All about Saul

We read the story of Saul's conversion yesterday in church. You already know how much I'm drawn to this story because I've already written about it. I sort of have a love-hate thing going on with Saul, and here's why. Part of me loves the story of his conversion because it's so inspiring. Saul was a bad, bad man. He killed people; he persecuted the early Christians; he hated Jesus. In fact, on the very day of his conversion, on the road to Damascus, Saul was on his way to persecute more Christians. Before he got there, though, he met God, went blind (temporarily) and became a believer. Saul's story gives me hope, because I figure if terrible Saul can become a believer, anyone can.

So here's the part of the story that irritates me. Saul's conversion takes a measly three days -- he doesn't even have to work at it, for crying out loud; it just happens. I feel like Saul got an easy conversion. Sure he went blind, but it was only for three days. And when it was all over, he was a believer, one hundred percent. My conversion, on the other hand, seems to be tracking at about the same pace my children move every morning when it's about time to leave for school: slooooooowly. At this rate, I say I'll be officially converted in about 84 years or so.

I was reminded yesterday, though, that I may be defining conversion a bit narrowly. When I think about it, the Bible may not be telling me all of Saul's story. The Bible does sort of have a way of glossing over the details, of covering just the major highlights. So sure, we know Saul met God on the road to Damascus, and then went on, as Paul, to become one of the great leaders of the early Christian church. But what happened during all the days in between those monumental acts? Who's to say Paul's true conversion didn't in fact take much longer? Who's to say that perhaps Paul didn't have his doubts? Who's to say Paul's conversion wasn't more a two-steps-forward-one-step back process, rather than a single instant?

We get a glimpse of this possibility in 2 Corinthians, when Paul refers to a "thorn in his side."

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' (12: 8-9)

This passage gives me at least a glimpse of Paul's struggle -- the fact that he implores God to take away this burden is a sign to me that Paul's conversion wasn't a simple lightening strike, but more of an ongoing process. That perhaps he had set-backs, days when he didn't really feel like putting one foot in front of the other.

I'm beginning to realize that conversion, even one involving dramatic, "lightening strikes," is still just the beginning, the "turning around," as the word's root suggests. It's in the looking back and in the looking ahead, in the slow but steady process of turning around, that the true converting begins.


Miss Marge to the Rescue

When your family lives 1,500 miles away, you come to depend on the kindness of people you might not otherwise in different circumstances.

I first realized this several years ago, when Brad’s brother was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Brad left immediately for Minnesota upon hearing the diagnosis, and I stayed back in Lincoln to take care of Noah, who was about 18-months-old at the time. The loneliness, isolation and fear that swept over me and settled on my chest like a heavy quilt was nearly paralyzing. I didn’t have a lot of close friends in Lincoln then, and my neighbors were people I waved to, or chatted with about the weather, but not people I could turn to in a crisis.

That’s all changed since then. Now I am part of a community.

Brad’s in Minnesota again. We got “the call” at 6:30 a.m. Thursday. You know, the one that pulls your heart up into your throat the moment the ring pierces the quiet, because you know no one, not even the early-rising, ex-sergeant major dad, calls that early, unless something is terribly wrong.

Something was terribly wrong. Brad’s dad, Jon, had had what they first thought was a brain aneurysm in the middle of the night. Turns out it was a non-aneurystic brain hemorrhage. Brad took off right away on the seven-hour drive to Minneapolis, not sure what the situation would be when he arrived (Jon is doing well, but will remain in the hospital under close supervision for 2-3 weeks).

In the meantime, I am holding down the fort at home. All was going relatively smoothly until Friday, at about 8:52 a.m. The kids, backpack and lunch tote were in the car, and I was strapping Rowan into his booster, when bam, I felt in my gut the unmistakable signs of impending, epic-level intestinal distress.

From my perch in the bathroom, I could hear Noah escalating into full panic mode on the driveway (this is a kid who likes to be on time): “Mommmmeeeeee! We’re going to be late!! Mommmmeeeee! Mommmeeeeeeee! What are you doing???!! Do you know what time it is??? Mommmeeeee -- it's 8:56!!!” When I was able to pull myself together I ran down the stairs and, clutching my stomach, galumphed across the front lawn toward my neighbor’s house. Marge was just getting into her car. I must have looked like I was in the midst of epic-level intestinal distress, because Marge immediately asked, “What’s wrong?” concern wrinkled across her forehead. I blurted out the story.

“I can’t leave the bathroom! I have horrible…well, you know…um...horrible diarrhea (no time to come up with a polite euphemism). Could you do me a huge favor, Marge? Would you mind? Could you bring Noah to school for me?!”

Marge took it all completely in stride (she works at a preschool, so diarrhea is not as shocking to her as it would be to other folks), even though by this time Noah was howling, “No!!!! I don’t want Miss Marge to take me to school!” and Rowan, when he realized he wasn’t going with them, was howling, “I want to go with Miss Marge! I want to go with Miss Marge!”

The point of this whole unsavory story, of course, is community. It is such a blessing to be part of this community, this little neighborhood of three or four streets, where you can ask someone to drive your child to school on a moment’s notice (Marge also came over to baby sit Noah when Brad and I had to rush Rowan to the ER not once, but twice in one week for two separate injuries. We’ll leave that story for another post). A community in which Karna and John, two houses up, serve as surrogate grandparents for Noah and Rowan; where Archie, the giant white Huskie in the brick house behind us is their surrogate pet (because God knows I will not be vacuuming dog hair off the couch anytime soon). Where Linda across the street picks up books and trinkets for them at garage sales around town. Where Gary tracks us down while we are on vacation in Massachusetts to let us know the fire alarm is buzzing inside our house.

As Jesus said, “Where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them (Matthew 18:20). On this tree-lined street in Lincoln, in Marge and Gary, Karna and John, Linda, Marion and Jay and Archie, God is clearly in our midst.

*Pictured above: my neighbor, Marge, with Rowan and Noah


Are You There God? It's Me.

In sixth grade I read Judy Blume’s teen novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I was amazed by Margaret’s candor with God, her ability to converse with him like he was her sister or her best friend. I was amazed and appalled. Margaret used words like “boobs” and “period” in her conversations with God. Though I admired her guts, I couldn’t imagine speaking to God like that myself.

When I was young, I didn’t converse with God. I prayed to him -- rote, memorized prayers in church or before math tests. I confessed to him (or, more accurately, confessed to him via a priest). I feared him. But did I talk to him? No, I didn’t talk to God. My childhood God was all-knowing, all-powerful, all-seeing. A little bit like Santa Claus, but a lot less predictable.

Even now, when Pastor Greg preaches about cultivating a relationship with God, my first reaction is, “Really? You’re serious about this?” I thought I’d done well to get to the point where I believed in God, now you’re telling me I need to have a relationship with him, too? I thought I was getting to the pat-myself-on-the-back stage, the sit-back-and-relax stage, and you're telling me I'm not done? That really, I'm just beginning?

Reading the psalms last week in the Old Testament class helped shed some light on this conversing-with-God quandary. We read some of the familiar laments (familiar to the rest of the class; a first-time reading for me):

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so
far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?
(Psalm 22)

O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me
in your wrath. For your arrows have pierced me, and your hand has come down upon me. (Psalm 38)

And we talked about sharing grief, doubt, fear and even anger with God. At one point the lecturer on the DVD series asked, “How would you answer someone who asked, ‘Is it all right to be angry with God?’”

I know for sure if I had gotten that question as a kid, my response would have been, “No way, Jose!” I was taught to respect God, to fear him. I was taught that we were the lowly, insignificant humans, and he was the big, powerful God. And this is all true. I still believe this is true. But now I know it’s okay to be angry with God, too. After all, God came down to be with us lowly humans; he even took the form of a human, so that we could better relate to him. Plus, I think, what is the alternative to anger? Silence. And silence is never a good option. Silence leads to nothingness, no relationship at all. Silence leads to turning your back on God. Anger acknowledges.

The writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once wrote, “The shout becomes a prayer in spite of me.” And this, I think, is the essence of the lament. The lament, though it may not be the way we think we ought to talk to God, is talking to God nonetheless. The lament is faithful because of its honesty.

Last week, on the Day of the Big Rejection, I did something that surprised me. I found that in the midst of my spiritual turmoil, in the midst of my questions and doubt, anger and sadness, I talked to God. I asked God the questions. You wouldn’t think anything positive could be said about sitting on a toilet weeping to God, but that’s just it. That’s the silver lining. When the dust had cleared and I had an inkling of perspective again, I realized I had talked to God, naturally, instinctively. I had talked to God without even really trying.


Same Difference

I just have to say flat-out how completely overwhelmed I am by the outpouring of love and support I received from friends and family yesterday after I sent the plaintive email begging for help in promoting this blog. Help you did indeed. In one day, visits to Graceful rose from an average of 25 per day to 170! I can’t thank you all enough, and I certainly can’t express how grateful I am for your support.

A surprise bonus to this call for support: I have reconnected with many good friends that faded into my past when I moved to Nebraska eight years ago. John, it was great to hear from you! Hilary, I couldn’t believe I heard your voice on the other end of my phone. So this is what all you Facebook fanatics are always raving about!

The surprise downside to the increased attention, especially from those in my past, is that I’ve had another unsettling realization. You see, at one point yesterday I found myself trying to talk around my conversion, to explain it in a way that sounded less religious, if you can believe that. Once again, I was leery of being defined in a certain way, a Bible-banger kind of way.

This past Sunday Pastor Sara cited a startling statistic in church. She noted that in a recent survey of young people, the first two words that sprang to mind for ninety percent of those surveyed when they heard the word “Christian” were “judgmental” and “hypocritical.” And herein lies my conundrum. I’m a Christian and I am also quick to make those same assumptions about Christians. It’s like some weird paradox: I’m a Christian, but I’m not “that kind” of Christian.

In my phone conversation with Hilary (I hadn’t spoken to Hilary in about five or six years. She was one of my closest friends in graduate school, and I’ll never forget the day I met her. She thrust out her hand and beamed, “Hi! I’m Hilary!” and I loved her at first sight), I found myself nearly apologizing for my new-found faithfulness. But Hilary said something that made all the difference. “You’re still the same, Michelle. We’re all different, but still the same.”

Thanks, Hilary. You helped me realize that I am still essentially the same Michelle...with one critical change. I know God now. And that makes all the difference.


Riding the Roller Coaster

Yesterday afternoon the phone rang, and when I went to answer it, I saw an agent's name lit up on the caller i.d. "This is it!" I thought to myself, barely able to keep my voice steady as I answered.

Well, it wasn't "it." It was just sort of "it." The agent was calling to tell me that while he loved the writing, he couldn't represent me right now for a variety of reasons, including the fact that I don't have what's called a platform. In the publishing world a "platform" is simply the avenues by which the author will be able to market the book, i.e. a web site, speaking engagements, media connections, other publications, etc. It goes without saying that as a mom and housewife with a part-time job in Nebraska, my platform is non-existent.

There's still hope for eventual publication, but that's not actually the point of this post.

My friend Kim emailed me these lines last week, after the bad rejection: "Remember that if you feel called to write, writing is what you should do....even if it's not published.....sometimes it's the process not the outcome of your work that really know...the journey, not the destination? (I think I'm starting to sound like a Hallmark card....but you know what I mean)."

Thanks, Kim, for shifting my perspective, for reminding me of what this process used to be about, before I started riding the roller coaster of publishing. Writing was actually a critical part of my conversion itself. Writing helped me see God in the everyday.

It's so easy to be swept along. I think I started to worship the Great God of Publication rather than the real God himself, and I hadn't even realized it until I read Kim's words. I had fallen prey to the ancient practice of idol worship. It turns out, idols are just as rampant, and as tempting, as they were in Old Testament times. Mine was wearing a book jacket with my name emblazoned on the cover.



Sunday school starts up again in a couple of weeks, and I am giddy with anticipation. During the summer the kids have been coming to church with us, which, I have to say, is nothing short of torturous. I know, I know, Deuteronomy tells me I am responsible for teaching my children about God:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up (6:5-7).

But that is so much easier when someone else is doing the impressing.

Brad and I can always count on several things happening when we have Noah and Rowan with us in church:

Five minutes into the service, and in 10-minute intervals until the conclusion, at least one child will inquire, “Is this the last song yet?”

A beloved item – usually Lovey – will tumble under the pew ahead of us, which will require that I contort myself into the Downward Dog position and paw blindly at the carpet to retrieve it.

Beloved item will tumble to the floor a second time. Retrieval process will be repeated, but with a different end result. Beloved object will now be stuffed into bottom of Church Entertainment Bag (CEB).

Commence wailing, followed by panicked shushing.

CEB will crash to the floor, contents will spew out and both Brad and I will assume Downward Dog to retrieve items.

I will glance around and notice that the other 62 children in worship are all sitting quietly and attentively, while mine are beginning to show a remarkable resemblance to gibbons.

Commence multiple requests for snacks and beverages. Brad and I assume Downward Dog yet again to sweep up crushed fishies.

Rowan will make potty request, timed perfectly to the start of the sermon.

I will absorb approximately 14.5% of the day’s message.

You get the picture. Suffice to say, Sunday school has got to be one of the best inventions ever. What could be better than this realization, as you settle into the pew: someone else is watching my kids and teaching them about God!

Still, I did discover one bonus of bringing Noah and Rowan with us to church. This summer as we made the seven-hour road trip up to Minnesota for our summer vacation, we all sang a few songs together in the car…church hymns, believe it or not. As the kids’ voices rang out “Halle, halle, halle, lu u jah! Halle, hall, halle, lu u jah!” over and over again, I had a revelation: so this is why it’s good that they occasionally come to church with us -- so we can sing church songs together! We were like the Brady Bunch meets the Billy Graham family!

Of course the hymn-belting lasted only a few minutes. And then the kids begged to watch Kung Fu Panda, and I turned back to Oprah magazine and Brad inserted one iPod earbud to resume Green Day. But for a few moments we had hallelujahed along the highway.



I had a mini spiritual crisis last week.

Some of you know that I’ve written a book. It’s a memoir, called Graceful: A Quest for Faith. In the last month or so I’ve been diligently querying literary agents in the hope that one will want to represent the manuscript to the publishing industry. Last Thursday I got a rejection from one. This wasn’t the first rejection, but it was by far the most difficult.

The agent sent a brief rejection via email, noting that he didn’t think the manuscript was “quite there” yet. I replied, asking him to clarify. Did he mean the quality of the writing wasn’t there, or the fact that I didn’t have a viable marketing platform? His reply back to me was terse: “The quality of the writing, Michelle. It’s okay, but it’s not 100 percent, in my opinion.”

I admit, this hurt. The first thing I did was head for my bed, but after 30 seconds Rowan burst into the bedroom to show me a branch the size of an elk antler that he’d found in the backyard. So then I locked myself in the bathroom, sat on the toilet, and wept bitter, angry, self-pitying tears. “This is what I get?” I fumed to myself. “After two years of slaving at the computer every night; after two years of never being able to keep up with conversations about the latest episode of Real Housewives; after two years of spending nearly every moment of free time to writing, I get ‘it’s okay?’ It’s okay??!!”

Commence spiritual crisis.

“I thought writing was what I was supposed to be doing,” I said, speaking to God. “I thought writing was my calling, whatever the hell that means. I thought you wanted me to ‘share my story,’ to give hope to other non-believers. Did I hear you wrong? Did I misinterpret? Am I supposed to be at The Legacy reading Bible passages aloud to the elderly instead? Ladling broth at Matt Talbot downtown? Have I not been hearing you at all?” Maybe this is a sign, I thought to myself, a message from him. Maybe he’s telling me I’ve become too self-absorbed, too obsessed with writing. Maybe he’s telling me I should be focusing more on my kids, more on my family instead. What is God telling me? I can’t hear him at all!

These questions reeled through my head for about an hour. In the meantime, I was working on the giant solar system floor puzzle with Rowan. At one point, in a fit of frustration, he burst into heaving sobs. That’s all it took for me; suddenly I was crying again, too, and the two of us sat on the sunroom floor crying like fools. Rowan looked up at me, a classic “What the hell are you crying about?” expression, bewilderment mixed with contempt, written clearly across his face. It made me laugh. “You were right, Mommy,” Rowan said a few minutes later, as he fit together two puzzle pieces. “You said be patient. You said it would work out, and it did.”

In the end I took my own advice. Thanks to Brad's and my sister’s efforts to buoy my bruised ego, and the fact that the agent later redeemed himself with a much warmer response (there are perks to querying Christian literary agents: the guilty conscience), I decided that whatever happened, it would all work out. The key is, it will all work out on God’s time, not mine. You see, I expected God to answer the questions I lobbed at him instantly, right this very minute please. Thursday afternoon I couldn’t accept that the answer to my plaintive questions didn’t miraculously appear when I desired it. I had forgotten about kairos – on God’s time.

This all reminded me of the story of Zechariah in the Gospel of Luke. When Zechariah was told by an angel that his long-barren wife Elizabeth would bear him a child, he doubted its truth. “How can I be sure of this?” he asked Gabriel. “I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” (1:18). And Gabriel responded, “I have been sent to speak to you and tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time” (1: 19-20).

At their proper time. On God’s time.

So I’ll wait. I'll be patient (sort of). It will all work out. On God’s time, not mine.


Spirituality: The Big Definition

Have you heard of Rob Bell? My dad introduced me to him last year – he sent me Bell’s book Velvet Elvis, which is phenomenal. Buzz and I are on parallel spiritual journeys – I like to tease him, reminding him that since he got a late start he better kick the spiritual quest into overdrive before he runs out of time (this type of humor is acceptable in my family). But seriously, I think one of the greatest gifts I have received so far in this quest has been that it’s opened the lines of communication between my dad and me. I feel like we have a stronger connection, something in common – ideas to exchange, books to mail back and forth, conversations had over pancakes and coffee when he and my mom visit us in Nebraska.

But back to Rob Bell. He founded a church called Mars Hill in Michigan in the late 1990s, which in a few short years grew to 11,000 members. Bell is also a Christian writer, and he has produced a series of short Christian films called NOOMA. I loved his book Velvet Elvis – it's accessible, fresh and inspiring (although I find his staccato writing style a little distracting). And Bell himself is young and energetic, a little bit edgy – a lot like my brother-in-law Matt, but more prone to quoting the Bible. Here’s a short piece I found on YouTube, a snippet from Bell’s Everything is Spiritual DVD. Check it out:

I love Bell's definition of spiritual; it's so broad, so all-encompassing. I never really thought about it that way before. I think I box my spirituality into a particular corner of my life, rather than letting it expand out to its fullest potential. Do you tend to do the same?


Canoe Day

A few weeks ago I realized that I am getting better at praying.

We were canoeing in the Boundary Waters, a remote, uninhabited wilderness in northern Minnesota. I should preface this by admitting that I am not a canoeist. Prior to this outing I had canoed twice in my entire life, both times when Brad and I were first dating (that alone speaks volumes). But Brad wanted to take the kids on a little adventure while we were in Minnesota, and I wasn’t going to be the only stuffed shirt who stayed home.

We glided across the glinting lake, our paddles dipping rhythmically in and out of the water. The kids dangled their fingers in the lake as we wove around lily pads and through golden lake grass, undulating like ribbons just beneath the surface. Noah admired the lavender iris springing from the edges of the marshy shore. It was, in a word, Heaven.

After about two hours of easy paddling, we pulled the canoe onto an island and portaged (i.e. lugged really heavy, cumbersome canoe across dry land while being viciously attacked by massive swarms of mosquitoes) to the other side. But as we rounded the corner on the far side of the island, we were surprised to find ourselves nearly knocked flat by a gale force wind. Somehow the wind that had been a barely perceptible breeze at our backs had escalated to Hurricane Andrew.

Brad and I secured the kids’ life vests, and as we plunged in, pushing off the rocks lining the shore with our paddles, it took about 30 seconds for me to realize that the return trip was not going to be relaxing. Though I was paddling as hard as I could, when I glanced at the shore, it wasn’t moving; we were literally paddling in place. To make matters worse, the water was no longer gently lapping but was instead gushing over the bow of the canoe in a torrent, and every few minutes the canoe threatened to turn broadside against the waves.

“Michelle! Michelle! ” Brad yelled over the wind from the stern. “You have to paddle faster, paddle harder! The canoe has to stay against the waves, we can’t get broadsided!” The kids were terrified, and I was afraid, too (not sure about Brad; he doesn’t let on in situations such as this). When I looked over my shoulder, Noah was clutching the sides of the canoe with a steely grip, his eyes wide like he was witnessing Loch Ness rear out of the lake. Meanwhile Rowan was screaming over and over, “We’re all gonna die! We’re all gonna die!”

I tried to console them. “No, no, no, everything's okay, we’re going to be just fine, everything’s going to be just fine, it’s just a little wavy, that’s all.” The problem is, you can’t really speak soothingly in hushed tones in a 30 mph wind. As I screamed reassurances, my voice pinched and shrill, the kids just looked more terrified.

And that’s when I prayed. I’ll admit, it was a combination of cursing and praying…but this is progress. A year or two ago, it would have been entirely cursing. So when I wasn’t blasting Brad in my head – “Stupid, stupid idea. Mr. Stupid Nature Man dragging us out here in this god-forsaken stupid wilderness..” (you get the idea), I was praying, “Please God, please God, please don’t let the canoe turn over, please help us get to shore safely, please give me the strength to keep paddling, please keep my children safe.” I even thought about suggesting to the kids that we pray out loud, together. But I ditched that idea when I realized it probably would have panicked them further. “What??? Mommy’s praying? Mommy’s praying! We’re all gonna die!!!”

We made it to shore; I lived to tell about it (and complain about it). And when it was all over, I realized two things in the aftermath. One: that I was seriously lacking in upper body strength; so much, in fact, that turning the knob on the radio dial would require two hands (one hand to turn the dial and the other to brace the arm of the hand turning the dial) for a full week. And two, that I could turn to God, that I would turn to God, in a time of distress. Sure it was a desperation prayer, but those count, too – especially when you feel in your heart that those prayers will make a difference.


Step Out of the Box

Recently Pastor Sara said this: sometimes faith entails acting when we may not particularly want to, or listening to something that we may not want to hear. “It’s called growing in a difficult moment,” Pastor Sara said.

I thought about this for a long time after she mentioned it. And I realized she’s exactly right. So much progress in my faith journey so far has been the result of something I didn’t particularly want to hear or do.

A few years ago I made an appointment with Pastor Greg to discuss my faith (or, more accurately, my lack of faith). I was terrified. There I was, a person who went to church sporadically at best (I admit, I often dropped Noah off at Sunday school and zipped over to Barnes and Noble to down a quick mocha and tear through People magazine), and I was about to talk about God with a minister. I nearly bailed. I thought about feigning the stomach flu, but I’m so superstitious about germs that I figured once I lied about having the stomach flu, I would probably be struck down with it in reality. So I went.

I won’t get into all the details of that conversation, except to note two things: one, I admitted to Pastor Greg that I thought I didn’t believe in God. And two, Pastor Greg said something to me that day that in retrospect has made all the difference. Toward the end of our conversation he said, “Michelle, the fact that you are here talking with me today tells me that the Holy Spirit is working within you.”

I won’t say I believed him right then – in fact, my jaded inner response went something like this: “Yeah, right, whatever the heck that means…” But let me tell you, now I know Pastor Greg was right. And perhaps I would have never come to that realization had I not stepped outside my comfort zone and into his office that day.

The same could be said for my foray into Southwood’s small group study. At one point I received an email from a woman named Kim. I didn’t know Kim, but she wrote that Pastor Sara had told her I was looking for a small group. This was a bit of an overstatement. I had mentioned in passing to Sara that perhaps some day I might be interested in joining a small group, but in my mind, that “some day” was a distant day in the future. Like maybe 2025.

I’ll be honest. The thought of discussing God, or my faith, or Jesus or anything religion-related with a bunch of strangers was about as appealing to me as anticipating a shot of Novocain in the gums. Don’t forget, I am the woman who refused to discuss God with her own husband during the entire first decade we were married. “Great,” I thought to myself as I hit the send key, telling Kim I’d be happy to join the group. “I’m going to be sitting around with a bunch of creepy Bible bangers every Friday night. This is what my social life has come to.”

Of course you can guess how this story ends. Becoming a member of that small study group changed my life. I found a community, a group of people who welcomed me in spite of my questions, in spite of my doubts and my angst. A group of people who helped me see God when I least expected it.

As Henri Nouwen wrote, “In times of doubt or unbelief, the community can ‘carry you along,’ so to speak; it can even offer on your behalf what you yourself overlook, and can be the context in which you may recognize the Lord again.”

I'll second that.


Tough Love

My friend Kim blogs about faith, and one of her recent posts reminded me of my confrontation with my ornery redhead on Sunday morning (I wrote about it in "Mary Moments" on Monday). Kim writes about the fact that God gives us a choice – we can choose to obey him…or not. And parenting is a lot like that, too. Sometimes I think I need to spend less time trying to control Rowan’s behavior and more time gently encouraging him to make the right choices.
Read more of what Kim has to say about choice and parenting here.


The 45-Minute Sabbath

Recently I launched a new faith initiative. I decided I was going to “Honor the Sabbath.” I got the idea from a book I was reading at the time: Leaving Church, a memoir by Barbara Brown Taylor about her decision to leave her ministry as an Episcopalian priest. I thought it would be a good idea; honoring the Sabbath is a commandment after all, one of the big ten, so I figured it must be pretty important. Plus it sounded really good in theory; honoring the Sabbath sounded relaxing.

The trouble is, I have children. Children who require prepared meals, and clean dishes, and mouths wiped clean, and help with hand-washing, and help zippering, and school lunches made and the chameleon research project completed and the tee shirt for “crazy shirt day” laundered. Responding, "Sorry, honey, Mommy's honoring the Sabbath, so I can't make lunch right now," doesn't exactly work (believe me, I did try it). Within the first two hours, I realized my attempt to honor the Sabbath was not going to happen as planned.

So on Monday I formulated a new strategy. I would plan ahead. I would get all my chores done during the week – the vacuuming, laundry, dusting, grocery shopping and organizing – so that on Sunday I could rest. So that on Sunday I could honor God by not laboring, but by enjoying my family, nature, beauty, love – God’s gifts.

The trouble with Plan B was that by the time Sunday rolled around, I was so exhausted and crabby from slaving like a frenzied lunatic all week that I was too tired to honor the Sabbath. I dragged my dead body to church and then spent the rest of the day yawing and complaining about my lack of energy.

I finally concluded that honoring the Sabbath might be best achieved in small steps, in increments, rather than in one 15-hour chunk. I looked at Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church again and realized that she doesn’t have children (not that this means she doesn’t have a zillion distractions as well, but at least she doesn’t have to wipe up spilled milk and pick squished noodles off the floor on a regular basis). So I cut myself a little slack. I realized that for now, at this time in my life, the Sabbath might be two hours spent relaxing and admiring the red winged blackbird at Holmes Lake. Or playing a game of badminton in the backyard with Noah. Or reading for 45 minutes on the hammock while the kids have “rest time.” Baby steps.


Mary Moments

We read the story of Mary Magdalene in John 20:1-18 yesterday in church, and I realized as I listened to the reading that I have many, many Mary moments.

Mary Magdalene was a devout and loyal follower of Jesus. In fact, when Jesus was crucified, she was there at the cross, with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and John the disciple. She didn’t abandon Jesus, even when nearly every disciple fled in terror during his trial and crucifixion.

Yet when Mary Magdalene goes to Jesus’ tomb after he’s been buried and finds that his body is missing, she is so overcome with grief as she sobs at the gravesite that she doesn’t see Jesus standing next to her. Even when he speaks directly to her, asking her what she is looking for, Mary cannot recognize him. Mistaking Jesus for a gardener, she asks him where the body of Jesus has been taken. It’s only when Jesus annunciates her name clearly, “Mary!” that Mary Magdalene is shaken to her senses, and recognizes that it’s Jesus himself standing right in front of her.

Mary’s inability to recognize Jesus is the reaction I recognize in myself. She is so overcome with grief, so overcome with the burden of the moment that she can’t even see Jesus when he’s standing right before her eyes. And this is exactly what happens to me. So many times I complain that I can’t find God -- that it feels like he’s missing, that he’s hidden from me, that he shows his face so easily to other people, but not to me. I am often so overcome in the moment that I can’t see God; I don’t recognize him, even though he might be standing right before my very eyes.

Yesterday was not a good morning. As we rushed to get ready for church, Rowan fell apart. He whined when he couldn’t locate his treat bag from Noah’s birthday party. He howled when I wouldn’t let him eat a tootsie roll at 8:04 a.m. He dissolved into tears when his Jenga tower collapsed into a pile of rubble (even though I explained that collapse is an inevitable outcome of Jenga). He stomped upstairs to find Fluffy (his new stuffed bunny) for church and melted into a puddle when Fluffy couldn’t be found. He bellowed when I suggested he brush his teeth. He was sent to his room twice to pull himself together before the clock hit 9 a.m.

And so what was the result of all this? Certainly not patience and Jesus-like compassion on my part. I yelled. I waggled my finger. I made dramatic, dire threats beginning with phrases like, “I’m telling you right now, Mr.” I hissed statements not-so-inaudibly to Brad, statements like, “I’m going to wring his neck.” Rowan and I were not getting along.

And you know what happened when I got to church? I saw God. I wasn’t expecting to. I figured I was so mad, so frustrated and irritated and downright peeved that I was going to huff and pout my way through church. But that’s not what happened. Instead I relaxed into the music. I sang the hymns as Noah leaned against my chest. I prayed (mostly for patience and divine intervention). I listened to the Gospel and glanced down at Rowan, at the freckles dotting the bridge of his nose, at the wisp of red hair curled over his ear. I heard God himself say, “Michelle!” and for once I listened.


The Letter of the Law

Enrolling in the Old Testament class at Southwood this summer has been good for me. Don’t get me wrong…the reading has been arduous and the material challenging, if not downright dull at times. But I’ve learned a lot, too. I think as a Lutheran (and maybe the same could be said for people in most Christian sects), I often view the Old Testament as the “other Bible,” the one the New Testament replaced, the one we really don’t have to pay much attention to anymore. Sometimes it seems like the Old Testament represents the “old God,” and the New Testament represents the “new God,” Jesus. And when I first began reading the Old Testament this summer, I could understand why that is. God is crabby in the Old Testament; he yells a lot, seethes with anger, smotes people.

Plus, there are an awful lot of rules; the Old Testament – especially Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy – is brimming with rules. Some of the rules make sense: the Ten Commandments for instance, and all the laws related to personal injury listed in Exodus 21. But many are just plain bizarre: “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material” (Leviticus 19:18). “You may not eat any animal that has a split hoof divided in two and that chews the cud” (Deuteronomy 14:6). “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain” (Deuteronomy 25:4). What the heck is that all about?

While I was reading these endless lists of rules I began to feel badly for the Jews, the devout, Orthodox Jews who live daily by these stringent rules. I know this is not a very socially appropriate thing to think, but I just couldn’t imagine what that would be like, how constraining it would be to live by these rules nearly every second of every day. I viewed the laws as an immense burden, a yoke around their necks. “Pheew,” I thought self-righteously to myself as I paged through Deuteronomy. “I’m so glad Jesus came along so I don’t have to deal with all that!”

Two things happened, though, that changed how I view these laws.

One: in class we watched a lecture by theology professor Kathryn Schifferdecker, who spoke about the “law as gift.” She interpreted many of the laws in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy as the “language of love,” much like a parent who establishes household rules for the good of the child. That made sense to me. It made sense that God’s laws, even the ones I didn’t understand, were crafted out of love, to protect his chosen people from going astray again, so that they would be better able to love God with all their heart and soul.

Two: I read an interesting passage in the memoir Girl Meets God. Author Lauren Winner, who writes about her conversion from Orthodox Judaism to Christianity, says this about the laws and rituals that surround nearly every facet of Judaism:

This is the beauty of Judaism. Even when you doubt, even when it doesn’t feel like anything is happening, even when it seems like God is not around, you keep doing the mitzvot [the 613 commandments given in the Torah, plus the 7 rabbinic commandments instituted later for a total of 620 laws]. You keep saying the prayers, you keep rinsing your hands every morning, you keep decorating the sukkah with fruit and lightingthe Sabbath candles…the action will get you through the dry spells…
That explanation works for me. The laws and rituals, even the prayers we recite from memory, keep us honest, focused. So even when we may not “feel like” behaving ourselves, the laws keep us on the straight and narrow. And as Winner notes, even when we lose sight of the big picture, even when we falter in our faith, the laws ground us, they help us place one foot in front of the other until we get back there again.

I have a new appreciation for the Old Testament now, and for the people who follow its teachings, right down to the letter of the law.


Steamy God

Yesterday Rowan sprang a theology question on Brad. Out of the blue, Rowan asked, “So, is God made out of dust and steam and invisible stuff?”

I am SO glad Mr. Theology Degree got this one – it’s about time he started fielding some of these questions.
What is God made of? And how do you convey that amorphousness, that bigness, that indefinable-ness, to a four-year-old child, in a way that’s comprehensible, somewhat grounded and helpful – and doesn’t conflate God with Santa Claus (this is Noah’s current theory…that God and Santa are somehow one and the same. Clearly something has gone gravely wrong in the theology we have offered him so far).

I always feel a little bit anxious when I get these questions; I’m afraid I’m going to blurt something that will cause lifelong spiritual confusion and angst for my kids. I always wish I had more of a head’s up, you know, some warning, a day to prepare my answer, maybe put together a PowerPoint. The questions seem to pop out of nowhere, when I’m least prepared, like when I’m multi-tasking 42 projects or when I’m so exhausted I can’t button my own shirt, never mind try to answer a question that would stump Augustine himself.

Brad’s answer was simple. He told Rowan that God is made of love, and that even though he is sort of invisible, he is all around us, too.

It’s amazing how my kids often ask the same questions I’m asking. And a little depressing, too, that I’m still asking the questions of a four-year old. While my God isn’t quite dusty or steamy, he does seem invisible on a lot of days, and I often struggle to wrap my human mind around the concept of God. I can’t help but rely on the images from my childhood – the bearded, white-robed, slightly aloof God who floats around in the sky spying on the humans down below (I think I was conflating God with Zeus). As an adult, this is not very helpful (come of think of it, nor was it when I was a kid).

I’ve come to rely on a something of a cop-out (I feel justified, though, in the fact that the Bible supports this cop-out): I've become somewhat content with the fact that I can't define God, that I'm not supposed to be able to define him. After all, I ask myself, if I could define God, if I could figure him out entirely, then would he be God?

Psalm 139 says this about comprehending God: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (136:6). God, in his very nature, is incomprehensible. There are some aspects of God, many facets in fact, that we are just not able to understand during our time on Earth. It may be that some questions will be answered when we meet God in person. It may be that some questions will never be answered. It may be that in the end, it won’t matter. Strangely, I am beginning to accept this. After all, isn't that faith?


Forgiving...and Still Working on Forgetting

Why is it so difficult to forgive? I know, this is not an original question. But still, it all sounds so easy when I utter the lines in the “Lord’s Prayer” every Sunday: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And don’t get me wrong, I am genuine when I say those words aloud; hypothetically speaking, I do forgive those who trespass against me. But it’s when I have to engage in actual forgiving, in real life, that I have a problem.

A while ago I was deeply offended by someone at work. I'd heard from another source (and what this other person’s intentions were in relaying this hurtful piece of information is curious as well) that this person had deemed a speech I wrote, “dumb” and “boring.” Ouch. I had worked a long time on that speech, and believe me, speech-writing is not my forte. I immediately felt shame and anger when I heard about this comment; my pride was wounded. I felt stupid.

I had a really hard time forgiving this person. I didn’t say hello when I passed this person in the hallway. I wouldn’t make eye contact. I was businesslike and professional, but not friendly. I thought bad thoughts. I had to bite my tongue to keep from making catty comments about this person, and sometimes I didn’t bite hard enough. I casually worked the story of my insult into as many conversations as possible, so that people would know how I'd been wronged. This went on for weeks.

Then I heard a sermon by one of the pastors at Southwood. It was Advent, and he talked about making each gift we give meaningful in some way. I took his advice to heart, and decided to write a card to each of my co-workers, describing in one or two lines what I appreciated or valued about each person. I admit, it took me about 20 minutes to think of something to write on my nemesis’ card; at first I could only think of bitter, evil comments to make – certainly nothing suitable for a Christmas greeting.

Finally I remembered that I loved this person’s laugh. Loud and boisterous, when I heard it, it often made me laugh, too. So that’s what I wrote. Later, after the cards had been exchanged and read, this person gave me a hug in the hallway and told me it was the nicest thing they had heard all week. I tell you what, at that moment forgiveness felt easy, it felt good.

I have wronged people I love far more grievously than my co-worker harmed me that day. And I have been forgiven, too. It just so happens that forgiveness is a lot easier to recite in a prayer than it is to enact in the everyday.


Oh Man, I'm Martha

A couple of weeks ago Noah said something to me that I’m still dwelling on. We were watching an old video of Brad’s and my honeymoon; Brad is working on transferring all our VHS tapes to DVD, so I was flashing back to my past throughout the day. Noah was fascinated by this glimpse of our lives prior to him; he literally sat on the couch all afternoon, transfixed by his youthful, effervescent parents (parents whose hair was much browner).

At one point, as we laughed at me clown out for the camera, Noah turned to me and said, “Mommy, why were you so silly and fun back then? How come you’re not fun like that now?”

Hello, reality check.

At the time I responded to Noah rather indignantly and defensively. “Well, honey, I hate to break it to you…but Mommy has a lot of responsibilities – cooking, cleaning, laundry, making lunches, emptying the dishwasher, picking up your toys, picking up Daddy’s dirty clothes off the bathroom floor…someone’s gotta get this stuff done you know.”

But I course I couldn’t let a comment like that go. And so I was still thinking about it two weeks later as I drove to church yesterday morning. Basically I was feeling sorry for myself and for my kids. “That’s just great, really great,” I thought. “My kids have a stuffed shirt, stick-in-the-mud, crabby, boring, bathroom sudsing, vacuum toting, bummer of a mother. Nice. How many years of therapy will it take to get over that?”

This Sunday’s lesson was from the Gospel of Luke, and the timing could not have been better. I listened to the story of two sisters, Martha and Mary, who welcomed Jesus into their home as a guest for dinner. While Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and soaked up his presence, Martha ran around like a maniac, undoubtedly whipping up appetizers, serving cocktails and ensuring that every detail was perfect for the guest of honor. Of course, Martha was bitter about this, complaining to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me!” (Luke 10:40). I love the fact that Martha has the nerve to gripe about her sister to Jesus himself – I think I would have been grumbling and cursing irritably under my breath.

I can totally relate to Martha. In fact, I would have been doing the exact same thing if Jesus came to my house for dinner: frantically scrubbing the toilet bowl, setting out the guest towels, picking lint off the carpet. And when he arrived, would I have sat at his feet? Oh no. I would have been bustling and harrumphing around the kitchen, busy trying to get everything done so that then I could rest.

This is the clincher, of course. It’s never all done. There’s always something else to do. Which brings me back to Noah’s comment; I’m afraid my priorities are a bit unbalanced. When Martha complained to Jesus he answered, “Martha, Martha! You are worried and troubled over so many things, but just one is needed” (10:41). And the same could be said for me. While I’m busy self-combusting over a zillion chores, I’m missing the one big thing: spending fun, quality time with my kids. Loving my kids (I already love them, of course, but you know what I mean). Enjoying my kids before they are suddenly slouching teenagers unwilling to make eye contact with me.

So this week, I vow to be fun. I vow to let just a few of my so-called responsibilities go, to live more in the moment, to show my kids that I can still be a silly clown and a mom. I’ll let you know how it goes…


Inching through Isaiah, Part II

I made it through the rest of Isaiah this week – not my absolute favorite part of the Bible, but it was good to read it. I came across another couple of lines that resonated with me (it's sort of pathetic that I found only two passages in 66 chapters that really spoke to me, but it is what it is):

“Let God hurry, let him hasten his work so we may see it. Let it approach, let the plan of the Holy One of Israel come, so we may know it” (5: 19).

Too often I want God to work on my time. I’m such a complete control freak that way (in every way, really!). But I get frustrated because I am looking for a clear sign, or a clear answer – I want him to “hasten his work” so that I can see it. I want him to lay out his plan clearly, so that I can know it. Turns out, God doesn’t always work on my timeline. In fact, as far as I can see, he rarely does.

Take my move to Nebraska. In 2001 Brad and I packed up our life in Massachusetts and relocated to Nebraska, so that he could begin his teaching career at Doane College. I’ll be honest, the move was just about the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I left my family, my friends, my career, my home – all the people and things that provided comfort, security and love – and moved to a foreign environment, a flat, hot, grasshoppery, windy, Husker-obsessed environment. And I was 8 ½ months pregnant with my first baby, who turned out to be quite crotchety for his first few months. And I was surrounded by people who seemed a lot more comfortable with God than I was; people who talked about God and Jesus in regular, everyday conversation. To tell you the truth, all the talk about Jesus and God really gave me the creeps at first.

But you know what, in retrospect, I don’t think that I would have ever come as far in my faith if I hadn’t moved to Nebraska, if I hadn’t been ripped out of my comfort zone, my familiar routines, my old habits. Moving to Nebraska stripped me bare, and it was only then, I think, that I even began to consider the possibility of God.

So my point is, God works in his own way, at his own pace. He may not hurry when we want him to; he may not reveal his plan to us in its entirety. We may not even know we are in the midst of that unfurling plan. That’s the way it was for me. It turns out, moving to Nebraska was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.


Lightning Strikes...and Other Conversion Stories

Many years ago I admitted to myself that I didn’t believe in God. Yet one small part of me still held out for a miracle. I know, this really doesn’t make sense – if I didn’t believe in God, how did I believe in miracles? The answer is that I didn’t…but I still hoped for one.

I always expected that if I did get a miracle, it would be dramatic, over the top – so obvious that I wouldn’t be able to deny it. I thought perhaps I might have some sort of near-death experience and suddenly believe in God. I was looking for the lightning strike, the Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion. Even the Bob Dylan conversion. “How in the world can Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan for crying out loud, believe in God, and I can’t?” I would wonder incredulously.

What I got instead was markedly less dramatic. What I got instead was, as John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) called it, a “a heart strangely warmed.”

That’s right, my “conversion,” if you can even call it that, happened over a period of years, at nothing short of a glacial pace.

It gegan with what I've come to call the “Why not?” moment, but it really wasn’t a single moment. Rather it was over days, weeks and months that I began to ask myself that simple question: Why not? Simply, why not?

I had spent decades asking, “Why?” “How?” “What?” “Who?” but I never simply asked, “Why not?” Strangely I had never even considered an alternative, never truly entertained the existence of God as a possibility, was never willing to suspend my disbelief, even for a moment, to see what it felt like. I had never given myself the opportunity, the option, to believe.

And when I did, when I cracked open that window just a hair, just enough to ask a simple question, it felt wonderful – warm yes, and certainly strange, but exhilarating and liberating, too. As C.S. Lewis wrote in his autobiography Surprised By Joy, it was, “Like I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armor, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself, being there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armor or keep it on.”

Asking "Why not?" was like deciding to unbuckle my armor, loosen my corset, let the air and light seep in.

Asking "Why not?" wasn't a dramatic, lightning-strike conversion. It was more like the "still small voice" Elijah heard. He, too, was looking for God amidst the drama – in the violent winds, in the earthquake and in the fire. Elijah didn't find God in any of those dramatic experiences, but rather, in the "gentle whisper" that followed.

Asking “Why not?” wasn't what I expected; it wasn't winds, earthquakes and fire. But it was my road-to-Damascus, in the form of a gentle whisper. It wasn’t the miracle I expected. But it was a miracle I got.

Are you looking for God in the drama? Or are you finding him in the gentle whisper?

* Painting: The Conversion on the Way to Damascus, by Caravaggio


Inching through Isaiah

I’m reading the Book of Isaiah this week, and I’m tempted to let you think I’m virtuous and spiritually driven, reading Isaiah all on my own, but that’s not the case. Isaiah is homework for the summer Old Testament class I’m taking at Southwood. And I’m not having fun with him.

Isaiah is not a pithy writer. People say I’m wordy and long-winded, but let me tell you, I don’t hold a candle to Isaiah. Brad reminds me that it’s because people in those ancient times weren’t literate; it was an oral culture, and therefore repetition was required in order for the message to permeate. I can appreciate that, but it really does make life difficult for the modern-day reader. The other night Brad came into the bedroom and found me reading Noah’s children’s study Bible instead of my own version. “What??!” I said, sheepishly indignant. “I’m just seeing how Isaiah is translated in this version!” We laughed because he and I both knew I had abandoned Isaiah’s 66 chapters in my Bible for the one page (!) in Noah’s.

Despite all this, though, I have discovered a couple of gems in Isaiah, a few lines that resonate with me, like this one: “…for we have made a lie our refuge and falsehood our hiding place” (28:15). This line jumped off the page, because it reminded me of the falsehood I had made my hiding place for so many years.

Brad and I have an ongoing debate over whether I was actually an atheist or an agnostic during my “dark decades.” He suggests agnostic, but I claim the more dire atheist, knowing that in my heart I didn’t believe in God during those years. Whatever the term, I was in bad shape, spiritually speaking. The trouble was, for many years I didn’t even admit to myself that I didn’t believe in God. I still attended church, went to confession, glided through the motions of faith. Strangely, I coughed or cleared my throat each week in church during the opening lines of the “Nicene Creed” -- “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth, creator of all things seen and unseen…” I could not even admit to myself that I was spiritually vapid; I preferred to cough rather than face the truth.

This inability to face the truth, to face my fear that I didn’t believe in God, was my refuge. As long as I didn’t admit it, as long as I just went through the motions, I didn’t have to do any hard work, ask any hard questions, feel any real fear. It wasn’t until I was stripped of that refuge and stepped away from the falsehood of that hiding place that, ironically, I began to find faith.


Lemon Squares

I made lemon squares yesterday. This is not unusual, but the fact that I made lemon squares by myself, alone, with no one – no kids craning over the bowl, howling to crack the eggs or zest the lemon or pour in the sugar – is a rarity indeed. Brad and the boys are gone for the next six days to Minnesota, to visit Haukebo and Papa (Brad’s parents), so I have six whole days yawning ahead of me – should I feel guilty that I am GIDDY with delight and anticipation?!

Brad and I actually have a pretty equitable arrangement for free time; we call it Square Up. We enacted this policy last year, after several years of arguing over who had more “free time.” When Noah was an infant I distinctly recall lying in bed at 2 a.m., tallying up how many hours of sleep Brad was getting compared to me. Of course, I was so sleep-deprived from breast-feeding every two hours that I struggled to do the math, so every few minutes I would have to start over, counting up Brad’s slumbering hours as he snored beside me and comparing them to my own paltry amount. Yes, for the record, I squandered my own sleep in order to reflect bitterly on how much sleep my husband was enjoying.

Even after we had moved beyond the sleep-deprivation days, Brad and I found that we struggled over the issue of free time. Thus, Square Up was born. It’s basically tit for tat – one hour for him, one hour for me and vice versa. For every hour he spends golfing (golfing is how Brad spends every nanosecond of his free time), I get an hour to do whatever I want: shopping, dining with friends, sitting still at Holmes Lake, writing, slurping iced coffee at The Mill, painting my toenails. Whatever. But herein lies the problem – while Brad has a laser-focus approach to his free-time management, I’m all over the map. And thus, I always end up feeling rushed or resentful, like I’m somehow getting less time than he is. The math clearly indicates that’s not the case, but because I spread myself too thin in my pursuit of pleasure, I end up drained rather than refreshed.

That’s why making lemon squares by myself was such an invigorating, uplifting experience. I actually smelled the lemon. The citrusy scent made my mouth water as I beat the mix, and I reveled in measuring out each ingredient properly and beating thoroughly, rather than trying to “get through” the process so I could tackle something else. I even found myself talking out loud. Apparently the silence was too much, and I felt compelled to fill it with my own voice – not surprising, given my ears are usually ringing with Rowan’s voice, which is spoken at the decibel of a Boeing 747. Brad and I jokingly call Rowan "Owen Meany," after the John Irving character (A Prayer for Owen Meany) who speaks LIKE THIS, IN ALL CAPS, THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE BOOK! Living with Rowan is like living with someone who speaks in all caps.

Anyway, this brings me back to my earlier “Be Still” post, and reminds me that too often I forget to smell the lemons, so to speak. Perhaps this is a reminder that I shouldn't multi-task even my free time. That the goal shouldn’t be to “get it all in,” to cram in as many pleasures as possible, but to appreciate more deeply and fully one or two experiences. I may have to ask God for help on this one! What do you think…is this a female thing? Are we driven to multi-task even in our pursuit of pleasure?


In the Pit

We read the story of Daniel (Daniel 6: 6-23) in church this morning. Now I'll admit, until today the most exposure I've ever had to Daniel the biblical character has been courtesy of Raffi; his song, "Daniel" plays ad nauseum in our mini van as we cruise around town. And believe me, linking Daniel with Raffi is not necessarily a positive connection. In fact, the refrain of that very song has been repeating over and over in my head, ever since I heard the sermon this morning.

So here's the basic story of Daniel. Daniel was good friends with King Darius, who decided one day, at the urging of his followers, that all the people should worship him and no one else, including God, for 30 consecutive days. Anyone who disobeyed this order would be thrown into a den of lions, where, presumably, he would be devoured. Daniel, of course, decided this just would not do, so he immediately went home, knelt towards Jerusalem, and prayed aloud -- with the windows open so all could hear. King Darius was devastated when he heard the news of Daniel praying, because he knew he would have to toss his good friend to the lions in order to stay true to his decree. And that's just what he did, saying to Daniel, "May your God, whom you serve so loyally, rescue you," before rolling a stone over the opening of the pit.

Now. Let me tell you what I would have done, had I been in Daniel's situation. I know for a fact that I would not have been so brave as to pray loudly and openly in front of my window so all my neighbors could hear, knowing full well what my punishment would be. I may have had just enough courage to lock myself in the bathroom and utter a quick whispered prayer on the sly, but I certainly would not have prayed as openly as Daniel did.

What troubles me, though, isn't so much how I think I would have reacted in Daniel's situation, but how bold, how faithful I am today, even in the much less dramatic moments of my day. For instance, how comfortable am I talking about God, or my faith, with my friends or coworkers? How often do I weave God into everyday conversation with friends or acquaintances, or even with my own family members? The answer is not very often at all.

This morning, Daniel's story and Chip's sermon (Chip Uhrmacher, Southwood's Director of Youth Ministry, gave today's sermon -- you can listen to it here: revealed to me that I am holding back, that I could be bolder, more courageous in my faith. That perhaps I could wince a bit less over "what people might think" ("Who knew Michelle was such a Bible banger!"), and trust, as Daniel did, in God a little bit more.

"So they pulled him up and saw that he had not been hurt at all, for he trusted in God" (6:23).


Be Still

Be still, and know that I am God.

Psalm 46:10 is one of my favorite lines in the Bible, probably because I am so rarely still in the true sense of the word. I'm a hyper-multitasker, always working on two or three projects at once, always on the move. When I am watching TV, I write out thank-you notes or organize photo albums. When I'm making the kids lunches for school, I'm also stirring a pot of noodles for dinner or wiping grit out of the refrigerator or making a grocery list. The advantage of this Olympic-caliber multitasking is that I'm super efficient -- I get an awful lot done every day. The disadvantage is that I am never still, never truly in the moment. I never soak in the details and nuances of my life and surroundings.

That's why I try to spend a couple of hours at Holmes Lake Park every week, usually on Sunday afternoon. Holmes Lake is man made (of course, this is Nebraska after all), so it hardly "counts" as a body of water, but it's beautiful and tranquil nonetheless. I usually head towards "my spot" -- a sloping hill of crabgrass tucked beneath a walnut tree -- where I can watch the glinting water and hear the crunch of gravel as joggers pass by on the path behind me.

I don't usually pray, in the typical sense, when I'm at Holmes Lake. I'm not much of a pray-er, to be quite honest. But I do appreciate. I notice; I linger. And in doing so I think in some ways I am praying, albeit in a non-traditional manner. I am noticing God's creation -- the two yellow-breasted finches nudging each other on the branch above my head, unaware of my presence below; the red-winged blackbird's vibrating trill; even the taupe grasshopper, slightly menacing, that springs onto my bare foot.

I breath deeply at Holmes Lake. I am still. And in my own way, I know God.

All material and photographs copyrighted Michelle DeRusha 2012

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