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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Category: Faith and Doubt

When a Church Values Art (And a peek at our church's magazine)

jenmichel@me.com

This is the cover of the most recent Imprint published by Grace Centre for the Arts, a ministry of Grace Toronto Church. After we began attending Grace Toronto in 2011, they released an issue of Imprint, and I remember being incredibly impressed. It was legit: the content, the photography, the design. I didn't know that churches could produce real magazines. In my experience of church publishing, they were only good at lightweight evangelistic tracts, and even these were ordered by the case, not produced in-house. But I was to learn something about this new church we were attending, something that would prove invaluable to my own writing life. They valued art of all kinds. They even believed God valued it.

For a number of reasons, however, Imprint has not been published in recent years. I'm not sure of the exact timeline, although I know that people attending the church for less than four years have no memory of it. "Our church publishes a magazine?" has been a common response. Yes, we do. At least, yes, we have. The cover that you're looking at is the cover to a special commemorative edition of Imprint for which I've had the privilege of serving as lead editor. As our church makes our new home in a recently renovated historic church in Toronto, we decided that it was time to do another edition of Imprint. I wanted to show you some of the content here because it's gorgeous. I only wish that you could hold it in your hands because these pictures simply don't do it justice.

I hope this might insire you to think about the artistic endeavors you could do in your church - to bless your congregation as well as your larger community. Because that really is the intent of Imprint: it's a publication intended to be read by a much broader audience than the one that fills our pews on Sunday mornings. (If you attend Grace Toronto Church, Imprint will be available for purchase this Sunday before and after the service, as well as at our November 16th community event.)

This commemorative edition, called "Neighbours," celebrates the new neighbourhood into which we moved and the people who live and work there. This beautifully illustrated map here was done by an artist who worships in our congregation, Julie Kraulis. As you'll note, our new church (at the corner of Jarvis and Carlton streets) is at the intersection of a lot of different neighbourhoods. We included this map to situate our congregation to the actual place in which we're rooting ourselves, especially as many of us don't live in these neighbourhoods. These seem to be especially important questions for churches to ask: where are we? who lives here? how can we be a part of helping this neighbourhood flourish?

This essay features the story of one of our congregants receiving hospitality from a family in St. James Town. It very consciously opens the magazine by situating someone else in the position of hero: not the church, not a church member, but a neighbour. Elita concludes, "I was a recipient of generous hospitality. And I needed that welcome, if I every hope to be a neighbour myself."

Another congregant, Wendy, interviewed an unsung hero of the neighbourhood, a dapper 76 year old whose life was changed by Jesus. Without Murray, the local Salvation Army would certainly struggle to minister to the people they do. "God has given me a lot of strength to get over a lot of rough roads. Some of them I made myself, some of them other people made, some of them, just life. I'd still be out in the gutter somewhere without God."

Another feature in the magazine are three full-page neighbour portraits. This gives a small taste of a larger event we're hosting On November 16th, when our church will open its doors to the community, and the entire main hall will feature portraits of local neighbours. As the director for Grace Centre for the Arts, Ian Cusson, writes, "The photo exhibit is a response to the question, 'Who is my neighbour?' 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."

Another congregant conducted interviews in order to feature the work of a local non-profit called The Children's Book Bank, where young patrons can take home a free book after every visit. Sarah observes, "It is a small haven in which the modern world's economy—where quality goods require payment of money—is replaced with the currency of grace."

We had gracious permission from Christ and Pop Culture to republish a reflective piece by Martyn Wendell Jones on the furniture in God's house. "The CEO and the homeless man alike may share a pew with a whole middle-class family in between. Like the Lord, pews do not play favourites."

I've written a long feature piece on the history of the church building at the corner of Jarvis and Carlton streets, whose cornerstone was laid in 1876 and in which five congregations have now worshipped. It was a privilege to do this research and gift what I learned to others. (And after multiple trips to various archival centres and libraries, I finally tracked down the original 1876 architectural drawings for our building, which are included with the piece.)

The magazine ends with a reflective piece on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and Season's words are the last we read before closing the magazine. "In our longing for human connection, perhaps the greatest gift we can offer is one we all have—the gift of woundedness. Each of us takes our turn as the Samaritan and the wounded man on the side of the road, and we become neihbours as we allow ourselves to carry, and be carried, to safety."

Our team of photographers, writers, designers, and editors gathered last week to hold Imprint in our hands for the first time and celebrate what God had done. As I told them then, I found such joy in this collaborative effort and perhaps even greater pride in it than my own two books. I think that's because I experienced the pleasure of working in community, which is something that images the triune God of community. And truthfully, I love to see others using their gifts.

What to do when you're anxious

jenmichel@me.com

I’ve collected all the miscellaneous blankets in the house to wash and fold them. I’m on my third load now. Every time I take a load from the dryer, the world is fragrant. Every time I fold another blanket, taking great care that the ends meet, the world is well-ordered. That small tower of blankets gives me a sense of control in the world. And it’s the illusion of control that stays the anxiety. The blankets are a shore for my spilling ocean of responsibility.

School started just a couple of weeks ago, which means I started back, in earnest, to meeting my deadlines. I knew that the fall would be busy. I’m leading a large project at church, which is lots of fun if also lots of work. The mid-week meetings and phone calls are a welcome break from the reclusive work of writing, and the challenge of leading others, rather than simply leading myself, is an important point of personal growth. (As I’m learning, doing the work is hardly the same thing as leading others to get it done.) The project, which involves both the publication of a magazine as well as the coordination of a large event, taps into all the things I really love to do: connect people to each other and to a larger contribution they can make; think creatively about the work of witness; write and research; vision and execute. The project, inspired by the book, Slow Church (C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison), is meant as a community outreach and marks an important event in the life of our church: the renovation of the 1878 historic Old St. Andrew’s, which will be our church’s new home. I’m excited about everything I’m doing, convinced that the vision truly was God-given—and simultaneously unraveled by the amount of work. On the outside, I may seem unflappable. On the inside, I am crushed under the weight of to-dos and timelines.

In addition to this church project, I’m trying to make headway on Book #3. It hardly seems possible that I’ve just launched Keeping Place in May and have already begun work on another book, but that is the joy (grief?) of signing a two-book deal. Quite honestly, book writing is getting harder for me in many ways, at least in terms of the discipline required. When I landed my first book contract for Teach Us to Want, my professional life was leaner. I wasn’t traveling to speak (and having to deal with the administrative aspects of travel). I wasn’t writing as widely as I do now on the web (and having to field emails from readers). Writing the first book was like being pregnant the first time: I had all the capacity for doting. But now that I’m the mother of two, Baby #3 isn’t getting all the attention she needs. (Which reminds me of a comment my friend made about my real baby #3, Camille. “Do you even feel like you know her?” she asked when Camille turned one. In one sense, the question was entirely fair. I had three children, three and under. How much real attention could I pay to any of them individually? And in another sense, Camille was the one I carried the most, whose weight and frame were most familiar. She was nearer than the other two had ever been.) I’m carrying book #3 close, writing in the margins of days. But even though I’m saying no to additional assignments, I worry the attention won’t be enough.

Then there are the matters of everyday family life. I walked into the house this morning after dropping the kids off at school and realized that Andrew had left his swimming bag at home. I got back into the car, headed to school for a second time, and circled home. The new year has brought new routines, and none of us is familiar with them yet. Additionally, Ryan has been traveling this month for work, leaving me to manage the chauffeuring alone. (Tonight, I’ll rely on my older son, Nathan, to walk his brothers to and from their piano lessons so that I can get to school for the parents’ meeting.) With the school year underway, there are forms to fill out, checks to write, permission slips to sign. And have I mentioned that we’ve moving? Settling a long-term anxiety about permanence, we’ve bought a house in Toronto—approximately one-third the size of our current rental house. This has meant a feverish sorting of our house and trips to the Salvation Army with the back of the minivan full of things we’ll no longer have room for. It’s a wonderful practice: we can live with far less than we do. But it’s all work: pressing, urgent, heavy.

Which is why I’m washing the blankets. It’s the one job I can start and finish today, one discrete task that convinces me of my agency. Washing the blankets is probably the least urgent task of the day, but I do it urgently nonetheless because inwardly I am restless, fearful that I’ve set the plates in motion only to let them shatter at my feet.

This morning, it’s anxiety that takes me back to Matthew 6, a well-worn passage about the worries we bear for the tomorrows we cannot control. I go there because I feel I need the reprimand of Jesus: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life.” I read and re-read the words, as if by their power, I can extinguish the smoldering wick of fear in my chest. I will myself to put out the fire of worry. I will myself to think only of today.

But impossibly, I’m still under it: under tomorrow, under the emails to send and the chapter to write and the calls to make and the appointments to schedule. What to do when anxiety, like a rabid dog, just won’t be called off?

I begin noticing that there is more here, in Matthew 6, then the reprimand of Jesus—the don’t of worry. There’s also this glorious do: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Perhaps, I begin to think, I don’t simply need to try and tamp out worry and anxiety. Instead, I need to light a better fire: the urgent fire for doing all that pleases God (cf. John 8:29). And what do I know about God’s kingdom? It’s going to be built, and the gates of hell won’t prevail against it. God doesn’t need my efficiency, my strategic planning, my time management. In fact, he wants so much more for me than this cramped sense of responsibility, which lays the world’s spinning at my feet.

I do what pleases him. I seek his kingdom. And I only do this when I lay down the anxiety, which ultimately betrays how central I feel to every task I’m given, how little I depend on God for the provisions of the everyday. Look at the birds, Jesus says. Take notice of their inactivity: “They neither sow nor reap nor father into barns.” Look at the flowers, Jesus says. Observe their effortless beauty: “They neither toil, nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” This isn’t to say that we don’t work. Surely God’s kingdom involves emails and appointments, meetings and deadlines. But we work differently than as if we assumed it were entirely up to us.

I’ll pull the final load of blankets from the dryer soon. And because it’s Monday (one of two laundry days at my house), I’ll continue on with the clothes. The hampers will empty, filling me temporarily with a sense of relief. But I’ve got to do more today than get things done: I’ve got to find my way toward a life of greater surrender, the life of the birds and the lilies, the abundant life in the way of Jesus.

Whose yoke is easy and burden light.

The Commute (Guest Post by Collin Huber)

Stephanie Amores

To be human is to long for

3600 Wheeler St., Dallas, TX

The train arrived at 5:10, like it did every day on my way home. I claimed my usual seat and watched as the car filled with familiar faces of the public transit’s frequent riders. I used the rail service during seminary as a way to save money. The trip took an hour each way and required two connecting bus routes, but it helped with the bills. I normally spent the commute lost to my headphones or focused on Hebrew flashcards, but today I opted for the window, gazing drowsily through the rain-streaked glass.

On the nearby freeway, traffic crept along. Office buildings and public parks raced past my view. About halfway through the route, the track crested a slight swell where a number of billboards were strategically placed. One in particular caught my eye. It was for a waxing salon.

…I know, stay with me.

The giant canvas showed a birds-eye shot of a woman boasting smooth skin, gleaming white teeth, and a carefree posture, her body draped across the front seat of a classic convertible. Outlining her figure were the words, “Fancy a free wax?” As I looked, a longing overtook me—not for the woman or the waxing service, but for her world. She seemed to dwell in a place so free and pure, void of fear, suffering, and the anxieties I had come to know so well.

Less than a year into our marriage, my wife and I moved from Austin to Dallas so I could begin my seminary training. Doing so meant uprooting from a community of deep friendships, a church we loved, and a city in which we had invested years of our lives. But we had taken all the right steps. Through prayer and godly counsel, we received consistent affirmation that Dallas was the Lord’s will for our lives—we still believe that—but we were unprepared for what would follow.

By the end of my first semester, I had a perfect GPA and the attention of my professors. Nonetheless, anxiety and depression crept into our marriage to the tune of repeated hospital visits and a weariness that nagged at our souls. My daily routine resembled that of the train, propelled back and forth lifelessly along its route. Rather than the vibrant joy I expected, my achievements seemed only to create a distance that geography could not relieve—distance from my friends, my wife, my Lord.

Fancy a free wax?

As Eve and her Edenic frame drifted out of sight, I was wrenched back to my own world—dirty sidewalks, garbage dancing in the breeze, highways filled with angry drivers, the smell and squeeze of humidity. A homeless man lounged two rows up, his head lilting in rhythm to the train’s movement. I wore the invisible weights of research papers, preaching examinations, and midterms. Each a reminder of that all-too-familiar distance.

One stop before my own, the homeless man pulled himself to his feet and stumbled off the train. Yet, another homeless man remained. He was sitting in my seat.

When I think of my home in Austin, I don’t see my accomplishments. I see the faces of those I loved. They appear in scenes—roasting marshmallows in a backyard on a winter night, laughing over a cup of coffee, worshiping in a cramped sanctuary, dancing at my wedding ceremony, always together. In a box on one of my bookshelves sits a pile of handwritten notes from those friends wishing us well in our move and rejoicing in the friendship we had built. At every turn, my wife and I shared our lives through hard-fought relationships. But I had set aside relationships for a resume in our new home.

It’s strange coming to terms with exile. Like the rest of humanity, I am seeking a homeland, longing for a home. But home for me is more than merely a place. It must be peopled that we might bear together our longing for a better country—that heavenly one where God is preparing a city for his people to dwell in his presence.

As the train rolled to its final stop, I stepped off the platform, walked to my car, and drove the short distance home. I found my wife sitting in our living room, resting from a long day of work. Assignments weighed heavily in my backpack, but I slipped it off and set it aside. It could wait. My wife looked up as I settled in next to her on the couch and asked, “How was your day?”


Collin Huber is a professional writer and associate editor for Fathom Magazine. His writing has appeared at The Gospel Coalition, Christ and Pop Culture, and For the Church. He and his wife, Brittany, live in Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter @JCollinHuber.

 


keeping-place-11Welcome to a guest series I’m calling, “Home: Musings and Memories.” I’ve invited writers from all over the Internet to share their stories from home—in part, because I’ve just released a book called, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP, May 2017). I believe home is our most fundamental longing, homesickness our most nagging grief. Most of all, I believe that the historic Christian faith has something to say about that desire and disappointment.

The story of Jesus is a home story.

Thanks for joining me and these other fantastic writers in our search for home—and the God who makes its hope possible.

Jen

A reader writes to ask, "Why want?"

jenmichel@me.com

Even though I’ve just recently released my second book, Keeping Place, I continue to travel and speak on the topic of my first book, Teach Us to Want. This is a question that was recently emailed to me, and I wanted to answer it at length here.


Dear Jen,

Can I run something up the flag pole with you on this subject?  After reading the beginning of Teach Us to Want, I had to put the book down and take two giant steps backward.  The book asks us about our wants and desires—our deep inside “ME ONLY” wants and desires. When I go the basement of my mind, lift up the rug and false floor, and pull out the old deteriorating suitcase labeled "Wants & Desires," I find a glaring new label affixed over the old one: "Disappointments.”

Man, it's heavy.

I had wants and desires from as long ago as when I was three years old. In the spirit of survival, those wants and desires were denied for me and on my behalf.  Fast forward to my adult life. Ten years ago, I made the hardest decision I've ever made, which demanded that I walk away from my very last lifelong dream and desire. And somewhere, sandwiched in the middle, is the painful drudgery of single parenting and challenge of "motherhood" that feels like a noose around my neck. Now, I am unexpectedly a grandmother—the result of my Dean’s List college-aged daughter’s teen pregnancy.

From my earliest memories, my life story is a continuous tale of crisis aversion, management and the desperate scramble to simply touch the fringe of "Wants & Desires"—but never actually own one.  In fact, after much review, I believe the last "want/desire" that I recognized and achieved was graduating High School in 1986.

It's not all doom and gloom. Sometimes life settles down, and I'm learning to find contentment in living the day to day.

The last decade? No desires. No wants.

Am I supposed to???  My greatest desire is to get back and forth from the grocery store without traffic.  That's good, right?

So, I picked up the book again, this time at Chapter 3. "Delight yourself in the Lord and HE will give you the desires of your heart.” I'm not sure I want to "want" or "desire.” In fact, I'm sure that I don't want to. I hear that He wants me to trust Him with reckless abandon and to "delight" myself in Him (how do you EVEN do that??) and He will give ME desires.

But why?? Why desire? Why want? Do I NEED to desire or want??

Confused in California


Dear Confused in California,

Thank you so much for reading Teach Us to Want and for posing these very important questions. I’m so glad that you’ve written, and I’m also glad that you’ve given me the permission to share our conversation publicly.

I suppose the first important thing to say is this: we don’t want simply so that we can get things from God. That would be to do what James condemns in his epistle, chapter 4: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly to spend it on your passions” (v. 3). Many of us have our life of desire turned upside down and inside out.

Life with God isn’t ultimately about getting things from him: it’s about getting him in us.

You’ve referenced Psalm 37:4, and I’m so glad. It’s an often-misunderstood verse. People use it to defend their gospel of, “God loves me; I love him; therefore, it’s only right that he gives me what I want.” But as you say, that verse isn’t about us telling God what we want and getting it. It’s about him giving us HIS desires. It’s as we delight ourselves in the LORD that the whole nature of our desiring life changes. As we delight ourselves, more and more, in the LORD, we delight ourselves, less and less, in the shallow pleasures of comfort and convenience. As we delight ourselves, more and more, in the LORD, we delight ourselves, less and less, in material security, reputation, even temporal happiness.

To delight ourselves in the LORD is to love what God loves. And the Lord’s Prayer teaches us what God loves: God loves for his name to be made holy, for his kingdom to come, for his will to be done. It’s not, of course, that we should stop wanting for the simple sustenance of this life. The Lord’s Prayer also invites us to pray for bread, for restored relationship with others and with God, for protection. But as the late Kenneth Bailey wrote in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, there’s an important architecture of priority in this prayer. The “thee” petitions come before the “me” petitions, which provides a lesson for life.

We must become the kind of people who think of God and his kingdom priorities first.

I know I still haven’t answered your most pressing question: why want? If I’m only supposed to want what God wants, why even bother with the complicated business of desire? And doesn’t that just lead me to a lot of disappointments and unmet expectations?

Here’s the first reason to want in your life of faith: because it’s one way to risk on God’s goodness. Or maybe I could put it this way: how often is our failure to want really about our failure to trust God’s goodness? The Psalmist says that God is good and does good (Ps. 119:68). Whatever he chooses to do, whatever he chooses to give, whatever his timing: it’s good. We see this all throughout Scripture, that God’s impulse is to give and to bless. This doesn’t mean of course that we get to say “This is good, therefore you must give it to me, God.” But it is to say, “God, I trust you have my best interest at heart.”

To illustrate what I mean, let me share a story from my friend’s book, Praying Together. Megan Hill tells the story about arriving with her husband at the Ethiopian orphanage to take their son home. All the children, having learned just a few words of English, were crying out, “Mommy!” “Daddy!” She writes, “Those little ones knew the language of family and the gestures of asking, but twenty-four of the children had no right to use them. And though we gave candy and balloons to every child, there was only on little boy whose cries to us of ‘Mommy’ and ‘Daddy’ were absolutely compelling. This was the child with whom we have a relationship—having just appeared before a judge in a courtroom to secure his adoption—and this child alone could reach into our pockets with every assurance that he’d be granted whatever treat he could find there.” As Jesus said, if this inclination to generosity is true of flawed human parents, how much more must our heavenly Father want to be generous with us! God is good and does good. That’s a reason to bring him your desires—because he can be trusted to receive them and respond to them out of his lavish love.

A second reason to want—a reason connected to this first point—is that it will grow your intimacy with God. There is a vulnerability to admitting our desires to anyone, whether that’s a friend or God himself. It’s vulnerable in one sense because our desires say something about us. Maybe they say that we’re selfish! Maybe they say that we’re apathetic! To bring our desires before God is a vulnerable act—and prayer, if we want to pray like Abraham and Hannah and Jesus and Paul prayed—is supposed to be vulnerable. Bold. Self-disclosing. The Psalmist says, “O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you” (Ps. 38:9). I believe that God wants to know all of us. I believe that a life of walking with Christ is a life of walking in the light, of disclosing ourselves to God, not concealing ourselves. Maybe we could even just think about the impulse of Adam and Eve in the garden, after they had eaten the fruit. They hid themselves from the presence of God, rather than walking before him naked and unashamed. One way of seizing this marvelous invitation to “draw near to the throne of grace with confidence” (Heb. 4:16) is to come to God without concealment: to tell him what we really think, really want, really despair of, really fear. Only then do those things have a chance of being repaired, reformed, transformed! Only then do we deepen our friendship with God, which is what he is ultimately after and which is the only thing to satisfy our deepest longings and desires.

Maybe it’s in coming to God with our desires that we begin to see how much anything pales compared to the great worth of knowing him.

And here’s a final point that I’ll make here. (So much more to say, but I guess you’ll have to finish the book!) There is no real lasting transformation in our lives apart from a transformation of our desires. Philippians 2:13 talks about the ambitious scope of the gospel. When the Spirit of Jesus indwells us, he’s not content simply that we believe differently or behave differently. We must want differently. And when we want differently, we sustain real change in our lives. I suppose we’d only have to consider New Year’s Resolutions to consider how insufficient duty and obligation are for sustaining change. That’s not to say that we shirk duty and obligation, but it is say that when we do something dutifully, we have our eye on desire. God, let my heart change—alongside my behavior.

As I’ve risked to disclose my desires to God, to wait on him, to surrender to him, I’ve learned in much deeper and personal way that he is good, that he can be trusted. I’ve also learned that this world, so deeply broken and in need of repair, will always leave me wanting for a better one. And maybe that’s one of the most important lessons of desire. As C.S. Lewis has famously written, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

We’re living in the middle act. We’re not at the end of the story yet. When you open that box labeled “Disappointments,” you can remember that Jesus is coming again, that he’s promised to deliver the world from its groaning. You can remember “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).

With you, I am longing for that home. Jen

Home is (NOT) where the heart is

jenmichel@me.com

When Alison Hodgson wrote for my guest series, “Home: Musings and Memories”, she talked of the fateful night when an arsonist entered her garage and set her house on fire. “Who, when making a home, imagines it could ever be a ruins?” When Joe Dudeck wrote of home, he described the experience of several failed adoptions: “While standing at the doorway of parenthood, we discovered the welcome mat would again be pulled out from under us.” In another post, Aubrey Sampson wrote to remember her father’s job loss and their family’s move from a beloved house: “There was no willow tree, no roller-rink, not even one hot air balloon in the yard.”

For many of us, home represents loss. 

For many guest writers in this Friday series, home symbolizes wanderlust, leaving, and change. For Aleah Marsden, home “is the place I’m always leaving behind.” Karen Beattie recalls ambivalently that she is “the first generation to leave the land, to become unmoored from place and family and community, and part of me feels like we are betrayers. Or pioneers.” Or, as Kate James writes with a familiar surprise, “And [God] sent me here, to a big yard, and a white house and maple trees in the summer.”

For many of us, home represents the place where we unexpectedly arrive. 

In so many of these stories, home has offered more change than stability, more promise than fulfillment. As Christina Crook so eloquently names, it’s a “blood and bramble world,” and home is meant for reprieve, the “gift of welcome,” writes Ashley Hales, that “beckons: come and see, come and see.” “Nowhere I’ve lived has ever fully been my home,” writes Michelle Van Loon of growing up as Jewish girl in a Gentile neighborhood, living the millennia-long story of diaspora. Home is the invitation to make something of life as we have it, even if it’s not exactly life as we once had wanted it. “I expected to be married and own a home. The Lord, however, had other plans,” writes Bethany Jenkins.

Home is one small corner of the world we hope to tame and call our own. “Always we longed for one special place. Our own promised land. Our own little Zion,” describes Christie Purifoy. But sometimes it is its own place of weeping. In the house built by the “broad shoulders” of her husband, Meadow Rue Merrill lost her adopted daughter, Ruth.

What is HOME?

When I invited these gifted writers to contribute to my series, I asked them to write about home in the concrete, rather than the abstract. I wanted to hear about home as people and place and the lived presence of God—because that’s what we see of home in Genesis 1 and 2.

First, home is a place: in the beginning of time, home was a garden, and at the end of time, home will be a city. This means that God intends for us to be a rooted people, connected in real ways to the land. That’s why our geographical change is usually attended by sorrow. Although our culture tends to cherish mobility, selling change like a shiny bauble of promise, in reality, we wear instability like a wound that won’t heal. This is one reason that I open each chapter of Keeping Place with a physical address and a reflection of home “in place.” I want to rid ourselves of all the silly platitudes like, “Home is where the heart is.” No, home is where your feet are.

Second, home is a place with people. It’s not enough to say that home is a place. We have no vision of home that’s as solitary and secluded as Thoreau’s cabin on Walden pond. Rather, a biblical home is a place filled with the company of others. In the garden, God recognized that it wasn’t good for any of us to be alone. For Adam, he makes Eve as a companion and helper. But as we see in the new Jerusalem, we aren’t all paired off as husband and wife. Rather, the table of God’s feast is seated with a new family: the church. We can’t make home apart from deep communion and connection with others. Which is to say: forgiveness and feasting, worship and work—in the local church—helps us to practice home (if not yet fully have it). Finally, home is filled with the presence of God. Let’s not be fooled: we can have the loveliest of places, the warmest of friendships, but without God, no place is home. As Saint Augustine has said, we have restless hearts until they find their ultimate rest in God and God alone. The fullness, the welcome, the permanence, the peace of home we all long for: it’s not about marriage and minivans, houses and domestic happiness. It’s a promise so much greater, so much more lasting than that.

“Homelessness ends in the new Jerusalem, where God keeps place for his people. By the light of the Lamb, home is made luminous, and it is a light to banish gloom and darkness, death and despair.

Behold, God says. I am making all things new” (Keeping Place, 211).

Ernie Johnson and the Art of "Housekeeping"

jenmichel@me.com

We've have recently bought a couple of devotionals for our family: One Year of Dinner Table Devotions by Nancie Guthrie (which is a great fit for the age-range of our kids, 9-16) and The Radical Book for Kids by Champ Thornton. The first, we're trying to read and discuss together at dinner; the second, I'm trying to read with our twin boys whenever we can. (Ryan reads the Bible with them at bedtime.)

Although we've just begun The Radical Book for Kids, I'm finding it to be both thoughtful and accessible, and I especially love, in the first chapter, how Thornton distills the biblical story of creation-fall-redemption into one easy, memorable sentence: "God made it, we broke it, God fixes it." 

I never understood the arc of God's story as this kind of three-act drama as a young child growing up in the church. (We can quibble about the fourth act of "consummation" if you want, but let's not.) Yet I think there's a lot to be said for understanding the Bible as a cohesive story. It's not as if the New Testament is a dramatic departure from the Old, but rather a fulfillment and continuation of God's story begun in Adam, continued with Abraham, carried through Christ.

A Story of Place

As I began writing Keeping Place, my pastor gave me his copy of Craig Bartholomew's, Where Mortals Dwell, for my research. Bartholomew takes the creation-fall-redemption framework and retools it through the language of place. Creation is the act of "implacement." God gives humanity a place—a garden. Fall takes us into the middle act of exile and the judgement of "displacement." And finally, redemption anticipates God's act of "reimplacement" when God will, once again, make his dwelling place with humanity. In other words, God's story begins and ends at home, and we're living in the middle act, one characterized by homesickness.

This is the three-part structure that I originally had for Keeping Place: God made home, humanity lost home, and God is remaking home. But several months into the project, I realized the structure was NOT working. I needed more room for the middle act. I didn't just want stories of exile. I wanted some sort of framework for talking about what we're supposed to be doing in the in-between.

In the not yet.

Housekeeping

Hence, the housekeeping—a word for talking about the work of the middle act, this way we take up the work of our places in light of our home story. "Housekeeping points toward the thin places of daily life: where work, however monotonous and menial, becomes worship, witnessing to God's kingdom coming, and his will being done, on earth as it is in heaven." It's work that men and women do—in their homes and neighborhoods and cities–to love God by loving their neighbor. Or, as Marilynne Robinson says (much better than I ever could), housekeeping is "a regime of small kindnesses, which taken together, make the world salubrious, savory, and warm. I think of [these] acts of comfort . . . as precisely sacramental."

I recently came across an interview with a man whose story and faith embodies this idea of "housekeeping," and I wanted to share it with you. Ernie Johnson is a sports broadcaster and a man of deep faith. I was introduced to him by this video after the presidential election, which stunned and inspired our 14-year-old son.

[embed]https://youtu.be/ayU5kw7Kf5U[/embed]

Then just this week, I heard an interview with Ernie on Donald Miller's Building a Story Brand Podcast. Ernie talks about his love for his wife and his six children, four of whom he has adopted and one of whom has muscular dystrophy. But it's not just his family his loves. He sees his entire life as a call to service. "I want to serve. I want to be walking out the door, after having served [my son] Michael in the morning, and have my antenna up. So that I notice the people who need to have somebody to talk to.”

In other words, Ernie is a man committed to the housekeeping—committed to the humble, everyday acts of love that image the incarnate God who pitched his tent in the middle of the Roman Empire more than two thousand years ago.

I look forward to reading (and having my son read!) Unscripted, which Ernie talks about here in this Q&A.

And I would encourage you to listen to Donald's podcast interview with Ernie!

Formed by a story called home

jenmichel@me.com

My favorite book from childhood was a Little Golden Book. It begins like this: “This is my house and I am the mommy. My children are Annabelle, Betsy, and Bonny. They are good little children and do just as I say. I put on their coats and they go out to play.” The 1967 picture book, Little Mommy, is a celebration of 20th century domesticity—and its reigning monarch. The narrator, in her smocked brown dress, waves goodbye to Billy “who works in the city. He has a new car. Isn’t it pretty?”

She happily does the dishes and sweeps the floor, wiping “the fingerprints off the door.” To read it now, Little Mommy is both jarring and consoling. Because even if I might have different ideas about gender roles and responsibilities, I am not unlike the little girl in the smocked brown dress. I have my corporate Billy—even my Annabelle, Betsy, and Bonny. Every day there are floors to sweep and doors to wipe. In ways both predicted and surprising, besides being a writer and a speaker, I am also a little mommy, central to the drama of my home.

It’s curious to think about the books that we take into our bones, especially as children. What makes us choose them from any others, begging for them to be read again and again? Why was I, for one, lured by the illustrated scenes of domesticity in Little Mommy, tamed into reverie by its easy jingles about the housekeeping? “I wash the clothes in my washing machine. I scrub them with soap and rinse them clean.”

However it happens, we all choose books to love, and those books unwittingly form us—because stories exert power.

We are storytelling creatures. This is what it means to be human. We tell stories to chase the shadows of despair. We tell stories to birth hope, to remind us of all that remains true and good and beautiful in the world. Our stories teach us to recognize ourselves, even our shared humanity with strangers. But what seems elemental to every story is longing. Because stories let us imagine the world differently, ourselves different in it.

I suppose, then, that it is not at all strange that the first story I loved so well should have been a story about home, both its welcome and its work. Because home is central to the story of life with God, as the Scriptures tell it. At the very beginning of time, humanity had a warm, dry place play to lay its head. Unlike other ancient creation myths, which conceive of a world birthed by violence, the Genesis accounts tell us that the Triune God made the world out of generous hospitality. Six days he worked, preparing for the arrival of his children. Six days he labored to make the world habitable for his guests. The very first homemaker was God himself; he was the reigning monarch of the cosmos.

Sadly, however, only two short chapters at the beginning of Genesis are dedicated to life at home with God. Then the drama lurches toward exile when Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden and God’s presence, cast out to wander with their innumerable children. If to be human is to long for home, as Genesis 1 and 2 tell us, to be human is also to be terribly homesick. This is the aftermath of Genesis 3. Today, how many of us sense our terrifying dislocation from place? We have moved too many times to count, and there’s no lived history at the address where our bills arrive. But it’s not only dislocation from place that is our loss of home. Like Adam and Eve, we are alienated from one another. Our closest relationships are marked by disappointment; they are finally severed by death. Home, as represented by family and friendship, suffers the imperfection and impermanence of this fragile world. And finally, if home once represented the unrestricted access we had to God himself, the unbroken company we kept with him, what do we have now but episodic glimpses of this? God has generously invited us to commune with him through Christ and his indwelling Spirit—but this abiding, abundant life is fractured in the everyday by our own idolatrous pursuits and everyday distractedness.

What yellow brick road do I follow to find my way back home?

I suppose that’s the pressing question I’m trying to answer in my second book, Keeping Place. I want to say that the desire for home is real, that it is in fact central to what it means to be human. I even want to say that home is central to the promise of salvation as we have it in the Scriptures. Our salvation, through Christ, repairs home and its broken promises of place, of community, of communion. In Revelation 21, when the curtain closes on this world and opens on the next, we know that death and disease will be done away with. God will hush the groaning of creation and the aching of our own hearts, declaring, as his kingdom descends to earth, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”

Home is the fundamental story that the Scriptures tell, and it has power to explain human despair and inspire longing for a better world. I wonder if this isn’t why Jesus situated some of his most important parables at home, including the story of a lost son, who, by his own foolishness, left for the far country, taking his inheritance with him. When he returned home—hungry and broke—he certainly didn’t presume to be received back into the family with all the rights and inheritance of sonship. But we know the story well, don’t we? He was met on the road by the embrace of his father.

Welcome home, his father whispers, his cheeks wet with relief.

I’m beginning to think there won’t be better words than these.

Keeping Place - in DVD

jenmichel@me.com

On Monday night, the arts ministry at my church hosted a wonderful launch event for friends and family. It was the very first time I actually held the real book in my hand!

People bought books (which was lovely!), but they were also asking about the companions DVDs, which I didn't have on hand. (Shhh, please don't tell my publisher.)

[video width="640" height="360" mp4="http://jenpollockmichel.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Keeping-Place-by-Jen-Pollock-Michel.mp4"][/video]

In case you didn't know, Keeping Place is also offered as a five-session DVD teaching series produced in partnership by RightNow Media and Intervarsity Press.

For the record, I did make a decided effort to improve upon the video teaching that I did for Teach Us to Want. (Because who gets class on this?) I made Ryan sit and watch all the teaching sessions with me. We decided what worked and what didn't. (You can only guess which list was longer.) Then we watched videos by other people, who are much better and more experienced than I am. In the Keeping Place DVDs, I have tried imitating them all.

Tried smiling more. Tried talking faster. Tried being more personable.

You can decide for yourself if I managed any of that.

In case you're interested in using the DVDs for a small group, there are discussion questions in the book, both for the book and video content.

And lastly, many thanks for the terrific team at RightNow Media with whom it's a real pleasure to work!

On following - and finding - Home

jenmichel@me.com

In 2011, God led our family to Toronto. We came, counting on two or three years of adventure. The kids would learn French. We’d live in the city. For a little while, we would more fully live into the vision of Psalm 67, which the pastor had read at our wedding: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!” We left, not knowing what was ahead.  As I’ve come to understand, the life of faith is best understood by acts of memory. We can’t ever really know what God is doing when he moves us out. We don’t know what the future holds when he says, “go.” I think of the Israelites as they traveled through the wilderness, following the pillar of cloud by day that stopped and settled at whim. They were not planning life, but following it. Following Him. I wonder how many days it felt that they had just gotten comfortable when the cloud began to move and they’d had to hurriedly pack it all up for another day’s journey of uncertainty.

Six years ago, the cloud moved, and the seven of us moved with it. We left the suburbs of Chicago for the city of Toronto. I can remember the first weekend in our first rental house. It was the hottest May on record, and we had no air conditioning. I cried when Ryan left for work on Monday.

Our first summer in Toronto, I started to think about writing more personally, even about starting a blog. The cloud was moving, we were moving with it, and I wanted to keep record of the journey. I wanted a story to tell the children, wanted to give the gift of memory that the Israelites had sorely neglected.

I began writing about that journey here.

Eventually, a blog became a book. And a book became another book.

What a surprise.

A gift and a joy.

Today is the release day of Keeping Place, this second book. In it, I’ve kept my own story: places I’ve lived, people I’ve lost. And most importantly, I’ve followed the longing for home to ask where it leads.

That cloud leads into the arms of Christ.

As I write at the conclusion of Keeping Place, “The ancient Israelites were commanded to recite a liturgy when they entered the land of promise and offered to God the gifts of their first harvest. I imagine taking it up in chorus as we enter the gates of the new Jerusalem—the moment homelessness and all of its attendant grief will be laid to rest:

A wandering Aramean was my father.

He went down into Egypt and sojourned there, and the Egyptians treated us harshly.

But the LORD brought us out of Eygpt with a mighty hand.

He brought us into this land, which flows with milk and honey.

 

This is a song to make sense of life’s lament and longing, peril and promise. And it’s the song we’ll be singing when we fall into the sojourning, suffering arms of Jesus.

 

I declare today that I am finally home.


Believe it or not, Amazon is sold out of Keeping Place. But you can order your copy at ivpress.com. Get 30% off the bookebook or DVD series when you use the code READKP. Offer expires on May 31st, 2017.

How I Titled Keeping Place

jenmichel@me.com

Keeping Place releases tomorrow! When asked how I’m feeling, I try for breezy nonchalance. Book, schmook! And truthfully, I do feel considerably less anxiety about this book than the last—not because I’m convinced that it’s better, but because at least this is recognizable terrain. Familiarity is a big consolation. Still, it’s also true that as time creeps closer to the actual release date, I can sometimes feel like a large animal has just curled up on my chest, making it difficult to breathe. He’s heaviest in the dark of the morning when fear comes calling.  But alas, this post is not for probing the emotional tumult of launching a book. Instead, I wanted to tell you a little bit more about the title of the book. (There’s always a story behind titling a book.) When I submitted Keeping Place in proposal form, the book was titled, Making it Home. I loved that title for the way it conveyed the idea of journey. I also loved that it conveyed the work of making home for others, which is a large part of my book. But wouldn’t you know: some wonderful author has already snatched it up for her book. (I’ve forgiven her for it, just in case you’re wondering.)

Back to the drawing board. I turned in the first draft of Keeping Place and had it titled as, The Witness of Home.

Yeah, that’s what my editor thought.

I then came up with some other titles, none of which she liked: Everything in Place; In Sight of Home; A Place Called Hello, The Way Home, Home Life.  She suggested other titles, but none of them grabbed me either. I think that we were really struggling to find something that suited a mixed audience—something that didn’t scare away the men. We both knew that was the risk of putting “home” in the title. I also wanted something that was multidimensional, something that invited a little more curiosity. Eventually, my editor and I jumped on the phone to brainstorm various possibilities. We decided that “place” seemed a more neutral word to feature in the title. After we hung up, I had the idea of “keeping place,” which she floated to her internal committee at the publishing house. They loved it!

On the one hand, keeping place is a noun. It’s where you safeguard something valuable. And isn’t that the very way we think about home—as a place where we are kept safe? As I write in chapter 11, “The longing for home is associated with memory: a paradise was in fact lost. It also looks ahead, inspiring our hope for inhabiting the eternal city of God. Redeemed humanity has a keeping place.

On the other hand, keeping place is a verb. It’s something active, something to convey the work we’re all called to do in our neighborhoods and cities. And it’s not the work of mothers in aprons, heels, and pearls. It’s the work of all God’s people. In the preface, I use Jane Addams as an example of someone who “kept place” in her city. “Though her legacy was not explicitly Christian, Jane Addams, a social reformer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, . . . founded the Hull House in Chicago in 1889, sensing that the industrialized American city had failed in the measure that it lacked ‘domesticity.’”

Just as I had hoped, the title is multi-dimensional. The trick now is figuring out where to put the stress. If you go Keeping Place as a noun, it’s KEEPING place. But if you prefer the concept of the verb, you’ll need to say it keeping PLACE.

The Blue House (Guest Post by Lee Wolfe Blum)

Stephanie Amores

To be human is to long for The blue house on 67th street in Kansas was supposed to be a home of renewal. A place of new life and new unions. But I didn’t want a new life. I didn’t want a new house, a new school, or a new father. This large blue home with a wide porch for swinging and plenty of space for a group of girlfriends is the house that often interrupts my sleep. The house that invades my current happy life. Memories of painful conversations in the stairway with the peeling wallpaper, and creaking stairs, and hauntings of the old cellar door, an entrance to the dark damp basement that always scared a younger me.

We moved here after the divorce and before the wedding. A new chapter for my mom and the new husband. A time of great fear and sadness for for a thirteen-year-old pre-pubescent me. Mom kept most of the beautiful furniture and paintings, and her new man built gorgeous kitchen cabinets and a massive china hutch. The rooms could have been photographed in a magazine with their perfectly designed interior, I could have cared less. Another school, another home, and now a man I was to call my "Step Dad." A man with a scraggly mustache and a persistent odor of sawdust. This home was going to be an awful and terrible place.

Or so I thought.

The room that was my own could be found in the farthest corner of the house. My space. My respite. With a white brass daybed nestled between the slanted walls and one large stereo system with huge speakers, I could disappear from the world in this room. When I wasn’t playing "The Smiths” records over and over, I could be found under my yellow, fluffy, flowered Laura Ashley covers with a tiny sliver of lamp reading the V.C. Andrew’s books I wasn’t supposed to read. My forbidden fruit. Cigarettes were the same, a forbidden long Camel cigarette held between my fingers as I blew the toxic air out my window. I was mad and angry. And these things soothed me. I had no prayers. Only my books, cigarettes and music in my room with the slanted walls.

Until I saw Blake.

The hot upperclassmen that I chased at school and in my mind. In my room at night I would dream, plot and plan about the times I could pass him in the hall or simply smile at him. My friend told me he was religious. I didn’t quite understand what that meant. Church and God were like the turkey served at Thanksgiving. It happened once and on special occasions. Church was for holidays and a place for us to parade our newest and prettiest clothing. Something we did because that was what good families did. But Blake had something different that didn’t seem to match with our family and our religion. He was involved in something called Young Life, a youth group that sounded fun and exciting. And of course, I followed him there.

A decision, or really a series of decisions, during the time in the blue house, changed my life forever. Because it was through Young Life where I didn’t get the boy, but got Jesus.

And it was in this room, my room, where I began to dive into the pages of The Bible. In the safety of my own bed where I said my first prayers. The first ones I remember, "Dear God, please give me big boobs and long hair. Amen." Later they became deeper. I had to start somewhere.

With all the magazine appearances this house held, the marriage didn’t. And as my world around me began to fall apart yet again, I didn’t. I had something to hold onto. A lifeline and a relationship with my creator that held my hand through it all. My pretty room where the walls could write stories of a teenager's whispered prayers and a childlike faith.

The house is no longer ours; it was sold when the marriage fell apart. And when it returns to me in my dreams, I try to walk myself to the room with the daybed. The room where hope was born and new life was given.

The house is gone; my faith isn’t. I know a zip code doesn’t make me who I am, nor does my story, but it is in the fabric of my faith and journey with Christ where my story lives. Not in the blue house on 67th street. And then I think of this verse and I smile.

Isaiah 41: 8 -10 (The Message)

I pulled you in from all over the world, called you in from every dark corner of the earth, Telling you, ‘You’re my servant, serving on my side. I’ve picked you. I haven’t dropped you.’ Don’t panic. I’m with you. There’s no need to fear for I’m your God. I’ll give you strength. I’ll help you. I’ll hold you steady, keep a firm grip on you.


Lee Wolfe Blum is a mental health practitioner, national speaker and author. Her first book was a memoir Table in the Darkness: A Healing Journey Through an Eating Disorder and her second book, Brave is the New Beautiful: Finding the Courage to be the Real You released March 1st. She has three teenage boys who keep her busy in what she calls, "the frat house."  Her work can be seen in The Huffington Post, Christianity Today, and on her website. You can follow her on twitter or Facebook.


keeping-place-11Welcome to a guest series I’m calling, “Home: Musings and Memories.” I’ve invited writers from all over the Internet to share their stories from home—in part, because next month, I’m publishing a book called, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP, May 2017). I believe home is our most fundamental longing, homesickness our most nagging grief. Most of all, I believe that the historic Christian faith has something to say about that desire and disappointment.

The story of Jesus is a home story.

Thanks for joining me and these other fantastic writers in the months ahead in our search for home—and the God who makes its hope possible.

Jen

Home - A poem

jenmichel@me.com

When you write about home, both as longing and loss, you can't help but bump into the story of Abraham. He is, of course, the man that God calls to leave home in order to find home. But as you read his story in Genesis, you can't help but see that there's no real permanent home that Abraham ever finds, at least not on this earth. In fact, reflecting on his story centuries later, the writer of Hebrew concludes that Abraham died "not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that [he was] a stranger and exile on the earth" (Heb. 11:13).

The most troubling episode in Abraham's life is the story of Genesis 22, which people call, "The Binding of Isaac." God has asked Abraham to do something much harder than leave home. He's asked him to take his son, his only son, the son he loves, and sacrifice him on an altar.

If you thought that the Bible only recorded sweet, saccharine stores, you have missed Genesis 22. It's a hard story — and yet it's a story that prefigures another Father and another Son, the God-Man Jesus Christ.

I've written about Genesis 22 in a poem, and I'd love to share it with you here.


Home

Like tent stakes, I pull it up,

Load my beast with the longing to stay put.

They don't know

Go is a hard word.

Three days he carries us;

I, with child, yielding mute yes.

Go is a hard word,

Take, harder still.

“Third days are for resurrection.”

I'd like to believe them, imagining myself

Come back again.

“Here I am,” I’ll shout, son in tow,

Laughing, with relief.

When Did Everybody Else Get So Old?

jenmichel@me.com

When Did Everybody Else Get So Old? This is the title of the wonderful midlife memoir by Jennifer Grant, who is a friend and veteran writer. I wanted to introduce you to this book - and to Jennifer - which is why I'm posting an interview with her. As I wrote in my endorsement, "I didn't know how much I needed this book until I read it!" The book releases today and is available here as well as local bookstores.


Why write a book about middle age?

The short answer is that, in my early 40s, I found myself reading midlife memoirs, journaling, and talking to friends about what it felt like to enter midlife. The good, the bad, the ugly…and the mortifying. Writing this book helped me sort out my thoughts. Flannery O’Connor famously said that she was a writer: “because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Yes, that’s true for me.

A longer answer is that all of my books have, on some level, been attempts at untangling questions that kept me awake at night or that I’d turn over in my mind all day. Questions about whatever I was living through (adopting a child, raising kids, questioning my faith, and so on) at a particular moment.

This one began to take shape around my fortieth birthday when I was flooded with the typical kind of “turning forty” issues—like suddenly needing reading glasses, feeling somehow stunned that my kids were teenagers and were on the verge of leaving home, and becoming aware of my mortality in a new way.

The book stems from my conviction that entering midlife can be tricky, but that we can make peace with middle age and experience it as a rich, purposeful time.

Is this “midlife memoir” primarily focused on physical issues middle-aged people face—like achy joints or wrinkles or women’s experiences of menopause?

I touch on some of these things, including how hormones wax and wane in midlife or the surprise of seeing how our faces change as we get older—but, as I was writing it, the book kept pulling me in the direction of issues around identity and relationship more than the physical effects of aging.

What does your “nest” look like now? Empty yet?

I took the leaf out of the kitchen table a few months ago. It’s odd. The house is quieter, and most of the time it’s four of us, instead of six. My two sons are in college—in their first and third years. My two daughters are in high school—also in their first and third years. I just got home from taking my older daughter on college visits. One by one, off they go. My husband and I will be “empty nesters” in three and a half years.

Would you say your nonfiction work follows your life chronologically, or how does this book fit with the other books you’ve published?

 My first book told the story of how my husband and I went from living as young marrieds in New York City to moving to the suburbs of Chicago, having three kids in rather short order, and deciding to adopt a toddler from Guatemala. My second book is about creating a healthy, creative family culture and about parenting tweens. My third is a book of essays I co-edited with my friend Cathleen Falsani. We asked 40-some writers to reflect on what verse or passage in Scripture shaped (or upended) their faith. In my essay in that one, I time-traveled back to my own childhood and wrote about the verses that have troubled me the most in my life. My next book, a 365 daybook of short reflections for women, is like a memoir told in very, very brief chapters about parenting teens, nurturing a long marriage, and about faith (and doubt.)

So, yes, to answer the question, this new book follows chronologically, as I write about my kids leaving home and the decade of my forties.

Did you ever find yourself surprised by anything you wrote while working on this new book?

I was surprised by how often ideas or passages from the book of Ecclesiastes invited themselves into the narrative. When I was doing final edits, after overhauling the book many times (taking it from a book of 40 essays to 20, rethinking, reworking it), I had to smile at how often I found a reference to Ecclesiastes. It makes sense to me why it kept raising its hand and asking to be included. My book turned out to be about letting go of expectations and not “white-knuckling” my way through life, but being present with (and appreciating) what my real life holds. Ecclesiastes is full of complicated wisdom that relates to that kind of mindfulness.

Is there anything you cut from the book before it went to press? What was it, and why?

I’ve never rewritten a book so many times. I cut a lot, mostly because I found finding the right tone a challenge. While I wanted to acknowledge, and poke fun at, some of the “indignities” of middle age, I was also writing about real loss.

In the book’s foreword, Jeanne Murray Walker writes that middle age is where “the ridiculous and the sublime mix.”  She writes, “The ridiculous and the sublime have equal weight in this book because, in midlife, they rub up against one another with such friction.”

I like that.

One chapter I cut was very short and called “A Perfect Midlife Mixtape.” I made a playlist of songs that beautifully (or hilariously) speak to midlife. Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” is, of course on it. Also: “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by the Byrds, “Failure” by Martin Sexton, and “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell. (Oh and there’s some Ella Fitzgerald, Gillian Welch, Johnny Cash, Billy Joel, and Emmylou Harris.) I cut the mixtape chapter at the advice of my (brilliant) editor who felt like it wasn’t quite right, in terms of tone, to include it. But I still love listening to it!

What do you want your readers to get from this book?

The writer of Ecclesiastes said, “To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God.” (Ecclesiastes 5:19, New Living Translation) That sounds so simple, but of course it’s a long and challenging process to get to that point—but I think we can make excellent progress toward it in midlife. I hope readers of When Did Everybody Else Get So Old? are left feeling hopeful and energized after finishing the book.

I write a lot about memory and how we are constantly editing our memories, attempting to make a cohesive story out of all that we’ve lived through. I hope my readers will look at their own life stories and feel aware of how resilient they are and grateful for all the good in their lives. I’d love it if the book also served as a permission slip for readers to let the unfinished parts or random pieces of the puzzle that is their lives just be. We can’t make sense of all we’ve gone through. We can’t get closure on everything. We can’t understand so many mysteries of how life plays out.


From writer and veteran columnist Jennifer Grant comes an unflinching and spirited look at the transitions of midlife. When Did Everybody Else Get So Old? plumbs the physical, spiritual, and emotional changes unique to the middle years: from the emptying nest to the sagging effects of aging. Grant acknowledges the complexities and loss inherent in midlife and tells stories of sustaining disappointment, taking hard blows to the ego, undergoing a crisis of faith, and grieving the deaths not only of illusions but of loved ones. Yet she illuminates the confidence and grace that this season of life can also bring. Magnetic, good-humored, and full of hope in the sustaining power of the Spirit, this is a must-read for anyone facing the flux and flow of middle age.

Jennifer Grant is a writer, editor, and speaker. A former health and family columnist for the Chicago Tribune, she is the author of four previous books, including the adoption memoir Love You More and the 365-daybook Wholehearted Living. Grant is a part of Hope Through Healing Hands' Faith-based Coalition for Healthy Mothers and Children Worldwide. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband, four children (when her sons are on break from college), and two loving and quirky rescue dogs.

Find her online at jennifergrant.com or on Twitter @jennifercgrant.

When Did Everybody Else Get So Old? is available from Herald Press. For further information, review copies, or interviews contact Bob Todd at bt@bobtoddpublicity.com

Keeping Place: Author Q&A

jenmichel@me.com

My second book, Keeping Place, releases next week!

If you have been curious to learn more, here is a Q&A that I've put together to give you a glimpse into the intent behind this book.

If you're interested in buying a copy, save some money! You can pre-order a book at ivpress.org. Get 30% off the book, ebook or DVD series when you use the code READKP. Offer expires on May 31st, 2017.


Why write a book about home? Is it your experience as a wife and mother that most informs this book or something else?

There’s no doubt that my experience of making a home for my family these past twenty years has informed the writing of this book. But Keeping Place isn’t only meant for wives and mothers. In fact, I think the longing for home is a human longing. It’s not particular to women. Men feel it, too—even if they might characterize that longing in different ways.

I’ve spent my entire life searching for home. Partially this is because I’ve experienced so much loss in my life: the premature death of my father, the suicide of my brother, a sometimes emotionally distant relationship with my mother. It’s also true that home has been elusive simply because I’ve been so geographically mobile, somehow ending up in Toronto as an American expat.

These life experiences springboard a Scriptural exploration throughout the book. I want to hear what God has to say about the longings for and losses of home.

What’s the challenge of writing a book about home for both women and men?

I recently had coffee with a young woman from church, and at the end of our conversation, she said that she looked forward to my book on “homemaking.” Later, I couldn’t help but wonder if she imagined a book of recipes, table setting ideas, and the best way to organize a linen closet.

I think that’s the fear: that men will see a book on the topic of home and immediately think it’s a book meant for their wives or mothers or sisters. That’s why the history of home is a really fundamental part of this book (chapter 2). I want to trace how home was once a shared space for residence and commerce and industry up until the Industrial Revolution. That historical analysis might sound sort of heady, but it’s really meant to provide a backdrop for the way that we read the Bible, which never talks about “home” as something which women are solely responsible for.

What books have influenced you to keep a wider perspective in your home-keeping?

I really do see Keeping Place as having resonance with a lot of the great work that’s being done on theology of place. In particular, I really appreciated the early chapters of Craig Bartholomew’s Where Mortals Dwell, because it makes the case for God’s good gift of place. I have also loved books like C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison’s Slow Church, which I believe help us see the role that the local church can play to “keep place” in our cities. And a perennial favorite is also Kathleen Norris’s The Quotidian Mysteries. Beyond that, it’s always been important to me to read outside of my own experiences: books like Kent Annan’s Slow Kingdom Coming and D.L. Mayfield’s Assimilate or Go Home would be two examples.

How do you combine motherhood, writing and speaking? How does your home-making life practically work in the day-to-day?

A lot of my day is taken up with the practical care of my family, especially because I’m the primary parent for our five kids. And even though I’m the first person to try and find help when I need it (I pay someone to clean my house, someone else to do virtual assistant work for me), there’s also something irreducible about the labor that love requires. I have five kids and a very busy executive husband, which means that my work life is sometimes more constrained than I would like it to be because of my responsibilities at home. I can’t accept every speaking invitation I want to. I can’t write on every topic that interests me. I can’t stay connected on social media (even if truthfully, I don’t really want to). But I think this is what it means to be human. We are limited.

Who do you hope is reading this book, and what do you hope they will gain?

I suppose it’s fair to say that women like me will probably read the book, and I hope that they’ll come earlier to the realization that their home is a shared responsibility with their husbands. This “sharing” benefits children, for sure—who need both mom and dad fully engaged at home. It also gives women permission when other God-given callings sometimes call us away from home.

But I hope it’s not just women like me reading the book. I’d love to see women and men who aren’t married, who aren’t parents, find ways they can have and make home today, especially in their local churches and communities. I’d like for people to catch a vision for justice in the world—to see that the gospel isn’t solely a spiritual endeavor to save souls but that it also inspires practices of caring for physical bodies and environments.

And if I could just dream a bit, I’d love for someone on the margins of faith, maybe even on the outside looking in, to read this book and start making sense of the life and death, resurrection and return of Jesus Christ. Sadly, when we get to telling that story, we often use a vocabulary that people are not familiar with. But what if we could talk about the promises of the gospel through the lens of home?

Last question: isn’t there a DVD video series to accompany the book?

There is! It’s meant as a teaching companion to the book, and what I especially love about the videos (and something I can claim NO credit for) are the personal stories shared in each of the five sessions. Women talk about their dreams for home, their disappointments of home. I think it makes it really relevant to our everyday lives. You can watch the trailer here or buy the DVDs at ivpress.org.

New York City: America’s Most Crowded Home (Guest Post by Bethany Jenkins)

Stephanie Amores

To be human is to long for E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, says there are three New Yorks. The first is the New York of the native “who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable.” The second is the New York of the commuter who devours the city by day and leaves at night. The third is the New York of the settler “who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something”—fame, fortune, identity, power.

I’m a settler. Born in Illinois, raised in Florida, educated in Texas, and professionally launched in Washington, D.C., I moved to New York in search of two things—success and escape. I came to work on Wall Street and to find some distance from an ex-boyfriend. A year in New York is all I need, I thought—but that was 13 years ago.

Now, when people ask me where I'm from, it feels strange to say any place other than New York. The city is now my home.

What Makes a ‘New Yorker’?

How long it takes to become an official New Yorker is a subject of much debate. Many say it takes 10 years. Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City says it takes 7 years.

Others say experiences, not years, make a New Yorker. Rites of passage often include being mugged at gunpoint, subletting an illegal lease, or being groped on the subway. Having to exterminate bed bugs or mice also counts. One requirement, though, is nearly universal: living in small spaces.

I live with three other women in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment that boasts 1,400 square feet. We have our own bedrooms, but we share our living room and kitchen. We take our dirty laundry to a laundromat two blocks away because we don't have a washer and dryer. We also don’t have Christmas decorations because, Who has space to store something you use only once a year?

Roots of Bitterness

There was a time when I could afford more space. In law school, when I summered at a major law firm in New York, I had my own place—a spacious, one-bedroom apartment with a charming yellow-brick faux fireplace in a doorman building. Today, though, even with two jobs, my income is a fraction of what I made at the firm.

The contrast between the home I can presently afford and the home I could have afforded is often hard to reconcile. When someone sends me a package, and I have no doorman to receive it, I lament having to trek a mile to the FedEx facility to pick it up. When I have out-of-town guests visiting, I apologize for not having a guest room. If I had taken that law firm job, I’d have my own place by now, I remind myself, bitter I chose to work in the faith-based non-profit sector.

My murmuring heart is an offense to God. It distrusts his goodness and rejects his generosity. It results from hoping in promises he never made and, when those promises aren't fulfilled, leads to unnecessary disappointment. My complaining spirit magnifies my afflictions and minimizes God’s mercies, falsely believing, “No one suffers as I do!” It takes away any present comfort in what I do have because all I can think about is what I don’t have.

What Makes a Home?

For the past eight years, since rejecting the law firm’s job offer, my story of home has been one of learning contentment. It doesn’t come naturally to me, just like it didn’t come naturally to the apostle Paul. As he wrote to the churches in Philippi:

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. (Phil. 4:11–12, emphasis mine).

I’ve learned that home isn’t measured by how much space you have or by whether you have certain appliances. It’s not determined by whether you rent or own your place, or by whether you're single, divorced, widowed, married, or married with children.

What makes a home is the presence of God. If he is there, then it is home. In The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, Jeremiah Burroughs writes,

In the house of the righteous is much treasure: his house—what house? It may be a poor cottage, and perhaps he has scarcely a stool to sit on. . . . Yet the Holy Ghost says, “In the house of the righteous is much treasure” (Prov. 15:6). Let the righteous man be the poorest man in the world. . . . If he has but a dish and a spoon or anything in the world in his house, there will be much treasure so long as he is there. There is the presence of God and the blessing of God upon him, and therein is much treasure.

Jesus—who had all the riches of the universe at his disposal in heaven—was poor in this world. When his parents presented him at the Temple, they couldn’t afford the regular sacrifice of a lamb, but offered the poor man’s sacrifice of two pigeons (Lk. 2:24; Lev. 12:8). Later, he told his followers that, though birds have nests and foxes have holes, he had no place to lay his head (Matt. 8:20; Lk. 9:58).

He came in poverty to show us that there is only one thing necessary in this life—the presence of God. “In my Father’s house are many rooms,” he told his disciples (Jn. 14:2). This is what we know about our heavenly home—it is the Father’s house. He is there, and it is the place his glory dwells (Ps. 26:8; 84:1).

Other things—a spouse, children, a washer and dryer—are comfortable things, and we can be thankful to God if he gives them to us. But they are not necessary things—we can have them and yet perish forever; we can have none of them and yet, in Christ, live forever.

At this point in my life, I expected to be married and own a home. The Lord, however, had other plans. But in him, I’m one of the “haves,” not one of the “have nots.” My small apartment in my crowded city is my home—not because it has all the space and appliances I want, but because it is where the Lord dwells in the hearts of his people. In this, I am content—and even rejoice.


Bethany L. Jenkins is the Director of The Gospel Coalition’s Every Square Inch, the Director of Vocational & Career Development at The King’s College, and the Founder of The Park Forum. She previously worked on Wall Street and on Capitol Hill. She received her JD from Columbia Law School and attends Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, where she is a current CFW Fellow and a former Gotham Fellow through the Center for Faith & Work. You can follow her on Twitter.


keeping-place-11Welcome to a guest series I’m calling, “Home: Musings and Memories.” I’ve invited writers from all over the Internet to share their stories from home—in part, because next month, I’m publishing a book called, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP, May 2017). I believe home is our most fundamental longing, homesickness our most nagging grief. Most of all, I believe that the historic Christian faith has something to say about that desire and disappointment.

The story of Jesus is a home story.

Thanks for joining me and these other fantastic writers in the months ahead in our search for home—and the God who makes its hope possible.

Jen

Ruby Slippers

jenmichel@me.com

"Ruby Slippers" is the title of the final chapter of my book, Teach Us to Want, and I'm often asked about the significance.

Just last week, I met with a small group from my church who had recently finished reading the book, and several people wanted to make guesses about the meaning of the ruby slippers. One interpretation was particularly clever.

"The ruby slippers were taken from the feet of the Wicked Witch of the East when Dorothy's house fell on her. Dorothy puts them on, but the Wicked Witch of the West chases her and wants to kill her. So the ruby slippers represent the potential dangers of desire and how desire might possibly lead us astray."

Um, no. But really good try!

Because the subtitle of chapter 10 is "commitment," I really meant ruby slippers to represent the journey of desire—and all that's required for that journey, especially courage and resilience. It's a risk to examine our desires. What might we discover about ourselves in the process? It's a risk to admit our desires to others. What will they make of us? And of course, it's also a risk to pray our desires—not because God can't be trusted with our vulnerability, but because in praying our desires, we're also surrendering them to the possibility of divine interruption and change.

But before I clarified all of this for this particular group, another man ventured his guess. I had never met him before.

"Well, Dorothy puts on the ruby slippers so that she can get back home. And I think that's where desire is always leading us. Home.

We want home more than anything else in this world."

Um, HELLO?! Did you know that I've written an entire book about the longing for home?

Teach Us to Want was published in July 2014. I certainly had no plan for my second book, Keeping Place, which releases in two weeks. But maybe "ruby slippers" is the giveaway that when I took my own journey of desire, it would lead me to longings for permanence. Longings for safety and stability, for rest and refuge.

For home.

I'm going to tell you a little bit more about Keeping Place in the next couple of weeks here on the blog. I'll be posting an excerpt from the preface and some behind-the-scenes looks at the writing of the book. I'll even share with you some original poetry that I've written. I hope it's helpful to you in some way, and as always, thanks for reading along!

 

Where I'm From

jenmichel@me.com

I'm excited to tell you about a collection of essays, stories, and poetry from the women of Redbud Writers Guild, which releases next week! Each contribution ends with a prayer as well as a writing prompt. My own essay, "The Tamarisk," is an exploration of the longing for permanence in a rented life. I look at the life of Abraham for how we can "begin seizing the invitation of the in-between places: find solid ground. There is greater permanence than a permanent address . . . The God of Abraham—not the land, not the son—is himself the reward (Gen. 15:1)." But I'm not here to share with you my essay. For that, you'll need to buy the book! Rather, I'd love to share with you a poem written by Nilwona Nowlin. Nilwona is a redemptive artist, someone who believes in the power of the arts to bring about positive transformation in individuals and communities. She is particularly passionate about helping people discover/pursue their purpose, leadership development, and ministries of compassion, mercy, and justice such as community development, reconciliation, and intercultural development. Recent publications include "To Save Many Lives: Exploring Reconciliation Between Africans and African Americans through the Selling of Joseph," for the Covenant Quarterly as well as devotionals for the Covenant Home Altar.

Nilwona is also a regular contributor to for the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) Commission on Biblical Gender Equality's blog and the lmdj Voices blog of the ECC's Love Mercy Do Justice mission priority. Nilwona earned a B.A. from Columbia College Chicago, an M.A. in Christian Formation and Certificate in Justice Ministry from North Park Theological Seminary and a Master’s in Nonprofit Administrationfrom North Park University. She blogs at thedreamerspeaks.com. You can follow Nilwona on Twitter @nilwona.

The entire text of Nilwona's poem, "Where I'm From," can be found here.

Ft. Portal-Budibugyo-Lamia Rd., Nyahuka, Uganda (Guest Post by Tish Harrison Warren)

Stephanie Amores

To be human is to long for This is a story about how Lyle Lovett and Jesus ruined my life plan.

I sat on the couch, alone in a room, staring at a handwritten sign barely legible in the candlelight.  I was in my early 20s and teaching English in Uganda for a few months, living at the boarding school. The scrawled sign was a quote from Rich Mullins: “I’m home anywhere if you are where I am,” written about God, a statement of worship and trust. At the time, taping his words on my plastered wall felt adventurous and daring.

I came from a place of deep, deep roots. My mom and dad were living within a mile of where my mom was born in the small town where generations of my family members have tilled the land, sat in city council meetings, and eaten watermelon on their porches. I had chosen to leave Texas to go to college out of state and, later, to go to Africa; both decisions had scandalized and worried my parents. This scrawled sign was simultaneously defiant, naïve, and faithful.  I now see more than a little narcissism in my wanderlust. Full of youthful swagger, I was after some wisdom and good stories, and didn’t have much to lose. But this sign was also a confession of faith, however fumbling or feebly, that “home” was not a place but a person, the person of Christ. And that following him meant that I had no idea where I might end up.

I ended up moving back to America and eventually married a graduate student, whose professional pursuits have moved us to five different states in our twelve years of marriage. With each move, the loss of home felt sharper. “Home,” which once felt confining as I longed for more risk, now seemed like something I lacked and desperately needed. I would tear up reading Wendell Berry, longing for his vision of stability, eager for a lived “theology of place.”  I missed my deep roots. I wanted to plant a garden and watch it grow, to have friends who I walk through different stages of life with, and, once we had kids, I longed to give my children the gift of rootedness, history, and community that I was given. I ached for that place where everyone knew who my dad was, where I could bump into someone with my mom whom she introduces as a beloved distant cousin, where I know how the air smells in the late fall and a back way shortcut to every place. So, eventually, we moved back to Texas. The prodigal daughter returned, and fatted calves were killed and slow-roasted in a Texas barbecue.

Three years later, I sat in the passenger seat as my husband Jonathan drove through the open ranchland near my parents’ house. It was a gorgeous day with evening light on early autumn hayfields and the sky stretched out to eternity. But the air was tense. I was trying to convince Jonathan that we shouldn’t move away from Texas. Both newly ordained priests, we’d received a call out of the blue, asking us to move across the country to be associate pastors at a church. We had fretted, prayed, and met with our community for guidance. They prayed, listened, and told us, lovingly, to go, and I wept. This call to the church and to my marriage was, I realized, a bit like signing up for the military-- I had given my life over to a mission that was bigger than me. I knew God wanted us to serve the church as priests. But I desperately wanted to stay in Texas.

I’d hatched a plan to showcase the glories of Central Texas to my husband, roots and culture, hayfields and sky. As we drove, I decided, we’d listen to Lyle Lovett—because you can’t get more Texas-glorious than a slow drive with Lyle singing about flour tortillas or whiskey --and we’d watch the Texas sunset. And there’s no way, after that, that we’d ever choose to leave. But when I put my plan in motion, a song came on that I’d never heard before.

It was a hymn that I pictured Lyle pounding out on an old piano in a plain-faced church:

“Lord, keep us steadfast in thy Word; Curb those who fein by craft and sword Would wrest the kingdom from thy Son And set at nought all he hath done.

Lord Jesus Christ, thy power make known, For thou are Lord of Lords alone; Defend thy Christendom that we May ever more sing praise to thee.

O Comforter of priceless worth, Send peace and unity on earth; Support us in our final strife And lead us out of death to life.”

Again, I wept. Despite my hopes, I somehow knew in that moment that we were leaving Texas again. We were going to go learn to be priests in a new place, a foreign land, far from home.

And I remembered that sign on my wall in Africa, but read it differently. Back then, the reality of Christ as our true home felt somehow triumphant and exhilarating. Now, it came with some pain. If Christ alone is our true home, no other place ever quite is and in this fallen “meantime” on our old earth, we never quite belong. Any swagger, any thrill in being a rolling stone, was gone.  If God calls us to himself, he may call us anywhere, and there is goodness but also heartbreak in that.

Deep roots and a long-time home is a gift, one I still long for. But I now see that both wanderlust and rootedness can become idols and that neither can be what ultimately guides us. Some are called to stay; some, at times, are called to leave. And, whichever the case, home is ultimately the place where Jesus meets us, where he calls us, where he is.


Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. After eight years with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries at Vanderbilt and The University of Texas at Austin, she now serves as Co-Associate Rector at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, PA. She writes regularly for The Well, CT Women (formerly her.meneutics), and Christianity Today. Her work has also appeared in Comment Magazine, Christ and Pop Culture, Art House America, and elsewhere. She is author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (IVP). She and her husband Jonathan have two young daughters.


keeping-place-11Welcome to a guest series I’m calling, “Home: Musings and Memories.” I’ve invited writers from all over the Internet to share their stories from home—in part, because later this year, I’m publishing a book called, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP, May 2017). I believe home is our most fundamental longing, homesickness our most nagging grief. Most of all, I believe that the historic Christian faith has something to say about that desire and disappointment.

The story of Jesus is a home story.

Thanks for joining me and these other fantastic writers in the months ahead in our search for home—and the God who makes its hope possible.

Jen

Memory of Home (Guest Post by Marilyn Gardner)

Stephanie Amores

To be human is to long for Murree Christian School P.O. Jhika Gali, Murree Hills, Pakistan

I can picture the scene as if it was yesterday.  I am lying on the top bunk in my dormitory. The louvered windows allow a mountain breeze to come through and the sun shines brightly through pine trees.  It is springtime in Murree and I am seven years old.  In the distance I hear the sound of musical scales in major and minor keys being played on old pianos, slightly tinny and out of tune. The players are disciplined, but clearly young with limited skills. Pungent smells waft through windows from the large kitchen two floors below alerting me that today our lunch will be curry and rice. The sounds of Urdu, Punjabi, and English meld together, a kaleidoscope of diversity unrealized until I am older. As the memory returns, I close my eyes and I am completely content.

Two distinct places come to mind when I think of the place and concept of ‘home.’ The first is that of several different cities where my parents lived in Pakistan during my childhood. The second place is the more constant: My boarding school near the town of Jhika Gali, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayan range of mountains in the country of Pakistan.

My memories are strong of the place that shaped me, that formed me into who I am today. I was six years old when I first went to boarding school. I could barely tie my shoelaces; much less navigate the sometimes cruel environment of an institutional setting. But it was in the institutional halls of boarding school where I encountered the God who I would grow to love.

For three months at a time, I would share a bedroom with seven roommates supervised by a housemother struggling to meet the needs of 20 to 30 little children. Children, who needed to eat, brush their teeth, bathe, dress, study, and sleep. Along with the practical needs were the emotional and spiritual needs. These are the unseen needs that satisfy the deepest of human longings; namely love and belonging. It was a seemingly impossible task, but we would not know this until much later in our lives.

The first night away from home, I was always exhausted and sleep came quickly. I woke early in the morning, disoriented and unsure of where I was. When I remembered, the blur and taste of hot, salty tears clouded my vision and lingered on my tongue. I dared not show my tears; it was not safe. We were all small, all facing separation and loss, all experiencing the first of many times of homesickness. We were surrounded by others as young as we were, by others with the same tears and fears, the same deep sense of loss.

No one heard or saw my tears; instead, they fell silently, invisibly.  Soon others would wake, and happy chatter would overshadow the sad. We were already a family of sorts, complete with the aunts and uncles who served as our dorm parents. But each time I entered boarding school, the early morning scene would repeat itself, from the time I was six until the day I graduated from high school.

A cold, metal-framed bunk bed and the living God were my only witnesses. The one captured my tears, the other comforted them.In that tiny, private bunk bed space my first fervent prayers for comfort went up to an unseen God in a Heaven that seemed far away, and I experienced his comfort and presence. It was in a bunk bed that this unseen God responded, an invisible hand reaching out to comfort a little girl far from her parents who held fast to a stuffed animal.

My boarding school years are long past and, like many others who grew up globally, many places in the world have become home for a time.  Indeed, for me a recurring life-theme has been on place and home. But those early memories of boarding school still evoke in me tears and a deep sense of gratitude.  There have been many places where my faith grew, where I met the big and hard questions of life. One of those places was surely a boarding school bunk bed, an icon of sorts, a solid witness to a faith that is written on my heart by God’s hand.


Marilyn R. Gardner is an adult third culture kid who grew up in Pakistan and then lived as an adult in Pakistan and Egypt. She birthed 5 kids on 3 continents, and went on to raise them in Pakistan and Egypt before moving to the United States. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 15 minutes from the international terminal where she flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging © Doorlight Publications, July 2014 and her newest memoir Passages Through Pakistan: An American Girl’s Journey of Faith ©Doorlight Publications, February 2017. Because of her passion for the Middle East, 50% of all royalties for any purchase of Passages goes towards refugee work there.  


keeping-place-11Welcome to a guest series I’m calling, “Home: Musings and Memories.” I’ve invited writers from all over the Internet to share their stories from home—in part, because later this year, I’m publishing a book called, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP, May 2017). I believe home is our most fundamental longing, homesickness our most nagging grief. Most of all, I believe that the historic Christian faith has something to say about that desire and disappointment.

The story of Jesus is a home story.

Thanks for joining me and these other fantastic writers in the months ahead in our search for home—and the God who makes its hope possible.

Jen

Where I Shed My Dragon Skin (Guest Post By Dorcas Cheng-Tozun)

Stephanie Amores

To be human is to long for Flat 2, 24th Floor Tower F, Chengzhongyayuen Shenzhen, China

Each morning my husband and I were awoken by the chants of schoolchildren, twenty-four stories below us, doing their morning exercises. I would look down at their tiny blue-and-white uniformed bodies, stretching and twisting and jumping in the stifling humidity, and wonder how they felt about the industrial city we all lived in. Did it feel like home to them?

I had certainly never felt less at home. My face and body resembled the faces and bodies around me—the first time I had ever lived in a place where I was part of the ethnic majority. Yet everything else about me stood out, in a culture and society in which standing out is one of the worst things one can do.

My daily commutes with my husband—walking from our apartment building to the subway station, cramming our bodies with the rest of the masses on the subway cars, then walking again to the office building—became exercises in anxiety. Who would yell at me next? Which of these people would resent me if they knew how Western I really was on the inside?

Nowhere in Shenzhen felt safe for me—except our starkly white, cement-tiled two-bedroom flat.

The place came with its own colorful history. Its previous occupant was the mistress of the Hong Kong-based owner, his "second wife" who was about forty years his junior. When she moved out, she left enough food to feed an entire infantry of cockroaches. They eagerly welcomed us from every room the day we moved in.

When the complex social dynamics of living in China became too overwhelming for me, I escaped to this flat. I burrowed into the gray-and-white houndstooth sectional sofa, watching bootlegged versions of American movies and TV shows. I jerry-rigged American meals—scrambled eggs and toast, spaghetti, garlic bread, burgers—with the ingredients I could find. I listened to MP3s of U2 and Coldplay with full-throated nostalgia, dancing across the cold tiles with abandon, the air conditioner blowing on full blast.

In this flat, my true ethnic identity—as a second-generation Chinese American—was on full display. I felt safe and free within that one thousand square feet, floating a couple hundred meters above the ground.

Yet, even then, the concrete walls of the high-rise building strained against the pressures of life in a totalitarian state. Everyone took it as fact that our phone lines and email communications were regularly monitored. I heard rumors that the central government tended to bug apartment buildings just like ours. I worried that the Christian locals I was discipling would suffer because of their association with me.

Eventually, I buckled under that pressure. I refused to leave our apartment for days at a time, unable to face the oppressive environment outside. I grumbled and lamented and wept before God, asking what he was doing in the midst of my misery.

Only three things kept me from becoming unmoored during that time: my faith, my husband, and the flat that was the closest thing to home I had available.

I didn’t know it at the time, but God was breaking the stranglehold that my compulsive needs to people-please, to achieve, and to be perfect had on me. Like Eustace, the surly and prideful character in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I needed God to reveal the depth and hardness of my dragon skin—and I needed God to tear that skin off, even though it hurt my very soul to do so.

About a year into our stay in China, two friends visited us from California. They listened to my anguish; they counseled me; they prayed over me. And that concrete, barren apartment became holy ground.

My healing journey, which eventually took years, began as I wept in that twenty-fourth story flat in China, confessing my weakness and desperate need for God. Only then could he tear down the smaller life I had been stubbornly pursuing. Only then could he make space for something grander and far more beautiful.


Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is an award-winning writer and editor. She is a columnist for Inc.com and a regular contributor to Christianity Today, The Well, and Asian American Women on Leadership. Her book on marriage and entrepreneurship is forthcoming from Hachette Center Street in fall 2017. After living in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Kenya, she is now residing in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and adorable hapa son. Visit her at http://www.chengtozun.com or follow her on Twitter.