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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Category: The Writing Life

How I Titled Keeping Place

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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.

Where I'm From

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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.

Thank you, readers.

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conversation Thank you, readers, for your engagement with last week’s Christianity Today piece about the dangers I see in the self-fulfillment “gospel.” As Charles Taylor describes in A Secular Age, this modern “gospel” preaches human flourishing as life’s ultimate and final goal. The thesis of that article—that this gospel is a dangerous detour from that cross-bearing to which Christ and his followers have been called—was tied to the most recent public announcements from Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery of her divorce and her new dating relationship.

I have people legitimately asking: why are you writing about someone’s private life? Isn’t this the kind of self-righteous finger-pointing that gives Christians a bad name? Didn’t Jesus forgive rather than condemn? And haven’t you uncharitably mischaracterized Glennon’s larger body of work and the testimony of her life?

I am incredibly grateful, not just for your support but for your pushback. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, it is generally my decision to let every article that I write stand for itself. That decision is as pragmatic as it is philosophical. (People still want dinner around here.) Moreover, pre-Internet, this is generally what every writer did (excepting corrections in future publications, responses to letters to the editor, or public speaking events). Now, of course, with social media, there is ongoing conversation an article can inspire, allowing writers a chance to explain, to clarify, to endlessly defend. We can probably all see how easily that becomes circular and vain (not to mention tiresome).

I write this post today, not to settle objections, but to acknowledge that I have been listening as you have posted, messaged, and emailed. Let me offer some thoughts in response.

First, corrections—or better yet, confessions.

  1. I want to confess my failure to cite the great philanthropic good that Glennon has been doing as well as her own powerful story of personal redemption. I am sorry for that. It’s a very fair criticism to note the absence of these important biographical pieces in my piece. Clarification on these two points would have contributed to a more sympathetic tone and a fairer representation. I regret I did not graciously offer it. Glennon has said publicly, clearly, and regularly that she wants to serve her readers. Her story of deliverance out of alcoholism and bulimia has been a source of great encouragement to others, and her advocacy and activism are truly remarkable. I am thankful for all of this and highlight it here.
  1. Second, I want to confess the evangelical bias represented by the timing of the article. It is an entirely fair critique to say that “Christians are never scandalized until someone’s gay.” Yes, this sticks. Apart from matters of sexual indiscretion, we can sit silently by while the gospel of self-fulfillment and radical individualism is used to defend gross neglect of the two great commandments. It shouldn’t matter if it’s sexual sin, political gain, crass consumerism, neglect of the poor or racial injustice. These all grieve the heart of God, and I am sorry that I—and the church—have not been rightly outraged by these things. By God’s grace, I hope to do better.

For further consideration:

The premise of public discourse.

Some have argued that I should have brought my disagreement to Glennon privately. They are concerned for Christian charity. Their pushback also raises the important biblical concern in Matthew 18 for direct, personal, and private confrontation in the local church before any kind of public address of a “sin” issue.

I suppose it’s obvious but also important to remind readers that Glennon and I are not friends. We are not members of the same church, and the nature of my critique was not a matter of personal disagreement or hurt. Rather, we are public writers involved in the exchange of public ideas. The hazards of this work involve public disagreement, especially when writers like Glennon and I not only write but aim to teach.

I heartily affirm the need for charitable public disagreement, and admit that some insist my article has fallen short of this standard. But I would note that public disagreement is not, in and of itself, inherently unkind, although we can feel it to be. Disagreement can sharpen us. Criticism can teach us. I, least of all, like it, but I’ve had enough to know how painfully good it has been for me.

The nature of leadership.

Some have wondered why I couldn’t have talked about the dangers of the self-fulfillment gospel without referencing Glennon’s story.

When Glennon wrote the Facebook post I referenced for my article, she explicitly aimed to make her personal narrative instructive for others. She did not simply say, I am making these choices, and you can have your own opinion about them. (She said this, too.) She also said: I am modeling self-truth and self-bravery for you. “This is what I want for YOU.”

We may not all intend to make our lives instructive for others in the same way that Glennon has, but she is right in a very important sense: we teach and lead, not just with our ideas, but with our lives. This isn’t to say that God only uses the Mary Poppins of the world to build his kingdom. (Genealogy of Jesus, anyone?) But it is to say that there is never a nice, neat line between our ideas and our lives, especially for Christian teachers and leaders. Our ideas are our lives. Our lives are our ideas. This is what the Apostle Paul is getting at when he sets forth, in the Epistles, such rigorous ethical standards for pastors/elders. It’s his reason for telling Timothy: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16).

As one keenly aware of my own personal failures of conduct and character, I am deeply sobered by this truth.

The importance of discernment.

Some have wondered why I (and the readers of Christianity Today) should concern ourselves with the beliefs of Glennon Doyle Melton, who has never called herself evangelical.

In a world of Amazon Prime and the worldwide web, Glennon’s influence doesn’t stop at the doors of her United Church of Christ. Evangelical women read her blog, buy her books, and travel to hear her speak. Well-respected evangelical female leaders recently invited her to join them main-stage at a national conference in early November.

Glennon has likened her readers to congregants, her work to the writings of the early Christian church. It is worth remembering that historic councils vigorously debated the early writings of apostles and church leaders, determining what should and should not be included in the canon. The early church was incredibly preoccupied with getting the gospel right and did not back down from the public debate of those ideas.

Likewise (in kind, though not degree), every Christian church and pastor, every Christian publication and organization, has the pastoral responsibility to reason and affirm what is true and to challenge what is false. Rigorous theological, exegetical, historical, and cultural discernment is an act of great love for the church.

There is no such thing as radical autonomy in the Christian life—where permission is never needed and explanation never obliged. We belong to Christ, and we belong to one another. To love Christ and one another well, we must encourage, celebrate, and agree. As needed, we must also challenge, correct, and rebuke. The latter is as much for our good as the former.

Which is why I’m grateful for you—both your support and criticism. Thanks for reading here and for reading thoughtful publications like Christianity Today, which aim, however imperfectly, to help the church in this work of discernment and the witness of Christ’s love.

One of those days

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328h You've probably had one of those days:

You knock on door #1, hoping to do something very simple—like make changes to your website.

You're asked politely to try door #2, which involves, not just inputting credit card information, but contacting your bank to figure out what's going wrong in this very simple transaction. The man on the other end of the line is extremely nice. But he breathes heavily. Loudly. At one point in the conversation, after he's fallen silent for several minutes—breathing, breathing—you venture a "hello?" You wonder if he's asleep. 

Moving on, at door #3, your simple transaction has become more complicated. It requires that you verify some recent Amazon purchases. Simple enough except that it appears that your husband has used your American business card to purchase books from Amazon in Canada. Your careful accounting is shot. You've been charged unnecessary currency exchange fees. You send him a pleasant but firm text. "Heads up: verify with me what payment you use for Amazon.ca. You used my business card last time."

At door #4, you are finally able to successfully input your credit card information. But though you've paid good money, you still aren't able to make the necessary and simple changes to your website without an online chat with technical support. Eventually, they help you.

Simple enough, two hours later.

I'm writing all of this to say that I am begging grace for what I've attempted to do, which is this: change how these blog posts are delivered to your inbox if you're a blog subscriber. (If you're not, you can sign up here.) Thanks to a very kind friend, I had feedback that the format I had been using was very difficult to read on mobile devices. I'm hoping that the new format will be better.

The one caveat (or at least, the one for now) is this: it was easiest to merge my blog subscriber list with my newsletter subscriber list. (And there was considerable cross-over.) I recognize, however, that you may not wish to be on both of these lists. No offense taken. You can unsubscribe, and I promise we can still be friends.

Simple.

Thanks for your patience.

My video interview with Katelyn Beaty, author of A Woman's Place

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A Woman's PlaceThis post is a FIRST. With the help of my technologically-inclined son, Nathan, I'm uploading my first video: an author interview. Last week, I interviewed Katelyn Beaty, Christianity Today's managing editor, about her new book, A Woman's Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the WorldWe talked specifically about a Christian vision of work, the mommy wars, and the process of book writing. ( I apologize in advance for extraneous "likes" or "you knows." Additionally, there are points in the video where our internet connection gets a little wonky.) Katelyn's book releases on July 19, but you can pre-order now at Amazon.com.

 

[embed]https://youtu.be/HDUfmh5FXso[/embed]

(0:00-5:50)

Introduction: I start off with the most awkwardly constructed sentence: "Katelyn Beaty is the currently managing editor at Christianity Today." Then I gush a little bit about Katelyn's foreword for Teach Us to Want and her important role in my publishing journey. We talk about the writer/editor relationship - and our fragile moments as writers. (Even Katelyn has had some!)

(5:50 - 10:30)

"Go vulnerable, or go home." Katelyn explains why she begins her book with a very personal story: how her broken engagement interrupted the plans she had for her life and provided the occasion for discovering a more robust Christian theology of work.

(10:30 - 12:20)

I ask Katelyn whether or not her singleness gave her a unique angle in the conversation about women and work. "I don't want to say that only single women have the opportunity to invest in their professional work."

(12:20 - 15:00 )

I ask Katelyn about the book's commitment to telling the stories of many different women. "Let's not just make pronouncements about how the world should be," Katelyn explains. "Let's flesh it out."

(15:00- 18:32)

Does "femaleness" inform the way that women understand work? Katelyn explains that one common factor in her research was the community emphasis often evident in women's professional ambitions and choices.

(18:32 - 22:07 )

Katelyn discusses the origin and evolution of Christianity Today's popular women's blog, Her.meneutics, which has amplified women's voices and worked to correct the gender imbalance at CT. Shout out to Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Kate Shelnutt, and Andrea Palpant Dilley.

(22:07 - 27:33)

Is the church playing catch-up to culture in regards to validating women's professional ambitions? Katelyn explains that churches have, in general, neglected to develop a robust theology of professional work for both men and women.

(27:33 - 31:18)

We dig a bit more deeply into the desire question: what caution should we exercise in looking for cultural validation of our desires? Are there contexts where desires for home and family need to be reinforced? (Most importantly, we joke about finding a date for Katelyn: "Act now: this offer is going fast!)

(31:18 - 32:52)

"It is okay to disappoint Andy Crouch." We gush mutual respect and admiration for Andy.

(32:52 - 37:37)

"You can't write a book geared toward women without discussing motherhood in some capacity." Katelyn identifies that wide variety of choices available to modern women seem to promote greater self-doubt, even suspicion and judgment. "My hope is that this book will give us better language [for these conversations]."

(37:37 - 42:55)

Why are women's professional desires considered "selfish" or "careerist" while men's professional desires and ambitions are validated? Katelyn takes us back to the Industrial Revolution for a little history lesson. (And I unabashedly plug my next book, Keeping Place.)

(42:55 - 49:15)

Has professional ambition stalled for Christian women? Katelyn reminds us of our fear, as Christian women, in asking, "What do I really want?" She also reminds us that we can begin by simply naming our desires before God—even our professional desires. "Maybe God wants to use those unnamed desires to accomplish his work in the world and to invite us to partner with him in kingdom restoration work."

(49:15 - 57:22)

Katelyn discusses her process of writing, A Woman's Place. (No, neither of us has the creative genius of Ann Voskamp!)  And she also talks about the immense help she received from her editor, who pushed her beyond her "very safe" first draft.

Thank you, Katelyn!

3 Words for Writers (when I meant to write 10)

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typewriter I had the pleasure of speaking today about the writing life with Chris Horst and a band of writers from HOPE International. (As you probably remember, Audrey and I traveled to Rwanda this summer with HOPE, and I'm excited to continue exploring what a partnership with this incredible organization can look like.)

Chris had asked me to share my experiences as a writer, and I thought to condense some brief thoughts here for you. If you are a writer or know a writer, I hope these can be helpful. But as you'll note, I'm very deliberately calling these words for writers, rather than tips. I guess I'm agreed with the antipathy of William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, toward giving "tips." "I don't do tips," Zinsser once said. He thought of tips as shortcuts. If tips could improve a piece of writing, they couldn't make you a really good writer. Good writing, Zinsser said, is "a matter of character."

So here are three words for writers (not, of course, to be confused with tips):

  1. Permission.

As I told the writers from HOPE today, it's important to give ourselves the permission to cultivate a unique writing process that works for us, even if looks nothing like Mary Karr's. I, too, wish I could imitate the process of brilliant writers and import their genius. But the truth is: the thing my writing needs is my voice, not Mary Karr's. And in order to find that voice, I have to cultivate a process that makes intuitive sense to me. I'm not, for instance, a mad-dash writer (with the exception of this blog post, of course). If words were lollipops, let's just say I lick a long time. I've had to honor that about myself and give myself the necessary time to create. Often, this looks like doing an initial draft of a project, and then putting it on the back burner, letting it simmer for several days. When I come back to it, I bring a new willingness to see its faults and a fresh commitment to making necessary changes. (There is prayer involved in the simmering, too.) But you may be nothing like me. Maybe you don't lick your lollipops. Instead, you devour them nearly whole. If you write best under the harrowing nearness of a deadline, good for you! Write as only you can. Give yourself permission to do it in ways that defy every supposed law the writing gods dictate. Find and follow a process that works, and when it fails you, give yourself permission to throw it out and begin again.

  1. Courage.

Chris asked a question about when I made the decision, not just to write, but also to publish. (And let me say: without willing editors and publishers, my decisions would actually have mattered very little. Special thanks to Katelyn Beaty at Christianity today and Dave Zimmerman, formerly of IVP.) Nevertheless, I do think the decision to publish, especially back in 2011 when we moved to Toronto, had a lot to do with God nudging me toward risk.

If there is one thing that seems true in life (the writing life, the spiritual life, life-life) it seems to be this: there is no way to grow but to risk. In terms of writing, I had to risk the public sound of my voice telling my personal stories. Even this week, I am praying for the continued courage to risk, and it sounds something weird like this: God, give me the courage of assertion. Especially in my current book project, I see hesitancy, apprehension, and equivocation—which signals I've backed away from the things that I see and think and hope others to agree. There is yellow cowardice on my pages: in mumbo-jumbo, in unmasticated Scriptural text, in the razzle-dazzle of poetic hollowness. So these are the hard questions that I need to ask: where have I refused to draw my conclusions? And why am I scared of my own assertions? Writers need courage: to write, to publish, and to keep writing and publishing.

  1. Discipline.

As Anne Lamott likes to say, the only things writers really need to do to write is to sit their butt in a chair. Yeah, something like that—and also Hemingway's gorier version about opening our veins and bleeding on the page. The writing life, at least for me, is a mercurial as Toronto weather. Some days, the sun is brilliant and bright, and my page is as optimistically blue as the sky. Other days, it is gloomy and dark and grey, and I want to drink copious amounts of coffee and read the most recent posts of my favorite home decorating/lifestyle blogs. (Here and here and here.)

The writing life is hard. Words are unwieldy and fidgety. The moment you try pinning them down, you have World War III on your hands. So what are you going to do about that? Cry? Eat cake? (Yes, of course you will, especially if there are leftovers from your Canadian Thanksgiving celebration.) But then somehow, you are going to have to get back at the creative habits that keep you from permanent despair. You are going to take your pen and paper and hammer out a thesis for your next piece, defying illegibility and your own laziness. You are going to structure an outline for your next chapter, weaving something coherent from the stack of books and articles and Scripture you've been reading. You are going to take to the keyboard when it's time to draft, hushing your inner critic who clamors snidely that you have nothing worth saying. Beat it, you will tell her as you get back to the task at hand. You will seize pockets and stretches of time because this is how writing gets done: one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time, each wrested from your own fear and set in broad daylight, looking like a gummy, wrinkly newborn. No new baby is cute: and neither is your work.

So quit your crying, and keep at it.

Because your voice is valuable.

Because there is courage God is growing in you.

Because you can grow in godly character with your butt in the chair. (Eating too much cake, however, can diminish those results.)

 

#thisisreal

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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

 

 

 

 

 

June Mash-up: What I've been reading and writing

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There are three weeks left of the school year, which of course means that I'm complaining, like every other mother, about how ridiculously busy this time of year is. There are school concerts (and piano lessons to reschedule because of school concerts.) There are writing deadlines and graduation ceremonies, school projects, and speaking engagements. And there was recently a family birthday, which, despite efforts at simplicity, tended toward the pomp and circumstance of a national holiday. Per the usual for this time of year, I struggle to trust God and his infinite resources as life hurls itself mercilessly at me. I have to preach to myself daily that the God who clothes the flowers and feeds the birds will surely not forget me (cf. Matthew 6).

As a kind of mash-up of what I've been writing and reading (because that's about the best I can do right now!), here are some things to draw to your attention:

Books I've been reading:

Trillia Newbell's new book, Fear and Faith: Trillia reminds us that the gospel is the only thing to loosen the grip of fear. If you struggle with chronic fears (ok, who doesn't?), this book is Scripturally rich and full of hope.

Courtney Reissig's new book, The Accidental Feminist: I love this idea from the introduction — "Caricatures of womanhood are what get us into trouble. When we reduce womanhood to the tasks we accomplish, or cultural expectations, or talents or personality traits, we are doing a disservice to women everywhere." I don't have to be Superwoman. And neither do you.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's, Life Together: I have the privilege of speaking on the chapter, "The Day Alone," at a retreat this upcoming weekend. It's a rich reminder that despite our busyness, we can't forsake a daily time of meeting with God. It is the "day alone," which fits us for participation in the greater community. "Let him who cannot be alone beware of community."

Leslie Jamison's, The Empathy Exams: On why empathy expresses itself as good listening. "Empathy isn't just remembering to say that must be really hard—it's figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn't just listening, it's asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination." (Pre-order Adam McHugh's new book on listening. I think it will be good!)

There are many more books on home I'm reading for my second book. In fact, I've recently paid nearly $30 in overdue library fines. Too many titles to include here, although I am really appreciating Witold Rybczynski's, Home: A Short History of an Idea.

Essays I've recently written:

"Is This What Love Looks Like?" This seems to have struck a cultural nerve. I hope you'll find the time to read and even share with someone facing the decision to marry (or the temptation to divorce). "The only biblical model for marriage we have isn't equity; it's self-sacrifice."

"Finding My Place in the Gospel Coalition" I wrote this as a woman sensing the inherent challenges of navigating certain conservative theological contexts. There was fear and trepidation in writing this, but I am glad to have given voice to a struggle that many women have.

"The Bloody Business of Killing Sin" - I gathered some of what I'd learned during Lent this year in this piece, most specifically wisdom I gleaned from Puritan John Owen's, Overcoming Sin and Temptation.

"When 'Sanctity of Life' Includes the Right to Choose Death" - Probably the most important piece I think I've written in the last several months, this interview with Dr. Ewan Golligher highlights an important legal change in Canada and the implication for Christian doctors. I wrote this to serve my church and city.

"How to Find Your Calling" - I offer 5 simple clues for discerning calling. I won't pretend it's a formula, but I do think these ideas bear out biblically.

And an update on the state of my book manuscript:

You may or may not know that I'm writing a book about home. If you happen to be interested in the current state of the manuscript, I liken it to a closet in the state of spring cleaning. I had six chapters written, meaning I had put away a lot of words. But with some helpful feedback from an early reader, I decided the arrangement didn't work, which of course has required taking everything out and reorganizing. It's going to feel SO good when everything is put away again. I feel confident I know where to put it all. But right now, there are piles everywhere, reminding me that:

There are no shortcuts in writing. It takes tremendous courage to revise. Writing is the least economical trade.

If you're a writer and looking for some helpful advice, this piece on William Zinsser, which ran at The Gospel Coalition, is fantastic!

Big News!

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Christianity Today has announced its 2015 Books Awards, and so many wonderful books have been commended, including works of fiction (Lila by Marilynne Robinson) and biography (Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer). What's In a Phrase? Pausing Where Scripture Gives You Pause by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre won the Spirituality Category, and I'm especially looking forward to reading this book. Also, I've heard great things about The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home, which won the Award of Merit in the Her.meneutics category. Of course there are great books that didn't make the list, too. I've written about two of them here and here. And then there's this: Teach Us to Want won 2015 Book of the Year.

Book of the year

The news is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.

In June of this year, before the book released, I sought out the wisdom of a spiritual director in the midst of my churning fears: what would criticism of the book do to me? And praise?

I came to realize this: the criticism of my writing would always be inordinately devastating - and the praise, unless it were unequivocal, insufficient. This was true because I was a sinner.

This is true because I am a sinner.

But the gospel reminds me that my life is hidden with Christ in God. He took the shame I fear. And the glory I crave? That belongs to him, too.

In light of the announcement, I thought it would be fun to post a start to a prologue I drafted in the early stages of Teach Us to Want. I hope it reminds each of us that, while desire can throb with fear, God is ready to form us by the risks we take in and for and to him.

- - -

“This is your life. You are a Seminole alligator wrestler. Half naked, with your two bare hands, you hold and fight a sentence’s head while its tail tries to knock you over.” ⎯Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

If writing is like alligator wrestling, you’re never up for the bloody guts of it all. Not if your life is like mine. I’m the mother of five reasonably small people. Small, yes, but their force of insistence and perpetual need of me cannot and will not be put off.

As it turns out, however, books (or those you intend to write) are themselves petulant children. Belligerent alligators. Snapping at your heels when your hands are in the soapsuds. Cornering you as you flip pancakes and sort socks. Always, at the most inopportune moments, demanding you pay them some attention.

What mother has the energy for alligators? I write on mornings when the twins attend preschool, in the afternoons when the house quiets during naptime. But inevitably, the hour nears when the front door will be thrown open, backpacks and shoes flung wildly in every direction. There will be more feral demands: homework, dinner, laundry, and lunch boxes.

I wonder if it’s possible write a book and still be fully present to my family. I wonder if it’s possible to fix words to a page and not be transfixed by my own voice. I wonder if it’s possible to write a book when I know little more than my own questions. These are the kinds of fears that threaten to tie my hands.

But maybe I can remember that a better Book has been written, that a Word has been made flesh.

Jesus, it’s You I love and honor here in these pages.

6 Reasons This Blog Has Gone Cold

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Fall leaves Well-known Christian blogger, Tim Challies, recently posted his list of favorite blogs by (and for) women. At the end of his list, he noted how many of the blogs had gone cold.

In response to Challies, three women (each of whom I sincerely admire) wrote a response to Challies, explaining the reasons female bloggers tend to publish less consistently than their male counterparts.

Hannah Anderson: "One reason that conservative female bloggers struggle to publish consistently is because we tend to blog outside organized ministry while our male counterparts write from within it. Certainly, not every male theological blogger is employed in ministry, but many do serve as full-time pastors, directors of para-church organizations, seminary professors, and students preparing for a theological career. You don’t find many male engineers, doctors, mathematicians, or police officers blogging in this same niche.

On the other hand, the majority of conservative female bloggers do not blog from a ministry context. Rarely are they employed by a church; they are not even pursuing a “career” in this field. By and large, they are lay women—homemakers, teachers, graphic designers, and writers who simply have an aptitude and interest in theology."

Courtney Reissig: "Women are confronted with [the constraints of their life seasons] more acutely. So much of our writing in the blogosphere is born out of our life experiences, and though helpful, there are some life experiences that do not afford the time needed to write about them (i.e. small children, pregnancy, caring for aging parents, etc.) . . . There are a myriad of other daily responsibilities that also require their full attention. Even if they are compelled to write out of their experiences, those very experiences keep them from putting the proverbial pen to paper."

Megan Hill: "Why do women’s blogs go cold? I suspect that sometimes they don’t go cold so much as they go warm—their burners turned down to low, slow-cooker-style, while a thought or an experience bastes in the juices, to emerge tender and flavorful after a time.

But the blogosphere is better suited to value-meal burgers than twelve-hour pot roasts. . . [Its] pace, daunting for the most unencumbered single man, is killing for multi-tasking women trying to balance it all."

* * * * *

There is not much to add to what Anderson, Reissig and Hill have already said quite well. But if only to clarify to readers around these parts why I haven't blogged in an eon (or two), let me list the reasons I've been finding it difficult to make time for this aspect of my writing life.

1. I've been promoting my book, Teach Us to Want. This year, between April and June, I wrote an enormous amount of material. Little of it showed up here. I created a Bible study for my book, wrote answers for written interviews, and developed essays for various outlets on the subject of desire in the context of faith. I spoke to radio hosts and traveled for (just a few) book signings. This was, and continues to be, a major part of the current writing that I'm doing. As you might imagine, it has crowded out the time needed to develop blog content.

2. I've been working at my church. One thing I've felt to be important, as I've transitioned to more regular, public writing, is continued presence and participation in my local church. When I finished the first draft of the book in August, 2013, my pastors approached me about becoming the Director of Children's Ministry for our church. I said yes. It's been enormously rewarding, and I've been thrilled to serve alongside our faithful volunteers. But I won't lie and say that it hasn't been time-consuming. Only recently have I decided to officially resign my position and create more space - first, for my family, and second, for my writing. I'm glad for the year's experience. I'm also happy to be settled into a more focused approach to life.

3. I have five kids. This is the terrific reason I'm afforded much grace in my life. I won't deny that being the mother of a large brood of children handily excuses you from forgetting things (like orthodontist appointments), arriving late, and in this case, blogging too infrequently. The truth is, our lives are always changing around here. The kids are needing me in different ways, and I'm continuing to try to make myself available to them. This takes time, and I can't see my way around that. I want to be faithful in serving my family.

4. I'm a writer, not a blogger. This is something I'm only more recently coming to understand. Over the last several months, I've been prayerfully discerning what need to be my strategic yeses and my faithful nos. The truth is, I really can't be both a blogger and writer, at least not in the most traditional sense. The best bloggers, as it seems to me, are reliable. You count on them being there. Often they're pragmatic and practical, and you look to them to be helpful in important ways. And sometimes they're just incredibly provocative, meaning they're engaged in what just exploded on Twitter and have a ready response. Their value, in large part, is their ability to say something good and to say it fast.

I don't say anything good fast. That's the truth. And I'm not overly eager to implicate myself in the latest controversies in the blogosphere. I want instead to cultivate the necessary time to read, think, pray, meditate and mull. I'm convinced that good writing, at least writing that can live beyond my own generation, will necessarily be slow, and I'm absolutely happy to produce less content, even if it disappoints some readers.

5. I'm lazy. Not unrelated to #4, as a writer, I am serious, slow, deliberated, and careful. As a blogger, I am hurried and sloppy, even lazy at times. I never want to give lots of time to blog posts, at least not the time I once did. When I first started blogging, I was trying to make daily writing a spiritual discipline. It wouldn't be overstated to say that I felt called to blogging. Three years ago, when I started blogging, it was the only writing I was doing, outside of the devotional writing I've long done for Moody. I had the time and attention to give it, not least to mention the will. But now that I'm writing for a number of online and magazine outlets, I'm not able to devote as much care to my blog content. This leads me to conclude that it's better to write nothing (or very little) here rather than produce content that is sub-standard. We're all busy, and you don't need me blathering on about nothing.

6. Finally, I'm a little afraid. The truth is that I've just written a really vulnerable book, and now I feel a bit like the insect that wants to scurry out of the light. I have no doubt that the writing I will continue to do (especially in future books) will be confessional and personal because that's the kind of person I am. I value authenticity. But I simply can't come to the blog over and over again with the stripped down, vulnerable stories of my everyday life as I once did. It's simply too much exposure.

* * * * *

So what will be the future of this blog? To be realistic, I won't ever return to the blogging schedule I once had. I simply don't have the time. But I would like to show up here a bit more regularly than I have been. Maybe I'll update you on articles I've written elsewhere. Maybe I'll round up what I'm reading, both in terms of online content and books. I'm not entirely sure. I do have a series that I started back in May and shamefully never finished. I'll be returning to it in the upcoming weeks. (Read the first, second, third, and fourth posts to catch up.) My apologies to Joe Dudeck, who's probably been wondering what I intended to do with the beautiful images he's allowing me to use for the series.

If this blog goes cold (or colder than readers' preferences), it will not be because I've given up writing. No, I've settled firmly that this is what I am meant to do. I hope to have book #2 in the works soon, and I also hope you'll be reading me where I've been regularly writing: Her.meneutics, Gifted for Leadership, InTouch, Today in the Word, Relevant, and Today's Christian Woman.

And finally, my warmest thanks to those who have written and been reading in the Found Wanting series. Thanks to them, we haven't had complete radio silence here!

Jesus knew what he was called to do, and the needs around him did not determine the call for the day. And, if the Messiah himself is limited in this way, how much more are we.

We will not be able to [fulfill our vocation] unless we learn to say no. We will not have this privilege unless we come to clarity about who we are and what we are called to do. This requires focus, discipline and courage. But the result is freedom - freedom from ambition, freedom from the pressures and expectations of others, freedom to be who we are before God. It is a freedom to embrace the call of God upon our lives with joy and hope."

-Courage and Calling, Gordon Smith

On being derivative - and finding pleasure in work

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Roasted summer squash, okra and onions; arugula, baby spinach, buffalo mozzarella, and grape tomatoes; flaky tomato tart with basil; turkey burgers; ripe cantaloupe and strawberries: last night’s dinner was the first proper summer meal I’ve had - and it was delicious! The meal was prepared by the wife of a college friend, whose family is hosting ours while we visit Memphis. I hope Lissa took it for compliment (and not rudeness) when, as we brought in dishes from the porch and began rinsing them, I helped myself to a second turkey burger, grabbing it with my bare fingers and tearing it apart without the courtesy of a fork. Audrey, too, dug her fingers into the bowl of the leftover strawberries and cantaloupe. (We’re an ill-mannered crew, I guess. Or just love food.)

As the cook, I love that pleasure of seeing that people have really enjoyed a meal, that they’ve enjoyed it enough to want more. Maybe that’s why I love kitchen work. What can feel like the mindlessness of peeling potatoes, chopping basil, and skewering meat to grill gains visceral meaning the moment people gather to eat and enjoy.

I’ve been thinking about my kitchen work as a metaphor for my book, which has recently released. People have begun reading – and eating. Some are finding the food delicious. And to be quite honest, I feel uncertain about how to feel about that reaction. What do you do when people clap you on the back and say, “Well done,”? How does that praise not immediately blow hot air into you? Should you resist your first response, which is of course pleasure?

I don’t ever feel guilty about the pleasure I feel at serving a good meal. Must I feel guilty about the pleasure of having written what some may call a good book? Should there be a difference between my reactions? And most importantly, what response is most Godlike?

Of course a return to Genesis 1 reminds us that pleasure over work done well is ultimately Godlike. God calls all of his work good, and there is a satisfaction he enjoys when surveying his work. He names the seventh day a day of rest in part as an expression of his satisfaction and enjoyment: he had finished his work, and he rested from it, calling it complete and good.

Every human work of creation (or culture-making, to borrow Andy Crouch’s term) is mirrored after these first creative acts of God. We are called to make something of his work, to “fill the earth and subdue it.” As those who bear the image of God, we are creative and will delight in doing creative work. That work may be making a tomato tart or writing a book, but whenever we make something of the world, we are living into our Genesis 1 mandate. This is good and right – even pleasurable.

However, there is an essential difference between what God did in Genesis 1, and what we do now. God made something from nothing. God’s creative acts were ex nihilo: he had no raw materials with which to work. He didn’t pick tomatoes from a garden to make a tart, and he didn’t select words from a lexicon to write a book. He made the tomatoes. And he made the words.

Which is to then say that all human creative acts are fundamentally derivative. We make something from something. We exhibit no ex nihilo cleverness, and as Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun. We arrange and rearrange. We combine old parts to make new wholes. But everything is ultimately borrowed from someone: the tomatoes from the farmer, the words from other books. (And everything ultimately from God.)

So how does this help me reconcile my reaction of pleasure to what has been some warm reception to my book? Pleasure does not have to be pride (although it often is). Pleasure, in fact, can become praise when it’s remembered that our work is derivative from God’s. If I’ve made a delicious tomato tart, I can take no credit for the sweetness of a ripe summer tomato or the freshness of garden basil. I can love that you’ve loved it – and credit your pleasure to the One who made summer tomatoes and fresh basil. And if I’ve written a good book, I can take no credit for the compelling truth and beauty of the gospel, which is central to that book. I can loved that you’ve loved it – and credit your pleasure to the one who sent his Son to die for our faithless desires and redeem our wandering hearts. If that is the hope upon which readers seize, it is not a hope I have authored.

In Christianity Today, Laura Turner calls Teach Us to Want “a book that, on the whole, is so smart and instructive and engaging. We must trust that God gives us desires for a reason, and that if the desire is not, on its surface, good and selfless, there is something underneath it that might be. This is the task of desire—to bring the flourishing of the family, the town, the school, and the soul.”

I’m thankful for her review: and would love for you to read it.

My Writing Process

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Heart Of Typewriter I was tagged by my writer friend, Gillian Marchenko, fellow IVP author, to participate in a #MyWritingProcess blog hop. Writers are asked four questions about their process, and then they tag other writers. If you’re reading as someone who likes to write, you’re probably interested how other people manage this sedentary calling. But even if you’re not writer, you might enjoy demystifying some notions about the writing life.

"Anyone who glamorizes the writing life hasn't spent a lot of time sitting in a chair." - Jen Pollock Michel

Q: What am I working on?

I’m working on all kinds of articles and blog posts to prepare for the upcoming release of my first book, Teach Us To Want. I’ve also begun teaching a three-week class on desire for my church. The past two months have been nearly as insane as writing the book itself, and it would be unimaginably boring to detail all that I’ve been doing. But let’s just say I’m been eating, breathing and sleeping the subject of desire. It’s actually been really helpful for me, though. The book itself is a narrative exploration of longing, but these upcoming essays and the class preparation have helped me to drill down into the practicalities of my book.

Q: How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Oh goodness. I’d love to say here that I’m ridiculously clever and that what I’m writing is vastly different (and of course better) that every other book you’d pick up. (Read my confession here about this.)

But the real truth is I see a lot of women especially writing great stuff: women with great theology and skill for telling good stories. Check out, as examples, Bronwyn Lea, Briana Meade, Lore Ferguson, and Hannah Anderson. (And of course any of the Her.meneutics writers.)

Q: Why do I write what I do?

I always write to teach myself. I would say that I write less about what I understand and more about what I don’t. That was certainly the case with the book, but it’s usually true about the articles, too. I’ll read something online or in a book and think, “Hmm.” Maybe I disagree but don’t know why. Maybe I agree but only vaguely. I take those reactions and write, trying to make my own thinking clearer and more theologically sound.

I also write to keep my story. I believe this is integral to living a faithful life. We need holy memory, especially when we walk through the wilderness. (See Psalm 78.)

Q: How does my writing process work?

I wish I were more free and unconstrained in my process. Once I’m in the drafting phase, I tend to labor over each word and sentence. But something that has been helping me is entering into an earlier outlining phase. If I call it an outline, rather than a draft, it’s a way for me to move beyond my typical perfectionism and give myself permission to let it be a little messy and “in process.” The word process implies a sense of progression through stages, and as a writer, I’m trying to develop more patience with that progression. It doesn’t ever come out perfect on the first try. In fact, the more time I can put between an outline and a draft and a deadline, the better. The ruminating in my head between those stages is probably the best real writing I do.

I'm tagging some writer friends now so that they can share their experiences of the writing life: Natasha Robinson, Aubrey Sampson, Leslie Leyland Fields and Lesa Engelthaler.

Natasha Robinson Natasha Robinson is a writer and speaker. She recently graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with a Master of Arts in Christian Leadership. Natasha blogs at asistasjourney.com and she is working on a book about Mentoring.

Aubrey Sampson Aubrey Sampson is a writer and speaker, a pastor's wife and stay-at-home mom to three sons. Aubrey writes and speaks on the subject of shameless living, and her book on the subject will be published in the next year. She blogs at aubreysampson.com.

Leslie Leyland Fields--head+chest shot Leslie Leyland Fields is an author, writer, and speaker. She writes regularly for Christianity Today, teaches creative non-fiction, and is the author of nine books. (She's currently working on her tenth.) You can find her at leslieleylandfields.com.

Lesa_pic_twitter_3_400x400 Lesa Engelthaler is a Senior Associate with Victory Search Group assisting nonprofits to recruit executive leaders. She is a journalist who has written for publications like The Dallas Morning News, Christianity Today and Discipleship Journal. She serves on the board of Synergy Network and is working on her first book manuscript. Follow her on Twitter @lengelthaler.

Q & A with Margaret Philbrick, author of A Minor

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Margaret Ann Philbrick is a writer I know from Redbud Writers Guild, and she has just recently released her first novel, A Minor. On the blog today, I'm asking her more about her book and her process as a fiction writer. a minor1. What inspired you to spend four years working on A Minor?

My children all play the piano, and our oldest son’s teacher requested that a parent sit in on the lessons and take notes. We would then review with him during the following week. As he moved on to college, I was left with a notebook full of wisdom that needed to be shared, but I didn’t have the framework for an idea. While I was having lunch in South Haven, Michigan, I started talking to my husband about what it would be like for a concert pianist to lose his or her memory. That question took me on a one year research journey to find the answer.

2. How did you go about your research?

I started with Oliver Sacks because he is one of the most well-known neurologists in the field. I read his books and watched YouTube videos of him talking about his patients. His work led me to many other experts and their writings. Once I completed that investigation, I embarked on several more months of research into the life of a concert pianist. Howard Reich’s biography of Van Cliburn was one of the most helpful. Also, I interviewed many people who had been touched by dementia and Alzheimer’s. Once I assessed all the research, I knew there was a story to mine out of that mountain.

3. Are you a musician yourself?

While in high school, I was a serious flute student and was accepted into a college conservatory, but my parents were moving toward a divorce at the time and I wanted to get as far away from their situation as possible. Instead, I became an English Literature major in Texas, which is why I have wrinkles today. I spent a lot of time lying out in the sun and reading novels.

4. Can you name a few of your favorites?

I tend to think about this question as a list of the books I wish I would have written. The first ones that come to mind are: Jane Eyre, Georg Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, all books by Milan Kundera and Gabriel García Márquez, and recently my neighbors’ books—The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin and Sing For Me by Karen Halvorsen Schreck. I also adored Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. For teaching, I read a lot of classic YA novels. My favorite this year was Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow.

5. Talk about your creative process. How did you write the book?

I’m a pretty insecure writer having been a Lit major and constantly reading books that I feel are beyond my own creative abilities. I actually think this is a good thing because I relied on the discipline of prayer before I sat down to write each day, knowing I couldn’t do this project alone. I’d spend time asking the Lord for creativity, original thought, wisdom, memory, whatever I needed to write the next ten pages. I’m disciplined when I get into a project, so I would write every day and then revise the next day what I wrote the day before and then move on. I always set goals for myself—another ten pages, finish the chapter. As I’d move along, another piece of research would be required, and I’d go off on a tangent for a day or so and then come back to the writing.

6. Did you use the notebook from your son’s piano lessons?

Oh, definitely. In many ways the voice of the main character is the voice of my son’s teacher. There are aspects of her in the work that I’m sure she’ll recognize when she reads it, like her clogs. She always wears these precarious, high-heeled wooden clogs. I’ve never known anyone to wear shoes like this in the summer with bare feet. She’s a fascinating conundrum.

7. Your book has some unique features, like a Discussion Guide in the back and recorded music in the ereader that anyone can hear while they are reading and live links to other resources. How did all that happen?

Well, I love Koehler Books because they are open to thinking outside the box of what a book can be. When I created A Minor, I thought about the music first. If you were only listening to the story, what would it sound like? Then I outlined all the musical works, and I’d listen to them while writing. It was important that the music told the story as well if not better than the words. Eventually, the idea came to me that I wanted the reader to have the same experience. Koehler Books was open to partnering with me in creating that experience. My husband, who is a lawyer, was an enormous help as well. The Discussion Guide is for the classroom or book clubs. As a teacher, it comes naturally for me to ask questions so people can learn more. The live links send the reader to the places where they can get help with memory issues in their own family or even for themselves.

8. One of your questions in the Discussion Guide addresses the importance of the protagonist maintaining the innocence of her protégé even though she could have taken advantage of him. Why did you decide to go that way and do you think American culture has lost its innocence?

Clare knows that the purity of Clive’s imagination is tantamount to his artistic interpretation of the works; it is a competitive advantage he has and a winsome one. She chose to not compromise that advantage. Yes, the loss of innocence in American culture is negatively affecting the power of our imagination and ultimately our innovation, which has always been an edge for us. When everything is openly revealed it hinders our ability to create, to make pictures for ourselves and interpret through the lens of what we know and experience. Dean Koontz has just written a novel that addresses this beautifully. It’s called Innocence. Making the choice to maintain one’s innocence and even more altruistically, the innocence of another, is expanding the pure heart of the child in all of us, and that is a great gift.

9. What were some of the disappointments along the way to getting published? Oh, all the “noes” that had been so close to being “yeses”—I never cared about the folks who were too busy to respond, but the ones where I had provided the entire manuscript and even changed things upon their request all to be told “no” months down the road. Those were tough, but I always believed in the story and knew there was a home out there waiting to bring it to life. I remember sitting on the edge of Lake Michigan, crying and praying that God would give my story a home. A few weeks later, He did.

10. Is it hard to raise a family and write a novel?

I can say my writing drives my kids crazy. My youngest son calls me the “bat.” Sometimes he comes home from a piano lesson, and I’ll be at my desk in the dark, writing by the light of the screen, too engaged to turn on any lights in the house. I try to write when they’re not at home, during the school day. It’s definitely not good for them if they feel like my “callings” are taking the place of them. Sometimes I’ve had to drop everything or step away from a project entirely, but raising children is a very short season and hopefully, I can write for the rest of my life.

11. What would your advice be to someone hoping to write their first novel or write anything for that matter?

Know your purpose, why you are writing what you are writing, and stay tethered to that vision. Write for the joy of creating and do not allow yourself to think about publishing, which is such a distraction, until you’re done. Then let your work simmer for a while. Take long walks and think about it. Do you still love it? If you do, pray and turn it over to God. Ask Him to reveal the next step and then trust him to do so. In the Redbud Writers Guild, we embrace the truth of Psalm 37:5: “Commit your way to the Lord, trust in him and he will do this.” Go at it with God. Writing is too lonely to do alone. About Margaret Philbrick Philbrick-Photo-3-199x300Margaret Ann Philbrick has been gardening since her mother gave her a pansy garden to plant and tend when she was five. She grew up in a small Illinois town with a busy street out front and a big river out back. Ranunculus is her favorite flower and T.S. Eliot or Gerard Manley Hopkins are her favorite poets. After several years working in advertising, selling Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts, she stayed home with her children and helped them plant their own gardens. Now they have grown, so she cultivates a garden of words with her fifty writing students and her own words at the old “Lincoln desk” in her living room. A long time ago it belonged to Lorenzo Lincoln, not Abe Lincoln. The laundry, if it gets done, doesn’t get folded.

With gratitude she thanks her parents and husband, Charlie, for providing for her education at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, Cambridge University, England and National Louis University in Chicago. Margaret and Charlie fell in love in Harry Caldwell’s Theories of Rhetorical Analysis class and despite being married twenty-four years; they still try to read a poem to each other every night before the light goes out. She is exhilarated by the beginning of things, planting seeds in windowsill trays, researching a new novel or heading out on a fall trail run. Like George Bernard Shaw, she hopes to be “thoroughly used up when I die.” Her unfulfilled dream is to teach writing and literature in a school or orphanage in Africa, then come home and write about it.

She serves on boards and has won awards, but all that is pretty boring to talk about. Most important is the living reality that Margaret is surrendered to the cross of Jesus Christ. Her favorite part of the day… morning prayer while walking or running her dog, Snuggles.

Where am I?

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I know I've been a bit MIA from the blog, but as I've been hearing from many of you, you're enjoying the "Found Wanting" guest series. I'm so grateful for those who have written already, and as of now, I have posts to take us through mid-August. I will continue soliciting submissions, so it's not too late! Ideally, the series will run indefinitely. But where am I actually writing these days? The truth is, I'm writing A LOT. It just hasn't been around here. I'm going to try and do a better job of keeping my blog readers up-to-date in terms of where to find me. (There are quite a few essays in the pipeline.) Of course you can always follow me on Twitter. There, you are pretty much guaranteed to be inundated with what I write and think. But if you don't want to join the Twitterverse (and I wouldn't blame you), you won't have to. Just keep checking in here. (You can subscribe to posts by email.)

This week, I'm at The Gospel Coalition:

First, there's a wonderful essay written by Bethany Jenkins called "Women, Work and Faith: Five Common Themes." Bethany is hosting a dinner at which I'll be speaking at The Gospel Coalition Conference for Women. At the bottom of her piece, you can find the fun little ad for my first book signing!

Yesterday, TGC featured an interview with me for their Vocations Column. I talk about the "burden, boundary and blessing of calling." Check it out!

And today, they're running a piece that is really important to me called, "#YESALLWOMEN."

"Following in the example of Jesus who identified with suffering humanity, godly men might reveal God's concern for justice by collecively weeping and crying out over female suffering, whether being gang raped on a bus in India, or giving birth with shackled legs, or being murdered on a college campus. What if they suffered with these women, as if their harm had been done their own? Despite its faults, the impulse behind #yesallwomen seeks solidarity and empathy with the too-frequent terror of female powerlessness. To its credit, #yesallwomen calls each of us to say of injustice, This cannot be.

Don’t the people of God know this agony best of all?"

I hope you'll pop over there and read the rest.

The Risks and Responsibilities of Desire

jenmichel@me.com

Risk for your desires. And then, carry their responsibilities.

These are the two words that seem to resonate with me when I think about desire in the context of faith.

Risk. Responsibility.

In the past two years, I risked on my desire to write a book. And God has been so good to me and what has been, in all reality, my great cowardice. He nourished my small mustard seed and grew it into something like 60,000 words. In every way, he has proven worthy of the risk—and faithful to the desire I didn’t fully know was from him and felt deeply afraid to own.

“With the mighty deeds of the LORD God I will come; I will remind them of your righteousness, yours alone.” Psalm 71:16

I am past the risk of writing the book (although fully poised on the fear of people reading it). But this seems exactly right to me: for now it’s time to move into the responsibilities of desire.

So many people tell us to dream big for Jesus. They are eager for the thrill of the risk.

But how many are calling us, not simply into the risks of desire, but its responsibilities?

Because if you are risking for God, truly risking on the desire to love him and love your neighbor, you will find that desire moves you into obligations.

Those obligations will upset your convenient life, the one you protect and safeguard.

Those obligations will move you, inconveniently, beyond the measure of your self-sufficiency and self-reliance.

They will even arrive in the form of people.

Obligations are hard work. Desire is hard work. How often do we hear that?

I’m in the midst of a very busy month of desire’s hard work. Today, my husband is home for the morning from work so that I can finish one of a string of deadlines (this blog post NOT included).

I look at my calendar and wonder drearily when it will all be over, when life will resume something of its normalcy, when I won’t constantly have to puzzle over my week and wonder how to make time to call a friend. I lament the urgency of the deadlines, the bulk of words I’m required to put to a page.

But the busyness of this month, isn’t it due to the responsibilities for the desire that was given me by God: to understand desire and help it be better understood?

Risk for your desires.

And then, carry your responsibilities.

Guts for Sale

jenmichel@me.com

One and a half months— Till my guts get sold on Amazon. (I remember Emily Freeman blogging about this idea when her first book, Grace for the Good Girl, hit store shelves. I’ve completely stolen the “guts” language from her.)

Incidentally, you can’t sell your guts without pain. First, there is the splaying open of your insides, then the wringing of blood from your laptop. You remember that you’re donating words to the cause, but it makes you feel faint, this endless sitting and staring, the bleeding and the pages you can’t cauterize.

The book writing. The bleeding.

Then, when you’re not sitting and staring, you’re standing at the stove, chided by children who wag their fingers at you. “You don’t listen!” And it’s true, what they say. You’ve been paying your most earnest attention to some foggy, faraway soliloquy—a chatty Cathy, this book is. ‘Til you’re back at your desk.

Sit. Stare. Bleed.

Guts for sale.

A friend asks yesterday how I’m feeling about the book. “It’s coming out so soon!” she reminds me excitedly.

I’m excited, too. And simultaneously panicky. I describe to her the anxiety that hollowed out my insides when I got the details for my first book signing. It made me feel so fraudulent.

“I knew this book was about overcoming fear,” I say. “But I guess there are new fears to confront, new courage I need to grow into.”

We hang up. I, Bartimaeus, feel hesitatingly for something solid and safe. I’ve never done this before: put my guts up for auction. I feel parched for language, want to drink in more understanding for what is happening—right now!—and what is about to happen when those words that have been squeezed from my veins are:

For sale.

I turn on Psalm 20 in the car. Over and again. The joy, the celebration of fulfilled desire! “May we shout for joy over your salvation, and in the name of our God set up our banners!” I remind myself how I had wanted to write a book, how it’s now been written. I remember the miracle of my no-name securing a book contract and feeling the surge of all that impossible, dizzying joy. Hadn’t he been in this – behind, before, ahead? “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”

I back it up to Psalm 19.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.

Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.”

Creation has spoken and is speaking. About the eternal glory of God.

I take this to mean I can worry less about the criticality of anything I say or do.

Guts for sale.

And when I write these words–right now!-it’s this passage that comes to mind.

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk, Without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1).

Perhaps this most of all? That the good news isn’t for sale. It’s free, been bought – with blood squeezed from veins.

Guts for free.

* * * * *

Join me in Orlando for The Gospel Coalition Women's Conference. I'll be in the bookstore signing books at 10am on Saturday. (My mom can't come, so I'm counting on YOU!)

Looking for Guest Writers!

jenmichel@me.com

I've been writing on desire, which makes it a kind of a persistent curiosity in my life. Yesterday, returning home from Camille's piano lesson, I excitedly waved my copy of George Eliot's Middlemarch as soon as I was through the door and had caught a glimpse of Ryan.

"Listen to this!" I insisted. We stood in the middle of the mudroom. I didn't take off my boots or my coat. I just started reading.

There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs. If this be hypocrisy, it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all, to whatever confession we belong. . .

We are creatures who want, and I believe this now in new ways. That it is human to want, that desire unfolds in each of our histories, has made me eager to tell my own story. Not that there have been few catastrophes of self-will. (There have been many, and I have not spared these in the writing of the book.) But grace has also been operative, and there hasn't only been depravity. Indeed, there have also been good and beautiful desires I have finally found permission to reclaim: even this, the desire to write.

However, I'm realizing my eagerness, not just to tell my stories of desire, but to listen to others. And that's why I'm reaching out to you.

To write here.

I'd love to hear how your desire has played a role in your own faith journey.

Have you been suspicious about your desires? Or have you been overly confident?

How does your attitude toward desire influence the way that you pray? How does it impact the way that you see God?

Describe a moment when your desires were “converted.” Perhaps you realized your good and godly desires needed to be reclaimed. Or maybe you finally recognized the selfishness of your desires and moved with greater willingness toward surrender.

Whether or not you're a writer, you have a story to tell. Please consider submitting a 400- to 500-word essay that begins with this lead:

I’ve wanted (I want) I didn’t want (or I don’t want)

And don't forget to include your biographical information and a photo if you wish. (I do reserve copyediting rights simply for clarity.)

Thank you in advance for your submissions!

Makeover: How things look a little different around here

jenmichel@me.com

My children have come to euphemistically call my grey hair, “silvers.” They’re fonder of them than I. If you have grey hair like I do (for goodness gracious sakes, try imagining for a moment!), you know how the anxious weeks feel leading up to your salon appointment, the weeks during which your “silvers,” despite your first-degree attempts, are being resuscitated.

(You have roots. And wish no one to notice.)

There have been some roots around here on my website. In fact, I sat in Adrianna Wright’s office several weeks ago (she’s the online publicist for IVP), and we stared at my roots.

“Well, there is such a thing as too much creative white space.”

It wasn’t until days later, as I lay in bed thinking about the pixilated image of my website's roots on her extra-large monitor that I realized: my header had disappeared!

I used to have, at the very least, a header with my name and tagline of my site. But where had it gone? And why hadn’t I noticed? (These and other perplexing questions about my life.)

At any rate, the silvers have been dealt with, and I hope you’re glad to be here. I’m grateful to Ben Goshow for putting up with this Luddite. (If you need a web developer, I’d highly recommend. And check out Fishhook while you’re at it.) I’m also thankful to Joe Dudeck for the beautiful header image, and I’m happy to say I’ve got more of Joe’s amazing work to feature on the blog in upcoming weeks.

Now it’s your turn. Gush in the comments about the makeover.

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.

 

 

 

 

When you google yourself

Ben Goshow

I confess. I have done this on occasion. It turns up the occasional rant about something I've written, which is sometimes funny (and often not). Tonight though, I found my book on Amazon! It's available for pre-order. Now, let me admit that we writers are an insufferable bunch. I met the likes of me at a party last night, and twenty minutes into this author's self-absorbed monologue about her book and the writing of the book and the upcoming week of revisions and the "wish my editor has done more creatively to the content of the book," I was panning the room for escape.

(Is this what you think of me?) Nevertheless.

I have a book. On Amazon.

And pre-orders are immensely helpful to the company of the insufferable.

Thanks.

Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith (American friends)

Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith (Canadian friends)

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