The long, hard road to success

I’m a big fan of The Next Food Network Star. I like seeing people’s dreams come true. And, competition, to a certain extent. Though the contestants on that show have years of blood, sweat and tears behind them, sometimes the show gives off the impression of instant success. You win the competition and — boom! — you’re a star.

So, I really appreciated reading Scars of a Chef by Rick Tramonto. In some circles, he’s probably a household name. I hadn’t heard of him, but I was drawn into his story. He worked his way up the ladder of success from the age of 15, overcoming a lack of education, drug addiction, a turbulent childhood and workaholism to become a star in the culinary world. Tramonto’s contemporaries and friends include Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck. Not bad company if you’re a foodie.

But the real story isn’t his rise to stardom; it’s his transformation through life with Christ.

Scars of a Chef takes readers along Tramonto’s food journey from Rochester, New York and New York City to England and Chicago. It includes recipes fit for a gourmand and pictures from the chef’s life. Preview the first chapter here. Italian through-and-through, it’s easy for a reader to hear Tramonto’s voice, even if you’ve never heard him speak, which I haven’t.

With less than three hours left till the end of August, this is probably my last book for the Tyndale Summer Reading Program, though I have one more sitting on my desk and I might give it the old college try while my husband watches endless episodes of Top Gear.

Either way, watch for one more summer reading wrap-up post in the near future. I love books. There’s nothing wrong with that, right?


I found common ground with a pencil sharpener

My daughter is really into sharpening pencils right now. Sometimes she uses her manual Tinkerbell pencil sharpener. Other times she likes to use the battery-operated one. She brought it to me for help one day and I happened to see the sticker attached to the bottom: Receptacle must be secure for unit to operate.

“Must be secure for unit to operate.” Join the club, I thought.

I also just so happened to be reading Beth Moore’s So Long, Insecurity, and in typical Beth Moore fashion, I feel exposed and vulnerable because she’s speaking my language. The book is subtitled “You’ve been a bad friend to us,” and I’m discovering through it the deep net of insecurity in which my life is caught.

So when I read, “Must be secure .. to operate,” I thought of how that’s exactly what God wants. Insecurity keeps us from operating and functioning for God’s pre-planned purposes. When I’m secure in Him, I can do whatever He wants me to do without paralyzing fear or self-doubt.

I love how God uses two unrelated pieces of my life to bring home a point.

More on the book:

Moore has a passion for this topic. You can read a portion of it in the first chapter here. What’s especially great about the book is she offers not just words but tools to overcome insecurity. Prayers, scriptures and practical no-duh tips for walking and living securely amidst life’s disappointments and hurts.

Moore also doesn’t endorse glossing over hurt or denying emotions. She just wants us, women in general, to detach insecurity from these other hurts.

I borrowed this book from my aunt while I wait to receive my copy in the mail. She said it’s a book you could read every 6 months or so. I agree. What a blessing.

I’m not long acquainted with Beth Moore yet, but the two Bible studies of hers I’ve done, and now this book, have been life-altering. And they’ve seemed to address a current spiritual issue in my life. Moore is in tune with what women need spiritually because a) she is one and b) she has a close relationship with the Lord. This book, she writes, is birthed from experience. She’s been there, done that and shares personal experiences throughout.

Are you a woman? You NEED to read this book.

No pressure, but really, it’s that good. Even at its most painfully honest moments, I can’t wait to read it again and really dig in to the freeing message God has for me as a woman. I struggle deeply with insecurity. Moore’s book helps me believe that I don’t have to anymore.

That it is possible to live securely as a woman in this uncertain and painful world.

What sweet words of encouragement to this weary soul.

The ‘F’ word might not be so bad after all

It’s a 2-for-1 on the blog today. It’s been a few weeks since I updated on my weight-loss progress for the My Loss Their Gain challenge, and I’m reading books like crazy to finish out the Tyndale Summer Reading Program, so I’m doubling up on posts today.

We were home in Illinois for two weeks, and I was sure my weight loss efforts took another beating. Good food. Lots of it. Little exercise. Frankly, I came home a little depressed. Then we had a hurricane when we got back to Pennsylvania, and we found a bat in the house, and the kids and I all got sick with a stomach bug. I remembered to weigh in today and discovered that I’d actually lost about 1.5 pounds since I last weighed in two weeks ago. Most of that is probably from the stomach bug. Not the most enjoyable way to lose weight.

So, with that little bit of encouragement, I’m resolved to restart my campaign to lose weight and donate money to widows and orphans in Liberia.

Speaking of Liberia, I learned another little encouraging tidbit this week while reading In This Place by Kim L. Abernethy, who spent time in Liberia as a missionary. When she and her husband first arrived in the West African country, the people were so excited and greeted them with these words “Thank you teacher for your fat wife!” Abernethy, understandably, was a little taken aback by this but came to learn that Liberians associated fatness, if you will, with blessing. To them, a person who is overweight must be blessed because they have more than enough food to eat.

Funny. I haven’t thought of it that way. I’m not fat; I’m blessed!

“Fat” is such a dirty word in our country. No one wants to be called “fat” which is why Abernethy reacted negatively when the Liberians used the word to describe her. I still bear the scars of a friend calling me “fat” in third- or fourth-grade. I can’t think of any positive ways we use the word “fat.” (Unless of course, we’re talking about “phat.” That’s supposed to be a good thing.)

While I have my own struggles with weight, having kids increases them. Both of our kids are “above average” when it comes to weight. Their doctor doesn’t make a big deal out of it, but the WIC nutritionists have labeled them as obese already. They’re 3 and 1 1/2. That seems a little premature to me, so we try not to stress about it. We try to make healthy choices as a family and encourage activity.

I don’t want my kids to have to bear the consequences of being overweight. Seeing their weight as a blessing because we don’t have to worry about food is an attitude shift I hadn’t considered.

So, I’m still aiming to lose weight by the end of the year, but I’m not going to beat myself up for failing to do so.

“Fat” doesn’t have to be such a bad word, although I’m not sure I’m ready yet to use it as a compliment.

Can you really trust a guy whose last name is ‘Malarkey’?

Blogger’s note: This review published in 2011. In January 2015, Alex Malarkey recanted his story and the book was pulled from shelves. You can read more about that here. I’m leaving the review up despite my initial skepticism and the recall of the book.

Kevin Malarkey, with the help of his son Alex, wrote a book. It’s the story of Alex’s time in heaven and some of the revelations he was given by God Himself after Kevin and Alex were in a horrific car accident.

I will admit: I was skeptical. I often am of near-death experience stories and accounts by those who have seen the unseen. That their family name is Malarkey did not help my skepticism.

After reading The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, however, I can say that even if their last name was Truth or Truestory, I could not have believed them more.

It’s arrogance, really, and pride, for me to be skeptical of their experience. I was caught up in their faith as I read, challenged in my own walk with the Lord, and humbled by circumstances I think are insurmountable or overwhelming. This family is an inspiration, and it’s not because they walked through this trial perfectly without fear or doubt but because they chose to believe God even when the odds, the doctors and the facts offered them little to no hope.

The Malarkeys are honest about their struggles and weaknesses. Alex, who was 6 at the time of the accident in 2004, was even reluctant to write the book because he didn’t want people to exalt him above God. Theirs is a story of hope and encouragement. And while they have a remarkable story of Alex being in heaven, talking with God and having the ability to see angels, they don’t expect you to take only their word for it. The Bible is their source of truth, not Alex’s experience, and everything he tells them, they filter through Scripture.

His story is not the only one of its kind. I’ve read 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper. I have not read Heaven is For Real by the Burpo family.

It’s easy to dismiss stories such as these as incredible. It’s much harder to accept that God is making Himself known to people in a variety of ways, for His purpose, even in ways that seem unbelievable.

Matters of faith are not always black and white, scientific or tangible; that doesn’t mean they don’t matter.

Kevin Malarkey

The Malarkeys’ story is fantastic. When you think about it, so are the stories in the Bible. Skeptics of the Christian faith may not be changed by reading this book, but Christians can be encouraged by it.

Check out the first chapter here. And stay tuned for a few more book reviews this week. The Tyndale Summer Reading Program wraps up at the end of the month, and I’m sprinting to the finish.


She had me at hello

It’s not often that I’m totally committed to a novel in the first few pages. When a friend loaned me Susan May Warren’s My Foolish Heart, I agreed to read it, like a couple of others this summer, for the Tyndale Summer Reading Program. For that reason, alone, I usually give the book more time to grow on me, or I resolve to endure it so that it will count towards the program.

Warren had me at hello. I’d barely finished the first chapter and I’d already laughed and was pulling for Isadora Presley to come out a heroine at the end. I finished the whole book on a recent driving trip from Illinois to Pennsylvania.

Click here for the first chapter to see what I’m talking about.

My Foolish Heart tackles themes I haven’t seen much or at all in Christian fiction, namely agoraphobia and physical disability. Set in the world of high school football in the Midwest, My Foolish Heart, also paints a picture of transformation and redemption while not feeling like the inclusion of Scripture is forced or an afterthought.

Believable — imperfect and identifiable — characters, descriptive language, real struggles, and a beautifully painted setting combine to make My Foolish Heart an enjoyable escape.

This was my first time reading anything Warren has written. I’ll be back for more!


God literally sent her to Africa to be a missionary

That’s the stereotypical worst fear when a person gives his life to God, isn’t it? That God will send him to Africa to be a missionary.

For Kim Abernethy, that’s actually what happened. She knew it before she accepted it, and her journey from wayward daughter to obedient wife and mother is detailed in her book In This Place. The book reads more like a journal than a story, but Abernethy’s personal experiences would be a helpful resource for anyone planning to serve as a missionary, especially in Africa.

She holds nothing back — her fears (malaria and tapeworms, among them); her cultural missteps (blowing the generator on the mission compound running too many electrical items at one time); and her weaknesses (spitting out a bite of porcupine stew, and the Liberian “chocolates” after drinking the water).

Read on for an author interview and a link for a chance to win the book.

We understand that you kept rather detailed journals as a young missionary woman in Liberia, West Africa. What prompted you to do that?

My husband and I, along with our 2 1/2 year old daughter, Michelle, were absorbed deeply into the Liberian jungle (180 miles from the capital city Monrovia) at a time when communicating with the “outside” world was still an anomaly. In the mid 1980’s, our key communication source to our family in America was through ham radio operators and by that means, we usually talked to our families only once a month.

There was never enough time to tell them all the cultural things we were learning or share the cute things about
their granddaughter, so I felt the need to supplement with journals. I would handwrite the journals as events happened, but then would use my Selectric II typewriter (during electricity time – you’ll understand that more if you read the book) to type out the journals and mail them off. My mother wisely put the journals into a large manila envelope and saved them. She and my father knew my hankering for writing and prayed that I would one day use those journals to write a book.

How (exactly) did you go about writing the book? Did you take your journal entries and just add more details?

I wrote the first couple of chapters almost six years ago. Between a busy college ministry and an active family, it was difficult for me to know how to carve out the time I needed to make the writing effective. Of course, I always tried to give myself a self-imposed deadline, but being new at the writing and knowing I was going to self-publish did not help my need for discipline so lacking in the early formation of this book. Two years ago, after constantly reaming myself out for not getting serious and lamenting to my husband and family that I needed to get this book done, they rallied around and helped me carve out more substantial amounts of time for serious writing.

Not having any template on how to write from detailed journals, I just decided to dig into the coffers of the journals, make notes about the stories I wanted to use, and then started writing. There were times I found that I could not improve on how I had said something in my journal so I gave myself permission to quote directly from the journal.

What helped you make the decision of which stories to include and which stories to leave out?

That was not an easy task. Taking the advice of several friends and other writers, I stopped the constant editing and analyzing of what I had already written and just wrote the story. It soon started to weave itself into somewhat of a continuum.

After I had completely written the story, I went back and read the entire book, critically, as through the eyes of those who might read it but not really know me very well. I prayed much that God would give me the grace to know when to “let go” of a story, especially when it seemed that it was completely self-serving. Grant it, I struggled with God over at least two particular stories that I really wanted to keep in there, but no matter how hard I tried, they did not fit the spirit of what the book had become.

Honestly, I do not believe that I could have written this book in as God-honoring of a way ten years ago. While I am no where near what I need to be in Christ, I do know that  He has taken more of the ME out of the story and inserted much more of the HIM in it.

Can you give us a brief synopsis of this story?

In 1985 I, along with my husband, Jeff, followed a call from God to minister in the small West African country of Liberia. From learning how to effectively communicate with the Liberian workers in my jungle home to witnessing the painful death of a young woman in childbirth, I write candidly. I tell stories of every day happenings in the life of jungle living, but also plod through the painful: when one of my daughter’s fell from an 18-foot balcony and when my husband was exposed to Lassa fever. One of my favorite things to write about were the chronicles of my husband’s adventures of being a bush pilot in the jungle of Liberia.

Inside this book you will find disbelief, tragedy, fear, anxiety, discontentment, and confusion, but there is also humor, delight, amazement, wonder, surrender, and a deep-seated joy as you watch how God – little by little – chipped away at the walls of pride, unbelief, stubbornness, and independence that had always held me captive to myself. You may find yourself in these stories.

What was your key inspirational force in writing and publishing your first book?

My three daughters were the primary inspirations. Our oldest, Michelle, was 2 1/2 when we first went to Liberia. Stefanie, our second, was born in the middle of the jungle after we had only been in Liberia for ten months. Third daughter Lauren was born during the tumultuous time after our first evacuation from our ministry & home in Liberia. I wanted them to have a written account of their parents’ missionary journey in West Africa and beyond. It is one thing to be a Missionary Kid and live the life in your “home away from home”, but as they are all now young women in their twenties, I wanted them to see God in a bigger way. To always have a reason to keep trusting Him – no matter what.

Another motivation for writing this book were young missionary couples (particularly the women) who may wonder what they can expect as they enter their field of service. Though the country and circumstances may be different, I want the book to be a cultural, spiritual, and practical guide to those who will come behind us.

The third reason was for those that have always been interested in the intrinsic details of foreign missionary lives. I offer this candid missionary memoir as a means to open the door to seeing us as human, exposing struggles and sharing victories.

Where can we find out more about you and your books?

Please visit my website at


I was given a complimentary copy of this book from the author in exchange for posting the author’s interview on my blog. This blog tour is managed by Christian Speaker Services (


For opportunities to win a FREE copy of  IN THIS PLACE, please follow this CSS Virtual Book Tour on Twitter (@Christianspkrs) or

What the church could learn from Starbucks

Maybe it was the coffee talking.

When I entered Starbucks for the first time (this, a recent occurrence, by me, a sometimes anti-cultural unsavvy person), I was greeted warmly. A stranger, approached like I was a friend. This didn’t register until I was already seated with my skinny caramel macchiato grande and pumpkin scone, reading and listening to one worker, in particular, do her job like it was the only thing she wanted to be doing.

She was working the drive-through with enthusiasm. “Is this so-and-so?” she must have said a dozen times, recognizing the voice or the order on the other side of the speaker. Then, she’d move on to some brief, but personal, chit chat, then leave them with a friendly, “I’ll see you at the window.” For one customer, she even took the time to offer recommendations. As a newbie to Starbucks myself, this was the sort of customer service I would have hoped for. I’d done research ahead of time so I wouldn’t be the obvious first-time-at-Starbucks-don’t-know-what-to-order customer who holds up the line for the “regulars.” And she was happy to do it.

In the meantime, while she took drive-through orders, a few regulars came inside to order. She knew their names. She knew their usual orders. She greeted them exuberantly.

Like I said before, maybe it was the coffee talking. It’s certainly not in short supply at a coffee shop. But I believed this girl, and her co-workers to a less-obvious extent, was genuinely happy to see the customers and took pride in remembering their usual orders.

What if the church was like Starbucks?

What if we greeted people by name, showed enthusiasm to see them, and remembered something, anything, about their day-to-day life?

What if we were quick to offer help to a newcomer, suggesting what works for us without demanding they do things exactly like we do them?

What if we tossed aside everything else we knew about a person and focused on the one thing that brought us together?

See, that’s where I think the church could learn something from Starbucks. People come to Starbucks for coffee. Or tea or pastries. But mostly for coffee. It’s simple. They’re looking for coffee. And Starbucks serves them coffee.

Sometimes I feel like people come to church looking for God and they leave with something else. Like rules. Or judgment. Or pressure to conform. Or cold shoulders. Or whispers. Or distractions. It’s like they walked into Starbucks for hot coffee and came out with a popsicle, cotton candy and a pinwheel. Or hot water and a pamphlet on the history of coffee. Not at all what they were looking for.

Maybe it’s just me. Or maybe it’s the coffee talking. But the longer I sat in Starbucks, the more I wanted to be one of those regulars. The coffee didn’t impress me as much as the community did. I want someone to be excited to see me, to call me by name, to ask if I’m having the “usual.” More than that, I want to want to be there. I want to need the church like I need my morning cup of coffee. For comfort. And encouragement. And the kick in the pants I need to overcome timidity.

People — I’m one of them — want a place to belong. Somehow, churches have missed the mark. People — at least the ones I know — don’t generally feel like they belong at church. When did that happen? And how can we fix it?

Starbucks isn’t perfect. Neither is the church. But Starbucks has what people want. And the church, for whatever reason, doesn’t.

Maybe it’s time we, as a church, start giving people what they need before we tell them how they should live. If they’re thirsty, let’s give them a drink. If they’re hungry, let’s feed them. If they’re hurting, let’s comfort them. If they’re struggling, let’s support them.

Starbucks is in the coffee business, and they excel at it. Let’s, as a church, be about the Father’s business, as Jesus was. Healing. Freeing. Including. Accepting. Loving. Let’s focus on the main thing — Jesus — and leave other matters for a different time and place.

Let’s give people what they want: a glimpse of heaven on earth.

The church might never be as popular as Starbucks, nor should it aim to be, but when built on the solid foundation of Christ, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

Then again, maybe it’s just the coffee talking.

But this I know: I didn’t like the coffee so much, but I’d go back to Starbucks in a heartbeat.

Maybe the church doesn’t have to have the best sermon or music or program but the most accepting, welcoming, focused-on-Jesus group of people you’ve ever seen. Maybe that’s what keeps people coming back.

Maybe it’s not that simple. Or maybe it is.

Maybe it’s just the coffee talking.