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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: suffering

When lament suits Christmas

jenmichel@me.com

In our weekly Sunday liturgy at Grace Toronto church, we pray for our church and the city. It is one of my favorite parts of the service because it helps me to remember, not just the great news of the gospel, but the great responsibility of place. To live anywhere is to answer the call to be a neighbor. And being a neighbor means carrying the burdens of others.

Neighborliness is one word to describe the holy act of the Incarnation: God clothed himself with flesh and pitched his tent among us. This Advent, I am contemplating that mystery—and also finding myself deeply burdened for the world. When it came time for me, this past Sunday, to lead the weekly prayer for the church and the city. I couldn't help but bring a prayer of lament. It seemed fitting, and perhaps it gives words to some of your sorrow and hope.

I offer it as an Advent meditation.


Father,

 

Thank you for this holy season of Advent—a season for contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation. Your ways are not our ways. Your thoughts are not our thoughts. Who has ever known your mind? Who has ever dared to be your counselor? We cannot begin to grasp what it means that you, in your holiness, would choose to be clothed with the liability of human flesh, that you would send your Son Christ into a world where he would not be welcomed. He is the Suffering Servant of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke, the one whose first and final advents advance the cause of justice and announce the hope of salvation.

 

We need that justice and salvation today as much as Ancient Israel, God. We need Jesus to return and to bring with him your kingdom of peace.

 

We have watched Aleppo fall and little children suffer. Lord, have mercy.

Nationalism is taking hold around the world. Lord, have mercy.

There is political instability, racial injustice, great economic disparity. Lord, have mercy.

In Toronto, there are people living on the streets as the temperatures fall, and even the wealthy suffer evil like domestic violence, substance abuse, family breakdown and spiritual alienation. Lord, have mercy.

 

How long, O Lord? This has always been the faithful cry of your people, our song of lament in the face of suffering. How long, O Lord, until you put this world fully and finally to rights? Until you judge evil and deliver the oppressed? How long until your Son comes again to put the enemies of sin and disease and death under his feet?

 

I pray for those in our congregation for whom 2016 has been a year of suffering. They have lost jobs. They have lost loved ones. They have prayed and seem only to have had silence in response. They wonder, God, where you are and whether you care. They doubt that your goodness and power are real. Even 2017 is full of unanswered questions, and there is fear in meeting the uncertainties ahead. In this final week of Advent, help all of us to abide in hope: hope which is a confident expectation in you.

 

Israel was taught to pray:

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb!

Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!

He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,

Shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

 

Make this true of us: may our tears of lament plant seeds of greater hope and faith. May we begin to lay down, with greater willingness, our need for control. May we begin to embrace, with greater humility, your wisdom. Let mystery be cause for worship.

 

Finally, God, bring your people home with shouts of joy. We look forward to the next Advent of Jesus, when he will return and gather us to himself in the city of God, when you will declare, “The dwelling place of God is with humanity.” Suffering will be ended. Tears will be dried. Death and mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Bring us to the day when the former things have passed away and you make all things new.

 

Come, Lord Jesus. Come.

 

Amen.

 

 

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.

-----

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.

Deserts Bloom: A Beautiful Disaster by Marlena Graves

jenmichel@me.com

There is a disciple few of us know by name. We’re introduced to him in the first chapter of John, and his name is Nathanael. When Philip finds him to tell him about “him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph,” Nathanael is immediately wary. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks.

At first glance, we might think that Nathanael’s question reveals him to be a cynic. But cynics don’t follow when they’re invited to “come and see,” as Philip invited Nathanael. And cynics aren’t described as people “in whom there is no deceit,” as Jesus describes Nathanael. No, Nathanael isn’t a cynic. He’s a straight-shooter, a man completely unskilled in the craft of cunning. Nathanael is a man that tells a kind of truth that doesn’t have to qualified and hedged, a truth that is not slick and marketable.

That’s Nathanael.

That is also my friend and writer, Marlena Graves, who’s just recently released her first book, A Beautiful Disaster.

marlena

I first met Marlena in New York City last November – and immediately liked her. She has this wide-eyed earnestness about her. She asks questions. She likes to listen. Late last fall, both of us had just recently finished the first drafts of our manuscripts, and there I was, all elbows and knees about my writing, preoccupied and self-conscious about its faults. But Marlena was almost breezy when talking about her book. I couldn’t help wondering how she could be so convincingly humble and yet say things like, “I think I’ve written the best book I can, and I’m happy with it.”

But that’s Marlena, at least as I’ve come to know her more online and now through her book. As if to highlight how I've described her, here is one of my favorite lines from her book (from the beginning of Chapter 9, “The God Who Sees Me”):

“I can sometimes be a fine piece of work.”

A beautiful disaster cover

A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness is a book that journeys through the wilderness and tries to make sense of pain in the context of faith. As Marlena describes, “I entered the scriptural narrative, and the narrative entered me.” Pulling from the lives of Biblical figures and monastics and adding to that canon her own painful childhood experiences, Marlena writes hopefully about the loss and suffering of the desert.

Deserts bloom, she insists.

There is so much profound beauty and wisdom in Marlena’s book that I simply find it difficult to narrow the scope and pick something to share with you. I want you to read what she says about identity: “If we desire to find out who we are, we have to confess who we have been.” I want you to read what she says about ambition: “Saints are intentional about living a quiet, hidden life. They are not involved in noisy efforts to draw attention to themselves.” I want you to know her sobriety about spiritual transformation: “The process of dying to ourselves takes a lot out of us. We vacillate between putting to death the deeds of the flesh and hanging out to familiar death. . . We don’t like to die even when it’s good for us.” My notes on A Beautiful Disaster are nearly 2,400 words: it's as if in the process of reading, I wanted nothing to slip from notice.

But maybe what I like best about Marlena's book is how she treats the subject of human desire. (That's a curiosity for me.) How do we want in the wilderness? Because the wilderness, of course, is a place for doubting God’s goodness. The sheet metal sky, the aridity, the tyranny of the sun: how can God be good when life is not? Why does he not hear our prayers, answer them, and rescue us immediately from the desert’s misery?

Because the desert teaches us to trust.

“It is we who must learn to receive God’s gifts. Only a soul wide awake, a heart tenderized through suffering and sacrifice while in communion with God, learns to receive with gratitude. God desires that we know him as loving and most generous, always providing for his children and for those who do not even acknowledge him. With the same affection expressed toward the older brother in the story of the prodigal, he beckons us, saying, “Everything I have is yours” (Luke 15:31). . . So much of provision is a matter of seeing. If we could but see."

Because the desert teaches us to die.

“Provision in the wilderness may look like death. In our dying, we are as a single kernel of wheat, buried in the ground, dying, and producing many more kernels. In a mysterious way, and for reasons known only to him, God uses our mortification—the thousand little and spectacular deaths we die in this life—as a means of provision for others. Our deaths to self are a means of grace for others and vice versa.”

Because the desert teaches us to wait.

“Waiting tempers disordered passions and allows us to deal well with reality. We might come to understand that things aren’t as bad as we thought or are far worse than previously imagined; God uses the wait time to develop in us fortitude that keeps us from being destroyed by our circumstances. We realize that we don’t need this or that thing or relationship to be whole, whereas before, when we had what we thought we wanted and weren’t waiting on anything, we never thought we could live without it.”

Because the desert to teaches us to want.

“It’s hard to think of the wilderness as a pruning experience, but at times it is. Pruning is always painful because it involves loss. It can involve loss of good, luxuriant, and fruitful branches in our lives. When God begins to prune these fruitful branches, we seldom recognize it as pruning. We are aghast that God would mess with something so fruitful, something that brings us joy. His actions hardly ever make sense to us at the time. We may even consider the pruning a punishment or a curse. The pruning experience always reminds me that God’s ways are not our ways. I confess that I sometimes wish my ways were his ways. I really do. . .

God is pruning us in order to work all things out for our good and for the good of others. This includes the good of creation, for he is redeeming all things.”

I hope you’ll buy your copy of Marlena Graves’s, A Beautiful Disaster, and find the gospel hope for believing:

Deserts bloom.

"The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; The desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus. It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing."

Isaiah 35:1

* * * * *

Enter a giveaway (sponsored by Brazos Press) to win Marlena's book!

Buy the book!

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.

 

 

 

 

Hot Pink Socks in Montreal

jenmichel@me.com

It is the hot pink socks that I immediately notice. And then the wool sweater. And her swollen ankles and feet. I can’t see her face because she holds her head in her hands. Her long, grey hair hangs like a shroud. My first thought is, I hope she’s not a regular. The day of our arrival in Montreal, we have parked our car behind the building where we’ve rented a flat for three weeks, and as we round the corner from the alley, I see her sitting on the stoop in front of the building three doors from ours.

I hope she’s not a regular. This immediate thought I hate admitting, but I’m quite sure that I want in no way to feel responsible for a homeless woman this summer. And if I am forced to pass her everyday on this same stoop, this woman with her head - and misery - in her hands, that is exactly how I will feel: responsible.

Three days I see her on the stoop wearing her uniform of the street: wool sweater and hot pink socks, capri jeans clinging tightly to her legs. The air is thick in Montreal our first week here. The sun falls hard on the streets and café umbrellas. It falls harder on those who have only wool to pull from the closet.

On day four, I decide we’ll make acquaintance. Clearly, she’s a regular. Clearly, I can’t attempt to do much writing about Jesus with a homeless woman sitting three stoops away from my front door. And when I’ve dropped the kids off at summer camp and park the van in the back of our building, I round the corner like I’ve done every day for the better part of a week. She is there. I approach.

Her face is tanned, her grey hair thick and beautiful. Today, she watches the world as it passes her on the sidewalk. As I come closer, I see her eyebrows arched in thick pencil. She has colored cynicism on her face.

“Hi. I’ve just noticed you the past couple of days and thought we should say hello. What’s your name?”

She stares at me blankly. “Why?”

The question hangs there a moment. I’ve begun stupidly. I try again. “I see you here most days and because I’m always walking by, I just thought I could introduce myself and be friendly. I’m Jen.” I stick my hand out to shake hers. And funny, I can’t remember now whether she took it.

That is where our conversation ends. I walk to the café where I plan to spend the day writing. And wonder just what kind of pain it is that makes a woman learn to doubt the motives of the world, just what kind of pain it is that leaves a woman with her head in her hands and bags at her feet, with only wool to wear in July.

It’s a couple of days later (every time now I pass, there is a hello from me, a nod from her - sometimes I might even suspect a faint smile when the children are with me). This time, I catch her in animated conversation with a man. They stand in front of her stoop. As we pass, he turns and I catch his eyes. They are empty blue, the kind you can stare straight through. I think it’s the translucent sorrow of mental illness. I say nothing, nod at the woman.

Months ago, I attended a lecture on Christian art. What exactly is Christian art? Are you a Christian artist because you write and paint scenes from Scriptures? Are you a Christian artist because your canvas radiates the incandescence of hope? Is Christian art only synonymous with beauty and illumination? And where, if ever, is there a place in Christian art for the underbelly of life? Calvin Seerveld, the lecturer for the event, had this to say about Christian art: beware of beauty. In his words, the art that is most Christian has a “wipe-open aperture for human suffering.” That sounds about right to me.

The least of these. The woman in the hot pink socks, wearing wool in July. I remember her today and capture her life for your notice, my memory. And it is altogether too small an act, but it might be argued that all acts of faithfulness are: small. We fear what we do may never amount to much; what can be made from the sands of our life and love? But I’m reminded, in the words of Barbara Kingsolver, that, "in our nervously cynical society. . .we ridicule the small gesture. . . [But] small, stepwise changes . . . aren’t trivial. Ultimately they will, or won’t, add up to having been the thing that mattered.”