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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: writing retreat

It is not difficult

You are neither brilliant nor spectacular. The truth of it immediately threatens you because in desperation, you have wanted to be both. It is never easy to face the ordinariness of ourselves. But let the truth of it sit on your skin: you are one in seven billion, a speck on the still point of the turning world, the present pinhead I in the thread of all who have been and are and ever will be. Others will write books that will be better received, speaking truths more substantial and elegant than yours. Others will be funnier, smarter - more godly. Their lives are, in every way, more interesting that yours. These can become the fragrant and freeing truths of your life, throwing the door open into the wide world. Go free. You, into your ordinariness, you into your stories, be they predictable and boring, you into all of your uninteresting and clumsy words. You, take up courage, and do this little bit of creating and living, You, be faithful in your small and invisible ways, you who are neither spectacular nor brilliant. You are loved.

Every time I retreat, I expect some further clarity and demand to get a few things figured out, especially around questions of calling and life purpose. I clamor for those answers, driven by the threat that my brilliance and spectacular-ness might indeed be wasted. I've got to corral my capacities, let them sing a memorable song, make a name for myself. The tower-building that has become my life, it's a sneaky business, especially when I put Jesus' name on the bricks.

You are loved.

I don't know of a greater truth than this, and it seems I'm destined to spend my life getting this and only this figured out. I am loved? Not spectacular and brilliant me, not me and my tall towers and fascinating mud pies. Small, 1/7,000,000,000 me whose head and hubris are far too heavy for her shoulders. Ordinary and uninteresting me?

I spend my last afternoon of the writing retreat with a woman from Dave and Jody Nixon's community. She has been gifted in healing prayer, and I surrender myself to her touch and vision. She takes my head in her hands in our first moments together and begins the prayer she can have no idea is so prophetic.

Lord, your desire is for us. You want to be with us, and it is not difficult.

She cannot know that I've spent the week at my keyboard, hacking out the hard truths of my own struggle with desire and the concept of wanting. Here, the word desire is reframed rightly, not as the forbidden fruit, as I've seen it so often in my own life. No, as God's desire for me. He loves me, wants to be with me.

And it is not difficult.




A Necessary Slowing

I stand in front of the cashier yesterday, panicked momentarily when she asks, "Credit or Debit?" I can't think of my pin, rummage my mental space, and breathe when I remember I had it recorded in my phone for this moment I must have anticipated. I was a week removed from this world of transactions. With the exception of our one night over beers at Gordo's, my friends and I spent the better part of our week's writing retreat disentangled from the normal currencies with which we secure and spend our lives: time and money. There was never, as there almost perpetually is for me in my  routines of everyday life, the sense that either was scarce or running out. The days stretched on endlessly in the best sort of way. And nothing needed to be bought or sold: the exchanges we made were of conversation and prayer.

Our rhythms were unhurried and good. And if solitude does anything, it does this: it gives us the necessary distance for seeing and sensing what it is our "normal" life has become. Mine, I would soon see, was unnecessarily hurried, and I knew it, both when I stepped into new rhythms last Monday and when I re-entered life as it normally is at week's end. The week had been a gentle slowing, a "dialing down" as Dave liked to call it. Our days held only a slight necessary structure: regular meals, prayers before those meals, evenings of sharing laughter and ideas. But we were released from the intense pressure of having to get something done.

Or I should say, the invitation was ours into that freedom, were we to receive it. For some of us (eh-hem), that pressure is hardly external. It's the sound of our own voice and the pressure of our own expectations that weights on us heaviest most days. But five days is even sufficient time to do a bit of quieting of one's own internal murmuring.

It's Wednesday now, and I'm midway into life as normal. The alarm wakes me early, and the day's responsibilities, when I let them, do a heavy sitting on my chest. But I the trick is, I believe now, to bring to bear the rhythms of last week's retreat into this week of work, especially the rhythmic prayer throughout the day, which slows and forces the remembering of just exactly who it was that made this world and sustains its being, whose job it is to give us just the right amount of time for the responsibilities we'll take up today.

A verse from this morning's reading seems especially fitting:

You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.

Revelation 4:11


There's no Place like Home

Dave and Jody decided sixteen years ago to do their staying in a small, littered corner of Cincinnati. This was not a place that well-suited their preferences. These were not people with whom they shared a natural affinity. West Norwood, Ohio, is a small community, which, in almost every way, is unlike any I've ever called home. Its front porches accumulate a litter of their own kind. There is not much to call meticulous or beautiful here where the houses sag from their foundations with a palpable kind of sadness. Everything you might expect to find here, you do: crime, racial tension, economic hardship, addiction. Dave and Jody call it home, having heeded a call from Jesus to stay. Their life until that point had been perpetually disquieted by a string of moves: new communities, new apartments, new vistas. And always the secret lure of moving was buoyed by the insidious belief that something better could be had elsewhere. It wasn't until Dave stood over the grave of Thomas Merton, the writer monk, that he finally saw that lie unmasked for the naked truth of it: you have been discontent all your life. I want you now to stay.

It's been sixteen years of making sense of the call, sixteen years of radiant imagining about what God could do in a place like West Norwood when a community of Jesus followers gathered for life and mission in His name. It's not my story to tell, of course, but one that Dave hopes will figure into the book he is now writing.

The story I can tell is one of the humble, lanky man, who led us this past week at our writing retreat, the one who stands tall because something has been shrugged from his shoulders. Where so many of us are lurching through life, clamoring for attention and straining for our small piece of significance, Dave is a man whose manner of speaking and living is unhurried. When he stands pouring boiling water over a filter of coffee grounds, he pours slowly and turns the cup carefully, a process that demands precision and care. "There are easier ways to make coffee, of course," he acknowledges, but his life is a grander vision than mere efficiencies.

Andy said it well in his write-up of our week together: "Dave has led us in these things with a light touch – he has genuinely led us, to be sure, but has mostly done so in nearly imperceptible ways, willing to risk the possibility that we might actually fail to get what he would hope for us and God would want for us this week, but nonetheless confident that somehow through all of this we will indeed bring to birth the words we have been carrying."

A leader who risks the possibility that his followers might fail? I confess that is not the leadership I have most often experienced within the walls of my churches. And that is not the leadership to which I have also aspired. But it seems to represent well the leadership of Jesus, whose followers did fail and miss the whole point of it for quite some time. It is a leadership whose essence is ultimately incarnational, and the truths those leaders might hope to pass on aren't encapsulated in a pithy sermon or two. They are embodied truths, truths that absorbed deep under the skin and passed with the salt and pepper.

I am deeply grateful to have spent a week at the Convent, this retreat center situated in a landscape not many would call beautiful, and I am deeply grateful to have spent it under the leadership of Dave Nixon, who lived before me the humble and unhurried life of a servant.





Keeping company

An unexpected surprise of this past week's writing retreat was the company I shared around the table and in prayer with men I had only just met and the friend I'd come with from Toronto. We were four of us, this small band of writers committed to the week of writing and keyboard dance. Chris, Andy, Wendy and Jen. I tell my children about each of them at the breakfast table this past Saturday, and they learn to love them, as I did, through the stories I tell, their eyes wide as they do their wonderful work of imagining. I tell them about Chris, whose beard is wiry and full, his horn-rimmed glasses giving hint of his bookishness. He is smart and quiet, his voice slow and punctuated: he carefully keeps ahead of his words, like any good academic does, demanding of them rigorous coherence. He is so ruthlessly quiet and thoughtful that it's not until Wednesday night that we learn how the years have done their painful beating against him and his family. A baby born stillborn, a child diagnosed with cancer, a parent's death.

I tell them about Andy, the man who's only recently seen fifty and feels keenly his responsibility to get down some words for the next generation of leaders. We listen to him over the course of the week surprise and entertain us with his words of ornamental flourish. Andy teaches us about phonesthemes, talks about the "attitudinal soup" served up in Muslim-Christian dialogue, and wins handily the group's challenge to a conversational use of "eructation" and "humid." But he isn't only smart: he's also a man of deep affection for his family. By the end of the week, he's written three chapters of the story of Mr. Lizard, better known as Gecko Sahib, who makes his home behind a bedroom light fixture and wears a smoking jacket. These are the stories with which he had delighted his own children during their growing-up years. Andy also tenders a beautiful poem about Sophia, his first grandchild born without breath.

My children know Wendy, at least in part, because we've shared time together as families. But they like learning of how funny and feisty she really is and how it is we lost hours and roads together and would have missed our flight had it not been that our husbands who had wisely suggested we leave earlier than we had originally planned. Wendy is a woman like and unlike me in so many ways, and by the end of the week, we're using our effeminate Jesus voices (which we imitate from a video we watched together this week) to unmask our deep-seated fears and self-doubt. However we begin, Jesus always concludes by reminding, "You are very selfish. And that is wrong." When we see each other at church yesterday, my husband comments later how we are like longlost sisters reunited.

Chris, Andy, Wendy (and this week I'll tell you more about Dave, our leader): I didn't expect to love them, didn't expect their stories to kindle my imagination and curiosities as they did, didn't realize how good it would feel to laugh with them. And cry. I would remember by the end of the week that the best stories we write are not those we write in our silent cells of solitude. They are the stories we shape in our communities and around our tables.