Sunset Generosity

“You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” 2 Corinthians 9:11 ESV

A few days ago, I was driving home after a long day. Purple and pink streaks were strewn across the sky, framing the mountains around me while splashes of color reflected across the icy snow. I was amazed at the artistry on display, making the long drive go by faster, as I thanked God for His beautiful sky. The next morning, John Eldredge, in his Restoration Journal, asked the question, “Can you name in your life where your heart feels awakened because of Jesus’ extravagant generosity?” This led me to a few questions of my own. Am I aware of God’s generosity? Do I respond in a way that shows I believe He’s generous to me? Am I generous to others?

God’s generosity is displayed throughout His creation. He paints the sky differently each sunrise and sunset. He creates the romantic pink peony, the whimsical daisy, and the symmetrical sunflower. He designed each snowflake to be unique, only noticeable under a microscope. Even the sand throughout out the world is different. When my children were younger, my mom would bring jars of sand from her travels, from the fine white sand of Florida beaches to coarse tawny sand found in Maine. Even our foods don’t taste one note: we have salty olives, tangy goat cheese, and sweet oranges. His generosity can be found everywhere if we are willing to pay attention.

The Garden of Eden was God’s generosity perfectly displayed. Adam and Eve wanted for nothing, living in a perfect climate. The Bible says that they could eat of every tree and had dominion overall, except one tree. Figs, plums, bananas, and every kind of berry were available for their choosing. And every day they had the opportunity to interact with all of God’s creation. But Satan made them question God’s generosity and focus on the thing they couldn’t have, which led to the fall. It is easy to look at them and see the error of their ways, but like Adam and Eve, I can fall into that same trap. All too often, I get focused on what I don’t have. I get caught up with the small bank balances, the vacations that didn’t happen, and the opportunities that didn’t come my way. This leads to discontent and believing that God is not generous to me.

When I realize I feel discontent, I look for truth in scripture. Paul says in Philippians 4:19, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” My God is faithful to provide. Maybe I didn’t get the vacation I had hoped for, but I did get some time exploring God’s creation in local forest preserves near me. He’s blessed me abundantly with friends and family. Whatever I need is available to me. But along with God’s generosity, I find another truth: God expects me to be generous. We all know about the principle of reaping what you sow. This principle is followed by in 2 Corinthians 9:7 with the statement, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” A few months ago, one of my pastors preached about the Greek word “hilaros” which means “cheerful.” This is the same word that hilarious comes from. We are supposed to be over the top cheerful givers! Which leads to my last question: am I generous to others?

Last year, an acquaintance of mine died unexpectedly. This is someone who I greeted with a smile but looked for ways to end the conversation quickly. I said the right words but didn’t demonstrate real interest. I was never generous with my time, compassion, or investment in this person’s life. And all this person ever wanted was to feel connected with me because of a distant familial relationship. This death hit me hard and made me realize that I was generous to people I loved but not always to those who were on the fringes of my life. By no means am I saying that I need to be friends with everyone or insert myself into everyone’s lives. But if someone is trying to engage me in a conversation, I should be generous with my time and be fully present. Every time I have gone back to Wisconsin over the last ten years, it would have taken just a few moments each visit to inquire about their life, their health, and their blessings. Instead, I plastered a fake smile on my face while I was thinking about someone else I wanted to connect with. I was genuinely sorrowful for how I had treated that person and repented.

This repentance leads me to God’s generosity again. He is generous in his willingness to forgive me of times when I am less than kind. The Bible records that his mercies are new every day. However, this doesn’t give me the right to continue to be less than generous with others. Instead, it gives me the freedom to come to total repentance and ask God to help me be more generous.

 I was hoping to catch a picture of the beautiful colors as they painted the sky, but the sunset had disappeared by the time I go home. That’s how sunsets work, they last for a few amazing moments and then disappear and, all too often, I am too busy to notice them. Like a sunset, generosity only takes a few minutes. But all too often, I miss the opportunities to be generous. In this upcoming year, I am choosing to make more time for sunsets and generosity.

There and Back Again

“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of the creator.” Colossians 3:9-10

Most mornings, I start breakfast and the coffee pot. Terry then comes downstairs and pours me a cup of coffee. Not only does he add the perfect amount of cream, but he also selects a different mug each morning to delight me. Some mornings I get the salmon-colored mug that declares “Good Morning Gorgeous”, while other mornings I might get my Rifle bibliophile cup with the gold handle. If it’s a cold morning, he might reach for my blue stoneware mug from Laurel, Mississippi and if he’s feeling especially formal, he’ll reach for my pink First Lady cup from the Smithsonian. I love the routine of coffee every morning but enjoy the spontaneous choices of mug from which to sip my happy juice. And, for those of you who are Marie Kondo enthusiasts, yes, all my mugs spark joy!

 I think having a routine but balancing it with the ability to mix things up are good principles to live by. If your routine is too rigid, you might find yourself unable to adapt to the inevitable changes in life. If you constantly live by spontaneous behavior, you might miss the long-term benefits of consistent habits. By nature, we all lean towards one side or the other, but in practice, its important to find the balance that works for you.

For almost two years, I had developed consistent habits with exercise. I was going to the gym five to six mornings a week, working both with weights and cardio. I enjoyed this routine and had gym friends that I talked to each morning. I loved the benefits of consistent exercise: weight loss, more strength, more flexibility, and extra energy.

But when the world shut down, so did my gym. I had to find a different way to exercise, so I started walking. I attempted to lift weights at home and do Pilates regularly, but the only thing that stuck consistently was the walking. Last year, I set a goal to walk 320 days. It was an ambitious goal that Covid-19, travel, and occasional bad weather prevented me from accomplishing. Overall, I walked 290 days averaging about three miles a day. This is more than I had ever walked in my entire adult life. The fresh air, exercise, and being out in nature was good for my mental health and helped me, for the most part, to maintain my weight loss.

I say for the most part because, in the last few months, I have realized my clothes are not fitting quite as well as they did in the past. I can see the difference in pictures and, more importantly, I can tell that my energy, strength, and flexibility have regressed a little. I could stubbornly try to continue the same practices of last year, walking outside, which I enjoyed. But, based on the evidence, I knew I needed to do something to jump start my body into getting fit again.

So, I joined the gym again. The first time I walked through the doors, I knew how I left the gym was not the same condition as I was returning. I knew that I couldn’t jump on the weight machines and do the same routine I was doing in the past. I knew that my endurance on the treadmill would be shorter and less intense. Without the right attitude, these facts could be a recipe for disaster. I had to walk into the gym with low expectations and determination.

 I started this health journey about three and half years ago. And I use the word journey instead of goal for multiple reasons. Too often, I have set goals and not reached them. Instead, this time around I have taken the approach James Clear outlines in his book, “Atomic Habits”.  He says, “True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement.” This journey has been about me creating healthy habits that would manifest themselves not only in weight loss but also in building strength, flexibility, and higher energy. It was about choosing to live, and uncovering, underneath all the layers of fat, a woman who was energetic, loved the outdoors and enjoyed physical activity. It was discovering that the space I took up in the room didn’t need to be measured by my circumference but what I had to offer in the gifts and talents God has given me. It was about surrendering all of me to God, and letting Him fill me, instead of filling myself with ice cream and bagels. And finally, it was letting Him lead me on this journey and giving me the strength to continue, pivot, and grow.

I know this journey has had its ups and downs. It hasn’t been a linear path from 361 pounds to the weight I am now. It has never been about the numbers, but about learning to trust God in the process. I haven’t completely conquered any of my past habits; they are still chasing me and sometimes I go back to eating out of anxiety or using food to find comfort. Sometimes, I honestly don’t care and want to eat the whole cheeseburger and fries. But whatever missteps I take, I show myself grace and move forward. Moving forward this time meant joining the gym and starting fresh.

 I still have no final weight goal in mind. I want to feel healthy, be active and find all my fulfillment in the Lord. What that looks like in 2022 will be different than it was in 2021. I do know that, like my coffee in the morning, I will have some consistent habits but still mix it up occasionally like my mugs.

Confetti and Books

“An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.” Proverbs 18:15

Last week, Terry and I finished a book that we had been reading aloud together. I recorded the book in my Goodreads App and watched in pure delight as confetti fell across my screen. The falling confetti marked my accomplishment of reaching my goal of reading 66 books in 2021. I later finished two more books, but, unfortunately, no more confetti!

Earlier this year, I read I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life by Ann Bogel. It felt like I was reading my own personal memoir as a bibliophile. One quote in her book is the reason why I love doing this post annually. And I can say annually because this is my third year sharing my favorite reads of the year. Ann says, “When we share our favorite titles, we can’t help but share ourselves as well.  Shakespeare said the eyes are the windows to the soul, but we readers know one’s bookshelves reveal just as much.”

I am going to share with you five books that are windows into my soul. These books added beauty, contemplation and/or self-discovery for me. Some of the titles were like opening Pandora’s box, opening the door to genres or authors I hadn’t read before. Again, it was hard to narrow it down to five books. One observation I made immediately was that I didn’t include any fiction in the list. I did read some fiction this year, but a lot of it was light-hearted.  One book, All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, was a reread, and although the book is beautifully written, I wanted this list to be first-time reads only. Thus, I am making it a goal to read some more fiction next year to add beauty to my life.

So, let the confetti fall (because we all need more confetti) and here is the list!

Photo Credit Terry Collins, I am missing the title Humility, I lent it out to a friend.
  1. A Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside by Susan Branch. I absolutely love this book. As the reader, you join Susan and her husband on a tour of the English countryside, exploring gardens, homes, art, and people. It includes hand-drawn sketches, photographs and even some recipes. It’s the best form of armchair traveling, accompanied by a scone and a cup of tea. If this quote makes you fall in love with the book, it’s for you. Susan says, “England reminds me of a quote I saw on a packet of Swiss Miss instant cocoa mix: ‘Like a basket of drinkable kittens, wrapped in a blanket, next to a fireplace.’” She handwrites her books, that are then actually reprinted. This can make it challenging to read if you have any vision issues.
  2. The Way Through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and Mourning by Long Litt Woon. Nature writing has become one of my new favorite genres. This book on mushrooms made it to the top despite my constant recommendation for others to read the The Hidden of Life Trees. Long Litt Woon’s Norwegian husband dies unexpectedly, and she embarks on a journey of grief that she didn’t ask for. She says, “Grief grinds slowly. It devours all the time it needs.” She enrolls in a mushroom course and “the mushroom outings gave me the push I needed to get out of the house and take part in life.” She interweaves the fascinating facts of mushrooms with her own self discovery. I found myself delighted in God’s design with mushrooms like the blue fairy tale mushroom and the Witches Caldron. I wept as she arrived at the realization that she would never travel to certain place because of the books her husband left unread on his nightstand. It helped me process my own grief this year and prepared me to grieve the loss of my uncle.
  3. Humility: The Journey Toward Holines by Andrew Murray. This little book was recommended on many different podcasts, convincing me that God wanted me to read this it. The turn-of-the-century author was a South African missionary who challenges Christians to posture themselves in humility. He outlines how Jesus himself modeled humility in everything he did. He says, “Humility is nothing but the disappearance of self in the vision that God is all.” He also remarks, “Here is the path to the higher life: down, and lower down! Just as water always seeks and fills the lowest place, so the moment God finds men abased and empty, His glory and power flow in to exalt and to bless.” This is a slow read, I often sat rereading scriptures he recorded and his brief commentary. It is the type of book that you must let marinate in your soul to get the full benefit. It’s my hearts cry, and one I will revisit again and again.
  4. The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe about Ourselves by Curt Thompson. This book changed my thinking on how I respond to sin in my life and in the lives of others. Thompson says, “Guilt is something I feel because I have done something bad. Shame is something I feel because I am bad.” For the Christian, this feeling of shame hinders us from becoming who God intended us to be, restoring us to an abundant life. He encourages Christians to change their cultures where shame is exposed “allowing room for healing and creativity.” He suggests, “In an environment where we are unafraid, mistakes are not our enemies but our friend.” In an age where so many people are deconstructing their faith, this book helped me to see how Christians can create healthy environments.
  5. Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes by Shauna Niequist. This book is part cookbook and part memoir about the author’s relationship to food and hospitality. Although this book was written many years ago, her concept of hospitality resonated in a world that is so divided. She says, “The heart of hospitality is about creating space for someone to feel seen and heard and loved. It’s about declaring your table a safe zone, a place of warmth and nourishment.” Her love for cookbooks led me down a rabbit hole of reading cookbooks cover to cover. I have learned a lot about food, culture, and the importance of tradition in the various cookbooks I have read.

Honorable Mention: Is Rape A Crime?: A Memoir, an Investigation, and a Manifesto by Michelle Bowdler. This book is graphic, hard, and disturbing on so many levels. It made me question some of my assumptions of what is considered evidence and how can we prosecute rape that doesn’t further traumatize the victim while still protecting the rights of the accused.

I would also like to briefly share three podcasts that have inspired me and encouraged me:

Being Known with Curt Thompson, MD. This podcast explores Thompson’s books in depth and the importance of beauty and community. This podcast is paradigm changing.

Unedited with Meg Najera. Meg Najera is from Wisconsin, and although we have never met, we have friends in common, that led me to this podcast. Najera gives simple tips to help establish the spiritual discipline of reading your Bible. She closes each podcast with reading an unedited journal entry. Her writings are insightful and beautifully written. She crafts sentences with artistry that inspires me to be a better writer. She will be publishing a book soon, and I’ll be first to buy it!

Cherry Bombe. I started listening to this podcast after reading Yasmin Kahn’s newest cookbook, Ripe Figs. After googling her, I listened to her interview on the podcast. The premise is to interview and celebrate women in the food industry while raising awareness of important issues. The podcast has raised my curiosity about food, small business owners and culture. I am not endorsing all the conclusions that Cherry Bombe draws, but I do believe their stories are compelling. One of my favorites was Episode 204: Rescuing Grandma’s Recipes with Anna Francese Gass. Gass wanted to write down her Italian’s mom recipe for meatballs. This led her to interview countless immigrant woman in their kitchens, cooking with them and learning the stories behind their signature dish, and writing down the recipe. She compiled the recipes into a book. These interviews were priceless insights into culture, history, and life.

I hope this blog inspires you to read and listen to both books and podcasts in the upcoming year. I would love to hear what your favorite books or podcasts were in 2021. And, yes, your suggestions will enlarge my TBR (to be read list in bibliophile vernacular) list.

Finally, I have added a new donation button on my blog. If you have been blessed by my writing and would like to support my writing endeavors, please consider buying me a cup of coffee. Just go to my home page and scroll down! This can be a one-time donation or even a regular one if you so desire. These donations will help offset the cost of my domain and yearly WordPress fees. If you are unable to give, no worries, Graceful Transitions will continue!