Pondering Papa

Last week I wrote about my Nana's faith, and today I'm writing about my much more enigmatic paternal grandfather, Earl. This is an excerpt from my manuscript that will likely be cut if it ever sees the publishing light of day, so I figured I'd use it on the blog (especially since I'm out of town and writing all this week's posts in advance!).

Papa cooked, laundered, vacuumed, dusted, baked bubbling, tart apple pies with flakey crust that melted on your tongue and doted, absolutely doted on Nana, whom he adoringly called Peanut, on account of her tiny stature. He waited on her day and night – hot tea with lots of milk and toast for breakfast; heart pills at 10 a.m. on the dot; her favorite green-foil wrapped Andes mints for a late afternoon treat. Nana even kept a bell on her bedside table – they slept in separate bedrooms – to summon Papa during the night if she needed a pill or a neck rub. In his own unique, untraditional way, Papa wore his heart on his sleeve.

Yet in so many ways my grandfather was a mystery.

I can’t say for sure, because I really don’t have any idea what my grandfather believed in his heart, but I suspect his was a tenuous faith at best. He tolerated Nana’s insistence that we choose our knickknacks as part of their bequest, he attended church every Saturday evening, he took communion, but did he believe? I’m not really sure.

I never heard Papa mention God in any context, ever. This is not surprising in and of itself, given that he was not a verbally demonstrative man. But I remember glancing at him covertly when we were at Mass and noticing that he never uttered a prayer. He didn’t even move his lips, nor do I ever recall him making the sign of the cross. Was he reciting the prayers in his head? Was he praying at all? Who knew? His face was an indecipherable mask.


Not only were his emotions rigidly controlled, as a survivor of the Great Depression, my grandfather learned to control his environment, too, to offset his fear of failure, his fear of losing everything. Just like he oversaw the domestic duties of his home and kept it all running like a well-oiled machine, he ensured his survival by methodically accumulating wealth and hording money. So many of my grandfather’s actions suggested a refusal to relinquish control to anyone, God included, and as he aged the tendency grew increasingly worse. When he was forced to move into a nursing home after his stroke, he refused to sign over the deed to his house to his only son, terrified that my father would steal his assets and leave him penniless and dependent. Instead, the home my grandfather built by hand was turned over to the state, where it remained until my grandmother died, nearly a decade after my grandfather’s death.

As Papa languished in the nursing home after his stroke, he seemed to withdraw further and further into himself. It could have been depression – always a proud, independent, stubborn man, Papa’s body had betrayed him and relegated him to a nursing home bed – but it seemed a deeper, more profound despair. While his mind remained as sharp as ever, he grew more and more bitter, barely able to force a cordial greeting when I visited and obviously wishing that I, and all others who entered his room, would just disappear. Nothing seemed to bring him comfort, not his favorite molasses cookies that Brad baked for him every week, not his grandchildren, his son or his Peanut, not the weekly visits from his parish priest and deacon. I witnessed nothing that brought him solace in the last years of his life; everyone and everything seemed an almost intolerable burden.

When I think of Papa lying withered and incapacitated in his nursing home bed, the word fear is what first springs to my mind. Maybe it was the way he tenaciously clung to life in the years following his stroke; he seemed to endure rather than actually live, to hang on with an iron grip of desperation and resolute determination. It was like he knew he could not defeat the inevitable, but yet didn’t have any other option but to try. Maybe he was praying; maybe inside his own head, unbeknownst to us all, he was pleading with God to end his anguish, to give him peace, to bring him eternal life. But something about him, something about the way Papa lay in bed and stared at the ceiling, his face an impenetrable, stony mask, told me he was not.

During my many non-believing years, my grandfather's retreat into himself terrified me.  I think I saw myself, decades from now, in him. Is this how a non-believer ends up, I wondered? Is this it? Is this is what's coming to me, too? The thought filled me with horror. Yet it wasn't enough to compel me to believe in God. I resigned myself to my fate and tried to think about it as little as possible.


I wish now that I'd asked him. He may not have told the truth, but still, I wish I had asked my grandfather about his faith, what he believed, if he believed. It never crossed my mind to broach that conversation, but I wish now that I had tried. At the very least, it may have shed some light on the enigmatic man that was my grandfather.


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Worrywart


I am a worrier.

What? You’re not shocked? You can tell this about me, just by reading my bloggy musings?

It’s true. I worry about everything. A few years ago when Brad came down with a bad respiratory flu, I was absolutely convinced he’d contracted SARS. Remember the SARS scare? It’s since been usurped by Bird Flu and H1N1, but at the time, SARS was a global health crisis in its own right.

So there was Brad, hacking and wheezing, feverish and sweaty. I crept into the bedroom around 2 a.m. (I was sleeping on the couch, of course; I certainly wasn’t going to die a slow, torturous SARS death) and whispered, “Honey? Honey…are you awake? I don’t want to freak you out or anything…but I thought I should mention…um, I think you might have SARS!!”

He actually laughed. At death’s door, surrounded by piles of used Kleenex, the humidifier humming from the nightstand, he laughed at me.

We still laugh about it to this day. Brad will occasionally remind me, “Yeah, remember the time I beat SARS?” We call him Immuno Man around here.

I worry about stupid, mundane things, too. Like packing for a trip. I lay awake, tossing and turning, sighing and harrumphing, running through list after list in my head, until Brad finally bursts out, “What is the matter with you?” When I confess that I’m stressed about preparing for the trip, he usually mumbles something like, “Don’t worry, honey, it’ll get all done,” before rolling over. And then I seethe for the rest of the night, thinking to myself, “Yeah, of course it’ll get all done…because I’m the one who will get it all done!!!”

Did I mention I’m prone to bitterness and martyrdom, too?

So it goes without saying that my worrywart nature is naturally drawn to Matthew 6:34:

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

This passage was actually read at our wedding. I didn’t even believe in God back then, but yet I still could see the truth in these words. It’s just taken me another 15 years to begin to abide by them.

I am actually getting better. I find myself uttering the phrase, “It is what it is” now and again, especially at work. It’s not a cop-out; I’m not relinquishing responsibility, throwing up my hands and refusing to tackle a challenge. But I am realizing that some situations are indeed beyond my control. And saying, “It is what it is,” reminds me that I do not need to be in hyper-control mode all the time. I can let things be, without always micromanaging the outcome.

It all comes to trust – trust in God. I admit, it’s hard. It’s difficult to place my life, the lives of my children and husband, in God’s hands. So I’m starting small.

The suitcases will indeed get packed, the cooler filled, the Lovies and blankies remembered.

The annual report will indeed make it to the printer, even if it is a day or two behind schedule.

It will indeed all get done. Brad was right. I hate when that happens.

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Because the Bible Tells Me So



I used to think the Bible wasn’t a book for me. I used to think it was a book for holy people, for people who prayed regularly and fervently, for people who admitted in public that they’d accepted Jesus as their personal savior. I assumed the Bible was best read by religious people, so they could work on growing even more religious. I assumed irreligious people like me wouldn’t find anything relevant within those onion-skin pages. I assumed all this before I ever cracked the binding of a Bible myself.

I bought myself a Bible about three years ago, about a week before I was to begin my first-ever Bible study class. I’d had a Bible as a kid, an illustrated version, but it had gathered dust next to the Time-Life science series on a shelf in the basement. I never saw anyone in my extended family read the Bible; I never heard anyone quote a line from it outside of Mass. The Bible was a territory relegated to priests and nuns.

The night before my first-ever Bible class I flipped through my brand-new Bible. The pages fell open to Mark 9, and my eyes landed on a phrase that seemed to be meant solely for me. I read it several times, unsure if I was perhaps misreading the passage.

In the story a desperate father begs Jesus to cure his demon-possessed son, beseeching, “Help me if you can.” Jesus responds, simply noting, “Everything is possible for him who believes,” to which the man replies -- and this is the key line for me -- “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.”

A contradiction, yes, but one I know and understand well. One moment I proclaim my steadfast belief in God, the next moment…I’m not so sure. This is the way it is for me – an ebb and flow; two steps forward, one back. I call myself The Waffler.

Some people – my mom, for one – are blessed with an unshakable, unquestioning faith. Others battle a period of deep doubt and come out more grounded, more faithful, on the other side. And I, like the father in Mark 9, vacillate by the day. Sometimes by the hour. Sometimes by the moment.

I used to think this made me less of a believer – less “qualified.” Reading this story in Mark, reading that line about belief entwined with unbelief, tells me that belief coupled with doubt may be acceptable after all. For some of us, belief is a mere breath away from unbelief.

The key to moving beyond this flux, Mark tells me, is to ask for help. “Help me overcome my unbelief,” the man implores Jesus, and his prayer is answered.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jesus later tells his disciples, when they ask him why they themselves had been unable to drive out the demon, that “This kind can come out only by prayer.” Yes, Jesus is referring to the demon in the child. But I think that last line is key to understanding the story in its entirety. Asking God for help is indeed a form of prayer. God is telling us that some challenging situations will only find resolution in prayer. Perhaps disbelief is indeed one of these challenges. I choose to believe that my own little slice of demon-possession, my unbelief, will indeed be dissolved…with God’s help.

Image: "Like-Love," by Gina Whitt.




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Jenga Joy

Want to slow your pace for a few minutes? Play Jenga with a child.

Are you familiar with this game? I wasn’t until recently, when Noah received it as a birthday gift, but I have to say, now I’m hooked. Here’s the basic premise: you arrange 40 or so rectangular blocks crisscross into a tower, and then each player takes a turn gently removing a single block without sending the entire structure tumbling.

At first even Rowan, Rowan the Red-Haired Wild Man, was more skilled at Jenga than I was. He was able to steady his erratic movements and delicately slide a block from the tower. My herky-jerky tendencies, on the other hand, more often sent the blocks crashing (which, I must admit, thrilled Rowan to the hilt). I’m getting better though. I am training my body, my limbs, to slow down. To move gently and mindfully.

I find playing Jenga almost hypnotic. It’s also the type of game that forces me to be fully present in the moment. Unlike Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders, or some of the other mind-numbing kids’ games, Jenga requires focus, concentration. It requires presence, which as you all know by now, is an element lacking in my harried life.

Strangely, I was reminded of Jenga as I listened recently to an interview with Eckhart Tolle on the NPR series Speaking of Faith. Prior to this, I hadn’t known much about Tolle, besides the fact that he looks strangely elfine and seems far too new-agey…and is an Oprah love-child – none of which scored him major points with me. I was surprised, though, by how much I liked Tolle when I heard the interview. He spoke honestly and genuinely about his own struggle with depression, and about the spiritual awakening that prompted him to begin to celebrate “the now,” the present moment, a moment unlike any in the past or the future. Tolle, it seems, is able to apply the Jenga moment to nearly every aspect of his everyday life.

The writer Anne Lamott says this about “the now” in this month’s O magazine (okay, okay, so I do totally love Oprah): “…as Einstein taught us, everything in the future and the past is here right now. There’s always something ending and something beginning.”

I concentrate too much of my time and energy on the “something ending” and the “something beginning” – the past and the future – rather than on the “here right now.” Playing Jenga with Rowan on a sleepy Thursday morning was a “here right now” moment. And I am grateful for that.

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An Average Love

I'm out of town with the boys this week, so my husband Brad has graciously agreed to guest post. He says if it works out, he's going to launch a competing blog called Gracefuller.


I feel like Admiral James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s 1992 vice-presidential selection, who famously asked at the start of his first debate, “Who am I? Why am I here?” While I feel relatively comfortable answering the first question (I’m Michelle’s husband, of course), the second one makes me hesitate. I’m not a blogger; the thought of airing my spiritual laundry for all to see makes me a little uncomfortable. Strangely, I think I enjoy Michelle’s writing so much because she wears this daily discomfort on her sleeve. (Those who know me will attest that I don’t wear anything on my sleeves. My Minnesota stoicism even makes the mere fact of sleeves a little awkward). In any event, I can’t write an entire blog about how I don’t want to write a blog, so here goes. I’ll begin in a place of relative security: literature.

In Lee Smith’s short story, “Intensive Care,” a character named Harold Stikes casually pages through his wife’s copy of Reader’s Digest. When he comes across a quiz she filled out entitled, “How Good Is Your Marriage?” his curiosity increases. In the final question Harold reads, “When you think of the love between yourself and your spouse, do you think of (a) a great passion; (b) a warm, meaningful companionship; (c) an average love; (d) an unsatisfying habit?” Upon noticing that his wife had circled “an average love,” “suddenly, strangely, Harold was filled with rage.”

Of course he was. While I wouldn’t mind being labeled an average golfer, an average gardener, or even an average citizen, to be party to “an average love” would be devastating. But why? After all, in the big picture of passionate romances and bitter, broken relationships, there must exist an average love--a combination of boredom and interest, selfishness and selflessness, that makes it perfectly average. The problem is that we all envision love as something beyond the average, a force whose presence is inspiring and humanizing, whose absence is tragic and belittling.

The same is true of Christian love. The idea of “an average Christian love” is non-sensical. Christian love, at least as it is defined by Jesus, is inherently unique, transformational, even self-obliterating--anything but average. Unfortunately, while we have been given a mandate for perfection--“Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31)--we seem to be hard-wired for failure. In fact, people often critique Christianity by pointing to the Crusades or the Inquisition or to the countless other historical failures of Christians to turn a philosophy of love into a plan of action. In other words, we know what we can be and what we were meant to be, but we insist upon being average.

And then there are the times, the rare, remarkable times, when we witness an act of pure, selfless, Mother Teresa-esque love. It humbles us with the reminder of what we are called to do; inspires us with an image of our potential; and demonstrates that Christian love, unfettered by the hope of reward, is anything but average.


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Leaving...On a Jet Plane


I’ve been praying off and on since last night. Praying more than usual. You see, I’m getting on a plane this afternoon with Noah and Rowan to fly to Massachusetts. And I don’t like to fly.

For one, I’m terrified. Not of plummeting to my death, mind you (well, actually, that too), but of throwing up. I have a grave case of vomit phobia. And although I’ve only vomited four times in my entire 39 years, and never at 37,000 feet, I’m still terrified I’ll throw up on the plane in one of those crinkly, plastic-lined “in case of motion discomfort” bags. Ever time the plane dips or shudders or lurches I panic and am instantly overcome with nausea. My feet sweat, my heart pounds, I get clammy all over, I frantically adjust the air blower. That’s usually about when the kids start making requests, and I respond abruptly, “Ssshhhhhh!!!! Mommy’s concentrating!” “Concentrating on what?” Noah will ask, as I focus on the tray table and deep-breathe like Darth Vader.

The second reason I hate to fly is that I am now getting my “just desserts,” as the saying goes. You see, before I had kids of my own, I was 100 percent intolerant of any child on any airplane. No, I did not want to play peek-a-book or make silly faces at the three-year-old peering over the seat in front of me. No, I did not want to suffer through the piercing screams of the infant in 6A. I didn’t care one bit if his ears hurt. And I could not, for one second, tolerate my seat being kicked or the tray table being latched and unlatched with a thump and a jar on my seatback. On one flight I even went so far as to reprimand the child sitting behind me. I wheeled around and spat at the six-year-old, "Do not even think of kicking my seat again or you will live to regret it."

No lie.

This is why flying with my own children is an act of divine justice.

There was the time Noah, as toddler, screamed so loudly on a 7 a.m. flight that the attendant marched down the aisle, leaned over Brad and me, and hissed directly to Noah: “Young man! There are passengers trying to sleep on this flight!” I’m not proud to admit that I was so mortified and so angry – mostly at the flight attendant but also at my child – that I pinched Noah on the thigh. Which only made him scream louder, of course.

Then there was the infamous neck incident.

We were flying home from the Florida Keys after a week’s vacation with my in-laws (It must be said that traveling from Lincoln to Big Pine Key, and vice versa, is nothing short of hellacious. Traveling to East Timor would be easier). We were spending the night in what turned out to be the mangiest hotel in Fort Lauderdale, perhaps all of Florida. Let me put it like this: upon turning down the bedspread I found cigarette ashes on the sheets, and the color of the water spurting out of the bathtub faucet could only be described as puce.

After a fitful night (we had reserved a crib for Rowan, who was barely one at the time, but of course when we arrived at the hotel, no cribs were available. In the middle of the night Rowan actually rolled out of bed and landed on his back with a soft poof onto the pillows we had piled on the floor), we were jolted awake around 5:30 a.m. by Noah’s screaming. At first we couldn’t figure out what was wrong – he was screaming so incessantly he couldn’t even verbalize the problem. But we finally pieced together that he was in excruciating pain. He couldn’t even move his head without screaming.

Carrying him out to the parking lot where our rental van was parked was like carrying a four-foot piece of plywood. He was stiff, unable to turn his head even a fraction of an inch. And still screaming. After several attempts to fold his wooden body into the car seat, we gave up and called an ambulance. Both Brad and I were stricken with fear, thoughts of meningitis and worse, more catastrophic diagnoses running through our heads.

After a round of detailed questioning at the hospital, Noah still whimpering and sitting upright like a ventriloquist doll in my lap, the nurse administered a strong does of Motrin. And lo and behold, twenty minutes later, Noah was turning his head like a barn owl.

The diagnosis: a stiff neck. That’s right, we had strapped our kid into an ambulance, sirens blaring, tearing through the streets of Fort Lauderdale, for a stiff neck.

We still talk about the $500 stiff neck today; Noah loves to hear the story.

Later that morning as we flew out of Fort Lauderdale, Rowan screamed and thrashed as I struggled to hold him on my lap. I began to weep pitifully. “I don’t think I’m going to make it,” I told Brad. His response: “You need to get it together. Right. Now.” I wept harder.

That was the moment I enacted the two-year moratorium on air travel. I walked into our house in Lincoln, picked up the phone and dialed my parents. “You’ll need to come to Nebraska if you want to see us in the next two years,” I told them. “I’m done with flying.” We stuck with it, too. It was at least 18 months before I stepped foot on an airplane with my two children again.

So you see, this is really a long and convoluted explanation of why I’ve been praying like a feverish evangelical for the past 24 hours. I don’t like to fly. I don’t like to fly with my children. Only God can help me keep my sanity in this case.




As a side note, tune in on Monday for a guest post by my husband, Brad. He’s good. You’ll laugh. But my readership stats better not skyrocket, that’s all I have to say.

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Enough


My friend Kim has bravely embarked upon a 61-day chronological study of the Bible. This week she read and wrote about 1 Chronicles – specifically the section in which Satan convinces King David to take a census of Israel. This census-taking angers God, which prompts Kim to wonder why. Here’s what she writes:

So why would God get mad about a census?

Could it be a census was a way of David pridefully claiming dominion over all he surveyed? His dominion instead of God's? Could it be that taking in taking a census David was not-so-subtly showing his trust in numbers and military power...instead of in God?

And of course the big question is .... what do you and I "take a census" of that angers God? Our bank accounts? What's parked in our garages? The size and value of our homes? The size of our retirement accounts? Our years of education or work experience? The number of people who work for us? The number or kinds of people we can call friends?

Those questions got me thinking about my recent census-taking: tracking the number of followers and readers of this blog. To say I’m obsessed would be an understatement. I check my “stats” at least three or four times a day, monitoring the numbers like a diabetic monitors her blood sugar levels.

And then I compare: why does so-and-so have 128 followers…and I only have 38? Is her writing better than mine? Is she smarter? Wittier? More insightful?

I’m not content with my 38 followers, or however many readers I have on a given day. I want more!

Yesterday, my sister-in-law emailed me this Emily Dickinson poem:

If I can stop one heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain:
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

“All us fainting robins appreciate what you are doing to help encourage us to get back in our faith nests, so please keep doing what you’re doing,” wrote Vanessa.

A reality check.

It doesn’t matter to God how many readers or followers I have. He’s not checking my Sitemeter like an OCD freak every few hours. God would be happy if a single person were helped back into the faith nest as a result of this blog. And if God is happy, if that’s enough for God, it should be enough for me, too.

I’ve been putting my faith, my trust, in the Sitemeter numbers and in the little photo “follower” squares depicted on this page, rather than in God himself. I’d lost sight of the whole reason I’d launched this blog in the first place, which was the hope that perhaps my story, my experiences, could offer hope to someone else.

On the day I launched Graceful, a single reader was enough for me. Today, thanks to Kim’s insights and Vanessa’s poetic reminder, one reader is indeed, again, enough.


Read more of Kim's insights into 1 Chronicles and other Bible passages at Kimmy Does Denver.


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Top Secret


I read a fascinating article this week in Duke University’s Divinity magazine about a project called PostSecret, a Web site that displays artful postcards that divulge the secrets of their anonymous authors. The article questioned, “What’s church got to do with it?” suggesting that perhaps these postcard writers are confessing their sins, worries and fears to a Web site, rather than to their pastors. “Are churches failing to provide an outlet for the need to confess?” writes Ned Barnett. “And if so, are they also neglecting another potential spiritual hunger – the longing for forgiveness?”

McKennon Shea, admissions director for Duke Divinity School, says yes. She’s quoted in the article, saying, “PostSecret put the church on notice that we have lost a sense of confession and what goes with it, that absolution, that forgiveness. It’s something we lost in the Reformation.”

I disagree. Maybe it’s my Catholic upbringing. Perhaps I spent quite enough time in the confessional as a child. But I for one feel liberated by the act of confessing my sins, my fears and worries, directly to God. I get this opportunity every Sunday in the formal church setting, but I also talk directly to God every day (well, nearly every day) on my own.

Rather, I think PostSecret points to a larger, much graver societal problem: that of disconnect. In an age of Facebook and MySpace, instant messaging, texting, tweeting and twittering, basic human interaction, one-to-one and face-to-face, is being overshadowed by pseudo-communication [Hey I’m guilty, too – look at me, blogging away…and to whom, exactly?].

Third-year Divinity student Tommy Grimm is quoted in the article, saying that young Christians “find an honesty that they long for, yet fear” on the PostSecret, but I would argue that it’s a false honesty they find. It’s not real. After all, what’s missing from this supposed confession: the reconciliation and forgiveness that often follows when you confess to a real person. What in the world is honest about PostSecret? It’s an entire Web site built on secrets.

What’s frightening is that this turn to electronic pseudo-connection is a self-fulfilling process. As we rely more and more on this quick, shallow, instantaneous exchange of minutiae, we become less and less able to communicate face-to-face, person-to-person.

My friend Jennifer commented on this phenomenon recently. She observed that while she will have a perfectly pleasant exchange with an acquaintance via Facebook, when she runs into that very person in the grocery store, the conversation is awkward, strained.

Communication is a learned skill. And the less we practice, the less we are able to communicate human-to-human, face-to-face.

My theory is that the problem isn’t so much the church’s failure to offer a channel for confession, but rather, a failure to offer a community in which people, particularly young people, can connect; a community that teaches and encourages the act of reaching outward, rather than inward.

Before I go further I should say that, in my experience, Southwood is an exception. The average age of the Southwood member is 29 – I’m the old one in the pew on Sundays. Young people comprise the bulk of Southwood’s members, and they are clearly connecting in a dynamic, life-changing way with each other and with the community at large. That said, my experience as a New England Catholic was markedly different. Most Sundays the cavernous cathedral was half empty, and the people who sat in the pews were, quite frankly, old. When Mass ended, we filed quietly out the door with a hardly a perfunctory greeting.

Some don’t need a church community. I’ve met spiritual people who naturally reach out to others, who naturally connect without the gentle prod that a spiritual community offers. My neighbor Karna is one such person. She and her partner John host a neighborhood brunch each fall on their driveway, bringing us all together to share egg bake and scones. She bakes pie and bread for George, the widower next door. Karna doesn’t belong to a Lincoln church. She doesn’t sit in a pew each Sunday. But she connects, she serves, meaningfully and thoughtfully each day of the week.

But Karna is the exception. Most of us don’t naturally think of serving others before ourselves. Most of us would benefit from a weekly reminder.

I need that push, and that’s what the Southwood community does for me each week. It’s too easy for me to get caught in the maelstrom of my own world – the errands, the school lunches, the laundry, the email; bent on surviving each day, never lifting my head out of the swirl of my own life to see someone else’s needs. And that’s where my church community gives me a much-needed nudge. Would I have volunteered to pick up trash in a Lincoln park on a recent Saturday morning, were it not for the Southwood Serves project? Heck no. Would I commit an evening to City Impact, wrapping holiday gifts this November, were it not for this service project my small group plans to do together? Absolutely not.

PostSecret is indeed fascinating. Enticed by the thrill of voyeurism and the slightly clandestine nature of the content, I admit, I could not stop reading the postcards. But more than that, I found PostSecret downright frightening. I felt saddened for the people who turned to PostSecret as their only viable outlet for expressing their heart-heavy burdens. PostSecret is non-judgmental, true. But it’s also empty, soulless, offering no hope of an embrace, a kind word or a connection on the other end.

What do you think? Check out PostSecret yourself, and then post your thoughts here. I'm curious to hear your reaction.







Art courtesy of postsecret.com.

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What'll It Be: Grass or Wheat?


I don’t usually do things halfway. I’m an all or nothing kind of girl – red light-green light, as my dad calls it. With one exception.

I’m often a halfway Christian. I cut corners. I try to cheat the system. I try to have my cake and eat it, too.

Have I listed enough clich├ęs yet? Let me give you a better example. C.S. Lewis says this in Mere Christianity:

The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self – all your wishes and precautions – to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves,’ to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be ‘good.’ We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way – centered on money or pleasure or ambition – and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. As He said, a thistle cannot produce figs. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass-seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short; but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be ploughed up and re-sown.

Lewis nailed it. On most days, that’s exactly what I do; I try to negotiate a balance between my own personal yearnings and my desire to follow God. The trouble is, balance cannot be achieved. You can’t be a halfway Christian. It’s red light-green light…all or nothing.

What a bummer. God is such a stickler about that one little detail...about wanting all of ourselves, rather than just a slice.

Luke puts it like this:

No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old.
(Luke 5:36-39).

I love this metaphor. Luke is saying that I can't simply cover up a rough spot, camouflage a hole, with a pretty patch. I can't sew silk onto dungarees (as my parents call jeans). I have to refashion an entirely new garment. I have to refashion myself, from the inside out; convert in the truest meaning of the word.

That’s not to say we won’t have remnants of our old selves still within us. It would be unrealistic to think we could shed our old selves entirely – after all, we are flawed. We will always have ratty patches.; there will always be holes. I have a lot of holes -- the Swiss Cheese Christian, that's what I am.

But still, we can try. As Lewis says, “We can only do it for moments at first. But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting him work at the right part of us.”

Which will be your moment today? How will you let God work through you? Will you regrow the same old grass again, or will today be the day you try for wheat?

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Mod Podge Musings

I'm not crafty. Have I mentioned this before, that I often have crafty-mom envy? I read articles in Better Homes & Gardens about moms who sew their kids leprechaun costumes for Halloween; or fashion gauzy bats; or bake triple chocolate spider cupcakes. I’m not that mom. I read about that mom.

So recently as I was skimming blogs I spotted a Halloween craft that possibly even I could manage with my children: simple canning jars, covered with Halloweeny-colored tissue paper, a votive glowing inside. Glass jar Jack-o-Lanterns, so to speak. Very Martha.

The boys and I set off Saturday morning for Hobby Lobby to purchase supplies. I spent $53 – something tells me I bought more than was simply required for the craft project. But never mind that. It was an historic event: I purchased my first-ever vat of Mod Podge. I made sure to bellow loudly a couple of times, “Come on boys…Mommy needs Mod Podge,” to ensure the other shoppers knew that a crafty mom was in their midst.

Later that afternoon my good friend Sarah and her daughter came by to participate in the Halloween craft project. We snipped dozens of yellow, orange, gold, green and black slips of tissue paper. We mod-podged (Oh I’m loving this word) them onto our jars. At times we concentrated quietly. At times we chatted and admired each others’ handiwork. And finally we lit the candles (an act which required approximately 12 matches and near third-degree burns. Have you ever attempted to light a tea-lite sitting deep within a glass jar?). And then we turned off the lights and basked in the glow of our craft masterpieces.

They didn’t look exactly like the ones I had seen on the blog. They were more rumpled, sticky with Podge, a motley looking bunch of jar Jack-o-Lanterns, if you want to know the real truth. But that didn’t matter, because it had been, in short, a perfectly ordinary, extraordinary October Saturday. I felt blessed. Yes, blessed to have accomplished a dyed-in-the-wool, genuine craft. And blessed to realize that I have good friends who know I’m not in my heart a crafty mom…and love me anyway.





 



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Where Does Your Ladder Lead?


Yesterday’s reading was from Mark 10, the passage in which the disciples James and John corner Jesus and beg to be seated in the places of honor, to the right and left of Jesus, when they arrive in Heaven.

“Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do us a favor…when you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left” (Mark 10: 37).

Jesus is disgusted and disappointed with their selfish request. “You don’t know what you are asking!” he replies. Later, when the other disciples hear that James and John have beaten them to the chase, they are indignant, pouting and grousing that they have missed such a spectacular opportunity themselves.

I’ve read this passage before, more than once, and every time it strikes a chord close to home.

I was the kid in class who always wanted to be picked by the teacher to give the answer. “Oooooh, ooooh, ooh, pick, pick me!” I would shout, stretching my hand skyward, bobbing up and down in my chair, barely able to contain myself. I wanted to be chosen, spotlighted as the smart one. I wanted to get ahead.

Fast forward 30 years. Not much has changed. On Saturday night my friend Sarah and I took the “Who Am I Meant to Be?” quiz in this month’s issue of O magazine. This quiz, Oprah told us, would help us “figure out what really defines you,” by identifying our top “striving style” from a list of seven. The list included styles such as: Striving to Help, Striving to be Recognized, Striving to be Creative and Striving to be Spontaneous.

Sarah landed in the “Striving to Help” category. This is no surprise. This is the woman who works in health and human services; this is the woman who volunteered for a hospice organization; this is the woman who is always reaching out, empathizing, sympathizing, supporting her friends and family.

And where did I land, you wonder? Striving to be Recognized. That's right.

Here’s a bit of the description:

"Ambitious, competitive, and hardworking. That’s you. With a clear image of who you are, you work tirelessly to make sure your accomplishments are recognized. Your drive for success extends to your family, and you invest a lot of energy in helping them live up to your expectations. "

Lovely.

And spot-on.

When we lived in Massachusetts I worked at MassMutual, a Fortune 500 financial services company, and in that environment, my Striving to be Recognized personality was unleashed to its fullest potential. I thrived in that cut-throat environment. I aimed my eyes at the top and steamrolled.

Luckily Brad got a job in Nebraska, so after only six months at MassMutual, I was forced to leave. In retrospect, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Left to my own devices, blinded by my own ambitions, I just don’t know if I would have found God. I would have worked countless hours for corporate America; I would have climbed the ladder; I would have scaled the ranks; I would have been driven to achieve more and more…but would I have found God in the process? I’m not so sure.

It was only when I was stripped of my securities, stripped of my identity as I had always know it, to face an unfamiliar landscape and to confront loneliness, fear and insecurity, that I began to search for the one thing that actually matters. Without a job, without the ladder towering ahead of me, without friends and family to buoy my confidence, I turned to God.

Since then, I’ve begun to learn what my friend Sarah already naturally knows; I’ve begun to learn how to be a bit less selfish, a bit more altruistic. I’ve begun to learn how to be a servant.

When Jesus hears his disciples grousing and jockeying for position, he says this:

"
Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10: 42-45).

I’m still striving. The only difference is that now (on my most days) I’m striving to serve. I'm striving to be more like Jesus. I don't always suceed. In fact, I often don't. But I'm still striving.

What are you striving for? Take the Oprah quiz, and then go one step further: ask yourself how your “striving style” fits with who God wants you to be.



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God is Good


Today I'm posting an excerpt from my book manuscript. An agent advised me to edit it quite a bit, so some of my favorite sections will end up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. The following is a piece about Nana, my father's mother. It's long...which is part of the reason I'm posting it on Saturday (a total of 4.5 people read Graceful on Saturday, so most won't be subjected to this long-winded story!). Also I'm succumbing to Saturday morning laziness -- why write a brand-new, original post when I can steal something from the book?! So here it is...

Nana was matter-of-fact when it came to God and the afterlife. She insisted Jeanine and I inscribe our initials on the bottom of every Hummel and Royal Dalton lining the living room mantel. “Pick which ones you want, girls," she'd tell us. "Where I’m going, I won’t need a thing.”

And she took a decidedly fashionable approach.

“Now when I die, this is the dress I want to be buried in, girls,” she’d instruct, rifling through her closet while Jeanine and I protested, “No! No! Bleh!! Nana, yuck!” She’d carry on, detailing her funereal outfit down to girdle and shoes, every now and then testing us – “Which dress did I say, girls?” – to ensure we had committed her selections to memory (We did. More than 25 years later Nana was buried in the dress she had chosen).

As a nurse Nana had seen her share of death; she had even cared for Papa's younger brother Roland in their home in the months leading up to his death from cancer. Jeanine and I begged for macabre stories from her R.N. days; we even tried to cajole Nana into telling us which of the two beds in the guest room Uncle Rollie had died in. She refused, of course, so when she turned off the light and kissed us goodnight, we taunted each other over who was sleeping in the "dead bed."

Nana was reticent about one topic in particular, and that was baby Paul, my father's younger brother who died just a few days after his birth. In our youth we were innocently cruel, asking Nana over and over about baby Paul, but she always brushed us off, never revealing any details about the circumstances of his death. It wasn't until Nana’s wake decades later that Jeanine and I learned about the impact of Paul’s death on her.

As we stood by Nana’s casket, Ann, the wife of my grandmother's nephew, pulled a folded sheet of notepaper from her purse. My grandmother had written Ann and Michael the note after Ann had lost her own baby, and on that rosebud-embellished paper, yellowed and wrinkled soft through decades of handling, Nana's anguish, compassion and empathy were revealed.

This note, I realize now, is the most telling testament of Nana’s faith. In it she offered practical advice, urging Ann to rest and get her full strength back before resuming household duties. But she also wrote explicitly about God and his comfort.

“It was just twenty years ago that our little Paul came – and left us to be an angel,” wrote Nana. “Knowing how I felt those twenty years ago and every day and year since, I know your little one will always hold a very special place in your hearts.”

Then Nana wrote something unexpected, words that reflected a deep reservoir of faith that thrived beneath her sparkling, sassy exterior. “I am sure this is just the very beginning of the trials, and heartaches, and joys, and happiness of married life,” wrote Nana. “God is good, and as young Catholic parents you will carry on with courage and grace.”

Despite her own anguish and pain, despite the devastating loss of her own infant son, despite that and all the other trials and heartaches life had tossed her way, my grandmother felt in her heart that God was good. Nana’s profound faith had never been so apparent as it was the day I stood next to her casket and read her words, written forty-six years prior to Ann and Michael.


I'm sharing a glimpse of my grandmother's faith on Jennifer's blog today -- read more glimpses of God here.

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Chew on This

So I’m wondering about gum chewing in church lately. Have you noticed this? That people chew gum in church? This trend can’t possibly be exclusive to Lutherans. Call me old-fashioned. Call me traditional. Call me a stuffed shirt, but I think chewing gum in church is a bit much.

Some of you know that I grew up Catholic. And Catholicism is a formal religion. We do incense. Votives flicker at the feet of the Virgin Mary. Priests shake the aspergillum over the casket. We genuflect upon entering and leaving the pew like we are meeting the Queen Mother; make the Sign of the Cross like crazy; Exchange the Peace all stiff and serious, like we’re business executives sealing a deal. When I was a kid, we didn’t even cross our legs when we sat in the pew; for some reason this posture was frowned upon. We sat upright, knees pressed together, feet on the floor.

And never, never in a million, billion years, would we have dared to pop in a wad of banana Bubblicious.

So you can see why I find gum chewing in church a little too…informal. Plus I wonder about the thought process that precedes the gum chewing. Does the gum-chewer think ahead while motoring towards church: “Hmmmm, I think last week was Communion…hon, hand me a couple Chiclets, will ya?” And what happens if they get mixed up, lose track, forget it’s a Communion week? Do they stealthily spit into a Kleenex before filing up to the altar? Stick the gum behind their ear like the Blueberry Girl in Willy Wonka?

It’s all a bit too messy for me.

I know, I know. I’m judging again. And this from the woman who lugs in an entire smorg to keep her children entertained during worship. But I can rationalize that as a survival tactic.

Gum chewing in church is my worship pet peeve. What’s yours?

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Tears of Blood and Other Signs

I remember being fascinated as a kid by stories of an Italian statue of the Virgin Mary that wept blood. Thousands flocked to the shrine to witness the miracle and pray at the statue’s feet. I was both repelled by and attracted to the idea. Even as a very young child, I was skeptical, asking my grandmother again and again, “How is that possible?” pressing her for an answer. On the other hand, part of me yearned for the bloody tears to be real, because that would have offered the proof of God’s existence I desired.


I have trouble with miracles. And signs. And phrases like, “If it’s meant to be…” I guess I’m just too much of a control freak to leave everything to chance or divine intervention. Plus people are so careless with the word “miracle,” applying it to ordinary circumstances willy-nilly – like sun breaking through storm clouds on a wedding day. Not a miracle, people – just simple meteorology.

Lately though, I have been praying to God for a “sign.” I’ve had moments, questioning moments, in which I wonder if I should be pursuing this writing about faith. Perhaps this isn’t my calling; maybe I’m supposed to be doing something else, something that doesn’t require 5 a.m. mornings, by chance? Can you help me, God? Can you let me know? I’ll be honest with you…you’re going to have to be direct. You know me…you’ve got to hit me over the head with a sign. I tend to miss them…or roll my eyes.”

I prayed that prayer for a couple of days. And then, a few nights ago, I read this, from 1 Chronicles 16: 23-29, in The Message devotional book I have. The passage was titled, “Shout from the Mountaintops”:

Sing to God, everyone and everything!
Get out his salvation news every day!
Publish his glory among the godless nations,
his wonders to all races and religions.
And why? Because God is great – well worth praising!
God…is that you? Are you talking to me? The words leapt off the page, seeming to speak, shout, directly to me. “Get out his salvation news every day…publish his glory…” I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds like the language of a writer. A sign? I still wasn’t sure.

The next day I checked my in-box, and saw this email from my Aunt Kathy:

Michelle, may God continue to inspire you to keep us laughing and yet thinking and striving to live as He has intended. Keep writing!

This was more direct – keep writing! Sort of hard to argue with that one. Perhaps God was speaking to me through Aunt Kathy?

Of course one can never prove, with scientific precision, a sign from God. That’s faith, after all. At some point you have to take the leap. I can ponder, and analyze, and hem and haw. Were those words a message from God? Was that a sign from him, advising me to plow ahead, to set my alarm for 5 a.m. yet again?

When I check in with my head, it’s saying, who knows? You could be reading into that text, you could be hearing what you want to hear from Aunt Kathy. But when I check in with my heart, I know. I feel it’s true; in my heart, I know those words were for me. God was speaking to me.

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In a Blink

I judged. Again. It was a small judgment, relatively speaking. But still, it was a judgment.

My sister-in-law Vanessa and I planned to have dinner at an upscale restaurant in Saint Paul, but when we arrived at the spot, the hostess informed us that we couldn’t be seated until much later in the evening. She recommended we try a place called The Happy Gnome one block down. “It has a bar atmosphere, but the food is terrific,” she insisted.

I was skeptical. As we trundled down Grand Avenue in search of the strangely named Happy Gnome, I said to Vanessa, “I don’t know about this. She didn’t look like a fancy food person.”

And there it was: the judgment.

I had glanced at the hostess, and in two or three seconds had digested her appearance: graphic tattoos snaking up her forearm; the plunging neckline, exposing way too much decolletage for a hostess. When she smiled, I noticed she had a little something stuck in her front tooth, a poppy seed, or perhaps a fleck of almond.

So I took those sparse details and in an instant concluded that the hostess was a particular type of person – friendly, sure; well-meaning, yes. But able to discern fancy food? Someone with a poppy seed lodged in her front tooth? I don’t think so.

We all know how this story ends. The food at The Happy Gnome was indeed divine. I devoured pan-seared sea bass on a bed of parmesan risotto and garlic brocolini; fresh, soft bread, warm from the oven; a glass of Shiraz.

I ate my dinner. And my words.

The hostess had been spot-on. Of course she knew fancy food; she worked at one of the best restaurants in Saint Paul. She was in the fancy food business. But I had overlooked that obvious detail in favor of judging her appearance…and judging her.

It’s so easy sometimes, isn’t it? Judgment doesn’t always flash like a neon sign. Sometimes it slips in the side door, cloaked and stealthy. We have to be on guard. We can judge in a blink.

"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" (Matthew 7:3)

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So Many Books, So Little Time

When all was said and done, by the time Friday morning rolled around last week I really was not in the mood to drive to Minnesota. It’s a seven-hour drive (six and a half if you go easy on the beverages), and you must remember, I’m a New England girl. You can traverse all seven states, from Maine to Rhode Island, in less time it takes to drive from Lincoln to Minneapolis. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that before last Friday, I’d been behind the wheel four consecutive hours, at most.

I left at 9 a.m., and by 10, even before I’d reached Omaha, I’d blown through much of my “entertainment” (i.e. food). I’d eaten my entire lunch, including about a half pound of red licorice bites. I’d sucked down the bottle of Starbucks iced Mocha Frappuccino (a decision I will regret about four hours later). I’d called my mother, my sister and my best friend, none of whom where home, and left plaintive, desperate messages on their answering machines: “Hello? Hellooooo??? Are you there? If you’re there, please pick up…hello??? Okay…well, I guess you’re not there…”

Finally I popped in a book-on-CD, the first of seven CDs actually, of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. It was only then that I was able to relax a bit, settle in, let the cadence of Gladwell’s voice wash over me as the cornfields rolled by. And it was then that I had a revelation.

In the last few years it seems I’ve adopted a bad habit. I skim. I skim everything. Not only do I skim emails and text messages and CNN.com headlines and “Top 85 Beauty Buys” magazine articles, I breeze through novels, too. I careen through every bit of literature I read, and the sad result is that I absorb none of it. I don’t slow down to appreciate an expertly phrased metaphor or a breathtaking image. I don’t pause to consider the author’s word choice. I don’t even slow my pace to experience the joy of the written word. I just skim through it all, bent on…I’m not sure what. Finishing, I guess; moving onto the next book, like it’s chugging towards me on a factory conveyor belt.

When Brad was studying for his doctoral exams, my dad gave him a tee-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “So many books, so little time.” That’s sort of become my approach to reading these days, although I don’t have a killer, life-altering examination looming ahead of me.

For the record, I read the Bible this way, too. I skim; I speed-read, looking for the “good stuff.” I don’t typically mull over a line or two. I don’t pray over a particular passage. I don’t read it aloud (unless I’m preparing to serve as the week’s lay reader). I’m like one of those ginormous combines I see out in the corn fields this time of year, sucking in husks and spitting them out the other end. I suck in the Bible, and instead of letting it percolate in my mind and soul, it goes nowhere, settling into an unreachable vacuous space.

That’s why listening to Blink on CD was a revelation. Cooped up in my minivan, the highway spooling ahead of me for 500 miles, I didn’t have any other options. If I wanted entertainment, if I wanted to pass the time, I was going to have to slow down. I was forced to listen to Blink at whatever pace Malcolm chose to read it. And, lucky for me, he read it slowly, thoughtfully, with emphasis in all the right places.

I had the same experience at the conference. Listening to Patricia Hampl read from her memoir The Florist’s Daughter, I was transported from that pew in the echoing church to her father’s flower shop in St. Paul. I smelled the light scent of roses; I felt the chill burst from the flower cooler she described; I heard the creak of the clerk’s sturdy shoes. I was there in that flower shop on Christmas Eve as Patricia read her story.

What a powerful experience. And of course one that’s not unique to a live reading. These last few years I’ve been “too busy” to immerse myself in the beauty and respite offered by great literature, too rushed to really lose myself in someone else’s story, to become part of their story. As I drank in Patricia Hampl’s lyrical prose, as I absorbed Malcolm Gladwell’s riveting observations (all ten hours of them!), I remembered the gift of great literature and its power to transform.


I'm unwrapping my Tuesday with Emily. Click to read more stories of Tuesdays Unwrapped.

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Voice

I’m just back from 55 rejuvenating hours in Minneapolis. Can’t you just hear the pep in my voice? The fresh vigor in my tone? I spent all day on Saturday at a writers’ seminar in St. Paul, a conference on writing and faith where I heard authors Anne Lamott, Patricia Hempl, Thomas Lynch and others read from their work and offer the 500 aspiring writers in the audience advice and inspiration. It was, in short, heaven.

I learned an awful lot. Just listening to those esteemed writers read their words; just sitting there quietly, soaking in their rich poetry and prose, ripe with breathtaking imagery, was enough. But I also heard each of them advise something in particular that really resonated with me. Each of the writers there, in one way or another, spoke about finding and trusting their own voice in their writing.

This simple advice comes at a very good time. I’ve been reading a lot lately – web zines, articles, books and especially blogs. And I find myself falling into an all-too familiar pattern: I am comparing.

“Wow. Her blog sure is fancy. Look at that template. Man those are crisp photos…she must have a really good camera.”

“Hey, how’d she get 94 followers? Why does she have 94 and I only have 33? That's totally not fair.”

“Why’d she get 18 comments? Her post isn’t that great.”

This one is wittier than I am; that one is laugh-out-loud funny. She’s more poignant. He’s more insightful.

And the clincher: she’s godlier than I am. A nicer, more patient mother – I can tell the way she writes about her kids…why is she never snippy or downright crabby like I am? She's craftier, too – she makes fun, holiday-themed crafts with her kids, pulling out tissue paper, scissors, glue, string and fashioning adorable, Martha Stewartish decorations, while I resort to the lame Hobby Lobby peel-n-stick rubber ghost collage.

She’s more genuine, more loving, more compassionate. She’s a better person.

And that’s when I begin doubting what I have to say and how I say it. And the revising begins. A little polish here, some chiseling there, buff and shine, and suddenly I’m trying to write like someone else, emulate someone else, fashion a prettier, cleaner, holier version of myself. Suddenly I’m trying to be someone else.

Anne, Patricia and Thomas reminded me that I need to spend less time envying others’ talents and focus instead on honing my own unique voice, gritty and crabby though it may be. Hearing their words, each so unique and different from the other, reminded me that God has given me a particular way to use my own voice, a voice that may reach some in a way that a godlier, sweeter voice might not.

So I’ll end this post with two quotes, one from Luke and one from Anne Lamott. Today these seemingly disparate pieces of advice meld together to remind me that God has given me a unique voice for a reason, not so I should envy and covet others’, but so I can speak of God and his work in a way that’s authentic and true – true for me, and I hope true for others, too.

“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

“If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it.”  -- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird


Are you using your unique voice as God intended? Are you telling the truth as you see it and understand it? Are you taking risks to use your God-given voice in a way that might impact someone else?

We don't need to envy someone else's talents, someone else's voice. Each one of us has a unique voice, unlike any other; each one of us has a unique way in which to use it.

Thanks, Anne. Thanks, Luke. I needed that.




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Writing about Faith

A short post today, as I am currently in Minneapolis to attend a day-long seminar on Faith and Writing featuring Anne Lamott. If you have never read her, she is great, great, great! Yes, she's gritty; yes, she hops onto the political soapbox from time to time; yes she swears occasionally, but she also has insightful, inspiring, laugh-out-loud observations about faith in the everyday. Her writing has truly been an inspiration to me, and I am excited beyond belief to attend this conference today with my sister-in-law Vanessa, who has graciously sacrificed her day to go with me (because, quite frankly, I tend to turn into a quaking wallflower at these types of events).


So, without further ado...I will leave you with a few words from Anne Lamott about why she brings her young son Sam to church. This is from Traveling Mercies:

I make him because I can. I outweigh him by nearly seventy-five pounds.

But this is only part of it. The main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want -- which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy -- are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith; they are Buddhists, Jews, Christians -- people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful. I saw something once from the Jewish Theological Seminary that said, 'A human life is like a single letter of the alphabet. It can be meaningless. Or it can be part of a great meaning.' Our funky little church is filled with people who are working for peace and freedom, who are out there on the streets and inside praying, and they are home writing letters, and they are at the shelters with giant platters of food.
 Amen!

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Rocky Words


Did you ever say something, or write something, and then a little bit later feel that telltale oogy feeling slide into your belly? The uh-oh feeling? The pit?

Yesterday morning I posted my piece on The Fringe, and then a few hours later when it popped into my email in-box (yes, I subscribe to my own blog; don’t ask), I reread it.

And that’s when I felt it. Instant pit. It began with a low-level ache in my gut, but quickly yawned open to a pit the size of the Marianas Trench. You know, the trench that plummets like 57 miles beneath the floor of the Pacific (actually it’s seven miles, but you know what I mean).

I knew that I had stepped over the line; I’d been too critical; I’d stated something too harshly.

I’ve always been a verbal blurter. Now, it seems, I’ve expanded my horizons; I’m a blogger blurter, too.

When Brad got home from work yesterday afternoon I asked him to read the post. He had already read it. “Well,” I asked him. “What did you think?”

“Actually…I was a little surprised,” he answered.

Let me translate this Understatement Maneese for you: “I was appalled! I was horrified! What in the world were you thinking???!!!”

I totally freaked when I heard Brad tell me he was “surprised” by the post, and in the midst of my freaking, Brad asked me this: “Why did you write it then?”

This is a man who always gets straight to the point.

“I don’t know! I was running late…it was already 7:20…I slept late!” I blubbered. “Noah kept holding his new succulent bloom in my face, Rowan was sitting on my lap, hanging on my neck! I just pushed the publish button! I wasn’t even really thinking about what I wrote!”


I wasn’t even thinking.

Honestly, I would have been much better suited as a nineteenth-century writer. I think the process of dipping a quill into the inkwell and painstakingly dabbing ink onto paper would have slowed me down, given me more time to think, process, contemplate. Twenty-first century communications – all this frantic emailing, blogging, social networking, facebooking, twittering, tweeting, squawking – is just too much, too fast, too frenzied, too instantaneous.

I thought about this recently when my friend Brian, who lives in Japan, made an offhand remark on his facebook wall that prompted a flurry of responses, a few of them offensive. He ended up backpedaling, apologizing and sheepishly admitting that he’d meant no harm, and I remember thinking, “Ah. We must be more careful here. This is dangerous ground.”

Just this week I told my boss in a meeting that I was going to try to rely less on email correspondence with my colleagues, because I thought email bred miscommunication. There I was, waxing eloquent from my soapbox on the perils of modern communications, and the very next day, I blog blurted.

So I called my pastor and apologized. I stammered and stuttered and sweated and paced, and of course my pastor received and accepted my pathetic yammering with extraordinary grace. In fact, by the end of the conversation my pastor was comforting me – “Don’t worry…we still love you...it’s okay.” I felt a nanosecond of relief when I got off the phone, only to realize that somehow, in the span of that six-minute phone call, the focus had shifted from my pastor to me. “Great, that’s just great,” I thought to myself, still pacing my office at work. “How did that happen? How did we end up talking about my feelings, when I was the one calling to apologize?!”

Did you ever have a day in which you found yourself quite tiresome?

It was a hard day…and a hard lesson. One I’ve been taught before, but yet doesn’t seem to stick.

I will keep trying though. I will try to think before I speak and write. To slow down. To blurt less. I’ll ask God for help, too.

Perhaps I’ll write more about rocks. Rocks are pretty innocuous, and they seem to be providing creative fodder these days. At the very least I may tape a Proverb or Psalm to my forehead, or better yet to my keyboard. How about this one, which covers the gamut of rocks and words:

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer (Psalm 19:14).

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The Fringe

Back in May my friend Kim posted a piece on Kimmy Does Denver about an art exhibit she attended at the Denver Art Museum. Within each painting was embedded a cryptic message, barely visible and difficult to discern unless the viewer knew to look for it. Kim noted how these cryptic artistic messages were in some ways similar to the ways Christians speak about faith, how the message is often embedded in language exclusive to the members of the club.

Several months ago I heard a sermon in which the pastor preached passionately about the importance of loving God from your heart. It’s a topic that strikes a chord with me, as I often struggle with how to know God with my head and my heart (I’m great with the head part – reading the Bible, taking classes, "studying" God, but a little shaky in the heart). Early in the sermon, the pastor said this: “If you’re not loving, truly loving, Jesus in your heart right now, then you might as well tune out, because what I am going to talk about won’t mean anything to you.”

Sure, I understand the value of drama in good preaching. I understand that sometimes big statements are important to grab attention, to get the conversation started. But the problem here, as I see it, is that the pastor (to apply one of my favorite cliches) couldn't see the forest through the trees. In this instance the pastor was so deeply convicted, so deeply entrenched in the church, so accustomed to being surrounded by people with a similarly grounded faith, that the pastor forgot that not everyone is right there, in the same place.

About the same time I heard the sermon and read Kim's blog post, I read a memoir called Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor. At one point Taylor writes about what she calls the “center” of the church and the edge, and how she had never really understood there was any other place for a faithful person other than the center, until she stepped out of the center and suddenly found herself on the edge:

For half my life, the axis of my world had run through the altar of a church. I spent most of my time in church, with church people, engaging in the work of the church. My view of reality grew from that center. I looked at life through the windows of the church, using the language I had learned there not only to describe what I saw but also to make sense of it.

The morning I heard the sermon I wondered if there were people sitting in the pews who felt “disinvited." I think if I had heard those words even a year ago, that’s exactly how I would have felt. I would have thought, “Well, I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m loving God in my heart; I don’t know if I truly feel faith it in my heart.” Yet I absolutely believe that the preacher was not intentionally trying to alienate anyone. I simply think the energy and passion of the moment won out -- that the pastor was so solidly centered in the middle, she/he forgot that there’s an edge.

I’m not criticizing this pastor or the church. I simply think it’s a telling example of how easy it is for Christians to exclude, without even realizing they are doing so, and even with the very best intentions. I’ve done it, too. When Brad read a draft of my book manuscript, he indicated several instances in which I used language that might be unfamiliar or even alienating to my audience – language like “church family,” “faith community,” “the Word.” Here I am, supposed to be writing a book that attracts the doubter, the questioner, the non-believer, and I fell into the language of exclusivity without even realizing it. Me – the girl who didn’t even believe in God a mere few years ago! It's that easy.

I think as Christians we need to make an extra effort to ensure that our words, whether they are from the pulpit, in our “church literature” or even in our everyday conversations – are inclusive. That they invite and embrace, rather than proclaim a members-only club. After all, as Barbara Brown Taylor observes, the spiritual map is a wide and varied terrain: “Both the center and the edge are essential to the spiritual landscape… faith in God has both a center and an edge, and each is necessary for the soul’s health.”

[Thanks to Kim for sparking this thought-process way back in May. Read her post on Kimmy Does Denver for more food for thought. She explains the concept much more eloquently than I did in my opening paragraph!]



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