Tuesday, April 17, 2018

50 - Part 2 - 'S' Words

If you didn't read yesterday's post, bring yourself up to speed here.

A week or so before The Big Day, a friend who loves a good book as much as I do suggested a new title and author. I picked it up and knew immediately it was going to speak to some areas in my Christian life that needed attention. You see, I already knew something was off. I had a slight idea, but soon I would know fully.

I couldn't put the book down. I read it in a few days. The first few were brutal. The truth hurt.

What I found deep down as I read the author's story wasn't pretty. And it needed to be dealt with. I spent the next few days beating myself up because I've been down this road before. This stuff was not unfamiliar. I've battled it before. More on that later.

Have you experienced this? The Lord turned the mirror around and I saw sin that I am well acquainted with and despise, hoping it was a thing of the past but it crept back in somehow, unnoticed by my always probing eye. But that is part of the problem. That eye.

Do you remember when I wrote about my 2018 Lent experience? All the junk that surfaced from deep inside? Yeah, that. Self-absorption, self-preoccupation, self-consciousness, and the newest offender - self-evaluation. The one that fuels all the rest.

It stems from the stronghold of comparing with others. When I compare, I come up wanting. When I come up wanting, I do one of two things.
1. Self-soothe with shopping or naughty eating. Or 2. I plunge into any self-improvement strategy that comes my way or that I hungrily pursue. Did you notice more 'selfs' just arrived on the scene? The problem with this nasty 's' word is the one that accompanies it - consumed. Consumed with self-evaluation and self-improvement. Can we just stop and collectively say "ew"?

This is not good, friends. Ultimately, all these things point to the sin of pride, which is the thing I pray most against because I know my propensity toward it.

Now that it's all been identified and named, what do I do? Do business with God that's what.

The best way I know to do this is getting alone with my Bible and a journal. I wept as I wrote down all my confessions, hoping my children don't read it one day after I'm gone. It is embarrassing. I am 50 years old and still in this sticky trap. I came clean and told God how sorry I am. I was specific with each infraction because I know one can't repent if she doesn't deliberately turn away from the action.

Then I read some beautiful passages in the Bible that began to set me free. Ephesians 2 and Colossians 3 particularly. I learned that I am seated in and with Christ. A right now and future position. The right now is that I sit at a round table full of other Christ-followers. All equal. All gifted. No need for comparison because we are on the same team. Team Jesus!

My job is to fix my gaze on Jesus and adore Him. When I do that, I will have no time to obsess about my appearance, my financial situation or my achievements - all things I tend to use to measure my worth and identity. All I have to do is accomplish the works He has created in advance for me to do to bring Him glory during my time on Earth.

It's so much simpler than I've been making it. Sacred echoes (when God sends the same message through several different mediums) emerged all week as I worked through these passages.

It is finished - I don't have to keep trying to finish what's already done. I am enough for Jesus - I need to be enough for me and stop trying to improve.
Freedom - what Jesus secured for me on the cross. Free to roam around in the safe boundaries He has set for me, requiring no approval or affection from any person in my life.

I don't know how God does it, but truly He shows up in the middle of our confessions, accepts them and comforts with His presence.

In that area anyway, but there was still battle going on.

In my weakened state, the enemy took advantage. What I mean is that I got all the stuff right with God, but I was still at war within over other things. He convinced me that every compliment I might receive is false flattery. I didn't believe even one (which is likely why I fell into the self-evaluation and self-improvement mess). He pitched out the idea that because we've  moved away from our friend groups, up here in the isolated mountains, that I've been forgotten and most of them don't need or want me anymore - that I'd lost my place. When I looked at photos of my children when they were small I would cry, remembering only the ugly - was I too strict?; I didn't talk nice and yelled too much; why was I so impatient?; surely they don't remember their childhood with fondness. The regrets eclipsed any happy memories.

Gross, isn't it? Satan is mean. He wants to discourage us to the point of disbelief and paralysis. I confessed these fears to Scott and a friend. They rejected their validity and told me it was all lies.

Remember, this was happening during my 50th birthday week. Regardless of what I wrote in the previous post, I really was asking God to lower my expectations and shift my focus from self. That His love and approval would be enough.

I prayed, "God, help me see the truth. Don't let me swing into pride, but help me to see what you see."

Fast forward to Saturday night and a room full of women who affirmed lasting friendships that can withstand time and distance, my daughter who handed me the most beautiful letter she wrote about our relationship, and a special package of things I'd love from another darling young woman I've only seen twice in 25 years, which included a page she wrote '50 things about you that matter to me'. And that's just three of the meaningful sentiments given that night.

I was undone. This party was about so much more than my husband making a big deal about my birthday. It goes so infinitely deeper. God sees me. God knows me. God cares about what troubles me and He rescued me when I found myself in deep waters. He is patient when I struggle. He is loving and faithful to all His promises. And He used my attentive husband's planning to speak to me. I went to bed that night soul-filled, worshipful, eager for Sunday.

The next morning we were in church listening to our pastor's sermon and this is what I heard: "We will all struggle with sin. That's not the problem. That's part of the process. The problem comes when we surrender to the temptation to sin."

More freedom! You see, even once I realized what was happening as described above, I was still beating myself up, so mad for struggling with this junk (again). I knew better. I should be past this. But no, our struggle with sin isn't the problem - we're always going to have that. It doesn't make God mad or disappointed with us.

What needs to happen is that we wrestle the thing to the ground, show it who's boss (Jesus conquered sin on our behalf, we have power to say no), and then leave it there. Move on, girl. Don't give the devil time to send our minds into a whirlwind of lies.

Friends, this is why we need to go to church! God speaks when His Word is taught and we come eager to hear. There are few things I love more than when He brings all the sacred echoes together just like that.

I was hoping this would be a benchmark, line drawn in the sand, new direction for a new decade kind of birthday and it is. Nothing quite like a fresh start. I'm ready to go forward and leave all the 's' words back in my 40's.

Monday, April 16, 2018

50 - Full of Surprises

I had a birthday last week. A Big One. It turned out to be a much fuller week than I expected. Part of me wanted to ease into the new year without much fanfare because, well, it's 50. No one really wants to be 50. But there's a louder part of my heart that loves any occasion for presents and frosting to come my way.

Expectations can really...how shall I say...affect a marriage. Even an (almost) 28-year-old relationship where one spouse should know better. Warning if you're new to this blog, you're going to love and feel very sorry for my husband by the end and I hope we can still be friends.

Based on history of the previous two BIG decade birthdays since our wedding day, I didn't exactly drudge up the past, I just voiced my hopes anew. You've got to have hope, right? This happened quite a few weeks ago (I like to provide time to prepare).

A - "Don't you want to ask me what I want for my birthday this year?"
S - "What do you want for your birthday this year?"
A - "I'm not sure, but I want it to be different from all the others. Whatever you do or buy, I want it to scream 'I know my wife and this is an important birthday!'"
S - eye contact, but hard to read expression. Something like, "Awesome, no pressure there."

Fast forward to The Big Day. I woke up, grabbed a cute mug and headed to my chair for quiet time with Jesus. I found a card and three gifts - wrapped in wrapping paper - not just thrown in a gift bag! I let myself be hopeful. I opened the card and it was loving and beautiful as it is every year.

When Scott got up, I opened the gifts. They were perfect. Not big and flashy, nothing screaming 'This is a BIG Birthday!", but appreciated for sure.
We went to work. Our young co-workers giving hugs and happy birthdays all morning. We ate a cake that our very thoughtful and generous friends drove two hours to bring me the day before.

As the afternoon progressed a common question arose, "What are you doing for your birthday today?" Since there was no word on dinner plans. I had to ask.

A - "Was I supposed to take something out for dinner? Or are we doing something?"
S - "Uh, sure, what do you want to do?"
In A's head - "What do I want to do? Not plan this day, that's what I want to do."
A - "So you don't have any plans?"
S - "You want to go down the mountain and go out to dinner?"
A - "Either that or I can scrounge around and make us something."
S - "Ok, let's go. Decide where you want to eat."
In A's head - "Excellent, just what I was hoping for."

Later, on the way, I say, "I got an email this week that prescription sunglasses are on sale - maybe I could see how much they cost and order a pair." He likes this idea.

I resign myself that this is what 50 year olds (with brand new bifocals) do on their birthday. He, or should I say our HSA account, sprung for the sunglasses. It was a thrilling moment. 

S - "Where should we eat? How about Panera - we have a gift card?"
A - "Sounds perfect."
I mean, excellent - let's use the card I was given for Christmas. Exactly what I would've picked.
S - "We can walk around Hobby Lobby too if you want!"

You have to love this man.

Later that night as I listened to his contented sleep breathing, I had a choice to make. What does a mature, hopefully somewhat godly woman do? Let it go, enabling him to think the day was a success? That's what an unselfish person would do, right? Or do I honestly tell him I was hoping for a little (ahem) more?

On and off the next two days, because of my commitment and duty to help him continue to be the great man he is and for the benefit of all the young men he influences (and their women), I gently shared a few things with him. It was for the greater good.

A - "Are there going to be any more presents? I love the three you got me, but I see they stemmed from our recent trip to Utah (translation: not your idea). Does this mean you had no ideas for me prior to the trip?"
S - "You don't like them?" Brilliant diversion. Puts it on me.
A - "I don't want to be a jerk, but I want you to know this birthday didn't seem any more special than the others."
S - "What? We had your favorite cake and went out to dinner."
A - "You didn't provide the cake and I made all the decisions for dinner."
Awkward end of conversation.

Brace yourselves, there's more.

Fast forward a few days. A full weekend in Syracuse was planned. Birthday breakfasts I'll tell you about later and helping our son Drew, Brittany and The Cuteness move into their new house. Last thing on the agenda was all of us going out to dinner.
Without any suspicion, we walked into a restaurant filled with about 30 of my favorite friends (minus a few who couldn't make it), and my daughter who had been avoiding me.

I was almost speechless. It should have been a "Go away from me, I'm a sinful woman" moment, but I was too happy. Turns out Scott does love me and CAN DO IT!
I wish you could have heard his choked up thank you to each who came to help him make his wife feel special. Mission accomplished. What a champ!

After almost twenty eight years together, he totally surprised me and remains quite proud of himself as of this writing. And he should be, especially after all he took without response from his wife for two days.

Can you imagine the gloating that has been taking place ever since? It couldn't happen to a more deserving birthday girl.

Speaking of deserving, here's one last confession because I'm nothing if not brutally honest and because I actually did go there.

When I didn't hear from two of my three grown children on The Big Day, I may or may not have suggested that this was on Scott too.

A - "Did you notice I didn't hear from unnamed child #1 and unnamed child #3 today? You know how the kids always call you and send you a card for your birthday? Do you think that's a coincidence? It's not. It's because I'm the one reminding and prompting. You should be training them how to honor their mother on her birthday."

I know what you're thinking, "Who says that?" Well, I guess I do.

Turns out both delinquents were avoiding me so as not to blow the secret. Isn't that adorable though?
Oh, I cringe.

Can I get an amen for forgiveness? Ha! Handed out in buckets by the most patient and gracious man who is so enjoying telling this story. Did I mention his sense of humor? Took none of my shenanigans to heart. Oh to be more like him.

Lastly and more importantly, what I really want you to know is that God showed up in living color last weekend too, proving once again that He knows me, He sees me, and He will respond when my heart becomes forgetful and shaky. This time He used the sweet gesture of my wonderful, caring husband and the love of longtime friends.

For sure, this has become a benchmark, line drawn in the sand, new direction for a new decade kind of birthday but not for the reasons you think.

I'll save that portion of this story for Part 2 coming up soon.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Worth It

I dig sacred holidays. Any time I can pay attention to Jesus, the Bible and God's ongoing plan for mankind, sign me up. Today is Palm Sunday. The end of my 40 day fast (hello coffee, I've missed you so) and the beginning of the most important week (my opinion) of the calendar year if you're a Christian.

Each time reading through the Bible, when I get to the Triumphal Palm Sunday entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, I cheer and imagine a palm branch in my hand while shouting "Hosanna!" as He rides in. Just as quickly, I say, "I'm not ready!" because I don't want to read on to His last week of suffering, betrayal and death.

This morning's devotional reading put my mixed emotions into words "As we rehearse His messianic entrance on this last Sunday of Lent, we sing with exuberance and we wince with foreboding."* Indeed.

Forty days ago I wrote about fasting for Lent. Along with my family, some of you shared with me what you'd be resisting in your own journey. I love that. Maybe it won't be revealed to us immediately, but as I sent in a family text yesterday, it's time to now stop and evaluate the last 40 days as much as we can. Answer a few questions:

What has God revealed about Himself in the space we made for Him to do just that?
What has He revealed about us?
Has there been growth/change? 
What will I do with what I've discovered? 

I think it's good to share these findings with each other as we spur one another on in good works and devotion to Jesus. That said, pull up a chair and let me share mine with you.
I believe God graciously and honestly showed me the following:

I can do absolutely no good thing without Jesus' help and the Holy Spirit's filling. My first response to pretty much anything is usually tainted (by any number of things). I have no pure thought or motive on my own. Jumping to conclusions without facts, cutting remarks disguised by a joke, not giving the benefit of the doubt, ignoring the plank in my eye while highlighting the speck in someone else's. Truly every thought, word and deed needs to be transformed by God to be of any value whatsoever.

I am the most self-centered, self-focused, selfish person I've ever met. Self, self, self - blech! I was given fresh eyes to see this over and over again. Six weeks of me first, judging others, craving and seeking approval and admiration from men instead of pointing to Jesus, etc. Oh the pride, yuck! I could barely stand myself. Honestly, I don't want to see this most of the time, but I invited God to reveal and He delivered, remaining close by as I processed the horror of what was clear in the mirror's reflection.

In light of all the above, God isn't mad at me. I heard it said once that God's intention is for us to see the depth of our sin, acknowledge it, tell Him we're sorry and move on. He never expects perfection because we can't achieve that. There is always forgiveness (1 John 1:9) so we don't have to worry about how God will respond to our confessions. This is good news, friends! A 40-day Lent (or any) fast should never end in defeat. God is for us!

My annual goal here is always transformation, not just to wallow in the fact that I am a weak sinner or to feel bad about self (another form of self-preoccupation - insert throw up emoji), but rather to invite God to make me aware and change me. Oh I pray He has, even a little will be a vast improvement.

Some of you tender hearts are going to want to soothe me and say, "Don't be so hard on yourself, Jesus loves you. You're doing just fine and need to lighten up." Thank you for your kindness, but I believe when God reveals what's deep down in us, it is our obligation to look at it honestly. We need to take our sin seriously, be sorry for it and confess. This is the way to freedom from sin and I'm grateful for it.

Repentance is quickly becoming a forgotten concept in our tolerant culture. May it never be! Repentance is a gift from God. It is the path back to close intimate relationship with Him when our self-driven passions and decisions have resulted in an uncomfortable distance between Him and us. One thing you can be sure of - any rupture in our closeness with God is on us. He never moves. He is always wanting us to draw near. It's us who pull away.

We accumulate bad habits and pick up baggage along the way sometimes without realizing it. This is why regular attention to soul care - fasting and purging - is such an important spiritual discipline. Doesn't always feel great during the process, but there is a cleanliness and peace that replaces the corrosion. Worth it.

So as we near Good Friday and the remembrance of Jesus' unfathomable pain and suffering on our behalf to purchase our salvation, stay in that uncomfortable moment for a while. Stay for as long as it takes you to acknowledge the sin you are currently in and remember the state of hopelessness due to sin you were in when He found you.

Offer a fresh confession of current sins, gratitude for Jesus' sacrifice, and receive His abundant forgiveness and mercy. Then repent and don't look back.

Just as sure as Friday is on the horizon, remember, so is Resurrection Sunday.
This week is going to end very well. Hallelujah!

PS. The top pic - so cute, right? On the back of each card** is a daily prayer, Scripture to read, encouragement or activity of some sort for each of the 40 days leading up to Easter. Today I turned the last one over and hi-fived God. Can you make it out?

"Have coffee with or call a friend or family member and share with them something that God has been teaching you during this Lent season."

Get it- I had been fasting from coffee. Ha! God is good and funny (insert Praise hands!). I love Him so much. He is worth everything and amazingly, He feels the same way about me and you. Thus, Easter.

*Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross
**Available at www.allgoodthingscollective.com

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Game Changer

When Drew and Brittany announced that they were going to give us a grand baby, we were excited, of course, Personally I thought it was a little premature for me being so young and all, but I got on board quickly.

To be honest, I was a little hesitant. It was along the long lines of 'I don't know how to be a grandmother' which is not unlike how I felt when discharged from the hospital a day after Drew was born. I believe I actually said to Scott, "Are they really going to let us walk out of the hospital with this baby? We don't know how to take care of a baby?!!!!"

But grandparents? What did we want that to look like? How would it change our lives?

As expected, once we laid eyes and hands on Addy Grace, we were toast. There's nothing quite like holding your child's child. Every new accomplishment we greet with delight. When she made eye contact, smiled at us, and then laughed. Goners!

With every passing day, she's like a drug and we are addicted.

The biggie though was when she called us by name the first time (and EVERY time since), it was a game changer. This was when I knew we would have a forever relationship. My  heart grew three sizes that day! To hear her on FaceTime and in person call out "Mimi!" and "Pop!" is thrilling! I can't get enough of it.

Did you know that names matter to God? The most recent time I read through the Bible, the overarching theme I couldn't miss was names. Starting right after Creation:

God created all the earth, skies and seas and everything on it.
He named Adam then gave him the task of naming all the animals, fish, birds, etc. Also his partner, Eve.

Names matter. Names assign value and identity.

If you are a parent you likely took time and thought to name your children. Our story is that Scott chose Andrew James for our firstborn long before I was even pregnant. Andrew for  the Andrew in the Bible who when meeting Jesus ran to get his brother, telling him he'd met the Messiah and James His favorite book of the Bible. Next came Benjamin Scott because I thought Benjamin was a masculine name (though I feared punk kids calling him Benji) and Scott for obvious reasons. We tussled over Allyson Noelle, becoming those parents who couldn't decide right up to signing on the dotted line.

Of course, each of them assuming our last name was a weighty gift.

Once personalities began to emerge, their names modified a bit. Drew became Drewby or Drewby Dooby Doo or Drewie. Ben quickly was Ben-Ben, Benny (though I promised we wouldn't call him that), Ben-jammin, and Ben B. Ally had so many different nicknames due to her variety of personalities, even her grandmother wasn't sure what her middle name was for awhile: Ally, Ally Cinnamon (get it - Allycin - a min), Sally, Suzanne, Suzy, SallySuzy, SuzySally, Suzy Cutie, Suzy Fandango (don't ask) and so on.

God saw fit that His creation had names too and He gave them nicknames as well. Actually complete name changes to be exact. These changes reflected a change in call and responsibility (think Abram-Abraham; Sarai-Sarah; Jacob-Israel, Saul-Paul). I love that.

Our names are important to God too(He knows each one), but it's also important to Him that we know His.

Repeatedly through the Old Testament God reminds Moses and other leaders to tell the people to call Him "I Am, The Lord, your God.This is My Name Forever." Ex.3:14

He has many names too - God, Father, Prince of Peace, Yahweh, Jehovah, Wonderful, Counselor, Faithful and True, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Jesus, and many more.

The cool thing about that list is that with each name and description comes a consistent and constant invitation all through the Bible to know Him and call on His Name.

Call on Him for help. Call on Him when distressed. Call on Him when you're lonely. Call on Him when you don't know what to do.

The Bible is filled with promises that when we call on the Name of this personal, intimate God who knows our very names, He will hear. He will answer.

I think Addy has figured out that we love her, adore her, and want to be there for her. And that when she calls our name, we immediately avert our eyes to her.

In fact, she expects it. (Believe me, if we don't, she lets us know!) It's ok because we love it. We want to hear our names come out of her adorable little mouth in her sweet toddler voice. We want her to want us.

It is not hard to draw a sharp parallel here to how God responds to our call, is it? When we call out to God, by name...

He sees, He hears, He delivers, He rescues, He shows up. He wants us to know Him. This God of Names can be trusted. 

He gave you a name because you are valuable. He knows your name and wants relationship with you.

He wants you to know His name because His names describe His character and display His promises.

He invites you to call out that Name for whatever you need, specifically Him.

I tell you, when Addy Grace says "Mimi", everything stops. I would never ignore her. I wouldn't turn my face away. I'm never mad at her. I can't imagine anything she could do that would lessen my love for her. I want her to want me and I want us to be close at all of her ages and stages.

This is a theme of the Bible and the heart of God for you and for me.

Call Him today. Want Him today. He wants you.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Favorite Books of 2017

One of my favorite questions both to ask and be asked is, "What are you reading?". You can tell a lot about a person by what they read. Whenever I meet someone especially inspiring or interesting, I always ask. Books can transport us to other worlds and cultures. Reading sparks the imagination, creativity and makes the reader an interesting conversationalist. Even Dr. Seuss knows, "The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go." But beware, "Books can be dangerous. These should be labeled: 'This could change your life.'"* That's what I'm talking about.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could invite you over and we would sit in this room discussing books? One day when I have room like that, you can count on it. Rolling ladder - life goal. In the meantime...

Back in January, a friend suggested I write a blog post listing my favorite books of 2017. Since I'm forever asking the question and looking for referrals, I agreed. Most of the books I read are faith-based and lean toward teaching Christian principles. Still, there are a few "vacation reads" included for fun and refreshment. It's always good to read different authors and celebrate their unique writing styles.

Ok, here we go.

1. My most favorite book of the year was Spiritual Rhythm - Being With Jesus Every Season of your Soul by Mark Buchanan.

"This book is about four distinct seasons- not in the natural world but within us. It explores the cycles in our hearts that, like the axial turnings of the earth, mark out seasonal rhythms in our lives: flourishing and fruitful, stark and dismal, cool and windy, or everything coming up new. The seasons I'm describing are not the seasons of aging-where youth is spring, early adulthood summer, middle age fall, and old age winter. Interesting as that is, it's not what I've set my hand to here.

This is: our souls, our hearts, too. A soul in youth can turn grim and arctic, or a heart in dotage can grow breezy and fragrant. The season of the heart are no respecters of age, and seldom of person...We can steward the season we find ourselves in. Just as farmers plow in one season, plant in another, irrigate in another, harvest in another, and let the fields lie in fallow yet another, so there are activities and inactivities that fit our hearts' seasons...Every season will end, in time, but not by my own doing...My responsibility was simply to know the season, and match my actions and inactions to it.

This book looks at the seasons of the heart. I seek two things: Christ's presence in season and out, to know that even the darkness cannot hide him and that by his light I see light. And Christ's wisdom in season and out, to know how best to meet him, how best to make the most out of each season and each moment."

I.Love.This.Book. Having endured a long soul season of winter in recent years, I resonated with the authors' insights. I have never been taught the season of Winter in a way that captured its brutality and celebrated its value in such a way I can now embrace it. And that's just the winter chapters!

2. The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb - Searching for Jesus' Path of Power in a Church That Has Abandoned It by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel

I've been increasingly troubled by how the Church seems to operate more and more like the world, the culture's influence taking over and replacing Biblical principles for living, working, dreaming, etc. So when a blogger I trust recommended it, I was drawn in right away.

 "Why do so many rock-star pastors implode under the spotlight? Why do modern-day churches become so entangled in growing their brand that they lose sight of their true purpose? Because, Christians have succumbed to the temptations of power and forgotten Jesus’ seemingly contradictory path to power—first giving it up.The authors invite readers to join them on an adventure around the world, seeking out great sages of the faith with uncommon wisdom to offer those traveling the path of Christian life. As readers eavesdrop on the authors’ conversations with people such as J. I. Packer, Dallas Willard, Marva Dawn, John Perkins, Jean Vanier, James Houston, and Eugene Peterson, they begin to piece together the new-old reality of following Jesus today."

This book challenged my thinking in a disturbing and refreshing way. Chapter after chapter, I'd lament, "I need to talk to someone about this", recruiting a few others to read and discuss with me. If you're worried that you've violated Romans 12:1, 2 and have been assimilated into Western (American) culture without putting up much fight, this book is for you.  It's a sharp critique of those of us who settle for quick fixes instead of deep wisdom. You will learn the strength and beauty of humility and Jesus' seemingly unconventional way to power: through weakness.

This was the "must have" book I added to my sons' libraries for Christmas.

3. Between Heaven & the Real World - My Story by Steven Curtis Chapman

I've written here in the blog many times, that I love biographies/autobiographies. For some reason, I prefer to read these in the summer, a time to escape from my life and jump into someone else's for a while.  These are not always the stories of great Christians, sometimes I like to indulge my imagination into the lives of the celebrities of the 80's, reminiscing my childhood or just out of pure curiosity. We can learn good things from all sorts of memoirs.

Every summer we required our children to read a missionary biography. When disenchanted and complaining about your current plight, there's nothing like a read about those who have suffered for their faith and been rewarded greatly. These were the heroes I wanted them looking up to, not those who pop culture put before them.

My husband Scott loves Steven Curtis Chapman the way I love MercyMe. We have arranged vacation time around seeing this man in concert many times and had the privilege of meeting him twice. We always say he is better than you hope he will be. Humble, deep, talented and a genuine giant of the faith. Naturally, his memoir was on my list last summer. While I know much of his story through following his ministry, his family walked through a very difficult time of loss and grieving and have come out as gold (in my opinion). This is their story and I highly recommend it. He's a hero whose example is one to follow.

4. Out of the House of Bread - Satisfying Your Hunger for God with the Spiritual Disciplines by Preston Yancey

This book. I read it during Lent last year and really enjoyed it. This is one of those books though, where you have to use discernment in my opinion. You don't have to agree with or be comfortable with every chapter in order to find value. You decide.

The author mirrors the process of making bread from scratch to working spiritual disciplines into your daily life. I love love love the concept. Probably because I'm obsessed with crusty white bread. Why is it so good? He encourages readers to try his recipe and work at it throughout the reading of the book. I did not do that. Yet. But I did take my time on each chapter. I like his style.

I also like the subject because I think spiritual disciplines are important and necessary, but we don't often hear much about it because discipline sounds like work and we kind of like our comfort more.

"Spiritual disciplines are like a well-stocked chocolate drawer. You never know what you might need at a given time, but the security of knowing you have plenty on hand and having just enough is vital. Spiritual disciplines are kinds of prayer, and when you find yourself in the middle of a season where nothing spiritual seems to matter and nothing feels like it's working, having something new to try, a different perspective, a new way of telling God you're in need or you're lonely or you''re just fed up can feel like a lifeline. It can be a lifeline." 

This is a book about prayer. We can learn a lot from it and be inspired to try new things. Even if all of it is not for you, there is some good stuff here. Take what works.

5. A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman

If I'm not sure of a book, I borrow. I saw this title in a small bookstore in Lake Placid. The reason I noticed it is the several employee recommendation post-it notes surrounding it. This is not my usual type book and don't think I would have given it a second glance until  I saw one quote guarantee both laughing and crying I was hooked. I mean, go big or go home, right? I like to read an occasional novel (summer reading), so I took a picture of it and went to the Lake Pleasant library to check it out (having fun isn't hard when you've got a library card!). I wasn't really expecting it, but sometimes a small town can surprise you - it was there - I didn't have to order it from another library!

Ove is a curmudgeon. He is grumpy, yet lovable we eventually learn. His responses to his new loud neighbors are so wickedly humorous you will laugh out loud, and his devotion to his late wife so heartbreakingly sweet you may just shed a tear or two. It lacks violence and profanity, is life-affirming and relationship-driven. This book will surprise you.

"He went through life with his hands firmly shoved into his pockets. She danced."

“A time comes in every man’s life when he decides what sort of man he is going to be.”   

"He had never heard anything quite as amazing as that voice. She talked as if she was continuously on the verge of breaking into giggles. And when she giggled she sounded the way Ove imagined champagne bubbles would have sounded if they were capable of laughter.”

“You don't fool me, darling,"she said with a playful little smile and crept into his big arms. "You're dancing on the inside, Ove, when no one's watching. And I'll always love you for that. Whether you like it or not.”
I found my father in this book and by the end wondered if, when he was living, I simply didn't understand who he was deep down underneath a sometimes harsh outer shell. This is another book I needed someone to read with me to discuss. I can't imagine a scenario where the reader will not love this character and the writers' spectacular use of words to tell a sweet, surprising story. 

6. Come Rain or Come Shine by Jan Karon

Many years ago, a missionary friend from Kenya introduced me to The Mitford Series, aka the Father Tim books. I'm not one for a long book series as I find them sometimes cumbersome and I despise waiting for the next volume to come available, but this is my one exception.

I believe when they came on the scene in my life I still had young kids at home. Why do I remember that? Because at least five of the books were already in print and I devoured them in one summer. Quiet afternoon reading times were uncharacteristically lengthy because I couldn't put the book down. I hope my kids aren't scarred from the neglect.

What young woman falls in love with a 60-year old bachelor preacher? This one. And all his quirky congregation. I've found many church friends and acquaintances in this series. Don't ask who.

As the saga continues, every installment is a delight. My husband has learned this is a slam dunk win on Christmas morning and never disappoints. The next one, To Be Where You Are, is currently on my shelf waiting its turn. One of these winters I'm going to start from the beginning.

Honorable mentions:

7 Women by Eric Metaxes
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson
The Broken Way by Ann Voskamp

Maybe you're not a reader. I doubt you would have made it this far if you aren't, but if you're still resisting, let me encourage you. Reading is life giving. What I especially love is that we lose ourselves in books. We find ourselves there too.

So many books, so little time. I hope you found something here that intrigues you. Consider grabbing one or more of these to fight the mid-winter blues.

Please share your recommendations too! Either in the comment section or on Facebook or Instagram. I'm always eager to read what others are reading.

*Helen Exley