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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Category: Faith and Doubt

When a Church Values Art (And a peek at our church's magazine)

jenmichel@me.com

This is the cover of the most recent Imprint published by Grace Centre for the Arts, a ministry of Grace Toronto Church. After we began attending Grace Toronto in 2011, they released an issue of Imprint, and I remember being incredibly impressed. It was legit: the content, the photography, the design. I didn't know that churches could produce real magazines. In my experience of church publishing, they were only good at lightweight evangelistic tracts, and even these were ordered by the case, not produced in-house. But I was to learn something about this new church we were attending, something that would prove invaluable to my own writing life. They valued art of all kinds. They even believed God valued it.

For a number of reasons, however, Imprint has not been published in recent years. I'm not sure of the exact timeline, although I know that people attending the church for less than four years have no memory of it. "Our church publishes a magazine?" has been a common response. Yes, we do. At least, yes, we have. The cover that you're looking at is the cover to a special commemorative edition of Imprint for which I've had the privilege of serving as lead editor. As our church makes our new home in a recently renovated historic church in Toronto, we decided that it was time to do another edition of Imprint. I wanted to show you some of the content here because it's gorgeous. I only wish that you could hold it in your hands because these pictures simply don't do it justice.

I hope this might insire you to think about the artistic endeavors you could do in your church - to bless your congregation as well as your larger community. Because that really is the intent of Imprint: it's a publication intended to be read by a much broader audience than the one that fills our pews on Sunday mornings. (If you attend Grace Toronto Church, Imprint will be available for purchase this Sunday before and after the service, as well as at our November 16th community event.)

This commemorative edition, called "Neighbours," celebrates the new neighbourhood into which we moved and the people who live and work there. This beautifully illustrated map here was done by an artist who worships in our congregation, Julie Kraulis. As you'll note, our new church (at the corner of Jarvis and Carlton streets) is at the intersection of a lot of different neighbourhoods. We included this map to situate our congregation to the actual place in which we're rooting ourselves, especially as many of us don't live in these neighbourhoods. These seem to be especially important questions for churches to ask: where are we? who lives here? how can we be a part of helping this neighbourhood flourish?

This essay features the story of one of our congregants receiving hospitality from a family in St. James Town. It very consciously opens the magazine by situating someone else in the position of hero: not the church, not a church member, but a neighbour. Elita concludes, "I was a recipient of generous hospitality. And I needed that welcome, if I every hope to be a neighbour myself."

Another congregant, Wendy, interviewed an unsung hero of the neighbourhood, a dapper 76 year old whose life was changed by Jesus. Without Murray, the local Salvation Army would certainly struggle to minister to the people they do. "God has given me a lot of strength to get over a lot of rough roads. Some of them I made myself, some of them other people made, some of them, just life. I'd still be out in the gutter somewhere without God."

Another feature in the magazine are three full-page neighbour portraits. This gives a small taste of a larger event we're hosting On November 16th, when our church will open its doors to the community, and the entire main hall will feature portraits of local neighbours. As the director for Grace Centre for the Arts, Ian Cusson, writes, "The photo exhibit is a response to the question, 'Who is my neighbour?' Displayed throughout the gallery are images of people from the communities surrounding Old St Andrew’s. In our hyper, quick-paced city, we rarely take the time to see the people around us. The use of larger-than-life format in this display challenges us to stop and look, even to confront our unwillingness to find the beauty and diversity in the people we meet every day."

Another congregant conducted interviews in order to feature the work of a local non-profit called The Children's Book Bank, where young patrons can take home a free book after every visit. Sarah observes, "It is a small haven in which the modern world's economy—where quality goods require payment of money—is replaced with the currency of grace."

We had gracious permission from Christ and Pop Culture to republish a reflective piece by Martyn Wendell Jones on the furniture in God's house. "The CEO and the homeless man alike may share a pew with a whole middle-class family in between. Like the Lord, pews do not play favourites."

I've written a long feature piece on the history of the church building at the corner of Jarvis and Carlton streets, whose cornerstone was laid in 1876 and in which five congregations have now worshipped. It was a privilege to do this research and gift what I learned to others. (And after multiple trips to various archival centres and libraries, I finally tracked down the original 1876 architectural drawings for our building, which are included with the piece.)

The magazine ends with a reflective piece on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and Season's words are the last we read before closing the magazine. "In our longing for human connection, perhaps the greatest gift we can offer is one we all have—the gift of woundedness. Each of us takes our turn as the Samaritan and the wounded man on the side of the road, and we become neihbours as we allow ourselves to carry, and be carried, to safety."

Our team of photographers, writers, designers, and editors gathered last week to hold Imprint in our hands for the first time and celebrate what God had done. As I told them then, I found such joy in this collaborative effort and perhaps even greater pride in it than my own two books. I think that's because I experienced the pleasure of working in community, which is something that images the triune God of community. And truthfully, I love to see others using their gifts.

A reader writes to ask, "Why want?"

jenmichel@me.com

Even though I’ve just recently released my second book, Keeping Place, I continue to travel and speak on the topic of my first book, Teach Us to Want. This is a question that was recently emailed to me, and I wanted to answer it at length here.

Dear Jen,

Can I run something up the flag pole with you on this subject?  After reading the beginning of Teach Us to Want, I had to put the book down and take two giant steps backward.  The book asks us about our wants and desires—our deep inside “ME ONLY” wants and desires. When I go the basement of my mind, lift up the rug and false floor, and pull out the old deteriorating suitcase labeled "Wants & Desires," I find a glaring new label affixed over the old one: "Disappointments.”

Man, it's heavy.

I had wants and desires from as long ago as when I was three years old. In the spirit of survival, those wants and desires were denied for me and on my behalf.  Fast forward to my adult life. Ten years ago, I made the hardest decision I've ever made, which demanded that I walk away from my very last lifelong dream and desire. And somewhere, sandwiched in the middle, is the painful drudgery of single parenting and challenge of "motherhood" that feels like a noose around my neck. Now, I am unexpectedly a grandmother—the result of my Dean’s List college-aged daughter’s teen pregnancy.

From my earliest memories, my life story is a continuous tale of crisis aversion, management and the desperate scramble to simply touch the fringe of "Wants & Desires"—but never actually own one.  In fact, after much review, I believe the last "want/desire" that I recognized and achieved was graduating High School in 1986.

It's not all doom and gloom. Sometimes life settles down, and I'm learning to find contentment in living the day to day.

The last decade? No desires. No wants.

Am I supposed to???  My greatest desire is to get back and forth from the grocery store without traffic.  That's good, right?

So, I picked up the book again, this time at Chapter 3. "Delight yourself in the Lord and HE will give you the desires of your heart.” I'm not sure I want to "want" or "desire.” In fact, I'm sure that I don't want to. I hear that He wants me to trust Him with reckless abandon and to "delight" myself in Him (how do you EVEN do that??) and He will give ME desires.

But why?? Why desire? Why want? Do I NEED to desire or want??

Confused in California

Dear Confused in California,

Thank you so much for reading Teach Us to Want and for posing these very important questions. I’m so glad that you’ve written, and I’m also glad that you’ve given me the permission to share our conversation publicly.

I suppose the first important thing to say is this: we don’t want simply so that we can get things from God. That would be to do what James condemns in his epistle, chapter 4: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly to spend it on your passions” (v. 3). Many of us have our life of desire turned upside down and inside out.

Life with God isn’t ultimately about getting things from him: it’s about getting him in us.

You’ve referenced Psalm 37:4, and I’m so glad. It’s an often-misunderstood verse. People use it to defend their gospel of, “God loves me; I love him; therefore, it’s only right that he gives me what I want.” But as you say, that verse isn’t about us telling God what we want and getting it. It’s about him giving us HIS desires. It’s as we delight ourselves in the LORD that the whole nature of our desiring life changes. As we delight ourselves, more and more, in the LORD, we delight ourselves, less and less, in the shallow pleasures of comfort and convenience. As we delight ourselves, more and more, in the LORD, we delight ourselves, less and less, in material security, reputation, even temporal happiness.

To delight ourselves in the LORD is to love what God loves. And the Lord’s Prayer teaches us what God loves: God loves for his name to be made holy, for his kingdom to come, for his will to be done. It’s not, of course, that we should stop wanting for the simple sustenance of this life. The Lord’s Prayer also invites us to pray for bread, for restored relationship with others and with God, for protection. But as the late Kenneth Bailey wrote in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, there’s an important architecture of priority in this prayer. The “thee” petitions come before the “me” petitions, which provides a lesson for life.

We must become the kind of people who think of God and his kingdom priorities first.

I know I still haven’t answered your most pressing question: why want? If I’m only supposed to want what God wants, why even bother with the complicated business of desire? And doesn’t that just lead me to a lot of disappointments and unmet expectations?

Here’s the first reason to want in your life of faith: because it’s one way to risk on God’s goodness. Or maybe I could put it this way: how often is our failure to want really about our failure to trust God’s goodness? The Psalmist says that God is good and does good (Ps. 119:68). Whatever he chooses to do, whatever he chooses to give, whatever his timing: it’s good. We see this all throughout Scripture, that God’s impulse is to give and to bless. This doesn’t mean of course that we get to say “This is good, therefore you must give it to me, God.” But it is to say, “God, I trust you have my best interest at heart.”

To illustrate what I mean, let me share a story from my friend’s book, Praying Together. Megan Hill tells the story about arriving with her husband at the Ethiopian orphanage to take their son home. All the children, having learned just a few words of English, were crying out, “Mommy!” “Daddy!” She writes, “Those little ones knew the language of family and the gestures of asking, but twenty-four of the children had no right to use them. And though we gave candy and balloons to every child, there was only on little boy whose cries to us of ‘Mommy’ and ‘Daddy’ were absolutely compelling. This was the child with whom we have a relationship—having just appeared before a judge in a courtroom to secure his adoption—and this child alone could reach into our pockets with every assurance that he’d be granted whatever treat he could find there.” As Jesus said, if this inclination to generosity is true of flawed human parents, how much more must our heavenly Father want to be generous with us! God is good and does good. That’s a reason to bring him your desires—because he can be trusted to receive them and respond to them out of his lavish love.

A second reason to want—a reason connected to this first point—is that it will grow your intimacy with God. There is a vulnerability to admitting our desires to anyone, whether that’s a friend or God himself. It’s vulnerable in one sense because our desires say something about us. Maybe they say that we’re selfish! Maybe they say that we’re apathetic! To bring our desires before God is a vulnerable act—and prayer, if we want to pray like Abraham and Hannah and Jesus and Paul prayed—is supposed to be vulnerable. Bold. Self-disclosing. The Psalmist says, “O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you” (Ps. 38:9). I believe that God wants to know all of us. I believe that a life of walking with Christ is a life of walking in the light, of disclosing ourselves to God, not concealing ourselves. Maybe we could even just think about the impulse of Adam and Eve in the garden, after they had eaten the fruit. They hid themselves from the presence of God, rather than walking before him naked and unashamed. One way of seizing this marvelous invitation to “draw near to the throne of grace with confidence” (Heb. 4:16) is to come to God without concealment: to tell him what we really think, really want, really despair of, really fear. Only then do those things have a chance of being repaired, reformed, transformed! Only then do we deepen our friendship with God, which is what he is ultimately after and which is the only thing to satisfy our deepest longings and desires.

Maybe it’s in coming to God with our desires that we begin to see how much anything pales compared to the great worth of knowing him.

And here’s a final point that I’ll make here. (So much more to say, but I guess you’ll have to finish the book!) There is no real lasting transformation in our lives apart from a transformation of our desires. Philippians 2:13 talks about the ambitious scope of the gospel. When the Spirit of Jesus indwells us, he’s not content simply that we believe differently or behave differently. We must want differently. And when we want differently, we sustain real change in our lives. I suppose we’d only have to consider New Year’s Resolutions to consider how insufficient duty and obligation are for sustaining change. That’s not to say that we shirk duty and obligation, but it is say that when we do something dutifully, we have our eye on desire. God, let my heart change—alongside my behavior.

As I’ve risked to disclose my desires to God, to wait on him, to surrender to him, I’ve learned in much deeper and personal way that he is good, that he can be trusted. I’ve also learned that this world, so deeply broken and in need of repair, will always leave me wanting for a better one. And maybe that’s one of the most important lessons of desire. As C.S. Lewis has famously written, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

We’re living in the middle act. We’re not at the end of the story yet. When you open that box labeled “Disappointments,” you can remember that Jesus is coming again, that he’s promised to deliver the world from its groaning. You can remember “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).

With you, I am longing for that home. Jen

Home is (NOT) where the heart is

jenmichel@me.com

When Alison Hodgson wrote for my guest series, “Home: Musings and Memories”, she talked of the fateful night when an arsonist entered her garage and set her house on fire. “Who, when making a home, imagines it could ever be a ruins?” When Joe Dudeck wrote of home, he described the experience of several failed adoptions: “While standing at the doorway of parenthood, we discovered the welcome mat would again be pulled out from under us.” In another post, Aubrey Sampson wrote to remember her father’s job loss and their family’s move from a beloved house: “There was no willow tree, no roller-rink, not even one hot air balloon in the yard.”

For many of us, home represents loss. 

For many guest writers in this Friday series, home symbolizes wanderlust, leaving, and change. For Aleah Marsden, home “is the place I’m always leaving behind.” Karen Beattie recalls ambivalently that she is “the first generation to leave the land, to become unmoored from place and family and community, and part of me feels like we are betrayers. Or pioneers.” Or, as Kate James writes with a familiar surprise, “And [God] sent me here, to a big yard, and a white house and maple trees in the summer.”

For many of us, home represents the place where we unexpectedly arrive. 

In so many of these stories, home has offered more change than stability, more promise than fulfillment. As Christina Crook so eloquently names, it’s a “blood and bramble world,” and home is meant for reprieve, the “gift of welcome,” writes Ashley Hales, that “beckons: come and see, come and see.” “Nowhere I’ve lived has ever fully been my home,” writes Michelle Van Loon of growing up as Jewish girl in a Gentile neighborhood, living the millennia-long story of diaspora. Home is the invitation to make something of life as we have it, even if it’s not exactly life as we once had wanted it. “I expected to be married and own a home. The Lord, however, had other plans,” writes Bethany Jenkins.

Home is one small corner of the world we hope to tame and call our own. “Always we longed for one special place. Our own promised land. Our own little Zion,” describes Christie Purifoy. But sometimes it is its own place of weeping. In the house built by the “broad shoulders” of her husband, Meadow Rue Merrill lost her adopted daughter, Ruth.

What is HOME?

When I invited these gifted writers to contribute to my series, I asked them to write about home in the concrete, rather than the abstract. I wanted to hear about home as people and place and the lived presence of God—because that’s what we see of home in Genesis 1 and 2.

First, home is a place: in the beginning of time, home was a garden, and at the end of time, home will be a city. This means that God intends for us to be a rooted people, connected in real ways to the land. That’s why our geographical change is usually attended by sorrow. Although our culture tends to cherish mobility, selling change like a shiny bauble of promise, in reality, we wear instability like a wound that won’t heal. This is one reason that I open each chapter of Keeping Place with a physical address and a reflection of home “in place.” I want to rid ourselves of all the silly platitudes like, “Home is where the heart is.” No, home is where your feet are.

Second, home is a place with people. It’s not enough to say that home is a place. We have no vision of home that’s as solitary and secluded as Thoreau’s cabin on Walden pond. Rather, a biblical home is a place filled with the company of others. In the garden, God recognized that it wasn’t good for any of us to be alone. For Adam, he makes Eve as a companion and helper. But as we see in the new Jerusalem, we aren’t all paired off as husband and wife. Rather, the table of God’s feast is seated with a new family: the church. We can’t make home apart from deep communion and connection with others. Which is to say: forgiveness and feasting, worship and work—in the local church—helps us to practice home (if not yet fully have it). Finally, home is filled with the presence of God. Let’s not be fooled: we can have the loveliest of places, the warmest of friendships, but without God, no place is home. As Saint Augustine has said, we have restless hearts until they find their ultimate rest in God and God alone. The fullness, the welcome, the permanence, the peace of home we all long for: it’s not about marriage and minivans, houses and domestic happiness. It’s a promise so much greater, so much more lasting than that.

“Homelessness ends in the new Jerusalem, where God keeps place for his people. By the light of the Lamb, home is made luminous, and it is a light to banish gloom and darkness, death and despair.

Behold, God says. I am making all things new” (Keeping Place, 211).

Ernie Johnson and the Art of "Housekeeping"

jenmichel@me.com

We've have recently bought a couple of devotionals for our family: One Year of Dinner Table Devotions by Nancie Guthrie (which is a great fit for the age-range of our kids, 9-16) and The Radical Book for Kids by Champ Thornton. The first, we're trying to read and discuss together at dinner; the second, I'm trying to read with our twin boys whenever we can. (Ryan reads the Bible with them at bedtime.)

Although we've just begun The Radical Book for Kids, I'm finding it to be both thoughtful and accessible, and I especially love, in the first chapter, how Thornton distills the biblical story of creation-fall-redemption into one easy, memorable sentence: "God made it, we broke it, God fixes it." 

I never understood the arc of God's story as this kind of three-act drama as a young child growing up in the church. (We can quibble about the fourth act of "consummation" if you want, but let's not.) Yet I think there's a lot to be said for understanding the Bible as a cohesive story. It's not as if the New Testament is a dramatic departure from the Old, but rather a fulfillment and continuation of God's story begun in Adam, continued with Abraham, carried through Christ.

A Story of Place

As I began writing Keeping Place, my pastor gave me his copy of Craig Bartholomew's, Where Mortals Dwell, for my research. Bartholomew takes the creation-fall-redemption framework and retools it through the language of place. Creation is the act of "implacement." God gives humanity a place—a garden. Fall takes us into the middle act of exile and the judgement of "displacement." And finally, redemption anticipates God's act of "reimplacement" when God will, once again, make his dwelling place with humanity. In other words, God's story begins and ends at home, and we're living in the middle act, one characterized by homesickness.

This is the three-part structure that I originally had for Keeping Place: God made home, humanity lost home, and God is remaking home. But several months into the project, I realized the structure was NOT working. I needed more room for the middle act. I didn't just want stories of exile. I wanted some sort of framework for talking about what we're supposed to be doing in the in-between.

In the not yet.

Housekeeping

Hence, the housekeeping—a word for talking about the work of the middle act, this way we take up the work of our places in light of our home story. "Housekeeping points toward the thin places of daily life: where work, however monotonous and menial, becomes worship, witnessing to God's kingdom coming, and his will being done, on earth as it is in heaven." It's work that men and women do—in their homes and neighborhoods and cities–to love God by loving their neighbor. Or, as Marilynne Robinson says (much better than I ever could), housekeeping is "a regime of small kindnesses, which taken together, make the world salubrious, savory, and warm. I think of [these] acts of comfort . . . as precisely sacramental."

I recently came across an interview with a man whose story and faith embodies this idea of "housekeeping," and I wanted to share it with you. Ernie Johnson is a sports broadcaster and a man of deep faith. I was introduced to him by this video after the presidential election, which stunned and inspired our 14-year-old son.

[embed]https://youtu.be/ayU5kw7Kf5U[/embed]

Then just this week, I heard an interview with Ernie on Donald Miller's Building a Story Brand Podcast. Ernie talks about his love for his wife and his six children, four of whom he has adopted and one of whom has muscular dystrophy. But it's not just his family his loves. He sees his entire life as a call to service. "I want to serve. I want to be walking out the door, after having served [my son] Michael in the morning, and have my antenna up. So that I notice the people who need to have somebody to talk to.”

In other words, Ernie is a man committed to the housekeeping—committed to the humble, everyday acts of love that image the incarnate God who pitched his tent in the middle of the Roman Empire more than two thousand years ago.

I look forward to reading (and having my son read!) Unscripted, which Ernie talks about here in this Q&A.

And I would encourage you to listen to Donald's podcast interview with Ernie!

Formed by a story called home

jenmichel@me.com

My favorite book from childhood was a Little Golden Book. It begins like this: “This is my house and I am the mommy. My children are Annabelle, Betsy, and Bonny. They are good little children and do just as I say. I put on their coats and they go out to play.” The 1967 picture book, Little Mommy, is a celebration of 20th century domesticity—and its reigning monarch. The narrator, in her smocked brown dress, waves goodbye to Billy “who works in the city. He has a new car. Isn’t it pretty?”

She happily does the dishes and sweeps the floor, wiping “the fingerprints off the door.” To read it now, Little Mommy is both jarring and consoling. Because even if I might have different ideas about gender roles and responsibilities, I am not unlike the little girl in the smocked brown dress. I have my corporate Billy—even my Annabelle, Betsy, and Bonny. Every day there are floors to sweep and doors to wipe. In ways both predicted and surprising, besides being a writer and a speaker, I am also a little mommy, central to the drama of my home.

It’s curious to think about the books that we take into our bones, especially as children. What makes us choose them from any others, begging for them to be read again and again? Why was I, for one, lured by the illustrated scenes of domesticity in Little Mommy, tamed into reverie by its easy jingles about the housekeeping? “I wash the clothes in my washing machine. I scrub them with soap and rinse them clean.”

However it happens, we all choose books to love, and those books unwittingly form us—because stories exert power.

We are storytelling creatures. This is what it means to be human. We tell stories to chase the shadows of despair. We tell stories to birth hope, to remind us of all that remains true and good and beautiful in the world. Our stories teach us to recognize ourselves, even our shared humanity with strangers. But what seems elemental to every story is longing. Because stories let us imagine the world differently, ourselves different in it.

I suppose, then, that it is not at all strange that the first story I loved so well should have been a story about home, both its welcome and its work. Because home is central to the story of life with God, as the Scriptures tell it. At the very beginning of time, humanity had a warm, dry place play to lay its head. Unlike other ancient creation myths, which conceive of a world birthed by violence, the Genesis accounts tell us that the Triune God made the world out of generous hospitality. Six days he worked, preparing for the arrival of his children. Six days he labored to make the world habitable for his guests. The very first homemaker was God himself; he was the reigning monarch of the cosmos.

Sadly, however, only two short chapters at the beginning of Genesis are dedicated to life at home with God. Then the drama lurches toward exile when Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden and God’s presence, cast out to wander with their innumerable children. If to be human is to long for home, as Genesis 1 and 2 tell us, to be human is also to be terribly homesick. This is the aftermath of Genesis 3. Today, how many of us sense our terrifying dislocation from place? We have moved too many times to count, and there’s no lived history at the address where our bills arrive. But it’s not only dislocation from place that is our loss of home. Like Adam and Eve, we are alienated from one another. Our closest relationships are marked by disappointment; they are finally severed by death. Home, as represented by family and friendship, suffers the imperfection and impermanence of this fragile world. And finally, if home once represented the unrestricted access we had to God himself, the unbroken company we kept with him, what do we have now but episodic glimpses of this? God has generously invited us to commune with him through Christ and his indwelling Spirit—but this abiding, abundant life is fractured in the everyday by our own idolatrous pursuits and everyday distractedness.

What yellow brick road do I follow to find my way back home?

I suppose that’s the pressing question I’m trying to answer in my second book, Keeping Place. I want to say that the desire for home is real, that it is in fact central to what it means to be human. I even want to say that home is central to the promise of salvation as we have it in the Scriptures. Our salvation, through Christ, repairs home and its broken promises of place, of community, of communion. In Revelation 21, when the curtain closes on this world and opens on the next, we know that death and disease will be done away with. God will hush the groaning of creation and the aching of our own hearts, declaring, as his kingdom descends to earth, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”

Home is the fundamental story that the Scriptures tell, and it has power to explain human despair and inspire longing for a better world. I wonder if this isn’t why Jesus situated some of his most important parables at home, including the story of a lost son, who, by his own foolishness, left for the far country, taking his inheritance with him. When he returned home—hungry and broke—he certainly didn’t presume to be received back into the family with all the rights and inheritance of sonship. But we know the story well, don’t we? He was met on the road by the embrace of his father.

Welcome home, his father whispers, his cheeks wet with relief.

I’m beginning to think there won’t be better words than these.

Keeping Place - in DVD

jenmichel@me.com

On Monday night, the arts ministry at my church hosted a wonderful launch event for friends and family. It was the very first time I actually held the real book in my hand!

People bought books (which was lovely!), but they were also asking about the companions DVDs, which I didn't have on hand. (Shhh, please don't tell my publisher.)

[video width="640" height="360" mp4="http://jenpollockmichel.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Keeping-Place-by-Jen-Pollock-Michel.mp4"][/video]

In case you didn't know, Keeping Place is also offered as a five-session DVD teaching series produced in partnership by RightNow Media and Intervarsity Press.

For the record, I did make a decided effort to improve upon the video teaching that I did for Teach Us to Want. (Because who gets class on this?) I made Ryan sit and watch all the teaching sessions with me. We decided what worked and what didn't. (You can only guess which list was longer.) Then we watched videos by other people, who are much better and more experienced than I am. In the Keeping Place DVDs, I have tried imitating them all.

Tried smiling more. Tried talking faster. Tried being more personable.

You can decide for yourself if I managed any of that.

In case you're interested in using the DVDs for a small group, there are discussion questions in the book, both for the book and video content.

And lastly, many thanks for the terrific team at RightNow Media with whom it's a real pleasure to work!

On following - and finding - Home

jenmichel@me.com

In 2011, God led our family to Toronto. We came, counting on two or three years of adventure. The kids would learn French. We’d live in the city. For a little while, we would more fully live into the vision of Psalm 67, which the pastor had read at our wedding: “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!” We left, not knowing what was ahead.  As I’ve come to understand, the life of faith is best understood by acts of memory. We can’t ever really know what God is doing when he moves us out. We don’t know what the future holds when he says, “go.” I think of the Israelites as they traveled through the wilderness, following the pillar of cloud by day that stopped and settled at whim. They were not planning life, but following it. Following Him. I wonder how many days it felt that they had just gotten comfortable when the cloud began to move and they’d had to hurriedly pack it all up for another day’s journey of uncertainty.

Six years ago, the cloud moved, and the seven of us moved with it. We left the suburbs of Chicago for the city of Toronto. I can remember the first weekend in our first rental house. It was the hottest May on record, and we had no air conditioning. I cried when Ryan left for work on Monday.

Our first summer in Toronto, I started to think about writing more personally, even about starting a blog. The cloud was moving, we were moving with it, and I wanted to keep record of the journey. I wanted a story to tell the children, wanted to give the gift of memory that the Israelites had sorely neglected.

I began writing about that journey here.

Eventually, a blog became a book. And a book became another book.

What a surprise.

A gift and a joy.

Today is the release day of Keeping Place, this second book. In it, I’ve kept my own story: places I’ve lived, people I’ve lost. And most importantly, I’ve followed the longing for home to ask where it leads.

That cloud leads into the arms of Christ.

As I write at the conclusion of Keeping Place, “The ancient Israelites were commanded to recite a liturgy when they entered the land of promise and offered to God the gifts of their first harvest. I imagine taking it up in chorus as we enter the gates of the new Jerusalem—the moment homelessness and all of its attendant grief will be laid to rest:

A wandering Aramean was my father.

He went down into Egypt and sojourned there, and the Egyptians treated us harshly.

But the LORD brought us out of Eygpt with a mighty hand.

He brought us into this land, which flows with milk and honey.

 

This is a song to make sense of life’s lament and longing, peril and promise. And it’s the song we’ll be singing when we fall into the sojourning, suffering arms of Jesus.

 

I declare today that I am finally home.


Believe it or not, Amazon is sold out of Keeping Place. But you can order your copy at ivpress.com. Get 30% off the bookebook or DVD series when you use the code READKP. Offer expires on May 31st, 2017.

How I Titled Keeping Place

jenmichel@me.com

Keeping Place releases tomorrow! When asked how I’m feeling, I try for breezy nonchalance. Book, schmook! And truthfully, I do feel considerably less anxiety about this book than the last—not because I’m convinced that it’s better, but because at least this is recognizable terrain. Familiarity is a big consolation. Still, it’s also true that as time creeps closer to the actual release date, I can sometimes feel like a large animal has just curled up on my chest, making it difficult to breathe. He’s heaviest in the dark of the morning when fear comes calling.  But alas, this post is not for probing the emotional tumult of launching a book. Instead, I wanted to tell you a little bit more about the title of the book. (There’s always a story behind titling a book.) When I submitted Keeping Place in proposal form, the book was titled, Making it Home. I loved that title for the way it conveyed the idea of journey. I also loved that it conveyed the work of making home for others, which is a large part of my book. But wouldn’t you know: some wonderful author has already snatched it up for her book. (I’ve forgiven her for it, just in case you’re wondering.)

Back to the drawing board. I turned in the first draft of Keeping Place and had it titled as, The Witness of Home.

Yeah, that’s what my editor thought.

I then came up with some other titles, none of which she liked: Everything in Place; In Sight of Home; A Place Called Hello, The Way Home, Home Life.  She suggested other titles, but none of them grabbed me either. I think that we were really struggling to find something that suited a mixed audience—something that didn’t scare away the men. We both knew that was the risk of putting “home” in the title. I also wanted something that was multidimensional, something that invited a little more curiosity. Eventually, my editor and I jumped on the phone to brainstorm various possibilities. We decided that “place” seemed a more neutral word to feature in the title. After we hung up, I had the idea of “keeping place,” which she floated to her internal committee at the publishing house. They loved it!

On the one hand, keeping place is a noun. It’s where you safeguard something valuable. And isn’t that the very way we think about home—as a place where we are kept safe? As I write in chapter 11, “The longing for home is associated with memory: a paradise was in fact lost. It also looks ahead, inspiring our hope for inhabiting the eternal city of God. Redeemed humanity has a keeping place.

On the other hand, keeping place is a verb. It’s something active, something to convey the work we’re all called to do in our neighborhoods and cities. And it’s not the work of mothers in aprons, heels, and pearls. It’s the work of all God’s people. In the preface, I use Jane Addams as an example of someone who “kept place” in her city. “Though her legacy was not explicitly Christian, Jane Addams, a social reformer in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, . . . founded the Hull House in Chicago in 1889, sensing that the industrialized American city had failed in the measure that it lacked ‘domesticity.’”

Just as I had hoped, the title is multi-dimensional. The trick now is figuring out where to put the stress. If you go Keeping Place as a noun, it’s KEEPING place. But if you prefer the concept of the verb, you’ll need to say it keeping PLACE.

Home - A poem

jenmichel@me.com

When you write about home, both as longing and loss, you can't help but bump into the story of Abraham. He is, of course, the man that God calls to leave home in order to find home. But as you read his story in Genesis, you can't help but see that there's no real permanent home that Abraham ever finds, at least not on this earth. In fact, reflecting on his story centuries later, the writer of Hebrew concludes that Abraham died "not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that [he was] a stranger and exile on the earth" (Heb. 11:13).

The most troubling episode in Abraham's life is the story of Genesis 22, which people call, "The Binding of Isaac." God has asked Abraham to do something much harder than leave home. He's asked him to take his son, his only son, the son he loves, and sacrifice him on an altar.

If you thought that the Bible only recorded sweet, saccharine stores, you have missed Genesis 22. It's a hard story — and yet it's a story that prefigures another Father and another Son, the God-Man Jesus Christ.

I've written about Genesis 22 in a poem, and I'd love to share it with you here.


Home

Like tent stakes, I pull it up,

Load my beast with the longing to stay put.

They don't know

Go is a hard word.

Three days he carries us;

I, with child, yielding mute yes.

Go is a hard word,

Take, harder still.

“Third days are for resurrection.”

I'd like to believe them, imagining myself

Come back again.

“Here I am,” I’ll shout, son in tow,

Laughing, with relief.

Keeping Place: Author Q&A

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My second book, Keeping Place, releases next week!

If you have been curious to learn more, here is a Q&A that I've put together to give you a glimpse into the intent behind this book.

If you're interested in buying a copy, save some money! You can pre-order a book at ivpress.org. Get 30% off the book, ebook or DVD series when you use the code READKP. Offer expires on May 31st, 2017.


Why write a book about home? Is it your experience as a wife and mother that most informs this book or something else?

There’s no doubt that my experience of making a home for my family these past twenty years has informed the writing of this book. But Keeping Place isn’t only meant for wives and mothers. In fact, I think the longing for home is a human longing. It’s not particular to women. Men feel it, too—even if they might characterize that longing in different ways.

I’ve spent my entire life searching for home. Partially this is because I’ve experienced so much loss in my life: the premature death of my father, the suicide of my brother, a sometimes emotionally distant relationship with my mother. It’s also true that home has been elusive simply because I’ve been so geographically mobile, somehow ending up in Toronto as an American expat.

These life experiences springboard a Scriptural exploration throughout the book. I want to hear what God has to say about the longings for and losses of home.

What’s the challenge of writing a book about home for both women and men?

I recently had coffee with a young woman from church, and at the end of our conversation, she said that she looked forward to my book on “homemaking.” Later, I couldn’t help but wonder if she imagined a book of recipes, table setting ideas, and the best way to organize a linen closet.

I think that’s the fear: that men will see a book on the topic of home and immediately think it’s a book meant for their wives or mothers or sisters. That’s why the history of home is a really fundamental part of this book (chapter 2). I want to trace how home was once a shared space for residence and commerce and industry up until the Industrial Revolution. That historical analysis might sound sort of heady, but it’s really meant to provide a backdrop for the way that we read the Bible, which never talks about “home” as something which women are solely responsible for.

What books have influenced you to keep a wider perspective in your home-keeping?

I really do see Keeping Place as having resonance with a lot of the great work that’s being done on theology of place. In particular, I really appreciated the early chapters of Craig Bartholomew’s Where Mortals Dwell, because it makes the case for God’s good gift of place. I have also loved books like C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison’s Slow Church, which I believe help us see the role that the local church can play to “keep place” in our cities. And a perennial favorite is also Kathleen Norris’s The Quotidian Mysteries. Beyond that, it’s always been important to me to read outside of my own experiences: books like Kent Annan’s Slow Kingdom Coming and D.L. Mayfield’s Assimilate or Go Home would be two examples.

How do you combine motherhood, writing and speaking? How does your home-making life practically work in the day-to-day?

A lot of my day is taken up with the practical care of my family, especially because I’m the primary parent for our five kids. And even though I’m the first person to try and find help when I need it (I pay someone to clean my house, someone else to do virtual assistant work for me), there’s also something irreducible about the labor that love requires. I have five kids and a very busy executive husband, which means that my work life is sometimes more constrained than I would like it to be because of my responsibilities at home. I can’t accept every speaking invitation I want to. I can’t write on every topic that interests me. I can’t stay connected on social media (even if truthfully, I don’t really want to). But I think this is what it means to be human. We are limited.

Who do you hope is reading this book, and what do you hope they will gain?

I suppose it’s fair to say that women like me will probably read the book, and I hope that they’ll come earlier to the realization that their home is a shared responsibility with their husbands. This “sharing” benefits children, for sure—who need both mom and dad fully engaged at home. It also gives women permission when other God-given callings sometimes call us away from home.

But I hope it’s not just women like me reading the book. I’d love to see women and men who aren’t married, who aren’t parents, find ways they can have and make home today, especially in their local churches and communities. I’d like for people to catch a vision for justice in the world—to see that the gospel isn’t solely a spiritual endeavor to save souls but that it also inspires practices of caring for physical bodies and environments.

And if I could just dream a bit, I’d love for someone on the margins of faith, maybe even on the outside looking in, to read this book and start making sense of the life and death, resurrection and return of Jesus Christ. Sadly, when we get to telling that story, we often use a vocabulary that people are not familiar with. But what if we could talk about the promises of the gospel through the lens of home?

Last question: isn’t there a DVD video series to accompany the book?

There is! It’s meant as a teaching companion to the book, and what I especially love about the videos (and something I can claim NO credit for) are the personal stories shared in each of the five sessions. Women talk about their dreams for home, their disappointments of home. I think it makes it really relevant to our everyday lives. You can watch the trailer here or buy the DVDs at ivpress.org.

Ruby Slippers

jenmichel@me.com

"Ruby Slippers" is the title of the final chapter of my book, Teach Us to Want, and I'm often asked about the significance.

Just last week, I met with a small group from my church who had recently finished reading the book, and several people wanted to make guesses about the meaning of the ruby slippers. One interpretation was particularly clever.

"The ruby slippers were taken from the feet of the Wicked Witch of the East when Dorothy's house fell on her. Dorothy puts them on, but the Wicked Witch of the West chases her and wants to kill her. So the ruby slippers represent the potential dangers of desire and how desire might possibly lead us astray."

Um, no. But really good try!

Because the subtitle of chapter 10 is "commitment," I really meant ruby slippers to represent the journey of desire—and all that's required for that journey, especially courage and resilience. It's a risk to examine our desires. What might we discover about ourselves in the process? It's a risk to admit our desires to others. What will they make of us? And of course, it's also a risk to pray our desires—not because God can't be trusted with our vulnerability, but because in praying our desires, we're also surrendering them to the possibility of divine interruption and change.

But before I clarified all of this for this particular group, another man ventured his guess. I had never met him before.

"Well, Dorothy puts on the ruby slippers so that she can get back home. And I think that's where desire is always leading us. Home.

We want home more than anything else in this world."

Um, HELLO?! Did you know that I've written an entire book about the longing for home?

Teach Us to Want was published in July 2014. I certainly had no plan for my second book, Keeping Place, which releases in two weeks. But maybe "ruby slippers" is the giveaway that when I took my own journey of desire, it would lead me to longings for permanence. Longings for safety and stability, for rest and refuge.

For home.

I'm going to tell you a little bit more about Keeping Place in the next couple of weeks here on the blog. I'll be posting an excerpt from the preface and some behind-the-scenes looks at the writing of the book. I'll even share with you some original poetry that I've written. I hope it's helpful to you in some way, and as always, thanks for reading along!

 

Where I'm From

jenmichel@me.com

I'm excited to tell you about a collection of essays, stories, and poetry from the women of Redbud Writers Guild, which releases next week! Each contribution ends with a prayer as well as a writing prompt. My own essay, "The Tamarisk," is an exploration of the longing for permanence in a rented life. I look at the life of Abraham for how we can "begin seizing the invitation of the in-between places: find solid ground. There is greater permanence than a permanent address . . . The God of Abraham—not the land, not the son—is himself the reward (Gen. 15:1)." But I'm not here to share with you my essay. For that, you'll need to buy the book! Rather, I'd love to share with you a poem written by Nilwona Nowlin. Nilwona is a redemptive artist, someone who believes in the power of the arts to bring about positive transformation in individuals and communities. She is particularly passionate about helping people discover/pursue their purpose, leadership development, and ministries of compassion, mercy, and justice such as community development, reconciliation, and intercultural development. Recent publications include "To Save Many Lives: Exploring Reconciliation Between Africans and African Americans through the Selling of Joseph," for the Covenant Quarterly as well as devotionals for the Covenant Home Altar.

Nilwona is also a regular contributor to for the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) Commission on Biblical Gender Equality's blog and the lmdj Voices blog of the ECC's Love Mercy Do Justice mission priority. Nilwona earned a B.A. from Columbia College Chicago, an M.A. in Christian Formation and Certificate in Justice Ministry from North Park Theological Seminary and a Master’s in Nonprofit Administrationfrom North Park University. She blogs at thedreamerspeaks.com. You can follow Nilwona on Twitter @nilwona.

The entire text of Nilwona's poem, "Where I'm From," can be found here.

Ft. Portal-Budibugyo-Lamia Rd., Nyahuka, Uganda (Guest Post by Tish Harrison Warren)

Stephanie Amores

To be human is to long for This is a story about how Lyle Lovett and Jesus ruined my life plan.

I sat on the couch, alone in a room, staring at a handwritten sign barely legible in the candlelight.  I was in my early 20s and teaching English in Uganda for a few months, living at the boarding school. The scrawled sign was a quote from Rich Mullins: “I’m home anywhere if you are where I am,” written about God, a statement of worship and trust. At the time, taping his words on my plastered wall felt adventurous and daring.

I came from a place of deep, deep roots. My mom and dad were living within a mile of where my mom was born in the small town where generations of my family members have tilled the land, sat in city council meetings, and eaten watermelon on their porches. I had chosen to leave Texas to go to college out of state and, later, to go to Africa; both decisions had scandalized and worried my parents. This scrawled sign was simultaneously defiant, naïve, and faithful.  I now see more than a little narcissism in my wanderlust. Full of youthful swagger, I was after some wisdom and good stories, and didn’t have much to lose. But this sign was also a confession of faith, however fumbling or feebly, that “home” was not a place but a person, the person of Christ. And that following him meant that I had no idea where I might end up.

I ended up moving back to America and eventually married a graduate student, whose professional pursuits have moved us to five different states in our twelve years of marriage. With each move, the loss of home felt sharper. “Home,” which once felt confining as I longed for more risk, now seemed like something I lacked and desperately needed. I would tear up reading Wendell Berry, longing for his vision of stability, eager for a lived “theology of place.”  I missed my deep roots. I wanted to plant a garden and watch it grow, to have friends who I walk through different stages of life with, and, once we had kids, I longed to give my children the gift of rootedness, history, and community that I was given. I ached for that place where everyone knew who my dad was, where I could bump into someone with my mom whom she introduces as a beloved distant cousin, where I know how the air smells in the late fall and a back way shortcut to every place. So, eventually, we moved back to Texas. The prodigal daughter returned, and fatted calves were killed and slow-roasted in a Texas barbecue.

Three years later, I sat in the passenger seat as my husband Jonathan drove through the open ranchland near my parents’ house. It was a gorgeous day with evening light on early autumn hayfields and the sky stretched out to eternity. But the air was tense. I was trying to convince Jonathan that we shouldn’t move away from Texas. Both newly ordained priests, we’d received a call out of the blue, asking us to move across the country to be associate pastors at a church. We had fretted, prayed, and met with our community for guidance. They prayed, listened, and told us, lovingly, to go, and I wept. This call to the church and to my marriage was, I realized, a bit like signing up for the military-- I had given my life over to a mission that was bigger than me. I knew God wanted us to serve the church as priests. But I desperately wanted to stay in Texas.

I’d hatched a plan to showcase the glories of Central Texas to my husband, roots and culture, hayfields and sky. As we drove, I decided, we’d listen to Lyle Lovett—because you can’t get more Texas-glorious than a slow drive with Lyle singing about flour tortillas or whiskey --and we’d watch the Texas sunset. And there’s no way, after that, that we’d ever choose to leave. But when I put my plan in motion, a song came on that I’d never heard before.

It was a hymn that I pictured Lyle pounding out on an old piano in a plain-faced church:

“Lord, keep us steadfast in thy Word; Curb those who fein by craft and sword Would wrest the kingdom from thy Son And set at nought all he hath done.

Lord Jesus Christ, thy power make known, For thou are Lord of Lords alone; Defend thy Christendom that we May ever more sing praise to thee.

O Comforter of priceless worth, Send peace and unity on earth; Support us in our final strife And lead us out of death to life.”

Again, I wept. Despite my hopes, I somehow knew in that moment that we were leaving Texas again. We were going to go learn to be priests in a new place, a foreign land, far from home.

And I remembered that sign on my wall in Africa, but read it differently. Back then, the reality of Christ as our true home felt somehow triumphant and exhilarating. Now, it came with some pain. If Christ alone is our true home, no other place ever quite is and in this fallen “meantime” on our old earth, we never quite belong. Any swagger, any thrill in being a rolling stone, was gone.  If God calls us to himself, he may call us anywhere, and there is goodness but also heartbreak in that.

Deep roots and a long-time home is a gift, one I still long for. But I now see that both wanderlust and rootedness can become idols and that neither can be what ultimately guides us. Some are called to stay; some, at times, are called to leave. And, whichever the case, home is ultimately the place where Jesus meets us, where he calls us, where he is.


Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. After eight years with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries at Vanderbilt and The University of Texas at Austin, she now serves as Co-Associate Rector at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, PA. She writes regularly for The Well, CT Women (formerly her.meneutics), and Christianity Today. Her work has also appeared in Comment Magazine, Christ and Pop Culture, Art House America, and elsewhere. She is author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (IVP). She and her husband Jonathan have two young daughters.


keeping-place-11Welcome to a guest series I’m calling, “Home: Musings and Memories.” I’ve invited writers from all over the Internet to share their stories from home—in part, because later this year, I’m publishing a book called, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP, May 2017). I believe home is our most fundamental longing, homesickness our most nagging grief. Most of all, I believe that the historic Christian faith has something to say about that desire and disappointment.

The story of Jesus is a home story.

Thanks for joining me and these other fantastic writers in the months ahead in our search for home—and the God who makes its hope possible.

Jen

Memory of Home (Guest Post by Marilyn Gardner)

Stephanie Amores

To be human is to long for Murree Christian School P.O. Jhika Gali, Murree Hills, Pakistan

I can picture the scene as if it was yesterday.  I am lying on the top bunk in my dormitory. The louvered windows allow a mountain breeze to come through and the sun shines brightly through pine trees.  It is springtime in Murree and I am seven years old.  In the distance I hear the sound of musical scales in major and minor keys being played on old pianos, slightly tinny and out of tune. The players are disciplined, but clearly young with limited skills. Pungent smells waft through windows from the large kitchen two floors below alerting me that today our lunch will be curry and rice. The sounds of Urdu, Punjabi, and English meld together, a kaleidoscope of diversity unrealized until I am older. As the memory returns, I close my eyes and I am completely content.

Two distinct places come to mind when I think of the place and concept of ‘home.’ The first is that of several different cities where my parents lived in Pakistan during my childhood. The second place is the more constant: My boarding school near the town of Jhika Gali, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayan range of mountains in the country of Pakistan.

My memories are strong of the place that shaped me, that formed me into who I am today. I was six years old when I first went to boarding school. I could barely tie my shoelaces; much less navigate the sometimes cruel environment of an institutional setting. But it was in the institutional halls of boarding school where I encountered the God who I would grow to love.

For three months at a time, I would share a bedroom with seven roommates supervised by a housemother struggling to meet the needs of 20 to 30 little children. Children, who needed to eat, brush their teeth, bathe, dress, study, and sleep. Along with the practical needs were the emotional and spiritual needs. These are the unseen needs that satisfy the deepest of human longings; namely love and belonging. It was a seemingly impossible task, but we would not know this until much later in our lives.

The first night away from home, I was always exhausted and sleep came quickly. I woke early in the morning, disoriented and unsure of where I was. When I remembered, the blur and taste of hot, salty tears clouded my vision and lingered on my tongue. I dared not show my tears; it was not safe. We were all small, all facing separation and loss, all experiencing the first of many times of homesickness. We were surrounded by others as young as we were, by others with the same tears and fears, the same deep sense of loss.

No one heard or saw my tears; instead, they fell silently, invisibly.  Soon others would wake, and happy chatter would overshadow the sad. We were already a family of sorts, complete with the aunts and uncles who served as our dorm parents. But each time I entered boarding school, the early morning scene would repeat itself, from the time I was six until the day I graduated from high school.

A cold, metal-framed bunk bed and the living God were my only witnesses. The one captured my tears, the other comforted them.In that tiny, private bunk bed space my first fervent prayers for comfort went up to an unseen God in a Heaven that seemed far away, and I experienced his comfort and presence. It was in a bunk bed that this unseen God responded, an invisible hand reaching out to comfort a little girl far from her parents who held fast to a stuffed animal.

My boarding school years are long past and, like many others who grew up globally, many places in the world have become home for a time.  Indeed, for me a recurring life-theme has been on place and home. But those early memories of boarding school still evoke in me tears and a deep sense of gratitude.  There have been many places where my faith grew, where I met the big and hard questions of life. One of those places was surely a boarding school bunk bed, an icon of sorts, a solid witness to a faith that is written on my heart by God’s hand.


Marilyn R. Gardner is an adult third culture kid who grew up in Pakistan and then lived as an adult in Pakistan and Egypt. She birthed 5 kids on 3 continents, and went on to raise them in Pakistan and Egypt before moving to the United States. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 15 minutes from the international terminal where she flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging © Doorlight Publications, July 2014 and her newest memoir Passages Through Pakistan: An American Girl’s Journey of Faith ©Doorlight Publications, February 2017. Because of her passion for the Middle East, 50% of all royalties for any purchase of Passages goes towards refugee work there.  


keeping-place-11Welcome to a guest series I’m calling, “Home: Musings and Memories.” I’ve invited writers from all over the Internet to share their stories from home—in part, because later this year, I’m publishing a book called, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP, May 2017). I believe home is our most fundamental longing, homesickness our most nagging grief. Most of all, I believe that the historic Christian faith has something to say about that desire and disappointment.

The story of Jesus is a home story.

Thanks for joining me and these other fantastic writers in the months ahead in our search for home—and the God who makes its hope possible.

Jen

Where I Shed My Dragon Skin (Guest Post By Dorcas Cheng-Tozun)

Stephanie Amores

To be human is to long for Flat 2, 24th Floor Tower F, Chengzhongyayuen Shenzhen, China

Each morning my husband and I were awoken by the chants of schoolchildren, twenty-four stories below us, doing their morning exercises. I would look down at their tiny blue-and-white uniformed bodies, stretching and twisting and jumping in the stifling humidity, and wonder how they felt about the industrial city we all lived in. Did it feel like home to them?

I had certainly never felt less at home. My face and body resembled the faces and bodies around me—the first time I had ever lived in a place where I was part of the ethnic majority. Yet everything else about me stood out, in a culture and society in which standing out is one of the worst things one can do.

My daily commutes with my husband—walking from our apartment building to the subway station, cramming our bodies with the rest of the masses on the subway cars, then walking again to the office building—became exercises in anxiety. Who would yell at me next? Which of these people would resent me if they knew how Western I really was on the inside?

Nowhere in Shenzhen felt safe for me—except our starkly white, cement-tiled two-bedroom flat.

The place came with its own colorful history. Its previous occupant was the mistress of the Hong Kong-based owner, his "second wife" who was about forty years his junior. When she moved out, she left enough food to feed an entire infantry of cockroaches. They eagerly welcomed us from every room the day we moved in.

When the complex social dynamics of living in China became too overwhelming for me, I escaped to this flat. I burrowed into the gray-and-white houndstooth sectional sofa, watching bootlegged versions of American movies and TV shows. I jerry-rigged American meals—scrambled eggs and toast, spaghetti, garlic bread, burgers—with the ingredients I could find. I listened to MP3s of U2 and Coldplay with full-throated nostalgia, dancing across the cold tiles with abandon, the air conditioner blowing on full blast.

In this flat, my true ethnic identity—as a second-generation Chinese American—was on full display. I felt safe and free within that one thousand square feet, floating a couple hundred meters above the ground.

Yet, even then, the concrete walls of the high-rise building strained against the pressures of life in a totalitarian state. Everyone took it as fact that our phone lines and email communications were regularly monitored. I heard rumors that the central government tended to bug apartment buildings just like ours. I worried that the Christian locals I was discipling would suffer because of their association with me.

Eventually, I buckled under that pressure. I refused to leave our apartment for days at a time, unable to face the oppressive environment outside. I grumbled and lamented and wept before God, asking what he was doing in the midst of my misery.

Only three things kept me from becoming unmoored during that time: my faith, my husband, and the flat that was the closest thing to home I had available.

I didn’t know it at the time, but God was breaking the stranglehold that my compulsive needs to people-please, to achieve, and to be perfect had on me. Like Eustace, the surly and prideful character in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I needed God to reveal the depth and hardness of my dragon skin—and I needed God to tear that skin off, even though it hurt my very soul to do so.

About a year into our stay in China, two friends visited us from California. They listened to my anguish; they counseled me; they prayed over me. And that concrete, barren apartment became holy ground.

My healing journey, which eventually took years, began as I wept in that twenty-fourth story flat in China, confessing my weakness and desperate need for God. Only then could he tear down the smaller life I had been stubbornly pursuing. Only then could he make space for something grander and far more beautiful.


Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is an award-winning writer and editor. She is a columnist for Inc.com and a regular contributor to Christianity Today, The Well, and Asian American Women on Leadership. Her book on marriage and entrepreneurship is forthcoming from Hachette Center Street in fall 2017. After living in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Kenya, she is now residing in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and adorable hapa son. Visit her at http://www.chengtozun.com or follow her on Twitter.

A Life of Longing (Guest Post by Kristen Leigh Kludt)

Stephanie Amores

To be human is to long for I don’t belong in California. Sunshine is overrated. There are few thunderstorms, no fireflies. The pace is too fast—there are no months of bad weather to slow us down.

I may not belong in California, but California is my home.

During a recent visit to Wisconsin, I flew through the crystal blue skies above my hometown in a tiny airplane. My three-year-old son sat next to me; my dad sat up front with the pilot. Three generations curved above the sparkling lakes, peered down at the capitol dome, watched the houses grow small like a Mr. Rogers episode. "There it is!" I caught a glimpse of a brown roof tucked into the trees behind the elementary school: my house, the land I grew up on, my home. As we circled back over the city, I remembered— this will always be my hometown, but it isn’t home.

I love Wisconsin fiercely. Some might consider the summer humidity oppressive, but the wet air is easy on my lungs. Everything is green. I grew up next to a lake; sunsets were glorious. Winter brought welcome months of hibernation: fires in the hearth, family game nights and hot cocoa. We spent our afternoons sledding in the schoolyard, walking home in the pinkish glow of a snowy night. Each year brought a competition—who could be the first family member to clock another with a snowball? Once my sister and I made a batch of snowballs on a cookie sheet and bombarded my dad from the upstairs window. I picture those days, and I long for similar memories for my children.

When we married, my husband and I moved to California “for three years.” That was ten years ago. Every year we agreed to one more, because of jobs, friends and a church we loved. Two years ago, we decided to stay in California for the long haul. Today it’s home, with its golden hills and palm trees. And so, I live with unmet longing in my gut. I waited ten years for a call to leave, and I was called instead to stay. This is my reality. How do I live it well? If I do not find contentment here, I will never find it anywhere.

Living well with unmet longing is a dance of gratitude and grief.

Some days I give into the grief. I make lists of loss. I long for weekly runs with my mom and mochas with my dad, for my boys to play in the quiet beauty of the Midwestern woods. My sons do not live close enough to raise caterpillars with their Papa, from egg to butterfly. The distinctive squeak of fresh snow underfoot will be more memory than reality. I mourn the loss of everyday memories with our extended family built over years, especially for my children. Tears come. Living my grief is harder than ignoring it, but better. I am softened by my tears.

Living well also means cultivating gratitude. My life here holds much joy! There is nothing like a California strawberry. In my decade here, I have become blind to the flowers lining the freeways, but I remember them in spring when the scent of jasmine permeates the air. We have deep soul-friends in California, friends who are starting to look a lot like family. I make joy-lists, reminding myself of all I love about this place.

On hard days, I give in to grief. On good days, I live in gratitude. On my best days, I hold both in tension, acknowledging my sadness while running toward joy.

Today I bought a “California Love” cap, because I do—I love it more every day. That love is complex, holding both joy and unmet longing, like most of my deep loves. My love for my children is colored by the knowledge that to raise them well means to teach them how to leave me. My love for my husband is richer for the reality that one of us is destined to outlive the other.

There is no love without loss, no gratitude without grief. We live better when we live both.


Kristen Leigh Kludt is a contemplative Christian writer and spiritual guide. Her first book, A Good Way Through: My Journey with God from Disappointment into Hope, will be available February 21, 2017. Mother to two boys, she lives, works, and plays in San Francisco's East Bay, where her husband is a pastor. She is growing daily toward a life of integrity and love. Read more or say hello at www.KristenLeighKludt.com.

 

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.

 

 

Homesick — 54 Church Street (Guest Post by Dorothy Littell Greco)

Stephanie Amores

To be human is to long for I was only eight years old when I first experienced homesickness. After our Brownie troop set up our belongings in the primitive campground, located the outhouse (major grossness), and had our first meal, I felt an incredible heaviness descend on me. It was palpable. Throughout the week, tears flowed easily and often.

At that young age, I didn’t know there was such a thing as homesickness. The term was not in my vocabulary. My home life was stable. My parents marriage was intact. We had a large extended family and my sisters and I frequently spent hours with my many cousins. Our town was small enough to allow everyone to know everyone else’s business which, for all its down sides, did have benefits.

54 Church Street meant something more than the grey stucco house that my grandfather had built for his wife in the late 1800s. It meant more than a place for letters to arrive or a place for the evening dinner. It rooted me in time and space. It provided boundaries and a sense of safety.

I didn’t know this until I left but the house could not give me what I truly needed: a sense of self. An identity. Since I lacked internal scaffolding, I relied on the physical structure of our home to hold me up and hold me together. When I went off to camp without my family, it shook something loose. It pried the lid off my neediness, leaving me exposed and frightened. There were no books, no rituals, and no homemade bread to comfort me. Lying under the canvas tent in an open field with seven other girls and one grumpy counsellor, I experienced an unfamiliar emptiness. I needed something—though I could not articulate what.

When camp ended and I returned to 54 Church Street, homesickness came with me. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, there was no turning back.

Because my family was religious but not spiritual, I could not name what I needed. The only prayer I knew was, “Now I lay me down to sleep...” which is certainly not the most helpful bedtime incantation if you happen to be afraid of death. Yet in my own childish way, I was beginning to seek God. I often cried out to something/someone greater than me. In response, He wooed and comforted me through his creation. The wooded area behind our home, the small brook around the corner, even my cat all seemed to whisper, “Come further up and further in.”*

In the years that followed, though I did slowly move toward that still unnamed God, the gnawing need continued, perhaps even deepened because of the growing relational chaos in our home. My grandfather died and our extended family fractured. Nearly all the cousins, aunts, and uncles moved out of state. Left without employment or the siblings who had always been there, my father turned to liquid spirits to ease his ache. Their marriage slowly fractured into a thousand sharp shards that could never be glued back together.

As the walls of our home came crumbling down, the object of my need gradually came into focus. Jesus. It was Jesus. The more I learned of this man, the more I came to feel what Andrea Palapant Dilley beautifully describes in Faith and Other Flat Tires:

To me, longing for God was like hearing music from an open window on the street or seeing mountains off in the distance. The yearning felt almost like grief. A cry born into my heart before the human heart ever existed. A desire so deep and far back that it seemed almost prehistoric. I sensed the imago Dei, the image of God within me. . . . I was a homing bird traveling with my outspread wings, carried by an innate compass and crossing a thousand miles to get back to the place where I began.

I began with Him and now ache to return home to Him. It’s still a great distance off but my homesickness propels me ever forward.

*C. S. Lewis, From the The Last Battle


Dorothy Littell Greco writes about how life with Jesus changes everything. She lives outside Boston, MA, with her husband, one of her three sons, and her fluffy companion Leo. Her first book, Making Marriage Beautiful, will be released by David C Cook on January 1, 2017. She is a member of Redbud Writers Guild.

 

Daire 3, 5 Blok, Vitol Cikmazi, Moda, Kadikoy, Istanbul, Turkiye (Guest Post by Beth Bruno)

Stephanie Amores

To be human is to long for It seemed fitting to live in the largest neighborhood of the largest city in the largest unreached nation. Principle had drawn us here, with our one-year-old in tow and adventure at our backs. It was not a sacrifice. We were young and seeking purpose. And we were planting a flag with the apartment we chose: this would be the haven for our team, the space in which hearts would change.

The day we trudged up the hill with lights and curtains tucked under our arms, preparing the apartment for our move, our new electrician friend pulled us anxiously toward the TV in his shop. While our son played with electrical outlets, we watched planes fly intentionally into towers. We moved into our new home days later amid shock, fear, and grief. Our first team meeting included an angry call with a father in America: he wanted his young daughter on a flight immediately, safely out of the middle east.

Our home was christened with tears.

Months later I ordered a turkey from the butcher and opened canned yams from the black market coming off the military base. We celebrated Thanksgiving with 25 people, only half of whom were American, and shared a little bit of home with new friends. The first of all our wedding gift wine glasses broke that night as young teammates helped in the kitchen. A few stayed late to binge watch Alias thanks to a VHS tape received in the mail.

Our home was anointed with laughter.

That summer we shocked the neighbors with an inflatable pool on our roof and a naked two-year-old swimming with his mom. Aunties constantly asked what I fed him when he scaled park equipment and all the shopkeepers rushed to squeeze the little blond boy’s cheeks. The painters shook their heads when I showed them the dark red color I wanted. Culturally adapting and completely shedding your own are two different things.

We said goodbye to one team and welcomed another. Not long after, they huddled in our living room watching a bombing unfold, this time near us. A few weeks later, a synagogue, and another, and then I remembered my son’s preschool was next door to one. Rushing through the streets that day evoked a panic I have never felt before nor since. Our apartment became home base when foreigners needed to lay low. We watched more Alias. I cooked.

The night I waited for my husband to return from the first student meeting in which he was teaching in Turkish, I was sitting on the floor with my pregnant belly. He called and sounded eerily measured, told me he had been stabbed. Time froze as I waited for teammates to come stay with our sleeping son and I taxied to the hospital. Over the next few weeks, our living room became a recovery room and we wondered in fear what had happened that night.

The great adventure began to wane a bit. Standing alone, each bomb, each team fail, each uninterested Turkish student was a chance to trust in God.  An opportunity to put our faith in him again. To expect his grace. To pray harder. Assaults like stabbing? Well, why would the enemy bother with us if he weren’t threatened. But cumulatively, our hope began to waiver.

Was our home still inhabited by God? If things were this difficult, were we in the right place?

I moved into Moda a girl full of idealism. A young wife, a young mom, a new calling, with God on my side. I was so sure of everything. Until I wasn’t.

Unknowingly, I was finding my story in those red walls of my Moda apartment as God worked out my character. I thought it would be a space where hearts were changed. It was. And quite unexpectedly, it included my own.


bethbruno

Beth is the founder of A Face to Reframe, a nonprofit whose aim is to prevent human trafficking through participatory arts, training and community building. She now serves as the Manager of Domestic Anti-Trafficking with the U COUNT Campaign and the co-founder and facilitator of the Larimer County Anti-Trafficking Community Response Team. She holds a certificate in Transformative Arts and Restorative Practices and is the co-author of END: Engaging Men to End Sex Trafficking. She regularly speaks, trains, and writes about ways in which we can stop human trafficking in our communities. Find her on her blog at www.bethbruno.org.

Thank you, readers.

jenmichel@me.com

conversation Thank you, readers, for your engagement with last week’s Christianity Today piece about the dangers I see in the self-fulfillment “gospel.” As Charles Taylor describes in A Secular Age, this modern “gospel” preaches human flourishing as life’s ultimate and final goal. The thesis of that article—that this gospel is a dangerous detour from that cross-bearing to which Christ and his followers have been called—was tied to the most recent public announcements from Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery of her divorce and her new dating relationship.

I have people legitimately asking: why are you writing about someone’s private life? Isn’t this the kind of self-righteous finger-pointing that gives Christians a bad name? Didn’t Jesus forgive rather than condemn? And haven’t you uncharitably mischaracterized Glennon’s larger body of work and the testimony of her life?

I am incredibly grateful, not just for your support but for your pushback. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, it is generally my decision to let every article that I write stand for itself. That decision is as pragmatic as it is philosophical. (People still want dinner around here.) Moreover, pre-Internet, this is generally what every writer did (excepting corrections in future publications, responses to letters to the editor, or public speaking events). Now, of course, with social media, there is ongoing conversation an article can inspire, allowing writers a chance to explain, to clarify, to endlessly defend. We can probably all see how easily that becomes circular and vain (not to mention tiresome).

I write this post today, not to settle objections, but to acknowledge that I have been listening as you have posted, messaged, and emailed. Let me offer some thoughts in response.

First, corrections—or better yet, confessions.

  1. I want to confess my failure to cite the great philanthropic good that Glennon has been doing as well as her own powerful story of personal redemption. I am sorry for that. It’s a very fair criticism to note the absence of these important biographical pieces in my piece. Clarification on these two points would have contributed to a more sympathetic tone and a fairer representation. I regret I did not graciously offer it. Glennon has said publicly, clearly, and regularly that she wants to serve her readers. Her story of deliverance out of alcoholism and bulimia has been a source of great encouragement to others, and her advocacy and activism are truly remarkable. I am thankful for all of this and highlight it here.
  1. Second, I want to confess the evangelical bias represented by the timing of the article. It is an entirely fair critique to say that “Christians are never scandalized until someone’s gay.” Yes, this sticks. Apart from matters of sexual indiscretion, we can sit silently by while the gospel of self-fulfillment and radical individualism is used to defend gross neglect of the two great commandments. It shouldn’t matter if it’s sexual sin, political gain, crass consumerism, neglect of the poor or racial injustice. These all grieve the heart of God, and I am sorry that I—and the church—have not been rightly outraged by these things. By God’s grace, I hope to do better.

For further consideration:

The premise of public discourse.

Some have argued that I should have brought my disagreement to Glennon privately. They are concerned for Christian charity. Their pushback also raises the important biblical concern in Matthew 18 for direct, personal, and private confrontation in the local church before any kind of public address of a “sin” issue.

I suppose it’s obvious but also important to remind readers that Glennon and I are not friends. We are not members of the same church, and the nature of my critique was not a matter of personal disagreement or hurt. Rather, we are public writers involved in the exchange of public ideas. The hazards of this work involve public disagreement, especially when writers like Glennon and I not only write but aim to teach.

I heartily affirm the need for charitable public disagreement, and admit that some insist my article has fallen short of this standard. But I would note that public disagreement is not, in and of itself, inherently unkind, although we can feel it to be. Disagreement can sharpen us. Criticism can teach us. I, least of all, like it, but I’ve had enough to know how painfully good it has been for me.

The nature of leadership.

Some have wondered why I couldn’t have talked about the dangers of the self-fulfillment gospel without referencing Glennon’s story.

When Glennon wrote the Facebook post I referenced for my article, she explicitly aimed to make her personal narrative instructive for others. She did not simply say, I am making these choices, and you can have your own opinion about them. (She said this, too.) She also said: I am modeling self-truth and self-bravery for you. “This is what I want for YOU.”

We may not all intend to make our lives instructive for others in the same way that Glennon has, but she is right in a very important sense: we teach and lead, not just with our ideas, but with our lives. This isn’t to say that God only uses the Mary Poppins of the world to build his kingdom. (Genealogy of Jesus, anyone?) But it is to say that there is never a nice, neat line between our ideas and our lives, especially for Christian teachers and leaders. Our ideas are our lives. Our lives are our ideas. This is what the Apostle Paul is getting at when he sets forth, in the Epistles, such rigorous ethical standards for pastors/elders. It’s his reason for telling Timothy: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16).

As one keenly aware of my own personal failures of conduct and character, I am deeply sobered by this truth.

The importance of discernment.

Some have wondered why I (and the readers of Christianity Today) should concern ourselves with the beliefs of Glennon Doyle Melton, who has never called herself evangelical.

In a world of Amazon Prime and the worldwide web, Glennon’s influence doesn’t stop at the doors of her United Church of Christ. Evangelical women read her blog, buy her books, and travel to hear her speak. Well-respected evangelical female leaders recently invited her to join them main-stage at a national conference in early November.

Glennon has likened her readers to congregants, her work to the writings of the early Christian church. It is worth remembering that historic councils vigorously debated the early writings of apostles and church leaders, determining what should and should not be included in the canon. The early church was incredibly preoccupied with getting the gospel right and did not back down from the public debate of those ideas.

Likewise (in kind, though not degree), every Christian church and pastor, every Christian publication and organization, has the pastoral responsibility to reason and affirm what is true and to challenge what is false. Rigorous theological, exegetical, historical, and cultural discernment is an act of great love for the church.

There is no such thing as radical autonomy in the Christian life—where permission is never needed and explanation never obliged. We belong to Christ, and we belong to one another. To love Christ and one another well, we must encourage, celebrate, and agree. As needed, we must also challenge, correct, and rebuke. The latter is as much for our good as the former.

Which is why I’m grateful for you—both your support and criticism. Thanks for reading here and for reading thoughtful publications like Christianity Today, which aim, however imperfectly, to help the church in this work of discernment and the witness of Christ’s love.