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.
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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.
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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.
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I’m excited to introduce you to my guest blogger and dear friend, Tamara Bundy. Tammy and I both have four kids (two girls and two boys each), husbands who work at Miami University, a love for coffee, books and Jesus, and a passion to write stories. Tammy’s newest title releases January 14, and in the blog this week she writes about something God taught her while writing Pixie Pushes On and she's giving away a free copy of her book (keep reading for details).
Only God could turn a trip to the hospital into an uplifting trip down memory lane. My dad had been in the hospital with, yet another case of pneumonia caused by his compromised lungs due to his Inclusion Body Myositis. We had gotten used to this rotation of hospital stays–at least as much as one can get used to it. But no matter how used to it you pretend to be, sitting with someone you love in a hospital room, while they are hooked up to beeping machines, looking older than you remember them to be, is hard.
My mom and dad both grew up on farms during the 1940’s, but they moved to the city when they got married. Because I grew up a city-kid, I remember being amazed at the farm stories they told—stories about my dad driving tractors as soon as he could see over the steering wheel. Stories of my mom’s favorite lamb, Buster. When it came time to write my second middle grade novel, I knew I wanted it to take place in that setting –and I knew it would have a lamb named Buster.
As I added the fictional elements to the story –such as my main character’s sister having polio, I wanted to ground it in more realities of my parents’ childhoods. That’s when I realized how poorly I’d been listening all those years. Sure, I’d heard their basic stories –but when you’re growing up, you assume you’ll have your parents (and their stories) your whole life. You imagine you’ll always be able to ask them important (and unimportant) things.
My parents lived in Columbus and my family lived two hours away in Cincinnati. Our moments of being in the same room at the same time were few. That day in the hospital was a moment I knew God put in front of me. And so, on that winter day, with my worried mom stationed beside Dad, who didn’t want the attention on him, I tried to distract them. I told them about the new book I was writing. And then, in that scary hospital room I asked my mom and dad to tell me about when they were children.
I wanted their day-to day details of life on the farm. What did they have for lunch at school? How did they get to school? Did they have bathrooms? Electricity? These were all questions that younger-me never bothered to ask, but older-me not only wanted to take the time, but also desperately wanted to slow it down.
Then, amidst the din of the machines helping my dad breathe, another sound blissfully prevailed. This sound of youthful stories of milking cows, gathering eggs, tending gardens. Mom and Dad were no longer 80-something-year-old’s watching their lives slip away. My mom became, again, the ten-year-old chasing the fuzzy little lamb she bottle-fed. My dad, once more, was in fifth grade having to eat the cold, slimy fried-egg sandwich he didn’t like, but had to eat because, as my grandma told him, “If the chickens are laying eggs, we’re eating eggs.”
My parents remembered. They talked and talked. I swear, they even giggled. If possible, they physically grew younger in front of me. And I wrote down every exquisite detail I could manage through the happy tears gathering in my eyes.
My dad passed away not long after that treasured afternoon.
On January 14, the book I was writing, Pixie Pushes On releases from Nancy Paulsen Books. And yes, I am thrilled to have readers meet Pixie, her Granddaddy, Grandma, Sissy, Daddy –and her lamb named Buster. But most of all, I am filled with joy that if I look closely between the lines of this story, I can see traces of my parents’ childhoods. And within those pages, they will stay young forever.
My dad wouldn’t mind that attention at all. I imagine he would even say, “That’s fine and dandy.”
(click here to listen to the song "Fine and Dandy" written and performed by Tamara's kids a.k.a. The Bundys, in honor of Tamara's dad)
If you are blessed to have older people in your life – ask them about their childhoods, their special memories. You don’t have to be writing a book. You just have to ask. And then listen. Listen as the years melt away. Listen to their stories. Maybe you’ll even decide to write some of the memories down.
It’s never too late. Start today, start now. Ask God to guide you. Afterall, He managed to turn a hospital trip into an uplifting trip down memory lane, leaving me with a precious memory that is, indeed, one for the books.
To win an autographed copy of Tammy’s Pixie Pushes On leave a comment in the comment section below of the blog. One winner will be selected by number randomizer on January 13. Open to continental U.S. residents only.
Tamara Bundy is a children’s book author as well as the author of several non-fiction inspirational books. A former columnist for the Cincinnati Post, she currently teaches English and Creative Writing at Miami University. You can follow her on all social media platforms as well as at www.tamarabundy.com
Last weekend I:
Which shouldn’t seem related at all, except they both dealt with the things we look to in life to find satisfaction and gratification, and how rarely that works out for us.
If you need a quick refresher, in Aladdin, a poor boy named, Aladdin comes across a magic lamp housing a genie. The genie pops out and tells Aladdin he can make three wishes. Hmmm…what would you do with three wishes? Have you ever considered what you would wish for? A new house? A new job? More hours in the day? The genie warns Aladdin, “Here’s the thing about wishes…the more you have, the more you want.” Dang. Rings a little too true, doesn’t it?
When we turn sixteen it seems like our biggest wish is to be able to drive. When we get our license, we want to borrow our parents’ car. Then we wish we had our own car—any car that moves. Then we want a car with a few bells and whistles. As we get older we might wish for fancier cars—with leather interiors and fabulous sound systems and heated seats (I’m not that into cars, but I do enjoyheated seats). Most writing friends I know have at one time or another “wished” to be published. If they achieve that goal, their next wish is to get another book published, with a bigger publisher, or to sell more copies, or perhaps a multi-book deal, or the ultimate—to be a New York Times Bestseller. All of these are great goals. But at the beginning “being published” felt like the end all. The problem is, there is no end all. The wishes never end.
Renters dream of one day owning a home. Once we buy that “fixer upper” we long for a new kitchen counter, then a kitchen remodel. And while we’re getting a new sink for the kitchen wouldn’t it be gorgeous if we replaced the sinks in the bathrooms, too? Before we know it we’re drooling over Pinterest homes and wishing for more and different than what we have. For athletes it could be an initial goal of making the team, then moving up to the “A” team, hoping for playing time, being in the starting lineup, scoring the points, winning the games, being the MVP. The more you have…the more you want. Most of us are guilty of it in some form or another.
The old man in Hemingway’s classic wasn’t materialistic. He lived in a hut and owned one pair of pants. But he wanted to catch the biggest fish and would stop at nothing to get him. For three days the fisherman held onto his line, so this big fish would not be the one who got away. Meanwhile the old man’s hands were ripped raw from the tugging and pulling of the fishing line. All the man had to eat were a couple of raw fish, all the while being towed by a giant marlin through the depths of the sea. On the brink of dehydration, the man rationed one bottle of fresh water over the course of sunsets and rises and barely slept a wink, putting his body and mind in extreme danger. For over eighty days the man had wished for one great fish. Now it was hooked on his line. Be careful what you wish for old man.
And I feel the warning being screamed at me, too. Be careful what you wish for, Laura. What am I wishing for? What are you wishing for? What do we think we need to feel complete? Like we’ve arrived? If we only had/did/achieved/looked like ______ we would be happy.
Really? Because as soon as we get/earn/appear like that, we usually wish for more.
Except when we have Jesus. He is the one thing that satisfies us once and for all. He is the bread of life, the living water. He told the people who encountered Him they would never need anything else. All they had to do was believe in Him.
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water (water from a well) will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”—John 4:13
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” —John 6:35
Completely, 100% satisfied. Never needing again. When we walk in the peaceful, grace-filled life Jesus offers this is what we receive. Sure, we still could use some money to pay our bills. We still pray for healthy relationships, for joy to fill the hearts of those we love. But we find all of our actual needs are provided for—that our longings are fulfilled. That desire for more and then a little more is squelched, because with Jesus we finally feel whole.
Don’t get me wrong. There are still lots of things I want. A python pair of boots or that pink fuzzy jacket would be fun for fall. A serving of warm apple cobbler topped with creamy ice cream would be delicious. An extra hour of sleep would be divine. Heck, I’d take the half hour. But if I don’t get those things, I’m still fine, thoroughly content. Because all those little twinge-y incomplete parts of my heart have been filled in by a Savior who loves me no matter what I’m wearing, who’s sweeter than any decadent desert, and who provides rest for my tangled up soul.
If you had a magic lamp what would you wish for? If you could go out to proverbial sea one more time what would you hope to catch? It’s wonderful to have dreams and goals. Jesus calls us to be brave, live large, and go out there and use the gifts He’s given us to live bold, radical, fruitful lives. But at the end of the day whether we achieved or did not, won or lost, were noticed or ignored, we are fully seen and fully loved by our Perfect Savior. That itch? That something missing? That void we’re striving to fill? Jesus satisfies and fills it. He is everything we need. And His love and grace never ever run out.
My wish? Is that you feel Jesus’ love today, how it completes you, and satisfies like nothing you could ever set out to catch.
I’d received three rejections in three days on a proposal for a new book my agent was pitching for me. The first one, I thought, “Oh well, God has a better plan.” The second, I thought, “Even though they’re not taking my book, the editor’s feedback was encouraging.” The third? My first and only thought for quite a while was: Ugh.
The publishing industry is packed with NOs. It’s part of the gig. Some publishing houses already have full lists, a similar idea in the works, specific requirements they’re currently looking for that I, or this particular book, don’t meet. I try not to take these “no thank yous” personally. But three in three days was a lot to deflect.
I felt like this door might be shutting. It felt like ALL the doors were actually slamming shut.
God, you wanted me to write this book, right? Then, why so many turndowns?
God remained sturdy. He always does. Trust me,I felt Him, respond.
Which is not the answer I wanted, because I wanted to know the details.Wherewill this book land? When? Willit find a publisher at all? If not, whatdo You want me to do with it, Lord? But God’s answer was, of course, complete.
Trust Jesus. Because Jesus is the One gave me the idea for the book in the first place, because He always knows what’s right and best for me, for you, for us.
I chatted with Jesus for a long while, asking Him to help me let go of my expectations, and trust Him more. I asked Him to shake off the lies that my writing wasn’t enough, and the inevitable follow up lie, that I wasn’t enough. I thanked Him for the privilege of being able to write for Him. I thanked Him for knowing even before He asked me to write this book how and when He would use it. He washed calmness over me. He reminded me I was His and loved. Feeling more centered and peaceful I got back to my day,
I grabbed some almond milk out of the fridge to top off my coffee, but the refrigerator door didn’t seal. I pushed it more tightly the second time. I ran out to my car to put a new pack of gum in my console, but when I tried to close it, the lid bounced back up like a broken jack-in-the-box. A-ha! My aux cord needed to be maneuvered. Going from the garage back inside took me through the laundry room, so I grabbed a load from the dryer, but the laundry room door wouldn’t shut. A backpack jutting out from its peg near the door was the culprit. After folding the clothes I carried some dish towels to the kitchen and slid them in their drawer—only an oven mitt stubbornly blocked the way. Again, I moved things around to slide the drawer shut. Upstairs, I placed some of my husband’s black t-shirts in our closet, only, you guessed it, the door caught on something as I went to shut it.
I got frustrated and may have uttered out loud, “Why won’t you shut, you stinking door?”
Everything I tried to close wouldn’t. Too many things to be natural or normal. I needed to stop, breathe, and consider what Jesus was saying. In that moment of stillness by the closet I heard Him say, “I’m not closing your doors, Laura. I’m keeping them open.” Cue tears.
Jesus sees us. He knows us. He loves us. And He cares so much about our every move. He heard me talking to Him, and saw me stand up more settled, but not fully. He saw me folding laundry and putting away towels. Jesus understood I want to trust Him completely with my writing and everything else, but my human heart struggles. I’m impatient and emotional. And He speaks to me, and to you, too, with constant little reminders—the tiniest details right where we are, as simple as a stuck door (or several) to give us sweet encouragement.
I don’t know what Jesus intends to happen with my manuscript. It could be months before I hear back from all the publishers my agent pitched. It might become a bestseller or not get published at all. I don’t know how Jesus is going to use this thing He asked me to write, but I do know He will use it. Because He called me to write it. Sometimes it feels so easy when Christ calls us to something new—the excitement, the possibilities, the novelty of it all. But somewhere in the midst of the work, of walking around our proverbial walls of Jericho the fifth time around we lose hope or worry. Jesus reminded me that He’s with me, that He didn’t ditch me mid-way through this project, that He knows exactly what’s going on, and just wanted to tell me no matter how things appear, He’s keeping doors open.
Yes, sometimes Jesus shuts doors—when they lead us the wrong way or to the wrong people or at the wrong time. If you’re uncertain if Jesus wants you to move forward or change lanes or turn around, ask Him, He’ll tell you. But when God calls us to something, when He sparks something in us, He brings it to completion. He wouldn’t pack you full of a talent, plop you in a certain place, introduce you to that person, or light you up with an idea, and then just stomp it out. No, our God finishes what He starts. Not just always how we imagine.
What has God asked you to do for Him? Are you believing the lies that it’s too hard, you’re not capable of seeing it through, or nobody likes your idea? Are you tired? Discouraged? Because nothing is too hard for Jesus. He’s capable of seeing any project through to the end. And if He gave you the idea, you’ll be hard pressed to find a bigger supporter. Trust Him and His call. And when the time is right, Jesus, like a perfect gentleman, will hold the right door, the one He’s been planning for you all along, wide open for you to walk through. I’m sure of it.
This year I’ve been working on a book about music and the church and our roots. I’ve been writing the chapters out of order, which is not my style, but I knew how I wanted it to end, and there was something I wanted to change in the middle, and another chapter needed to go bye-bye and be replaced. I was working off two documents—the beautiful, polished one I’ll send my editor, and the one with lots of notes, some ideas for later, some reminders for now. So I kind of knew where I was with the project, but not completely. I thought I had at least three full chapters to write, plus edits as I pulled up the manuscript on my laptop. I was all set to start a new chapter, when one I’d been doing a major remodel on caught my eye.
I spent the day reworking the words—their order, the story they told. And when it took the shape I was hoping for, I added that chapter to my pretty document, and scrolled through. All thirty chapters had been written. What?!
I’m not saying I didn’t have some major editing to do, just that the first draft was complete, which is huge. And I didn’t even realize I’d crossed the finish line. I looked at the sky, blue and clear on the other side of the screen on my porch, and whispered, “thank you,” to Jesus, because He’s the one who gave me this book and He’s the one who truly wrote it. I just took dictation.
A completed draft is not a finished project, so I kept going, organizing the table of contents, fixing some footnotes. I didn’t take time to high five myself or journal or go beyond that one whispered phrase of gratitude. I’d save that for when I turned it in. Plus we were leaving that afternoon for an out of town soccer tournament. I still had to pack, grab a few things from the store, fill my car with gas. So, I kept going. And going.
Fast forward to that evening. I’d arrived in Columbus where the soccer games would start early the next morning. And because God is so good, my incredibly talented and lovely friend, Holly Starr, was playing a show in Columbus. Which is a huge deal, because she lives on the other side of the country, and we rarely get to see each other. But here God was—giving us this night for a hug, shared conversation, and the beautiful opportunity for me to witness her using her God-given talent. Holly sang some tunes off her latest album, Human. She sang some familiar worship music everyone knew. Her last song was “Give Me Jesus.” Which just happened to be the title of one of my book chapters.
Her rendition felt so raw and personal, like it was a gift from God, wrapped up with a shiny silver bow and delivered specifically for me. I’m sure others in the audience benefited from the reminder…but in that moment…you could have all this world, all I wanted was Jesus. He was reminding me of what happened that day—that He had given me a large assignment, walked with me every step of the way, and because I was willing to be obedient, He did a thing, a glorious thing—He wrote a book with me. And in the writing Jesus taught me so much. I felt like I would burst with appreciation.
The pastor of the church took the mic, said a prayer, and invited anyone who needed prayer to come forward while his wife sang a closing song. His adorable wife with short silver, curly hair and cherry red lips stood up and began, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus….” Yes. Oh my. I also referenced the lyrics to this song on a page of my book.
The book is about all kinds of things Jesus wants us to know, all kinds of ways we can connect with Him. And yet, the final two songs of a night that already felt like a present were straight from the conversations I’d been having with God as I wrote it. If gratitude was a liquid, my cup was running over.
This is how our God works. We go through the motions—did I pack toothpaste? And He sets up a Christmas tree packed with presents. We think, okay, check, I did that task, and He says, “Let’s celebrate! Look how wonderful things work out when we collaborate!”
I didn’t deserve to have the chance to write this book, yet I'd been spending my days penning the pages. I didn’t deserve to learn everything God taught me in the writing, yet I was full of a deeper understanding than when I began. I didn’t deserve to finish it before I thought I was done. I was ready to do more, but it was as if God wrote extra pages while I was sleeping or cooking dinner or driving carpools. I didn’t deserve to see my friend. I didn’t coordinate calendars or book a flight, but here she was smiling in front of me. And oh these beautiful songs that stirred my soul, I didn’t deserve to hear them, but God lavished them on me, like mounds of home made whipped cream, light and sweet, on top of rich, chocolate lava cake.
I didn’t deserve any of it, but just like I love to shower my kiddos with gifts, treats, and surprises, our Heavenly Father loves to love on us.
So keep on writing, or running, or researching, or rehearsing. Keep on studying, stretching, being obedient to what God is calling you to do. I don’t know when or what it will look like (I wasn’t expecting any of the presents He showered on me), but I do know He will lavish you with undeserved gifts, blessings sweet, tangible, and endless. Just keep your eyes on Him. The things of earth will grow strangely dim…in the light of His glory and grace.
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?
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 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!
Laura L. Smith