Top 5 Books of 2016

I LOVE to read and somehow managed to consume 45 morsels of (mostly) delicious literary goodness in 2016. How that happened, I’m not totally sure, but I promise you I did work and do other important life things.

Hey, I use Goodreads to track all the books I read. I would love to have you join me and feel free to share your recommendations and favorites.

Here’s a roundup of my top five favorite books in 2016.

In no particular order:

These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder

This was one of my favorites growing up when my dad used to read the entire series to us. It had been a long time since I read this particular gem for myself, so when I saw it at the bookstore in Phnom Penh I splurged. So worth it.

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

Montgomery didn’t write many books for adults but I fell in love with this one. Maybe I could identify with the heroine- an old maid who allowed others to dictate who she was and her worth. I laughed often, something I don’t usually do when I’m reading. It was perfect for indulging in right after I turned 30 and had a crisis in my singleness. 🙂

Looming Transitions by Amy Young

It is not often that I get to read a book by someone I know. I love Amy and her blog and posts on Velvet Ashes and this book did not disappoint. I have to admit I was a bit afraid to read it because I thought maybe that would mean changes were coming (something I’m not a huge fan of) but this book is an excellent resource for anyone going through transition or preparing for a change. It is helpful even when everything feels pretty stable, because, hey, change is pretty inevitable.

Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist

Shauna has a really poetic writing style and I identified with so much in her book. It is probably one of my favorites because it was exactly what I needed in the season in which I read it.

The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan

This has been on my to-read list for a while, so when I saw it was available from the local public library while I was in America, I snatched it up. It was a fascinating and in-depth look at the making of the atomic bomb, and I enjoyed learning about this aspect of World War 2.

Honorable mentions (it is hard to pick just 5!):

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

VERY long (672 pages) but interesting.

Rome 1960 by David Maraniss

I love sports stories and anything having to do with the Olympics. This isn’t one of the more well-known Olympic games but it was a great look into some of the stories and what was happening in the world at that time.

Afton of Margate Castle by Angela Hunt

This medieval fiction book was set in a time period I don’t often read about, by an author I have liked for a long time. And it was free on Kindle.

What were your favorites in 2016?





Return to Praise

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the year my teammate and I spent living in a rural border village. In many ways, it was one of the hardest years of my life (except perhaps 2016), and it is only by God’s grace I survived. I had a lot of unhealthy emotional patterns, and the Enemy of our souls was out to kill and destroy. There were so many daily frustrations and challenges that, individually, would have been stressful but combined drained much life out of my soul. That maybe sounds like I’m exaggerating, but I was in pretty sorry shape when we finally made the decision to move.
Every day my teammate and I would brew coffee and sit on the tile floor of our shared bedroom to pray. Sometimes (maybe often) we would cry together, broken-hearted over Cambodia and our own hearts, completely devoid of energy and saddened over the lack of fruit, or just plain homesick. We cried out to Jesus in those prayer times, speaking words of Scripture and claiming those promises for this village and our own lives. We clung to the gifts, even when it was difficult to see them, turning them into words of praise. We turned on music when it felt like the words wouldn’t come, soaking and listening and allowing the lyrics to speak our prayers for us.
There are many painful memories and hurtful things from our time in the village, but those prayer times are actually a precious memory to me. God was teaching me about worship. He was teaching me to draw close to Him in the pain, to keep my eyes on Him because He is worthy of worship even from the wilderness.
Jesus is reminding me of these memories and bringing me back to a place of worship. I’m not musical by any stretch of the imagination (my family normally ends up doubled over in laughter over our poor attempts at “Happy Birthday”), but I’m starting to incorporate singing into my daily time with the Lord. I’m beginning my list of the things I’m grateful for each day after a stretch of pausing that practice, and my eyes are opening even more to the tender ways God cares for me in the littlest of things. He is drawing me into a new place of worshiping Him no matter what the situation is around me or whether I’m “feeling it” or not.
I’ve been challenged recently by these two quotes:
“The stability of the world depends on the rejoicing in God’s works…. If on earth, such praise of God does not come to pass…then the whole order of nature will be thrown into confusion”.
– John Calvin
“Praise Him in the midst of the darkness. Praising God while the tumult swirls is true spiritual warfare. And wait in anticipation for the day you see God more clearly”.
– Mary Demuth, Beautiful Battle

The Gifts I Didn’t Want

My grandma used to make things easy and give the same gifts to all of the granddaughters at Christmas. One year when I was about 6 or so, all I wanted was a Barbie doll, and I was so looking forward to the fun I was going to have after unwrapping this gift on Christmas day. We had gathered in my grandparents’ living room and wrapping paper already littered the floor. I watched as my younger cousin opened up her gift and it was exactly what I had longed for- that Barbie with the fun clothes and long blonde hair. But the gift I opened up first? A Barbie coloring book. No, I thought, this isn’t what I asked for! I’m embarrassed to say I burst into tears in disappointment and jealousy. My grandma was kind and patient and said with a twinkle in her eyes, “Sarah, just wait! There’s another present for you to open”.

I do this too with my Heavenly Father and the gifts He gives to me. This year I have been far more likely to throw a toddler tantrum as I unwrapped less-than-ideal situations. I have stomped my feet as I watched others around me get the answers to prayer or their longed-for desires- a spouse, a baby, successful ministry opportunities, good health. I have cried over my singleness, my brokenness, my loneliness and the silence. These are the gifts you are giving me, Jesus? NO, this isn’t what I wanted!

Yet, these are gifts, if I can pause long enough to see them as such. In my singleness, God is slowly, slowly teaching me that He is the tender warrior and protector of my heart. He is slowly, slowly chipping away at the thick walls of my soul, coaxing me out to know His deep love. He waits for me to finish my whining, and reminds me that I can trust Him with my whole being, with the places I have kept in the darkness because of shame or fear of rejection. Oh, the pain still tightens its grip on my heart, the anxiety rises up until all I can do is breath in and out, but He patiently reminds me that this too shall pass. He knows this pain intimately and sits with me in it, even if He doesn’t take it away like I want Him too.

did get that Barbie I so desperately wanted that year. But you know what? I should have been just as grateful for a coloring book given in love, for a grandmother who forgave my childish outburst and the family gathered in that living room. Jesus, keep teaching me to say yes and thank you to the gifts you give me.

Musings inspired by this post on Velvet Ashes: Unwanted Gifts

Thank yous 

Finding gifts in the ordinary. 

To the ants in every house in Cambodia I’ve ever lived in: 

Oh heavens, you’ve taught me patience! When you showed up in the strangest places- the bathroom, the middle of the living room floor, underneath the couch cushions, and of course the expected spots like our honey bottle left out on the table and the container of granola just waiting to be invaded- sometimes I just wanted to pull my hair out, or grab the can of Raid and turn our space into a chemical war zone. But, slowly I’ve learned to let go, to take a smaller amount of satisfaction in extinguishing you, and to not sweat the small stuff. 

To my bright pink Nikes: 

In the beginning, I chose you not because of your flashy color but because you were super comfortable. But you made starting to run this fall much more fun! I loved lacing you up and hitting the pavement (or the dirt roads) with you. I’m glad that I didn’t settle for the more subtle gray pair I thought about getting because I would have missed out on your flare for this season. 

To turning 30: 

I have dreaded you, the big 3-0, for months if not the last couple of years. Somehow entering this brand new decade that starts with you was intimidating and a bit sad as I said goodbye to the 20s and all my hopes and dreams for what I thought would have happened by now. But, dear 30, you really haven’t been so bad. Thank you for treating me tenderly in these first 9 months, for allowing my aging body to not completely fall apart just yet, for a few gray hairs to remind me of my finiteness, and the hope of things to come. 

To my cozy white sweater: 

My thin, tropical blood has been so very thankful for you! You were the cheap and bulky sweater I found in the Toul Tompoung market and squeezed into my suitcase two years ago for the trip home. I have many sweet memories of the places I have worn you each time I’ve returned and I was so happy to pull you out of the winter tote on this visit. You make all this winter-in-Nebraska weather just a bit more bearable. 

To tractors: 

Being a farm girl, I’m certainly no stranger to you. But thank you for providing ENDLESS entertainment for my 2-year old nephew, whether it is in the form of pictures or books or videos of Grandpa and his farm work, or the awesome remote control machinery videos we discovered on Youtube. I’m pretty sure my nephew thinks my name is “tractor”, at least that is what he says the minute he sees me now. But thank you for the snuggle time when we are in person, and the sweet interactions on video chats as we watch/discuss/look at you. 

To Christmas cookies: 

There’s just nothing quite like the scent of vanilla and butter and sugar wafting from the oven when it is time to make you, dear Christmas cookies. Thank you for the opportunity for family bonding, for adding a little extra padding to my waistline, and for the moments of joy you bring when we partake of you as we play a game all together on a chilly December evening. 

To Matthew’s neon socks, Christmas hats, and my dad’s childhood Santa: 

You are quirky and crazy and fun. You made decorating our slightly crooked Scotch pine oh so enjoyable, even if I had to be the one to string on the beads this year (not my favorite job). You brightened up the pictures we took, added moments of laughter and joking and sibling banter, and reminded me to slow and breathe and focus on joy and gratefulness rather than the days speeding ahead way too fast. Thanks for the memories. 

Training in Grace

For some crazy reason I decided to try and run a 5K on Thanksgiving day. After a long stretch of not feeling up to a lot of physical activity, the month before heading back to the States I had increased energy, was able to exercise more, and felt inspired. I hate running. I’ll just put that out there. Yet, setting a goal and working toward it sounded good in the midst of a lot of things not going well in my life at the time. 

My brothers are the running experts, with several full and half-marathon medals on display in their rooms. They showed me warm-up exercises, the proper technique to avoid injury, and got me set up with some good running shoes. I downloaded the app they both use for tracking how much to do on what days in order to be ready to go on race day. The app even had a plan for couch to 5K in 2 months (yes, that would be me). I was set. And I started training. I ran up and down the rolling hills of Pierce County, slowly adding up the minutes I was able to run without stopping and needing a break. 

I wish this illustration ended with a successful race on Thanksgiving morning, but unfortunately a serious respiratory issue and a flare-up of some other health challenges…and travels…and life, brought my training to a grinding halt and then there just wasn’t time to prepare adequately. So there you go. 

But here’s the deal. We were talking about the idea of self-control in Sunday school this Sunday, sharing honestly about some of the places we struggle. This verse from the study sort of popped up off the page and worked its way into my heart. 

Titus 2:11-12 For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness and devotion to God. 

I’ve often thought of self-control as a matter of the will. If I decide I’m not going to do something, then I need to stick to it and will myself into shape. I’ve never thought about self-control being linked to grace. Grace brings salvation, as these verses point out, but then it is the foundation for right living. I don’t know about you, but like I can’t just jump off the couch and run a 5K tomorrow, I don’t naturally give myself grace. I am not good at living a grace-full life, or often extending that grace to others. I need training. I need practice. I need reminders to let the Holy Spirit cultivate a heart of grace, which then helps me learn how to reign in my mind and emotions and actions. Maybe grace is more about wisdom, knowing when to say yes and when to say no, than a free pass to do whatever we want. Grace teaches us that self-control isn’t about rigid rules and regulations, but safety and protection around our hearts and minds and relationships. 

I still want to run a 5K someday, and have switched my app to give me a plan for being able to complete that length in April (so if anyone knows of a race in the middle of hot season in southeast Asia, just let me know). I haven’t given up. And I’m slowly learning that training needs to happen in the area of grace and self-control too (if only they had an app for that). 

A Different Christmas Perspective

Snow is falling lightly outside the window, Christmas carols playing on the radio. I’m curled up on the couch with a real book in my hands, enjoying a slow morning.

I’m home in my passport country for the holiday season for the first time in four years, and it feels like I’m seeing everything with new eyes. I’ve missed Christmas sweaters and the scent of pine filling the whole house, dazzling lights sparkling next to all of our favorite ornaments.

Christmas was so different in Cambodia. I’m a Nebraska girl spoiled by cold weather and snowflakes, and wearing short-sleeves and sweating in December just never seemed quite right. I would hear Christmas carols playing in the fancy mall and get teary-eyed because I wasn’t at my home church to sing by candlelight on Christmas Eve. Christmas cookies took effort, searching for the right ingredients and adjusting and simplifying to deal with the heat and humidity.

Somehow, though, those little gifts brought joy. I didn’t miss the hustle and bustle of all the shopping and parties and programs, but savored the moments of reading through the Luke account of Jesus’ birth with the AC on and cup of hot chocolate in hand. Our little tree with a few precious decorations made me smile every time I walked into the room, and a pine-scented candle added a special touch as my very favorite carols played from my iPod.

Now, just as I have the last three years, I slow my heart, breathe deeply of God’s peace in the Christmas season. I am learning, slowly, to find joy no matter where I am. I can savor the familiar traditions with my family, baking cookies with my mom, and eating caramel corn next to the real tree with only the Christmas lights on, just as the new traditions in a far-away country have grown precious and sweet. So, as I add a few extra layers of clothing to stay warm against that chilly Nebraska wind, I can smile and choose joy, right here, today.


Check out these posts of Christmas musings from years past, as I’ve wrestled with what Christmas looks like in a foreign country:

Traditions, Old and New (2012)

What Does Christmas Look Like? (2013)

Finding Joy in Christmas Cookies (and in Jesus) (2014)

The Christmas I Used to Know (2015)

Grateful Thanksgiving 2016

Last year at Thanksgiving, my teammate and I were back in a house we strongly disliked (no running water, critters of various sizes and shapes, piles of termite dust heaping up under our bed every night, etc.), our hurting hearts trying to be brave. We had just arrived after a month in the States, dealing with a thick layer of dirt everywhere, our front gate area turned into a chicken coop by the roving mama hen and her growing babies, and plants that had not survived the lack of rain. We gathered a few of those leafless sticks and made ourselves a thanksgiving tree, digging deep into our hearts for the good in the midst of the hard, straining to see with grateful eyes.

When I think back over the last 11 months of 2016, mostly the moments of heartache come to mind, the seasons of exhaustion and discouragement and all those times I was ready to just give up. Yet, I know there have been gifts, riches in the darkness and even the hard things have been used in my life to grow me and push me closer to Jesus.

Walk back through this year with me as I celebrate God’s goodness.

  • I turned 30 this year, a milestone that was worth celebrating. I looked back over my 20s and felt sad over some of the things I thought would happen but didn’t. There are also plenty of things that I got to see, experience, and do in that decade that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I’m super grateful for a teammate, sister, brother-in-law and nephew who made the entrance into my 30s extra special, and for all kinds of cards and messages that made their way across the ocean. 6 months in, I have to say 30 isn’t half bad.


  • When we left Liam, I was exhausted by the drain of village life and full of guilt for not being able to make it. But, each time we went back to visit, the Father reminded me that He is in control and is still at work there. I have been surprised by relationships that have deepened since we left, new friendships that have started, and fresh ways to pray for that area.


  • I was supposed to go to Indonesia this year, a trip I’ve dreamed about for a while now. But it didn’t happen. Even though I wrestled through disappointment and doubt in God’s plan, I can look back and thank God for how He ministered to my heart in the midst of the upheaval, spoke through His Word and brought me through that valley.


  • Having surgery in a foreign country wasn’t on my bucket list. But I am so thankful for all God’s gifts in the midst of that happening- compassionate doctors who were there on the days I needed them to be, my supervisor and her support and presence, sweet friends who walked through the whole week from diagnosis to surgery to waiting for results and sent emails and songs and prayers from afar, special treats while recovering and waiting to find out if the tumors were cancer like Starbucks coffee and real books from a bookstore and a movie theater all to myself.


  • I am thankful for the 34 years of my cousin’s life, the 30 years I got to know him. It was too short and yet I am grateful for the way that he impacted my life.


  • I am thankful for the people who gave me permission to go home, permission to be honest and broken and weak instead of putting up a strong front and pretending it was all okay, especially my supervisor, teammate, sister and the rest of my family. I am thankful for the ones who have spoken Truth into my life over this year, even when I wasn’t in a place to hear it yet. I am thankful for the opportunity to be at home now, to find healing and refreshment and the freedom to listen for God’s voice and say yes no matter what that means.


  • I can’t imagine my life without  two very precious people, my nephew and new niece. I love them with all my heart and am so, so privileged to be their auntie.


  • There was a trip many years in the making, and a dream that actually came true when my sister and I found each other in the Frankfurt airport to start our adventure in Germany and the Czech Republic. Chocolate croissants, family history, majestic cathedrals, train rides through the gorgeous countryside- yes, my heart is certainly full from that trip this fall.


  • The kindness of Jesus, freedom I don’t deserve but is lavished on me. The heart of the Father who delights in me, even at my worst, who rejoices over me with singing, and His abundant Grace. I am SO quick to forget the essence of the Gospel, to work it out in daily life. Yet, God is so very patient with me and it is because of Him that I can look back with joy at all He has done this year.


Psalm 28:6-7 Praise the Lord! For he has heard my cry for mercy. The Lord is my strength and shield. I trust him with all my heart. He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy. I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. 


Who can resist this sweet face? The birth of Miss Grace Elizabeth was certainly a highlight of this year. 


The Invitation 

There’s a coffee cup waiting at my place at the table. 

My dad started a Wednesday night tradition years ago when the rest of us were busy with AWANA (kid’s club) at my church. He headed down the hill to my grandpa’s house, and the two generations of farmers talked over crops and animals and weather while they ate the meal my grandpa prepared. 

When I’m home, I get to be part of this weekly rhythm. Particularly now that my seasons in Nebraska are fewer and farther between, Wednesday night suppers at my grandpa’s house are a special privilege. He’s almost 91 and it is harder for him to get up and down and around the kitchen, but as soon as my dad and I arrive he pulls out potatoes, corn or peas, baked chicken or pork chops from the oven where they’ve been staying warm. Sometimes there are biscuits, but more often a loaf of bread with butter and cheese. 

I listen to the conversation flow about the customers who visit my dad at the grain elevator, my grandpa’s opinion on the yield this harvest season. I love when they start reminiscing, talking about when my grandpa was a kid growing up in this county, or sharing memories of crazy snow storms, old farm machinery, or my grandma who has been gone for 24 years now, my own memories of her faint and few. 

Then comes my favorite part of the meal, as we finish up the main course and get ready for dessert- my choice normally between canned fruit or ice cream. My grandpa looks at me from his end of the table with the question, “Are you ready for coffee?” I pass my cup and he fills it up from the thermos that is there waiting. 

For as long as I can remember, there’s been a thermos, the orange ceramic cups, the after-dinner cup of coffee. Somehow the coffee-love skipped my dad’s generation, but once my grandpa found out that I started drinking coffee at the end of college, he’s had a cup there waiting. He’s invited me to be part of the rhythm and ritual of finishing out a delicious meal, pausing and savoring and slowing before work begins again or conversation moves on. 

It is something I treasure, small but precious- seeing that coffee cup waiting for me each week. 

The Power of His Desires- Velvet Ashes

I am sharing over at Velvet Ashes today!


I attended a college where “a ring by spring or your money back” wasn’t just a joke. Several weeks into the school year it would inevitably happen: couples started pairing off after connecting in class or through a brother/sister floor event. Pretty soon they would be meeting over coffee and tater tots in the back room of the cafeteria for pre-class Bible study, sitting next to each other in chapel, and attending the Winter Formal together. As the snow finally went away and the smells of small-town Midwest filled the air, happy announcements abounded and diamonds twinkled on left hands throughout campus.Somehow I ended up living in a dorm and on a floor where this was more the exception than the rule. I was totally okay with that, but the topic of singleness found its way into many a late-night conversation over popcorn and M & M’s. “Will I ever get my ring?” we asked each other. “How long do I have to wait?”

As I attended a Christian college, there were plenty of quick, reassuring responses that most often were somewhat based on Scripture. “Trust God,” the older and wiser commanded. The verse that seemed on everyone’s minds and lips was this, from Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart”. Interpretation: You just have to delight in God and when you’ve done that, He’ll give you the desire of your heart (namely, a husband in this instance).

I was rather skeptical of this advice that put the power of change firmly in my court, wondering how I was supposed to know when I would reach that magic level of delighting in God that would cause Him to nudge Mr. Right out from hiding and in my direction.

I thought I loved God. I read my Bible every day, even after late nights of studying, I went to church on Sundays, I went to chapel almost every day even when I had built up enough credits. I truly desired a relationship with God that was more than just outward actions. This concept of delighting enough continued to puzzle me after graduation and along the path of preparation for a life overseas as one of the biggest desires in my heart still remained unfulfilled.

Continue reading at Velvet Ashes. 

Sacrifice of Understanding 

These are words you never want to hear your doctor say: 

“There’s a lump here we need to get checked out”. 

“This needs to be removed right away”. 

“There’s a chance it could be cancer”. 

It was just supposed to be a routine appointment, a quick stopover in Bangkok before a trip I had been planning for several months. My hopes were high that this would be an door-opening sort of trip, saying hello to new and old friends, infusing my heart with renewed vision, better focus and ministry insights. It was a place I have dreamed about going for a long time, one that stays in my heart when I pray. 

Then the door slammed shut. 

Suddenly, I needed to cancel flights, rearrange plans, schedule a surgery for the next day. Suddenly everything changed, nothing was certain, and my life became like a little scene in a turned-over snow globe with everything swirling around me.

There was nothing I could do except wait, keep breathing those deep kind of breaths that bring clarity and calm. I tried not to think about the test results, about the future and what was happening. There was a peace that was beyond my understanding despite the fear and all the unknowns. 

It wasn’t until I got home, when all those swirling thoughts started to settle, that I started asking questions. I started wrestling. Why did things have to happen this way? Why did I have to give up a dream that was close to my heart? Why did my body betray me, growing this foreign mass (that turned out not to be cancer, thank goodness)? Why did I feel like it was time to make this trip, and then I couldn’t? 

I felt like my two year-old nephew when he doesn’t get the thing he wants the most in that moment- throwing a tantrum at God, kicking and screaming because it didn’t make sense. 

I’ve given up a lot of things in living this overseas life. I’ve left my family on the other side of the ocean, the chance to be close to sweet friends, the ability to communicate easily, and stores like Wal-mart where you can buy everything in one place. 

But maybe this is part of the sacrifice, part of the submission- giving up the right to understand. Months or years down the road I might look back and see why things happened the way that they did, see the tapestry that God has been weaving and how this all fits into His story, hopefully for His glory. Or, I might not ever know. Can I give up what I want to claim as my right to ‘get it’, to see all the reasons right now, and simply trust? 

I’m not there yet. This is not a I-have-life-all-figured-out-and-now-I’m-sharing-with-you kind of post. No, I’m still very much in the wrestling stage, trying to let go of expectations and dreams in order to kneel before a God who knows the past and the future, whose wisdom is unfathomable, who invites me to draw close even with my questions and the hard-surrender state of my heart. Maybe you’ve been here too. Maybe you can share your experience with me and be part of my journey. Maybe we can figure all of this out together, as we live in the not-yet-understanding.