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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Category: Courage

Doing the One Thing that Matters

jenmichel@me.com

"Will I see you on Thursday?" Two days ago, the instructor of the fitness class I normally attend on Tuesdays asked me this. While I'm reliably at the gym on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, I can't be counted on to show up other days. Sometimes I make a Thursday. Sometimes I squeeze in a Friday morning workout.

"I'm not sure," I said hesitatingly. "It's hard, you know, with work and kids. It's sort of unpredictable for me."

"Well, the important thing is that you get here when you can!" And I'm sure he walked away thinking that I was lousy at excuses.

The truth is that though I want to exercise more regularly (and am getting to the gym fairly predictably these days), bootcamp isn't always my highest priority. Sometimes I trade my time in the gym for lunch with a friend or for chaperoning a field trip. Last week, I skipped class and cleaned my house.

So maybe my "work and kids" answer wasn't an excuse after all. Maybe it just meant I had limitations.

Essentialism-300x210

It's already mid-January, which may mean that most of us us have already run out of resolution steam. But in the event that you are still reflecting on your goals for 2015, I want to recommend Greg McKeown's great book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. In this book intended for a more corporate kind of reader, McKeown isn't necessarily saying something new. In fact, his message is pretty straightforward: if you want to do the things that are most important, you have to eliminate what isn't. That's obvious, maybe - but the courage required for living "essentially" isn't. I suppose if there is one take-away for me personally from McKeown's book, it's this idea of emotional courage. It takes courage to admit to yourself that you can't do it all. It takes courage to bear the pending disappointments of the trade-offs we must make to live essentially. It takes courage to say 'no' to other people.

It takes courage to live into your limitations.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

"If you don't prioritize your life, someone else will" (10).

"We simply cannot have it all. An Essentalist makes trade-offs deliberately [and asks] 'Which problem do I want?'" (55).

"Courage is key to the process of elimination . . . Anyone can talk about the importance of focusing on the things that matter most, but to see people who dare to live it is rare" (132, 133).

"Saying no is its own leadership capability" (143).

"What's important now?" (220).

Again, none of this is rocket science, but the simplicity of the advice is actually what's best about the book. Figure out what's important. Define your priorities. Start courageously saying no to everything else.

I am a complete coward when it comes to saying no. But I'm trying to get better at it, and I think it's its own kind of spiritual discipline. If you're interested in the ways I'm applying some of these "essentialist" ideas to my life, I hope you'll click the links to some of these pieces below.

First, I wrote a piece for Christianity Today's her.meneutics blog entitled, "You're Not Too Busy for the Bible." Here's a little peek inside:

"Research commissioned by the American Bible Society shows that more than half of Americans want to read the Bible more often. Only 15 percent read our Bibles daily. (The oldest Americans and those living in the South are doing better than most.) While more than 60 percent aspire to greater diligence, we all cite the same reason for our laxity: we're too busy.

There may be good reasons for reconsidering the resolution to read the entire Bible this year, but citing "busyness" as the reason for not attempting any daily Bible reading is, in vernacular of my twelve-year old son, "a dumb old" excuse. So why aren't we reading? And how can we make a more enduring resolution to read the Bible in 2015?"

Second, I wrote a guest post for Charity Singleton Craig's blog. She features a regular series called, In Your Own Words. My piece was about leaving things undone:

"Setting priorities and living faithfully by them is never easy. There's no breeze in life that carries us effortlessly to the shore of the meaningful life. Rather, what will be required for new ambitions is the muscular motion of rowing into the wind: of other people's expectations, of self-imposed obligation, of inner demons like fear, apathy, and laziness. Priorities require both the strong yes as well as the brave no. Priorities depend on resistance as much as thrust, pull as much as push. To set a priority is to decide what will be prior-first; in this way, it requires leaving something undone."

I hope you'll pop over to Charity's site and find the rest here.

Courage, friends - for faithfully living into your God-given call and commission.

Prayers for the Readers of "Teach Us to Want"

jenmichel@me.com

Every prayer is an act of desire. I suppose one reason I've become so convinced that we need desire for our lives of faith is because desire is entrance into prayer. In fact, I've begun to see holy desire and prayer as nearly synonymous in the life of a Christian. What holy desire wouldn't make its eventual way into the throne room of grace? And wouldn't something cease to be holy about desire apart from this courageous risk on God's goodness and wisdom and power? Isn't enduring trust made solid and substantial as we confide prayerfully to God this one holy desire: teach me to want? We want and pray, and this practice forms us. We grow less to expect everything as we've asked for it. We simply begin believing that God's no's and not yet's are a means towards our greater good.

Teach Us to Want_Cover #4312I've written a book on desire, and in many ways, it's a book about prayer. By this it will be assumed that I'm a good pray-er, and let me confess: I am not. I, too, am as easily herded as a cat. I don't always know what I want, and even when I do, there is nothing automatic about making those desires into something resembling prayers.

But I'm learning to let Jesus ask me, as he so often did in the gospels, "What do you want?" And I let that become my invitation to begin praying. Sometimes those prayers lead to confession and to a renunciation of certain desires. Sometimes those prayers begin to grant new courage: my desires becomes my petitions becomes my plans (see Psalm 20).

I've wanted to write and publish a book. God heard those desires, granted those prayers, and gave wisdom for those plans. It astonishes me. (And makes me feel great joy.) The book that I've wanted, for which I've prayed, and that I've written is beginning to trickle out. I wonder if it is even in your hands?

So what do I want now? Or better yet, how must I pray?

I spent the morning thinking of how to pray for you, reader. And these are the desires - prayers - I will begin confiding to God on our behalf as you read, Teach Us to Want.

1. Father, fix our hope fully in the gospel of your Son, Jesus Christ. Your good news inspires our desires. "If God is for us, who can be against us. He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him gracious give us all things?" Rom. 8:31, 32 You know how difficult we find it to grasp the extravagant dimensions of your love. But if this book does one good, let it be that we begin believing more soundly that you have desired us.

2. Father, reveal our profound capacities for betrayal. It is our fallenness that cautions our desires. "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" Isaiah 6:5 Father, you understand our tragic blindnesses: we would love our death and hate our good. Deliver us from ourselves.

3. Father, let us see the vanity of our idolatries and help us to treasure Christ. "I count everything as loss for the sake of Christ because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." Phil. 3:8 If we are rich, let it mean nothing. If we are educated, let it not be our hope. Help us know the desolation of every worldly good and the enduring treasure that is life in and with and through Jesus Christ.

4. Father, let us learn that obedient surrender to your will is our ultimate good. Teach us to want.

"Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it! Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain! Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me live in your ways. Confirm to your servant your promise, that you may be feared. Turn away the reproach that I dread, for your rules are good. Behold, I long for your precepts; in your righteousness, give me life!"

Psalm 119:35-40

5. Father, by your surprising mercy, grant us courage and commitment for our holy desires. Move us, your people, into joyful and bold participation for the kingdom. Inspire in us greater self-sacrificing love for your broken world that we become a purified people for your possession, "zealous for good works" (Titus 2:14).

Ultimately, Father, whatever good you do, may it be for the hallowing of your name (Matt. 6:9). "Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, of the sake of your steadfast love and faithfulness." Psalm 115:1

If it feels good, do it. Or don't?

jenmichel@me.com

A couple of days ago, Her.meneutics published a piece I wrote on desire. (I'm sure that you're surprised I chose that as a topic.) In the essay, I summarized some of the conversation I had with my class at church last week when I asked them: what does our culture say about desire? What does the church say about desire? We all agreed that culture says this about desire (in general):

If it feels good do it. Desire can't be repressed; it has to be expressed. Nothing you ever want is wrong.

And here's how many of us interpreted desire based on what our churches had taught:

If it feels good, don't do it. Desire is evil. The highest calling in the Christian life is sacrifice.

Did the church have it right? Was desire evil? Obviously, I don't think so. I think we need desire for our lives of faith. But I also think there's incredible tension in the act of wanting - because it's not always easy to want God's will. Read the rest of my essay, "Jesus Never Said, 'Be True to Yourself'" here.

When your right hand causes you to sin

jenmichel@me.com

I don’t expect the certainty I once did about hearing God’s voice. When I was in the infancy of faith - a teenager - God was so gracious to me. I could palpably sense His nearness, and I needed that reassurance. Having converted to Christ after a week of summer camp with my youth group, I came home to the process of slowly losing the friendships that had once meant so much. I was a new me - and awkward in that newness. For as welcomed as I felt into the arms of God, I felt equally as alienated from the people who hadn’t shared my experience and couldn’t understand it. But God was good, near, and His voice as close to audible without actually having the quality of sound. Reading my Bible in that early season of faith was nothing rote or routine: it was the actual experience of communion, of friendship. For years, I filled pages of journals. Prayers. Thoughts. Conversations. And I’m grateful for this early start with Christ, which had all the empirical qualities of being real.

I could feel God.

I might wish that it had continued, the electricity of that newness. But like every love relationship, my walk with Jesus has matured and deepened, settling into the steady rhythm of a pulse. A heartbeat. Unconsciously, it beats.

Faith. Faith. Faith.

There is a reassurance about this, too, but I find it requires more attentiveness. The sky doesn’t always light up with the certainties it once did. And God whispers more than before. It’s necessary now to pay more attention. And sometimes, in the whirl of the day and the distraction of the contemporary mood, I fear I could miss it. Him.

(Although God can be persistent.) This, too, is grace.

Yesterday, I sat down in an unfamiliar church flanked by friends. And reaching for my bulletin, my eyes fell on the sermon title: “When to Cut Off Your Hand.”

If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.

This has been a distant refrain of the last two weeks. A whisper. A hint. A gentle nudge in the direction of reflection. Of repentance.

I hear Him inviting me into these words.

If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.

These are words meant for me. But I haven’t yet lingered on them. I haven’t given myself sufficient pause. I haven’t - to be honest – had the courage to allow these words their voice.

I haven’t reconciled myself to the change they announce. (And isn’t transformation always what Scripture intends?)

If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.

I fear I lack the ruthlessness.

 

 

Find grace in unexpected places: Tell your story

jenmichel@me.com

In less than two weeks, we move. And as I’ve willed myself to finally admit this, I’ve begun to organize the house. Thankfully, we will have a crew of movers to pack and load our stuff, so there isn’t much else I need to do – at least for now. And because the house we are currently renting will be torn down in a matter of months, it’s not as if I actually need to clean it before we go. Nonetheless, even if it’s only the tedious task of sorting through closets and drawers, I figured an audiobook would make the work easier. Yesterday, I downloaded, Cutting For Stone. If you remember, I’ve set some ambitious reading goals for the year. And you’re wondering how I’m getting along? Um, let’s just say that I’m making slower progress than projected.

So far, I am loving this book. I am a sucker for great prose and great stories. And this book is both.

The narrator is an identical twin, born to a nun who died in childbirth. No one had even known she was pregnant, and certainly no one had ever suspected it.

In the prologue, the narrator declares why he is in search of his story, the one that died with his mom in operating theater 3.

“What I owe Shiva [my twin brother] most is this: to tell the story. It is one my mother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, did not reveal and my fearless father, Thomas Stone, ran from, and which I had to piece together. Only the telling can heal the rift that separates my brother and me. Yes, I have infinite faith in the craft of surgery, but no surgeon can heal the kind of wound that divides two brothers. Where silk and steel fail, story must succeed. To begin at the beginning. . . . “

Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese

Stories heal.

To begin at the beginning. . . .

In the beginning. . .

I have to remind myself of the redemptive weave that a story spins. It takes so much courage to live wide-eyed in the midst of our own stories. There are things from which we would rather run and hide. There is pain and hurt that we’d rather bury.

Stories heal – but often, not before they wound.

I’ve told you this already. It’s been as a result of blogging that I’ve reconnected to my stories of profound loss. Those stories have been hard to tell, but in the process of telling them, of re-opening wounds I thought had long ago healed, a greater healing has come.

But there are other stories to tell. Some of them stories are of personal failure and profound regret. Tomorrow, I will be telling one of those stories more publicly than I ever have before.

Why?

Why tell stories that wound, that confess, that spill our guts and leave others standing over the mess?

Why not pretend and playact?

Because that is never possible, least of all from God. “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.” Psalm 51:6

What's more, the world needs our stories. That may be the only way that they begin to connect to Jesus; maybe it’s through our stories that they start making sense of some of the abstractions we call faith.

Tell your story. To a friend or neighbor. To someone you bump into at school drop-off. To an acquaintance you’ve met at church.

Tell it, even to yourself.

Let yourself sit with your narrative, the novel of your life. Find God there, even in the chapters where you might have thought yourself alone and desolate. Find God in the scenes of your own sin, when you worked hard to reject His good for you.

Because that’s where we are always meant to find it:

Grace.

 

 

Atonement. The End.

jenmichel@me.com

I traveled to Delaware this past weekend to speak at the church where my college friend’s husband serves as pastor. And it was this weekend that I had my first awkward moments as a blogger.

On the night I arrived, after our conversation had stretched close to midnight around their long kitchen table, my friend began giving me instructions for using her Keurig the next morning.

“No, no, hun,” her husband quickly interrupted. “Don’t you remember she likes the French press?”

I was left only momentarily wondering how they knew this little factoid.

And it was the next morning that a tall, pretty young woman introduced herself to me before the tea. She’s shaking my hand and smiling, telling me that she’d been reading my blog and enjoying it.

There are facts she cites to establish the intimacy she has with the mechanics of my life.

I feel awkward. My life is no paragon of virtue.

In fact, in the week leading up to the event, I am conscious of how irritable I’m acting. Hustled by deadlines, I am quick to snap at the kids, quick to wish away my responsibilities as wife and mother, quick to hope for some quiet, permanent corner of the world into which I can withdraw and work without interruption.

And all week long, I sit down with the Bible in the morning. And I feel nothing. And I hear nothing. And sooner rather than later, I bring to an end what feels to be nothing more than a rote exercise – one I’d hardly constitute as faith.

Do you go speak for God when you fail to hear Him speaking?

Do you go claiming to serve God when it’s your family’s needs you’ve been willfully ignoring?

All this incongruence – between the life of my words and the life of my skin – it heaps up like one big heap of accusation.

And that’s why I wake with the pit in my stomach on Saturday morning. It’s early and dark. I lie there sleepily and feel the familiar knot of anxiety tug, churn, and settle deeper.

Isaiah 6.

Somehow, this passage rises to conscious thought, and I’m out of bed, slipping noiselessly into the kitchen to make the coffee. (Yes, French press.)

And I begin reading Isaiah 6, and it’s as if finally, I can hear more than the leaden silence of the past week.

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne.”

Where am I, Jen?

Seated on a throne. And what would you do or fail to do, what you say or fail to say, that would change my sovereign position of power and authority?

If that were the only reassurance I had had, it would have been enough to calm all the jitters. But I found more, even more.

“Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips.”

And so, Isaiah had his own mirror? And in it, all his own incongruence stared back at him?

Of course.

And what was it that stood between the agony of that reflection and the answer to the call? What makes sinners so daring to believe that they could be commissioned for service?

ATONEMENT.

“One of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin is atoned for.’”

Here was the consoling reminder that God never uses perfect people – or perfectly confident people. It’s not our capacities or confidence that qualify us for ministry.

It’s the blood of Jesus.

I took that with me into the tea. I beat back the torrent of self-doubt with two words.

Jesus’ blood.

And the weekend was so NOT about me coming to share some pithy word with that crowded gymnasium full of women. As is typical with God, there was more goodness to be had than I could ever have imagined, goodness that I’ve since been mulling over, goodness that made me cry all the way from the moment I landed in Toronto, walked down the jetbridge, through the airport terminal, and out to meet a silver van packed with eager kids.

But that story, that goodness, will have to kept for another day.

 

 

Feeling jittery

jenmichel@me.com

I order my tall vanilla soy latté and begin wondering where my wallet is. I fumble through the pockets of the bag that hangs from my right shoulder and start feeling the panic rise to my cheeks. Where's my wallet? And passport and money? All the worst-case scenarios play out in fast forward speed. I am dizzied and feeling slightly faint.

Fumbling furiously now, I rummage through the books and computer chargers. I find my lipstick bag (one small sigh of relief - the lipstick is here) as the customers in front of me pay, then peal off the ever-shrinking line to get their drinks. They are not dummy-heads like me. They manage, like grown-ups do, to keep their wallet in sight.

The line is the only thing shrinking now. The panic has now fully seized my body. And I'm up next.

And it's then I realize - suddenly - that my wallet is tucked under my left arm. Safe. Right there in my arm pit. I try sidling up to the cash register to play the cucumber cool part of seasoned business traveler, but it's fairly obvious to anyone who has watched this extemporaneous scene that I am NOT.

I'm feeling jittery, the kind of jittery that makes you all clumsy.

I tried to figure out how to drape my winter coat over - around? - my carry-on. Unsuccesfully.

I tried to maneuver my one tall latte, one cup of ice water, and one yogurt parfait (with the carry-on and shoulder bag and winter coat) back to my gate. Unsuccessfully. (Ok, no spills but visible awkwardness.)

I am feeling the part of old woman whose husband has just died and can't complete the simplest of tasks without the help on which she'd learned all her life to depend.

I'm alone. In an airport. Flying off to Wilmington, Delaware, to speak on the subject of joy.

And I'm feeling all turned inside out, wondering why did I agree to this?

It may have been years ago that I saw myself doing exactly this. But there's something beautiful and right and yet hard about time as it marches forward - and erodes all those smug confidences of youth.

You know your own phoniness better when you're older. You're a fake, a fraud. The accumulated years: exhibit A.

So, yeah, I'm feeling jittery because it's been a busy week and I've tried to pray and failed and wondered why God feels beyond the next closed door.

They're boarding now.

I'm boarding now.

And that means a quick, hurried goodbye.

And the only thought with which to leave is this: "Conscious of all that I am not, confident of all that He is: and maybe that's where real ministry begins."

 

 

Raccoon-phobia: And what I'm learning from Jeremiah

jenmichel@me.com

I am terrified of raccoons. I suppose it began the day when one greeted me from inside my garbage can. I lifted the lid to find a masked bandit burrowing in the trash. And as is true with Toronto raccoons, they scare us far worse than we scare them. Ryan recently relayed a story typical of their nonchalance: several weeks ago, he was outside in the late afternoon when one casually sauntered down the driveway toward the backyard. Had the raccoon been able to speak, Ryan imagined he would have announced, "Honey, I'm home!"

What has any of this to do with what I've been reading in the Bible recently?

Nothing except that I'd left my One Year Bible in the car several days in a row, and in order to retrieve it in the dark hours of early morning, I would have to chance an encounter with a racoon.

So I didn't.

Clearly I'm no candidate for martyrdom.

But I did remember that I was in the book of Jeremiah and decided to continue reading there - from a Bible that was safely shelved in my family room.

God's Word has been speaking to me through the book of Jeremiah in ways that are timely and relevant. I marvel at how this happens: that I land at a certain passage, and its providential counsel speaks directly into a situation I'm facing.

Jeremiah is a prophet asked by God to preach hellfire and brimstone. Judah is soon to be exiled, and he's tolling the warning - except no one cares and there are a host of other prophets announcing peace and prosperity whom the people would much prefer to believe.

It isn't as if Jeremiah is always impervious to persecution and threats and hatred. He begs for his life. He pleads for God to intervene. He commiserates that such is his task.

Jeremiah is human, not bionic man: there is real sadness and despair and fear in the midst of doing what God has clearly called him to do. But what you sense is the open dialogue he shares with God - that it is to God he always returns and finds safety and further courage to keep advancing.

"If you have raced with men on foot, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you are so trusting, what will you do in the thicket of the Jordan?" Jeremiah 12:5

When God calls us to participation, we shouldn't imagine that it will be easy, that our movement forward will be unobstructed, that we will feel perpetual joy and peace as we work for the kingdom. No - that is the wide road.

And that's not the one that we travel.

Do something for God, and remember that it will always, always require of you COURAGE. And you don't get courage handed to you in a vat, as if all you needed was to ladle it out and drink it up when the situation demanded for it. You get courage in the form of a Person, who is the Holy Spirit. He walks with us, resides within us: He's closer than our breath.

He is always near, hemming us above and behind and around.

"I will make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls . . . they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the LORD, to deliver you." Jeremiah 1:18

There are so many forms of courage that we need as God's people: relational courage: to forgive and be forgiven, to speak truth and to receive it back in kind; moral courage: to do what is right and defend what is right; spiritual courage: to offer to God and to others whatever breeds from our faith; vocational courage: to work as if we were working for the LORD, not for men and woman; emotional courage: to stick it out in the dark places of self-doubt.

I have no doubt that you need courage today. I do. And I have no doubt that we need it because God's calling is usually bigger than us. God invites us into jobs that only He can do.

And faith grows in that kind of partnership.

"And without faith it is impossible to please God." Hebrews 11:6

 

 

 

 

Live and Let Live: Why moral ambiguity won't work

jenmichel@me.com

Here is a piece I wrote this summer on the heels of the Aurora, Colorado shootings. It wasn't picked up elsewhere, and I don't think I ever published it here. * * * * *

On June 16, 2012, Maureen Dowd, op-ed columnist for the New York Times, wrote a piece entitled, “Moral Dystopia,” and asked this question: “Have our materialism, narcissism and cynicism about the institutions knitting society - schools, sports, religion, politics, banking - dulled our sense of right and wrong?”

Assuming yes to Dowd’s question, I’d like to ask: what happens to the society with the millstone of individual self-sovereignty hanging from its neck?

We have our answers: Penn State University and Aurora, Colorado.

First, let me begin by saying that neither the victims of the shooting in Aurora nor the boys preyed upon by Jerry Sandusky invited their fate. They were not being punished for their sin; rather, they were the victims of another’s. In the landscape of a fallen world, the soil of human experience is seeded with suffering, much that we would call, “undeserved.”

And while the victims of these events were by no means complicit, others were. Consider first the longstanding predatory behavior of Jerry Sandusky, defensive football coordinator at Penn State, and the indefensible self-interest of University officials. As the Freeh report states, many staff members and coaches knew it had been Sandusky’s regular practice to shower with the boys he brought to campus from Second Mile, the non-profit organization Sandusky ran. The first police report against Sandusky was filed in 1998. But in 1999, Sandusky retired with a fat pension and an additional lump sum payment of $168,000.

Why, we might wonder, when Mike McQuery walked into a Penn State locker room in 2001, catching sight of Sandusky in an explicitly sexual act with a young boy, did he walk out, waiting to report the incident the following morning? Why, when University officials confronted Sandusky about the incident McQuery reported having witnessed, did they tell him they were “uncomfortable” about what had happened, as if the subject at hand was, not a rape scene, but the fit of a pair of pants? Why was nothing done when the evidence suggested these were not isolated incidents? Because no one dared endanger, either his job, or the Holy Grail of Penn State Football.

McQuery, in defense of his inaction, asserted that, “You’re not sure what the heck to do, frankly.” And I can be made to see his point. When all the language you’ve ever been taught is the grammar of personal preference, how can you be made to speak moral outrage when the situation requires it? Personal preferences inspire “discomfort.” Moral evil demands “outrage.”

Which it what all of us feel on the heels of what has happened in Aurora, Colorado. We are outraged that innocent lives were taken the night James Holmes walked into a movie theater, armed with a shotgun, assault rifle and handgun. We are outraged that evil can be so indiscriminate, that men can be so perverse. Our categories explode when trying to understand events like these.

And they explode, in part, because they’re fatefully misguided. Our contemporary cultural categories for behavior are no longer agreed-upon categories of right and wrong. Few of us now dare situate personal choice on this kind of moral spectrum. Live and let live. And it feels like a benevolent enough way of getting along in the midst of our differences - until Aurora and Penn State leave us searching for our words of outrage.

But moral outrage isn’t a language of fluency when personal preference is king. And according to Dan Ariely, author of the new book, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty, self-sovereignty is the reigning moral code. While the majority of us do morally arbitrate our choices, we don’t do it according to any kind of universal standard. Instead, abiding by our self-constructed notions of right and wrong, we remain willing to commit just enough indiscretion so as not to offend our self-appraisal as those who are fundamentally “good.” However, as David Brooks points out in his op-ed piece entitled, “The Moral Diet,” there’s a measurement problem. “You can’t buy a scale of virtues to put on the bathroom floor. . . [And] most of us are going to measure ourselves leniently.”

Which is why Christians need to enter into the ongoing cultural conversation about morality and offer answers to questions like the one Dowd raises. Yes, there is dulled sense of right and wrong, and we had better work toward rectifying our moral malaise. But I’d argue that many Christians have grown uncomfortable with the categorical language of right/wrong, good/bad. The gay marriage issue is probably the strongest example of this kind of reluctance shared by younger (under 40) evangelicals. Rachel Held Evans, in her much discussed and disputed blog post, “How to win a culture war and lose a generation,” cites clear evidence that the church is losing precious influence because we’re categorically “anti-gay.” Is it worth it? Evans asks.

And whether or not I agree with Held Evans about gay marriage, I disagree fundamentally with her tact. She’s asking the wrong kind of question, the same question Penn State officials asked when they chose to cover up Jerry Sandusky’s proven track record of molesting boys. Moral ambiguity hangs on questions like these, which essentially reduce answers to value propositions.

Value propositions just won’t do when we’re talking about boys being raped in showers and people being shot in theaters.

Give me a language of outrage. And God help me, because I think I can throw a punch.

The Business of Calling (A Look Back: Days 9-15)

jenmichel@me.com

Yesterday, I posted highlights from the first eight days of this series on calling. Today, we'll look at days 9 - 15, and tomorrow, I hope to have a new post on calling. (Some disappointments of the last week have made me feel particularly snarky. If I don't settle down, you're in for an earful.) I'm wondering if there are questions you find yourself asking on calling? I certainly wouldn't pitch myself as an expert, but feel free to ask questions in the comments. I could attempt some kind of a response in the days to come.

 Day 9: Yin and Yang

Responsibility and shame, the yin and yang of calling. Responsibilities are the weight God gives us to bear, but we are not meant to bear this weight alone. Indeed, they are always too impossibly heavy for our skeletons of human bone, and they are mean to draw us towards deeper dependence on Christ. But if you’re like me, you add to your pack extra stones of worry, which weigh heavy with the fear of failing. If you’re like me, your responsibilities are too heavily tied to your identity. Meeting them – or failing them – will be the exacting measure of who you are and how much you’re worth.

 

Day 10: Hesitating Steps

Fear and uncertainty can be evidence of calling. We often begin with hesitating steps forward; we feel our way in the proverbial dark, unclear about the direction we’re taking, uncertain about the purpose behind the imperative. But what we follow at first is the smallest, faintest perception of a little something toward which God is nudging us. We heed an imperative, that small God movement which leads from behind. We move towards a relationship, a vocational decision, a spiritual practice, a ministry venture.

And it requires enormous risk. We don’t get architectural blueprints or project timelines. We get lamplight for our feet. No more, no less.

 

Day 11: Looms and Laptops

Calling must never become ceaseless rhythms of work, subconscious reflexes of self-protection. Hours at a loom – or laptop -, having only mechanical relation to the objects – and people – of my life. Calling is no excuse to lone-ranger it: if anything, calling makes it all the more necessary to find companions for our journey.

 

Day 12: Downhill Glides, Uphill Climbs

One dimension of calling is the easy, downhill glide where effortlessly, you cruise. The wind is at your back. You’re not even pedaling! But there’s another part of calling, which is far more grueling and difficult. They are the hills we have to climb towards whatever height of purpose God is calling us. At the bottom of the hills, we survey the impossibilities. Our body, the hills, the sun beating overhead. There is simply NO way we’re getting to the top.

Thank God for downhill glides because sometimes, that’s the only reason I get on the bike at all. Thank God for uphill climbs because there’s where I’m meant to learn my dependence.

 

Day 13: The Uphill Climb of Visibility and Responsibility

Shouldering all those lives on my little frame had become impossibly heavy, and I needed someone to help me process the exhaustion, the self-doubt, the fear, the anxiety. I was fighting the sin of self-importance, and as a result, laid down the greater portion of my ministry responsibilities.

I want to begin again and begin differently.

I realize now that the work of God continues while I sleep: this is to me, immense relief. Tomorrow, were I to wake up debilitated – or not wake up at all – the world would keep on humming and spinning, whirring and whirling. It's just that big. And I am just that small.

 

Day 14: Purposed Participation with God

Attending to our heart’s desires isn’t always recommended to us, whether for life or calling. It may also be that our evangelical emphasis on serving and doing simply keeps us too busy for the practices of self-reflection.Whatever the cause, the false heart-mind dichotomies prevail. It’s the continental divide of the modern soul.

But look at the Psalmist’s integration of desire, plans, and petitions. We often do and become what we’ve hoped and planned and prayed. Life – and calling – may well be this three-strand cord of divine will and purposed human participation.

 

Day 15: Write for Your Neighbor

It’s some of the best advice I’ve had. Write for your neighbor, said Calvin Seerveld, when he lectured to artists and writers at our church recently. By this, I think he meant to say: Get over yourself. Get over all that grandstanding and grand planning. Write for your neighbor.

In other words, do something small and do it for love. Neighborliness is the most fundamental of our callings.

 

 

Calling, Day 13: The Uphill Climb of Visibility and Responsibility

jenmichel@me.com

“This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing.” Mark 4:26, 27

That the work of God continues while I sleep is to me, immense relief. I’m not sure that much at all depends on me, not even the most basic and fundamental of my responsibilities. Today it is true that my husband does not know how to operate our washing machine or boil an egg, but should something happen to me, he would figure it out pretty quickly. Tomorrow, were I to wake up debilitated - or not wake up at all - the world would keep on humming and spinning, whirring and whirling.

It’s just that big.

And I am just that small.

When Jesus taught about the nature of the kingdom of God, He used all kinds of metaphors: it’s a seed, a pearl, a spoonful of yeast, and all these images seem to say something quirky and unexpected about the something so simultaneously grand and vast. We expect spectacular architecture for the kingdom and learn by Jesus’ words that it’s nearly invisible as it begins, starting so small and puny as if to be hardly noticed.

One of my chronic, recurring sins is the self-importance I carry into the responsibilities of my life. As if everyone might need me. As if I have flung the planets into orbit. And this is of course why the verse with which I began arrested me this morning, taking my imagination by the shoulders and shaking it with a fierce and firm grip.

The kingdom sprouts and grows as you sleep, while your head burrows into your pillow.

For years, the way I’ve been fighting this sin of self-importance (and its vaudeville performer, anxiety) has been to disengage. It hasn’t been a pattern altogether noticeable because it coincided with the (substantial!) increase in our family size. Four months before I learned I was pregnant with the twins, I hit a kind of virtual wall, signed up for counseling, and dumped the greater portion of my ministry responsibilities. I was simply taking on too much, failing to say no was because I feared sounding selfish. What I really meant was of course that people needed me and I was afraid I couldn’t meet those expectations. But shouldering all those lives on my little frame had become impossibly heavy, and I needed someone to help me process the exhaustion, the self-doubt, the fear, the anxiety.

I laid most of those responsibilities down. We stopped the short-term fostering we had been doing. I quit the school board of the start-up Christian school. I announced I would no longer lead the two women’s groups I had started. Those weren’t easy decisions, and they were not all well-received. Of course now I wish I could have preempted the crisis and avoided wounding the people I inevitably did. But the crisis may well have been the grace I needed to welcome the arrival of two more children into our family. When the news came that I was pregnant with the twins, I had the capacity for receiving it because I had already significantly downsized my life. I treasure that movement of God that prepared me for the unexpected and upending news that I would be the mother of five children. I’ll be honest: spending the bulk of the last five years of my life with fewer ministry responsibilities has been a great freedom.

I think it’s also given me the space to consider how I may want to begin again and begin differently.

You may not imagine it, but this blog is courage in the making. I much prefer my invisibility and my safe, manageable, risk-free investments. But the nudge from the Spirit has been to write more publicly, and now I’m expanding in some different (and slightly terrifying ways).

  1. I’ve joined twitter. (Look to your right: see the feed?) I’ve made loud pronouncements that this is something I would NEVER do, and now I’ve eaten my words.
  2. I’ve added social media icons. (Aren’t they pretty? Thanks, Fran.) I am reluctant to invite “followers,” for all the reasons I’ve given above. But there they are. You won’t ever hear much about them, but feel free to friend or follow. (ew.)
  3. I’ve been submitting some recent work to other bigger blogs. I’ve had some rejections that I’ve had to brave. But by the end of the week, you may see one that’s been accepted. It inspires some slight panic, but generally, I am grateful.
  4. More than a month ago, I added a “speaking” category under MORE at the top.  See it? A friend asked if I would consider coming to speak at their Christmas tea and did I have any recordings of a teaching I had done in the past? I added that little page for her and the women of her church and have never breathed a word to you. And while this may be the last time I mention it, P.S., it’s there.

Peeps, this is my uphill climb. But by God’s grace, I’m NOT getting off this bike.

 

 

 

Calling, Day 5: Ruby Slippers of Courage

jenmichel@me.com

Thank you, friends, readers, for your loving and kind response to my most recent entry. I realize how raw and acutely painful that post must have sounded to you. I had one worried phone call last night from a friend who was “just checking up” to make sure that I was OK. The real truth is that post has been percolating for some time now, many months in fact. When I attended a writers’ retreat this past February, there was unimaginable emotional distance that I covered in the span of five solid days of writing. I got up at 5 a.m., went downstairs for a cup of coffee, and began writing until we gathered for breakfast at 8. I wrote until lunch, wrote until dinner, sometimes even wrote after we had all said our goodnights. That week of focused writing propelled me over some of my own walls of safety. I cleared some boundaries of what I would and would not write about, what I would and would not think about. It was where I began to recognize the real stories that needed to be told.

Something happened to me there, and I think it may be been a molting. In fact, it has taken this entire year to of blogging to lose some of the dead skin of fear and self-doubt, and put on the new skin of courage and willingness. I have no doubt this process takes a lifetime.

There was, last fall, the period of days that I could not release the nagging idea that I should do this thing. Blogging. And like many other decisions in my life, once I’d settled on the yes, there was an inner momentum with the force of fierce tornado winds. A house was lifted from its foundations, and when it landed, I was somewhere unexpected and unexplored.

It was Technicolor, and there was no way out but forward.

I have often wished for the magic of Dorothy’s ruby shoes.

Or maybe I have them. Maybe there’s something about calling that is like a pair of ruby shoes that God slips on our feet. It’s just that we don’t ever know how to wear them at first or what purpose they are meant to serve.

If there’s something that I believe now about calling, which I may not have known a year ago, is that you never, never wait till you’ve got the steps of the dance mastered before taking the floor. No, you are as stiff and clumsy as any has-been celebrity on Dancing with the Stars when you wave your flag of readiness, the surrendering “Here I am, Lord.”

Your knees knock to think that He might really take you up on this.

And this is terrific news. Courage for your calling happens on your feet in your street clothes, not on the couch in your pajamas. Let me tell you how completely terrified I am many days to do this. Why had it taken me so long, really? I mean, it has been TEN years that I sensed God calling me to write.

And I have been writing. But the courage to do this here has taken a bit more incubation time. Which is another reminder: nothing needs to be hurried with God. How mercifully patient He is with us. You don’t step into courage like the boots of a firefighter, and you don’t take it off at the end of a day’s long work. That would make courage external and outside of your skin.

The way of calling is interior travel. It is God inside of you, willing and working. You wear it like ruby slippers that you’ve awoken to, surprised at the sparkle at your feet. You figure out just what it means along the way with the help of your Tin Man and Lion and Scarecrow, those fellow travelers God has granted for your journey. Sometimes you are seized by terror but you press ahead, moving with the steady reassurance that your yellow brick road is meant for travel and your slippers made for wear.

You, too, Ferdinand.

For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

2 Timothy 1:7

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tina Fey, four-letter words, and YES!

jenmichel@me.com

I’m on the third disk of the audiobook, Bossypants, by Tiny Fey. It’s funny, crude, and often funny precisely because it’s crude, especially when Tina Fey assumes the gruff voice of her father talking about some g-d appliance that doesn’t bleeping work. Inexcusable!, Don Fey barks, and I think I like him, especially because he gives men like Alec Baldwin and Lorne Michaels sweaty palms. It’s a kind of guilty pleasure for someone like me who swears like a schoolgirl (meaning, pretty much not at all) to listen to four letter words roll effortlessly from Tina Fey’s lips. But it’s not all pleasure: I tolerate four-letter words about as well as I do French fries. Halfway through the first disk, I consider ending my brief friendship with Fey. Maybe that’s when she started talking about her inauspicious beginnings as an improvisational actor- and I decided to hang on. After graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in drama, Fey came to Chicago. Working days at the front desk of the Evanston YMCA, she took improvisational classes at night. Within a couple of years, she was hired at Chicago’s Second City.

Fey talked about the rules of improvisation as forming general principles for life. They are:

  1. Yes. Improvisation depends on the yes. Fey says that if your partner begins the sketch holding his finger like a gun and threatens to shoot you, you don’t say, “No, silly. That’s not a gun! That’s your finger.” You launch from where your partner has begun, and you go with it. The principle of the YES in improvisation and life: be open-minded and willing. Say yes more than you say no.
  2. Yes, and. Improvisation is more than a yes to your partner. It depends on your contribution.  If your partner says, with his finger pointed at you like a gun, “Stick ‘em up!” the sketch will need more from you than simple agreement. “Well, sure, if you say so!” You’ve got to contribute something. Take the idea further. Add to the sketch. Be present. In life, as well as on the stage.
  3. Make statements. Funny improvisational sketches aren’t built on questions like, “Where are we?” “What are we doing?” “What should we do now?” Keep your wits about you, and tell something, don’t just ask. Make your ideas count. Stop being apologetic. Women especially.
  4. There are no mistakes, just happy accidents. You’re pedaling on your imaginary bike, and your partner mistakes you for a hamster in a hamster wheel. Again, go with it. Who says it’s wrong?

I don’t find these rules of improvisation a far stretch from what I believe to be true about life and the way it should be lived. The yes: that’s the kind of open-handed living to which we are all called in Christ, whom, I might add, is the eternal YES to all of God’s promises. Yes, yes, yes. There’s courage in saying yes, there’s a hearty trust needed for the yes that heaves you into something new (and often leaves you feeling disoriented and unsafe).

We’ve rented part of a two-flat in Montreal this summer for three weeks, our experiment of yes as we practice our French and explore another region of Canada; it’s less than two blocks from Mont Royal, situated in “le meilleur coin” de Montréal, according to Sophie, who lives below us with her husband and two children, serving as our host and unofficial guide for our stint here in Montreal.

We weren’t here one hour before Ryan’s bike was stolen, calmly unhooked from our van’s bicycle carrier in broad daylight.

Yes sucks.

Or you always think so initially, because new experiences are about as stiff as new jeans. You want your old jeans back, not caring that they sagged at the butt or were threadbare at the knees. They felt good. And new jeans never give the way your old ones do. They’re stiff, tight, make you feel like you had better suck in your gut. They’ll even have you thinking you should do the unthinkable: exercise.

I am a sucker for old jeans, for familiarity, for SAFE. It was not twenty-four hours into our three-week Montreal adventure that I found myself wondering why we even decided this was a good idea.

I don’t know what the dotted yellow lines mean on the street to the LEFT of which cars are zooming past me in the same direction. (And here I thought yellow lines were for dividing the direction of traffic. Silly me.)

I don’t want to order my “grande latte à la vanille mi-sucré avec du lait au soya” this morning at 6:30 a.m. I want to speak English.

I don’t want the children waking up early to blaring car alarms beneath their window.

I don’t want to have to figure out how to back my car into the impossibly small space allotted us behind our building.

I don’t want to say yes, at least initially, whenever it means feeling or looking stupid (which, inevitably, it always does).

Which is why YES is the best word to keep saying, forcing you beyond your tidy boundaries of keeping dignity. And the truth is, that in improvisation, as well as in life, there are fewer mistakes than there are happy accidents, especially when grace are the hands into which you fall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Good isn't Good Enough

jenmichel@me.com

"Everyone is good, until we're tested." So begins Maureen Dowd's Op-Ed column from Sunday, June 17, entitled "Moral Dystopia." This column is not for the faint of heart, I might add, as it excerpts some of the most disturbing testimony regarding the boys, now young men, who were sexually abused by Jerry Sandusky when he served as defensive coordinator for Penn State's football program.

Dowd opens her piece with the comparison of Sir Thomas More in a "Man for All Seasons" (the paragon of moral principle) and Mike McQueary, who at one time had played as quarterback for Penn State and later served as a graduate assistant coach, the same man who witnessed  Sandusky raping a young boy and did essentially nothing. It was already the next day when McQuery walked into head coach Joe Paterno's office, describing that Sandusky had "fondled" a young boy but omitting the more graphic details that would later emerge in his Grand Jury testimony.

McQuery, Dowd would like to point out, failed his moral test. In an effort to defend his too-little, too-late response, McQuery explained, "I've never been involved in anything remotely close to this. You're not sure what the heck to do, frankly."

There were others who turned a blind eye to Sandusky's actions: a police officer, Sandusky's own wife, other administrative officials at Penn State. And in the midst of their moral paralysis, boys were raped and abused and victimized.

This sends shivers up the mother spine.

Dowd asks provocative questions, and what she essentially wonders is this: how have we so dulled our sense of right and wrong?

There are those who would try and answer that question. David Brooks wrote a fascinating column this month entitled, "The Moral Diet." He features the latest research from Dan Ariely, social scientist at Duke University, who argues that most of us aren't complete reprobates: rather, the majority of us are driven by a sense of moral right and wrong. For example, in Ariely's research, when cab drivers were asked to drive sighted passengers versus blind passengers, it was observed that the cabbies were much more likely to cheat the sighted people, although it would have been arguably easier to cheat those who were blind. To cheat a blind person would have violated the cabbies' sense of fairness.

However, cheating sighted people was all in a day's work. They did that without batting a moral eye.

And that's where Ariely lands. We make moral choices in order to maintain our sense of being good.. As long as our moral choices outweigh our immoral ones, we continue in our self-constructed fantasy world of being "good enough."

I'd argue that as long as society works only to be "good enough," which is conveniently defined by our own personalized standards of right and wrong, we're destined to be the "ethical free agents" Dowd envisions.

We're the next Mike McQuery, having the inadequate moral sensibility to notice when something is tragically WRONG and doing absolutely NOTHING to stop it.

Which is why I'm thrilled to be a Christian and to have the most compelling language available to describe what it means to be human and why it is we make the choices we do.

The truth is: We are wrecked. Our moral hardwiring is in a state of disaster because of what we call sin. And while to the behavioural scientists and secular journalists and lab scientists, the notion of sin feels like an outdated play out of the Victorian playbook, it's language that is neither irrelevant nor outmoded. Ariely may soon be a Christian himself, so long as he continues noticing the patterns that people cheat, lie, steal as much as they like so long as they don't offend their own identity as being good.

David Brooks says it better than I could: "Obviously . . . there’s a measurement problem. You can buy a weight scale to get an objective measure of your diet. But you can’t buy a scale of virtues to put on the bathroom floor. And given our awesome capacities for rationalization and self-deception, most of us are going to measure ourselves leniently."

We do tend toward policies of lenience towards ourselves: we simply aren't that bad, at least not as bad as the next person.

The Bible offers us language that is far more true and telling: we are sinners, failing the most exacting Biblical standards of right and wrong. It's not simply that we do bad. It's that we fail to do good. And even the good we do is tainted with complicated motivations. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, our goodness is about as pristine as bloody menstrual pads.

So that's it? We're bad, bad, bad?

No, there's rescuing grace. Forgiveness for the wrong we do, the wrong we plot, the good we fail to do. Jesus' death on the cross means atonement for our failed moral record.

And that's not all. There's a moral renovation project underway. The good we want to do, the moral evil we want to forsake: it's possible by spiritual rebirth.

Antiquated language? Sinners being born again?

Is the world to really buy this revivalist stuff?

Absolutely. Because try-hard religion and self-imposed moral arbitration doesn't prepare us for our Mike McQuery moments.

We need the Jesus who raged against the cheating in the temple courts, overturning the tables of the money changers. We need the Jesus who condemned religious hypocrites, calling them "whitewashed tombs." We need the Jesus project of setting the world to rights, calling evil spades spades and establishing a new kingdom where justice, fairness, goodness reign supreme.

We need the Jesus who, on the cross, bore the weight of God's fierce moral judgment against sin - our sin.

We need the Jesus who promised to send His helper to indwell the Church, giving us new moral eyes, ears, hearts, hands.

We need Jesus to reset our moral bearings and renew our moral courage.

Our world needs this Jesus.

And they need the Church.

 

One Year in Toronto: Feel the beat of the music

jenmichel@me.com

It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. I was meant to marry a pastor, a missionary. Like the tall stranger I met the first month of my freshman year of college, his shock of sandy brown hair falling over his eyes, the same boy who took me on midnight walks and played his guitar. He works full-time for a student ministry. Or the baseball player who sat behind me in American history, who graduated and played minor league ball, with whom I broke up up the second day of his visit to France where I was studying. He’s a missionary in Eastern Europe. But the boy I fell in love with, the boy I stuck with, the boy I knew I could marry because he was the only boy I had ever admired and felt hopelessly inadequate for, that long-haired boy with the flannel cap and blue fleece, well, he was a math major. We traveled to Mali together for a summer missions’ project after our junior year and fell in love under the African moon. He loved Jesus, just didn’t want to be a pastor.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this, me married to an executive. The consolation long ago was that at the very least, if we weren’t going to serve in any sort of official ministry capacity, we’d at least take those executive dreams and go abroad, living the gospel in less-saturated places.

For so many years, time passed us by. Our letter of willingness was written and waiting for the winds of a call; we’d let ourselves be sent. And the recruiters brought opportunities for Paris, London, Switzerland.  Nothing ever materialized.

And then Toronto.

I suppose deep down in my gut I’ve been struggling to make sense of this script in the making. I have long lived weighed down by my burdened categories of right and good. It’s right to be poor. It’s good to be a pastor. It’s best to do what my brother-in-law and sister-in-law have done, giving up ambition, money, and safety and moving into Chicago’s West Side, where little girls die on their front porches because gangs fight with guns.

But can Jesus call people to run companies, to live in Toronto and send their children to private school?

I posted months ago about the sight of Glen Campbell giving a concert, and initially, before my friend and I recognized Campbell and remembered that he’d been recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, we had thought it strange how the teleprompter scrolled at his feet. We watched his clumsy and awkward movements, concluded he was drunk.

I’ve thought so often about Campbell, thought about how living life with the expectations of others scrolling at our feet ends up making us look terribly strange and clumsy. I should know. I’ve done it long enough. I’ve lived in the fear that either what I would choose to do or leave undone would somehow give you reason to judge me. I’ve been living to answer that grace-less, clumsy question: “Am I enough?” I’ve worked my fingers to the bone for a unanimous yes.

You want to find the wings of your call? You, little you, with the clammy hands?

Close your eyes, and feel the beat of the music. Dance like a fool.

 

One Year in Toronto: It's a . . . BLOG!

jenmichel@me.com

At 35 weeks, the doctor had performed the last of my ultrasounds on a Friday morning in the middle of January. “You’re ready to go anytime!" The twins were born the following morning, both fully cooked at five pounds. Andrew slid through the birth canal before the doctor was fully scrubbed up. “Stop laughing!” he ordered me severely. But after Andrew had made his crash landing, the minutes ticked by, and the assembled teams of doctors and nurses for Baby A and Baby B stood silently, listening worriedly to the monitored heart rate of Baby B. We held our collective breath when the pace slowed like a tired mule, thump . . . thump, exhaled relief when it galloped again, thump-thump-thump-thump. An hour of listening, an hour of tense, quiet conversations between my obstetrician and the anesthesiologist, and finally Colin was born by C-section, the umbilical cord looped around his waist and over his shoulder, his little fingers clutching it with Colin-like intensity. * * * * *

Seven months ago, a blog was born with the fanfare of  Mark Zuckerberg’s recent wedding. I sent birth announcements to four people, one of whom was my husband.

I’ve been writing since I was little girl. My first hopes were of publishing books modeled after the Wakefield twins in the Sweet Valley High Series. I wrote in college, wrote in graduate school, used to teach writing (badly, I might add), and for eight years, have been writing for a devotional publication called Today in the Word.

The writing’s been cooked, but it would require strong Hands to wrestle it from fear.

I have had every hesitation why I would never, NEVER, write in so public and intimate space as this blog where I would have to hang my gauzy curtains of self-disclosure. You would stop by unannounced, and I’d be wearing the shorts that, according to my daughter, make my butt look big.

At least let me get some lip gloss on.

Bravery isn’t born in a womb, and heroes aren’t covered in vernix. You want to be brave, well, step out into this big world and call your hello. Stand on your wobbly legs, and declare how you love someone. Or have been loved. Open your eyes wide, and absorb the colors and light and feel of the cold air. Let someone hold you, and suckle on grace.

Toronto, Ontario. A blog is born.

Why do I write?

I write to stay awake and notice when he’s wearing his sister’s pink soccer cleats. Writing helps me laugh. I write to remind myself, to keep better records, and plug these holes of memory. I write to retrieve the waters of goodness and to make myself permeable. I write to cry and cry because I’m writing, and when I’m through with that, I’ll tell myself how stupid this is and go fold laundry instead, planning my application for a job at the library where I’ll shelve the books that have already been written. I write to dig my heels stubbornly into grace and preach the sermons I most need to hear. I write to drop my pants, and when the doctor makes his awkward examination, I’ll stare at the ceiling. We’ll talk hockey. I write to undo and unravel and thread together some semblance of compassion and belief.

I write for me, I write for Jesus. And by grace, I can also write for you.

 

 

 

 

 

Fingers and thumbs, Talent and hard work

jenmichel@me.com

She is bent over her math homework, her face buried in the impossibilities of multiplication. She sobs and insists how she can't do it, and I'm left looking at her and having to decide what to do. Is this the moment I meet with sympathy and reassurance, proposing we work on it together? Or do I assume my unflinching Tiger Mother stance, resisting what may be carefully calculated hysterics of avoidance? One choice will inevitably be right, and the other, wrong and damaging, insures this will become a scene she relives years into her future on a therapist's couch. I wish there were a playbook for moments like these. I choose B, wear my Tiger Mother face, and tell her that she'll have to finish her math. I'm certain she can do it. And the sobbing turns to whimpering and by golly, she finishes and discovers that she DID know how to do those problems and it WASN'T as difficult as it had initially seemed.

I feel a lesson brewing.

"Look at your fingers," I tell her after the curtains have closed on the sobbing scene, and she's later snuggled into my lap. "Do you know which of your fingers is strongest?"

She shakes her head no.

"It's your thumb, actually. Do you know that when you play the piano, you have to make sure that your thumb isn't playing louder than the rest of your fingers? That's one reason why you practice scales, so that you can pay attention to how each of your fingers is playing and so that you can build strength in the fingers that are weakest. And did you know that your life is like a song? It's going to take all of your fingers to play that song and be good at it."

The rest of the lecture lesson goes something like this:

Your entire life, you're going to do things that are difficult for you. And when you first begin them, you'll want to give up. I do, too! That's normal. But what do you do when you feel like giving up? 

1. First, you put on your, "I can" attitude. You can't imagine what a difference an I can attitude makes when you're working on things you find difficult and challenging.

2. Next, you commit yourself to practicing whatever skill it is you're trying to learn. No one, absolutely no one, succeeds without practice.

3. Third, you commit to working HARD and to your fullest potential.

These are the fingers with which you are playing your song of life: Your "I can" attitude, your willingness to practice, your hard work. (This lesson would have been better had I found a parallel for the pinky finger, but I didn't.)  And guess what your thumb is? Talent. Talent is the gift God gives certain people to do certain skills really well. But just like in a song, a thumb can't play alone and a thumb can be clumsy and too loud. Even for the people who might find at first that they're good at something, they, too, have to practice, work hard, and continue believing that they can.

I can do ALL things through Christ who gives me strength. 

* * * *

We interrupt today's violins for the brilliance of fingers and thumbs that can, talent and hard work that will.

(Watch the movie Soul Surfer with your children as a brilliant, shining example of this kind of determined faith, but beware of a scary shark scene that might frighten little ones!  It's a terrific movie for school-age children.)

 

Glen Campbell: On growing old

jenmichel@me.com

The rodeo arena began to empty out as the bull riding ended, and a cavalcade of tractors arrived, towing behind them what would become a concert stage. A country legend, Glen Campbell, was performing, and his name Jeni only vaguely recognized. When Nathan and Zach disappeared with Eric, Zach's dad, and returned later with a corn dog and a funnel cake, the lights soon dimmed, and a white pickup truck made its entrance. The back of the cab opened, and a crowd of people helped Campbell to the stage. The lights went up, and we caught our first glimpse of Glen Campbell, wearing his sequinned blue blazer and cowboy shirt, a comfortable pair of jeans, a thick belt and Texas-sized buckle, and of course, cowboy boots. An electric guitar hung from his neck, but for the opening song, he couldn't seem to decide whether or not he wanted to play it. He'd strum a cord, abandon the guitar and grab the microphone instead, taking an awkward couple of steps in either direction of center stage. A verse or two later, Campbell would reverse the process, clumsily returning the microphone to its stand and trying once again to figure out which cord to strum in order to join the band behind him.

Three teleprompters scrolled at Campbell's feet: he'd watch them as often as he would watch the crowd. And periodically, he'd turn over his left shoulder to cast a searching look at the young blond girl at the keyboard. She'd send him a reassuring smile. Campbell's movements were like a child's, walking the stage awkwardly, sometimes shooting his arms into the air, sometimes swaying his hips to the beat, but usually fumbling with either the guitar or the microphone, never knowing which to pick up when.

Three songs into the concert, Jeni remembers the tribute to Campbell she had watched on the Grammy's. "I think he was diagnosed with Alzheimers." And everything starts to make sense: this isn't a drunk seventy year old man hanging on to his career with liquor and a loyal band. This was Glen Campbell, a man's whose mind was growing increasingly confused, performing here at the Austin Rodeo as part of his farewell tour.

There were moments of sheer miracle in the concert. When it came time for Campbell to play a guitar solo, he grabbed his guitar decisively, and the camera would zoom in on the wrinkled hand that flew up and down the neck of the guitar. For the trouble he sometimes had with the lyrics and even the beginning pitch of a song, those guitar solos played themselves from the muscle memory of his aged hands.

And his voice. Campbell is seventy-five years old, and his voice, while not necessarily strong, is beautifully toned. He yodelled in one of his songs, hit notes low and high. I couldn't wait to get home and hear the young Campbell sing. I knew I must have been missing out. "Galveston," "Gentle on my Mind," "Didn't We," and "Rhinestone Cowboy." We heard the songs that made Campbell rightfully famous.

It was last summer that I think I heard the first sermon I'd ever heard on aging. It came from the text of Ecclesiastes 12: "Remember also the Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, "I have no pleasure in them." I'm grateful to have had this text brought before me for reflection: we don't talk enough about aging, and as a Christian, I'd like to know how to do it well.

Campbell's courage last night on that stage inspired what I hope will be my own growing old, if that is something the Lord chooses to allow me. I'd like to face my greying and wrinkling as he is, continuing the things I love into the autumn and winter of my years, rallied by the people I cherish most. The young blond at the keyboard last night? Campbell's daughter. And as it turns out, two sons also took that stage with him. If my 75 finds me confused or physically challenged in some way, I can only hope to be as blessed as Campbell to have at my side the reassuring smiles of my sons and daughters and husband.

I can only hope to have lived this life well and to face death without fear, but hope. This is most fundamentally what it means to be a Christian and to live in light of a resurrected Jesus.

"Learning how to say 'God' is hard but good work. It is good work because the training necessary to say 'God' forces us to be honest with ourselves about the way things are. Our lives are but a flicker. We are creatures destined to die."

-Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah's Child

 

No. I mean yes.

jenmichel@me.com

I've had my own wrestle with these two words. No. Yes. And the fantastic thing about moving is that your life effectively becomes a white board, the goodbyes wiping clean your commitments (many, not all). You begin again, and the chance is yours to reorder your life and straighten out your priorities, all the wrangling guilt of obligation potentially disappearing in the wake behind you.

Unless of course you rush to pick it up again. Because, over the course of the years, you're grown accustomed to its weight on your shoulders. For so long you've kept company with the self-doubt. It's awkward to walk without it, to know anything other than the doing for the sake of approval. How has it become so important for you to be liked?

It can be a nasty business, the yes. You say it, wanting less to do what's right, caring more for managing the opinions of others. It's the means for you to bolster the identity you didn't really even know you were piecing together. You're now the person to call, to count on. And you do not and cannot imagine it otherwise.

The yes is your tortured resolve to never disappoint. Anyone.

False identity. False gods. False hope.

Friends we'd had for dinner last weekend asked how we were settling into Toronto.

I fumbled. I needed to marvel aloud at what God was doing, to say what I'm trying to say here. Toronto is my new season of courage. I had left some things behind, weights I probably wasn't even aware I carried. The act of having the Hands of the sky forcibly pick our entire family up and replant us had been so good and gracious. I knew that I was grateful and would be grateful in years to come when I'd look back and remember this. Toronto.

I'm doing things here that people probably misunderstand. I'm seizing freedoms I haven't always had and leaning into my desire to write. Annie Dillard says that a writer's life has the effect of evoking "not curiosity but profound indifference." I find that to be true. Rare are the people who stand to their feet applauding because you've dared to face your computer screen again. Even my own husband had talked me out of blogging this past summer when I'd considered trying again. It's not easy to explain even to him why it feels I want and need to do this.

He talked sense into me for a period of months, until the idea of blogging returned, this time, much more insistent. And I said yes. Not the nasty yes of obligation - and not the corresponding no of fear. This yes, it was completely disentangled and free. It was yes to the Sky and yes to the Story. It was yes to trying, yes to failing, yes to learning and figuring out what it was that I was even agreeing to.

I should have recognized that yes. Faith yeses always feel uncertain at first. But you're prodded forward by just enough substantial belief that He's ahead and leading somewhere good. Those yeses aren't always the ones that are easily explained, nor are they the ones that immediately garner approval.

Who knew the sheer, uncontained joy of that yes?

And now it's simply a matter of sustaining courage and commitment for the yes. I read a blogpost yesterday that describes how difficult the yes to writing can be, especially in the midst of family. Andi Ashworth is mother and grandmother, a writer who knows these tensions well:

"Rearranging time, habits, and expectations is easier said than done. People’s needs and requests can speak louder than the quiet beckoning of an unfinished page. What’s more, people-care sparks my imagination in a unique way. I love creating in this arena and I don’t want to give up responding to need or imagining for the good of those I’m meant to love. But there is a dilemma: how to live as a responsible and imaginative caregiver and also get other creative work done.

. . .

Whatever kind of life we have, whether thick with children or friends in the house or with other work that pays the bills, the writer herself is the only one who can lay claim to the quiet practices that make for a writing life. "

It seems to me that every yes of faith requires that kind of individual courage. It doesn't matter much what you're saying yes to. But whatever your calling, whatever your vocation, it is I, it is you, who must pronounce the no and the yes. We alone can mouth the words. And the grand script of yes ahead will demand a certain bravery. To say no. Daring to disappoint.

The yes of relentless following. Into joy and freedom that are His and His alone to give.

 

 

Woodchucks and a Year without Fear

jenmichel@me.com

Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist, wrote in last weekend's Wall Street Journal about his 2011: he'd dubbed it My Year of Living Dangerously. Adams recounts his spectacular motorcycle crash at the age of 15 when his front tire sinks into the den of a family of woodchucks, sending him 25 feet in the air.

Three paragraphs are entirely devoted to the seconds he spent mid-flight. It's a laugh-out loud article, alberit irreverent at times. "About three-quarters into my aerial rotation, I accepted Jesus Christ as my lord and personal savior, just to improve my odds. And I made a promise to myself that, if I lived, I would follow in the footsteps of my ancestors and lead a timid life, far from danger's reach. As far as I know, there has never been a hero in my bloodline - not one solider, police officer or fireman. . . From that day one, I kept my promise to myself and avoided all unnecessary physical risk. My strategy got easier when I became a syndicated cartoonist; I told anyone who would listen that I couldn't risk injuring my drawing hand."

He calls it his "low-risk strategy," and it works well until he meets his wife Shelly, who hails from a family of adventurers. He admires the way they live life to the fullest and wonders if he's become too cautious to enjoy life. He commits his 2011 to more adventuring.

The article continues with more belly-shaking hilarity: Adams tells the story of their travels, first to Costa Rica. Think white-water rafting and waterfalls. After having being plunged to the bottom of the river yet again, he "crawled to shore like a rat that had been trapped in a washing machine. You know how people say you shouldn't drink the local water in some places? Well, apparently you should also avoid snorting a gallon of bacteria-laden Costa Rican river water."

Their Costa Rica trip leaves him surmising, "So far, my strategy of being more adventurous was producing mixed results. My life seemed richer and more interesting - but it also involved a lot more groaning, clutching my sides and intermittently praying for death."

Adams is funnier than I'd ever be. His article concludes: "My advice for the coming year is that before you say no to an adventure, make sure it's you talking and not the woodchuck who bent the front fork of your motorcycle.  You won't enjoy every new adventure, but I promise that you will enjoy being the person who said yes."

So who's talking in your life: you or the woodchuck?

It's not always easy to know. Fear lives on the underbelly of life. It lurks in the shadows, avoiding recognition, operating incognito. It's a kind of unmanned drone, depending on its invisibility. It operates like that because it must. Like the kind of translucent, albino insects that take cover under rotting logs, fear is sent scurrying in the light.

I wrote about fear for this month's issue of Today in the Word. I met my own woodchucks during the process.

Before writing that issue, I don't know that I'd seen how powerfully certain fears managed me. Fear kept me safe, made me cautious. Because of fear, I was avoiding exposure and responsibility.

This blog has been for me my adventure, my remounting life and braving its rocky terrain.

I don't do this writing as well as I should.

I am not the woman I want to be.

A blog leaks out the secrets. It's a penetrating kind of light.

But it sends the fear scurrying. Risk is a means to growth. And while failure is inevitable, it's no more sure than grace.

So who's talking: you or the woodchuck?

2012: Here's to a year of courage.