resources and reviews

Breathe Christian Writers Conference: High Value, Low Cost

I spent most of the weekend at the Breathe Christian Writer’s Convention, which was wonderful. But by Saturday afternoon I had to get out for a minute. My brain was overflowing with information and my introvert energy levels were sorely depleted, so I snuck out of a session to go to the mall.

I do realize that makes me sound like a seventeen year old, yes. But I really needed to go see the new comforters at my favorite housewares store (rhymes with Mottery Marn), and so the seventeen year old in me commandeered the keys to the minivan and off we went.

This image was borrowed directly of the Pottery Barn website, and it may bear a strong resemblance to the very quilt I was considering.
This image was borrowed directly off the Mottery Marn website, and it may bear a strong resemblance to the very quilt I was considering.

Can someone please tell me what makes a blanket, a piece of woven cotton threads, worth $300? Of course quality costs more, and I’m willing to pay a fair price to a company that doesn’t churn out $12 blankets because they’re running sweat shops in the Philippines.

But $300? For a blanket? Good grief and no. So I trundled out to the minivan and drove back to the conference, where I stuffed the remaining cavities of brain space with a few more bits of information.

Here's my friend Bob, I think. I don't know who took this photo because I stole it right off the Breathe Facebook page.
Here’s my friend Bob teaching, I think. I don’t know who took this photo because I stole it right off the Breathe Facebook page.

It occurred to me later that the Breathe Conference was the exact opposite experience of my blanket shopping trip. I’ve been to other writers conferences that cost over $650. I really thought the internationally known speakers and workshops would justify the high price tag, but I left terribly disappointed. There was a lot of hype without a lot of help.

This would be the panel of editors that Ann Byle interviewed for us all, giving us the inside scoop on what editors want. (And what drives them crazy!)
This would be the panel of editors that Ann Byle interviewed for us all, giving us the inside scoop on what editors want. (And what drives them crazy!)

In contrast, Breathe cost me $130 and I took away more information than I know what to with. I have a folder stuffed with tidbits I need to start using and for this I spent $520 less than the fancy-pants conference.

It turns out sometimes the price is not right. The extra cost is not always justified.

This explains why the comforter I’ve had for five years is currently in the washing machine, awaiting its third dye job. I stopped at Hobby Lobby after work today to grab a bottle of navy blue Rit Dye. If this works (fingers crossed), I’ll have an approximate copy of the $300 blanket but it’s going to cost me a total of four bucks.

If it doesn’t work, I really will be in the market for a new blanket soon. But it certainly isn’t going to be the one at the Mottery Marn.

If you’re in the market for a writers conference, I highly recommend the Breathe Conference in Grand Rapids (October 7-8, 2016!). High quality doesn’t always come with a high price tag, and this conference proves it.

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How to Tell If Your Kid Is Spoiled (and what to do about it!)

I picked up a new book, The Opposite of Spoiled, at the library last week. If you are raising children in the Western, materialistic world, you should read it. Ron Lieber is the “Your Money” columnist at the The New York Times, which is an impressive credential. But credentials don’t mean anything to me unless an author is talking some sense, and Mr. Lieber does just that.

The book discusses all the ways children in our culture are affected by money– family finances, their own personal finances, and what they see going on in their community and social network. If we think they don’t notice our parental arguments about money or how expensive their friends’ homes are, we’re dullards. They notice. Kids notice everything. And the more we can teach them about finances before they’re adults with their own big-time money problems, the better.

This is the general topic of the book, but a small chapter on spoiled children really caught my attention. Lieber points out many parents fear this one character trait more than any other in their children, because it’s our own fault. Children can’t spoil themselves; they need well-meaning but clueless adults to do that to them. And most of us are mature enough to see the terrible consequences of a spoiled child growing into a spoiled adult.

It’s ugly, folks.



Most parents don’t set out to destroy their children’s future, and so some of our kids are becoming spoiled simply because we think we’re doing exactly the good and kind things. Lieber gives these four qualifications of a spoiled child (p. 10). He says they don’t have to be present all at one time, but these are things they have in common:

  1. They have few chores or responsibilities.
  2. There aren’t many rules that govern their behavior or schedules.
  3. Parents and others lavish them with time and assistance.
  4. They have a lot of material possessions.

Let me rephrase:

  • They think life should be easy and fun. For them. Everyone else can work.
  • They think they get to do whatever they want, whenever they want.
  • They think adults exist to entertain them and fix their problems.
  • They have no concept of self-denial.

In short, spoiled children are taught, in small bits each day, to think only of themselves and their own comfort in any given situation.

My blood is running cold at the thought of this; is yours?

Me, me, me. Gimme, gimme, gimme. Now, now, now. 

The solution, as I see it, is simple. Chores teach them to help out and consider the needs of others. Rules and schedules give them boundaries that help them consider the needs of others. Adults are not their servants; they need to teach them to think of the needs of others and to fix their own problems whenever possible. Telling them no teaches them that life will continue if they don’t have everything they desire, which will in turn help them to consider the needs of others.

Parents– we can spoil our kids, or we can help them grown up into thoughtful, mature adults.

Thoughts? What would you like to add to the conversation? I can’t wait to see what you all have to say about this!

Jesus said: I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:11-13)

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The Jesus Prayer: Just What Your Prayer Time Needs

Behold, I have learned something new. And now I’m going to teach it to you.

Except some of you are going to fall off your chairs laughing at me, because it’s nothing new and you’ve known it since you were a tiny wee thing in church, your grandma knows it, and Christians for hundreds of years have known it.

The Jesus Prayer. It’s nothing new, but it’s new to me.

Our particular brand of Protestantism wrinkles up our nose at recited prayers. We feel they’re canned, they’re impersonal, and they often don’t make room for the Holy Spirit to break through into our hard thoughts.

This is what we tell ourselves anyway, and I do remember a running theme of Godisgood, Godisgreat, Nowwethankhimforourfood, Amen at the Morgan dinner table from 1981 to, oh, this last Christmas. Our parents tried to teach us to pray and instead we found a rhyme we could throw in God’s general direction before we dug into the food.

Of course spontaneous, heartfelt prayers are often the best way to connect with God, but let’s be honest. Our prayers often turn into this: God, here are the things I want you to do for me. Safe travel, comfortable finances, a good future, and healthy loved ones.

Me, me, me. I, I, I. We shoot up a to-do list to the Almighty and expect him to hop to it.

(Insert awkward pause where everyone, including this writer, remembers exactly what we’ve told God to do for us lately…)

I’ve been reading a book called Flunking Sainthood by Jana Riess. Chapter by chapter she’s been going through some of the classic approaches to faith and then she reports how miserably she fails at them.

I love it. I love the book, and I love Jana Riess. In the chapter on Centering Prayer she stumbled across the Jesus Prayer, which is this:

The Jesus Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. 

Riess says this about the Jesus Prayer:

That’s it, the whole enchilada. Four wee clauses packed with gospel truths: Christ’s lordship, his relationship to God, our need for forgiveness, our propensity to sin. It’s a prayer that Christians have been saying since about the fourth century. It’s a prayer I might even have a chance of living out. (p. 75)

This is exactly what I’ve been trying to do lately– find God for who he really is and then spend time in his presence. No demands. No begging. No manipulating. Just a simple search for him, then resting quietly with him. This tiny little ancient prayer takes the focus off myself and puts it directly on him. Perfect.

Lord Jesus Christ,

…that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Galatians 2:10-11, NLT)

Son of God, 

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, NLT)

have mercy on me,

For God said to Moses, “I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.” So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it. (Romans 9:15-16, NLT)

a sinner.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, with underserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. (Romans 3:23-24, NLT)

(Insert Drumroll Here…) A Free Ebook for You!

Green Plastic Monkey free ebook

Dear reader, how I appreciate you. Without you and your willingness to read the random thoughts I type, I’d only be a lunatic pushing buttons on a little gray piece of glass and circuits.

But you, the reader, turn me into an actual writer and not just a weirdo. Because you are the far more important part of this little team (anyone can hit buttons on a keyboard– only super wonderful people will read what comes of it), I have a present for you.

Okay, it’s not really from me. A bunch of other people at the publishing house gave permission for this to happen. Discovery House is offering my first book, There’s a Green Plastic Monkey in My Purse, as a free ebook from now until March 30. EEEEKKKK! This is very exciting!

Here are three different places on the webernet you can find it. One of them should work for whatever device you have. Click on the links and you’ll be taken right to the Green Plastic Monkey page:

  1. iTunes
  3. BookShout

All this free gift-giving is in anticipation of the release of my next book, If I Plug My Ears, God Can’t Tell Me What to Do, which arrives in stores in early May. In fact, I got the first copy yesterday, delivered to my door. Here’s a little picture.

Plug My Ears Collage

Again, thank you so much for reading. I hope you’re excited about the next book and all the new adventures we’ll have together. In the mean time please feel free to share the first ebook with as many people as you can– word of mouth is the best marketing tools we authors have.

A final note– The book of Isaiah and I have had some quality time together this week as I’ve been seeking God’s will and words. These verses especially resonate with me today as I contemplate all God is doing through these books. I am so pleased it’s spilling out of me and into your lives. I pray his will for your life will spill out of you and bless those around you, and may he receive all the glory.

The Sovereign Lord has given me his words of wisdom, so that I know how to comfort the weary. Morning by morning he wakens me and opens my understanding to his will. The Sovereign Lord has spoken to me, and I have listened. I have not rebelled or turned away. (Isaiah 50:4-5, NLT)

Book Review and Giveaway! Our Daily Bread for Kids

This is an exciting day, my friends. I have in my hot little hands not one, but two copies of the brand spanking new Our Daily Bread for Kids. For years our churches have had those little booklets from Our Daily Bread tucked in random spots all over the building. You can find them in restaurants and next to the Bibles of adults across the world.

But never before has there been an edition just for the kids– until now!

If you could imagine me typing away at my kitchen counter while a fog machine billows out a lot of smokey air and I fling my arms towards the ceiling dramatically, that would give you a better feel for the excitement at the moment.

I am flinging my arms around, but I don’t have a fog machine. That’s an expense I can’t justify for the blog. Yet.

But back to the point– a few weeks ago Our Daily Bread Ministries contacted me and asked if I’d like to review the book here on the blog. And since Josh (employee of said ministry) and I have known each other for many years, I cheekily demanded giveaway copies too. (Full disclosure– ODB is the parent company of Discovery House, which publishes my books.)

Our Daily Bread for Kids Giveaway

Because I love you, my loyal readers. I want you to join the fun, too! So Josh and Denise (another ODB employee) stole (or maybe borrowed/begged– I don’t know how these things work) copies and mailed them to my house and then I eyed them with distrust as they sat in my kitchen.

Because here’s a little backstory for you. I don’t trust children’s devotionals anymore after a little incident we had a few years ago when a well-known Christian children’s show put out a book of so-called devotionals. It started out okay, right at the kids’ levels, but then I realized that many days didn’t actually have anything to do with the Bible. We were reading inspirational thoughts and quotes from famous people who did nice things.

If I wanted to teach my kids nice thoughts from famous people we could simply watch a Saved by the Bell marathon and let Screech and Kelly Kapowski teach us important lessons.

I’m going for eternity here, people. I want these children to know and love the Bible and know and love the Savior who fills its pages. I don’t have time for nice thoughts and moral lessons because in a few short years these kids are out the door and I’m out of time to teach them.

I threw that other book right in the trash. I didn’t even want to give it to friends. So, therefore and thus, you see why I was eyeing Our Daily Bread for Kids with a little skepticism. I handed it off to my son, who’s at the upper level of the recommended age range (six to ten years old), before I read any of it. I said, “Honey, I need you to read five of these pages.”

He was almost done with his homework and was trying to beat his sister to the TV, so he wasn’t super happy about the assignment. A little struggle ensued, but I won because children don’t win struggles in this house.

(Usually.) ((Unless it involves an extra cookie and their father isn’t around to protest.))

But after he settled down and started reading he looked up and said, “Mom! This is good!”

“What are you learning?” I asked/demanded.

And then he listed off few things about sin, and taking a bath, and lying. For a nine year-old boy who was dying to get to his video games, it was pretty impressive.

I picked up the book where he abandoned it and gave it the hairy eyeball, still expecting little. I grew more and more excited when I realized many of the devotions are simple, age-appropriate retellings of actual Bible stories. Some days have a little visual illustration built in or an explanation of biblical culture, which is pretty crucial for kids who only know the modern way of life.

I couldn’t be more pleased. The authors, Crystal Bowman and Teri McKinley, have done a wonderful job.

I leave us with a little quote from the December 26th entry:

People make their own plans and try to take control of things– but nothing can stop God from doing what He wants. God is bigger than anything people try to do to change His plan. You can trust that God will save you through Jesus. You can always trust in God’s power and love to protect you.


GIVEAWAY UPDATE: We have two winners– Deb W and Susie F! I’m mailing out their copies this week. Congratulations, ladies. You’re the best!

A Short Explanation on Your Missing Blogger

Dear readers,

Precious, wonderful, lovely readers.

I miss you! But our computer is still in the shop, waiting for the technician to return. They said the earliest he could repair it would be tomorrow, which means we’ve been computer-free for a week. In theory I could blog from my phone while we wait, but now the poor thing is getting so old that “social media” is more of a concept than an actual thing it does.

I’ve spent my extra time–wait for it–reading. I’ve been reading actual books! It occurred to me that maybe you’d like to read them too, assuming you might be interested in slowing down and paring your life down to what matters.

Here’s what’s been occupying my mind this week:

  • Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. Do you ever step back, look at your day, and wonder: Why am I doing all these things? Do they even matter? This is the book for you! Greg Mckeown will help you chop out the stuff that doesn’t matter.
  • In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honore. I am loving this book! Carl Honore’s writing style is just so…compelling. I’m learning so much without feeling like he’s even teaching. He has a few other books I’m adding to my reading list as soon as I finish this one. (P.S. There’s an entire chapter on slowing down in the bedroom. Worth the read, my friends!)
  • Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World by Lee Camp. You may have noticed there’s a huge divide between cultural Christianity and oh, you know…what Jesus told us to do. This is driving me crazy, and Lee Camp has hit the proverbial nail right on its proverbial head. Jesus told us to take up our cross and follow Him, and many other things we completely ignore as we build a protective nest around our religious beliefs. Christ-followers– this is a book you must read.
  • Romans, chapter 12 by the Apostle Paul. If we’re not supposed to build those protective nests, what are we supposed to be doing? Romans 12 gives us a good start. I’ve been reading and rereading it this week, hoping to soak more of it in.

What about you? What’s on your reading table?

Romans 12 10

Books: Causing Thinking People to Think Even More Thoughts

Bear with me, here. I promise I do have a point but it’s going to take me a minute to get there. Let’s start with this: I am quite finished with the concept of an over-booked schedule.

Do you hear me? I mean it. I’m tired of cramming too many things into every day and feeling like I’m wrung dry by the time I crawl into bed. This is no way to live.

If I’m understanding the cry of the culture, I’m not alone. Michael Hyatt’s talking about this problem, Lysa TerKeurst just wrote a book about it, and the faces of my friends who are caught in their own endless busyness clearly indicate that we are a culture who has lost its collective mind. We need to slow down. We need to stop doing it all. We need to catch our breath.

Part of my new campaign (such a fancy and official word– campaign. Heh.) on this blog is that we’ll be doing less and listening more together. I want to have less things to own, less things to do, and more time to build relationships that matter. So I’ve been picking up a few books here and there to help us refocus.

These books have failed me. Oh, if you could only peek in to my anguished, swirling mind. Because here’s the thing– you can take back a schedule and cut out the things. You really can. But then what? What are we really supposed to be doing with our time? Are we supposed to be cutting everything out so we can nap more? I don’t think that’s the point, either.

Busyness keeps us moving, so we never have time to consider this. The frantic pace shuts out the real question, which is what are we really supposed to be doing?

Jen Hatmaker’s book Interrupted was one of the books I thought would clear my head. Instead I’ve spent the last few weeks with increasingly crazy thoughts as my mind bounces from one option to another. At first, I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t buying Jen’s argument of what a Christ-centered life and church is supposed to look like. Her church is deeply rooted in service to the poor and needy in their community, and while that is certainly a crucial part of a church’s purpose, I don’t buy into the idea that the church is supposed to become another homeless shelter or social services agency or even a hospital.

Yes, Jesus fed people. And he healed the sick. He was adamant about social justice. But none of those issues was his main focus. A few years ago our church tried an outreach where we went down to the homeless shelter in Kalamazoo and had a cookout for anyone, in or out of the shelter, who wanted to eat with us.

Agonizing. The experience was agonizing. Because I am all about building relationships, but I am not at all excited about hopping in and out of someone’s afternoon with a hot dog in my hand.

The memory of how I felt completely inadequate and quite stupid and bulbously overfed rings in my mind years later. I wished I could have walked into the kitchen and spent an entire week washing the dishes. Then I would have had a chance to serve, but more importantly, to truly get to know those exact same people at the shelter.

This leads to the important question– so why didn’t you, Jess? Why didn’t you spend a week working in the shelter’s kitchen? The truth is simple. I didn’t have the time. I didn’t have the time then, and I don’t have the time now. I could make the time, but then I’d be right back to the main issue which is that my schedule is out of control. And, quite possibly, yours as well?

There are hundreds of good and worthy things we could all be doing right now. Feed the hungry, volunteer at the hospital, visit the elderly, read to the children, pick up the litter, counsel the youth, save the earth… But we also have jobs, we have children, and we have lives to live. How do we balance the needs of the world with the needs in our own lives?

Just as the crazy voices in my head were reaching a fever pitch, I found this in Interrupted and suddenly Jen Hatmaker and I were best buddies again:

How much more tangible is the gospel when someone experiences it over weeks and months with a real believer whom he or she can ask questions of and learn from by observation? When a Christian consistently treats someone with compassion or demonstrates integrity at work, the gospel wins a hearing. We can continue to invite unbelievers to church, but we must first invite them into our lives. Have them over, go to dinner, welcome them in. (pg. 205)

And then, a few pages over:

Believer, your pastor or your church can never reach your coworker like you can. They do not have the sway over your neighbor who has been entrusted to you. No one better than you can love your wayward brother. One decent sermon cannot influence a disoriented person in the same way your consistent presence in her life can. (pg. 207)

And suddenly my path was clear again. I don’t need to add more things into my schedule. I can love others right around me, right in the midst of my pared-down, sane schedule. So, be prepared. If you’re standing next to me after school as we wait for the kids to be released– you’re my new mission field. If you teach my kids–blammo! You’re up. Next door neighbors, consider this your fair warning.

Quote from Interrupted by Jen Hatmaker

Maybe one day, when my kids aren’t so little and I have a chunk of time, I’ll add in a new service project at the shelter. Maybe you have that block of time available right now, and if so, go for it! Reach out. But until that time, I’ll be focusing on the people right around me.

And, dear readers, if you’d like to join me in my crazy thoughts, I’d love to have you with me. Here’s my current reading list. I’d like two-page book reports on each tome, on my desk by Thursday morning. (If you’ve read any of these and like to comment below, I’ll let you skip the book report.)

  • Interrupted, by Jen Hatmaker
  • Life on the Vine, by Phil Kenneson
  • Slow Church, by Chris Smith and John Pattison
  • The Book of John, by John, Jesus, and of course, the Holy Spirit. 🙂
  • 1 Corinthians 9:9-27

Almost Amish: The Book That Will Make You Long for a Buggy and a Bonnet

I was trolling Pinterest the other day, looking for simple living ideas from other folks. I came across this picture and nearly dropped dead from joy at the cover of this book:Almost Amish by Nancy Sleeth

The full title is Almost Amish: One Woman’s Quest for a Slower, Simpler, More Sustainable Life. Nancy Sleeth wrote it, and although I’d never heard of her until that minute I was already a fan. I peeked into Amazon and took a look at the first few pages, then bought it sight unseen.

This almost never happens. I only buy books I already know I love.

Turns out it was money well spent.

Nancy writes with something I cannot overstate: rock-solid common sense. You might have zero interest in the Amish, and you’re still going to be convinced that you need to trade in your minivan for a buggy by the end of this book.

Or at least for a Prius.

Because horses are not the most convenient option, frankly.

Anyway, on to the point. The Amish are long known for their simple approach to life, pretty much ignoring whatever the fools in the outside world are doing. Their faith is strong, their families and communities are solid, their finances are often stable, and they don’t spend their lives mucked up in buying things or impressing people. Almost Amish finances

While the Sleeth family isn’t any more Amish than you or I, they have made purposeful choices just like the Amish. For example, they raised their children to play outside and use their imaginations, instead of filling them with video games and trips to the mall.

They often invite friends and family to their home to share simple meals. (Recipes included!)

They care for the environment, own the aforementioned Prius, and often ride bikes or walk whenever possible.

And this, my favorite, jaw-dropping choice they made– Nancy’s husband quit his job as a physician and director of the local ER so he could “spend the rest of his life trying to serve God and save the planet, even if he never earned another cent.” (p. xiii)

Yes, yes. Read that again. He quit his job as a doctor to be a not-doctor.

And Nancy didn’t even have a heart attack or a panic attack or anything. At least, not for long. She embraced the change and focused on these two words found many, many times in the Bible: Fear Not.

Well, okay. I should probably try that, too.

Without setting the Amish on some sort of idolatrous pedestal, the book takes their excellent example and then translates their choices into ideas we can incorporate into our own lives. We can also strengthen our families and communities. We can shop locally to support our neighbors. We can own fewer things and enjoy our people more.

Just like the Amish.

But without the burden of buying horse feed.

I’m in, are you? What’s the one thing you admire most about the Amish? Do you ever drive to the nearest community and just pray you’ll get to see a girl riding on a bike with her bonnet strings blowing in the wind?


Well, I Still Hate to Cook, but This Cookbook Is Pretty Dang Fabulous.

Okay, the title of this post is a little misleading. I really do like to cook. But I mostly want to wander into my kitchen when the mood strikes me, whip up a little something delicious, and then not cook again for days or months or whatever.

It’s the daily drudgery that gets to me, you know? Why do these people insist on eating every day?

Not to mention our ongoing gluten-free needs, which makes it more complicated and expensive; the cost of groceries in general is, quite simply, out of control. We are coming perilously close to the brink of spending more each month on groceries than we do on our mortgage. Yikes.

I eye all the new cookbooks at the library with suspicion and low expectations. I want recipes to be delicious, cheap, and easy in equal measure. I do not want to wander around Meijer, hunting for cranberries grown in a moonlit bog and harvested by elves.

Got it, cookbook writers of the free world? Cheap, simple ingredients, easy, and delicious. Dial back on the imaginative recipes for us, pretty please.

budget bytes cover art

Beth Moncel, author of Budget Bytes, gets it. She really does. Pushed into frugal eating by her own economic needs, she has written a cookbook that checks all my boxes. She was even considerate enough to rate her recipes from $ to $$$, indicating the really cheap options. Bless her. She has an entire chapter on rice, beans, and lentils, and how to make them edible. (Don’t pretend you like lentils all on their own. I can see you shaking your head at me.)

Right now, at this very moment, I’m flipping through the book and I’m seeing ingredients like black beans, vegetable oil, basil, and carrots. I know what these things are. I even already have these things! (Okay, not the carrots.) Yes, occasionally she throws in a hot sauce I don’t have or a spice I can ignore, but no cookbook is perfect.

This one comes pretty close. Tonight we’re having Garlic Herb Pasta (page 108) with some leftover chicken thrown in for good measure. As soon as I close this post I’m headed over to Amazon to buy a copy of this book, because I’m pretty sure the library doesn’t want their book returned covered in food stains. (Here’s the link to get your own!)

Any other suggestions? What cookbook do you love?


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