My 2019 Reading Challenge List, Reviews, and Recommendations

As the New Year begins, I find myself tying up loose ends from 2019. I shared in a recent post how I use an Annual Reading Challenge to keep me reading and broaden my choice of books (you can read about that HERE).  Over the past few days, I have spent several hours wrapping up my 2019 reading list and preparing my list for the coming year. 

I just typed and then deleted a whole bunch of stuff because, truth be told, if you are reading this, you probably just want to know which books I read and whether or not I like them. So, I will get to right to it!

Here are my 2019 Reading List, Reviews (or random thoughts), and Recommendations.

Disclaimer: This was not a stellar year of quality book choices for me. There were a few that I loved, a few that I liked, and the rest were fine but not earth-shattering. I had a lot of really good books left on my list at year’s end that I am looking forward to reading this year!

2019 Reading List:

Non-fiction:

  • Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done (John Acuff)
  • Meeting Rich: A Litergy. A Legacy. A Man with a Guitar in my Living Room (Caleb J. Cruse)
  • Same Kind of Different As Me (Ron Hall)
  • The BIGS: The Secrets Nobody Tells Students and Young Professionals about How to Find a Great Job, Do a Great Job, Be a Leader, Start a Business, Stay out of Trouble, and Live a Happy Life (Ben Carpenter)
  • Hearts of Fire: Eight Women in the Underground Church and Their Stories of Costly Faith (Voice of the Martyrs)
  • Compassion Without Compromise: How the Gospel Frees Us to Love our Gay Friends Without Losing the Truth (Adam Barr)
  • Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope (Jenna Bush)
  • *The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis)
  • Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life (Robert Benson)
  • The Art of Work (Jeff Goins)
  • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anne Lamott)

Non-Fiction (Parenting):

  • Say Goodbye to Whining, Complaining, and Bad Attitudes in You and Your Kids (Scott Turansky)
  • One Million Arrows: Raising Your Children to Change the World (Julie Ferwerda)
  • Your Boy: Raising a Godly Son in an Ungodly World (Vicki Courtney)

Fiction:

  • A Man Called Ove (Fredrik Backman)
  • The Snow Child (Eowyn Ivey)
  • Austenland (Shannon Hale)
  • In the Heart of the Canyon (Elisabeth Hyde)
  • Becoming Mrs. Lewis (Patti Callahan)
  • Necessary Lies (Diane Chamberlain)
  • Winter Garden (Kristin Hannah)
  • The Women in the Castle (Jessica Shattuck)
  • The Housemaid’s Daughter (Barbara Mutch)

YA Fiction:

  • *Hunger Games series: Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay (Suzanne Collins)
  • Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson)
  • Uglies Series- Uglies, Pretties, Specials, Extras (Scott Westerfield)
  • Code Name Verity (Elizabeth Wein)
  • Impossible (Nancy Werlin)
  • The Truth About Forever (Sarah Dressen)
  • Lorien Legacies (I am Number Four) series: I Am Number Four, Power of Six, The Rise of Nine, The Fall of Five, The Revenge of Seven, The Fate of Ten, United as One (Pittacus Lore)
  • The Program series: The Program, The Treatment, The Remedy (Suzanne Young)
  • *Flashback (Keeper of the Lost Cities #7)- Shannon Messenger
  • Legacy (KOTLC #8)- Shannon Messenger

REVIEWS & RECOMMENDATIONS

Didn’t Love:

Of all these books, the only one I didn’t actually finish was The BIGS (and the rest of its really, really long title). tried, I really did! If you are all about making it big in business, no matter what, then this book might be for you. I can usually pull something out of a book that is helpful or applicable, but I had a hard time finding anything relevant in this one.  Also, the author’s voice came off a bit arrogant to me, for whatever reason. So if your reading tastes or life passions are at all similar to mine, skip this one.

Overall Favorite Non-Fiction Books:

The Art of Work by Jeff Goins was the second to last book I read in 2019, and if I had to pick a favorite, this would be it. It is an easy read, fairly short, and super inspiring.  It is a terrific book for college-age students who are searching for their life’s calling and profession, as well as for all those who find themselves longing to do some sort of significant work with their life. Finish is another book in a similar category, which is worth reading if you are good at starting things (like me) but not so good at finishing them (also like me).

Same Kind of Different as Me is a true story, written in novel form, and I loved it. It is the story of two men from very different walks of life who are brought together by God and eventually grow to become family. The perspectives shared and the lessons learned by both men are pertinent to all of us and very inspiring.

Compassion Without Compromise was another favorite. It is co-written by two pastors; one who experiences same-sex attraction and another who has spent many years counseling others who do. It is an honest, insightful, approach to an issue many Christians struggle knowing how to respond to. To me, the authors do a wonderful job of speaking both grace and truth. They give a lot of insight into the true spiritual questions underneath what most people focus on (which applies not just to homosexuality but every other sin!). If you are looking for answers on how to address specific situations, you will not find them here. While they do answer some FAQ’s, most of their answers direct people to pray for God’s guidance in their specific situation and relationship, which I find extremely wise. This is a great book for Christians who love ALL people, but wrestle with how to respond in grace without compromising the truth and authority of Scripture.

Non-Fiction (Parenting):

I liked all of them! The first one (Say Goodbye to Whining, etc…) is one of my all-time favorite parenting books. I have read it multiple times and it never gets old! The last one, Your Boy, has fantastic content, but the edition I have is a bit outdated as so much has changed in recent years, with smart phones and social media. Even so, it is worth reading if you have a pre-teen or teenage son!

Fiction:

If you enjoy historical fiction, there are several books here you should add to your list. Becoming Mrs. Lewis is a delightful, engaging back story of C.S. Lewis’ future wife and their developing friendship turned romance. Necessary Lies is set in the 1960’s on a small town in rural North Carolina. It is an insightful story of compassion, unlikely friendship, and horrors of eugenics.  Winter Garden and The Women in the Castle both stood out in this category as well. My favorite, though, was The Handmaid’s Daughter. Set during a civil war in Africa that was completely unfamiliar to me, this tale of class structure, hidden secrets, friendship, and survival was difficult for me to put down. 

The Snow Child is a sweet retelling of classic Russian fairytale. It was a perfect book to read sitting by the fire on a snowy day, with a mug of hot chocolate! 

And then there is A Man Called Ove. I’ll be honest- this one took a little while to grow on me. The main character’s grumpy, negative attitude was difficult for me at first. But after a few chapters, the old curmudgeon began to grow on me, and I was so glad I didn’t put it down. 

YA Fiction/Fantasy:

I read a lot in this genre during the summer, and usually pull out a few old favorites to re-read, which is how Hunger Games made the list. I won’t highlight it here, but obviously I like it.  I especially enjoy reading series, as it keeps me in the created world a bit longer. I Am Number Four (Lorien Legacies) was surprisingly my favorite YA series this year. It has some sci-fi elements, which I don’t usually love, but which totally worked in this book. The characters were well developed and the story drew me in- I think I read all 7 books in a week and a half! It is a great series for teen boys, which can sometimes be hard to find. 

The Program series was a unique twist on dystopian, centered around Big Money/the government trying to “fix” the depression and suicide epidemic among teenagers. The middle book in the trilogy was weak, but the other two were fun to read. The Uglies series was also enjoyable. Honestly, I think I shied away from it for years because of the name, so I am glad I finally read it. It is typical teen dystopian and somewhat predictable, but that never stops me from being sucked in, and this series was no exception! 

Keeper of the Lost Cities has been a favorite series in our home since the first book came up several years ago. We always pre-order the next release, and then my oldest daughter and I fight over who gets to read it first (she won this year). Legacy was as enjoyable as the others. Several of the scenes were a little too long and wordy, but I’ve gotten used to getting more info than is really necessary in these books- I just chalk it up to good character development! If you follow this series at all, you won’t want to miss this book, as we finally get some answers to a few long-awaited questions.

As stand alone books, both Speak and Code Name Verity were definitely worth reading. They are completely opposite in topic, and I would recommend both books for older teens, due to mature content (Speak addresses date rape) and quite a bit of language. Both authors use a unique writing style, and handle their topics extremely well. Some of my more conservative friends might want to avoid these two. 

TOP FIVE PICKS OF 2019:

So, if I had to pick my top 5 from this year, they would be:

  • The Art of Work
  • Same Kind of Different as Me
  • The Handmaid’s Daughter
  • Becoming Mrs. Lewis
  • Compassion Without Compromise

And there you have it! I already have some fantastic books on my 2020 Reading Challenge list, many that I didn’t get around to reading this past year. I will post that list soon for those who are interested. But if you have some suggestions, I would love to hear them!

Why I Do an Annual Reading Challenge (and you should too!)

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Apparently, I am a girl who loves a challenge.

Maybe it is because I played soccer on boys teams, or because I grew up with brothers, or because I read a lot as a child and have an adventurous heart. Whatever  the reason, I have always found it difficult to turn down a challenge!

All these years later, I am finding that to work in my favor…

I know a lot of people make resolutions this time of year, but they don’t work out very well for me. I am kind of an all or nothing person, so when life gets in the way, as it inevitably does, I end up throwing my hands in the air and bumping my resolutions to the curb like last week’s trash. 

However, I do much better with a challenge! There is something inherent in a challenge that brings out my competitive nature and renders me much more likely to succeed. 

So, over the past few years I have found myself participating in a variety of challenges: I have participated in 30 days of praying, de-cluttering, detoxing, and more. This year, around Thanksgiving, the Lord put it on my heart to start writing more intentionally, so I began a 30 day challenge to write at least 500 words a day. You can read about that HERE and HERE (and you have that to thank for this blog post!). 

My favorite challenge, though, is my annual Reading Challenge. I used to love to read, but somewhere along the way, between work and children and adulting, life got busy and it slipped through the cracks. One of the things I appreciate most about homeschooling our children is that it reminded me of my love of reading. Having a daughter who loved to read helped, too, because I previewed a lot of books for her, which gave us a special way to connect.

At first I mostly read things my friends (and my daughter) recommended, but then one year I stumbled across the idea of a reading challenge. I quickly found out there are at least a bazillion different ways to do it! So I ended up creating my own. I decided to use it as a way to keep from getting stuck in my usual genres and stretch myself into intentionally reading other things.

I still take recommendations, but I make sure to include biographies, classics, historical fiction, and non-fiction books, as well as a couple written from a different viewpoint than mine (politically, spiritually, etc).  I like to add some fun categories, like a book with the setting as your hometown, a book written by someone you know, or a book centered around somewhere you plan to travel. This year I am also adding several books on writing, and then I will fill in the rest of my list with my go-to genres: Christian non-fiction and my favorite, YA fantasy/dystopian fiction (don’t judge me, it’s my guilty pleasure!). My list is fluid; I add to it throughout the year as I get new suggestions or pick up a new book, and I rarely read everything on it. That’s okay, though- those books become the base for next year’s list!

I check out the majority of my books from the library (I am still a sucker for paper books; can’t quite transition to the kindle yet), and I use Goodreads to create my lists and track my progress. It is also a great resource for reading reviews to determine if I want to read something, as well as for finding similar books when I really like a subject or an author. I haven’t quite made it to reading a book a week yet, but I am still amazed to finish the year and find I checked off 45+ books! I think my goal the first year was 20 books, so that’s quite an improvement!

And there was a year or two early on when I didn’t meet my goal, so if that is you, don’t be discouraged. Just remind yourself that whatever you accomplish is better than not accomplishing anything- this is a challenge after all, not a resolution!

In my next post, I will share my 2019 reading list and some of my thoughts about the books, including which ones I recommend and which ones I didn’t like at all (there was only one). But I couldn’t end this post without sharing a few of the gems that I found through some of my previous Reading Challenges! These are books I highly recommend that I would probably never have read without the incentive and intentionality of a reading challenge:

Fiction:

The Nightingale (Kristen Hannah)

Lilac Girls (Martha Hall Kelly)

The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)

The Swan House (Elizabeth Musser)

Non-fiction/ Biographies:

Fearless (Eric Blehm)

The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls)

Under our Skin (Benjamin Watson)

Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand)

Choosing to See (Mary Beth Chapman)

Missing Kylie (Mark Myers)

And there are a few more on my 2019 list, so be sure to check out my 2019 Reading Challenge Year End Review, coming soon!

What about you? If resolutions are not really your thing but you have a competitive streak, perhaps you may be up for a Challenge. I’d love to hear about it!

12 Ways to Have a Magical Family Christmas at Disney World (Despite the Crowds!)

We just got back from spending a magical family Christmas at Disneyworld, so I thought I’d share a few things we did to make sure we experienced all the magic! 

But first, a disclaimer:  If you have never been to WDW before, in my opinion, Christmas week is not the time to go. It is by far the busiest week of the year. My husband and I both agreed that if it had been our first time there, we would never come back… and that would be such a shame, because it is so much fun at other times in the year! So save yourself some stress (and money) and schedule your trip during a less-crowded time. February and September are ideal, but Spring Break and other months work, too!

Now, since we have established that it will be CROWDED, these are some alternatives we found to the usual, everyday Disney experience. So open your mind to some new possibilities as we did (or ordinary possibilities in a new environment), and let the fun begin!

1. For Rides, Go Early/Go Late.

 If you can’t imagine going to Disney and not riding rides, then there are a few things that will make the Christmas week wait times a little less torturous. Be there for “Rope Drop”– Get up early and arrive at the Park gates before they open. You will have about an hour to squeeze in several rides before the lines stack up, so choose the rides that normally have the longest lines first. Normally, the first 2-3 hours after the Park opens have short lines, but we found this window to be much shorter during Christmas week. The same concept applies in the evening. Arrive at the Park about 2 hours before closing for your best chance at short lines, and skip the fireworks/parade/etc. We love to ride Big Thunder Railroad during the fireworks- you can almost walk right through the line, and nothing is better than viewing the fireworks as you fly around the turns! Plan your Fast Passes to coincide with your arrival times, and then fill the rest of your day with other Disney adventures!

2. Go to the Pool.

Florida weather can be unpredictable in December, but there is a good chance you will have at least one day in the upper 70’s. And if it’s chilly, just jump in the hot tub. Plus, the Vitamin D will boost your immune system!

3. Resort Hop to see the Gingerbread Houses

Several of the resorts feature real houses made of gingerbread and frosting that match the theme of the hotel! You could spend several hours going from place to place taking pictures with each of them, finding the hidden mickeys, etc. 

4. Check out the Gift Shops

While you’re resort hopping, be sure to peek into the various gift shops. We have found that many of the resorts carry different merchandise, so you might find something you love that you won’t find anywhere else!

5.  Eat your way around the world in Epcot.

This ended up being one of our most fun days! We arrived at Epcot around 11am and most of the wait times were already an hour or longer, so we headed for the World Showcase. Since we couldn’t agree on what we wanted to eat, we decided to share a variety of foods throughout the countries. We shared nachos in Mexico, some bubble tea in China, a giant pretzel and some caramel in Germany, and then opted for different desserts- shaved ice from China and gelato from France. We took our time and stopped in a few of the shops that we generally skip over, and just really enjoyed the slower pace. By the time we got past France, we were ready for our next adventure… 

6. Ride the Skyliner.

If you have not been to Disney in awhile, the Skyliner is a new form of transportation which carries people between Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and several resort hotels (Caribbean Beach, French Riviera, and All Star). The cable cars run continuously, and you can hop on at any of the stops and take a ride. It’s a fun way to get a bird’s eye view of different resorts, and it almost feels like a ride in itself! It definitely beats standing in a 2-hour line for Test Track. If you exit Epcot in between France and England, the Skyliner hub is directly on your right after you leave the Park.

7. Indulge in a Holiday Snack Hunt.

Disney rolls out several holiday treats just for the season that you don’t want to miss! Our oldest daughter follows a bunch of Disney bloggers, so she made a list of treats for us to try on our trip, and we checked one off every chance we got. The gingerbread cookie sandwich from Germany was amazing; The peppermint gelato macaroon from France left a lot to be desired. But the fun was in the trying! So google WDW holiday treats before you go, and you’ll know where to find all the goodness.

8. See a movie.

Everyone needs some downtime… maybe it’s been raining all day (or week), or you’re tired of the lines, or whatever. Disney Springs has a movie theater, and there are several other theaters off-property within a short drive. Many of the resorts also show free family-friendly movies in the evening out by the pool. We spent our first day watching the new Star Wars movie to avoid the rain, and it was a great way to start our trip! (PSA- Disney Springs has a bowling alley, too, if that’s more your thing)

9. Resort Dining. 

There are so many great restaurants at the various resorts around property! Use this time when the parks are so busy to try something new. You can view the menus online, so choose something that appeals to your family and be sure to make a reservation. We ate Christmas dinner at Whispering Canyon Café at the Wilderness Lodge, which is one of our favorites. We have eaten at most of the resorts, and have yet to find a restaurant we didn’t like!

10. Magic Kingdom Scavenger Hunts: Sorcerer’s of the Magic Kingdom Quests/A Pirate’s Adventure. 

When we arrived at the Magic Kingdom and saw that the line for It’s a Small World was over an hour, we knew we were not going to be riding any rides. We decided it was the perfect time to try out something we have always wanted to do- an interactive scavenger hunt! We began with the Sorcerer’s Quest (start out at the Fire Station near Main Street) and completed an entire quest, which took us through 4 areas of the park. We made a quick stop in Mickey’s Philharmagic during a rainstorm, and had to get some dole whip when the quest led us to Aloha Isle, but neither pit stop interfered with our adventure. When we finished, our kids did the Pirate’s Adventure without us, and they enjoyed that one even more, as it was more like an interactive clue hunt. I was afraid our kids would think the scavenger hunts were too babyish, but they all really had fun, even the teenagers! Our boys liked the trading cards that came with the first quest, and they were all especially happy to receive a fast pass to Pirates of the Caribbean when they completed their adventure! This turned out to be a fantastic way to spend a rainy, super crowded day at the park. And there are multiple quests, so we will definitely do it again!

11. Candlelight Processional (Dining Package). This was definitely the most magical part of Christmas at Disney for me. We usually spend our Christmas Eve morning visiting a local nursing home with our church family, followed by a candlelight worship service that evening. That is part of what helps our family keep our focus on the real meaning of Christmas, and I was concerned that we would lose that focus being at Disney. But then my sweet husband found out that Steven Curtis Chapman (my fave!) would be narrating the Christmas story at the Epcot Candlelight Processional, and bought us a “Dinner & Show” Package to make sure we would have seats for Christmas Eve. I would definitely recommend pre-purchasing the dining package, as the Processional fills up quickly and you are not likely to get a seat without it, especially on Christmas Eve. We ate hibachi in Japan, hit a few rides, and then got in line to get good seats for the service. The orchestra was amazing! And SCC was a fantastic narrator, so genuine as always. I cannot explain how it felt to be celebrating the birth of Christ (God with us!) with so many other believers in the midst of such a secular place! It definitely made Christmas for me. So a huge shout out to my hubby for making it happen! 

12.  Lastly, Close out a Park on Christmas Eve. This was not something we planned, but it turned out to be truly magical! After the Candlelight Processional, we went back to the Wilderness Lodge and opened our Christmas Eve present (matching Disney pajamas, of course!), and began to settle in for the night. Then someone mentioned that Magic Kingdom didn’t close until midnight, how fun would it be to be there on Christmas Eve? Next thing I knew, all six of us were heading toward the boat, ready for an adventure! It was crowded, but not terribly so, and we were able to ride several of our favorite rides (including Big Thunder during the fireworks! Woot!) and enjoy a Mickey bar before heading back to the resort. With our oldest daughter graduating from high school this May and heading off to college, memories like that with all of us together are not something we take for granted. It was definitely a magical way to celebrate!

Of course, there are lots of other magical things about Christmas at Disney- holiday themed rides, special parades and performances throughout the parks, etc. But these are the top 12 things that made our Disney Christmas so magical this year. If you have other suggestions, I’d love to hear them! Who knows when we might find ourselves there again… (Okay, probably not anytime soon. But still, I still love hearing ideas!)

The Gift of Hope

It is two days before Christmas. 

A stack of presents sits on the bed waiting to be wrapped. 

There is laundry to be done, food to prepare, and a half-dozen items still left unchecked on my to-do list. Yet, I find myself returning to the gifts. 

I have always loved opening gifts on Christmas morning. When I was a girl, I used to wake up in the early morning hours and sneak into the living room to peak at the gifts before everyone else woke up. Santa never wrapped the gifts he brought, so I would make a quick scan of the room, searching for that special something I had hoped for and making note of anything I thought my brothers might be excited about. Once I had taken assessment of the loot, I would sneak back to my bed and watch the minutes tick by, until it was finally time to get up. 

But it was more than the actual gifts I received; there was something magical about those pre-dawn expeditions to the Christmas tree. The twinkling lights cast a mystical glow over the room, and the packages all looked so beautiful piled one on top of another, each adorned with brightly colored ribbons or bows. I knew I would love the gifts inside, but there was something about the anticipation in those solitary moments that filled those boxes with something else…

Hope.

Soon enough I would find out if all my hinting, asking, and praying had paid off. But in that moment, the real gift was the hope of things to come. The hope of dreams fulfilled. 

Sometimes all we need is a little hope.

I look at these gifts lying on my bed and think about the hope contained in each one. I reach for a football for my little man, and with it I wrap the hope of neighborhood pick-up games and father-son bonding time. Next, there’s an Indoor S’more maker and some board games, each wrapped with layers of family time and the hope of many beautiful, lifelong memories. The socks and shirt for my hubby are enveloped in the hope of good health, resulting in many years of wearing. And the gift cards for our girls seem straight forward enough, but are also packaged with the hope of quality time and great conversations. 

Simple gifts, really, but each wrapped in the hope of so much more.

I think about that Christmas long ago, when Mary watched strangers bring gifts to her baby boy, pondering the mysteries they contained and treasuring those moments in her heart. How her heart must have soared when she opened the chest full of gold; a gift for royalty, stoking her hope in the angel’s promise, that her baby was going to be something more, a King like no other. The frankincense filled her with hope as well- a gift in recognition of the divine role Jesus would play in Israel’s restoration. Her baby really was the Messiah! Oh blessed hope!

But what of the gift of myrrh? Did Mary understand the hope contained in that meaningful gift? I imagine not. Myrrh was used for many things, the most common being an embalming oil. It seems a strange gift for a baby; but it was the perfect gift for a Savior! It was a foreshadowing of His journey to come, and confirmation to us all these years later that none of it was by accident. 

That baby was born so He could die for us. 

He was a simple gift, really, but wrapped in the hope of so much more. He was the hope of things to come, the hope of dreams fulfilled. 

Sometimes all we need is a little hope.

Dancing in the Waiting

I took my boys for their much overdue annual check-ups today. As is the case with most doctor appointments, we found ourselves seated in the waiting area for a good 15 minutes before the nurse called their names.

What do you do with two rambunctious, energetic boys in a waiting room?

Well, let’s see. We played “sticks,” a math game using our fingers, and then played One-Potato-Two-Potato with our feet. After that, Eli dared Noah to stand in the middle of the waiting room and dance in front of everyone. Noah is not one to turn down a dare, so up he went, shaking his bootie for all the world to see. Giggles abounded, and a second dare was quickly issued. Before long, the nurses were peaking around the appointment desk, offering suggestions on different dance moves and clapping along to his songs. We were having so much fun, we almost forgot we were waiting!

Looking back, I feel like I have spent much of my life waiting.

In middle school and high school, I was waiting to be popular (ugh) or waiting for a certain boy to like me (double ugh). Then I was waiting for the Lord to show me which college to go to and what my major should be. There were several years of waiting on the Lord about my future husband- was there someone out there for me? How would I know when I found him? Was this the one for me, or was there someone else?

“Wait on the Lord. Be strong and take heart and wait on the Lord.” Ps. 27:14

So much waiting…

After I married Jeff, we waited on the Lord to direct our path. We waited on Him to show us where to start a church, and then we waited on Him to bring people to our church. And that whole time we were waiting for Him to give us a baby (you can read that story here). 

Once those prayers were answered, there were other things to wait on.

We waited on the Lord to show us the right time to move on and where to go next. We waited on friendships and guidance and more babies. We waited on answers about our calling and the best way to school our children. We waited for the Lord to give us a church home, and spent three years doing family church before He gave us an answer. We waited for ministry opportunities. We waited for the right time to get a new puppy. We waited for wisdom in parenting and wisdom in our marriage and wisdom for life.

We have waited and waited and waited.

But we have also lived.

Yes, the waiting often overwhelmed me to where I couldn’t think about much else. But if the waiting lasted long enough, living was inevitable. I had to do something- I couldn’t just sit around and wait.  

Somewhere along the way, I learned that waiting is more than just sitting.

It is an active verb, not passive.

It was friends living life with me and helping shape my character so I was ready when I found “the One.”

It was story after story of God’s faithfulness in our family and in our church, things only He could do, drawing our hearts to Him, even as we waited. 

 It is Noah dancing in the waiting room, making the most of the “in between” time.

Do I dance in the in between?

Waiting shouldn’t be about focusing so much on what I’m waiting for that I miss what is all around me. No, the Psalmist encourages us to “Wait on the Lord. Be strong and take heart and wait on the Lord. 

God is at work all around us! When I fix my eyes on Jesus instead of whatever I’m waiting on, my perspective shifts. 

When I remind myself of His truths, I am able to release my fear and embrace His peace. Don’t get me wrong; waiting on the Lord is still terribly hard, but it is no longer overwhelming or isolating or paralyzing. 

It transforms waiting into something different. 

It is breathing. 

It is looking outside of my situation.

It is pressing into Jesus and doing the next thing. 

It is embracing the present because I trust Him in the waiting. 

Will we trust Him in the waiting? Will we look for Him in the “in between”? Will we miss the gifts He offers because they are not the ones we are waiting for? Or will we get up out of our chairs, fix our eyes on Jesus, and find a way to dance as we wait on the Lord?

Lord, I trust You in my waiting. Help me dance in the in between.

Investing in Teens, Part 3: Ready to Listen

It never fails.

It’s 3:30 in the afternoon and I realize I have about 30 minutes to myself before I start making dinner. Just as I settle in with my book, my teen plops down on the couch next to me. “Whatcha reading, Mom? Oh, that sounds cool. Hey, did I show you this video I found…”

It’s 11:27 pm and my bed is calling. I finish brushing my teeth and walk into my bedroom, and then hear footsteps in the hallway. “Hey Momma, do you have a minute?” she says…

Why is it my teens never want to talk when I’m ready to listen? It seems like, without fail, they always approach me at the most inconvenient times! 

Oh, that happens to you, too? 

It’s crazy, right?

Last night I listened to a video interview with Craig Groeschel, the pastor of Life.church, on “Raising Biblically Based World Changers.” I already had this blog topic planned, so I perked up when he mentioned how important it is for us to listen to our teens. 

He said, “While young children need our physical presence, teenagers need our emotional presence, but they are not always emotionally available to us. So when they are, we need to drop everything and listen.

He couldn’t be more right.

In the last blog post about listening so teens will talk, I shared some things we can do to ensure that we are actively listening to and communicating with our teens instead of just trying to tell them how much we know. 

Today I want to share a few ways we can make the most of opportunities to get our kids talking, so we’ll be ready to listen when the time comes.

1.  Learn WHEN your teens are most emotionally available so you can listen. 

This may seem silly, but I have found this one thing helps my listening attitude more than anything else. Believe it or not, my patience level at 11:27 p.m. is not super high- I am physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted by that time in the day. The LAST thing I want to do is spend an hour reminding myself of all the things I need to do to be a good parent while my teen pours out her heart- or at least, that’s the last thing I FEEL like doing.

But the truth is, underneath the feeling, there is actually nothing in the world I would rather do more than listen to my teen’s heart. So learning their rhythms has helped me a lot in preparing my own heart to be ready.  

The best way to do this is simply to pay attention. Make a note of when your teen approaches you for conversation, even seemingly insignificant conversation, like sharing a TikTok video or rehashing some terrible call in last week’s game. Before long, you will likely begin to notice a pattern or a rhythm to when they tend to make themselves available to you. For some it’s after school, or right before dinner, but for many- especially older teens- it’s after 11:00 p.m.  Maybe their defenses come down when they’re tired? That’s my theory. Whatever the reason, it’s pretty much universal, so watch for it!

The important thing, though, is to discern your teen’s rhythms so you can prepare and be emotionally available to them.

2. Learn HOW your teens make themselves emotionally available for you to listen.

Some kids spout their innermost thoughts like a gushing fire hydrant, while others wait for you to pry every single word out of their zippered lips. Some kids process externally, while others process internally. Some are comfortable sharing their feelings, and others, not so much. None of these things are right or wrong; they are simply how your teen tends to communicate. Learning these tendencies is kind of like learning to speak our teen’s language, because they show us the best ways to approach conversations with them. 

Does your teen have a hard time expressing their emotions verbally but like to write? Keeping a shared journal is one way you can help them open up to you. One of our daughters tends to hold her feelings inside. She had an especially difficult time expressing anger and frustration towards us or sharing things that she thought we just wouldn’t understand. Using a journal gave her a chance to open up without feeling disrespectful, as she was able to write down things she never would have had the courage to say in person. It also helped her process her thoughts so she had a better grasp of what she was really feeling, and it gave me time to think and process as well so I could respond with grace and truth. Now it is a beautiful record of our relationship over the years, and she can read those pages to be reminded of how very much her dad and I love her! As she has gotten older, we have made an effort to coach her in expressing herself verbally, but the journal was very helpful for a season.

Our other daughter expresses her feelings almost too easily and hates to write, so the journal idea wouldn’t work for her. Instead, we’ve learned (and are still learning!) that when she gets worked up about something, she is not ready for conversation until she releases all her emotions. Since my husband has thick skin and a higher tolerance for confrontation than me, he likes to poke and prod and help her get it all out, so they can deal with whatever is really going on. I, on the other hand, gently tell her I can tell she’s upset, so she needs to go into another room until she feels better and then I’ll be ready to listen. Okay, so my words often sound gentler in my head than they do out loud, and they are rarely received calmly by her- but we are working on it! Once she calms down, we usually have a great conversation about whatever is going on in her world. 

Some teens find it very difficult to express themselves at all! But that doesn’t mean they don’t need to share. It just means they need someone to invest the time in helping them figure out how to open up. Maybe they like to text, or make videos. Maybe watching a TV show or playing a video game together will allow them (or you) opportunities to bring up topics they would otherwise not talk about.

The important thing is to invest time in learning HOW your teens communicate so you can look for opportunities and be ready to listen.

3. Learn WHERE your teens are most emotionally available so you can listen.

Does your teen love Starbucks? Then buy them a latte and sit down for a chat. Does your teen love baseball? Head to the field. Does your kid avoid one on one conversations? Then wait until you have them trapped! 

Actually, I’m not kidding. Some of the best conversations with teens take place in the car. I have found that teen boys, especially, seem to open up better while riding side by side in a vehicle as opposed to sitting down face to face. I don’t suggest this avenue (ha, get it?!) for bringing up super volatile issues, but many awkward or embarrassing topics (which for boys can mean anything slightly emotional) are much more productive if discussed with some sort of distraction. It could be riding in a car or working on a project together or playing golf- anything that works for you, as long as it gives your teen an opportunity to open up without feeling like they are the center of attention.

Remember, it is still important for them to have your full attention, but just in a way that doesn’t make them feel so self-conscious. 

During his interview, Groeschel mentioned that he has found his teen’s friends often open up to him easier than his own kids. Therefore, he has learned to engage his teen’s friends in conversations, and they eventually join in. If your teen doesn’t always respond well when you initiate conversation, try bringing their friends into it and see what happens! Perhaps they will open up more in a group of friends.

4.  Show your kids you’re ready to listen by keeping communication open.

This is probably the most important thing we can do as parents. No matter what your kids tell you, don’t act surprised, shocked, or disappointed. Don’t be overly antagonistic or judgemental towards their friends. There will be time for those insights, but the best thing we can do when our teens are emotionally available is keep them talking. Ask questions, make connections to their feelings, find out what they think about things, anything. As Groeschel said, “the goal is just to keep them talking. We should shoot for 90% listening and 10% talking.” The more we know, the better we are able to express our love to them, to pray for them, and to offer help or advice when they seek it.

Again, just because I know the importance of being ready to listen to my teens, doesn’t mean I always am. The past few days have been filled with failures on my part in this exact area, so I am definitely preaching to the choir! 

But I won’t stop trying. 

As exhausting as parenting can be some days, our time to speak into our teens lives is limited, and we cannot waste it. But before we can speak, we must be intentional about listening, so they know how much we care. 

When our teens are ready to talk, will we be ready to listen?

A Day in My "Mom Life"

“It’s going to be a great day. It’s going to be a great day. It’s going to be a great day!” I mumble to myself, pulling back the covers and forcing myself out of bed. I really need to pee, but apparently so does the puppy, so I head downstairs first and wait by the door with my legs crossed while she does her business. Fifteen minutes later, when I should be enjoying my tea and Quiet time, I load my middle children into the family chariot and make my way to school. My oldest daughter, who usually drives everyone to school, doesn’t have any exams today, so she is snuggled up in her bed at home while I play carpool mom with the rest of the city. My darling children are so concerned with their dreaded exams that they jump out of the car without even a hug or a thank you.

There is no time for breakfast when I get home, because Sleeping Beauty and the youngest prince are apparently both still under the influence of Maleficent’s sleeping spell. With the puppy bounding behind me, I climb the tower stairs and fling open the curtains in both their rooms, spilling sunlight onto their pillows. A few well-placed licks from the puppy wakes them from their slumber, and I help them make their preparations for the day. Back downstairs, there is no time for tea either. Schoolwork awaits, as well as a sink full of dishes and 13 different milk-stained cups scattered across the counter. When the kitchen is clean and the schoolwork is completed, I have just enough time for a quick rinse in the shower (no time to wash hair- it isn’t Saturday, after all!) before leaving the house again.

Princess #2 has finished exams and requested a lunch date with her besties, so of course, I am happy to oblige. Baby brother tags along, and we settle in at a long table after placing our order. My sweet friend, Liz, (the besties’ mama) arrives while we are still eating, and I begin to get excited- I might just get a few moments of adult conversation! See, it is a good day!! But alas, just as we get started, baby brother invites my sweet friend to join him in a game of digital beer-pong, and who can resist those dimpled cheeks? Shrugging off my disappointment, I gather up our belongings and prepare for the rest of our day. 

The next few hours are a whirlwind of carpool pick ups and drop offs, snacks and dinner, jackets and shoes and scripts and basketballs. Finally, I drop the monkey boys off at basketball and head over to the Coffee Lodge for a few moments of quiet and leisurely Facebook scrolling. I can already taste the hot chocolate with extra whipped cream… until I notice that the doors are locked and the “Open” sign is the opposite of glowing. Ugh. Back to the smelly gym I go, empty-handed and heavy with resignation. I spend the next two hours trying to plan a Small Group lesson while entertaining each monkey while the other one practices. Finally they are done, and we hurry through the freezing rain to our car. 

Once home, it is more snacks, a second dinner, baths and prayers and tears and I need another blanket, until finally, FINALLY, the monkeys are in bed, and the sisters are not far behind. 

With an exhausted breath, I sit down to spend a few minutes to myself at the computer, when I remember the King is home from his trip and awaiting my company for our nightly TV viewing. The bell rings, and I have been summoned. 

With a little laugh, I roll my eyes and smile to myself. This is what I always dreamed of… a family to serve, a family to love. 

It’s been a good day.

Advent: Obedience in the Unexpected

“‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May it be to me as you have said.’” (Luke 1:38)

This was Mary’s response when an angel suddenly appeared and informed her that she had been chosen by God to carry the long awaited Messiah, the Savior of the world. “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.”

Is that how we respond to God when unexpected things come our way? 

Because, while we all consider Mary a hero on this side of the story, that title is generally earned by doing really hard things. Being the birth mother of the Messiah could not have been an easy task!

Let’s be real. If the angel were being a little more straightforward, he might have said something like this: 

“Mary, because you’ve been so faithful, God has chosen you for a most difficult assignment. Should you choose to accept this mission, you will endure public ridicule and shame. Your beloved Joseph will most likely believe you betrayed him. Since he’s a nice guy, he might quietly divorce you, but there’s always the risk he will have you stoned to death in the public square instead. On the off chance he sticks around, you know people will be whispering about you wherever you go. You will have to leave your family, your home…

Oh yeah, and this baby? Raising the Son of God will not be as easy as you think. The story will play out a little differently than expected. Eventually people will honor your place in God’s story, but first you must endure the loss of that which you love most. You must place this child on the altar before his heart even flutters within you, and you must promise not to hinder that which will surely shatter your mama-heart. This is a gift of great joy for all the people, but it will cost you tremendous grief.  So… are you in?”

Hmm…

“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

Now granted, Mary did not know all the trials that lay ahead, but she had to at least know the immediate repercussions of this unexpected announcement.

And still, she chose obedience, without hesitation.

In this season of advent, I am asking myself this question: When God brings me hard assignments, do I respond with such an accepting, obedient heart? With such trusting faith?

Do you?

Cancer.

Miscarriage.

Job loss.

Financial hardship.

Infertility.

Illness.

Pain.

Broken Relationships.

Sudden Loss.

These are hard things. Unexpected things. Seemingly impossible things

But nothing is impossible with God. 

The gospel accounts do not tell us why Mary was chosen to be the mother of Jesus. But the fact that her immediate response was “I am the Lord’s servant” is a good indication of why she found favor with God. My guess is that Mary had proven herself faithful in the little things, day in and day out. She did not search for her identity in her beauty or her father’s name or her future marriage. She did not need the approval of others to define her worth. How do we know? 

Because she was willing to give all those things up without even a moment’s hesitation. 

What was it that enabled Mary to look past her personal sacrifice and welcome the will of the Father? She was the Lord’s servant, and nothing else mattered more than that. She knew the God of her fathers, the God of Abraham and Isaac, the Great I AM, could not be wrong. Her life was in His hands; she could open her heart to Jesus. What had she to fear?

Perhaps we can draw some encouragement from Mary this Christmas.

What hard things are you facing right now? What in your life is not going as you expected? Our heavenly Father can be trusted! Like Mary, we can open our hearts to Jesus, and allow our Savior to usher in the joy and peace that can only be found in Him. We can choose to look past our circumstances, even in the midst of pain and loss, and welcome the will of our Father.

May we say with Mary this Christmas, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

The Investment of Listening: How to listen so teens will talk

“Mom, you just don’t understand! You’re not even listening to me!” she lamented as she stomped off, slamming her door.

This scene repeated itself countless times during our younger daughter’s pre-teen years (and still does on occasion). And she wasn’t wrong. I was hearing her words, but I was not really listening to what she was trying to communicate, probably because I was too focused on what I wanted her to understand instead. Thankfully, my husband is a rock star and filled in the gaps for us during those tumultuous years, always reminding us how much we loved each other and never letting us give up on trying to understand one another. He reminded me of a foundational truth in ministry and life:

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

If you are like me, there are so many things we want our teens to know: lessons we’d rather them not learn the hard way (like we did), wisdom we have acquired through decades of walking with God, and just basic common sense that they may be lacking. Yet, so often when we try to impart this much needed wisdom to them, we are met with blank stares and deaf ears. Why? 

Because kids don’t care how much we know until they know how much we care. 

So that begs the question: How do we let the teenagers in our lives know that we care about them?

There are many different ways to accomplish this, but for now we are going to focus on the investment of active listening. My 12th grade small group girls are currently learning about the 5 Love Languages (Gary Chapman), and yesterday I asked them what it looks like to spend time with someone without it actually being “Quality Time.” 

One girl quickly replied, “Sitting next to each other, but with one or both of you on your phone the whole time.” Great example. 

“So, if quality time doesn’t just mean being in close proximity with someone, what does it actually look like? What is it about being with someone that makes you feel loved (or doesn’t)?” 

After a few minutes, they began to share words like “intentional,” and “uninterrupted.” They mentioned that what they do together (the activity) doesn’t matter as much as how they do it. They want to know that the other person is there because they really want to be with them and not just because they have nothing better to do.

When I asked for examples of when they had spent Quality Time with someone, I noticed something interesting. When they talked about ways they had shown love to others (especially their parents), they mentioned the activities- “It didn’t really matter to him that we were just throwing the football/making cookies/reading & studying/etc. I think he mostly liked that I was doing it with him.” But when they shared about someone investing quality time in them, they focused on the conversation instead of the activity. 

What can we learn from this? 

Our teens want someone to listen.

Digging a little deeper, they confirmed that not all “listening” is the same. As with my opening illustration with my daughter, someone can hear your words without hearing your heart. Here are some of the important things they shared about listening:

1. Eye Contact.  There is an obvious difference between when someone is looking in your eyes and when they are looking around the room or at their phone. When you are interested in something, it holds your attention. Our teens desperately want to know that what they are saying is more important than our latest notification.

2. Ask Questions.  “When someone asks questions about what I’m telling them, it shows they are really listening and engaged. Not only that, it makes me feel like they are actually interested and want to know more!” As the listener, asking questions can help us learn more about the person and situation. It can also help us clarify their emotions…

3. Sympathize/Empathize.  Teens want to know that we understand them, which means, more than anything, they want us to validate their feelings. “Wow, I can’t believe your coach did that! That must have made you so mad!” “She really said that? Ugh. I bet that really hurt your feelings!” Remember, there will be a time to share what we know, but first, we need to show how much we care! 

Full disclosure– I usually do this really well with my small group girls, but not so well with my own kids. I tend to rush right into imparting my wisdom and telling them how to fix it, usually pointing out their part in the problem as I go. Do not do this!! I am training myself to repeat “FOCUS ON HER FEELINGS, FOCUS ON HER FEELINGS” and let the rest of it go. For now. (Men, this advice is pretty applicable for the women in your life, too!) 

Also, while you want to validate their feelings, resist the urge to gossip or slander anyone. They have enough friends- they are talking to you as an adult. Our goal is to show them how much they are loved and point them to Jesus. We can empathize with their feelings without compromising our witness.

4. Ask and wait. Do they want a solution to their problem or do they just want someone to understand? Sometimes this is evident as you listen, but if not, just ask: “Do you have any idea how you want to respond? Is there anything I can do to help?” If they want your help, they will ask for it. If not, trust that your presence is enough. Those doors will open eventually, maybe when they are not so emotional, because they are learning they can trust you. Sometimes sharing a story of a time you went through something similar (and had a positive outcome or learned something important) can be helpful; just make sure you are not trying to make the conversation about you. Teens see through stuff like that in a heartbeat. We are the adults; we are there to support and encourage them, not to feed our own ego or make ourselves feel important. 

5.  Point them to Jesus.  When a teen opens up to an adult, they are expecting an adult’s response. Once we have done all the things mentioned above- focused attention, asked questions, empathized with them, and asked to help- then we can offer to pray with them. We might share some Scripture that applies to their circumstance or that will encourage them. This can be intimidating if you are not used to doing it, but you will likely be surprised at how receptive they are. And really, Jesus is the One who has the answers they are seeking. He is the One whose love and acceptance matters so much more than ours. The sooner they grasp that, the stronger their faith will be. We just get to be a conduit of His love and grace in their lives!

Finally, the thing I so often forget is that listening to teens in the little, insignificant things is what opens the door to them sharing the big things when the time comes. Learning to be excited about another episode of Fuller House or the latest cast list of a Broadway show or the play-by-play of the football game paves the way for the more significant conversations. If we are faithful with the little things, they learn to trust us with the bigger things. And the truth is, we learn so much about them in those little things- what is important to them, what makes them angry, what brings them joy. Knowing those things helps us truly care about them.

And once they know how much we care, they might just care about what (and WHO) we know.

How are your active listening skills with the teens in your life? Which of these areas are you strong in and which require some growth? Who made a difference in your life by taking the time to truly listen to you in your teen years?

Let’s be intentional this week about showing our teens how much we care by taking the time to really listen.

Teenagers: Our Greatest Investment

I have loved working with teenagers since, well, since I was a teenager myself! When I was a freshman in college, the speaker for our college Bible Study asked me one night if I would be willing to lead a weekly small group for 8th and 9th grade girls at his church. I remember thinking he was crazy… I was barely 18 at the time! But I loved Jesus so much that I said yes, and it turned out to be one of my most favorite experiences in college. They taught me way more than I taught them, that’s for sure! I had the privilege of walking with those girls for the next 4 years, and I am still in touch with most of them today. There is no greater joy than seeing how much they still love Jesus all these years later! 

Being a small group leader soon led to an intern position, which eventually led to a full time Youth Ministry position once I graduated. I will be honest… looking back, I realize I didn’t have a clue what I was doing half the time!

So I spent most of my time mirroring what I saw in the leaders around me.

I am eternally grateful that God gave me the most amazing adult leaders in high school who believed in me, loved me unconditionally, and showed me what it looked like to walk with Jesus. I had rock-solid Youth Ministers in my circles who answered all my questions and modeled servant-ministry as they led with passion and integrity. And most importantly, I just really, really loved Jesus and teenagers, and I believed God was going to work in their lives.

And I prayed.

A LOT.

He did work in their lives, too; sometimes through me, but more often in spite of me. I was simply given a front row seat to watch… It was the best job in the world!

I always wondered if I would “outgrow” my love for teenagers, but so far that hasn’t happened. How I relate to them has certainly changed; I have become a “bonus mom” now, instead of a cool college girl they look up to (okay, who am I kidding? “Cool” was never an adjective one would use to describe me- I was always a big dork! Nonetheless… you get the point)

 In addition to being mom to two beautiful, fun, smart, sassy, Jesus-loving teenage daughters (love you, girls!), I have also had the privilege of leading a small group of (now) Senior girls for the past 3 years. There are no words to describe how much I adore these girls or how grateful I am for the way they have begun to truly seek after Christ! My time with them each week really is a gift.  

As we get closer and closer to graduation, however, I find myself wondering if I have done a good job preparing them for this next phase of their lives.  When they are tempted, will they stand strong or will they fall? When they are lonely and uncertain, will they seek security in Jesus or the world? When they are searching for Truth, will they turn to their friends or to the Bible? Will they remember they are a treasure, and wait for the guys who treat them as such? Will they continue to seek the path God has for them, trusting Him to lead the way? These are the questions I am asking myself. And as a mom of a Senior girl, I question and pray even more.

Oh, how I pray they cling to Jesus! 

 Because I find teenagers so engaging, it makes me sad to hear the way so many parents talk about the teen years, as if they are something to dread.  Yes, they are hard, no doubt. But they are also wonderful and enlightening and soul-searching and fun! As parents, our roles begin to shift from directors (who are pretty much in charge of everything) to coaches and encouragers. I read one time that a good coach, after laying the ground work in practices and playbooks, puts his arm around his players and asks what they think they should do next. He may offer some perspective and insight that the players lack, but otherwise he begins to turn over the decision making process to the players while he steps into the role of encourager. Yes, sometimes they will fail. But oh, how exciting it is when they succeed!

I love this illustration! So I thought for my next few blog posts, I would share some of the important things God has taught me in my many years of serving teens, such as how to really listen, what teens need most from the adults in their lives, and how to pray for your teens. Please do not think for a moment that I have mastered any of these things! Most of them I have learned from consistently doing them wrong. And I will be the first to admit that I am much better at doing these things as a Small Group leader than I am as a parent, which my kids will be more than happy to confirm!  I see the two roles as serving different purposes, which often derails me, but the skill set required truly is (or should be) the same for both. 

So if you are a parent of a teenager, have kids who will eventually be teenagers, or maybe you teach or volunteer with teenagers, I hope you will follow this series.  

Our world needs teenagers who love Jesus and live their convictions.

In order for that to happen, our teenagers need adults who will step into their lives and show them how very much God loves them and what it looks like to walk with Him.

I am grateful for the adults who were willing to do that for me- God used them to change my life in ways they will never know. Jeff and I are beyond grateful for the adults who have stepped into the lives of our daughters, and how God continues to love and grow them through their investment. I pray He will use me in the same way! And I hope that some of the things He continues to teach me will help you make a difference in the lives of teenagers, too. If you have specific questions you would like to see addressed or want to share some insights you have gleaned while investing in teens, feel free to comment! Let’s commit together to letting God teach us how to truly love our teenagers.