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Months ago, as I was considering the word that would define my year, one word settled in my soul. After a year of releasing things and people and feelings and stories, it was time to enjoy.

OW_enjoyAnd in the months since choosing that word (or did it choose me? I don’t know), I’ve thought about what it looks like to enjoy life.

You ready for this earth-shattering, groundbreaking revelation?

I. HAVE. NO. IDEA.

Whew. I feel better.

When I think about a life filled with joy, a person that embodies the very word, I do not fit the bill.

Isn’t the joyful person carefree and bubbly and spontaneous and upbeat? If you know me at all, I am none of those things, so what does it really look like to enjoy life?

I read a quote recently by Henri Nouwen (it was on the Internet, and I haven’t actually read any of his books, shame on me!) that said: “We have to choose joy and keep choosing it.”

Okay, there’s one clue to this mystery. Sometimes, maybe lots of times, joy is a choice. And not a one-time choice.

That is the theme I’m seeing repeated in these first few months of the year.

When I started this joy journey, I thought of course this year would be more enjoyable because the past few years have been so awful that anything–anything–had to be better. In some ways, I was right. We are healthy in multiple ways, finally thriving after years of merely surviving, and that in itself is a reason for joy.

Still, this fear: What if it doesn’t last?

What would you say are the best years of your life?

I posed this question on Facebook after Phil and I had a conversation about “the best years of your life.” At various times in our life, people have told us “this is the best time of your life!’ They’ve said it about high school (sorry, not true); college (um, maybe?); the first year of marriage (nope); seminary (not even close); and parenting young children (sigh). I’ve heard it said your 20s are the best years, your 30s and so on for every decade of life.

Which is why I posed the question. I suspected people of varying ages would answer the question differently. And I was right!

The responses I got ranged from high school to middle age to retirement.

And I’m beginning to think the answer to enjoying life is this:

The best days are now.

The best years are now.

If we choose to let them be.

Maybe you want to throw your computer across the room when you read that. Part of me wants to give myself a stern talking to for saying those words because I have been in some days, some years that I would not consider as best and I would have cussed out anyone who tried to tell me otherwise.

But here’s another truth: Even the best of times have their faults, and if I’m looking for perfect circumstances before I let myself enjoy life, I’ll die empty and miserable, having wasted the days and years I was given waiting for something better.

When I think back on the life I’ve lived so far, high school wasn’t great, but I made some good friends. Would I do things differently if I could? Absolutely. But I had no idea who I was or who I was becoming, and I think that’s another key to enjoying who you are and where you are. College, too, had its high points, including an unbelievable semester living in a manor house in England and traveling to Scotland, Ireland, Paris and Italy. I’m constantly dreaming about going back. But college was also a time of messy self-discovery. I learned some hard lessons and made some of the biggest mistakes of my life.

If I had to answer that question, I’d say my 20s were pretty great. Post-college, I made some amazing friends, had some great experiences of hanging out, going to concerts, traveling and doing the kinds of things when you’re young, working full-time and have no other obligations or attachments. But I struggled in those years to enjoy my job and I desperately wanted an other of the significant kind in my life, and even after I found him, he spent a year in Iraq, which was another of those best-worst times. Even then, I didn’t know who I was.

And my 30s? They’ve been full of marriage messes and family messes and learning to parent and failing and getting back up and figuring out what God has planned through all this. Even though I crest the hill of my 30s next month and look at the downhill toward the next decade of life, I can’t say that my 30s have been the best, either.

So, where does that leave me? Hoping that in my 40s life will get better? It’s possible. But it’s also possible it won’t. I could get cancer. My husband could die. My kids could give me crushing grief.

I don’t know what the next decade of life could bring, so I have to draw a line now and say: This. Right here. Right now. This is the best time of my life because it’s the only time I have. <Tweet that>

best time

I know it’s not easy. I know it takes work. I’m working at it every day. And I know it’s worth it.

I hope you’ll decide to work at it, too and find it worth the effort.

On Friday, I’ll share some specific ways I’ve found to enjoy life, even when it doesn’t look like I thought it would.

In the meantime, ask other people the question: What would you say were the best years of your life? The answers will surprise you.

And if you care to share your answer, leave a comment here.

Let’s help each other choose joy in any and every circumstance.

 

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I came to church in search of sisters, although I didn’t know it then.

Having grown up with family but not in the church, I was often jealous, in my early saved days, of people whose homes were, and always had been, Christian. Not only were they blood relatives but spiritual ones.

I yearned for connection. I loved my biological family. But I needed a spiritual one as well.

—-

We were four peas in a pod, my best friends in high school. We met in a gym class our freshman year, and in the years that followed we were inseparable. We watched Disney movies at sleepovers while our classmates partied on the weekends. We ate lunch together and welcomed the outcasts to our table. We arranged our schedules so we would share some classes throughout the day. We passed notes in the hallway and defended each other.

It was my first experience with sisterhood.

Read the rest on Preston Yancey’s blog here, part of a series, What Women Want from the Church, posting on Thursdays.

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It’s been a busy, eventful couple of days in our house plus it’s VBS week, so we’re tired, out of rhythm and emotionally spent. Thus, today’s post is a little later than usual. (FYI: The blog posts might be less frequent for a few weeks. We’ve got NEWS to share later this week!)

But first: We left our church this week. It was inevitable but the date snuck up on us. At the end of May, we were looking ahead at our summer calendar and realized there would be a stretch of 6 weeks where we’d not be in the same place two Sundays in a row before the end of July (and Lord willing, we’d hoped to be moved by then!). So, we announced our departure a week ago and said our farewells two days ago. (Although we’re attending VBS this week, so some of the farewells are stretched out.)

The tears flowed freely, which also caught me by surprise. Not because I’m not sad to leave but sometimes I avoid the emotion for so long that I think I’ve grown cold to it. Not so. I was sloppy crying all over the place. A book I read recently contained this line: “Sometimes prayers are wet.” And I like that because yes, sometimes they are.

Photo by Tim Nisly | courtesy of Stock Exchange

Photo by Tim Nisly | courtesy of Stock Exchange

Almost five years ago, we walked through the doors of this church as strangers from Illinois with high hopes for seminary, an adorable 5-month-old, and not a clue how hard it would really be to live 800 miles from family.

But this church, these people, embraced us like we were already family. They became to us grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers. They watched our children. They fed us. Clothed us. Supported us. Encouraged us. They’ve given so much, and we feel the inequality of our lives in return.

As we looked around us on Sunday at the congregation, a special word or memory began springing to our minds about each person or family, and Phil and I knew if we started to count our blessings and name them from this church, we would find ourselves overwhelmed by the number and overcome with gratitude.

We leave, not as strangers, not even as fellow members of the same denomination, but as family whose bond will not end though distance will separate us.

As a writer, I don’t have enough words to describe how this community has touched us. But, of course, I’ll give it my best shot.

This was our first family church. My husband I have the same home church, but we’ve only ever attended there as singles or dating each other. Our first church after we were married we attended only until our daughter was five months old. It was more of a couples experience for us.

Here, though, we learned how to function as a family within a spiritual family. Our daughter has grown up here and has learned to love Jesus because of faithful teachers. Our son, this is the only church he’s really ever known, and he and his sister sometimes “play church” with one of them being the pastor and the other providing the singing. He has his favorite people; they both do, really, and I don’t know if they quite understand that we won’t be back except on a few special occasions.

We’ve done our fair share of leaving places in our short marriage, and it’s hard each time because we form bonds quickly, sometimes, and the leaving tears out a piece of our hearts and keeps it in the places we leave behind. And though social media and e-mail make things easier, it’s never really the same.

Good heavens, I’m going to start crying again if I keep this up.

It’s weird, how five years ago, these people were strangers and now they’re like family we didn’t know we had. And that’s exciting because we’re moving to another church where that’s possible, too. And I know it will be good for us.

Still, it’s hard to say good-bye.

But maybe we don’t say good-bye, just “see you later.”

Because in the end, that’s the truth. We will see our brothers and sisters again. It’s a mystery to me, this promise from God that our lives don’t end when our bodies die and that we’ll come together again as a family in spirit.

But that is our hope.

In the meantime, we carry with us the memories of our beloved family in Christ and the imprints they’ve made on our lives that will outlast our earthly relationships.

Until we meet again, dear church. Until we meet again.

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Shauna Niequist has written about two things I love: cooking and community. Her newest book, Bread & Wine, is part memoir, part cookbook, part travel journal, and it is a book you’ll want to savor, and read multiple times. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Bread & Wine from Zondervan through the Booksneeze program.)

bread and wine coverFrom dinner parties, to family get togethers, to cooking clubs, to crisis and disappointment, Niequist writes about the role of food and life around the table in all of life. She loves food and people and the memories that surface of good times and sad and how food and community minister and comfort and heal. If I could eat the pages of this book, I would, but then I wouldn’t be able to try the recipes.

Bread & Wine left me hungry–for community and delicious food–and full–of my own memories of life around the table and hope that offering community around a table doesn’t have to be perfect or difficult. I dog-eared dozens of pages and found myself nodding in agreement with Niequist’s observations about life.

Here are some of my favorites.

On the role of food:

It’s no accident when a loved o ne dies, the family is deluged with food. The impulse to feed is innate. Food is a language of care, the thing we do when traditional language fails us, when we don’t know what to say, when there are no words to say. … It’s the thing that connects us, that bears our traditions, our sense of home and family, our deepest memories, and, on a practical level, our ability to live and breathe each day. Food matters. (14)

On hospitality:

But it isn’t about perfection, and it isn’t about performance. You’ll miss the richest moments in life–the sacred moments when we feel God’s grace and presence through the actual faces and hands of the people we love–if you’re too scared or too ashamed to open the door. (109)

And,

The heart of hospitality is about creating space for someone to feel seen and heard and loved. It’s about declaring your table a safe zone, a place of warmth and nourishment. (114)

Niequist’s stories of travel and cooking and experiences make her the kind of person I’d secretly love to hate, but she is brutally honest about her shortcomings (there’s a swimsuit chapter I will be referring to often this summer) and disappointments (infertility between her first son and her second) and in the end, she’s the sort of person I’d love to hang out with for a day. The writing is personal, like she’s telling you her stories around the table, and the recipes are accessible, like she’s standing with you in the kitchen walking you through each step.

If you’re a fan of food and community, this is a book you MUST have on your shelf. Inspiring and encouraging.

Niequist has written two other books, both of which I’m eager to read now.

For more about the author, visit her website: http://www.shaunaniequist.com/

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My birthday is tomorrow. Which got me thinking about gifts. Not because I’m totally gift-focused because I’m not. Receiving gifts actually stresses me out a little bit because I’m not good at giving an instant reaction. My thanks is better expressed in how I use the gift than in the exact moment I receive it.

Photo courtesy of Stock Exchange | www.sxc.hu

Photo courtesy of Stock Exchange | http://www.sxc.hu

Here are some memorable gifts I didn’t ask for that touched my heart. (Please don’t be offended if you’ve given me a gift and it’s not mentioned here. These are the first five that came to mind and they aren’t all birthday gifts. The danger of making a short list is leaving someone out.)

1. A pink Columbia brand fleece jacket. The first Christmas Phil and I celebrated as a couple, this was his gift. I remember how excited he was to give it to me, and it is still my go-to outerwear in spring, fall and sometimes winter. My husband is great at giving gifts. I could spend an entire post on the best gifts he’s given me, but I’d probably lose readers.

2. The Book of Common Prayer. A couple from church gifted this to us as we’ve expressed an interest and love for liturgy, the church calendar and the use of the lectionary. I have used this book almost daily for months, and it continues to touch my heart because it is a gift I would have never thought to ask for from people who haven’t known us long but were thoughtful enough to present us with a gift we will cherish.

3. An ice scraper and a spray-on window defroster for my car. In the early days of my relationship with Phil, we spent a lot of time at each other’s houses, often driving home in winter in the dark, when northern Illinois temperatures drop below freezing and leave frost on the windshield. One night, Phil’s brother and the woman who would become his wife, gave me this gift to ease the process of driving home in winter. It was especially meaningful because at the time, our relationship was not strong nor was I terribly kind or loving toward them. Over the years, that has changed and I’ve learned that they, too, are exceptional gift givers.

4. An all-expenses-paid trip to a writers conference in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. I will forever remember the generosity of a couple from my hometown who saw an advertisement for this conference and felt led to pay  my way. I had never considered going to a writers conference. I was working as a journalist at the time with no concrete writing dreams beyond what I was doing. It was a stretching experience for me as I drove the whole way by myself, took in some sight-seeing on the way back and let God open my world to the opportunities in Christian publishing. It was a life-changer for me, and I consider it an investment that has yet to accomplish its full return.

5. A royal wedding tea cup. When Prince William and Kate Middleton got married, my English friend and pen pal sent me a tea cup with their pictures on it. I was having sort of a blah day when it arrived and I was so tickled because of the uniqueness of the gift.

This is a small slice of the meaningful gifts I’ve received over the years, and recalling them makes me feel blessed to have special people in my life. It also challenges me to take more notice of my loved ones and find gifts that would be meaningful to them.

How about you? What meaningful gifts have you received?

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One of my favorite TV shows returned last week, and though I was a little disappointed by the episode (sorry, I’m not familiar with The Hunger Games, so maybe it’s my fault), I’m glad it’s back. And a couple of nights ago, I dreamt about the cast from another of my favorite shows.

Either I’m watching too much TV (true) or I’m sorely lacking in friends (also true).

Now, before you throw me a pity party or get mad (Hey! What about me? I’m your friend.), let me clarify.

Recently, I identified a need, one that hasn’t been filled in a while. (Even saying that sounds selfish, but everyone has needs and filling those needs makes us more complete as people.)

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo by Stephanie Hofschlaeger/SXC.HU

I need community. A place to belong.

Having transplanted from Illinois to PA Dutch (German) country, belonging might be wishful thinking. It’s not that people here aren’t nice or friendly; it’s just that most of them have lived here a long time and have family nearby.

And life is busy. I get that. Most of the time I forget the hole created in my life because I don’t have community.

But then we’ll stop at our friends’ house in western Pennsylvania and we’ll share Chinese food while our kids run off together to play and sleep in each other’s rooms. We’ll watch The Golden Globes and make fun of celebrities. And in the morning, over coffee and donuts, we’ll find it hard to pull ourselves away.

“Can’t you just stay?” our hosts always ask us.

And my heart screams “Yes!” every time.

One of my deep longings is to be surrounded by people doing this life journey together. I want to share meals. And childcare. And burdens over cups of coffee. I want to meet regularly with a group of people–women, especially–who don’t have it all figured out and just need space to vent and cry. I want to pray together. Laugh together. Cry together.

To me, this is a picture of how the church is supposed to function. Every day, not just on Sundays.

I have found community online with like-minded readers and creators, but it’s not the same as having flesh-and-blood people in your life. (I have those. And I love every one of them, but even 30 minutes or an hour seems too far away sometimes.)

In my frustration and sadness at not having community, I’ve closed my own doors. I’ve self-focused on our home. Our kids. Our crazy life. Frankly, I’m often embarrassed by the mess that is our house, the little that we have to share (which is still a lot by comparison), the uncertainty that is our life.

But this week I realized that I can’t wait for community to find me. I can’t sit around waiting for people to knock on my door and ask to journey with me through life. (About the only people knocking on our door these days are Jehovah’s Witnesses. They come to speak with my husband. In his absence, I fear they’re going to start in on me.)

No. Community starts with me.

With an invitation to share a meal.

Or a commitment to pray for a situation as it’s presented.

Or a Valentine treat for a neighbor.

Or a question about how someone else is doing with this whole life thing.

For community to happen, I have to lose interest in myself and my problems (at least for a few minutes) and seek out others.

This show that I love that returned this week, it’s called Community. It takes place at a community college and revolves around a study group that first got together for mostly selfish reasons. A shared class brought them together regularly, whatever the motivation. And over time, these regular meetings morphed into friendship. Yeah, they’ve had ups and downs. But they’ve stuck together. And, as one of the characters pointed out this week, they’re going to change and face changes together but they’re still going to be friends.

I believe community is a God-given longing. Jesus could have walked the earth by Himself, healing people and doing miracles, but He picked a core group of people to walk with Him. Probably more for their sake than for His, but then again, Jesus knew community from the time time began. God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are three-in-one, a holy community.

I don’t know what community is going to look like for me or my family. I just know that I have to be the one to open the door and invite others in.

And it won’t be perfect.

It might even be messy.

But I’m okay with that.

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Generally these weekly smiles are about my children. And they’ve still managed to make me smile from afar. But a week without children has not been a week without smiles. So, here’s the tally for this week.

Watching TV shows in real-time, instead of days later on the computer. Especially when we get to see commercials like one for LifeAlert where a woman says she’d give up “bread, beer, wine and soda” before she’d give up life alert. And one about sexual issues (not Viagara) that made me want to hide my face.

Take-out Chinese, watching TV and laughing as loudly as we want to without fear that the kids will wake up.

Dinner with a friend.

Coffee with friends.

Date night. (And trying to find a good place to take a picture. And realizing your husband’s eyes are closed for it.)

Hubby starting his new job and finishing his old job. (Repeat after me: change is good, change is good.)

A successful first day at aforementioned new job.

Mostly this week has been a breather. A chance to step back from the crazy pace of life that seems to come with parenting two active kids. To focus on things that take a back seat to the kids’ needs. (Like date night, time together, writing, sleeping.)

We pick them up tomorrow. And I miss them, so it’s good to be reuniting as a family.

We dodged a hurricane. We rested. We refocused.

And now it’s time to return to reality.

Happy weekend!

 

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I started this book almost two months ago, and I’m usually not a slow reader. But where some books I read are like a bowl of ice cream I gobble up in a few minutes,  She’s Got Issues is like a multi-course meal I wish wouldn’t end. Author Nicole Unice gives us–women, especially–plenty to chew on.

At first glance, I wanted to deny. Issues? What issues? Then I scanned the Table of Contents: fear, anger, insecurity, unforgiveness. Oh. Those issues. The journey into and through your issues, whatever they might be, can be scary, but Unice is like a seasoned travel guide through the darkest valleys. She doesn’t preach from on high. She’s talking to us from the trenches of transformation. Her style is humorous, fresh and real. She doesn’t hide her own struggles, and she doesn’t want us to hide them either.

I started journaling when I began reading, and I’m glad I did. Otherwise, the whole book might be underlined. Unice offers thought-provoking questions, surveys and quizzes, as well as honest prayers. At the end of each chapter is a link (and one of those smartphone doodads) to watch a video related to the chapter. (Yeah, I’m tech savvy.)

Here are some of the truths that have stuck with me:

  • A blessing is the infusion of something with holiness
  • Every woman becomes either beautiful, bitter or beaten (having given up on life) by the time she’s 40. We either face our stuff or we don’t. Six years from the big 4-0, I’m tracking toward bitter or beaten. That’s a hard truth to face, but my eyes are open to how I can face my issues and let God work through them.
  • There’s a Lord for that. I don’t have to hold it all together.
  • Growth is awkward. What if we began to think of our insecurities not as shameful places to hide but as opportunities to see God working in our lives?
  • Secure women know their strengths and aren’t afraid to own them. They also know about their weaknesses and aren’t scared by them. They admit when they’re wrong but don’t beat themselves up. They take risks and fail but try again.
  • When it comes to comparing myself to others or wishing I had someone else’s life, this statement punched me in the gut: The competition is between you and the you God wants you to be. Ignore everybody. Stay in your own lane.
  • Among Christians there is a fear of rage, a surplus of resentment, and a shortage of indignation.
  • Sanctification is about the very interruptions and issues I want to ignore.

Seriously, get a copy of this book. It’s not self-help because Lord knows, I’ve tried to help myself through these things. No, it’s more like a self-can’t-help book. It’s, as the subtitle to the book says, “seriously good news for stressed-out, secretly scared control freaks like us.”

Check out Nicole’s Website, or connect with her on Facebook or Twitter. The book has a DVD curriculum, too, which I’m guessing would be a great Bible study/women’s group resource.

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A week ago, the long-awaited, much-anticipated sequel to A Sweethaven Summer released. (I wasn’t the only waiting for this, right?) And I could not wait to dive in to A Sweethaven Homecoming, return to the Michigan town of Sweethaven and find out what the gang had been up to.

Earlier this year, author Courtney Walsh introduced us to Campbell, who after her mom’s death, journeys to Sweethaven to meet her mom’s core group of childhood friends and help reconnect their lives. I don’t want to spoil anything from that book, so I’ll keep the plot recap to a minimum. Let’s just say the first book left a bit of a cliffhanger, with much to be resolved.

I eagerly dug into the sequel, which focuses more on country music star Meghan Rhodes’ battle for her kids in a not-so-sweet homecoming to Sweethaven. I trudged through the first chapters, not because they were poorly written but because no one was happy. This book is FULL of hard situations. Broken relationships. Insecurity. Feelings of helplessness, bitterness and unforgiveness. At one point in the story, a character says, “God, what is going on? Everyone I love is hurting right now.”

I. Am. So. There.

When I read, I often want to escape the reality of life. As the characters struggled and struggled and struggled some more, I just wanted to put the book down and walk away because I didn’t want to hurt anymore. (I know, it’s just a story, but man, do I love these characters.)

Isn’t that how life is sometimes?

What’s great about this story is that the characters make hard decisions. They do unexpected things: like forgive the unforgivable. They reconcile. They choose to fight for what’s important. They love, even when they aren’t loved in return. They take risks. I was especially impressed with the love and commitment the men in this book demonstrate. They don’t give up on their women who have issues. (There are men like this out there. Don’t give up on the male of the species, ladies.)

And they learn that some things are worth the pain.

So, lest you think I didn’t like this book, let me leave no doubt: TOTALLY WORTH IT.

In fact, I find myself a little sad right now because I finished the book so quickly and had to leave the town of Sweethaven for a couple of more months until the finale, A Sweethaven Christmas, releases.

I’ve heard said that great authors create a world readers don’t want to leave. Walsh has created a charming, inviting, homesick-inducing world with Sweethaven. I want to hug the ladies featured in the book and learn from them. (Am I weird?) I want to eat Adele’s food (she’s kinda like Paula Deen) and see Campbell’s photography and attend Jane’s Bible study and hear Meghan’s songs and drink Luke’s coffee. (Okay, so he’s not a lady, but he does figure into the plot.)

A hearty “well done, friend” to the author.

And to fellow readers, this is a series you don’t want to miss.

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The Titanic sinks. Britain enters World War I.

I promise, I’m not reviewing the first season of Downton Abbey. But my husband and I had just finished watching that when I started reading Promise Me This by Cathy Gohlke. Set in the same time period but  nowhere near the same story. I was all set for the setting, and with the Olympics starting this week in London, I have England on the brain.

All of that, and the fact that this is a heartwarming, breathtaking, gut-wrenching story of sacrificial love, made for an enjoyable read. I can’t wait to pick of Gohlke’s next book, releasing in September.

Orphan and “gutter rat” Michael Dunnegan forms an unlikely friendship with Owen Allen, who is sailing for America on the Titanic. Michael stows away on the ill-fated ship and Owen saves Michael’s life — at the expense of his own — when the ship sinks. Michael makes it to America and takes up Owen’s dream of prospering the family garden business and bringing Owen’s sister Annie to America. What follows is the lengths to which the characters will go to protect family and make good on promises in light of the sacrifices of a man they all loved. It is painfully sad and joyously hopeful and even if you’re tired of Titanic-themed stories (I thought I was), check this one out. The ship’s sinking is the catalyst for the story but not the main action.

Even when I enjoy a book, it’s rare that I dog-ear a page to save a quote, but I did just that. (To my husband’s mock horror that I would “ruin” a library book.) I was moved by this:

It can’t be that easy. It can’t be that whatever happens, you  just keep going. Michael was sure of it.

“That’s all there is to it,” she said as if she’d heard his thoughts. “Each morning, when we wake — if we wake — we pick up whatever it is we’ve been given to carry for that day, with the sweet Lord Jesus in the yoke beside us to tote the load. Each night we lay it down, giving it into God’s hands. If it’s still there in the morning, we pick it up and begin again. If the burden is gone or if there is something different, we know where to start.”

Want to read more? You can find the first chapter here.

The characters in this book face some heavy burdens. Don’t we all? This story is a ray of hope in ever-increasing darkness.

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