My January 2021 Book Stack

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

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

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

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

 Essentialsim: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown

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

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

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

A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fable by Adrienne Young

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

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

What’s on your nightstand?

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