Saturday, December 31, 2016

December Book Review

We made it through the whole year! My goal for 2016 was to read fifty books. I accomplished that a little over halfway through the year but kept going because I am a bibliophile. My final total for 2016 was 81 books! You can read more about December's reads below. If you want to read previous months' book reads, click the appropriate link: January,  February,  March,  April,  May,  June,  July,  August,  September,  October,  November.

1. The Magnolia Story by Chip and Joanna Gaines

  I have heard a lot about the Gaines' but haven't watched any of their shows. I knew that they were Christian, have a popular store in Waco, and Joanna is a great designer. I am always interested in decorating ideas and thought it might be that type of a book. It really wasn't, but I usually enjoy a good biography and this was pretty close to that. I enjoyed hearing about their story, how God intertwined their lives and has provided for them as they've dreamed and created and risked. I found it to be an encouraging read that might inspire one to pursue their own dreams.

2. These High, Green Hills by Jan Karon

  This was the third book in The Mitford Series. Father Tim and Cynthia are recently married and learning the ins and outs of combining two lives at a more mature age. We continue to learn about the lives were were previously introduced to as well as a few new ones. Father Tim is tasked with finding a chaplain for the new Senior living center and becomes entangled in the well-being of a girl who lives in the rough part of town. It is more of the same enchanting, small town adventures I have come to expect and enjoy.

3. The Mitford Snowmen by Jan Karon

  I happened to see this short story at the library when I was in there and had to pick it up. I like reading Christmas-themed books in December. It was a fun little story about the business owners on Main Street having a snowman building contest which turned out not to actually be a contest until the mayor happened along and declared herself the judge.

4. Esther's Gift by Jan Karon

  I saw this other Christmas-time short story at the same time and, of course, checked it out as well. Esther Bolick is known for her orange marmalade cakes and has over the years given them to people for celebratory occasions. She has decided to make seven for various people for Christmas but decides she'd like to know how much it costs her to make one. She gets her husband involved and is shocked to find out the total. She then wrestles with just how generous she should be. There is a recipe for her famous cake at the back for the adventurous.

5. Nothing to Prove: Why We Can Stop Trying So Hard by Jennie Allen

  I joined Jennie Allen's FB group, The Village, because I was interested in learning more about the new book she was trying to write in three weeks. I have not read anything else by her but the subject for this one was something I was quite familiar with feeling and was curious as to what she would say about it. I managed to be one of the lucky ones to receive an ARC of the book, available January 31st.

  I really enjoyed the format of the book. At the end of each chapter is a related verse along with an exercise to complete that asks you to admit where you are weak in a particular area and then reach out to or share with others. I like that it pushes the reader to apply what they have just read to their lives.

  I really enjoyed the subject of feeling like I'm not enough and feeling the need or desire to strive or perform for others or God. She uses some stories from the book of John in the Bible to show us what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples and us. I felt that she shared a lot of truth and wisdom and I felt encouraged and freed to rest securely in my identity in Christ. I gained a better understanding of what it looks like to abide in Christ. I think this is a wonderful book for anyone who is tired of feeling like they are not enough but not realizing that this is God's invitation for us to draw nearer to him.

6. Starry Night: A Christmas Novel by Debbie Macomber

  I searched for available Christmas themed e-books at my local library and this was one of my options. I have read a couple of books by Debbie Macomber and have enjoyed the reads. This one was no exception. Chicago Herald reporter Carrie Slayton is longing to get off of the social column and into real news reporting. Her editor tells her that if she can interview author Finn Dalton about his best-selling book Alone then she can have practically any section of the paper she desires. Carrie agrees to the deal before learning that hundreds of reporters have tried and failed to find the elusive Dalton. Carrie is determined to be the one to find him and starts the hunt.

  She finds him but finds much more than a homely reclusive man. She finds a stubborn, very masculine man that is determined not to grant her or anyone else an interview. While stuck in Alaska with Finn for two days in his cabin, his animosity slowly changes to amity and then attraction. Though the attraction is palpable, Finn is determined not to let her in. It was a fun, light, romantic read for the Christmas season.

7. The Bible

  I decided to read through the Bible again. It took me about two years to read the entire thing. I tend to get bogged down by the dryness of the middle of the Old Testament (Numbers, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles) so I chose to read through the book in no particular order, switching between Old and New Testament books. I kept a list and crossed each one off as I finished it. Luke and Acts were my final two books. I always enjoy reading through the books that aren't in the regular rotation.

  Last year a friend of mine talked about a practice she does toward the end of a year. She goes through each book of the Bible and writes down a verse from the chapter that coordinates with the coming year (last year all of the 16th chapters). Some books don't have sixteen chapters so then she would just pick a verse from the book. I tried it last year, choosing the 16th verse of some books with few chapters and sometimes using the 6th verse if the 16th didn't exist. I really enjoyed reading through them and seeing what was highlighted for the year. I wanted to do it again this year so I have done it for all of the 17th chapters (or verses). When I had options, I tried to pick ones that resonated with me form this year or that I wanted to be relevant for the coming year. It's a neat exercise if you are interested in reading the Bible in a new way.

8. No More Faking Fine: Ending the Pretending by Esther Fleece

  I had the opportunity to receive and Advance Reader Copy of this book, officially available January 10, 2017. I was very curious to read it because I often struggle with feeling like I cannot be honest about how I am feeling with the world around me. I have often responded "Fine" when asked the generic "How are you?" by acquaintances. I was interested to see what Ms. Fleece had to say about ending the pretending.

  This book focuses on learning the practice of lament. Many of the Psalms in the Bible are laments by people who are struggling and wondering where God is amidst the difficulty. In fact, there's a whole book titled "Lamentations". In this book, we learn about Esther's tumultuous childhood and the effects it has continued to have on her life despite her desire to forget the past and move on. She learns that the best way to find healing is to address the wounds and a wonderful way of doing so is through learning to lament our hurts. Lamenting involves speaking honestly to God about the hurts in our lives, trusting that he is still good, still loving, still for us, and believing that he will bring about justice on our behalf. Through the process of being honest about our negative feelings, we will find healing. The process is painful but it's better than staying stuck in bitterness and hurt.

  I gained some useful tools and insight into acknowledging, addressing and finding healing for my hurts in God. We all experience pain in this world and we have a choice in how we will deal with it. Will we believe that God can use our pain for good and healing or will we choose to believe the lies of our enemy that God is not loving or present or trustworthy. I recommend this book for anyone who is feeling stuck or wallowing in hurt and desires healing and freedom, hope and new life.

9. The Mommy Shorts Guide to Remarkably Average Parenting by Ilana Wiles

  I have followed the Mommy Shorts blog off and on along with @AverageParentProblems on Instagram. I thought it would be fun to read a book about her experiences with parenting and those of her blog followers. It did not disappoint.

  In the book you will find a humorous but fairly accurate view of parenting - starting with pregnancy through the first few years of raising two children (because that's as far as she's gotten in her parenting journey). It would be a good read for future parents that will hopefully help them prepare for parenting but understand that perfection is impossible. It's also a fun read for parents in the trenches because they will be able to relate and laugh at the ridiculousness that is parenting at times. If you need a laugh, definitely check out the book (but avoid if you're not a fan of spicy language).

10. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

  This was another of the holiday books I read in December. I have read a couple of David Sedaris' other collections of essays and they were interesting. This one was a compilation of memories of winters past along with random holiday-related essays such as one very crazy holiday newsletter and an account of neighbors trying to one-up one another in the giving department in very twisted ways. I cringed through some of the stories. It was rather crude in language but that's not unexpected if you've read other works by Sedaris. I probably wouldn't recommend it to many though his experience as an elf in a department store during the Christmas season was rather eye-opening.

How many books did you read this year? Did you have a favorite that you would recommend? I don't think I'll set a goal for books in 2017 because I want to cut back on commitments so that I can enjoy my current season without feeling like I have a long to-do list waiting for me. I did enjoy the challenge that pushed me to make time for reading, though. It is such a refreshing task for me.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Nothing to Prove

  I had the privilege of receiving an advanced reading copy of Jennie Allen's new book Nothing to Prove: Why We Can Stop Trying So Hard which will be publicly available January 31, 2017. I had heard about this new book when she opened a Facebook group to help her as she worked to write the whole book in three weeks (she had written a different book but felt that God wanted her to write this one instead). She used her group for support, to bounce around ideas and have specific questions answered by her intended audience. I really enjoyed the book and want to share the parts that spoke the most to me during this time in my life.

I'm convinced every one of us is fighting some pressure, some suffering, some sin, some burden...Nobody is okay. fine. great. But, goodness, we are all tired of trying to pretend we are. 

  I often forget that we all have our own stresses and pressures in life. It often seems like there are some people who do not and I suppose they are just those that are able to hide their mess the best. I

  I do get tired of pretending that I am fine all the time. I am tempted at times to respond to the question, How are you? truthfully but most of the time I assume the person asking isn't really wanting to know, it is just an informal greeting. I do sometimes wish that I could just lay it all out there and not worry about how others perceive me.

If I were your enemy, I would make you numb and distract you from God's story. Technology, social media, Netflix, travel, food and wine, comfort.

  Through reading this book I acknowledged that I had been numbing myself in order to avoid dealing with pain, struggle and hard parts of life. I became more aware of the strategies the enemy has been using to keep me from being truly free.

I'm convinced nearly all of us feel this incredible pressure to prove we measure up in some way. Every morning we face the list of tasks left undone the previous night, the expectations of our family and coworkers, the burden to be the beautiful, strong, and gracious ideal humans that we're convinced the world, the church, and God require.

  I don't know about everyone else, but I definitely have struggled with feeling like I am not measuring up, that I am inadequate, that I am not enough. It has finally begun to sink in that, perhaps, that is what God wants me to realize. On my own I am not enough. I need God. He wants me to depend on him, to consistently seek him in my life. This realization has started to remove this burden that I've been carrying around unnecessarily.

To get to the place where God can be enough, we have to first admit we aren't.

  I have finally, deep down in my soul, reached this place where I know I need God and I believe that he is enough for me. In him, I live and move and have my being. I will never measure up but that's not my purpose. My purpose is to reveal God's love to the world and how else can he do that but seeping through my cracks and imperfections?

There is no remedy for your striving apart from finding your identity in Christ. He is your enough, and the degree to which you believe that is the degree to which you will stop striving, stop performing, stop trying to prove yourself.

  I believe that this is a true statement. I have striven for most of my life. I think part of that has been due to my type A, achievement-driven personality. It has not helped me to gain contentment and peace and I am now willing to try a new way, a way of rest and trust, belief and confidence in God.

Make it your goal to love and know Jesus as much as humanly possible and ministry will happen.

  I am comforted by this statement. I do want to love and serve others in meaningful ways that honor God. If my focus us on knowing Jesus more, if I abide in him and keep myself attached to the vine, then fruit will naturally occur. Knowing God brings the living water and nourishment that is needed for effective ministry. I have to remember that my job is to stay close, God's job is to produce the fruit.

  There were so many wonderful things I read in the book. I probably underlined a good third of it. If any of the highlighted quotes from the book resonated with you, I highly recommend ordering a copy. If you are an achievement-focused person or scared that one day you will be exposed at not being enough, then definitely check out this book!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Finding Hope in the Struggle

God is continuing to help me work out this struggle with loneliness. I have felt that others do not fully understand what I have been trying to express about loneliness. I do not find it difficult gathering people together but am familiar with the truth that it is possible to be lonely in a crowd. My deeper desire is to belong and to feel known and that doesn’t result from a bunch of surface relationships. My other frustration has been in not receiving many invitations from others. But God has recently helped me to understand and admit that I have been focusing on the minor annoyances rather than on the many blessings he has provided for me.

When I was in church on Sunday I felt that God was asking me to just let go of my frustrations, give him the whole situation, trust him to do what is best, and turn my focus toward the blessings and express gratitude for what I do have (rather than lament on what I feel I am lacking).

It is a blessing that so many people accept my invitations. Most of the time people are willing to get together with me or my family and I should not discount that. It is a blessing that there are a few people who do extend invitations to me and my family. I don’t know why I want more people to do that as I would then be overwhelmed and not be able to focus on growing deeper in a few special relationships. I do have several good friends who are dependable and invested and I am remorseful that I have not seemed more appreciative.

I also think I have been expecting too much from various situations, having unrealistic expectations as a matter of fact. I did enjoy the party I hosted recently but I went into it knowing I would not be able to have any really deep conversations with anyone because my focus would be on everyone feeling welcomed, comfortable and enjoying themselves. We went to a community gathering for church over the weekend and I knew it would be another evening of short, not-too-personal conversations and I was able to enjoy it for what it was. I cannot expect every gathering to fulfill my need to be known

I am continuing to learn that I can only be completely fulfilled and known in Jesus. I am working on being transparent with Jesus in meaningful time with him daily (because he already knows it all, why bother trying to cover anything up). I do believe that a large part of my struggle has been in trying to get people to meet a need only Jesus can fill.

I know the struggle is not over, but I have hope and confidence that I will be victorious in Jesus. I recognize the truth in Ephesians 6:12 “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” I have believed the enemy’s lies but have recently recognized them as being lies and have spoken truth to myself in these areas to refute the lies. The enemy is hard at work but I am becoming wise to his schemes and fighting back through prayer and God’s word. Sunday's sermon at church had a quote from John Piper about being “more than a conqueror” (Romans 8:37) meaning that not only do we defeat our enemy (as conquerors do), but our enemy actually serves and helps us. So our weaknesses and mistakes can be redeemed and become beneficial. I know the truth in that and was appreciative of the reminder.

I have struggled throughout the past few years but am seeing some hope and purpose in it. I know I have not always been wise or grace-filled in how I have handled everything but I know that I am covered by grace and pray for forgiveness from anyone I have hurt during this process. I am as flawed and fumbling as the next person. I pray that others would see the hope and God's faithfulness in my story. God has the power to redeem any and every circumstance and story.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Wrestling with Loneliness

I was thinking recently about the changes in my life over the past year. The first four months of the year were very busy and scheduled. I remember thinking that if I had a lot of activity it would get rid of my feelings of loneliness. It obviously didn’t because I wrote several posts about feeling lonely. Reading Jennie Allen’s book Nothing to Prove recently helped me to see that keeping a full schedule was the way I tried to numb myself from feeling lonely. I thought if I had a lot going on, I wouldn’t have time to be lonely. The only thing it did was keep me from facing my loneliness, allowing it to grow deeper while I kept it pushed back into a dark corner.

Being honest and admitting my loneliness was a good first step. But I was trying to find an external reason for my loneliness. I believed the lies that there was something wrong with me keeping others from inviting me to do things, that I was too much or not enough or just too normal/boring to be noticed. At one point I thought that maybe if my family had some huge issue or need, then people would see us, see my loneliness, and do something about it.

In May, God asked me to trust him with my loneliness. He asked me to set down my impulse to schedule things with people and allow him the opportunity to meet my need for connection and community. I set aside the month to see what God would do. I was pleasantly surprised to receive a few invitations from others. Not as many as I would like (I think I was still trying to stay busy to numb my feelings), but what I needed to be reminded that he is faithful and he cares about and for me.

I chose to continue to pare back my schedule over the summer and fall months. I have enjoyed not being so busy or rushed this fall. It has allowed me some spontaneous engagements and more time at home with family. I am also being reminded through this process that my worth is not determined by my accomplishments or achievements. I have often felt like doing less meant being lazy. But we need rest and refreshment and refusing to make time for both of those is not being a good steward of my body and health.

I am choosing to trust that there is a purpose in all of this. I have no idea what the big picture is, but I am enjoying the small things I am learning and the ways I am changing and growing. No, I don’t enjoy the waves of loneliness I feel but I am learning to turn toward God rather than away, which is my enemy’s goal.

Recently, my mentor and I talked about my struggle with loneliness. I was telling her what had been going on with our family and she noted that I have had a good amount of social engagement recently. I admitted that it’s not very challenging to get together with others. My frustration tends to stem from feeling that I have to shoulder the responsibility of organizing events and people. I wonder if it’s the enemy twisting my perspective to keep me from having community. Yes, I may have to ask people to do things with us, but most of the time I receive an affirmative which should be a sign that my company is enjoyable. And what’s wrong with being the organizer (as long as it is not completely draining)?

My mentor had more positive thoughts about my struggle. Perhaps the acute feeling of loneliness exists inside me in order to prompt me to reach out to others who may also be experiencing loneliness. I notice that not many people seem to invite others and perhaps they are too busy or also hearing internally that their presence is not desired or are fearful that their invitation will be rejected. Perhaps this thing that I lament can be the impetus that leads me to the community I so desire.

I have a friend who has organized her own birthday gatherings the past two years. She said she loved spending time with friends and would be disappointed on birthdays when she didn’t engage with others. She thought, Why not be in charge of my birthday agenda and invite my friends? It’s what I want and I know it’s worth it to put forth the effort.

This should probably be my perspective. And it is, sometimes. This spring I think I was just worn out and coming out of a season of too much work and not enough rest.

I am still swinging back and forth between trusting God and feeling contentment, and feeling lonely and left out. Perhaps this will always be a cycle for me. At least I know that God will always be with me and is able to provide peace and encouragement. I will place my hope in the belief that good will come from all of this and it will be to God’s glory.

Friday, December 2, 2016

November Book Review

We just wrapped up November. I was right about a deficiency of reading time. I did finish three books which isn't too shabby. If you want to read previous months' book reads, click the appropriate link: JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJuneJulyAugust,  September,  October.

1. A Light in the Window by Jan Karon

  This is the second book in The Mitford Series. I thoroughly enjoyed the first one and was anxious to see how the story continued from the first one. It picked up with Father Tim returning from his Ireland trip and trying to get back into a routine at home. He is once again unsure how to proceed in his friendship with Cynthia while trying to help fix issues all around town. I was very anxious to learn what would happen between Father Tim and Cynthia. I love a good love story so I was strung along throughout the book to see if there would be a happy ending after all. The other characters in the novel are also very endearing and lovable and I wished the best for nearly everyone in the story (there's always a bad apple or two, right?).
  The story is very well spun and kept my attention throughout. I was sad to reach the last page, but encouraged that the next installment is already available at my local library. I have been assured that the entire series is as engaging and endearing and am excited about having so many more installments of the people of Mitford, North Carolina.

2. The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson

  I had read a short story by Joshilyn Jackson during the summer. I was looking for a currently-available book from the library to be able to read in bed and this is what I picked. It's about a woman named Paula living in Atlanta (I really do like books that take place where I live or have lived) who had a transient childhood with her single mother. She committed a grievous act against her mother as a young girl and has been attempting to pay restitution to her mother for the past decade and a half in hopes of finally receiving forgiveness from her. She receives a message from her mother that she is dying of cancer. Paula struggles to deal with this revelation when her previously-unknown half-brother walks into her life.
  The story shifts back and forth between present day and memories of her past. I really enjoyed the gradual filling in of her background and history to help the reader gain more understanding into the situation and Paula herself. I was quickly engaged in the story and anxious to see how it would be resolved. I really enjoyed the unfolding of the story. I would recommend this book for someone looking for an interesting fiction read.

3. Uninvited: Living Loved When You Feel Less Than, Left Out and Lonely by Lysa TerKeurst

  I had heard a lot of good things about this book. I had read Unglued: Making Wise Choices in the Midst of Raw Emotions even though I don't consider myself driven by my emotions and found it very helpful for me in dealing with the emotions I do have. :-)  I have been feeling lonely a lot this year so it seemed like a book that would be right up my alley. And boy, was it. I had borrowed it from the library otherwise it would have been all marked up. Instead I took a bunch of photos with my phone of impactful sentences and paragraphs. There was so much excellent information, truth, and encouragement in this book I have not fully been able to process it. It definitely helped me to have a more enlightened and God-focused mindset on things I've been feeling and experiencing. I have hope that God will use my loneliness and rejection for my benefit and his glory. I already know that I am going to re-read the book once I acquire my own copy. If you struggle with loneliness or rejection, I would highly recommend this book. Even if you just want to be reminded of the benefit of drawing closer to God so that you can live loved, this book is also for you.

What did you read in November? I like to try to read at least one Christmas-themed book in December. Do you do that as well? Do you have any favorite Christmas book titles to share with me? 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

November Goal Review

October is over. It is the gear up toward the holiday season. It can be a lot of fun but also quite stressful. Let's see how my goals fared this month. If you want to read about previous months' successes and failures, click the appropriate month:  January,  February,  March,  April,  May,  June,  July,  August,  September,  October.

1. One arts and crafts time with the kids each month

  Kaitlyn had to disguise a turkey for school so we worked on that together. Jackson wanted to participate so I gave him some materials to work with while I cut leaves and Kaitlyn cut and glued. Afterward she decided to turn the remaining leaves into a fall crown which she graciously gave to me.

  We had some friends over for a play date and decided to make some playdough beforehand for the occasion. The kids chose the colors and mixed the food coloring into the dough. Kaitlyn wanted to make bracelets for her friends so we also got out the beads and went to work. I helped Jackson make his bracelet. The kids enjoyed these projects. Kaitlyn is really beginning to get into the spirit of making and giving things to others. She is excited about being able to give her friends gifts for Christmas.

   My daughter asks if we can do a craft about once per week (the reason I set one of my goals this year to be a monthly craft even though I'm not crafty). When she asked most recently, I had seen a craft on Facebook that I thought we had the supplies for and could do immediately. It was a video of a woman making a star out of paper. I hadn't actually listened to the instructions and when I did (right after telling my daughter we could do a star craft) I learned that the woman used paper bags instead of sheets of paper. I decided we would try to go forward with the project anyway. We decorated fourteen white sheets of paper and then taped them together in pairs on three sides. We glued them together per the instructions, cut off triangles, and tested it out. I'd say it was successful and my daughter thought it was pretty cool (she already wants to make another one).


2. Blog at least twice per month

  After October's mental block, the gates seem to have opened a bit for me to express things on my mind and in my life. I'm not doing another writing challenge, but trying to talk about what's going on with me. I wrote a post about a morning I spent in prayer, meditation and communion with God. I also wrote about finding tangible and meaningful ways to love others. I also shared a post about being reminded of where my worth comes from. I still desire for blogging to become a more regular part of my routine but balance is still elusive to me.

3. Grow in gratitude, contentment and generosity

  Continuing to write regularly in my gratitude journal has helped me to stay reminded of all I have to be thankful for. November, obviously, had been a constant reminder of my blessings and freedoms.

  As the Advent season has begun, I do desire to be able to enjoy the remembrance of Christ's birth and the hope that it brings. I desire to remain content throughout this season - content with where I am in all facets of life (geographical location, spiritual, physical), content with what I have (possessions, mental faculties, physical health, relationships), and who I am (imperfect, valuable, loved, accepted human being). That's a lot to try to be content about but if my heart is at peace and rest then I will truly have joy.

  My biggest struggle with contentment has been in my relationships. Because I don't have family nearby, I have to rely on friends for my social life. I have periods where I feel frustrated that it feels like my family only hangs out with others when we do the inviting. I often wonder if others don't entertain or they just don't think to ask us to do things. More than likely they're in a busy season of life. I'm praying that God will help me find contentment in the relationships and social calendar I do have rather than the one I yearn for.

  Since reading Listen, Love, Repeat, I've been trying to be a better listener in order to better discern ways to love, help and serve others. As Christmas approaches, my desire to be more generous has increased. I really want this Advent season to be marked by love and kindness and charity. I want our family to focus on blessing others, on looking outward rather than inward. My six-year-old is excited about the idea of giving friends and family gifts for Christmas. She even asked for chore opportunities so she could earn money to buy gifts for friends. My four-year-old is still focused more on receiving gifts, but that's probably to be expected.

What did you work on achieving in November? Did the Thanksgiving holiday cause setbacks? Are you prepared for working on your goals in December with everything else going on? It will take focus and dedication, but we can finish this year strong!