Thursday, February 22, 2024

Sisters Spring Reading Challenge - With Duet Books!

Charity and I have enjoyed discussing various reading challenges that we'd like to do in 2024. We are both looking forward to reading some of the unread books on our TBR and have the goal of stretching ourselves. 

(Charity gave me Milton's Paradise Lost for Christmas, and we are going to attempt to read it together. Are we crazy? Talk about out of my comfort zone!) 

If you are new here, every season (spring, summer, fall), my sister Charity and I come up with several reading challenges. These are just-for-fun challenges that we plan to do ourselves, and we welcome you to join us. No prizes. No sign-up forms. No pressure. Just the fun of reading together. We don't require any specific titles and keep the categories vague so you can read the books you want to read, while hopefully challenging you (and us) in our reading life.

This year we plan to have several duet reading challenges each season.

For a duet challenge, we will read two books that harmonize with each other. This doesn't mean two books in the same series or sequels, but two books that are different in some way, yet harmonize. 

I have often have the happy coincidence that two books I'm reading harmonize. Maybe one book references a book I just read or lends insight into a topic that I was reading about in another book. I say my books start "talking to each other," and my reading pleasure is enhanced.

So this year, we are going to attempt to increase our reading pleasure by purposely choosing books that harmonize. You can even turn these book duets into trios by reading three books that harmonize. 

For this spring, we have two book duets, one other book challenge, a Bible reading challenge, and a book related activity.

Sisters' Spring Reading Challenge

1. Duet Challenge: Read two books that are by the same author but in a different genre. 

Some  talented authors wrote in various forms, such as fiction and nonfiction or prose and poetry. Reading more than one type of their writing can give insight into their writing skill and process. 

Some author examples are Katrina Hoover Lee, Andrew Peterson, Mark Twain, Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Wendell Berry, and E. B. White, but there are many more. Pick your favorite author and see if they have written books in more than one genre. You may find that your favorite novelist also wrote essays. Or that a poet you enjoy also wrote history. 

2. Duet Challenge: Read two books connected to the same author.

This could be done in various ways. You could choose a biography of the author, a book that was influenced by the author, or a book by an author that influenced him or her.

For example: Let's take Jane Austen. You could read a classic Austen novel and a biography of Austen.

Or you could read a book that was influenced by Jane Austen such as A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz. (Not from a Christian perspective.)

Or read a book by one of the authors that influenced Jane Austen, such as Frances Burney or Samuel Johnson.

Writers often write about the authors who have influenced them, so there are many directions that this challenge could go. If you read a book and the author references another book that you haven't read, find that book. 

I recently read A Chance in the World by Steve Pemberton, a true story about a boy who edured an abusive foster home. He told how books, especially Watership Down by Richard Adams, gave him the courage to hold onto hope. Now I want to read Watership Down and find out why the book was so meaningful to Pemberton. This is just one example of how one book author could connect to another book.

I can't wait to hear what you all read for this challenge.

3. Read a book that celebrates beauty.

You can take this challenge many different directions. It could be a book with a beautiful cover, a book of poetry, a book that encourages beauty in homemaking, nature, creativty, art, or words, or even a book that promotes inner beauty.

Some examples: 

A Home in Bloom by Christie Purifoy,

Adorned by Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

A Garden to Keep by Jamie Langston Turner

Adorning the Dark by Andrew Peterson

4. Take some notes every day (or most days, we aren’t legalistic here) about your Bible reading. 

This can be just sentence or two of your thoughts on the Bible passage or a verse that stood out. I know that I get much more out of my Bible reading when I read with a pen and journal, but I've fallen out of the habit. I'm excited to start again.

5. Place a book in a free library box. 

Many communities have little boxes in parks or other public places for books that you want to discard. I have a stack of books that I was going to take to the Goodwill, but instead, I'm looking forward to visiting some of the free library boxes several parks and stocking some good books.

 If your community doesn’t have one, then find another way to give away a book. Some libraries and coffee shops have free shelves.

I'm excited about these challenges, even if they are a bit stretching.

What are you looking forward to reading this spring?

Friday, February 2, 2024

Worship in the Hungry Seasons: the Limits of Productivity

I began reading time management books as a teen. I was a voracious bookworm, reading nearly every book in the house, including my mom’s books on home organization. I checked books out of the library on topics such as decluttering. Before I turned twenty, I listed Seven Habits of Highly Effective People as one of my favorite books.

Most teens weren’t reading productivity guides, but I was the oldest of nine, a bossy type-A Big Sister. Add my personality to a culture that admired efficiency and getting-it-done and, well, maybe I put too much value on productivity.

I married someone with a similar personality. Ed dreamed of more projects than could be completed in a year of Saturdays. We both had trouble saying no, which meant that we did crazy things like serve as youth leaders when we had two children under the age of two. We loved goal lists and always wanted to do more—read more books, can more vegetables, invite more guests.

I loved my life and how I was spending my time. People regularly asked me how I got it all done. And I’ll admit it—I was proud of being capable and productive.

But then Ed was diagnosed with brain cancer and told he had only a year or so to live. He was only forty and life felt too short, but by faith Ed believed that God had given him enough time. He longed for more years with his family and grieved the suffering that his death would bring, but his soul was at peace. He chose “It Is Well with My Soul” to be sung at his funeral as his testimony. As the tumor consumed his brain, Ed became childlike, not looking ahead to tomorrow, not worrying about the future, not angry with his lack of productivity. In two years, cancer stole his intellect, his speech, his motor skills, and finally his life, but it never destroyed his peace.

Peace was harder for me to find. As Ed declined, I had to pick up tasks I had never carried before. I was anxious at the thought of parenting alone and accepting help felt like failure. The time management books and productivity mindset that served me well in times of plenty had limitations in the hard times.

1. A productivity mindset lives in summer, reveling in the abundance of growth and harvest. But humans all experience seasons of winter—seasons of death and doubt, desire and drought. Winter can’t be avoided, rushed, or despised because it isn’t productive. It must be accepted as a natural season.

2. A productivity mindset can’t change the reality of human fragility. Whether forty-two or ninety-two, our earth years are fleeting compared to God’s eternity. My efforts at time management appear pitiful when compared to God’s vast expanses of time in eternity.

3. A productivity mindset may fear the future. What if I get sick, or the economy slows down, or I’m caught in traffic? My careful plans could derail. I could run out of time. Jesus pointed out the birds as a model. They follow instinct to build nests, fly south, and find food, but they don’t stress about the future.

4. A productivity mindset always wants more—it is never content. In contrast, at the end of Creation week, God rested. He wasn’t weary; God never tires. He hadn’t run out of creativity, energy, or ability as we humans do. In His boundlessness, God could have created endless plants and animals, but He said it was enough. Could I choose contentment and rest?

5. A productivity mindset focuses on me and my accomplishments. Time management only has value when it brings God glory. If a meal chart helps me be a calmer mom, it is a good thing. But if organization feeds pride and becomes an idol, it is not of God. All personalities have their tenancies toward sin, including mine.

6. A productivity mindset values those that are successful, but in God’s upside-down kingdom, the greatest in the kingdom are the least—the helpless, homeless, and handicapped, the infants, infirmed, and imprisoned. Those who have nothing to give, who rely totally on God, have a special place in God’s heart.

7. A productivity mindset desires self-sufficiency, but God prioritizes humble dependence on Him. He gave stern words to the church in Laodicea who claimed they had no need of God. My productivity could hinder my relationship with God if I didn’t realize my desperate need for Him.

8. A productivity mindset sees negative experiences as something to fix. But only in acceptance do we find joy and the ability to rest in God. Cancer brought an end to Ed’s productive life on earth. My efforts couldn’t change that fact. For me, cancer brought a rearranged life, the shuffle of grief, the awareness of weakness—and the need for acceptance.

But as He has for the animals, God provided ways to survive the barren seasons. Though I am limited by time, daylight, weather, energy, and abilities, God is not. He stands above human limitations. When I worship God in the hard times, I’m praising His work, not mine. When I’m no longer trying to impress others by my productivity, I can allow them to see my barren shelves, my bruised heart, my blighted prayers. I can give others opportunity to care for me until spring comes again.

I’ll probably always love the bustle of summer, the excitement of harvest, the days filled with activity and productive projects. I may always enjoy reading about time management and be tempted to value time by what I accomplish. But I counter the longing to do more and be more with worship. I want to walk through the hungry season, the dependent years, the times of weakness, with hands lifted in worship. Because of Jesus. It is well with my soul.

(This article was first published in Commonplace: The Quiet of Winter by Daughters of Promise Ministry)

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Woodstove Altar


This is the fifth winter that I've been in charge of our outdoor woodstove. You'd think I'd have accepted it by now, but every fall it hits me again.

When I'm crawling into bed and realize I forgot to fill the woodstove, or when I wake up to a cold house and know that the fire went out, or, despite my best efforts, the house is STILL cold, and I'm not sure if the culprit is the fan or the compressor or the thermostat - the woodstove becomes an analogy for all the hard things about widowhood.

I know I'm blessed with brothers and sons that spend hours cutting wood to fill the woodshed. I'm grateful that a few years before his death, Ed had put in a radiant heating system for a cozy house. But that doesn't replace the fact that I still wish Ed was here to pull on his boots on frigid mornings and windy nights and fill the woodstove.

But as the weeks go by, I find my attitude changing. I still don't love this chore, but I learn to accept the task. I find a rhythm of pulling on gloves and boots, crunching over the frozen yard, sliding open the stove door, and heaving wood into the depths.

On clear nights, I flick off the woodshed light and gaze at the stars. I don't do this often enough - take my eyes off earth and my problems and look into the gigantic universe and worship the Creator of it and me.

Then I turn to the gleaming lights of our home. My heart hurts with the longing to keep the ones inside warm and safe.

It is a job too big for a woman who struggles to keep the woodstove filled. But it isn't too big for Him.

And filling the woodstove has become, again, an altar of worship.

This post was written on Instagram. If you wish, you can follow me there @homejoysmom

I began blogging way back in 2008 on Blogger. As new platforms cropped up (Facebook, Twitter, Wordpress), I just kept on Blogspot. 

Fifteen years is a crazy amount of time, and sometimes I wonder if it is time to change. I've struggled the last couple years to find an email provider for the blog that works well. (If you read this blog by email, you may have missed the recipe for brownie batter dip.) Maybe I should switch to Instagram or Substack or some other platform. But I don't want to lose the archives here. And I don't want to be sucked into another time-draining social media platform.

So for now, I'm experimenting and learning over at Instagram, while keeping this site alive. I'd love to hear your input. Are you on Instagram or Substack? What are the pros and cons? If you are reading this, I know you read blogs, but do you think your blog reading will continue?

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Brighter Winter Recommendations

I love sharing books. Yesterday my sister and a friend were at my house discussing the Brighter Winter Reading Challenges. Both went home with a stack of books. 

If you live near me, please come on over. Nothing is more fun than talking about books while prerusing book shelves. But for those who don't live near me, here are some book recommendations for the various Brighter Winter Reading Challenges.

This post contains affiliate links.

Books set in the continent of Africa

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park (middle grade)

West With the Night by Beryl Markham (classic memior)

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Series by Alexander McCall Smith (fiction, also an author who uses three names)

Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (classic)

Books that center around a bookstore

84, Charing Cross Road by Helena Hanff (classic nonfiction)

The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin (fiction)

The Printed Letter Bookshop by Katherine Reay (fiction)

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley (classic fiction)

Books that feature a teacher or education

Dangerous Minds by LouAnne Johnson(nonfiction)

Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt (middle grade)

A Year of Miss Agnes by Kirkpatrick Hill (middle grade)

American Classics

My Antonia by Willa Cather

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Newbery Awards or Honor chapter books

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (an author who uses three names)

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park (an author who uses three names)

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien

Sing Down the Moon by Scott O'Dell

Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright

(And so many more. You can find the complete list online. My library has a special shelf with Newbery books.)

A book  which has a family unit of 4+ children as the main characters

Many children's classics depict large families. I plan to read a book to my girls for this challenge. Some examples . . .

Melendy family - Elizabeth Enright

Moffat family - Elanor Estes

Ingalls family - Laura Ingalls Wilder

All-of-a-Kind Family - Sydney Taylor

There are many other books that would fit this category - even classics such as Pride and Prejudice or Little Women.

Book by an Anabaptist author

The easiest way to find a book for this challenge is to go to the CAM Books or Christian Light websites.

Or look up self-published authors such as Emily Steiner, Dorcas Smucker, or Katrina Hoover Lee. If I hadn't just read A Fragile Heritage, I'd pick it.

What books do you recommend for these categories? I'm sure I missed some great ones!

Friday, December 29, 2023

Choosing Books for the Brighter Winter Reading Challenge

Since the winter of 2020, I've been enjoying the Brighter Winter Reading Challenge. The beginning of this challenge coincided with my first year as a widow, when I was reading much more, since I didn't have Ed to talk to in the evenings. 

I love that Brighter Winter stretches my reading into new genres, gives my reading focus, and allows me to share reading with friends. This is the fifth year and by now it is a highlight of my winter. 

You can find more information about Brighter Winter Reading Challenge on their website, but briefly, this free reading challenge gives you a grid for January and February. You record the books you read for each challenge and qualify for drawings for prizes.

The day that Brighter Winter shared the reading grids, I printed them off and began choosing books. I begin filling in the grid with a pencil. When I read the book, I'll record it in pen.

Over the years, I've worked out a system for choosing books for Brighter Winter. This may sound rather obsessive, but I definently read more if I put some thought into my reading goals, so maybe you will get ideas for choosing your next book, even if you don't participate in Brighter Winter.

1. First I considered my reading goals for this winter. For me this includes reading unread books already on my shelves, participating in a book club, and prereading books for my children.

2. Next I looked through the shelf of unread books in my room. I started by pulling books off that shelf that would fit one or more of the Brighter Winter categories. (You can use the same book twice to check off the categories for Brighter Winter so I always like to find books that can fit two categories.)

3. Then I looked through the audiobooks that I saved in Everand (used to be named Scribd - you can try it for free) and picked ones that would fit in the categories. I like to choose one or two audiobooks each month of the challenge, depending on their length.

4. Next I checked my TBR list for any other books I've been hoping to read. I have a gift card to Thriftbooks that I can use to purchase any books that I would like to add.

5. Since my goal is to preread some new books for my children, I checked my library for some Newberry, Calacott, and Coretta Scott King awards. If I put a hold on them now, they will be waiting the next time I'm at the library.

6. And last, but maybe best, I ask friends for suggestions. What are good books that include teachers? Or adoption? Book conversations are The Best and talking about books is one of my favorite parts of Brighter Winter. Several years ago, some of my friends who are all participating in Brighter Winter, formed a Whatsapp group so that we could discuss our reading. It has been a fun way to get some more book suggestions.

Choosing books for Brighter Winter is so much fun! I'll change my mind lots of times, pulling books on and off the shelves, switching one for another. I'll have at least one long book gab session with my sister Charity and probably send her home with an armload of books. Likely I'll take books to church to lend to others doing the Brighter Winter Challenge. To me, sharing and talking about books is as fun as reading books.

And when January 1st rolls around, I'll be so excited to start reading that I will likely wake up early to start on the stack.

If you haven't signed up for Brighter Winter Reading Challenge, you still can.

If you are doing the Brighter Winter Challenge, how do you choose your books? Which category excites you the most? I hope to share some Brighter Winter reading suggestions in a future post.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Brownie Batter Dip

Dips are so fun for quick gatherings. My daughter has been making this one for us. We all love it. and I usually have the ingredients on hand. This is a dip for those who'd rather lick the bowl than eat the baked brownie. 

We usually serve it with apple slices, but pretzels and Teddy Grahams are great, too. 

Brownie Batter Dip

1 pack (8 oz) cream cheese, softened

1/4 cup butter, softened

2 cups confectioners' sugar

1/3 cup baking cocoa

1/4 cup milk

2 tablespoons of brown sugar

1 tsp vanilla

Optional: 1/4 cup mini M&Ms

Dippers: apple slices, pretzels, Teddy Grahams

In a large bowl, beat cream cheese and butter until smooth. Beat in confectioners' sugar, cocoa, milk, brown sugar, and vanilla until smooth. Sprink with M&Ms if desired. Serve with dippers of your choice.

Monday, December 11, 2023

Sisters Fall Reading Challenge

Sisters' Fall Reading Challenge 

We both enjoyed so many great books this fall. I'm never sure if it is because I happend to find great books or if I was simply in the mood to enjoy reading more this fall than sometimes. But whatever the reason, I've loved reading the past few months. Here is a glimpse of our reading this fall (and a photo shoot at the local library where we both grew up prerusing the shelves.)

This post contains affiliate links.

1. Read a biography. 

Charity - The Wright Brothers by David McCulloulgh 

While reading this book, I thought “Did I actually learn about the Wrights in school?” As always McCullough dug deep and gives an incredible story of the men who were determined to fly. I found this story engaging and learned a host of information that I won’t be forgetting for a long time.

Gina - The Bridge of Love by Grace Nies Fletcher

As a young man,  Merrell Vories asked to be sent to a difficult place of service where Jesus' name was not known. In 1908, he moved to a small town in Japan to serve as an English-language teacher. He spent the rest of his life in Japan, teaching the way of Christ, marrying a young  woman from a noble family,  becoming a Japanese citizen, and suffering during Word War 2. The Bridge of Love shares the inspiring story of Merrell and his wife and what God can do with two lives committed to Him. After reading their story, Merrel's hymn, "Let There Be Light, Lord God of Hosts" has more meaning.

2. Read a book set in England. 

Charity - Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge

Set in Oxford during the 1500s, I enjoyed this historical fiction of a time period I rarely read about. The story is based around the happenings in the university at Oxford, the Leigh family, and a boy from the street that wants to learn. 

Gina - The Two Mrs. Abbotts by D.E. Stevenson

I've been on a huge Stevenson kick the past few months. Her books are so cozy and cheerful. The Two Mrs. Abbotts is the third in the Miss Buncle series, but Miss Buncle doesn't play a main role in this book. Instead we get to learn to know her friends in Wandlebury as they experience the challenges of World War 2. I checked the publication date and found that this book was written and published during World War 2. To me it read like historical fiction, but to the author and the first readers, it was their reality. I'm certain that those readers found it just as warm and delightful as I did.

3. Read a book with a subtitle.

As an author and musician, Peterson loves creating beauty. This book is full of hope and inspired me to fully embrace the beauty in a world of darkness. I found myself with a list of books, poems, and songs to enjoy after finishing this book.

How do I relate to God? Does fear force me to try to control God? Do I attempt to manipulate God by my religious activity? I didn't agree with every word of this book, but it made me think deeply and realize anew how much God desires a relationship with His people. It inspired me love God more, and I'll be rereading this book.

4. Choose a Bible character, study his or her life, and draw a time line of their life.

Charity - David

I wanted to choose a character that I could spend a lot of time on. David’s life is packed full of action. Though I knew his story well, I was blown away by how much happened to him from a young man until old age. Studying David’s life made me realize the importance of prayer before making decisions. It was also beautiful to see how God fulfills his promise to David through the our king Jesus. 

Gina - Peter

Peter has always been my favorite apostle, but I never read through the Gospels and Acts just looking at Peter. I also read Peter's letters in a couple different versions. Knowing the facts of Peter's life and his eventual martydom, put perspective on his words to the church.

Did you read any extra good books this fall?


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