Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Next Step

Last weekend, I shared about the writing life with a group of college sophomores. Then yesterday I was at a local high school, offering tips on how to tell your story. (By mid-February, I'll have worked my way down to Princess Peach's pre-school to tell all the 4 year olds how useful those 26 letters can be!)  It's been a little surreal to spend so much time with students, trying to remember what my big questions were back then.  I realized that they all came down to some version of: How do I make a good life?

When I was at the schools this week, a few different students came up to me and said, "Tell me how I can be just like you!" It was a struggle not to dismiss the question with the usual blah-blah-blah about how no one's life is perfect. But I tried to remember what it is I was (Okay, what I am)  looking for when I stare at people who represent something I dream of:

A next step.

So rather than exhorting the students to be unique little flowers blooming in their own special way, I asked each of them some questions, trying to figure out where they are in life's process.  One is leaving next week for a semester abroad; another is a math/science geek who just wrote a story she really likes for English class and doesn't know quite what to do with the idea that she might be a good writer.  I made up next steps for them.  They weren't certain, or elaborate.  "Keep a journal of the people you meet and how they challenge your thinking," I said to one guy. "Pick a secondary character from your abandoned half-novel and write her next chapter," I suggested to a freshman.  "Live a big life" I said to almost everybody, trying to describe how having many facets to your week helps keep you in balance.

Who knows if any of it will be helpful?  I'm not sure.  But I know I find life a lot less daunting when I know the next step I need to take.

(And on that note, I'm off to flip the laundry!)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

My First Post About a (Former) Cannibal

Last night before I went to bed I read an article in Men's Journal about former MTV mogul Tom Freston (who brought us Beavis and Butthead and South Park) and work he's doing now with Bono's ONE organization in Africa.

It was the picture that caught my attention. Freston is in Liberia, standing next to a man the caption describes as "Former cannibal and and warlord Joshua Biahyi (a.k.a. General Butt Naked)."  The article opens with a description of how "The General" used to sacrifice humans and eat babies to placate jungle gods, mediating between people and these unhappy deities. Then - in almost a throwaway line - the author explains that this savagery stopped when The General "found Jesus in a burst of bright light." Now, he pastors homeless kids, helping them detox and learn trades rather than eating them.

Reading this, I had one of those totally inappropriate responses where I could not stop giggling.  Could. Not. Stop.  What kept running through my mind was how practical Jesus is:

- He told me: if you want a husband, stop living with the guy who does not want to marry you.

-He told Steve: If you want a good wife, you need to become more of a stand up man.

-And he told the cannibal warlord: Stop eating people.

He knows the big step we'll need to take to get our lives back on track, and gets right to the point, saying, "Here is what you need to do."  And coming from Jesus, it seems like an offer filled with possibility, rather than a scolding rebuke. I forget sometimes just how amazing Jesus is.

Now I don't know the particulars of how former General Butt Naked came to his faith in Jesus, and I suspect it's more complex than this quick anecdote used to hook readers into an article implies.  But it speaks to Jesus' unfathomable ability to get the attention of anyone when the time is right, and to convince them that it's worth the effort it will take to change direction.

I find this reassuring. The next time I'm despairing about when/if/how God will come through, I hope I remember the former cannibal warlord, and the true nature of Jesus' power: it is beyond all I can ask or imagine, and not just in a "ponies & rainbows" kind of way.

Thank you, Men's new source of Christian inspiration :)

Friday, January 25, 2013

What Would You Say To A Sophomore?

I'm speaking tomorrow at Wheaton College's Sophomore Symposium, so I've been wrestling all week trying to figure out what I wish I'd known during my second year on that gorgeous campus.

Last night on a lark, I grabbed my smart phone and asked Siri, "What advice would you give college sophomores?"  She politely offered to look it up on the internet, and took me to a series of links offering the usual advice (take a variety of classes, don't give up, study hard but don't get burned out...) and then two gems that made me giggle.

The first was a variation on the stress management theme, exhorting students to "Take a break from studying. Pick a night and go watch a movie with your friends!"  I'm not sure how old the person was who offered up this little tidbit, but I don't think that's what most college students do to let off steam...

The second was far more practical. It said, "Get a polo shirt with an official looking logo.  That way when there are 100 drunk partiers from other schools trashing your dorm at 3am, you can throw it on and tell them to leave and they'll believe that you have the authority to do so."  That, I thought, might come in handy.

I'll pass these along tomorrow, with some other bon mots that I hope will encourage these students to take some bold chances and not be too afraid that they'll flub up their lives.  Without my flubs, I wouldn't have a career :)

What unique advice would you give a room full of college sophomores?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Let's Get This Party Started

A bit of housekeeping re: my last post.  I did not mean to suggest that bloggers shouldn't write books. And to each of you who commented, let me say specifically: if you feel the urge to write a book, please try. Give it serious attention and know that I'm behind you & think you can do it.  I'm not one of those writers who believes one must be born with a magical blend of craft & calling to see one's esteemed prose published.  My point was that writing a book takes more effort (writing, editing, re-writing, taking out huge chunks of text that don't quite work, waking up at 2am once you finally know what will work to fill that space....) than blogging does.  It involves more discarding of ideas after you try them and realize you only have 200 words to say on a certain matter, rather than 2000.  And most good chapters take more than a half hour to wrestle onto the page. That's not a bad thing; it's just the process.

So if you feel like you might have a book in you, trust that feeling--don't give up.  Work at it, and keep working.  If your experience is anything like mine, you'll discover things you didn't even know you believed until you wrote it on the page.  It's an amazing thing to be part of.

And, apropos of nothing, I'll share this:

Princess Peach's new musical obsession is Mandisa's "Good Morning."  We listen to to it in the morning on the way to school...then again later, on the way home...on Saturdays running errands...and Sundays on the way to church.  These days, it's pretty much always a Good Morning in the Peachmobile.

One line that makes me giggle every time is when Mandisa sings, "Jumped out of bed...Gotta get this party going!"  Because that's precisely what I'm thinking each day when I untangle myself from the pile of sheets and stumble downstairs for coffee: Let's get this party started!  (except, no...not at all.)

I hope your party is off to a good start today :)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

On Writing: Books Need To Be More Than Blog Posts

My brother-in-law sent me a book recommendation last week, by an author who says the claim "I'm spiritual, but not religious" is actually kind of lame and drives her bananas.  I read the first chapter and loved it.  The writing was crisp and funny, she made some great, provocative points...all while walking that fine line of challenging readers without offending them.  I couldn't wait to see what would come next.

I was surprised to discover that instead of developing this idea further, what followed was a series of short chapters--one or two pages each--of unrelated ideas.  It was like reading a series of blog posts, or a book proposal. By about the thirteenth one, I wanted to scream.

Here's my writing tip for today (a reminder to myself and anyone else who needs it): A book should be more than a collection of blog posts.  Blogs are where we try out ideas, rant, question the way things are, etc.  But a book is where we challenge ourselves to push the best of these ideas a little (or a lot) further, to come up with solutions and see if they hold water, or even admit that we might have had it wrong and share what we've learned.

I blame at least 75% of my frustration with this book on the editor.  It's an editor's job to say, "You're not done here," or "This isn't an essay have to take this further, work a lot need to pick a destination and take us there."  And if this doesn't work, it's an editor's job to help us realize that if we only have a few paragraphs worth of thoughts on an idea, then it probably shouldn't go in a book yet (unless it's startlingly personal, new, or completely different than anything anyone else has said on the subject.  I think each of us get perhaps three such allowances over the course of a lifetime).

But publishing is in a strange place right now, and editors have less and less time/capacity to edit. So this becomes our job as writers. The rules don't change.  If there's no one to push us, we need to push ourselves.  This requires more patience than most of us have (that's me, waving my hand, wanting to be done before I've started), and a willingness to live without the euphoria/relief of saying "It's Finished!" for a few more months.  But this is our job, and I'm grateful that this book crossed my path to remind me.

This author has other books, and I'm excited to read them.  Her opening chapter did it's job: it made me want more of what she had to say, even about things I don't agree with.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher.  There was no obligation to post a positive review.

Friday, January 18, 2013

On Standing

I had a blog post all planned out for this past Tuesday.  But then I read a post by my college friend Melanie Poole Gillgrist called, "Not Sitting. Not Running. Standing," and I've been undone, unblogged, mulling it over ever since.  (If you haven't read it, click over and check it out.)

"Stand" may be my word for 2013, too. This is terrible news.  I'm not good at standing.  I get all twitchy and can't figure out what to do with my arms. I could never be a guard at Buckingham Palace. The whole "stand" thing strikes me as being roughly the same level of impossibility as if God had said, "This is the year you'll run the Boston Marathon."

On my way to meet my friend Super-G for dinner Wednesday night, I was thinking about this while listing to a podcast about encouraging change. The speaker's point was that life with Jesus should include lots of change and a fair amount of risk taking, trusting that God is kind, loves us, and will help keep us on track as we take chances.  I was ALL OVER IT.  Change is a stand I can take with full jazz-handy enthusiasm. I prayed as I parked the car, asking God, "Hey! This sounds like just what I need! What would You like me to change?"

If you heard a deep, low rumble Wednesday evening around 6:20 EST, that was God laughing at my question.

Now I know the idea of God talking to us can sound a bit odd, so let me explain what it's like for me: I get an intersecting thought that doesn't sound like me at all; that is so "other" from anything I might say--usually because it's wise and is something I'd never considered--that I know I'm not making it up.  That's what happened after the rumbly God laugh: I sensed Him saying, Trish, you're great at change. That's a comfort zone for you, not a growth edge.  What I want you do do right now is stand. Hold your position. Let Me work. 

That's when relief and fear collided inside of me and I started to cry.

I'm grateful that Melanie included this story from the Bible in her post, where God sent a messenger into a chaotic, impossible situation to say to a frightened leader: You do not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give not be afraid; do not be discouraged.  It helps me see that yes, sometimes God does put us smack dab in the middle of a disaster and then say, "Now hold still, I've got this..."

And while I'm warming to this concept in big-picture terms, I'm still at a bit of a loss for how to implement it in the three and five minute increments that make up each day. If my job is to just stand, what do I do with my arms?

I guess that's the reason the most-used verse in my Bible is Luke 18:27 What is impossible with man is possible with God.  

Here's to doing the impossible.  I'll let you know how it goes :)

Do you have a word for 2013?

Monday, January 14, 2013

On Keeping Humpty Dumpty on the Wall

Yesterday, I went to the gym for the first time since Princess Peach came to live in our castle. (aka, September.) You know how some people make jokes about how it's been so long since they've been in church or temple, alarms may sound when they pass through the doors?  That was me, slinking by the gym's front desk with my, "Gee, I hope they haven't moved the locker room..." face.

A few weeks ago I had lunch with a new friend who asked, "In the midst of all these stressful, scary situations, what are you doing to take care of yourself?"  I visibly flinched.  I'm not a fan of the question.  I've been in too many conversations where the phrase, "I need to take care of myself" was the preface to a detailed plan to flagrantly disregard the care of others. It's a pursuit that seems to steer all too  easily into selfishness, and I sure don't need extra help getting there.

I admitted this this to my new friend, and she looked at me with the kind-but-baffled expression one might give a Martian. And as I tried to explain, I realized: I'm terrible at this sort of thing, but ignoring it hasn't made me any less selfish.


Double sigh.

So yesterday, I went to the gym.  It was neither impressive nor pathetic (have you ever noticed how your body can  jump right back into certain workouts via memory?  It only lasts for a day, but wow is it a fabulous way to convince yourself you haven't lost a bit of strength or endurance despite MONTHS of sloth!)  Afterwards, I felt better.  The tension in my legs, neck, back, shoulders and elbows (who knew we could hold tension in our elbows?) was reduced enough that I could walk without holding my neck funny in an effort to stand up straight.

I still don't like the phrase, "Taking care of yourself."  But I can see the importance of doing certain things that keep my feet steady, my butt up off the ground, and my mind clear enough to navigate the oncoming traffic of life.  I'm not sure what to call it (I'm scanning the Character Traits chart frantically, looking for one that fits) but I want more of it in my life.  Who knows if perhaps keeping my Humpty Dumpty up on the wall will make me kinder and less selfish to all?

Dear Jesus, please help with that.  Thanks. Amen.

Friday, January 11, 2013

What I'm Learning from Listening rather than Reading

If you've been by Trish's Dishes a few times lately, you know I'm listening to a lot of inspirational talks these days.  Princess Peach has put the royal kibosh on my quiet morning routines of reading, journaling and praying through things as a means of seeking it's pretty much just snippets of podcasts while attempting to parallel park.

I'm not complaining (even though if you'd told me in advance that this would happen, I'd have panicked).  But I'm learning that listening is different than reading, and has some advantages.  When I listen, it's is as if the ideas go in through the side doors to my brain, rather than through the front.

It's kind of like this: When you enter someone's house through the front door, it tends to be rather formal.  It usually involves some awkward standing around in the foyer while you make small talk and wonder if you should take off your shoes.  It takes awhile to settle in. 

But come in through the side door and you're thrown right into the mix and put to use right away.  Your coat gets tossed over the back of a chair and before long you're stirring the soup or washing some dishes while catching up on all manner of important conversational tidbits.

In similar fashion, the ideas I'm hearing are making their way right into the mix of my life, rather than being piled in my mental foyer in the hopes that I'll consider them later.

Yesterday, for example, I heard this gem:  "Your life purpose is not held hostage by your life circumstances." (Jordan Seng).  I liked it so much that I pulled over to post it on Facebook and Twitter.  And I decided right then that I wasn't going to worry anymore about how or if I'll accomplish the things I believe God wants me to do.  The truth of that statement - that my life purpose is not held hostage by my life circumstances - burst in through the side door of my brain and made itself at home.

This weekend, if you have a chance, listen to someone talk about something wise.  Take note of what makes itself at home, changing you in some way.  (And on a similar note, notice what you hear from people, radio, tv, etc. that pushes you in an unhelpful direction, and remember: doors work both ways!)

If you need a place to start, some speakers I enjoy on the spiritual front include Joyce Meyer, Jordan Seng, Tim Keller, and Mark Driscoll (when he's not ranting and raving).  If you have podcasts you like, drop me a comment below. I'm always looking for new ones to try!

Happy Friday, all :)

Monday, January 07, 2013

Putting My Cart Back

The other night, I was having dinner with my friend Super-G.  We were discussing shopping, and Target, and giant parking lots on frigid days.  And the question: When everyone else leaves their shopping cart shoved off to the side of the lot, do you do the same, or  do you take your cart back to the carrel?

I told G that I WANT to be someone who brings my cart back, even admitting that in an effort to prompt myself thus-ward, I sometimes ask, "What Would Michelle Duggar Do?" Of course, Michelle was smart enough to have an army of kids to handle cart return for her, but I like to imagine Michelle on a rare trip out into the world alone, tempted (as we all are) to leave her cart shoved up on the median so she can get back in her nice warm car.  But Michelle, of course, returns the cart.  Because she is a woman of excellence...and (let's be honest) because she lives in Arkansas and everyone has more time there.  But I feel a sense of camaraderie with her as I weave my cart between the minivans & snowbanks to return it to its intended place.

This would be noble if it were evidence of my overall character--a small part of a greater whole.  But really, it's only area where I'm even trying...and I'm relying on a reality TV star for help.  Laughing with Super-G, I realized that if I want my gravestone to say more than "Here lies a woman who always put her cart back," I need a better plan.

When I found out we were going to be foster parents, I ordered a series of children's books about developing character. They're smart and charming, with various qualities explained in terms of woodland creatures and how their unique characteristics help them thrive. They're also, I discovered, designed for kids quite a bit older than Princess Peach.

So I've been reading them. They have me wondering what a few minutes of thought, prayer & planning around character might offer in terms of quality of life.  And this: What if we work on becoming better people--people who put our cart back at Target--not just because it makes us nicer to others, but because it makes it more enjoyable to be us?

I'll be back tomorrow to share (read: admit my total embarrassment) about the character quality I used to have, but now can't seem to find.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Who Do You Think You Are?

I'm an unlikely fan of Mark Driscoll's preaching & books, but I'm a fan. He's thoughtful about the Bible and I appreciate his candor.  (As I said last year when I reviewed his book Real Marriage, I like his "straight/no chaser" approach.)  When his publisher offered me a review copy of his latest, Who Do You Think You Are?, I was excited to check it out.

Driscoll is with a new publisher and I suspect he's getting more editorial input than before.  The results are great: reading him now feels like you're in a conversation, rather than a fight.  That's a good thing :)

The center of Who Do You Think You Are? is our search for identity. I think this would be an especially good read for anyone going through a tough patch.  Driscoll reminds us of who God says we are in blunt, factual way (rather than the sappy "hug yourself because you're so wonderful" junk that exacerbates hopelessness).  The encouragement is solid because it's based on something real you can lean into.

I get tripped up on a few of Driscoll's word choices -- I'm not sure about the use of "image" as a verb.  But that's stylistic.  Substantively, this is a really good book, and it gets better as it goes on.  One of my favorite sections makes this point about prayer:

"The true test of your theology is not just what you say, but how you pray.  If others listened in on your prayer life, would they hear you praying the kind of prayers that could only be answered if God really showed up in a big way? Do you truly believe down deep in your gut that God can do more than you can ask or imagine?"

A real strength of this book is Driscoll's skill in setting out provocative questions, then following them with points to help readers improve our answers.

And a note for those put off by Driscoll's hyper-conservative theology and extreme take on gender roles: there's not much of that in this book. (Again, hooray for good editing!)  I may not agree with everything Driscoll says, but I don't thing that's necessary to get a lot out of a book.  Four stars.

*Thanks to Thomas Nelson for providing the review copy - there was no obligation to post a positive review.

Friday, January 04, 2013

3 Things for Survival

I was wondering what to post about today - with a bunch of ideas swirling in my mind and no clear sense of how to prioritize them.  Then I saw a post from my friend Mary Elizabeth and thought, "Well of course...this is the priority."

Here's a snippet:

"I heard a powerful story last week.  About 30 years ago, John McCain spoke to a group of our military’s elite as they prepared for the possibility of becoming a prisoner of war at some point in their careers.  According to the story, McCain shared three things that surviving prisoners of war had in common:

               1) They had a faith in God.        
               2) They believed their country was coming to get them.
               3) They did not put a date on their rescue.

This story has had a profound impact on me as I have reflected on 2012 and think forward to all 2013 will hold...."

To continue reading, follow this link.  I think these three tips apply to whatever type of rescue we need. Have faith. Believe. God is coming.  Hallelujah, even now :)

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Everywhere That I Go

Our church played this song on Sunday. It's been around for awhile, but this was the first time I'd heard it. It's got a nice little groove, and I love it when Jesus music makes you dance :)

It also made me cry, but in a good way.  As I think about this new year, and Princess Peach, and just all the things in life that seem so uncertain, these lyrics set my sights back where they belong:

You promise me You'll never leave.
You promise me I'm never forsaken.
And I believe goodness and mercy will follow me, surrounding me where I go...
Everywhere that I go.

And Yet...complete with ukulele!

I apologize for the lame finish on the Advent would think they'd run all the way through (or at least up to) Christmas, right?  I certainly thought so.  But the days right before and immediately after Christmas were such a nonstop mashup of horrific developments, followed by beautiful moments (a full-on battle between good and evil), I could barely keep up with it in real time.  I had no shot at forming coherent blog posts.  Sorry about that.  Thanks for understanding.

Let's talk about this new year.  2013.  Finally.

Steve and I (and Princess Peach) spent a much-needed laughter and prayer-filled day with friends to usher in this new year.  If you've read He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, this was a gathering of many of the people you met on those pages. We ate chowder, drank mimosas, watched small children play in the snow and caught up on life. Then in the afternoon we sang worship songs with our friends Paul and Andy accompanying us on a ukulele (Yes, you read that right, and yes it was as hilarious and awesome as it sounds, with Paul searching for chord translations on his iPhone. When you find a crowd where someone travels with a ukulele in the middle of the Boston winter - stick with them. It won't be dull.)

Part of what made this gathering so special was that it was a homecoming of sorts. We've drifted apart over the past two years, since the church where we did life together started a long collapse.  We've all been scattered, searching for new church homes and struggling with God to make sense of so many things.  It has been painful.  And yet...

(This is my New Year's realization, by the way: how humanity's walk with God can be summed up in variations on this theme:  We've been scattered...searching for home and struggling with God to make sense of so many things. It has been painful.  And yet...)

Let's talk about And Yet.  I saw it yesterday, in a living room filled with friends who have shared years of a journey together.  We've missed a lot of the day-to-day lately, but we hold each other's "big pictures"-- the larger narrative arc.  We know enough history of what God has done in each of our lives to say, "I remember when God was talking to you about this...and then this happened...and now you're here and doing this...I wonder if maybe...?"  and then pray together, helping one anther hold on and hope and trust. It was good to be reminded that our spiritual "home" isn't a specific place; it's wherever we're together, looking for God.

My hope for 2013 is to point my eyes (ears, heart, mind) to the And yet.  To look for it.  To expect.  To know that I know that I know that God's plan is a good one, and it's unfolding (albeit with some unexpected plot-twists).  To enjoy it when it arrives, adding every miraculous turn-around and breakthrough to the stories we tell and re-tell, reminding ourselves of the stunning ways God comes through.

Today as you pray, ask God to put And yet on the parts of life where you feel like you're stuck or just limping along. Wherever reality seems dismal and there's no reasonable hope, God has an And yet.  Let's ask for it.

Here's to a Happy New Year :)