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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: Marilynne Robinson

Ernie Johnson and the Art of "Housekeeping"

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.


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.


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!

Breaking the Bread of Belief: Laughter

(Today's post is the ninth in a series entitled, "Breaking the Bread of Belief." Read about beginning, dust, home, feast, naked, death, altar and stars.) All images courtesy of Joetography.

* * * * *


A friend recently emailed to ask if I'd read Lila, Marilynne Robinson's recently-released novel.

"No," I wrote. "Stupidly, I've decided to reread all of Robinson's novels before starting Lila."

A month into this endeavor, and I've finished Housekeeping and have arrived halfway through Gilead, the long letter John Ames, a man well into his seventies (and terminally ill), is writing to his seven-year-old son. He pens the letter in the hopes that his son will read it many years after his death, when he's an adult—as a way to know his father.

I've always counted Gilead my least favorite of Robinson's novels, but more recently, I'm wondering if that's because I am having to work a little harder at it. As the novel is written from John Ames's point of view, I'm not sure how much to trust Ames as a narrator. To what extent can we count on the reliability of his motives? You have to read a bit suspiciously in order to find reality between his perceptions and the truth.

If John Ames is sometimes unreliable, he waxes quite eloquently on theology. (And this makes the book beautiful and instructive, worth every mustered effort.) Ames has been a pastor his entire life. His father was a pastor, his grandfather a pastor. His life has been devoted to the ministry, and because he was into his sixties before he married and had a child, he spent many solitary years in the company of great books, including great theological works. He seems particularly fond of Calvin (as Robinson herself is).

"Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience," writes Ames. "That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense."

"I like Calvin's image because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little. It would be a way into understanding essential things, since presumably the world exists for God's enjoyment, not in any simple sense, of course, but as you enjoy the being of a child even when he is in every way a thorn in your heart."

God enjoying us. We think too little of that.

This is our ninth word of faith: laughter.

Laughter stands at the foreground of the Abrahamic narrative. First, there is Abraham's incredulous laughter when God insists Sarah will bear the child of promise.

“Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” Abraham speaks these words silently to himself, laughing at the sheer impossibility of what God has said. He has too little faith to believe this reality into being, so he bargains with God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before you!” (17:17, 18)

The second laughter scene arrives on the heels of the first: Sarah is eavesdropping at the flap of the tent opening, having just prepared cakes for her and Abraham's three unexpected visitors. Different than other annunciation scenes in Scriptures, the news of impending pregnancy is delivered to the father, rather than the mother. But Sarah overhears, receiving the news just as Abraham had earlier.

“After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” (Gen. 18:12). (Robert Alter's translation is particularly vivid: "After being shriveled, shall I have pleasure and my husband is old?")

Sarah laughs—and denies that she laughs. It is difficult for her to own how the years have desiccated her faith, disappointing her desire for child and wringing out all fertile hope.

Then, a third scene, without any intervening commentary about the movement that has obviously been made.

Isaac is born to the stooped man and woman who had, at times, laughed bitterly at the prospect of promise.


His name means, "He laughs."

And Sarah, as her breasts leak, speaks words that are a magnificat:

"Who would have uttered to Abraham—Sarah is suckling sons!" (21:7).

This is a tender scene. God's promise has been fulfilled, and there is laughter.

Of course. Because joy is fundamental to who God is.

And yet—

The laughter is silenced so quickly.

In chapter 22, Isaac—He laughs—is the son whom Abraham is asked to sacrifice. To read the soul-rending climb to Mount Moriah in Genesis 22 is to note the stark silence of the drama. There are so few recorded words, and certainly there is no laughter.

Only the father willing to sacrifice, He laughs.

A foreshadowing.

Laughter, crucified. The God, to whom joy is fundamental, forsaken.

Jesus is our Isaac, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. He willingly goes to his death in order to restore the world to its joyful wholeness, to return laughter to every desiccated hope and barren desire.

And what will heaven be if not laughter? "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and Death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (Rev. 21:4).

Laughter: a word of faith, especially when we are Sarah and Abraham, waiting, abiding disappointment, losing hope, laughing bitterly.

Our incredulity at God's goodness does not handicap his faithfulness. In all the intervening space between promise and fulfillment, God is clearing the way for laughter, birthing an Isaac, making room for his (and our) eternal joy at reconciling humanity to himself.

God enjoying us. We think too little of that.


Breaking the Bread of Belief: Death

Death (Today's post is the sixth in a series entitled, "Breaking the Bread of Belief." Read about beginning, dust, home, feast and naked.)

All images courtesy of Joetography.

* * * * *

In anticipation of the release of her fourth novel, Lila, I've been rereading all of Marilynne Robinson's novels.

Housekeeping, published in 1980, is the story of two sisters, who have been serially abandoned. Ruthie, the older sister, narrates the tragedies they've suffered and how they've eventually come under the care (if it can be called 'care') of their mother's mentally-ill sister, Sylvie.

The central focus in the novel's scenery is the lake on the banks of which the town of Fingerbone sits. It's the lake into which Ruthie and Lucille's maternal grandfather plunged by train many years earlier, killing about but two of the passengers on board. It's also the lake into which their mother has driven her car over a cliff, ending her life.

At one point, Ruthie thinks of all the dead people who would be brought to the surface if the lake were dredged. "In such a crowd my mother would hardly seem remarkable."

She continues.

"There would be a general reclaiming of fallen buttons and misplaced spectacles, of neighbors and kin, till time and error and accident were undone, and the world become comprehensible and whole."

"Everything must finally be made comprehensible."

To peer into the lake is to see death. And there is nothing more incomprehensible than that.

Today's word is death.

It has been too much with me, death. I was eighteen when my father died unexpectedly, and the world shifted inalterably, disabusing me of ideas of permanence. We do not last. And even the young can die.

I was twenty-three when my brother died, and there's no sense to be made of suicide. Can a human being die without hope? A cruel and terrible question, one I do not answer.

Death is too much with us.

I see it out the car window, watching them stroll by. First, I notice the elderly woman, managing ably with her wheeled walker. In the basket, there's a tied-up plastic bag from the local pharmacy. I notice the care in the knot.

And then I see he's catching up, slower for his cane. He reaches her, sliding his gnarled, mottled hand over hers. Is it a gesture is to steady himself? A habit of affection he's long practiced?

They smile and talk, lowering their faces as if sharing secrets.

I think of death.

And wonder of my own eventual loneliness, should Ryan oblige himself to statistics. What would it be like to grow old without him? To outlive our marriage? The thought sears, and I pray to be spared.

The foolishness of that.

It is too much with us.

If the gospel has meant anything (and it has meant much), it has reminded me that there need now remain no fear in death. Death is no concluding chapter, no punctuated finale. It will have no last word.

"Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery," (Heb. 2:14, 15).

Death had been too much with us. And the God-Man took upon himself its incomprehensibility, senselessness, and haunting fear.

He died. And felt the god-forsakenness of being mortal. And on the third day—

Time and error and accident began to be undone, and the world started to become comprehensible and whole.

On the third day—

Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?"

On the third day—


Books I've read this year (and my top recommendation)

I began the year with an ambitious reading list. You can find it here and laugh at the foolish notions January can put into a woman's head. So far, I've read:

The Fruitful Life by Gerald Bridges (My most recent issue for Today in the Word was about the fruit of the Spirit. This book was a good resource for that particular topic. I'd recommend it as a resource for newer believers.)

Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller (This book is especially appropriate for me since the book I'm writing is on the subject of desire. Keller has terrific insights to help us explore what motivates some of our chronic sin patterns.)

Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith (I am now an official Smith groupie. This book is a more academic and theologically profound treatment of desire than mine will be, but you'll probably see lots of Smith in my book. And Jamie, if you're reading, will you write my foreword??)

Death of Adam by Marilynne Robinson (Ok, confession. I've only finished the introduction and half of the essay on Darwinism. She's brilliant. And I am not.)

Still by Lauren Winner (I blogged about this book here.)

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (I felt good for having read it, but this, unfortunately, was the biggest pleasure of the experience.)

Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler (I blogged about it here.)

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (I started out LOVING this book. I was listening to it on audio, but I got tired of it and didn't finish.)

House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (I am reading this now. Can you believe I have a Master's in Literature and this is my first Wharton?)

And finally, the BEST book I've read so far and one that I suggest you IMMEDIATELY reserve at the library or buy on your Kindle:

Lit by Mary Karr

I love spiritual memoir, and I suppose this book fits into that genre, although it certainly wouldn't figure as "typical."

First prayer that Mary Karr ever prays?

"Higher power: where the f--- have you been?"

This is a book that is jarring and raw. Mary Karr has bled this book from her veins, and I cannot believe how stunningly powerful it is without the least hint of having been overwrought. I am in LOVE with this book. I want everyone to read this book. And if it didn't break every rule about writing, I would now end this sentence with a thousand and one exclamation points.


Later, I'll tell you more about the writing wisdom I took away from Karr's book. But for now, get the book and READ IT.