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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: grief

When life plunges you below the surface

jenmichel@me.com

New salvationWhen my brother committed suicide at age 25, I grieved for a week before returning to my classroom. To the eagerness of getting on with it. The faces of my high school students were sympathetic, and I tried sketching faint details of my loss without the public horror of confessing what had really happened. This is often what suicide does—leave whispers in the wake of its failed explanations.  After I’d returned home from the funeral, cards began arriving. For most of them, I was deeply appreciative, thankful for friends, who tried reaching across the chasm of their own helplessness to express comfort. I didn’t need them to understand, but I did need them to acknowledge David’s death. To say that something—someone—had been lost. I needed their testimony to the horror without the additional burden of their silence.

Of all those kind words I received, there was one card I didn’t forget. Maybe it’s most true to say that there was one card I didn’t forgive. It came from people at my church, of all places. And while I know the effort was well-intentioned, I won’t forget opening the card that lacked any personal acknowledgment of the particulars of my situation. At the top of the store-bought stock condolences, they had written my name: Jen. At the bottom, they had dashed off an impersonal signature line: From the grief committee.

I imagined a group of them circled up, a stranger drawing my name from the pile of the week’s tragedies.

“Jen Michel. Her brother committed suicide. Dear me.”

Our deepest condolences, The Grief Committee.

It has been almost twenty years since that card—twenty years since David’s death and the earlier death of my father. I guess I’m not done with talking about those losses. Maybe I’m making up for lost time: all the time that I didn’t know that belief abided lament.

The last couple of weeks have brought great loss to many people I love. The situations vary, but the bottom line is the same: life seems undeniably capricious and cruel. I find myself wordless in response to their suffering. What should I say? I stare blankly at my computer screen, trying to compose an email, and feel my helplessness. I want to reel them in from their grief. I want to rescue their sinking figure before their faith tires of struggle. But I know there are no words to effect that kind of rescue. The terror is: there are some losses that plunge us below the surface of life, and death is a strangling, dark place.

My friends don’t need my platitudes, as much as I want to say some helpful word. But they do need my presence, which is why I’ll plan to see them soon. And for now, I’ll keep praying Psalm 118:14 on their behalf: “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” Lord, have mercy.

Here’s something that loss has taught me: faith does not preclude pain, but every time the bottom falls out of life, God becomes our salvation again. It’s not simply that he is our salvation. It’s that for every loss, he meets us in the particularities, becoming a salvation that we have not yet known. His comfort is not a stock card, dashed off with the impersonal signature, “Condolences, God.” His salvation meets us in the unique particularities of our grief.

And he doesn’t let go.

The bottom fell out of my life as a very young woman: in each of those losses, I met a God who became strength and song and salvation. And if life is an inventory of loss, as much as love and laughter (and I think it is), there is a God who endlessly becomes our salvation. He receives our bitterness and anger and faithful lament and enfolds us—not usually with explanations. But always with love.

I’ll tell my friends this. Not yet. But someday.

The Pain - and Purpose - of Unfulfilled Desires

jenmichel@me.com

Sue MacDonald As I hope you know, Ryan and I are active members at Grace Toronto Church, which is a source of joy for us. Every church is imperfect, of course, but in four short years, Grace has profoundly shaped who we are as followers of Christ. I am so grateful for our pastors and staff members, and I'm also privileged to know many, many gifted women in my congregation.

One such woman is Sue MacDonald, our head pastor's wife. She co-founded Grace with Dan and is actively involved now in the church, serving, teaching, discipling, and sharing her home with others. Sue spoke this past weekend at our women's brunch on the story of Hannah (1 Samuel 1, 2) and the subject of unfulfilled desires. It was such a blessing to me and the other women there that I asked if I could share it with you here.

As it was a 30-minute talk she delivered, it's quite a bit longer than a normal blog post would be. But I would encourage you to find time today or this week to sit down with Sue's words. In whatever disappointments or delays you may find yourself, you can begin knowing more intimately the goodness of God.

- - -

This morning, I want to take some time to look at this idea of unfulfilled desires and expectations.

Tim Keller says - “No matter what precautions we take, no matter how well we have put together a good life, no matter how hard we have worked to be healthy, wealthy, comfortable with friends and family, and successful with our career — something will inevitably ruin it.”

Keller is simply saying what is true. We live in a world that is broken. Everyday we are met with unfulfilled desires and expectations – either in ourselves or in others. No matter where you are in your journey of faith, this reality is inescapable.

One of my earliest memories of coming face to face with the power of unfulfilled desire was when I was 9 years-old. My dad and mom had decided to move us from India to the Philippines. All I wanted to do was stay where I was. I did not want to move. I did not want to leave my life in India. I was adamant. But all the pleading and complaining did nothing to stop my parents from making the move. And for the first three months of our lives in the Philippines, every time we would leave the house, I would throw up! Yes, throw up! I did not want to be there. I desired to be home!

Since then, I have desired much. And along the way, there have been many unfulfilled desires – things that have ruined my otherwise “well-constructed” life. Some are simple desires like hitting 40 and noticing the effects of gravity on my body. Every time I look in the mirror, I desire the body I had in my 20’s. Some unfulfilled desires are more powerful than others and leave a more defining mark on you. The death of my mom created a series of unfulfilled desires. She wasn’t at my wedding. She wasn’t there when Shaila was placed in my arms.

How about you? Unfulfilled desires are powerful. What do you do when you are faced with them? How do you deal when something ruins your well put-together life?

I want us this morning to take a walk with Hannah. She was a woman who dealt with unfulfilled desires. Through her life and words in 1 Samuel 1 and 2, we will see the root of her pain, the shape of her pain, the response to the pain and the change promised in pain.

Firstly, the root of Hannah’s pain.

Here the story of Hannah begins with the author setting the scene. The scene opens with a brief description of Elkanah – who he was and where he came from - which is significant because it sets up the lineage of Samuel – one of the great deliverers of Israel.

And then, we learn he had two wives. One was named Hannah and the other Peninnah. The order of them introduced seems to indicate that Hannah was most likely Elkanah first wife. Peninnah, his second. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.

To understand the root of her pain, we must understand the object of her desire.

Hannah desired to be a mother. She desired children. Hannah desired a good thing. The Bible tells us desire is a good thing. The Psalms is filled with songs of desire. If you want to read more about desire, I commend to you Jen Michel’s book, “Teach Us To Want.” It is an excellent book that explores the concept of desire. But what I want to note in this text is that the object of Hannah’s desire was good. Most of the objects of our desires are good!

You may be here and desire to be married. That is a good desire. You may be here and desire to get a good education. That is a good desire. You may be here and desire to have a good job and career. These are all good things.

Hannah desired that which was good! Therefore, the root of Hannah’s pain, was a legitimate desire withheld. When good desires are withheld, there is real pain and sadness.

I know what it is to be barren. It is the days that have been numbered in my life. I feel Hannah’s pain as a woman. Dan and I had talked about having 6 kids, early on in our marriage. I agreed to birth only three, by the way. If we were going to have 6, we would have to adopt the rest. We had desires and expectations – good desires and natural expectations. To this day, there are times I wonder what our children would have looked like, what it would be like to feel a baby’s kick. There is a sadness that I will most likely live with the rest of my life. There is a grief that I will carry with me.

If you are here this morning and you are struggling with unfulfilled desires, you are not alone. Your pain, sorrow and sadness are legitimate if you desire a good thing.

Secondly, the shape of Hannah’s pain.

If you were an original reader you would have understood the importance of women having children in that culture.

In Hannah’s day, a woman’s success was determined by the number of children she had. Women found their purpose and future secured by their kids. It was what they expected of themselves and what their culture expected. To not have children, would be devastating – personally and socially. A woman’s day was spent taking care of her children. It was her work. It was her career. It is how a woman made her mark on her world. It was how her culture defined the “ideal” woman – the “successful’ woman.

Hannah’s pain not only stemmed from a legitimate desire but was shaped and intensified by external forces – in her case her family and culture.

As women of the 21st century living in Toronto, we may have slightly different ways of defining the ‘ideal’ woman. But our culture shapes and intensifies our desires as well. In our city, the ideal woman is one who is fit, fashionable, educated and successful. I must say in my city-neighborhood, throw in - married to an equally successful man and two children – preferably one of each gender - and now we have the ideal, successful woman!

For Hannah, her barrenness was not just a private sadness and grief but a very public one. And in the shape of her pain, we see the transformation of a good desire into an ultimate desire. Let’s look what happens in the story: Hannah’s husband, who we are told “loved her”, took another wife because she could not bear him children. I can only imagine what that must have communicated to her. Her private sadness – a very legitimate pain - now became a very public shame. Elkanah’s own desire to have children was greater than his love for Hannah.

On a side note, it must be said that the Bible does not ever endorse polygamy. Every time there are multiple wives involved, it is never a good thing. The consequence of breaking the marriage covenant speak for itself through the devastating carnage it leave in families. And Hannah’s story is no exception.

To make things worse, his second wife, Penninah, was jealous. We are told she considered Hannah a rival. The ironic thing is that Hannah wanted what Penninah had – children. Penninah wanted what Hannah had – the love of her husband. Both desires were good. But a good thing became the ultimate thing in both their lives. And now the object and intensity of their desires corrupted their emotions, actions and relationships. Is that not what happens to us as well when we make good things our ultimate things?

We are told Penninah, provoked Hannah in order to irritate her.” That word “irritate” means to grieve her. It was like pouring salt on an open wound. Hannah’s pain was magnified by the constant reminded of her unfulfilled desire by Penninah. And all it did was condemn her.

We are told, in no uncertain terms, in verses 7 and 8 that her anguish over not having children became her everything. She wept. That word “wept” means to moan with grief. She refused to eat. When you refuse to eat you are saying pretty much, “I just want to die! I can’t bear it no more. Life is not worth living if I do not get what I desire.”

We see, in the shape of Hannah’s pain, what happens when a good thing becomes an ultimate thing. Hannah was never meant to wrap her identity around having children. The good thing was never meant to define her. It could not carry the weight of her desire.

Is this not what happens to us? Good desires withheld are legitimately painful. But so many times, the pain of our unfulfilled desires begin to change shape when a good desire become an ultimate desire we cannot live without.

I can resonate with Hannah.

It was March of 2006, and my phone rang. It was my sister-in-law, my older brother’s wife. She and I had journeyed together in our infertility for over 10 years – grieved together, supported each other. Though we prayed that God would bless us with children, I was not prepared for what I was about to hear. She said, “Sue, I am pregnant!” I felt a ton of bricks fall on me. I knew the right thing to do… so I went on autopilot and said, “Binc, I am so excited for you! Praise God!” When in my heart, all I could say was, “Oh, my God!” By that evening, I was in no place to see people or talk to anyone. I climbed into the shower, turned the water on – scalding my skin and wept. Wept like I had not wept before. I felt like I was going to be undone. I still remember that day! I still remember that shower.

What are your unfulfilled desires? What cultural expectations drive those desires? Where, on the spectrum of pain, do you find yourself? Are you at the beginning, where you are grieving a good desire or are you where we find Hannah, where the object of her desire consumes her every waking moment?

The shape of her pain revealed that she no longer desired a good thing – for that good thing had become the ultimate thing.

So what now? What do we do when we find ourselves in this place?

Let’s look at Hannah’s response because in her response we see three things: Firstly, Hannah moved towards God.

Three words in verse 9, indicate Hannah’s initial response. “Hannah stood up.” After years of weeping and at times refusing to eat because she could not imagine how she could continue to live, “Hannah stood up.”

These are seemingly abrupt words in the narrative. And I believe Tim Keller is right, when he says that the author of Samuel put in this detail not by accident but to show us a turn in the story – a move to action. Something has changed in Hannah.

We are at a climax in the story in verse 8. It can go either way. Hannah can go about doing what she has been doing year after year and spend the rest of her days in misery and anguish or she can make a change.

Look with me at verse 7. It seemed that Hannah had gone to the house of the Lord before but we were told that Penninah provoked her to grief. In other words, she kept hearing the condemnation of those around and allowed it to define her. And all it did was condemn her - leaving her in anguish and pain.

Here’s the thing we learn, the world will condemn us when we don’t meet their expectations. And the more we look to the world around us to affirm us, the more we find ourselves condemned when we fail. But Hannah had enough of the condemnation that she felt. Not only had her body failed her, her husband had failed her and her culture was relentless in reminding her of her failure. It was in the midst of all this, that she “stands up” and decides to move towards God.

Secondly, Hannah came as she was.

Hannah did not clean herself up. She did not get her emotions in order. Note verse 10. Hannah came to God in “deep anguish.” She came “weeping bitterly.” She was in such pain and anguish that the priest, Eli, thought she was drunk.

So often we think we cannot come to God with our deepest pain. We feel that he won’t hear us unless we have it all together. Hannah’s story tells us that we can come to God with our deep hurts, even our anguish over making an idol of our desires.

It was in that same shower, where the scalding water was now taking it’s toll on my skin, that I poured out my pain, anguish and hurt to the Lord. Thank God for a flat-rate water bill that year!

Thirdly, Hannah came in submission. We see her posture of submission in the way she makes a vow with God.

Two times we were told in the first 8 verses, that God closed Hannah’s womb. I don’t know about you but does this make you uncomfortable? It should. Really at this point, you and I should be saying, this is all God’s fault! How could a loving God withhold something good? And not only something good, but in this case something He created Hannah to desire? What kind of God is He?

Do you desire to be married? Is that good? Yes! Then why would God withhold it? Are you out of work? Is it good to work? Yes! Then why would God withhold it?

Two truths about God that Hannah submitted to.

Firstly, God is the Almighty, Sovereign God.

For the first time in the Old Testament, God is introduced as the Lord Almighty in verse 3 and immediately we encounter a God, who exercises his power by closing Hannah’s womb. And in verse 11, she begins with the words, “Almighty God…”. --that is not a coincidence.

Hannah was confronted by her autonomy and God’s sovereignty. I am sure in those days, even though they did not have fertility treatments like we do now, there were most likely things that the women in her village made her do that they thought would make her pregnant. And she probably did them all. But she was still barren. And we are told that God made her so.

Hannah’s, very act of standing up, going to God, and addressing Him as the Almighty God, was an act of submission – a laying down of her autonomy and acknowledging God’s Sovereignty.

John Frame, in one of his writings, Believing in God in the Twenty-first Century, writes, ”Believing in the biblical God and believing in one’s own autonomy are absolutely contradictory, totally at odds with one another. You cannot do both. The God of the Bible is the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth. He will not permit himself to be found by a human intellect that shakes its fist in pride and says, “O I will be the final judge of truth and right.” No two views can be further apart than believing in the biblical God and believing in human autonomy.”

We see Hannah’s doctrine of God’s Sovereignty fully developed in Chapter 2, in her prayer of praise – verses 3 and 6.

“Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance for the Lord is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed…The Lord brings death and makes alive; he bring down to the grave and rises up. The Lord sends poverty and wealth, he humbles and exalts.”

Hannah’s heart had come to delight in the sovereignty of God – not just submit to it..

When our doings have failed us and our desires remain unfulfilled, when the world condemns us and we find ourselves at the end, we come to the Sovereign God of heaven and earth. And when we fully understand what it means that he is Sovereign, like Hannah, we will delight to submit to him. It will become a song of praise.

Not only did Hannah submit to a Sovereign God but secondly, Hannah submitted to a merciful God.

Note her prayer in verse 11, “If you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant.” These are the words of a subject in a King’s court pleading for mercy. Hannah came to realize only God could deal with the enormity of her situation and if he was not merciful then she would be undone. We now, on this side of the cross, have a greater confidence that God is merciful because His mercy was demonstrated in the gospel.

Hebrews 4 – “For we do not have a high priest (Jesus, God) who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

I don’t know how long I stood in that shower weeping but at the end of pouring out all my anguish I sat down in the tub and finally said these words, “If you don’t hold me, I will be undone Lord!” These were words of submission. These were the words that cried, “Do not forget me! Remember me! Because I will not survive, if you don’t!”

We have looked the root and shape of Hannah’s pain and her response. Now, finally, let’s take a look at Hannah’s change.

Her response began a change that was life-transforming.

In verse 11, she asks for a son. She says, “But give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life and no razor will ever be used on his head.”

At first glance it looks like nothing has changed. She still wants what she wants. But let’s look closer.

I am sure, year after year, when she went up the house of the Lord she asked God for a child. I don’t think this was the first time she pleaded with God. But this time she does not just ask for a child. She is specific. She wants a son. And not just a son, but a son she will give back to the Lord. A son who will be a Nazarite – “no razor will be ever used on his head.” A Nazarite was one who as soon as he was weaned would go live in the temple and eventually be trained to be a priest. This meant, she would not hold him or watch him grow. She would not be able to sing to him or cuddle him. Everything you do as a mom would not be hers to have. Do you see the change? She no longer needed a child to fulfill her – to give her a purpose or identity. The object of her desire had become another. God Himself. And her good desire, having children, was put back in its rightful place.

What a change! What freedom!

In verse 18,”it says that she went her way and ate something,” and her face was no longer downcast. Another translation reads, “no longer sad.” What a contrast to verse 7 where she wept and would not eat. Her unfulfilled desires no longer defined nor consumed her. She did not know if God would give her a son at that time. She knew if he did give her a son, then she would give him back to him. Her good desire had met her true ultimate desire – God Himself – and it freed her!

That night in my shower was a defining night for me. It is one that will be seared in my mind forever. It was the night that God, in His grace, simply spoke to the deep place of anguish and pain and said, “I am enough! You will not be undone.” There was no promise of a child given that night but there was a reminder of a Son who was given for all time!

In the course of time, Hannah did have a son, Samuel. Hannah brings him to Eli and says, “I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked him for. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life will be given over to the Lord.”

Then she prays this beautiful prayer of praise in chapter 2, a foreshadowing of the redemption of God, where he will make right all that is wrong. He will do it by turning everything upside down. “The bows of the warriors are broken and those who stumble are armed with strength. Those who are full hire themselves out for food, but those who are hungry are hungry no more. She who is barren has borne seven children but she who has had many sons pines away….He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.”

A long time later another woman, who carried another child, would pray a very similar prayer. Like Hannah, she too had a son. And like Samuel, this Son was going to deliver his people. And in His deliverance is THE PROOF that our God is totally sovereign and totally merciful.

Both Samuel and Jesus came to deliver God’s people. Samuel did it by ruling over the nation of Israel. Jesus did it by laying down his life and delivering God’s people from their real enemy – sin and death. And in doing so Jesus put to death any ideas that God does not care for us when he withholds our desires, that God does not feel our pain. Isaiah 53 says,

He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our grief’s and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace and with his wounds we are healed.”

In Jesus, we will never be undone because He was undone. In His undoing He bore all the wrath of God so that all the mercy and love of the Sovereign God could be poured upon us.

In Jesus, we can lay down our good thing because He laid down the good thing, his life. So that for all eternity, we can enjoy the ultimate thing – God Himself.

Found Wanting: Bronwyn Lea, "The prayers of my youth were filled with desire."

jenmichel@me.com

I am curating stories for a blog project called, “Found Wanting.” (If you’d like to submit a guest post, learn more here.) During Jesus’ earthly ministry, it was not uncommon for him to approach the sick and sin-sick with this question: “What do you want?” In John 5, he speaks with a man lying next to the healing waters of Bethesda, a man who has been an invalid for 38 years.

“When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’”

The man seizes an excuse. “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up.”

Was it too much for this man to hope for healing?

What is too great a risk to invite the responsibility for walking again?

There can be fear in desire: fear that we will want what God will always refuse to give; fear that we will not want whatever God, in his sovereignty, chooses to give.

Ultimately, we are profoundly afraid of ceding into the hands of God our trust.

I’m grateful for those willing to share their stories of desire here. I'm neither applauding nor condemning their stories: rather, I am amplifying their desires - and reminding each of us that to be human is to want. In my book, Teach Us to Want, I claim that:

“Desire takes shape in the particularities of our lives. We cannot excerpt desire from the anthology of our stories. Our desires say something about us – who we have been, who we are and who we are becoming. They tell a part of the story that God is telling through us, even the beautiful and complicated story of being human and becoming holy.”

To catch up on the series, read these featured stories: Amy Chaney, "I didn't want to be a coach's wife." Beth Bruno, "I've wanted beauty." Wendy Stringer, "I didn't want to move to suburbia." Steve Burks, "I've wanted to produce entertainment." Faydra Stratton, "I didn't want a child with Fragile X." Brook Seekins, "I never wanted to be a missionary in Africa." Sarah Van Beveren, "I have always wanted to be strong." Holly Pennington, "I didn't want to find out what I wanted." Larry Shallenberger, "I wanted to know what I wanted." Hannah Anderson, "I didn't want - because I couldn't afford to." Megan Hill, "I want your blessing."

Today, Bronwyn Lea writes her story of desire.

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I wanted a boyfriend, college scholarships, permission to sleep over at the popular kid's house. The prayers of my youth were filled with desire, and I wanted those things with a guilty need.

The prayers of my adulthood still carry echoes of my youth. In truth: I still pray about men, opportunities and friendships. However, I find that life as a mom and friend in a sin-soaked world is leading me to pray a host of different prayers of desire: “Please, I want it to be better; let it not hurt anymore.”

I remember clearly the first tsunami of pain, which made me pray that prayer most fervently. Our family was devastated by violent crime, and we had no answers, no balm. Instead we had questions, the most oppressive of which was this: “Why would a good God let this happen?”

We desire good things from the one who “gives people the desires of their heart” (Psalm 37:4).

That particular suffering challenged my faith significantly, but even in the absence of finding intellectually satisfying answers to my heartbroken questions, I still found myself drawing closer to God rather than pulling away from him.

Again and again I was drawn back to John 6, where the disciples challenge Jesus with his teaching, saying, “This is hard to accept!” Jesus challenged them in reply: “Will you leave me also?” Peter’s reply rang in my ears for weeks: “To whom else shall we go?

In the wake of our trauma, I considered my options: I could deny there was a God, (not an option); I could choose Islam (but Allah seemed so capricious) or Hinduism (but I wasn’t persuaded, and the pictures gave me the creeps.) It was Buddhism, though, which finally pointed me back to Christianity.

The four noble truths of Buddhism teach: • All is suffering (dukkha), and • Suffering is caused by desire. • If one can eliminate desire, one can eliminate suffering. • Finally, the Noble Eight-fold Path can eliminate desire.

My soul rebelled. Far from helping me find peace, Buddhism made me angry: it was simply NOT TRUE that we were suffering because we had a wrongful desire not to suffer.

I needed someone to say that the suffering was wrong. I needed to know that longing for wholeness was good. I needed someone to say that ‘good’ was, in fact, good; and that ‘evil’ was truly ‘evil’. I needed to know that my desire for things to be right was not a denial of my truest spiritual self, but in fact a deep expression of my truest spiritual self.

In Jesus, I found someone who did just that. He wept over death. He “set his face” towards the things he wanted to accomplish. He grieved over the bad, and gave his own life “for the joy set before him”. Someone who acknowledged and affirmed that both my desires for joy and relationship and my desires for pain and suffering to end were good things. And more than that, they were things he desired for us too.

The timeline in which those desires would be met still needed some negotiation.

But the desires themselves were good and God-given, even in the valley of shadows.

The prayers of my adulthood are filled with such prayers.

-----

Bronwyn LeaBronwyn Lea loves Jesus, writing, ice-cream and the sound of children laughing. She writes about the holy and hilarious things in life at bronlea.com, where she also hosts a faith and relationship advice column. Find her there, or say hi on Facebook or Twitter @bronleatweets.

Breaking the Bread of Belief: Beginning

jenmichel@me.com

Beginning In the beginning.

These are the first three words of Scripture, and they burst with promise.

If Moses was indeed the author of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), perhaps he began here – in the beginning – as if to insist:

The story I’m about to tell you is headed somewhere. It has meaning and purpose. There is congruence to its parts.

In the beginning, at least as I read it, seems to say something inherent about the narrative architecture of God’s story. As a student of literature, I recognize in the beginning as a familiar point of departure: I head into the rising action. I anticipate conflict, then climax, and imagine myself making descent into the dénouement. Falling, falling, falling, I will fall into resolution.

This story is going to make sense to me. Because in the beginning begs to make sense of it. Begs me to consider that if there is architecture to this story, then surely there is an Architect.

That is the leap of faith we make in the first three words of the Scripture: in the beginning.

God.

But let us not forget that faith is, as a New Testament writer later assured, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith sees and knows what is neither apparent nor intuitive.

In the beginning, God.

Genesis, for all the promise of its beginning, quickly unravels, all the narrative threads tangling and fraying. Not long into Genesis (exactly two chapters), and the good of the beginning is threatened. Faith is threatened. Where is the architect when the story seems to collapse in on itself?

Which is of course the question we all ask ourselves when life, like a willful child, heads toward the street.

Last week, in a single day, divorce and death are in my inbox. One friend’s marriage is imploding. Years and years, they’ve having been plodding together, holding with ever more difficulty to the promises they had long ago. Those promises, those threads of faithfulness, will not hold, it seems. And the solid things prove themselves provisional.

And death. She is there, too, in my inbox, and I remember with cold ache that young women get cancer and make haste to leave, families collapsing in the wake of their departure. The solid things prove themselves provisional.

In the beginning, God.

To believe in a purposeful, coherent architecture to the stories of our brokenness requires faith.

To believe in an Architect – with a will for good in the midst of pain – is and only ever will be apprehended by faith.

But I do believe, however naïve that will seem to make me. Because in the beginning, God is irresistible fruit.

* * * * *

This is first of a series, which I intend to be a meditation on belief. Joe Dudeck has captured the marvelous images to accompany these thoughts. Thank you, Joe.

Does Time Heal? (A link to my piece at Today's Christian Woman)

Ben Goshow

"Obstruction, obscurity, emptiness, disorientation, twilight, blackout, often combined with a struggle or path or journey - an inability to see one's way forward, but a feeling that there was a way forward, and that the act of going forward would eventually bring about the conditions for vision - these are common elements in many descriptions of the process of writing. Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light."

- Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing

Today is the first day I've sat down to write in nearly weeks. I had wondered - worried, rather - that my attempt at words would falter clumsily.

I worry too much.

It has been a good day of writing (not to be judged, of course, by this blog post, which I'm typing furiously and hoping to finish so that I can pick my kids up at school showered.) Rather, I've finished a piece about something I really wish to defend, something I really care about. I hope you'll see it next week at her.meneutics.

It would seem obvious that every writer writes about subjects she loves. This is, to a certain degree, true. And at the same time, sometimes a writer writes a piece and feel as if she's exhaled into it the essence of who she is and life as she's lived it. In this way, this piece means more to her than other essays she's written.

One such essay for me was published this week, and I wanted to make sure that I shared it with you. I also have an interesting backstory to the piece to share with you, which will not only provide a little window into the capricious world of publishing, but will help you understand why I believe even more firmly that what I've said in this piece MUST be said.

(You'll understand, of course, the necessity of concealing the names of editors and publications.)

Originally, I sent an essay called, "Time Does Not Heal" to a prominent Christian blog. (Let your mind run wild.) The editor said he loved the piece and looked forward to publishing it on X date. X date came and went. I was busy and failed to follow-up. Said editor (kind and generous, mind you) emailed me to let me know the piece would run on revised Y date. Fine, fine, I'm cool with that. Y date comes and goes.

Eventually (as in weeks later), I email the editor to ask about the piece. He responds within minutes, asking to call me personally.

I figure this is NOT good news.

To his credit, he took the time to speak with me over the phone and explain that my piece would NOT in fact run. In essence, the higher-ups had rejected the thesis of the piece, which was that grieving is a long process, that people cannot be rushed to heal, and that Jesus, not time, heals.

OF COURSE time heals. What an idiot, they probably thought.

I'm hard-pressed to think this person, insistent that time heals, has ever grieved the loss of someone close to them. And I lament that we aren't wiser to suggest the real source of healing: Jesus.

If you, or anyone you know, has ever grieved, please read and share this piece featured yesterday at Today's Christian Woman: "Time does not always heal - And this, too, is hope"

 

 

What I'm writing (and my recent post at CT Women's blog)

jenmichel@me.com

Yesterday, I tell Ryan that I have a new version of chapter one. "Chapter one?" he asks, shooting me a look to indicate I have no chance of finishing the first draft of my manuscript by August 1.

I am suddenly terrified.

But this morning, I read this new version of chapter one and find the consolation of relief. The revision I have done has been good and necessary, and chapter one now hangs together better than it did before. Perhaps it would seem foolish that I have revisited chapter one when I more obviously need to move ahead. (I am still 1,000 words away from finishing the first draft of chapter four. Yikes.) And of course I don't have the foggiest idea about how to write a book. I'm making this up as I go. But it has seemed to make sense to me, at least for now, to make sure each chapter is sufficiently distilled and says distinctly what it is supposed to say. Otherwise, I could easily imagine arriving at chapter nine with absolutely nothing to say that hasn't already been said. (We've all read books like that, haven't we?)

This is probably what I am finding most difficult now about the process of writing: how does one actually manage this amount of material, every chapter 6,000 words? How do you not end up sounding like a playlist on repeat?

I am hard at work, writing, reading. I am also praying again. (This is best of all.)

I will be checking in here, not as frequently as I'd like, but especially to send you to the other places I'm writing.

In fact, I had a recent piece published with her.meneutics entitled, "Hashtags Won't Heal Us," and it's, I hope, of particular help to people who are grieving.

"As a culture, we tend to think of grief as healthiest when abbreviated and restrained, as seemingly quick and efficient as other aspects of our fast-forward, high-tech lives.

Even mental health experts disagree over what "normal" grief looks like. Although the depressive symptoms of bereavement have long been considered standard to the grieving process, doctors proposed a revision to the newest edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to eliminate the bereavement exclusion from the definition of depression, allowing doctors greater freedom to diagnose and treat grief as a pathological condition.

Move on. This is the cultural imperative imposed on bereavement. We picture the season of mourning as a hurdle to clear and sadness as something to be eventually left behind. We're distinctly uncomfortable with tears. Grief, as a category of human experience, has grown closer to becoming something clinical in America, a condition worthy of a prescription."

If you're interested in finishing the article, you'll find the rest here:

Blessings for your day.

 

Find grace in unexpected places: Tell your story

jenmichel@me.com

In less than two weeks, we move. And as I’ve willed myself to finally admit this, I’ve begun to organize the house. Thankfully, we will have a crew of movers to pack and load our stuff, so there isn’t much else I need to do – at least for now. And because the house we are currently renting will be torn down in a matter of months, it’s not as if I actually need to clean it before we go. Nonetheless, even if it’s only the tedious task of sorting through closets and drawers, I figured an audiobook would make the work easier. Yesterday, I downloaded, Cutting For Stone. If you remember, I’ve set some ambitious reading goals for the year. And you’re wondering how I’m getting along? Um, let’s just say that I’m making slower progress than projected.

So far, I am loving this book. I am a sucker for great prose and great stories. And this book is both.

The narrator is an identical twin, born to a nun who died in childbirth. No one had even known she was pregnant, and certainly no one had ever suspected it.

In the prologue, the narrator declares why he is in search of his story, the one that died with his mom in operating theater 3.

“What I owe Shiva [my twin brother] most is this: to tell the story. It is one my mother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, did not reveal and my fearless father, Thomas Stone, ran from, and which I had to piece together. Only the telling can heal the rift that separates my brother and me. Yes, I have infinite faith in the craft of surgery, but no surgeon can heal the kind of wound that divides two brothers. Where silk and steel fail, story must succeed. To begin at the beginning. . . . “

Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese

Stories heal.

To begin at the beginning. . . .

In the beginning. . .

I have to remind myself of the redemptive weave that a story spins. It takes so much courage to live wide-eyed in the midst of our own stories. There are things from which we would rather run and hide. There is pain and hurt that we’d rather bury.

Stories heal – but often, not before they wound.

I’ve told you this already. It’s been as a result of blogging that I’ve reconnected to my stories of profound loss. Those stories have been hard to tell, but in the process of telling them, of re-opening wounds I thought had long ago healed, a greater healing has come.

But there are other stories to tell. Some of them stories are of personal failure and profound regret. Tomorrow, I will be telling one of those stories more publicly than I ever have before.

Why?

Why tell stories that wound, that confess, that spill our guts and leave others standing over the mess?

Why not pretend and playact?

Because that is never possible, least of all from God. “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.” Psalm 51:6

What's more, the world needs our stories. That may be the only way that they begin to connect to Jesus; maybe it’s through our stories that they start making sense of some of the abstractions we call faith.

Tell your story. To a friend or neighbor. To someone you bump into at school drop-off. To an acquaintance you’ve met at church.

Tell it, even to yourself.

Let yourself sit with your narrative, the novel of your life. Find God there, even in the chapters where you might have thought yourself alone and desolate. Find God in the scenes of your own sin, when you worked hard to reject His good for you.

Because that’s where we are always meant to find it:

Grace.

 

 

Advent's Invitation: Consider your joy, and keep your song

jenmichel@me.com

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept When we remembered Zion.

There on the poplars

We hung our harps,

For there our captors asked us for songs,

Our tormentors demanded songs of joy;

They said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

May my right hand forget its skill.

May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

If I do not remember you,

If I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.

Psalm 137:1-6

Maybe you, like I, wonder how we can bring ourselves to the melodies of Advent when we are in collective mourning for Newtown, Connecticut?

Yesterday, I am standing at the kitchen sink, and above the noise of breakfast clatter, I hear the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary children read aloud on the radio. Charlotte Bacon, James Mattioli, Olivia Engel. It’s a long list of tragic loss, and every name sears. It’s not their faces that make me weep, but their names. Oh God. How do we bury all the possibilities of a child’s name?

This morning, I read coverage of the first two funerals – Noah Pozner and Jack Pinto – and think of the utter impossibility of eulogizing children. What would I say of my own children were I to lose them? The heartbreak is in the absence of words, all that could not be said of their stolen days, months, years - the record that will never be.

No, I am convinced. You cannot eulogize a child, and this is just another ominous reminder that this, this, should not be.

We are struggling to find our words in the wake of Newtown.

And when the heart breaks, a song feels like an utter impossibility. This is the picture of Psalm 137: Israel has been exiled, taken far from home and settled in the land of Babylon. “By the rivers of Babylon we wept.” The weeping seems to have excluded the possibilities of a song: “There on the poplars we hung our harps.”

And this is grief. We hang up our harps when life shatters. We bury bodies - and with them, we want to bury our songs.

“How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?”

And if we needed a reminder that this bedraggled and beat up planet is not our home, Newtown has been the chilling reminder of our own exile. The scene at Sandy Hook Elementary has stirred up all of our Edenic longings for a better world, a world where children live out their days, where poverty and injustice are banished, where all of creation sings the songs of wholeness and goodness, truth and beauty, justice and righteousness.

“How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?”

Newtown testifies, not just to a season of national mourning, but to the universal groaning of Creation that began when sin birthed this tormented world of wrong: “For the creation waits with eager longing . . . the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth,” (Romans 8:21, 22).

We pine for a better world: the New Jerusalem, the future city of God, all of which are images used in the Scriptures to describe heaven. “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.”

By the rivers of Newtown, we sat and wept.

How can we sing the songs of the LORD – the songs of Advent – in this foreign land, where Death still reigns supreme?

If I forget you – the new heavens and the new earth – I will lose all capacity for a melody.

I will lose my joy. And I will bury my songs.

Which is why today’s Advent invitation invites us to look beyond these shadows of death to a future hope. Receive today the invitation, which Christ secured on the cross when He defeated Death and announced that Creation was finally waking from the long sleep of her spell:

“Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Corinthians 15:55).

Today, consider your joy and keep your song. Because this is not our home: "Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and let us offer to God acceptable worship - A SONG? - with reverence and awe."

“I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days.” Isaiah 65:19, 20

“But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” 2 Peter 3:13

* * * * *

I spoke at two events this month on the subject of joy. Some have asked for the manuscript, and I’m including it here, knowing that its message of joy in the midst of loss may provide hope to us in our own sadness.

Grace Christmas Brunch, 2012, final

Advent's Invitation: Reach for God in death (and hope for Newtown)

jenmichel@me.com

At my high school reunion this fall, I talked with an old friend with whom I’d lost touch over the years. He was one of those iconic figures in our class, someone you always knew would go far and do amazing things after he left for Harvard at 18. As we caught up recently, he explained to me that during his freshman year at Harvard, he started a non-profit organization called Peace First, which trains young people in the skills of peacemaking. Eric continues his work with Peace First, which began in Boston and is now working in other major American cities. Here’s the work they do as they describe it: The Peace First model teaches students to work effectively with others to resolve conflicts, solve community problems, communicate ideas effectively, and form positive social relationships. As students progress through our curriculum at each developmental level, from Pre-K through 8th grade, they develop the courage and compassion they need to see themselves as leaders and to act with empathy toward others.

As we talked, I remembered that I’d heard Eric had also gone to seminary, and I asked him what had been his motivation for seeking a divinity degree. That’s when he told me about the funeral of the 17-year-old kid, who’d been a part of the Peace First initiatives. This young man been senselessly shot on the streets of Boston, and when Eric faced the grieving family, he realized he had no language for tragedies, no real framework for assimilating the whys and hows of evil - and certainly no words of comfort to offer a family whose son had been irrevocably and violently taken from them.

God was needed for that darkness.

I’m remembering Eric this morning - and his reach for God in death - as I think about Newtown, Connecticut, and the darkness that descended Friday morning on that sleepy New England town.

Yesterday, I had the radio tuned to NPR and heard Scott Simon interview a rabbi from the small Connecticut town.

“How do you make sense of such an event?” Simon asked the rabbi.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” the rabbi replied, indicating that we can never make sense of this kind of outrageous act. In his estimation, our only response can be to comfort those who’ve been directly affected.

But wouldn’t we find hope to if we were able to find even some small light of understanding? Wouldn’t some comfort come if we had the necessary language for events like Newtown? I find that I share my friend Eric’s impulse: to name and know evil. I want to reach for God in death.

Of course there is so much we will never understand. To kill is always a horror. To kill children is unspeakable evil.

And why Newtown in the middle of Advent? Something feels so wrong, so horribly incongruent to celebrate that God-with-Us, Immanuel, is coming –has come – when our world still suffers the possibilities of an armed man entering an elementary school with a heart set on massacre, a world where parents might be called to identify the barely recognizable bodies of their children, a world where death is still a fearsome enemy and every parent on the planet shudders to think that it could have been them.

Where is God? Where is God this Advent? And where is God for Newtown?

The Christian response matters most now, for those questions. Because I believe we have words to speak into this darkness. I believe there is some small sense to make of what is in almost every other dimension a senseless act.

The Christian response begins with this: the world is NOT as it should be.

The first three chapters of the Bible sketch what is really the entire narrative thread of the Bible. If you wanted to know what the Bible says, you could begin to make sense of the shape of the story just by reading Genesis 1, 2, and 3.

God made the world good, and that goodness was expressed as inner harmony as well as relational harmony. We were at peace with ourselves, with one another and with God.

But that peace was severed because of human rebellion. For the Bible says that while we were meant to live under the authority of God – an authority, which was never despotic or capricious but always benevolent and wise, we rejected God’s reign, choosing self-sovereignty over submission.

When self – and sin – rule, the only result is tragedy. The rest of the Bible fills in those details.

We are wrong to think that evil only exists in the extremes – only in places like Newtown, CT. To be sure, Newtown is a particularly egregious and horrific manifestation of human sinfulness. But the Bible says that we are all guilty of sin. And even though the vast majority of us will never commit violent crime, we will commit unthinkable evil. And for this, we will all fall under the judgment of God.

In case we are offended of the notion that God judges, we may need only think of Newtown. In events like these, we want – DEMAND – justice. We thirst for it. Because to let the guilty go free while the innocent suffer from their crimes is almost a crime worse than they perpetrate.

Why Newtown in the middle of Advent?

Because maybe now is the best time for remembering that the world is a broken and beat up place, where we hurt and are hurt, and there is desperate, DESPERATE need of rescue.

And though we are not always rescued from our suffering (I am sure that among the families grieved by loss, Christ-followers are among them), we can be rescued by HOPE.

The Christian has hope that God has not abandoned this world to its mess but has entered it. God has put on flesh – JESUS came and pitched his tent among us.

And when He was falsely accused and executed by Roman authorities, when three days later He was bodily resurrected, He became the RESCUE. He became the HOPE.

Jesus is the rescue for all sinners, who are exiled from God and alienated from themselves and one another by virtue of their own personal evil.

At his coming, the angels announced a new world order, where evil no longer was sovereign but God was taking back His rightful, righteous rule: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.”

Peace for our world of aching violence? Yes, yes, that is the Advent announcement. The promise of God-with-us, Jesus peace: soul peace, peace with one another, peace with God. There’s hope beyond Newtown.

This hope of Immanuel -Jesus, seated upon the throne with death, our great enemy, conquered beneath His feet - helps us realize that Newtown, CT, is not the final scene of this world drama. The Bible promises a new heavens and a new earth, whereby God makes His home with us. “He will wipe away 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.” Revelation 19:4

But let’s not mistake something very important: hope does not annul lament. Newtown is an invitation for lament. We should cry and rage, mourning all that is not yet about the kingdom of God.

Come, Lord Jesus, is the cry of the Church. This is the Christian’s prayerful reach for God in the face of death.

And Newtown is an invitation into the expectant hope that this will one day be true: the world will be remade, reborn, and brought under God’s rightful rule in Christ.

Come, Lord Jesus. Put the world to rights.

 

 

 

 

Advent's Invitation: Sing a New Song

jenmichel@me.com

I'm reading Silence - and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent by Enuma Okoro, and the first week of reflective readings centers on questions of doubt and unmet longing. We don't often associate doubt with the season of Christmas, but historically, that is the most appropriate way to understand the story. This past Sunday, our pastor took as his text Isaiah 9 and was quick to remind us that Jesus arrived in a time of darkness and gloom. The Miracle of Light exploded over a landscape of despair, and I suppose Advent may be the most appropriate time to speak of our sadnesses and deep disappointments, our doubts and unmet longings. Living with life and its losses can be our greatest invitation into the longing for Advent and the coming of the Promised One Whose name is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Okoro reminds us of the gifts our believing community gives to us when we find ourselves in our own private backyard of grief - both chronic and acute. "Sometimes when we find ourselves too burdened by the extent of our longings, too prayed out, or too exhausted with coming before God, we can look to others to bear our burdens prayerfully until we regain our own strength of spirit. A believing community shoulders hope when circumstances seem hopeless. A believing community speaks boldly into despair and longing and suggest that things do not have to remain as they are in the presence ef a holy, imaginative God."

There is incredible tension in that place of worn out, exhausted faith where our own prayers have run out of gas, and it's the prayers of others, which propel us forward. But it can be a beautiful place of expectation. Faith is the looking forward, the believing for new vistas of goodness. Longing and loss, darkness and gloom aren't final chapters in God's story: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined."

And what is to be the result of our coming to Advent with this sense of expectation - and of Advent coming to us in the full brilliance of Christ?

"I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.

He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog,

And set my feet upon a rock, making my steps scure.

He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.

Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD." Psalm 40:1-3

This Advent, may the LORD give us a new song: instead of songs of doubt, a song of faith; instead of songs of darkness, a song of Light, instead of songs of complaint, a song of gratitude; instead of songs of turmoil, a song of peace; instead of songs of self-pity, a song of praise.

 

 

 

The Business of Calling (A Look Back: Days 1-8)

jenmichel@me.com

This "series" has been struggling to harness its continuity - of course I have only myself to blame and the whirl of summer's end. So rather than jumping right back and finishing up the remaining five days, I thought we'd take a couple of days to look back and remember where we've been. You'll find links here to the individual posts as well as some of the main thoughts for each day. Day 1: An Introduction

Christians use the word, “calling,” to describe their life’s aspirations. It’s a word that dignifies our work. It’s a word that imbues our life with eternal importance. It’s a word that signifies our relationship to God and our obedience to Him.

 

Day 2: An Appetite for Performance.

We’re going to have to settle what it is we owe God. Our work [and calling] can be the way we fight and struggle for our materiality and significance. It can be our dogged chase to secure something (or someone) to prove just how much we are worth. But we don’t owe God and can’t repay God. Performance would do away with the need for grace. Instead, calling is a response to His love.

 

Day 3: Pray. Love. Eat.

What God calls each of us to do is nurture, not only our relationship with Him but our relationship with others. Honoring our relational commitments is a primary part of our calling. We are each daughters, friends, some of us wives and mothers. The temptation today is to forget that these relationships, not our possessions or accomplishment or career, constitute the whole of our life. Calling can be as simple as loving the people you call family.

The unsung heroes today are the lovers.

 

Day 4: When Life Bleeds

If life is permeable, if there is to be no plugging up the holes of the unexpected worst, it is well time to give it into the hands of Another. It is time to catch a glimpse of a future city, a future home, and I need this vision for calling. Is loss the only suitable lens for seeing it, the only real way to grab hold of immaterial hope? Is bleeding required for loving?

 

Day 5: Ruby Slippers of Courage

The way of calling starts as interior travel. It is God inside of you, willing and working. Then, and only then, do you wear it like ruby slippers that you’ve awoken to, surprised at the sparkle at your feet. You figure out just what it means along the way with the help of your Tin Man and Lion and Scarecrow, those fellow travelers God has granted for your journey. Sometimes you are seized by terror but move with the steady reassurance that your yellow brick road is meant for travel and your slippers made for wear.

 

Day 6: Marriage and Calling

I have at times harbored resentment about the weight of Ryan’s calling that I’ve been forced to carry on my shoulders. But the resentment, while it might be natural, is misguided. Why should this responsibility surprise me? We always bear the weight of our partner’s calling on our shoulders, and this is exactly how it MUST work.

 

Day 7: Whir and Whirl, Silence and Solitude

Calling isn’t always need-based. The world is a gaping wound, a parched beast; pour your drink offering down its throat, and it will never be sufficient for the healing you long and pray for, which is why it is necessary to be sober and level-headed when considering your calling in response to needs. Needs can overwhelm, inspire a god-complex, exhaust you so fully as to make you of little use to anyone, not the least of whom is God. Ultimately, calling is a matter of response. We are responding not first to needs but to the One by whom we are owned, which is why all questions of calling are decided by patient listening. Hear God. And isn’t this almost always the most difficult thing about spiritual life?

 

Day 8: Losing My Religion

Calling is an everyday matter, as most of our life is. Daily, listening and watching for God, daily surrendering to Him the below-the-surface motoring, daily remembering to linger and laugh. And daily-ness shreds the self-importance, reminds me of my poverty.

Lining up for daily bread is the only way to lose your religion. Our Father in heaven, the One with the aerial view. . .

 

 

 

 

Calling, Day 4: When Life Bleeds

jenmichel@me.com

Today is the day that I am to write about loss, although it feels hopelessly out of order. Loss is not the kind of day four topic about calling. Initially, when I wrote and organized a loose outline for this series, loss figured towards the bottom. But I go to bed thinking about loss, and I wake up thinking about loss, and I take this as a cue that today’s topic must be this. Losing. Bleeding.

Last week I decide that I must really call Kent State University and get my hands on a copy of my father’s dissertation. He finished a PhD in communications when I was young, and some of the earliest memories I have of him are of head bent over a typewriter in a basement bedroom of our house. I don’t remember that we had strict instructions that he was not to be disturbed, although I don’t also ever remember entering the bedroom while he was at work, writing, typing.

I realize, at 38, that I have not the slightest idea of his dissertation topic, and so it is now that I decide to call. I don’t know why I reach this conclusion, in the middle of summer, in the middle of Toronto, with so little evidence or external impression to recall the phantom of my father’s memory, but it may be that I am experiencing that reflexive impulse of grief that begs you to find closeness with a person who has long been gone.

My father died when I was 18. That story is reserved for another place and another time. Not here. Not yet. I have written it tearfully in the book manuscript, although of course I never intended to touch its cold cadaver. You may leave dead bodies, may say your half-numb goodbyes in your state of clinical shock, but you may never, never leave behind your losses.

They are dogs at your heels. They are the melody line that recapitulates and reinvents itself in every movement of your life.

Your losses are simply not to be silenced.

I was 23 when my brother took his own life, leaving in his wake the desperate silence of suicide. You don’t dare incriminate him, yourself, your family, so you do not speak of it. You keep your silences about your torn family fabric, and it is easy to do in a world as transient as ours.

“Do you have any siblings?”

You make an evasive answer. “It’s just me.”

I am fully aware how my point of view has changed in the short span of the last paragraph. From first to second person, from I to you. This is what always seems to happen when I write about my early life’s losses. It’s as if now, more than fifteen years later, I still cannot admit ownership of them.

Perhaps this is why, over the past year of more consistent, personal writing, when I have finally dared throw open the door of my life and tell whatever lurking in the shadows beyond the threshold, “Come in,” the first to take off his muddy shoes and stay awhile is grief.

It is time to listen to my own story and break my own vows of silence.

Is it our losses that shape us more significantly than anything else? The death of someone we’ve loved, the death of a marriage, the death of a dream. Loss is the unfortunate reckoning we make with life that, like an obstinate child, heads for the street and chances the unexpected worst. Why are these the stories I find most true in the lives of others but the stories I least want to tell?

I have lived loss, the worst of its days. I did it in college, when I met loss in the basement of a library. Me, keeping company with my books. I did it in my first year of teaching, coming home from work each night with a splitting headache and sending myself straight to bed. And when the worst of the days were over, I wanted the chapter ended. I wanted loss buried with the bodies.

I had hoped sadness would not be a chronic condition.

I am 38 now, and it seems the stories I most need to tell are those of my losses. I am attentive to this, realizing now that to be anything for God and to hope to take on the compassion of Jesus Christ (for it is He who has bled in our place), I will need my losses. I will need them perhaps more than I need anything else, it is they who remind me of how permeable life really is. And while that may, at first glance, inspire fear, it isn’t meant to.

If life is permeable, if there is to be no plugging up the holes of the unexpected worst, it is well time to give it into the hands of Another. It is time to catch a glimpse of a future city, a future home, and I need this vision for calling.

Is loss the only suitable lens for seeing it, the only real way to grab hold of immaterial hope?

Is bleeding required for loving?

But of course we have our answer.

On the night he was betrayed he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this is remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’

Celebrate Advent: Make room for joy. (Matthew 2:1-12)

jenmichel@me.com

I pick up books to have conversations. And I reread those same books (the really good ones) when my questions are different and I'm in search of new insights.

Recently, I'm having a second conversation with Joan Didion, author of the The Year of Magical Thinking. This is perhaps one of the best books on grief out there. It's not linear or logical, but what woman is when her husband of forty years falls from his seat at the dinner table, dead?

She describes experience of grief as the "vortex." In the year that follows her husband's death, she imagines a thousand alterations to the script. The year of magical thinking. How could she have prevented his death? And logically, there was absolutely nothing different she could have done to prevent what the doctors called his "sudden cardiac event."

She describes herself as one of the people who "shared a habit of mind usually credited to the very successful. They believed absolutely in their own management skills. They believed absolutely in the power of the telephone numbers they had at their fingertips, the right doctor, the major donor, the person who could facilitate a favor at State or Justice. The management skills of these people were in fact prodigious. The power of their telephone numbers was in fact unmatched. I had myself for most of my life shared the same core belief in my ability to control events. . . Yet I had always at some level apprehended, because I was born fearful, that some events in life would remain beyond my ability to control or manage them. Some events would just happen. This was one of those events. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."

How is joy possible when life feels so fragile and unruly, refusing our every impulse to make it compliant?

Another book has been teaching me to answer that question.

This is a book to buy and to read and reread slowly. This is a conversation to have. One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp.

"The dare to write one thousand gifts becomes the dare to to celebrate innumberable, endless gifts! That initial discipline, the daily game to count, keeping counting to one thousand, it was God's necessary tool to reshape me, remake me, rename me. . .The discipline to count to one thousand gave way to the freedom of wonder and I can't imagine not staying awake to God in the moment, the joy in the now.

But awakening to joy awakens to pain.

Joy and pain, they are but two arteries of the one heart that pumpes through all those who don't numb themselves to really living. Pages of the gratitude journal fill endlessly. Yet I know it in the vein and the visceral: life is loss. Every day, the gnawing. . ."

Advent, the only answer to this life of haunting uncertainties. Jesus, our only joy.