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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: prayer

Found Wanting: Dorothy Greco, "I don't want to doubt."

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 write, “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." Bronwyn Lea, "I wanted a boyfriend, college scholarships, permission to sleep over at the popular kid's house." Jennifer Tatum, "I've wanted to be a woman of faith, but . . ." Sarah Torna Roberts, "I didn't want to be broken." Suanne Camfield, "I want a bigger house." Courtney Reissig, "I wanted a baby." Cara Meredith, "I've wanted it all." Anonymous, "I want to not want marriage anymore." Deborah Kurtz, "I wanted a husband." Ben Jolliffe, "I wanted nothing." Charity Singleton Craig, "I wanted to get married." Hannah Vanderpool, "I didn't want to stay in America."

Today, Dorothy Greco writes her story of desire on the blog.

* * * * *

I don’t want to doubt.

Since I started following Jesus thirty-four years ago, God has consistently spoken to me through the written word, creation, and the faint whispers of the Spirit. Our relationship is thankfully not one way—on most days, there’s a stream of thoughts and words flowing in God’s direction. I’ve never doubted that He listens or hears me, but in the past few years, I have begun to doubt the efficacy of my prayer.

Perhaps it’s a problem I’ve created since I tend to go big when I pray. I’m not simply asking God to open up a parking spot. I’m praying for the eradication of the Ebola virus in West Africa, for an overhaul of the criminal justice system, for the church to choose holiness, and for my friend’s cancer to go away. None of these situations seem to be moving in the hoped for direction. That lack of circumstantial change can sometimes deflate my faith.

When doubt is having its way in me, I hear words like whatever come out of my mouth. I justify not praying because apparently, the frequency and fierceness of my intercession is directly connected to the level of doubt coursing through my system. Doubt is the siren which beckons me to shipwreck my faith. I fear it because I am well aware of just how far I would drift if I cut the cords which bind me to Christ.

According to theologians such as Paul Tillich, such fear is misguided. He wrote, “Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” The notion that doubt could be anything other than negative is new to me. I’ve always read Jesus’s words and assumed that if I doubted, He would spit me out of his mouth like cold coffee.

In the 2008 movie Doubt, starring Meryl Streep and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Streep plays the role of an unflinching nun who appears to live free from doubt. Her certainty compels her to make decisions which result in personal and corporate loss. Throughout the movie, she never wavers—until the final scene. There, in the presence of a tender sister, she admits between sobs, “I have such doubt.” I admired her character before, but in that moment, my dispassionate admiration transitioned to tears and affection. Radical thought—is it possible that God feels that same way toward me when I doubt?

If I could wrap my hermeneutic around the reality that God loves me and is for me even when doubt threatens to swallow me whole, it would change everything. The doubt I feel when my prayers are seemingly not answered can be like an enormous anchor that drags along the bottom, holding back the ship’s forward movement. To know that God is not displeased with me when I doubt would be like having that anchor winched up onto the deck. While the anchor would still be there, it would no longer hold the ship back.

Of late, I’ve stepped up my prayer because what more can I do when the world seems to be descending into chaos? If that descent continues, I risk having to double back thorough the deep quicksand of disappointment and doubt. But because the only real option seems to be apathy—which is not where I want to land—I continue to pray, hoping that my words will hit their mark and that doubt will no longer discourage or dissuade me from praying.

* * * * *

DLGport-Jun-0612-016-©DGrecoDorothy Littell Greco spends her days writing about faith, encouraging others as they pursue Jesus, making photographs of beautiful things, and trying to love her family well. You can find more of her Words & Images on her website, or by following her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.

Found Wanting: Megan Hill, "I want your blessing."

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."

Today, Megan Hill writes her story of desire.

-----

I want your blessing, good health, and traveling mercies. Amen.

That’s what I want.

Or is it?

In my twenties, after years of praying pious-sounding but endlessly vague prayers—at youth group meetings, in the classrooms of my Christian high school, and during college dorm Bible studies—I was confused. When I prayed, what was I asking God for?

What did I want?

My confusion was not exactly doubt. I belonged to Christ. Trusted that my sins were atoned for. Had a pretty good knowledge of my Bible. I even had every confidence that my prayers were true communication with a sovereign and compassionate God. I didn’t wonder, as many do, if my prayers were actually being heard by someone, and I didn’t question whether I might ask for bread and end up with a rock. No, I simply realized that I wasn’t actually asking for anything.

Something nice, Lord. Please? I think I might want something nice?

Maybe I needed to be more specific. And though asking bold particulars from the Lord seemed like it might be the answer to my confusion, it wasn’t really. Because there were also times I prayed prayers so detailed they consumed all of my quiet time with a single request. I begged God for a husband, and, like Tevye the fiddler’s daughter, I boldly listed the qualities I thought he should have. But even that left me uncertain. Was godliness the thing I really wanted in a husband? What about my desire for a tall man, so tall that I could fit under his chin? What did I want? And were those things God would even give me?

My prayer life was faltering. I had little energy for prayer because I little confidence in what I was praying. I read wistfully the account of the persistent widow in Luke’s Gospel. She knew what she wanted. She had the conviction that she could reasonably expect to get it. And so she wasn’t tired of asking again and again and again and again. I wanted to be like her. Eventually, in God’s kindness, two things happened.

First, a college friend read to me Psalm 37:4. She was a friend-of-a-friend, really, and we were having breakfast together in the cafeteria. I don’t remember ever eating with this woman either before or after. And I don’t remember why she read me that text. But it was the inspired words themselves that that press on my mind to this day: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.”(NASB) Here, finally, was a prescription for desire and prayer—shaped and fulfilled in God Himself.

What I desire and what I pray always occupy the same space. For me, this is like the act of breathing: inhale desire, exhale prayer. And I realized that in order to pray well, I would have to desire well. That verse in the psalms, read aloud by a pony-tailed classmate whom I barely knew, showed me plainly what I wanted. I discovered that I wanted to want what God wants.

Which, of course, begs the question: What does God want?

His kind answer came when I began to pray with Carol. Years after my Psalm 37 cafeteria epiphany, the second thing happened, and Carol, an older woman in my church, invited me to her house for a weekly hour of prayer together.

J.I. Packer writes, “People who know their God are before anything else people who pray.” Carol bears out this statement like few women I’ve ever met. Carol knows her God. And Carol prays. She and I would start out our prayer time sitting on the couch—hers or mine, it varied over the years—praising God for His character. But, soon, those vocal meditations on God’s kindness and power and glory would move Carol to ask that great God to act. And, remembering friends with cancer and children rebelling against their creator and brothers and sisters in chains because of Christ, she would abruptly stand up, continuing her prayers on her feet, begging the Lord who heals, the Lord who saves, the Lord who vindicates, to work.

Knowing God shaped Carol’s desires, energized them, emboldened them. She desperately wanted what God wanted.

What does God want? He wants to glorify Himself in His fullness. He wants to act in accordance with His holy character. He wants to advance His kingdom, care for His children, and exalt His Son. And so, through Carol’s God-filled petitions, week by week, I learned to want—and to pray—these things. Inhale. Exhale.

The catechism of my church (The Westminster Shorter Catechism) begins its definition of prayer this way, “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will. . . .” At first reading, this seems like it might cripple prayer. Prayer can only be for the things that God wants?

But I have discovered how learning to pray this way actually gives clarity and confidence to my desires. I didn’t know what I wanted—I didn’t desire anything with conviction—until I considered what God wanted.

After years of praying like a kid hesitantly asking Santa for a real live unicorn, I feel like I’m finally figuring out what to want. Desire compels prayer. Prayer strengthens desire. Inhale. Exhale.

These days, I’m learning to want things that I can expect to receive, and to boldly plead for them from the very One whom I can expect to give. “Lord, teach us to pray” begged the disciples. Teach us what we want, and then we’ll ask You for it. And that’s what I want, too.

-----

Megan Hill is a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog. She lives in Mississippi with her husband and three sons and writes about ministry life at www.SundayWomen.com.

Prayers for the Readers of "Teach Us to Want"

jenmichel@me.com

Every prayer is an act of desire. I suppose one reason I've become so convinced that we need desire for our lives of faith is because desire is entrance into prayer. In fact, I've begun to see holy desire and prayer as nearly synonymous in the life of a Christian. What holy desire wouldn't make its eventual way into the throne room of grace? And wouldn't something cease to be holy about desire apart from this courageous risk on God's goodness and wisdom and power? Isn't enduring trust made solid and substantial as we confide prayerfully to God this one holy desire: teach me to want? We want and pray, and this practice forms us. We grow less to expect everything as we've asked for it. We simply begin believing that God's no's and not yet's are a means towards our greater good.

Teach Us to Want_Cover #4312I've written a book on desire, and in many ways, it's a book about prayer. By this it will be assumed that I'm a good pray-er, and let me confess: I am not. I, too, am as easily herded as a cat. I don't always know what I want, and even when I do, there is nothing automatic about making those desires into something resembling prayers.

But I'm learning to let Jesus ask me, as he so often did in the gospels, "What do you want?" And I let that become my invitation to begin praying. Sometimes those prayers lead to confession and to a renunciation of certain desires. Sometimes those prayers begin to grant new courage: my desires becomes my petitions becomes my plans (see Psalm 20).

I've wanted to write and publish a book. God heard those desires, granted those prayers, and gave wisdom for those plans. It astonishes me. (And makes me feel great joy.) The book that I've wanted, for which I've prayed, and that I've written is beginning to trickle out. I wonder if it is even in your hands?

So what do I want now? Or better yet, how must I pray?

I spent the morning thinking of how to pray for you, reader. And these are the desires - prayers - I will begin confiding to God on our behalf as you read, Teach Us to Want.

1. Father, fix our hope fully in the gospel of your Son, Jesus Christ. Your good news inspires our desires. "If God is for us, who can be against us. He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him gracious give us all things?" Rom. 8:31, 32 You know how difficult we find it to grasp the extravagant dimensions of your love. But if this book does one good, let it be that we begin believing more soundly that you have desired us.

2. Father, reveal our profound capacities for betrayal. It is our fallenness that cautions our desires. "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" Isaiah 6:5 Father, you understand our tragic blindnesses: we would love our death and hate our good. Deliver us from ourselves.

3. Father, let us see the vanity of our idolatries and help us to treasure Christ. "I count everything as loss for the sake of Christ because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." Phil. 3:8 If we are rich, let it mean nothing. If we are educated, let it not be our hope. Help us know the desolation of every worldly good and the enduring treasure that is life in and with and through Jesus Christ.

4. Father, let us learn that obedient surrender to your will is our ultimate good. Teach us to want.

"Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it! Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain! Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me live in your ways. Confirm to your servant your promise, that you may be feared. Turn away the reproach that I dread, for your rules are good. Behold, I long for your precepts; in your righteousness, give me life!"

Psalm 119:35-40

5. Father, by your surprising mercy, grant us courage and commitment for our holy desires. Move us, your people, into joyful and bold participation for the kingdom. Inspire in us greater self-sacrificing love for your broken world that we become a purified people for your possession, "zealous for good works" (Titus 2:14).

Ultimately, Father, whatever good you do, may it be for the hallowing of your name (Matt. 6:9). "Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, of the sake of your steadfast love and faithfulness." Psalm 115:1

what to do when you're proud

Ben Goshow

What do I want? I'm growing convinced that this is an important question for all of us to be asking - even if asking it means open ourselves up to a host of threatening possibilities: the disappointments we've had from God, the self-suspicions we try to smother, the process of change (and necessary repentance) to which God is leading us.

What do I want? This is no tame question. It's a bit like letting the lion out of its cage.

And yesterday, I needed this question. I needed it after having had a difficult conversation with someone I love. Worse, I know they love me, which is always the problem with difficult conversations. Why can our humanity be so hard? Why are we each so fragile? Why, when I love people, do I so easily misunderstand and feel misunderstood?

(P.S. Joe, this is NOT about you.)

I left the conversation feeling sad, discouraged, afraid. I even cried when recounting the conversation to Ryan. But I now realize that my ego was bruised more than anything else. This man - my friend - hadn't hurt me: he had hurt my pride.

I picked C.S. Lewis up this morning, turning to chapter 8 ("The Great Sin") in Mere Christianity.

"There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it in ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.

The vice I am talking of is Pride."

Pride, says Lewis, is the root of all other vices. It's essentially competitive in nature, he concludes.

"Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, of better-looking than others."

Then Lewis exposes the worst of all pride - that which grows in religious people.  Here's a test he proposes for determining whether we are among the smugly spiritual set:

"Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good - above all, that we are better than someone else - I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. . . It is a terrible thing that the worst of all the vices can smuggle itself into the very centre of our religious life."

"If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step," writes Lewis, "is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed."

I am a desperately proud woman. Recalling the conversation that had left me reeling for the better part of an evening, I saw this: that I had been hurt by a slight, bruised by someone's disinterest. I came unglued because I had not been recognized as extraordinary enough.

What do I want? Oh, the truth is that I want your admiration. And I must it in greater degree than you give it to others. And when it comes to the book I've written? What do I want? I realize that it is not enough that the words get said. It matters to me that I have said them.

What do I want? Yes, a lion indeed, prowling and ravenous.

What are we to do when our desires are skidding off course? When we want something that can only be had by disaster? When we do not want as God wants? When our desires have been misshapen, as mine have, by selfish ambition and vain conceit (Phil. 2:3)?

First, we see. And in seeing, we confess.

And then, we ask God for better desires and new prayers. We don't put them on and immediately feel they fit. We put them on and ask God to make them fit. For me, it looks like this prayer, which I wrote in my journal:

"Father, move your church to a fuller understanding and appreciation of desire and its role in spiritual formation. Help us to no longer exclude questions of wanting because of fear, and move us into greater authenticity, allowing ourselves to be seen, known and by Christ. Desire feels like something feral: it is easier to deal with cognition and behavior, for these feel more under our control. But our hearts—in all of their wild unbelief and rebellion, their melancholic discontent and bottomless greed? What can be done about that? Father, we need brave conversations beginning in the church. We need greater grace—for the willingness to admit our sin and confess it, even to despise it.

I pray for more good theological work to be done in the area of desire. Thank you for the recent renaissance of interest. Thank you for James K.A. Smith and his work. I pray for more female voices in this conversation, and I thank you for the ways in which men and women are so different in their capacities for listening and for speaking. I celebrate whoever is speaking on this subject, and I want to confess my desperate need to be singular and special, to be the absolute best. Forgive me for the egotism of this project and this book. And teach me (gently, Father) the ways of humility."

This is my new desire and my new prayer: that more able voices will be able to challenge the church toward a conversation I feel is so necessary for the church. That it will begin to matter less to me that I have said the words and matter more that they are being said.

I am proud. You are, too. And by grace, God will illumine this in each of us, leading us out of the cramped space of our small ambitions and into the spaciousness of living for his glory.

 

 

Eat with Joy: Book review, author interview and giveaway!

jenmichel@me.com

Eatwithjoy(Leave a comment today and enter to win a free copy of Rachel Marie Stone's Eat with Joy!) * * * * *

I’ve learned to watch for spring’s arrival in asparagus and rhubarb stalks. And it has arrived – finally! – here in Toronto. After our farmer’s market spree this past weekend, we celebrated with strawberry-rhubarb pie for dessert and bacon-wrapped baked eggs and poached asparagus for Sunday breakfast. (Find the original recipe for the eggs here).

As they say, food is love.  And I say, pass the romance – it’s finally in season.

It’s probably easiest to read Rachel Marie Stone’s Eat with Joy (Intervarsity Press, 2013) in the spring, when the farmer’s market is coming alive with color and texture. Where’s the corn? Andrew asked optimistically this past Saturday as we strolled through asparagus and rhubarb, fiddleheads and pea shoots.

Not yet, I said. But July’s coming fast.

Reading Rachel Marie Stone’s wonderful book about eating that is joyful, generous, communal, restorative, sustainable, creative and redemptive is a perfect entrée into the spring and summer harvests, and I want to highly recommend it to you, whether or not you are the one who actually does the cooking in your home. In fact, I recently just told my husband that he’s going to need to read this book. It says what I feel about food, I told him.

Stone does a beautiful job of setting the table theologically for the idea that food is more than fuel. She takes her cues from the creation and salvation narratives, which portray God as the gracious host of creation. “[In the garden of Eden], we eat because God, having prepared for and welcomed us as honored guests, loves to feed us.” In the New Testament, of course, Christians have a meal, which Jesus commends as a way to remember him, and we’re looking forward to a feast, which he will prepare for us as the wedding supper of the Lamb. Everything in the book flows from this idea that God welcomes us, feeds us, hosts us, and here are several examples of how her theology implicates practice:

Hospitality. “Eating with others and inviting people over and cooking for them in your house are things worth doing, and here’s why: because we need to take turns being guest and host, like Jesus did. We need to go to awkward meals at other awkward people’s messy houses and have people over to our awkward, messy houses because that’s where grace comes to us - in the awkwardness and in the mess.”

Slow Food. “I do think that overemphasizing speed and convenience can rob us of the sense that food is important - a way in which God extends loving care to us - and an important way for us to practice God-given creativity while celebrating God’s own creation.”

Justice. “If we hold them (those who prepared our food) in our minds and bring them before God, we will not remain numb to their suffering and eat the fruits of their labor in ignorance.”

Gratitude. “Slowing down, paying attention to the food and to the people who made it and with whom we’re eating allows us to take in more deeply the pleasures of the table, made possible by the hand of the God who feeds us all.”

Stone’s book is more than theoretical, however. It is filled with beautiful stories (my particular favorite is how Rachel took steak to 91-year-old Jack every Saturday night in the nursing home!) and practical advice for how to get started in the practice of joyful eating. There are prayers at the end of every chapter (I’ve included my favorite below) as well as delicious recipes (I tried the black bean and corn quinoa – yum!).

And for those of us generally overwhelmed with the thought of one more responsibility, Stone’s book is more delight than duty. You won’t find the book heavy on condemnation for eating food that is processed or trucked in from Argentina. In fact, the spirit of the project and the tone of the book is gracious; I find Stone willingly grants a lot of room for our humanity. We don’t get things all right all the time, nor is any of us really capable of overhauling all of our habits today.

“Don’t despise the small but significant act,” says Stone, quoting from N.T. Wright, and that’s just the kind of invitation I think galvanizes courage for change.

In the final chapter, Stone addresses the “less than perfect” food situations in which she and her family sometimes find themselves. Though she obviously holds strongly to ideas about food and table, she doesn’t wish for those ideas to become a club of judgment wielded against those who do not.

“I’m a Christian first; and as strongly as I feel about food as a conduit of God’s love and as a site for loving God and neighbor, choosing the ‘right’ kind of food (whatever that is) is much less important to me than giving thanks to God and being kind to my neighbor.”

You’ll find reason for guiltlessly feasting – on grace AND on pie – when you read Rachel Marie Stone’s Eat With Joy.

And I hope you will.

* * * * *

“God of the just weight,

and the fair measure,

let me remember the hands,

that harvested my food, my drink,

not only in my prayers,

but in the marketplace.

Let me not seek a bargain

That leaves another hungry.”

* * * * *

Here are some questions I asked Rachel, who is a fellow contributor at Christianity Today’s blog for women.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for American families wanting to "eat with joy?"

Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles for many families is the sense many of us have that meals must either be gourmet, Pinterest-worthy affairs or else that cooking and eating meals together is a waste of time. In other words, I think many families feel pressure on the one hand to make every meal an ‘event,’ and on the other, that meals aren’t worth the time it takes to make and eat them together. Many families are really busy, and feel they don’t have the time to sit down and eat together. This often leads to eating fast food a bit too often and to a sense that meals are less important than whatever we’re rushing through them to get to: soccer practice, music lessons, church events.

What are your particular challenges to eating with joy in Malawi? (Rachel lives in Africa with her family.)

It is sobering to realize how many people in the world still really struggle with food security; how many children experience stunted growth and intellectual limitation simply from not getting enough to eat, or enough fat and protein. At the same time, encountering these hard truths on a regular basis reminds me of the importance of gratitude for what we have, the need for wise stewardship of what resources we’re blessed with.

You offer so many points of action in your book (which are WONDERFUL). But if I'm in a family who eats processed food or dines out (and NEVER cooks), what first small step do I take toward implementing "joyful eating?"

I’d suggest trying a new ‘from-scratch’ recipe or two each week. And start with something simple…like pancakes from scratch. Many, many things that we’ve grown accustomed to buying prepared or in a mix are actually startlingly easy to make yourself. It can be really satisfying, for example, to make a cake or muffins NOT from a boxed mix. It’s so much easier than many people realize.

Do you have any particular cookbooks you like recommending?

I certainly do! I love the Mennonite Central Committee cookbooks—More With Less, Extending the Table, and Simply in Season—the recipes are simple, healthy, and frugal, and the goal of each of the cookbooks is to get people cooking and eating with greater mindfulness toward issues of hunger in the world while encouraging them to enjoy new foods. They influenced my thinking about food tremendously. In a totally different vein, I love the America’s Test Kitchen cookbooks, especially the Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook. These recipes come out perfectly every time (if you follow them exactly!) because they’ve been tested extensively, and they have great explanations of the science behind certain results—why, for example, cookie recipes tell you to add eggs “one at a time, beating after each addition.”

In the process of writing the book, did you ever feel you were too busy to cook in the ways that you wanted to and that you were commending to readers? Were you able to continue your ministry of hospitality?

This is where community life is fantastic. My mom and dad were around to help out with practical things, and my husband was able to give me extra time to work on the book. So I did, for the most part, continue with our regular sorts of meals. Cooking is such a different activity from writing that it was actually great to step away from the computer and do something that engaged more of my senses. However, there were a few times during the writing of this book—when I’d be out for the day writing in libraries and coffee shops—when I’d be so engaged that I’d forget to eat. How’s that for irony!?

(More about book writing) What is the biggest lesson about writing that you learned in the process of writing your first book? What worked? What didn't? And what will your second book be about?

The biggest lesson about the process is that it is just that: a process. Six years ago I wrote out almost a full manuscript of a book very like the one I just published, and eventually scrapped it. That’s right—scrapped it, and started over. It didn’t have the focus I wanted, but it helped me find the heart of what I really wanted to say. And when I found that, creating a new outline and writing new chapters flowed pretty organically.

I also learned that there is no formula, no single right way to write any single chapter or any book for that matter. I used to think that I ‘had’ to structure things a certain way, and I learned that this isn’t true!

As for the second book, I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with the folks at Olive Branch Books/Peace Hill Press on their series of religious education curricula for children. God’s Upside Down Kingdom, a book about Jesus, will be out later this year.

 

 

 

The Act of Becoming Small

jenmichel@me.com

I am cramped in an airplane, sandwiched between my husband and a man whose language is not my own. He (the stranger) resists when I instinctively grab for his lunch tray to pass it to the flight attendant after he’s finished eating. I don’t know why my gesture of helpfulness is rebuffed. Today, we are leaving behind Lisbon: its whitewashed houses with their clay-tiled roofs, its stunning sun-lit landscapes, its friendly people and their melodic, lilting language. We’ve traveled for work, not play, and although I do not mean to solicit sympathy (one friend emails, “work trip. feh.”), I am keen to insist on the quality of our time away, which was crowded with strangers, group excursions, late-night business dinners, and midnight phone calls to the children. The Bible reading plan I’d copied ambitiously in my journal was abandoned early on. Mornings seemed to come too quickly to begin them with prayer.

I am feeling bad about this today – apologetic even, although I can’t be sure if I’m sorry is the same thing as a confession. It feels like a pathetic way to make up for having neglected God, an adolescent gesture that is probably more motivated by my own desire to ingratiate myself once again, especially now that I have a book to write. These amends somehow seem more necessary with a deadline looming.

Feeling sorely out of practice, I begin again. Praying. After only a week, it’s as if I’ve lost the skill of it. (Skill. That, too, belies what I think of prayer. As if any human can be skilled in conversation with the Holy.) But for all that feels unnatural, even shameful about attempting to pick up where we left off, I begin again. My confidence grows: even praying badly might be welcome with God.

Maybe we should all take turns at praying badly. Maybe then we’d finally shake free of our proud pretensions of being good or doing good. Maybe we’d begin remembering that the only prayer that works, the only “good” prayer is the prayer that makes us small, the kind of prayer that re-proportions that world.

I’m sorry, best said on the knees, is a diminutive act.

Suddenly, you are as small as you need to be.

 

 

Book Blurb: Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler

jenmichel@me.com

I’ve finished my first Anne Tyler novel – Saint Maybe - and I’ve been mulling over it the last couple of days. (Well, that would make it sound like I’ve been thinking hard about something other than organizing closets, measuring rooms, and pricing new couches, which wouldn’t exactly be true.) To be honest, I thought that I would like this novel more. I couldn’t remember exactly who had recommended it to me, but after I finished it, I was totally underwhelmed. Because I had been reading it on my iPad and had lost any real sense of where I was in the novel, when I came to the final scene and turned the final page, I was shocked. It was an ending with so little fanfare.

In fact, the novel is itself a work of understatement. It wasn’t until I realized this that I realized I had almost missed what Tyler was doing very, very deliberately.

It also helped when I remembered that it was Eugene Peterson who had suggested I read it. (No, no, I haven’t managed a personal face-to-face yet with my favorite American pastor, but I do have a copy of his Take and Read: Spiritual Reading: An Annotated List.)

Here’s was Peterson says about Saint Maybe: “Each new novel by Tyler is a fresh exercise in seeing behind the labels and clichés that stereotype people and prevent us from seeing the “image of God” that is there. She creates characters in her novels that are always just a little quirky, not quite fitting into what we think a human being ought to be. Most of us are so used to fitting into the categories supplied for us by hospitals, schools, shopping malls, and social services that we raise no objections when we are treated similarly by other Christians, and especially by Christian leaders. But insofar as we acquiesce, we lost the capacity to realize what God is most interested in working in us: sanctity, which means becoming more our created/redeemed selves, not less, not being reduced to what will fit into a religious program, not being depersonalized in the cause of ecclesiastical efficiency.”

Though this really gives you no specifics about the actual novel, Peterson is explaining the redemptive thread that is woven so beautifully and painfully in this novel: holiness.

Do we believe that is really what God is after?

And what is holiness? Is it keeping all of the rules? Keeping our religious ducks in a row?

Or is holiness love?

Ian, who is the novel’s protagonist, is a man who grows into holiness. At least I think. Because the novel’s prose is so common, because Ian is such a commoner, holiness doesn’t bedazzle you as a reader. There really aren’t explosive moments of insight for Ian. There is just this steady narrative drumbeat, and Ian plods forward.

You hardly admire him. At times, you may even pity him.

- until you put the novel down, take a few days away from it, (read a better, more insightful review), and realize you almost missed it.

Holiness can even be this: feeling exhausted and perplexed, sometimes feeling trapped, sometimes wondering why God feels so distant, often wondering if you’re on the right road - but keeping at the work God has given you.

“For the first time it occurred to him that there was something steely and inhuman to this religious business.”

Ian is one the road to finding forgiveness, and he’s missing it for a good part of the novel. He’s thinking that forgiveness is earned.

But along the way, Ian learns to pray. He is like us: so human, so frail, but growing in his capacity to see and receive God.

“To steady himself, he bowed himself and prayed. He prayed as he almost always did, not forming actual words but picturing instead this spinning green planet safe in the hands of God, with the children and his parents and Ian himself small trusting dots among all the other dots. And the room around him seemed to rustle with prayers for years and years past: Let them get well and Make her love me and Forgive what I have done.

 

If you fail to pray, can you write a book about prayer?

jenmichel@me.com

I have finally admitted to myself that I am writing a book on prayer. Though the questions that I have center on the subject of desire - what, if anything, can we really want from God? -the book answers that question by exploring the language of the Lord’s Prayer.Prayer, although not exclusively the act of petition, is supposed to include presenting our requests to God. But were I to venture a guess, we feel a bit guilty when we do. I should be more thankful, more content. We think that the holiest prayers ask the least. We think that the holiest pray-ers were the people who could self-forget, focusing instead on the majesty and glory of God. We think we are meant to discover the perfect beauty and bounty of God, and this would then teach us to need nothing – and want nothing. The only trouble is, that’s absolutely NOT what the Scriptures teach. Yes, we are guilty of infinitely more self-absorption than we know. The Bible is pretty clear on that. And yes, we should be pretty darn realistic when it comes to attending to the self-interested motives and intentions behind our prayers. And yes, prayer is intended to confront us with God’s perfection. But our sobered self-appraisal does not warrant that we give up on the real business of praying, which, as I stubbornly defend, gives us, not only access to the very throne of God, but permission to ask. No man or woman is really worthy of this privilege of petition. Only Jesus. C.S. Lewis, in his book, Mere Christianity, reflects on the opening address of the Lord’s Prayer [Our Father, who art in heaven}: “Do you now see what those words say? They mean quite frankly, that you are putting yourself in the place of a son of God. To put it bluntly, you are dressing up as Christ.” And this is our awesome, undeserved invitation to pray ⎯ and to want. I do not feel qualified to write a book about prayer. My prayer life isn’t one I would uphold as a model of holy petition. I, like you, struggle to pray consistently. I, like you, fail to ask God specifically. I don’t acknowledge often enough the profound gratitude to God that I should feel (and don’t). I don’t approach prayer as an exercise of worship. I pray when I’m in a scrape or a bind. I pray when I see no other solution. I pray when I’m feeling miserable and need a pick-me-up. I pray most fervently when there’s something in it for me. But what is probably most true of my life is that I pray too little. Paul Miller says in his book, A Praying Life, “If you are not praying then you are quietly confident that time, money, talent are all you need in life. You’ll always be a little too tired, a little too busy. But if, like Jesus, you realize you can’t do life on your own, then no matter how tired you are, you will find the time to pray.” I am writing a book on prayer. Me, little old prayer failure, me. And I simply have to remind myself of the purposes for which I write: I write to teach. And sometimes that means teaching me and only me. A sermon to the self: that’s what this whole discipline of writing has become.

When anxiety throbs (and you need to remember God's faithfulness)

jenmichel@me.com

3:40 a.m. I am awake. It’s the dull and distant voice of anxiety rouses me. I can’t make out what it says – I have only the impression that I am being summoned to the mountain of worry. The trek begins early – if I’ll take it. * * * * *

This past summer, the owners of the current house we’re leasing contacted us to say that they were moving back from Asia. We’d need to find somewhere else to live.

This 1920’s center-hall colonial with its leaded glass was like a gift that had fallen from the sky when we’d come to Toronto two years ago. We’d dedicated an entire week to the process of looking for a house, not knowing of course that Toronto rental market was lean, and we’d have only three houses to see and consider. The housing crisis that had decimated the States, forcing so many owners into selling their homes (or worse, foreclosure), hadn’t crept north into Canada. Homes were selling here, and they were selling quickly, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars over the asking price. It was for this reason that so few family homes were available to rent when we first moved to Toronto.

Two years later, the market has cooled a little, and we’re grateful to have had, not only the time to look for a new house, but more options from which to choose. Months ago, we thought we’d found a house that would be perfect for us: it was close to several friends from school, the neighborhood was quiet (by city terms), and the space were generous, especially considering the limitations of our current house (read: galley kitchen and 1.5 bathrooms).

Consider our shock when our realtor informed us that the property owner would not even consider that offer. He would not negotiate the terms, and he would not call our references: he was flatly refusing on the basis that he did not want to rent to a family with five kids.

Enter a new variable of uncertainty into the equation.

So Saturday, imagine our real sense of relief when, after that rejection and months of persistent looking, we saw a home in the neighborhood we love, with even better space than the first we’d seen and tried to lease. Yes! And because the first property hadn’t yet been leased, we figured there weren’t many families looking in January to move.

Wrong! Again, yesterday, we had disappointing news from our realtor. Another family is also bidding to lease the property, the one where I’d already been imagining our life.

What do you do when you face uncertainty? Impossibility?

You wake up at 3:40 a.m. to a dull throb in your chest.

But you refuse to let it grab hold.

With all the faith you can muster, you pray, heaving against the mountains of your impossibilities the tiniest mustard seed of faith.

And it’s not as if we have to believe that God will grant what we’ve asked exactly as we’ve asked it. Indeed, I am not too foolish to forget that I am a child, selfish and spoiled.

No, the faith we need is that God is good and will do good. No matter what.

And here’s a beautiful song by Sara Groves to remind us of exactly this. I think I’ll be listening to it quite a bit today.

 

He’s Always Been Faithful

 

Morning by morning I wake up to find

The power and comfort of God’s hand in mine.

Season by season I watch Him amazed,

In awe of the mystery of His perfect ways.

 

All I have need of His hand will provide

He’s always been faithful to me.

 

I can’t remember a trial or a pain

He did not recycle to bring me gain.

I can’t remember one single regret

In serving God only and trusting His hand.

 

This is my anthem, this is my song,

The theme of the stories I’ve heard for so long.

God has been faithful, He will be again,

His loving compassion it knows no end.

 

 

Prayer (and the blinding beauty of an empty tomb)

jenmichel@me.com

Monday, I had an email from a friend describing a real spiritual battle of wills. She and her husband have poured their lifeblood into a particular ministry, and evil, with its heavy boots of death, threatened to crush the fragility of good that God and His people were building. “In the ten years that we’ve been here, I’ve never reached out with an email like this.” Things seemed to be unraveling. Fast. I cried as I read. And I immediately prayed - like I may not have prayed in years, engaging in my own invisible coup de résistance. I tapped exactly the words God gave in an email back to my friend. “Love is stronger than death. That’s why there is an empty tomb.”

As soon as the kids were down for breakfast and gathered around the table for prayer and Bible reading, I told them about the email, describing how some “bad” people (insert: people disposing of dirty needles in a public place where children play) were asserting their presence. We needed to pray: that they would go away and that God’s people would be armed.

We reviewed the spiritual armor: shield of faith, breastplate of righteousness, helmet of salvation, etc.

“And now,” I asked. “You picture ____________ and _________________ and you ask God to dress them in these pieces of armor. And you pray that God would surround this space and defend it.”

Children have the simplest and strongest faith.

“God, give them your armor.”

“God, make the bad people go away.”

“God, bring ten hundred million police.” (This was one of the twins.)

We have been praying around our table at every gathered meal since the email.

And God did all of these things in the matter of three short days. He united His people around the purposes of good: police, community members, even the bad people themselves.

As a result, people proclaimed the name of Jesus over this space where good has been seeded: “In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus, Satan will have to flee! Tell me who can stand before us when we call on His great name? Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus, we have the victory!” Community members flung their songs to the stars and its Maker, and I believe my friend and her family have a renewed vision that this is God’s work to advance and defend.

Hope grows.

Why is our God so gracious and merciful to hear and answer our prayers? I won’t understand that lavish generosity – but I want to participate it in more.

This one reason why I’m going to be here less often on finding my pulse.

I sense the call to talk less and pray more.

It is true that prayer doesn’t depend on our fancy eloquence. Sometimes the best prayers are the shortest: Help!

It is also true that praying is hard work requiring time and attention.

In this season in our lives  - of general health and well-being – we, as a family, are enjoying fullness. But this is not meant only for us. I told the kids three days ago, “If God has blessed us, we are meant to bless others. If for this season, we don’t face suffering or challenge, we can step into a call to pray for those who are.”

I hope to be more faithful to that. I hope you will be, too.

Maybe one less blog post competing for your attention can nudge you to your own work of calling: to pray, to shoulder work, to love, and to worship.

That’s my intent at least. And while there may be more reasons than this (laundry and book writing as examples), there is primarily this: that in order to speak, I most listen. In order to write, I must hear.

“The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my heart to hear as those who are taught.

The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious. I turned not backward.

Isaiah 50:4, 5

Blessings for you, dear readers.

May the light of hope guide you in your dark valleys.

May the wind of grace catch your sails.

May you live today – and every day – in the blinding beauty of an empty tomb.

 

 

Time for What Matters

jenmichel@me.com

Time is like a tube of toothpaste. Just when you think you’ve used it all up, you squeeze a little harder, a little longer, and you find just enough to make it past your morning breath. You have time for what matters to you.

I have time for what matters to me.

Writing has mattered to me these last nine months, and I’ve squeezed my toothpaste of time hard, gaining one hour out of my day to write what you’ve been reading here. And because I’ve chosen this as a priority, there are many other things that have mattered less, which I’ve willingly given myself the permission to neglect.

I’m reminded of this choice the morning I return from coffee with a friend at her house, a house she and her husband have newly renovated, and which is, of course, spectacularly. Perfect. Decorator eye candy. A Canadian House and Home future feature. I’d almost hoped I didn’t have to leave after we’d spent the morning sitting in her rattan patio furniture by her pool eating lemon drizzle cake and sipping coffee. But of course we had our day to get on with, and she gently showed me to the door through her (also spectacular!) mudroom. (Who knew mudrooms could be so beautiful?)

I came back home, parked in the garage, and navigated the maze of bikes and scooters, baseball bats and helmets that is our back porch. Throwing open the metal storm door (a vintage piece?), I climbed three stairs and saw the sight of my kitchen counters. The French press in pieces, the compost bin yawning beside the sink, breakfast crumbs underfoot. And stepping further into the small sitting room where I write, I see my desk, heaped with books, pens, school papers, coffee mugs, batteries, someone’s flashlight, a hair clip.

They scream at me, “You’re a mess.”

In less than one hour a day, I could have my house June Cleaver clean. And some days, I wish I did just that. I wish that when the kids were at school, I could just close this laptop and find the missing pieces to our Connect Four game. I’d rather not continue single-handedly funding the Toronto Public Library system because I can’t seem to keep track of books and receipts. And me, too, I’d like to wake up to kitchen counters wiped immaculately clean with every toy neatly sorted back in its place. (Tell me, if you will. How do ping pong paddles end up on top of the microwave, anyways?)

But there is writing and there is parenting. And I am a friend and daughter, and Djokovic is playing in the French Open. I want to watch it with my husband.

I have time for what matters to me.

Not all things. Not for meeting expectations. Not for proving myself. Not for living into all the imaginary (and impossible) standards of general put-togetherness. But I have the time I meet to meet the responsibilities God has given me. I believe in that sufficiency, trust in my good Father that He knows the dust of this frame. I believe that He multiplies fish and loaves, even time committed into His hands. I lean. I trust. I listen. I pray, and I work.

Since the practice of virtue and the observance of the commandments form part of prayer, those who pray as well as work at the tasks they have to do, and combine their prayer with suitable activity, will be “praying always.” This is the only way in which it is possible never to stop praying.

Origen of Alexandria

* * * * *

When you face interruptions today and sense time slipping like sand through your fingers. . .

“Lord, make me sensitive to your interruptions. May I not be rigid in my schedule and inflexible to what you would insert in my time. But please help me to be disciplined to do what is important to do and not to turn easily aside.” Edith Schaeffer, The Life of Prayer

When you simply need more willingness to receive whatever God chooses to give to you today. . .

“Lord,

I am willing to receive what you give,

Release what you take,

Lack what you withhold,

Do what you require,

And be who you desire.”

Adele Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook

 

Teach us to pray

jenmichel@me.com

Our Father-in-Heaven: Be lifted up today!

Rule over us, we pray, and tear down our idols.

Let your intention for us be realized completely,

Regardless of what it may cost.

We look to you to feed us, to provide what we need.

Forgive our sins; cancel our debts.

Teach us to do the same for others.

We are weak and prone to wander.

Oh, have mercy, dear Lord.

Find us in our weakness; rescue us in our lostness.

Protect us from the evil one.

We confess you as King of the Everlasting Kingdom,

The High and Omnipotent God, the All-Glorious One.

This is how it is and how it always be will. Amen.

(The Lord's Prayer, paraphrased by David Nixon)

* * * * *

"When Jesus gave his disciples this prayer, he was giving them part of his own breath, his own life, his own prayer. The prayer is actually a distillation of his own sense of vocation, his own understanding of his Father's purposes. If we are truly to enter into it and make it our own, it can only be if we first understand how he set about living the Kingdom himself." N.T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer

"Many assure us that Jesus really means "keep us away from temptation," or "lead us out of temptation," or remind us that you never tempt us." Of course none of these things is what Jesus actually said. He told us to beg God not to put us to a test, presumably because we would fail it. What a vote of confidence in us! What a vote of confidence in God! What a way to conclude a conversation!" Telford Work, Ain't Too Proud to Beg

"Our culture is probably the hardest place in the world to learn to pray. We are so busy that when we slow down to pray, we find it uncomfortable. We prize accomplishments, production. But prayer is nothing but talking to God. It feels useless as if we are wasting our time. Every bone in our bodies screams, "get to work!" Paul Miller, The Praying Life

"Go into your closet and shut the door, Jesus advised, and I envision doing just that, entering a closet with my pressing, time-bound burdens, and asking God to renew, to refresh, to remind, to pour some eternity into me." Philip Yancey

* * * * *

Sit still.

Longer.

Listen. And hear.

I, and I alone am God.

 

Sit still.

Longer.

Listen. And hear.

 

There is a Beginning,

A bold God-introduction,

Something preeminent,

First.

 

Sit still.

Longer.

Listen. And hear.

 

I will be exalted.

 

Though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,

Though its waters roar and form,

Though the mountains tremble at its swelling,

We will not fear.

 

Jesus, teach us to pray.

 

 

 

When you want. . .and wait

jenmichel@me.com

The subject line reads: Sit down. I read her email yesterday afternoon in the chill of February's wind, pushing the twins ahead of me as we walk to pick up the older three from school.

 source

Jen Michel, are you sitting down?

I am not, of course, but I race through the email, desperate for good news. Has it finally fallen from the sky, her gift of goodness?

I want it for her. I want it in ways that hurt. I want something to start making sense of these years that have spoken silence for them. I want to keep stubbornly believing that whatever His track record, God remains good and strong.

I want the fairy-tale ending. I want the yes.

I hope, but I am also afraid.

Hope and desire. They have their own contours of pain.

What does it mean to keep wanting when all you've held close is writhing disappointment? How do you pray when it seems all you've had from God's hand is pain? These are some of the bravest questions of faith, questions each of us, at some point, will have to stare straight in the eye. Either they will have their way with us, or we will find a newfound confidence in the mysteries of God.

Every occasion of pain, every season of silence moves us nearer to answering: what is it that I really want from God? What is it I demand? Because the truth is that there is much I want apart from God himself. I like my definitions of good and happy, and these aren't easily laid down.

God seems to relentlessly lead us to occasions of confronting the real and terrible possibility that we might never have from Him what we ask. In the unknowing and in the hurting, He whispers an invitation for confirming in us a faith that is not so tentative and feeble. He will undo in us the faith that is not faith at all, the faith that must script its own endings and have its own way.

Real faith moves us in the direction of surrender. Surrender doesn't mean wanting less. It is desire itself that pushes us to the precipice of mystery. And what is it that we'll find there? At the edge of unknowing, we can find something sure. Even good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Year of Knees

jenmichel@me.com

Is your reflexive action, like mine, to get to work? I am compulsive, I admit. A few days before we leave Toronto for the holidays, I am not doing laundry for our trip. I am not packing suitcases. I am not wrapping presents.

Instead, I am organizing my desk. Dumping out drawers, thumbing through papers, sorting rubber bands and paper clips. I hang a new $20 painting by my desk that I've bought at a local thrift store (when I should have been Christmas shopping). I swap spring-patterned file folders for folders of winter browns and muted golds.

In the overwhelming pant of Christmas, I frantically seize a small, wild corner of my world (this time, my desk) and tame it. I need mastery of something. I want control.

Some people eat when they're worried or fearful.

I vacuum. (Photo Credit)

What is it about motion that soothes me?

The beginning of a new year is raw meat for do-ers like me. We are adept at the list-making, enthralled by our own powers of resolve. We get things done, and you like us for it.

And it's true that not much happens accidentally in life, does it? Who of us falls into change, waking up to newness by surprise? I believe in resolve. I believe that bringing our best efforts and our deliberate intentions to life is necessary and good.

But I know it's never enough.

I want my reflexive action, my first impulse, not to be for work but for prayer.

The getting things done is getting it wrong without that.

Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.

I want 2012 to be a year of knees, not hands.

I admit I've already done a bit of list-making. I've written out the books I want to read this year. I've dreamed about building into my marriage and my children. I'm re-committing to the spiritual practices of accountability, confession and scripture memorization.

And I'm also committing to my writing this year: to reading great writers and sitting at the feet of their prose, to sketching out ideas for a book and plunging myself into that. To keep writing here regularly.

But I've set some deliberate limits to the work I'll be doing. I want more margin for relationships and reflection. I've made the new lists with my Bible open, with a willingness to begin by asking, "Search me, O God, and know my heart. Try me and know my thoughts. See where there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in your way everlasting."

Have you gotten alone with Jesus yet to reflect on last year and plan for the coming year?

Here are some tools I've been using and would gladly recommend (from Tsh, at simplemom.net).

Reflection Questions for 2011

Goal Setting for 2012

Here's to 2012, to reflexive prayer and relationship, to giving ourselves to what matters most, to authentic living with Jesus and with others.

Here's to 2012, a year for our desires made holy, our courage made real, our commitment made new.

Celebrate Advent: Make room for the yes. (Luke 1:5-18)

jenmichel@me.com

"Thank you God for this pasta and this fork and the napkin and the placemat and the lettuce and the cucumbers and thank you God for this day. A-MEN!" The prayer ends with a self-satisfied smile from Andrew. We all begin reaching for our forks and napkins when Colin insists, "WAAAAIIIIT! I didn't get to pray."

We again fold our hands and bow our heads.

Colin's eyes squint halfway closed. His head swivels to watch us as he begins to pray.

"Thank you God for this pasta and this sauce and HIS EYES AREN'T CLOSED!" Colin accuses, looking at Nathan.

"Just pray!" we groan. Dinner is growing cold.

"Thank you God for this pasta and this sauce and the fork and the placemat and thank you God for the chair and SHE'S EATING!" Camille is now the guilty one.

She puts her fork down, and the prayer begins again. . . from the beginning. After Twin #2 has successfully thanked God for more things than his brother, his prayer ends with an emphatic amen, a kind of exclamation point on a job well done.

And I wonder.

When prayers are answered, is it to congratulate my job well-done?

Do prayers get answered because my measure of fervency and faithfulness has finally been reasoned by God to be sufficient?

Are my prayers getting answered because I'm selecting the right words, phrasing the right sentences, and unlocking heaven's reluctance by my own cleverness?

And what's to be done about the prayers I've only prayed half-heartedly? Wanting but not really? Believing but not really?

The angel tells Zechariah the great news: his prayers have been answered. Yes! He and Elizabeth will have a son!

But verse 18 tells  the real truth about Zechariah's prayers, and ultimately, his faith.

It's threadbare. It's been worn right through by the steady advancing of years and years of praying for a baby. And years and years of silence. God didn't answer. Nothing changed.

There was nothing other than to believe that the books had been closed, and the answer was no.

And now God was answering a prayer Zechariah had given up praying?

God was now granting a gift to a man who'd lost faith?

And all those prayers I lose heart praying? The desires I don't have the courage to name? The moments when my faith is threadbare and I can't believe much that's good and faithful about God?

He still hears?

Advent is great news for the faithless: make room for the yes.

Hands

jenmichel@me.com

The twins have begun to dress themselves. It's as if this universe has shifted in some way, they now asking me to lay out their clothes at bedtime. In the morning, I hear drawers open and close, and minutes later, these two boys, still wiping night from their eyes, find me. "Is this the right way?" they ask, pointing to their shirt. And when I croon,"Yes!" their eyes find their toes, and they smile shyly.

Our oldest is almost eleven. She's so capable now. With the twins, still three, there are yet shirts to button, pants to snap, and coats to zip. But more and more, as their little hands grow deft and big, they insist, "I can do it!" and I watch their heroic struggle with velcro sneakers and coat sleeves.

The motion of my hands is different these days. I'm no longer changing diapers, finding pacifiers, or rocking a baby to sleep. Instead, I sign papers and type passwords. I pack lunches and fold laundry and pick up scattered library books. But my hands still draw these five close. I'm hungry for a piece of them near, even as they try and wriggle away.

Establish the work of my hands. Psalm 90:17

To be a mother is to have your hands set in perpetual motion.

And whatever good our hands accomplish, whatever greatness they purpose, these hands are weak, arthritic. They bear the sure signs of something enfeebled and frail. Things seem to be forever slipping away, and these hands aren't strong enough to hold.

Establish the work of my hands. This is a mother's prayer.

Establish. Found. Make something strong and lasting of all my porous efforts. Because this work, this mothering, is simply too big. And demands too much. And who'd have imagined what a wreck I really was?

But prayer is whispered faith. Establish the work of my hands. You, Big God, build.

It's not a stilling of the motion to which I'm called. I purpose and commit and work.

But ultimately, I surrender and I trust.

Because He is strong and big. And His hands hold.