Pausing in the Swirl of Life

Have you ever looked forward to an event, only to have your plans crumble? “Life intrudes” we say. Or “God laughs when we make plans.” Responding quickly to change can be difficult. At least it is for me. If you know people of Dutch descent, you will understand. We are not known for our flexibility! We are known for our tenacity, which is also a virtue, but quite a different one.

Right now I’m in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I came for the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College, which I’ve been attending every-other-year since 1996. There is no other gathering that I attend with such regularity. FFW pulls together many threads of my life: 1) As a former member of the Christian Reformed denomination, Calvin is my alma mater; 2) As a pastor, I have found lots of fodder for preaching and ministry; 3) As a reader, I have been bathed in words, and the ways that words evoke meaning; 4) As a budding writer, I have met editors, publishers and agents over the years; and 5) I can do all this and simultaneously visit my parents, who moved to Grand Rapids in retirement.

In fact, my favorite festival events have been the ones my parents attended with me. In 2006 I even convinced them to register for the whole festival. That was the aerobic FFW. I fondly remember pushing my mother’s wheelchair across campus at high speed — whirring her to one event, then running off to attend a different one myself! My parents are 87 and 90 now, and the festival events are too difficult for them logistically. The crowds are hard to navigate and they have difficulty hearing. Recently my father has slowed down quite drastically. His breathing has become labored.

Months ago I registered for this year’s festival and bought my plane tickets. Then my father’s doctors scheduled an elective heart catheterization right in the middle of FFW. I was concerned about the changes in my father’s health, grateful that I would be in town, and disappointed to miss hearing the authors.

How the days worked out has been a gift, a different configuration of the threads of my life. I had already set up a number of appointments related to my books, and was able to honor those. I was even able to attend the opening lecture by Tobias Wolff, whose writing I especially appreciate. On the day of my dad’s heart procedure I was at the hospital with my mother, sister, and niece. The medical care that my father received may be considered “routine,” but it is truly amazing. What a privilege to pray over my father’s bed, hands joined with family members.

Today will be a similar patchwork of events, including picking up my father from the hospital and attending a lecture by Nadia Bolz Weber. At least, that is the plan! We shall see what transpires.

I’m pausing to write this as I begin another busy day — a day that feels complicated, messy, and beautiful! I know your days often feel the same way. There are unwelcome adjustments, but also unexpected blessings. Perhaps these messy days are when God’s activity becomes most apparent to us — in a swirl of events that the finest planning could not have orchestrated.

Breakfast with my parents the day before the cardiac catheterization.

Breakfast with my parents the day before the cardiac catheterization.

Front and center at the Tobias Wolff lecture.

Front and center at the Tobias Wolff lecture.

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The National: Rocking Out at Calvin

The National at Van Noord Arena, April 12, 2014

The National at Van Noord Arena, April 12, 2014

Last night, the ending of the Festival of Faith & Writing coincided with a concert by The National at the Van Noord Arena.

I was surprised. When I attended Calvin there was no dancing allowed on campus. During the late 1970s students gathered in darkened dorm basements at covert “parties with music” to bounce rhythmically and hope no dean showed up to bust us.

Last night I plunked down a ticket (the gift of a generous friend) to see an honest-to-goodness rock band, complete with bouncers, in a building next door to my old dorm (Yes, Noordewier). The experience was fun, if a little disorienting. (Is rock music no longer considered a sin?)

I was not acquainted with The National except for having watched clips of their appearance on SNL recently. The band lists U2 as a formative influence — a fact I didn’t need to read in print, as I could hear it in their music. They were “indie with a melancholic bent.” What they did better than U2 (and isn’t that a statement?) was to add brass — trumpet and trombone. One thing that stood out for me was the last half of “About Today,” which was like being in a thunderstorm.

The National

The National

The band members really fed off the energy of the crowd. At one point the frontman, Matt Berninger, came to the edge of the stage and bowed his head while he sang. People in the audience patted his hair, like the laying on of hands. But he kept singing, full volume. During the encore he bodysurfed the crowd (or tried to, this was Calvin, after all) and then zigzagged through the masses, to the delight of all.

The last number was soulful and acoustic — the crowd sang along. I wished I knew the words! I will enjoy looking up all the lyrics.

The warmup band was My Brightest Diamond which was also great. The singer’s voice and manner reminded me of “Florence and the Machine” (which incidentally was U2’s warmup band the last time I heard them).

Here’s the setlist (April 12, 2014, Van Noord Arena):

Sea of Love
I Should Live in Salt
Bloodbuzz Ohio
Don’t Swallow the Cap
Hard to Find
Afraid of Everyone
Conversation 16
Squalor Victoria
*I Need My Girl
This Is the Last Time
Slow Show
Pink Rabbits
About Today
Fake Empire


Mr. November
Terrible Love
Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks (acoustic)

*the songs they performed on SNL, so click the link to hear them.

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Quotes on the Writing Life: Philip Yancey, Elie Wiesel

This weekend I’m getting ready to attend the Festival of Faith & Writing at my alma mater, Calvin College, April 10-12. I’m looking forward to seeing old friends, hearing profound and beautiful words, and meeting lots of like-minded folk. I know I will come home with a long reading list.

To get myself in the “write” frame of mind, I’m posting some notes from FFWs past. Here are some tidbits from Festival of Faith & Writing 2000:

forex kurs på euro PHILIP YANCEY 

What’s a writer?  “I turn sentences around.”  — Philip Roth

What words do well:

  • penetrate
  • create a space
  • allow for transcendence

What words do not well:

  • distort
  • reduce
  • wound

Creativity has 3 functions:

  • expression
  • recognition
  • transcendence

التسجيل في سوق الاسهم السعودي ELIE WIESEL

The first question in the Bible is “Where are you?” But God knew, Adam did not.

Do we know now? Where am I in my life? We define this against others, within relationship.

The Noah story tells us that we are responsible. The writer has an ethical responsibility.

The essential component in writing is memory.

The prevalence of suicide among writers because when words run out, what else is there?

The writer is a witness who bears testimony.

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Writers & Genesis: 4 Images of God, Katherine Paterson

Katherine Paterson has been a frequent speaker at Festival of Faith & Writing. I have a special fondness for her because she’s a sister Presbyterian, the daughter of missionaries.

Which is your favorite of her young adult novels? The most famous are perhaps “Bridge to Terabithia” and “The Great Gilly Hopkins.” My personal favorite is Jacob Have I Loved. It has even more resonance with me now that I live near the Chesapeake.

Here are notes from a lecture entitled “Four Images of God in Genesis” that she gave at FFW 2000. Her lecture provided interesting fodder for the writing process. Have you ever considered the fact that writers employ the image of God when exercising the creative function?

مؤشر اسهم البلاد KATHERINE PATERSON

1. God as Artist/Creator

God is the majestic one (chap 1) vs. the down to earth one (chap 2). Creation is abundance within boundaries. God creates ex nihilo, out of energy. We create out of the ground from which we came.

2. God as Judge

God is an artist who destroys (chap 3). Judgment is God’s prerogative. Fiction needs a fall. We need to be able to judge good & evil. “Novelists must pass moral judgment on the characters they create.”

3. God as Wrestler

We have an obligation to question God. In writing we wrestle with angels.

4. God as Maker of Story

From the Joseph narrative: “You intended evil/God intended good.” “Life doesn’t make sense, but stories must, or people wouldn’t put up with them.” “In the economy of heaven, no one is disposable.” “Write the book that only you can write.”

She ended with the famous quote by G.K. Chesterton: “The best advice for writers is to apply the seat of pants to seat of chair.”

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Get It Written, Get It Published: How a Writing Group Can Help

festival-of-faith-and-writing-logo-2014Are you a writer? If you are, are you a member of a writing group?

I’m a big proponent of writing groups as a low-tech, high-touch way for writers to help each other.

Nothing beats sitting at a table together and talking about the work. What about this page works? What doesn’t? Who might want to publish this piece?

Let’s face it — nothing about writing is easy. You can tell yourself nobody needs your pages. Really, there are already plenty of books in the world. Even Ecclesiastes says so!

And heavens knows writing doesn’t pay. So why do all that hard work? There’s a whole internet out there to cruise through . . .

If you want to write, it helps to have support, encouragement, feedback, and critique. Plus deadlines. Every writer needs deadlines. When you have a writing group, someone is expecting your pages.

I’m going to attend Festival of Faith & Writing April 10-12 and am happy to be leading a Friday lunch forum on the topic of Writers Groups.  (It’s not too late to sign up — I noticed that late registration has been extended through Sunday, March 23.)

If you plan to attend FFW, I hope you’ll pop by so we can meet. If you’re a RevGal, check out the Facebook group about a meet-up.

My good friend and writing group compadre, Mary Ann McKibben Dana is doing a Saturday lunch forum called “Off the Page and In the Flesh: Presentation Skills for Authors.” Another fabulous topic for writers!

And would either MaryAnn or I be leading these forums if we weren’t in the same writing group? We’ve been encouraging each other for years. When the FFW folks were setting up the schedule, I asked them to put me and MaryAnn in different time slots so we could support each other. Because that’s how writing groups roll.

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Writers on Writing (Notice How They Mention Love)

Will I see you at the Festival of Faith & Writing next month?

Every writer loves tidbits about writing, so here are quotes from my notes from past FFWs. These are from 2000 — and note that two authors will be repeat speakers this year, James McBride and Anne Lamott. 

اسهم باسعار ممناسبة DAVID JAMES DUNCAN

“The collision of faith & writing is a job description.”

“Loving God’s world is like loving peanut M&M’s. Loving God is like loving the factory.”

“God is truth, telling your truth inevitably leads you to God.” تحليل الفوركس JAMES McBRIDE

Love is a verb. What have you done today to make your community better?

It’s all right to fail. Be good at it. Make mistakes.

سوق الاسهم السعودية تداول ANNE LAMOTT more here

There are 5 rules of being an American:

  1. Don’t have anything wrong/different about you.
  2. If you have #1, correct it.
  3. If you can’t correct it, pretend that you did.
  4. If you can’t pretend, don’t show up.
  5. There are no other rules.

Jesus doesn’t say, “live in my heart.” He says “Be my heart. Details to follow.”

The writer has to make it that the reader can find herself in any character.

“We’re not starving for what we don’t have, we’re starving for what we won’t give.”

“The world is afraid of grief. It looks at it’s watch. But we don’t get through life without losing people we can’t possibly live without.”

“Make messes, fail, beautiful things come from mess. Try to do less well — ironically you’ll do better.”

“Choose wonder over achievement.”

forex banktjänster CHAIM POTOK

Our lives change by chance. The chance is from God — or not! He doesn’t care which you decide.

“In the particular is the universal.” ~ James Joyce

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Don’t Ask: Why Write? Ask How.

festival-of-faith-and-writing-logo-2014Next month I’ll be attending the Festival of Faith & Writing at my alma mater in Grand Rapids, MI.

I love this every-other-year feast. In preparation I’m revisiting my notes from past FFWs, and thought I’d share.

These are from FFW 2000. . . . 


“Writing is almost never going to go well. All first drafts are bad. The secret of life is doing things badly.”

“Writing is radical inefficiency. Writing is about paper. Waste paper and time. You need to waste a lot more time.”

“Publication is me at my most mentally ill.”


“The world needs to know how faith feels, how it sounds in your mouth.”


“At the bottom of everything is a story. The process of writing is an organic whole, from unconscious observation to getting an idea to writing to revising. Participate before you separate and write.”

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Uncluttering for Writers

I have a lot of notes. You too?

I like to go places where people talk about some subject they’re passionate about, and I furiously take notes. Usually these are writers talking about words, or theologians talking about scripture, or clergy talking about the life of faith within communities. I love soaking in fire and spirit and intelligence and humor. I suppose it’s a geeky parallel to attending live theatre, concerts, or stand up comedy — the connection that comes from listening to an artist in the flesh.

While I listen I take notes because it helps me stay focused and present. Otherwise the stimulation can make me go all off-track in my own brain (which is fun in it’s own right but takes me out of the moment). As I write down what’s being said, I also have flashes of inspiration, which I try to capture as marginal notes to self that I call “fodder.”

These might be character ideas that are really just one line of dialogue. “Look how this line shows point of view!”

These might be short story ideas related to scene or plot. “What if this happened? What if this happened in a Tilt-a-Whirl?”

These might be ways of processing my past history. “So that’s how women in that generation managed! So that doctrine is really about reducing anxiety, aha!”

This summer I have been slowly uncluttering my study. I culled boxes of books. I also found my notebooks from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I have attended every FFW since 1998 (they are held every other year) and took voluminous notes. The notes are a mishmash.

The notebooks intimidated me. I debated a long time about what to do with them before I even dared open them. The truth is that I had never looked at most of the notes again, and was surprised by what I found — lots of good stuff. I decided the words were worth preserving. But how?

Instead of using Evernote on my handwriting, I decided to type them up. It sounded like a daunting chore, but what a treasure-trove! I am compiling a list of good quotes about writing from various authors. Perhaps I will tweet these in the future. I am compiling an impressive “fodder” document. Perhaps I will incorporate some of these characters or scenes or moments of insight into my current writing project.

Most importantly, I’m allowing all of this to inspire me right now. These notebooks are from the past, but they fit into my life right now. They will help form my future.

It occurs to me that I’m learning something about uncluttering, experientially. I’ve always known that uncluttering is important to the creative process because we need empty space, in our lives and in our brains. But I’m seeing a powerful benefit of uncluttering the words in these notebooks and reabsorbing them into my current life. These words are helping me “own” my life, both its history and its future. They are filling the holes that I might be tempted to fill with reading blogs, watching Netflix, or playing Sudoku.

Why would I want something that’s “out there” when I have yet to fully realize everything that’s “in here”? There is always so much Work in Progress. What is your WIP these days?

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My Hometown

As you read this brief blogpost, you might want to set the stage by humming Bruce Springsteen’s song, My Hometown under your breath.

Even though I wasn’t born there — and didn’t grow up there — Grand Rapids, Michigan has become my hometown of sorts. Grand Rapids is the center of the Dutch Christian Reformed subculture, which is the amniotic fluid I percolated in. In that sense, it birthed me.

Last week I attended the Festival of Faith & Writing, which is held every-other-year at my alma mater, Calvin College.

On the first day, I was on the way to hear Jonathan Safran Foer and stopped in the ladies’  room in the Field House. As I waited for my turn at the sink, the woman ahead of me apologized for making me wait.

She said, I just have to run cool water over my wrists.

I said: No problem, I understand.

I glanced at her face, then at her name badge and added, Besides that, you’re my cousin.

She glanced at my name badge and chortled.

She grew up in California; I grew up in New Jersey. Her father and my father were brothers. We have never met before. But I knew her face. She looks exactly like our Aunt Carol (who lives in Illinois).

Hi Cuz!

There’s just something familiar about a hometown.


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Quotes from FFW: Sara Miles

Sara Miles wrote Take This Bread, about a feeding ministry she began in St. Gregory’s Episcopal church in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her parents were devout atheists but one day she wandered into St. Gregory’s and was compelled by the experience of receiving open communion.

She said: Feed my sheep. Take this bread. Jesus used the imperative freely. If his followers do the same they sound bossy.

The title of her talk was: Healing and What It Means. I’ll paraphrase the way she began: The context of healing narratives is frequently the Levitical context. There are ritual ways to create God’s desired order, which comes by expelling the disordered one. Jesus doesn’t do this. Instead he breaks the Levitical laws and touches the unclean one. He takes on their contagion. He shifts the boundaries of order/disorder. Here are some quotations:

All cultures have unclean people.

We treat uncleanness as something a person IS, rather than something a person HAS. “You have a cold. You are schizophrenic.”

Healing is about restoring wholeness.

Healing prayer is not cure. God’s idea of healing is not our own. We will not end sorrow. We imitate Christ by being present and touching.

Healing only happens in relationship. Prayer is a form of relationship.

Healing starts when we stand in truth. When people say “Help” this is the first truth that itself is healing.

Healing hurts. (Here she used the metaphor of debridement after a burn.) We must let go of the identity as victim.

Any identity we cling to is an idol if it separates us from the goodness of God in creation.

We idolize separateness and are healed into an unbounded community.

Do you want to be made well if it separates you from your old identity?

Jesus gives us authority to heal. We will not cast out demons and dry tears, but he shows us a way to create a community with spaciousness at its heart.

During Q&A she was asked her opinion on 12-step groups as a way toward healing. She said there was much good in them, especially the emphasis on truth-telling, and that you cannot heal alone, you need others and God. A problem is that people can be cured but not healed (the “dry alcholic”). She pointed to the health of the motto: Identify don’t compare. This is helpful in a healing ministry.

Reconciliation/confession is deeper than simply telling the truth.  e.g. we tend to say: “Make me a better person (not right now).”

Often our prayer is us telling God what we think he wants us to say.

PS: FFW is Festival of Faith & Writing 2010.

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