A year ago I hadn’t even heard of the Museum of the Bible (ohmygosh who’s been to this incredible interactive museum in Washington, DC?). Today, not only am I itching to take a fieldtrip there, but I’m also excited to announce the release of this book I wrote for them--The Curious Kids Guide to Heroes and Villains in the Bible. A beautiful set of God-directed circumstances allowed me to write this book with my co-author, the brilliant theologian, Doug Powell. I pray Jesus will use it to teach curious kiddos and curious grown-ups how amazing His love and grace is.
For this writing project God enrolled me in Bible 101. I pored over page after page of books like 1 and 2 Chronicles and Job—books I rarely wade any further than ankle deep. Let’s just say I got soaking wet in the Word, which was incredible. And if that wasn’t amazing enough, I also got to be doused with a wealth of Biblical knowledge from my co-author. So after all that reading, and learning here was my biggest takeaway. Ready?
It’s going to sound a lot like The Breakfast Club. Remember the letter at the end to the principal, Mr. Vernon?
We’re all heroes and villains. Each and every one of us.
We’re all created by God—given unique talents and gifts from our Creator. If we’re followers of Jesus we’re handed God’s armor to protect us (Ephesians 6) and have the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5) planted inside us. Which enables us all to be good guys. If we want to be.
But God also gives us free will. And we exercise it liberally. Which leads to some of our bad guy tendencies. After spending time in the stories of over ninety historical folks, it’s easy to see how, where, and why so many of them slipped. And unfortunately, how I falter in some of the same ways.
King Saul was doing great, until he tried to do things his way instead of God’s way. Raise your hand if you’ve ever tried to take the wheel. Mine’s in the air.
Pontius Pilate was this close to letting Jesus off the hook, but then he worried about what people would think. Ugh. How often do we worry about what someone else thinks? About even something small like if our family will like the dinner we cooked?
Judas was one of Jesus’ closest friends, but he got frustrated when Jesus didn’t do things the way Judas wanted Him to—overturn the corrupt government. Ever wish God would do things differently—hurry up with this, make this cost or hurt less, change your circumstances? Yeah. Me, too.
This is starting to look bleak. But not really. Because if we take a peek at the lives of the heroes of the Bible, they were also a hot mess. David stole his friend’s wife. Peter pretended he didn’t know Jesus. The Apostle Paul murdered Christians, to name a few. How did those guys end up as heroes? They turned back to God. And God ALWAYS welcomes His children back with open arms. No matter how villainous we've been. This is amazing news!
We will mess up. We have days (or weeks, or even years) when we feel like villains (or other people might feel like we’re villains). But as long as we go back to Jesus, lay our sins down at the foot of the cross; and allow Him to love us? We get to be heroes. We get to trade in our black hats and wear the white ones. Because as the prophet, Isaiah reminds us, If your sins are blood-red, they’ll be snow-white. —Isaiah 1:18-19 MSG
This is worth celebrating! Jesus intentionally came down to earth to live among us, to die for us, so all our sins could be removed once and for all, so we could be heroes.
I don’t know about you, but in the final scene, I want to end up wearing the white hat, not the black one. So, I’m going to work on keeping my eyes on Jesus, on day after day turning back to Him. Will you join me?
God loves us. But sometimes we forget. Sometimes we’re so caught up in the jumble of our lives that we won’t even allow Him to remind us. Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Will you let God and the people He put in your life love you?
The other day one of my kids woke with a massive headache. They had an important presentation at school ahead of them. They felt awful and were unsure of how they could navigate the presentation through their pain, but they had to go. They needed to be there. I laid out a grab-and-go breakfast, knowing not eating amplifies headaches. I found Advil and Tylenol to tackle the headache from both sides. I placed the capsules in the hand of my sweet child. But they were hurting and stressed, which made it difficult to focus on the help in front of them. They felt frozen by pain and worry, unable to put the medicine or breakfast in their mouth. I only share this, because I saw so much of my own frequent shutdowns and refusal to accept God's help in their struggle.
I unfortunately do this all the time.
“Need any help?” my husband asks as I hustle around the kitchen trying to get dinner on the table before someone needs to sprint out the door for practice or rehearsal.
“No!” I snarl. Which is not the kindest way to respond to someone offering assistance. But I’m in a mode, and a mood. And I fear if I slow down to even explain to Brett what needs to be done, I won’t complete my task in time. So instead of trusting and accepting the love God offers via my husband, I continue in a snit. I miss out on a chance to realize the beauty in the fact that God is tender enough to notice me making dinner and to offer me free kitchen staff.
I’ll get edits on something I’ve written, and stubbornly think, nah, it makes perfect sense how I wrote it. Which is clearly not true, or the person editing wouldn’t have questioned what I was trying to say. God gives me wisdom via a colleague to improve the work I do for Him. Why do I ever resist accepting these insightful suggestions?
Someone-who-hurt-me’s name comes up in conversation, and all I want to do is make a snide remark. But I hear God whisper, Let it go. Speaking negative things makes you hang onto bitterness, which only ends up hurting you. It also sets a bad example for those around you. My Good, Good Father is trying to protect me from inflicting pain on myself. Yet, I want to say the snarky thing, so I say it anyway. And then get a pit in my stomach.
Can you relate?
I knew within fifteen minutes of ingesting the acetaminophen and ibuprofen my child’s pain would be minimized. I also knew the longer they worried, the less time they’d have to get ready for school. This would make them more stressed. And the whole thing would continue to spiral. Easier to see when it’s happening to someone else. But I couldn’t shove medicine down their throat. And I couldn’t force feed them breakfast or dress them. I love my child and had tools to help—medicine, food, and a plan. They couldn’t accept any of it. They ended up darting out the door hungry and in a frazzled mess.
Ugh. How many times do we do this with the help God offers? Shake our heads, wallow in our pain, and refuse to accept the gift of love He’s basically placed in our palms. We don’t mean to. My kiddo didn’t mean to. They wanted to feel better, but they were overwhelmed. By all of it. I want to feel better, too—less stressed, better at my trade, and less bitter. But when we get overwhelmed, we tend to shut down. And in shutting our hands, we make it nearly impossible to receive God’s gifts.
Jesus came down to earth to love us. He died on the cross to love us. He sent the Holy Spirit to live inside us to—you guessed it—love us. That’s a lot of love. So why are we resisting it?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. —Romans 8:37-39 NIV
Tomorrow is a day dedicated to expressing love. I hope your day is full of those yummy-red-chewy-cherry hearts, rich Dove chocolates, laughter with the people dear to you, and warm, comforting hugs. But no matter if it is or is not, I know that you are loved by your Creator, by the Creator of all the things, by the King of kings. There’s not a single way you can mess up that will make Jesus love you less. There’s not a single thing you need to do to make Jesus love you more. He loves you fully and completely. Right now. As is.
He offers grace and joy and forgiveness and hope. Will you receive it? Open your hands. Open your heart. And let His unending glorious love flood in.
In 2014 my friend, Amy, was driving through Cincinnati on her way to Columbus, so we met up for mochas and chocolate croissants at Panera. We’re both writers, so as we sipped our frothy coffees and nibbled on buttery pastries, we also brainstormed projects. At the time, I had a handful of novels published, but hadn’t dabbled in any nonfiction.
“I think you should write a devotional,” Amy said.
I nodded, wrote in my journal with the water-colored flowers on the front “Devotional?” But something in me pushed away her idea, made excuses. I had zero qualifications. I read devotionals, you know the books like Jesus Calling where you get a one-pager of inspiration for the day, but had never written one. I was working on a new novel, with a plot and a character I adored.
Amy elaborated on possibilities and potential formats. I listened, and absorbed, but didn’t act. Although, the idea stuck with me. A few days later, I scribbled this in fast, messy handwriting in the margin of the Bible study I was working through (Gideon by Priscilla Shirer): Should I take Amy’s advice and write a devotional? Have my blogs been leading up to this?
In the weeks following, I finessed my novel, and pitched it to editors. One publishing house showed a lot of interest. The editor there championed my proposal through two rounds of board meetings, and then in the third and final round my manuscript got turned down.
One month later, the same editor unexpectedly reached out to me. She was looking for an author to write a devotional and wondered if I’d be interested. God closed one door and opened another. Just like that. A door He’d already cracked slightly ajar by having Amy plant that seed of an idea in my head two years prior. The editor contacted me in October 2016. And today, February 5, 2019 my first devotional, 5-Minute Devotions for Girls releases. It’s craziness. It’s how God works.
Every good and perfect gift comes from above. —James 1:17
Fun fact: that novel? It still hasn’t found a home. I’m sharing all of this to say; maybe someone is planting an idea in your head today that is actually a seed from God. Maybe someone is telling you, “no,” today, but that “no” is building the foundation for an even better “yes”. Maybe something you know God has called you to do is taking longer than you ever imagined (Amy’s and my conversation was almost five years ago!) or down a road that looks completely different than the one you’d mapped out. God is at work. His ideas sometimes feel or sound a little out there. They usually are. His timeline looks completely different than ours. In fact, His isn’t even a line. The way we envision something is typically just a flat, colorless version of the multi-faceted prism He has in mind.
So hang in there. Wait. Be patient. Be obedient. Listen to Him and the things He’s whispering to you. Do what God asks. Seek Him. Love Him. He’s God, so He can work out all the other stuff, the important stuff, the details we don’t even know exist, let alone how they need tended to. And I promise, you’ll be amazed, and bowled over by His good and perfect gifts.
I love living in Ohio with our four distinct seasons. I even embrace the sparkling snow, but today it is a high of six degrees. As in 1-2-3-4-5-6. I just got back from California, and let’s just say a few days in sixty (a very key “t-y” there) and sunny was good for my body and soul. One thing I marveled at as my husband and I strolled the streets of Yountville hand-in-hand, were the gardeners busily out planting. Apparently, in wine country January is the perfect time to be pulling carrots and picking lettuce, to be watering Brussels sprouts and tilling the soil in preparation for the next round of seeds. Each day the gardens bustled with workers yes, harvesting current crops, but also preparing the ground for future produce.
We can’t plant anything in Ohio that we hope will have even the slightest chance of living until late March, and that’s still quite risky, but it made me think about what I can metaphorically be planting in my life now to harvest when the time comes. Because growing things takes time. And patience. It takes planning, digging, water, sunlight, weeding, fertilizing, pruning, and yes, more patience. Nothing will grow, not the tiniest sprout, if we don’t prepare the soil, and if we don’t plant the seeds.
So, on this icy January day I ask myself (and you), “What do you want to be harvesting in March? In August? Next year at this time? Five years from now?” I’m clever enough to realize I am not the one in control of how things go down. God is. But I also realize God invites us into the gardening. He even asks us to “bear fruit.” So, we trust God to provide the sunlight and rain for our crops—because that stuff is way out of our control. We also need to trust Him with the timing—how long those seeds need to germinate before they sprout, how long they need to grow underground before they’re stable enough to pop their heads above ground, and even how long it will be from the moment they emerge until the vines sprout tomatoes, and the tomatoes are round, red, juicy, and ready to pick. But while we’re trusting Jesus for all of that timing rain and sun, we have to be the ones seeking good soil, loosening it with our shovels, maybe adding a scoop or two of fertilizer, removing clunky rocks, pulling invasive weeds. We have to dig the correct depth and plant the seeds. We need to gently cover them back up and sprinkle them with water on the days the rain doesn’t fall. Depending on the growing cycle, we might be called to more—to covering tender leaves if a late frost threatens or tying stalks to stakes to keep them sturdy as they grow. So this gardening? It’s a partnership between us and God, the Master Gardener. And partnerships don’t work when only one partner shows up. Since God ALWAYS does His part, we need to do ours.
I don’t know what you hope to harvest in your next season, or the one after that. If you feel called to find a new job, now is the perfect time to be updating your resume, taking a class, reading a book, honing your craft, asking someone (or twenty someones) to coffee to pick their brain on the industry, how it works, what potential job routes there are, if they know anyone who’s hiring. If you’re aiming for honor roll this semester to maintain or earn a scholarship, get ahead on your reading. Make flashcards or Quizlets. Find a strong study partner or group. Meet with the teacher in the class you struggle in, today, not after you do poorly on a test. If you’re eyeing a move—take some weekend trips to potential new hometowns. Stay with friends. Quiz them on the pros and cons of their area. Google neighborhoods, rents, home prices, school districts. Clean out a closet or two, so when it’s time to move, you’re prepared. You want to play in a band? Practice your instrument. Over and over for hours on end.
I don’t know what dream God has given you, what goals you long to achieve, or what is going to be necessary for you to get there. But I know it starts now.
"It’s January," we groan, and "we can’t even find the soil under all this snow. The ground is frozen." Fill in any excuse you have as to why you can’t start today. I don’t feel well. I’m broke. I’m too young (or too old). I don’t know where God wants me to go.
Fine. That may all be true. But even on a six-degree day I can order seeds online and compost the avocado pits, cilantro stems, and stale taco shells from our taco night. And as they decay over the next few months, they’ll create nutrient rich dirt for me to sprinkle into my flower beds come spring.
What is God calling you to do? Have you asked Him? If not, talk to Him. Ask Him where and when and what He has planned. Ask Him again. And again. Make this an ongoing conversation. You can start right now. This very moment.
If you have heard from Him, what are you doing about it? As Banning Leibscher says in his book, Rooted, “It’s not enough to just hear the Lord’s words, we must carry them (p. 122).” Are you actively carrying around the idea, the dream, the next step or did you stick it in the garage waiting for April showers? If God gave you a goal, a plan, an assignment, He will equip you to carry it out. So talk to Him about what steps He wants you to take, about how you can currently be preparing the soil. Then get out your rake and begin.
Growing things is a process. Except on time-lapse cameras nothing grows over night. But it is a beautiful process. And when we plant for Jesus, succulent fruit grows in abundance. You don’t have to wait until the ground thaws or the casting director calls, you can start today. Even in January.
Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. —John 15:5 NLT
Our Ohio snow is spectacularly beautiful. All gleaming white and sparkling crystals. We’ve explored the woods, gone sledding, tromped around in boots, and built cozy fires. Sunday morning, we woke to more snow, and if we were going to get to church, we were going to have to shovel. My sweet husband, who has done 90% of the shoveling, started bundling up. This time I grabbed my Oros, hat, and gloves, to join him. He didn’t ask me to. I just wanted to. Together we inhaled the crisp (9 degree) air, and shoveled the driveway. It took less than a half an hour as a team. And even though we didn’t talk much, there was something in the morning stillness, solidarity in the scrape of each other’s shovels, which was sweet and peaceful. We were in this together, and shoveling together is as much a part of our marriage as the romantic Italian dinner we went to on Friday night.
In a recent conversation with a friend the question came up: What’s the difference between saying, “I’m a Christian,” and having a “relationship” with God.
The question reminded me of my marriage, of deciding to go out and shovel. Stay with me here, they are related. It’s like asking, what’s the difference between saying, “I’m married” and “being in a relationship” with my husband? Aren’t they the same thing? Doesn’t saying “we’re Christians” mean we’re with God, part of His family. Of course. And not completely.
No matter if you’re married or single you’ve seen two people (at least in a movie) stand in front of a minister, rabbi, or some authorized person and say, “I do.” They exchange rings and sign a paper. Voila! They are officially married. The couple gets all the privileges that come with “being married”—a roommate, a date for the big events, and someone to sit next to at family gatherings. Legally, there are additional things a marriage offers that other relationships don’t. You can change your status not just on Facebook, but also on job and loan applications. If you marry someone who has better health insurance, hooray, now you get the benefits of their insurance. If you marry someone with a nicer home, you’ll probably choose to move into the better space, and bingo, you’ve upgraded your standard of living. In most states, if your spouse dies, you legally inherit their assets. All of these things come simply with the marriage status. It doesn’t require any investment in the relationship whatsoever.
It’s the same by saying, “I’m a Christian.” If you truly believe Jesus Christ died on a cross to take away your sins, and that because of His action, you will go to heaven, then you will. It’s like saying, “I do.” Ta da. You’re a Christian. You don’t have to go to church. You don’t have to read the Bible. You don’t have to belong to a small group or a Bible study. You’re in. It’s official. You get to go to heaven and live forever and ever in a place so incredible our human minds aren’t even capable of describing or predicting what it will be like—talk about a lifestyle upgrade. You get this major perk, just like the married folks get the ring, the house, and the insurance. If you’ve ever watched a sporting event you’ve seen John 3:16 on a sign, or shirt, or painted on someone’s face. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Eternal life. Sounds like a pretty good gig. And it is. But is that all we really want? Because Jesus offers so much more.
Let’s say you’re married and you and your spouse decide to cohabitate—be married solely for the status advantages. You decide to live your own lives, be responsible only for yourselves, go wherever you want whenever you want, even date other people, but cling to the “benefits” of marriage. Legally you can do that. You can never speak to each other, not share your hopes and dreams, not spend time with one another, not trust one another, and still get the health insurance. You can show up all decked out and nod and smile for the office parties and pictures, but skip all of the Italian dinners dipping your fork into your spouse’s risotto and clinking glasses toasting something silly that happened that week. If you skip the dinner, you’ll miss that moment in the relaxed atmosphere of the restaurant when the idea you’ve been chewing on all day, but hadn’t yet been able to articulate, spills out, and together you navigate how to handle it.
You can also shovel by yourself.
You’ll miss out on all the richness of marriage. You’ll miss out on having your best friend also be your love interest. You’ll miss out on late night laugh attacks and someone to hold you when your heart hurts, and the one person in the room who truly understands you with a single glance. You’ll miss out on a completely unexpected and unprompted romantic kiss on a Monday morning before you head out to work, a walk on a Thursday evening around the neighborhood while the sun is setting, someone who will listen to the crazy rant going on in your head, someone to grab your hand when you hear the news, and someone to morph shoveling the driveway from a chore into a peaceful way to start your day. Sure, you’ll get the house, their new iPhone, and the life insurance when they die. But you’ll miss all the joys and depth of love in the every day moments.
It’s the same with Jesus. You can choose to say, “Wow, Jesus, what you did is cool. Thanks for dying for me. That was super nice. See you in heaven.” And then decide to cohabitate with Him, but not talking to Jesus about all the things on your heart—the dream you’re considering chasing, the decision someone you love is about to make, the safety of friends in a city where there’s a wildfire, how exhausted you are from your current work situation, the excitement of your upcoming audition. But then you miss out on the richness of the relationship, of knowing how much Jesus loves you. If we don’t talk to Him, don’t read His Word, when we’re at the end of our ropes how can He tell us, “I’m with you, always even to the end of the world.” If we don’t ask Him for advice, how can He guide us along the right paths? If we don’t hang out with Him, we’ll never experience the peace He’ll give us in the middle of a family argument, the love He’ll flood over us in the hospital room, the exuberant joy He’ll magnify when we get the acceptance letter or contract, the warmth of His hand on our shoulder as our nephews or kiddos take their first steps or walk down the aisle. There are no requirements. We will be saved. We’ll get the inheritance when we die. But we’ll miss the hope, joy, and love He offers every single day.
So, yes, there is a difference between saying we believe in God and being in a relationship with Him. And the beautiful, crazy thing is He lets us choose, which way we want to go. There’s no pressure. Jesus loves hanging out with us, but He wants that to be our choice. Just like we really hope our spouse or close friends want to spend time with us. We can start today, right now, simply by telling Jesus, “Good morning.” Sharing with Him what we’re hoping to get done today, what we’re worried about might happen, what’s on our minds, how we feel. It’s that easy. It’s like picking up a shovel and taking one scoop of snow.
I’m emotionally raw. One of my best friends is in the hospital. Someone I adore lost his job. I just heard a friend-of-a-friend committed suicide. My heart hurts. I climbed in my freezing car, all of this swirling through my brain, fired up my heated seat, plugged my phone into the auxiliary cord, opened Spotify to whatever playlist I last had it on and hit shuffle. “Hills and Valleys” by Tauren Wells came on, and the hot tears leaked down my cold cheeks.
“In the valley, I will lift my eyes to the one who sees me there.”
Oh these valleys. They are no stinking fun, God. Yes, Jesus, I KNOW you are with me, with my friends, with this devastated family. You’re with us, Jesus, in all of it—in the hills and valleys and plateaus of life—always. I know Jesus is healing my one friend, has new plans for the other, and is wrapping His almighty arms around the family who is suffering loss. But, I also know today, they’re all in pain—physical, emotional, mental pain. Pain that I am incapable of easing. How about you? Are you or anyone you know suffering today? The valleys can be excruciating. Betrayal and loss hurt. Disappointments ache. Uncertainty depletes.
But I am not alone.
My friends are not alone.
You are not alone.
God knows about all of the hurt. He sees us in the rough patches, in the rigorous terrain. He knows how we ended up here. Often, it’s because the world is flawed, but sometimes it’s because either we or someone else made a bad choice, or maybe we need to learn something here, so we can thrive later when we arrive there. But God left us the Bible for instruction, and it says this: Be strong and of good courage, do not fear or be afraid of them, for the LORD your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you. —Deuteronomy 31:6
This afternoon an acquaintance shared with my husband that her father, who had been ill, just passed away. The day before her dad went to heaven, he was anxious, flustered. Then he took a nap, woke up, and was completely calm. He wore a peaceful expression. His body was no longer twitchy, but relaxed. Upon waking he asked the family who was by his side for a picture of Jesus. Everyone fumbled for their phones, racing to get to Google images. And when someone found an acceptable representation of what we may imagine Jesus looks like, they showed it to him. “Yup!” He exclaimed, nodding fiercely and grinning. “Yup, that’s Him.”
He was dying. In Hospice. Agitated. But he wasn’t alone. Jesus knew all about it, gave this man a visit during his dream to provide the peace and reassurance he needed. The next day, he tranquilly went to heaven.
There you have it. God knows some of life’s adventures will drain us, sometimes we’ll get scraped, bruised, scarred, but He tells us to be strong and brave, to not be frightened, because the incredible God of the Universe? He’s our traveling companion. We’re not alone. Through ups and down, highs and lows, long stretches of the monotonous mundane, even in life and death. He’ll never bail on us.
And if we focus on that, and truly hold on to His love, the commonplace becomes lovely, the mountains more glorious, and the valleys bearable. Because even though there’s not a thing I can do to alleviate the pain my friends are experiencing, that there are times where I can’t do a single thing for myself, God is good. And He’s on our side. And He will never ever leave us, but instead walk with us through every trail and trial we roam on this journey of life. His backpack is full of courage and joy to pull out and offer us when we need it the most. As the song continues, “No matter what I know I’m safe inside his hand.”
So are you. So be brave. God is with you. You don’t have to do this or anything else that comes your way alone.
I read some amazing books last year—too many to mention. Piles of books I picked up from the library and treasured copies I treated myself to from book stores, stories my kids read, digital books on my Kindle, and my new favorite, audiobooks on Hoopla (because I spend so much time in the car, this is a brilliant way to consume more books while passing the miles). I certainly can’t narrow it down to one favorite read, but here are a handful that resonated deeply.
Best Classic: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
I love when my kids are assigned to read a classic I’ve never read before. This gives me the nudge to pick up a book I’ve been meaning to get to for ages. Fahrenheit 451 is brilliant and frightening. How Bradbury knew we’d all be walking around with earbuds when he wrote this book in 1953 astounds me. He predicted our screen-addictions the year before color televisions were even available for sale—it’s almost spooky. But he nailed it. And then stretched it. And then warns us against being hooked on programming and images and structures by taking us into a horrifying dystopian world where creativity and imagination are extinguished and complacency and sameness is not only encouraged but required. If you haven’t read this classic yet, make it a burning priority.
Best Novel: Paris by the Book by Liam Callanan
Okay, so I’m totally biased on this one, I love Paris and books, so when I found a title on my library’s “Lucky Day” shelf that contained both of those words I knew the shelf didn’t lie. Paris by the Book has strong references to both Madeline, the picture book character by Ludwig Bemelmans and The Red Balloon, a movie, we seemed to watch while sitting on the cold gym floor at least twice a year in elementary school, the click, click of the film reel spinning while the images of the little boy with his balloon flashed across the far wall. This gorgeous novel is a mystery of sorts, about a husband who goes missing, and his wife and daughters’ search for him. But it’s also a book about being a mom, and figuring out who you are, and declaring what matters most, and being brave when you’re dealt a bad hand. And it’s about Paris—melt in your mouth baguettes, pungent cheeses, quaint cafes, and nostalgia that catches something deep from your memories. And of course it’s about books—stacks of stories, pages of emotions and sagas and information. This book was so good for my soul, and just writing this makes me want to set it in my “to read” pile again for 2019.
Best Nonfiction: Everybody Always by Bob Goff
When Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself.” People wanted to know:
Easy responses, but hard to live out. Goff is hilarious and heart felt, and his stories are brilliant, relatable, honest, and make me crack up and tear up at the exact same time. I underlined more than half this book and could use every sentence I marked as a mantra or directive for my life. Yup, we’re supposed to love everybody always. Such a challenge, because Goff reminds us this includes the “really creepy” people and the days when we’re running late or have a migraine. But that’s how Jesus loved the world. Everybody always. And I want to live like Jesus. This book helps me remember how to live out that challenge.
Best Memoir: Remember God by Annie F. Downs
I’ve read it twice since it released in October, recommended it to several friends, and gave it as Christmas gifts to my kids’ teachers. Annie F. Downs is one of my favorite modern authors. In Remember God Annie takes the reader through the past year of her life—a year of ups and downs, a year of knowing God is real, but trying to figure out if God is kind. Annie is honest with her doubts, her lows, her struggles, and open with her love, joy, and excitement. Reading Remember God makes you feel like you’re having an ongoing conversation with a dear friend about the promises you know God has made and yet the wrestling in your heart about when and how He’s going to deliver. Annie asks good questions. Of herself, and in turn, of the reader. She’ll make you laugh out loud, and then dive deep into your soul to search for something you’ve been hiding there. If you don’t have any of her books yet, start with this one, then go back and read the rest.
Best Picture Book: This is the Day by Amy Parker
God created this day, He made it for you. And He filled it with things just for you to do!
The opening pages of this priceless book set the stage for all of the amazing possibilities for the day ahead. Such a great way to remind littles (and the big people who read to them) of Psalm 118:24, that God has learning, opportunities, and joy available to all of us each and every day. The illustrations are adorable, the layout is perfect for asking kids questions and having them point out what they see, the rhymes are catchy and darling, all while still being packed with valuable truth. And, there’s even a version in Spanish, so much fun.
Best Book for Creatives: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle
I grew up with Meg, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Who. Wrinkle in Time was one of many Madeleine L’Engle books on my bookshelf when I was young. At the time I had no idea she wrote nonfiction. I’d never contemplated what a “Christian author” was. And I was clueless at how prolific she was. As an adult, I want to devour everything she’s written, because L’Engle was a woman ahead of her time, a powerful author, married to a famous actor, a Brit living stateside, a mother, grandmother, sought after speaker around the world, when a time when women were “supposed” to be wearing aprons. But L’Engle wasn’t into stereotypes. She was into being the best versions of ourselves God created us to be. And in Walking on Water, she proclaims that because God made us, we have power and capabilities and talents we don’t even try to imagine. For anyone who has ever wanted to create anything—a poem, a cake, a hip-hop beat, this book exquisitely wraps human creativity into our identity with our Creator. I read it over the course of the year, reading a few pages at a time and allowing them to marinate in my soul. Thinking over those phrases, ideas, and allowing them to sink in. A few days later I’d take on another beautiful morsel to savor until I sadly came to the end. This is a book I will turn to again and again in my life for its inspiration and truth.
As I said, these are just some standouts from piles of great books I indulged in this past year. To see what else I read, connect with me on Goodreads.
What about you? What were your favorite reads of 2018, and what’s on your to read list for the new year?
Comment on the website, so we can all exchange book ideas!
My husband is reading a book called Rooted by Banning Liebscher. I’ve seen it lying on the steps, the coffee table, in his hands. I like the sound of the word, rooted, as if it describes itself. I picture green roots of a plant diving deep into rich soil and calling out, “Roooooooo-ted,” as they descend. As a writer I’m drawn to words. And this one keeps flashing across my radar.
I have dozens of pages marked in my Bible with brass book tabs, scraps of paper, colorful sticky notes, stiff prayer cards, whatever I can find when I come across something that stirs me so deeply I need to get back to it. The other day I flipped to a passage in Isaiah, and a piece of paper marked the page prior to the one I was reading. Out of curiosity, I turned back to see what was so profound on that page, and noticed the marker—a small square sheet of paper promoting VBS from our previous church. On the back in lime green ink I’d written “Rooted,” in thicker, swirlier letters at the top to serve as a heading. Really? Rooted? From a few years back. Hmmm.
And the next day, a coffee date with a girlfriend. I’ve only met her a couple of times, but we both speak, write, and teach for Jesus, plus we’re both soccer moms, so there is never a shortage of things to talk about. And as we were praying she spoke the word rooted over our lives and our relationships with God. There it was again standing out from all the other words as if in all-bold caps.
Okay, God, I’m listening.
On the dawn of a new year I don’t make resolutions. I used to, but they don’t serve me and my personality well, so instead I choose a word, or actually God chooses it for me—one to cling to for the year. And, well, yes, this year’s is clearly ROOTED. I know it’s a word that could pop up into multiple conversations, maybe-ish. But every time I heard “rooted” it seems to be highlighted, illuminated, like this word is an important one. Priscilla Shirer describes the Greek word, rhema, as the times when God’s words leap out of the page at you, when you truly hear God’s word being spoken directly to you. I knew rooted was one of these rhema moments for me early in December and went ahead and wrote it on the gold-framed slate a dear friend gave me that sits on my bookshelves, so I would remember. If God was giving me this word already, it didn’t seem like I should wait until January 1 to proclaim it. Rooted is something I need.
I need to be so rooted in who Jesus is and how He loves me, so I don’t sway. So I don’t crumble when I get rejections. Newsflash, writers get rejections, scads of them, over stories we’ve poured ourselves into, into stories I feel God has given me to write. And handfuls of rejections can hurt, and damage one’s self esteem. Are you in a position where you experience rejection? Then you get it. But when I write for Jesus and His glory, and stay rooted in that, then it doesn’t matter if my words get turned down, because Jesus never asked me to get my stories accepted, just to write them. Same for whatever He’s calling you, to do. Jesus calls you to the input, not the output. And when we dig down deep into that truth, then the shame or disappointment from someone passing on something we’ve worked at fades, because we remember who we did the work for. Jesus. Not them.
I need to stay rooted in who I am in Jesus, and what He did for me, so when I get acceptances I remember who gave me the stories and the words and the opportunities, who orchestrated all of the pieces so perfectly, that my agent would send my work on the specific day to the particular editor who was open to this kind of story and was able to convince their publishing board, and editorial board, and marketing team, that they should also buy into this specific manuscript. Only God could do all of that. I never could. And therefore all the glory from success goes to Him. Are things going your way? Have you had some success? Guess who got you there. Oh how I want to stay rooted in that, realizing all that Jesus does for me, knowing my stability comes from Him, seeking more and more nourishment from Him for more assignments He’ll give me by allowing my roots to dive deeper into the Lord.
I need to stay rooted in Jesus, so when one of my kids is in a funk and doesn’t want to talk to anyone, including me, I don’t feel like a worthless mom. I also won’t feel like a failure when I can’t solve my kid’s problems for them, or help them with their trigonometry (math hurts my head) or because I forgot to send in the $5 for the raffle basket or when only half of the family likes what I made for dinner. Because I’m not a failure. I’m a child of God. And so are you. But it’s easy to be blown sideways by the circumstances of life.
So, in 2019, I want to stay rooted. Rooted in Jesus. In His love. In His grace. In His forgiveness. In the identity He’s given me. Will you join me? Spread out your toes and imagine sinking them into soil, warm from the sun. Imagine when you feel shaky or uncertain that you can maintain stability by digging deeper, grounding yourself in the dark earth. Consider when you feel in control, like you nailed that project and hustled well, that if you wiggle your ankles and burrow down a few inches you’ll realize where your strength came from and while you’re at it you’ll absorb some additional nutrients of the dirt –calcium, magnesium, potassium to strengthen, calm, and regulate you to keep you going, keep you centered in whatever lies ahead.
Jesus provides us everything we need. He is our living water. The bread of life. He has overcome the world. Yes, I want to root myself in Him, realizing without Jesus, I have nothing to anchor myself in, nowhere to grow. But with Him, everything makes sense, and grows both up towards the bright sunlight and down into the cool, soothing dirt.
Is God whispering a word or phrase or instruction repeatedly in your ear? Does something appear to be highlighted or standing out to you for 2019? What is it? I’d love to hear.
How was your Christmas?
Did you see the people you wanted to see?
Did you get that thing you most wanted under the tree?
Partake in your usual traditions—view the light show? Watch The Nutcracker? Attend the concert? Give the silliest present in the gift exchange?
Or are you feeling unsatisfied?
Maybe you’re full of sugar cookies topped with creamy frosting and sweet sprinkles, and memories and hugs, but now it’s over. Now what?
Or maybe it was amazing, but you’re tired. And you have a house to clean, a fridge to restock, a shopping bag full of returns and exchanges to make, plus thank you notes to write.
Or maybe Christmas at your house is hard, because of that one family member, yikes, or bitterness or jealousy or past regrets or painful memories or the unexpected tragedy and you really want to move on.
I am a Christmas fanatic. I love all of it—the songs (I’ve been listening since November 1), the baking, the decorating, the crisp scent of pine, the sharp taste of peppermint, the warm glow of candles, the Christmas movies that make me laugh (Home Alone) and cry (It’s a Wonderful Life). Yes, I adore Christmas—every millisecond of it, but I ate too much. And stayed up later than my body likes to. And I love my family so fully I might burst, but this introvert girl needs a little alone time. And sure, there are moments over the holidays that are a struggle—when family members bicker, when someone’s feelings are hurt, when a gift goes awry, or the memory of someone no longer with you leaves an ache in your heart. But Christmas isn’t something we’re supposed to rate with a five star system like the last book we read (Faith and Doubt by John Ortberg ****) or movie we watched (Incredibles 2 also ****). Christmas is something that happened one time, one night over 2000 years ago that changed the world, changed everything, changed me, and if you know Jesus changed you, too, forever.
We celebrate this phenomenal event every year despite our budgets or states of mind. It’s such a huge deal we get together with all of our favorite people and decorate evergreens—because they symbolize the everlasting life Jesus gives us, exchange gifts—because He is the greatest gift we’ll ever receive, and drink eggnog—because I have no idea why. Important things should be celebrated, remembered, reflected upon. But this important event wasn’t a one and done—like your last birthday, anniversary, or semester. Jesus was born as a baby (okay, that part only happened once), but He did it to shower His love on us for always.
Jesus loved the world. That’s what He did. That’s who He is—love. And this all-powerful King, Lord of Lords who personifies love, loves you.
When you’re questioning yourself—asking did your brother even like his present, was the turkey a little dry, what did Uncle Lester even mean by his comment, could I have changed that, or fixed that, or saved them? Remember that Jesus loves you, then as the carol, “Old Holy Night,” describes your soul will remember its worth. It’s not about the outcomes. Jesus’ love—that’s what Christmas is all about.
Peter, who hung out with Jesus nonstop during the three years Jesus preached, healed, and taught on earth says it this way:
But you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people. —1 Peter 2:9-10
Chosen. Us? For high callings? To be holy people? Dang. It’s hard to feel anything but grateful and honored in the midst of these positions we’ve been appointed to.
You’re named and kept for good by the Shepherd of your souls. —1 Peter 2:35
When we feel helpless, or like no one notices us or appreciates us or understands us, we can remember that Jesus named us. He named us His prized possessions. He’s keeping us for good things. Jesus is our shepherd, the one who feeds, cares for, provides, and protects our very souls.
So, I don’t know how Christmas impacted you for the good or bad. Maybe you still have two more rounds of unruly relatives to “celebrate” with. But no matter how many stars you’d give this Christmas, it’s important to realize all of the festivities were created solely as a way to remember THE first Christmas and all the love Jesus brought for us then, for always. When we sink into the truth that He loves us, that He names us and chooses us, then our souls truly know their worth.
We no longer evaluate ourselves on how the appetizers turned out or how the presents were wrapped. We no longer let those painful memories or snide comments hijack what Christmas means. We no longer feel the need to prove ourselves. Because Jesus chose to come down to earth. Chose to live among us. Chose to die for me and for you, because He chose to love us.
Whoever did want him,
who believed he was who he claimed
and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
their child-of-God selves. John 1:11 MSG
All we have to do is chose Him. And then Jesus will show us who we truly are, allow us to glimpse our value, our worth, fashion us into our true selves, our child-of-God selves. So, as you reflect on Christmas, reflect on that truth. That God wants to be with you, loves you. Not just on Christmas, but every day. And that is something that truly deserves to be celebrated!
It’s raining. Heavy drops pelt our wood deck just off our family room. I hear water rolling down the roof and trickling down the smooth glass of the windows. The sound fills our momentarily quiet house, as two kids are at the rec center, one’s playing video games, and one is showering. The swooshing, dripping, pattering sounds like a symphony of various water instruments all playing their parts, together forming a gorgeous gift to my ears. That is, if I listen. Because earlier, when I was sending someone’s Christmas list to Grandma, making a reservation for dinner, and booking a haircut for my son, while filling my water bottle, I didn’t hear it. It was raining then, just like it is now, but I missed the beauty of it. Somewhere in my head I acknowledged the weather, but I wasn’t listening.
“Are you listening to this? Really listening?” Jesus asked his disciples after telling them about the sower who scattered seed on various kinds of soil. This exact phrase is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so I feel like it’s important, a verbatim quote. So am I really listening? Are we? And when I look at the story Jesus had just told about some seed taking sprout, and other seed not so much, I realize how important it is to listen to Him, because I want His seeds to grow in my life, to flourish, to produce fruit. But is His voice what I tune my ears to, or do I allow the noise of the world to drown Jesus out.
Because life is noisy. And when it’s not, when it’s silent, we get antsy, and seek to fill the quiet. If no one’s talking in the car, we flip on the radio or plug in ear buds. If we’re standing in line we tap our phone screens filling our brain with visual noise, quotes and scores, snaps and stories. One friend I love has multiple televisions on throughout her house, so her rooms don’t feel “too quiet.” What if instead, we grabbed those pockets of silence as opportunities to hear God? When we fill our days with so much sound, are we able to hear God above the noise? Am I even trying to?
Yes! Of course I want to hear God. And I am trying to. So, I get out my Bible and journal in the mornings. And I read and I write and I pray. But I often get distracted. Because the dryer buzzes, and the UPS man rings the doorbell, and someone asks if I’ve seen their keys, and I get a text, and now that I’m on my phone... Instagram. Plus I remember I still want to send a card to a new friend who wasn’t on our list last year, and wrap those cozy sweats I got one of the cousins, and order one more thing from Amazon, and get the chicken out of the freezer now so it has time to thaw. And then the Bible verse that was resonating, the thought I was about to jot down, that thing God and I were talking about escapes me. And I try to go back to where I was.
Sometimes I step back in the flow of my conversation with God, but sometimes I don’t, because now I don’t have time, and I’ll return to it later. Or will I? Sometimes God and I have a fantastic chat in the mornings, but by three in the afternoon it’s nowhere on my radar, or some mornings I go through the motions, but my brain is on all the other things and nothing seems to stick. But I want it to. I want to know what Jesus has to say. About my marriage. About my kids. About my writing. About all of the things. So, am I listening? Are you?
In the last week my daughter had a piano recital, my youngest son had his Fine Arts night, and my older son played guitar in church. So much beautiful music to hear. My daughter, who hasn’t played since she was little, practiced her song over and over, and was a bit nervous to play in front of all those people for her exam grade in piano class. I prayed that she’d do her best, that she’d be confident in her playing. And she slid onto that bench and pounded out “All of Me,” on the keys filling the theatre with beautiful chords. I held my breath the entire time. It was lovely. My youngest warned us his bell for the bell song was “bigger than his head,” and thus difficult to ring. He also warned, “Don’t look at me, because, I’ll mess up.” But I couldn’t help but look, and pray his bell would ring, and he’d actually enjoy the experience. Sure enough, he lifted that giant brass bell, and the notes rang clear and loud. During worship on Sunday my ears honed in on the electric guitar, because when my son plays I want to hear his part. I peeked at him up there in his plaid flannel, and prayed he’d use his talents to glorify God. The notes from his instrument filled my ears and my heart with joy.
I was listening. Extra hard. Because these are my kids. And I love them. And I’m proud of them, that they played their songs all in with their various levels of interest and talent. This is how God listens to us—completely tuned in. We’re His kids, and He loves us, and He’s proud of us, in all of our unique skillsets both when we do the things we love and the things we’re assigned. If the God of the Universe is paying so much attention to every note we play, are we listening to Him?
Wow. I’m trying. But not always as intently as I’d like to. I make excuses, but I didn’t make excuses when my kids were playing, and God doesn’t make excuses when I’m talking to Him. So, for me, I realize it’s time to ditch the distractions and get back to being full-on focused on Jesus.
“But you have God-blessed eyes—eyes that see! And God-blessed ears—ears that hear! A lot of people, prophets and humble believers among them, would have given anything to see what you are seeing, to hear what you are hearing, but never had the chance.” —Matthew 13:16-17 MSG
Jesus gave us the ears and the opportunities to hear Him—what a gift! So, are we listening, really listening, like we’d focus on our kids in a concert, or our favorite part of our favorite Christmas song, or the funniest line from Elf? Because Jesus is listening to us. And He has so much to tell us, so much love to share with us. He tells us we’re chosen. We’re holy. We’re loved. We’re His. If only we’ll listen.
The rain has stopped now. A bird chirps out my window, insistent and shrill. I hear it, because I’ve put myself in a quiet place, where I can hear better. It’s a reminder to me, to set myself up well to hear Jesus. To temporarily tune out all of the other noise each morning, to take advantage of moments of silence throughout my day, to hone into the beautiful melody of love and forgiveness and joy and courage and strength Jesus sings to me, to all of us. It’s my all-time favorite song. And I want to listen to it, really listen.
Laura L. Smith