Over spring break we toured the Biltmore House. It’s known as the biggest private home in America–178,900 square feet, 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms and 65 fireplaces. 250 rooms total. Wow! George Vanderbilt had it built, moved in, and threw a Christmas extravaganza for his friends in 1895. Think of all the first class glamor and grandeur of the Titanic but on land.
Walking through the rooms with the guided audio tour in our ears my mind pictured driving through the gates in a carriage, being shown the room Vanderbilt and his staff had gotten ready especially for me with fresh sheets on the bed and fresh flowers cut from their extensive gardens sitting in a vase by the bedside where I might stay for weeks on end to visit. I imagined getting “dressed” for dinner in an elegant gown (I do love the red carpet) and being seated at the dining room fit for royalty where a multicourse meal would be prepared and served to me on gold rimmed china. Imagine having that much care and intentionality put into your stay!
None of the Vanderbilts live in the house anymore, and realistically if they did, I would not be on their invite list. Also, I would have felt extremely awkward and out of place with all those forks and finery. I’m a girl who loves to get dressed up, but also loves to slip on my pjs and smiley face slippers in the evenings. I’m sure by the first meal I would have wondered what in the actual world I was doing there.
There are so many times in life where I’ve felt out of place, like I don’t belong. You?
Like meeting my husband’s parents for the first time at a restaurant. They asked me if I played golf.
“Ummm, no,” I answered.
“Really?” They seemed so confused.
When we ordered our meals they asked, “Why don’t you eat red meat?”
“I don’t like it.” I answered, but it sounded more like I was questioning myself.
Gosh I wanted to impress them but, gheesh, I didn’t even know how to answer the questions that seemed important to them.
Or walking into a Bible study at a new church we were attending. I knew exactly one woman in the room. We got along, but weren’t close. Also you were supposed to have cash to pay for the workbook, but I didn’t, because who knew? Well apparently everyone else who all knew each other and seemed to be in on some secret Bible study code.
Or climbing the bleachers at the first high school sporting event of one of our kids. I hadn’t been in a high school stadium since I was in high school. But I saw some women wearing team gear who were obviously other moms and found a seat next to them. I introduced myself and told them who my daughter was. They smiled, told me their names, and proceeded to reminisce about the time they’d double dated to prom. As they cheered for our team, they also laughed about last weekend’s cookout at their mutual friends’ house. These ladies were friendly, but I was clearly not one of them.
In all these scenarios I felt out of place. Like I did not belong. Did not fit in. Could not fit in.
But here’s the truth. I am still 100% me when I walk into a mansion, restaurant, church, stadium, or any other room. Nothing changes about me. About how God made me. My strengths don’t disappear. The people I love and who love me don’t vanish. The things that bring me joy don’t stop making me smile. Same holds true for you. But we tend to forget. We tend to think if we’re not like them, if we don’t know them, if we don’t know the things they know, then we’re not okay, or not included. We get the sudden idea that we should be more or less or wear that brand of shoes or eat red meat or have $15 in our wallet or have somehow shared some of their previous experiences.
But Jesus says differently.
The Bible says even before God made the world, He loved and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in His eyes (Ephesians 1:4). What? Before there were mansions, restaurants, bleachers, or Bible studies God loved and chose you and me. He chose us to be without fault. Yeah. He did. He does.
Brett’s parents soon welcomed me into the family and loved me as if I were their actual daughter. I ended up teaching multiple Bible studies at that church where I initially felt out of place. But I never fit in with the team moms who’d known each other for decades. They were nice enough. They just shared too much prior history. There have been other times I’ve felt like I didn’t fit, but discovered that was a good thing, because it wasn’t actually the kind of crowd or place I wanted to fit into. Yet other places I’ve tried or wanted to be included, but never was. Sometimes you will and sometimes you won’t belong or fit into a crowd. That’s just life.
But there is someone with whom you always fit, are always welcome, included, and valued. He loves you and has open arms waiting for you. His name is Jesus.
Walking around the rooms of the Biltmore House and how they were so well tended I kept thinking of when Jesus said, “Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live” (John 14:2-3).
Jesus always has room for us. Jesus always wants us with Him. Jesus invites us to hang out with Him every day. Jesus prepares rooms and places for us, with much more intention and care than the Biltmores and their staff ever did for their guests. What Jesus offers is way better than fresh flowers or fresh sheets or multi-course meals. It’s unending love and grace and joy and peace. We matter to Jesus. He loves us.
No matter what rooms or groups you walk into today, don’t believe for one second that you need to be anyone other than who God created you to be. Jesus says differently. Jesus welcomes you saying, “I am so glad you are here.”
For more inspiration find me on Facebook and Instagram
Today my dear friend, author, and Bible teacher Alli Patterson is on the blog talking about why we need a filter for all the noise and voices we hear each day.
A country song played in my car one day. It was about what all country songs are about-- heartbreak and whiskey. My youngest daughter piped up after it ended; “I don’t like that song, Mom. I don’t think God wants us using alcohol to solve problems.” Her sister gave me a huge eye roll at her overly serious reaction, but I was delighted. She had a filter in place for the words coming at her and rejected what got stuck in it.
When you think about “having a filter” you probably think about the words coming out of your mouth. We all have that one friend who says absolutely anything that passes through their mind. However, the much more important filter is the one for the words coming in. The words you let in have the power to alter your life. You need a filter in place for those.
Life is full of words; your phone, social media, books, friends, family, even in your own mind. Some words you hear are empty calories at best. Some need spit out altogether, even if they come with the sweet taste of your best friend or your favorite influencer. You can’t listen to all the words in the same way. Instead: you need to hear like a cow eats. Yep, a cow. The cow’s first (of four!) stomach is like a storage bin to hold what comes in until the cow sorts it out through chewing, digesting and - if necessary - spitting things out. Cows take in an unbelievable amount of food but only digest what they really need. You need something to sort out all these words, so you can follow the Lord towards a thriving life in and around you.
Jesus said, “The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life” (John 6:63). If you want the life God has for you, you need to be filled with his words and let them act as a filter for anything else that wants in. The words that bring health and life will be in-sync with the attitudes, actions, and authority of the Word of God. As you spend time reading and hearing scripture, your filter will begin to catch the words around you that are inconsistent with His voice, love and direction for you. You will also leave space for God’s words to resound in your mind and heart as timely wisdom in your real life. All words are not the same, so get that filter in place with three simple things:
If you want to learn more about how to adopt these practices and build a faith that can stand firm, get my new book called How to Stay Standing; 3 Essential Practices for Building a Faith that Lasts. Chapters 5-7 dive in deep about practices you need in your life to hear the voice of God…because these are the only words that will be standing in the end.
Your word, Lord, is eternal;
it stands firm in the heavens. Psalm 119:89
I made some progress in my to-read stack this year, but every time I took one book off, more seemed to multiply in its place. Which is wonderful, because bring on ALL the books! I usually give you my “best” books in a couple of categories each January, but it’s so hard to pick “best” when there are so many grand books. So this year, I’m just going to share some of my favorites.
I discovered a new author, Clare Pooley. Her writing is honest and authentic. My daughter loaned me her copy of The Authenticity Project, which I devoured and loved so much I went on to read Pooley’s other novel Iona Iverson’s Rules of Commuting. It was so good I bought a copy for my girl. Both books give glimpses of a variety of individual’s lives that collide under a set of unusual circumstances. Their interactions remind us that everyone has value and deserves to be seen, and that first impressions don’t tell the real story.
I dove into Charles Martin’s third book in his Murphy Shepherd series, The Record Keeper. I raved about the first two last year here ). The Record Keeper was. So. Good. In this trilogy Martin exposes the detestable sex trafficking industry throughout the plot raising awareness of the heinous crimes being committed against young people. But it is the journeys of healing the characters travel that are the gold nuggets here. They remind us that there is hope and redemption for us all. Read these books starting with #1. Allow the stories to roll over you. Breathe them in and believe that the healing grace offered the characters is available for you, too. Because it is.
I'm trying to broaden my Midwestern white girl perspective. Two books that helped this year were I Take My Coffee Black by Tyler Merritt and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
The social justice work Bryan Stevenson does and shares in Just Mercy is beautiful, hard, life-changing work. As Rosa Parks told Bryan when they met, "You're going to be tired, tired tired. So you're going to need to be brave, brave, brave."
I learned so much about systemic racism, the prison system, death row, and humanity on these pages. Bryan is so bravely loving His neighbors, taking back ground for God's kingdom, and saving and changing people's lives (Just Mercy is also a powerful movie).
Tyler Merritt is funny, smart, creative, full of faith and warm-hearted. He weaves important, historical information on systemic racism throughout his personal narrative. Merritt honestly steps into hard life situations, but always bounces back to the love and grace of Jesus. Tyler also loves all things Hamilton and almost every genre of music, which is an added bonus. For a glimpse of Tyler’s work watch his YouTube video, “If Only She Knew”
As usual, this year I spent a lot of time reading my favorite book–the Bible. I mostly hung out in the Old Testament (with extra time in the Psalms) but also had an extended stay in Ephesians, plus frequent dips into the Gospels. I read books on faith and Jesus and the Bible. I absolutely loved Shauna Niequist’s I Guess I Haven’t Learned that Yet. I read more World War II Historical Fiction set in France, like Jacqueline in Paris by Ann Mah, because, please, I cannot resist. I also enjoyed a couple of fun romances by Betsy St. Amant like All’s Fair in Love and Cupcakes, because I have a sweet tooth for romance. You can find my reviews on everything I remembered to review on my Goodreads profile.
Other favorites of the year?
Music wise, I listened to Lion by Elevation Worship on repeat. Shows? Our family discovered a new series on Disney Plus, National Treasure: Edge of History we’re all enjoying. My favorite movies of the year were Redeeming Love, the film adaptation of Francine Rivers’ novel about the book of Hosea and ultimately God’s love for each of us, and Top Gun: Maverick, the follow up to the 80’s classic, full of fighting for what’s good and right, never leaving your wing man, plus a little romance sprinkled in. I also got new running shoes–I switched to Hokas and this running girl’s knees are so thankful! And last but not least, my mom got me to try a new mascara. Thrive, which goes on and off differently than any mascara I’ve ever tried, was super weird at first, and now I’m in love. Plus Thrive Causemetics donates money to great causes to help people suffering from domestic abuse, homelessness, cancer, etc. with every purchase. Win win.
How about you? What books, music, shoes, new things did you discover in 2022? What’s on your reading list for 2023? Leave a comment–I’m always looking for more books to add to my stack.
For more inspiration find me on Facebook and Instagram
Does someone you care about struggle with their mental health (maybe even you)? If so, how can you help?
Seeking help from a mental health professional is always the best and most important first step. But you can make a difference right now. Where should you start?
1. Take care of their physical needs. Our mental health wobbles when we’re not taking care of ourselves, so basic self care is a great place to start. Are they eating enough? Sleeping enough? Moving their bodies? Are they staying hydrated?
If not, help out how you can. Bring the person you care about a charcuterie tray or a meal or take them out to one of their favorite restaurants. Deliver a goodie bag of their favorite hydrating beverages–La Croix or some other flavored fizzy water or a box of their favorite tea with a jar of local honey. Invite them on a walk or a bike ride or to kick the soccer ball around with you (it is World Cup season, after all). Suggest they get some sleep–go to bed early, take a nap, etc.
Jesus did this. He fed crowds (John 6:5-13). He made sure the disciples were eating and resting (Mark 6:31). He cared about the people around Him and their basic needs. We can too.
2. Be a calming presence. Lean back, breathe deeply and slowly, speak in a calm voice, light a candle, or play some soft music. We live in a loud, hurried world. Show the person you love what peace looks like–that it is available.
Jesus calmed the storms at sea, showing the disciples peace was accessible to them even when they least expected it (Mark 4:35-41). We can also offer the people we care about a glimpse of calm.
3. Check in. When we’re alone is when our thoughts tend to spiral. We worry about the what ifs instead of focusing on the now. When we’re alone is when Satan loves to slither in and whisper lies to us. Make sure you’re not alone and the people you care about aren’t alone, that they have someone to talk to. Remind them that they are seen. That they matter.
Jesus made sure the disciples traveled in pairs, not solo (Luke 10:1). Jesus approached people no one else would consider speaking to or even getting near. He didn't want them to feel isolated (John 4:7-27, Matthew 8:1-3). From the get go God knew it wasn't good for people to be alone (Genesis 2:18). We can follow Jesus’ lead and send the text, better yet make the call, even better knock on and open doors to make sure the people we care about are doing okay. If you’re worried about someone’s safety, seek professional help immediately.
4. Pray. There’s just nothing like prayer. The God of the Universe, the Creator of All Things is just waiting for you to talk to Him. He loves you and every single person on earth so very much. He created us all. He died for us all. He cares about our mental health. Jesus wants to flood us with hope, joy, and peace. When we talk to Jesus, it sets things in motion. Prayer costs nothing. It doesn’t require any knowledge or skill set. All you have to do is start telling Jesus what’s on your mind.
Peter, one of Jesus’ very best friends, tells us: “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7). Peter saw first hand that Jesus cares so much about you and me, that we can hand over all our troubles and fears and concerns to Him. Ask Jesus to help the people you love(and yourself) with their mental health. I’ll get us started: Dear Jesus, please flood me and ______ with your peace, hope, and love.
5. Grab them a copy of my new book, 5 MInute Devotions for Teens: A Guide to God and Mental Health
It releases one week from today! I wrote this book as a way for people to quickly connect with Jesus, and in doing so, also care for their mental health. The short devotions are catered to teens, but early readers are saying, “It’s great for ALL ages, even adults.” Each page has a Bible verse, devotion, and prayer or activity. These books make great stocking stuffers for kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews, anyone you love. Maybe even sneak an extra in your own stocking.
It’s amazing how many scientific tips for caring for our mental health are Biblical. Jesus loves us so much. He always has our best interest in mind, and cares so much about our mental health. Praying for you, for your mental health, and for the mental health of those you love.
I’m giving away a 5-day 4-night stay in this gorgeous mountain house in hopes it will Restore Your Soul! Keep reading for all the details on how easy it is to enter.
Soul restoration. It’s what Jesus wants for us. It’s what He offers. But often we're worried, tired, stressed or some combo of the above.
How do we make the switch? From frazzled to at peace? From anxious to feeling safe and secure? Mainly by spending time with Jesus and letting Him guide, protect, and love us. I write all about it in my new book, Restore My Soul, which releases on July 5, 2022! You can pre-order your copy here (if you order two copies you can enter the mountain house giveaway–more on that in a minute). Getting away from the hustle and bustle, seeking beauty, taking time to rest, finding a quiet place to talk to Jesus, and slowing down so you can hear Him are all great ways to begin your soul restoration–thus the mountain house giveaway.
Psalm 84 says:
How lovely is your dwelling place,
My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD;
My heart and my flesh cry out
For the living God. (vv.1-2)
Do you have a place like this? Where you seek Jesus? Where you cry out to Him and spend time–dwelling or abiding–seeking Him?
My mom’s mountain house is one of those places for me. Staring out at the lake, marveling at the mountains, unplugging, being present. It’s beautiful. I find God here. I’ve been going to these mountains with my family since I was in 8th grade. Brett proposed to me in these mountains. One of our kids took their first steps here. We’ve played cards and gathered near the fireplace on chilly evenings. We’ve lounged on giant rafts floating around the lazy river, played tennis, basketball, and giant Connect Four on steamy summer days. We’ve shared countless meals and stories, celebrated birthdays, Easter and Thanksgiving–all gifts from our glorious God–in these rooms. I’ve sat on the deck with my Bible and soaked in His living word. Plus, the views are spectacular.
But the places God restores us don’t have to be fancy. My closet is also one of my favorite places to seek the Lord. I turn out the lights and close my eyes, so there are literally zero views. I shut out all noise and just talk to Jesus. I might shout out to Him my frustrations, thank Him for all that He’s done, rattle off a list of my concerns, meditate on something I read in the Bible that morning, or sit in silence and simply listen to Him.
And that’s such a cool thing about Jesus! He wants us to come to Him with all our emotions. Our joy and fear, our laughter and anger, our exhaustion and bursts of energy. The Psalms illustrate this for us. The psalmists brought everything to God–the good, bad, and ugly. And God promised to those emotional psalmists to always be faithful, that His love for them would endure forever. Jesus promises the same to you and me–no matter what we’re going through or how we feel.
Join me in the pages of Restore My Soul: the Power and Promise of 30 Psalms as I dive into thirty psalms and explore how relevant they are to our lives today, how these ancient poems and songs show us that no matter what we’re facing our God goes before and behind us. He watches over us and never sleeps. He bends down and picks us up. He wants only goodness and mercy for us. He longs to restore our very souls.
And while you’re picking up a copy of the book, if you grab two YOU CAN ENTER THE MOUNTAIN HOUSE GIVEAWAY! That’s right, the only thing you have to do to enter is purchase two copies of my new book, Restore My Soul wherever books are sold between today and July 12 and submit your receipt here. Make sure you're following me on Facebook or Instagram.
Must be 18 and over to enter. Void where prohibited. U.S. citizens only (sorry international friends). Note: I will never ask for credit card information and will only contact winners via email. Not affiliated with any social media site. One grand prize winner can stay five days and four nights at the pictured mountain house in Lake Lure, NC (30 miles outside of Asheville) and will be randomly selected from all entries. Transportation not included. Grand prize winner must work with property owner to find available dates. Runners up will be randomly selected from all entries for additional prizes including having Laura Zoom into your Bible study or book club. If your prize is being mailed to you, please allow additional time for postal delays.
The work of being a writer for me consists of most days sitting in my writing nook and well, writing. I’ll also read and pray and answer emails, but most of it is writing and rewriting and rewriting. For weeks and months. Without anybody else seeing what I’m writing or asking about what I’m writing. With nothing to show the world. The most exciting days are when I get an email from my agent or an editor about a brand new project or a development on a project I’m working on.
I have a book releasing in July which I’m super excited about, but I’ve turned it in and gone through all the edits. My part is mostly complete until launch time. I have a new project that’s due about the same time the book I mentioned releases. I won’t hear from my agent or editor on either book until summer. What’s next is me being disciplined and writing this next book for Jesus. Word by word. Story by story, or as Anne Lamott says, “Bird by Bird.”
But wanting to know the next “what’s next” bubbles up some days. A weird, it’s a new year-ish, should I be revamping my website, dreaming up new projects, planning something else? Maybe. So today I was asking God again, “Is there something else you want me to be doing (this is always a great question to ask)? Is there another project or idea I should be working on for Your kingdom? Do you want me to write a new Bible study? Teach a new Bible study?” And I got that tug inside to check my email, but the tug wasn’t from God. It was from me thinking and from culture reminding me I “needed” to be doing something new. Maybe the answer was waiting for me online? But I sensed God simply answer, “today.” As in, God wants me to do today.
Today. What does God want you to do today?
God reminded me that already this morning there had been a beautiful worship gathering at our home. “I wanted you to open your door for that and be present for it. It didn’t involve books or emails or projects. It involved living today and worshiping Me.” God also reminded me that I’d had coffee with a friend. We’d talked about our faith and jobs and relationships and what we were reading and God’s faithfulness. God told me, “That coffee date was living for Me. Where two or more are gathered I am there. This was something I wanted you to do today.”
What’s on your schedule?
I don’t know what you’re checking your email or texts or actual metal mailbox at the curb for today. An acceptance letter? A job offer? A check? An invitation? A referral? A grade? A result? Those are all super awesome things to look forward to. And God loves for us to get excited about the plans He has for us and the places He’s taking us. And just for the record, He does have ginormous fabulous plans for you! He doesn’t want us to be complacent and just let life happen. However, He also doesn’t want us to waste our time longing for the what ifs, the maybes, and the as soon as…God created this day–THIS is the day that the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad.
Will you join me?
God reminded me that kingdom work is what we’re doing right now, today– the conversation with your neighbor or roommate or classmate or sister. It’s stopping to praise Jesus for the delicate snowflakes dancing through the air. It’s texting the friend who isn’t feeling well and asking how they’re doing or taking them soup or praying for their healing. It’s bending over to help the person who just dropped something gather up their belongings or paying attention to the two hours of video training for your job or cheering for your teammates or vacuuming so your home will feel clean and safe for whoever walks through your doors. For me, it was that gathering, that coffee, and now it’s writing this blog, sitting down at my desk and typing the words, word by word. Then it’s off to my kids’ indoor track meet and cheering them on. This is all kingdom work. It doesn’t get better than this–than real life–than this beautiful everyday life God gifted us with.
Because this is what we do–God’s children. We walk this earth flooded in His love and try to pass some of the abundance of that love back out to others. It doesn’t have to be BIG and SPLASHY and newsworthy, although sometimes it is and that’s fun, too. We just have to be present. To God. And to what He’s doing. And when we focus on making the most of the class we need to attend or the food we need to prep, when we do it out of love for ourselves or others, then we are doing kingdom work, we are making a difference, we are moving forward. And when something new does come our way, we’re called to step into it the exact same way. By being present. By living that day and that idea and that opportunity to its fullest. One beautiful step at a time.
For more inspiration find me on Facebook and Instagram
This year I rediscovered my love of bookstores. In 2020 almost everything I purchased was online, including groceries. In 2021 I was able to return to places where I could preview my produce before adding it to my cart and try on clothes before taking them home. The kind of shop I most appreciated being able to return to were bookstores. There’s a lovely one in Nashville called Parnassus Books. My daughter and I popped in one day for a look around, which became over an hour of picking up book after book, feeling the different weights of a sturdy hardcover and a handy paperback in our hands. Ogling the covers as if they were candy. Delighting in familiar titles we’d read before and finding so so many books we wanted to read.
New books, new stories to dive into, more things to learn, fresh ways to examine old truths always bring me joy. A trip to a bookstore is therapeutic for my soul, but it is in the actual reading of the books, the turning of the pages, and the processing of the words that the magic happens. I don’t know how many books I read in 2021, because I did a horrible job of noting and reviewing them on my Goodreads account. Oops. But, I know I turned thousands of pages of both fiction and nonfiction. I read the books my kids were reading for school, the books that caught my eye, the books my author friends wrote, the books someone suggested, and books that would help me with my work. I learned and explored and savored them. Below are my favorite reads of 2021. I hope they help you discover a new read for your to-read pile.
The Water Keeper and The Letter Keeper by Charles Martin
These two tied. They are books one and two in the Murphy Shepherd series and I listened to the audio books back to back. Charles Martin has been a favorite of mine for years. His writing is exquisite and soulful. The way he tells hard, meaningful stories and weaves the love of Jesus naturally into the tales always causes me to pause, cry, stop, or pray mid-chapter, and then eagerly return to the story, because I need to know what happens next. If you haven’t read these two yet. Add them to your list. The third one in the series releases in July and I can’t wait to dive in.
Breaking Free from Body Shame by Jess Connolly
I didn’t think I needed this book. I felt okay with my body. I thought. But then several friends mentioned Jess Connolly’s new book had brought them freedom. I’ve been a fan of Jess and her writing for a while, so I got it. And I read it. And I, too, found freedom. Turns out, most of us have some issues with our bodies–whether that’s a scar or a size or a shape or something our bodies did or didn’t do or could or couldn’t do that brought us shame. Jess reminds us of this truth, “Your body is a good body.” She backs up that truth with the fact that God made it. He made my body and your body and all our bodies to move and laugh and make things. And because God made our bodies–they’re good. It’s simple, but I lose sight of it. Most people I know are frustrated with their bodies in some way. This beautiful reframing of all the good our bodies can do, and all the things God allows us to do with them, like hug someone we love or read or listen to a story, is good not just for our bodies, but also for our souls.
Best Kids Book:
The Grumbles by Amy Parker and Tricia Goyer
The Grumbles makes me giggle. It’s all about a family named the Grumbles who, well, grumbles. I see my own family (and my own grumbling) on the beautifully illustrated pages. Then Grandma Grateful steps in to save the day! (Isn’t the grandma always the hero?) She reminds us all to shine love to others, to be thankful for all we have. This darling story encourages us to stop grumbling, and instead be thankful. When we are, our gratitude is contagious! Sure, the book was written for kids, but this book is a great reminder for all of us to shine Christ’s love and grace and toss our grumbling in the garbage.
Your turn. I’d love to hear your favorite reads of the year, so I can add them to my stack for 2022. Happy New Year! May it be filled with wonderful reads and the incredible love of Christ Jesus.
For more inspiration find me on Facebook and Instagram
There’s something powerful about the written word. In the midst of the chaos and uncertainty of 2020, I read some spectacular books. Despite what was going on in the world, nothing could take away from what had already been penned on the pages. There were also several books that I began to read, even read 60-70 pages of, and then put down. Because the stack of things I want to read is l-o-n-g, and life is short, and I’d rather spend it reading the really good ones, not the so-so ones. So, today I’m sharing some of my favorites in hopes of pointing you to reads that are truly worth your time.
The Lost Vintage by Amy Mah
You had me at France. Amy Mah interweaves two stories--one of a woman who travels back to her roots in Burgundy, France in hopes of perfecting her wine palate, so she can pass the Master of Wine exam. Another of a girl growing up on the same land during World War 2. Both girls are faced with enormous decisions that will impact their family’s reputation, safety and integrity. The Lost Vintage is historical fiction, exposing atrocities and struggles of the Nazi occupation I wasn’t aware of. It is also a mystery revolving around valuable wine grown and bottled on the family’s land that disappeared during the occupation. Plus, it’s a romance, of people, and of a heritage. It’s exactly the kind of story that allows you to both learn of another time and appreciate how others fought for freedom and human dignity, as well as one that takes you away to the dreamy French countryside. And since we can’t travel to France right now, this is the next best thing.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern is a magical tale of books and stories and secret lands you dream of, and when you least expect it, enter. I fell in love with Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus (which was on my best books of 2015 list) and was thrilled to see she’d released a new title. The Starless Sea is filled with twists, turns and intricate plotting. It makes you want to flip back a few chapters to catch a clue you might have missed and read the whole thing in its entirety again as soon as you’ve finished. As much as I’ve always wanted to receive a letter written on parchment and sealed with wax inviting me to Hogwarts, I now find myself fiddling with doorknobs, wondering, “what if?” Morgenstern’s descriptions are breathtaking, making you taste caramel or cinnamon in your mouth or feeling thick velvet under your fingertips as you read. It’s a story of longing, self-discovery, friendship, love, and fighting for what matters most at all costs.
BEST PICTURE BOOKS
My kiddos have outgrown snuggling up on my lap to read picture books, but there is still something magical about the pages of a picture book.The combination of gorgeous illustrations and lyrical text transport the reader (that’s us) into a dreamworld or a sillyworld or an adventureworld or a world where we can learn something new. Both Lullaby Prayer by Tammy Bundy and God is Hope by Amy Parker invite us into something lovely and bright. These books remind us of God’s love, hope, and grace, which were so needed this past year (and every year). Yes, these are great messages for the littles in our life, but they are also beautiful truths for us grown-ups to remember.
BEST NONFICTION BOOKS
As a Christian author, I tend to read a lot of books in the nonfiction Christian genre, specifically books for women. Women of the Bible Speak Out by Marlo Schalesky was fresh and powerful. Schalesky dives deep into many of the women you may have heard of from the Bible--Bathsheba, Hagar, Mary Magdalene, etc. and shows how even when they were marginalized, afflicted and mistreated because of their gender, God was with them. Always. Women of the Bible Speak Out gives voice to these historic women and what they went through, but it also gives voice to modern women who have either said #metoo or felt the effects of it ripple through their lives. A beautiful reminder of how our loving God has always seen, loved, respected and elevated women--even when the world does not.
BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer
Are you exhausted?
I was when I started reading this book just as the world was shutting down last March. My calendar had practices, games, rehearsals, and tournaments on every single day--and that was just for our kids, let alone my own commitments, deadlines, and meetings. I was running from here to there and never getting quite enough sleep or feeling like I’d fully enjoyed completing a task, because as soon as I finished one, I had to rush off to the next. Comer’s deep dive into the statistics, history and evolution of our busyness, overtired, overworked, over packed schedules is terrifying. And then, this book becomes incredibly freeing. Comer invites readers to challenge social norms by reducing commitments and finding rest for our bodies, minds and souls. Doesn’t that sound lovely?
Sabbath rest is not something new, but it is a beautiful part of God’s design that He invites each and every one of us into. Comer gives practical ways to slow down and breathe life more deeply. What a perfect way to dive into 2021!
What were your favorite reads of this past year? Let me know in the comments, because I’m starting my new pile of “to read” books for 2021.
For more inspiration find me on Facebook and Instagram
I recently received this fabulous package of goodies from one of my closest friends, Amy. Hanging out with her is better than any subscription box, because throughout the year she mails me the cutest, most adorable packages packed with things that make me smile. I knew it was from her before opening it, because even the outside of her packages are exciting—covered in star stickers and silver Sharpie swirls with fun lettering.
I began pulling out the contents one by one. This package was extra packed with goodness, because it was for my birthday. There was a separate bag within the envelope with this t-shirt in it that I kind of had to wiggle out, then unfold, and then my breath caught in my throat and a hot tear leaked out of my left eye. Not because of a t-shirt. Because of what it said: Courage, dear heart.
And yes, I am a huge Narnia fan (okay, geek) and this is a phrase Aslan says to Lucy on the Voyage of the Dawn Treader when everyone is losing hope and it reminds me that Jesus whispers the same to me when I am losing hope. When those around me only see the stormy waves. When the boat I’m standing on is rocking and I’m blinded by mist and my mouth is full of pungent salty sea water.
The words. This shirt. The ship. It all transports me to the moment Jesus and the disciples were on a boat and a storm kicked up—I mean one doozie of a storm, tossing their boat all over the place. Waves and saltwater blinded and gagged the disciples. Jesus was napping, because He wasn’t concerned. But the disciples were majorly freaked out and frightened, so they called out to Him.
The next thing they knew, they were in a severe storm. Waves were crashing into the boat—and Jesus was sound asleep! They roused him, pleading, “Master, save us! We’re going down!”
Jesus reprimanded them. “Why are you such cowards, such faint-hearts?” Then he stood up and told the wind to be silent, the sea to quiet down: “Silence!” The sea became smooth as glass. Matthew 8:23-27
Jesus turned to them before He stilled the waters and said, “Why are you such cowards, such faint-hearts?” And in His question, I hear the inverse of what He tells us to do. Jesus tells us to have courage and asks why we would ever be cowards—after all He’s right there next to us in our proverbial boats. He calls us dear hearts, because we’re dear to Him and wonders why we’ve changed our own names to ‘faint hearts’?
The words from the shirt, this scene from the boat, rang specifically true to me this past year—the one leading up to my birthday, the one I’d just concluded, and somehow without realizing it these were the exact words that had been helping me hang on.
Rewind a bit to when I had my annual mammogram. And the radiologist found something wonky on the film. And they had me come back in. And then it was still not clear what they were seeing, so I had to have a third mammogram. Praise Jesus, I am fine. But in the midst of the uncertainty, I heard Jesus whispering, Courage, dear heart. I saw him with me in that sterile hospital room just past the giant mammogram machine, steady and sure, giving me the courage I needed.
And again, when I had another medical test go awry, with an uncertain result, and I had to go back in for another look. My boat rocked a bit, but I saw Jesus with me as I came out of sedation, literally saw His face giving me the courage I needed, felt how much He loves me, that He holds me dear.
This year was a year of God continually asking me to be bolder, to ask bolder questions, to be bolder in my faith, to speak up more boldly in bold ways about and for Him. And, let’s just get this straight, bold is not how I lean. I prefer zero confrontation, making everyone happy, keeping the peace. But each time I would waiver and wonder, God why? Are you sure? He’d say, “Trust me. Find your strength in me. I’ll give you everything you need. Courage, dear heart.”
This phrase isn’t just cute words from a children’s book or a t-shirt. They’re a directive from God: Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”—Deuteronomy 31:6 NIV
And this shirt printed who knows where delivered from Nashville in a colorful envelope from a caring friend spoke over me everything Jesus told me all year. I share this in case someone out there needs to hear it today, “Courage, dear heart.”
Whatever you’re facing, no matter how dark the storm, Christ reminds us to have courage, to be brave, because He is with us, and He is Master over the Storms. He can calm them in one word. “Silence.”
One of the fun bonus items in my envelope was a pack of Zinnia seeds. The promise of blooms in the form of tiny brown seeds. It’s a lot to ask an itty-bitty seed to bury itself in the soil, to break through its protective seed coating and drive its roots into the soil that feeds it, to stretch up out of its comfort zone into the light. But if those seeds are brave enough, they’ll bloom.
So will we. If we’ll take courage. The good news? The courage doesn’t have to come from us. We don’t have to be instinctively bold or brave. We just need to find our courage in Jesus. The bravest of them all. In Him we’ll find the hope and strength we need.
So, “Courage, dear heart.”
Jesus loves you.
He’ll give you the nutrients and light and stability you need. He’ll calm the waves and hold you tight. He’s on your side and stronger than anything you’re up against. Courage. Find it in Him.
For more inspiration find me on Facebook and Instagram
Growing up, I attempted to read every book in our house. When I ran out of books, I’d comb my parents’ shelves for anything new. Hardback copies of The Great Gatsby and The Pelican Brief got plucked from the wooden shelves in our family room by my eager hands and devoured in days. Books still sweep me away to faraway lands and times, challenge me to fresh ways of thinking, fill my head with new knowledge and insights, and give me the gift of pure entertainment. A bad book feels like a waste of time, but a good one? An absolute treasure. Some of my favorite reads from 2019 include:
Goodbye Paris by Anstey Harris
It wouldn’t be a year if I didn’t read a book or two set in my favorite city. In this beautiful book Harris' descriptions make you feel as if you're the one plucking the taught strings of an antique cello or strolling down the cobblestone lane of an arrondissement. Goodbye Paris is an impactful story woven together with music and craftmanship reminding us to believe the truth instead of what we hope to be the truth, and then standing up for it.
The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom
I packed this book on our trip to France, because it was small and slipped easily into my travel bag. I read it in a couple of nights. Then my son read it. When we got back to the States, we proceeded to devour all the Mitch Albom books we hadn’t read yet.
“There’s a reason God limits our days.”
“To make each one priceless.”
Yes. Priceless. Each and every day. That quote sums up why I loved The Time Keeper. It is a beautiful reminder of how precious each day is, and to live it to its fullest.
Lost Women of the Bible: The Women We Thought We Knew by Carolyn Custis James
As a Bible loving, Bible studying, Bible teaching kind of girl, I got truly geeked out about this title. James provided well-researched, important and fresh insights into some important women of influence in the Bible (like Noah's wife and Hagar) and shared how their stories can inspire and impact our actions today.
Best Audio Books: The Summer Seaside Kitchen by Jenny Colgan.
I’ve added this category, because in my opinion, fun books make fabulous audiobooks. Entertaining stories can make a long car ride fly by or motivate me to run a little further to hear what happens on a day my legs are lethargic. Set on the Scottish Island of Mure, The Summer Seaside Kitchen series includes; The Café by the Sea, The Endless Beach, andChristmas on the Island. All three were a delight to listen to (warning: Christmas on the Island has one detailed sex scene I felt completely unnecessary. Love the option to fast forward.). The narrator, with her lilting Scottish accent, draws you into Flora Mackenzie’s family, career in London, romance, and the struggle to discern which of these things are most important and why. Gorgeous descriptions of the pure, clear sea and the picturesque island are the backdrop for well-developed characters you want to cheer for. Mouthwatering details of buttery scones hot from the oven and homemade cheeses melting on warm, flavorful oatcakes made me want to spend hours baking (and eating baked goods). These aren’t the most profound stories I’ve ever read, but they’re not supposed to be. They are lovely sweet novels and a treat to listen to.
Best Children’s Book: God is With Us by Amy Parker
This gorgeous board book reminds littles and their caretakers of the beautiful truth that God is with us. Right here. Right now. The second book in this series, God is Love, just released, and is just as lovely. Grab one for the cutest tot you know and hand it to them for Valentine’s Day.
Best Book of 2019: Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan
This was my favorite read of 2019. The incredible life of Joy Davidman captivated me. Joy was a strong independent woman, mother, and brilliant author in the 1940’s—not an easy gig for a woman in those days. Her writings and questions about God inspired her to write a letter to C.S. Lewis. The two became pen pals, and then so much more. Reading the story of Joy fighting for her sons, her dignity, her health, and her dreams was energizing and moving. Not to mention several passages are like strolling through Oxford and conversing with Lewis himself about everything from the 10 Commandments to Narnia. My favorite quote from Joy is, “What in the world would ever become of us if we should grow brave enough to believe EVERYTHING Jesus said was true?”
What if? What if we dove into 2020 believing that we are Christ’s masterpieces, His chosen people, His treasure, His royal priesthood? What a beautiful question to ponder.
Comment below to share what your favorite reads of 2019 were and/or what’s on your reading list for 2020.
If you’d like to see more of my reading list, follow me on Goodreads. For more inspiration find me on Facebook and Instagram
Laura L. Smith