gratitude & recent reads.

Usually I post on Tuesdays, but this particular week, Jesus surprised me with the gift of my husband having the day off! I was thrilled, but even so, I remember having my to-do list flash across my mind waving it’s red flag and saying, “What about us?!?” I took a deep breath and reminded myself that gratitude is often choosing to enjoy what is true today, not looking to what I’m not getting. So instead of looking at the blog I wasn’t writing or the chores I wasn’t getting done, I chose to be present.

Yesterday it felt easy to choose to be present and grateful, especially when it included a full day of rest and pumpkins, apple cider and popcorn, a favorite TV show and cookies & milk, snuggling and dancing with our girl, library books and coffee among the gorgeous autumnal splendor of Pennsylvania trees with my two favorite people. It isn’t always so easy to say yes to gratitude, especially when it doesn’t feel particularly fun or pleasant. I’m asking Jesus to help me remember the gifts of yesterday and the gratitude that made them possible to enjoy, for not only myself but my family too. So in the name of gratitude and good gifts, today’s post comes to you on Wednesday instead of Tuesday.

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I’ve been blazing through books lately, like it’s my job.

Which I suppose is fitting, since I do see reading and researching as being part of my work in this season.

Here’s some of what I’ve been reading lately, including three books that publishers gave me copies of to review honestly (those are at the bottom.)

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Kisses from Katie: I’ll be honest. I didn’t expect to like this book. On the outside, it looked like it would be full of Christian cliches and just another white girl falling in love with Africa. I am so happy to be wrong. This book brought me to tears with Katie’s humble obedience and painful honesty. This book is a story of the Lord’s faithfulness and goodness and the part Katie plays in his kingdom work. I tasted the life we were meant for as I read this story. Just listen to her heart: “I knew I could have stayed at the orphanage and God would have still loved me, but I could hear His voice whispering in my heart. He had given me a new place to live and a new adventure to embrace. How could I say no?” (47)

This book challenged me and encouraged me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Jesus used Katie’s words to speak to my heart in this new season. I want to follow Jesus like Katie. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

For the Love: I’d gotten through about an hour of another of Jen Hatmaker‘s books (the audio version) and was struggling. I honestly think it was the voice of  narrator (who isn’t Jen) who just didn’t match the humor and authenticity on the page. To be frank, her voice bugged me. I didn’t think I could do another nine hours of the audio book, but I wasn’t done giving Jen a try.

When I picked up this book, it took me a few chapters to get the audio book narrator’s voice out of my head. And once that happened, I couldn’t get enough. It has been a while since I laughed out loud at a book the whole time but this was one of those books. If you’re looking for a serious book on practical theology, this isn’t it.  Jen ranges from talking to people who are disillusioned from the church (a more thoughtful chapter) to her fashion pet peeves (way funny). Each chapter reads almost like a separate blog post, witty and thoughtful, touching on some element of grace.

Saving Lucas Biggs: I loved this young adult fiction. I confess that I mostly picked it up because I saw it had time travel in it. But as I read, I was struck by the redemption, the character development and the good story that was unfolding before me. I don’t want to give away too much, but I thought this book did time travel well. And bonus, a husband and wife wrote it together!

Organized Simplicity: Tsh (yes, that’s her name; pronounce it as if there’s an “i”) provides some incredibly practical tips on how to de-clutter and organize your home, room by room. While I haven’t adopted everything she does, I have following a few of her suggestions, which have been incredibly helpful. I started making short to-do lists in the morning for my day, with no more than 10 items, keeping me on task in the midst of toddler distractions and changing schedules. I went through my clothes again, making sure that the clothes I have are my favorites. Tsh doesn’t just tell the reader that simple living is important, she kindly helps with the process of moving towards that. Some of the book simply didn’t apply to me in this season, but the principles behind her tips carry through to any season.

The Homemade Pantry: I love baking and cooking. I love trying new things and exploring. But this book, I’m sorry to say, felt a little overwhelming to me. I think in a different season, I’d be more gungho to try and make my own cheese on a regular basis or any of the other things the author recommends. I think the volume and breadth of how many recipes the author provides to make homemade just felt like too much. However, she did inspire my to start thinking more about what foods I can make myself instead of purchasing (even if I’m not following her recipes). The week I read this I did make my own hummus, which although not a direct result of this book, I still count as a win.

The Nesting Place: I loved reading this book, with it’s pages full of pictures and so many honest stories. Myquillyn has lived in 14 different homes and her current home (and the one pictured throughout the book) is a rental. This book is a true inspiration to make whatever space you’re living in a home, instead of waiting for the day that you’re living somewhere more ideal. She shares her process of trust and creativity, honestly recounting her struggle with gratitude in each place they’ve lived. While I don’t share quite the same passion for decorating as Myquillyn, I do have a similar desire to make our space feel like home. This was a gift to read in a new season, where we find ourselves in a new place. I felt challenged to start experimenting more and risking failure in order to figure out what I like and how to better create home for our family and friends. I loved these words: “What if you welcome people into the mess, the lacking, and the undone? Imperfections bear witness to the fact that we are normal, approachable, real people. Why try to hide that?” (58)

Your Life is a Book: I’m working to learn more about writing and story. This book was one I stumbled upon about writing a memoir and I found it incredibly insightful. I loved learning more about what makes a good story and was amazed at what I learned about the publishing process. (Anyone who gets published has my utmost respect! It is a lot of work to write a book. It seems to be just as much work to promote and publish that book.) This book clarified and gave words to many things I’d noticed about my own writing as well as the things I felt drawn to read. It provides many practical applications through writing prompts, sample proposals to editors and ways to go deeper with your own writing. I’m looking forward to applying what I’ve learned in the days ahead.

Waiting: I loved this new book by Kevin Henkes. The illustrations are sweet, and the story is simple but profound about how waiting impacts us. A new favorite.

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Murder at the Courthouse:

Too often a mystery premise involves a great deal of gore or terror. I’m honestly not a big fan of either. But I thought it could be good to get outside of my normal genres and read a mystery, especially one that felt like it would avoid my aforementioned distasteful elements. Murder at the Courthouse is just that.  Ann Gabhart works to develop her characters beyond just the murder mystery itself. There is plenty of suspense, and I certainly was surprised by who the murderer was. 

The setting is the small town of Hidden Springs, which reminded me a great deal of the fictional home of Father Tim, Mitford. Unfortunately, Hidden Springs is absent of a little of its charm, but still a likeable place. I appreciated that the author, while injecting some Christian themes into the story, did not take this story as a chance to sermonize to the detriment of the all. The main character is full of questions, some pertaining to the murder, but many about his own identity, faith and meaning. I appreciated that not all of these questions were answered in the course of the story.

I liked this book. I wasn’t in love, but that takes a lot for me. I have deep appreciation for any Christian author who does works to tell a good story and integrates faith into the mix, instead of inserting overtly Christian dialogue that seems out of place and takes away from the story. Hats off to you, Ann for maintaining the story’s integrity, keeping characters feeling like people, and for showing both the good and the bad of humanity in this book.

*Revel Publishers provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commissions 16 CFR, Part 255

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You Can’t Text a Tough Conversation:

As a recovering people-pleaser, I have a hard time with confrontation and hard conversations. But I’m convinced that talking with people face-to-face is worth the discomfort and momentary difficulty, in order to continue to build trust and continue to connect. I was hopeful that Mike Bechtle would share these values and elaborate on how to do that in today’s world filled with break-up texts and hard news via email.

This book covered a great deal of ground, providing all kinds of practical tips on how to communicate better. Unfortunately, I found the material Mike provides much better suited to a presentation or a workshop than in book format. I felt myself craving more depth to the topic of communication in the midst of so much technology. Depth seemed to be traded for breadth.

Mike uses personal anecdotes for much of his examples for communication. While I have every reason to believe he does this with the best of intention, I found myself wishing for him to stop talking about himself so much. He rarely quotes research or provides examples beyond himself or his own family. Ironically, in a book about communication, his lack of including others’ voices made him less credible as a communicator.

On a basic level, the book provides many practical tips on how to communicate better. If you are struggling with “how” to better communicate this could be a helpful read. However, this book does little to talk about the motivation or values behind why communication and connection are truly important. I was disappointed to not see this Christian author not pointing the reader back to the only lasting one who can create heart change, the Lord. Without help from the Lord, I see the tips offered in this book as behavior modification, nothing more. I would have liked to see Mike go beyond tips and tricks and explore what it looks like to invite the Lord into our relationships with others, especially when they include difficult conversations.

*Revel Publishers provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commissions 16 CFR, Part 255

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ThresholdsAs someone who has in the last five years has moved across the country three times, started dating for the first time, got engaged long-distance, got hitched to my best friend, had a baby, had two major career shifts, and started four new jobs, I’m always on the hunt for new insights about transition. Having ridden the waves that come with each new beginning, I’m especially wary of the lines that are toted around times of transition by well-intentioned people that are incredibly unhelpful. I think I’m also decently in tune with the people “who get it.” I have a deep appreciation for others who acknowledge the pain of transition and are willing to be in the mess of the mud with you. When I started the book, I wasn’t sure which camp Thresholds would be in: well-intentioned, but unhelpful or spot on. And as I finished the book, I felt just as unsure of which camp to place it in.

The author is a rabbi with plenty of life experience and hours clocked caring for people in transition, Sherre Hirsch. She truly “get it.” I was impressed with the pulse she has on the human experience, especially in light of transition.  

“The human tendency is to believe that all unknowns are dangerous.” (33)

“Deep inside, each one of us knows that we have no control of others or the workings of the world…but liminal moments force us to think about these questions. Because as hard as we try to push them away in our regular lives, when we are standing at a threshold these questions are shoved in our faces and we cannot escape them.” (44-45)

“Human nature is to seek advice from people who will confirm what we wish to hear.” (49)

“How we act in liminal moments-particularly the difficult ones-is a choice that each one of us gets to make for ourselves. No one else gets to make it for us.” (101)

“It can often be difficult to see that while we may not have control over the situation, we do have control over how we respond….It is a long way from the head to the heart. Yet moving forward across the threshold requires that we summon the faith and the courage to act from the head and not the heart….It requires that we remind ourselves that, while our feelings in the moment are very real, they are not permanent.” (103)

I truly appreciated her distinction between the depth of feeling of transition and how we choose to respond in the midst of transition. Her examples covered a breadth of ground from the death of a child to divorce, a new job to a new relationship. Each time, Rabbi Hirsch showed the reality that only we are responsible for how we respond to a situation. She disproved the idea of a “perfect” option that so often paralyzes people from making important decisions. There is no ideal destination or role, and she reminds us of how often we are comparing our lives to the idea we have in our head of someone else’s, instead of the reality. “We have no idea what goes on in other people’s homes. But we do an excellent job of imagining their perfect lives.” (119) She also gives permission for us to grow and change and need different things in different seasons. “This is often confusing and hard to understand because we tend to think that what felt good and right at one time should feel good and right always. And when it doesn’t, rather than acknowledging that we have changed-and that we need to change our expectations or situation to bring them in line with how we have changed-we instead become frustrated and may begin to blame everyone and everything else around us” (121)

I think I was disconcerted with her view of self and her view of God. I was anticipating some differences in belief, as a result from our different faith backgrounds. However, I was disappointed by how she portrays God in her interpretations of Biblical accounts, making God sound confused or capable of making mistakes. She says that the future is unknown even to God. She does not describe God as having an active role in our lives, but humanizes God to be relatable and capable of experiencing the same transitions and thresholds as we do. The Biblical history she shares, ranging from Moses to Joseph to Ruth all seem to be mere examples of human response to difficulties, instead of God’s active and sovereign roles in the lives of people.

Rabbi Hirsch repeatedly tells the reader to have faith in oneself, above all.

“Whether you are Jewish, Christian, agnostic, atheist or something in between does not matter. This isn’t about having faith in God. It’s about having faith in the most important person: you.” (20)

But then, she also talks about how lost we feel, how easily we tell ourselves stories that aren’t true and how little control we have over the world around us. These two messages of our susceptible and weak humanity and faith in oneself seem to contradict each other, as Rabbi Hirsch seems to say that the answer comes from trusting in yourself. I got the impression that one does this by living in the present, and choosing moment by moment to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” And the more you do this, the more, Rabbi Hirsch claims, you’ll have the courage to keep going and trust yourself more.

“You have the courage and strength to continue to move forward regardless of the decision you face, and, as a result, to begin to trust yourself more and then more. And over time you will discover and develop more and more faith in the most important person: you…You get it right when you trust yourself. When you realize that while other people can offer you advice and suggestions, the real answer is inside you. When you choose to believe in yourself–even in moments when you feel tremendous doubt. When you realize that each time you face your fears, you are getting better at it; you are becoming more practiced and skilled. Then you will see that making the decision to move to the next room becomes easier and easier because you value and trust in your own decisions.” (180-181)

But what if your decisions are wrong? What if you’re making decisions based on incorrect information because you believe lies about yourself or someone else? What if the grief of a transition threatens to bury you and you simply don’t have the strength to muster to believe in yourself? What then?

I believe this is where the Lord steps in. I believe, unlike Rabbi Hirsch, that God is active in the lives of people. Only with his help are we able to ride the waves of grief or make decisions with wisdom, because Rabbi Hirsch is right: we are easily overwhelmed; we easily believe stories that aren’t true; we have trouble with transitions. We don’t need to have the strength to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. The Lord offers rest to the weary. He offers to carry us when we have nothing left. Although Rabbi Hirsch’s book was intended to help, I felt saddened to see that she does not direct the reader to the only one who is truly able to help in times of need: God.

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for my honest review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commissions 16 CFR, Part 255

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