Pulled on my fall flannel, for the first time this year;
And jeans, snug and comforting.
After a quick drive, and a few steps, I’ve been transported.
Sounds of a chorus of buzzing bugs set my pace.
Deep breaths of fresh air filled my lungs, providing a new rhythm;
Calming my anxious mind and relaxing my body.
Soft and slow ripples in the water flowed towards me, a welcome to rest.
The lushness of summer’s greens has been infiltrated with reds and yellows.
Signals that time is moving to a new season.
Like the foliage before me, life finds a way of providing signs.
Am I walking slowly enough to pay attention?
To hear what’s in the whisper of the wind?
Am I seeking intimacy with my Creator to notice his nudgings?
With the aroma of change in the air,
The sun sets on another day.
A chance to reflect. To confess, to worship, to pray.
To welcome a posture of openness to God’s direction.
To be led by Him, looking for his signals; be they red, green, or yellow.
Every hard lesson after hard lesson, I find;
His way, especially in the waiting, is best.
23 Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. 24 You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
I hope you had a safe and fun-filled Labor Day! I enjoyed the beautiful weather at Longwood Gardens enjoying the sunshine, flowers, and fauna.
With the unofficial close to summer, it’s time to write about my favorite summer reads! I have fallen behind on my monthly reading round-up blog posts —forgive me readers! (all 5 of you!) You can check out my April and May highlights, and below I’ll wrap-up my summer favorites in one post. Rather than review each of these books separately, I want to pull together the threads within them. I hope it’s helpful and edifying!
“Habit formation is the process by which a behavior becomes progressively more automatic through repetition.”
I found Atomic Habits to be extremely practical and helpful with ideas and strategies for becoming a creature of good habits. Clear’s thesis is that tiny, consistent—“atomic-size”—habits aggregate to big life changes. His four laws of behavior change are a helpful framework to form healthy habits: make it obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying (these can be inverted for breaking bad habits).
One concept I particularly liked was the relationship between habits and identity. Clear describes it simply: “Your habits shape your identity.” An example would be if one assumes the identity of a healthy person, it is easier to make healthy choices; of course, coupled with various other practices to establish healthy eating and exercising habits. But the way we think about ourselves does have a significant role in the way we act and order our lives.
Aside from reading the book, Clear provides many helpful resources on his website, and I’ve also been enjoying his twice weekly email newsletter. My critique comes from what I felt was missing. Habits are absolutely important. Healthy eating, living, exercising, reading, writing, etc. I for one, have been trying to increase and improve my writing this year and thinking through setting myself up for success with good habits is something important to me. But as helpful as Clear’s material is, it also felt a bit robotic and formulaic. Is there more to life than good habits?
I think yes.
A life of good habits with a lack of purpose is a life devoid of meaning.
Which is why I loved and highly recommend James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love.
Smith cuts to the core of the human heart, writing that our actions, behaviors, or “habits” flow from our longings and desires. We were made to worship and desire God, but our heart’s desires become disordered because of sin. Smith draws on the words of early Church fathers to describe this:
“You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Augustine opens with a design claim, a conviction about what human beings are made for. This is significant for a couple of reasons. First, it recognizes that human beings are made by and for the Creator who is known in Jesus Christ. In other words, to be truly and fully human, we need to “find” ourselves in relationship to the One who made us and for whom we are made. The gospel is the way we learn to be human. As Irenaeus once put it, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
To put it simply, I am what I love. My habits – my lifestyle – flow from what I long for and love. Smith later invokes the Church reformers to illustrate this “worship”:
To say “you are what you love” is synonymous with saying “you are what you worship.” The great Reformer Martin Luther once said, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your god.” We become what we worship because what we worship is what we love. As we’ve seen, it’s not a question of whether you worship but what you worship—which is why John Calvin refers to the human heart as an “idol factory.” We can’t not worship because we can’t not love something as ultimate.
Smith goes on to expose the idols of our age within secular culture and the church. And he poignantly shows how the sacramental gifts of the church should rightly form us.
“To be human is to be a liturgical animal, a creature whose loves are shaped by our worship…Christian worship, we should recognize, is essentially a counterformation to those rival liturgies we are often immersed in, cultural practices that covertly capture our loves and longings, miscalibrating them, orienting us to rival versions of the good life. This is why worship is the heart of discipleship.”
This book was convicting, but also beautiful and freeing. The habit-forming gifts of the church are a special grace from the Lord to mold and shape our hearts, so that we can truly become the creatures with a purpose we were meant to be.
In thinking about one’s habits and purpose in life, one can’t help but reflect upon what life might look like when we come to the end of our time here on earth. Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead, does just that. I’ve had this book on my “to-read” list for a while, and found it to be an enjoyable and leisurely read this summer.
Gilead records the stream-of-consciousness journal entries of a country preacher in his last days. Reverend John Ames writes to his young son about a myriad of topics, from family history, amusing life anecdotes, and especially his memories as a pastor.
Robinson’s writing is both conversational and lyrical. One of my favorite examples:
The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light. It seems like a metaphor for something. So much does. Ralph Waldo Emerson is excellent on this point. It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Or it seems like poetry within language. Perhaps wisdom within experience. Or marriage within friendship and love. I’ll try to remember to use this.
His letters reflect on the intricacies of the human soul, the purpose of life, and his wrestling with deep theological questions. One thing shines through: he loved and served his family, his wife, his son, his parishioners, and his town, well.
What Gilead lacks in plot, it makes up for in droves with beautiful language, character study, and thoughtfulness. It is a reflection of a life well lived, and the desire to pass on a legacy to the next generation. It stood in stark contrast to me with Atomic Habits. As valuable as those psychological insights are, habits without purpose, and a purpose disconnected from the Creator, is meaningless.
I highly recommend all of these titles! And perhaps I will get back into the “habit” of a monthly review, rather than quarterly. Enjoy and may your September be filled with good books and good habits 😊.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23: 4, NKJV
Last year for Labor Day, I headed west. It felt good to take a few days off work, pack up my hiking gear, and hop on a plane (that world seems so different and long ago!).
One of the national parks I visited was Death Valley. I was interested in visiting it for a number of reasons, including my hope of experiencing it as a spiritual pilgrimage.
Being that it was the end of August, and pushing 115 degrees, it wasn’t going to be a long visit, but I wanted to see the main sights. It was incredible with an “other-worldly” feel to it.
Unfortunately, what I hoped to be a peaceful and reflective experience, turned into a scary one by the end of the trip. Thanks to an unidentified critter that stung me, I got to experience the body’s fight/flight response in full blown action! By the end of it, I was fine, but in the moment it was quite frightening; it truly felt like I was living through a “death valley” moment in Death Valley.
I survived my literal Death Valley adventure, but I didn’t know more “valley of the shadow of death” experiences would be coming in 2020. No one knew the Covid pandemic was coming and that we would collectively be living through a valley season.
Over this past year, I’ve been reflecting on three important things to remember during hard times:
Don’t go through Death Valley Alone
In hindsight, I should not have gone to Death Valley National Park alone; I let my independent spirit get the best of me. The same goes for any valley experience – we can’t do it alone. Even the fact that I couldn’t get cell service when I needed it in Death Valley, painfully highlighted how it can be downright dangerous when we can’t be connected!
Whether it’s an immediate traumatic experience, or long-lasting suffering – we need one another. The beauty of God’s design for humans reflects this need. He created us to exist in families; we are literally dependent when we come into the world. And he created the church, as one body with many members. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Cor. 12:26, ESV)
I may have made the miscalculation of going alone, but at least I was prepared. I researched to know what I was getting into; I hydrated and had lots of water, I wore lots of suntan lotion and a hat, I had energy bars and gatorade, a first aid kit, a paper map, a flashlight, and I always made sure I had a least a half tank of gas. Those were wise things to do to be prepared.
Similarly, when going through a real-life valley experience, we need to be equipped. Prayer, Worship, Scripture, the Church – these are our lifeblood in times of suffering. And they prepare us for whatever suffering may come. By studying the Word we become immersed in God’s truth so that it becomes an anchor when we are wandering a wilderness.
Prayer, Worship, Scripture, the Church – these are our lifeblood in times of suffering.
No matter what we are going through, or will go through, God has promised that he will never leave us or forsake us. As Moses preached to Joshua and the Israelites after they’ve been wandering for so long and are prepared to enter the Promised Land: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6, ESV)
No matter what we are going through, or will go through, God has promised that he will never leave us or forsake us.
During my frightening experience, with no humans around and no cell service, all I could do was remain grounded in knowing the presence of God was with me. Looking back, I am amazed at how he gave me the peace I needed (and how he designed the human body to respond in a crisis!).
Life can throw us some very challenging experiences. How marvelous that the Creator of the Universe is with us every step of the way, longing to help and comfort us. We may have those times where we feel completely on our own and helpless, but we can trust that we are never truly alone.
If life feels like a desert, be encouraged. Find family, friends, and the fellowship of believers to connect and carry you. Equip yourself with prayer and Scripture. Meditate and take comfort in the truth that God goes before you and behind you – he is with you as you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
“And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.” Isaiah 58:11 ESV
I had the opportunity to write an article for Fathom Magazine on nature, God, healing, and one of my favorite theological topics, dominion.
You can click on the image below to read it!
I believe and have experienced how God can speak to us through nature; it’s up to us to slow down, listen, pay attention, and steward his gifts—his creation and the soul he’s entrusted each of us with, equally.
And it was a joy to write about one of my favorite places. Many of my blog posts over the past two years have been inspired by this beautiful spot!
I hope you will enjoy the piece, and I hope it inspires you to spend more time outdoors with God!
The rumble of thunder from a summer storm. The waves of cicadas buzzing each morning and evening.
This weekend, on a leisurely stroll, I came upon some peaceful sights. They were not the most stunning scenes— in comparison to my days on the water or hiking or traveling (remember when we could travel?!). But they were welcoming and lovely, even in their imperfection and messiness.
The beauty of a butterfly—with a broken wing no less—brought much joy. The happy—albeit disheveled—black-eyed susan’s stirred delight.
The blessing of a quiet walk sparked a smile of gratitude.
Seasons of suffering make these simple things—even a simple step outdoors—all the more sweeter.
Seasons of suffering make the simple things all the more sweeter.
I’ve been day-dreaming about wildflowers. They show up in unexpected places on adventures with my four-legged companions.
‘I will believe in my beauty even if no one else sees it’ That’s what the wildflowers whisper These lilies dance to the music of a soft breeze No one is watching or listening But me An interloper and yet also welcomed in their presence I marvel at them in their solitary splendor In a landscape of a hundred shades of green Their fire burns brightly They are free To simply be, Beautiful
I will believe in my beauty even if no one else sees it.
My slice of the world, off the Chesapeake Bay, is a sanctuary of peace and serenity for me (and my dogs!).
There are so many beautiful natural wonders across this nation. Just visit a national park, one of our greatest treasures, and you’ll see!
While we’ve been living through a very hard year, and having just commemorated Independence Day, I’ve been reflecting on America’s greatest treasure—our Constitution and the revolutionary foundation of the Declaration of Independence, that every person is created equal.
It is a profound tragedy that we have not always lived up to that founding ideal, most notably with slavery and the ensuing treatment of black Americans. Women have had to fight for the right to vote, as we marked the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment earlier this year. And the cause to which I have devoted many years, ending the dehumanization of the preborn child, and the mass slaughter by abortion that has snuffed out the lives of over 60 million American babies before they have even had a chance to take breath. These are only a few examples.
And yet, it’s important to see our current day through the eyes of both a historian, and a theologian. America, sins and all, has been the most revolutionary nation on earth. Prior to 1776, nation-states were comprised of subjects not citizens and most claimed a divine right to their sovereigns. And even today, in some of the most powerful nations, the freedom of individuals is sharply curtailed. This is obviously just a very broad brush stroke of history (a longer analysis HERE), as I attempt to simply point out that the ideal that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is truly astounding, especially when you view it in its historical context.
As Americans living in the 21st century, we should absolutely continue to work towards securing those founding ideals of the right to life and liberty, and the guarantees of our Constitution, for every man, woman, and child. And as Christians we have an even higher calling to live obediently to God first and foremost, and to love our neighbors. I like how author and philosopher James K.A. Smith puts it in his book, How We Love:“Our engagement with God’s world is not about running the show or winning a culture war. We are called to be witnesses, not necessarily winners.”
From a theological perspective, until Christ returns, there will always be trials and tribulations in this world as a result of sin. There will always be discord among men and women, within and among nations. We can’t achieve utopia; we must be prudent and realistic. However, God does teach us about seeking “the welfare of the city,” about pursuing justice, mercy, and righteousness, about caring for the poor, orphans, and widows. One day, in the new Kingdom, all will be made right.
Until then, we have our work ahead of us. And I, for one, will continue to criss-cross America the beautiful to find restoration and strength for this journey from the natural and healing power of creation!
I was at the hospital yesterday for a very minor medical procedure. My doctor was great and compassionate (after cycling through several not-so-great/helpful ones), and the nurses were too.
Even so, the procedure involved two very large needles and my lower back; not so fun, no matter how minor. It was relatively quick, thankfully, but did involve pain. About halfway through I regretted not taking the Xanax that was offered me, with all the anxiety stirred up!
Noticing my white knuckles gripped to my head rest, as I was laid out helplessly on the operating table, one of the nurses gently rubbed my shoulder and arm. It was soothing and calming; I swear I could hear the beeping of my heart rate monitor go down as her compassionate touch reassured me.
It was such a simple thing—probably even standard procedure for the nursing team there—yet it made such a difference in my experience during a stressful and painful moment. Compassionate concern. Empathetic human touch.
Compassionate concern. Empathetic human touch. These things make a difference.
There’s a lot going on these days—so much it can make your head spin. I worry about our country’s mental health as a whole and as individuals. I pray we can remember that we are all human. Every one is hurting, has burdens. The comfort from my nurse was a reminder to me to pay attention – sometimes (especially now) even a simple smile or kind word at the grocery store can be a counter-cultural act of love.
Even a simple smile or kind word at the grocery store can be a counter-cultural act of love.
We can also pay attention to ourselves and how to be kind and compassionate to our own body and mind (we forget that far too easily!). The little things we can do for ourselves to stay grounded make a difference too. (I wrote more on this in my review of Audi Kolber’s book Try Softer.)
Some of the little things that helped me through the stress and pain of my hospital visit:
• A pina colada slurpee (yes they exist). • A page-turning novel. • Snuggles from my pups. • A pink sky at sunset. • A favorite playlist.
May we pay attention to the needs of others and and ourselves. The little things that we do, with love and kindness, matter.
The little things that we do, with love and kindness, matter.
May was a month of hits and misses with the books I read. Several of the novels I read disappointed, and the length of my historical nonfiction pick, didn’t leave time for many other options. Yet, the three I wrote about below were all fantastic reads in the month of May!
• Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode by Aundi Kolber • The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode — and into a Life of Connection and Joy
Aundi Kolber’s Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode — and into a Life of Connection and Joy is a breath of fresh of air, especially during a collective season of stress and uncertainty.
Kolber posits that a life of connection and joy can be found when we “approach life with more self-compassion,” just as Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves, so that we may see ourselves as God does: “as someone with infinite value who was created to be loved.” When we live with that truth as our center, we are able to face challenges and own our own story, which in turn enables us to have more compassion and empathy for others.
Along with this theological backdrop, the foundation of the “try softer” approach is found in the science of neurobiology – exactly how God created humans: “when we understand the physiology of our bodies, we can be empowered to try softer with ourselves.” Kolber explains brain and body physiology in a way that brings a great deal of light to how our body handles, processes, and stores anxiety and trauma. She also explains attachment theory, boundaries, and emotional tolerances, all with helpful practices to move through the challenges we face in these areas.
I highly recommend this book if you are interested in a more compassionate approach to life and our human bodies, rooted in Scripture and brain science. It is a gentle reminder that the way God created the human person and intended for us to be in relationships with one another, is a beautiful thing.
That’s not often the reality, as trauma and brokenness mar us, but there is a way of living that can lead us back into the place of belovedness.
“During our hardest, scariest times—whether our bodies feel stressed and jumpy or sluggish and slow—God is there to reassure us that we are not defined by our best days of our worst days. We are his beloved.”
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz
I’ve enjoyed several of Eri kLarson’s books and this highly anticipated January release was no different. Larson brilliantly blends journal entries and letter correspondence with his historical account of the first year of Winston Churchill’s time as Prime Minister of England during World War II, May 1940 – May 1941. This approach personalizes the central characters—historical figures who quite literally impacted world history, or orbited around those who did—which has the effect of making them more extraordinary and yet more accessible.
I came away from The Splendid and the Vile with a profound sense of admiration for Churchill and his leadership and courage during a dark time in Europe, and yet with a healthy sense of his humanity, such as his irritableness, penchant for fine cigars, and his quirk of wandering 10 Downing Street in just a dressing robe (or less, as told in a humorous anecdote of an encounter with President Roosevelt later in 1941!).
The book recounts the battles in the air between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force, and the death and destruction that ensued. I’d been familiar with some of the stories of the London bombings, through literature and history lessons, but this book provided a stark look at the devastation the Nazis inflicted on London from the air, and the pervasive sense of fear they wrought.
“The persistence of the roads and the increasing destruction also had a darker effect. Wrote novelist Rose Macaulay, on Monday September 23: ‘I am getting a burying phobia, result of having seen so many houses and blocks of flats reduced to piles of ruins from which people can’t be extracted in time to live…Harold Nicolson had a similar fear, which he confided to his diary the next day. ‘What I dread,’ he wrote, is being buried under huge piles of masonry and hearing the water drip slowly, smelling the gas creeping towards me and hearing the faint cries of colleagues condemned to a slow and ungainly death.’ Many Londoners began complaining of gastrointestinal distress, a condition called ‘Siren Stomach.’”
The Splendid and the Vile helps one to understand what the constant threat of bombing, along with the imminent fear of invasion, did to the British psyche during World War II. It was a fearful time, and part of Churchill’s genius was his ability to empathize with the suffering—he himself was often at danger during the bombings—along with his oratorical gift to bolster the courage and perseverance through. Just one example of many is a February 1941 address: “We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither this sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down.”
Of course the history of World War II is vast. The Splendid and the Vile provides a singular look at the Battle of Britain, the first major military campaign to be fought entirely in the air and a critical front in the war, as well as a personal portrait of one of the 20th century’s great leaders.
“In the end, London endured, albeit with grave injuries. Between September 7, 1940, when the first large-scale attack on central London occurred, and Sunday morning, May 11, 1941, when the Blitz came to an end, nearly 29,000 of its citizens were killed, and 28,556 seriously injured.”
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
I was expecting more of a lighthearted read in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, but what I found was a novel of much depth and insight into human relationships.
Eleanor, at first a seemingly typical albeit a bit eccentric millennial, lives alone and has little social interaction beyond her 9-5 job. Her friendship with Raymond, a “slovenly” colleague from IT, drives the story, as Eleanor slowly opens up to a world of social connection, and with that, the ability to face the past that haunts her and holds her back.
This ended up being a very timely book to read during the pandemic and quarantine, as we have all been suffering from social isolation. It illustrated how checking in on people we care about can quite literally be life-saving. This time has also revealed the plague of loneliness and the dreadful effects of trauma and lack of social connections. As Eleanor describes it:
“These days, loneliness is the new cancer–-a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”
Yet Eleanor Oliphant provides hope, as Eleanor allows friendship to seep into her. “I suppose one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist for our allotted span in this green and blue vale of tears is that there is always, however remote it might seem, the possibility of change.”
I actually listened to this through Audible, which I found highly enjoyable. The reader was very talented in bringing life to Eleanor and all of the characters, and since the setting is Scotland, the accents were very entertaining! Overall, I’d throughly recommend this book!