Hear It on Sunday, Use It on Monday: Judgment Day

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I judge. I judge strangers who make the wrong moral choices. I judge other mothers who make the wrong parenting decisions. I judge friends who don’t make the same choices I would make. I even judge whole groups of people – rich people, poor people and those who don’t think like me or who hold different political beliefs.

This week as we continued our study of the Book of Jonah, we heard God reiterate his command to Jonah that he should travel to the wicked city of Nineveh and proclaim God’s message. We also read that the Ninevites, upon hearing God’s message of repentance, did something quite unexpected. They listened and repented:

"The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth." (Jonah 3:5).

As I read how the Ninevites from the king to the commoner repented, I realized something important about judgment:

I realized that God is the one and only true judge.

It’s so easy to point the finger. We deem a a person or a particular group of people wrong or evil or sinners or unsalvageable on the basis of their morals or ethnicity, their lifestyle or their religion or their choices. But is it up to us to judge?

By all accounts, the Ninevites were a deeply corrupt people, described as wicked by God himself. Yet in the end, God decided they were redeemable. He showed them compassion and did not obliterate their city. God gave them a second chance.

Would I have deemed the Ninevites worthy of forgiveness, or would their sins have simply been too heinous? Would I have written them off as unsalvageable?

Jonah did. When he learned that God showed compassion to the Ninevites, Jonah was angry and disgusted, and he begged God to take away his life, claiming death would be preferable than sharing space on earth with such a people.

And God simply relied, “Have you any right to be angry?”

That’s the crux of the story for me: do I have any right to be angry? Do I have any right to judge? Do I have any right to condemn, when only one holds that authority?

It’s easy for me to think of the Ninevites in the abstract. But let’s get tough. Who are your present-day Ninevites? Who would rank as least-deserving of God’s compassion? I’ll be frightfully honest: for me, the present-day Ninevites are sexual predators – pedophiles and rapists and sexual traffickers. While it’s easy for me to swallow this lesson when it’s the ancient Ninevites we're talking about, it’s a lot harder when I think of present-day sexual predators basking in God’s compassion.

But God tells Jonah, and me, that I don’t get to make that decision. It’s not up to me. I don’t have any right to be angry, no matter who God decides to show compassion to, no matter how undeserving they are in my eyes.

“Have you any right to be angry?” God asks.

And no matter how I slice it and dice it, the answer is always no.

Who are your present-day Ninevites? Who do you judge as unworthy of compassion and forgiveness?


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Now it's your turn. Tell us how God is speaking to you through the Bible this week!



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Precious


I didn't expect it to be so hard. When Vanessa suggested we sort through Janice's clothes and personal items so Jon wouldn’t have to tackle with the task himself, I readily agreed. But I wasn't prepared for how bittersweetly personal the process would be. I didn't expect to find the lists – scraps of paper with Christmas and birthday gift ideas scratched in black ink and stuffed deep into jacket pockets. I didn't expect the clothes – jackets and blouses, tee shirts and hats – to be so drenched with memories. It wasn’t just cotton, silk and wool. It was the jacket she wore to her 65th birthday lunch in the Keys; the spattered tee-shirt she painted in; the fleece sweatshirt she bought when we were in the Berkshires together.

I didn't expect to have so much trouble parting with these items either. I wanted to keep just about everything, even the clothes that wouldn't possibly fit me, even the vases that were, frankly, hideous. Simply because the memories were precious. And because everything was hers.

A month or so ago as I browsed the shelves at Barnes & Noble I picked up Unstuff Your Life, by Andrew Mellen, and spent some time curled in a chair, leafing through its pages. I was drawn to this book like an ant to a sweet peony bud.

I didn't buy the book, but I took copious notes because Mellen suggested great tips for sorting clutter, organizing my home (and car!) and even shopping.

This statement by the author embedded in his chapter about collections and mementos, stopped me short:

"If everything is precious, nothing is precious."

Isn't that the truth? If everything is precious, nothing is precious.

I don't know about you, but that's exactly where I run afoul. It happened when I sorted through Janice's clothes, shoes, purses,  jewelry and vases. I wanted to keep it all, because nearly all of it was associated with a sweet memory.

And it happens with my kids' things, too: macaroni ornaments, glitter snowflakes, clay Martians and reams of school papers. Teeny onesies and stuffed lambs and Goodnight Moon. Nearly every item is associated with a memory. Nearly every art project is special.

But the author speaks the truth: if everything is precious, nothing is precious.

So that's my mantra as I continue to sort and separate. I keep the favorites Lambie and Lovie, but I haul two dozen neglected stuffed animals to the Goodwill.

I keep the quilts Great Grandma Hilma made for each of the boys, and the afghan my mom crocheted when Noah was born, but I cram receiving blankets, hooded bath towels and even the hand-embroidered pillow cases stitched by I-don't-know-who into a trash bag bound for the trunk.


I keep two of Janice’s vases, a purse, a skirt, one tee-shirt, a sweatshirt and a few pieces of costume jewelry, including the photo charm bracelet we gave her for Mother’s Day last year. I donate the rest of what I brought home from Minnesota to the Goodwill.

And last week I wore the earrings Janice personally gave to me just three weeks before she died.

Because those? Those are precious. 


What's your sorting style? Keep everything or select precious few? 

[I'm including this post in my Shop-Not Chronicles, because strangely, not shopping has led to sorting, simplifying and donating, too!]

Linking up with Cheryl for her Saturday Simplify series:

The Simplify Journey

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Perfecting the Elevator Pitch

Descending Memories


I’m still shamelessly grabbing every opportunity I can to tell people I now have an agent. Anytime someone innocuously asks, “So…what’s new? How’s things?” I blurt, “Oh not too much…I got an agent for my book!!!” My officemate surely wants to clap her hands over her ears and run screaming from the room, but she’s been remarkably gracious and patient with my boasting.

So last week my colleague Penny asked the question, and after I blurted my answer, she said, “Oh! I didn’t even know you had written a book.”

Then, when I mentioned to Penny that I’d written a memoir, she said this: “A memoir…huh…interesting. So what’s it about?”

Commence awkward silence.

And then even more awkward bumbling:

“Uh. Well, um…it’s sort of a faith story…I mean kind of a story about religion. Well, actually it’s like a conversion story…about finding God. Sort of.”

Penny laughed. “I think you better work a little more on your elevator pitch,” she advised (good-naturedly).

She’s got that right. My conversation with Penny illuminated two distinct problems. One: I lack a concise description of my book for these very situations. And two: I’m still not very comfortable admitting that I write about God, especially to particular audiences.

You see, I know Penny well enough to suspect that her views may not be exactly in line with those of a conservative Christian. Not that I’m the most conservative Christian you’ll ever meet…but honestly, I worried that once Penny had heard I’d written a “God book,” she would lump me in with however she defined “Christian.” And I wasn't sure that's where I wanted to be lumped.

Of course, I didn’t have any idea what her definition was, but I was afraid of it nonetheless. I was afraid of the label. I was afraid of how that might affect our polite office friendship. I was afraid of how that might affect how she thought of me. I was even afraid of what that meant for how I define myself.

I know. All that angst over a two-line elevator pitch.

Maybe I should have thought about all this before I started to write about God.

My awkward conversation with Penny reminded me of a similar one I’d had with my big boss a couple months ago. He’d read my newspaper column that weekend and had stopped by my office to chat about it.

“Huh,” he said, when I confirmed that I wrote a monthly “religion and faith” column for the Journal Star. “I wouldn’t have expected that about you.”

Expected what? That I wrote a newspaper column? That I wrote about faith? That I had faith?

I had no idea what he meant by that cryptic statement, and I didn’t dare ask. Later, of course, I obsessed over it. I figured his comment either implied that I’m so cool and jaded and edgy that I don’t fit the Christian mold…or that I’m so evil and crass and ruthless that I couldn’t possibly be a Christian.

Given the choice, I want to be the edgy Christian. They do exist you know – look at Rob Bell. Or Jon Acuff. They’re totally cool. And not one bit sheepish about being Christian. I want to be like that.

But who am I kidding, right? If you’ve read this blog for more than three days, you already know that I could never pull off Edgy Christian. For starters, I’m a Lutheran. Totally not edgy. Secondly, I don’t wear enough black – in fact, horrors, I prefer shades of turquoise and terra cotta. And third, I don’t even have a single tattoo. And even if I did, that tattoo would somehow look preppy on me.

I’m afraid I don’t have a tidy conclusion to this post. I can’t tell you I went home from either conversation, prayed about it and then comfortably and confidently slid into my place on the Christian spectrum. Frankly I still feel pretty befuddled about the whole thing.

So for now, I’m simply focusing on finding satisfaction and comfort in the process itself, in the growing and learning and becoming whatever God has in store for me.

What about you? Can anyone relate to this? Or am I simply the weakest Christian on the planet?!

Linking up with Emily...

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Green Beans = Love

I am thrilled to welcome Amy Sullivan to Graceful today. If you haven't met Amy yet or stopped by her place, please  do...today! I just love her heart and her honesty. Amy writes truthfully about her journey from a selfish obsession with stuff, stuff, stuff toward a place of gracious living and gracious giving. I learn a lot from Amy, including how to better tame my need for more and how to communicate that less-is-more philosophy to my children.

Welcome, Amy – and thank you for blessing me and so many with your sustaining words.

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Green Beans = Love
A Guest Post by Amy Sullivan

It starts with a need.

A family waiting on the release of their ten-day-old baby boy. A daughter making long-term living arrangements for her sick father. A woman undergoing cancer treatment. People who may not know each other, but people sharing the heavy weight of a hospitalized family member. People temporarily living here, the Rathbun Center in Asheville, North Carolina.


This story involves another group of people. Not a bunch of do-gooders, mind you, just a plain ‘ol regular bunch of people. People who want to help.


But how?


What can we give?


Does anyone really want what we have to offer?


Do we have the skills required?



The chairs fill and hushed voices whisper. We listen. We serve. We share stories.


Little hands color pictures to brighten dark rooms and doorways.


And we walk away changed because we are fairly certain that sometimes green beans equal love.



[Thank you, Amy!]

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Beautiful Broken Us


They sit on beach chairs, on beach towels rumpled and striped, legs splayed, faces to the sun. They sit while their kids splash and mold kingdoms out of cool damp sand. They sit amidst florescent pink and yellow pails and shovels, amidst half-eaten bags of Cheetos and uncapped bottles of Dr. Pepper. They sit with flesh wrinkled, saggy, taut, bronzed, fish-belly white. They sit and gesture and talk in French and English. And is that Portuguese perhaps?

I don't often get the opportunity to observe the human masses. The airport is a good place for that, but more often I'm riding the moving walkways with exuberant kids or standing in line for McNuggets and fries. The mall is a fine place, too – settled onto a bench to watch shufflers and shoppers – but usually I'm leaning on the metal rail, gazing dizzy at the carousel as my kids spin beneath colored lights or sweeping frenzied past kiosks in search of the perfect birthday gift an hour before the party.

The beach is the perfect people-watching spot, and two months or so ago I did just that. I sat on a fabric chair low to the sand, book propped on my lap, sunhat pulled low on my brow, legs stretched across infinitesimal bits of coral, and I watched.

And as I watched an overwhelming sense of oneness, an inexplicable feeling of communion and connection spanning race, age, culture and background settled on my chest. 

We are separate-connected, distant-close, many-one.

Moms call to kids, beckoning in words I can't understand but in tone all too familiar. Children play side-by-side, content in ephemeral friendship if only for an hour. Teenagers giggle behind screens of blond, flat-ironed hair. Couples sit reading in quiet.

Our broken-beautiful oneness spools like a satin ribbon from sea to crystalline sea.



"Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean."
Ryunosuke Satoro, Japanese poet

Sharing sisterhood stories over at Jen's place today:




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Hear It on Sunday, Use It on Monday: Love in the Pit

Welcome to "Hear It on Sunday, Use It on Monday," a community where we share what we are hearing from God. Feel free to write about what you hear in church on Sunday or about a verse that you've been reading or pondering on your own during the week. Or come back a bit later in the week to link up if you're not quite ready now (the Linky stays open until Friday).

For more details on how to link up your post, click here. Or if you're an old pro, simply grab the "Hear It, Use It" button code in the sidebar and get to work!

Thanks for your presence and thoughts here!


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Love in the Pit


My stomach lurches, spicy scent of ginger wafting as I carry the steaming cup toward the couch. Head pounding, back aching, all I can see as I ease back onto the pillows is mess.
A cobweb thread fans in the draft like undulating seaweed. Cup rings stain the chipped white paint on the coffee table. Dingy fringe on the unraveling rug lays tangled on the dusty floor. I feel queasy. A dull ache gnaws in the spot below my sternum.
Teacup drained clean, I ease off the couch and stand at the sink, hot water filling the bucket with suds. As I slosh the mop over the floor in shiny streaks, I think about the conversation I’d had with my sister a week prior – the one where she'd sullenly declared, “I prefer to think of God as distant and removed, because otherwise I can’t make sense of the suffering."
"How do you make sense of the suffering?" she'd asked.
I hadn’t had a good answer for her. I’d blamed it on the chaos of the moment – roller in hand, hair splattered crusty, sock smeared sticky with Valspar Antique Linen, boys carousing past slick walls, I'd just laughed. “I think this is a conversation best had in person,” I’d said, refraining from answering her question.

But now, as I slap soapy water onto the kitchen floor, a part of me wonders if Jeanine is right. Maybe God is distant, detached. Maybe he does simply fold his arms across his chest and observe from afar.

In church this week we continued our study of the Book of Jonah. We read that Jonah, pressed against the stinking, slimy insides of a fish, offers not complaint or despair, but a prayer of thanksgiving to God:


"'In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to me cry'…I said, 'I have been banished from your sight; yet I will look again toward your holy temple…When my life was ebbing away, I remember you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple...'" (Jonah 2:1-2, 4, 7)

Jonah offers a prayer of thanksgiving, despite suffering; a prayer of thanksgiving, despite despair and pain, fatigue and fear and hopelessness.

As I slosh suds and think about suffering, I don’t pray thanks. As I sweep pebbles and granola bar crumbs and salt crystals into the dustpan, knees pressed into creaking floor, I don’t pray thanks. I do just the opposite, in fact. I choose complaint. I choose bitterness and ingratitude.

Lest you assume I’ve simply forgotten about grace, let me be clear. My decision is a conscious choice. As I push that dripping mop over tile and around chairs, I think about Ann Voskamp’s book. I remember her hard eucharisteo, her wise words and her embrace of thanks. My own choice unfurls before me: I can find thanks in the moment, some small thanks, or I can choose bitter despair.

I choose the latter.

I get angry then. I stand still in the dining room, mop in hands, hair hanging stringy in my face, and I get mad. First at Ann Voskamp, if you can believe it. I do, just for a minute, because I know she’s right. I know she’s weathered far harder trials – loss and grief, depression and anxiety – and yet she still says yes to grace. I get mad because her story, her life, proves the right choice is possible. She's no man unfathomably giving thanks in the belly of a big fish. She is living, breathing, real-life proof that I can choose thanks.

And then, of course, I get mad at myself for being mad at Ann Voskamp, because who gets mad at sweet Ann Voskamp, for crying out loud?

Downstairs in the dank basement I lift the lid of the washer and wrangle heavy denim, tangled sweats, a boy’s winter boot. My fingers brush something smooth and hard wedged beneath the agitator, and when I lift my hand from the washer I see that I have a cross grasped between wet fingers. From the pit, from the depths of grit and loose pebbles and a ring of scum, I pull the cross.

It must have fallen from a boy’s corduroy pocket and spun with the muddy socks and the winter boots that smelled like dead muskrat. I recognize the plastic cross as the one they’d brought home from Sunday School the week before, the one that reads “God Is Love,” black letters stamped on clear plastic. And when the fetid water drains through the corroded pipes, leaving clean(er) clothes and a ring of taupe soap scum, the cross stays anchored on the bottom of the washer. A gift.


I lean the cross upright against the bleach bottle. And then I smile a little bit. I smile at the irony. I smile at how well God knows me. Because not just any old subtle sign will do for me, you know. God  has to get literal with this girl.

“God is love,” he tells me. Even amidst ugly grit. Especially amidst ugly grit.

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Your turn...please tell us how God is speaking to you this week...I can't wait to hear!

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Forbearance


I had to look up the definition. In fact, I couldn’t even spell it correctly – I slid an “e” between the “r” and the “b.”

Forbearance. One of the fruits of the Spirit listed by Paul in Galatians.

Some translations list it as “patience,” but Jennifer noted that her 2010 version used the word “forbearance” instead, as in: “refraining from acting,” “controlling oneself under provocation,” “keeping oneself in check,” or, in the context of the mortgage process: “a special agreement between the lender and borrower to delay a foreclosure, the literal meaning of which is ‘holding back.’”

Forbearance, it seems, is patience kicked up a notch. Forbearance requires gritted teeth, clenched fists, a forced relinquishing.

I didn’t think I could write about such a legal-sounding, stuffy word. I didn’t see how it applied to me or faith or fruits...until I remembered the conversation I’d had with my friend Sarah just two nights prior.

We sat at a gritty table in the corner of McDonald’s playland. The kids had wolfed down nuggets and cheeseburgers and were whooping it up on the plastic slides and tunnels while Sarah and I chatted. We were engaged in a  deep conversation about our natural inclinations – what fuels us, sometimes to the point of a loss of control.

For Sarah it’s social connection. “I could make plans for nearly every night of the week,” she confided, noting that her daughter preferred a few more quiet evenings at home.

I admitted that for me, it’s striving. I always need to be striving toward a particular goal, checking steps off my to-do list, forging ahead, making progress. But sometimes, Sarah and I agreed, we need to take a step or two back from our natural inclinations, to reassess whether they are still healthy or if they’ve slid into the realm of the obsessive. Sometimes we need to forcibly hold ourselves back from what fuels us.

I told Sarah about a time not too long ago when I ceased to strive. It was after my second round of agent rejections. At that point I took a hiatus from the process. I continued to write, but I ceased all querying efforts: I stopped researching agents, stopped tweaking my manuscript, stopped obsessing over whether I should continue to pursue an agent, or begin to target smaller publishing houses or self-publish. I stopped forcing the process. It wasn’t that I took two steps back as much as that I didn’t take two steps forward. I simply stopped.

When my dad called to ask about how the agent process was going, or when Brad asked what my plan was, I simply answered, “I’m in a holding pattern right now. I’m doing nothing.” It felt foreign and uncomfortable, the not-striving. This “refraining from acting,” this “holding back,” this “forbearance,” does not come naturally to me. I’m a full-steam-ahead kind of girl.

It took some teeth-grit, that period of forbearance. It took some self-control to sit back and do nothing; to wait, knowing an agent wasn’t going to come knocking on my door while I gathered my wits. But yet there was also some relief in the stasis.

That period of forbearance taught me that I can’t always force a result—that sometimes I need to create the space for God to work, for his plan to unfold in its own time. Forbearance taught me that even when it might feel like nothing is happening, when goals and ambitions and life have stalled, that God is still working behind the scenes, smoothing pot-holed paths and paving bumpy roads.

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law." (Galatians 5:22-23)

Have you ever had to hold back from something intentionally? To grit your teeth and exercise restraint? Did the “refraining from acting” teach you anything?

Linking up with Jennifer V. Davis on her Journeys series. Today's topic: forbearance.

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And for those of you thinking about linking up with "Hear It on Sunday, Use It on Monday," the linky will go live Sunday night at 9 p.m. CT. I promise it will work this time [actually, I don't promise...but I will do my darndest!]. Looking forward to seeing you all there and hearing about how God is speaking to you these days!

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Paper and Ink


It was the paper that caught my eye. I’d thought it was stationary, had assumed it was store-bought, sheets packaged 100 to a box. Scattered on laminate countertop, the stationary’s intricate floral pattern held my gaze. I bent closer to look, picked up the sheet and held it up to my face. And that’s when I saw: the paper was not store-bought.

She has no Hallmark, no Target, no aisles stocked with vibrant papers and elegant designs. She has no fancy felt-tipped colored markers, no Sharpies, no 164-box of Crayola crayons. She’d drawn the blossoms by hand, petals penciled meticulously onto plain white sheets like magnolia blossoms on snow.

She’d drawn them just for us. A gift. And I almost didn’t notice.

I struggle to write letters to our girls in Africa. I dread it, in fact, because the gulf between Nebraska and Africa gapes so wide. And I don’t simply mean in miles.

What to write to girls who have so little? That we just returned from palm-lined beaches for our Christmas trip? That we are taking our young son and his five friends bowling for his birthday party? That we recently repainted our older son’s bedroom, bought him new curtains and a new comforter to replace the ones that were not-so-worn?

“Dear my lovely parents,” she writes in elaborate script. And my heart bleeds. I can’t even get through the greeting without eyes blurring.



She tells us about her studies and preparation for upcoming exams: “I hope to do wonders!” she writes, and I nod as I read through the blur. She shares a bit of good news: she’s been elected prefect of sports and games at her school, “a dream come true.” And always, always, she prays and loves us from afar.

"I always pray to God to give you a long life in this world and to help you with your daily activities," she writes. "And I pray to help my youngers in their studies." Her friends are praying too, and her siblings. They all pray for us – the ones who have virtually nothing pray for the ones who have so much.

I feel a sick pit in my gut.



By the time I finish the letter, fold it in half and in half again and slip it back into the wrinkled envelope, I’m wrecked. I’ve read the letter aloud to Brad, Noah and Rowan. The kids don’t get it. They half-listen, interrupt with inane questions, quickly move on to Legos and dominoes after I’m done reading. They simply don’t get it – they can’t possibly understand how little Neema and Mary have.

And then, the realization hits: I don’t get it either.

I can’t possibly relate to their lack, their loss, their lives. I can’t possibly understand the daily hardships they face. I can’t possibly relate to the depths of their faith and hope. I’m no better than my kids. I don’t see it either. I read the letter; tears spring to my eyes; I feel the guilt pang.

And then what?

I move on. I forget. I tuck their letters into the manila folder labeled “Neema and Mary.” I file the folder in the proper drawer and then shut the cabinet tight.

And so today I  pray that God will open the eyes of my heart. I pray that he will give me eyes to see beyond paper and ink. I pray that he will give me a heart that feels more than the passing pang. And I pray that he gives me the courage to remember my daughters in Africa, and not just in the moments before I slide the file cabinet shut tight.

I pray that he engraves their stories, their very existence, forever on my heart.

“You show that you are a letter from Christ…written not in ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3)

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Fear Factor


I’ve read a lot of blog posts lately about fear: overcoming fear, confronting fear, fear in writing, fear in art. “Huh. What's that all about?" I thought to myself. " What’s everyone so afraid of? I don’t have fear. I’m not afraid of writing."

Well let's be frank here: that's one big fat lie.

For starters there’s the fact that I wrote my entire memoir virtually in secret. I told only two people in the two years it took me to write the book: my husband and my sister. Throughout the process my sister nagged from time to time: “You know, I think you ought to tell Mom and Dad you’re writing a book. Don’t you think that’s something they ought to know?”

“Yeah, yeah, I will, I will,” I reassured Jeanine. “I just have to find the right time.” I told myself I wanted to tell them in person; this wasn’t the kind of news one should convey over the phone. Conveniently I lived 1,500 miles from my parents, so the telling was mercifully postponed.

I finally went back to Massachusetts for a visit, and you guessed it, I chickened out. Not entirely, of course. No, I waited until the eleventh hour – literally the night before I was to board the plane back to Nebraska – to drop the book bomb on my parents.

“Well, I think I’m done,” my dad announced at about 10 p.m., yawning and shuffling toward the bedroom. “I’ll see you in the morning, Shell.”

“Oh, yeah. Um, hold on a second, Dad. I have something to tell you. Um, I just thought you and Mom should know that I, uh, I wrote a book. In my spare time. I wrote a memoir.”

“What do you mean you wrote a book?” asked my mom, leaning forward in the recliner, her nubby blue robe cinched tight.

My dad stood stalk still like a totem pole in the kitchen, arms crossed across his chest.

“It’s a memoir,” I repeated. “About God. Well about me and God and religion and stuff. I brought a copy with me so you can read it. I was hoping you could give me some feedback, you know...if you want.”

“I don’t want to read it,” my dad announced. He turned on his heel, walked into the bedroom and closed the door behind him.

“What were you thinking?” my sister asked later when we reviewed the disastrous book bomb announcement. “Could your timing have been worse? Did you have to wait until the last possible second to tell them? How’d you think they were going to react?”

It’s true. My timing could have been better. I could have given my parents ample opportunity to process the book bomb announcement. I could have allowed ample time for questions and discussion.

But I’d been afraid to tell them: afraid of their reaction, afraid they’d be disappointed or angry or wigged out. And likewise, when my parents heard I had written a book, a memoir of all things, they were afraid, too; afraid they would turn page after page of family dirty laundry flapping for all the world to see.

We were all just plain afraid.

It turned out okay in the end. The laundry, apparently, was only mildly dingy.

My parents read the book. My mom read it first and reacted positively and kindly corrected some factual inaccuracies. And my dad? My dad got really into it. He requested additional copies. He wanted his deacon to read it. He wanted me to come speak to his Catholic men’s group and read from the manuscript. He mailed me books from Amazon and links to articles and websites. He got on board, 110 percent.

So if you’re thinking that I’m done with fear now, that I’ve moved past it, think again. Not ten minutes after I got off the phone with Rachelle Gardner – The Call – I stopped mid-squeal and mid-leap and turned to my husband: “Oh no!” I said, smile morphing to grimace. “I think this means I need to write another book. What am I going to write about?! I have nothing to write about! How am I going to write another book?!”

And so it begins again…

Is fear holding you back from pursuing a dream or a goal? How have you conquered fear in the past?

Linking up with Emily for her Thursday Imperfect Prose community.

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The Gospel According to Seuss


When my son Rowan settles on a favorite book, he likes to read it five, six, ten times in a row, night after night after night. Most recently it’s been The Lorax. I glimpse him heading toward the bed, cornflower blue cover of The Lorax wedged under his arm, and I grit my teeth and commence meditative breathing.

I admit, I don’t love Dr. Seuss. All that silly rhyming and nonsensical tongue-twisting syntax. The googly-googs and the moodly-woobs, the wiffle-wambas and the schissle-schambas. It’s all just too much for me. Really, after a long day of work and dishes, laundry and homework, epic dust-bunny battles and sorting stacks of mail and backpack debris, I’m expected to perform linguistic cartwheels, too? I’ll be frank: I’ve been known to slide The Lorax, Green Eggs & Ham and The Birthday Bird beneath the dusty, crumby underbelly of the couch, where no man or child dares go. I’ve also carted a few in the Seuss oeuvre to the Goodwill. Let some other mother, the one with infinite patience and a more limber tongue, deal with Thing One and Thing Two.

I've learned, though, that The Lorax has a few lessons to teach me about faith, believe it or not. Join me over at Ginny's place to find out more...

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Hear It on Sunday, Use It on Monday: Swallowed Whole

Welcome to the first-ever Hear It, Use It community at Graceful! I've been writing these Hear It on Sunday, Use It on Monday posts for just over a year now. It's been a fruitful way for me to take what I've heard either in the reading on Sunday or in the sermon, ponder it a bit as I walk through my day, and then write a reflection. The process helps solidify the message and makes me more inclined to take it with me throughout the rest of the week...and beyond!

With some gentle prodding from my friend Kim, I decided to launch a link-up community around the Hear It, Use It theme (knees knocking!). I welcome you to blog about what you are hearing from God, how he is whispering (or yelling!) to you and how his words are impacting your life. Feel free to write about what you hear in church on Sunday or a verse that you've been reading or pondering on your own during the week. Also feel free to come back a bit later in the week to link-up if you are not quite ready now (I'll leave the Linky open until Friday).

A few housekeeping details: please link to your actual Hear It, Use It post, not just to your general blog address. That way if readers come by later in the week, they can pop directly over to your relevant post. Please also link back to this community, either by using the button (located to the right in the sidebar) or simply a text link. And lastly, try to visit others in the community to offer encouragement – and to hear what God might be saying to you there, too!

Lastly, a huge smiling thank you to both readers and linkers – you give me the courage to launch this endeavor!

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I felt pretty cocky the morning I hoisted my pregnant self into the front seat of the U-Haul, rolled down the window and waved goodbye to my parents and best friend. I was sad, sure, but I was also smug. My husband and I were adventurous: we weren’t content to settle into the same-old, same-old. No, we were taking to the open road, heading over hills and plains toward Nebraska and a brand-new life. I felt like a pioneer, bouncing on the springy truck seat like a bonneted wife on the wagon bench.

The first three weeks or so in Nebraska were great. We painted the baby’s nursery, stocked up on diapers and hung the mobile over the crib. I ate barbeque ribs for the first time, avoided gargantuan grasshoppers that sprung from the hostas and spent afternoons reading beside Blue Stem Lake.

And then came the baby. Noah wasn’t at all what I'd expected. Instead of a burbling bundle of sweet-smelling joy, I got a red-faced, scrunched, screeching howler monkey. I had birthed my worse fear: a colicky baby. Noah cried non-stop, a high-pitched, hyperventilating wailing that simply would not cease, no matter what we did to comfort him.

To make matters worse, two days after we got home from the hospital, Brad went to work. And so I was left alone with the howler, day in and day out in an unfamiliar city, an unfamiliar state, an unfamiliar landscape, my family 1,500 miles away and not a single friend within 600 miles.

Like Jonah, I found myself in the midst of a violent storm. And like Jonah, I refused to acknowledge the root of that storm and chose instead to bury my head in the sand:

"Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship. But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep." (Jonah 1:4-5) 

Like Jonah, I ignored God. In my defense, I’d been ignoring him for decades so it wasn't a departure from normal behavior on my part. The difference, though was that my disregard for God hadn't mattered before the move to Nebraska. Back then I was firmly in control.

It wasn’t until I was stripped of my securities – my place, my family, my friends, my home, my job and my self-worth – and was left vulnerable and defenseless that I began my slow turn toward God.

At first I tried to fix the problem myself. I enrolled in a yoga class, took up scrapbooking and attended mom’s club meetings at a local church. I filled my life with more and more stuff, more and more distractions, and then wondered why I still felt such loneliness and despair. Finally, worn and defeated, I succumbed to depression.

I’d like to say that my return to God was dramatic, a lightning-strike realization that only God could save me from my reeling hopelessness. But it wasn’t. It was painfully slow. So slow, in fact, that I didn’t even realize it was happening at the time. It wasn’t until much later that I looked back at those early years in Nebraska, and realized that although I hadn’t even considered asking God for help, he’d intervened nonetheless.

The fact is, I was Jonah – pig-headed, self-reliant and utterly in control. Until I wasn't, that is; until things fell apart and the wind blew in gale-force fury and the seas erupted in frothy tumult. In the end it wasn't a fish that got me. The great plains of Nebraska swallowed me whole. And I was spit back out believing, redeemed and reborn.

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Your turn – link up your post below...I can't wait to read how God is speaking to you this week!  [Note: if you are here to link up or to check out the other participants, and you see nothing below, it's because I am having trouble with the Linky -- or, I should say, Mr. Linky is having trouble with his new server! I apologize. This is my life, people...I start a new linky community on the exact same day the Linky Man goes to a new server...and has trouble!]

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Judgment Day

I drove into the parking space just as the red pick-up pulled out next to me and turned sharply, clipping the small car next to it so hard it rocked on its wheels. The pick-up idled in the cold, white vapor sputtering from the exhaust pipe. Inside, spattered windows rolled tight, the man and woman looked down at the scraped Ford. There was discussion. Mouths moved behind windows. They looked, talked some more, laughed.

I watched the pick-up drive slowly away.

...I'm a guest over at the lovely Emily's place today. Will you join me at If Eden Murmurs My Soul Listens to read what happened on Judgment Day?

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Warm

He’s a night owl, I’m the hopping robin. But every now and then I stay up way too late, and we switch off living room lights, dial down thermostat and climb groaning stairs on stealthy tiptoes together, avoiding nighttime creaks and cracks so not to wake deep-breathing boys. The bathroom door shuts with a soft click, and while I cream and buff, clip and tweeze, wash and pat and smooth, he warms.

Face shining clean, lips glossed Vaseline smooth, I slide fleeced feet across cold wood floors and spot him there.


He’s bed-warming my side, sprawled beneath the comforter and Grandma Hilma’s quilt. It’s winter and he knows I’m always cold. I wear socks pulled to knees under flannel pajama bottoms and double-layers on top, and still I’m cold.

I click off bedside lamp and he shifts so I can climb into bed warmed snug. I press chilled limbs into warm cocoon. And then he slides across vast tundra of cold, unrumpled sheets to sleep.

I don’t need diamonds or sapphires, silver or gold. A pre-warmed bed on a frigid winter night is sweet gift enough for me.

Writing on the topic of love at Jennifer Davis’s place for her Friday Journeys link-up. What small sweet act of love are you appreciating today?

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Rolling Coins

My grandfather was a stoic man, a man of few words and little affection. As kids we were instructed never to hug or kiss Papa. He didn’t like it, we were told, and it never occurred to me that his behavior might be considered odd. It was just Papa. He didn’t smother us with squeezes and hugs or pull us onto his lap for stories or snuggling. My grandfather demonstrated his love in less traditional ways.

He made my sister and me pancakes from scratch on sleepover Saturday mornings, always drizzling the batter into gingerbread men or flowers or animals. He called the droplets that sizzled on the skillet the “smallest pancakes in the world” and sang “Michelle, my belle” over and over again as he stood at the stove.

He let us ride up front with him in his giant Bonneville with the pea green velour upholstery, the three of us shoulder-to-shoulder on the vast seat, Linda Ronstadt crooning from the eight-track player.

He took us to feed the ducks at Forest Park, Wonder bags filled with heels and crumbs to toss wildly at the quacking masses.

Papa also taught me how to roll coins. He'd dump Hellmann's jars filled with change onto the kitchen table next to stacks of coin rolls, those slender slips of brown Kraft paper color-coded according to the coins they held: orange for the $10 quarter wrappers, green for the $5 dimes, blue for the $2 nickels and red for the lowly pennies. My grandfather survived the Depression, so he always appreciated the value of a coin, even the penny. He didn't suffer as much as many people did during that bleak time – he held a steady job making guns at the Springfield Armory – but still, he learned to save change. 

From him I learned how to take the flat paper and gently squeeze the center until it popped into a slender tube. I learned how to insert one finger, usually the pointer, to form a stable platform on the bottom onto which to drop the coins one by one. In an effort to expedite the process I often tried dropping three, even four, coins in at a time, but it didn't pay to rush – the coins would usually jam sideways, and I would be forced to dump out the entire contents of the tube and begin again.

We sat quietly at the dinette, Papa and I, plastic placemats sticking to our forearms, gentle clink of dropping change, hypnotic tock of the wall clock and a hissing radiator the only sounds in the small kitchen. When we finished, four piles of rolled coins stood stacked like Egyptian pyramids on the table.

Next Papa would meticulously inscribe each roll with his name, address and telephone number in ballpoint pen, each letter curling in elaborate script. Then he'd drop the decorated rolls into a paper lunch bag, ready to take to the bank. My grandfather had the most beautiful handwriting, elegant and sophisticated like calligraphy. He graced all correspondence, from the electric bill to graduation cards, with this script – even the humble penny roll rose to regal status under his hand. 

Finally, he'd hand the last labeled roll over to me: pennies or nickels or dimes, on rare occasions a roll of quarters. I'd hold the heaviness in my palm, Michelle Marie festooned in curves and curls, dips and swirls. A work of art in blue ballpoint ink.

Has anyone ever demonstrated their love for you in an unexpected, but no less meaningful way?

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And a word of thanks for your overwhelming show of support yesterday about my announcement! I was grinning madly all day -- love you all! Thank you! 

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I Got “The Call” [or I should say, “I made the call,” but let’s not split hairs…]


{Warning: super long, super self-involved post}

So some of you may know that I wrote a book – a memoir about my bumpy road to faith. I’ve written about the book from time to time here, as well as about the disappointments and, frankly, despairing, humbling (dare I say humiliating) moments that have come my way on this writing journey.

Well…I thought I should tell you…I got an agent!!!!! It only took me two years – two years! I know, the process has been nothing short of glacial.

Now, let me preface this story by saying I completely understand if there are some of you right now who want to stomp and curse and delete me. Believe me, I totally get that. In the last two years I’ve read numerous “I got the call” posts, and I’ll be candid here: I did not always accept the news gracefully. In fact, I seethed with jealousy. And complained to my husband relentlessly. And threatened to stop writing and blogging forever. And threw myself a great big pity party. So if you don’t feel like reading this post and want to huff off and bury yourself under the comforter and eat vast quantities of chocolate, I get it. I totally do. And it’s okay. You can cut yourself some slack and do that. Because believe me, I can’t count the number of times I’ve had a “why can’t I get an agent” tantrum…and then berated myself for being the most unchristian Christian writer ever.

So…for those of you who are still reading…I thought I’d tell a bit of this story, because it really is meant to convey hope and encouragement. And it’s just too super fun not to write about!

Two years ago this May I sent out my first batch of query letters. I hit send about a dozen times and hunched over my computer and prayed and then checked my email 450 times every hour for responses. And I got nothing. Nada. Eventually a few form rejections lit up my in-box, as well as one or two rejections that were addressed to me personally, but mostly I got nothing. The low point was the day I got not only my own rejection but someone else's as well – Nathan and I both got rejected on the same day by the same agent. I had Nathan’s pain as well as my own to deal with that day.

I went back to the drawing board and cut 20,000 words out of the manuscript. In the next batch of queries I got a bite – I even got a phone call. The voice on the other line was quick to tell me it wasn’t “the call,” but the agent was kind enough to offer concrete suggestions for revisions and platform building. He encouraged me to re-query him when I had made substantial progress.

Six months later I emailed the re-query…and got rejected. My platform, it turns out, wasn’t nearly big enough. I needed to be speaking regularly to audiences of 500 or more. I needed a syndicated newspaper column. I needed a blog with 1,000 hits a day. I got the news the day before Easter last year. I cried behind sunglasses at the neighborhood egg hunt. “What kind of Christian agent sends a rejection the day before Easter for crying out loud?” I wept to my husband while unwrapping my sixth Dove dark chocolate egg of the hour.

I went back to the drawing board…again. This time I hired a professional editor to review my manuscript. Steve Parolini (aka the Novel Doctor) emailed several pages of  suggestions – how to reorganize the chapters, what to cut, what to rewrite. Then I re-queried Rachelle Gardner at WordServe. Mind you, this was not the first time I had approached her (I queried her back in May 2009, when my manuscript was 103,000 words – about 30,000 words too long. This go-round, I should add, I also had a kind and generous advocate who graciously offered to put in a good word for me).

And then I waited. Every time the phone rang I sprinted across the house like FloJo. If I was in the bathroom, I yelled down to Brad, “Check Caller ID!!! It could be Rachelle!!!” Rachelle became a household name, right up there with Harry and Hermione.

Two months later, Rachelle emailed – could I call her to talk about a few things in the book proposal that would “help us both move forward.”

What???? What did that even mean? Did “move forward” mean toward book publication? Or toward putting us both out of our misery? And wasn’t she supposed to call me? This seemed like a bad sign. This was most certainly a bad sign.

It was a snow day…I plunked the kids in front of Scooby Doo and bribed them with ice cream: “Mommy has a very important phone call to make. Do not interrupt unless you have a limb hanging from your body.” I disappeared into the cellar.

Rachelle and I talked for a long time. She was so friendly and chatty my hands even stopped sweating. I only gnawed off four of my ten fingernails. I didn’t exactly relax per se, but I settled into the conversation. We talked about the proposal – it needed some work. I was too vague about my target audience (What? I can’t target everyone?). We talked about my platform – it’s non-existent, according to industry standards. We talked about how I’m an unpublished author. We talked about how these factors would make the book a hard sell.

And then, by the grace of God, she offered to represent me anyway. Rachelle Gardner chose to take a risk on me.

After I hung up I ran upstairs and dialed my husband’s cell phone. He was just pulling into the driveway – he teared up when he heard the news. I jumped up and down in the living room and screeched, “I have agent! I have an agent!” Noah asked, “What’s an agent?” Rowan shushed me; he couldn’t hear Scooby Doo.

I called my sister and my parents. My dad asked if he should get a haircut for the book jacket photo. He called his neighbor Jim. Jim asked if he could play “The Neighbor” in the movie.

The next day I went to work [frankly it's sort of rain on my parade that I still have to show up at my paying job]. I trumpeted my big news to anyone who would listen, because that’s right, I have no shame. It may have been my imagination, but I felt like the news raised my status a bit. I was no longer the part-time fundraiser. I was now the part-time fundraiser with an agent! When I heard myself say, “Well my agent said…” I suddenly felt like I lived in L.A. instead of Nebraska. I thought about suggesting to my boss, “Let’s do lunch. My people will call your people.”

When I came home from work there were a vase of flowers and a handmade card on the table. And then, after the dust had settled a bit, Brad asked, “So now what happens?” And I answered, “You know what? I don’t even know!”

I suppose more waiting...

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Flight


I didn’t want to go. Truthfully, I wanted to get out of it, not because I didn’t want to see my mother-in-law or spend valuable time with her, but because I was afraid.

I’ve never been good with illness. My scalp tingles and my feet sweat every time I get an immunization. I can’t look at the needle as it plunges into my bicep. When one of my kids throws up, I freak – my hands shake and my breathing gets fast and shallow and I lay awake all night, dreading when the next wave will hit.

I knew this situation would be far more difficult than dealing with a routine virus.

My mother-in-law was dying. I knew this would be the last time I would see her on Earth. I knew I would have to say goodbye. I knew I would have to help my children cope with seeing their grandmother bed-ridden and frail. And I didn’t know if I could cope with any of it.

I’ve always had a grave fear of death [read my post on vampires if you want to know just how grave]. It was worse as a non-believer – finding faith and God has helped enormously – but still, who actually welcomes death? Who isn’t just a little bit – or a lot – afraid of it?

I was afraid I wouldn’t know how to say goodbye. I was afraid I’d bawl, or worse, that I wouldn’t cry at all, that I would freeze cold inside. I was afraid to see what a dying person looked like. I was afraid to see someone I loved look like that. And of course, deep down I was also afraid of facing my own mortality.

I felt it in my gut as we drove north to Minnesota: the flight instinct. I wanted to run away.

"The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord." (Jonah 1:3)
I felt like Jonah on that drive north. Minnesota was my Nineveh. And I was desperate for a Tarshish, a place to escape my fear.

As we exited the interstate and wound through the city, I turned to Brad. “I’m afraid,” I told him quietly, glancing over my shoulder to make sure the kids didn’t hear. Brad rested his hand on the back of my neck as he drove, eyes still on the road. “It will be okay,” he soothed. “It’s still my mom; she’s still the same person. It’ll be okay.”

My husband, consoling and comforting me through his own grief, was right. It was okay.

As I sat on the edge of Janice’s bed and held her hand, God held mine. As I clasped her frail body, God clasped me in tight embrace.

Though the hole in my heart yawned aching and wide, I felt God’s presence that weekend in Minnesota. I saw him in the neighbor’s faces as they rang the doorbell bearing pans of lasagna, platters of homemade cookies and sliced fresh fruit. I saw him in my children as they ran up to Haukebo’s bedside for a squeeze before dashing off to resume games with their cousins. I saw him in my husband and his brother as they so tenderly cared for their mother. I saw him in cards and flowers lining the mantel, heard him in the sound of the telephone ringing non-stop. And most of all, I saw him in Janice herself, in the way she so selflessly cared for, accommodated and served all of us through her steady faith and unwavering love, even in the midst of her suffering.

My husband stayed in Minnesota to help care for his mom. I drove the boys back to Nebraska on Monday morning. I cried quietly while they watched a Scooby Doo movie in the backseat, tears streaming down my cheeks and neck as we sped by rustling corn stalks and cartwheeling windmills. But through empty gnaw and howling protest, I also felt the beginning of something unexpected: an incomprehensible peace. A peace that passed all understanding.

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A little head's up: Next Monday I'll launch a brand-new weekly link-up community here called Hear It on Sunday, Use It on Monday. [I made a button – see the sidebar...now I just have to figure out how to get the Linky up and running!]. Feel free to come by Monday, or even later in the week, and link up a post about what you're mulling, either related to a scripture reading, sermon or hymn from a Sunday service or a verse or passage you've read or pondered during the week. Let's share what God is teaching us through his word...I can't wait to read what you have to say! 

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