When I talk to groups about my memoir, one of the topics I address is the role of outrage in the Christian life. After I was raped at gunpoint I was nearly crippled by fear, terror, and fury. The world I lived in seemed outrageous to me. It’s not surprising that most Christians shy away from experiencing, or expressing, outrage and other strong emotions. After all, these emotions are painful to experience and dangerous to express. (more…)
Have you ever wished you had the right book on your shelf, something solid and helpful you could read and pass along?
That book is finally here! It is destined to become a classic.
Carol Howard Merritt’s book is called: Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church.
I am privileged to call Carol a friend. We labored together in a writing group, and I know firsthand that she has mastered her craft. What’s more, she has wisdom, theological depth and ministry experience. I believe her book will help many, so I was thrilled to write an endorsement:
Do you know someone who is struggling with infertility? Perhaps this is the story you live, but hide from others. Or perhaps you have a different but similar sort of heartache. Do you know the feelings of repeated loss and grief, which bring a sense of hopelessness?
My friend Elizabeth Hagan has just written a memoir about her experience with infertility. I am so pleased to tell you about her book — for two reasons. I have been privileged to know Elizabeth while she lived this story, and while she wrote this story — an experience that has covered nearly a decade! I can tell you that Elizabeth is a woman who lives with integrity and passion, and every word of this book reflects her experience of living as a follower of Jesus while her heart was breaking. There is nothing forced or false about any of these sentences. I can also tell you that Elizabeth has grown so much as a writer over that decade! What she has achieved in getting these words onto the page is truly remarkable.
I urge you to buy and read her book! You know someone who needs this book.
Here are some of hard-won lessons you will glean from sharing Elizabeth’s journey:
~ When life doesn’t go as you plan, something greater might be emerging beneath the surface. Live through the pain and you will get there!
~ There are no “one-size” fits all answers to a fertility journey, medically, emotionally or spiritually.
~ It is okay to live into the mystery — the mystery of not knowing how you will bear a child, when or if at all.
~ Infertility does not have to be a silent journey. Connect with my story. Connect to others who’ve gone through it too. Let friends and family who can bear with your pain love you through it.
~ A long season of grief doesn’t have to destroy your marriage or friendships. It can in fact bring you closer.
Learn more at Elizabeth’s website, Preacher on the Plaza.
Dad’s medications were already organized by the time I arrived at the house, dispensed into two identical trays which had been labeled with a Sharpie: Week 1 and Week 2.
I noticed the organizers on the dining room table, and for a moment wondered which of my sisters had filled the plastic compartments — my older sister Mary Lynn, who’s a nurse — or my youngest sister, Susan, who’s a hospice chaplain? I didn’t ask because it didn’t matter. And there was so much else to know.
How to help Dad in and out of his hospital bed, for starters. Mom had asked us to move Dad into his chair, now that he’d woken up from a nap. The hospice people had shown Susan how to move Dad safely. We used a wide webbed belt that clipped around Dad’s chest and had large cloth loops attached. The loops would give us something to grab onto. So Dad sat up and Susan clipped the belt around him. Then we got positioned, one of us on either side of our father.
“Slide your whole forearm under his armpit, like this, and use your other hand to grab the loop, like this, and 1-2-3-UP!”
Hold. Pivot. Re-position. And gently release him into the chair. Get him comfortable with pillows.
“Do we leave the belt on?” I asked. “Or should I slip it off?”
“Leave it,” said Dad. “For next time.”
“Does it remind you of that passage in the gospel of John?” I asked Dad. “About getting old and having a belt put on you?”
Dad didn’t respond at first, and I thought I’d been obtuse.
I wrote this post a few years ago, but offer it again. Merry Christmas!
One of the reasons we like movies and series is that the screen version of life appears to be more — more beautiful, more perfect, more meaningful — than actual life. I’m thinking of shows like Mad Men or The Good Wife or Parenthood or Masters of Sex, shows where characters effortlessly wear beautiful clothing, even when long days stretch into late nights, where women are never seen without full makeup, and where the sets, whether homes, offices, restaurants, or courtrooms, are more beautiful than those actual places would be. Each color palette is carefully conceived, the lighting angles are flattering, and the tilt of the camera and its length of focus brings out the emotion in an actor’s expression.
We know that in real life those characters — at least if they were us — would be slipping off their high heels, falling asleep from that much drinking, or looking in vain for a bench at the Hall of Justice because they just really needed to sit down. But there’s something else that’s different between the screen world and the actual world. Perhaps all of the cinematic components don’t merely create a false reality. Perhaps they help us see the reality that we are often blind to because we are distracted by trivia.
We share many store lines with the characters we watch. We have a career that rises and falls — but not as captivatingly as that of the dapper Don Draper. We have relationships that are stretched and strained and patched back together — but not as poetically and decisively as the marriages on Parenthood. We chase after certain goals, but perhaps don’t look as elegant as do the characters on The Good Wife or Masters of Sex.
Call it “heightened reality” — these captivating stories, poetic relationships, and elegant polish. (more…)
Today I interview Michelle Van Loon about her new book If Only: Letting Go of Regret.
The book launches on July 1. This interview is part of her blog tour.
I only met Michelle once IRL — for the briefest of hugs — but I often read her blog — it’s called Pilgrim’s Road Trip, so how could I not! I am frequently struck by Michelle’s authenticity. I thoroughly enjoyed reading her book.
Ruth: Regret is a very personal topic. Why did you decide to write this book? Was there a particular event that was the genesis of this project?
Michelle: It seemed as though I kept having variations of the same conversation with dozens of people who were smack-dab in the middle of their transition into midlife. They would say things like “I wish I could re-do my kids’ childhood now that they’re leaving the nest”, “I should have finished college”, “What a mistake it was when I married/divorced”, or “If only I would have spent more time with my parents while they were still here.” Spiritual growth at midlife includes coming to terms with the fact that there are no real do-overs in life. I also realized that these deep regret had the seeds of spiritual growth and potential for maturity sown into them, but few of us seemed to have the tools for processing those regrets well. In the church, we create space for confession of sin during many worship services, but rarely deal with regret in a meaningful way. The unintended message from this is that we should be able to move on once we’ve confessed. I was dealing with my own life list entitled “If Only”, and discovered that God could redeem and repurpose my regrets if I was willing to go beyond simply acknowledging that they existed. My own experience and those conversations with my midlife peers sparked my writing, but I realized that the topic had universal appeal. We all have regrets.
Ruth: The topic of regret applies to both men and women, but you often address a woman’s experience. I found this to be affirming. Did you intend for the audience to be mainly female, and if so, how do you hope the book gets used?
Michelle: You’re right – regret is an equal-opportunity “employer” in terms of gender! However, I did imagine I’d be speaking to women with this book, and wrote with a female audience in mind.
Ruth: Your writing style is fun. It doesn’t belabor a point and often uses a fresh image or turn of phrase. I suspect that you write many words that are edited away to achieve this. As a fellow writer, I want to ask: What’s your writing process, overall?
Michelle: Only a fellow writer would recognize that I wrote many words, deleted most of them, rewrote some of them, then deleted three-quarters of the new crop of words. I wish I could turn off my internal editor to spin out a lousy-but-functional first draft, but those lovely times of “flow” are very rare for me. I write at an excruciatingly slow pace, and surf the internet too much as a master procrastinator at the beginning of every writing project. That endorphin-releasing flow happens for me when I’m editing a second or third draft.
Ruth: You cover many biblical stories which are quite familiar, for example: the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, David and Bathsheba, Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery. You do a good job of quickly setting the context of these stories. As a preacher, I know how shaping it is to live with a text in our heads. So let me ask: Which of these stories has the most resonance in your own life at the moment, and why?
Michelle: Great question, Ruth! I love how God’s Word reads each one of us. Whenever I walk around with a passage for a few days meditating on it, that passage is my new favorite. But if I had to select just one story from If Only that continues to resonate with me, it would have to be the account of the prodigal sons in Luke 15:11-32. I can be like the rebel son and the goody-two shoes son; I want to be like the father in the parable. I want to reflect the kind of love my heavenly Father has for me to the prodigals of both kinds he has placed in my life.
Ruth: Two phrases recur throughout the book: the Holiness of God, and our Divided Heart. Would you say these are pivotal ideas for you? I’m curious if there’s some connection between them, or perhaps a story you’d like to share?
Michelle: I have had a prayer partner named Meg for over a decade. We once lived in neighboring towns and could meet for prayer. For the last several years, we meet by phone most Friday mornings. We began to realize during the course of our conversations with one another and with God how compartmentalized and fragmented parts of our lives were. Those compartments were a handy coping mechanism, at least for me. I could keep painful childhood experiences in one slot, a bad break-up in another one. And it worked for me, as it does for so many of us. But what was I supposed to do now that the Holy Spirit showed me the contours of those compartments? Meg and I began praying Ps. 86:11 (“Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.”) out of simple conviction that those compartments were hampering our respective maturity – and likely harboring sin, too. God has been answering that prayer – in his wholehearted purity, in his unfailing mercy, in his truth-telling love. The book is the fruit of some of what God has taught me as Meg and I have continued to pray that prayer.
Ruth: This book is deeply personal. In chapter nine you talk about your own mother, and her spiritual legacy, in a way that is very honest. Since your relationship was conflicted, that must have been difficult to write. What is it that you hope readers will take away from that section in particular?
Michelle: I don’t think I could have written that story one moment earlier in my life than last year, to tell you the truth. But I knew it was time to share this story, as it created a template for regret in my life that shadowed so much of the way I’d learned to live. So many families have secrets, and the effects of those secrets echo for generations. They keep us from experiencing the flourishing life Jesus promised to those who followed him. I hope readers will consider their own family stories, and the way in which shame and regret have shaped those stories. I also hope readers can discover the way in which God is at work in their lives, rescripting and repurposing past regret into new life.
Ruth: The last question seems rather obvious: Do you have any regrets about writing this book?
Michelle: Not a single one! I am praying that If Only can encourage readers to face their regrets and discover that God has been there with them, every messy step of the way.
Do you love the Palm Sunday story?
There is a Palm Sunday Chapel in Bethphage, just outside the old city of Jerusalem. It’s a Franciscan chapel situated on the road that passes by the Mount of Olives — a person might take this road to travel from Jerusalem to Jericho.
According to the gospels, Bethphage is the spot where the disciples procured a donkey for Jesus, which he then rode into Jerusalem as the people waved palm branches. If you and I were on pilgrimage in Jerusalem this Holy Week, we might walk this same road. (Incidentally, this is along the path pictured on the cover of my book.)
Here’s a refrain I long ago adapted from somewhere. For months I had the words perched on the windowsill near the sink so I could hum it as I did dishes. Why not make up your own little tune?
Living Water, like a river
like a fountain, like the sea.
Living Water, ever flowing,
ever rising, rise in me.
I have a favorite spiritual discipline, and I notice that I exercise it more when I’m in a good place mentally and spiritually. A connection perhaps?
I like to be in a public area where no one knows me, and watch people and pray for them. Usually I start out making sentences in my head, and then at some point I quit needing words anymore. I just feel very grateful for each person’s presence in the world, and for God’s goodness in making us humans, with all of our uniqueness, our potential, our foibles. We are a wondrous bunch and the ways we interact are startling and touching.
There are a couple upsides to this discipline:
~ I can do it anywhere
~ I can drink coffee while I do it, always a plus
~ this is a very natural activity for an Introvert, but allows me to move outside of myself mentally and spiritually
I’ve also noticed how this feeds the writer in me, which loves to notice detail.
Because I consider my creativity and love for words to be gifts from God, there is something very organic about having this particular practice nourish those gifts.
What spiritual practice do you return to repeatedly because it feeds your spirit?
The photo is from the St. John’s Pottery website, but it reflects today’s experience.
While we enjoyed our tea, Master Potter, Richard Bresnahan, sat with us and explained the chemistry of glazes, the physics of fire, and the temperature control necessary to create St. John’s Pottery. It was a relaxed, wide-ranging and fascinating conversation.
A small group of us had just toured the intimate studio, seeing the mound of raw clay which was dug out of the nearby ground, and the series of rudimentary vats and machines used to wash the clay. While we toured, the potter and an apprentice sat at wheels throwing pots, and other workers moved long boards loaded with clay objects from rack to rack.
Steven Lemke showed us a picture of the wood-fired kiln (which is nearby, housed in a shed), and is the largest of its kind in North America. It takes a year for the potters to create the thousands of clay pieces which are loaded into the kiln’s three chambers. And a year to chop the wood which feeds the fire!
Steven described how the fire is lit after a ceremonial purification and blessing, and how the fire is then stoked for more than a week.
I’m at Collegeville Institute which is part of St. John’s University, near St. Cloud, Minnesota. I’m attending a week-long writing workshop. There are a dozen writers here, working independently and sharing our evenings. We are all especially interested in writing about the life of faith, and see our writing as a vocation. I am so grateful for this place, and the important work it does!
If you’re in the St. Cloud, Minnesota area, or are particularly interested in pottery, I encourage you to tour the pottery studio. There’s lots of info at the website, and contact information. If I could, I’d return at the end of September to see the lighting ceremony.
The Benedictines excel at hospitality. If you need a dose of the real thing, I encourage you to look up the Benedictine community nearest you. You might discover a hidden treasure.