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!

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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

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?