How to Stop, Look, and Read Some Frederick Buechner

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I can’t believe I had made it this long in life without reading a Frederick Buechner book from cover to cover, especially because I’ve savored excerpts from his works for years. I’m so thankful Zondervan sent me his two latest releases to review – A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory and The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life,. His writing is authentic, thoughtful, provoking, and wise. I found myself underlining and going back to re-read passages. Some of his thoughts may not have been new to me, but his use of words caused me to stop, pause, and reflect.

In A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory, Buechner looks at the age-old question: when pain is real, why is God silent? Buechner has truly been a “steward” of his pain, a remarkable idea he brings forth in this book. Since the loss of his father at a young age, Buechner has learned hands-on what it means to steward painful things that happen during the course of our lives, rather than trying to forget painful events or feeling trapped by them. He writes that God does not sow the pain, he does not make the pain happen, but he looks to us to harvest treasure from the pain. If we bury the pain and don’t face it, our life shrinks. He writes that miracles can happen when we are willing to open the door into our pain, and share out of the depths of our lives. I couldn’t agree more. When I have been willing to be vulnerable with others, and share the truths I have learned from the depths of my deepest pain, people have come forward to say, “me, too.” That is the miracle – to know that you’re not alone.

In The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life, Buechner teaches invaluable lessons on the importance of examining your life. This book feels particularly poignant in this season of my life as a stay-at-home mom. My days feel long and sometimes predictable and mundane, and often ordinary. Buechner invites readers to look beneath the surface, to stop, to pay attention. There is sacredness to be discovered, even in the midst of the mundane and ordinary. What a perspective changer! I love how he helped me see my life through the lens of an artist, who frames and captures a moment in time on canvas. This is an important read for all to “become more sensitive, more aware, more alive to our own humanness, to the humanness of each other. Look with Rembrandt’s eye, listen with Bach’s ear, look with X-ray eyes that see beneath the surface to whatever lies beneath the surface.” This would also be a great read for a small group to read together in the New Year, to set the tone for a new way of living and experiencing life together. I highly recommend!

 

 

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Bible Girl Is At It Again

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Once upon a time (or more like 6 years ago), I was known as Bible Girl in my office. Unfortunately the title did not come with a cape or special powers, but my boss liked to call me that as I managed the Bible publishing for the NRSV Bibles. He also liked to joke with me that I was having Bible study all day as I edited study notes for various study Bibles. Truly… it was kind of like a Bible study all day. I joked back that if he saw me with my head on my desk that he shouldn’t be concerned and that he should just know that I was praying. Although I love my title as Mommy and being COO of our household, I do miss those days of being Bible Girl.

So, when I was asked to review a study Bible for kids, I jumped on the opportunity. I was so thrilled to receive an advance copy from Zondervan for The NIV Kids’ Visual Study Bible! I really think this Bible will fill a gap – especially for inquisitive tweens or for youth leaders or parents who need a resource to further explain key events in the Bible in an age-appropriate format.

The introduction to each book of the Bible delivers a quick and helpful summary and review. The layout is beautifully designed (although the Bible text is a bit small) – the single column Bible text is paired alongside a column of study notes, pictures, graphics and maps. The headlines for the study notes are attention-getting to help get your tween to dig back into scripture. I really think tweens will enjoy reading the LifeLines (a timeline of key Biblical figures with a chronological listing of key events in their life paired to their age when the events occurred as well as a Biblical reference). I also thought the comparison charts were very intriguing (i.e. comparing the number of parables in each Gospel) and the timelines were very informative and helpful (i.e. summary of what happened during each day of the week during Passion Week or what happened each hour on Good Friday).

There are maps and archaeological photos interspersed throughout to help further explain events in the text. Some photos or illustrations feel like filler and are a bit distracting and unnecessary. This is the tough balance to pull off in a Bible for kids – keeping them engaged and drawn back to scripture, rather than distracting them away from the text.

I also think this Bible would be best used in a Bible study, youth group, family devotions, or in a Sunday School setting. Unless your tween is driven to dive into study on their own, they may get lost with the amount of content here… and the content is rich and worth reading and it would be a shame to be overlooked! It would be great if Zondervan could produce an online reading plan or methods on how to get the most out of this Bible to set this Bible up for success for parents and youth leaders.

Surprised by Hope

IMG_2700 I woke up the other morning surprised by hope. It wasn’t the emotion I thought I would or should be feeling that particular morning. But, there it was. Hope, with hints of joy. It startled me. I knew it wasn’t some sort of forced emotion, conjured up in an effort to cover up what was going on inside. I knew God had given me a gift that morning.

Just that week I was in the midst of days upon days of blood work, ordered up by my fertility doctor. I was 99% positive I had miscarried again, but my doctor wanted to make sure. In one hand I held the practical side of knowing how my body works, and in the other hand I tried to hold onto a sliver of a miracle. At a time when I thought I would be distressed, anxious, angry, and overwhelmed with sadness, there was this emotion of hope.

In my heart, God was calling me to come. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). This familiar verse was weaving itself around my heart, inviting me to come. My journey of infertility has been so weary. How did God know? And all I needed to do was to come? To drop the burden, come to my God who is gentle and humble, and He would give me rest? Would that be possible?

That Sunday at church we read a verse from Isaiah 40:28 where it says that God will not grow tired or weary. There was that word again. I am so weary, but God will never weary or grow tired? Could He truly handle this burden I’ve been carting around with me? The following Sunday we sang a song, “Come with me, then let go. Come however you are. Just come. Come with sorrows and songs. Come however you are. Just come.”

This hope, this surprising emotion that startled me awake, was opening my eyes and ears to something simple and profound. All I needed to do was come. Just come. In the midst of my disappointment and sadness, just come. In the middle of unanswered questions and confusing medical advice, just come. In the midst of longing and jealousy of other women’s baby bumps, just come. My God who never grows weary was inviting me to come, to learn from Him, and to find rest. FullSizeRender I don’t always accept this invitation. Most mornings I don’t even remember it exists. In an effort to help me remember, I wrote out the invitation on the chalkboard in my hallway so that I can remember the hope God is calling me to. I want nothing more than to understand and experience this rest that is being offered.

**Thanks N.T. Wright for letting me borrow the title of your book for the subject of this blog post. I’m glad you’ve been surprised by hope too.

The 2014 Reading Recap

I’m a little late on posting a “Best-of” list for 2014, but better late than never they say. I make it my duty in our house to read “what’s new on the best-seller list” or “what book will be turned into a movie.” Carl, on the other hand, will only read books by dead authors as those books have stood the test of time. He may be right, but again, I’m doing my duty to keep this household balanced. Here’s a recap on the pages I turned during the past year.

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 Fiction
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (A refreshing and funny romantic comedy about a socially challenged genetics professor on an unusual quest to find love.)
Follow the River by James Alexander Thom (An incredible story of resilience and survival of a woman who escaped after being taken by Shawnee Indians. Based on a true story.)
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (A great beach read. It may just make you want to move to Italy.)
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (Wonderful character development in this story about fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and the relationship she had with her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss.)
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (Some Y/A fiction is good for the brain sometimes. Honest portrayal of two teenagers battling cancer and falling in love.)
The Giver by Lois Lowry (This book was a page turner for me and would provide an interesting discussion for a book group. It’s the story of a teenage boy who lives in a futuristic perfect society where everything is under control. There is no war or fear or pain. There are no choices.)

 

Faith/Spirituality
• How God Became King by N.T. Wright (Wright explains how the gospels have been misunderstood while revealing the surprising, unexpected, and shocking news of the gospels.)
Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright (Wright shows how we have successfully managed to hide behind other questions and to avoid the huge, world-shaking challenge of Jesus’s central claim and achievement.)
Short Stories by Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine (Levine is a Jewish New Testament scholar who explores Jesus’ most popular parables, exposing their misinterpretations and making them lively and relevant for modern readers by providing the context and understanding of the 1st Century Jew).
Mom Seeks God by Julia Roller (Julia’s authenticity, humor, and honesty as a new Mom drew me in right away. I love that she didn’t try to gulp down all of the spiritual disciplines in one bite, but she broke them down into dissolvable nuggets that could be easily digested.)

Biography/Autobiography/Memoir:
Sparkly Green Earrings by Melanie Shankle (This is a heartwarming and hilarious look at motherhood from someone who is still trying to figure it all out.)
The Antelope in the Living Room by Melanie Shankle (Melanie shares the holy and the hilarity of that magical and mysterious union called marriage.)
Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist (Shauna explores the bits of wisdom and growth we earn the hard way, through change, loss, and transition.)
Wild by Cheryl Strayed (This is Cheryl Strayed’s story of hiking more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State with no experience or training.)
My Best Friend’s Funeral by Roger Thompson (A memoir of friendship, doubt, surfing, and the complex relationships between fathers and sons.)
Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris (Hilarious account of David’s experience being a Macy’s elf in Santaland in NYC.)

Cooking (+ Memoir):
Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach (Honest reflections on cooking for a young family with tried and true and simple recipes.)
Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist (This book is a collection of recipes and essays about family relationships, friendships, and the meals that bring us together.)

Please share any favorite reads from the past year so I can add them to my 2015 reading list!

5 Years and All that is Good

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Before I crawled into bed last night I discovered an envelope waiting for me on my pillow. Inside was a card that read, “Today I am reminded of all that is good in the world.” It was the perfect ending to our weekend away together to celebrate our 5 years of marriage.

Five years have come and gone. Already.

In the first year of marriage we crammed in a job change, adopting a chocolate lab, a house remodel, and a pregnancy. (We figured, why not put a new marriage to the test with some high stress?) We paddled our way to the other side to the land of a newborn and sleep deprivation and days upon days of feeling like you’re at the first day of a new job with no training manual. We tore out our kitchen in the middle of toddler mayhem and camped out in our own home. We’ve traveled on planes and trains and road tripped and camped.

We’ve reached mountaintops and breakthroughs in learning how to love and communicate with one another and we’ve waded through seasons of being misunderstood and going through the motions, too tired at the end of a long day to figure things out. We’ve experienced the hopeful anticipation of another child and the unexpected loss three times. We’ve looked up searching for answers. We’ve held hands. We’ve celebrated and relished in the miracle of our little boy. We’ve laughed. We’ve teased. We’ve danced in the living room.

It’s good to be reminded of all that is good in the world. It’s important to look back, to see how God was faithful. Our wedding day is a testament to the faithfulness of God. God heard our prayers, our longings, and God answered that prayer in the relationship we have today. It’s good to remember, even on the mundane days, on the days I don’t feel very loving, that my husband is the provision of God. One of God’s greatest gifts for me, planned out long ago. So, today, I choose to look at him and be reminded of all that is good in the world. A reflection of God’s goodness, grace, and mercy.

“I will look back and see that you are faithful.
I look ahead, believing you are able.” – Elevation Worship

 

What I’ve Been Reading. Or, Short Chapters Make for Happy Mommy

My husband likes to say that I read for a living. (I think he might just be a little jealous.) Yet, this description isn’t completely false. When I’m not reading a book so I can write a small group guide, or reading a friend’s manuscript or advanced reader’s copy, I’ve been reading books that are like warm water on your feet. Or, ice cold water on a hot day. Or a piece of dark chocolate melting in your mouth. Books that are feeding my soul but not straining my brain. Because at the end of the day of maneuvering the emotions and demands of a 3-year-old, that’s about all this mommy can handle.

I’d like to introduce you to a few that I’ve recently finished. And, get this, the first book has no words. Brilliant.

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Noah: A Wordless Picture Book, by Mark Ludy
I was immediately drawn in to this book by the beautiful images displayed on each page. (And, yes, I was also drawn in by the title which resembles another someone special in my life.) I love how the artist depicted the loving and supportive relationship between Noah and his wife. I also thought it was interesting to see the timeline of constructing the ark against the backdrop of Noah’s son being born and growing into a man. Most importantly, this book made me want to go back to the Bible and spend time re-reading the story of Noah in Genesis 6-9. Although the book may be too advanced for toddlers, my 3-year-old son is captivated by it and wants me to “read” the book to him over and over again in my own words. Each time, we find something new to explore and share.

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When I’m done reading Curious George to my little guy and the dishes are done, I’ve been plopping on the couch with one of the following books. Each memoir has super short chapters that are not necessarily connected to each other – more like short essays on life as a mom, wife, and friend. This has been just my style after a long day.

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The Antelope in the Living Room: The Real Story of Two People Sharing One Life, by Melanie Shankle
This was my first introduction to Melanie Shankle. I loved her humor, perspective, and ability to make fun of herself and the situations that married life threw at her. Each short chapter walks you through her life from singleness to dating to engagement, and finally marriage. The title references the compromising that is central to every marriage, for better or for worse. She is very relatable and can even cross generation and gender lines in her style and message. I brought this book on a family vacation and would often leave it on the table. Occasionally I’d find my 75-year-old father-in-law reading the book and chuckling to himself. I also loved that in unexpected moments in the book, she’d turn the corner and bring depth to her story by sharing how God was molding and refining her in the process. “Not one thing we have done changes that we are his. He created us and loves us with a love more fierce and loyal than any we will ever know.” – Melanie Shankle

 

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Sparkly Green Earrings: Catching the Light at Every Turn, by Melanie Shankle
This is a great read for the pooped-out-mom who doesn’t have huge bandwidth for heavy reading. It’s poignant, relatable, and makes you feel like you have a friend on this journey of motherhood. She shares the good, the bad, and the hilarious from the moment she found out she was pregnant, to her initial days as a Mom, to managing expectations in an over-achieving preschool. Each chapter is short and easy to pick up during a nap time or right before falling asleep when you crash into your pillow to start your day as a mom all over again. I do feel like Melanie skimmed over some of the harder moments in her journey as a mom (i.e. her miscarriage and her decision to only have one child). I wish she would have opened up a bit more about those aspects and gone into greater depth, as I believe her audience could really benefit from her perspective.

 

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Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes, by Shauna Niequist
I had the privilege of hearing Shauna speak about this message before diving into the book. During her talk as well as in her book she shares how the message of Bread and Wine evolved from being not only about entertaining and sharing her favorite recipes, but a journey of shedding light on her shame with body issues or having a not-so-perfect house. I soaked up her honesty and wit and often would linger on a thought from her book as I struggled with my own perfectionist tendencies. Bread and Wine is about inviting people to the table and not worrying about what you’re serving or whether your house needs an intervention from Hoarders before you let people in your front door. It’s about community and living life together and the importance of sharing a meal. I have devoured almost all of the recipes and have had so much fun connecting with friends across the miles, who are also reading this book, on the latest recipes they’ve tried from Bread and Wine. She even includes a book group discussion guide, menu plans, and sample menus for entertaining. (And if you must know, here are my favorite recipes: Flourless Chocolate Brownies, White Chicken Chili, Annette’s Enchiladas, and Esquites.) I keep this book alongside my recipe book collection.

 

Happy Reading!! Let me know what you’re reading too!

On Time-Outs, Bad Guys, and Saying “No”

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There’s been a lot of talk in our house lately about good guys and bad guys. “What happens to the bad guys?” “Why are they bad?” These are the questions that keep my 3-year-old boy up at night. It all started when he saw his cousin perform in a kid’s production of Annie. He still asks me, almost a year later, why Mrs. Hannigan was so mean! Now the conversation is more focused on Darth Vader and the “dark side.” He has yet to see Star Wars, but our kind next door neighbor keeps providing him with an endless supply of storm troopers and yoda figurines which have now becoming friends with his Playmobil Noah’s Ark set.

As we’re driving around town running errands, I’ll hear his sweet voice and questions from the backseat. “Why is Darth Vader so mean?” “Does he need to go to jail?” I’ll typically say things like, “Well, Darth Vader made some bad choices,  one bad choice after another.” Or, “Darth Vader was tricked to turn to the dark side.” Or to keep it simple, “Darth Vader just needs some friends.” To be honest, I’m not sure what would be the most age appropriate answer for my little guy who is trying to figure the world out with an endless supply of “whys.”

When he makes some bad choices of his own like, let’s say, slapping me in the face or pulling his friend’s hair in a WWE hold while banging his head up and down on a trampoline, we again have a conversation about bad choices while he has a time out. I’ve been sitting with him during these time outs and try as best as I can to speak in a calm voice while keeping him in place and helping him transition out of his bonkers state of emotions.

His slapping and thrashing episodes usually happen once I say “no” to him. Just last night when I told him it was time for bed and no, he couldn’t go on the swing in the dark in our back yard, he told me, “Don’t say ‘no’ to me. It’s not nice. You’re going to get a super big time out and then you’ll have to go to jail.” Trying not to laugh, I accepted his words and said that Mommy would take a time out once he was in bed (and I’d prop my feet up on the couch with a handful of chocolate covered almonds and some wine).

The other day he asked, “Why do you always say ‘no’ to me?” This deflated me. I told him, “I don’t like saying ‘no’ to you sweetie. But sometimes I need to say ‘no’ because I know what’s best for you.” This conversation reminded me of some hard lessons I’ve learned, and continue to learn, when it feels like God is saying ‘no’ to me as well. After each heart breaking end of a relationship in my single days, I felt like God kept saying ‘no’ over and over and over again. Some wise person spoke some truth to me during that time and altered that meaning a bit by offering that perhaps God wasn’t saying “No” but “Not yet.” Those four extra letters felt like a peace offering from God. God hadn’t forgotten me and my desire to be married. God hadn’t abandoned me. And perhaps, God didn’t even like saying “No” to me. But God did say “Not yet. Oh, not yet Marlene. I have someone even better. Just wait and hold onto me a bit longer. Trust me on this.”

I’d like to think that is what God is saying to me now as I feel like I’m wading through another “No” season of life, a season where things aren’t happening as I thought they should. “Not yet, Marlene. Not yet.” And for my son I do try to find many times to say “Yes” to him throughout the day to buffer the “Nos” and the “Not yets.”