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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Category: Spiritual Disciplines

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!

Tempering January ambition: and finding rest

jenmichel@me.com

January In my own life, January normally blusters in with resolve and resolution. Maybe it’s the invitation of the winter landscape. The world, swathed in white, quiets to a hush, and the silence inspires reflection—the reflection, ambition. In January, I feel urged to straighten my house (an impulse no doubt inspired by hibernation).  But I don’t only decide to clean. I also determine to neaten my life. And though I don’t necessarily make goals in the formal sense, I do love the crisp, clean sheets of a new year.

 

But this year began differently for me. I didn’t hustle the kids back to school as I might normally have. I didn’t write ambitious lists. And while I did clean out two basement storage closets, I also decided intentionally to rest. One month, full-stop. (Whatever that meant. The only thing I knew for sure was that it included poetry.)  If I resisted hard and fast rules about what constituted rest and what constituted work (cleaning out storage closets can, in fact, be considered restful), I did commit to turning down any formal writing projects. (As it turns out, the only rule I set was the rule I broke precisely twice: one, to write this article at the invitation of the her.meneutics editors; two, to begin reading Randy Alcorn’s new book, Happiness, in preparation for an interview.) But despite those two transgressions (for which my husband exasperatedly pronounced, “You stink,”) I have embraced rest. I am, in fact, still lingering in the pause.

 

“What do you need rest from?” my spiritual director asked at the beginning of this month.

 

Isn’t it obvious? I wanted to answer.

 

Rest from deadlines.

Rest from the demands of other people.

Rest from hurry.

 

And it’s true that since the spring of 2015, I went breathlessly from one deadline to another. The year drove hard. But it is also true that this season of January rest, graciously spread for me like a feast by the table-setting God, has reminded me that it is not work or family or externally-opposed obligations that keep me from resting.

 

I am most ruthless at the reins of my life.

 

I am the Egyptian taskmaster with the leather strap, and until I rest from myself (and the hard-driving internal voices), there will be no rest at all.

 

I remember long car trips as a child. I’d sit in the back of the station wagon, staring out the car window, watching the landscape blur past. I’d fix my eyes on some solitary tree in the middle of the field and admire its rooted resistance to the rush. Whoosh went the corn. Whoosh went the soybeans. But the tree stood strong. Fiercely proud. Defiant. Imperial. I would imagine myself taking solace in its canopy of shade, stepping into the pool dappled with quiet and puddled with silence.

 

I wanted rest then, even as a young child without bills to pay, emails to answer, and library books to return. I still want it now. Like Judith Shulevitz writes in her book, The Sabbath World, “At some point, we all look for a Sabbath, whether or not we call it that. At the core of the Sabbath lives an unassuageable longing.” Humans, made by a working and resting God, are made for working and resting. We don’t have infinite battery life. We need pause from the quotidian. We need retreat from the inner voices goading constant improvement. Some days—a day a week, a month a year—we need to defiantly be still and know that He is God.

 

The habit of resting, however, will not be a habit that anyone forces upon you. But that’s when you remember the tree. And the Jesus who hung from it. The seventh-day resting God issues an invitation to take up easier burdens than the ones you lay on your own back. Whoosh go the soybeans. Whoosh go the corn. And the world, hurtling through space, minds the Maker’s word. He is God. You are not. In him (not your January ambition), the world is holding together.

 

As I linger in the pause of one more week of rest (whatever that means), I remember that rest is afforded to me. Because rest is central to the good news.

 

He settles me down in green pastures.

He leads me beside waters of rest.

He restores my soul.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 principles of generosity for #GivingTuesday

jenmichel@me.com

grapes "I'm afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small."

  • C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity 

It's #GivingTuesday, which, if we're honest, seems a bit like a benevolent afterthought following Black Friday and Cyber Monday. But I suppose that's often what generosity looks like in a consumer culture: we give of our leftovers, not of our firstfruits. We give after we have satisfied our desires.  And seeing that marketing makes material desire the hunger that can't be sated, we give far too little, if anything at all. Most of us would admit that we don't give in the way the Bible talks about giving: with the qualities of eagerness and self-sacrifice and joy.

I've been thinking a lot about generosity over the last several months, not least because my pastor asked Ryan and me to lead one particular initiative of our church's recently launched capital campaign. In October, our church finalized the purchase of an historic church building in the heart of Toronto, and while the purchase was almost completely funded by the sale of the commercial building our church owned, we still have to raise capital for necessary renovations. Dan asked the two of us to attend the first meeting with the campaign consultant, and I went reluctantly. I was heading into my busiest fall yet, crammed with speaking engagements, a book manuscript deadline, and other additional writing projects—not to mention the everyday gig of wife and mother of five. And wasn't Ryan the finance guy? I was a writer who struggled to keep accurate revenue and expense records for my freelance work. Certainly there were others better suited for a capital campaign.

But that night, Doug Turner, the campaign consultant, framed the initiative as something much larger than raising money.

"Money is a discipleship issue," he said. "We talk about everything else regarding discipleship, but we don't talk about money."

That immediately got my attention. I absolutely wanted to be part of a discipleship initiative. As Doug made clear that night, there is absolutely no way to talk about following Jesus and avoid the issue of money.

Being a part of our church's capital campaign has sent me back to the Scriptures, looking to learn more about what it looks like to give in ways that reflect a life surrendered fully to Jesus—the ultimate Giver. And here are some principles I found in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 that I hope will be helpful for you—not just for #GivingTuesday, but ultimately, for developing a lifestyle of radical generosity.

  1. First, generosity is evidence of God's grace at work in us.

"We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia." 2 Cor. 8:1

Paul is talking about a group of believers, who have given radically. The Macedonians have gladly contributed to the funds Paul is collecting to relieve those suffering from famine in the church of Judea.

Yet the generosity of the Macedonians was not to be credited to their unusual altruism. They weren't more philanthropic than the average church. Their generosity was evidence that they were enjoying the grace of God, which is to say: they were growing more and more in the humility of realizing how little they deserved from God and yet how much they had been given. If they had been given so much, what could they not spare?

God's grace, if it's active in our lives, will make us generous, and a stingy Christian should wonder if he is a Christian at all.

  1. Generosity is powered by strange math.

"Their abundance of joy and extreme poverty [speaking here of the Macedonians] have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part." 2 Cor. 8:2

The Macedonians didn't give from surplus: they gave from lack. They trusted that God would supply what was needed for their generosity. And this is surely a generosity too few of us have known. We give when months are fat. We withhold when months are lean. But the Macedonians demonstrate that kingdom giving doesn't depend on the books.

If you want to give, pledge to do it, and watch God provide.

  1. God's grace makes generosity, not just a duty, but a delight.

"They begged us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints." 2 Cor. 8:4

No one needed to cajole the Macedonians to give a financial gift. They didn't need a slideshow set to music. They didn't need a pastor thundering from the pulpit. They treated the invitation to give as a privilege. They begged to open their wallets. They wanted to participate in whatever God was doing around the world. (It's interesting to note that their giving wasn't to their own church, but to another church far away.)

God's people want to give. Arm-twisting is not required.

  1. Generosity is worship.

"They gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us." 2 Cor. 8:5

To give your money is, in effect, to give yourself to the Lord. Every dollar, every donation: they give voice to your praise, to your thanksgiving, to your humbled awe at having been adopted by the richest Father into the wealthiest family. We give because God, through the giving of Jesus Christ, has given to us.

We worship, not simply with our songs and our service, but our surrendered treasures.

  1. Generosity will produce thanksgiving.

"For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God." 2 Cor. 9:12

Financial gifts can meet important needs: in our churches, in our cities, in the world. And that God would use us to meet needs is, in itself, an incredible grace. But, we should always remember that generosity in the kingdom of God isn't wholly pragmatic. It's not simply that the world has needs to be met and that God has need of our dollars. Our generosity is meant to inspire a liturgy of thanksgiving to God: a gift received is always an opportunity to give thanks to the great Giver.

Give, not to be thanked, but in order that God might be.

 

I am particularly excited about three initiatives to which our family has committed to giving, and by God's grace, giving generously:

Grace Toronto Church: The capital campaign is hosting its own website here, and if you're interested in seeing churches established worldwide, maybe you'd consider giving?

Safe Families Canada: This organization, committed to mobilizing Christians to help families in crisis, is just getting off the ground. Check out their ministry, and if you have a heart from children and families, consider a financial gift, which is critical to their ongoing work.

HOPE International: As you likely know, my older daughter and I traveled to Rwanda this summer, observing up close the microfinance initiatives HOPE sponsors to help the poor help themselves. I believe in what they're doing, and I'm particularly impressed by the ministry's leadership. Consider giving a gift today.

Whatever you give today, this year, and in your lifetime, may it always be a source of renewing joy in your own life and ongoing thanksgiving to your God, who gave his Son Jesus as a firstfruits offering (cf. 1 Cor. 15:23).

 

 

 

 

Reflections on a #real October

jenmichel@me.com

#thisisreal Today ends my #thisisreal October campaign, which author Christina Crook's post, "The Pictures are Pretty but the Struggle is Real" inspired. Truthfully, I haven't been posting much in the last several days, either on Facebook or Twitter, because I'm finding it hard to angle my lens and capture the really #real of life. 

How can a picture capture the immediate dread to which I wake many mornings, responsibilities rushing at me like a high-speed train? The more I write and speak (in my already domestically-full life), the more expectation weighs and the less capable I feel of carrying it. ("I rise before dawn and cry for help," Psalm 119:147.) What's #real is my life, on many days is self-doubt, anxiety, fears of failing and weariness.

Jen and twins

And how does a selfie say that I am not okay with the creases around my mouth and the bulge around my waist? A selfie is distinctly the thing I want to avoid, which is why it's always easier to hide behind my children. If I have never had to hate my body, at forty, I'm watching the pounds inch on. And it's not just my body that is changing as I age. My face is changing, too. Its asymmetry is getting more noticeable as everything is becoming more angular. My nose has always been big, but I'm not hating it any less now, at forty, than I did at fourteen when a friend's big brother used to mock, "Gonzo!" What's #real about my self-perception, on many days, is shame. Who will tell me how to do this gracefully—surrender my body to the inevitable sag of time?

And furthermore, what does a picture do but remove us from our bodies and the really #real? Perhaps it can glimpse at what is #real, but it can never capture the beauty, the boredom, and the banality of life. The digital can never replicate what it feels like to be inside one's body. What's #real is found around the table and in the marriage bed. What's #real is the wine and bread we drink and eat, proclaiming the Lord's death till he comes. What's #real is the weather, and even Christina's video of falling snow in Toronto in the middle of October (which I watched from a hotel room in San Diego) was, by its very nature, so #unreal. I want to live more embodied moments with my family and my local community (and my 700 Facebook friends don't count). To live them always means I will have to put my phone down.

And maybe this is what I learned most from a #real October: I need more practice at seeing the beautiful than in finding the broken. I am best at seeing the mess of life: give me a glass, and I can tell you the thousands of ways it is half empty. But how can I become the kind of person who finds the copper pennies strewn about the world, as Annie Dillard has put it? How can my angle of vision become more redemptive? What are the habits I can cultivate for becoming a grateful person who sees the glory of God enflame the world? That's what I'd like to be practicing.

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork, Psalm 19:1.

I want eyes for seeing that.

* * * * *

"It is still the first week in January and I've got great plans. I've been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But -- and this is the point -- who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded with the site of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued he won't stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get."

- Annie Dillard, The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

 

#thisisreal

jenmichel@me.com

For the next couple of months, I have a pretty demanding schedule with a variety of writing deadlines and speaking engagements. And though the calendar and to-do list look pretty harried, I have also been choosing to say a series of strong no's. The first no was pretty unsettling (I will be missing out! I won't be needed!), but it is getting easier to live into my limitations. (Um, a little.) One yes that I've said, however, is to lead a women's retreat in October on the subject of holy desire. I've been preparing, and I'm really excited about it. I recently had an email from the women's ministry director at this church, who wanted to share with me a short review they had done of Teach Us to Want for their women. After a brief introduction of the book's subject, the review continues, "Jen Michel shares her own journey with this kind of disappointment in a very relatable and candid way. (Read the first two paragraphs of p. 108). She doesn't hold back, does she?"

I, of course, couldn't remember what was on p. 108, so I pulled the book from my shelf and flipped to see. It is the story of my first and only miscarriage.

"I am pregnant. And I don't discover this until the immunizations [I'd received in advance of a missions' trip to Africa] have done the damage I am now powerless to undo. I suspect the pregnancy for a week. But if I don't take the test and fail to confirm the pregnancy, it cannot be true. Eventually this wildly ridiculous reasoning gives way. I buy a test. I take it. The line colors red.

It's the blood draining from my face."

If there is one consistent comment I hear from readers of Teach Us to Want, it is often gratitude for my honesty. But I'm going to confess that my honesty at the time of writing the book was pretty easy to come by: when you aren't even sure that anyone will be reading, you can afford to do a little public soul-dissection. And while the book hasn't hit the NYTimes Bestseller List (I know, right?), my readership has grown. It is NOT as easy now to take the scapel and cut a public incision, pinning back my skin for everyone to peer inside, especially when awards make you feel like a complete fraud.

A private book, thrust into public hands, is a fearful thing.

So I understand when my friend, Christina Crook, author of The Joy of Missing Out, says that her book launch made her feel tired, timid, pulled back, and even afraid. However, though she was struggling, her emotional thud wasn't audible to her readers - because she kept posting smiley-happy pictures on all of her social media feeds.

#thisisreal

Christina, another friend from Toronto, and I have recently committed to getting together regularly to share collegial, honest conversation about the private struggles of public art and faith. And from that conversation, Christina has written an incredibly brave blog post (which you should definitely read!) as well as launched a 31-day campaign she is calling #thisisreal.

I'd love for you to join her and me in for a more honest snapshot of life in the month of October. Here's the skinny.

 

  1. You don't have to be a writer with a blog (but if you are, feel free to use the above image to launch the campaign with your readers).
  2. You don't have to be a photographer - but you will need a camera.
  3. The challenge is: for the month of October, post pictures and captions of life as it really is: in its glory and in its muck. #thisisreal. This isn't about authenticity for authenticity's sake. It's about an invitation to be something other than the gussied-up versions of ourselves - because to be human is a beautiful thing.

I'll be mostly on Twitter so follow me there: @jenpmichel.

#thisisreal: It is about honesty, but it is also about compassion - because the pictures are pretty, but the struggle is real.

_DSC8308

My kids hated almost every moment of this photo shoot. Colin ended up crying halfway through, messing up his hair I had gelled. I promised them ice cream for behaving.

#thisisreal

 

 

 

 

 

Resources for the Devotional Life

jenmichel@me.com

meeting with GodOver the last three weeks, my friend, Wendy Stringer, and I have been teaching a class at our local church entitled, "Meeting with God." For that class, we compiled a resource list of helpful aids in establishing and maintaining a devotional life. I'm posting that list here (and including it as a document for download, if you will find it more helpful as a printable). This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it can be a good start!

If you have questions about what it looks like to have a daily time set aside to meet with God, feel free to ask them below in the comments. Maybe you struggle with consistency. Maybe you're in a rut right now and need a go-to for something fresh. Maybe you aren't convinced that daily prayer and Bible reading is an important spiritual discipline. We have had a great conversation over the last three weeks about what it a vibrant "quiet time" might look like, and I'm happy to share some of those thoughts with you if they pertain to your particular questions. Or, if you have a resource to share, please include the title in the comments!

RESOURCE LIST Meeting with God Grace Toronto Church

BIBLE READING PLANS

A Bible reading plan arranges daily Scripture readings in a variety of ways:

Chronological: https://www.blueletterbible.org/dailyreading/PDF/1Yr_ChronologicalPlan.pdf

One-year plans: http://oneyearbibleonline.com

Robert Murray M’Cheyne plan (OT, NT and Psalms twice in one year): http://www.mcheyne.info/calendar.pdf

Topical: https://www.bible.com (or YouVersion app)

CHILDREN’S BIBLES*

Helm, David. The Big Picture Story Bible. (Ages 2-6)

Lloyd-Jones, Sally. The Jesus Storybook Bible. (Ages 3-8)

Machowski, Marty. The Gospel Story Bible. (Ages 6-10).

Vos, Catherine. The Child’s Story Bible. (Ages 5-14).

*A good children’s Bible can be a great help in becoming familiar with the meta-narrative of the Bible!

BOOKS

Baillie, John. A Diary of Private Prayer.

This book offers morning and evening prayers, which focus on adoration and concern for individual and social good.

Bennet, Arthur (ed.). The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions.

This book is a compilation of Puritan prayers, and though the language is somewhat archaic, the theology is rich. Praying these prayers can be a great “warm-up” exercise for a daily time with God, the kind of warm-up that Martin Luther commended in his teaching. “I want your hear to be stirred and guided . . . rightly warmed and inclined toward prayer.”

Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that transform us.

This book is an extensive look at the variety of disciplines that can be practiced in our lives with God. Examples are: Sabbath, Rest, Teachability, Submission, Hospitality, Spiritual Friendship, Justice, Intercessory Prayer. Every practice is explained briefly, and readers are encouraged to answer reflection questions as well as attempt spiritual exercises.

Davis, Dale Ralph. Judges: Such a Great Salvation.

Davis tackles a difficult book with unflinching candour, humour and practicality. A scholar and pastor he exposits and writes so anyone can follow and grow. This commentary is one of 42 in the Focus on the Bible series in which Davis contributes widely.

Foster, Richard (ed.) Devotional Classics and Spiritual Classics.

Foster has provided reading selections from Christians across the centuries. Every reading is accompanied by a Bible reading, reflection questions and suggested exercises.

Hendricks, Howard and William. Living by the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible.

This book is practical, how-to guide for studying Scripture. It is methodical and systematic, and each chapter ends with a “You Try It’ section. These exercises can be helpful for people who want a “hands-on” approach. Also, Hendricks has many suggestions for ancillary resources, which can be used to deepen Bible study.

Keller, Timothy. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.

This book is a comprehensive look at prayer in its various dimensions (thanksgiving, praise, supplication, petition). It offers insights from Christians from a variety of traditions across the centuries. Because of its depth of exploration, it cannot be read quickly, but it will certainly be re-read and referenced by students of prayer.

Peterson, Eugene. A Long Obedience: Discipleship in an Instant Society.

In this book Peterson helps us to read and pray the Psalms of Ascent (124–130). While not explicitly Christ centred, it is a beautiful book, written for easy access and understanding of the Psalms, the time they were written, the God who inspired them and loves his people.

Peterson, Eugene. Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading.

If you are looking for a practical, “how-to” book, this isn’t it. But if you’re looking for something more theological, something which answers the “why” questions more than the “how” questions, this is great. Peterson unpacks Scripture’s purpose of forming us as God’s obedient, full-of-faith people.

Reinders, Philip F. Seeking God’s Face: Praying with the Bible through the Year.

This is a great daily prayer guide that follows the religious calendar: it includes passages of Scripture for meditation as well as prayer topics. Perfect for reading alone, with a friend, or even with small children.

Wilkin, Jen. Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with both our Hearts and our Minds.

This book is a practical, how-to guide for studying Scripture. It provides a 5-step method of Bible study, including instruction for people teaching Scripture and also suggesting additional resources for further reflection. Though Wilkin’s more “rational” approach to Scripture may unfairly bias readers against experiential/emotional reading, her God-centered methods are sound.

The Book of Psalms for Worship (published by Crown and Covenant)

Every Psalm set to music with four part harmonies written. While some of the tunes are older they are also familiar. The words are carefully paraphrased, not exact, but easy to memorize just by singing. The Story (published by Zondervan).

Arranged in 31 chapters, The Story allows the Bible to be read seamlessly and chronologically from beginning to end—like a novel. There is minimal editorial comment; the words of Scriptures speak for themselves.

AUDIO

There are many different audio versions of the bible to choose from: some with music, some without, all of the versions available in many languages. Perfect for listening to while driving, running, hiking or trying to drown out your kid’s noise.

The story of Jesus (NIV). (Recording copyright by Zondervan)

“The Story of Jesus is a compelling, easy-to-follow presentation that is rooted in the clear, accessible language of the NIV. Revealing and insightful, this is the Jesus story in a concise, single narrative.”

NIVUK by David Suchet. (Recording copyright by Biblica.inc)

This reading is simple and without music. David Suchet’s voice is easy on the ears and easy to follow. You can find more samples here:

https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/audio/?recording=nivuk-suchet

Jones, Sally-Jones. The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name.

“Hear The Jesus Storybook Bible in this brand new eBook + audio edition featuring word-for-word audio narration by David Suchet. The multiple award-winning Jesus Storybook Bible tells the Story beneath all the stories in the Bible. It takes the whole Bible to tell this Story. And at the center of the Story, there is a baby, the Child upon whom everything would depend. From Noah to Moses to King David, every story whispers his name.” Find it to download here:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/jesus-storybook-bible/id585490172?mt=11

Sons of Korah

This band sets and sings the Psalms with beautiful instrumentation. Most are written and sung verbatim. Great for memorizing whole Psalms. Find them here:

http://www.sonsofkorah.com

WEBSITES

The Park Forum (theparkforum.org) - The Park Forum provides a devotional reflection of 400 words or less for daily Bible readings. Readings are taken from the M’Cheyne Reading Plan, modified to cover two chapters of Scripture per day. In two years, readers will have read through the entire Bible.

Today in the Word (todayintheword.org) - Each monthly devotional explores either a book of the Bible or a theme in Scripture. The daily readings include a Scripture passage and brief (300 words) devotional thought for meditation.

Bible Gateway (biblegateway.com) - Bible Gateway is a great resource for comparing Bible passages in different translations. It is also a good resource for word searches (e.g. “peace,” “hope”) and topical searches. Additionally, Bible Gateway offers devotional resources (from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, Charles Spurgeon).

Bible Org: Where the World Comes to Study the Bible (https://bible.org)

Great for understanding the lives and context of the original hearers of the scriptures.

Blue Letter Bible (blueletterbible.org) - This website provides a lot of free Bible study aids: commentaries, articles, encyclopedias, dictionaries, topical indexes, maps, and devotional readings.

The Divine Hours (explorefaith.org): This is a resource for fixed-hour prayer. It presents biblically-based prayers to be prayed at the divine hours of every day: morning prayers (between 6-9am), midday prayers (between 11am-2pm) and evening prayers (between 5-8pm).

APPS

For the Love of God (D.A. Carson) - Following the M’Cheyne Bible-reading schedule, Dr. Carson, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, explores the Bible in the larger framework of history and God’s eternal plan. These devotional readings were originally published in a two-volume book set.

YouVersion - Many Bible reading plans (3 - 365 days) are available through YouVersion.

She Reads Truth - This is an online community of women who read the Bible together daily. “Our goal is simple - to read the Bible daily and find Christ in every page.”

PrayerMate: This is a free resource for organizing and reviewing prayer requests. It also allows users to integrate prayer requests from other organizations.

Prayer Notebook, Prayer Notes: These are similar to PrayerMate, although they are not free free. They do offer additional capabilities.

BIBLE STUDY RESOURCE TOOLS

Concordance: This reference tool provides an alphabetical index of the words used in Scripture. It is most helpful to have a concordance for the translation you most regularly use. Additionally, there are brief explanations of the Hebrew/Greek words and their meanings, along with where these words appear elsewhere in Scripture. *Double-check if the concordance provides a cross-reference with Strong’s, whose numbering system is used for Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary.

- The New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (KJV) - Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible (KJV) - ESV Comprehensive Concordance of the Bible (ESV) - Zondervan NIV Exhaustive Concordance

Bible dictionary: This contains the most important words of the Bible and highlights the different Greek/Hebrew words used for English words.

- Vine’s, An Expository Dictionary - The New Bible Dictionary

Bible handbooks: This is an encyclopedic resource. It provides cultural and historical context for Bible readers.

- Eerdman’s Companion to the Bible - The Handbook of Life in Bible Times

Atlas:

- The New Moody Atlas of the Bible - Zondervan Pictorial Bible Atlas

Commentary:

- New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition - Matthew Henry’s Commentary (Published in 1706 and available at biblegateway.com)

Study Bible:

- The Thompson Chain-Reference Study Bible

Meeting with God_resources

When Lent is over, will penitence persist?

jenmichel@me.com

At the entrance to the school, my friend's husband holds the door open for the twins. Colin and Andrew play London Bridge and slide under his arm. From my car window, I see the tremors of his right hand, watch his fingers open and close involuntarily. It's the Parkinson’s that puppeteers, a disease for which this forty-something is far too young. I follow him out of the parking lot, and we stop at the red light. I feel tremors of my own.

Moving to take off the glove from my right hand, I suddenly remember that I am fasting from this: fasting from filling all of life's inanimate seconds and empty spaces with virtual connection.

I think of his hand. The way it shakes. Without Facebook, with Twitter, without a quick scan of email, my restless mind settles into prayer.

"God, can you be with these friends in all of their tremulous uncertainties? God, can you grant them the stability of your grace? Can you be present to them in all of their fears?"

Yesterday, I asked God, "Does it do anything, Lord? Do these prayers every really help anyone?" I'd been feeling the impotence of my life and fearing the impotence of my prayers. Nevertheless, this one moment at the stoplight is real. I am present. In my body. Attentive to the close-at-hand brokenness, to the ever-closer Spirit.

The light changes, and as I turn east, the sun blazes a hello that fingers through the trees. I remember how yesterday's sky had hung dense and grey and thick like a shroud and feel gratitude for the change. I take too little notice of these things, I think. And remember Paul's hand.

I'm not used to seeing beyond the screen of my iPhone.

* * * * *

Divided heart 1 I wrote this journal entry during the first week of Lent after having decided to give up 24/7 connectivity and restrict myself to very limited Internet access (or rather, having the Lenten fast decided for me by the Spirit). I wrote more about my intention for her.meneutics in an essay entitled, "Patience is an Offline Virtue":

"For Lent, I decided to fast as remedy for distractibility. I wanted to practice real presence with God and with others, the kind that didn't suffer hurry or disinterest. If it felt urgent to recover unmediated centeredness, the truth is, when home went "dark," I panicked. All my technological tics surfaced. At stoplights, in the grocery checkout line, or halfway through a book chapter, I reached for my smartphone like an amputee trying to move a phantom limb. Without it, I suddenly discovered all the crevices in the day I filled with digital retreat. Without it, I was left to my boredom, to my self-doubt, to a thousand voices of inner restlessness."

As Lent draws to a close, I wanted to reflect on the impact this has had on me. It's probably best to say I haven't learned as much as I've experienced.

Without constant access to the Internet, I've lingered at the dinner table and listened better to my children. I've prayed at stoplights and woken up more slowly, thanking God for my husband's warm breath on my face. (I've slept later, too.) I've scooped kids into my lap, read more stories, and more patiently answered questions like, "Are sharks and dolphins on the same team?" I've read books, not blogs, and called friends rather than emailed. I've hosted dinner parties and cleaned out the crawlspace. I've noticed cashiers' nametags, drummed my fingers to music playing at the butcher, even left my phone at the piano teacher's house, not missing it until Ryan picked it up for me the following afternoon. I've spent undistracted hours in study and writing - and missed big announcements. (Teach Us to Want was nominated as a finalist for the EPCA book awards - woohoo!)

I've also missed texts and voicemails. (Sorry about that.)

But if this sounds too Pollyanna for you, let me also say that I've broken my fast three times - twice to download books at home, once to try and find Phyllis Schlafly on YouTube, giving her 1972 "American women have never had it so good" speech. (Huh?) I've wondered if practically disappearing from social media has insured I've been forgotten. I've discovered new strategies for postponing serious Bible reading in the morning. (What used to be The New York Times has now become whatever book I'm reading: this morning, Kathy Keller's short book, Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles.) The tics are still there: I still swipe to unlock my phone and hope for some activity that will insure my life is notable and noticed. I want to matter and wish for notifications, my heart still surging when there are, plummeting when there aren't.

Forty days is a boon, but it isn't a cure. I know I will continue to struggle to use my time (and technology) wisely. I know the disordered desires that drive me toward overuse and overinvestment aren't reformed yet. But here are some thoughts of what I might do differently as more permanent practices of penitence and presence.

1. Honor the sacred hours.

This is Christina Crook's phrase, and I love it. There is something sacred for me about the morning hours of every day. (When you're up at 5 am, there are more of them to enjoy.) Without having to obligatorily check email or social media or even the news, I've begun the day with so much less static in my head. I pray. I read. I plan the day (and then feet pitter-patter down the stairs). Priorities are so much clearer when the voices are fewer. What if I continued this and didn't allow myself to check in online until after breakfast and the kids were off to school? I've certainly learned the delay won't kill me. There are far fewer urgent tasks that I used to believe.

And what if I continued spending evening hours as I've been spending them: with a book; with my husband, reading aloud paragraphs from Dorothy Sayers, Are Women Human?; with my children, playing "Things" or cuddling on the couch, learning that my son composes lines of poetry in his head? What does the quick scroll through my favorite home decorating blogs ever really achieve after the sun has dipped below the horizon line and I entitle myself to the "break"? Is my life better for the constant stream of distraction? What do I lose from my embodied life when I choose presence in my virtual one?

2. Keep the Sabbath.

I'm wondering if a weekly Sabbath from 24/7 connectivity may be an important practice for me. I don't have to wait until next Lent to re-orient myself more fully to the presence of Christ and the presence of people. I can regularly disconnect from my technologies to practice presence. And what better day to do it than the day I've consecrated for worship?

3. Plan (and limit) my Internet use.

Because I've only checked in online outside my home, it usually means that when I do get to the library or Starbucks, I have a limited amount of time to do the most pressing tasks. I've had to make a list of the emails to send and the research to do in order to make the most of my online time. This is something Christina suggests in her book. She reminds readers that the Internet is a tool. It should serve us, not we it. So rather than losing my way (and wasting my time) in the stickiness of the web, which preys on distractibility, I can think ahead to what is really needed. (My compulsive self made a little spreadsheet with three columns: email/social media/research. The only irony was: without wifi, I couldn't print it.)

I've found a little planning tends to allow the non-essentials to fall off the list. Just this morning, I started thinking of an email that I wanted to send to my editor. By the time I'd dropped the kids off from school, I realized I wasn't ready yet to propose the idea I had for her. I needed a few more weeks to consider it, and in fact, I'd likely be seeing her in person by then. If the idea persisted, I'd propose it then. If I realized it was a hair-brained scheme, I'd abandon it. Either way, we'd have a face-to-face conversation, which is always a better solution than a sterile email thread.

I have fears that I won't make these permanent changes. As John Owen, the Puritan writer has attested, we are fickle and frail in our fight against sin. “Men are galled with the guilt of a sin that has prevailed over them; they instantly promise to themselves and God that they will do so no more; they watch over themselves and pray for a season until this heat waxes cold and the sense of sin is worn off—and so mortifying goes also, and sin returns to its former dominion,” (Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, 60). But I am praying for the lasting transformation only God can effect in my heart: I want commitment to God's purposes more than I want convenience. I want my life to be mediated by communion with the Holy Spirit, not my iPhone. I want to recover a sense of my own humanness, I want to grow into greater humility, and I want to wear the mantle of ministry well. As Phil Ryken, President of Wheaton College, noted in my interview with him, ministry is about prayer and presence. These are burdens even as they are blessings. I carry them less faithfully when I'm tethered to technology. I carry them better when I'm not.

We are never as faithful as we intend to be. I know this. But I also know the Father finishes every good work he begins in and through Christ (Phil. 1:6).

Denial for Desire's Sake: Why Lent?

jenmichel@me.com

computerLent begins tomorrow. I'll be meeting it in anticipation.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about my fraudulence and quoted Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's book, The Wisdom of Stability: "Maybe demons kill, but we're often more comfortable with the frenetic forces that drive us here and there than we are with the radical new way of life that Jesus brings," (38, The Wisdom of Stability). I didn't get specific in that post with my confession, as the larger point was this: we must be ruthless when dealing with sin.

Today, I can tell you that I'm entering a Lenten fast to curb my access to the Internet. Let me say that I don't believe the World Wide Web is some devilish conspiracy. And I don't believe that living like a Luddite is a more holy and perfect way. But I do know that hurry, preoccupation, distractibility, desire for approval, and disengagement are becoming too reflexive for me.

Every reach for my iPhone is like a tic.

It's time for me to be more ruthless about my habits of virtual connection to create more space for people, for prayer, for boredom even. It's time for me to practice the ruthlessness of which Jesus speaks when he says: if your hand causes you to sin, cut if off. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It does you no good to cling to your death.

The irony of course is this: to kill death is to gain life.

Lent is the season we enter into small deaths of denial. Having now written years on the subject of desire, I am the first to caution when the language of denial is abused. Obedience isn't only doing the undesirable. Holy people don't exempt themselves from pleasure and fun because desire is sinful.

No, when we deny ourselves, it's in order that we may desire Christ. Denial is never in and of itself the point. For that matter, desire is never in and of itself the point. The point is always and eternally Jesus - and learning to live the abiding, satisfied life in him.

Would anyone come after me? Jesus has asked. Does anyone wish to follow?

"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Mark 9:34

The denials, the small deaths - a Lenten fast: these curb our appetite for the lesser goods upon which we feed that we might grow fonder and more faithful to the greater good, which is God himself.

"Who will enable me to find rest in you?" Augustine asks in The Confessions. "Who will grant that you come to my heart and intoxicate it, so that I forget my evils and embrace my one and only good, yourself?"

I think there is great worth, especially during Lent, to deny oneself in order to desire Christ. I've been honest that I haven't done this in years, so I certainly can't commend it to you by the steadfastness of my own example.

But whatever you might choose do this Lent as an intentional spiritual practice, may forty days form new habits - and new habits, new loves.

"How great a glory it is to cleave to God, so as to live for him, to gain wisdom from him, to rejoice in him, and to enjoy so great a Good without death, without distraction, without hindrance - this is beyond our power to imagine or describe." Augustine, City of God

- - -

If you're interested in examining your own relationship to technology, I would highly recommend you read my friend, Christina Crook's new book, The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World. It is extremely well-researched as well as easily applicable. Christina doesn't recommend we all get off the grid. Instead, she argues for habits of virtually "missing out" so that we can practice presence in our everyday lives. Here's a great quote, which resonates with my life as a mother. “The longer I navigate the demands of the Internet, the more grateful I am for my children. They save me every day. At each juncture, their very tangible needs crash against my frailty, and I must reach out to meet them. Without the demands of these little people I would easily slip into spending days the way I spend my nights: glued to the screen. Netflix is my gateway to relaxation, Facebook my voyeuristic portal of delight. Left to my own devices, I’d drain the currency of my life down Alice’s rabbit hole. Instead, I am forced into the present. . .

Proclaim a Fast

jenmichel@me.com

It's been years since I gave anything up for Lent. And here are the pretty little lies I tell myself about this:

- I'm a disciplined person. Fasting is a spiritual practice for those who don't live as moderately as I.

- There's nothing really to be gained by giving up something for forty days. In fact, there might be unnecessary zeal in trying.

- I have nothing to give up: no vices, no crippling neuroses, no secret addictions.

I am beginning to recognize the depth of that fraudulence. I'm also realizing that I, more than anyone, am in desperate need of a Lenten fast.

If the habits of regular Bible reading and prayer in my life are part of what keeps me spiritually grounded, the danger in that daily routine is for how self-reliant it can become. The alarm sounds, I get up, I make coffee, I open the Scriptures. It serves to construct this dangerous illusion that I'm piloting this whole thing. So long as my "quiet time" yields the impression that God has spoken to me, so long as I sustain clarity for my questions, so long as I feel sent into the world to do something purposeful, life hums pleasantly. I feel connected with God.

But spiritual routines, like every autopilot, can unexpectedly fail. You can be left wondering what you have done or failed to do to make God mute.

There is nothing to do in that moment (which can lengthen to days, to weeks, and for some, to years) but to wait and to listen.

In fact, I think listening might be the most patient of all the spiritual disciplines. (And here's a book I'm really looking forward to: The Listening Life by Adam McHugh.)

Listening feels a lot like getting lost in the woods and trying to regain bearings. Living in a big city, I wouldn't really know anything about this (and it's dangerous to ever write about something of which you're completely ignorant), but I'm imagining that if I were ever lost in the woods, I'd have to slow down. Hunt for something recognizable. Listen to the sounds orienting me to direction.

Listening can feel like lostness. You have to prevail upon your senses. You have to be patient.

So that's a bit of where I've been recently: lost and listening. Lost in a book manuscript, trying to make sense of where it's supposed to be headed. And lost in a bit of deafening silence from God.

The good news is, I've found a clearing. The listening has led somewhere spacious. The book has a new direction. And so do I.

I'm headed toward a Lenten fast.

Yesterday, I was reading Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's fantastic book, The Wisdom of Stability, and here was a tiny little paragraph that unraveled the fraudulence I was telling you about. Wilson-Hartgrove is talking about the story of Legion, a man from whom Jesus casts countless demons. The demons flee to a herd of pigs, who rush over a cliff and drown in a lake. The man, once as wild as a beast, is now composed and calm:

"The sight of this man seated at Jesus' feet puts fear in the people of the town. We are, after all, accustomed to our demons. Despite our frustration and occasional acts of resistance, we accommodate ourselves to the ways they limit our own lives and crush the lives of others. However terrible our demons may appear when we look them in the face, their presence along the periphery of our lives feels normal. Maybe the demons kill, but we're often more comfortable with the frenetic forces that drive us here and there than we are with the radical new way of life that Jesus brings" (38, The Wisdom of Stability).

The frenetic forces that drive us here and there: ah, yes.

Those demons. Those vices, those neuroses, those addictions. I'm starting to recognize something familiar in myself.

When I have the chance, I'll write more about the specifics of my demons, which are really tied up in my use of technology. But I think this post is less about my vice and more about the necessity of resistance and ruthlessness in our spiritual lives.

What sin do we tolerate? What pretty little lies do we tell ourselves? And how much listening will we "suffer" until the fraudulence is exposed?

There is a radical new way of life that Jesus brings. It's wholeness in every sense of the word. It's shalom.

And for all that's attractive about this with-God, abundant life, it's also true that life as we've often known it - life driven by the frenetic forces - has a certain consolation to it. Familiarity makes sin safe. It can be incredibly hard to make a change, no matter how necessary that change may begin to seem to us.

Frequently, I fail the courage for that change. But I believe the Lord grants willingness to the willing. Grace.

This Lent, by grace and grace alone, I will step into the risk of resistance.

Grace is the first and final word in our lives of faith. But it doesn't exclude our participation, our involvement, our willingness. So this Lenten season, may grace stir in each of us willingness. May willingness give birth to resistance. May resistance become repentance, repentance become obedience.

Let's proclaim a fast.

And may we all be led into the everlasting light of shalom.

Doing the One Thing that Matters

jenmichel@me.com

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

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

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

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

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

Essentialism-300x210

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

It takes courage to live into your limitations.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tribute to My Mother: Essay at Today's Christian Woman

jenmichel@me.com

IMG_9302 "Clumps of hair fell to the floor. I was razoring my mother's head, making her bald and vulnerable. This was not an act I had prepared for, but neither was cancer, and we met my mother's diagnosis six years ago with as much equanimity as possible. I took the phone call—the news—from the couch, one week before I delivered my twins, conspicuously lacking energy for tears and rage. In her year-long treatment to follow—chemotherapy, surgery—there is little I remember. When I comb through memory and look for the file marked "Cancer," the only one I find and retrieve is "Children."

We were separated by two states at the time, my mother and I, and I couldn't—didn't—care for her. The babies, the distance—they removed me from the everyday of her suffering and what should have been my diligent concern and phone calls. Between treatments, she visited us and rallied. She held the babies and it felt like business as usual. She also took naps in the afternoon, and that signaled change."

Read the rest of my essay, "Learning (and Relearning) to Forgive My Mother at Today's Christian Woman.

Our Lenten Invitation: To Want

Ben Goshow

Here we are: Lent. This is our season of giving up, of moving deeper into self-sacrifice. But I can’t say that I honestly have much practice with Lent. Growing up Southern Baptist, we did not keep to any real sense of sacred time. Advent, Epiphany, Lent: these were Catholic words and cause for suspicion. (You know. First, you’re giving up chocolate for Lent. Then you’re praying to Mary.) Although I no longer share the wariness I had as a young girl (and I trust that my Catholic friends know I love and respect them profoundly), still, I’m no expert on Lent. Even today, I find myself asking. What will I give up? Even this — must I?

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Love the Church. Because Jesus does.

Ben Goshow

Donald Miller, popular Christian author (Blue Like Jazz) and blogger has recently acknowledged he doesn’t go to church. (Check out his post here if you haven’t read it.)

I’ve read neither of Donald Miller’s blog posts – not the confession of truancy and not the follow-up to the backlash. I know of them from two sources: Twitter (whose feed, on good days without traffic lights, I blissfully ignore) and Facebook (because I belong to several writers’ groups, and we talk about these things).

I am obviously NOT the one to specifically address what Donald Miller has and has not said, but if you’re curious, here is a good critical piece in response: Donald Miller and the Culture of Contemporary Worship by Mike Cosper. (Anyone who cites James K.A. Smith and his book, Desiring the Kingdom, is ok in my book.)

I cannot speak directly to the Donald Miller brouhaha, nor do I want to. In fact, I think Donald Miller is a great writer, and I'm thankful for his voice. But I do want to say this.

You need the church. I need the church. And she is beautiful.

End of story.

But let me also say that I understand how our experience of church can be incredibly hard. Though I have not been among the most seriously wounded by the church (and mourn deeply for those who, at the hands of their pastors and fellow Christians, have suffered egregious sins), I, too, know the difficulty of church.

Years ago, there was, I believe, a sin committed against me and Ryan by the leadership of our church. I wish it were the kind of sin that love could have easily and quickly covered – but it wasn’t. There is no point to the details now. In fact, though it wasn’t immediately forgiven and is still not forgotten (I don’t always think forgiveness has to work like that), it has, by God’s persistent and redeeming grace, healed.

And it healed because of the church. What happened years ago in the leadership of another church has been restored by the leadership of our current church. And I marvel at this: that all those wounds, all the self-doubt that scarred over years ago, they are healing because of the church.

Wounded by the church. And restored by her. This is the reality of Church today, in a world that is suspended in waiting – waiting till Jesus returns and “presents the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish,” (Eph. 5:27). Church is messy and impossibly human, but I love her and believe that we cannot understand ourselves apart from the Church.

Which is why Donald Miller has it wrong.

We need the Church.

It is a great sin that bloggers commit against their readers when they pretend that they can do what only the Church can. And we are implicated in their sin by attempting to nourish our spiritual lives through blogs and podcasts while week after week, we avoid the local gathering of God’s people.

You need the church more than you need Donald Miller or Rachel Held Evans or fill-in-the-blank blogger/author/online pastor whose podcasts you adore.

And you need the church for more than the electricity you feel when the worship sets are good and the pastor preaches well.

You need it for so many reasons I couldn’t begin to explain here. (But how about just one?)

You need it to learn to love God – because your love for God will be proven most real (or most tenuous) as you interact with his people.

“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen,” (1 John 4:20).

I don’t know about you but I love God so well when the children are off to school, the house is quiet, and I’m writing words like these. Ooooo, the good feelings and the certainty that I’m in the spiritual groove.

But then it’s Sunday morning, and an important children’s ministry volunteer has arrived late (despite numerous reminders). Because of her terribly insensitive actions (which I rehearse indignantly in my mind), the Sunday morning program runs askew, and instead of attending the service (which I’ve missed the previous five weeks), I’m putting out fires behind the scenes.

For the past six months, since I took the position of Director of Children’s Ministry at my church, I’m often not in church in the most traditional sense. It’s not likely a position I’ll do long-term for any number of reasons. But I can say this: it’s been a great way, for me, to put my money where my mouth is.

Love the Church. Because Jesus does.

* * * * *

“It is true, of course, that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When you're too busy: Richard Foster's "Freedom of Simplicity"

Ben Goshow

I am so tired of chirping about my busyness. We all do this, accepting the perpetual drain of our energy and the greed of the calendar as the implacable reality of modern life. We are busy, and there is nothing to be done about it, no matter our will for it to be otherwise. I am reminded that busyness is a particular malady of the city. I can’t help but feel that the most recent years, the years we’ve been in Toronto, have been unusually frantic. Whether this is technology constantly increasing the speed at which we live or whether it’s the reigning ethos of all cities, I only know that life grows more and more crowded and that somehow, I feel less human in the clamor and compunction.

Even this – this writing to which I set my intention more than two years ago now (yes, remember when you woke up to a new blog post every day?) is difficult to do. There are writers groups’ in which I now participate. These new writer friends write wonderful essays, which I now feel a certain obligation to read and reflect upon. The book I’ve written is to be marketed, and a week has been swallowed in the administrative details of asking people to read and review it, scratching down their addresses, completing the marketing questionnaire whose questions I meet with a troubling perplexity: “What is the central these of your book?” I find myself busied by the periphery of the writing life – and writing less than I want.

I had wondered at the beginning of this year what should be my writing goals. There was an internal goading – set goals! – and the fear that without them, I would be adrift. But I could never commit to anything. When could I get that new book proposal finished? How many articles could I reasonably finish a month? What books did I want to read this year? How was I actually going to get better at this craft?

But I’m back to the page this morning, having no more answers than I did at the new year’s arrival. I don’t know from day to day what a “realistic” and “reasonable” writing life actually looks like. I only know that my actual life – the one I live away from my desk – requires my flexibility and presence. Not to mention I’m up to my elbows in laundry.

How do we find coherence in all the disparate parts of our lives – our various selves and our competing obligations? This is a question that Richard Foster tackles in a beautiful chapter in his book, Freedom of Simplicity. He describes a particularly fragmented season of his own life where he was busied with good—and alienated from God.

Freedom of Simplicity

He had been reading from Thomas Kelly’s, Testament of Devotion. “We feel honestly the pull of many obligations and try to fulfill them all. And we are unhappy, uneasy, strained, oppressed, and fearful we shall be shallow.” “Yes,” writes Richard Foster, “I had to confess that I was in all those words.”

Kelly again: “We have hints that there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power. If only we could slip over into that Center! [And] we have seen and know some people who seem to have found this deep Center of living, where the fretful calls of life are integrated, where No as well as Yes can be said with confidence.”

“Quietly,” Foster concludes,” I asked God to give me the ability to say No when it was right and good. . . I was deeply committed (to God), but I was not integrated or unified.

Yes. This is exactly the state in which I usually find myself. Splintered between many goods, all for which I feel some degree of responsibility, and inwardly anxious about their demands. This is not peace. But what to do about it?

Which may be the most fearful question of our lives: what do we do about the sins we recognize in ourselves as the oldest and most chronic, the sins by which we’ve actually built our lives and made it, in some way, habitable? The sins, were we to be most honest, that we cherish? What to do about those sins that are now us?

I’ve written a book about desire, so of course, I want to affirm that repentance begins with desire. Do I really want to be done with this? Do I really want to walk in newness of life? Or is my sin consoling for its familiarity? Am I afraid of the disorientation of giving it up?

Yes, desire is a necessary and important beginning. But Richard Foster also writes this:

“The inner integration I have described in the longing of many. We weary of competing commitments and exhausting schedules. We desire to be obedient to God in all things, and have a growing knowledge that this frantic scramble is not his will. We yearn to enter the deep silences that give unity and force to our service.

Desire, however, is not enough. If we expect to enter the inward simplicity for which we were created, we will need to order our lives in specific ways. The things we do will not give us simplicity of heart, but they will put us in the place where we can receive it.

I think he’s talking about intention, commitment, courage, habit, discipline, and practice. Repentance will not only produce renewed and holy desire. It will not only produce a change of heart. It will catalyze obedience.

What is this obedience for me? I’m not yet sure about this, but Foster has an interesting exercise for those of us who feel busied to near-death. I’ll admit, I do NOT want to do it.

Keep record of your activities for a month, rank what you’ve done according to the following (1. Absolutely essential 2. Important by not essential 3. Helpful but not necessary 4. Trivial), and “ruthlessly eliminate all of the last two categories and 20% of the first two.”

“We are too busy only because we want to be too busy.”

Maybe this is word for all of us feeling hurried and hustled by life, driven away from the Center who is Christ.

 

 

 

 

I got a job

Ben Goshow

This is my big news. I'm officially employed (15 hours/week). This does NOT change my intention to write. In fact, I'm hoping the work I do enhances what I write.

I find there is a delicate balance to the writing life. On the one hand, you can let life get so surly that it forces you to relinquish the discipline of quiet so critical to the writing life. You become too busy to attend to the deeper questions and curiosities that (well, at least for me) drive these words. On the other hand, you get become so isolated in search of quiet that you have little to nothing to say. You wax eloquent about real world problems when the only real world you experience is the view from your desk into your backyard. (Annie Dillard once explained that writers write so often about their childhood because it's the only "real" experience they can remember having.)

I suppose I didn't need a job to keep my life from getting too isolated. And true, there is little fear that I have too much quiet in my life, at least not now, not with summer days and a house full of children who's newest game is running through the house, using the intercom system on our cordless phones to play a version of hide-and-seek where the ultimate goal is to keep hidden from the five-year-olds.

And still, I need my writing life to find a backbone of praxis, or practice, which can give these words meaning. God forbid I dole out advice that I myself refuse to follow. God forbid I become the noisy gong or clanging cymbal of the blogosphere that has fallen in love with the sound of her voice and forgotten the real reason we ever speak at all. God forbid I write and forget to love.

If I want to continue writing (and I do), I've decided I need life in its most robust sense: people and their problems, a network of relational obligations, a team to which I contribute. If I want to write (and I do), I have to connect myself profoundly with Christ's body, resisting every virulent strain of self-sufficiency and self-reliance. If I want to write (and I do), I need to fight the lurking arrogance of needing no one.

I can't write alone.

I need the church.

And so it is that I've joined the staff at my church as Children's Ministry Director: the circumstances were providential. If there's time this week, I'll detail them more specifically. But let me simply say taking this job feels beautiful and prophetic and reassures me that I learned something as I wrote my book, Teach Us to Want. I've argued there that praying the Lord's Prayer forms in us holy desire for God and his kingdom. I've written that book - and found that I've grown more deeply into my love for Christ and His church. Thank you, Father. That will have been worth it.

I'll except from the manuscript in closing today.

"To live in and for kingdom is an grace-inspired effort to recycle the blessings of God, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10, 11). Living for the kingdom can be as simple as the willingness to extend a cup of cold water to whomever God wills, and the gospel can be reenacted in our small acts of love .

 The kingdom test—is what I want good?—centers less on the content of what we do. Each of us can live kingdom lives as plumbers and preachers, mothers and writers. A more helpful criterion may be intention: whose name? whose glory? Kingdom is for Jesus, to Jesus, in Jesus, and with Jesus. It’s the way out of Babylon.

And even though each of us has a role to play in the advancement of Christ’s kingdom, it does not ever fully depend on us - thank God. “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:26-29). The kingdom is established by God’s work, not ours. We’re just invited to play.

And playing—and praying for the kingdom to come—we learn to want it when it arrives."

The Act of Becoming Small

jenmichel@me.com

I am cramped in an airplane, sandwiched between my husband and a man whose language is not my own. He (the stranger) resists when I instinctively grab for his lunch tray to pass it to the flight attendant after he’s finished eating. I don’t know why my gesture of helpfulness is rebuffed. Today, we are leaving behind Lisbon: its whitewashed houses with their clay-tiled roofs, its stunning sun-lit landscapes, its friendly people and their melodic, lilting language. We’ve traveled for work, not play, and although I do not mean to solicit sympathy (one friend emails, “work trip. feh.”), I am keen to insist on the quality of our time away, which was crowded with strangers, group excursions, late-night business dinners, and midnight phone calls to the children. The Bible reading plan I’d copied ambitiously in my journal was abandoned early on. Mornings seemed to come too quickly to begin them with prayer.

I am feeling bad about this today – apologetic even, although I can’t be sure if I’m sorry is the same thing as a confession. It feels like a pathetic way to make up for having neglected God, an adolescent gesture that is probably more motivated by my own desire to ingratiate myself once again, especially now that I have a book to write. These amends somehow seem more necessary with a deadline looming.

Feeling sorely out of practice, I begin again. Praying. After only a week, it’s as if I’ve lost the skill of it. (Skill. That, too, belies what I think of prayer. As if any human can be skilled in conversation with the Holy.) But for all that feels unnatural, even shameful about attempting to pick up where we left off, I begin again. My confidence grows: even praying badly might be welcome with God.

Maybe we should all take turns at praying badly. Maybe then we’d finally shake free of our proud pretensions of being good or doing good. Maybe we’d begin remembering that the only prayer that works, the only “good” prayer is the prayer that makes us small, the kind of prayer that re-proportions that world.

I’m sorry, best said on the knees, is a diminutive act.

Suddenly, you are as small as you need to be.

 

 

And another thing . . .

jenmichel@me.com

Yesterday, I wrote about my wrestle with the self and the smartphone. (Read When Your Right Hand Causes You to Sin: Part I and Part II). However, I think writing about my abuse of technology will probably parallel the experience of writing about the importance of exercise - and then not exercising for 6 weeks. My words, even my CONFESSIONS, expose my own hypocrisies.

Or maybe, if I were to be more generous, it's less about my deliberate hypocrisy and more about my humanity. I never write anything I don't mean. The real trouble I have is living into the words that I mean.

I am on a journey - just like you - and often this blog is the place where I come to learn. I hope you'll grant me that grace, to not have it all figured out, to trip on my own two left feet?

This is all preamble to why I'm really here: I wanted to add an addendum to yesterday's post about technology It's just a quote from Anne Morrow Lindbergh's book Gift from the Sea (which is a fantastic read!):

"For life today in America is based on the premise of every-widening circles of contact and communication. (And this in 1955!) . . . This is not the life of simplicity but the life of multiplicity that the wise men warn us of. It leads not to unification but fragmentation. It does not bring grace; it destroys the soul. . . .

How desirable and how distant is the ideal of the contemplative, artist or saint - the inner inviolable core, the single eye."

Distraction isn't a contemporary condition: I guess it's been around a long time. We have long been at this work of learning to silence the noise and attend the voice of God. And it is no easy task, but I believe it is the way we create room to pray, to praise, to work and live in the rhythm of love.

 

When Your Right Hand Causes You to Sin: Part II

jenmichel@me.com

You haven't expected to hear from me? It's true. I'm in the process of writing a book. And have I mentioned that the editor has asked for a first draft by August 1? This would only seem overwhelming if you've given a thorough look at the calendar. I've only gone so far as to count the weeks that remain until the end of the school year.

Eleven.

I take this to mean that if ever I have needed habits of personal discipline, the moment is now. And I want to share with you how I'm learning to steward my resources of time and energy, even love, as I work to meet this deadline.

Several weeks back, I wrote a post called, "When your right hand causes you to sin." I regret if I left you all imagining that I was on the brink of some moral crisis or poised for some terrible scandal. I didn't mean to worry you, and there's no abnormal reason to fear. All the biggies are intact (marriage, kids, my personal spiritual life.)

What I was really referring to in that post were my habits with technology. I was finding myself increasingly distracted and edgy. I was growing obsessively convinced that I should be paying attention to something - and this something was usually my twitter feed and not my children. I was facing the contemporary glut of information and the invitation to participate (read! comment! have an opinion!), and it resulted in a clutching panic.

It's true that I am inclined toward anxiety. I feel it almost normal when my chest tightens as life grabs hold. I life with worry - although I can't ever say that I really know why. My fears are the kind that lurk in the shadows - indiscriminate, without shape or form. I know that technology isn't my problem, per se, but it sure was feeding it.

I also recognized, in my self-tethering to technology, a growing cynicism. Petty jealousies grew up as I began assuming a reflexive incrimination of the motives of others (writers, usually). The articles I read, I begrudged, feeling competitive, feeling ugly, never ever wishing anyone a success beyond my own. Twitter, Facebook, blog reading: they were making a hater out of me.

When your right hand causes you to sin.

I like to be good at the things I do. And it just so happens that the thing I do now is write and write publicly. So I am facing this about myself, learning as I go and admitting along the way what I don't yet know and who I have not yet become.

So I made this confession, first to friends and now to you. I don't think I'm afraid of confession. I actually embrace it. I think confession is the way to beckon grace into your life, the way to really start living into the Jesus way. It's unnerving, yes, to stand in the lingering realities of your brokenness. But it's also the best place for seeing Jesus.

I also think that confession has a way of moving you into change. Start admitting what's going wrong - how you're going wrong - and begin the work (a work initiated and sustained by God) of repairing it.

In my wrestle with the smartphone then, I decided I first needed to listen again to a series of lectures that have been really influential in my life, especially in considering what is the best use of technology in an embodied life. Read Mercer Schuchardt, Associate Professor of Communication at Wheaton College, has a Ph.D. in Media Ecology. He studies the historical and present effects of technology on our lives, and he approaches it with a theological commitment to the incarnation: the belief that our lives should be embodied in our place and in present relationships.

If God came and pitched his tent among us, maybe that actually means something about the importance of being present in space and time.

I found some really helpful content in the lectures and was talking about them with a friend who has been asked to write a book on this subject (I hope she does!). I promised her a copy. Then I thought to post them here, thinking they could also be of help to others. And now I've written this entire post only to realize that the files are too big to upload.

But here's a consolation prize, though: go to Dr. Schuchardt's profile at Wheaton's site. You can listen to one of his chapel addresses as well as click on some links to interviews with him. I think he has a wise critique of technology that reminds us of the Faustian bargain we make every time we use it. We need to discern whether what we gain is greater than what we give up.

When your right hand causes you to sin.

I've officially deleted facebook and twitter off my phone, and I've moved my mail button to the very last screen. These are my small steps of change, my small reconciliation to the redemptive project Jesus is doing in my life. I am called to be a writer, and this is first and foremost about cultivating my attentiveness for God and His Word. If there are things that do not contribute to me living into this calling, then it is best amputated.

I hope this for you, too: when your right hand causes you to sin, that you'll cut it off.

 

 

 

I Pledge Allegiance to the Local Church

jenmichel@me.com

This was my original title for my recent piece at Christianity Today's blog for women. I think it captures something that is tremendously important for me: the church. Church, little c. Church in the neighborhood or city in which you live. The local church: yes, the one with all its baggage and beggars. Because the local church, even insofar as it is beautiful, is also a very complicated mess. As messy, I suppose, as real people are. The tension of the church is the very same tension of our loves: the hope of what will be and the stubborn realities of the not yet.

I have been deeply wounded in the church. Yes, there. It isn't as if I see the church with some kind of Pollyanna perspective that nothing goes wrong in the church.

A lot goes wrong. The wheels fall off our good intentions, and people are hurt as a result.

This is true. And - still.

Still!

The church. I can't help but loving her, can't help falling for the beautiful idea that Jesus has embodied Himself here, in us.

The church. I can't do without her, can't find my place apart from the church.

The church. I think what I'm saying is that I believe I belong here and find my calling in and through the church.

The church. That's the destination of my writing and words.

Allegiance to Christ through the church.

So read the piece that I recently wrote and read the comments.

And fall in love today with the church.

 

If you fail to pray, can you write a book about prayer?

jenmichel@me.com

I have finally admitted to myself that I am writing a book on prayer. Though the questions that I have center on the subject of desire - what, if anything, can we really want from God? -the book answers that question by exploring the language of the Lord’s Prayer.Prayer, although not exclusively the act of petition, is supposed to include presenting our requests to God. But were I to venture a guess, we feel a bit guilty when we do. I should be more thankful, more content. We think that the holiest prayers ask the least. We think that the holiest pray-ers were the people who could self-forget, focusing instead on the majesty and glory of God. We think we are meant to discover the perfect beauty and bounty of God, and this would then teach us to need nothing – and want nothing. The only trouble is, that’s absolutely NOT what the Scriptures teach. Yes, we are guilty of infinitely more self-absorption than we know. The Bible is pretty clear on that. And yes, we should be pretty darn realistic when it comes to attending to the self-interested motives and intentions behind our prayers. And yes, prayer is intended to confront us with God’s perfection. But our sobered self-appraisal does not warrant that we give up on the real business of praying, which, as I stubbornly defend, gives us, not only access to the very throne of God, but permission to ask. No man or woman is really worthy of this privilege of petition. Only Jesus. C.S. Lewis, in his book, Mere Christianity, reflects on the opening address of the Lord’s Prayer [Our Father, who art in heaven}: “Do you now see what those words say? They mean quite frankly, that you are putting yourself in the place of a son of God. To put it bluntly, you are dressing up as Christ.” And this is our awesome, undeserved invitation to pray ⎯ and to want. I do not feel qualified to write a book about prayer. My prayer life isn’t one I would uphold as a model of holy petition. I, like you, struggle to pray consistently. I, like you, fail to ask God specifically. I don’t acknowledge often enough the profound gratitude to God that I should feel (and don’t). I don’t approach prayer as an exercise of worship. I pray when I’m in a scrape or a bind. I pray when I see no other solution. I pray when I’m feeling miserable and need a pick-me-up. I pray most fervently when there’s something in it for me. But what is probably most true of my life is that I pray too little. Paul Miller says in his book, A Praying Life, “If you are not praying then you are quietly confident that time, money, talent are all you need in life. You’ll always be a little too tired, a little too busy. But if, like Jesus, you realize you can’t do life on your own, then no matter how tired you are, you will find the time to pray.” I am writing a book on prayer. Me, little old prayer failure, me. And I simply have to remind myself of the purposes for which I write: I write to teach. And sometimes that means teaching me and only me. A sermon to the self: that’s what this whole discipline of writing has become.