Books That Have Influenced My Faith

A few days ago, a friend messaged me on Facebook asking me if I had a book recommendation that would help her deal with a faith struggle she is working through.  This got me thinking about about the books that have shaped and refined my faith and all of the authors who have helped me without ever knowing about it.

Then I realized that I wanted to know others’  lists, and that this might make a good post idea.

So, in random order, here are some books that I’ve read in the last decade that have shaped my faith.   I’d highly recommend any of them! (All photos from Amazon.)

1. Windows of the Soul by Ken Gire

Windows of the Soul photo

My unofficial mentor/very official friend Mary recommended this book to me in college.  I was keen to do anything Mary did because I admired her so much, so I read it.  I’m so glad I did.

Gire talks about all of the ways God speaks to our hearts in our everyday lives—through literature, through nature, through music, through others, through sadness, and more.  The year before, I had seen “Tosca” at the Vienna Opera House and I remember leaving the opera house feeling like my soul and mind were on fire and more awake than ever before.  Gire would say, that beauty you felt is no accident.  It was the loving presence of God speaking to some part of your soul.  Same thing with a beautiful sunset, a loving act of kindness from another person…all God’s presence, God speaking to your heart.  This book changed the way I experience God and the way that I experience our world.  You know, no big deal.

2. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott

Traveling MerciesMy parents live next door to Miss Cindy (pronounced “Miss Cin-dayyyyy” because she has a Southern drawl.)  Miss Cindy is the kind of neighbor who brings you an Oreo pie when you get into a car accident, who invites and genuinely wants you to use their home gym whenever you want, and who makes sweeping declarations like “you have to try this wine,” “you have to try this recipe that I learned at cooking school in Sonoma,” and “you need to read this book right now.”   When Miss Cindy tells me to jump, I say “yes ma’am—how high?”  It’s the Southern way.  

One day, Cindy walked into our house and told me to read this book.  I was not in the best place in my life and doing anything felt like a chore, but I opened it up because Cindy told me to.  Inside, I found out that the fact that I was trying to hang onto any thread of faith meant that I had faith.  I found validation that my imperfections and struggles did not disqualify me from God’s love.  I found gentleness and openness and expansiveness—a faith different from the narrow rigidness of my own.  I found a sentence that shaped the way I dealt with struggles over the next two years.  Yes, this book shaped my faith.  A lot.

Word of warning: if you are rigidly Republican, YOU WILL NOT LIKE THIS LADY (and she would take that as a compliment.)  If you’re anywhere else on the political spectrum, you will probably get along splendidly.

3. The Hole In Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us? The Answer that Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World by Richard Stearns

The Hole in Our Gospel

This book is responsible for some current events in my life.  If I showed you my copy, you would never let me borrow a book again—it’s dog-eared on at least 20 pages, underlined, has a slightly broken cover, and has some water damage (reading in the bathtub is where it’s at.)  I COULDN’T PUT IT DOWN.

I didn’t know what I was in for when I pulled this one off of my mom’s nightstand when I was babysitting my siblings in September.  I had to sit with Olivia at dance class for an hour and I thought I’d bring a book along.

I wound up sitting in dance class quietly sobbing as my heart was pierced.  For a long time, I’ve understood that my possessions and money aren’t my own, that my blessings aren’t just for me, that I need to have care and concern for the poor. I could point to specific verses that have influenced these thoughts (and actions) but this book gave me an entire theological framework for how to view my life, my possessions, my time, and my talents.  I finally understood how those verses fit together.

I felt profoundly challenged to stop simply seeing needs and saying “good luck! Hope someone helps you with that.  I do XYZ already, and don’t have any more money to offer!” and instead step back and say “well…what do I have that could help with this need? Could I give a bit of time? Could I make an introduction or connection that would help this cause? Could I pray for this? Can I give something up financially to help with this need? Can I offer a ride? Can I make room in my life for this person?” 

His exposition of scriptures addressing poverty and injustice is among the clearest and most compelling that I have read.  And his connection of those “big” issues to how we live our everyday life set off an openness in me that has led to some really rewarding, terrifying, yet ultimately, what I believe to be Godly decisions in how I am living my life now.

Like I said, it’s VERY underlined and dog-eared, so picking just one quote to share is difficult but I like this thought: “Think of your life as a house with many rooms.  Your faith cannot just be one more room in the house, equal with your job, your marriage, your political affiliation, or your hobbies.  No, your faith must be like the very air you breathe, in every room of the house.  It must permeate not just your ‘Sunday worship’ or even your vocation and your behavior at home, but also your dealings with everyone around you—including the poor.  That’s how deep the commitment must be.  So what does God expect of you, then? Everything.”  

I may follow up with a Part II of this post if you enjoyed it! In the meantime, what books have influenced YOUR faith? 

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Being an Emotionally Healthy Adult Blows

One of the things I am most grateful for in my life is that God has given me a relatively high emotional set point.  On most days, I feel cheerful and happy, and I don’t deviate a lot from that set point.

But when I do? I use coping skills.

It’s so awful.

My life has not always been full of healthy coping skills.  For a while, I had figured out some really great ways to numb my emotions so I didn’t have to feel the “lows” that life inevitably brings.

Shopping.  Not eating.  Throwing myself into work to the detriment of my relationships. People pleasing.  Overexercising.  Sarcasm.  Perfectionism and striving for achievement.  Emotional eating.  Sounds like a nice little list, right?

I used to be able to drown out emotions with all of these things.  They worked worked super well at making those lows go away.

What didn’t work so well were the lows these behaviors created in the aftermath—you know, broken relationships, a pile of shame, getting sick, losing things that were important to me, etc., which inevitably resulted in me needing to use MORE of these behaviors, which created more problems, and so on and so forth.

It was a bad cycle and at some point I surveyed the broken life I was living and decided it was time to become an emotionally healthy adult.  With lots of help and support and therapy, I now use healthy coping skills (and have actually spent the last few years teaching them to others as my job.)

Great, right? Except now I’m forced to feel all those pesky emotions WITHOUT NUMBING THEM.

Like I said…it’s awful.

Bad day? Time to curl up with a book, not dig into a chocolate dessert or buy new clothes.  Overwhelmed with anxiety? Time to pray about it, talk about it, or watch a sitcom instead of spending two hours in the gym.  Feeling “less than?” Time for an I-statement and a good cry, not a new diet plan or pouring myself into my next achievement.  I can’t even drink a glass of wine or buy an extra coffee without asking myself “am I drinking this to dull or avoid feeling my feelings?”

People, it’s not fun to live like this!

Right now I feel sad, scared, anxious, and emotionally on the edge.  If I could change something, I would, but the situation prompting these feelings isn’t up to me to change.  I literally have no control over it.

And so instead of frantically try to make my feelings go away, I am writing and acknowledging them, telling myself how normal they are, thanking God for my blessings, listening to praise music, being present with my daughter during her wake times today, and planning a fun outing for us later.  I am feeding myself like I should, not exercising today because my foot hurts anyway, and staying away from anything resembling an attempt to numb myself.

How boring.  But how necessary—for my daughter, for my husband, for my family, to honor the God who has given me life, and for myself.  I may want the easy thing, but I choose the better thing.

Yours in grumpy emotional health,
Sarah

(PS: Maybe I still use sarcasm a little.)

Harvest

I don’t share a ton on here about my life as a ministry wife, because even though it’s my story, it’s not JUST my story…it’s my husband’s story and the story of our church community as well.

But I HAD to share a cool story from the last two weeks because I think it might encourage someone who is struggling with the question “when will I see RESULTS in my ministry?”

You see, in ministry you put all this effort into planting seeds.  You try to plant knowledge, passion, love, faith, and hope in the Lord.  You shape your life around planting. The rhythms of your family life, your finances, your conversations, your passions, your location—everything is affected by the work you or your spouse feel called to do.

A lot of it is rewarding.  You see lives changed and people inspired and relationships restored.

Yet you don’t always see the harvest.

You’ll pour hours of mentoring into a kid who winds up getting arrested.  You’ll talk a student off a million ledges only for them to keep walking off those ledges like they haven’t learned anything.  You’ll urge a parent to talk with their son/daughter based on something alarming that their child has told you, you’ll give them suggestions about how to do so, and they won’t even address the issue with their child.  You spend extended amounts of time with students who are borderline rude to you on a trip and then they never return to your church, so you don’t know what ends up happening to them.

And it’s okay, because obedience to your calling is why you do this—not because you need results.  And you pray “okay, God.  I may not see the results of the seeds I tried to plant but I know that you’re the one doing the work anyway—that you will water them and that there will be a harvest someday.  Help me continue faithfully and energetically regardless of the outcome, trusting that YOU see the harvest at the end even if I don’t.”

But sometimes, God just chooses to bless you anyway by showing you results.  In the last two weeks, I’ve seen some harvest from the seeds I’ve tried to plant.

I’m humbled.

The things I hope most for the girls I mentor and spend my time and prayers on are that they will know their identity in Christ, that they develop a passion for growing in the Lord, and that their hearts become loving, soft, aware of others, and servant-like.

Well…two weeks ago, two of my college girls (that I mentored for two years when they were high schoolers) came back from school and saw an area in my life where I needed some help.  They pointed my need out, like “hey, Sarah, you could probably use help with this” and then offered to fill it.

On their break from school.

I didn’t prompt them in any way or even realize that I could actually benefit from some help until they asked.

My first inclination was to say no, I’m fine—thanks anyway.  Enjoy your break.  I can do my own work.

But I thought about it and realized that this is exactly the kind of thing I should say yes to. I want them to see needs and feel a pull on their hearts to meet those needs, and I want them to respond to that pull.

And that was what they were doing.

So I said yes and thought, if they are volunteering to help, I am going to give them a REAL job.  So I had them babysit Zoe for a while while I ran some errands, and while she napped I had them clean a gross closet in my house (it used to store our recycling bins, sandy lawn chairs, & outdoor goods, if that says anything about how gross it was.)

I came back and that closet was sparkling clean.  My baby was happy.  The girls looked tired and happy.

And I felt thankful.  Thankful for their sacrifices, thankful for the privilege of being called to this life of ministry, and thankful for the fact that every so often, God lifts up the veil of what He’s doing and says here’s some encouragement.  Here’s some harvest. Check out what we’re doing together. 

I’d do what I felt called to anyway.  But it feels good to do it encouraged!

For The Times I Feel Like Moses

This morning, I read about the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom through the parting of the Red Sea (you can read it in Exodus 14.)  It’s a pretty amazing story.  The Israelites have left Egypt, where the Egyptians have kept them as slaves for several generations.  En masse, they are on the move, being chased by Egyptians and led by Moses—a guy with some confidence issues and a speech impediment.

As I read, it struck me hard that the Lord knew and was completely in control of the outcome of this situation.

He told Moses very directly what Pharaoh would think, what Pharaoh would feel, what Pharaoh would do, and what would happen:

“He will chase after you.  I have planned this in order to display my glory through Pharaoh and his whole army.  After this, the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord!”

But despite giving Moses a play-by-play of Pharaoh’s actions (which is pretty generous, really) he left out the part I’d care about most if I were Moses…like what He would do to display His glory and what that even meant.  You know, specifics!

The Egyptians begin to catch up with the Israelites.  So far, all God has told the Israelites to do is turn back and camp on a shore, which isn’t exactly what I would feel inclined to do if I was being chased by an army wanting to recapture me as a slave.

But it’s what they did.  They did as they were told.  

I wonder if Moses felt peace at all as he settled the people onto the shore, or if (like me) He struggled with the unknown.  Did he wrestle inwardly, wanting to trust God’s character, reciting promises of God and trying to rest in those truths but just wanting to know the freaking outcome?

We know how the Israelites felt.  When they saw the Egyptians coming towards them on the shore, they began to fear.  They didn’t fully trust God.   The text says that they “panicked” and cried out to the Lord and Moses questions like “why have you brought us here? What have you done? Why did you make us leave?” With their former captors advancing upon them, they said they wished they were slaves again—because at least that was known.

But Moses told the people:

“Don’t be afraid.  Just stand still and watch the Lord rescue you today…the Lord himself will fight for you.  Just stay calm.”

Oh, how I long for this faith—the kind of faith that says “yes, I fear and yes, the known felt safer…but I stand here anyway in the unknown, expectantly waiting the Lord’s work in my life because He has called me here.”  

Not “you’re right! This is terrifying! Let’s run away!” Or “ahhh! God isn’t working in the way that seems obvious to us! Better think of our own plan!”

No.  This faithful servant of God says, STAND STILL AND WATCH THE LORD WORK.

Even though his words display faith (and great truth,) it sounds like Moses may have felt like me on the inside.  Because the Lord says to Moses next:

“Why are you crying out to me? Tell the people to get moving!

Pick up your staff and raise your hand over the sea.  Divide the water so that the Israelites can walk through the middle of the sea on dry ground…my great glory will be displayed through Pharaoh and his troops…all Egypt will see my glory and know that I am the Lord.”

If I were Moses, I would be terrified.  God has given Moses some specific steps to take, but he still hasn’t told Moses what the outcome will be—just that it will glorify Him.

And yet…that’s all we have to work with too.  We don’t know what the outcome of any situations will be, and any sense of control and predictability we feel is an illusion.  Like Moses, we just have to trust that He is in control, know that He will be glorified in every situation, and pray that we won’t miss out on seeing His glory because our hearts and attitudes and fears hinder us from the steps He asks us to take.

And so we get moving with the directions that we have, praying to the God we may even be struggling to trust for faith and courage.

And this is faith—when we start walking where we feel called to go even if our stomach is clenched with fear and when we tell ourselves, do not fear and do not run in circles trying to control this.  Instead,  STAND STILL AND WATCH THE LORD WORK.  

You can read the rest of the Exodus story to see what happens in this particular instance, but I will say this: it’s what happens every time.

God comes through.

And as much as I am challenged by Moses’s example, I am also encouraged.  Because he spoke God’s truth—and he acted on it—but he still had very real feelings about it that didn’t always line up with what he probably wanted to feel or felt he “should” feel.

Psalm 22 offers another example of this, where David wrestles with how the Lord has been faithful to generations before him—and has shown faithfulness in his own life!—but how in this particular moment, with the unknown and terrifying at his doorstep, he still fears.  Or there’s the father in Mark 9:24 who says “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief!”

What I can conclude is this: faith is not the absence of doubt.  Faith is taking a risk to believe in spite of our doubts.

Faith is standing still and getting moving at the same time.

And faith is what I’m choosing.

“Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see…therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.  We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.”   –Hebrews 11:1, 12:1-2

 

2014: Bring It, Part III

I’m sure you have all been waiting with bated breath for the conclusion to this short series, right? 🙂

But really…I continue to have interesting conversations as a result of sharing my goals and goal-setting process, and I LOVE knowing what my friends are working on and where I can pray for, encourage, and support them.  In that spirit, here are my 2014 foundations and goals—the things I’m hoping to build the year on and around.

  • Gracefully serve my family and be a hands on, present, thoughtful, intentional mom.
    • Intentionally structure our weeks so that Zoe and I spend time each week in music, learning about/experiencing nature, physical activity, reading, and social activities.
      • Take weekly field trips to the Children’s Museum, zoo, parks, etc.
      • Swim lessons in the late spring or early summer
    • Create a good eating plan for Zoe as we phase bottles out.
    • Build on Zoe’s “rules” as needed to keep her safe.
    • Begin to introduce spiritual concepts to her at an age-appropriate level (“pray,” etc.) along with concepts of basic manners (“please,” “thank you,” giving hugs and caring for friends, etc.)
    • Continue to give her lots of time with her extended family and help her learn their names through FaceTime and photos.
    • As the one who spends the most time in a caregiving role, do my best to create a family culture that is loving, peaceful, gentle, & fun, where Zoe feels safe, secure, loved, & valued.  Zoe won’t benefit from a ton of formal instruction on faith and values this year—but I want these things to be so obvious by the way that we live that she has a foundation for the future.  I’m with her the most, so I have to live it the most.
  • Be a thoughtful, loving, present wife who prioritizes David’s needs.
    • Pay attention to what he says.
    • Purposefully save energy for him.
    • Make dates a financial priority.
    • Continue doing devotions together each week and pray together more often.
    • Speak his love language.
  • Physical health: I want to care for myself spiritually, emotionally, and physically.  Physical health isn’t the most important thing in my life, but the way that I treat my body affects the other parts of my life, my emotions, and my ability to have the energy I want to have for my family.  I want my physical state to enable me to confidently tackle everything else in my life…not to distract me or slow me down.
    • I want to be intentionally active most days of the week.  Ideally, I would attend my stroller fitness class 2x/week and work out 1-2 other times per week at our gym or walking 2-3 times per week.  I feel the best physically and mentally when I do this.
    • Eat healthfully because it gives me the most energy…but still eat dessert regularly.  I unintentionally lost weight when Zoe was born and spent a good part of the year struggling not to lose more weight and to put weight back on.  I am back at a healthy weight for me and need to continue to eat more than what I am actually hungry for so that I can be as healthy as possible for my family.
  • Spiritual health and personal passions:
    • Continue daily morning quiet times.
    • Continue listening to sermon podcasts when I get the chance during the day.
    • Use my new prayer journal a few times a week to be more organized with my prayer life.
    • Try to carve out two times a week for writing.  Improve my writing and clarify my sense of purpose for my writing.  Read writers who inspire me and encourage me to be better.

There are a few categories and goals that I am keeping private for now, but those are some that I felt comfortable sharing online.  I am already really enjoying 2014 and am so excited for the rest of the year to unfold.

Photo on 1-4-14 at 6.31 PM #2

 

 

2014: Bring It, Part II

In Part I of this (very short) series, I shared how the end of 2013 went.  Now, I want to share my overall impression of 2013.

Every year I find that there is a central theme to the things God has taught me, and that theme can almost always be summed up in one word.

This year’s word?

Free

Free.

I remember hearing a song lyric a few years ago:

When I get where I’m going
There’ll be only happy tears
I will shed the sins and struggles
I have carried all these years
And I’ll leave my heart wide open
I will love and have no fear

It’s talking about Heaven and at the time I heard this song, I thought yes, that’s when I will be free…in Heaven.

But this year, I got to experience some of this freedom here on earth.  I rang in the new year happily eating cake with David. If you had known me a few years ago, this would have been unfathomable.  Sins and struggles…shed.

This year, I walked away from a job that I used to define myself by.  This year, I wrote my heart and shared it with people I knew.  And this year, I admitted to myself and to a few people that I love that I want to spend more time and dedicate more energy to writing in the upcoming year because I feel like I am being the full me—the person that God created me to be—when I write. Me,  letting myself do something without a guaranteed outcome.  Heart…wide open.

This year, I did my best to love well and to live with open hands and in the process, I saw and felt how perfect love drives out fear.  I’m in a totally crazy situation right now and yet my heart is expectant and trusting, not fearful.

Free.

I love the image above of David throwing Zoe because he’s releasing her, letting her be free, but not letting her fall.  She’s at peace because she knows he will catch her.  She’s at peace because she knows he knows what he’s doing.

The joy on her face is what I’ve felt this year.

Emily Freeman writes, “your ability to bring glory to God by simply being the person you fully are and embracing the job you’ve been given to do is a uniquely human privilege…Christ is in you and he wants to come out through you in a way he won’t come out through anyone else.”

This was the year I finally understood that.  This was the year I finally stepped aside and said okay.  I won’t keep trying to be the person I want to be…I’ll be the person I am.  The person you created me to be.  The person you delight in.

It was my year of freedom.

My next post (the final in this series) will detail my 2014 goals…written in the spirit of freedom, of course!

What word described your year? 

2014: Bring It

In mid-November, I wrote about how I wanted to develop a broader vision outside of myself and my family for 2014.  I wasn’t sure if anyone would care about my goals and vision, but I have had so many interesting conversations offline as a result of that post.  To further these conversations, and for posterity’s sake, I wanted to provide an update on how that process is going.

Before that, I just have to say that talking about goal setting and vision casting gets me giddy. Two days ago, David and I sat at Barnes & Noble drinking coffee and talking goals for over an hour and it was truly one of my favorite hours of 2013.  I love the sense of possibility and newness and excitement that a new morning brings—so having a whole YEAR to consider?!! Thrilling.

At the same time, my giddiness is tempered by a sober realization that life is not a given.  We don’t know how long we get to be alive and we don’t know what awaits us even one hour in the future.  I don’t mean this to be morbid…it’s just a realization I’ve had this year.  We can plan as much as we want, but God determines what happens and I pray that I always remain aware of that, grateful for the gift and for the Giver, and responsible with (and responsive to) the time and gifts I’m given.

Anyway, here were the goals I set for the rest of 2013 and an update on how I’ve done:

-to create a prayer calendar, chalkboard, or other creative way to display & remember my prayer requests.  To help me with this goal, I bought a book called “Organizing Your Prayer Closet” by Gina Duke.  It’s half a book on prayer and half a year-long prayer journal for people like me who like categories and organization.  The book part was a little mediocre (although I still took some things away from it) but the journal looks AWESOME and I am beyond psyched to start.

-continue to take 1 day per weekend OFF from work.  I’ve followed this guideline for “work” work.  Some house projects have crept up, but David and I have been good about doing them together, making them fun, and making sure our weekends have a balance between work and play.  Vacations helped.

Beach vacation

-launch our new club.  It’s launched! I plan to finish up our winter newsletter in the next week or so and then I should be done with club-related tasks for a while.

-only clean 1x/day intend of freaking and doing it more.  I’ll put it this way—most days, I only picked up Zoe’s toys once (which was my goal) and I reduced the number of freak outs.  This is an ongoing goal 🙂

-invest time into planning professional goals for 2014.  I did this two days before Thanksgiving break.  More to come.

-meditate on and create a mission statement of sorts to guide how I spend my social time and volunteer time.  After I wrote this, I decided it felt stuffy.  Here are my thoughts: I want to blend my time with getting to know new people and pouring into existing relationships.  This year, it was about 50-50 since I was in a new life stage (and I feel very passionate about reaching out to other moms.)  Next year I anticipate my “social time” being spent more like 60% old friends and 40% new friends, because I have developed great relationships and want to continue them.  Also, I am NOT taking on any new volunteer commitments.  In between the club, my small group, and random things I do for church, I cannot and should not take on anything else.

Coming up in my next post: what word best described 2013 (here was last year’s word) and what are my goals/foundations and hopes for 2014?