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Blog

These are just a few of my musings about faith, formation, culture, and life.

 

Recommended Advent Resources

Jen Michel

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By now, you know that I’ve written a free Advent devotional for subscribers to my regular content. The first day’s reading will arrive to inboxes on December 1, which isn’t, of course, the first day of Advent, but . . . (If you somehow missed the announcement about this free resource, you can subscribe here.)

There are many, many wonderful resources to use during Advent, and I’d love to suggest others to you. To curate the list below, I polled people on Facebook and Twitter, including the Facebook group associated with The Pelican Project. (If you don’t know what The Pelican Project is, you’ll want to learn, especially as one of our primary goals is to connect churches, lay leaders, and individuals with theologically rich content.)

Whatever you do, don’t let Advent pass you by as you keep yourself busy with shopping lists, holiday parties, and school concerts. As I write in the reading for December 1:

“If December has its way with us, it will leave us too distracted to look up, as the shepherds did, and notice the blinding glory of the Lord.”


For Purchase

Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

Come, Lord Jesus: The Weight of Waiting by Kris Camealy

God Is In The Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Waiting on the Word: A Poem a Day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. A Collection by Malcolm Guite

The Advent of the Lamb of God by Russ Ramsey

Give Me the Word: Advent and Other Poems by Laura Fabrycky

Advent 2018 Study Book from She Reads Truth

Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus: Experiencing the Peace and Promise of Christmas by Nancy Guthrie.

Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany by Sarah Arthur

Come, Let Us Adore Him: A Daily Advent Devotional by Paul David Tripp

Celebrating Abundance: Devotions for Advent by Walter Brueggemann

Watch for the Light: Collected Readings for Advent and Christmas

Love Came Down at Christmas: Daily Readings for Advent by Sinclair Ferguson

Search “Advent” at Englewood Review of Books to find more titles!

For Children

The Advent Book by Jack and Kathy Stockman

The Littlest Watchman: Watching and Waiting for the Very First Christmas. An illustrated children’s book by Scott James

For Free 

The Advent Project by Biola University

Finding Holy Holidays by Ashley Hales

Advent—An If:Equip Study

Advent Devotional 2018: Blessed Son of God by Philip Ryken, President of Wheaton College

Advent: Christ is Coming! Reading plan on YouVersion

Family Advent Scripture Readings by Courtney Ellis

#IsaiahChristmas: A reading schedule through the Book of Isaiah by Tony Reinke

Seasons: Enter the Story of Jesus by The Village Church

4 Advent Readings by Rebecca Brewster Stevenson

 Advent Meditations by Shannon Baker

An Advent Reading Experience

Jen Michel

My first published writing was devotional writing for Today in the Word,a donor publication of the Moody Bible Institute (also available online). After I had quit my high-school teaching job to stay home with Audrey, my friend, an editor at Today in the Word,asked me to do some very occasional editing for them. Eventually, the team asked me to submit a writing sample. After my first submission, I was very courteously rejected ; a year later, the team asked me to resubmit, and in 2005, my very first devotional was published with Today in the Word—a 31-day walk through the book of Esther. (If you’re interested in reading that month’s study, you can begin here.) Since then, I’ve written one or two issues each year for Today in the Word, sometimes on books of the Bible (Judges, Ruth, the Minor Prophets, Luke) and sometimes on various topics (Fear, Home, Desire). Every assignment has been the best kind of excuse to study Scripture and find succinct ways of relaying its truths. 

More recently, Moody Bible Institute has decided to have Moody professors write their devotional. This ends my devotional writing responsibilities for them, but it opens up some new invitations elsewhere.

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With some of this restless energy in me, I’ve written an Advent devotional for my regular content subscribers, taking them through the month of December (through the 25th) and through the story of Jesus’s first coming. It’s my gift to you and one way I hope to help you spend intentional time throughout December reflecting on the story of Christ’s coming to earth.

 The days’ readings will be short (400-500 words), and I hope they’ll focus us on God in a distracted season. I’ll also offer a short prayer as well as a portion of Scripture to read. It’s not meant to be an onerous assignment but rather a quiet way to keep time with the time-keeping God who, “when the fullness of time had come, sent forth his Son” (Gal. 4:4).


You can subscribe to receive these daily Advent emails here.You’ll also be subscribed to my monthly-ish newsletter, which is the most regular content I’m providing for my readers these days. 

 

 

 

On Reading the Bible

Jen Michel

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I was sixteen when I started to read the Bible daily. I can remember visiting the Christian bookstore after summer camp and choosing The Quiet Time Companion from the shelves, a systematic reading guide with interpretive helps, questions, and applications. I was a new Christian and had been encouraged to read the Bible every day for the next six months in hopes that the habit would stick. And though I was committed to the task, I also felt as every new reader of the Bible feels: daunted by the immensity of this ancient book.

I’ve been reading the Bible regularly now for more than twenty years. This isn’t to say that I haven’t missed days and weeks, sometimes even months, but it is to say that this book, more than any other, is responsible for forming me. In fact, it keeps delighting and surprising me—even confounding me (as I talk about it my next book, Surprised by Paradox). The Bible has become, as Jesus said it would, food on which I have come to daily depend. Which is why, as often as I have opportunity to say it, I try saying this: reading the Bible regularly is my most important spiritual habit. I don’t believe that we can know God, ourselves, or the nature of the kingdom coming without regular intake of this book. 

But what does the regular habit of intake look like?

I’ve thought to share with you what it looks like for me to read the Bible and actually take it in. I don’t believe that my way is the best way or the only way, but it is way. And sometimes you just need a way to get started, just as I did at 16 when I picked up The Quiet Time Companion at my local Christian bookstore. In his book, Hearing God, Dallas Willard wrote that “it is better in one year to have ten good verses transferred into the substance of our lives than to have every verse of the Bible pass before our eyes.” And that’s really the point of this post, to ask you about your habits, not just of reading the Bible, but allowing the words of God to be transferred into the substance of your life. Because Bible reading isn’t about accumulating arcane facts that will help you win at Bible trivia (although I do know the name of Moses’ mother). Rather, it’s a habit that forms us into the desires of God: we begin to love as he loves, even hate as he hates. 

In these final days of October, I am coming to the final pages of my Bible reading journal, which I started April 9, 2017. Tucked into the middle of my Bible (I read the NLT translation of the One Year Bible) is a small post-it note where I’ve scribbled down some reminders of how Martin Luther read the Bible. First, he looked to the Bible for instruction.Then, he looked to the Bible for thanksgiving.Third, he looked to the Bible for confession.And finally, he looked to the Bible for prayer. In other words, he saw the Bible as:

-      “a school text”

-      “a song book”

-      “a penitential book”

-      “a prayer book”

Although I discovered Luther’s ideas long after I had been a regular reader of the Bible (I found this is Tim Keller’s excellent book, Prayer), I realized that I, too, tended to write down similar observations from my Bible reading: what I’m learning about the nature of God, what I’m discovering about my own sin, what I’m learning about the redemptive work of God through history, what I’m learning about my own calling.

A quick glance through the pages of my journal reminds me of all the life we’ve lived in the last year and a half: I released a book, help coordinate major church initiatives, bought a house, started a house renovation, wrote a third book, continued raising five children.

  • Reading my reflections remind me of the angst I’ve had these many years of impermanence in Toronto—and how I found consolation in the fact that the Levites, too, had no permanent land holdings. (Numbers 18:10: “In their land you shall have no estate, and no portion shall you have in their midst.”)

  • As I turned pages, I read prayers for suffering friends—and the promises of God that I’ve claimed on their behalf. (Ps. 56:8: “You have kept count of my tossings, put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?”)

  • As I’ve faced difficult career decisions, I’ve been reminded, again and again, that the true vocation of the Christian is praise. (Ps. 33:1, “Praise befits the upright.”)

  • There have been anxious, worrisome times where I’ve asked to stand guard. (In Robert Alter’s translation of the Psalms, “guard” occurs six times in Ps. 121: “Your guard does not slumber,” v.3; “He does not slumber or sleep, Israel’s guard,” v. 4; “The Lord is your guard,” v. 5; “The Lord guards you from all harm,” v. 7; “He guards your life,” v. 7; “The Lord guards your coming and your going, now and forevermore,” v.8.)

  • Halfway through the journal I switched to writing with the lovely fountain pen, given to me by a friend, the ink itself serving as reminder of God’s goodness.

  • I even occasionally read prayers of resolution—like this one, after we’d purchased our house in Toronto. “This is a gift: this house, these answered prayers, this permanence; this lukewarm shower, this hard-to-regular thermostat, this smaller space, these close quarters, this detached garage.”

The journal is a written record of conversation: God talking to me, me talking back. It’s nothing extraordinarily deep because that’s not the point.

The point is keeping company with God.

Maybe that’s a longing you have, but you’re not sure where to begin. Here are a couple of thoughts for getting started regularly reading the Bible:

1.    Find a plan. There are any numbers of ways of systematically reading the Bible. (You can find some here.) Get yourself a plan, and stick to it. It takes the thinking out of “What should I read?” And trust me, it’s the thinking that’s harder than the actual reading.

 2.   Find a partner. Tell someone that you’re starting a goal of regular Bible reading. The best thing is to enlist them to do it with you! The next best thing is to ask them to check in with you, to see how you’re doing. Accountability is key to meeting goals.

 3.   Find a purpose. Go to Scripture and expect God to speak. Then write down what you discover!

a.    What does he say about himself?

b.    What does he say about humanity?

c.    How does the passage illuminate the gospel?

Jen Wilkin offers a number of excellent questions in her book, Women of the Word.

4.    Find a prayer. Remember that God speaks to us, and faith is the act of response. Talk back to him!

a.    If God shows you his generosity, ask him to provide.

b.    If God shows you his faithfulness, ask him to help you trust.

c.    If God shows you his holiness, ask him to forgive.

d.    If God shows you his mission, ask him to commission and send!

I was sixteen when a pastor at summer camp told those of us who had committed our lives to Christ to commit to some new spiritual habits, including reading the Bible 10 minutes every day. I didn’t know the habit would become a lifetime’s work—but I’m grateful. 

I wonder what God might have for you: if you started giving him 10 minutes of your day’s attention.

Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.


If you’re interested in receiving regular content from me (a monthly blog post like this one and my monthly-ish newsletter), you can sign up here.

 

 

An Interview with Liz Ditty, Author of God's Many Voices

Jen Michel

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It was a real privilege to read Liz Ditty's new book, God's Many Voices. I enjoyed it so much that I suggested to my oldest daughter that we read it together as she enters her last year of high school and the college decision-making process. I wanted to talk to Liz a little bit more about her book, which I hope you'll get a copy of at Amazon or wherever books are sold.

Liz, the title of your book is God’s Many Voices. Can you talk a little about what that means?

In my work as a Spiritual Director and jail chaplain, I had many conversations with people who wanted God’s voice to be a part of their lives but didn’t think He spoke to them. They said things like “God is so silent” or “God doesn’t speak to me like He speaks to…”. 

When I asked them what God’s voice sounded like, some said they didn’t know. Others talked about hearing God speak clearly in an audible voice, or getting goosebumps, or knowing a clear answer to something. Sure, God can speak in sudden clarity- but that isn’t the only voice He has. 

When we have learned to listen for God’s voice and expect Him to speak in many different ways we won’t miss all of the important things He has to say to us. If the Holy Spirit is in us as believers, then God is with us and He is not silent. The Bible, Prayer, Community, Beauty, Coincidences, Desire, even Silence can be ways that His Spirit draws us closer to Him- if we are paying attention. God uses many voices, and if we know what to expect we can hear Him as much in His speaking as in His silence.

As you know, many people struggle to hear God’s voice in their daily lives. What would you most like to tell people about learning to hear God’s voice, especially in times of hardship or frustration?

One of the most famous stories of hearing God’s verse is the story of Elijah in a cave, when God’s voice came to him as a whisper. There are a couple important things we often rush past in this interaction.

First, Elijah was frustrated. Even though he had heard God’s voice clearly, the events in his life were not lining up with what he expected the plan of God to look like. By the time he wakes up in this cave, he is utterly confused and a little disappointed and feeling very alone and abandoned (1 Kings 19:10). If that is where you are, God’s invitation to Elijah is for you too.

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” (I Kings 19:11)

No matter how we are feeling, we live our lives in the presence of the Lord- in a world that is saturated with spiritual realities and the fingerprints of God. Our lowest moments can be the best times to stand in the presence of God and pay attention to see if we can watch Him pass by.

See what happens next. There are flashes of wind and fire and earthquake- all the ways God has spoken in the past and the ways Elijah would expect Him to speak. But those aren’t the voices God is using with him now, instead God speaks in an unexpected whisper.

There are times I have been utterly heartbroken and turned to places I expected to hear God’s voice but came up empty. Not because He never speaks in those ways, but because He had something different to say. 

For example, the Bible is the starting point for God’s voice- like the fire of the Old Testament. But there have been times I tried to read my way out of fear or hopelessness and came up dry. That didn’t mean that God wasn’t speaking to me. Just because God wasn’t in the fire, or the wind, or the earthquake that night doesn’t mean God isn’t speaking. We might have to wait for the whisper- or the unexpected call from a friend, the unbothered sunrise, or other reminders that God is still near. We can trust that one of His unexpected voices will find us when we are standing in His presence waiting for His words.

A point you make in your book is that people may not recognize God’s voice, even if He is speaking to them. What’s your advice on learning to recognize what we may already be hearing?

Our minds are cluttered with voices! Learning God’s voice and becoming familiar with who He is and the kinds of things He says is important in discerning His words. The Bible is an anchor of truth for us, especially the stories and words of Jesus in the Gospels. John 1 says that Jesus Himself is the Word of God that will point us to who God truly is, He teaches us to recognize the wild and gentle voice of God. We also get better at listening the more we listen, and our communities become an important aspect of our discernment.

With that foundation we can begin to recognize the three markers Dallas Willard attributes to God’s voice: “What we discern when we learn to recognize God’s voice in our heart is a certain weight or force, a certain spirit, and a certain content in the thoughts that come in God’s communications to us.” 

In your book, you talk about the everyday distractions that make it difficult to hear God speaking to us. What is your advice on how we can better develop our discernment in a world that values a loud, busy, stressful life?

When I feel like God isn’t speaking to me, if I’m honest, I’m not spending a whole lot of time listening. Maybe a quick little 15 minutes of reading and prayer? It’s not always awe inspiring if I’m honest, but then I realize that intimacy and connection is never built by us showing up for each other in short periods of time with unrealistic expectations. 

That’s not how human relationships work, and it’s not how we can expect our relationship with God to work either.

I hope as we journey together through God’s Many Voices that we aren’t just moving towards God’s voice, we are moving towards God Himself. The real invitation of listening is relationship, and slowly with many mistakes we can all learn together how to live life with God- the abundant, beautiful life of freedom and ongoing conversation that we are all invited to.

What does a healthy life online look like?

Jen Michel

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I finally read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Deaththis summer. Published in 1985, the book argues the adverse effects of television. Postman, of course, was not alive to witness the advent of the smartphone, but I imagine he’d have even graver warnings for us today than in 30 years ago if he had been.

Truthfully, I read Postman’s book at the cottage this summer, which means I didn’t take copious notes and copy them into Evernote, which tends to be my routine with books I am reading seriously. (Having borrowed the book from the library, neither did I do any underlining.) But that’s ok, because the book principally confirmed for me one of the most dangerous effects of our new media, which is this: as we increase our exposure to things beyond our sphere of influence, we increase our sense of impotence. Or let me say it this way: our capacity to know more comes with the ability to do less. 

In Postman’s day, we could watch the horror of the latest environmental disaster on the nightly news and apart from the check we’d write to the Red Cross, do little to substantially alleviate the suffering. In our day, we can browse Facebook and learn, as I did yesterday, that a young mother of three, diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, lost her husband to a tragic hit and run accident. But apart from praying for this friend-of-a-friend (and I don’t mean to make that an insignificant means of participation), what can I really do to lighten the burden she must now carry? She is a faceless stranger, and my compassion for her, however sincere, cannot reach through the Ethernet and deliver the presencemost needed at times like these.

Media gives me a greater glimpse of this groaning world. But as the world grows more and more broken, I feel less and less able to fix it. 

This is one danger of overexposure to media: it allows this sense of impotence to seep into the areas of my life where I can and should exercise personal responsibility. I may not be able to fix global poverty; I may not be able to physical comfort the woman suffering the sudden loss of her husband; but I can deliver a meal to the neighbor across the street who has just had triple bypass surgery. But will I? Will I think it significant enough? 

I have responsibilities to carry, and media is no reliable guide to what those responsibilities are.

I am, of course, touching on only one of the many liabilities of too much digital engagement. There are certainly others, especially when we speak of social media: that it’s a distraction from deep work; that it’s a breeding ground for comparison and envy; that it’s hostile to charitable conversation. These are dangers, too, and I’m just as vulnerable as anyone else to the kind of addictive social media checking that makes me a passive participant in a world other than my real one.

And yet,as a friend reminded me: good things happen on the internet, too. Interesting, even life-changing ideas are shared; real friendships are formed; awareness beyond our insular worlds is increased. No, I’m not suggesting we abandon all things digital and return to a safer, better world of the past (although I do remember my first summers as a high school teacher and the long stretch of days, without internet, that could be spent quietly reading books without interruption).  What I am suggesting is a mindful approach to media, one that reflects intentionality and the wisdom of God, which seeks the “beneficial” and the “helpful,” not just the “lawful” (cf. 1 Cor. 6:12). 

So, I need your help. Yes, you out there in this big digital world of ours. What are the “rules” or “principles” you follow to cultivate a healthy life online? What digital “restrictions” help you to be present to your embodied, emplaced life? What do you choose to engage online, and what do you choose to avoid? Get practical for me: tell me how you use your smartphone, your desktop, how you create space for the work God’s calling you to do while also engaging online. Tell me what books and articles you’re reading that are helping you think through these important questions. Share online, or share in the comments below.

I’m the student; you’re the teacher. Thanks for your input. I'll be curating responses, praying, and hopefully in the weeks to come, posting a guide to how I intend to more meaningfully engage online.

#notwithoutmychild #familiesbelongtogether

Jen Michel

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He puts the kaleidoscope to his face. At first, he squints with both eyes and puts the kaleidoscope to his forehead. I try showing him to squint with one eye and put the other eye to the hole. He smiles like he’s getting it, but I think he’s most interested in the music that plays when I wind the internal music box. When the music stops, he hands me the kaleidoscope with a grunt.

Fix it.

I am visiting my friend, Faith, this morning with her three beautiful boys: D., who is four; the little twin B.’s, who are two. When Faith arrived from West Africa six-months pregnant and a toddler in tow, she came ahead of the husband, who had promised to follow quickly behind. The real truth was that he was deserting her. He had hired someone to meet her at the airport, take her cellphone, and hand her bogus papers.

A month later, she found out that she was delivering twins.

By God’s sheer providence (and if I were to detail the whole of Faith’s story, you’d not find it believable), Faith has had her needs provided since her arrival in Canada. Soon after her arrival in Canada, Faith met a Christian woman who paid to fly her and D. to Toronto where they would be better able to sort out their immigration disaster. In Toronto, Faith found a capable, pro-bono lawyer to take her immigration case. Quickly settled into temporary shelter with a Christian refugee agency, Faith discovered their partnership with Safe Families Canada, a network of Christian families offering to take provisional care of children whose families are in crisis. When Faith went into labor with the twin B.’s, a Safe Family stepped in to watch D.—and then took him back, several more times, when Faith needed the help. A kind acquaintance paid her $700 fee for a humanitarian application after her refugee claim was denied. More Christians paid other incidental fees in the now two-year process of trying to establish residence in Canada. Another woman, related by degrees to the Safe Families network, showed up once a week to watch all three boys so that Faith could run errands. When this woman left the apartment every week, she took dirty laundry with her to wash. My own small part in this miracle network was driving Faith, month after month, to the border control office; while they processed paperwork to have her deported, Faith's lawyers fought simultaneously to keep her in Canada.

The good news is that Faith is just months away from gaining permanent residence in Canada; we both know this is only by the goodness of God. I remind her of this on our most recent visit. “Think of all that God’s done these past two years!” I say to her. She nods shyly. “Did you ever think you were this strong?” I ask.

“No,” she answers.

In the recent news about parents being separated from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border—and our President sadly expressing willingness to pursue this as policy—I can’t help but think about Faith., D., and the twin B’s. (Though I live in Canada, I’m an American citizen, which makes this an issue of interest to me personally.) I’ll be honest: I wondered how Faith would make it in Canada. Not only was she quite literally penniless, she came without education, without personal connection, without any of the resources that most of us would rely on to establish ourselves in another country. 

I, too, am the mother of twin boys—and I know firsthand the long, difficult days of those first several years. But while Ryan and I did those long difficult days together in our spacious suburban house, friends and family making meals and delivering groceries, Faith has been doing it alone in a tiny, fifth-floor government apartment where it takes considerable pluck to persuade the maintenance people to change a light bulb. When I’ve arrived at that apartment, often I've found Faith smiling and cooing over one of the B.’s in the bathtub. 

Her boys always smell of soap.

Faith is a person of resilience and joy, and I have come to so deeply admire her. Truth be told, I lack her equilibrium. I can let a day derail by one child’s negligence: a forgotten lunchbox and the imposed inconvenience of having to run it to school. I lament the injustice of twenty stolen minutes. But never once have I heard Faith complain. The closest I’ve come was on this most recent visit. After I’ve asked her if she knew she was this strong and she said no, she added this:

“It’s been hard.”

I’m writing today to lend my support to a campaign we’re calling #notwithoutmychild and #familiesbelongtogether. With a host of other evangelical women, together we vehemently oppose the legally sanctioned separation of children from their families who seek entrance into the United States. We call for the immediate reversal of this decision. Though Christians will disagree on immigration policy, let’s not disagree on this: forcibly separating children from their parents, except in cases of abuse or neglect, is inhumane and intolerable.

I'm writing to keep families like Faith, D., and the twin B.’s together. 



If you're interested in expressing your own support for this campaign, you can sign a letter to the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Find it here:   https://goo.gl/forms/1hBGv1nk3OEndlhz2. You can also post pictures of yourself and your children with the social media hashtags #familiesbelongtogether and #notwithoutmychild.


If you're interested about learning more about the ministry of Safe Families, find their U.S. website here and their Canadian website here. I encourage you to lend your support to this important ministry, either by financial contribution or by becoming a Safe Family.

 

 

 

Uprooted and Planted

Jen Michel

In 2011, when we moved to Toronto from Chicago, we pawned off the grill, the piano, and the daybed to friends, promising to retrieve them when we returned. We kept our house, thinking we’d reclaim it in three years from the friends who rented it and have raised their young family on the quiet street in our absence. As it turns out, it’s their children who got big in our house. At the beginning of the month, this family moved out, and this week, we’re listing the house to sell it.

We bought the house on Church Street in 2005 from my brother-in-law who was doing contracting work at the time. The market was white hot, and when we were looking to move back to Illinois after three years in Ohio, there weren’t a lot of options for our growing family. This development project was as good as any. I was 37 weeks pregnant with our third child, and we moved in with my in-laws, then two months later into a rental house while we waited for renovations on the Church Street house to be completed. We moved into the house just as Audrey was turning 4—and celebrated her birthday and our housewarming with a princess party, tiaras and all.

I am thinking of the house on Church Street with fondness this week. It feels especially apropos since we are celebrating an official seven years in Toronto, May 22, 2011 having been our recorded “date of entry” into Canada. (For immigrants, this date is a bit like your birthday. You’re meant to remember it for official paperwork.) For all the gratitude I feel that home is now Toronto, I also feel grief at severing this final tie to our home in the States. Our home stories are inevitably this kind of narrative paradox. Unless we’ve stayed in the same place from birth, we must be uprooted in order to be planted, and there is something traumatic about being jerked up from soil. 

I remember watching with the kids from the front porch while the driveway was being poured in our new home on Church Street. I remember painting all the bedrooms with my in-laws when we moved in, then covertly repainting Audrey’s bedroom for her 7th birthday—purple and yellow, of course. I’d shuffled her off to school that morning then worked all day to try finishing, nursing my twin babies, then 2 months, in between. It’s no wonder that later that evening, when we sat around a table of giggly girls at the American Girl Doll Cafe, I came down with feverish chills. I had mastitis, despite that I had carried my breast pump with me and had expressed milk from the bathroom of the restaurant. It took all the strength in the world to get those girls home and crawl into bed that evening.

I remember the initial shock (disappointment) of learning that I was pregnant, then learning that it was twins. That initial disappointment gave way to the certainty that God, indeed, had a terrific sense of humor. I loved putting together the twins’ room, which had formerly been an office: two cribs, a changing table, the blue denim glider I’d used for the other three children. I splurged on bedding from Land of Nod, figuring that these two were sure to be the last. At a shower thrown by friends, someone gave me two dinosaur name plates, and I hung them up when they were home from the hospital, adding their names: Colin and Andrew.

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I remember the hours spent with neighbors, our kids running through the front yards on ordinary afternoons and Halloween. I remember the hours spent circled up in the family room for small group discussion, all our children penned with two babysitters in the basement. After we ended the discussion, we let the kids loose and set up more tables and chairs in the dining room for our weekly potluck. I don’t know how I did all that hosting when the kids were young, but I do know that it was a good rhythm, a sharing of our space and lives with friends.

I remember the wedding reception we hosted for friends at church, how the backyard baked that hot summer day and the kids ran wild through the house, leaving the floors to crunch beneath our feet after all the guests left. A couple of friends stayed to put everything back in order, which included sweeping up the spilled sugar in the kitchen and finding half-eaten sandwiches behind the furniture.

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I was mother of three small children in this house, then mother of five small children. My most harried days were lived within the walls of this house to which I’m now saying goodbye. Maybe the catch in my throat as I write is less about leaving those walls behind and more the growing sense that my children are growing up to leave me behind. Maybe I'm grieving that home will again change in a year when Audrey dons a cap and gown and twirls off to her next adventure, Nathan following just a year behind. I never wished to slow the days when the children were younger. I always wanted the kids bigger and more capable. How strange then that I could wish for just a few more days in the brown house as we came to call it, days when I could crawl with my big pregnant belly into the lower bunk in the girls’ room, pulling the three littles close to me for our nightly ritual of “bunches.” I’d look at them longer, harder. I’d memorize the wisp of their hair, the curve of their cheeks. I hold them tight to me, wish myself more patient and gentle.

I’m saying goodbye this week to a house, a very good house with lots of good memories. And maybe that’s reason for the tears: because I’m being uprooted—and planted—at the very same time. 


My book, Keeping Place, is a personal and biblical reflection on the meaning of home. Maybe it could be helpful to you if you're in the middle of being uprooted and planted, too? 

 

The best kind of parenting book

Jen Michel

I have been an avid reader of parenting books. When Audrey, our first child, was a baby, I wore out my copies of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child and The Baby Whisperer. Who knew that the simple task of helping your child fall asleep could be so difficult?

I've enjoyed others along the way, and I'm especially happy to tell you about Shelly Wildman's next book, First Ask Why: Raising Kids to Love God Through Intentional Discipleship. Here's the blurb I wrote for the back of her book: "Shelly Wildman doesn’t offer burdensome to-dos or simplistic 1-2-3 formulas; rather, she calls parents to prayerful intentionality with their children. Warmly, wryly opening her own life to readers, Wildman allows us a window into godly parenting that happens in the thick of soccer season, basketball tryouts, homework, and Sunday morning worship. Despite her many exemplary qualities, Wildman never claims to be a perfect mom—which must be why I love this book so much."

Shelly has generously agreed to an interview here on the blog, so here we go!

Writing about parenting can be a powder keg—people have pretty strong opinions about raising kids. Why did you choose to write a parenting book?

I kind of feel like I didn’t choose to write a parenting book, but that the book chose me. (Sounds like a scene from Harry Potter, doesn’t it?) I fought writing it for a long time because I knew I wasn’t a perfect parent—I had messed up so many times that I didn’t feel qualified to write this book. I still don’t. But the idea kept nagging at me for so long that I finally felt like God might have been pushing me to do it.

I believe with all my heart that stronger families will make for a stronger society, which is so important today. And I believe that the strongest families are those that have Christ at their center. But so many parents today have lost their focus or their sense of purpose. They spend their time on meaningless, temporal things, when, really, the most important mission field is right in front of them. I’m hoping to encourage parents to look at the bigger picture, to ask why they are doing what they’re doing, and to think critically about God’s purpose for their kids and for their families.

I have three adult daughters now, and my hope is, now that my husband and I have raised them, that they will go out into the world and make a difference. And should they have children someday, that they would also make disciples of their kids. Instilling a Christ-following legacy is important work—I believe it’s THE most important work parents can do—and we’ve got to be intentional about it.

What makes your book different from other parenting books?

So many parenting books are “how-to” books. They seem to say, “Just follow these ten steps and here’s what you’ll get in the end.” But I don’t believe we can parent by formula. I think we have to look at our unique family and ask why

Why are we doing what we’re doing as a family?

Why are we emphasizing these spiritual values? And are there others we should consider?

Why are we even here as a family? What’s our purpose for being put together in this unique combination of individuals?

Asking why gets to the heart of the matter; it exposes our motivations and desires for our family. Asking why leads to intentionality. And asking why helps give our children a sense of purpose as we lead them. 

Why do you think some kids, even though they had Christian parents, don’t grow up to follow God? Is there anything Christian parents can do to ensure that their kids will choose to follow Jesus?

This is such a difficult question for me to answer because I honestly don’t know why. I know that parents can do all the right things—have time in God’s word together every day, take their kids to church regularly, pray diligently for their kids—and still have kids who struggle. I don’t believe there are any guarantees in Scripture that our kids will choose to follow Jesus into adulthood.

But I do believe that Scripture commands us to parent with the end goal in mind: having children who know and love the Lord. We are to be diligent in our calling to present our children to God, and we have to trust Him with the outcome. We have to persevere every day to show our kids that following Jesus is the path to true life, even though some days can be downright hard. 

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 has been such a guide and encouragement to me as a parent, especially where it says, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore, choose life that you and your offspring may live.” We have a choice every day, and it’s our job to show our kids that choosing Christ is the only way to a fulfilling life.

What books influenced your husband and you as you raised your three daughters?

Honestly? Not very many. So many parenting books seemed to offer a formula—do this; don’t do that—and we weren’t looking for a formula. We knew that every kid is different and that every family has different needs, and most parenting books didn’t take that into account.

That said, there were a few that made an impact. Our pastor, Kent Hughes and his wife Barbara, wrote a book called Common Sense Parentingback in the ‘90s that, well, made sense to us. Some of the information is a little outdated today, but overall, it really helped us make good decisions about our parenting. And then there was James Dobson’s The Strong-Willed Child, for the obvious reasons. I think the book that made the most impact, though, was probably Shepherding a Child’s Heartby Tedd Tripp. That book made me realize that my goal as a parent isn’t good behavior, but a changed heart. That, to me, was really impactful. If I were still parenting younger kids today, I’d also recommend Paul David Tripp’s Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Will Radically Change Your Family.

What was your lowest parenting moment? 

You mean besides that time I locked my one month old in the car? (True story!) 

I think my lowest moments were the times I let my daughters down. When I betrayed their trust by sharing too much with others. Or when I didn’t fulfill a promise I had made. Parents can feel their kids’ disappointment, which hurts so much. But more than that, too many disappointments lead to mistrust or a lack of respect, and I never wanted that to happen.

That said, parents are human. We do mess up. We do let our kids down. And those are the times we have to humble ourselves with our kids and apologize, sincerely. We need to let our kids know that we don’t always do things perfectly or say the right things or even parent correctly. But that we need grace and the help of God as much as they do.

Who do you hope will read this book and what do you hope they will gain?

I hope parents with kids of all ages will read this book, but especially parents of younger children. I hope grandparents will read this book. And I hope it sparks lots of discussion between husbands and wives, moms groups, or even small groups in churches. 

My hope is that parents will come away from reading this book with a stronger sense of their purpose as parents and that they might gain a couple of new ideas that they can implement in their own family. I also hope people will read the last chapter very carefully and prayerfully. The last chapter of the book is on letting go, and it’s a concept that I think is becoming lost a little bit today. It’s so hard, but it’s so important, even when your children are young, to start thinking about letting go. We’ve got to be parents who demonstrate faith in God’s sovereign work in the lives of our children.


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Shelly Wildman is a former writing instructor and author of the forthcoming book First Ask Why: Raising Kids to Love God Through Intentional Discipleship (Kregel). Shelly holds degrees from Wheaton College (BA) and University of Illinois at Chicago (MA), but her most important life’s work has been raising her three adult daughters. She and her husband, Brian have been married for 32 years and live in Wheaton, IL. Shelly speaks to women’s groups in the Chicago area and spends much of her free time mentoring young women. When she has time, she loves to cook, read, and travel.

Connect with Shelly at her website or on Instagram and Facebook

Order First Ask Why at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kregel.com.

Lent - and the daily-ness of life with God

Jen Michel

It was a good Easter yesterday. Our table was full following our morning church service, and after our guests left, Audrey and I bundled up for a walk in the ravine. As we walked, we talked about the Enneagram, and I tried convincing her that the one, not the four, is the most tortured type. At first, she wanted to disagree, but then she admitted, “I guess that makes sense—because fours enjoy the torment of their melancholy.” We came back to a quiet house, the boys having left with Ryan to play basketball at our local gym, so I picked up the novel I’ve borrowed from the library and stretched out on the couch to read. An hour later, they came home hungry, and I emptied leftovers from the refrigerator for a piecemeal dinner. We played a round of Clue before the twins’ bedtime, and when the day finally drew to a close, I opened my laptop to face the tower of emails I’d let grow over the weekend. I also entertained—briefly—the thought of checking social media.

Since the beginning of Lent, I haven’t visited Facebook or Twitter. This abandonment of social media was, admittedly, an abrupt decision made on the morning of Ash Wednesday after I re-read a small portion of Michelle Van Loon’s book, Moments and DaysShe suggested choosing a fast for Lent with a spiritual goal in mind. “Rather than simply giving up, say chocolate, because you feel you should fast from something at Lent, it might be more helpful to think in terms of an area in your spiritual life that is not flourishing, and focus your Lenten discipline in that area.” Because I’d given up sugar in the New Year for a month, I decided that my Lenten fast wouldn’t be food-related. And even though I didn’t think I had pathological addiction to social media, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to give it up.

In truth, there was nothing magical about withdrawing from social media for the last six weeks. And maybe that’s one of the lessons I might have gained. The spiritual life is less like wiggling your nose and blinking your eyes into sainthood, even if you do it for forty days straight. Because on the forty-first day, the same choices will lie in front of you. Who are you becoming?

I confess to wanting a once-and-done kind of spiritual life. During Lent, I wanted to fast from social media and be cured of distractibility. In the New Year, I wanted to fast from sugar and be cured of gluttony. But once-and-done doesn’t seem to fit the nature of the project. There’s a lot of plodding with God, a kind of daily-ness that won’t be cheated. The spiritual life is more incremental that we want it to be. God’s grace comes to us like manna. You and I will eat today, but we will wake up hungry tomorrow. We will never be rid of our dependence.

My fast from social media has worked like a cleanse—but now I see that there is yet work on the other side of the deprivation. How might I best engage social media now? What new habits can I form? That question reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Shannan Martin’s Falling Free:“I have so much more for you than your tired, stubborn ways, Shannan.” I think that’s a beautiful way of characterizing the gift of repentance. Repentance is a turning from and a turning toward. We turn from our tired, stubborn ways which are familiar to us and yet decidedly broken in order to then turn toward God. We put off in order to put on. We lay down in order to take up. And while I think Lent has helped me turn from—from the reflex of boredom, from the habits of distraction, from the need for other people’s approval—honestly, I’m not sure what I’m turning toward yet. What does it look like to have a healthier relationship with social media? That’s probably a question I still need to turn over this week, a question I need to have answered, at least partially, before returning to social media.

Because maybe the real reward is in the forty-first day.

Why Aren't Men Reading Women Writers?

Jen Michel

Tyler Daswick, a senior writer at Relevant, was not reading books written by women, an omission he confessed in his recent article, How Six Weeks of Reading Books By Women Affected My Thinking. Daswick—“a Straight White Dude”—described his regretful neglect of female perspectives and his hope “to be an ally for women amid the current social climate.” Although his piece was obviously well-intentioned, it caused offense. And because Relevant said it did not accurately represent their editorial perspective, the site chose to take the piece down. Daswisk himself has responded to criticism on Twitter by apologizing and admitting he has much to learn. I’m grateful for his humility.

Quite honestly, I only wish more men would follow Daswick’s example in trying to read women writers more widely. He is certainly not alone in his “ignorance,” even his “complacen[cy] toward that ignorance.” As Dr. Albert Hsu discovered in his doctoral research (Hsu earned his PhD in educational studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is senior editor for IVP books), women read relatively equally between male and female authors (54%/46%), while men, on the other hand, are much more likely to read male authors than female authors (90%/10%).

Why the discrepancy?

According to Daswick’s article, it’s to be possibly blamed on the chicken-egg cycle of men’s ignorance of women authors. Because men don’t read women, when they ask their male friends for recommended titles, their “dude friends” offer no help. Daswick admitted he felt amiss when looking to expand his library: “I didn’t know where to find books [written by women] on my own.” This led to his aimless wandering into a local Barnes and Noble where he purportedly encountered a second problem: accessibility. When he has finally exhausted all of the recommendations his female friends have given him, none of which were stocked, he finally selected—drum roll!—Dead Witch Walking.

Daswick was never clear about the kind of book he might have been looking for, but it simply can’t be the rarity of books written by women that accounts for men’s failure to read them, nor can it be the impossibility of finding them. A simple google search turns up the names of women who have made literary history, who have snagged coveted literary prizes, who most recently made the diversity of lists to applaud the great books of 2017, including CT’s Book of the Year, Liturgy of the Ordinary­—written by Tish Harrison Warren.

Women writers aren’t a rare species of hippopotamus, glimpsed only at dusk by keen eyes behind binoculars.

Why don’t men read women writers? I suppose that question is best left to the men for answering. I can only speculate. In some cases, theological convictions about gender roles—and who is permitted to teach whom—surely play a part. A man who questions the permissibility of a woman behind a pulpit might equally question the legitimacy of a women behind a page (specifically in Christian non-fiction publishing). It would certainly prove interesting if we could understand, by the data, how much or how little our theology drives our book-buying decisions.

Perhaps what drives the discrepancy, even among those of more egalitarian ilk, is the assumption (again, in Christian non-fiction publishing) that women aren’t writing serious books. Books by men are presumed to have more theological heft than books by women. A friend recently told me of a bestselling book by a celebrity (female) Christian author that she’d skimmed in an hour. “It would have been better as a paragraph,” she concluded. And truthfully, I know exactly the kind of book she means: heavy on syrupy, self-deprecating anecdotes, light on analysis, biblical or otherwise. Some would say we have a crisis of fluff in Christian women’s publishing.

On the one hand, I want to say: yes. Christian women who write and speak for a popular audience are often met with the unfortunate expectation that they be witty, vulnerable, and inspirational (not to mention pretty). These qualities of personality—and not the more solemn tasks of research and sustained reflection, biblical or otherwise—are often the standards of “success” in terms of book sales or speaking invitations. Unless we look Stich-Fix cute and divulge the “hot mess” of our own lives, we’re afraid no one will listen.

On the other hand, I want to say: no. I think these pressures—to be artificially intimate, to deliver the lowest-hanging fruit of insight, to exude enviable “cool”—also face many male writers and speakers. The itching ears of contemporary society have a bottomless appetite for the superficial. Fluff is a more likely a human crisis, not a female one. And further, a cursory look at the women writing at major Christian blogs will turn up a host of “serious” Christian authors who endeavor to say something meaningful and lasting and true.

What is different, of course, is the range of embodied experience women writers bring to their work of words. We birth and suckle babies, for example; we “drip”, as Daswick wrote, with femininity. To be sure, a male reader might not fully understand the grief of a shuttered womb, but he can practice that great human effort called empathy. And this isn’t simply necessary for him to become more worldly-wizened. It’s deeply necessary for him to read the Scriptures, where salvation is likened to labor, where redemption is described as an act of housekeeping, where God, Israel’s mother, cries out for her comfort. As long as the male experience is considered to be universal (and female experience alien), we’ll be missing a lot of good material for our preaching and teaching. More importantly, we’ll have a diminished view of God and his work in the world.

Christian men—of all men—should be the most literate when it comes to reading the work of women writers, knowing that we image God best in our complementarity of male and female. So why aren’t men more widely reading women writers?

Let’s ask them.

As an aside, I'll be moderating a panel at the Festival of Faith & Writing in Grand Rapids in April. Joining me will be Al Hsu (InterVarsity Press), Robert Hosack (Baker Books), Katelyn Beaty (author of A Woman's Place) and Tish Harrison Warren (author of Liturgy of the Ordinary). If you plan to be in Grand Rapids and are interested in this conversation, check us out!