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
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
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!
Do you remember that song from preschool, “Where is Thumbkin?” Thumbkin?!!! Oh my gosh, how was that even a song? Allow me to get it stuck in your head:
Where is Thumbkin? Where is Thumbkin?
Here I am. Here I am.
How are you today, sir?
Very fine, I thank you.
Run and hide.
Run and hide
If you’re not familiar with this classic, there are hand-motions. Because preschool. You hold your hands behind your back and at the appointed time each thumb makes an appearance in front of your body to say, “Here I am.” After the quick thumb conversation, both thumbs run back and hide behind your back. This is repeated with all of your fingers. Okay, so honest? I loved taking my thumbs and hiding them behind my back. Why was this so fun for me? Maybe because I’m an introvert. Maybe even at the age of three I was grateful for the time a conversation (even between thumbs) could be over, and I had permission to “run and hide.”
One on one I want to talk with you all day long and get to know you and your entire life story. But put me in the middle of a group of five or more (for example a preschool classroom) and I’m done for. In front of a crowd with a microphone is easy breezy for me, oddly not an issue, but in the crowd? Yikes. Run away.
But here’s the deal. Everyone wants to be seen, to be noticed, to be acknowledged, honestly, to be loved. Every one. So when I duck my head or stick in earbuds, I may be protecting myself from a socially awkward moment, but I’m robbing someone else of being heard, of being seen. Do you ever avoid conversations? Why? How do you go about doing it?
The Bible doesn’t talk about Jesus being an extrovert or an introvert. I’m guessing, because He’s perfect at everything else, that He’s the perfect balance between the two. We see Jesus both speaking to thousands of people and intentionally getting away from crowds to pray and rest. You know what else we see as we follow Jesus’ days on earth by reading the Bible? Him talking to people. Him looking folks in the eye. All people. The ones who were in his face vying for his attention AND those who were trying to be invisible.
Jesus spoke to the obnoxious Pharisees who thought they had all the answers about religion, even though Jesus is clearly the only one who has ever had a corner on that market. Jesus called out to Zacchaeus, the rich, corrupt tax collector hiding in a tree, because He was too ashamed to face Jesus. Jesus initiated a conversation with the woman at the well who intentionally went to the well when no one else would be there, so she wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. Jesus started a conversation with the woman caught in adultery who had been thrown on the street. Jesus wants to talk to you, too. No matter what your mood, or what you think you do or don’t know about a certain topic, or where you’ve been, or what you look like, or how busy you are, or what you’re ashamed of.
And Jesus calls us to do the same to the people around us.
I’m not saying we have to engage in super long conversations with every person we run into today. But I’m challenging us—both the extroverts who would prefer to be at the center of attention, to tell their stories and jokes AND the introverts who would prefer to remain silent—to look someone in the eye, congratulate them on a win or a good grade or a promotion or an anniversary. Ask a couple of questions, dig deeper than saying (or singing), “How are you today, sir?” before you ‘run and hide’ behind your comfortable group of friends, your sarcasm, your work, your to-do list, or your sunglasses.
What if each of us reached out to one additional person today in a genuine way? This could be via text or email or sending a card or yes, actually going up to someone and asking what their favorite song from the show or service was, or how their family is adjusting to the new school year, or what they thought of the guest speaker, or maybe even as simple as, “I haven’t met you yet. What’s your name?” What if we each helped one more person be known, heard, seen, understood, even in the smallest of ways. What if we all took a lesson from Jesus and helped someone else realize that they are loved, that they are accepted, that God is good? Because we are all loved. Us, too. Introverts and extroverts. We are all accepted. You, me, and the garbage man. And God is so very good. Let’s spread the word. Let’s engage.
And Jesus said to them (the Pharisees), “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at Him. —Mark 12:17
When Jesus reached the spot (where Zacchaeus was hiding), He looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” –Luke 19:5
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?”—John 4:7
Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.” —John 8:11-12
When I was ten a new family moved in behind us that also had a ten-year old girl. Our moms decided we should walk to school together. The girl, Jamie, became my best friend. We played Legos, and Kick-the-Can. We ate dinner and slept over at each other’s houses on a rotating basis. We rode bikes, splashed at the pool, danced to David Bowie, helped each other pick out homecoming dresses, visited each other at college, were in each other’s weddings, and still to this day, Jamie gets me on a secret special level—because she’s known me for so long, knows so much of my backstory.
When we were little, along with climbing trees, I loved to read and write stories. Jamie loved to draw. These things seemed as normal as any of our other activities. But actually our passions for these things were specific to our characters—things woven into our very beings.
Jamie recently came by my house for lunch. While my oldest grabbed a snack, Jamie asked her about college and her major and the question college kids often get asked, “What do you want to do when you get out?” Also known as, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” This is a very popular question this time of year with all the graduations going on. My daughter talked about her goals, dreams, and plans to get there.
“I always wanted to be an artist,” Jamie said emphatically, then turned to me.
“Did you always want to be a writer?”
“Always.” I nodded.
When we were young I knew Jamie was talented at art. Every drawing, pastel, or craft she did was amazing. When we were in high school she painted me a beautiful picture of ballerinas for my birthday. And she knew I was a bookworm, always reading. I geeked out about English class. These things have always been innate to us. What is that thing that tugs at your heart—that has always been a part of you?
In high school, I effortlessly confided in Jamie about my crushes and the family drama I would never want anyone else to know about, but somehow I hesitated when it came to sharing my writing aspirations. For me, it just sounded so outlandish—that I would want to become a writer—because who does that? Who gets to do that? So I followed a predictable path with a mission invisible to the outside world brewing inside my heart. Jamie, always being the braver one, declared an art major. We both graduated college, and ironically landed in sales jobs.
But guess what? Today, Jamie is an artist. Like a legit paints gorgeous abstracts of swirling color and sells her canvases with impressive price tags to homes all over the country.
And I am a writer.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” —Jeremiah 29:11
God had always planned it this way—equipped us to enact the very desires of our heart from the get go. He has plans for you, too. And they are as beautiful as one of Jamie’s paintings.
They say the thing you most want to be when you’re little, is most likely what you’re supposed to be when you grow up—set aside things like being Dora. (Yes, one of my daughters wanted to be Dora) This thing that you’ve always loved, looked forward to, somehow had a knack for, got energized from doing is the very thing God planted in your heart to do—to do well—to do often. When we’re young we haven’t heard yet that we are too short, too tall, live in the wrong place, that only guys do that, that we need to know someone, or we aren’t good enough at math to ever be able to do “that thing.” All we understand is that we love doing that thing, and we happen to be pretty decent at it.
As Viktor Frankl said, “We don’t invent our missions. We detect them.” They’re already in there! Embedded in us by our Creator. And our hearts lean that way instinctively. Our missions were so clear and obvious early on. What lights you up? That should be the first clue on your detecting journey as to what you are called to do. Did you ever tell anyone? Did you ever pursue that passion? It’s not to late. Not now. Not ever. To find it, and more importantly, to do it!
Sure, Jamie and I both had to work at our dreams. It takes commitment of time, energy, and money. Making dreams into realities requires support networks. We both happen to have fabulous husbands who cheer us on in our pursuits, but support could also come from a friend, coach, parent, mentor, an artist group, teammate, or classmate. It also takes thick skin. I can’t speak for Jamie, but I get way more ‘nos’ than ‘yeses.’ But it’s easier to invest in endeavors when you’re passionate about them, because you sense you were made for it, that God made you for it.
So take everything you can—each experience, lesson, place you’re put, absorb it all; use it towards your mission in life. The marketing, product positioning, and promoting Jamie and I learned in sales jobs now come in super handy when she pitches paintings to a gallery, or when I pitch manuscripts to an editor. Nothing you’ve done up to this point is a waste of time. You get to use it all, towards what you’re supposed to be doing. God will use all of it.
What did you want to be when you were little? Are you doing it? What’s stopping you? What can you use from where you have been to help you do that thing you were built to do?
God created you distinctly from every other human for a beautiful purpose. He poured all kinds of talents and loves and cravings and preferences into you. He assembled them all together when He made you. They’re all still there. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s silly to do that thing or pursue that dream. Share it with someone you trust today. Start living your God-given mission! You’ll feel alive and vibrant when you do. You are the only one who can paint that picture, write that song, coach that team, run that program, teach that class, raise money for that cause, fight for that piece of legislation. God’s hoping you’ll accept His invitation to do the good work He created you to do. When you say, ‘yes,’ not only will you thrive, but the world will be a better place.
...if you’d like more reminders about how much God loves you throughout the week, follow me on:
You guys, I am a total book nerd, and I can’t possibly let a year come and go without taking a moment to pause and list my favorite reads of 2017 (if you missed them here are favorite reads of 2016 and 2015).
Best Mystery: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Oh my gosh, why didn't I read this sooner? I’ve heard about Sherlock Holmes my entire life, seen multiple television and film adaptations, and even spent a summer in London at Regent’s College, where to get to my Tube stop I had to pass 221 b Baker Street every day. It took my 8th grade daughter having this book assigned for class to get me to actually pick it up. No surprise—it’s a classic. Holmes and his attention to detail are brilliant. I was fascinated by how much this famous detective could learn from one man's walking stick or another's boots. This is a page-turner with plenty of intrigue, suspicion cast on almost every character, suspense and a satisfying ending. Suitable for readers of all ages who love to learn, solve, sleuth, and be entertained.
Best Middle-Grade Novel: The Danger Box by Blue Balliett
Have your kids read Blue Balliett’s books? If not, order them some on Amazon or reserve them from the library pronto. Balliett always writes brilliant stories that ignite curiosity. Her books make readers want to learn, discover, explore, and best of all think. In her previous novels, Balliett has introduced a famous artist into the plot (Calder, Vermeer, Frank Lloyd Wright, etc.), expanding the knowledge of readers while they're engrossed in her mysteries. In the Danger Box, she introduces a well-known scientist, not to stand behind or against the scientist's findings, but in the interest of making kids hungry to learn. Kudos to Balliett for always creating phenomenal characters--kids with quirks, but also with hidden gifts. She does a lovely job of reminding us that everyone has their own special talents and something to add to the conversation. I read her books, because my kids love them. But I LOVE them too!
Best Young Adult Novel: Every Last Word by Tamara Stone
I love young adult novels. Good ones are raw and real and deal with important themes like friendship, relationships, family, discovering your true self. Every Last Word does all of this and more. It also dives into mental health issues, frenemies, and sigh, poetry. As a lover of words, I was pulled into the underground writing community in Every Last Word. Tamara Stone illustrates how powerful the written word can be, how cathartic it can be to write down your emotions, dreams, thoughts, concerns, and even odes to your favorite snack foods. She also does a brilliant job of handling the issue of mental health, specifically OCD. This is a real issue so many people are dealing with--a chemical disorder that can be treated through therapy and medication. I was grateful to gain insight into this important issue.
Fiction: The Magic Stings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom
I’ve enjoyed so many of Mitch Albom’s books, so I was excited to read a new one this year. If you have music in your soul, you will love Frankie Presto! I always enjoy the way Albom weaves hope and faith into his stories, but I am a music lover, and this one struck a special note with me. Magic Strings has a unique twist--with Music as the narrator--interviewing and referencing music legends I grew up listening to and admiring (everyone from Robert Johnson to Elvis Presley to Eric Clapton). Chapters alternate between Music’s interviews with the faces that have graced Rolling Stone magazine for decades to various stages of the life of a musician named Frankie Presto. The story takes the reader back and forth from Spain to New York and New Orleans like a shuffled time line all tied together with the chords of music and the power it evokes.
Best Nonfiction: Of Mess and Moxie by Jen Hatmaker
I listened to Of Mess and Moxie on Hoopla. And after listening to the entire audio book, I bought it on Amazon. I'd already heard it, but I wanted a copy to underline and go back to, because, please! It's hilarious and heartfelt and authentic and faithful, just like Jen Hatmaker. If you loved For the Love, you will love Jen's new book. If you love your kids or your husband or your passion or cooking and Jesus, but sometimes you're not sure what to do with any of them, you will also love this book. Life is real and sometimes hard, but also glorious, because Jesus is with us and He loves us. What fantastic reassurance.
Best Read of 2017: Long Way Gone by Charles Martin
This is another musical tale, and also the most beautiful book I've read in a very long time. Martin is an expert storyteller. This story of a young man, his music, his passion, his relationships, his struggles, and his journey to make sense of it all broke my heart into thousands of pieces. This is my number one favorite book I read in 2017! It transports you to the musical roots and legends of Nashville. After reading it I just knew I had to see a show at the Ryman (my friend, Amy, got us tickets to see Charlie Daniels Band there—oh my gosh!) A Long Way Gone is a stunning retelling of the Prodigal Son in a way that shines new light into a classic parable that never gets old.
Of course, these are just a handful of the stories that swept me away, grabbed my attention, taught me something, or inspired me in the past year. The rest are on Goodreads. I’m looking forward to another fabulous year packed with amazing books. As I compile my “to read” list, I’d love to hear your favs from 2017. Any recommendations?
I am in introvert. It’s not a bad thing or a true confession. It’s just how God made me. For goodness sake, I am a writer by vocation, which translates into sitting by myself for hours on end making up stories. I love to go on runs and walks by myself. Vacation to me never includes Jet Skis and always includes sitting someplace with a view reading books, journaling, praying and basically being still. I love others immensely and treasure one-on-one time with them, I really do. Yet I require headspace and silence to create, think, cope and process.
But even us introverts crave connection. I cannot do life by myself. Cannot. None of us can. None of us were meant to. God created us for community.
Do you have a solid community? Admittedly, I hear “community” and envision four women my age who work out together, do Bible study together, swap clothes, meet for coffee every Thursday morning, with kids all on the same teams and whose husbands are also best friends—think Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants for grown ups. Maybe you have this, which is awesome. I do not, which used to make me think I didn’t have a community—that I’d failed in this arena. But that’s not true. What I have is different, but also awesome.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another. –Hebrews 10:24-25
This is quality advice. Because spurring each other on toward love and good deeds is solid. But the Bible does not say this has to look like a novel. This week has been a snapshot of my fantastic and completely different and scattered community. My super tight inner circle consists of my four adorable kids and hunky husband. I love them fiercely. However, our communities must span past the walls we live in for them to fully work their magic. Girls need girls. Guys need guys. We need people who do the same kind of work and deal with the same issues, as well as friends of varying ages, different lifestyles and locations so we can gain perspective. The last twenty-four hours for me were packed with more social interaction than I may have from now through Christmas, and although that is not my default, it was good for my soul.
What does your community look like? When was the last time you connected with them?
I visited my daughter who is a freshman in college, away from home for the first time in her, translation my, life. (I get a hall pass to count her as my community, because although she’s still one of my adorable kids, she now sleeps in a dorm room in Indiana instead of in our house.) Our visit was priceless. We laughed, shared stories that could never translate over texts, and ate brownies topped with some kind of fudgy whipped cream. When we said goodbye I honestly felt like a piece of my heart broke off and walked down the sidewalk with a backpack slung across her shoulders. But there is beauty in knowing that some of my heart can travel with her. And some of her heart with me.
Within an hour and a half of me returning home my mom came to town for an overnight visit. Can we talk about my mom? She tutors kids, volunteers at blood drives, makes meals for everyone she knows, and drives neighbors to the doctor. Plus she always wears a smile, constantly talks about how blessed she is, and means it. Being around her puts a positive spin on everything. She asks great questions, listens to all the details of my life no one else would ever want to hear (like how I saved 83 cents at Kroger and the journaling activity the middle school English teacher did with my daughter’s class). My mom makes it all feel important, like it matters, like I matter.
Literally two hours after my mom drove off (leaving behind Texas sheetcake and turkey tetrazzini for us to devour) an out of town friend got out of a meeting she was having in my town! I got to see her for exactly nine minutes and it totally refueled my tank. Energy leaks from her body into mine when we hug. She is funny, beautiful, insightful, smart as all get out and typically goes a million miles an hour. She is one of those special few I can get vulnerable with and fully trust. She loves Jesus and somehow totally gets me and accepts me and my quirks.
Next day, a handful of my sorority sisters came to town for an impromptu reunion. #perksoflivinginacollegetown. These girls? We met when they were eighteen and I was nineteen. We’ve all logged a lot of miles—careers, marriages, moves, babies, loss, struggles, overcoming since we pledged our sisterhood. To reconnect with some who I hadn’t seen in decades and others in a year meant both being flooded with memories and meeting a group of wonderful new women—the ones they’ve all grown into—all at the same instant.
A daughter, a mom, an out of town friend who I met at Bible study years ago by a fluke, and a handful of girls who wore the same shirts to Greek Week in the 90’s is not how most would define ‘community’. But it’s where I find some of mine. We all need other people to fully become who God created us to be. Their stories help form our stories. Their triumphs inspire us. Their struggles expand our viewpoints, teach us lessons. Their ideas, experiences, and thoughts prompt and broaden ours. Hearing their hearts reinforces what we hold dear and helps us dispose of ideas we should have never let enter our minds in the first place.
Please know there are broadly two kinds of community, both are incredibly valuable. There is the general, learn, gather, socialize, laugh, carpool, expand your knowledge and ideas kind. And then there is the special, safe one. No matter how fun or interesting a group may be, you can only reveal your heart to a trusted few. If you share a secret with the masses, it’s no longer a secret. If you confess your greatest fear to too many, someone will unintentionally mock it or use it against you. Both types of communities are important. The inner circle is just more sacred.
Whether you’re typically a loner or always travel with a posse, find some special people, a community or two you can plug into. This can look like just about anything. But make sure it contains some people who will listen to and hear you, who will love and encourage you, who will challenge you, build you up, energize you, feed your soul, point you back to Jesus over and over again, and remind you that you are His, that you matter, because you do. They help remind you of your true reflection.
P.S. Just for the record, my mom borrowed one of my sweatshirts for our morning walk. One of my sorority sisters was also my roommate in Atlanta when we had our first ‘real jobs’. We each owned two suits and swapped them back and forth to make it look like we had enough ‘work clothes’ to get us through to casual Friday. And, as I write this I am wearing a pair of my daughter’s jeans. So, maybe, my community looks a little more like the Traveling Pants than I gave it credit for.
The thing about promises is that you keep them.
Or we’re supposed to. But everyone knows some promises hold more weight than others. There are some promises we don’t even pretend will be kept, because we know that either the maker of the promise is unreliable or the nature of the promise is impossible to keep. Think back to junior high elections—the poster that read “Jake for President, if I get elected I promise less homework and more ice cream in the cafeteria.” Um, Jake? Seventh Grade Class President doesn’t hold that kind of weight.
It’s gotten to the point that a promise isn’t enough. We have to swear by it, commit to the promise in writing, or the promise of all promises—make a pinky promise. But even those promises—contracts, vows, oaths—sometimes get broken. But God? He never breaks a promise. Never.
I’ve been working on a writing project this summer, which has put me deep in the books of the Old Testament. I’ll be honest, if I’m picking a chunk of the Bible to read, I prefer the letters from Paul. That’s not where God put me. I found myself imbedded in the pages of thick detailed books where I prefer to skip the battle scenes and go straight to the stories about lion’s dens and fiery furnaces. But it was important for my project that I read every word.
And in that reading, God blew me away. There were passages I thought I knew well, and others I hadn’t spent much time on, but page after page God opened my eyes to one particular truth—He is the God who keeps His promises. Every single time.
God said to an older man and woman with mega infertility issues, “Your kids and grandkids will outnumber the stars.” Abraham and Sarah were skeptical. They both tried to take matters into their own hands. Sarah even laughed out loud at God’s promise. But their son Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90!!! God built a nation out of Abraham and Sarah’s descendants. Just like He promised.
God said to Gideon, “You’ll win this battle with a handful of men against a gigantic army. Oh, by the way, you can’t use weapons. Just bring some torches, pots and horns.” Gideon was hiding when God found him. He had a rinky-dink army and no battle skills. But God kept his promise. The enemy defeated themselves. Biggest ‘own goal’ ever.
God said to Joshua, “I’m going to give you this city. All you have to do is walk around it for a week.” And the three tiers of walls that stood four stories high around Jericho literally crumbled to the ground. I get lost easily and have circled many a city block. Thankfully, nothing has fallen down. But when God promises something, even if it sounds ludicrous or impossible, it happens. Because God keeps his promises.
I could go on, but the point is if God says something is going to happen, it will. There are some promises God has across the board promised all of us, like that He will always be with us (Matthew 28:20), which would be plenty on its own. But there are more personal promises that He’s made to me and to you. God promised the shepherd boy David he would become king of Israel. God promised Noah he would be safe from a giant flood when there wasn’t a drop of rain in sight. Those most likely aren’t the promises God has spoken to you lately, because those crazy unlikely sounding promises were very specific to David and Noah. God has other specific promises, possibly super out-there promises, for you and me.
Sometimes God’s promise is something I could never dream up, but God could and does—as in the project that planted me in the Old Testament this summer. God taught me so much through this storytelling assignment, I am blown away. And I never saw it coming.
What has God promised you? Hang on to the fact that He never breaks His promises. No matter how we mess up, how tired we are, how defeated or unworthy we feel. God’s promises don’t look like worldly promises. They’re way more spectacular. And they always come to fruition in ways richer and fuller than we could orchestrate on our own. Whatever God is promising you today, it will happen. I promise.
Ever feel like everything is in pieces? Like you have no idea if the loose ends will ever be tied up or if they will just keep on unraveling?
I’ve been fortunate to spectate my son rehearsing for the local musical production of Annie, and similarly to our disheveled lives, a show seemingly starts with chaos. Once the show is announced and the cast has been selected there is the first rehearsal—packed with potential, but heavy with an uneasy feeling that this couldn’t possibly come together. Scripts are passed out, a tape played, and soon the partial cast—the group for Act 1—sings hesitantly from their seats straining to find the melody.
Have you ever struggled to find your tune?
Even when we can’t find the notes, even when we can’t see it, God is at work, bringing the pieces together. Step by step a little more of the full picture is revealed, like a jigsaw puzzle being assembled piece by piece to reveal a beautiful landscape. But even as the bits convene, each one creates it’s own obstacles and seems to add a level of uncertainty.
In the production, students move from their seats to the stark stage. More actors appear seemingly out of thin air, interspersing, transforming sheets of paper printed with lines into a story. But just like our lives, there are bumps and hiccups as the actors adjust to the transitions. Dance steps add to the pizazz, but complicate where people stand on stage. Singing needs to be coordinated with the orchestra that has replaced the tape recording.
Wooden beams create the skeleton of a staircase where the stage was bare before. The smell of sawdust lingers heavy in the air, and it’s exciting to imagine the finished set, but also a bit questionable if there will be time to complete it—if it will all fit, if it will stand strong. A live dog coaxed with Milk Bones replaces the imaginary Sandy. Will the dog sit? Stay? Or scramble off the stage like it did tonight?
It’s not that different from our own discernment. One step forward. Two steps back. A turn around and a slide sideways. God keeps adding pieces for us, steps to our staircases, notes to our songs, but we’re not sure how it’s all going to come together, or if it ever will.
When we’re in the middle of it all, sometimes life looks like a wreck, feels off kilter. Some days we’re waiting for the email, the proposal, the acceptance letter, the check to clear, the next step to be visible and in the waiting we feel frantic, antsy, eager to just be doing the next thing. Life around us looks undone, like chaos, like it’s moving, but not necessarily forward and maybe even backwards.
But God is always at work. Always.
He is planning and shuffling and building things behind the scenes. He’s making introductions, connecting old friends, new friends and loose wires, so that when it’s time, that thing He’s planning will be spectacular.
Each musical rehearsal contains a new marvel, as if something has miraculously happened in the dark, empty theatre overnight. There are beds and phones and buckets and plates. Each prop needs to be in its place, used at the right time by the correct actor. Students in sweatshirts and Converse scramble to find their costumes, and then almost magically, are transformed into New Yorkers in the 1920’s. But Annie’s curly red wig is askew. Someone else is missing a scarf. The boy with a solo has a sore throat. The seam on a dress rips. How will this fly?
But then comes the night of the performance. And all of the bits and pieces and loose ends collaborate for one spectacular show. The girl who was hard to hear is crystal clear with her mic. The cumbersome scenery slides on and off stage flawlessly. Everyone remembers the lines they’ve been struggling to recall. And the vase that keeps falling down stands straight and tall.
The waiting can be unnerving if we focus on the unknown. But if we focus on the known it can be exhilarating.
God loves us. Eph 2:3-4
He will never forsake us. Heb 13:5-6
He has perfect plans for us. Jer 29:11
When we focus on these truths we can notice each new prop and how it rounds out our stories. We can appreciate every character God brings into our lives and what we can learn from them. We can appreciate this change of tempo and that breather we get when the scenes switch and the fresh outlook a costume change offers. Then, after a long season of rehearsing and retaking scenes, it’s time for the show, and we can savor what God had done, what He has put together for us.
Just like a school doesn’t put on one play then close the curtains for good, our life is never about one performance. Our days are packed with new seasons, new scripts, new costumes, and new stage directions—new jobs, new relationships, new schools, new homes, new stages of life. And although there will always be a bit of hesitancy when we see the bare theatre and the unfamiliar songs, there can always be excitement and expectancy that God is the ultimate stage manager, director, and producer working all things together for glorious outcomes.
Every great story has a character searching for something. So much so, that Disney has made a franchise out of the “Finding…” title. Dory, separated from her parents, fervently searches the California waters for them. Marlin gets out of his shell, or sea anemone, to find his son, Nemo. In our favorite books and movies characters seek meaning, purpose, identity, true love, answers, friendship, redemption, the sorcerer’s stone, or heaps of treasure guarded by the ferocious dragon Smaug.
What are you searching for? How hard are you looking for it?
I’m challenging myself during Lent (a season of introspection taking various forms in different denominations of the Christian church dating back to 325 AD) to seek Jesus like it’s a quest, like it’s the answer to everything, like my life depends on it. Because Jesus is all of the things our heroes seek—meaning, purpose, identity, true love, answers, friendship, redemption, everlasting life and treasure beyond compare. I don’t know what your Lenten practices or beliefs are, but I am certain we could all be better off with a little more time with Jesus.
A few more minutes in our day allowing Him to remind us that He designed us, He loves us, He selected us, He reaches out to us and offers us not skimpy, or getting by, but abundant living. More moments understanding how grand and vast He is. Some more time realizing that no matter what the world offers it is hollow in comparison to the love, acceptance, and glory Jesus offers. We don’t need to look far. He told us, “Behold, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” But how often are we talking to Him? Listening to Him? Reaching out to Him? Seeking Him?
If I lose Wi-Fi, I go on a quest to find that freaking connection! I’ll restart the router. Unplug the router. Turn the router on and off. I’ll turn the Wi-Fi on and off on my computer. Search for networks all over again, re-click, reenter the insane password issued to me by Time Warner that only Little Man Tate could remember, and go through the whole process as many times as necessary. What am I doing to hook up to Jesus, to find my connection with Him? How fervently am I seeking Him in this journey of my life?
God made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him. He doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us. He’s not remote; he’s near. We live and move in him, can’t get away from him! –Acts 17:27-28
Today we’re officially one week into the 40 days of Lent. My journey began with the flu, and for the first couple of days what I was mostly seeking was for my cough and fever to go away and a little normalcy in my sleep patterns. My focus was fragmented. I prayed off and on as I lay awake in the middle of the night or as I drifted off in the middle of the day, but I didn’t want just mumblings with God, I wanted to seek Him. So I began reading the Psalms, and just meditating on His love. This is what I found on Day 1.
Pretty remarkable? One day into my quest and I was already finding Jesus. Have you found any time with Jesus yet? Have you been seeking Him? Why not put down this blog, close your eyes, and reach out to Him. He is near.
Laura L. Smith