Reflecting on a Word

In 2019, I purchased a goal planner, which included a process of setting goals and choosing a single word to focus on during the year. I was intrigued and chose the word, reflect. I placed it on a card on my desk and over the year, I did think about what that meant in my life and how it was working itself out.

Last year, I decided to try the word of the year again. I chose a word, wrote it down, and then, at some point, lost the card with the word. It made so little impression on me that I can’t even remember the word I chose.

With such an abysmal failure with the word of the year, I had decided to skip it in 2021. I have plenty of intentions for my year and don’t really need that single focus. Or, at least, I didn’t think I did until the last week in December. A friend posted a discussion topic on a forum I’m part of and asked if we could discuss choosing a word of the year. I confessed what had happened in 2020 with my now lost word and that I didn’t think I would choose a word this year.

But I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. In my desire to improve my prayer life and draw closer to the Lord, one thing I am learning to do is to stop and listen, to notice when I see or hear patterns or trends in my reading, thinking, sermons, friends’ counsel, etc. Over that last week in December, I started noticing the theme of rest coming up over and over. That noticing caused me to stop and think about what rest might mean for me.

Anyone who has known me for any length of time probably has picked up that I am a planner. I like to have my ducks in a row, to know what is happening throughout a day, a week, a month. I track progress I make in several areas of my life. In order to best use my time, I have built structures into my life to help me stay on track with intentions and goals.

However, as I have been pursuing a deeper relationship with the Lord this past year, I had added regular Bible reading and study, regular prayer times, and other means of grace, but I knew something was blocking me going further. As I pondered the idea of “rest”, I began to realize that in the good and godly pursuit of knowing Christ more and drawing closer to Him, I was striving in my own strength to do it. Instead of resting in my union with Him and allowing His life and power to pour through me, I was trying to make myself fruitful. To use an analogy from Rankin Wilbourne’s book Union with Christ, I was frantically try to blow the wind on my own sail to live the Christian life.

I saw the idea of rest in the study of Matthew I’m doing with friends at church. I saw the idea of rest in this book I’m reading on union with Christ. We sang the hymn Jesus I am Resting, Resting in church the last Sunday of December. Rest was everywhere I looked when I started paying attention.

Listening is not my strong suit but even I couldn’t miss the fact that the Lord was telling me something. I didn’t need to strive and do a bunch of things to draw close to Him. In fact, all of that doing was possibly getting in the way. Instead, He desires me to rest in Christ, to know the truth of the gospel—that Christ became the wisdom from God, the righteousness, sanctification, and redemption for us. As we rest in Him, His life flows through us and we are fruitful as a result of that life, not as a result of our own work.

I have been a Christian for many years and I know these truths in my head, but I keep having to go back and work them out in my life. I have been saved by grace and I walk by grace but again and again, I need to learn what that looks like. Every time I want to go deeper with God, I have to see what that grace looks like in my day to day life in a new way.

After all this thinking, I ended up choosing a word for 2021: REST. I have written it down in my journal, on that forum with friends, and placed it in several places so I can’t forget it. This year, I will once again learn what it means to rest in Christ.

Do you choose a word to focus on each year? What have you chosen for 2021? Please share in the comments so we can encourage each other in our growth this year.

January is For Reflection

You will see the theme of reflection throughout my January posts. Last week, I mused about my reading life in 2020. Today I want to focus on using these first weeks of the new year to think and set my intentions and priorities.

I started using the first few weeks of January for reflection after reading an article in the old Victoria magazine back in the 1990s. Each January, the magazine would print a “winter journal”, focusing on different topics about the season. One year, there was an article which talked about using the quiet winter months for reflection and thought. This resonated with me, and I have viewed January as a time for thinking about the new year ever since.

Years ago, I chose September as my calendar start since it coincides with the start of school and many activities after summer vacations are done. This crisp season seems right for jumping into a new calendar.

January, on the other hand, is the time that I stop and think about priorities, values important to me, and intentions. It’s a quiet month. The holidays and their busyness are over. Often, the weather is more conducive to staying inside with a hot cup of tea than for gardening or taking walks. Even the trees are quiet with their leaves long gone and their branches stark against the sky. Birds and animals are asleep or slow this month. Even my garden is asleep, sometimes under a coverlet of snow.

So I take my direction from the rest of nature and become still inside. What is going to be important to me this year? What do I want my life to look like? How will I focus my reading? My writing? My use of time and energy?

As I ask myself these questions, slowly ideas form in my mind as to where I want to focus. I write down these big ideas, from which I will derive the quarterly, monthly, weekly, and even daily intentions that land in my planner.

Laura Vanderkam, a time management expert that I particularly admire, often talks about the importance of being intentional in using your time. There are millions of things we can choose, but we have a limited amount of time. How we want our life to look, things we want to accomplish, priorities in our spiritual, physical, emotional, and intellectual lives that we want to set–all of these are the things we use to choose how to spend our time.

I will spend the next few weeks, curled up in a comfy chair in my bookroom with pen and paper in hand, reflecting on my progress over the last year and creating or sustaining the intentions for this upcoming year. This will help me to know if I used the time I have been given wisely the next time January rolls around again.

Do you have a specific time to set your goals or intentions? Are you intentional in your use of time? I’d love to hear about your choices in the comments below.

Reflecting on My 2020 Reading

My reading journal

Now that 2020 is behind us and I’ve caught my reading journal up, I’m ready to reflect on what my reading life looked like last year. As with most other people, I have been at home a lot more than normal. While I continued to work from home for most of my regular hours, my commute shrunk to nothing for half the year and is still only a couple of times a week vs. every weekday.

Back in August, I did a reading goals check in on how my reading was going. At that point, I was reading almost 78% fiction and hoping to get to about 30%-70% nonfiction books to fiction books. I ended up reading 106 fiction and 30 nonfiction by the end of 2020. That’s 72% fiction and 28% nonfiction, which isn’t quite 30% but still the highest percentage I’ve read in recent years.

I did manage to squeeze another poetry book in, but because it was one that followed the Christmas calendar and didn’t end until Epiphany, I can’t count it for 2020. I’d like to bump the number of poetry books up to at least one a quarter or, even better, one every other month in 2021.

Audiobooks were so low–only five for the year. Losing my commute did a lot for my exercising and cooking, but killed my listening time. I ended up listening mostly to sermons and podcasts during my walks each day and dropped audiobooks altogether from March on. However, I have hopes for a better listening year in 2021. I’ve already downloaded Hilary Mantel’s third Cromwell book. I loved listening to Bring Up the Bodies on audio so I have high hopes for finishing The Mirror and the Light, too.

The biggest jump was in rereads: 64 of the 139 books I read were ones I had read before. That’s almost 50%! I put that down completely to compulsive comfort reading during the lockdown, pandemic, and political shenanigans throughout the year. I reread several mystery series, including Deborah Crombie’s Kincaid-James series and much of Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge series. At the end of the year, I gulped down many of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Here are the books I appreciated or enjoyed this most. Many of them were nonfiction.

Voices from the Past, Volume 2: Puritan Devotional Readings, edited by Richard Rushing – The deep devotion and theology of the Puritan theologians kept me grounded during this difficult year.

Life Path: Personal and Spiritual Growth Through Journal Writing by Luci Shaw and Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton – I read both of these with a group of women and the discussions made the reading so much richer.

Beholding and Becoming: The Art of Everyday Worship by Ruth Chou Simons – The combination of the gorgeous artwork and theological truth made this a great book to read this autumn.

What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman and Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport – Both of these books on living a productive life were helpful although from completely different places theologically.

Jenny Walton’s Packing for a Woman’s Journey by Nancy Lindemeyer – I had forgotten how much I loved this book. This is one of two rereads that made my best of 2020 list. It’s filled with beauty–both in writing and subject matter–and I enjoyed every essay.

My fiction reading wasn’t nearly as rich, probably because I did so much rereading for comfort. However there were a few that rose to the top:

Sorcery & Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede – For sheer fun, this was a winner. It’s an epistolary novel (my favorite kind!) and clever, witty, and full of the best kind of magic.

The Windsor Knot by S.J. Bennett – This mystery set in Windsor Castle and involving Queen Elizabeth II and her secretary won’t be out until March 2021, but when it comes out, read it if you love mysteries and/or the royal family. It was a fun, fun book. I sped through it in two days and wasn’t sorry at all. I’m already looking forward to the sequel.

The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin – I read the first two of The Broken Earth Trilogy last winter. They are filled with amazing world-building and an intricate plot. Now that things are settling down again, I’m ready to pick up the final book in the trilogy to see how Jemisin ties it all up. She’s inventive and clever, and I recommend these to anyone who likes science fiction/fantasy.

The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge – A reread but a very special one. This story about mental illness and new beginnings is healing and beautiful.

Last, but definitely not least was Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – I don’t know if I have the words, with which to praise this book. The plot was simple–a story about a wife of a famous man and their relationship before and after the loss of a child. It was how O’Farrell wrote it–the descriptions were lush, the characters were so well-drawn that you felt that you knew them personally, the plot of tight and held together, and the emotional punch was gut-wrenching and tear-inducing but yet I couldn’t put it down. There is a bit of magical realism and the Black Death, and Shakespeare. If you love any of those things or if you just want a “Thumping Good Read”, pick this one up.

As I reflect on my reading year in 2020, I can see gaps, but overall I’m happy with what I read last year, even if a lot of it was rereading. What was your favorite book from 2020 and what do you hope to read next?