Heart & Home

How to Fit Adventure Into Your Marriage
Start of Year 2 of Marriage
Reflections down the Aisle
How to Keep your Marriage Adventurous
Marriage is a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors
Scissors, Haircuts, and Marriage

Being Embraced
A not so hopeless hope
There is a firmer foundation than answers to my "whys"
From Weeds to Blossoms
Living for a New Day
What would you do if you knew you couldn't fail?
Who's Telling Your Story
Fresh Start
Whose Approval are You Seeking?
The Significance of a Feast
Peeling away the layers
Taking my own advice for when it rains

Best Books of 2012 Series
          Favorite book of the year
          Best nonfiction books
          Best spiritual books 
          Best fiction books

Thanksgiving NC Trip
Orlando trip in pictures
Asheville Anniversary Trip

Featured Posts

Who's Telling Your Story?

Last year I heard about bloggers who chose one word to focus on for the New Year. I liked this idea, but I didn't want to arbitrarily select a word.

Yet have you ever had those moments where the same point or thought keeps being emphasized? Through conversations with friends, an article you read, a scene you remember from a movie, or other daily interactions, the same theme continues to move to the forefront of your mind. I personally believe this is often God nudging us to listen.

For me, this past Sunday at church the two words "grace" and "courage" continued to resonate in my mind.

I've been reading through the Soul Detox devotional with the She Reads Truth community. The questions that this study forces you to confront (in conjunction with Scripture) have been so thought-provoking, such as "What are some of the causes of toxic thoughts in your life?" and "Why is it easier to think toxic thoughts than it is to focus our minds on the truth?" and "What types of words do you tend to speak most - toxic or life-giving?"

I began meditating on the words that I not only speak to others but what I tell myself. Are toxic thoughts affecting my inner narrative?

And then yesterday on the way to work, I listened to Michael Hyatt's podcast, "Change Your Story, Change Your Life." He discussed this same topic, saying: "Inside your head and mine, there is a narrator. He or she is constantly telling us stories. These stories shape how we perceive reality." These stories can determine how we act because we start to believe what we tell ourselves, for better or for worse.

And then a friend in my book club sent her daily tip for the "Best You Ever," an email blurb she sends each day. Yesterday's tip was to remember "that the language you use can have a profound impact on whether you will manifest a positive or negative outcome for yourself. Think of the words you use as setting your intentions."

Again, I thought to my two words.

Grace: Give myself grace. By telling myself that I have so much to do with starting my company that I cannot possibly get everything done, I won't. By telling myself that I have to do everything perfectly in order to build up a good brand for my company, I will make myself anxious. Instead, I need to accept grace and remember that my identity is not in what I do. I believe that my identity is in Christ. His grace covers me. By recognizing this blessing I can change my inner voice. I am re-writing my inner narrative to focus on the joy of doing what I love and on the opportunity to speak into students' lives.

Courage:  By accepting grace, I am able to let God's strength work through me. I have a new confidence and assurance. "He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me... For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12). Giving myself grace doesn't mean that I give myself permission to slack off. Instead, I have a new courage to approach my work with a joyful boldness. 

So I ask you a question from Soul Detox, "How different is your life when you focus your thoughts on what is true and good rather than on toxic thoughts?"

How to Fit Adventure into Your Marriage

Early this Fall, I wrote about "How to Keep Your Marriage Adventurous," and it's been one of the most viewed posts on BeEmbraced. Since it seems to be a topic that is important to many people, here's a way that John and I have recently started to fit adventure into our marriage.

After the holidays and all of our travels (and I still have one more trip to write about!), John and I have been trying to get back into a routine. While that word sounds boring even just typing it, routine can actually help facilitate your sense of adventure in the new year.

This past week, John and I set goals for 2013, and one of our first ones was to have a planning meeting the first weekend of every month. Sounds dull for a marriage goal. However, the motivation behind a goal is the purpose of setting it in the first place. So why the planning? Because in addition to wanting to have fire pit nights with neighbors, game nights with friends, and other get-togethers, date nights are a top priority.

An afternoon in the park is always a great date idea
Our goals for dates are:
  • Have a date night (or afternoon) outside of the house at least once every three weeks
  • Have a date night inside the house at least once every two weeks
  • Go on a walk together at least once a week
One of the new goals that we incorporated this year was to have date nights inside the house. Although we have dinner at home with each other most nights of the week, it's fun to plan some adventure into the evenings. Movie nights are great, but this year we wanted to get creative with our dates.

A date night last year: Watching the Gwinnett Gladiators (and the ice was pink for Breast Cancer Awareness)!

For example, on Monday night we had a fancy dinner at home together. The past week had been busy with John traveling, me having my first book club meeting, John playing basketball, and us having friends over Saturday and Sunday nights. With both of us off of work for MLK Day, we decided to have a date night - without leaving the house. We made a nice dinner of grilled fish, roasted acorn squash with brown sugar, red lentils, salad, and complete with red wine. We dressed up in nice clothes, turned on the Frank Sinatra Pandora station, use our china plates and crystal glasses, and John brought home flowers for our table. And afterwards, to keep in the evening's theme, we caught up on Downton Abbey of course!

Our dinner date, using our nice china and crystal! 

What made this date night even more enjoyable was that we planned it in advance, allowing me to look forward to it all week. It also made it no hassle, knowing I could plan for the dinner when I went grocery shopping a few days before.

So there you have it: how planning can actually add adventure into your marriage. Otherwise, life seems to fly by without scheduling how you can incorporate fun date nights with your spouse.

What about you - what fun at-home dates have you had? Do you plan on setting goals with your spouse this year?

Start of Year 2 of Marriage

John and I aren't even a full month into year two of marriage, but I can already see how it's going to be different - in a good way.

Thankfully, our 10 year friendship prior to marriage, 14 month engagement, and excellent pre-marital counseling made our first year of marriage a lot less of an adjustment than I had expected. 

However, I was recently telling a friend who is about to get married that one of the big transitions into marriage that I had was seeing myself reflected every day in John. By this I mean seeing how my every word and every action impacted someone else. It was like walking around with a mirror in front of me all day. And unfortunately that mirror oftentimes revealed my selfishness, my imperfections, my pride. 

And the funny part about recognizing my self-centeredness was that it still made me focused on myself. In trying to will myself to be less self-focused, I was perpetuating the problem. 

Going into year two of marriage, I have a better perspective of where my focus needs to be. Even if I set my gaze on John instead of myself, growth would stagnate. Instead, we must both look to something higher than ourselves. 

It's the upside-down Gospel where our marital foundation is found not by looking below to where our own feet are taking us, but above. 

Is looking down making you dizzy?
Set your heart and mind on things above (Col. 3:1-2)

Thankfully, I am blessed with a husband who is gracious, patient, and loves me for the imperfections. Together we have grown throughout our first year of marriage, and it has already been exciting (and often funny) to reminisce on first year "bloopers" ...like me crying when I burnt John's favorite cookies  on his birthday, or John getting frustrated when I beat him in a game of Scrabble.

Going into this second year, I am eager to reset my focus. Yes, it is important to take stock of your relationship with your spouse. However, if you constantly assess your marriage, you'll quickly become obsessed with everything that is not quite perfect enough to qualify you for "the best marriage ever." We are broken people in a broken world, so playing the game of perfection will only result in frustration. You must see a higher purpose. What is God calling you to as a couple that you couldn't do alone?

I want to intentionally remember that my sinful nature is made pure only through Christ.
Colossians 1:22

Mission > Identity

When you sign a letter or an email, the closing line is often a brief but telling summary of the content.

When I sign off with
...I am usually writing to a family member or close friend. "Sincerely, Stephanie" is more formal, and "Thanks so much, Stephanie" indicates a note of appreciation or requesting a favor.

My box of wedding letters
Yet when I read through Paul's letters written to the early church, I tend to skip over his greeting to get to the heart of his words. This time, as I read through Colossians with my She Reads Truth study, we intentionally paused at the first verse of Paul's book: "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace and peace from God our Father."

In this greeting, Paul announces who he is and who he is writing to - much like our salutations and closings in our letters. He defines himself as an apostle, one sent by God for a mission. His conviction and boldness in this calling made me think, How do I define myself? 

How we define our identity is obviously important because we act out of who we are. Yet so often we take on identities without pausing to assess whether we want to define ourselves this way.

For instance, in the book Creative Nonfiction, author Philip Gerard discusses the importance of defining yourself as a writer without any qualifiers. He points out that before you can be a writer, you must believe you are one. Writers recognize the moment when this happens because "their ambition for the writing becomes more important than their ambition to become writers."

Excerpt from Creative Nonfiction
In other words, it is how Paul begins his letter: I am an apostle sent on a mission because of God's will. His ambition for his mission becomes more important than his identity. In other words, his identity is God's plan for his life.

The problem with the world's notion of "finding yourself" is that it continually points to you. Paul shows us that our true identity must point to Christ. Yes, each of us has a high calling on earth. But this confidence is not because we are so grand as to deserve to make a difference but because we serve a King who mightily works through us.

An excerpt from the She Reads Truth Colossians study.
Be still today and let Christ work through you.

A mindful habit

I've recently picked up a new habit, and it's not my fault.

I hold responsible the view out my window - a dogwood turning to shades of cinnamon and crimson - and the perfect, sunny 75 degree days. Both of these beckon me onto the porch, so that I now crave sitting in the rocking chair and reading a book in the afternoons.

Now I didn't say this was a bad habit, but any habit is something you do mindlessly. Automatically. Without pausing and giving thanks.

The book I am currently reading, Creative Nonfiction, explains how to write a book and states, "Every good story contains a moment after which things can never be the same again. A moment of profound change..."

What moment in your life has profoundly changed you?

I thought back to the passage I read in Luke that morning, when the women began preparing spices and ointments for Christ in the tomb. Then "on the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment." The crucifixion moment had not (yet) altered their life. They continued on with life as usual, following their schedule.

Instead, it is their discovery of the empty tomb that becomes their "moment." And in their excitement, they could not help but tell others. The moment that profoundly changes life going forward is the resurrection and Christ reappearing in physical form. Everything is altered. And God's people cannot help but worship with great joy and be "continually in the temple blessing God" (Luke 24:50).

The book of Luke ends at this defining moment.

And it is here that I want the story to continue with me, rejoicing in the Lord always; "again, I will say, Rejoice" (Phil. 4:4). Sitting on the porch and reading a book, or even folding clothes and washing dishes, I want to mindfully give thanks. Will you join me?

How to be a sunflower today

I did not enjoy Botany class in college, and as I've mentioned before, my roommate had to help grow a plant for me so I could pass the lab. And now I have a garden... ironic?

But I do remember one thing: Sunflowers face the sun and actually track the sun's position throughout the day.
A field of sunflowers at the farm John and I visited this Fall
What if I also put this into practice, looking to the Light every day? 

"Walk as children of the light (for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord." -Ephesians 5:8-10

When friends disappoint, work is discouraging, or expectations are unmet, it's my natural tendency to focus on the effect this has on me. I do not think we should ignore our emotions, and we need to acknowledge that pain and hurt are real. But our focus must first be on Him. I find myself less discouraged, less self-focused when I actively seek for things to be thankful for throughout the day and when I look to what I know is true: I am loved beyond measure; I am a daughter of a King.

I encourage you with this: "...Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." -Philippians 4:8

Yesterday Holley Gerth wrote a great blog post on "When Your Thoughts Try to get the Best of You," and isn't it so true that when you focus on negativity, everything appears darker? But when you look for the Light and dwell on "the good, the right, the true," then you tend to find it. Be a sunflower today. Set your gaze on the Son and follow the Light.

Changing seasons, Changing clothes

At our wedding one year ago, my good friend Leah read this passage: Colossians 3:12-17

Throughout our first year of marriage, I've had this verse on our bathroom mirror and I've written it out several times to memorize it. Each time I read this passage, something new stands out to me, and today as I change out my wardrobes, preparing for Fall and Winter, I'm reflecting on what it means to "put on love" every day.

Put on. Life has seasons, and often when these seasons change you need to put on different "clothes." Depending on whether I feel stuck or accomplished or anxious or joyful, I need to be reminded to put on the appropriate "outfit." Am I frustrated? Clothe myself with compassion. Have I accomplished something? Put on humility. Am I waiting for something to happen? Patience. 

Chosen ones. We're not meant to put on these attributes to be comfortable but because we are chosen. We shouldn't cloth ourselves because "it's what I am supposed to do" but because it's a joy to live this way. We are sons and daughters in God's kingdom. We have been given a beautiful inheritance. We are made in the image of God and because of this we are told to "be imitators of God, as beloved children" (Ephesians 5:1). 

Above all love. All of the traits listed in the passage fall under the category of "love." In marriage, you must wake up every day choosing to love. Before you get dressed, put on love. If you consciously choose to love every day, you will be more compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient. 

Forgive and be forgiven. Some days we wear a shirt with a hole in it. We put on mismatched shoes. We forget to clothe ourselves in love. On these days, it's easy to say unkind words, act selfishly, and be impatient with your spouse. John has taught me how to "teach and admonish" each other with humility and love. Part of loving each other is helping each other to live out what we are called to do. Over this first year of marriage, I'm starting to learn how to humbly address things for John's growth. The harder part: Accepting his forgiveness when I'm the one being taught and counseled. We need to reminded to accept grace.

Be thankful. A lot of attributes are listed in this passage, but thankfulness is mentioned the most. Although love encompasses all, we love because we are thankful that we're first loved by God. In whatever we do, we must do it with a thankful heart. Our love will be shallow if we love out of obligation. But if I see loving John as a wonderful gift, then I'll express my thanksgiving through my actions. 

As you put on Fall clothes, wear the first scarves of the season, or hunt for long sleeves at the back of your closet, remember to walk in love (Ephesians 5:2).

Give yourself permission to accept grace

I am an only child and part of Generation Y, the generation who believes they can accomplish anything. Now add that to my Achiever mindset.

It can be difficult for me to give myself grace and not always feel the pressure to have produced something by the end of the day. For me right now, I am starting a company and trying to begin writing a book. A lot of this requires ideation - not actual products you can point to.

Being achievement-oriented and ambitious I believe are some of my strengths. But strengths can sometimes be taken too far, and this week it was refreshing to be reminded about grace.

As my She Reads Truth study said, "We are no longer slaves. We're not slaves to sin, emotions, what may come in our days. We are not slaves to our past, to our future, to our vain imaginings. We are not slaves to who we were or who we were supposed to be."

...Or who we believe we should be.

Instead, we are redeemed by God's grace to be His daughter (Galatians 4:1-20). The key question is not whether I accomplished anything by the end of the day but how am I living? Am I showing the world who I am, or showing the world that I am my Father's daughter, redeemed by grace?

Are you on the road for the grace journey or the destination?

Many people are familiar with the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15, and Tim Keller has written an excellent book on this topic. As a recap, a younger son gets his inheritance early and squanders all of it "in reckless living." After hiring himself out, he finally returns home with a repentant heart.

"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him." The father didn't even let him finish asking for forgiveness before preparing a huge celebration for his son's return.

The father welcomed back his son as a full heir, just as we are promised that we "are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God" (Gal. 4:7). The word embraced used here literally means "fell on his neck." The father grabbed a hold of him, and the son let himself be embraced, understanding the extent of his grace and forgiveness.

In contrast, the older son (who stayed with his father, served him, and never disobeyed) shows self-righteous resentment toward the celebration of his younger brother. He refuses to participate in the party because he lives by trying to prove himself, rather than accepting everything as a gift.

"His father came out and entreated him," just as he had with the younger son. He says, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours."

But the older son refuses to be embraced.

Who are you today? Are you a daughter or son with a full inheritance of grace, or are you wearing yourself out trying to prove yourself

Whose approval are you seeking?

This month has been a significant change of pace from the busy summer we had traveling. We haven't had many weekend plans and have been able to get to sleep early on weeknights. In short, it was exactly the type of month I knew we needed, so we could rest physically and mentally.

However, have you ever been looking forward to downtime or relaxation only to find yourself uncomfortable in the quiet? I realized this weekend that I was frustrated with not having a "plan of action" for Saturday or Sunday. Come Sunday night I couldn't point to anything I had "accomplished" other than having a few friends over Saturday night and going grocery shopping.

Why couldn't I accept the gift of rest? Why was I uncomfortable with the quiet?

I joined the She Reads Truth community yesterday, and we are reading through the book of Galatians. The verse that stuck with me all day: "For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ" (Gal. 1:10).

I think most people can connect with the struggle of seeking others' approval. Whose approval was I seeking by being restless during the blessing of a relaxed weekend? Why do most of us feel like we need to point to an accomplishment at the end of the day... or maybe only people (like me!) with"Achiever" as their number one StrengthsFinder theme have this struggle?

Needless to say I was convicted by the Galatians verse above and reminded about a sermon I'd listened to that morning on Luke 10:38-42: The story of Mary and Martha. (To read the verses, scroll to the bottom of this post.)

The majority of times that I've heard this passage explained it centered around not preoccupying ourselves with busy-ness. But it's so much more than this. During this time in history, Martha was doing exactly what was culturally expected of her: making dinner preparations and serving guests. What was shocking, as John Ortberg points out in Who Is This Man?, is that Jesus calls her to learn and be a disciple instead - which was solely a man's job in this day.

Jesus isn't telling Martha not to serve; He's uncovering her real intention behind serving. Be bold. Understand why you are serving. It's pointless if you're only "serving" others to ultimately serve yourself. To prove you have what it takes. To show that you can be the best host. To get others' approval or attention... there are so many reasons that our service toward others is because of selfish motives.

What is your heart seeking when you serve? Seek first the kingdom of God, not an earthly righteousness to prove your worth. 

Mary and Martha: Luke 10:38-42
"Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” 

How to Keep Your Marriage Adventurous

One of the main reasons that I started this blog is because I wanted to encourage others to be embraced by the journey they are on. Yet when I wrote my first post about 10 months ago, I didn't anticipate embarking on such a big adventure myself. Isn't that how life works: in speaking encouragement to others, you speak truth to yourself.

My current big adventure is starting my own company, which I wrote about a couple weeks ago. I promise I will fill you in more in a later post, but for now let's talk about marriage.

I recently read a post by Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy discussing how to encourage the man in your life by igniting his adventurous spirit. It reminded me that one of the main reasons that I had the courage to give starting my own student coaching company a shot is because of the support of my husband. Without his encouragement and him giving me the freedom to start this adventure, it probably wouldn't have happened. Though it meant making some changes, like forgoing my salary (at least while I get up and running!) and figuring out a new schedule together, he was 100% supportive.

Since I'm so grateful for this opportunity, I wanted to find a way to fit a small adventure into John's day. Writing notes to each other is something we really value in our marriage, so before he got home from work yesterday, I wrote messages on 6 sticky notes and hid them around the house. One was above the doorknob, so when he came home with all the groceries he picked up for us, he'd know how much I appreciated him. The others were scattered in random spots for him to discover.

Although this is only a small example of an adventure, I started thinking about ways to incorporate adventure into our marriage even in the midst of schedules, traveling, weekly commitments, etc.

  1. It's important to first know what hopes and dreams your spouse has. At our 8-month marriage retreat, this is one of the questions that John and I answered individually and as a couple. Knowing what your spouse hopes for gives you the power to speak encouragement into that dream and recognize opportunities for it to grow.
  2. Schedule time for adventure. Blogger and leadership expert Michael Hyatt often says that if it doesn't get scheduled, it doesn't get done. Is there something you and your spouse have wanted to do or see? Find a time for both of you to write it in your calendar. Recently John and I went rock climbing for a date night - it's something that I especially had been wanting to do together. So we planned our Friday night so I could make a quick, early dinner for us when John got home from work and we could head out for our date. Even if you think scheduling is a hassle, it's so worth it once you're on the adventure!
  3. Give each other freedom to pursue individual adventures. There's definitely a lot of value in "adventuring" together, but realistically your dreams are not always going to be the same as your spouse's. Just as it's important to spend quality time together in marriage (especially for me, since this is my primary love language!), it's also important to support each other in individual pursuits. An example of this is John giving me the freedom to start my own company, or cheering me on at my latest 5K race. This summer John played in a softball league, and instead of viewing their game nights as taking away from our nights together, it was an opportunity for me to bond with the other wives and cheer on the team. Your support of your spouse's interests will mean a lot to them!
These are just a few ways for keeping your marriage adventurous. How do you incorporate adventure into your day?

Marriage is a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors

I remember turning to my best friend during summer road trips to the mountains or beach and shouting, "Rock, paper, scissors!" Even now, John and I will half-jokingly play a game of "Rock, Paper, Scissors" to determine who's turn it is to complete a chore.

We're told to have faith like little children so perhaps it's no coincidence that this childhood game resembles my marriage experience these past ten months.


In ten months, John and I have moved to a new city, made new friends, bought a home, started new jobs, faced stress at work, coped with illness, and are learning to build our marriage. Without a common foundation, I am not sure what this first year of marriage would have looked like. Although it hasn't been completely seamless, I am sure that it would not have been as filled of joy, life, and love if we didn't have solid ground on which to stand firm.

If any relationship is to grow, it needs a rock base. Otherwise, cracks are exposed and crumbling erupts. John's and my foundation is our faith. Life carries a lot of uncertainty and to navigate it, foundational truth has been our guide. In disagreements, different points of view, or difficult decisions, we can at least be sure of both of our desires to act from faith and truth. And we can at most have clear guidance moving forward from our core beliefs.


There's few things more special than receiving a handwritten note. During our engagement and after our wedding, I saved all of the sentimental letters and notes that we received with gifts. I have also saved all of the letters that John has written to me over the years. 

Pen and paper are powerful tools for building up a marriage. I've awoken several mornings to John's kind, encouraging words scribbled on a note and left on the bathroom mirror. I've snuck a few notes myself into his suitcase when he travels for work. These small reminders make a big impact because the act of writing reinforces commitment. Taking the time to describe in words how much you appreciate your spouse has been an important part of how we choose to love each other every day. And yet, marriage is also so much more than a piece of paper. It's consciously acting and doing what's best for your spouse, and thinking what's best of them as well.


I don't think I ever earned any gold stars for cutting in a straight line during kindergarten. Thankfully, now I have a husband who is there alongside me to encourage me when life isn't a perfectly straight line from point A to B.  

When one blade of the scissor decides to move, the other is forced either apart or together. Which way are you choosing to move and by default choosing to move your spouse - together or apart? Although still newlyweds, we have learned the importance of communicating how we are really feeling or what we're really thinking. Only honesty will enable us to both decide together in which direction to move next or where to point the scissors. And when we are working together, we can pull the scissor blades apart momentarily to each work in our individual strengths, knowing that it will bring us closer ultimately.

Next time you play "Rock Paper Scissors" with your spouse to determine who's turn it is to do the dishes, do a quick assessment on how well you're doing of standing on the same foundation, verbally building each other up, and communicating honestly.

**For more marriage insights, check out the blog Modern Mrs. Darcy for the Perspectives on Life and Love Carnival.**

From muddy yards to a muddied heart...

John and I are getting ready to move into our new house next weekend, and we couldn't be more excited! The renovation process has been much more fun than stressful, thanks to an incredible builder, crew, and realtor. It's been so rewarding seeing an empty house with just the studstransform into our new home, wall by wall and inch by inch.

I've mentioned before that being a part of the renovation process has taught me to appreciate the story behind what is seen. And the same is true for our backyard. One of the last steps to complete is the landscaping, and in one day the backyard went from being overgrown to a muddy mess.

Mid-landscaping... Hope to have a post-landscaping photo soon!
Heavy afternoon thunderstorms this past week have made the yard even muckier and messier than I expected. Yet in order to put down sod, the sloped yard must be evened out and smoothed down. It appears that it's getting worse before it gets better.

As a high achiever and recovering perfectionist, I struggle to find patience to see the vision beyond the mess - and I am not only referring to my yard. Whatever change that I want to take place - whether accomplishing a goal, trying a new hobby, or undergoing a serious heart change like accepting imperfections or being joyful in all circumstances - usually requires putting up with some muck and mud.

Especially for intentional heart changes, it is easy to see my muddied heart and despair. How will I ever change? How will beautiful flowers and green grass blossom here?

In listening to a sermon by Ted Sinn (Eph. 6:10-20) this week, I realized how often I believe the lie that if I make a mistake, such as slipping into a past pattern of perfectionism, that I cannot possibly be changing.

When you are discouraged that you are trapped being the same person you've tried so hard to change, don't allow yourself to be stuck looking at the murkiness. Instead, we must get beyond the mud and look from a new perspective. Out of struggles that seem to be moving us backward comes true refinement.

We need to allow ourselves to be embraced by the journey and trust that we are being transformed "from one degree of glory to another" because "it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (2 Corinth. 3:18; Phil. 2:13).

Don't see the mud. See each degree of glory that is taking shape.

Fallen trees, illness, and blessings in afflictions

After a rainy week in February, I wrote that when life gives you mud puddles, look at what is reflected above. This past week, with thunder and lightening crashing and flashing almost nightly, that metaphor proved very appropriate.

The night of a particularly big storm, I decided by "happenstance" to not park in my usual spot. The next morning I saw a splintered limb sprawled out exactly where I typically park my car. The speed and height of the tree limb hurtling down would have definitely caused damaged - if not crushed - my car.

My car next to the fallen limb
This experience caused me to wonder how many other every day choices, like where I park my car, are opportunities to see blessings. This instance was a blatant blessing, but in what other daily decisions do I need to pause and give thanks?

For example, last week I had a virus that made me very fatigued and forced me to stay in bed the majority of the week. On top of being sick, John was out of town all week on a business trip, so I was also missing him. Yet even in this affliction, I experienced so much blessing, and was once again reminded of the blessing of living in community.

Throughout the week, my friends (who are also my neighbors) checked in on me, sat on the couch and drank tea with me, and called and texted me to make sure I didn't need anything. I also had a friend who had me over twice in one week to her house for dinner - such a blessing considering I didn't always have the energy to cook.

Not only did these touch points with friends offer me love and encouragement, but the blessing of true  community offered healing as well. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, my friends offered me the opportunity to let others share in my struggle and take joy in connecting with friends and taking part in their lives.

I share these stories with you to encourage you to see the blessings in your own afflictions, allow others to be a blessing to you, and to be a blessing to others during their adversities. As the following passage shows, our endurance and encouragement comes through living in community with our neighbors:

"We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up... May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God." -Romans 15:1-7.


Have you ever been hesitant to share something about yourself, afraid it will reveal an unflattering portrait of your true self?

Now think to a time when you appreciated someone or something more than you would have had you not know the history, the struggles, the full story. Maybe it's your favorite work of art and the knowledge you have of the artist's intention behind the design. Or the compassion you feel for your neighbor with an ill family member. Or the constancy of love for your best friend despite what presents itself because you've seen the ups and downs.

Then why are we so hesitant to share our full self and present the real story? I've written about the case for vulnerabilitybefore, and I've seen in my own marriage how vulnerability and honesty allow us to love each other more fully. Like the new house that John and I are renovating, we're being stripped down to the studs and seeing each other to the core. And it's a beautiful process.

New house in progress! 

If we had bought our house newly renovated with freshly painted walls, shiny granite, and brand new siding, I would have thought it was charming and perfect. I would have thought the house's history was interesting. But I would not have fully appreciated its transformation. I would not look at the original wood floors and actually see where it came from and its history.

Instead, by watching dry wall be installed and colorful tile put up in the bathrooms, I recognize that to value the beauty in renewal, you must know the ugly parts too.

In marriage, I am able to love John so much more because I know the depths of his heart, because I know his story. In Atlanta, we have made close friends because we've shared our stories with one another - trials, heartbreak, triumphs, hope.

So often society tells us to first get our act together, present ourselves in the best light, and only then can we step out and be liked and accepted. But think about your closest relationships. My guess is that they are the ones that know your full story - and you know theirs - and you love each other because of it.

My hope is that by letting others see the story behind the story that we can enter into more meaningful friendships and relationships. And in doing so, we will appreciate the beautiful transformation that is taking place in each other's hearts every day.


That's our premise behind the Element3sixty interns dedicating their summer to put on Family Nights. Whatever a particular family structure looks like, the strength of it is what matters. I love working in an environment that is committed to building up students and their families.

Dad and me on the boat

In such a connected world socially and technologically, it's interesting to see society yearning for community relationships. A Wall Street Journal article last week discussed a new trend of taking down fences and sharing one large backyard with neighbors.

Since it's not likely to come across a village in urban or suburban America, how do you get a village to raise a child? How do you help build or contribute to a community that will support you in making and keeping your family strong?

At Element3sixty, we are hoping that our Family Nights will do just that through an experience we're calling "edu-tainment" or educational entertainment. We are bringing families together to learn about important lessons, like everyday leadership, giving back, and interacting with difficult cultures, but in a fun, interactive context.

Families grow stronger by going through experiences together and supporting one another. Remember those family road trips?

When I was in seventh grade, my family and I went on a road trip from Orlando to Toronto. Music sharing and downloading sites had just become popular, and before we left I spent an entire day downloading Dad's choice of CD for the trip. (Remember how it used to take hours just to download one CD worth of songs?) So we listened to Sting nonstop to Toronto. I don't remember all of our stops along the way, but I do remember bonding over the adventure, stopping at Gettysburg, touring Toronto, and, yes, rocking out to Sting with my family.

Cooking together is always a great family bonding experience!
Last Thanksgiving, John and I made pizza for the family with my sisters-in-law, Amy and Emma.

Similarly, communities grow stronger by living life together and sharing common experiences. It's not just living next door but seeking each other out to experience small, daily triumphs and failures together. For instance, two families who live in our neighborhood recently bought baby chicks together so they can both share the eggs.

What can you do to initiate connecting your family to another in your neighborhood? I'd love to hear your ideas in the comment section below!


One of the most quoted phrases is "the truth will set you free." As an American culture, we long for authenticity and hold high the value of freedom of speech.

Yet when it comes to fully knowing the truth about our own failures and shortcomings we prefer sugar-coated honesty. And oftentimes this is how we present the truth to others as well.

However, during the last eight months of marriage, I have learned that intentional truth-telling is essential for building a strong relationship. By this, I am not implying that you are to tell your significant other the truth harshly, to make yourself appear better, or to guilt-trip them. Speaking the truth in love means humbly addressing the other person and being vulnerable yourself.

John and me in North Carolina
Since we have only been married less than a year, John and I are obviously still new at this. However, a week ago we intentionally set aside the weekend, drove 2 hours to North Carolina, and had a mini marriage retreat for the two of us.

During the weekend, aside from relaxing, making s'mores, and being outside, we sat down together and answered eight questions. John wrote out the questions ahead of time and we both thought about them individually before discussing them together.

These are the questions we answered together:

  1. How have the first 8 months of marriage compared with what you dreamed about or envisioned?
  2. What are some of the things we need to acknowledge our thankfulness for in our first months of marriage?
  3. What do you want to get better at as a wife or husband?
  4. What do we want to get better at as a couple?
  5. What are some of the dreams that you have as an individual? How can I help you reach them?
  6. What are some of our dreams as a couple? How can we seek after them and surround ourselves with the right people?
  7. What are some of our greatest blindspots as a couple? 
  8. In what ways do you feel like you've grown since we've gotten married? 

As you can see, seeking to tell the truth is not just about uncovering your weaknesses. It's also about proclaiming your greatest hopes and dreams, and allowing another person to share in them. Because John and I are both committed to growing together as a couple and supporting individual God-given dreams, it set us free to intentionally speak truth into one another. This is a practice we want to continue doing every year, and I invite you to do the same.

Mountain Top Experience

I haven't ever been able to answer the question Which do you prefer, the beach or the mountains, with perfect certainty. The sea, sand, and sunsets fill me with such a sense of serenity. I feel both relaxed and creative at the beach. The mountains also provide peace and restoration but in a more rejuvenating and refreshing way.

This summer, I've been blessed to experience both. After spending a week in the Bahamas, John and I spent a night in Atlanta, repacked, and headed out to Colorado. After his work event (where he oversaw Chick-fil-A providing thousands of runners with free sandwiches- including me since I ran in the BolderBoulder 10K race!), we spent the next three days exploring Colorado.

After finishing BolderBoulder 10K in 55:45!
Having never been to Colorado before, I was continually amazed at the majesty of the Rocky Mountains. We drove to the top of Pike's Peak, hiked at Seven Falls, walked the Garden of the Gods, explored Breckenridge, and hiked in Estes Park. The entire time I couldn't believe how breathtaking and huge the scenery was, with a combination of rocks, snow, trees, and wildlife - we saw a lot of deer, elk, and moose. Plus, staying with great friends, Josiah and Chelsea, made the trip all the more memorable.

However, what struck me most was hiking alongside such grandeur. The trail we hiked in Estes Park was 6 miles and very steep. Yet since we were on the edge of the mountain, to our right we had an incredible view of the Rocky Mountain National Park the entire time. The beauty certainly distracted me from the strenuous trail, and we approached the top a lot faster than I expected. Although the views along the hike were amazing, the summit was indescribable. (The picture of the summit directly above hardly does it justice.) John and I silently took it all in, unable to grasp the beauty.

It struck me that oftentimes when life is "uphill," difficult, and rocky there is still beauty right alongside you, whether it's in nature, a relationship, or faith. Sometimes, you need to take your eyes off of the trail ahead (and risk tripping or a minor fall) and look around to appreciate these gifts. Oftentimes we doubt that our chaotic days will calm down; or conversely, we think that if life is presently providing blessings then the rough patches are yet to come.

Neither of these views is accurate. Life is never perfectly straight nor is it ever completely dark. Instead, beauty and peace coexist alongside the rocky and difficult. And awe-inspiring summits, both small and grand, appear throughout the journey... sometimes when least expected.

Treasure Hunting

About a week ago, John and I spent time in the Bahamas with my parents aboard my dad's boat Treasure Hunter. The boat is named after the verse, For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

While we were there, we certainly saw a lot of underwater treasures. We snorkeled almost every day over beautifully colored coral, spotting several sharks and a 100 pound grouper. We also collected many treasured memories, such as feeding swimming pigs, visiting an island of iguanas, and sharing meals on the back of the boat, overlooking the turquoise water.


But this isn't a blog post meant to recap our travels. Instead, I want to try to capture and share the immense splendor of the sea. Favorite places are very intriguing because they have the power to bring back memories, inspire us, comfort us, challenge us. 

I love snorkeling because it brings me face-to-face (quite literally) with a world that is unknown. The colors, shapes, and magnitude of the coral are difficult to fathom until you're swimming over them. I feel as a stranger in the sea, observing a home I wasn't invited into. At each turn I stumble upon sights that surprise me, such as an underwater grotto with light streaming through the roof like cathedral windows. 

Whether you're traveling this summer or not, we all have places that inspire us. The park in my neighborhood is often where I go to reflect, and John and I have had several meaningful conversations there while walking its paths.

As a part of learning to be present this summer, I want to be mindful of where I am. Where am I storing up my treasures? Am I only spending time somewhere because it's convenient or fun or required? Or is there a greater purpose to where I am, recognizing the beauty of creation or building relationships?

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also...

Appreciating Summer

The summer season is the time to slow down and appreciate the longer, lighter days by spending them with friends and family. So before summer slips away, I want to commit myself to taking advantage of a little extra time I'll have now that some weekly activities are on hiatus.

It's often tempting to set out with ambitious plans for the summer - cleaning, organizing, reading that stack of books by the bed - only to be derailed by relaxing and not doing much of anything with my extra time.

Instead of setting big goals for this summer, I want to focus on learning to be present, as I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. John and I are going to be traveling throughout this summer, so when we are in town, I want to take full advantage of beinghome. (As a side note, if my blog posts are sporadic this summer, it's because of the fun trips we have planned.)

In front of our new house... soon the screen and awning will be removed, and it will be resided and repainted!
Thanks to Leah for the photo!

Summer is also often spent getting on track for the rest of the year, but this process can leave some people anxious for what lies ahead. To this, I offer the same suggestion: Be present and appreciate the summer season for what it is. Many people receive hope and patience from the verse, "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope." (Jeremiah 29:11).

But what is often left out is the context that this verse is in, which I believe adds even more power to the hope it offers. God is speaking to people who have been exiled to live in Babylon. Directly before this verse, God says to them, "Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters... But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."

Do you see? His plans involve them being present where He has them now. Not where they want to be. Not even where He'll have them in the future. For now they are to be. To plant, grow, and develop through relationships and in community with each other. Now the change - the heart change - can take place.

"Welfare" is "shalom" or peace, and peace will come to the city when we are present there. Live there. Invest our lives there.

This summer, I am excited that John and I will be moving into our new house here in the city of Atlanta. I look forward to being present and getting to know our neighbors. We can't wait to eat dinner out on our porch and invite friends to join us. We're on a journey to be present in the city, and thank you for coming along with us!

What's your strawberry and lime today?

A few weeks ago, I bragged on my husband and posted about how small things really do matter.

I said that when you are aware and intentionally finding small graces during what could be an unmemorable day, suddenly each day is a new adventure.

Well the reverse of this principle is also true. When you purposefully seek out small ways to serve, love, surprise, or thank others, it provides the opportunity to make their day memorable. 

Oftentimes, I think we are hesitant to act on ideas that we have to serve others because the cost outweighs the benefit in our mind. And this thinking negates the intention of the act of service anyway.

Instead, through offering gratitude for small things that happen during my day, I've come to see that I can love others through little gestures as well. 

For instance, last night John and I had a couple over who had never been to our apartment before. Though I had already prepared dinner, I wanted to also show them in a small way that I appreciated them coming over on a Monday night and spending time with us. I quickly sliced a couple strawberries and half of a lime and put in into the water pitcher. Although this took only a few minutes of my time, our guests really appreciated the added touch. (And an entertaining tip sidenote: The water tasted like candy and is great for a summer meal!)

My question to you today is, What's your strawberry and lime? How can you take a minute out of your day and bless someone else? It doesn't need to be costly and overstated. Simply listening to a coworker who you might typically tune out, or writing a short email to let someone know how much you appreciate them... any small gesture can make an impact.

Learning To Be

Usually the first verb you learn in a new language is "to be." It is the foundation for all other verbs and conjugations, but it also stands by itself to mean exist, occupy, occur, identity, represent, signify, etc. 

"Be" is such a simple word but complex concept.

From the beginning, God calls himself "I Am":
"God said to Moses, 'I am who I am.' And he said, 'Say this to the people of Israel, I am has sent me to you.’” -Exodus 3:14
 "I am who I am" can also be translated as "I will be what I will be."

It's evident that learning the meaning of "to be" is fundamental to who we are. We were created in the image of God, so we too are intended to reflect this state of "being." Not in a hippy, yoga way (though I do love yoga), but in a way that is being present. 

I talk a lot about being embraced by the journey (hence the blog name), and a large part of this is about being present where you are. It's often said that the journey is more important than the destination. But what does this look like? How do we put "being present" into practice?

Being present is something that I am just beginning to learn. As a goal-oriented and achievement-driven person, I want to know that what I am doing fits into a larger purpose. 

But life change often doesn't happen through programs or strategies or goals. These are the methods not the meaning. Lives change through relationships. Through being with someone. 

Treat someone to coffee this week... for the conversation not just the caffeine 

Being present is probably the simplest yet hardest concept to practice. 
It is intentionally pouring all you have into where you are now.

I'm learning that I don't need to know how to fix the failing schools of Atlanta. I need to know the students. I don't need to know how to revitalize my entire neighborhood. I need to know my neighbors. 

Invest where you are, whether you see yourself there in the future or not. Be present by being known. Be present by living intentionally for your present, not for your future. You'll never reach your future because it's always ahead, always the destination. But you're in your present now, on the road, on the journey.

In an individualistic, isolated existence often extolled in America, being present and being known is transformative. For yourself and for others. 

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Isn't that the question that everyone is still trying to answer, whether you're 5 or 50? Or 23 in my case.

When I was little, I loved lining my stuffed animals up into rows and teaching them what I had learned at school by writing on an old chalkboard. I would even write up report cards for each stuffed animal (and I had a lot!), including extensive teacher comments on each one.

Another game I played with my best friend was "spy" - inspired by the Harriet the Spy movie and Nancy Drew books. I had a composition notebook and fanny-pack complete with magnifying glass, whistle, and compass. We would dress up in "camouflage" - and in my ten-year-old years, a lime green shirt with matching bright green shorts hid me in the trees - and walk the neighborhood. We would then proceed to solve all of the neighborhood's mysteries, like why a house alarm was going off or why paw prints were evident under a "Curb your dog" sign. I would record these clues in my composition notebook and by the end of the afternoon, we would have solved the mystery and saved the neighborhood.

Funny enough, my mom has been both a teacher and a criminologist, so maybe those two careers are more connected than at first glance.

Being a cowgirl partly came true when I lived in Nashville for four years during college...
Yeehaw to line dancing and country music! 

However, as adults, the difficult part about answering the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" is that we're tempted to want to give one word answers, like we did as kids, but our reality is not as defined. And oftentimes we want to change our mind every month day, but our adult world doesn't find that acceptable.

What I'm learning right now - and part of the reason that I started BeEmbraced - is that we need to learn to be content in the present, while still having a vision for the future.

Start discovering the joy of being embraced by the journey you are on:
  • Recognize that you don't need a one word answer to what your job is, what career path you're on, or even what you're passionate about. We are deeper than one word answers, one path destinations. It's ok to be in the process of discovery.
  • Allow yourself to dream. Suspend the need to have a concrete plan or perfectly defined answers, and instead ask yourself, "What would I do if I knew I couldn't fail?" I was recently asked this question in a self-discovery course, and it shocked me. I couldn't come up with anything because I kept getting stuck on thinking there's no way that'd be possible. Stop seeing the roadblocks. See the vision.
  • Start discovering your passions by acting on them in bold ways. You probably have some specific areas you're drawn to or interested in, such as health care access, AIDS prevention, or homelessness. But to really test and develop these, you have to interact with these issue-based passions on a deeper, more meaningful level. You need to get out of your comfort zone and confront these personally. What this looks like will differ from person to person and issue to issue, but you won't discover your purpose or "what you want to be when you grow up" until you meet your passions head on.
...And maybe your little kid dreams will end up having a kernel of truth to them.

A leopard print toothbrush and dirty dishes... It's the small things

What are the most memorable parts of your day?

Most days aren't filled with job promotions, meeting the love of your life, or traveling to foreign countries.

But for me, all of my days are filled with opportunities to appreciate my favorite parts about my job, be thrilled when I meet the love of my life at the door when he gets home from work every day, and recognizing the beauty even amidst the brokenness in our city.

When you are aware and intentionally finding small graces during what could be an unmemorable day, suddenly each day is a new adventure.

The key part is to recognize the small graces... appreciate the little things in life.

Today as I was brushing my teeth, I realized that is was an unexpected opportunity for gratitude. Not only because I'm thankful to have had braces and dental insurance, but because of my toothbrush. If you've known me for any length of time, you probably know that I love pink. And leopard print. Well about a month ago, John was running errands for us, and I asked him to pick up a toothbrush for me. He brought home the one below. It's a small joy but a daily reminder that my husband cares about and knows me well enough to buy me a hot pink leopard print toothbrush.

The hot pink leopard print toothbrush that John brought home for me.
 Another example was after John and I had company, and we made a huge mess in the kitchen cooking dinner and making breakfast. After pancakes and eggs that morning, we both had to be places, so I rushed out the door. When I got home, I found the sweet note John left me below.

The note John left for me: "I love you baby. Please leave these for me to do."

What's going on in your day where you can pause and notice small joys that are happening around you?

Write love on the tablet of your heart

Whenever I listen to the latest podcast on leadership or read a blog post on personal growth, a common theme pops up:
To accomplish big goals, write them down.

It's not enough to dream big (though this is a start); you need to show commitment. The act of writing down your goals makes them come alive. It also allows you to look back on them and have others to hold you accountable on your progress toward your goal.

We are meant to experience with all five of our senses. For me, the act of writing makes the ideas that I have become memorable. When I write - particularly in my journal, with pen and paper - I feel the pages in between my fingers. I see the colorful cover of my journal. I smell the ink from my pen. I hear the etching of the ink on the page. All of these experiences imprint my hopes, dreams, prayers onto my mind and heart, rather than letting them float aimlessly without taking shape. 

In Proverbs 3:3-4, we are told:
"Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; 
bind them around your neck; 
write them on the tablet of your heart.
So you will find favor and good success 
in the sight of God and man."

Even here, we see the connection between mindfully writing values and seeing them come to life.  

When John and I got engaged, we were so excited to write our names and date of engagement in Wheaton College's Bell Tower. Not only is it a tradition for Wheaton students, but it was a memorable way to record our engagement.

Now that we are in the process of renovating a house, we wrote Bible verses and phrases on the studs and beams to etch them into our foundation. We intentionally wrote our purpose for the house to welcome all who come into our home and that we recognize that everything is a gift from God. Writing, even though the words will be covered by layers of sheetrock and paint, will cause us to remember these blessings.

"The Lord our God we will serve and his voice we will obey." -Joshua 24:29
"Not one word has failed from all his good promise, which he spoke by Moses his servant." -1 Kings 8:56 
May all be welcomed and blessed who enter this home...
In the upstairs bedrooms, which will eventually be kids' rooms:
May our children know the love of their heavenly Father.

Lessons from the first 6 months of marriage

On Sunday, John and I will have been married for 6 months, so I thought it would be appropriate to reflect a bit on the start to our marriage.

But first of all, big news: John and I are buying a house! It's in our same neighborhood in east Atlanta- Grant Park- and only a few blocks away from the apartment we are in now. We love this area and are thrilled to settle here permanently.

The house was originally built in 1910, and now it is being renovated from top to bottom. John and I came across it at the perfect time to make all of the decorative selections - granite, tile, paint colors, cabinets, etc. - so it's been a lot of fun.

What does this have to do with marriage?

While walking through the house (see pictures below- you need a lot of vision to see a finished product!) it struck me how similar the bare walls are to my heart.

Before marriage, I felt all put together (most of the time!) and metaphorically painted and decorated.

But, like our house now, I'm beginning to see what my foundation is like underneath the "decor." For instance, when the builders started ripping down the old walls, they discovered that the house had had a fire decades ago. Some areas should not have even been built on top of, and it's amazing the ceiling held.

That's like my heart- I'm uncovering charred areas that I didn't know existed. Weak spots that are beginning to crumble. A lot of people have asked me, "What have you learned most about John since marriage?" And honestly, I've learned a lot more about myself.

And that's not meant to sound selfish. Though ironically what I'm learning is how natural it is to first think of myself and my own needs instead of putting John first. In seeing insecurities in myself, I'm being stripped down to the studs, like our house.

But the beautiful part is that in marriage I am being rebuilt. John and I can solidify our shaky foundations together. In faith, we can start putting up new walls of a servant heart.

And that is why, though I see a lot of imperfections in myself as a wife, I am not discouraged. Instead, John and I are building a new life together. And the first six months have been focused on drawing the blueprints to ensure that the foundation of our faith is solid enough to build up a marriage.

Like designing our "new" house, the process of discovering who we are as a new family has been so exciting. 

Daddy's kitchen

Last Friday was my Dad's birthday, and in honor of it I wrote a poem for him. Since he was my main inspiration for learning to cook - and since BeEmbraced includes a lot of my recipes - I thought I'd publish the poem here.

Dad giving my best friend, Alex, and me a cooking lesson in high school 

Daddy's Kitchen

Tiny footprints scamper
To her Daddy’s kitchen
Like kitty, fresh from nap,
And now weaving in, out,
And between legs
At the first sound
Of the tuna can opening.

Tiny feet arch, tip toe
Like in ballet class
To breathe in
The fragrance of Daddy’s hands –
Garlic, lemon, thyme…

15 years and tiny toes grow
Into high heels,
Clacking on linoleum floor.
First newlywed apartment
But space enough for
Garlic, lemon, thyme…
To pause at the chopping of carrots,
Inhale caramelizing onions and
Remember Daddy’s hands,
Preparing a gourmet dinner and
Simmering lessons of savoring
The homemade and heart-warmed,
Only enjoyed fully with family.

          Written by Steph Shackelford, 3/1/2012 

Worth the Risk: Community in the Windy City

Have you ever felt lonely even when you're surrounded by people? Have you ever moved to a new city and been homesick?

These feelings are often the result of not being in true community.

After writing this week's post on vulnerability, I began thinking about when I first recognized the importance of community.

During the fall of my junior year, I spent the semester in Chicago doing an internship for college credit at The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Although John was at Wheaton College during this time, I was still an hour and a 43 floor elevator ride from him most days. I was 19 and had never lived alone in a big city. Learning how to use the bus system to get to work and remembering to only buy as much at the grocery store that I could carry home were just the beginning of life lessons that semester.

John and I in the Windy City

What I quickly realized is that unless I got involved, my only community would be from 9-5 at work. So I ventured a block away to Moody Church to check out their college group. Everyone here was extremely welcoming, but one girl in particular - Amanda is her name - completely changed my Chicago experience. Because even though Amanda already had a group of friends and was married, she welcomed me into her life and her home.

Here's what I learned about community and loving your neighbor from Amanda:

  • I was embraced as if I were a lifelong friend, even though I'd only known Amanda a couple of weeks. 
  • Hospitality is critical for community.  By Amanda opening up her home to me, we had the opportunity to talk, laugh, and share experiences. 
  • Both of us took a risk to be friends. What I mean by this is that we connected on a deep level even though I'd be leaving after the semester was over. Many people don't want to "put themselves out there" because relationships are often transient. But you miss out on so much growth and community if you only play it safe. I'm not suggesting to spill your life to anyone and everyone. You definitely need to be wise about who you trust, but you also have to trust that the community that vulnerability brings is well worth it.

The Case for Vulnerability

"Love your neighbor as yourself" is a common saying but life today is fast paced and individualized. For many it'd even be awkward to introduce yourself to your neighbors, particularly ones who have lived next door for months or years.

Certainly if we don't know our neighbors (and by this I don't just mean the families next door and across the street) it's hard to act out in love for them.

John and I in front our our Atlanta apartment. (We're in the bottom right unit, not the whole house!)

But what about reversing this saying - Let your neighbor love you for yourself. In other words, be embraced by your neighbor.

I think part of the difficulty in being ingrained in our communities is because we are unwilling to be vulnerable. It seems much safer for us to get home from work, lock the door, and only welcome those into our home whom we choose to surround ourselves by. We can choose our neighborhood but we can't choose our neighbors. And there's the rub. How can we be vulnerable with people we don't self-select into our lives? 
Yet this is exactly what we are called to do: "Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another" (1 Peter 4:8-10).
To welcome someone into your home means you're welcoming them into your heart. And to love earnestly, we must be willing to be fully known. We serve others most effectively by entering into relationships with them. Otherwise, we're serving for ourselves - as a duty, to feel good, contribute to a cause, etc. But serving is more than a cause. It's people in need... and many of those people are right on your street, desperate for a relationship.

To love your neighbor requires that you let them love you. If they only know the put together person that disappears behind the front door each day, then they cannot fully love you for the brokenness, heartache, mistakes, and hardships that materialize once the door is closed.

By shirking vulnerability, we deny others the opportunities to deeply love us and we deny ourselves the grace that they have to offer. And the ironic part? By letting our neighbors love us, we are in turn loving them.

When life gives you mud puddles...

I’ve been in Orlando two times this February (once for the Chick-fil-A seminar and once to help my mom put on a Women of Compassion forum for Florida Baptist Children's Homes). Somewhere in there, John and I spent time with his granddad, who generously gave us a new - and very nice! - Nikon camera. 

When we were back in Atlanta, I spent an afternoon outside experimenting with the camera, while John was plugging away at Turbo Tax (sorry John!). It was a gray day, and at first I was bummed because bright skies make for more brilliant pictures.

However, I came to see the beauty in the mud puddle, and as I began snapping pictures I noticed the reflection in the murky waters. Above me towered big, leafy branches of a tree. (See pictures below.) 

I thought what a beautiful image it portrayed that while we're looking down into the muddy mess of life, magnificence is above for us to gaze on instead.  

At the Women of Compassion conference that my mom chairs, I saw firsthand how abused, neglected, and abandoned children saw a hope beyond their reality. (Women of Compassion is made up of women who support Florida Baptist Children's Homes and are passionate about praying for, financially supporting, and helping abused, neglected, and orphaned children.) 

At the conference, we shared a meal with the 19 girls who live at the Lakeland campus of the children's homes. We met house moms who have dedicated their lives to raising these children. Their passion and devotion for the children in their home was very evident in the way they loved them and all called each other "family." We heard a touching story of redemption from an abused and abandoned teenage girl who had been adopted from the children's home. Her name was Mercy. 

Story after story was told of changing your perspective on life to one of hope. 

So when life gives you mud puddles, look beyond it to the reflection that is above. 

Unveiling Beauty

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a woman's beauty and how beauty is the essence of a woman - but not in the way the media portrays. You've heard it before, that from photoshopped magazines to overly form-fitting clothes, our culture constantly tells women that beauty and appearance are synonyms.

You know that beauty runs deeper than seduction or attraction or a clothing size , but what does this mean for living in beauty on a daily basis?

"Every woman has a beauty to unveil." (Captivating). 

Every bride, no matter her age, body, weight, radiates beauty. Her face isn't creased with worry about measuring up. She isn't trying to prove her worth. She saunters down the aisle fully aware and acceptant of the love waiting at the end. 

But it's not just brides- every woman has a beauty to unveil. That means you and me.

Think of other women you know who emanate beauty, not just in outward appearance but in their whole being. Most likely they have a humble confidence. By this, I mean that they have "the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit," and they are fully secure in this beauty (1 Peter 3:4). Don't mistake "gentle and quiet" for being timid, mousy, quiet, a doormat, a pushover, etc. 

A woman with a gentle and quiet spirit is at peace, knowing she does not have to strive for perfection because beauty is already a part of who she is. She has fully been embraced by "a heart of faith, a heart that trusts in God, a spirit that has been quieted by his love and filled with his peace" (Captivating). In fact, a beautiful woman is becoming more and more who she is meant to be, whether this is funny, loud, introspective, inquisitive, thoughtful...

This kind of beauty is what invites others in. "A woman of true beauty offers others the grace to be and the room to become" (Captivating). By unveiling your beauty and being all of who you are, you also invite others to experience beauty - in you and in themselves.  

Striving for perfection takes away our beauty. Instead of being transparent and being embraced by others, it pushes them away. I encourage you to read this blog post about being confident in your beauty (not in a prideful, haughty way) but in a way that allows you to be embraced.

    And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
        So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
    The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
        But tell of days in goodness spent,
    A mind at peace with all below,
        A heart whose love is innocent!

A Woman's Beauty

What is beauty? Even the word itself is aesthetic and lyrical. 

Poets like Keats and Lord Byron have written their perception of beauty, ultimately that beauty is its own entity: 

Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all 
       Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

I agree with both of these lines (though Keats' last two lines have been debated throughout the years) because beauty is who God is. I am currently reading Captivating and am continually amazed at how "beauty in and of itself is a glorious good." Is it any wonder that God created us for Eden, the beautiful, magnificent, perfect garden? 

Captivating says, "Nature is not primarily functional. It is primarily beautiful... Nature at the height of its glory shouts, Beauty is Essential! revealing that Beauty is the essence of God." 

Yet, even more astonishing news... Women are the image bearer of God:

"In order to make the matter perfectly clear, God has given us Eve. 
The crowning touch of creation. Beauty is the essence of a woman... 
God gave Eve a beautiful form and a beautiful spirit. 
She expresses beauty in both. 
Better, she expresses beauty simply in who she is. 
Like God, it is her essence." 

I intend to write more on this topic, specifically how women are to unveil their beauty to the world, but for now, go into the weekend knowing that you are beautiful. Not just in your character. Not just in your appearance. But in your essence, your "gentle and quiet spirit"(1 Peter 3:3-5).

A sunset over the city is magnificent and invites us to experience God's beauty. Today, invite others to experience your beauty, through letting your guard down, stop striving for perfection, and simply being who God made you to be. Beautiful.

Be embraced by the journey

Most of us start the new year with bold ambitions for a new self. It's as if we think with January also comes a secret formula to achieve perfection.   

I'm not diminishing goals. In fact, I'm a very goal-oriented person, who is motivated by accomplishment. Anyone who's been to my apartment has seen the To-Do lists scattered around on sticky notes or my latest race training calendar highlighted with the days I've finished.

However, on the way to an ultimate goal, it is very easy to lose sight of the milestones along the way. 

Today I challenge you to be embraced by the journey. So often, we focus on how satisfied we'll be once we lose those last 5 pounds, after we get that promotion, or when we're able to balance our commitments and manage our calendar. 

The truth is, in the pursuit to accomplish goals or new year's resolutions, we miss out on a lot of joy in the present. I'm not saying to stop setting goals. We still need to know where we're headed. But if your goal or resolution is an unattainable level of perfection or if it's preventing you from seeing beauty and joy in the moment, I ask you to pause and consider why

Why are all the days dimmer until you achieve your goal? What is the real emotion or intent behind your goals? 

Honestly answering these questions will reveal what you believe is lacking in your life. Beauty? Money? Time? Acceptance? Approval? 

I challenge you to see how you're already being embraced by others who see your beautiful heart or approve and accept all of you - including the mess. I urge you to recognize that your desire for more money, more time, more status may truly be a perspective problem. Have you considered what your journey is and where you're headed? Perhaps you don't need that money, that clear calendar, that job promotion tobe who you're meant to be right now

I thought this blog post was appropriate to write during clean eating week here at BeEmbraced. I'm not encouraging others to eat clean so they can attain their personal definition of beauty or attraction. Instead, clean eating is revitalizing, providing you with the energy and health to go out and seek out the beauty in others... To serve others, whether in the office, your neighborhood, or your family. 

Why BeEmbraced? Part I

Today is a beautiful, winter day - sunny, blue skies, and just chilly enough to feel like Christmastime. It's usually easy to allow days like this to embrace me.

But what about those days, which are inevitably approaching, of gray, rainy, and dreary skies? My natural reaction is to want to pull the covers over my head and go back to sleep... or as my husband knows, put my eye mask back on and roll over.

Instead, my challenge to others and myself is to be grateful for each day, allowing the goodness and grace to wrap around you. BeEmbraced. Not that I'm ignoring or neglecting the justice and mercy still needed in our broken world. But my hope is that my posts inspire you to be embraced:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
          -William Blake, "To see a world in a grain of sand"

Why BeEmbraced? Part II

Although many people find change uncomfortable, our culture wants us to embrace all things new. I'm not arguing the pros and cons because I see both sides. It can be positive to get behind a new initiative, such as eating vegetarian once a week (which John and I are now doing!), but it is also draining to constantly try out the latest political, spiritual, physical, etc. ideology.

While we're seeking out the various aspects that we want to define us, we often miss the opportunity to be embraced. Notice the difference.
Be embraced.

I find that it is often harder to be vulnerable, receive grace, let others love you for you. To slow down, enjoy moments of solitude, let the beauty of nature surround you. Be embraced.

What have you been embraced by this week?

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