Telling Great Stories


What was your favorite story as a child? Mine was Ferdinand the Bull. I didn’t think most people knew about Ferdinand, but he was special to me. Something clicked  between me and a bull who didn’t want to fight—just wanted to smell the flowers. I just wanted to sit under a tree and read a book. Or on the couch. Or in bed, under the blankets late at night. Or anywhere, really.

Leave me alone, and let me live peacefully. Ferdinand found that difficult as a bull intended for the bullring. I found it difficult as the youngest of seven kids.

I knew what it felt like to be different. Can another INFJ raise a hand, here?

As an adult, the stories that have shaped me, not surprisingly, revolve around second chances and grace and the least among us doing great thing. Lord of the Rings. Les Miserables. Pride and Prejudice. (Also, stories about women who aren’t afraid to say what they mean. And then sometimes have to apologize.)

Stories Change Us


I will never forget the gut-punch feeling while sitting in a dark theater in December, 2001. My family watched The Fellowship of the Ring roll out on the big screen in Bozeman, Montana. (There was only one big screen in Bozeman.) We were only a couple months out of 9/11. The horror was still raw, the fear still tangible. And then Gandalf said the words I have never been able to shake.

To Frodo’s exhausted, “I wish none of this had happened,” Gandalf replied, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

It meant something. It still means something to me—enough to make me write a book and speak to young adults everywhere I can about the wondrous ability of Tolkien’s stories to change us.

Stories mean something. We read them, watch them, are changed by them. From the beginning of humanity, people told stories to connect and to reflect who they were and who they wanted to be.

I’ve been taking some time to preach through Jesus’ stories lately. Because if any stories are going to change us, those ought to.


Jesus’ Stories Change Everything

Often when we read Jesus’ parables, we read them to extract a moral. What does he want us to do? How should we act? In the words of the rich young man, “What must I do for the kingdom of God?”

What if Jesus wants us to live the story—plot, character, climax, and conflict? What if he wants us to read it like he meant it—like a story, not a morality play? In fact, as a writer, I know the latter is a terrible way to write a story. We dare not tack on a moral at the end or we make it cliche, a trite tale that bashes the reader over the head with our Bible. (It’s kind of the way Christians tend to make movies . . . )

That’s not Jesus’ way.

Jesus drops a story in the listeners’ ears. The he lets them figure it out. He makes them figure it out. Jesus is not a bash-them-over-the-head sort of guy. (Although he has no trouble being a turn-the-tables-over sort of guy. That’s different.)

So what is the purpose of Jesus’ stories? They paint us a picture of life as it should be. His tales hold up a portrait, a landscape really, of the kingdom of God. This is what it looks like, guys. And he asks— Is this the story you want to tell as your own?

Jesus tells stories to help us imagine a world that aligns with how its supposed to be–to help us create our own story and tell it out. We study parables not for the moral of the story but for our story within them. What do they contribute to our tale? And how does out tale fit in God’s great kingdom, of which we are a tiny, tiny part yet still a meaningful one?

We tell stories to see the world as it should be and then go there.

In Jesus’ “introduction” to his parables, he gives another reason for telling them. To sort out who is truly listening.

That is why I use these parables, For they look, but they don’t really see. They hear, but they don’t really listen or understand. This fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that says, ‘When you hear what I say, you will not understand. When you see what I do, you will not comprehend.

For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes— so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. (Matthew 13)

Jesus returns to the ancient shema—the call of God to truly hear and listen. From its beginning in Deuteronomy, the shema asks more of God’s people. They are to listen to his words with open ears and hearts, willing and wanting to respond to God’s words at all times. That’s the meaning behind “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Jesus means don’t simply hear—DO.

So the parables are stories to help us find our place in God’s great story. They are also sifters to see who is really listening. Jesus is preparing to leave his followers, and he needs to know who is in and who is a hanger-on. Not that the hangers-on aren’t welcome, but they aren’t where he’s going to get his team for building the church when he is gone. He’s looking for hearers and doers. And the stories separate the ones who want to work at it from those who want the fireworks and free fish.

Just think about all the people who were Cubs fans last year but not this. That’s the difference, my friends.


When do we listen, really listen, to stories, as I did in that dark theater sixteen years ago?

We listen to stories when we appreciate our need for them.

I mean, if we’re prepping for a test, and we think we’ve got all the time in the world, or we know more than anyone else, we’re not likely to really listen when the teacher is reviewing. We’re going to be in the corner on Facebook, or doodling in the notebook, or catching a nap. We don’t feel our need for the information.

Jesus didn’t force morals or tell his point straight out because he wanted people to realize their need. We usually only realize that when we’re made to work for it. If it comes easily, we don’t know how much we really need it. When we do realize it, we are really to change. He wanted to force that work. Because—

Good stories change us for the better.

and then—

People who are changed tell good stories.


That’s the point of the parables. To get us to tell good stories with our lives. We will never do that until we have ears to hear Jesus’ stories and know that they aren’t intended to give us a new law or some behavior to check off but a completely new story arc.

We tell stories to see the world as it should be and then go there.

We do that when we let the stories sink through our ears and change our very hearts.

Good stories change us for the better.

People who are changed tell good stories.

Next week, we will begin looking into some of those stories. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear some of yours.

Also–what was your favorite story as a child? What’s your favorite now?

How to Help Your Kids Overcome Jealousy and Insecurity

P1050504(Sibling rivalry does not have to come to this.)

“Mommy, is she going to be better at everything than me?”

I hugged my dripping wet tiny seven-year-old. At the end of our girls’ first swimming lessons, what I had dreaded the whole six week session happened.

The younger got promoted to the next level and her big sister didn’t.

Bigger and more athletic than her older sister, she simply had better motor skills, a higher attention span, and more courage at that young age. Big Sister struggled with a mix of hurt and jealousy.

“Am I always going to be not as good?”

I struggled, too.

I mean, given their genetics, none of our children were ever going to be athletically coordinated, let alone gifted. As the larger and stronger child, though, her little sister did have an edge. What to say to this little wet waif, certain that she would always be at the end of every performance test?

I’m checking in at A Fine Parent today with this article on children, jealousy, and how to find abundant praise for everyone, no child left behind!

Read the whole post here.

Health and Wellness in the Church World


I’m stirring my jar of almond butter this morning, settling in to day three of Round 2 of Whole 30. It’s “natural,” so there is stirring involved, a need to force the oil and almonds to mix and meld. I read the label. There is only one ingredient in this jar—almonds. No aded sugar, which apparently is the magic ingredient to huge sales. This brand will not ever become a mass market seller that brings in buckets of dollars for its corporation. it’s small—in name, sales, and even size.

I am grateful someone is OK with that.

My good health is dependent partly on the fact that someone somewhere accepted lower market share for the tradeoff of giving people something good for them versus something they liked the sweet taste of.

Small Can Be Good

It occurs to me that this is a good metaphor for church. What happens when we remove the filler and the flash? What tradeoffs are we making when we choose health over sales, or vice versa? Is there a place in the church marketing machine for the off brand, the radical rebel that’s natural almond in a Jif world?

What happens when we become OK with remaining small?


It wasn’t only the almond butter that got me thinking this way lately. I felt the same uncomfortable rebelliousness sitting in a lunch this month, talking about church buildings and seeing the stunning shots of auditoriums, stages, and sweeping lobbies. No, they aren’t narthexes. I know that word is passe, and I’m not particularly suggesting we bring it back. I’d rather speak words most people understand and feel comfortable with.

But lobbies are a different animal than narthexes—a giant blue whale compared to a sleeping, cozy cat. And these were lobbies, displayed there on the slides meant to showcase the best of church architecture. It hit me then that I never want that kind of building for my church. I am OK with being the almond butter of the kingdom. I’m more than OK with it; I’m choosing it as a value for my church leadership. I can no longer get behind the spending or even the ideas symbolized by the blue whales of the kingdom. I understand that will come with some limitations, and I’m prepared to figure out how to navigate them.

Please don’t take this as criticism of any church beyond a certain size or with a certain style. I don’t find criticizing my brothers and sisters that worthwhile an endeavor, although dialog over real issues of disagreement is necessary at times. Take it as the musings of someone looking down another path than what has been universally accepted for the past few decades. A path that looks pretty appealing, especially in light of the values I see in upcoming generations.


Boutique Church?

Just as the boutique hotel and shopping experience are enjoying a renaissance largely thanks to the Millennial generation, we shouldn’t be surprised to find boutique church not far behind. Smaller, more focused on one purpose, more able to adapt to individual needs, warmer. Your small shops on the corner are the ones gathering around a fundraiser for one family. They’re the ones offering a job to the neighborhood kid who needs a second chance. The boutiques are where your kids get handed a handmade lollipop and maybe your dog does, too.

There is value in that in the Kingdom world as well. Perhaps more value than I find in sweeping lobbies. That little store may certainly franchise to another neighborhood, but its offshoot will also be small, personable, welcoming to a new place and new faces. 

It will seek the health of its neighborhood, and in doing so, will necessarily remain small but strong.

Small but Strong

What if we intentionally look for the people who want health and wellness, even if we know that this is going to make us too small to compete with the corporations? What if we “specialize” in strong, healthy bodies rather than well-appointed ones? Realistically, those are going to be smaller. (We already know what specializing in food with added sugar does to our bodies.)

I’m OK with opening the almond butter boutique. It will never be a national brand. But it will serve well those who come to it seeking to be well and strong. 

And by the way, almond butter does, in fact, taste good. Especially spread on apples in the morning.

This article originally appeared on Theology Mix.

60 Before 60


My daughter and I sat down a while ago to write lists. She wanted to write a “30 before 30” list. She is 21. She has quite a while to complete her list.

I, on the other hand, had to write a “60 before 60.” Which is, if you’re good at math, twice as many things to do. And, well, not nine years to do it.

Enough people have asked what is on my list. So this week, while still in my birth month, I’m telling you. I know it won’t all happen. But I like to think just writing it down makes it more likely. Isn’t that true with many of our goals and dreams? Putting it down, getting it in words, maybe even putting a date by it–makes it somehow more tangible and more possible. As you can see, I’ve already gotten to cross some things off, and I just wrote it in August. Writing down goals works!

I also want more on it that has to do with others. So there could be some revisiting. I’ve got time.


That’s my thinking, anyway. Here’s the list. It’s rather random, like me. Feel free to suggest other options. Options that have nothing to do with roller coasters or sky diving. But I’m willing to consider your suggestions. I’m excited to! After all, someday I’ll need 70 things.

60 before 60 list

  1. sail
  2. go to another continent
  3. establish a mission relationship with a church overseas
  4. finish my doctorate
  5. maintain a healthy church
  6. publish 3 more books
  7. be a national speaker
  8. win the flower arranging championship at the county fair
  9. read ten (other) classics
  10. (re)learn French
  11. (re)learn Spanish
  12. learn Greek
  13. see the sandhill cranes in NE
  14. see the northern lights
  15. trace my dad’s family heritage
  16. drive the whole St. Lawrence seaway
  17. tour Wrigley FieldIMG_4551
  18. girlfriends’ trip
  19. drive the Blue Ridge parkway
  20. sea kayak
  21. teach a college course
  22. get a hedgehog
  23. get in good shape
  24. see a solar eclipseIMG_4519
  25. watch the top ten movies of all time
  26. pet a cougar
  27. see the cave lake in TN
  28. climb a volcano
  29. Scotland
  30. Iceland
  31. Grand Canyon
  32. Galapagos Islands
  33. see polar bears in the wild
  34. fly first class
  35. pick cranberries
  36. eat durian
  37. tour more of Chicago
  38. be mentioned in an alumni magazine
  39. stand up paddle board
  40. jet ski
  41. have another travel article published
  42. covered bridge country bike rideIMG_5159
  43. ride a bicycle cab
  44. go to a unique festival
  45. spontaneous road trip
  46. sleep on a houseboat
  47. tour the Ferrara Pan factory
  48. go skinny dipping
  49. sing karaoke
  50. picture with World Series Trophy
  51. Walk the Camino de Santiago with Beth
  52. Go to Carnival with Emily (Venice)
  53. Trip with my sister
  54. See the Tolkien exhibit at the Bodleian
  55. Meet Colin Firth or David Tennant
  56. go somewhere with Becca
  57. Hike Angels Landing Trail at Zion Park
  58. Take a helicopter ride
  59. Play one of my high school piano pieces
  60. spend the night in a lighthouse

appendix: spend a month studying at the Kilns


What’s on your list? I’d LOVE to hear.

The Naming of Things


I love God’s creatures. I plot vacations around seeing as many of them in his wild world as I can. I’ve gone to ends of the world, so it seems, to view orcas, sloths, and moose where they live. Last month, I actually did drive to nearly the end of Canada, partly to see a giant gannet colony.

Because we could, and I would.

But there are two animals that do not hold a secure place in my heart. Spider and wasps.

This will be important.

Last summer, a spider spun a web in our dining room window. This meant I had to see him at every meal. I sat across from that window. Like the accident we can’t turn away from, I couldn’t help but look him, stalking around in our window sill, taking up an entire corner.

This was a big spider. I named him Aragog. And this is when I started to like him. At least, I started to have a strange proprietary affection for him. He was named. He was our spider. He was still big and ugly. He still gave me creepy shivers when he moved unexpectedly. He still hung out where I had to simultaneously eat food and see him. But he was Aragog. And I was oddly sad when winter claimed him.

For it’s in the naming of things that we draw them closer. One can have ten grandchildren but only one Rose or Elliot. McHenry isn’t a random suburb but the identity of the town where I spent my childhood. That small rectangle on the wall is no longer a painting; it’s Mona Lisa.

When we name things, we give them specificity. We infuse them with meaning beyond the simple letters of the name. We create a bond that we really don’t understand but we feel, sculpted between ourselves and those things.

Aragog was a member of a species I hated and feared. Until I gave him a name.

This will be very important.

In was in the days after one of the shootings of a black young man—I don’t even know which one anymore. Names and faces and tragedies have become so common in our newsfeeds that we rarely can differentiate, thus granting them the namelessness that makes all of it so easy to pass over. On one of those days a friend, who has an adopted black child, wrote these words:

“One of the things I have found out over the last couple of years is that some of our closest friends have treated Eli so kindly and like anyone else because they knew him. And then one day, we realized if they didn’t know him, and he was just another black man, their view of him would be much different.”

He has a name (though I didn’t use the real one). That name makes all the difference for her friends. it shouldn’t. But it does.

Names in the Bible are immensely important. God gives people names because of what they’ve done, or more often, what they can do and what God will do with them. He christens one Peter, the Rock, though he’d hardly been steadfast to that point. He changes one from a man wishing to overthrow his brother (Jacob) to a wrestler with God, themes that would certainly define Israel’s erratic history.

He gives another boy (Ishmael) the promise of his name—God hears. He surprises Naomi with the reality of her name—lovable, delight—when she feels so much less.

God appears to agree that names give meaning. Faces, eyes, and voices from a person we identify drip with belief that we will hear, we will listen, we will respond. Because we know them by name.

There is so much hatred and fear surrounding us, regardless of how well insulated we believe we might be. The hating of “other” is what people do, it seems, to the exclusion of much else these days.

But what if instead we chose to name?

If anyone, the people of God should be able to name. We should be able to imitate the One who looked the blind in the eye, took the unclean by the hand, and offered the broken Peter a name of unbreakableness.

If we knew the name of our brother, could we still hate or fear him? I don’t mean know a name like we know someone’s caption in a news story. That’s knowing a label, not a name. We easily substitute another label when that’s the extent of our knowing: liberal, republican, ungrateful black man, Muslim, bigot, shrill feminist, druggie, redneck. The switching of the labels is a shell game to keep us from having to know.

Jesus doesn’t do that. Jesus touches. He hears. He bends down. He repeatedly implores the ones who hate him most to come back and be his brothers. He is the father running down the road, and you know he is calling and crying his son’s name all the time his robes are flapping in the wind and his feet are flying. Over and over.

You know he is.

I’m going to try to join God in the naming of things. When I see news stories of people I disagree with, or even deeply despise what they value, I’m going to give them names. I’m going to imagine their names on the lips of their mothers, sisters, and children. I’m going to think about how they might toss their daughters in the air or scrimp and save to buy their dads a Father’s Day present. I’m going to let them be human. I’m going to let them be the image of God.

Eli’s friends know his name, but they don’t know his fears and hopes as a young black man. I hope his mama is able to break through and help them know those things. I hope we all are able to do that for ourselves.

Naming a spider seemed like such a small, silly thing. But when you offer something a name, you offer it value in a suddenly vulnerable heart.

This article originally appeared on Theology Mix. Visit to read and listen to some other great material!

Dear Young Mom

Dear Young Mom (Me),

Look into the face of your little girl. Your first one on her first birthday party. The one with a red cut above her right eye, courtesy of the jungle gym she climbed two days ago. The one who started walking at nine months. The one who has already foiled every baby gate, crib rail and door knob safety cover ever invented. She will break through most barriers set for her, so you might as well get ready.

Years from now, a new Disney princess (you will become very well acquainted with Disney princesses) will encourage you to “Let It Go.” I wish she had told you that sooner. There are so many things I wish you had given yourself permission to let go.

Do you want to read more about permission to let go? I’m over at the MOPS blog today. Please join me.


“Originally published in The MOPS Magazine and posted on The MOPS Blog.


After an entire childhood of being the odd one out, I was sought after. I was thrilled to be wanted. Too thrilled. It became all that I was.

I don’t remember when I stopped clinging to those yellowed letters of acceptance. They never really offered anything but flimsy paper. The real offer came on other paper, also yellowed and worn with time, dripping with the voice of the Spirit.

“You are chosen. You are God’s very own possession. Once you had no identity . . . now you are God’s.”


This week, I’m over at The Glorious Table talking about college applications, acceptance, and hanging on to affirmations that we don’t need. Join me here, won’t you? While you’re there, check out some of the other great writing from people I’m blessed to call friends.