When Your “Best Of” List Comes Up Empty

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This post was originally published on incourage.me in 2013.

I love lists. I really do. As a matter of fact, I’m itching to make a grocery list right now. Then I want to make another to-do list, because the one I wrote two days ago is missing several things – some I’ve already done, but writing them down just to cross them off makes sense to me.

So when the end of the year rolls around and every media outlet in the world begins compiling year-end and best-of lists, I am in my nerdy, happy place. Two years ago I took the opportunity of this trend to share some of my own best-of lists, sharing the best blog posts I’d read that year, the best blog posts I’d written (in my humble opinion, of course) that year, my favorite recipes from the year, and [of course] my favorite TV shows and movies from the year.

It was fun and I assumed I’d make it an annual practice. But some years don’t have much in the “best of” category.

In the past few weeks I’ve shared my thoughts about how, sometimes, the holidays aren’t the most wonderful time of the year. I’ve talked about giving up on holiday bucket lists, how to cope when the holidays make you sad, and the cure for feeling like this year just doesn’t feel like Christmas.

These thoughts have been heavy on my mind and heart not because 2013 was rough. Even though I [temporarily] felt like running away, was fairly certain I was drowningliterally at times, and faced more than one decision where the right choice didn’t feel good, all of those challenges were temporary and ended in so much gratitude and growth that I can’t possibly complain.

I could easily come up with a few “best of” lists for 2013 – and I might still do that.

But last year? Last year was hard in ways I never could have imagined and do not ever want to relive. As I crawled to the finish line last December, the only thing I was truly thankful for was the end of that season. I couldn’t look back, I didn’t feel like reflecting, and even if pressed I might not have come up with a single “best” for the entire previous 12 months.

In one year my brother-in-law had died in a motorcycle accident, my husband and I had spent months in counseling fighting for our marriage, and my daughter had exhibited horrible behavior issues that we simply didn’t know how to deal with. Looking at that little list in black and white, a year removed, it doesn’t seem all that bad. BUT OH, IT WAS.

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So what do we do when our year’s best-of list comes up empty?

1. Start by keeping it in perspective. This season won’t last forever. The calendar – and the cycle of life’s ups and downs – will turn over eventually. His mercies truly ARE fresh every morning, every New Year’s Day, every time we turn to Him.

2. Count your blessings – small as they may be. Keeping a gratitude journal or listing your 1000 gifts may seem insincere or even impossible during difficult times. But I truly believe God takes our tiny offerings of gratitude and increases them until our hearts are softened and our perspectives are changed in a way we simply can’t do with closed hands.

3. Give yourself permission to grieve. Some things are really, really hard to live through. Some challenges seem never-ending or unfair or Just Too Much. It’s okay to feel that sadness. God is close to the brokenhearted – which means He knows full and well that we will have times of grief where this life is too much to bear. Lean into it for a time, and lean into Him. It’s okay to be sad for a while; He can take it better than we can when we try to hold it in and carry it alone.

4. Cling to hope and look forward to next year. Even if you can’t celebrate the holidays with the spirit you normally do . . . even if Christmas carols and trees full of ornaments and the perfect gift beautifully wrapped simply remind you of what you’re missing this year . . . even if your only resolution for next year is to have a better year because this one stunk . . . remember Hope. The world was dark when Jesus came that first Christmas – just like it may be dark this Christmas. He came to offer hope, because He IS Hope. So even when the holidays are hard, remember you have Hope.

Those are the things I wish I’d known to do a year ago. Because sure enough, this calendar year did bring a fresh outlook and a renewed heart. I know difficult years will happen again, but this most recent season has been one full of blessings both small and large. And receiving that after a time full of so much pain makes this year’s best-of list even sweeter. I’m thankful, both for the relief from last year’s challenges and the reminder that when hard times come again [because they will], they won’t last forever.

If nothing else, THAT is something to put on a best-of list!

What would you put on a Best of This Year list?

{Photos by Pink Sherbet Photography and Dawn Camp}

For unto us a child is born…

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For a child is born to us, a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
And he will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
- Isaiah 9:6

Merry Christmas, friends!

When It Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas

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This post was originally published on MothersofDaughters.com in 2013.

It’s not Christmas until…

…we put up the tree.
…Bobby comes home.
…I hear O Holy Night.
…we light the Advent candles.
…it snows.
…we watch White Christmas.
…I bake cookies.
…we volunteer at the shelter.
…we get our family photos back.
…we read Luke 2.

Sometimes the holidays are hard. Coming at the end of a hard year – one where we’ve lost loved ones or jobs or even a bit of our faith – the days and weeks when we’re expected to wear shiny smiles and holler jolly greetings at everyone we see can feel overwhelming and even depressing.

We think back to Christmases past, recalling warm fires and hot cocoa, meaningful gifts and inspiring Scripture readings, cheerful and thankful children, family members cooking and crafting and playing Scrabble together. We remember how good the holidays can be (conveniently forgetting the hard parts that happen Every. Single. Year.) and the regret buries deep in our hearts.

We feel pre-emptively sad, because It just won’t feel like Christmas this year. Whatever loss or challenge we’re facing or remembering when things aren’t exactly as they were before becomes a catalyst to resent this year’s calendar full of activities and events and expectations.

“This year just won’t be the same,” we say.

And some years aren’t. Truly, no two holidays can be exactly the same – no matter how dedicated we are to tradition and favorite foods and white elephant gag gifts that reappear every year. Circumstances change, lives change, PEOPLE CHANGE.

It can be hard. I would never claim that celebrating Christmas in light of a loss is easy or simply a matter of Get over it or Fake it ’til you make it.

Sometimes the holiday season can make us sad
– and I think that’s okay and normal and a part of living life.

But Christmas itself? The day we celebrate the birth of our Savior? Could it be possible to reclaim that day, that remembrance, that epic birthday party no matter what our circumstances are this year?

Can we separate the holiday chaos from our holy celebration? Can we turn our focus from our Advent to-do lists to our Mighty God and Wonderful Counselor, our Emmanuel?

After all, that first Christmas didn’t have Advent candles or a decked-out tree. Joseph and Mary didn’t snap a family photo in matching robes or sit Baby Jesus and the Wise Men down for hot cocoa and the Peanuts special.

And yet they celebrated Christmas.

Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others
—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
Luke 2:13-14

It’s not wrong to grieve, to miss those who aren’t with us, to reminisce about sweet experiences and special days gone by. But let’s not get so bogged down in our feelings this year that we miss out on the JOY. Because when God promised to be with the brokenhearted and crushed in spirit, He wasn’t simply giving our feelings and needs lip service.

No, He was telling us that He would send His Son, the Jesus who was born into this world, the One we celebrate each year, no matter what kind of year it’s been. He was telling us that we aren’t alone, on our happiest days or our hardest ones. He was promising His “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love” (as the Jesus Storybook Bible puts it) in the person of Jesus Christ.

And if that’s not a reason to celebrate – snow or not, with or without cookies, no matter how deeply we grieve – I don’t know what is.

Photo source

Walking on Sunshine & an Announcement

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A couple weeks ago, Mark had to drive to Denver for work. To distract Annalyn from missing her daddy, I suggested a loud and rowdy dance party (since we have to be so quiet when he’s trying to sleep at home). Of course that meant, “Let It Go” and “Shake It Off.” As the old lady in the group, though, I insisted on my happy song: “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina & the Waves.

I know, it’s not cool to admit that I love that song. But I do. So there. Anyway, I found it on YouTube and while I was confused at the truly bizarre video, Annalyn was just perplexed by the lyrics.

“But what does that MEAN, Mommy? How can you WALK. ON. SUNSHINE???”

——
When I was a senior in high school, I took a dual-credit English class. It’s weird how much I remember about that class, given it was nearly 20 years ago, but lots of moments and lessons stuck with me. The most memorable, though, happened after our first assignment. Our teacher had us draw a slip of paper from a jar; we were to write a one-page essay redefining the word on that paper.

My word was “home,” and I wrote about how my home was not a place or a building; rather, my heart’s home was Mark. We’d been dating for two years then, and apparently I was an expert on love.

Our teacher decided to read some of our essays out loud, and she chose mine for the College English class that met in a different hour than mine. As soon as the bell rang after third hour, my friends from that class found me in the hallway. They told me our teacher had read my essay – and then cried.

Um…what?

Even now it’s weird to me, but then again, I cry all the time and at many awkward, inopportune, inappropriate times. So, who am I to judge?

Aside from some major weirdness (especially when said teacher felt it necessary to explain that she was not crying about what I wrote but simply crying over something personal – like that made it any better), that experience showed me the power of words – and my desire to make a difference in people’s lives with mine.

——
Over the years my dream of making a difference with my words has taken different forms. I’ve written press releases and scripts and ad copy and blog posts and magazine articles and status updates and tweets. (Yikes. Thirteen THOUSAND tweets! And I don’t even LIKE Twitter!)

But as my career and dreams and life have twisted and turned and looped around (and sometimes made me dizzy), one thing has remained steady. I’ve dreamed of writing a book.

I know. Of course I have! I’m a blogger and that’s what bloggers do these days! True. But though my dream is not unique, it is mine. And unlike so many of my brilliant ideas and plans and I-think-this-is-my-callings, it’s stayed firmly lodged in my heart.

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Two years ago I went to the Allume Conference. After a panel called, “So You Wanna Be Published?” I stood in line to speak with a literary agent. I didn’t really have anything big to tell him. Mostly just hello, thank you, and oh yeah, I want to write a book. Though he heard that very same thing from the whole line of women waiting in that conference room, he was gracious and said I should call him.

He. Said. I. Should. Call. Him. WHAT???

Seriously, I did not know what that meant. Did I literally have to pick up the phone? Or could I send a much less-scary email? Did I need to have a proposal written first? I probably did. Yes, I’m sure I did.

And so I didn’t call him. I thought about it a lot. I wrote, “Write proposal,” on all of my to-do lists. For a year.

Long story short (because I have been trying to write this post all week and am not sure I could ever get all the details right for the long story…plus you might not want to read the whole long story if this pretty long story is the short version!), I got up the nerve to email a different agent last fall.

She insisted on a [terrifying] phone call, and once we talked, she asked me to write that full proposal and send it to her. So I did, and it was pretty good. But it wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready. Or something. But after she read it, that agent said that I had a good idea and she liked my writing, but it needed work.

That phone call happened on my birthday last year. I was thankful for the feedback and, even though I was disappointed that she wasn’t in love with every part of my proposal, I knew she was right and I was excited to finally be on the road to writing a book.

But my birthday is one week before Christmas, and I was nine months pregnant. So I made my list of changes to implement to the book proposal…and then the holidays happened. And then the baby happened. And then NOTHING happened.

I was okay with that, although I was back to writing, “Fix proposal,” on my to-do lists. I assumed that once the baby started sleeping more (and I started sleeping more), I’d slowly begin working on that project again.

——
I don’t know how to explain what happened next. After all these years of trying job after project after idea after job, I still hadn’t learned that I couldn’t force God to move. I couldn’t create a miracle. I couldn’t TRY HARD ENOUGH to make my dreams – God-sized or not – come true.

I had to learn to wait on Him. Not just in word but in my heart.

And so, in hindsight I’m not surprised that it was only when I was forced to stop striving and take a breath that God moved. Oh, did He move. In a real, big, amazing way.

The agent I’d been talking with emailed me a couple months after Adrienne was born. She said she had a project to talk to me about, if I had time (what with me having a newborn and all). LIKE I WASN’T GOING TO MAKE TIME.

We talked, and she said that she needed a writer to turn a blog into a book. Basically. (Again, short version here.) (Kind of.)

Sara Frankl, known to many online and off as Gitzen Girl, was a blogger who passed away three years ago. She was an (in)courage writer, a personal friend of mine, and a truly amazing person. And her family wants to continue sharing her message of choosing joy despite your circumstances in book form.

Sara Frankl and me

I’ll tell you lots more about Sara soon, and if you didn’t know her, you can read her blog here.

It’s funny. I’ve been trying to write this post for days. But it’s like the story is just too big for words. And then when I looked back at the post I wrote right before Sara died, I had to laugh when I saw that I’d titled it, “No Words.” I didn’t have words then, either.

But I’m the one helping turn Sara’s blog into a book.

I am co-writing Sara’s book, “Choose Joy: The Decision That Changes Everything,” and it will be published by FaithWords, a part of the Hachette Book Group, in late 2015 or early 2016.

You guys. I am literally shaking and crying as I’m typing those words. I’ve been DYING to tell you about it! And now that I’ve gotten the go-ahead and I’m able to tell you, for real, officially, I am just overwhelmed. Which is not new. I have been overwhelmed since that first phone call and pretty much every day since. The dots God has connected, the grace He has shown me – it’s all too much. I can’t wrap my mind or heart around it (though I hope to soon and tell you all about it). He is just too good.

So. There it is. My big announcement. I was hoping to publish this yesterday, because it was my birthday and it seemed fun to announce something this monumental on my birthday, especially after last year’s birthday brought the hard feedback on that original book proposal.

But, like I said, words are – ironically – not coming easily.

——
This is becoming The Longest Blog Post in the History of Ever, but I wanted to share a couple more things with you. By the way, I really wanted to have some lovely shots of me signing my contract, perhaps with my most important people beside me, like many of my writer friends have done. What I got instead was this:

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Fair enough. That is pretty much my life right now! On to a couple questions you probably don’t have but I’m going to answer anyway:

What does this mean for me?

Well, it means that I am on the verge of tears at almost every waking moment of my days. Re-reading Sara’s words, over and over, and then trying to connect them with my own – on top of not being able to shake this immense feeling of overwhelm at an undeserved gift from God AND the burden of stewarding my friends’ words well – has me feeling pretty raw most the time. Which is okay and, let’s be honest, not all THAT different from my normal.

It also means that I’m panicked a lot. The manuscript is due in March, and that is a tight deadline. The cool part is that I am 100% confident that only God could make that deadline happen – kinda, sorta, JUST LIKE He was the only one who could make this book project happen in the first place.

Because of that looming deadline and the way my schedule plays out, though, I’ve stopped working for (in)courage. I’ll still be a regular contributor, but I’m no longer working part-time behind the scenes on editing and social media.

Lastly, this project doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on my original book idea. It just means that God knew I wouldn’t have the brain and heart space for it in this year or so after having a baby. And maybe I wasn’t ready for that book yet anyway. It’s still on my heart and my mind, so my hope is that it will still happen someday.

What does this mean for you and this blog?

It means that I’ll probably continue blogging sporadically over the next three months – and then come back with a renewed focus in the spring. Sorry! I have scheduled a few posts for the rest of this calendar year – a couple reposts from last December, and a couple fun ones as well. I plan to write a “state of the blog” post in the next couple of weeks, too, but we’ll see how that goes.

Most importantly, this means that I owe you – my friends – a HUGE thank you. Thank you for reading my words all these years, for encouraging me with your comments and emails and likes and shares. Thank you for your kind words and your friendship. Thank you for sticking with me through the sponsored posts and the list posts and the rambling posts and the boring posts. Thank you for being the community that I needed so desperately when I decided to start a blog. Thank you for giving me the courage to say, “I AM going to write a book!”

And this means that over the next year and a half, I’m going to be talking to you more about choosing joy. Sara’s message and mine aren’t all that different, so I’m comfortable writing about choosing hope and joy through the lens of giving up on perfect. I think I’m going to learn a lot through this, and when I do I’m going to want to share it with you. And, of course, when it comes time for that book to get printed on paper and put on shelves, I’m going to talk about it. I might ask you to talk about it if you want. And I’ll try not to be annoying, but I already know that you’re going to love this book. So I’m going to tell you about it. I can’t WAIT to tell you about it!

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As I drove home from shipping my signed contract, I looked down at myself and thought about how glamorous my life is now. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d showered, and I wasn’t sure where that stain on my shirt had come from. My hair is in desperate need of a trim, and my car is so tiny the four of us can barely fit in it. The home I was driving back to still hasn’t sold and we’re still busting at the seams of its tiny walls. And my office is the worn-down cushion of my peeling leather couch in my living room that’s too small for a Christmas tree this year.

But as I pushed buttons, searching for a good radio station, I had to smile when I heard those familiar lyrics. “Now every time I go for the mailbox gotta hold myself down, ’cause I just can’t wait ’til you write me you’re coming around.”

I may not be glamorous, and I may be overwhelmed and nervous. I may take more than 2,000 words to make one little announcement. But I am pretty sure I know what walking on sunshine feels like.

Photos by Jesus Solana, Derek Gavey and Holly Victoria Norval.

Shine Your Light [GIVEAWAY]

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About a month ago I drove to Des Moines. The trees had started turning at home, so I was looking forward to the drive north, assuming the trees along the highway would be even more vibrant and colorful than the ones I’d seen so far this year.

My assumptions were correct, and both sides of I-35 showed off hillsides full of happy little Bob Ross trees in my favorite fall colors. But, as much as I love yellows and oranges and even pale greens, the shade that made me smile uncontrollably was red. Always the red trees, catching my eye and making me say [again], “Ooh, look, Annalyn!”

The red trees – at least in my area – tend to be the small ones. But their rich color means they can’t possibly be overlooked. And when they happen to grow together, in a group? Wow!

We’d spotted a few bright red-leafed trees when we drove under an overpass. As we came out the other side and began driving around a curve, my breath caught in my throat. A couple dozen smallish red trees were growing on the hill next to the highway, and it looked like the earth was on fire.

It was beautiful.

And as soon as those trees faded from my rearview mirror, I grabbed the notebook out of the passenger seat and started scribbling. Yes, while driving. But though I knew the image of the fiery trees would stay with me, I didn’t want to forget the thoughts that had blazed across my heart as I gazed at them.

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Those trees might have been – for the most part – small, but they were mighty. They grew with confidence and, in a sea of relative sameness, they shone with vibrancy and richness. They were lovely on their own, drawing my eye and making me smile. But together? Together, they were awesome. No, not awesome as in, really super cool. But they were AWE-some, AWE-inspiring. They lit up the land and my heart.

They didn’t just shine; they burned and blazed, brilliantly.

And they made me think of the verse in Philippians that talks of us shining brightly:

Do everything without complaining and arguing,
so that no one can criticize you.
Live clean, innocent lives as children of God,
shining like bright lights in a world
full of crooked and perverse people.
- Philippians 2:15

I use the beginning of that verse often with Annalyn, reminding her to quit arguing. But when I read this chapter again recently, I’m the one who was reminded. I remembered the larger context of Paul’s request for Christ followers to live peaceably, “loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose,” as he says earlier in chapter 2.

When we stand strong in our faith – not in judgment, not in superiority or self-righteousness, but in love, in service, in humility – those of us who love and follow Jesus stand out from the crowd just like those red-leafed trees. And I believe that’s beautiful to God, and maybe He grins a little bit when He sees it, just like I did on my drive to Iowa.

But when we stand together? Agreeing wholeheartedly on what truly matters, supporting one another in love despite our differences, loving and serving as One Body? Well, then we outshine even the most brilliant copse of autumn trees!

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Have you seen the new Everlasting Light collection at DaySpring? It’s gorgeous. The collection includes home decor, jewelry and artwork – and it is all so warm, so lovely. [When I first got a sneak peek this summer, I truly did say, “I want ALL THE THINGS!”] So far I’ve only gotten a couple of “the things,” but I am really in love with them.

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First of all, I’m excited to have a gold necklace (the one on the left). With silver being all the rage these past few years, I have amassed a decent collection of non-gold pieces. But sometimes something a bit warmer would look better, and now I have it. Both the bracelet and the necklace remind me to shine my light (AND the gold works with my warm-tone outfits).

Next up on my Everlasting Light wish list are the candlesticks and this art print:

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(Although the Shine Your Light pillow, the world map canvas and a couple other art prints aren’t far behind. I told you – Want. All. the Things!)

GIVEAWAY:

While I can’t give YOU all the things any more than I can get them for myself, I CAN give one lovely reader $50 to spend in DaySpring’s Everlasting Light collection! Simply visit the site and come back to tell me (in a comment) which item you’d most like.

So the winner can use that coupon code with the AH-MAZE-ING sales DaySpring is having, I’ll randomly choose a winner after the giveaway closes at midnight CST on Friday, November 21. So, quick, go enter now!

{Photo source for top photo and second photo. Also, this post includes affiliate links and I did receive product from DaySpring. All opinions are, as always, my own.}