What does our stuff say about us?

The other day, the maintenance guy for our apartment building came by to fix a few issues we'd had (clogged sinks, lights that had burnt out that we couldn't reach, that sorta thing). And as soon as he stepped in the apartment, worries started flying through my head like arrows: Are there are any underwear on the floor? Is the toilet flushed? What did we forget to put away?!

It was only once he left that I did a belated walk through of the apartment, sighing with relief when I saw that we had gotten off this time without any undue embarrassment other than your fair share of cozy, lived-in messiness.

But as I was looking around, I saw our stuff with new eyes. What might someone think that the books stacked on my husband's bedside table are titled "Towards Understanding Islam" and "Holiness," and his Bible is sitting squarely on our kitchen table? That the chalkboard in our kitchen reads "God began doing a good work in you and I am sure he will continue it until Jesus Christ comes again. - Phil. 1:6"? That we have our cake topper from our wedding framed and there's a little handwritten banner that hangs above, proclaiming "Happily Ever After"?

I'm not embarrassed by any of these things, especially not our faith and the prominent role it plays in our life and marriage.

But it all got me thinking about what a person's things communicate about them. What kinds of judgments do you come to about a person from their things? What kinds of insights can you make based on things?

I imagine that when you're traipsing in and out apartments everyday like our friendly maintenance worker, you stop paying very close attention. But it still seems interesting, how close you can get to a person without knowing anything about them except what you see...

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Answering Your Questions: Fonts on My Blog

Q: I was wondering how you were able to change your fonts on Blogger? I love the fact that its free, but I can seem to find the right template for me nor any wiggle room for changing the font or making it look nicer.

I mentioned before that I’m currently using the “Simple” template that Blogger offers, under the “Template Designer” option from your dashboard. When you get in there, under the Advanced options, you can tweak your fonts, including the size and face of the font for your text, post titles, date, widgets, etc. Now, there isn’t a huge variety of font choices to choose from, mostly just your standard Arial, Georgia, Courier, Trebuchet, Times New Roman, etc. While that does limit some creativity, you can’t really go crazy with your fonts because not every computer has the same fonts loaded on it, which can cause even more design problems! So in most cases, it’s better to stick to the tried-and-true fonts that are standard on nearly every computer out there.

One way around this, though, is to follow the tutorial posted on Kevin and Amanda, which my blog friend Emma tipped me off about! I used this tutorial to get the cool, curlicue font that shows up in the title for each post on my blog. (She also offers a tutorial to change the fonts in your entire blog, but I was happy just bringing some life to the titles!) Make sure you follow the tutorial very closely (I went through it super slowly to make sure I did each step correctly!), because if you leave any step out or mess up just a little, it won’t work. But the directions are solid and give you the ability to bring a bit more customization to your fonts. Amanda creates tons of unique fonts, which she posts for free, and for my titles, I'm using the font she created called, Pea Aimee.

The final way that I bring customization to my fonts is to create them in my design program on my computer and save and upload them onto my blog as an image. (Scan through my sidebar, and you’ll see this is what I did for the links in my sidebar that fall under “Topics of Conversation” and “Some of My Favorite Posts.”) This makes them static and can slow down my loading time, but it’s an easy way to play with your fonts and guarantee that your reader will be able to see them! If all else fails, try this! (I gave some more detailed instructions in last week's Q&A regarding this, which you can read here.)

Q: I also want to know about the fonts! I really like the corkboard travel map you made, and I think some of the fonts you used there are your blog's fonts.

Yes—you have a great eye! Two of the fonts I used in making my corkboard travel map are mainstays in my blog design. My aesthetics often carry over from one project to another, whether that’s decorating my kitchen, picking out a new sweater or designing my blog!

The fonts that I used for the map, in particular, are: Honey Script (the type used for “our” on the map), Simon Script (“adventures”) and Gungsuh (“together”). Gungsuh is a font that came standard with my laptop. The other two, however, are ones I downloaded from Dafont.com, a resource I recommended last week. You can download Honey Script font here, and you can download Simon Script font here.

What Other Questions Do You Have For Me?
Recently, I invited you to ask me any questions you might have that I could answer in upcoming posts, whether it's follow-up regarding anything I've written about in the past, curiosities regarding any of my personal experiences, or your general blogging questions.

In the following weeks I will continue to respond to your questions, so please feel free to ask any that come to mind in the comments below or send me an email. I have some questions in the queue regarding my holiday decorations, thoughts on faith and how my baking soda shampoo is doing, so those and more to come!

(If you missed last week's Q&A, they were in regards to tweaking out your blog's design.)

A Testimony to God's Perfect Timing

It's been over a year since I started this humble blog of mine. And for the past year, I've been chronicling our search for stable employment. And I've been able to chronicle how, though we've been in limbo for more than a year regarding this situation, the Lord has never failed to provide for us. We have never had to dip into our savings to pay for rent or groceries. We have never not had a paycheck coming in, even when we'd been told that the job should have ended months ago.

God has been faithful.

And as we know, his faithfulness endures forever. So it is that I am thrilled to share the news with you all that what has been a year in the making is now coming to fruition after lesson upon lesson of patience and trust: My husband was officially offered a full-time, career job last week!

What's more, as it turns out, his first day will be Monday, November 29. Would you be surprised to know that this could not be any more perfect timing? The last day of my freelance gig is that Friday, December 3! Praise the Lord!!

And that's why it's so incredible to be able to page back through these posts that document the ups and downs of this journey: From just weeks after I quit my job to move to Atlanta and yet I found myself with a temporary freelance job that would support us, but was set to expire at the end of the year. My prayer requests for jobs and an awareness to continue to ask and ask and ask regarding this situation—even when it takes more than year's worth of asking. My struggle learning to embrace this unknown state and finding encouragement in the Psalms to press on.

There were the updates when there was nothing really to share and then when I found out my temporary job was officially coming to an end. And sharing the news when I didn't get the job and when I did (and had to turn it down).

It's through all these snippets of the hopes and fears and frustrations that took place along the way that we can see so clearly how far God has brought us and how he's sustained and nourished us along the way. Which keeps me saying, Praise the Lord!!

Of course I'm still looking for a job, but this latest provision makes the search much less of a burden and provides me a bit more time to look for something that fits. But even more, this reminds me that I really don't have anything to worry about, and that everything will work out, according to God's perfect timing.

He has made everything beautiful in its time.
Ecclesiastes 3:11

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Answering Your Questions: Blog Design

Recently, I invited you to ask me any questions you might have that I could answer in upcoming posts, whether it's follow-up regarding anything I've written about in the past, curiosities regarding any of my personal experiences, or your general blogging questions.

Here's my second installment of answers to two questions I received, which revolve around configuring your blog layout. (If you missed last week's Q&A, they were in regards to figuring out your blog's layout.) In the following weeks I will continue to respond to your questions, so please feel free to ask any that come to mind in the comments below or send me an email.

How do you create your blog banners, layouts, text (fonts). etc?

Well, I am no design whiz by any means. But I have had the great fortune of knowing and being exposed to tons of great design. Aside from a single magazine design class I took in college that taught me intro to Photoshop, almost all of my digital design abilities has been self-taught and (like my HTML knowledge) trial-by-error.

I will have to say that the one key for me and making my design look decent has been using the program Corel PaintShop Pro, which is like a light/affordable version of Photoshop. It came with me when I bought my Dell laptop a couple of years ago, and while I don’t know all the bells and whistles, it has treated me pretty well and works really well with layering, adding text, some standard photo-editing (although Photoshop blows it away!). So I use PaintShop Pro to edit all my images (whether it’s a photo to accompany a post or any of the images used in my design). (Here's a link to the version that I use, but they've since released newer ones that you can also check out.)

I know there are some free photo-editing sites online, like Picasa (which The Frugal Girl wrote about) and Picnik (which Jessica used on her redesign), but I haven’t tried either one yet. The one photo-related freebie I do love using is my Poladroid, which is a little application I downloaded that will turn any photo into a Polaroid (like my “about me” photo in the right-hand column). It’s a fun tool and not always predictable, much like real-life Polaroid pictures.

As far as fonts, I love discovering and downloading new fonts. (Probably rubbed off on me from my years working at a design magazine and continually being impressed by all the beautiful design work I was exposed to daily!) I usually find my fonts on freebie sites like 1001freefonts.com or DaFont.com, although sometimes I’ll run across an article or blog post that lists “the top fonts of the year” or something like that (Design*Sponge recently posted some finds), which will tip me off to some great additions to my burgeoning collection!

I’ve received a couple of other questions about fonts, so I’ll answer them—and dive into fonts more in-depth—in my next Q&A!

Would you share how you got different fonts on your sidebar (ie, TOPICS OF CONVERSATION)? I changed my fonts on my posts, but am clueless as to adding fonts to the blog.

Basically, the fonts in my side bar are ones that I have downloaded specially from font-design websites (see recommendations above). However, they are not loaded directly onto my website, because websites can generally only support standard fonts like Arial, Georgia, Courier, Trebuchet, Times New Roman, etc, that people already have loaded onto their computers.

Instead, what I do is I open up my image-editing software (like I mentioned above, I use the program Corel PaintShop Pro). In the program, I just open a new document, type in the words I want to show up in the font that I've chosen and save it as a web-ready JPG.

Then, I upload the image onto my blog. While this makes them static and can slow down my loading time, it’s an easy way to play with your fonts and guarantee that your reader will be able to see them! This is what I've done for nearly every element on my blog that shows up in a non-standard font, from the categories in my sidebar to the text I use in many of the images that accompany my blog posts.

Like I mentioned, I’ve received a couple of other questions about fonts, so I’ll answer them—and dive into fonts more in-depth—in my next Q&A!

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Resources to Stretch Your Online Shopping

I've shared a few tips before of little and easy ways I've found to save money, without having to make any real sacrifices. Today I wanted to introduce another tactic that you can use whenever you do any online shopping to get cash back for your purchases (which is especially timely if you prefer to do much Christmas shopping online, like I do!).

How to get cash back for online shopping
The two sites that I'm recommending today, Ebates and Mr. Rebates, are completely free sites that link to various online merchants that you'd normally shop at. When you are going to buy something online, log into these sites first and see if they have any affiliations with the site you'll be shopping at. Then, all you have to do is click on the link from their site to the merchant of your choice and continue your purchase as usual. By clicking from their site to the merchant site, you'll actually get a percentage of your purchase back as a rebate. 

I wasn't really sure how these worked and whether they'd be worth it or not. However, I've tried these two out for a couple of months (with minimal online purchases, mind you) and can confidently recommend both of them, as I've received checks or gift cards from both without a hitch. 

A closer look at "Ebates" and "Mr. Rebates"
For example, if you are going to buy something from CafePress, you currently can get 22% of your purchase price back if you click through the Mr. Rebates link to that store and buy your purchase. Then, once you accumulate a certain amount of money, they will send you a check for the amount. (For Ebates, the threshold for refund is $5.01, and for Mr. Rebates it is $10.)

Plus, there are tons of websites (more than 1,000) that they offer rebates for shopping through, including Target.com, BestBuy.com, Orbitz, eBay and tons of smaller sites I've never even heard of. (Although, noticeably, there are no bonuses for shopping at Amazon offered by either site.)

The rebate percentages often range in the single digits, though select shops do get higher percentages (like in the CafePress example above). It is free money to me, so even if it's just a few bucks here and there, it's been worth it to me. 

Sign up for free, plus extra perks
Everything about using these sites is completely free, from signing up for an account to getting your check sent to you. Plus, if you sign up for Ebates and make a purchase within 30 days, you can choose a bonus gift card. (I chose a $10 Home Depot gift card that came promptly once I made my first purchase. You can also choose a $10 gift card to Target or Barnes & Noble.) Or, if you sign up for Mr. Rebates, you'll get a $5 credit in your account to begin with.

Click here to sign up for Ebates (and chose your bonus gift card).
Click here to sign up for Mr. Rebates (and get a $5 credit to your account).

My experience using these cash-back sites
I like having both accounts because each offers different deals and sometimes one will offer a higher percentage back. There are other similar sites, but these are the two that I've liked most and used. Both sites also keep updates about any coupon codes a certain store might be currently offering that you can take advantage of, as well.

The only problem I've found is actually remembering to go to these sites first before making a purchase! It hasn't yet become a habit for me, and I've kicked myself afterward for forgetting to go to these sites first and missing out on some extra cash back! But if you can remember to use them even a handful of times, especially while you're doing some online Christmas shopping this season, I think you'll manage to rack up a nice bit of spare change.

(I started using them earlier in the summer and, including rebates and the promo gift card, have earned about $25. Considering I don't do all that much shopping to begin with, that's not too shabby!)

Click here to sign up for Ebates (and chose your bonus gift card).
Click here to sign up for Mr. Rebates (and get a $5 credit to your account).

It's only one extra click and results in a little free money, so I think it's definitely worth it! 

What I've Learned from Being a One-Car Couple

I first shared about our decision to get rid of Michael's truck and plunge into becoming a one-car family back in April. Now, more than six months later, I figured it was time for a little update, to share some of the things I've noticed and been learning as we go without in this arena.

Aside from the obvious financial benefits this decision has provided as we paid off what little debt we had and strive to build up other savings accounts, cutting back to one vehicle has reaped other, quite unexpected, benefits. Particularly in regards to learning to take account of my husband's needs, even in the smallest of circumstances, and becoming more flexible when it comes to my own time, desires and agenda.

To be honest, it hasn't been all that hard to live with one car: I work from home. The Starbucks that my husband works at is just down the street and he usually walks or rides his bike there. When he was in school, he also usually rode his bike to classes. However, it has been an adjustment when it comes to the little, daily outings that spring up, whether it's me running to the grocery store or library or my husband wanting to head over to a friend's house to practice music. It's in those exchanges that I feel like I've learned the most. It's forced me to become more thoughtful of him.

Before, I could just pick up and go because, well, I wanted to. I didn't really have to think about my husband's plans because he had his own vehicle to go to and fro. But now, I'm aware of how directly my plans can affect his, so we take the time to plan our days together, coming up with strategies for running errands and working with and around one another's schedules that make it more intentional.

It has also given us the opportunity to experience grace, hospitality and selfless love firsthand from friends and family when they are willing to go out of their way to pick me up when my husband is stuck in traffic or offer to drop me off when he needs the car for an appointment. It really has been so inspiring and such an encouragement to experience these little acts of kindness when people take time from their busy schedules to help us in these ways, without batting an eye or acting inconvenienced.

And so it's really lovely for me to see how something as inconsequential as a second car—hardly qualifying as a sacrifice at all—can work wonders in my heart to teach me lessons in humility and grace and love and selflessness.

Depending on where both of our job searches will take us and what they might require, I'm not sure what the future holds for us in regards to our vehicle count. I am well aware that it's not probable or realistic for most couples to make one car work when each spouse is working across town and has to be to work by nine. But, truth be told, I'd love to stick with one vehicle as long as possible!

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Answering Your Questions: Blog Layout

Recently, I invited you to ask me any questions you might have that I could answer in upcoming posts, whether it's follow-up regarding anything I've written about in the past, curiosities regarding any of my personal experiences, or your general blogging questions.

Here's my second installment of answers to two questions I received, which revolve around configuring your blog layout. (If you missed last week's Q&A, they were in regards to starting a blog.) In the following weeks I will continue to respond to your questions, so please feel free to ask any that come to mind in the comments below or send me an email.

A while ago, I decided I wanted to blog, and I never really did more than the initial set up. I'm just curious, your design is incredible and I was wondering how you do it with blogspot. Is there a program you suggest or are you a secret HTML/CSS code expert? Thank you for any help/advice, I really appreciate it!

Haha! I love the choice of words here (although I'd totally beg to differ!) but since my blog design is pretty much DIY, I really appreciate the kind words!!

I’ve gone through a couple of blog designs in the past year that I’ve been blogging, and normally when I’m in the mood for a design overhaul, one of the first things I start with is picking a template to use. For my previous designs, I normally would search online for a pre-made template to use (like you can find on sites like this).

But the one I'm using currently is actually a standard Blogger template that I’m pretty happy with. If you want to check it out for yourself, go into your Blogger dashboard, find the link that says design > template designer, and it’s the template called "Simple." :) Fitting, huh? I like Blogger’s template designer, because it makes it pretty easy to tweak a lot of the design without having to open up the HTML file.

Other than that, I do know some pretty basic HTML (took a class more than 10 years ago that's still getting me by today!) that I've found especially helpful when it comes to formatting the individual posts or page layout. I still really want to learn advanced HTML and CSS (it’s on my list of things to learn this year…whoops!), but haven’t really taken the time yet to wrap my head around it.

If there's something I really want to do with my site that I can’t figure out on my own, I usually just end up trying to find some cheat-sheet online with instructions or free downloads. It's very trial-and-error that takes a lot longer than it probably should (and a lot of Swagbucks-ing!), but it is a fun creative challenge!

On your right sidebar, how do you get it to where whenever you write an entry, you can "tag" it to where it shows up when a reader clicks on a specific category (my faith, love + marriage, etc)?

The labels that appear in the sidebar of my blog (which I like to think of as my "table of contents" or "blog directory") are not through any standard widget offered by Blogger. Instead, it’s some pretty simple HTML coding I wrote, making use of the “category tags” that Blogger provides. Here’s how it works:

First, you want to set up your categories. These are the descriptions such as “my faith” or “recipes” that the posts will be lumped into. You can set these up when you open a post in Blogger (a new or a previously published one): At the bottom of each post, there is a little box where you can enter your category tags for that post. Then, once you post an entry with that category tag, it turns into a link, which you can click on and it will search your site for all posts that fall into that category. (For instance, I’ve tagged this post to fall in the category “questions and answers.”)

Click on that link that’s at the bottom of the published post, it will pull up a search page of all the posts that include that category tag. Now, you can link that search page (which will automatically include all posts, starting with the most recent, that fall under a specific entry) to your blog to serve as a makeshift table of contents or directory.

To do that, I used a blank widget, which in blogger is the "HTML/Java Script" choice on the widget screen, and opens up a blank document that you can add any text or HTML you want to it. (Anyone else think “widget” is such a weird word? I feel like a goof just saying it over and over again!)

Then, in that window, you can link the URL of the search page either to text or to an image. (I like to use images, such as "about me," "love + marriage," etc.,  and upload them to Photobucket.com. Here's a website that offers some pretty basic instructions on how to link images, if you don’t already know how.)

Save the widget, and you’re all set!

Do you have any more questions? In my next Q&A, I'll tackle some of the specific design questions I've been asked, so feel free to chime in and make sure I touch on yours! You can add any new questions to the comments section of this post or send me an email. Thanks!

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Steps Toward Hospitality: Creating a Hospitality Journal

I get incredibly intimdated and self-conscious when it comes to cooking for a crowd—even when that's only another couple. It's a bit like trying to figure out what to wear on school picture day: You stand in front of the pantry (or your closet) and the myriad of possibilities stare back at you. Overwhelmed, you head off to your collection of cookbooks (or fashion magazines) and decide maybe you'll get some inspiration in those pages. After flipping for awhile, you feel no less informed to make the decision that you imagine everyone will remember, critique and judge you on for years to come.

I know it's ridiculous, especially when you take into account who makes up the "crowd" I'm talking about: Folks who are so gracious that they'd be content with bread and butter and call it gourmet! I suppose it's because I'm still relatively new at this whole "cooking" thing and still finding my confidence in the kitchen. Throw some strangers into the mix, and any confidence that I've mustered up over the past year melts into a puddle and washes away.

Yet, for the past couple of years, I've grown aware that this is a hindrance when it comes to opportunities to serve or reach out to others. There have been multiple times when this insecurity of mine has caused me to clam up when I could have invited someone over, and stayed silent when I could have volunteered to help someone else in need. Not because my heart wasn't there, but because fear got the best of me. "What will I make? What do they like? Nothing will be good enough!" The questions paralyzed me from action.

And as one of my favorite bloggers, Kristen of The Frugal Girl, once said, "When I’m overcome by the 'I’m not good enough at this and why am I even bothering!' blues, here’s what I remind myself of: It doesn’t have to be perfect to bless other people. It’s so easy to give up if we can’t do something perfectly, but odds are, we’ll manage to bless more people by doing something imperfectly than by doing nothing at all."

So, in an effort to push my insecurities aside, I've started working on a hospitality journal. I'm pulling together recipes and small gift ideas that are ripe for serving others. Meals that serve a crowd. One-dish wonders that transport easily. Potluck-ready side dishes and casseroles. Pantry items to keep on hand for whipping up go-to spreads for surprise guests. I know that when I'm prepared, I'm less stressed and overwhelmed. So I'm hoping that having a guide to go by, I'll be more likely to step in and step up in the future.

I'll share some more about my journal when it's more complete, but I'm still in the early stages of pulling together recipes and ideas. If you have any to pass along or favorites you turn to, I would love to have them! Obviously, I can use all the help I can get!

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Clairvoyant Beauty Skincare Products Review

clair·voy·ant: "able to see beyond the range of ordinary perception."

That is the way that the ladies behind Clairvoyant Beauty see their cosmetic line: creating beauty products that go beyond the ordinary. They not only make you look good, but are good for you (using 100% natural and organic ingredients) and good for the world, using practices, ingredients and packaging that are socially responsible, environmentally friendly, cruelty free, vegan certified and certified organic. All rolled up into one little package.

Recently, I received one such package to try out for myself. As I've mentioned before, I've made it an effort to be aware of what I'm putting not only into my body but onto my skin, one of the reasons fueling why I started making my own shampoo and would like to someday try my hand at making my own make-up. So the chance to add some of their beauty products—free of chemicals, artificial fragrances, parabens, sulfates or anything synthetic—to my growing arsenal was right up my alley.

Their list of products covers all your skincare needs, including all-natural cleansers, creams, scrubs, serums and toners. I was provided with a set of cucumber-themed products to try out: Light & Refreshing Cucumber Cream and Depuffing Cucumber & Cranberry Eye Gel.

Light & Refreshing Cucumber Cream
I've been using them for about a month, which has been perfect timing as the weather has turned a bit chilly, even down here in Atlanta. Although I love the excuse for wrapping up in fuzzy scarves and warming my hands with a mug of cocoa, the weather does a number on my sensitive skin, causing it to tighten and dry out. So moisturizing becomes a top priority. I normally use Aveeno moisturizer, which works well but is sticky. The moisturizing cream from Clairvoyant soaks right into my skin without leaving a tacky film and rehydrates my skin for the rest of the day.

Depuffing Cucumber & Cranberry Eye Gel
I've used a depuffing cream for a couple of years now to help make me look more awake in the mornings. But one of the things I loved about the Clairvoyant product was that (first and foremost) it worked but also the cucumber oils infused in it were cooling and refreshing to my sleep-worn skin and to my groggy state of mind.

Even down the packaging—a recyclable container with teensy tiny inspirational quotes about beauty printed backwards on the labels—the products have not only caught but also kept my attention and become key products in my skincare routine.

Thanks to Clairvoyant Beauty for providing these products for review. Check out their website at www.clairvoyantbeauty.com.

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Your Questions Answered: Starting a Blog

Last week, I invited you to ask me any questions you might have that I could answer in upcoming posts, whether it's follow-up regarding anything I've written about in the past, curiosities regarding any of my personal experiences, or your general blogging questions.

Here's my first installment of answers to two questions I received, which both revolve around starting a blog. In the following weeks I will continue to respond to your questions, so please feel free to ask any that come to mind in the comments below or on the original post.

Q: Lately, I had been thinking about starting my own blog but I was unsure of which website to use. I noticed that you did your old blog on Wordpress and your new one on Blogger.  I was just wondering which one you think is better?

I did look at different platforms to host Life Blessons on and, while I know many other bloggers do prefer Wordpress, I ultimately decided that Blogger was a better choice for me. Especially after having used Wordpress for a year, I found that Blogger was more customization-friendly, which if you're into tweaking your design like I am (which I'll talk more about in a future post!), this is a key to take into account. I think you can do more tweaking on Wordpress if you upgrade to a paying member, but I saw no reason to have to pay for something I could get elsewhere for free! As I'll share below, there were some slight sacrifices as well as additional benefits that did come with choosing Blogger over Wordpress.

When I originally started this blog with Blogger, there were some features that Wordpress blogs had that Blogger ones lacked. Fortunately though, it seems that Blogger has been slowly been improving many features, even just over the past year that I’ve had this blog. When I first started, you couldn’t create separate pages, but they’ve since added that feature (à la my “About Me” page). They also continue to add standard blog templates and recently debuted their “Template Designer” where you can do a bit more tweaking without having to play directly in the HTML file.

However, I still would like to see more variety of widgets available from Blogger, and Wordpress does offer some great ones. But because people are continuously hacking codes to make similar ones work on Blogger and because Blogger does slowly seem to be adding more options (most recently one that will display your most popular posts), I don’t feel like this has hindered my blogging, which is why the trade-offs of a Blogger account outweighed a Wordpress one for me when I started up Life Blessons just over a year ago.

One of the other perks I found for using Blogger (and I don't think this is available on a freebie Wordpress blog) is the ability to integrate Google Analytics. I like having access to the Google Analytics info because it gives you great insight into how people get to your site, what search words they use, how many visitors you get, etc. I think Wordpress has their own version of this (as does Blogger), which both give a good at-a-glance vantage point, however the Google one drills down deeper to give you a customizable and comparative view that the others can't really rival.

Q: I was wondering about your reviewing of books. Is that the official job you had or is that more of a hobby? I’ve thought about starting a blog and might want to consider reviewing books, too.

As far as reviewing books, it's completely a hobby, although I wouldn't mind making it a career! I love getting the chance to learn new insights and perspectives from a variety of authors and a new book always holds such promise and potential, even if it sometimes fails to deliver that in the end! But you never know until you read it and there's usually always something you can glean from the pages.

If you want to get started doing book reviews, what I would recommend first is to sign up for my favorite blogger review programs from two Christian publishers, which I've linked to here. Both of these programs will accept any blogger; the only caveat is that you can only request and review one book at a time. Until you post that review, you can't get another book. But it keeps you motivated and reading!

I'd also recommend reviewing books you're already reading or can recommend so that you can build up a repertoire of reviews on your blog. Alternatively, you can also go to the library and find new books that you can review, which is what I did with the book The Jesus I Never Knew that I shared in posts like this one.

Then, once you have a handful of reviews posted, you can try to email publishers directly and ask for a copy of their book that you can review on your blog, which is how I got my copy of Canning and Preserving that I reviewed here. I've had decent luck doing this; some publishers don't really think blog reviews are helpful and some are pretty open to it. But it's worth a try!

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Scripture Memorization System Review

One of the goals I set for this year on my list of 27 Things To Do While I'm 27 was to get back into the habit of memorizing Scripture. I think it's important to have an arsenal of Bible verses stored up in our hearts so that when the need arises—whether it's for encouragement, conviction, or to bear witness—the Holy Spirit can call those words of truth up from our heart.

My approach to memorizing Bible verses has pretty much never been much of an "approach" at all, just what seemed to work: I would pick a verse that stuck out to me (from whichever translation suited me best) and try to learn it word-for-word, sometimes remembering the book, chapter and verse attribution but oftentimes forgetting them later.

That's where the Topical Memory System from The Navigators comes in, which I recently received a copy of to review. While there isn't anything "new" in this approach (no gimmicks or memorization tricks), the approach does work. They stress repetition. But not just going over the verse again and again; instead, they encourage a different memorization set-up.

Their approach has Christians memorize verses by first memorizing the main theme of the verse (say, "Obedience to Christ.") Then you memorize the location of the verse (Romans 12:1). Finally, you memorize the verse itself, word-for-word. Then, you memorize the verse location, again. While I had never placed much attention on memorizing the verse location, I can attest that this repetition (always repeating it before and after the verse) really does solidify it so that it pops into memory. They also urge readers to read the selected verse in context so that you have a fuller understanding of what the verse is talking about.

The course comes with a workbook as well as a book of the verses you'll be memorizing over the course. The workbook lays out the foundations for memorizing verses as well as tips, activities and reflection questions to help readers delve more deeply into each verse. The companion book of verses includes every memory verse you'll be learning through the course, in a choice of 8 translations, depending on which you prefer. You can just tear the verses out as you memorize them. This is really great because then they're all the same size, already laid on in the prescribed memorization order, and ready for you from the start. I really like that they prescribe the given verses you'll memorize each week, because sometimes I've been held up on memorizing a new verse because I'm not sure which one to pick next. This eliminates that obstacle altogether!

During the course you'll learn 60 memory verses, that cover thirty different themes, such as "Humility," "Assurance of Salvation," "Develop World Vision," "Obedience to Christ," and "His Help in Temptation." They suggest that you work at the pace of memorizing two verses per week, which would calculate to 30 weeks, however you can adjust this to work for your schedule and pace.

While there is nothing earth-shattering about the course, I love that it is simple in its approach and something that any of us can put into practice. For others who are looking to beef up their knowledge of Scripture and could use a more guided approach, I think the the Topical Memory System will serve as a great tool. It definitely has for me!

Find the Topical Memory System from The Navigators on Amazon.

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Recipe for Homemade Chicken Pot Pies

For some reason, I never saw the allure of chicken pot pies. Until last fall when, out of nowhere, I got a hankering for one. I went online, did some research and came up with a recipe to make them from scratch, using what I had available in the pantry.

What do you know but I found one of my absolute favorite meals. So much so, that despite the fact that our kitchen is always the warmest room in our apartment without the help of the summer heat, I even took the plunge and baked a couple piping-hot pies throughout the summer!

The first time I made the pot pies, they did take longer than I'd expected to pull together, from mixing the pastry crust to prepping the veggies. But now that I've made my fair share of them, I'm able to whip it together in a decent amount of time.

One of the things I love best about pot pies is how you can throw just about anything in them—I've tried varying combinations of beans, broccoli, corn, chickpeas, cauliflower, carrots, peas, potatoes—and make use of any of the veggies sitting in your fridge. You can also do without the chicken, if you like, and it still is quite tasty!

Recipe for Chicken Pot-Pie from Scratch

Making the Gravy
• In a saucepan over medium heat, cook a handful of chopped ONION (depending on how much onion flavor you like in your food) in 1/3 cup BUTTER until soft and translucent.
• Stir in 1/3 cup ALL-PURPOSE FLOUR, 1/2 teaspoon SALT, 1/4 teaspoon BLACK PEPPER, and 1/4 teaspoon CELERY SEED.
• Slowly add 1+3/4 cups CHICKEN BROTH and 2/3 cup MILK and stir well.
• Simmer over medium-low heat until thick.

Prepping the Filling
• You'll need about 4 cups of any combination of veggies and meats. (Suggestions include: beans, broccoli, corn, chickpeas, cauliflower, carrots, peas, potatoes.)
• Make sure to cook your meats thoroughly before adding to gravy. (Frozen or raw veggies will be fine to add to the gravy uncooked.)

Making the Pastry Crust
• In a large bowl, combine 1 cup FLOUR, 2 teaspoons BAKING POWDER, 1/2 teaspoon GROUND SAGE, 2 tablespoons BUTTER, 1/8 teaspoon SALT, 1/3 cup MILK, 1 tablespoon OLIVE OIL. (You may add more olive oil if the dough is too crumbly.)
• Form into a ball and then roll out so that it's the same size as your baking dish.

Putting It All Together
• Lightly grease a 9x9-inch baking dish.
• Mix the filling and gravy together and pour into dish.
• Lay the crust on top of the filling.
• Bake in preheated oven at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbly.
(Serves 4)

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What I'm Learning About the Holy Spirit

For the past couple of weeks, I've been slowly making my way through the small-but-mighty book, Experiencing the Holy Spirit by Andrew Murray, which I just finished this week.

It looks digestible enough, at only 130 pages, but looks are deceiving: There is no fluff here. Instead the author packs a whollop into every page that you have to wrap your head around before moving to the next. It's deep and thoughtful and powerful and gentle at all the same time.

See what I mean: Murray starts off the book addressing the Biblical evidence that lets us know for certain that it is God's will for every Christian to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Receiving the Holy Spirit bestows a double blessing that we see in John: "He that believeth on me shall never thirst" (6:35) and "out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water" (7:38). Thus, it is like a cup being, first filled up, and then being so filled that the water overflows outward, with which we can then use to minister to others. We become so filled that it becomes, quite literally, the gift that keeps on giving.

And yet, the reader is reminded over and over again that this process of overflowing by the Spirit happens over time. It is by no effort of our own that we can gain the Holy Spirit—it is given only by God—and we must be patient and wait on him to give it. We must trust that he will give it to us.

But what we can (and actually, must) do is prepare ourselves to receive it. How do we do that? By  realizing our need for the Holy Spirit and by being willing to die to self, acknowledging that we are nothing without him and that our own greatest enemy is our own selfishness. And yet even here, we cannot do it all on our own. We need the Spirit to even truly die to self! The only way we can clear sin from our lives is by the Holy Spirit who renews us daily.

My notes read: "This is what even Jesus had to do: Be willing to lay down his life and trust that God would resurrect him. We too must be willing to die to our self and trust that God will raise us up in power with the fullness of the Spirit."

(If I am understanding correctly, Murray makes a distinction between having the Spirit within you and overflowing with the Spirit. When we first make the decision to follow Christ, we receive the Spirit. But it is only later in our walks that we are able to fully receive the greater blessing of being filled and overflowing with the Spirit. This difference can be seen in Acts: The disciples knew Christ for years, while he ministered but even after he was resurrected. It was not until Pentecost, ten days after he ascended to heaven, that the Holy Spirit descended upon them in fullness, though.)

Murray also notes that the entire church needs the Holy Spirit to overflow within their hearts. We cannot be satisfied with just me or just you having the Holy Spirit: "If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad." (1 Corinthians 12:26)

I've filled pages of my prayer notebook with notes from Experiencing the Holy Spirit, so there's much, much more than just what I've shared here! Like I said, it's a bit of a heady book, more academic than I normally tend toward, but very hard-hitting...and much-needed.

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