An adventure fit for The Goonies

If only we’d had a treasure map.

But our compass for adventure today was a Groupon I’d bought several months ago for a local place called Indian Echo Caverns, in the Hershey area. It wasn’t spelunking (that’s a fun word to say); in Isabelle’s words it was “cave exploring.” I feared it might be a cheesy, gimmicky experience.

I’m pleased to say it was neither.

Had we stumbled onto the caverns while running from Italian fugitives holed up in an abandoned restaurant on a quest for pirate treasure, the day would not have been more adventurous.

The tour begins at the gift shop, then leads visitors down 71 steps (a number they continually repeat) to the entrance to the caverns.

Because I was trying to keep Corban occupied and sort of on task (he’s easily distracted by water of any kind), I missed much of the explanation and history of the caverns. But, as Isabelle remarked part way through the tour, “this place is the coolest.” And she wasn’t just talking about the 50-degree temperature of the caverns.

Pictures will say it better than my words can. So, here’s a few to consider:

Maybe the most memorable moment in the caverns is in a room — that’s what the guides call each section of the cavern — where the guide turns off all the tour lights and you experience total darkness. Like, can’t see your hand in front of your face darkness. The kids freaked out. But it’s something we don’t really grasp in our electricity-dependent world. That, alone, was worth the price of admission.

The cavern tour ends in a spot where a man, Amos Wilson, also known as”the hermit of Pennsylvania,” lived for years, emerging only to work for a nearby farmer. His journal was available for purchase, but I didn’t bite this time. Sounds fascinating, though. (Chester Copperpot, anyone?)

I wouldn’t have imagined that a hole in the ground could be so fascinating, but imagination is part of the experience. I wish I could have let mine run wild a little more.

A definite recommendation. Isabelle even asked if we could come back sometime. Maybe when Corban is a little older. His favorite part of the caverns was the puddles.

His legs were covered in thousand-year-old gunk. And a few of the other guests in our group were none too pleased by his splashing.

After the tour, we picnicked on the grounds, played on the playground and petted and fed some goats, bunnies and chickens. Also Corban’s favorite part. Every time he heard the rooster, he took off running toward the animal area.

When we were finally able to pull ourselves away from Indian Echo Caverns, we drove back toward Hershey, hoping the kids would fall asleep for an hour or so. Success! So we hung out in the outlet mall parking lot while the kiddos napped.

Next stop, Chocolate World. Our umpteenth trip but when it’s free, it doesn’t really matter how many times you go. Especially when the kids enjoy it more the older they get.

Plus, free chocolate at the end of the ride — who could pass that up? No Baby Ruth. I think that’s a different company. But Chunk would have liked it.

Our final stop: Fuddrucker’s. World’s Greatest Hamburgers. The sign says so. And I’d have to agree. Although I don’t think they really have to compete with “the world.” Burgers outside of the U.S. just aren’t burgers.

We were going to eat here anyway, but a kids’ dinner deal sealed the deal for us. $1.99 for a kids meal after 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays.

The money we “saved” on the kids’ food we used for a post-dinner milkshake. Not only is the food good, but Fuddrucker’s brings back happy memories for me. Road trips, good friends and fabulous burgers and conversation. It was great to experience it with our kids, too.

We didn’t find any “rich stuff” like the Goonies were looking for. At least, not the buried treasure kind they needed to save their homes.

But we did make a whole lot of memories.


And for us, that’s the richest stuff on earth.


Next time I attend a children’s birthday party I will wear my big girl pants

© Ekaterina Ponomareva |

I was already flustered when we left the house last night to attend a friend’s 6th birthday party. Like the scene in The Blues Brothers where Elwood takes stock of their situation — “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.” — I, too, listed the current state of affairs.

Ladies and gentlemen, let’s welcome to the stage, The Blues Mothers. Tonight the role of Jake and Elwood will be played by Lisa Bartelt.

Here’s how the conversation in my head went:

“It’s 7:30 at night. My kids are usually in bed by now. They’re whiny. I’m tired. I’m hormonal. I haven’t seen my husband since 9 a.m. And we’re about to go to a pool party.”

Unlike Jake’s adventurous “Hit it” in response to Elwood’s assessment, I said to myself, “This might be the craziest thing I’ve ever done.”

In truth, I didn’t really want to do it. When we got the invitation and realized my husband wouldn’t be able to go with us, I wrote the party off as another missed opportunity, thank you seminary, and figured we’d have plenty of kids’ birthday parties to attend in the future.

But then my friend encouraged us to come, offering whatever help we’d need, and Phil encouraged me to go. He’s good at that. If not for him, the kids and I wouldn’t leave the house much by ourselves.

So, I thought, “Why not.” Earlier in the week, I even attempted taking both kids to an evening library program. My courage failed a little after that. Isabelle did fine, although we barely missed having a potty accident in the middle of the presentation. Corban, on the other hand, wanted to run around the library and empty the bookshelves. He settled for moving all the board books out of their bin into a bag and back. But by the time the program was coming to a close, he was tired and ready for bed.

This last bit of behavior is what I feared at the pool party. My kids are early risers, so even staying up late, they’re often tired the next day, and the farther we push past bedtime, the crankier and less patient we all get.

Still with me? Because by this point, my mind is way ahead of our bodies. We hadn’t even gotten in the car yet and already I was setting myself up for failure.

So, the party. We were a little early, which was fine. The kids played, I helped set up a little, we got our bearings. Even though we’ve lived here 3 years, we’ve never been to the community pool, so I surveyed the land and planned our approach to pool fun.

When the time came to enter the pool, the kids wore their floatie backpacks, although in retrospect, they didn’t necessarily need them because there’s a 1-2 foot wading pool in addition to the regular shallow/deep end pool. Isabelle stuck close to the birthday girl’s daddy so I could give most of my attention to Corban. But I don’t let my guard down easily, and I was constantly watching for Isabelle while I had one eye and ear tuned to Corban as he splashed and pushed a truck around the wading pool.

Added to my discomfort was the fact that I was the only woman with a swimsuit on. All the other adults in the pool were men — dads — and a grandma who just hiked up her pants to wade with her granddaughter. I felt like an oddity, and I really missed my husband.

Anxiety set in. Forgetting that I was 33 years old, a wife, a mom of 2, a college graduate, a successful professional in my field of study, a grown-up, I regressed and felt all the social pressures, fears and worries of preadolescence. I looked around at the other moms and felt like I didn’t fit in. I was wearing grubby get-wet clothes over my swimsuit — which I hate but it’s the only one that fits me right now — while they were all dressed in casual, comfy, stylish summer clothes.

Then my son put his face in the water and came up sputtering, and I felt like a bad mom. And I had forgotten his sippy cup and tried to teach him to drink out of a water bottle, which also made him cough and burp loudly. Chalk another one up for mom of the year.

By the time we left the party, I was almost in tears and could barely hold it together to tell our friends good-bye. It was almost 9:30, WAY past the kids’ bedtime. I knew sleeping in the next day was probably not an option. My only consolation was that my husband would be home to help put the kids in bed.

Kids have a way of putting things in perspective. Isabelle, damp from head to toe in her Dora swimsuit, walked in the door of the house and announced to her dad and our overnight guests, “We had a great time swimming.”

Later, I confided to the same group that those would not have been my choice of words.

My description of the event would have been: Worst. Idea. Ever.

But then again, I have a way of overdramatizing my life. And when I’m in an emotional downspin, everything seems worse than it really is.

I’d like to say the evening ended when we put the kids to bed. But around midnight, when our conversation with our guests had wrapped up and Phil and I were headed to bed, Isabelle emerged from her room, handed Phil a brown paper bag, which had contained the treats from the party. We, then, discovered she’d eaten probably 10 Hershey’s kisses and half a container of Tic Tacs while we’d been chatting away in the living room.

Here she is, pointing out her handiwork

Her belly hurt. Go figure.

Around 2 a.m., she woke up again. So did her brother. Both were screaming for a few minutes before tiredness took over and they went back to sleep. Isabelle ended up back in our room because I was too weary to fight anymore.

Today has been OK, but the girl is resisting nap time, throwing a fit out of tiredness. If not for coffee, I might join her.

Looking back on the party, I realize that it was all about my attitude and perception of the events. I could have seen it as a challenge and an adventure. Instead, I viewed it as a circumstance I was pushed into. I could have embraced my role as solo mom for a night and even opened myself up to more help from others. Instead, I retreated into my shell and wore my disappointment for all to see.

My daughter doesn’t know the difference, but I feel like I failed her. And since this won’t be the last birthday party she’s ever invited to, I have to make a decision about my attitude now. Will I continue to live in the past, shackled by the insecurity of my youth, or will I break free and show my daughter how to confidently navigate the waters of  social get-togethers?

I desperately want the latter. And it may mean revisiting the social failings of my childhood, or at the very least letting them go.

I have to remind myself what I know, what musician Jason Gray reminds me in a song of the same name: I am new. I am not who I was. I don’t have to be defined by my mistakes and failings.

What God thinks of me is what is true, and nothing else matters, not even what I think of myself.

I have the responsibility to pass that on to my daughter. To give her the chance to live a life based on her identity in Christ, instead of other people’s opinion.

Lord, help me, it won’t be easy. But, with His help, I will try.

And I will fail at times, which is OK. But I’ll get back up and try again.

Next time we’re invited to a birthday party, the outcome will be different.

Maybe I’ll have grown up a little by then.

You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to read this book

Dr. David Levy is a neurosurgeon, one of the best in the country. He’s also a Christian, so when he senses a leading from God to start praying with his patients, he’s faced with a question: Does offering to pray for them blur the professional line separating doctors and patients?

What happens next is a journey that changes Levy’s and his patients’ lives.

“Gray Matter: a neurosurgeon discovers the power of prayer … one patient at a time” is a journey worth taking with Levy and co-writer Joel Kilpatrick.

It’s a moving story of one man’s obedience to God in tough situations and the sometimes unexpected results. It’s also a testimony of one man’s faith and how he incorporates it into his work. The man just happens to be a neurosurgeon, literally holding people’s lives in his hands, but the commitment he makes to allow God access to his professional life is inspiring and relevant for any workplace.

What the book is not is a 100 percent “success” story for every patient with whom Levy prays, forcing Levy — and other believers — to ask the question, “If God doesn’t answer the way I expect, does that mean He doesn’t care?”

If you’ve ever wrestled with questions of “why,” Dr. Levy takes you through that struggle.

If you’ve ever wondered if prayer changes circumstances and people, Levy takes you there, too.

I found this book fascinating on two levels: in the information he provides about how the brain works and the complications of his job as a neurosurgeon, and in his commitment to prayer in a field where, as Levy acknowledges, matters of faith are relegated to chaplains, not doctors.

Levy is honest about his shortcomings, his doubts and the path that brought him to the decision to pray with patients. I also appreciated his explanations of the cases and the tumors he worked on, even though I was sometimes bogged down by medical and anatomical terms I haven’t heard since I took a medical biology class in high school. But Levy doesn’t linger on the technical terms, writing in a way that draws readers in instead of alienating them.

After reading this book, two things are clear to me: I never want to have brain surgery, and God is in control.

To preview the first chapter of “Gray Matter,” click here.

“Gray Matter” is one of Tyndale’s Summer Reading Program books. To sign up for the program, where you can earn free books by reading books, click here.


The view from our house

One of the perks of moving to Pennsylvania three years ago was its proximity to mountains. Growing up in Illinois — the flatlands, as it’s sometimes called — gave me an affinity for rolling terrain. There’s still something beautiful about being able to see for miles and taking in hundreds of acres of farmland in a single glance.

But there’s something about mountains that takes my breath away.

Where we live in Pennsylvania is a valley between mountains. We can see mountains in the distance in every direction. I was especially fond of the view from our front picture window, looking south.

I thought I had a picture of it. I don’t. I’m sorry.

Even more so because a few months ago, this happened, and we lost our view of the mountain completely.
I sort of feel like this happened in my relationship with God.

Early on, I could see Him clearly. My eyes were opened to His presence, and I could sense Him walking with me on the way to my college classes, answering my prayers for opportunities to speak for Him, and blessing my commitment to write for Him, no matter the outcome.

In those days, before work and family and the stresses of life, God was like the view we used to have. He was right outside my window, and all I had to do was look for Him and I could see Him.

Now, though, God seems harder to find. I don’t doubt He’s there, I just can’t see Him as easily. I get glimpses of His presence, and He’s still answering prayers, but He’s not as … obvious. I’m not even sure that’s the word I’m looking for.

Maybe I’ve taken Him for granted. Like He’s been a part of my life so long that I’ve gotten used to seeing Him show up. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not where I want to be. Like seeing the mountains again after a long absence in the plains, I want to be struck by His beauty, His majesty, the splendor of His holiness. I want the breath sucked right out of me because I can’t believe what I’m seeing.

The first time I took a walk around our block with Isabelle, I saw the mountain as I rounded the corner onto our street, and while the mountain is the same, the view is different. From this point today, I can still see the mountain unobstructed.

God has not moved. He’s still there. But I may have to change the point from which I look at Him. A different perspective. Through someone else’s eyes. It might be me who has to move to catch a glimpse of Him.

Will the real Jesus please step forward?

The title was intriguing enough to make me want to read the book. But then a guy named Pete punched Jesus in the face, and I knew I wasn’t going to put the book down until I finished it.

After I picked my jaw up off the ground, and with astonishment, told my husband, “Jesus got punched in the face!”, I kept reading. I wish I could tell you that’s the most incredible thing that happens in the story, but it’s only the beginning. Pretty tame, actually.


But before you write this book off as an irreverent (it sometimes is), silly (that, too), pointless (definitely not) read, consider what the author, Matt Mikalatos, is trying to unearth.

His premise is that we often, unintentionally, create a Jesus of our own liking, rather than take time to get to know the real Jesus. And I’ll tell you right now, the Jesuses we meet in this novel (Magic 8 Ball Jesus is one of my favorites) are uncomfortably convicting, and I’ve had to ask myself if I really know Jesus or if I’ve created him in my own image.

It’s been months since I read this book, but I think about the lessons I learned from it often. This statement, in particular, sticks with me:

“If you never confront the imaginary Jesus, he’ll keep popping up, perverting what you know about the real Jesus. You need to look him in the face, recognize that he’s fake, and renounce him.”

Intrigued? Check out the first chapter here.

Overall, I’d call this a fun-yet-challenging book. Mikalatos accurately pegs the numerous fake Jesuses we create to avoid facing the Maker-Savior-Messiah-Way, Truth and Life Jesus of the Bible and does it in a clever, mostly non-threatening way. I never felt shamed by the fake Jesuses I create but called to confront falsehood and seek truth.

I consider this a must-read for Christians today.

And although the following song is not connected to the book, the two remind me of each other. Besides, it’s a great song by Downhere.

Dare to discover the imaginary Jesuses in your life. You won’t regret it.


“Imaginary Jesus” is one of dozens of books on Tyndale’s Summer Reading Program list. You can earn free books and be eligible for prizes for reading books on their list throughout the summer. It’s free to sign up! Check it out here. As a side note, if you decide to sign up before next Wednesday, June 22, let me know either by commenting, Facebook message or e-mail. I could win a spot on the Tyndale Blog if I refer the most people to the program! Happy reading!

A family hike on the Appalachian Trail

The past two summers, we’ve created a Summer Fun List as a way to help us make the most of the time when the weather is favorable and my husband’s class schedule is less rigorous. Last year, we packed a lot of fun into the months of June-September. You can check out last year’s escapades in the summer category at the top of the page.

We’ve been slow to start the summer outings this year, getting adjusted to class schedules and managing extreme heat, but today we wanted to get out of the house and do something fun as a family. Our next two Saturdays are kind of busy, so we wanted to make today count.

Here’s what we decided: We dressed and packed for a hike and headed north to the Appalachian Trail.

Phil and I have enjoyed hiking together since before we were married, but life post-wedding and post-kids hasn’t afforded us as many hiking opportunities as we’d like. A couple of years ago, when we first moved to Pennsylvania, we unsuccessfully tried to find the Appalachian Trail to hike part of it. We had a great hike anyway, but there’s something about hiking the Appalachian Trail that makes me a little giddy. Or maybe geeky is a better word. I kind of want to hike the whole thing eventually someday. This is a start.

We headed south because the map promised us a couple of lookouts. We weren’t disappointed.

Here, we met a nice couple who were part of a charity motorcycle ride to benefit a sick child. They took our picture after we took theirs.

Pictures from the overlook just don’t do it justice. And “beautiful” isn’t a good enough word. Breathtaking. Peaceful. Inspiring. Glorious.

The clouds were hanging low so we couldn’t see a lot. But we weren’t sure where we were looking anyway. Next time, we’ll look for Myerstown.

The kids did awesome. Corban was pulling me along, eager to keep going. The rocky terrain wouldn’t keep him down. We must have worn him out. He slept for 2 1/2 hours after we got home. And Isabelle loved looking at plants, insects, flowers and rocks. When Phil pointed out some ants eating a caterpillar, she looked and said, “Ohhh, cute.” Better she says that than take after her mother and say, “Ew.”

Needless to say, hiking is on our list of summer fun. And after today, we’re planning more trips to the AT.

Is Francine Rivers reading my mind?

“Wait! That can’t be the end!”

It was 10 p.m., the kids were in bed and my husband was finishing up his online class for the night. Had any of those factors been different, I might have actually screamed those words out loud instead of keeping them captive in my head when I read the last sentence of “Her Mother’s Hope” by Francine Rivers.

Good thing for me, and anyone else who reads it, “Her Mother’s Hope” is only half the story.

And what a story it is!

In it, we meet Marta when she’s a young girl living in Switzerland, torn between her family (an ailing mother, a timid sister, an abusive father she’d rather forget) and her dreams (learning languages, owning an inn, living her own life). Rivers covers a lot of ground in this tale, sometimes skipping years of life or acknowledging the passage of time with only a paragraph.

But she’s done this a time or two (“Redeeming Love,” “And the Shofar Blew,” “The Atonement Child” … just a few of my favorites) and no word is wasted.

To call “Her Mother’s Hope” a page-turner doesn’t do it justice. Rivers has a way of writing captivating, memorable stories, and this one fits that bill. I’ve read almost every published work she’s written and her stories have stuck with me. At times, I feel like she must know my struggles because her stories mirror issues in my life. In the author notes, she reveals that her writing stems from personal struggles of faith. I think that’s why it’s so good.

Although it takes place in the early to mid-20th century, its themes — love, sacrifice, expectations, roles in marriage, injustice, bitterness, forgiveness, service, hatred, misunderstanding — are relevant to life today. I sometimes forgot the story wasn’t set in contemporary times.

Reading “Her Mother’s Hope” left me wanting more. Thankfully, Rivers wrote more! The saga concludes with “Her Daughter’s Dream.” I, for one, will be picking up the sequel as soon as I can.

Check out Rivers’ Web site to read an excerpt of the book. It will whet your appetite for this delicious read.

And if you’re a book lover with opinions about what you read, consider reading and blogging for the Tyndale Summer Reading Program for a chance to earn free books and win prizes. This one, and the sequel, are both on the list, as is “Freedom’s Stand” by Jeanette Windle, which I previously reviewed. Happy summer reading!