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A book combining food and family secrets was almost impossible to resist, but I’ve got mixed feelings about my experience reading A Table by the Window by Hillary Manton Lodge. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy through the Blogging for Books program.)

table-windowThe book focuses on Juliette, a food writer and youngest heir in a French-Italian family with deep cooking heritage. She tells the story in first person, and frankly, I was a bit bored in the beginning. I didn’t care much about her life, which didn’t seem all that bad, and although I was excited about the inclusion of recipes, I also felt they were intimidating and inaccessible to someone who hasn’t been raised with such a rich knowledge of proper cooking techniques. I did enjoy the cooking theme in the story, though, and Juliette’s appreciation for food. Her family was likable also and the characters were vivid and memorable.

Unfortunately, I was almost halfway through the book before I really started to enjoy it. Juliette tests the waters of online dating and that storyline started to propel the rest of the book. I took a liking to Neil, the doctor with whom she begins communicating. Their exchanges are cute and probably saved the book for me.  The ending was abrupt, offering less closure and more questions. Thankfully there was an excerpt of the next book included at the end of this one. Still, I wasn’t sure going in that this was a series and the ending kind of caught me by surprise, but not in a good way.

I mostly wanted to read this book as research for the novel I’m writing because the theme is similar: a young woman floundering in her present uncovers a family secret that could shape her future. I’m not sorry I read it, and I’m interested in the next one to see where the storyline goes, but I kind of hoped for more from this one.

If you want to make yourself drool, head on over to the book’s Pinterest page, though. In a word: yum!

 

In less than a week, summer will (unofficially) be over. At least where we live, the kids go back to school next week and the carefree, do-what-we-want days (I stole that line from my coolest Colorado cousin) will be over.

Back to setting alarms and packing lunches and meeting the bus twice a day.

Back to homework and enforcing a regular bedtime and the end-of-day reunion of family.

Honestly? I’m going to miss summer.

summer

We’ve never been close, summer and I. Although I’m sure I enjoyed the break from homework and school when I was a student, summers sort of lost their allure when I got my first job out of college. Summer was like any other time of the year. I got up, I went to work, I came home. Except it was more humid than other times of the year.

Our family summers in recent memory have had their positive moments, but I’m becoming one of those moms who enjoys her relative freedom during the school days. So, I sort of feared this first summer following our firstborn’s kindergarten year.

I found a groove with one child all day long and in what seemed like an instant, I was back to having both kids all day and one of them is in constant need of social interaction. Summer could be a disaster, I predicted.

And then it wasn’t.

There were family visits here and there and long drives in between. There were outings and adventures and days of sheer boredom in between. There was togetherness–oh, there was togetherness–and times I wanted to have JUST FIVE FREAKING MINUTES TO MYSELF WITHOUT ANYONE TOUCHING ME. (Have I mentioned I’m an introvert?) And a long separation that was almost too much to bear.

There were trips to the library and reading on the porch and visits with friends and an amazing vacation and countless memories that are falling through the cracks of my mind. (And parks! We went to the park so many times!) summer 2

There were plans that came about and plans that didn’t.

And you know what? Summer was great!

Today, I was mourning the upcoming loss of time with my daughter. She’s a creative, imaginative, passionate spitfire of a human being in a small package but she’s crazy fun to be around, even when she’s pouting. As we drove to get school supplies, just the two of us, I felt the need to tell her how much I would miss her when she went back to school.

And then an hour later I was thanking God that she was going back to school because she couldn’t stop fighting with her brother.

I can’t have it both ways, I know. I can’t have our family all together all the time (at least not without some major changes to how we live and I’m just not sure that’s our best option) and I can’t send the kids away forever. (I would never do that, by the way, even on the hardest days.)

Just the same, I couldn’t have endless summer because I’d miss the colors of fall, the slowing down in winter and the rebirth of spring.

I will miss my daughter when she’s at school, but I can’t wait for those big hugs when she comes leaping off the school bus at the end of the day. Or the big smile on her face when she sees me at her school. I love hearing the stories of her day and storing up our tales to share with her.

I will miss the freedom we have in the summer to take a family adventure on whatever day suits my husband’s work schedule, but that just means we have to be more intentional about scheduling our fun on other days. (We already have some plans!)

Part of me wants to regret all the things we didn’t do this summer–all the projects and the exploring that just didn’t fit into our lives–but that would rob us of the joy we did have.

So, summer, I’m sad (really!) to see you go, but I know you’ll be back again next year. And fall, I’m ready for you! (Okay, that’s false bravado. I’m not ready AT ALL. But bring. it. on.) And winter, you just wait your turn. I promise to make hot chocolate and try to enjoy the snow again this year but don’t get too eager. And spring, my love, you’ll be what keeps me hanging on during those subzero mornings waiting for the school bus to arrive.

Play nice together, seasons, and I’ll give each of you your due. I’ll look for the best and turn away from the worst. (Okay, I’ll probably still complain loudly on Facebook about snow days and shoveling and heating  bills.)

It’s hard to say good-bye, and I hate transition times, so I might be singing a different tune in a week or two. For now, though, we’re squeaking out our last bit of fun this week and preparing for the return of routine next week.

Thank you, summer of 2014, for reminding me of all you have to offer. You’ve earned a place among my favorite seasons. (Spoilers: It’s a 4-way tie.)

How was your summer? What’s your favorite season and why?

I had high hopes for this book, maybe too high. When I read the description for The Trail by Ed Underwood, I thought it sounded a bit like The Shack. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from Tyndale House in exchange for my review.) Unfortunately, it doesn’t measure up to the quality of storytelling found in The Shack, and I found it overall not as interesting as I’d hoped.

the trailThe Trail is a parable about discovering God’s will and it centers on a couple, Matt and Brenda, who are trying to make a decision about Matt’s job prospects. Their friends send them in to the woods to meet an old mountain man/preacher, Sam, who is supposed to take them on a weekend journey in the mountains and teach them principles about discovering God’s will.

I liked the principles and thought they were useful statements in the life of a Christian. And I appreciate the idea of the book because we, as Christians, often make the concept of finding God’s will too difficult.

However, I really couldn’t identify with any of the characters. Matt seemed like a selfish jerk. Brenda was a little bit flighty and weak. And Sam was sometimes just hard to believe as a person. He preached a lot and the conversations between the characters were not realistic. I also wasn’t sure whose point of view we were supposed to be reading most of the time. There were clues, but it was awkward.

I almost couldn’t finish the book and ended up skimming the last couple of chapters just to be done with it.

I did take away a few good principles, but the effort to find them just wasn’t worth it for me.

A beach vacation is hardly first on my list of destinations, but at the request of friends, we decided to take the plunge, so to speak, and take a joint family vacation with another family.

It was wonderful in ways I’m still trying to understand, myself.

And it was enriching to my spiritual life, even though the only time we set foot in a church was to admire the stained glass in the Catholic church on the square.

Because standing on the shore of the ocean, I can feel God and sense His presence.

Deep calls to deep, the psalmist says, and I don’t understand it but that’s what I feel when I look out on the forever-and-ever stretch of water before me.

It calls to me. And I want to dive in, splash, and be swept away by something bigger than me.

I look at the ocean, and I see God.

I’m blogging at Putting on the New today. Read the rest of this post here.

Lights in a rainbow of colors criss-crossed the stage, near-blinding the audience at times, perfectly coordinated to the heart-thrumming rock music blaring from the stage. The congregated faithful raised their hands, swaying, dancing to the beat, overcome to overflowing with joy and adoration.

third day

Fifteen years ago, this is what I thought the Christian experience was all about. The ecstatic worship the pinnacle of spirituality. I drank in every opportunity to attend concerts and festivals and experiences that would remind me of my new nature, my new family, my new take on the world. I wanted to be carried along on the high from one experience to the next and never come down.

Looking around me in the present, I wondered if anyone else was thinking that. I wondered if their faith was strengthened by the gathering of believers or if they were downcast at the appearance of everyone else’s exuberant worship. I was among those singing my heart out but not because my life was full and my joy unending. The opposite was true.

I was spent. Dry. Worn out. And all I could do was sing loud in hopes that my soul would hear.

“You look so relaxed!” 

I had posted this picture from our first day at the beach and the comments echoed this sentiment. Because how could you be at the beach and not be relaxed?

In truth, it was our worst day at the beach. Two tired mommas with five rowdy kids were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the dads and the weather–how dare it!–was not what we needed. The wind stirred up the sand, stinging our backs and covering everything. Away from the ocean, our kids cried as the sand mercilessly surrounded us. We were all tired after a day of travel. We were determined to spend a bare minimum of a couple of hours at the beach because of the colossal effort it took us to get there that morning.

When I snapped the picture, it was so I could text it to my husband with the greeting: Wish you were here! (A note with a double meaning, for sure.) I posted it online later in the day because it was a decent picture of me. (I don’t do a lot of selfies.) And I was surprised at the message it conveyed.

If we’re not careful, our whole lives can play out like this. We can wear our masks of comfort and civility when deep inside we are hurting and bitter. We can put our best clothes on when our souls are covered with filthy rags. We can say the right things and do the right things and never let on that our lives feel wrong. We can paint a pretty picture for the world to admire hoping no one will look too closely and see that we’re just trying to cover up a tattered canvas.

I don’t know about you, but it’s really easy for me to judge someone’s surface. I glance and assume and never take the time to scratch away my assumptions. And I walk away distressed because my life as I know it doesn’t measure up to what I perceive is someone else’s reality. And I’m not just talking about Facebook and Pinterest and Instagram. I’m talking in real life with the people walking around beside me.

I not only judge a book by its cover, I judge a life by its snapshot.

Because that’s really all I get in a moment is a snapshot. One picture that represents just a moment, not the whole. Even a scrapbook of snapshots wouldn’t tell the whole story. I know that my snapshots don’t show you what’s really going on. So, why do I assume it’s that way for everyone else?

I have to write a recap of our family’s year for a family reunion on my husband’s side.

I will confess that I dread this task. I hate writing a year-end Christmas letter, too, because all the highlights and cheer are not the sum total of our lives. There was a year not too long ago when I wanted to lay it all out there–all the junk our family was going through because I just couldn’t fake it anymore. I think we managed a letter that addressed the reality without covering it up, but I still didn’t want to write it.

I’m learning that a year is not all highs and not all lows. Nor is a month or a week or a day. It is some of each, and I am one of the first to side with an extreme. (Life sucks! I hate everything! Why are we here?) My husband gently reminds me that this is not the way it is. That even in the hardest weeks, we have bright spots. It is one of the reasons we try, as a family, to share one best thing and one worst thing about our day at dinnertime. No one has to have a worst part but we encourage each other to find one best part.

Some days, we need reminding that there was good in our world.

The windows are down, a breeze filling the car as we zoom the country roads. I am singing at the top of my voice, uncaring about the notes or how I sound. I want to scream and yell and hit things but this day, I sing instead. It is a release, of sorts.

I am curled up on the bed, bawling on a Sunday morning before church because I don’t want to go and be with people. I want to wallow in my own messy life. But I wipe my nose and dry my eyes, all puffy and red, and I go, less because I want to and more because I think I should.

And I find myself in good company, among those with messy lives and heavy burdens and free-flowing tears. There is comfort and joy and love and care.

And there is this song.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, O my soul. Worship his holy name. Sing like never before, O my soul. I’ll worship your holy name.

The sun comes up, there’s a new day dawning, it’s time to sing your song again, whatever may pass and whatever lies before me, let me be singing when the evening comes.

Sing like never before. And I do. Loud and raspy and off-key.

Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me. There are good things and bad things that have happened and will happen. There are weeks of triumph and weeks of trial. This is the sum total of the Christian experience. Not just breathtaking mountaintops. Not just sunless valleys. Some days are deserts. Others are waterfalls. Some draining, others refreshing. And the presence of one does not guarantee the absence of the other. A good week may be followed by a bad one. A bad one may lead to a good one. A season of trial will not last forever, nor will a season of comfort.

Let me be singing when the evening comes. At the end of the day, week, month, year, will I still be singing no matter what happens?

It is a prayer of constancy in an ever-changing world.

This moment, whatever it may be, does not define my life. Or your life. This season is not all there ever is. And what you see now is not how it always was or will be.

Let’s not be afraid to step out from behind the picture. To show our lives for what they are: a messy, beautiful reality. And to look for the scratches beneath the surface of other people’s pictures.

Not so we can judge each other more but so we can love each other more.

Maybe we’ll love ourselves a little more in the process, too.

For those who doubt their life or story matters, this is a collection of stories to convince you otherwise.

speakSpeak: How Your Story Can Change the World is a sometimes-gentle, sometimes not, kick in the pants for everyone, not just writers or storytellers or speakers, to tell our stories. And it is equal parts inspiring and convicting. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from Zondervan through the Booklook Bloggers program.)

The author, Nish Weiseth, is the founder of one of my favorite blog spaces, A Deeper Story, and though I haven’t read a lot of her work, in particular, I love the mission of the site and the stories shared there. So, I’m pleased to discover I love Weiseth’s writing as well.

And her message–that stories are more powerful than all the labeling and stereotyping and arguing policy that goes on–is timely. Over the two days that I read the book, I watched online arguments erupt and devolve into hatred among strangers over stories about a group of Muslims using a community room at a local rec center for a religious observation and about whether a 37-weeks-gestation body found in a garbage can should be called a “fetus” or a “baby.” (I digress a little but only to show the relevance of Weiseth’s work.) It is situations like those–and so many more–that call for stories. That urge us to know people for who they are not what we think they are or should be. Weiseth calls us to ask questions, to listen, and to tell our stories in an exchange of humanity. She writes,

This book is a call to do just that– to change the game by telling the stories of our lives with courage, honesty, and integrity. It’s a call to acknowledge that each of our stories is a small piece of the greatest story–God’s continual work and transforming power in our lives.  (24)

One of my favorite features of the book is the reprinted blog posts at the end of each chapter illustrating how a specific story changes the way we see a particular issue or stereotype. I love that Weiseth shared her book space with other writers to add another layer to the work. And though she has written a book and lives in Salt Lake City as part of a church plant, Weiseth is also a mother to two young children and immersed in the daily routines of life and family. She insists that our lives don’t have to look like a Hollywood movie to matter.

Most people are living life by daily fulfilling the obligations set before them. … And though you  may be living what seems like an ordinary life, faithfully doing what God has placed in front of you to do means you are actually living an extraordinary story. (183)

Not a book just for those who communicate for a living but one for anyone striving to live a life that brings more of the Kingdom of God to earth. Our stories, our journeys, our trials and triumphs, matter. And, as Weiseth says, they can be the catalyst for change in someone else’s life.

I am not what you would call a “prayer warrior.”

I forget to pray. I tell people I’ll pray and then I forget. I try things on my own effort before praying as a last resort. I intend to make a dedicated time in my day to pray and then oversleep or get distracted by the children fighting in the first 10 minutes of being awake. (Summer, we love you, but it seems like we’ve had enough.)

And even when I do remember to pray and do so faithfully for a time, I give up too early when I don’t see anything change and I wonder if prayer really is effective, like the Bible says, or if it’s me who has a deficit in righteousness.

But then there are weeks like this last one. When I pray and the answers surprise me and I believe all over again that God cares and hears, and yes, prayer matters.

Our eight-year-old mini-van has been limping for a few weeks now. We weren’t sure what was wrong only that she wasn’t running as smoothly as she could. (Why is our van a “she”? I have no idea.)

On Tuesday, the kids and I piled into the car to run a quick errand only to discover the car would not start. I panicked, then took a deep breath, then tried again and it started but it was still being funny and I prayed all the way to the store and back that please, God, could you just get us there and back without trouble.

He did, and the car did not repeat its antics for my husband (which always makes me feel like a stereotypical hysterical female, even though he does nothing to encourage that feeling) when he drove home from work that night.

I continued to pray for safe travels around town, but as I prayed through the week and the car continued to limp, I changed my prayer from “get us there and back safely” to “if we’re going to have a breakdown, let us see You in it.” I feared being stranded while out running an errand and prayed that we would see a friend if that happened. I feared being stalled in traffic and prayed that a police officer would pass at the right moment to help us. I prayed that Phil would be with us when it happened because his head is much cooler than mine in times of adversity.

We made it through the week without a breakdown, and I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that Phil would soon make the call to get the car into a mechanic. We had survived another week and I felt like we’d won a battle.

Sunday was a busy day for us. Phil was scheduled to preach one of his occasional sermons. I was in charge of coffee and snacks and had two containers of muffins to contribute.

Because he works a full-time job during the week, sermon prep often happens in his head and takes shape on Saturday night. Sometimes late. I prayed that he would have clarity and vision and focus. His process would drive me, the planner, crazy, but it works for him and God always shows up.

Still, when the light bulb of an idea went off on Saturday night and the message took shape, I shook my head in amazement.

Why am I surprised when God answers prayers?

As I baked the muffins, I continued my praying because I have struggled to have a servant’s heart during coffee hour. I love providing food and coffee for people but sometimes, I am overwhelmed by the burden of it and the need to be appreciated. So, I prayed for God to change my heart, which was tending toward selfish, and let me have a heart of service. And I prayed that we would be able to feed people with the few snacks we had available. Our stock was desperately low, and the muffins were a last-ditch effort to make sure we had enough.

We managed to be ready to leave for church when we wanted to be–early enough that Phil could get prepared for his part in the service and I could start the coffee. The kids were dressed and mostly behaving, so we were feeling good for a Sunday morning.

The kids and I loaded ourselves into the van. I turned the car on to lower the windows while we waited for Phil to join us. He got into the car, stuck his key in the ignition and turned.

Nothing happened. Except the thing that had happened to me on Tuesday. The dials on the dash went wacky but the car didn’t start.

He tried again. And again.

He popped the hood.

And tried again.

We had no extra time to try to get the car going, so we phoned for help.

Our pastor came to pick us up. We loaded our kids and their seats and the muffins and the sermon props into the car and headed to church.

I was in tears.

Of all the mornings, Lord! Why this one? Why when Phil has to preach did the car not start?

The short drive to church reminded me that this exact thing is what I had prayed for. (Okay, maybe not this exact scenario, but it was an answer to prayer.)

We had been stranded at home. On a Sunday. When lots of people we know are available to help us and drive by our house. We had time to spare before church started. Yes, it was inconvenient and not according to plan, and yes, we had to rely on the help of others, but of all the scenarios I’d imagined about our car breaking down, this was by far, the best one.

It didn’t happen on vacation. Or on our many trips through the Midwest to take the kids to their grandparents or pick them up. It didn’t happen while we had a van full of groceries or while Phil was at work or on a busy road.

I still cried about it because I hate when things break, but I saw the good in it. And how God had answered my prayer.

I headed straight for the church kitchen when we arrived. The kids and I had done some prep work the day before, so all I really had to do was turn the coffee pot on and get a few things in order.

But I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of four boxes of donuts on the counter.

Four. Boxes. Of donuts.

I hadn’t planned for them, but there they were. Provision. Not exactly like fishes and loaves, but a close enough comparison to make me grateful for the God who hears and sees and provides even donuts.

I set to work cutting the donuts into halves so they would go further, and I shared our troubles with friends who popped in to ask how we were.

And I realized that my prayer for a heart of service was answered, too. Because it is hard to worry about what other people are thinking of your snacks when your van is sitting dead in the driveway and people are pouring love into you by caring and shuttling and hugging and offering to help.

The van needed a new battery, which in itself was an answer to a prayer I didn’t pray because that’s a less expensive solution than having the car towed to the mechanic and who knows what else. After a Skype consultation with my dad (our family mechanic) and a ride from a church member to the auto parts store, Phil was able to fix the battery problem, and we still made it to his work picnic in time to have dinner with his co-workers and their families.

Our car troubles are not completely over, but this week reminded me that my worries are not a worry for God. My prayers do matter and God hears them, even when I pray for things to turn out a certain way and He has other ideas.

I forget that prayer is not just telling God something or making a list of requests, but it’s part of a relationship. And it doesn’t end when we say “amen.” If we keep our eyes open, we might discover answers to prayer we didn’t expect.

I could use more of those kind of surprises in my life; couldn’t you?

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