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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: books

Celebrate Advent: Make room for faith. (Luke 1:26-39)

jenmichel@me.com

Yesterday, I told you all about our little miracle and answered prayers. It seems appropriate that today's word, in this series of reflections on Advent, is believe. When the angel visited Mary, bringing the incredible news that she, a young, unmarried girl, would give birth to God's Son, Mary suspends her fear and incredulity. She believes.

My own story of belief starts way back. I had parents who were faithful Baptists. We went to church when the doors were open.

But when I became a teenager, the Jesus-stuff bored me. Religion seemed something much better practiced by the thirty-somethings,who, settled down with kids, would be spending their Friday nights at home anyways.

And then I had a come-to-Jesus moment. I was sixteen, attending a week-long camp with my youth group.

It wasn't a moment I'd prepared for or anticipated. I certainly had no intention of becoming a Jesus freak. But it was a moment that would change my life irrevocably.

It's since that time that I've come to believe the craziest, most hopeful things, about God and this world.

I believe in a God who forgives and pursues.

I believe in a God who listens.

I believe in a God who speaks.

I believe in a God whose purpose it is to undo brokenness and make things finally right.

I believe in a God who is near.

I believe in Jesus.

Not sure where you are in your own personal journey of faith, but I do have some spiritual memoirs to recommend, written by people who describe their own journey of belief.

A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken

Girl Meets God by Lauren Winner (And Lauren recommends her own favorite spiritual memoirs here)

Amazing Grace by Kathleen Norris

No Compromise by Keith Green

Beyond Our Selves by Catherine Marshall

For the intellectually skeptical, here are some very reasoned books about faith.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

The Reason for God by Tim Keller

Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright

The Language of God by Francis Collins

Getting Things Done

jenmichel@me.com

Let's talk lists, but don't for one second go on believing that my house and my life are finely tuned or well-oiled. I told you I read a book years ago by David Allen called Getting Things Done. Great read, highly recommend, and I've giving him credit right up front for most of what's to follow in this post.

He says this: we're stressed because we have too many ideas and to-dos that we haven't "captured." Those vague notions of "should" and "don't forget" float untethered in our brain, and because we haven't bothered to write them down, we're constantly worried that we're forgetting something.

Photo Credit

I see two problems.

Problem 1: System failure.

Problem 2: User failure.

(Note: this blogpost only deals with problem 1.)

You might already be a list maker, but maybe you're like I once was. I wrote and rewrote lists, and the same to-dos kept getting ignored. Or, like my life presently,  your life is getting more and more complicated, and you need a better system for handling A LOT of details. The calendar squares simply don't cut it anymore.

OK. Here's where to start, and I know this sounds overwhelming. But change always feels that way at first, doesn't it?

1. First, don't write ANYTHING on your calendar that isn't time sensitive. Got it? Don't write, "Dry Cleaners" on today's calendar square if you're thinking you might be putting that off till next Monday. Write only the appointments and commitments you have TODAY. What this does is make your calendar RELIABLE, and if your calendar is reliable, you'll trust it. If, however, you clog it up with a bunch of half-hearted, "Maybe I'll try to fit this in today," you'll ignore your calendar altogether and forget the really important stuff. The key is to create for yourself systems that you trust. When you trust your systems, you can give your brain a little time-off.

2. Decide where you're going to "collect" your to-dos. You need lists for all the things you need to do which aren't time-sensitive, and you need to figure out where to keep those lists. Do you like pen and paper? Buy a simple spiral notebook. Are you a smartphone kind of person? I'll show you my MOST FAVORITE APP tomorrow. Or maybe you sit at your computer all day, and can keep a list open on your desktop. Whatever you decide, you need to have it WITH you for the majority of the day. If you like pen and paper (which I do generally), but find you're always forgetting your notebook somewhere, you might need to make a change. I fought going electronic because I really loved having a planner, but I needed something more portable. Now I love having ALL my lists on my iPhone.

The point is, if you don't have your lists with you when you suddenly think, "I need to call Grandma," you'll file that thought away somewhere in your foggy brain, and it's not resurfacing again anytime soon. And you know what happens next. STRESS.

CAPTURE it, and FORGET about it. . .until later. (P.S., that means you need to write it down. Review problem #2 above.)

3. Rethink what a "project" is, and organize your lists according to projects. This is a GTD trick (shorthand for those of us in the David Allen fan club). According to David Allan, anything with three or more to-dos is a "project." I'll show you what I mean. But first, you're going to need a "today" list, a "next" list, and a "someday" list.

First, you need a list for today's projects. And NOTHING goes on this list except the things you're ABSOLUTELY committed to doing. (Don't forget, if you write something down that you're not REALLY committed to, you will find every reason NOT to look at your list. And if you don't look at your list, you probably won't do it. Nothing magical about writing it down, folks. You've also got to LOOK AT THE LIST.)

Second, you need a list for projects that are "next." These are the, don't-have-to-do today kinds of things, but hey, maybe that third cup of coffee kicks in some afternoon, and you're through with your "today" list. That's when you look to your "next" list. Currently on my next list: chore chart for the kids, check out ski hills, church membership form, sew basket liners with Audrey, etc.

You also need a list for projects that are "someday." (Ooo, I love this list. This is where I write down the random vacation spot I've heard about or a restaurant I want to try or a website I want to check out. Not urgent enough even to make it to "next." But I'll be glad to have written it down because someday I'm going to think, "Where was that horseback riding place that Lynne told me about?" and I'm going to look at my "someday" list and see, "Oh yeah, Cedar Creek Ranch!")

Finally, you need a whole assortment of lists for your various ongoing "projects." Remember, a project is anything that is three or more to-dos. Projects are big, small, and in-between. Planning a birthday party? That's a project. Writing a book? Project. Managing your kids' clothes? Project. Projects are fluid, and as soon as you finish them, you can delete the list entirely or tear that page out of your binder. Oh, what accomplishment! The to-dos that show up on your project list are eventually moved to either "today" or "next." Think of your project lists as all the things you currently have going and are responsible for. If you can't really think of what "projects" you have ongoing, start by considering all the different roles you play, all the different hats you wear. That might help.

Here are the project lists I'm currently keeping:

Meals (Dinners I plan to make.)

Blog (Ideas for posts.)

Read (Books I've had recommended to me and want to read)

States (Things I need to do when we're back in the States)

Children's Ministry (Stuff to help with the church here)

Moms' Group (Bible Study I help lead here)

Class Rep (Yep, I overcommitted again.)

House (Elmhurst): (Projects, decorating ideas, repairs)

Gifts (What I've already bought or intend to)

Praying (Requests)

Ryan (Talk to him about . . .)

Waiting for (Emails, phone calls, packages that I'm expecting and need to act on)

Email/Call/Letter (All the people I want to remember to connect with)

Clothing (Things to shop for.)

Now I've got a space for just about every idea that pops into my brain. Any anything that doesn't neatly fit into a "project" list can also go directly into my "today," "next" or "someday" list.

Now, you've got some homework. Go do a big BRAIN dump and figure out what your ongoing projects are. Collect all those squirmy ideas in your brain. Tomorrow, I'll tell you about my favorite app that makes managing my lists SO EASY. (But no, it doesn't solve Problem 2. See above.)

How-to Friday: Rethink your time management

jenmichel@me.com

I'm not a list-junky. In college, I picked a book off my roommate's shelf, and it changed my life. It's not the kind of book you expect to do that, but I gave away clothes and bought a calendar.

Out of college, I bought my first Franklin Day planner. It was gluttonous, all that paper and all my scribbling. But oh, the delicious pleasure of feeling like life was pencilled in and managed.

And then dawned the era of the diaper bag. By necessity, I opted for something slimmer and electronic. (And p.s., nothing felt neatly managed anymore.)

Almost eleven years later, managing our calendars, shopping lists, menus and budget demands a fair amount of my time and attention. I like to be practical and efficient, and it's become a sort of a game I play, this managing the primordial details of life and yet creating time and energy for something more.

David Allen wrote a fantastic book, and I'm sure he intended that  executives in cushy, leather chairs read it. But even in this no-income, predictable kind of life I lead, I've found his advice about time management and list-keeping unbelievably helpful.

I want you read the book, but in the event that reading a book on time management sounds about as much fun as having a tooth extracted, I'll preview some of his best ideas.

First, you're stressed because you're plagued by the nagging fear that you're forgetting something. You have an unreliable system for keeping track of your appointments and to-dos. Your brain plays host to a million, untethered ideas, and they're running amok up there. Sound familiar anyone?

Second, you haven't spent the time evaluating what needs to be done when. When do you work best? What tasks need to be prioritized? How much time will they demand from you? I'm chronically failing here. I can write the list.  But looking at it or prioritizing it feels akin to donating my kidney.

Third, you don't build time into your week to reflect on your priorities, to evaluate whether your to-dos are moving you closer to those priorities, and to plan your calendar. Plain and simple, your desk is a mess, you play constant catch-up, and the thought of doing anything about it feels overwhelming.

OK, so I'm no miracle worker. And no one system is right, no one method foolproof. But in the weeks to come (on Fridays) I'll open up my books, so to speak, and give a peek as to how I keep track of life.

Stay tuned.

Empty Pockets

jenmichel@me.com

Too many of the big religious words go undefined these days. And I'm one for words.

I can sink my teeth for days into a single word or a short phrase. I have little capacity for more. The sheer noise of this household, the demands of our schedules, the insistence of my technological devices,the quiet voice of the Spirit. Everyday I feel battered by the simplest of decisions: to what do I pay attention?

And so it is that simple words and phrases have a way of arresting my attention and capturing my imagination. I knead the words, pulling and stretching and letting them rise, hoping that something permanent will lodge within me and do that mysterious and invisible work of transformation.

At the communion table this past Sunday, our pastor spoke these two words, words that have rattled around in my soul over the last several days.

Infinite obligation.

The context of his words, as you can imagine, was Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross for all humanity. But rather than referring to our guilt as sin, he phrased it like this, as infinite obligation.

Those words pierced me in a new way. A sinner, I know I am. Anger. Pride. Hypocrisy. Fear. In defiance of all my best efforts, they cling to me, lurking in the shadows, publicizing that I am chronically failing God, myself, and the ones I love most fiercely.

But infinite obligation?

The story of the Prodigal Son, to which I referred yesterday, is a story of obligations. Against cultural convention, the younger son demands his share of the inheritance before his father's death. He wants it now.

It's a shameless act. A flagrant kind of slap in the face.

And of course the inheritance buys him his share of fun, but it's only a matter of time until the funds run dry. At his most desperate, he decides to return home.

"I shall get up and go to my father, and I'll say to him: 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I don't deserve to be called your son any longer. Make me like one of your hired hands.'"

And if you know the story, you remember that it is when the son is still a long way off, barely visible on the horizon, that the father sees him, gathers his robes and runs to him, announcing to that his son, his lost son, is found! Kill the best calf, bring the best robe, we'll throw the kind of party that no one will forget!

Because Jesus is such a masterful storyteller, the parable of the Prodigal Son offers some many layers of meaning, too many to explore here. (I highly recommend the book, Prodigal God, by Tim Keller.)

But one thing the story does do is explain a word that wants to wriggle out of our hands. A word we're convinced is outdated. A word that makes us uncomfortable, but a word that is uniquely biblical and indispensable for describing just what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Repentance.

The son came home with empty pockets. He had no excuses to offer his father.  The damage was irreparable, the obligation infinite.

And the father received him because his love for his son, screw-up that he was, was just that big.

Repentance is an empty-pockets kind of moment and requires just enough faith to come home.

Before we've yet reached the door, the Father's love silences our speeches and receives us, screw-ups that we are.

It's just that big.