What I Read & What I Learned (2015)

I regularly get down on myself for not reading enough books.  It seems like I consume article after article, without picking up many printed pages.  Reading mostly short blogs and essays leaves me feeling distracted, unable to persevere through thousands of words.  So when I went to compile this list, I was pleasantly surprised.  I guess I read more books than I thought!  More than one a month isn't a bad average for a person who isn't getting a full night's sleep and folds laundry at 9pm.

Here is a list of the books I read in 2015, a short summary of what (I thought) they were about, and a take away...

Just Do Something
by Kevin DeYoung
Take away:  It matters less what you do (assuming you aren't overtly acting in the flesh), and more how you do it (your motivations and attitude).  When it comes to gray-area decisions, I need to stop being paralyzed by a 'special' feeling from God.  Yes, it's good to pray, but I shouldn't be so afraid that I'm going to be 'out of God's will'.  This understanding really helped me progress in my writing this year, as I'd spent a long time agonizing over whether or not I should use my gifts more intentionally.  I think the answer to that is, yes, I'm free to, especially when it doesn't compromise other God-given priorities and my husband supports me.  And if I really want to be in God's will, then what counts is how I image him and love others as I do it.

The Mission of Motherhood
by Sally Clarkson
Take away:  Motherhood is an eternally important job.  This book helped me catch a vision for that, realizing I have so much influence over the hearts of my children.  What I choose to do (or not do) in these few short years won't determine their salvation, but it can equip them, train them, help them and shape generations to come.  Why not give it all I've got in this relatively short season?

An Organized Heart
by Staci Eastin
Take away:  We don't need more organizational strategies, what we need is a heart change.  Staci's powerful personal testimonies and close look at the idols that prevent us from being orderly was really eye opening.  I realized that most of all, I idolize recreation, which often keeps me from doing that which really needs to be done to serve and love those around me.  Repenting of this and following the lead of Christ to lay down my life was a huge step forward this year in de-cluttering and getting into a better routine at home.

The Gospel-Centered Mom
by Sara Wallace
Take away:  Gospel-centered moms don't ride the rollercoaster of 'good mom / bad mom' based on performance and meeting standards.  Instead, they abide in Christ and seek to make disciples of their children.  Read my full review here.

Desiring God
by John Piper
Take away:  Our purpose is to give God glory and to find joy in him.  Joy is a natural response to a heart that is fully satisfied in God.  Honestly, I'm still chewing on this book - it gave a me a lot of hard things to think about.  Maybe I'll make some more progress on the concept of Christian Hedonism in 2016.

Women of the Word
by Jen Wilkin
Take away:  I can (and should) study the bible on my own.  I loved Jen's straightforward and generalized approach to studying scripture, which I used to study the book of Colossians this spring.  If you want to see what I learned, check out the four part series.  (p.s. Listening to several of Jen's talks, both at a conference this spring and online have really encouraged me to lay down my fears about sharing biblical truth with other women.  I'm thankful for her gifts and leadership in this area.)

Own Your Life
by Sally Clarkson
Take away:  I can take responsibility for my own choices in my Christian life.  Although salvation is by grace through faith, it's still important to put time into our relationship with God through prayer and studying the word.  If we want to be growing, influential women who point others to Christ, we need to be intentional about how we spend our time, energy, gifts and resources.  This book helped reinforce my desire to be thoughtful about pouring wonderful things into those around me by first being filled up with wonderful things - namely the things of the Lord.

Made for More
by Hannah Anderson
Take away:  We are first created as image-bearers of God, and should reflect him in all we do.  When we think of ourselves as image-bearers (versus women, wives, moms, daughters, friends, etc.), we can find purpose and joy in even the most mundane task, hoping in Christ alone and not our individual roles.  Reading this book made me realize that there are two different ways I can do the laundry.  I can reflect God's heart or I can reflect a sinful heart of flesh.  It brings me great joy when I pursue the former!

I Am a Church Member
by Thom Rainer
Take away:  Being a church member isn't about what you get, but what you give.  My husband and I read this short book on a recent drive, and it was helpful to reorient our perspective, which often borders on church consumerism.  We agreed that we want our hopes and dreams for the church to be born from a motive of furthering the gospel instead of furthering our personal preferences.

by Michael R. Emlet
Take away:  Everything in the bible points to Jesus, so when we read scripture, we must seek to understand how it connects to the overarching gospel narrative.  Sometimes I'm tempted to use topical, taken-out-of-context scriptures to counsel myself and others; instead I should consider how I can utilize scripture to point myself and others to Jesus with hope in salvation.  Those topical scriptures aren't bad, but they are so much richer in light of the cross.

Lila: A Novel
by Marilynne Robinson
Take away:  I almost left this blank, because I'm still not sure what I thought about this novel - set in Iowa with a character named "John Ames".  From a literature perspective, it was very well written and the characters were developed beautifully.  Through the lens of "writer" I enjoyed it...but for something to do recreationally, it didn't keep me on the edge of my seat.  I could go to bed without finishing it.

Outliers (audiobook)
by Malcolm Gladwell
Take away:  This book was a secular way of saying, "Who we become is less about trying hard and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and more about the opportunities and genetics given to us."  It was interesting to hear a non-Christian in essence argue that we aren't as much in control of our own 'success' as we like to think we are.  Instead, all we have is a gift or 'the chance' of our life experiences.  My husband and I listened to this in the car, and it started lots of great discussions...I'm not really sure what I learned - except that 10,000 hours is the magic amount of time you need to master something.

Make Yourself Unforgettable (audiobook)
by Dale Carnegie
Take away:  This was another book I listened to with my husband.  Dale argues that the key to being unforgettable is to be a 'class act', which he says is a person who doesn't complain and takes responsibility for themselves and others.  His rich examples really got me thinking about people I know who handle things with grace and poise, even when the situation is stressful.  It also brought to mind times when I've seen people respond childishly, grumbling, complaining and being the victim in a non-so-desperate situation.  Basically this was a secular way of saying, "Christians who have the fruit of the spirit should be controlled by God and his word, not the choices and actions of others."

You bet I'm already compiling my list for 2016, which includes more books about motherhood, productivity and more!  Looking forward to some book reviews in the future...
Happy New Year!

Bring Them Alongside You

An 'Interrupted' Morning
While the sun was still too low to be seen, I rolled out of bed anticipating a few moments to read, meditate and pray privately.  Knowing this was my one chance to care for hygiene, I put on real jeans and brushed my hair, and prepared myself physically for the morning.  But before my last brush stroke, I heard a little boy through the connecting bathroom vent,

"How does he know I'm awake?" I wondered.  "I still haven't left my room and this is nearly an hour before he's usually up.  What is going on?  And why is he YELLING my name?"
My heart sighed a little, but I still felt hopeful I could put him back to sleep.

"Mommy, I want you to leave my door open a little bit more."
"Okay, but Mommy is going to be in the other room for a while.  It's not time to wake up yet."

In the kitchen I scooped grounds into my coffee pot, looking forward to that warm goodness now that silence reigned again in the house.  "Maybe I'll get my quiet time after all." I smiled to myself.

But before the thought even left my mind, I heard my twin toddlers banging at their bedroom door, mounting into tears, pleading to come out.  I took a deep breath.

This is the morning that God gave to me.  Not a quiet, peaceful one (like I do get from time to time), but a child-filled one.  What will I do next?  Accept it or resist it?  Find joy or fight my circumstances?

I walked down the hall prepared to give everyone a speech,
"You may get up, but this is Mommy's time to read her bible.  So you can either play quietly or go back to bed."
"Ohhhh I will play.  I can play!" They all assured me of their good intentions as they scampered down the hall.
"Mommy, will you sit here on the couch and read?  Don't go in the other room.  Please sit by us." My oldest pleaded.
I could feel my ground slipping.  How could I legitimately refuse this request?  

As I repeated, "This is Mommy's time to read her bible.  Remember, you need to play..." a fight broke out over stuffed animals and train pieces.  Immediately I was wiping tears, calming spirits and negotiating among possessions.  But when the storm calmed, I whisked myself into the other room.
Little feet followed.

"Mommy, what are you doing?"  
"I do it!  I do it!  I read!  I read!"
A 2-year-old swiped my highlighter, "I color!"

As much as I wanted to enforce all the rules and draw a little circle around myself.  As much as I wanted to promptly send everyone to time out for disturbing me.  As much as I wanted to push them out, away and out of my space, something in my heart whispered,
"Bring them alongside you."

"Okay, fine.  You might not want to play, but this is what we do in this house when we wake up before dawn.  We read our bible.  So go get your bibles and come to the table!"  Little feet excitedly pounded down the hall.

After a couple minutes of arguing over who had what children's bible, each boy sat perched at the table looking at pictures.
"Look at this, Mommy!  What is he doing?" 
"Jesus!  Bible!  Mommy look mommy look!"
It was evident at that point - I was going to get NO personal reading time in.  This was going to be all about them.

"Okay," I closed my agenda and set it aside, relying on the Spirit because my flesh still longed for this moment to pass.
"Here's what we do when we read the bible...First, we pick a story.  Then, when we are done reading we need to ask 'What did I learn about God?'  Do you want to try it with me?"
"OOO YESS!"  My oldest exclaimed, shoving his bible in my face.  So I read the story of the good shepherd.
"Okay, what did this tell us about who God is?"
"God is a sheep!"
"We learned that he is our shepherd.  Do you know what shepherds do?  They take good care of their sheep.  They feed them, watch them and help them.  That's what God does for us."  
"Mommy, I want to be a shepherd!"  Hmm...
"After we ask a question about God, then we ask a question about our hearts.  What does this mean for you?"
(blank stares)
"This means that you can trust God - today and forever."

A child was climbing onto the table.

"Let's pray.  We need to pray about what we learn in the bible."
They all were quiet...
"Dear God, help us to trust you as our shepherd.  Amen."

Come Alongside Me
For those of you thinking I always respond in this picturesque way, I don't.  This one, spirit-fueled response was the result of many frustrated mornings, followed by times of conviction, learning and repentance.  But here's what I'm gleaning, both from the scriptures and wiser moms who have gone before me:

So much of godly parenting involves "making disciples".  And making disciples requires time, modeling, attention and a general spirit of, "follow me, do as I do."

Yes, there is formal training and instructing in obedience.
Yes, there is a time to teach a child to play independently.
Yes, we want to involve other godly adults in the lives of our children to help.
But primarily, this discipling stuff happens in the mundane daily moments as we look for ways to teach our children gospel-centered living.  There isn't a shortcut - it's just steady, faithful, time-consuming, persevering work.

Sometimes I want to use stay-at-home motherhood as an excuse to be distracted.
"Well, I'm ALWAYS around my kids, so I can check out and parent-by-screen time for a while."
"I'm home every day, surely my kids feel close to me."  But that isn't necessarily the case.
  • A woman can spend days in the vicinity of her children, supervising, feeding and directing them without actually making disciples.
  • A woman can speak a million words to her children without actually communicating what it means to live according to the gospel.
  • A woman can squander whatever hours she has with her family away by staring at her phone or finding other idle ways to ignore her God-given responsibility.
This serious stuff is the reason I want to say yes when my children ask to read alongside me in the morning.
Would it be easier to do it alone?  Yes.
But would they learn as much?  No.

I hope that in the coming days, weeks and years I can do more saying "Yes.  You can join me.  Here's how we do this..." and less, "No.  You need to go play by yourself and leave mommy alone for a while.*"

*Final side note:  Self-care is important.  I'm not saying we should be mommy-martyrs and NEVER have time to ourselves.  If my children woke before the crack of dawn EVERY morning, prohibiting quiet moments, I would find something more structured for them to do because having personal time with the Lord is critical.  If my children never learned to play independently, and were relying on me for constant entertainment and stimulation, that would also be unhealthy.  But in my personal experience, I'm very quick to push them off by themselves and slow to engage, instruct, get down on their level and do the hard work of training.  Maybe your bent is the other way, and you need to care for your heart so you have enough to pour out.  This is just my experience!

Ideas for Sharing Jesus with Young Children This Christmas

Like most mothers, I have high hopes for the weeks and days leading up to Christmas.  With a houseful of children 3 and under, I envision rich traditions and excitement for all.  In my mind, we calmly put up dozens of ornaments, read long passages of scripture as a family by candlelight, and marvel at the presents piling under the tree.  The main issue with this vision?  I'm pretending that my very young children are as capable as 10-yr-olds.  I'm ignoring and wishing away this season of life, hoping for the future days of good tidings and great joy, feeling a little resentful that today's Christmas season looks pretty different.

Instead of decking-the-halls with complex activities, our Christmas season looks like a 3ft tree with no breakable items attached.  It looks like hiding all presents in the basement, because we know they would be ripped and opened within a few minutes of being placed under the tree.  It looks like early bedtimes and telling stories with our "Little People" nativity set.  And there can be joy in this too...

So what about the rest of you out there with very young children, feeling a little let down because Christmas doesn't look exactly like you envisioned?

Here are a few ideas to build anticipation and talk about Jesus with young kids in December:

  • Sing songs together.  
    • Kids of all ages love songs, especially if you use actions (and they don't know if you make them up on the fly).  A lot of traditional Christmas carols actually have excellent doctrinal lessons, so you can teach them as you fa-la-la.  Also, for moms of infants, this is a great activity to do with your baby.  Linger for a few more moments in the rocking chair and sing O Holy Night.  
  • Do short and easily accessible seasonal activities.  
    • Warm chocolate milk, put everyone in their car seats and drive around to look at a few lights, cut some holes in your coffee filters and call them snowflakes - you get the gist!  Preschoolers and young toddlers are easily impressed, so use that to your advantage. 
  • Play pretend.  
    • Assign your kids different characters in the Christmas story and act it out.  We have an infant at home, and our older boys love pretending he is baby Jesus.  They bring him 'gifts' like the wise men, announce his coming like the angels and run to see him like the shepherds.  No fancy costumes are needed, just some imagination!
  • Use toys as illustrations.  
    • If you have toddlers or preschoolers, it's worth investing in a nativity set that can be played with, even if it's a hand-me-down.  Throughout the day, talk about the different people in the scene and make a big deal about God's gift of Jesus.  
  • Put up kid-friendly decorations.  
    • Of course, everyone has that 'thing' they love to have out at Christmas that the kids can't touch, but it's wise to have at least some decorations they can interact with.  Maybe it's a felt Christmas tree, some cheap plastic ornaments or a big stuffed snowman, but it's helpful to have something you can say yes to.  Let them have fun, enjoying the sights and textures of the season.
  • Encourage the longing.
    • It's hard for young children to wait for things, and that is especially true as Christmas celebrations draw near.  As they ask for presents and events, capture that longing and talk about that excitement in terms of waiting for Jesus.  It might sound dorky as it's coming out of your mouth, but your kids won't notice.
Remember that the best way to show and tell our kids about Jesus is to live out the gospel.  To be changed women who model a lifestyle of clinging to the great gift of Jesus Christ when we fall short.
More than our perfect activities, our children will remember our habits and attitudes.
Just the other day I was standing at the computer and my 3 year old asked,
"Mommy, are you mad?"
"No, sweetheart!" I said (wondering why he thought that to begin with).
Upon further reflection, I realized I was rather stressed trying to shop on Cyber Monday, and maybe that stress was showing up on my face and in my body language.  That was a good reminder to close the computer, smile and enter into playtime with my children.

Definitely keep it simple.
If you are dealing with children under the age of 4, comprehension and attention spans are going to be limited.  The key is to start planting seeds - basic truths to build on for years to come.  Lord willing, there are many years to tell them all the exciting stories surrounding Christmas.  You don't have to do it all when they are tiny!

We don't want our lofty expectations to stand in the way of our children having joy in Jesus.  So let's all take a deep breath, take on childlike faith, and set down our idealistic picture of the perfect Christmas season!

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