisabeth Elliot fan. Someone gave me Passion and Puritywhen I graduated from college, and her words have been speaking into my life and shaping my faith ever since. I am always shocked when I realize how many people have never read her books or even heard her story. This biography, written by Ellen Vaughn, covers the growing up years, which shaped her faith and personality, through the end of her missionary journey in the jungles of Ecuador. There will be a second volume detailing her later years of life and ministry. 

What I love most about this book is how the author captures Elisabeth as a young adult, totally committed to Jesus but without the spiritual maturity she’s known for from the majority of her writings. It is easy to project the faith of her older years onto the twenty-something widow, but most of the wisdom she shares in her books was gained through her years of suffering. It never occurred to me that someone who lived such a surrendered, inspiring life could feel like she had failed in her mission because she did not accomplish what she thought she was sent for. So what if she and her young daughter were instrumental in sharing the gospel with the tribe of Indians who murdered her husband? She had gone to Ecuador with the intent of translating the Bible for unwritten languages, and was thwarted in all her attempts to do so. In addition, we catch a glimpse of not just her unwavering trust in God’s faithfulness, but the depth of her grief in losing Jim so early in their marriage (and after such a long-awaited union!). While her faith and devotion is clearly inspiring, she became more human to me through this book. 

If I could only recommend one book for the year, it would be this one. There is much for us to glean from her life, faith, and example. This generation needs an everyday hero like Elisabeth Elliot!

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

Well, that’s it! Whew! For more info on any of the books on my list, search the title or “book stacks” in the blog search bar for my reviews.

What were your top reads in 2020? I’m always looking for new books, so feel free to add suggestions in the comments.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday Transformation: Home Edition (Knowing Where to Start)

One of my husband’s favorite sayings is, “I feel like a mosquito in a nudist colony. I know what to do, I just don’t know where to start!”

That’s how I feel when I look around our home. There is clutter EVERYWHERE—on the kitchen counter, shoved in drawers, overflowing from closets, stacked in the garage—pretty much everywhere. You might not see it if we know you’re coming over, but believe me it’s lurking just beneath the surface. And while I may know what to do, the magnitude of the job overwhelms me. I end up not doing anything because I don’t know where to start.

Now, I feel like I should give you some background info. Y’all have to understand, Jeff and I come by it honestly!

Growing up in a military family, I never lived anywhere longer than three years, usually less. So I developed a habit of keeping everything because I knew I would go through it when it came time to move. It’s easy to throw things out when you have a deadline and can only take what fits inside one box! Being a middle child, I was extremely attached to my friends. Therefore, the things I kept all had sentimental value— tons of photos, special t-shirts, and a handful of mementos tied to specific memories. The items were few, but they were extremely special to me. In many cases, they were the only way for me to hold onto friendships from my past.

Jeff lost his mom very suddenly when he was ten, so he also has a tendency to hold onto things for sentimental reasons. Being an only child, all his stuff was valuable and “special;” and since he lived in the same house until he went to college, he never really had a reason to get rid of it!

Fast forward a few decades, and here we are, surrounded by stuff.

We have lived in our current house for almost 13 years. Y’all, by the time I turned 13, I had already lived in 5 states (one of them twice), plus Germany! I used to dream of living in the same place my whole life. Now, here we are— our children don’t remember any home but this one. That is a blessing I don’t take for granted! 

However…

A lot of excess “stuff” can be accumulated in thirteen years. And while we have purged things again and again over the years, it’s not the same as having to keep only what you can fit in a box. Add to that four children, homeschooling, various ministries, a basement full of “inherited items,” and Jeff’s home office, and you can imagine why we are drowning in stuff!

As I look around me, I know what to do— I just don’t know where to start that will actually make a difference.

Every year, we decide THIS is the year we will clean out our house.  I make a plan and get to work, but after about two rooms, I give up. It’s just too much! I come across a box of books I can’t part with or some craft supplies I’m not sure what to do with, and it paralyzes me. I get stuck, and I just can’t seem to move forward. It’s too daunting, too much, too hard. Stuff comes pouring in faster than I can get rid of it, and I end up waving the white flag and giving up.

So this year, I knew I needed to approach it differently. I don’t just want to declutter our home or clean up our space, I want it to be transformed into something different. I don’t just want it to look different, but feel different, too. I want it to be different.

But how? That’s the question.

I decided to use a few things as a filter. First, as I mentioned in my last blog post, God has been changing the way I think, and that applies to our home as well. So, as I look around me, I am keeping this perspective:

  • Less, but better
  • (Keep) what matters most
  • Pray first

Second, I keep reminding myself that this is a process. True transformation doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, usually way more than we expect. This is no exception! So I am focusing on taking really small steps consistently over time, trusting that God will use them to make a dramatic difference. And I am using the “Tools for Transformation” that I mentioned a couple weeks ago as a guide (you can read about those HERE).

Here’s what that looks like:

Review: 

First, I took some time to think about our home. What do I like about it? What annoys me? How do I want people to feel when they come over? How do I want it to feel to our family? What do I want our kids to remember about our home? (Seriously, don’t skip this step. It makes all the difference!)

I love that we really live in our home, and that people feel like part of our family when they are here. I don’t like feeling like we are drowning in clutter. And I don’t like using most of our “free time” cleaning it and organizing all our stuff. I want it to be a refuge of peace and joy, not a source of chaos and stress.

After thinking through those questions, I made a list of all of the “spaces” I could think of within our home. Since I know from experience that even going room by room overwhelms me, I decided to go even smaller. I broke down rooms into drawers, cabinets, items— whatever makes the most sense for that space. 

I need my tasks to be manageable, and I rarely have more than about 20 minutes at a time. So I thought in terms of 10, 20, and 30-minute projects, and made my list accordingly. I didn’t think of everything, but that’s okay! When I notice additional tasks, I just add them to my list. My goal is to work on three areas each week, and I actually schedule them in my planner. If I get extra motivated, I can choose to do more, but if I cross off three things, I feel accomplished. (Also, there are no rules, so I can change my 3 things halfway through the week if I want… and I have!)

Remove:

Once I decide on my three tasks for the week, the first thing I do in each space is REMOVE anything that is not essential. (Actually, the first thing I do is pray… God, please help me know what I need to keep and what I can let go of. Show me what matters and what doesn’t. Help me cling to You instead of my stuff, and remind me that this is an opportunity to be generous with others.) THEN I start removing stuff. 

The more I can get rid of, the better. I have been re-organizing and rearranging my clutter long enough! My goal is to get rid of at least one-third of what I currently have (“less, but better!”), so I aim for either throwing away or donating 50%. That way, if I can’t quite do it, I’ve still reached my goal. And if I am able to get rid of that much, it’s even better! I will likely need to revisit this step multiple times, and that’s okay. I just have to start somewhere.

Reorder:

Once I’ve removed all the excess from a given space, I begin to organize what remains. This part is actually turning out to be pretty easy once all the stuff I don’t need is gone. Go figure!

Renew:

This is where I get to add stuff in. In the “home” area, I am being very cautious about this one. I don’t want to get in the habit of replacing my clutter with new clutter, so anything I purchase needs to have a purpose. I like the idea of removing something for every item brought in. 

Now, for the purpose of my blog, I am hoping to give a “Transformation Update” each Tuesday, focusing on a specific area. (They will usually be a lot shorter than this one… you’re welcome!) This week’s transformation update is a Home Edition!

 Here’s where I made progress in January:

  • Kitchen pantry (in 3 steps)… it was making me crazy, so it was first priority! 
  • Essential oils (1 step)
  • My closet (6 steps… drawers x2, shelves, hanging clothes, bins, and memorabilia boxes)

That’s a lot, right? But as I look around our house, I am tempted to feel discouraged. It doesn’t look like I’ve accomplished anything at all! Yet transformation comes in small steps, taken one at a time. And my closet makes me happy now! So if you need me, that’s where I’m doing all my zoom meetings and phone calls this month! Lol!

What I’m learning in this area is that it’s important to focus, use the tools, and just start. Take small steps and be patient. Monitor my progress, so I can remind myself it is actually happening. In time, the transformation will happen. And in the meantime, I am able to bless others with my excess… bagfuls of it!

So, friends, where do you want to start? Do you need to make a list of tasks? What do you need to let go of? What are three small steps you can take this week towards transforming your space? Let’s do this together!

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 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