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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: forgiveness

Breaking the Bread of Belief: Table

The garage door opened early Saturday morning, and the van disappeared down the driveway and around the bend. I was left to an empty house and the cavernous silence. Ryan was taking the children to Chicago for the week so I could work without interruption on a book proposal. By Sunday night, I was falling asleep with thoughts of The Shining: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." I am not Thoreau.

An empty house is a thing of reverie for so many mothers. (And I complain?) We spend the lives of our young children wishing that the clamor of rearing them and the never-ending noise of family would play out—at least long enough for us to inspire a long breath of peace.

I have more quiet these days. The children are older. They attend school. Most days, I'm home, keeping company with my thoughts, but sometimes, the solitude isn't nearly as satisfying as I'd imagined.

Maybe for this reason—we are made for the table.



I can't believe the prominence the meal plays in the Scriptures, and I've written enough about my fascination with God playing host, we guest. It will be, I hope, the subject of my next book.

But I wanted to draw your attention here to an article I've recently written for Desiring God that centers the table in the story of God.

"Welcome is a metaphor for Christian salvation, and this is most visible portrayed in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. A wealthy father is affronted by his youngest son who, as if wishing him dead, demands his inheritance in advance of his father’s death. The son splits town, gambles the money on guilty pleasures, and before long, is hungry enough to feed himself from the troughs of the pigs.

Not daring to imagine he’ll be restored as a son yet hoping to be received as a servant, the son returns to the father. The welcome-home is extravagant.

A robe!

A ring!

The fattened calf!

Sparing no expense, the father throws the wildest party the village has ever seen in celebration of his son’s return.

“My son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found!” (Luke 15:24).

If welcome is so fundamental to the nature of God, hospitality is one practice for growing into our likeness of and desire for him . . . [It] allows us to enter into what God has been doing from the beginning of time: loving humanity by his welcome."

God loved each of us at the table. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus broke bread in the company of friends and of betrayers. They would not outlast the night of his arrest. They would scatter, and Jesus would be left alone.

But the invitation—to the table—would stand.

This is what faith means. It means beginning to believe that you, the betrayer, have no place at the table. Like the Prodigal Son, you're estranged from the Father. But He—the One who from the beginning of time has been keeping house—invites you back. Your meal is paid, and you become an honored guest. There is celebration at your return, of course. But the real honor is reserved for the Host: the guests lift their glasses to Him and remember that His goodness and lovingkindness set—

The table.

* * * * *

Today's post is the final meditation in a series entitled, "Breaking the Bread of Belief." Read about beginning, dust, home, feast, naked, death, altar, stars, and laughter.)

All images courtesy of Joetography.

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

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

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

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

I am forgiving: Review of "Forgiving our Fathers and Mothers"

Ben Goshow

forgiving our fathers and mothers There will always be someone to forgive. And the need to be forgiven.

Forgiveness may be the greatest of our life’s work, and it is work because it requires the diligent, difficult effort of remembering, revisiting, and then releasing. But the work of forgiveness is not like ordinary work of our hands. Forgiving is not like writing an essay, carving a table, or preparing a savory soup. There is not the finished product of forgiveness from which we stand back, lean on our elbows, and admire. There is not often any real sense of completion and accomplishment for the toil involved.

Which is why it may be more true to say, “I am forgiving,” rather than “I have forgiven.” We don’t finish with forgiveness (although there was one who did that. It is finished.) Rather, we keep at it. The work. And the daily deciding.

I am learning this. I am learning that I need not will today to forgive forever. I need only to, today, decide that I am forgiving. And if you want to get grammatical about it, forgiveness is a present participle, not a completed past action. Begun in the past, continuing presently: this is forgiveness. We cannot decide tomorrow’s forgiveness. Only today, let us forgive – and become a forgiving people.

Becoming a forgiving person and leading a forgiving life is an idea that comes to me from recently reading Leslie Leyland Field’s book, Forgiving Our Fathers and Our Mothers. Fields has undertaken to write a book that does not prescribe how to forgive so much as to describe what forgiveness, in practice, really looks like. Its stories are tender and tragic, hopeful and hard. It is every man and every woman’s story, for we’ve all grown up in human families. And human families fail.

Field’s own story is more tragic than most: hers was a distant father. He was often absent and out of work. There wasn’t enough food. There wasn’t enough love. And years later, after having left her childhood home, she realized that her father had sexually abused her sister.

How to forgive that man? That monster? And of course there was infinite reason not to. Fields describes the busyness of her life, the thousands of miles of convenient distance between them, the inexcusable sins that she cannot justify excusing. “We’ve all run,” she describes, “fugitives from our own stories, our pasts.” Only in her mid-thirties does she, moved by the Spirit, slow enough: to remember, revisit, and finally release.

We read of Field’s last years and days with her father, of her reaching across the divide of her father’s indifference to love and to honor him. This is a story of her life, and of her journey into forgiveness. But it is also a story of his death. And I am coming to cherish books like this one.

No one is teaching me to love my mother, my step-father, my mother- and father-in-law as they grow old and frail and potentially return to an infantile state of dependence. I have no examples, no mentors for the end-of-life scenarios that I cannot now imagine for my parents, much less for my husband and for me. Where are my daily reminders of death, so necessary according to St. Benedict? Because if he’s right, I need them to live.

This book is a good read, and Fields is a humble guide—into forgiveness and life and even unto death.

“I am just beginning,” she admits near the end of the book. “I am just learning to live a forgiving life.”




Raccoon-phobia: And what I'm learning from Jeremiah

I am terrified of raccoons. I suppose it began the day when one greeted me from inside my garbage can. I lifted the lid to find a masked bandit burrowing in the trash. And as is true with Toronto raccoons, they scare us far worse than we scare them. Ryan recently relayed a story typical of their nonchalance: several weeks ago, he was outside in the late afternoon when one casually sauntered down the driveway toward the backyard. Had the raccoon been able to speak, Ryan imagined he would have announced, "Honey, I'm home!"

What has any of this to do with what I've been reading in the Bible recently?

Nothing except that I'd left my One Year Bible in the car several days in a row, and in order to retrieve it in the dark hours of early morning, I would have to chance an encounter with a racoon.

So I didn't.

Clearly I'm no candidate for martyrdom.

But I did remember that I was in the book of Jeremiah and decided to continue reading there - from a Bible that was safely shelved in my family room.

God's Word has been speaking to me through the book of Jeremiah in ways that are timely and relevant. I marvel at how this happens: that I land at a certain passage, and its providential counsel speaks directly into a situation I'm facing.

Jeremiah is a prophet asked by God to preach hellfire and brimstone. Judah is soon to be exiled, and he's tolling the warning - except no one cares and there are a host of other prophets announcing peace and prosperity whom the people would much prefer to believe.

It isn't as if Jeremiah is always impervious to persecution and threats and hatred. He begs for his life. He pleads for God to intervene. He commiserates that such is his task.

Jeremiah is human, not bionic man: there is real sadness and despair and fear in the midst of doing what God has clearly called him to do. But what you sense is the open dialogue he shares with God - that it is to God he always returns and finds safety and further courage to keep advancing.

"If you have raced with men on foot, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you are so trusting, what will you do in the thicket of the Jordan?" Jeremiah 12:5

When God calls us to participation, we shouldn't imagine that it will be easy, that our movement forward will be unobstructed, that we will feel perpetual joy and peace as we work for the kingdom. No - that is the wide road.

And that's not the one that we travel.

Do something for God, and remember that it will always, always require of you COURAGE. And you don't get courage handed to you in a vat, as if all you needed was to ladle it out and drink it up when the situation demanded for it. You get courage in the form of a Person, who is the Holy Spirit. He walks with us, resides within us: He's closer than our breath.

He is always near, hemming us above and behind and around.

"I will make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls . . . they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the LORD, to deliver you." Jeremiah 1:18

There are so many forms of courage that we need as God's people: relational courage: to forgive and be forgiven, to speak truth and to receive it back in kind; moral courage: to do what is right and defend what is right; spiritual courage: to offer to God and to others whatever breeds from our faith; vocational courage: to work as if we were working for the LORD, not for men and woman; emotional courage: to stick it out in the dark places of self-doubt.

I have no doubt that you need courage today. I do. And I have no doubt that we need it because God's calling is usually bigger than us. God invites us into jobs that only He can do.

And faith grows in that kind of partnership.

"And without faith it is impossible to please God." Hebrews 11:6





Celebrate Advent: Make room for forgiveness. (Matthew 1:18-25)

She undresses. Fears and insecurities, slowly and carefully unbuttoned.  Wrinkled pretense, stripped and heaped at her feet. And when she finally stands before us, crowded room of practical strangers, she is soul-naked and exposed, and we, the voyeurs, we stare.

She whispers quiet the bedroom conversations and tortured inner dialogues. She opens doors to her interior spaces. It's the of space you don't keep neat for guests.

She risks, divulging the bloody guts of what it really means to live wrecked. 

And we hold out our hands to receive her fragile and holy confessions.

And breathe relief.

She is like us.

We are wrecked, too.

* * * * *

There's a word for this wrecked state of the human soul. It's called sin.

And Advent, if nothing else, is this and most simply this: a season to celebrate a Savior. God-Man, Jesus, stepping into human skin and bearing all its porousness, hero for the wrecked.

"Neither the language of medicine nor of law is adequate substitute for the language of [sin]. Contrary to the medical model, we are not entirely at the mercy of our maladies. The choice is to enter into the process of repentance. Contrary to the legal model, the essence of sin is not [primarily] the violation of laws but a wrecked relationship with God, one another and the whole created order. 'All sins are attempts to fill voids,' wrote Simone Weil. Because we cannot stand the God-shaped hole inside of us, we try stuffing it full of all sorts of things, but only God may fill [it]." - Barbara Brown Taylor

To admit I'm a sinner is surrender the pretense and lay down the excuse-making.

To embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ is to admit the dead-ends of my resolutions. I keep none of my promises. I'm the repeat offender. I am hopelessly criminal in what I do and intend and neglect.

For the wrecked, forgiveness is the fantastic news of Advent.

Empty Pockets

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.


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.