“I Must Decrease” … But How?

To hear the world tell it, it’s all about me.

Being true to myself.

Doing what makes me happy.

Following my dreams.

Living my best life.

Speaking my truth.

Becoming the best version of myself.

Listening to my heart.

It’s pretty clear: the world’s loud, incessant voice tells me that in order to be happy, I need to spend more of my time, money, and attention on myself. You’ve probably heard the same message about your need for this, as well.

But knowing the human heart as I do, and correlating that to what the Bible has been telling me all along, it’s also pretty clear that for true fulfillment in life, we actually need just the opposite. In most ways, we don’t need more of ourselves. We need less.

Less need for approval. Less dedication to self-indulgence. Less striving for self-actualization.

Less of ourselves. But oh, how hard a concept this is. How difficult to adopt this lack of expectation in everyday life.

Two thousand years ago, before he was sent to prison for speaking truth to power, John the Baptist was very popular among the people. So popular, in fact, that he repeatedly had to remind and convince his adoring public that he was not the promised Messiah: “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’” (John 3:28)

I can see John now, standing beside the river on the dusty ground … weathered skin, tangled hair, a wry and gentle smile on his face: “People. This is about Jesus. This is not about me.”

Or in his own, more eloquent words: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) In this he speaks for all of us.

What does it mean that we, as Christians, must decrease so that Jesus can increase? It’s easy to see the “why” of this statement when the person speaking it is a rock star like John the Baptist. (Think: a celebrity preacher, or a wildly popular Christian author, or an internet sensation.) When the focus is too much on a particular person, they become an idol for their fans, followers, or parishioners and the focus strays from Christ. And sadly, the person who has tasted fame, even through promoting Jesus, can become addicted to the positive rush of their own self-importance.

Now, the vast majority of us are not rock star Christians. Yet we are susceptible to the very same temptations of focusing too greatly on satisfying our own desires, receiving applause for our God-given talents, and maintaining sovereignty in our own little Kingdom of One.

John tells us that we must decrease, and that’s so hard for us to do … yet Jesus himself goes even farther. He minces no words: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:23–25)

How do we decrease? How do we lose our lives for Jesus’ sake?

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Secondary Characters, Center Stage

Is there a name for a genre of books where a secondary character in a beloved classic takes the starring role in their own story? If there is, sign me up to read them—when they’re as well-written and engaging as the four below.

I recently finished Marmee: A Novel of Little Women, by Sarah Miller (2022). The author did her research before writing this book, and based it on what she learned of Louisa May Alcott’s parents as well as on Little Women itself. The result is a beautifully written tale from Marmee’s point of view, covering the same time period as the original novel but in a diary format. I love Little Women, and I love the movies made from it, but I’ve sometimes been frustrated with the abundance of critical and cinematic attention paid to Jo as opposed to her (in my opinion) equally interesting sisters.

Now, I like Jo, and I empathize with her as a character, but I also love Meg, Beth, and yes, even Amy. I’ve always felt that these four sisters symbolized different aspects of coming-of-age womanhood—aspects I recognized in myself even as a young girl reading Little Women for the first time. In Marmee, we experience the same story from a mother’s point of view, which thankfully means that in this retelling, no one daughter gets top billing in the story; there is no favoritism from either Marmee herself or from author Sarah Miller. I really appreciated that.

Miller also shows us another side of Marmee (based heavily on Alcott’s own mother) that reflects her abolitionist ideals, her pursuit of justice, and her strong desire to help others less fortunate than herself. I appreciated also that Marmee wasn’t presented as the perfect mother or woman, but one with realistic character flaws and secrets that affect her relationships and explain different aspects of the original story.

After I finished Marmee, I realized that I had read several books lately in this “genre,” most of which I’d enjoyed very much. Three other “secondary character takes the starring role” books are:

Caroline: Little House, Revisited, also by Sarah Miller. I read this when it came out back in 2017, and I just loved it. The Little House books and Laura Ingalls Wilder are huge interests of  mine, as is the whole topic of women’s domestic history (which is what I call that area of history dealing with everyday, average women rather than “famous” women in any given time period). Caroline Ingalls has always fascinated me because I admire her strength, her integrity, her adaptability, and the innumerable skills and talents she exhibited as a 19th-century pioneer wife and mother. This book isn’t for children; it deals with the nitty-gritty of what life was like then for women on the prairie, while following the story roughly of the same time period of Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie book. One caveat: Miller realistically depicts every aspect of Caroline’s life, including her loving marriage to a good man. If that aspect of the Ingalls’ relationship is not something you are interested in reading about, then this book probably isn’t for you.

Mr. Rochester, by Sarah Shoemaker (2017). I’ve read Jane Eyre several times, and I’ve always loved the character of Edward Rochester. But I know that some who love Jane have a hard time also loving Edward. This book is Sarah Shoemaker’s imagining of his backstory, from his childhood through the end of the original book. Whether you “like” the character of Rochester or not, this book offers a plausible and well-written explanation of how he got to be who he is. (As an aside, not long after I read Mr. Rochester, I also read Wide Sargasso Sea, which is Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel of Antoinette/Bertha’s backstory. This book is often spoken of as a postcolonial and feminist masterpiece of modern fiction, but—or perhaps because of this?—I just didn’t like it. I found it pretentious and rambling, with unlikable characters that didn’t hold my interest.)

Jacob T. Marley, by R. William Bennett (2011). I didn’t expect to like this book. Quite frankly, I expected it to be a mediocre capitalization on the tremendous popularity of A Christmas Carol. I’m so pleased to say that I was wrong. After reading this book back in 2020, I wrote: “I loved this! I teared up in several places. What a great companion to A Christmas Carol. Plus, the paperback copy I read is beautiful, inside and out.” Many reviewers note that Bennett captures the spirit and language of the original tale, and I have to agree. In my own library, I shelved this book right next to A Christmas Carol, where I think it rightfully belongs.

I doubt that “Secondary Characters, Center Stage” is a literary genre (if there is a genre for this category, I don’t know what it is). If you had asked me several years ago about writers creating books based on other people’s famous secondary characters, I’d have been skeptical, to say the least. And I’d have missed out on four really enjoyable books based on books that I’ve loved in the past and have learned to appreciate all over again, from a secondary character’s point of view.

Photo by Greyson Joralemon on Unsplash

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This house.

I didn’t have one for so long.

I lived with my grandparents for my first eight years in their house, a two-bedroom, 1920s stucco that I still dream about to this day—my first memory of “home.” Then came a succession of progressively smaller and seedier apartments, other people’s spare bedrooms, a motel room, and several trailers, until age 17, when I called a dorm room and then six or seven other places “home…” before life became firm and certain and I could trust that the ground under my feet was no longer shifting but stable and sure.

And then Rick and I filled this home with other people of our own making. That in itself is still kind of astonishing to me.

Yesterday those same people gave me a gift that flooded me with emotion and I had to cover it up and collect myself before I could study it in every detail: the front door, the porch, the bird feeders, the flowers, the swing set in the back yard, the military flags … the memories and the people and most of all, the love that has been poured out and given freely and surrounded each of us for 23 years inside these familiar walls.


Yesterday at church, on Christmas day, we sang “How Great Thou Art,” and I had to blink back tears:

“When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation

And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart…”

But Lord, you’ve already filled my heart with joy. Through this home and these people that you’ve placed here with me. Never in a million years could I have seen this coming in my life.

I often wish I could go back in time and give my child-self a glimpse of her future. The stability, the people, the love, the sureness of it. The goodness of God through it all. This painting of “home” is a treasure to me for all of these reasons and more.


“Sore Afraid” at Christmas

Who doesn’t love “A Charlie Brown Christmas”? Who doesn’t smile at Charlie Brown’s sad attempt to put on a meaningful Christmas play, Lucy and Schroeder at the piano, Snoopy’s festive doghouse, and Vince Guaraldi’s unforgettable music?

But the part of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that everyone (every Christian, at least) especially loves is the scene where Linus, on stage in a spotlight, recites the King James version of Luke 2:8–14 from memory. For several years now, the internet has been extremely excited over one particular aspect of this scene: when Linus quotes the angel as saying, “Fear not”. Because at that very moment, Linus drops his security blanket—something the average viewer (that would be me) completely missed over nearly 50 consecutive years of watching this Christmas special on TV.

And that is certainly something, that dropping of the blanket, that symbolic moment of separation from our fears, of no longer needing false security when we cling to the one true Savior. (Here’s a good explanation of this scene, along with a video clip.)

But there’s another part of that scene that has always tugged at my word-loving heart over the years, ever since the first time I heard it. As a child, I wasn’t familiar with the Bible, and Linus’s speech in  King James English sounded exotic and thrilling to me. While it was all pretty exhilarating, I had a favorite part; in fact, I still do. For this reason, and this reason only, do I strongly desire every Christmas day to hear the story of Jesus’s birth read aloud from a King James Bible.

Does anyone else love the phrase, “sore afraid” as much as I do?

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Faith · Parenting

Light of the World, or 120 Watts of Jesus

Originally posted on Dec. 22, 2020

When each of my children was around 5 years old, we did a “Names of Jesus” unit together during our Advent homeschool time. Each day we would focus on a different name that Jesus is called in the Bible, such as shepherd, king, Alpha and Omega, or light of the world. Each lesson had an activity, craft, or lesson associated with it, most of which I’ve forgotten now … except for the object lesson I used for “Light of the World.”

To begin this lesson, we would look at Bible verses together such as John 9:5, where Jesus says, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” It was very clear to even a young child that Jesus understood his role in the world as a light to shine in the darkness. I then proposed that we go into the darkest room in the house, a small bathroom with no windows. Always eager to get up and move, and intrigued by continuing the lesson in the bathroom (of all places!), each child would eagerly comply.

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Faith · Reading

Why Read Devotionals?

Have you ever been cautioned to not read a daily devotional? This advice seems a little counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we, as Christians, be urging each other to gain daily encouragement from a trusted author, to make it a habit in our time spent with the Lord each day?

Over the years, though, I think I’ve more often been discouraged from reading devotionals than encouraged. The reason that is almost always given is this: The danger in reading a devotional is that it may take time away from (or completely replace) your Bible reading for the day. And the goal of daily Bible reading, even just a few verses, is one that every Christian should aspire to. “Daily time in the Word” means just that: in the Word itself.

I agree with that—when it comes to what you read, what you put inside your head and heart on a daily basis, the Bible itself is the most important thing. Many people struggle to read the Bible every day (I certainly did, for years), but there are many ways to do this even when your schedule is packed or you have small children or a demanding job. (See here for letting go of certain Bible reading expectations that might be making things harder for you.)

That said, though, I really love devotionals.

Why read devotionals?

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What Does God Want of Me?

Three questions to ask the next time you’re faced with a difficult situation in life.

Several years ago, my husband and I were facing a tough situation in our lives. I don’t remember the details—who was involved, what it was about, or what the outcome was. I don’t remember if it was a minor issue that we solved in a few hours or if it was a lingering problem that went on for weeks with no resolution. I don’t even remember if it was exclusively my problem (or his) or if we faced it together.

But what I do remember are the three questions that came out of this difficulty, questions that my husband raised in the midst of this trial to help provide us with direction and guidance. These questions have stayed with me ever since, and have given me clarity and lessened my burden in a wide variety of situations: problems with children or other family members, issues in my marriage, dilemmas in church, personal trials, and more.

The questions are these:

In this difficult situation…

  • What does God want me to do?
  • What does God want me to be?
  • What does God want me to learn?
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Coming-of-Age Novels—One Old, One New

What is it about adolescence—that time between childhood and adulthood—that is so endlessly fascinating to us? Why is it that the music of those years stays with us as “the best” music of all time? Why do we remember, with sharp poignancy, the dreams, passions, and preoccupations of our teen years, decades after we experienced them?

There’s something compelling about this stage of life … a time of self-discovery, rebellion (major or minor), and the end of childhood innocence. The best coming-of-age novels encapsulate these themes and more, with characters that tug at our hearts and remind us of our own journey to adulthood. And (in my experience, at least), it matters not whether that transition was overall a positive or negative experience for us—or for the characters we read about.

Recently I read two coming-of-age novels back to back (unintentionally), and was reminded of how much I love this genre.

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Love Without Limits

I was nearly 30 before I ever went to a funeral. I was 27 when I first held a baby (a coworker’s niece), and well into my 20s before ever attending a wedding or any kind of shower. It took marrying into a large, loving, and functional family before I ever went to a housewarming, graduation party, or milestone birthday party.

Because I grew up not going to these kinds of events, the typical family get-together happenings (including large “church family” get-togethers) have never come easily to me. Even today, after many years of experience with my husband’s extended family, I get nervous before attending almost any large event. Thankfully, my husband, who is in most other ways more introverted than I am, is comfortable at these occasions, and he patiently supports and encourages me through each one.

My near-total inexperience with extended family events or milestones was never a surprise or a disappointment to me. I knew growing up that I lacked many things that my peers took for granted in their lives, due to my family situation and socioeconomic status. But I also grew up missing one other, much more vital thing that I never knew I was missing until much later:

I grew up thinking that the human heart is only capable of limited love.

I believed, from my experience and the examples around me, that people have a limited capacity for loving one another, and especially for loving multiple people at one time. I believed that the heart was like a small bucket, filled with a finite amount of love, which could be offered and taken back, depending on mood or circumstance or whim. I believed that all of one’s love could be given to one person, leaving nothing left to give to anyone else. And I observed that holding back one’s love was the safest route because it was a much better guarantee of never being hurt, rejected, or let down by another person.

Up until the time I got married (my late 20s), I’d had no reason to doubt my previous life experience with the heart’s limited capacity to give or receive love. Very soon, however, my world (and heart) expanded to include the ever-growing, fully functional, and exuberantly loving family that I had married into. Within just a few years, my previous experience and knowledge of the human heart were toppled by powerful and irresistible forces that convinced me I’d had it all wrong.

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Three Books for Two Weeks of Sickness

I had high hopes that my first “what I’m reading” post would be something really special … an impressive title that showed my discerning taste in reading material (I’m joking—I’m a fairly nondiscriminatory reader and always have been). But instead, my entire household got hit with our first case of COVID and my reading for the past two weeks was whatever I could manage while dealing with frequent fatigue and occasional brain fog.

Now, I don’t get sick very often, but apparently when I do, my reading brain seeks out not-too-heavy books with happy endings. Which led me directly to a genre that I otherwise don’t read much: romance.

During my illness, and while I was helping family members with their own illness (which I gave to them), I read three books. All of them, while very different from each other, fit into the romance category. I would also unreservedly recommend them to anyone who’s looking for a well-written but light read for whatever reason.

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