Posts Tagged ‘books’

8th November
written by Michelle

Thoughts on Change, Grace and Learning the Hard Way

Many of you know that this past year has been one filled with a lot of change. And for someone who tries to shy away from change at all cost, it has certainly been an ongoing process of learning how to accept and even embrace it. I am firm believer that we cannot qualify and quantify change. Change is change in whatever form it takes. Moving to a new city. Losing a job or starting another. Having a child or going back to school. Getting married. Ending a relationship or starting to date.  For some what may feel invigorating and exciting for others feels overwhelming and downright frightening. It doesn’t help to compare and size up whose change is bigger or harder. I have learned sometimes it’s just better to acknowledge it for what it is: Change.

I recently finished Shauna Niequist’s new book Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace and Learning the Hard Way. With an honesty and vulnerability that is rare to find, she shares how struggle, pain and dark places can lead to something beautiful. Shauna doesn’t give cliche answers or simplistic solutions. Instead she writes about stories and people and the process that we must go through to begin to see how “loss and emptiness and confusion often give way to new fullness and wisdom.”

The Gift

When I was in college (at the same place where Shauna studied) one of my favorite English professors always asked us at the start of class, “Ok, what’s the gift from this text?” The gift of Bittersweet is that Shauna names what for many of us is so hard to name. She gives faces and stories to describe the feelings, the situations, and the things that seem hardest to admit.

This is one of my favorite passages as she reflects honestly on her longing to become pregnant and the process of waiting:

“I know that most of us are longing for something…I know people who are longing to marry, who are longing to be healed from disease, longing for their children to come home, longing for the financial pressure to release. I get that longing is part of how we live….
“That’s why its hard, I think, to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. I love that line from the Bible, but it’s so incredibly difficult sometimes, because when you’ve got reason to rejoice, you forget what it’s like to mourn, even if you swear you never will….[so] I’ll celebrate with my friends. I’ll hold their babies, buy baby gifts, ask them what’s it’s like for them and really listen to the answer. I’ll do it because it’s the right thing to do, and because I can’t ask them to mourn with me unless I’m willing to celebrate with them, as deeply painful as it is on some days. And my friends have done it for me, certainly; they stood in my wedding when they wanted to be brides, brought shower gifts when they wanted to be mothers. No one is exempt from the longing, and now, it seems, it’s my turn.”

Throughout Bittersweet Shauna creatively weaves in spices and flavors and colors that season every essay and remind us that life is meant to be tasted and savored, even when it is hard. She does not promise us some sugar coated recipe for life, but rather a beautiful description how we need both: the sweet and the bitter in order to grow.

FREE copy of Bittersweet

I consider finding free things to be one of my hobbies. And now you get to benefit because  you have the chance to get a FREE copy of Bittersweet. Here’s how it works:

1) Leave a comment on this post about a change in your life that was either bitter or sweet, or maybe both.

2) Then I will chose one winner and email you to get your mailing address.

3) Shauna’s publisher will send you a FREE signed copy of the book. Not a bad deal, huh? : ) You have until midnight on Wednesday, November 10th.

(you can find out more about this wonderful author and her upcoming events at her blog:
Tags: , ,
20th February
written by Michelle

On Thursday night I and about half of southern California went to LA to hear Rob Bell speak. I was like a little kid waiting in line to meet Santa Clause. Now I know Rob Bell is not in fact Santa Claus, but that same childish excitement and giddy feeling was present as we waited to enter the Wiltern Theater. I’ve read RB’s books and listened to his podcast for years because they offered a different voice, a new perspective and sometimes a radical understanding of the gospel. In some of my darkest and most painful seasons his writing and words offered Hope, when everything else seemed silent.

And in case you were wondering, he is just as good live. Articulate. Creative and Down Right Funny. He somehow connects Will Farrell and Jesus in the same sentence- pure brilliance. He’s the kinda guy you’d want to have over to your house to hang out with your friends. And yet he seamlessly connects faith and pop culture and art and politics and the bible into a canvas that leaves room for mystery and honesty.

Obviously, I don’t really like him.

The best part about Thursday was that Rob Bell acknowledged right off the bat that bad stuff happens- pain, heartache, loss, suffering, and grief- and yet, we don’t know why. Our lives do not unravel the way we expected. Some things never, ever make sense! But instead of trying to give simplistic answers that many Christians to do, he invited us to see pain, heartache and loss as a complete disruption to our lives-which it is. But “The Art of Disruption” as he says, also plants seeds of creativity. When we suffer we are challenged to re(create), (re)imagine and re(define) parts of our life that will never, ever be the same.

I think about some of the times I have cried out in anger or heartache and how I often feel like the sadness and loneliness are the roots of my pain, but RB said often the root of our pain is actually mourning the loss of the expectation.

Aren’t these some of the thoughts that often go through our heads?
This is not how I thought life would be. I expected him to be here forever. I never thought we would lose our house. I expected to be married by now. I never imagined my mom getting cancer. I never thought we wouldn’t be able to have kids.
I never planned on this. And the list could do on.

RB said something that stuck with me- Pain has a way of making us honest.

He didn’t justify the pain, gloss over it or simplify it. No, he just said, it has a way of making us honest. And I think he is right. Pain forces us to look deep inside and cry out with questions. Pain forces us to admit I can’t do this alone. And the God that I believe in meets us right there in our pain. He meets us in the empty places. Some of the most beautiful, honest and genuine people that I know have experienced deep pain and loss, but somehow they’ve taken the art of disruption and let it shape and change who they are.

RB obviously describes it better, but this is the best I could do at quick synopsis. If you’re inclined to fly to the UK or Australia you still have a chance to see him! Click here for tour dates. For the rest of you, you can settle for buying the book.

Next post, bar soap and “The Art of Elimination.”

19th October
written by Michelle

My church recently started a new Saturday night service and yesterday I had the opportunity to speak (which sometimes feels like a privilege and other times just a burden). There were three of us invited to speak and we were asked to share about how we have encountered God in our lives recently.

(and if you were at the service on Saturday, my apologies, because this will be redundant and long winded and you might just want to just skim it)

Here is what I shared…honestly, vulnerably and nervously:

“I have been thinking about waiting. No one likes to wait. We are a people and culture who like things instantly, quickly and efficiently. Think: drive-throughs, microwaveable meals and how much most people despise waiting at red lights. Nothing about waiting is instant, quick, or efficient.

Waiting by definition is hard. It implies a longing or desire for something that has not yet been met. And it’s not just an unmet desire, but also the uncertainty that comes with it. It’s like a packaged deal or something- Waiting comes along and brings its accomplice, Uncertainty, and the two stand together forming a long, dark cave of the unknown.

And regardless of what season of life you’re in, the truth is we all wait. There are different types of waiting. Some people wait, longing to find a new job or sense of direction in life. Other people wait for physical healing or reconciliation with an old friend or estranged family member. And still other people wait and hope to be married one day and some wait hoping to conceive when they’ve had years of infertility. And I know some people wait and long for the day when they’ll wake up without feeling that deep ache and grief in their heart.

Sometimes I feel like we have a tendency to compare different people’s seasons of waiting. We listen to silly messages in our heads that say things like “oh what they’re waiting for is so much more important than what I am waiting for” or “His season of waiting is not nearly as hard as what she is waiting for.” But the truth is, I don’t think we can quantify and qualify waiting. We can’t compare. I am learning to name it for what it is…Waiting is hard, regardless of what you’re waiting for.

A few years ago, about a month before my 25th birthday, I distinctly remember when one of my students casually asked me in font of the class, “Hey, Ms. Acker when are ya gunna get married?” An innocent question really, but I was kept thinking, How the hell do I know? I gave some diplomatic teacher response and continued the lesson. But that question began to stir something inside of me. I realized that my mom was 25 when she got married. She was my age, but I was not anywhere close to being married. I wasn’t engaged or even dating anyone seriously. I started to feel like maybe there was something wrong with me. Maybe I needed to change? Maybe I was doing something wrong? Maybe I had missed some secret lesson that every other 25-year old married woman had learned? In my effort to figure it out, I confidently told God, I was ready. I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to get married.

Another year went by and all of that stirring inside left me with a lot of doubts and questions. It felt like most of my friends were engaged or married. I was in two of my best friends’ weddings and I went to nine other weddings in a period of ten months. I wanted nothing more than to be happy for my friends and their new spouses, but at every wedding these inconvenient feelings of envy and jealousy would creep up. I would quickly shove them back down where they belonged, but they didn’t stay where I wanted them to. Somehow even my most genuine sentiments to celebrate my newly married friends, simultaneously opened up this ache in my heart. I wondered if or when it would be my turn? I felt kind of forgotten by God. Like my life was on the back burner, while everyone else’s life was bubbling with excitement and newness. I felt like I was just sitting on the back of the stove, not even simmering, just sitting there; watching and waiting.

I struggled with feeling like the odd person out at social events and table arrangements that are conveniently designed for even numbers of people…which is just fine, except when you’re by yourself. And I am slightly embarrassed to admit this, but even harder than going to weddings alone or social gathering by myself was going to church week after week alone. Sometimes church can be a lonely place- and not just for single people, but for lots of people and probably for lots of different reasons. But all of this contributed to feeling left out and forgotten. This was not how I had expected my life to look. I asked a lot of questions, but I had no real answers. I had to sit with the feelings of sadness and loneliness—and just wait.

And perhaps the hardest part of this whole season was that I felt like I was “supposed” to be content and grateful, but the truth is that I was longing and hurting and waiting.

During this time a friend of mine gave me a book by Ben Patterson called Waiting. Well, obviously no one wants to read a book called waiting when you’re in a season of waiting. I pretended to read chapter 1 and then strategically hid the book on my bookshelf so she wouldn’t see it and ask me about it. Then about six months ago I picked it up again. Reluctantly, I began reading it, and soon I was soaking up every word and chapter. I was surprised that someone (or something) was naming feelings and thoughts and questions that I had not been able to name for myself.

In the book, one of my favorite parts is when Ben describes the story of Hagar from Genesis 16. The super condensed background story is that Abram and Sarai are on their own journey of waiting to conceive a child. They are getting up there in years so Abram decides to take matters into his own hands. He sleeps with Hagar, Sarai’s maidservant, and of course, she becomes pregnant. As expected Sarai is filled with jealousy because Hagar is now pregnant with the baby that she so dearly wanted to have. She begins to mistreat Hagar, so Hagar flees. She runs away. I can imagine this is not exactly the life Hagar had planned or expected for herself.

And this is the part I love.

Vs. 7 The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert…

God found her. She wasn’t looking for him. In fact quite the opposite; she was running away, she wanted to escape and hide and it says God found her! It reminds me that God finds us wherever we are, especially in the dry, lonely deserts of life.

And then he asked her two questions:

vs. 8 He said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

Those two questions get at something. It hit me all of the sudden. For the first time I realized that maybe in my season of waiting I have been asking the wrong questions. The first question God asks her, “Where have you come from?” is a call to look back, to reflect and to remember. How has God been faithful to me in the past? How has he provided for me? Sometimes when I am so in the present moment it is hard to look back and remember. And then the second question, “Where are you going?” is this invitation to dream and hope. It’s a reminder to look forward. To imagine and pray for the future.

The story continues, and God and Hagar begin to have this conversation. And at the end of their conversation:

vs. 13 She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her, “You are the God who sees me.”

You are the God who SEES ME- wow. He sees her, a slave and a woman, two characteristics that would have made her virtually invisible in that cultural context, and yet, God still sees her. He knows her and loves her. And that gives me hope. The God that I believe in is a God who sees me—
and you.

I will be 27 in a few days and in many ways I am still in this season of waiting. Nothing has drastically changed in my life circumstances during the past two or three years. In fact externally my life looks pretty similar, almost identical to how it looked a few years ago, but internally I feel like my heart and mind have been squished up, wrung out, turned over and pried opened up in a rare and painful way.

Every so often in my most broken or fragile moments I get a glimpse of this humility and hope that is emerging through the scattered pieces of my life and I am grateful. But there have been times when I did not have the energy or perspective to look back and remember or the desire to look forward and dream, all I could was try and hold onto the truth that God sees me, and he seems me just where I am. And I think, maybe that is an ok place to be.

Tags: , ,
20th February
written by Michelle

I don’t always finish the books that I start. (see previous blog confession) However, I just finished a reading a book that struck something inside—this delicate chord that sways between who I am and who I want to be. It named something for me that I have been wrestling with and questioning.

I have grown up surrounded by Christians. I have gone to church for as long as I can remember. I am a person of faith and I continue to learn what it means to be a follower of Christ. My faith has shaped who I am and how I think about the world and my place in it. I am nothing but grateful for my parents and siblings and friends and professors who have loved me, prayed for me, challenged me and graciously, given me room to change.

In recent years, especially since college, I often come back to this question “What does it mean to claim to be a Christian in a society where the word “Christian” often has such a negative connotation?” I sometimes sit and cringe when I hear certain right-wing political commentators claim to know God’s agenda and I am often embarrassed by televangelists on TV who profess this cheezy, game-show host kind of a God. I don’t know these men and women personally, so maybe they really love God and love people, but sometimes I am sad that they become the image that people conjure up when thinking of a Christian. And I get angry when Christians spend the sum of their energy talking about the two hot-button issues; gay marriage and abortion. I don’t understand how Jesus’ message of “love God with all of your heart, soul and mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself” gets reduced so quickly to two issues. I just don’t get it. I write hesitantly on this topic, because I know it can lead to heated arguments with pointed fingers and hurt feelings, none of which is my intent. But I write, nonetheless, to acknowledge what I am learning and thinking and to be true to who I am. It feels a little risky because I know some may misunderstand me or misjudge me, but I guess that goes with the territory of publicly posting your personal opinions on the internet : )

Donald Miller articulates it better than I can in his book, Searching For God Knows What? He writes, “The person who believes the sum of his morality involves gay marriage and abortion alone, neglects health care and worlds trade and the environment and loving his neighbors and feeding the poor.”

When I read parts of the gospels and look at the life of Jesus, I am continually amazed at the life he lived- he was a radical, who believed in peace and truth and not buying into the expected norms of the day. He spent time with the marginalized and the poor, he ate with prostitutes and tax collectors. He challenged the Pharisees and the religious leaders. He loved people—all people. It wasn’t about “us” versus “them,” or proving people wrong. He asked questions. And listened. And loved.

In church today my pastor spoke from a passage in John 11. It’s a story that most people at some point in life can identify with; it’s a story about two mourning sisters and a dead brother. It’s a story of pain and grief and of a God who offers healing and hope. One of the most poignant verses is verse 35. “Jesus wept.” It’s so simple and yet I sat in church, filled with emotion, and thought what would happen if our society saw this Jesus- a Jesus who weeps with us in times of pain and grief, a Jesus who empathizes with our longings and desires and more than anything wants to bring us healing and hope and redemption. I started thinking what would happen if as a Christian, I truly lived a life where I wept and empathized with people.

Some of the men and women I admire most in this world are not famous authors or speakers or Nobel Prize winners, but they are family and friends, who have chosen to live how Christ lived.

One of my friends shares a meal with homeless men and women while they get access to medical care every Wednesday night. Another friend has chosen to not to raise her standard of living, so whenever she gets a raise at work she gives that money away. I have been inspired by a family who recently planted a city garden and are now advocating for more sustainable food sources in our city. I’ve watched a dear friend who spends time with an international student to help her feel welcomed and comfortable in a new country. I have a friend in law school who is studying Spanish and pursing her law degree so she can advocate and defend immigrants and minorities who are treated unjustly. And I could go on…

These are people who call themselves Christians. It almost seems too simple: they love God and love people. I sometimes wish that when our society heard the word “Christian” they would think of these men and women. People aren’t perfect, no one is. Christians, Muslims, Agnostics, Catholics, we are all bound to make mistakes. But I am learning that if I claim to be a Christian, someone who wants to follow Christ, then I want to be someone who tries to live generously and patiently, someone who is quick to forgive and willing to listen, someone who takes care of creation and advocates for those who can’t stand up for themselves.

As I continue to struggle to keep this at the forefront, to make it not just an ideal but an actuality, I am reminded of a verse in the book of Micah:

“And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

This is my prayer for today.

Tags: , ,
8th December
written by Michelle

Recently a friend asked me if I had read any good books. I wanted to answer, but I was stuck. I quickly tried to imagine the stack of books by my night stand:

-a friend just loaned me Steinbecks’ East of Eden (but I’ve only made it to page 3),
-my grandmother gave me a memoir about a teacher (and my goal is to finish it over Christmas),
-Mi Voz Mi Vida (I skim a chapter every now and then with hopes of improving my Spanish),
-I just bought two new books by Donald Miller (but I haven’t even opened the cover)
-They Like Jesus, But Not The Church (I borrowed it from a friend months ago and I am still not done with it!)
-I read Real Simple magazine regularly (but that doesn’t exactly counts as a book)

Then it hit me, I have not finished a book in a long time. I mean I have not read a whole book, from beginning to end, without skimming or jumping around to “interesting chapters,” in a really, really long time. I am notorious for starting books and never finishing them. Sometimes I literally read half of the book and then put it down because I want to start a new book. I admit this is odd, especially because I am someone who likes to finish things.

I like to get things done. Cross ’em off. Finish. Complete it. Done.

I like when my laundry basket is empty because all of my clothes are clean. I like when I can thrown away a post-it note because the task is done. I like the feeling of finishing grading a stack of English papers. And I like when I can walk away from a day with a sense of completion.

If I am honest I sometimes wish I could finish navigating the world of being in my mid-twenties. I want to check off trying to figure out what to do next or how to make the right decision. Sometimes I wish I could be done with dating and wondering what will happen next. I know deep down that life is about enjoying the process and being grateful for where God has me, but I am finding its hard for me to live with things undone, uncertain, and incomplete.

One of my favorite college professors used to give us permission in her class not to finish the assigned reading (imagine that?) She would literally tell us if something grabs your attention-pause, listen to it, re-read it. This seems counterintuitive, I know! But my professor wanted us to go slowly, rather than plow through something for the sake of finishing it. She had the wisdom and foresight to introduce me to the art of incompletion.

I think I can readily embrace the “art of incompletion” when it comes to my book-reading habits, the harder task is learning what this looks like in the rest of life.