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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Category: My Book

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!

#thisisreal

jenmichel@me.com

For the next couple of months, I have a pretty demanding schedule with a variety of writing deadlines and speaking engagements. And though the calendar and to-do list look pretty harried, I have also been choosing to say a series of strong no's. The first no was pretty unsettling (I will be missing out! I won't be needed!), but it is getting easier to live into my limitations. (Um, a little.) One yes that I've said, however, is to lead a women's retreat in October on the subject of holy desire. I've been preparing, and I'm really excited about it. I recently had an email from the women's ministry director at this church, who wanted to share with me a short review they had done of Teach Us to Want for their women. After a brief introduction of the book's subject, the review continues, "Jen Michel shares her own journey with this kind of disappointment in a very relatable and candid way. (Read the first two paragraphs of p. 108). She doesn't hold back, does she?"

I, of course, couldn't remember what was on p. 108, so I pulled the book from my shelf and flipped to see. It is the story of my first and only miscarriage.

"I am pregnant. And I don't discover this until the immunizations [I'd received in advance of a missions' trip to Africa] have done the damage I am now powerless to undo. I suspect the pregnancy for a week. But if I don't take the test and fail to confirm the pregnancy, it cannot be true. Eventually this wildly ridiculous reasoning gives way. I buy a test. I take it. The line colors red.

It's the blood draining from my face."

If there is one consistent comment I hear from readers of Teach Us to Want, it is often gratitude for my honesty. But I'm going to confess that my honesty at the time of writing the book was pretty easy to come by: when you aren't even sure that anyone will be reading, you can afford to do a little public soul-dissection. And while the book hasn't hit the NYTimes Bestseller List (I know, right?), my readership has grown. It is NOT as easy now to take the scapel and cut a public incision, pinning back my skin for everyone to peer inside, especially when awards make you feel like a complete fraud.

A private book, thrust into public hands, is a fearful thing.

So I understand when my friend, Christina Crook, author of The Joy of Missing Out, says that her book launch made her feel tired, timid, pulled back, and even afraid. However, though she was struggling, her emotional thud wasn't audible to her readers - because she kept posting smiley-happy pictures on all of her social media feeds.

#thisisreal

Christina, another friend from Toronto, and I have recently committed to getting together regularly to share collegial, honest conversation about the private struggles of public art and faith. And from that conversation, Christina has written an incredibly brave blog post (which you should definitely read!) as well as launched a 31-day campaign she is calling #thisisreal.

I'd love for you to join her and me in for a more honest snapshot of life in the month of October. Here's the skinny.

 

  1. You don't have to be a writer with a blog (but if you are, feel free to use the above image to launch the campaign with your readers).
  2. You don't have to be a photographer - but you will need a camera.
  3. The challenge is: for the month of October, post pictures and captions of life as it really is: in its glory and in its muck. #thisisreal. This isn't about authenticity for authenticity's sake. It's about an invitation to be something other than the gussied-up versions of ourselves - because to be human is a beautiful thing.

I'll be mostly on Twitter so follow me there: @jenpmichel.

#thisisreal: It is about honesty, but it is also about compassion - because the pictures are pretty, but the struggle is real.

_DSC8308

My kids hated almost every moment of this photo shoot. Colin ended up crying halfway through, messing up his hair I had gelled. I promised them ice cream for behaving.

#thisisreal

 

 

 

 

 

When you google yourself

Ben Goshow

I confess. I have done this on occasion. It turns up the occasional rant about something I've written, which is sometimes funny (and often not). Tonight though, I found my book on Amazon! It's available for pre-order. Now, let me admit that we writers are an insufferable bunch. I met the likes of me at a party last night, and twenty minutes into this author's self-absorbed monologue about her book and the writing of the book and the upcoming week of revisions and the "wish my editor has done more creatively to the content of the book," I was panning the room for escape.

(Is this what you think of me?) Nevertheless.

I have a book. On Amazon.

And pre-orders are immensely helpful to the company of the insufferable.

Thanks.

Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith (American friends)

Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith (Canadian friends)

Teach-Us-to-Want-small

Book me for your next retreat.

Ben Goshow

Did I seriously just say that? "Book me for your next retreat?" Next thing you know, I'll be opening the trunk of my car and asking you to buy the book I've just written. Yes, there are joys of writing a book. I'm thinking of the quiet, contemplative hours stretching as long as the questions. (And if you believe that. . . .)

There are also joys of promoting a book. I'm thinking of blog posts entitled, "Book me for your next retreat." (And if you believe that. . . .)

Nevertheless: when God asks you to obey, don't offer up your apologies. Own your reluctance, and ante up. Play the fool if need be.

I have honestly been thinking the desire is a wonderful retreat topic. It begs the telling of our stories, and stories are best indulged in community. A retreat - away from life's bustle, gathered in community - is just the place to share our stories and learn to live, a little better, into God's.

I have been asked to speak at a retreat in January, and as I've been preparing, I thought to share the ideas for the sessions here. Maybe because you'll want to book me for your next retreat. Maybe because you'll want to buy my book. Or maybe because you'll be reminded that our Father's desire is for us, and it is not difficult. (This, the prophetic word spoken over me nearly two years ago.)

* * * * *

Teach Us to Want: Leaning into a life of holy desire

Session One: Receive Goodness

Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, concluded this after his tenure in ministry: “In fifty years of being a pastor, my most difficult assignment continues to be the task of developing a sense about the people I serve of the soul-transforming implications of grace - a comprehensive, foundational reorientation from living anxiously by my wits and muscle to living effortlessly in the world of God’s active presence. The prevailing North American culture . . . is. . . a context of persistent denial of grace.”[1]

Peterson understands that we are each bred with a common resistance to grace—even the God of grace. We often live by our “wits,” rather than the abiding sense that God is for us (cf. Rom. 8:31). But grace is foundational to being formed into faith, which purposes to work itself out as obedient trust (cf. Heb. 11:6).

Holy desire begins with holy trust. God, our Father, is good and does good (cf. Psalm 119:68), and this is our bold invitation to want. We can ask, seek, and find because He who did not spare His son delights to give (cf. Rom. 8:32). Yet generosity can be hardest to believe about God. When our lives collide with unexpected disappointment and loss, does God remain good?

Our invitation of holy desire is to receive everything from God’s hand as goodness—and to live as God’s beloved.

Session Two: Risk Desire

 Author Barbara Brown Taylor writes in An Altar in the World about a perplexing season of praying for vocational guidance. What do I do, Lord? Do anything that pleases you, and belong to me. “At one level, that answer was no help at all. The ball was back in my court again, where God had left me all kinds of room to lob it wherever I wanted. I could be a priest or a circus worker. God really did not care. At another level, I was so relieved that I sledded down the stairs that night. Whatever I decided to do for a living, it was not what I did but how I did it that mattered. God had suggested an overall purpose, but not going to supply the particulars for me. If I wanted a life of meaning, then I was going to have to apply the purpose for myself.”[2]

Do what pleases you. In other words, follow your desire. But it’s exactly this kind of counsel that makes us visibly nervous. We imagine it blindly leading men and women into the clutches of selfish self-interest. What role can desire have in the life of faith? Aren’t we expected to obey, even if we haven’t wanted to?

Yet holy desire is critical to our lives of faith. It inspires our petitions and plans (cf. Ps. 20:4, 5). In fact, the renovation of our heart’s desires is exactly what God purposes to do in His children, and we might even say that our most God-glorifying obedience is that which we offer willingly (cf. 2 Cor. 9:7).

Grace moves us into the courage to want. Our invitation of holy desire is to learn to belong—and to risk as God’s beloved.


[1] Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), p. 96.

[2] An Altar in the World (New York: Harper One, 2009), 110.

The book is finished

Ben Goshow

Teach-Us-to-Want-small Or, nearly.

I've just sent in the second draft, and unless there is something catastrophic about the revisions I've made, the book will move next to the copy-editing stage.

I should feel elated - or, at the very least, relieved. But mostly, I feel irritable and tired, a mood I recognize as distinctly unpropitious on the eve of a 10-hour car trip and a visit with the in-laws.

What exactly is a woman to do to celebrate that she's finished a book?

In my case, she takes her husband's suit to the dry cleaners and wonders whether the stain on the sleeve has anything to do with the better part of a week it spent on the floorboard of the van. She buys stamps and sends the two thank you notes she had been meaning to write weeks ago. She decides to try the Portuguese restaurant her friends had been raving about and orders herself lunch - because who wants a cold sandwich when congratulations are in order?

And then she sits down to write a blog post in the hopes that more words will produce more joy. (60,000 had apparently been too few.)

The book is finished. And so am I. Which is why I feel no need for defending that I am taking Harry Potter Books 1 and 2 with me to Chicago tomorrow.

I have written the book I feel God has given me to write, and I have done it as faithfully as I know how. But I'm reminded that even when we want something holy and commit ourselves to that good, it rarely comes as easy as we expect or feels as exhilarating as we hope.

And that's ok. Because when the work is finished, rest awaits.

"So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.

Let us strive to enter that rest." Hebrews 4:9-11

 

 

Sick and Tired

Ben Goshow

A teeny, weeny little rant post, OK? Allow me to indulge in this small pleasure?

Because I've been writing a book. Or, to be precise, editing a book.

I turned in the first draft of Teach Us to Want (IVP, releasing August, 2014) in August. Two months later, I received it back from my editor with suggestions for revision. In less than two weeks, I need to send back a better version of the book.

And I will say this of the editing process: it makes you pine for writing anything other than your book.

In the past several weeks, I've daydreamed and drafted these ideas for other writing projects:

"Confessions of a Complementarian": a series of blog posts I will write where I confess why, theologically, I still hold to a traditional view of gender roles in the family and in the church.

Welcome Home: the book I will write about the desire for place and for stability. I've determined that it will require a tour of all my childhood homes. (Tennessee, here I come!)

I've also sent pitches to the Atlantic as well as the Motherlode blog at the NYTimes, neither of which I've actually done anything to develop since receiving responses back from each of them.

And here I find myself writing a blog post when the final chapter of my book begs for me to "land my argument." Oh, right. Those were my editor's words.

Land this plane, Jen. I'm gripping at the throttle of these words. I can't see anything in this fog. Land this plane, the readers are begging.

Do they know how hard this is?

* * * *

Ok, that's it. Teeny, weeny little rant is now finished.

Oh, and I almost forgot. I think I'm also planning a blog series about the process of writing a book. It will not, however, be a rant.

 

"Thy will be done" is not a prayer for the faint of heart

Ben Goshow

Here's the beginning of an article I recently wrote for RELEVANT. These ideas have been spinning in my head as I've been writing my book, Teach Us to Want, which examines the Lord's Prayer as a means for forming holy desire. I hope, by the way, that none of my Canadian friends take offense at the cultural observations, which I offer here - and may have gotten entirely wrong. "Our family moved from Chicago to Toronto, Canada two years ago. And for all the obvious similarities between Canada and the U.S., cultural differences do exist. I need only to talk to my Canadian friends or stand in the grocery line to recognize them.

As a matter of routine here, cashiers at the grocery store do not whip items over the scanner into the hands of pimply 16-year-olds bagging for minimum wage. Instead, cashiers pluck items from the conveyor belt, one by one, scanning and bagging each individually with such apparent lack of haste that clearly, time is not of the essence.

I once irritably timed the inefficiency: 15 minutes.

Standing at the checkout in Toronto, I begin recognizing my patriotic allegiance to convenience and ease. These values are the currency of American culture.

And it’s made me wonder: Have ease and convenience also become my currency of prayer?"

Find the rest of the article, "When God's Will is Harder Than We Expect," here.

Finishing a book and finding silence: I don't have to write to be alive.

Ben Goshow

There are four official weeks left of summer for us. And we have gloriously little on our family calendar. Yesterday, I spent more than an hour turning rope in the driveway, the other end of the rope hanging looped and knotted around our front porch railing. “What muscle am I working when I turn rope for the kids?” I asked Ryan last night before bed. Turns out I’ll have bulging shoulder muscles - on my right side.

People naturally ask how the summer is going when I bump into them at church or in the neighborhood. I’d like to say that this summer has been busy, but as soon as I tell them how busy I’ve been, they’ll probably feel as I do when I hear other people complain about their self-important lives. Yawn.

I did finish a book. And this much continues to prove true: a writer loves most, not the act of writing, but the accomplishment of having written. Oh, I suppose the writing wasn’t that bad either – minus the Saturdays when Ryan, James (our nephew), and the kids would pile into the car and head off somewhere fun, and I’d remain at home, holed up in the office, despondently wearing pajama pants until noon.

Two kind friends read the manuscript for me before I attempted a draft of the final chapter and turned it in by my August 1st deadline. Their feedback, independent of each other, was similar: the writing was good but the organization of the ideas, well, ­found wanting. (PS, this was the working title of my book, but it has now been abandoned in favor of another title. Keep reading.)

This wonderfully honest feedback prompted an all-out Annie Dillard style week of revision. Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, describes how she would often organize and re-organize the hand-written pages she composed. She would lay them out on a table and move them around, trying out different sequences of thought. (I’d quote from that section of her book, but despite my wandering aimlessly around the house this morning in the pre-dawn quiet, I can’t find the book.)

A process similar to Dillard’s once worked for me in graduate school in my creative writing class. The project was a series of ten written snapshots of someone we knew well. After we’d written the snapshots (of varying lengths), we were supposed to take the ten pages, throw them up into the air, and let them fall, picking them up in a random order.

It worked. A natural, unforced order emerged.

I didn’t try this with my 150 book manuscript pages, but I did print out every single chapter, one by one, and line up each of the pages across my office floor. Visually, it allowed me to see each individual section of the chapter: which sections were too long? Too short? Did the titles of each of these different sections work for what I was really trying to say?

And what was I really trying to say?

It will sound like an obvious question. And shouldn’t every writer have this figured out before beginning?

But writing is a lot like life, faith even. You don’t always know where you’re headed when you set out.

Two years ago almost, I started a blog. I wrote it for myself. It was a spiritual discipline, a means of slowing my life from the rapid blur it had become, a way of growing into skills of awareness. Writing when the house slept and thinking about the ground under my feet became a way for me to live more prayerfully, more gratefully, even more fearlessly. And I am grateful for all this - astounded really, that this writing became a book. I hope you’ll read that book. (PS, it’s now officially titled: Teach us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith. It will release next summer.)

But I am also grateful that writing is not the entirety of my life. I finished a book. And have since enjoyed a bit of silence. I think I'm also learning that I don’t have to write to be fully alive.

A long-distance friend messaged me recently on Facebook to ask if I’m becoming a recluse. She must have wondered since I’ve been so inactive on social media most of the summer. I imagine you, faithful blog readers, must have given me up for dead.

But I’m here. Alive. Turning rope in my driveway. And yes - writing, too.

Welcome!

Ben Goshow

Welcome to my new author site. As I wrote recently, I found my pulse and have no more need for a site dedicated to finding it. Thank you, though, to those of you who have cheered me along the way the past year and a half in my blog project, findingmypulse.com. Additionally, thanks to those of you who reassured me that, unlike my husband, you felt fondness for the name. And for those of you who offered up no consoling remarks like, "I don't think it's cheesy at all!", I appreciate your skills of discretion.

Some of you have expressed regret that I won't be blogging anymore. I'm not going to pretend that there was a collective roar of disappointment, but a few of you did ask, and that made me feel good.

Two things continue to surprise me about the writing I do: first, that anyone reads it; and second, that I occasionally get paid. Benefits, to be sure. I am grateful.

I want to reassure those two friends you that I will continue writing in this space. As I've always done, I'll try to make sure that I'm pointing you to the other pieces I'm writing elsewhere in the vast virtual world. But I will also use this space to draft and to muse and to do the (necessary) imperfect writing that plows the fields for planting better prose. Thanks for patiently enduring what sometimes turns out to be a hack job. If you're interested in subscribing, you know the drill.

I'll admit that I haven't had much time or energy to write much beyond the book I'm writing. I have squeezed in some great reads (ok, yes, some of the books I've listened to rather than read), and I hope to be writing about those soon here. And if you poked around a bit here, you'll also find a glaring blank page under the tab, "I follow." That, too, needs drafted. I've promised it's "coming soon." (I did not, however, indicate what I consider to be soon.)

The good news is that I've finished drafting the book manuscript today. It's certainly far from done, but having the contours of a final chapter now in place feels like a rush of adrenaline. I typed those last sentences with tears streaming down my face. Relief, yes, but also tremendous joy.

Joy, I suppose, in this unbelievable marvel that God allows us to participate with him and in ways that bring to us a deep sense of satisfaction. Here is the last paragraph in draft form:

"I have risked. I have risked wanting. This book now embodies all that is bent and tangled in that process. I concern myself less now with fear, having found more sure footing in the words of Jesus to take the paths of desire."

Thanks again for reading here. And again, welcome.

 

 

 

 

I write about grace. (Try to live in it, too.) *Book update

jenmichel@me.com

I gave my husband a father’s day card for his birthday. Although he is a father - a wonderful father, this was not appreciated. I’ve since destroyed the evidence, can’t bear to hear him one more time refer to my kind and thoughtful card. I suppose I was hoping he’d ignore the rhyming references to “dad” and fail to notice the way I’d whited-out the “Happy Father’s Day!” and substituted in its place, “Happy Birthday!” (I may, in this particular instance, have underestimated the male powers of observation.)

I am a terrible wife. And I have reasons for being a terrible wife, although I won’t claim they are good ones. On the day of his birthday, I’d been writing. Most days now, I sit obediently at my desk for the quiet hours the children are in school, alternatively typing and wishing for something to say. Sometimes, if it’s going really badly, I putter in the kitchen, even put the dishes away.

On the day of said-birthday, I’d been betting on the idea that I had a birthday card already purchased for Ryan. But when it came time to look for it, I realized it was not a birthday card after all; it was a Father’s Day card.

That’s OK. Before getting the kids from school, I had already planned to stop by the cupcake shop. They’d sell birthday cards, right?

Wrong.

To make matters worse, the birthday card (Father’s Day card!) - which I did, I might add, lovingly inscribe to make up for my awfulness - ended up buried in the trunk of the car. (I confess: I was writing it at the school playground.) I couldn’t even find the birthday card (Father’s Day card!) in time for Ryan’s celebratory dinner (of leftover taco meat dressed up as nachos.)

I found it the next day, hand-delivered it with love.

(And you, too, wish you were married to me?)

I tell this story as preamble to a brief update on the book. How’s it going? Five chapters drafted, five to go. I think I’m finding my way into a better process, and I haven’t yet wanted to throw my laptop to the bottom of Lake Ontario. These are good signs.

Meanwhile, though, I’m giving my husband father’s day cards on the occasion of his birthday.

I wish it weren’t so hard to keep life in balance. But it is. And that's bids us towards grace.

“Grace is not only needed for the occasion of conversion, the moment we suddenly (or slowly) come to our senses and realize that we are spiritually bankrupt, having nothing to bring to God and everything to receive. Grace is also required for the long season of cultivated growth that follows. By grace we set out. By grace we are also sustained. Grace has as much to do about endings as it has to say about beginnings. It is a lifetime transaction.” (Excerpt from Chapter 3, whose title I still can’t land)

I write about grace - try to live in it, too.

 

 

 

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

jenmichel@me.com

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

I am suddenly terrified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings for your day.

 

When Your Right Hand Causes You to Sin: Part II

jenmichel@me.com

You haven't expected to hear from me? It's true. I'm in the process of writing a book. And have I mentioned that the editor has asked for a first draft by August 1? This would only seem overwhelming if you've given a thorough look at the calendar. I've only gone so far as to count the weeks that remain until the end of the school year.

Eleven.

I take this to mean that if ever I have needed habits of personal discipline, the moment is now. And I want to share with you how I'm learning to steward my resources of time and energy, even love, as I work to meet this deadline.

Several weeks back, I wrote a post called, "When your right hand causes you to sin." I regret if I left you all imagining that I was on the brink of some moral crisis or poised for some terrible scandal. I didn't mean to worry you, and there's no abnormal reason to fear. All the biggies are intact (marriage, kids, my personal spiritual life.)

What I was really referring to in that post were my habits with technology. I was finding myself increasingly distracted and edgy. I was growing obsessively convinced that I should be paying attention to something - and this something was usually my twitter feed and not my children. I was facing the contemporary glut of information and the invitation to participate (read! comment! have an opinion!), and it resulted in a clutching panic.

It's true that I am inclined toward anxiety. I feel it almost normal when my chest tightens as life grabs hold. I life with worry - although I can't ever say that I really know why. My fears are the kind that lurk in the shadows - indiscriminate, without shape or form. I know that technology isn't my problem, per se, but it sure was feeding it.

I also recognized, in my self-tethering to technology, a growing cynicism. Petty jealousies grew up as I began assuming a reflexive incrimination of the motives of others (writers, usually). The articles I read, I begrudged, feeling competitive, feeling ugly, never ever wishing anyone a success beyond my own. Twitter, Facebook, blog reading: they were making a hater out of me.

When your right hand causes you to sin.

I like to be good at the things I do. And it just so happens that the thing I do now is write and write publicly. So I am facing this about myself, learning as I go and admitting along the way what I don't yet know and who I have not yet become.

So I made this confession, first to friends and now to you. I don't think I'm afraid of confession. I actually embrace it. I think confession is the way to beckon grace into your life, the way to really start living into the Jesus way. It's unnerving, yes, to stand in the lingering realities of your brokenness. But it's also the best place for seeing Jesus.

I also think that confession has a way of moving you into change. Start admitting what's going wrong - how you're going wrong - and begin the work (a work initiated and sustained by God) of repairing it.

In my wrestle with the smartphone then, I decided I first needed to listen again to a series of lectures that have been really influential in my life, especially in considering what is the best use of technology in an embodied life. Read Mercer Schuchardt, Associate Professor of Communication at Wheaton College, has a Ph.D. in Media Ecology. He studies the historical and present effects of technology on our lives, and he approaches it with a theological commitment to the incarnation: the belief that our lives should be embodied in our place and in present relationships.

If God came and pitched his tent among us, maybe that actually means something about the importance of being present in space and time.

I found some really helpful content in the lectures and was talking about them with a friend who has been asked to write a book on this subject (I hope she does!). I promised her a copy. Then I thought to post them here, thinking they could also be of help to others. And now I've written this entire post only to realize that the files are too big to upload.

But here's a consolation prize, though: go to Dr. Schuchardt's profile at Wheaton's site. You can listen to one of his chapel addresses as well as click on some links to interviews with him. I think he has a wise critique of technology that reminds us of the Faustian bargain we make every time we use it. We need to discern whether what we gain is greater than what we give up.

When your right hand causes you to sin.

I've officially deleted facebook and twitter off my phone, and I've moved my mail button to the very last screen. These are my small steps of change, my small reconciliation to the redemptive project Jesus is doing in my life. I am called to be a writer, and this is first and foremost about cultivating my attentiveness for God and His Word. If there are things that do not contribute to me living into this calling, then it is best amputated.

I hope this for you, too: when your right hand causes you to sin, that you'll cut it off.

 

 

 

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

jenmichel@me.com

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

Giveaway winner is. . . (and third and final revision to back cover)

jenmichel@me.com

Thanks to everyone who commented on the two potential versions for the back cover of Found Wanting. Your feedback was immensely helpful, and I've tried to reflect much of it in the changes I've made below. As a writer, I know I certainly can't please everyone. (For more evidence of this, scroll through the 106 comments on my political piece from Her.meneutics.) I also know that I may not be ultimately responsible to write the back cover for this book - even to title it, for that matter. But whether or not this back cover copy survives, I'm grateful to have gone through the process of trying to narrow the scope of the book in a few, short paragraphs. And I'm glad to have given you the glimpse at what I'm attempting to do!

Now, onto our giveaway winner: thank you, Mike Venetis, for your comment and amazing marketing advice! I pulled your name this morning and will be sending you a $10 Starbucks card. (By the way, if Hurricane Sandy has taught us anything, it's the importance of emergency preparedness. Check out Mike's website for all you need when catastrophes strike: The Prep Room.)

And here's the third (and final for now) version of the back cover:

Found Wanting: At the Intersection of Faith and Desire

Is desire sinful? Is it selfish to pray for the things I want? Do my desires matter for following God’s will?

We’re confused.

Psychology’s newest experts are now available for hire: wantologists. They are certified to help clients identify what they want and how to get it. But can wantologists clear up the theological complexities of desire? Can they help us understand if desire belongs in a life of surrender?

Devotional author Jen Pollock Michel nudges us toward the risky business of wanting - and praying. Although she knows that life doesn’t always turn out as we want or plan, she believes our willingness to want from God enriches our implicit trust in Him.

This book is meant to increase your faith. You’ll grow more certain of God’s generosity towards you. At the same time, you’ll understand your own tendencies to want - and pray - selfishly. In the final section of the book, you’ll explore the language of the Lord’s Prayer as a template of holy desire and a means for making God’s desires your own.

Teach us to pray, the disciples asked Jesus. And we ask: Teach us to want.

Back Cover Copy (Revised): Tell me what you think!

jenmichel@me.com

First giveaway EVER here on the blog: this is fun for me. I am grateful for the comments I've already received. You can still comment today on what might be the back cover copy for my book. (If you've already commented, you can comment again on the revised copy and have your name entered TWICE.) You're on your way to winning a $10 gift card to Starbucks. Here's take two of the back cover copy: tell me what you think!

* * * * *

Found Wanting: At the Intersection of Desire and Faith

Wantologists are psychology’s newest experts. They help clients identify what they want and how to get it. We’re paying them because we’re confused. And if average Americans are puzzled over questions of desire, imagine the bewilderment of Christians. Isn’t desire selfish? If I’m supposed to find and follow God’s will, can it matter what I want?

Jen Pollock Michel knows that life doesn’t always turn out as we want - or plan. She was 18 when her father died suddenly, 23 when her brother committed suicide. Years later, when she was the mother of three young children and planned for graduate school, Jen learned she was pregnant - with twins.  Her life, with its hatful of surprises, looks a lot like yours and mine. Whether we’d planned to be married, hoped to be parents, or counted on the next job promotion, we’ve met disappointment. Jen admits that life is beyond our control, yet she nudges us toward the risky business of wanting - and praying.

Of course not all we want is good. As a devotional author, Jen brings theological clarity to the complex subject of desire, helping us to identify potential missteps and misunderstandings.  In the final section of the book, she explores the language of the Lord’s Prayer as a template of holy desire and a means for making God’s desires our own. Teach us to pray, the disciples asked Jesus. Jen Pollock Michel adds: Teach us to want.

Back Cover Copy: I'm revealing details about my book!

jenmichel@me.com

I've been talking for months now about the book.  And I've decided that writing a book is a lot like pregnancy. There are months of invisible growth - of gestation  - that advance before anything is visible to others. You, the mother - the writer - are always conscious of how the baby - the book - is growing strong, taking on a movement all of its own. You share secrets - you and the baby, you and the book - that you cherish and nurture with silent awe.

Writing this book hasn't all been secret work. There are a small handful of friends who have been reading what I've been writing. I am grateful for them. And of course Ryan is always my best critic, and I trust him fully to tell me when something is unclear or cliché. He's generous with the tough stuff.

Although I haven't told you much about the book here - just sketched it in bare generalities - today, I'm posting what could be the back cover copy of the book. I want to know what you think.

A back cover, as I'm sure you know, should give a general sense of the book's topic and approach. It should also make you want to read the book.

And that's where I want to you weigh in.

Today, would you do two things for me?

1. Leave a comment here on the blog, giving me some feedback. Be as specific as possible: if you feel like I left out an important dimension of my book's topic, tell me. If a certain sentence packed a punch and grabbed your attention, show me which one. Don't be afraid to criticize. You're the real audience. 

2. Share this post with friends. People who don't know me and haven't been reading here may be my most objective critics. And certainly it can't hurt to gain more exposure as a writer.

I will be shameless and do something I've never done before. Because I'm sitting here in Starbucks (and this is the easiest giveaway I can think of), I'll pick a name randomly from the commenters at the end of the day tomorrow (Nov. 2), and send you a $10 Starbucks gift card.

That's just my way of saying thanks. Now, on to the real task at hand.

* * * * *

Found Wanting: At the Intersection of Desire and Faith 

“We spin, catch, break free, drown and surface, all the while driven by the fickleness of time’s wind and weather. Whatever awaits us tomorrow, it is quite possibly not a scene we have expected, nor an act for which we have prepared.”

Jen Pollock Michel knows that life doesn’t always turn out as we plan. Jen was 18 when her father died suddenly, 23 when her brother committed suicide. Years later, when she planned to begin a second graduate degree, Jen learned she was pregnant - with twins. Jen admits that life is beyond our control, yet she nudges us toward the risky business of wanting - and praying. She illustrates how exploring our desires can deepen our intimacy with God and inspire our participation in his kingdom.

Of course not all that we want is good. While many affirm that we have deserved everything we have wanted, Jesus has called his followers to carry a cross. Lose your life to find it. As a devotional author, Jen brings theological clarity to the complex subject of desire, helping us to identify potential missteps and misunderstandings. In the third part of her book, she explores the language of the Lord’s Prayer as template of holy desire and a means for making God’s desires our own.

Teach us to pray, the disciples asked Jesus. And Jen Pollock Michel adds:

Teach us to want.