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


2017: A Year in Review

Jen Michel

The end of the year is careening to a halt. It’s easy to forego reflection, especially when there is so much cooking and travel and gifts to buy. But because this year’s theme seems to have been the call to plant deeply rather than scattering broadly, I haven’t let myself off the hook entirely from looking back and considering how this last year was spent. I think that’s part of the deeper life I want to be living: not just letting the days drag me along but exerting some resistance to the rush of life. I know the ultimate question in thinking back on the year isn’t, “What have I achieved?” so much as “Who am I becoming?” Importantly, there’s the weighty sense that the only person to whom I ultimately give account is God. Am I, like Jesus, seeking to please him alone?

On the home front, I want to say that marriage is as solid as it has ever been. This is in large part because I’ve married an incredibly solid and stable man. He is so incredibly faithful, so trustworthy, so good. I sometimes wonder: how was it that I had the sense—at 22—to marry him? It’s probably also true that we’ve fought more this year than previous years. But I consider to be, not a worrisome, but healthy sign that some of the tectonic plates are shifting in this marriage of more than twenty years. I think we’re both rejecting unhealthy patterns that we’ve relied on in the past, and I also think we’re getting bolder about articulating what we need and want from each other. We’re growing into a clearer sense of what God is calling each of us to do and how our marriage can be a vital support in these individual callings. Ryan’s life is meetings and people and crisis and travel. My work depends on long, lonely stretches of writing and immersive reading and study. These differences are significant, making it work for both of us to figure out how best to support one another. And yet it’s incredibly gratifying to know that we are both so immensely proud of each other. At Ryan’s work holiday party this year, one of his colleagues drew me aside to specifically mention how Ryan has helped him. “I’m learning so much from him,” he said, detailing some of those lessons. “He’s an incredible leader.” I couldn’t agree more.

In terms of parenting, the kids continue to thrive, even if I have all the normal fears that most of moms share: am I doing enough for them? giving enough of myself? Will they walk with Jesus into their adulthood? I know that Ryan and I don’t ultimately have control over that last piece, but I also know that we want to be as intentional as we can be to love and to teach them well. I remember, years ago, reading a book by Anne Ortlund on parenting, and she said that all good parenting is really about this: becoming who you should be and staying close enough to your children so that they catch it. That resonated with me when the children were little, and it resonates even more now that they’re older. I’m trying to stay close to my children, even though, quite honestly, I don’t always know how to do that well. Sometimes it’s hard to know if I’m being unnecessarily intrusive or appropriately curious. My friend, Wendy, whose children are just a bit older than mine has reassured me that all the “wrong” questions I might be asking now will turn out to be all the “right” questions in just five more years. Oh, I hope that’s true!

In terms of professional work*, in May of this year, I released my second book, Keeping Place. (I can happily report that at one point, it topped the charts of Christian self-help books.) The process of writing this book, if I can be honest, was troubled with lots of self-doubt. I had the wonderful fortune of receiving some notice with my first book, Teach Us to Want. But instead of having that notice reassure me of my ability to do the work, it just left me feeling like the most obvious of impostors. I continually worried, as I wrote the second book, that I would never be able to meet the new expectations that others seemed to have of me. Keeping Place was finally birthed into the world, and while the writing had been so fraught with apprehension, the release—gratefully—wasn’t. InterVarsity Press has been such a wonderful partner in the process of writing these two books (and now the process of writing my third). I’m grateful to be doing this work, which gives me the flexibility I need to be present with my family. I’m grateful that as I write, I learn and grow. As I’ve always said, I write primarily to teach myself. It has also been an unexpected gift that the writing has led to speaking opportunities. I’m grateful for this invigorating part of my otherwise solitary work. This year, I traveled to Dallas, Chicago, Orlando, Edmonton, Princeton, Winnipeg, as well as spoke at local events in Toronto. It’s not easy to leave home, but I do love the chance to meet people, to hear their questions and struggles, and to witness the faithfulness of local church leaders.

This was a year of investing deeply in my own church, which I’ve always said has been important to me. I was part of the team that launched our first women’s Bible study (on the Psalms) and taught on the occasional psalms as well as the psalms of lament. I also helped coordinate a team to publish a special commemorative edition of our arts’ magazine, Imprint. And finally, in November, I helped to plan a large open-house event, which more than 400 people attended, including many who don’t attend our church. Every other week, I debate whether I should be calling up our pastor and asking for a job. But then I remember that I have a job already and that it probably makes the most sense to continue my involvement on a volunteer basis until the Lord leads otherwise. Our family continues to be deeply grateful for this local body of believers, and it was an extra special year in our family/church life because along with several other wonderful men, Ryan was installed as an elder!

Disappointingly, I read less this year than past years. I suppose that having a book chapter to write on an 800+ page book might have had something to do with that, at least in the early part of the year. It might also mean that I have daughters who insist I watch the Great British Baking Show with them. But the truth is that I crowd my life with too many things, let myself say yes too easily, fear disappointing others by saying no. I’m headed into 2018 with the intention of reading more, which isn’t just a vital part of my life as a writer. It’s nourishing to me as a human being.

In terms of the biggest developments of the year, it’s probably most significant that we become permanent Canadian residents this past July, which prompted us to buy a home in Toronto! We moved in November into our new house and are settled for the near-term as we’re hoping to do a renovation/addition before too, too long. All that angst of Keeping Place, finally resolved! Not. This world can’t satisfy our deepest longings for home. Nothing’s as permanent as we want, nothing’s as perfect. And yet, there is still so much housekeeping to be done in everyday life: the embodied, emplaced work of love and witness. Toronto is home, and I am so grateful for the many, many people who enrich our lives here by their friendship. When you wonder at my absence on social media, it’s probably best to remember that I’m trying to be a good neighbor in my family, on my street, in my school community, in my church, in my city.

In reflecting on the year, I opened my journal and turned to the beginning of 2017 (or really, the end of 2016). On December 30th of last year, I was writing some reflections on Psalm 146:

“When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.”

“This reminder of mortality,” I wrote, “Mortality—the great obstruction to human plans, ambitions, achievements. The yawning grave, willing to swallow every human life, big, small, rich, poor. Plans perish: only praise persists:”

“I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.”

As you celebrate Christmas and enter a new year, may you remember the vapor that life is and choose to spend it well.

*If you’re interested in other work that I did this year, here are some links to articles, interviews, podcasts, etc:

A Story Called Rest, Comment Magazine

3 Ways to Make Your Resolution Stick, The Gospel Coalition

Teach Us to Want: A Conversation (Podcast), The Zeppelin Lounge

One Church’s Story of Resettling a Syrian Refugee Family,The Gospel Coalition

Keeping Place, DVD series

Keeping Place,Audiobook

Keeping Place

Keeping Place (Unpublished Bonus Track), Fathom Mag

The Tamarisk (Everbloom),Paraclete Press

Muddy River, Good Letters Blog

Making Christianity Respectable Again (Book Review): The Gospel Coalition

For the Love of S-Town, Christ and Pop Culture

For the Love of S-Town (Podcast), Christ and Pop Culture

How to Binge Watch Like a Believer (Interview with Andy Crouch), Christianity Today

The Too-Small Story of Home, The Gospel Coalition

The Silence of Suicide, Redbud Writers Guild

Our Homemaker, Who Art in Heaven (Excerpt, Keeping Place): Christianity Today

How Poetry Enhanced My Bible Reading, American Bible Society

No Apology For Nostalgia, First Things

There’s No Place Like Home, The Well

Interview with Ashley Hales,

The Longings and Losses of Home (Interview), Fathom Mag

God is a Homemaker Who Does ‘Women’s Work’ (Interview), Christianity Today

Finding a Home That Lasts,

Why Homesickeness is Health, The Gospel Coalition

Helping People Become Aware of Their Desires,

Thou Shalt Not Bail,Christianity Today

Weinstein, Trump, #metoo,

Better Than Your Best Life Now (Podcast), The Gospel Coalition

Whose Will Be Done? (Our Secular Age),The Gospel Coalition

Persuasion: Keeping Place (Podcast), Christ and Pop Culture

Minimalism Isn't the Key to ChristmasChristianity Today

Book Endorsements

Making Marriage Beautiful, Dorothy Greco

The Year of Small Things, Sarah Arthur and Erin Wasinger

Long Days of Small Things, Catherine McNiel

Comfort Detox, Erin Straza

The Sound of a Million Dreams, Suanne Camfield

Grieving a Suicide, Al Hsu

Almost There, Bekah DeFelice

Grit and Grace, Caryn Rivadeneira

The Magnificent Story, James Bryan Smith

This Is Our Time, Trevin Wax