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

 

#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!

Who is welcome here?

Jen Michel

I’ve written in Keeping Place about the part of our church’s liturgy that I appreciate most; it’s when someone stands to pray for the church and for the city. This part of the service is where we talk to God about the grit-and-grind realities of everyday life—in our own congregation but also in Toronto. We pray as part of the work of imagining what it could be like for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. Yesterday, my husband, Ryan, was scheduled to pray for the church in the city. In his prayer, he mentioned the recent decision by an Ontario court to force physicians in the province, opposed to physician-assisted death, to provide a referral to their patients despite their conscientious objections. It was a blow to the 4,700 Christian doctors in the province, and as I’ve spoken with some of these doctors in the past, some wonder whether they will continue to be able to practice certain kinds of medicine in Canada in the future. Ryan prayed that these doctors (many in our own congregation) would be given wisdom and courage.

It might not have seemed a very controversial prayer until after the sermon, during the few minutes that are routinely devoted to Q&A. A man from the balcony waved his hand to catch Pastor Dan’s attention. He stood to mention the “young man’s prayer” earlier in the service.

“I personally am very much in favor of physician-assisted death. I think this is a welcome turn in the modern world, and I’m just wondering: What roles do personal politics have to play in the prayers we pray here? And how am I to pray along if I can’t agree?”

When I had met this man, several weeks ago, he was quick to nervously tell me that “I haven’t been to church in more than fifty years.”

It was a moment tense with a great deal of uncertainty—both for him, I’m sure, as well as for us. We waited breathlessly to say what Dan would say.

For those of us who grew up in a pew, we can hardly appreciate the difficulty of walking into a church either for the first time or for the first time in fifty years. Church is a place of so much shared—and implicit—consensus. We share a common vocabulary. We share a familiar understanding of what’s happening during the service. We move in time as if to the beat of some invisible drum. No wonder it’s daunting for people to join us: they feel clumsily out of step.

I think the question remains for those of us who would call ourselves "believers": what does it look like to welcome a “stranger” among us? How do we make our churches places to safely explore the Christian faith?

We have the seeker-model of the 1990’s, of course. That was about neutralizing the physical environment of the church: taking down the cross, for example. Replacing the pews with theater seats, preferably with cup holders. I think we’ve seen the limited effect those changes have had, and I’ve read in recent years that people today (especially younger people) are longing for a more sacred kind of church architecture. As it turns out, we don’t actually want our sanctuaries to look like movie theatres.

What does welcome look like then? I have a feeling it looks more like the moment from our church service yesterday, when a gentleman who hasn’t been to church in fifty years got up the nerve to raise his hand, and with it, an objection. I have the feeling it looks like a pastor answering that question with a great deal of courtesy and theological seriousness. “A wonderful question,” Dan began, “and I’m so glad you’ve asked it.”

“Maybe we could begin by considering the Christians in Nazi Germany who failed to defend the Jews at the time. In hindsight, we can see that their moral ambivalence proved to be the exactly wrong thing needed at the time. They needed the moral courage to land squarely on the side of the Jews. It’s only later, of course, that we can see this.”

“There’s no doubt that following Jesus will often put us on the ‘wrong’ side of our current cultural moment. People in the general culture will draw what they feel to be obvious conclusions, as in the case of PAD, but Christians, because of their theological commitments, won’t draw those same conclusions.”

“We don’t bring personal politics into our prayers so much as our theological commitments. I think it’s appropriate that we can pray as Ryan prayed today, acknowledging, of course, that there will be disagreement among us. Thank you again for what was a very perceptive question.”

There were other brilliant things that Dan said, and by the time he’d finished the answer, the congregation burst into spontaneous applause. “Why are you clapping?” Dan asked sheepishly, turning his attention to communion.

I wasn’t clapping so much because Dan had brilliantly answered that particular man’s question. I was clapping because he’s answered a much more important one:

Who is welcome here?

You, sir.

You, who haven’t been to church in 50 years.

You, who disagree with our theological commitments.

We invite you among us: to raise your objections, to puzzle over faith, and to come—however fitfully— to Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

On My Bookshelf for 2018

Jen Michel

I mentioned in my 2017: Year in Review that I read less this past year than years previous. Although I haven't been able to figure out why, I do know it's true that the practice of regular reading requires forethought and intention. You have to keep a good list, order books in advance from the library, and turn deliberately to your book at the end of the day rather than Netflix. Good reading is like good eating: you'll feel better for having done it, but it's always tempting to steal a cookie before dinner. I don't want to be a fundamentalist when it comes to reading, but I do want to challenge myself to read more in the year ahead.

Reading is, of course, an important part of the work that I do, and gratefully, I have a well-established routine of morning reading. (Right now, it's the One Year Bible NLT, the complete collection of letters between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, and a book of poetry by Ross Gay.) I am also regularly reading on whatever subject I'm writing about. (Currently, I'm writing on the incarnation for book #3, and I'm reading Chesterton's Orthodoxy, Mark Jones's Knowing Christ, and Graham Cole's The God Who Became Human.)

I suppose that you could say that based on the reading I do in the morning and the reading I do for my writing, I'm READING! But I don't want to just be a practical reader; I want to be a superfluous one. I want to read beautiful, haunting novels. I want to savor poetry. I want to understand the world that's come before me. I want to pratice curiosity, develop keener habits of observation, feel and love deeply. I think reading helps with all of that!

In that spirit, I'm offering you the list of books I'm putting on my proverbial shelf for 2018. Truthfully, I know I won't make it through this list, but at the very least, it's a guide, a rudder in the shifting winds of mood. I'm not resolving to get through this list so much as read everyday. (I'm going to track my progress using this tool from Modern Mrs. Darcy, who's a great resource for the reading life!)

POETRY

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

, Ross Gay

Good Bones

, Maggie Smith

Second Sky

, Tania Runyan

The World’s Wife,

Carol Ann Duffy

Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God

(Translator, Anita Barrows)

The Jubilee

, John Blase

NON-FICTION

The Rise of Christianity

, Rodney Stark (220 pages)

Consolations

, David Whyte (247 pages)

Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition

, Christine Pohl (190 pages)

The Patient Ferment of the Early Church

, Alan Kreider (300 pages)

For the Life of the World

, Alexander Schmemann (151 pages)

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets,

Svetlana Alexievich (496 pages)

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved

, Kate Bowler (208 pages)

Death by Living

, N.D. Wilson (208 pages)

Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World

, Tim Muelhoff and Richard Langer (219 pages)

Make a List: How a Simple Practice Can Change Our Lives and Open Our Hearts,

Marilyn McEntyre (208 pages)

FICTION

Can You See Anything Now?

Kate James (256 pages)

No Great Mischief

, Alistair MacLead (304 pages)

Little Fires Everywhere

, Celeste Ng (352 pages)

Sing, Unburied, Sing

, Jesmyn Ward (304 pages)

Autumn

, Ali Smith (288 pages)

Love Big, Be Well

, Winn Collier (176 pages)

Peace Like a River

, Leif Enger (320 pages)

WRITING LIFE

Walking on Water

, L’Engle (200 pages)

Words in Air

, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (816 pages)

Art and Fear

, David Bayles, Ted Orland (122 pages)

MEMOIR/BIOGRAPHY

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jill Franklin

, Jill Lepore (270 pages)

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

, Caroline Fraser (515 pages)

Many of these titles come as recommendations from friends. Here are some other great lists to check out:

On My Shelf: Life and Books with Russ Ramsey

(The Gospel Coalition)

Ten Favorite Reads of 2017

(Trevin Wax)

Christianity Today's 2018 Book Awards

Englewood Review of Books

Best Books of 2017

(Fathom Mag)

Did you know that I write a monthly newsletter? I call it Miscellany because it's all the odds and ends of my life and work. If you're interested in subscribing, you can here. It arrives around the first of the month (ish).

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, aahales.com

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, elisamorgan.com

Why Homesickeness is Health, The Gospel Coalition

Helping People Become Aware of Their Desires, careleader.org

Thou Shalt Not Bail,Christianity Today

Weinstein, Trump, #metoo,jenpollockmichel.com

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

The Neighbors Project - and an invitation

jenmichel@me.com

Allen called me back yesterday afternoon, and we spoke for fifteen minutes. “You’re easy to talk to,” he tells me. “And you’re easy to talk to,” I tell him. We agree to meet at the open-house event that our church is hosting this coming Thursday evening, November 16. He promises to bring me samples of his work, and I promise to make time to look at them. In this phone conversation in which I try getting a quote from Allen to hang alongside his portrait for Thursday’s gallery event, Allen describes himself as the “disability photographer” of the neighborhood. He means, of course, the neighborhood into which our church has just moved. This is why I phoned Allen, why we've taken his picture: we’re neighbors of sorts. For the photography exhibit on Thursday, a team of photographers has scattered on local streets throughout the course of many months to meet people just like Allen — to hear their stories, to capture their faces, and to begin practicing the neighbourliness to which Jesus calls his people.

“I am the photographer of the forgotten,” Allen tells me over the phone. “Because I am one of the forgotten.” He describes being hearing impaired, indicates that he has suffered a traumatic brain injury, admits that he is poor. His art, he says, isn’t a passion but “a way of surviving.” I think of the photograph of Allen that will hang in Thursday’s gallery, how it captures Allen the artist: the camera slung around his neck, the keen eyes. (And if bushy eyebrows make for an artist, those, too.) I think, with great gratitude, how good and right it is to hang a portrait of one of the forgotten in the middle of Christ's church.

On Thursday, Grace Toronto Church throws open its doors for a housewarming party of sorts. We’ve come home, as we like to say — found a more permanent place in the city now that we’ve bought and renovated and moved into the 1878 Old St. Andrew’s Church, which stands at the corner of Jarvis and Carlton streets. There would be all kinds of ways to celebrate this memorable occasion, but we’ve chosen to mark it in the way that we think most honors Jesus. We’ve made the event less about ourselves and more about our neighbors. “Neighbor” is, in fact, the word that will hang over the doors to the photo gallery, hopefully calling to mind the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In that famous story Jesus told, the Lord reminds a young man, so eager to get things right, that the Law and the Prophets is summed up into two commands: love God and love your neighbor.

Or maybe I could even put it this way: love God by loving your neighbor.

Just this morning, I found notes from one of our team meeting's back in the spring. Together we had read and reflected on the parable to orient ourselves toward a vision for this event. “What is neighborliness?” we had asked ourselves. We came to words like compassion, care, notice, initiative, costly, attitude and action, thoughtfulness, long-term investment, relational. “What are obstacles to neighborliness?” Desiring to justify ourselves, capacity, time, fear, the unpredictability of the situation.

“He cared close,” we observed of the Samaritan, noticing our own fears for safety and the complicated nature of human pain. We made some attempts at conclusion.

Neighborliness is central to the gospel. We embody how God in Christ acts toward us. We image him in the world. To understand someone else’s brokenness, we have to own our own. We must build common ground, which makes for long-term, sustainable action.

On Thursday, all the prayer and planning, reading and reflection will be realized in a free event, open to church and community friends. We will have a large photo exhibit, which is a response to the question, “Who is my neighbour?” As our Director of Worship and Arts describes in the artistic statement, “Displayed throughout the gallery are images of people from the communities surrounding Old St Andrew’s. In our hyper, quick-paced city, we rarely take the time to see the people around us. The use of larger-than-life format in this display challenges us to stop and look, even to confront our unwillingness to find the beauty and diversity in the people we meet every day.”

In addition to the photo gallery, we will offer guided architectural tours of the historic church building, designed by the famous Toronto architects Langley, Langley and Burke. And finally, there will be a performance of an original adaptation (by Ian Cusson) of Bach Cantata 164, whose text is taken from the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

My Savior, through the radiance of your love, now melt my heart of steel that I, with Christ-like love, may daily strive  to comfort my neighbor in their anguish, whoever they may be, friend or foe, Christian or not, and that I treat his anguish as if it were my own. May my heart be loving, pure and soft, so that in me your likeness might be shown.

As people enter our building, we pray they encounter Christ in the faces of their neighbors. If you’re local, you’re certainly welcome!

Grace Toronto Church 383 Jarvis St. Toronto 7-10pm Concert performances at 7:45pm and 8:45 pm

** As the coordinator of this event, I'd like to credit the book, Slow Church (by John Pattison and Chris Smith), with the inspiration for the Neighbours' project. In their book, Pattison and Smith argue that “we need practices that will reorient our desires to our places.” We should leave off “broad generalities about changing the world” and instead reimagine “in more specific ways the transformation of our own particular places,” (74). This event does this kind of imagining, and I'm grateful for Pattison and Smith's emphasis on rooting ourselves, as churches, deeply in our places.

Weinstein, Trump, #metoo

jenmichel@me.com

That God loves Harvey Weinstein will seem an obvious truth to people of faith. What is equally obvious is the righteous contempt for Weinstein to which we might now feel entitled. Harvey Weinstein’s alleged behavior is not simply repugnant; it’s criminal. My stomach has turned to read of—and now listen to—his sexual aggression against women. “I’m a famous guy,” he says on the audio recording captured during a sting operation in 2015. He is heard pleading with Filipina-Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez to stay in his hotel room. She resists. “Why yesterday you touch my breast?” she asks, her voice plaintive and persistent. “Just come on in, I’m used to that,” Weinstein answers. “Five minutes. Don’t ruin your friendship with me for five minutes.”

For this week at least, Harvey Weinstein is chief of sinners. (His fall from grace is predicted to have more lasting effects, one reason the Weinstein Co. is considering delaying the release of ‘The Current War,’ for a spring 2018 release.) On the pages of The New Yorker and The New York Times, Weinstein is like a centerfold for modern transgression: public man destroyed by private transgression. Or worse: public man destroyed by private transgression enabled by complicitous silence. It seems an entire industry—office assistants and company executives, agents and the publicists—delivered vulnerable women into his barbarous paws. Their sin is complicity.

There are sins we tolerate in the modern age—and sins we don’t. The Weinstein scandal bears out these culturally-derived laws of moral transgression. Licentiousness is, of course, never the problem. As Matthew Walther has written in The Week, “The sexual act, we tell ourselves, is a simple matter of exchange between consenting partners.” Consent is the crude law for governing what is and is not sexually permissible.

Exploitation, on the other hand, is out. Harvey Weinstein wielded power over young actors whom he invited into his hotel rooms for “work” meetings, inviting them to give him a massage, watch him undress, take their clothes off, or whom he forcibly raped. Weinstein made award-winning films: on his relative favor, stars could rise or fall. That he recklessly abused that position will damn him.

But there is also further violation, this one most telling in terms of what it reveals about our contemporary ethic. It’s not simply that Weinstein acted the part of predator; it’s that he’s hypocrite par excellence. He publicly championed the rights of women; he marched in women’s rights parades; he endowed chairs at prestigious universities in the name of prominent feminists; he raised millions of dollars to support scholarships for women directors at the University of Southern California; he donated to the campaign for the first woman American president. The public progressive appears to have been a private lecher.

We have, of course, a sitting President damned with an audio recording not unlike what Ambra Battilana Gutierrez recorded of Weinstein two years ago in a New York City hotel room. Trump confesses on that recording, in the crassest of terms, having tried to sleep with a married woman: “I did try and f*#@ her. She was married.” He also confesses to a willful abuse of power: “Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Our president’s language degrades even further: “Grab ‘em by the p---y. You can do anything.” Trump did eventually apologize for the recording, and evangelicals seemed to have graciously accepted. They overwhelmingly voted him into office.

Did the church give Trump a pass, a pass that Hollywood now rescinds vis-à-vis Weinstein? Weinstein was fired by his own board, and none of the top Hollywood agents whom he called on to publicly defend him agreed to do so. By contrast, after the release of the audio recording, prominent evangelicals continued to support the Republican nominee. Four of every five self-identified evangelicals voted for him. (I did not.)

To the degree that evangelicals have tolerated Donald Trump’s bad behavior, I don’t think it’s a matter of simple political pragmatism (e.g. Supreme Court nominees). I think it’s also because we’ve always accepted him to be a flawed character. The great consolation seems to be that our thrice-married, bombastic and belligerent president has never pretended to be a saint. In this way, Donald Trump is the ultimate hero of authenticity in the age when “staying true to yourself” is the only criterion for virtue. Our president’s virtue, if we were to call it that, has been his straight-talking candor, his rejection of the political and contrived. Insofar as we’ve known him to be a compromised figure, at least he’s been a consistent one.

There is a degree to which the evangelical church shares the complicity of Hollywood. But the sins we hold in common aren’t simply our common silences when abuse happens in our ranks. The church, like Hollywood, is guilty of elevating authenticity as the ultimate virtue. Hollywood now judges Weinstein, not simply for his crimes, but also for his hypocrisy. That he is a sinner is evidenced by the cleaving of his public and private selves. Not dissimilarly, some evangelicals have largely excused Trump’s bad behavior. Perhaps we’ve convinced ourselves, better a flagrant sinner than a fraudulent saint.

To be sure, all of us is either flagrant sinner or fraudulent saint. When casting stones or finding specks, we are most helped to consider the weight of our own moral failings before considering another’s. Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon the church to name sin and declare outrage, especially as countless women take to social media, telling their stories of sexual abuse, aggression, and rape.