Tag Archives: Christian living

Review: Joy that Renews, by Steve Akerson

Cover of Joy that Renews: A devotional from Psalms to refresh your life every day, by Steve Akerson.

Joy that Renews, by Steve Akerson (River Birch Press, 2021)

These devotions brim with infectious joy and confident trust in our Lord.

Taking one verse from each of the Bible’s 150 psalms, Joy that Renews invites readers to grow deeper in their relationship with God. The daily devotionals focus on God’s goodness and love and on themes like living in freedom, thankfulness, and listening to God. Although the Psalms were written many years before Christ, they contain much that points to Jesus.

Each day’s reading begins with a title, a one-line summary, and then the Scripture, a brief application, and a heartfelt response. The conversational, transparent style makes for easy reading and relatability. The author uses The Passion Translation, which puts oft-familiar verses in a fresh light.

Anyone familiar with the psalms as a whole is aware that they’re not all light and jubilant. Some are laments, and some groan with deep pain and affliction. One of the points Steve Akerson draws from these heavier psalms is that “You will always have a big choice in your life—either to focus on your problems or on God’s goodness. That choice will make a tremendous difference in the quality of your life and on those around you.” [Day 22, “Chased by Goodness,” Hoopla edition page 61]

And “It is good for you to praise Him, even if your praise is accompanied by tears and sorrows.” [Day 31, “Turn Distress Upside Down,” Hoopla edition page 77]

I appreciate how, whatever the circumstances, this book turns the focus back to God and His goodness. This helps strengthen our faith and leads us into worship. I also appreciate the encouragement to listen to God with expectancy—the more we train our spiritual ears to recognize His voice, the closer we’ll walk with Him. Or, as Day 110, “Listen—God is Talking,” says, “His words will bring richness to your soul.” [Hoopla edition page 253]

These daily readings blessed me, and I’ll be marking Joy that Renews as a book to read again. The book is also available in print and digital format from many online venues.

Author Steve Akerson is one of the Prayer Team leaders at Hosanna Church in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. For more about the author and his book, and to request the free study guide that accompanies it, visit joythatrenews.com.

[Review copy from Hoopla.]

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Review: Holding On When You Want to Let Go, by Sheila Walsh

Cover art: Holding On When You WAnt to Let Go, by Sheila Walsh

Holding On When You Want to Let Go, by Sheila Walsh (Baker Books, 2021)

Subtitled “Clinging to Hope When Life is Falling Apart,” this book takes a candid and compassionate look at the struggles that can make us want to let go and give up. And it takes a clear-eyed look at the God who holds us in His care even when life really does seem to be falling apart.

Each chapter opens with a verse of Scripture and a relevant quote. The first five address the main things that threaten to overwhelm us: feeling like life’s out of control, feeling alone, when God is silent, when we’re afraid, and when we’ve messed up.

This is an easy to read, conversational-style book that feels a little bit like we’re sitting with the author over coffee. Sheila Walsh doesn’t write “down” to us in an instructorly way. Instead, her personal stories and those she shares from others prove she has the credibility to write about this. She’s been there, and is still there, just as we are. But she’s learned some solid strategies to keep holding on.

Those strategies are the focus of the second half of the book: learning to focus on the God who is holding us. We read about His promises, His character, and he amazing things He has done for us. The invitation is to actually let go… and to be held by the One who won’t let go.

Favourite lines:

I still felt like that five-year-old girl who was afraid of being known. What if someone saw the crack in my soul. [page 78]

The simple act of thanksgiving reminds us that God is with us and that He is in control. [page 103]

If life is making you feel like letting go or if you just want a little reassurance, this book can be a helpful resource. I love how it keeps pointing back to God and to His Word.

Sheila Walsh is an author, speaker, and teacher who I first discovered in my younger years through her music. Scottish-born, she makes her home in the US. For more about the author and her ministry, visit sheilawalsh.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Celebrating 2021 (Guest Post)

Celebrating 2021

by Steph Beth Nickel

Yes, you read the title right.

On December 26, the visiting pastor to our church asked us which we would choose, gold or a struggle. While none of us would willingly choose the latter, he was pointing out the fact that, while things of this world are fleeting, struggles help strengthen and mature us spiritually.

I’m not ready to choose struggles, but I am willing to look back and see how past challenges have shaped and grown me. I’m willing to commit the year ahead to God’s care, whatever it may bring—including further struggles.

Let’s take a few minutes on this, the last day of the year, to journal about what we can celebrate—both “the gold” and the growth that has come as a result of the difficulties, obstacles, and heartbreaks we’ve faced.

Here are a half dozen tips as to how to go about this:

  1. Start here! Make a list of all the things that thrilled your heart this past year. For example, my hubby and I were able to fly from Ontario to Saskatchewan for the weekend to witness our son and new daughter-in-law’s wedding. What an incredible blessing! Now, that was something easy to celebrate.
  2. And now move onto the more challenging part of the exercise. Give yourself permission to be 100 percent honest with yourself and with the Lord. We don’t have to put on a brave face and only write what is “proper and expected,” what we think others would want to read and what we think is acceptable. After all, no one ever has to read these words. (And God already knows what we’re thinking and feeling.)
  3. Take some time to really “feel the feels.” Sit quietly. Journal more. Head out for a walk. Whatever works for you.
  4. Prayerfully, re-examine these struggles. Ask yourself how you’ve grown as a result. Have you been able to empathize with others more readily? Are you more patient with them? Have you seen yourself “go deeper” with the Lord as a result of your challenging times? Journal about it.
  5. Press in even further. What have you learned about God? About yourself? About others?
  6. Record how you’ve grown and developed spiritually. Don’t think you have? Journal about that too. You may be surprised.

Note: This post is for you, not your spouse or your best friend. We should never minimize the struggles others have faced or are facing. It’s important not to weigh them down further with additional “Shoulds.” I’m sure they’re doing enough of that to themselves. And while the Scriptures are true, as it says in Ecclesiastes 3, there is a time to speak and a time to remain silent. We need wisdom as to which is which. Spoken at an inopportune time, Bible verses can sound like nothing more than platitudes. Words meant to encourage and uplift can cause guilt and shame.

Further disclaimer: It is not my intention to weigh you down with Shoulds either. If you can only complete #1, go for it! While I may see some growth in me that has resulted from the challenges I’ve faced, I’d still rather they came via “the gold.”

What are you celebrating about the past 12 months?

What is one way in which you have matured spiritually because of a struggle you’ve faced?


Photo of Steph Beth Nickel
Photo credit: Jaime Mellor Photography

Steph Beth Nickel is an editor, writer, and birth doula. If you would like more information about her services, you can contact her at nurtureandinspire@gmail.com;
join her Facebook group:
 https://www.facebook.com/groups/2725853534313738;
or visit her website-in-progress: nurtureandinspire.com.

Review: Prepare Him Room, by Susie Larson

Prepare Him Room, by Susie Larson (Bethany House, 2021)

Did you know there are 24 chapters in the Gospel of Luke? That’s one for each day of December until Christmas Eve.

Prepare Him Room is a gentle invitation to make space in our lives this Christmas season, to take time to refocus our spirits on Jesus and not miss the “sacredness of the season”. As the introduction says,

…it’s precisely this season when Christians most often lose sight of what’s available to them in Christ Jesus. [page 11]

In Prepare Him Room: A Daily Advent Devotional, each reading opens with related Scripture verses and quotes from other authors. In a friendly, conversational style, author Susie Larson shares anecdotes and applications that reorient us to Jesus, His presence, and His power.

Each day concludes with a prayer and a suggested “fast” from a thought pattern, attitude, etc. I’m sure we’re not expected to magically erase each one from our lives in one day, but in training us to notice these things in our lives, the author gives us a tool for ongoing, prayerful growth in the days ahead.

Favourite line:

Even though God delays, He delivers. [page 17]

My review copy is a delightful hardcover gift book complete with ribbon marker. The simplicity of the cover is like a deep breath, slowing me down to rest as I open to the day’s reading. I look forward to going back through the pages when December comes. [An ebook version is also available.]

For more about author and speaker Susie Larson, and for her online devotional encouragement, visit susielarson.com.

[Review copy provided by Baker Publishing Group via Graf-Martin Communications. My review is voluntary and is my own uninfluenced opinion.]

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Picks from 2020

Graphic credit: Goodreads


Seventy books is a reduction in reading for me, and I’m happy about that. It allowed more time in a crazy pandemic year for knitting, jigsaw puzzles, baking, and other comforting activities. Plus I read more nonfiction in 2020 and that takes longer.

Here are the books I’ve most enjoyed last year. Some were produced in 2020, some previously. Pop a note into the comments with your own favourites?

My top picks from 2020:

Book of the year (fiction): Set the Stars Alight, by Amanda Dykes

Book of the year (nonfiction): Letters to the Church, by Francis Chan

Christian living: 
Fiercehearted, by Holley Gerth
Forgotten God, by Francis Chan
Get Out of Your Head, by Jennie Allen

Mystery/suspense novel: 
A Dream of Death, (Kate Hamilton Mysteries #1), by Connie Berry
All the Devils are Here (Armand Gamache #16), by Louise Penny

Science fiction novel:
Chaos Rising (Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy #1), by Timothy Zahn
Ghost Riders in the Sky, by Timothy Zahn

Series re-read: The Quadrail series, by Timothy Zahn

Favourite re-read: The Icarus Hunt, by Timothy Zahn

Review: Letters to the Church, by Francis Chan

Letters to the Church, by Francis Chan (David C Cook, 2018)

I’ve read some impactful Christian nonfiction this year, but this book may be the most crucial.

Francis Chan writes here with a gentle, prayer-steeped tone, knowing some of what he has to say can sound hard and may be misused.

He actually pleads with readers not to use his words to berate leaders who may not be doing the best they could. And he confesses those times he’s been where some of those leaders may be. (He does warn readers who discover they’re in a church with false teaching to find a Bible-based church right away!)

So now you’re wondering what kind of book this is. It’s the result of the author’s study of what church looked like in the Book of Acts and what it looks like in other parts of the world today.

He challenges readers to “slow down long enough to marvel” [page 5] about Who God is and who we are in Him, advising, “don’t try to solve the mystery; just stare at it.” [page 7]

Chapters address wonder, pleasing God first, prayer, leadership, suffering, attitudes, and more. The focus is on simplifying, going back to the Gospel basics, and developing into an intimate capital-C Church family. The model is house churches, but it has plenty of insights and challenges that readers can apply in established building-based churches as well.

Favourite lines:

Remember it’s not about what I would like, what others would like, or what “works.” Church is for Him. [page 150]

My hope is that you will refuse to take the easy route. You need to care about His Church enough to fast and pray. You must believe you play a necessary role in the Church. [page 151]

One of the key takeaways is that each member of the church has a role to fulfill and that everyone working together is the church. The shepherds are to be training up other shepherds, not raising complacent sheep.

Francis Chan built and shepherded a megachurch in California before God called him and his family to missions in various parts of Asia. At the time of this book’s publication they were back in the United States, planting and growing house churches as part of wearechurch.com.

[Review copy from the public library.]

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Review: Get Out of Your Head, by Jennie Allen

Get out of Your Head: Stopping the Spiral of Toxic Thoughts, by Jennie Allen

Get Out of Your Head, by Jennie Allen (Waterbrook, 2020)

Subtitle: “Stopping the Spiral of Toxic Thoughts”

In Get Out of Your Head, Jennie Allen declares that “The greatest spiritual battle of our generation is being fought between our ears.” [Chapter 1] The thrust of this book is that we have a choice to control out thoughts—even when it’s hard, repetitive work.

She’s quick to warn that we can’t “think our way out of mental illness.” But even there, learning to redirect our thoughts can work with the medication.

The principle of this book is that toxic thought spirals can be interrupted and redirected, and that they begin with wrong beliefs about God or with not internalizing what we know to be true about God. In offering strategies, she lays out some common lies, their opposing truth, a Scripture to hold onto, and a stated choice we can make. These choices make up a number of chapters.

The writing style is candid, informal, and personal, as if the author were speaking to an intimate group of listeners. She uses her own experience as the main source of examples, so readers know she’s lived what she’s teaching.

I came to the book after the Get Out of Your Head teaching series through Right Now Media, which I almost didn’t listen to. The opening anecdotes and peppy delivery were not what I relate to. I’m of a different generation, temperament, and have different interests. However, it didn’t take long to recognize helpful teaching. After listening to the full series, I found the book through my local library’s Hoopla app.

If negative emotions and toxic thoughts are familiar battlegrounds for you, or even if you feel like you’ve lost that fight a long time ago, Get Out of Your Head may be just the resource you need to regain mental ground.

I love how it focuses on truth about who God is and how it equips us to recognize the lie at the root of our feelings and then to choose to focus on the truth instead.

Jennie Allen’s website says she’s a “Bible teacher, author, and the founder and visionary of IF:gathering.” For more about the author and her ministry, and for a free “Get Out of Your Head Toolkit,” visit jennieallen.com.

[Review copy from the public library.]

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In Search of Joy and Wisdom (Guest Post)

Red heart with a puzzle piece missing.
Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay

In Search of Joy and Wisdom

by Steph Beth Nickel

In the English Standard Version, James 1:2-5 says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”

I can almost guarantee we’re all going through a trial of some description. Thankfully, as believers, we can cling to the promises in this passage.

It won’t be easy. And the full effect of steadfastness won’t happen overnight, but we can rest assured that God will be with us each step of the way. And I need that assurance right now. How about you?

In the early days, COVID-19 exacerbated my tendency to procrastinate to a full-on “What’s the use?” attitude.

With God’s help, I pushed through … although I still have a tendency to put things off. However, I no longer believe my efforts to forge ahead are essentially futile.

And then George Floyd and the racial divide spotlighting the need for God-honouring forgiveness and reconciliation.

In Ontario, churches have been allowed to reopen with restrictions. You would think this would be a cause for celebration, that we would delight in the opportunity to be together again. And while that’s the case to a certain extent, we are witnessing everything from those staying away because of fear to those who think we should completely disregard the governments directives.

We have come to realize we don’t know one another as well as we thought.

Enter social media. Facebook, in particular, has become a place where we hurt one another because of the hurt we’ve been carrying, the hurt that those who attend church with us may not be aware of.

Enter, once again, the “What’s the use?” mindset.

Why would I explain myself? What good would it do?

Why would I share my perspective with that particular person? Their mind is already made up.

Why would I voice my opinion? It will only cause an argument.

Or the other extreme …

Why shouldn’t I voice my opinion? I want to start a conversation. (Sadly, this “conversation” often devolves into something completely emotion-driven and just causes more hurt—especially if posted online.)

After 35+ years in the same church, I have seen countless hurts and disagreements. Those are unavoidable. I get that.

But what do you do when one person you love and care about wounds another but you haven’t witnessed it firsthand?

You want to submit to authority.

You don’t want to cause division.

But you believe we, as the body of Christ, could be more than this, more genuine, more authentic, more loving.

I long for the day when beloved brothers and sisters don’t simply disappear into the night as it were.

However, in all this, I must cling to James 1, trusting God to work it all out not only for me but also for all those involved.

When we face trials and heartbreak, we can count on God’s promises.

When we just don’t know what to do or say, we can ask for wisdom and trust Him to provide it.

It may be cliché, but “God’s got this!” And boy, am I glad!

Tweetables:

The full effect of steadfastness won’t happen overnight. (click to tweet)

God will be with us each step of the way. (click to tweet)

What do you do when one person you love and care about wounds another? (click to tweet)

When we face trials and heartbreak, we can count on God’s promises. (click to tweet)

When we just don’t know what to do or say, we can ask for wisdom and trust God to provide it. (click to tweet)

Steph Beth Nickel
Steph Beth Nickel
Photo of Steph Beth Nickel
Photo credit: Jaime Mellor Photography

Steph Beth Nickel is an editor, writer, and birth doula. If you would like more information about her services, you can contact her at nurtureandinspire@gmail.com;
join her Facebook group:
 https://www.facebook.com/groups/2725853534313738;
or visit her website-in-progress: nurtureandinspire.com.

Review: Fiercehearted, by Holley Gerth

Fiercehearted, by Holley Gerth

Fiercehearted, by Holley Gerth (Revell, 2017)

I have so many lines in this book highlighted! Some because they’re comforting, encouraging, or challenging, and others because the word pictures are beautiful.

A few favourite lines:

In the introduction, Holley Gerth writes that she wants the book to help women

…feel less alone and more comfortable in our God-sewn skin and a little surer that we are a force to be reckoned with in this world. [Kindle location 189]

It’s in these moments that we carry wonder and fear like twins. [Kindle location 2080]

We’re all just clay on the wheel, which is another way of saying we are dust being sculpted into glory. [Kindle location 2214]

I found author Holley Gerth through Ellen Graf-Martin’s Change Makers Podcast, and have been appreciating her email newsletters and posts ever since. When I saw the digital version of her book, Fiercehearted, discounted recently, I snapped it up.

With short, conversational chapters transparently reflecting the author’s life experiences, Fiercehearted touches on topics common to many women: conflict avoidance, identity, self-worth, insecurity, success, perfectionism, expectations, failure, work, depression, friendship, and more.

Highly recommended for Christian women, and especially for those who appreciate the writing of Emily P. Freeman, Carolyn Watts (Hearing the Heartbeat), and Ann Voskamp.

For more about Holley Gerth and her ministry, visit holleygerth.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

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Review: Beholding and Becoming, by Ruth Chou Simons

Book cover: Beholding and Becoming, The Art of Everyday Worship. By Ruth Chou Simons

Beholding and Becoming, by Ruth Chou Simons (Harvest House Publishers, 2019)

“The most ordinary days become extraordinary places of transformation when we hope in Christ instead of our circumstances… No circumstance is too ordinary or too forgotten for God to meet us there in worship. His transforming grace turns our ‘everyday ordinary’ into a holy place of becoming.”

Beholding and Becoming, page 221

This delights me, because I hear an echo of Brother Lawrence’s call to practice the presence of Christ. It makes such good sense: the closer we are to Jesus, the more we abide in Him, the richer life becomes. The more like Him we become.

Subtitled “The Art of Everyday Worship,” Beholding and Becoming is a lovely hardcover gift book. Each of the 16 sections is lavishly illustrated with soul-resting art and gentle text. Sections are divided into “Beholding” a key truth about God and “Becoming,” where readers are invited to apply what they’ve read to daily life.

Stopping to appreciate the artwork helps readers to slow down and absorb the text. The art incorporates symbolism (explained in a glossary—don’t worry if you’re not visually intuitive) to reinforce section themes.

I’ve marked a number of key passages for further thought. The sections that spoke to me most personally looked at smallness (held in God’s greatness) and at redefining failure and success (the author declares, “Faithfulness is success” [page 111].

These, and other themes addressed in the book, are common to many people in these crowded, don’t-slow-down days. Beholding and Becoming is a meditative invitation to dare to slow down and consider who God is—and what difference that can make in our lives.

Ruth Chou Simons is the author of GraceLaced, another beautiful hardcover gift book, and she is the founder of the GraceLaced ministry. For more about the author and her work, visit gracelaced.com.

[A review copy was received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I was in no way compensated for this review.]

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