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Pushing Grace

Jill1Hi. I’m Jill–writer, speaker, pastor, editor, and what my business card euphemistically refers to as a “grace pusher.” We all push something, and that’s my favorite thing.

I talk about a lot of things on my blog and in my books and articles. But usually, they focus on a few main topics. Breaking through fear (and using it). Doing faith with the next generation (and loving it!). Women as half the church. Kindness in the midst of an unkind world. Using the Bible for wisdom not warfare.  Justice. Freedom. Grace. Always grace.

I’m the kids who refused to step too far into the back yard after dark. The woman who slept with a nightlight when I was twenty. The person who would still rather face a rabid bobcat than walk up to a stranger and begin a conversation. Fear has been a close acquaintance of mine. After a few very rough years, however, I decided it wasn’t the boss of me. Fear has only the power you give it–and I wasn’t giving it anymore.

This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It_s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What_s next, Papa_”

Yes–there is God, telling me to live “adventurously expectant.” To look at each day and ask, “What’s next?” Even on the days when I fear what might, in fact, be next.

“Fear not” may be the most common command in the Bible, but fear is also perhaps the most common human emotion. It’s certainly been driving a lot of our national conversation, too.

I don’t want to live life as a grave-tender, so wrapped in fear of what might be that I lose the time in between. Grave tenders may live safely–there isn’t much to fear when you’re keeping up a nice, neat backdrop for dead things. They don’t demand a lot of change. But living among dead things isn’t living at all. The abundant life Jesus promised isn’t safe, but it is an adventure, if we’re willing to leave dead things behind.

I want to live an adventure for God’s kingdom, and I want to do it with you. I want to know who I am, and I want you to know who you are, because of who He is.

I want us both to know the identity God planted in us when he chose to give humans his image. That imago dei, straight outta the garden, is still there. He hasn’t rescinded the deal. He made you and me his ambassadors–shining his image in difficult, dark places. Just like my scary old back yard, only sometimes darker.

I want to see you and hear you and know you–and I want you to know He already sees and hears and knows you. If you’re tending a grave, he wants to pull you out of there into life.

So, let’s join one another. I can’t wait to see what happens here.

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PS– I’d love it if you want to hit the button to subscribe or be put on my mailing list!

*I also write occasionally for Christianity Today publications, MOPS, (in)courage, A Fine Parent, and others, as well as blog regularly for Theology Mix and The Glorious Table. If you would like to view recent articles, go to my Media page.

Hope in the Dark In-between

I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss. Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this_ The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is

My hair is growing back. Little wisps have suddenly appeared around my face, darker brown than the rest of my hair, like someone accidentally scuffed a marker across my temple. I didn’t see them a week ago, but now they are there, and I wonder what else might be being restored.

The hair began falling out in clumps last winter, long strands whirling around the shower floor and clogging up my detangler brush. I finally went to the dermatologist; she asked if there had been any stressors in my life a month before this began.

Maybe . . .

Please join me today over at (in)courage to hear the rest of the story. We all need wisps of hope sometimes.

“The faithful love of the Lord never ends; his mercies never cease.”

A Long Obedience, and Other Lessons Learned at Nineteen

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Photo by Christine Mendoza on Unsplash

Running, Galloping, or Anything with Horses

I didn’t want to run with the horses. A neighbor’s horse had once run under a tree branch in our back field, with me on his back, full intending to knock me off. I’d hit the branch. I had not fallen.

Another horse, a supposedly docile being on a trail ride, had been bitten by the beast behind him and reared up, again, with me on his back. The height of it is probably greatly exaggerated in my ten-year-old memory, but I remember the fear.

Our cousins’ ponies tried to bite me. Leaders of Girl Scout rides believed, erroneously, that we would all love to gallop. My best friend inducted me into typical elementary-schoolgirl horse fever, and I created an elaborate ranch on my bedroom wall of paper horses, all different, with names and histories. I loved my horses. I just didn’t love real ones.

My history with the equine family is sketchy.

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Photo by Florin-Alin Beudean on Unsplash

But Eugene Peterson said that Jeremiah said that God said—I had to run with the horses. At that point in my life, I trusted all three, although I remained a little unclear on who Jeremiah was.

Halls of Fame

An author rarely makes it into my mental Hall of Literary Fame. It takes excellence of storytelling, language, argument, depth, and truth to attain that level. Like a preacher who sits in the pews and can’t listen for unintentionally  critiquing (that is who I am), I admit only authors who take hold of my literary imagination. Pushing me theologically earns bonus points.

To paraphrase Jane Austen, who is certainly well-ensconced near the apex of my Hall, “I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished writers. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.” 

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We lost Eugene Peterson in October. We lost—he gained. He is said to have passed with joy in his heart and greeting on his lips for the One he was going to meet but already knew well.

I met Peterson (through his work) at a crucial time in my development, literarily and theologically. A new freshman at Washington University, I was also a new Christian, stumbling and uncertain exactly what I had signed up for and if it had been the great idea I believed at the time.

As a new believer in a highly unbelieving university, it seemed the thing to join InterVarsity, and there I learned of an entire publishing house devoted to making me a smarter Christian. You can assume by the alma mater that I enjoyed being smarter. This has not changed.

A Long Obedience

Peterson stayed with me while others faded. He taught me early in my faith about a long obedience in the same direction and how to run with horses. He taught me what most nineteen-year-olds need to learn yet rarely can—how to allow for failure, to expect slowness rather than instant effectiveness. He taught me that discipleship was a hard road that required perseverance, not five-point plans.

Of course, I didn’t know I needed to know all that.

You can see how old the book is by the photo. I no longer go by that name. Haven’t for decades. I no longer mark my belongings with unicorn stamps either, although given the magic of books, it’s not amiss.

There are arrows and asterisks and a few underlines in the text of A Long Obedience. Not many. I was still at an age where I believed books were not to be written in, sacred pages that should remain virgin white because someone in a library had told me that probably.

I didn’t know that a book is made more sacred by its highlighting, underlining, exclamation points, and creases. I bet Peterson could have taught me that, too.

The chapter that contains most all the underlining is called “Joy: Our Mouth Was Filled with Laughter.” I clearly felt the need for joy at that point. Not surprising, since my college years were flooded with grief at my mother’s passing a few weeks before high school graduation, my dad’s descent into alcoholism, and a close friend’s suicide. Peterson met me when I needed joy, and I didn’t know how to acquire it on my own.

“One of the delightful discoveries along the way of Christian discipleship is is how much enjoyment there is, how much laughter you hear, how much sheer fun you find. We come to God because none of us has it within ourselves, except momentarily, to be joyous. We try to get it through entertainment. Society is a bored, gluttonous king, employing a court jester to divert it after an overindulgent meal.

But there is something we can do. We can decide to live in response to the abundance of God, and not under the dictatorship of our own poor needs. We can decide to live in the environment of a living God and not our own dying selves. We can decide to center ourselves in the God who generously gives and not in our own egos which greedily grab. Joy is the verified, repeated experience of those involved in what God is doing.”

Did Peterson pave the way in my soul to be one of those who would not rest without excavating what God was doing? Did he play a role in my decision not to pursue law school but ministry instead?

I know, from my note-taking, that he offered me a way to find the joy that had evaporated from my heart. Choosing joy is a decision I would have to make over and over, given my propensity to be more negative than the average bear. Somewhere in that long obedience, the joy stuck, and the negativity is what evaporated, though it’s always a beast that requires patrolling of the borders.

Peterson found me when I needed a wise pastor, and that he was. I hope he helped make me a wise pastor in return. Thank you, good brother, for being who you were and for speaking words that will not die with you.

How to Protect Your Family from Screen Addiction

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Photo by Hannah Joshua on Unsplash

Command or Option?

A few months ago, my phone required a reset in hopes it would respond better to its master. Afterward, I realized that all my notifications had been turned off.

No little red bubbles reminded me that someone had liked my Facebook post or retweeted my genius. I started to turn them on again, but then . . . I didn’t.

And I haven’t since.

I realized I was tired of 24/7 availability.

Interested in learning how to “turn off” in this world–for you and your kids? Finish reading my post on A Fine Parent now!

Maybe It’s the Hands

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Those of you who follow me on Instagram (or read last week’s blog post) know I went to Scotland last month. Those who know me well know that Scotland was mere subterfuge.

Not that I didn’t want to go there—Scotland, specifically the Isle of Skye, has hovered on my top five travel list for quite a while. The main reason for the trip at this particular time, however, lies about 500 miles southeast of the island.

Oxford

The holy Mecca of literary snobs, particularly Lewis/Tolkien fanatics, a title which I wear  without the tiniest shred of nerd shame. The Tolkien exhibit of manuscripts, paintings, and memorabilia was all this hobbit-loving heart hoped it would be.

This exhibit, as well as a morning visit to the British Library, made me ponder the future of writing. What, specifically, might generations to come of fanatics line up, or cross an ocean, to see?

Not what I saw.

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Handwritten

On this trip, I marveled at original drawings, schematics, and words from DaVinci’s sketch books. How have they survived so long? What fantastic theories flew through his mind as he penciled those sketches? What genius rabbit holes was he considering plumbing as he wrote?

I smiled at Jane Austen’s lovely, dense cursive on a page on her own writing desk. Thinking of her hand on the page conjuring those works brought her whole being alive, sitting there, smiling back at me, inviting investigation.

Actual tears came when I peered (I did have to peer, because the room was dark, and there were a zillion people) at Tolkien’s handwritten charge,

“Arise, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Fell deeds awake, fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!”

I saw it. I heard it. I nearly went to battle myself.

This is the power of the written word. More specifically, it’s the power of the handwritten word. Others of you stand on chairs to see your team score a touchdown. Some, like my husband, go agape at the sight of ancient statues and clay pots. Paintings will transport certain people to realms of imagination and joy.

Handwritten words make me cry. Especially when they are words I know and love.

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What are we leaving?

I realized, while I inhaled those manuscripts like am addict getting a fix, that we are not leaving written words to other generations. Whoever the great authors of our age are, is anyone going to want to stare at their Messenger notes in a museum one day? Is the sight of their emailed manuscript going to make anyone’s heart beat faster? Will anyone ever stand and peer at their iPad, on which they typed the thrilling battle cry for that climactic scene, and sob with the pure joy of it?

Will anyone cross an ocean to see their laptop?

Nope.

On a more prosaic level, handwriting doesn’t have to be famous. My daughter recently found photos of my husband in his elementary school years. They have his mother’s writing on their backs, carefully penned notes about who, what, where, and when.

The archivist in my daughter winces at the ink on the backs of photos. The word lover in her carefully  places the written-upon photos on the copier, wanting to preserve that piece of her grandmother’s hands, fingers, thoughts.

It’s the reason I have a Pinterest board of recipes, but I also have a tin box, rusted and creaky, with yellow legal paper and lined index cards and my mother’s writing covering them. I will never make the recipes—I do not have my mother’s taste in food. I will also never throw away those small reminders of her hands, moving across a paper, writing down something she wanted to use to nourish her family.

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Maybe it’s the hands

We can’t separate handwriting from hands, and hands are so intimate, so identity-sealing. They are such symbols of personal presence.

Scripture shouts this message.

“Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” Isaiah 49.16

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me . . . and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” John 10.27

“I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41.10

“My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.” Psalm 63.8

“But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Isaiah 64.8

“Even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” Psalm 139.10

“My times are in your hand.” Psalm 31.15

Hands. Handwriting. They are presence. I sobbed at Theoden’s heroic battle cry because I knew the story, and I could feel the presence of the storyteller through the ink on the page.

Sometimes I sob at the beauty of the scripture. It’s not handwritten. Maybe it should be. Maybe we should have someone go back to the days of the scribes who slowly and carefully wrote out the words of God, illuminating letters to shine light in darkness.

But I cry because I know the story, and the storyteller, and the hands that created it are holding me, present, always.

Time Enough and Goals

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I just celebrated my birthday, circling ever closer to that 60 mark. So I thought it might be a good time to revisit that 60 before 60 list. How’s that going? What’s gone down in the last year? What have I learned from it?

I’ve learned that I was wildly optimistic about how much I’d be able to travel. 🙂 Still, it’s good to have goals.

Ah yes, goals

Yesterday, my daughter went out the door to work, listening to me talk about book proposals and agents and all that jazz for the upcoming writers conference at which I’ll be teaching.  She sternly reminded me—“Mother, you’re working on your doctorate. And you have a job. Do not start any new projects. You will be insane.”

I agreed.

And then promptly wrote three book proposal one-sheets.

Time is Wibbly-wobbly

Because you see, new projects, book proposals and travel all work kind of the same way. I can say I don’t have the time for them. This could be certifiably true. Yet if they mean something to me, I will find a way to make them happen.

I realized as I sat there contemplating whether or not I should propose anything that the mere act of doing it makes me more likely to follow through. Not doing it means that, for one more year or more, my ideas will sit around collecting cat hair (that’s our form of dust around here) and come no closer to reality.

Will it be hard? Insanely so. Will I still have the same amount of time if I don’t try? Yep. Will I probably fill too much of it with meaningless time wasters if I don’t have a goal and a plan?

Definitely.

I want to complete that #6 on my list—publish three more books before I’m sixty. I can tell myself I don’t have time. Or I can choose to risk putting the idea out there and commit myself to finding the time.

Just like that travel list

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I can tell myself I don’t have time to see all the places I want to see. Or I can put them on a list and see my goal in front of me, waiting to be attempted.

So have I knocked some of those travel goals off the list? Yep. #29, a big one. Last month we went to Scotland, land of (at least some of) my ancestors. We spent five glorious days on the isle of Skye.

Is it in our blood?

I’ve learned in the past few years that my dad’s heritage is Scottish and that his name most likely belongs to the McDonald clan. What I find absolutely fascinating about this is that, upon arrival on Skye, I also learned that the McDonald clan were the lords of Skye, and their nickname was “Lord of the Isles.”

I love islands. I love islands with all my passionate little soul. Not just any islands. Rocky, wave crashing, cool wind islands. The kind you find in Scotland. Islands like Skye, which I’ve wanted to visit for as long as I can remember.

Do you think there is something in our blood that calls us to places our forebears began? I didn’t know any of this when I planned the trip. Yet it’s called to me for decades.

God made us so complex, and we haven’t explored the depths of what makes us who we are or what our minds and hearts are capable of. That the “land” calls so many in history might be more a part of us than we know. It’c certainly a big theme in Scripture. I don’t know. I just find it interesting that this girl who loves these places so deeply is descended from the Lords of the Isles. And didn’t even know it.

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Tally?

So in the past year, I’ve completed #s:

1. Go sailing. Done. In Santa Barbara while at school this summer. My instructor said that I seemed to use these class times as mini-vacations. I just looked at him like that option should be obvious to anyone. Because why not see what there is to see in a new place?

29. Go to Scotland. Joy.

39. Stand up paddleboard. In Michigan. On Lake Chalevoix. Did I fall in? Of course. But it was fun. I learned something from this, too. It’s OK to try something and decide you don’t love it. Like broccoli, at least you tried. It was fun, but I don’t think I have the stability to make it a thing.

54. See the Tolkien exhibit in Oxford. Original manuscripts. Watercolors of his artwork for the books. Artifacts he touched with his actual hands. Handwriting–that thing modern authors will never leave behind, and it’s sorrowful. My life is complete now. I can die happy.

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Also, I was sure punting was on that list. I find it is not. I think we’ll have to make a pinch-hit substitution somewhere. Because we did punt in Oxford, and this man was GOOD at it.

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That’s only ten so far. I have a long way to go. But it’s ten more than I might have done if I hadn’t made a list and a goal. Some of them will not come to pass in the next few years. Some of them never may. (Sadly, I found after I made this list that #47 is no longer possible. I’m despondent. Maybe they’ll make an exception if I show them my list.)

That’s OK if some never happen. They’re goals, not mandates. But goals keep us intentional, and that’s a good thing.

So now I think I should go read some classics. Or plan karaoke. Or. . . . #48. There will be no pictures of #48.

Slow Masterpieces

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When my husband and I were house hunting, we drove down a sleepy dead end street inn the town I had chosen out of the myriad of western Chicago suburbs. The town itself felt sleepy, a quiet spot where we could hear roosters and goats across the street yet still get to a Target in ten minutes flat. In other words, my kind of town.

A For Sale sign hung in the yard of a 1940’s era tan house, all strange angles and wide 70’s siding. Masterpiece it was not. The detached garage looked tired. To a woman with her heart set on a yellow and blue Victorian, it was ugly with a capital U. Honestly, to anyone it was Ugly.

My husband, who had no particular dream houses dancing in his head, even pronounced it so.

But I decided to look beyond the house, literally. 

What does it take to find and create a slow masterpiece? Read the rest of this post today at The Glorious Table.

(PS–22 years later, we made it yellow and blue.)

Refuge

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Another post from the past. One of my garden-related favs.

My husband has long extolled the virtues of winter interest in the garden. I remained unconvinced for quite a while. After all, once the thermometer reaches a certain point, I consider the backyard hostile territory, inhabitable only by feeder-raiding squirrels and children who don’t know enough to be cold. Who needs anything to look at outside when I have seed catalogues and hot tea inside?

My husband, however, just took the wrong approach.

I’ve finally discovered a reason for winter interest gardening that appeals to me. Basic laziness. The winter garden, it seems, is supposed to remain untidy. Forget deadheading those coneflowers and rudbeckias. Never lop down those fading grasses until spring. The birds and bunnies will thank you profusely. When those perfectly manicured lawns and gardens die or are cut back to the ground by zealous horticultural perfectionists, winter animals must look much farther afield for the seeds, berries, and protective cover they still require. They need a place of refuge.

Refuge is real

Thus, the gardener who neglects her seedheads and procrastinates her trimming finds herself rewarded by a yard full of thankful cardinals and finches, flaunting their colors at nature’s buffet. What a lovely license—untidiness in my yard can actually make it more hospitable to others. My backyard brambles draw those who need shelter from coyotes and cold. I can provide a place a refuge for those for whom the winter winds are too harsh.

I’m finding that can also hold true in the rest of my life.

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When my children were small and my husband working 12-24 hours a day, I discovered an awful demon in my quiet, retiring heart—uncontrolled anger. My inability to handle conflict had been well-hidden for many years (even from myself). I had easy-going friends, and I had married a man who rarely did anything I could get angry about. (OK, we did have a few discussions about empty cereal boxes on the counter and improperly aligned toilet paper rolls, but they didn’t exactly rock our marriage.)

Then we had kids.

Children, by their nature and seemingly by their firm desire, cause conflict. I had few coping skills for that kind of loving struggle. The day I found myself red-faced, screaming at them, “Why can’t you learn some self-control!” I knew I had a problem.

As God healed and taught me, I discovered something else—an awful lot of women felt the same way. They hated themselves, doubted their ability as parents, longed for someone to understand how they could have so much love and so much anger all at once.

Yet an embarrassed silence reigned over them, because talking about fears and shortcomings opens one up to further misunderstanding and pain. Only one who understood could break the silence and minister to them. Only someone who had an “untidy” life herself could extend a hospitable ear to hearts that needed nourishment and shelter.

Choking on Perfection

In the western suburbs of Chicago where we live, perfection reigns. It also chokes. Perfect-looking people in perfect cars commute to perfect jobs, then come home to perfect children and perfect houses. Deviation from the script isn’t allowed.

Yet, at times, I recognize the desperation behind those masks. The heart that cries, “Just let me see that you’re not perfect—then I can stop trying to prove that I am.” These people search for hospitality for their souls, and they don’t find it in the manicured perfection of our self-protecting masks. They find it in our untidiness, our inability to make all our pieces fit, our willingness to admit our weakness.

That surface-manicured standard reflects not God’s perfection but my pride. “My (God’s) grace is sufficient for you. My power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). What an intriguing paradox of what I’m supposed to be. Transparent enough so that His grace shines through my cracks and blemishes. A pointer for hungry hearts to the only one who can make order of their chaotic lives. To do that, I must be willing to admit to my own chaos.

Vulnerability is the start of becoming a refuge.

Honesty and grace keep us that way. If we all truly believed that, “There but for the grace of god go I,” what kind of shelter could we offer to people for whom the winter winds of perfection and criticism are harsh and hurtful?

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I love the grass heads bowing under snow outside my sliding glass door. I appreciate the beauty of rudbeckia seedheads, lovely in their own right without the starry golden petals. I glory in the cardinals, goldfinches, and juncos that find my untidiness so inviting to those in need. When the lawn services come one last time to “clean up” my neighbors’ yards, I’m glad to remain a place of refuge.