Jesus Loves His Little Misfits: All His Misfits Of the World

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6d99f668fb96853bc773b93f7983f5edWhen I was a child, and I thought like a child, I knew for absolute certain how a person became saved—that is, for those of you from other denominational backgrounds, how a person came to faith in Jesus Christ.

The way it worked was this: A pastor delivered a sermon in which he declared that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Afterward, the congregation rose and sang all the verses to Just as I Am, sometimes multiple times just in case there was a recalcitrant sinner in the midst. Those who recognized their need for Jesus and his saving grace went forward during the altar call, were led in praying the sinner’s prayer, and then were saved.

Once saved, a person wrote down the date in his or her Bible (King James, Red Letter edition, of course) and then became a candidate for baptism and church membership.

I was convinced, if one didn’t follow those steps precisely, that person needed to ask the all-important question, “Are you sure you’re saved?”

That’s how it worked. Those were the steps.

So confident was I in how this whole salvation thing worked that, during the seventies, when my church started showing those scary-ass I-wish-we’d-all-been-ready rapture movies, I began to have doubts and fears. I relived my conversion experience over and over again in my mind and began wondering if, perhaps, I’d missed a critical step.

I couldn’t remember if I’d actually said the words out loud when praying the sinner’s prayer.

I began to fear that, when Jesus returned, I was going to be left behind on a technicality.

So I did it all again–the whole shebang. At Baptist youth camp I walked the aisle again, prayed the sinner’s prayer again, (this time, being sure to say the words out loud) received the waters of baptism again,(full-body immersion, including every strand of my stringy long hair) and I wrote my new spiritual birthdate inside my Bible.

Then a funny thing happened. I began to meet other believers—other faithful followers of Jesus Christ—and their conversion stories were very different from mine. They were different from one another’s.

Some couldn’t even remember the actual date when they had come to faith in Christ.

As I think back on my own journey of faith, I’m so grateful that my friend Michelle DeRusha just released her new book, Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith. In it, Michelle tells the unconventional story of her own journey toward Jesus. And her story is so very different from mine.

I first got to know Michelle through her writing—I consider her one of my very first imaginary internet blog friends, and I’ve since gotten to know her in real life. Michelle’s story is so much like her—honest and laugh-out-loud funny. Trust me, by the time you’re done reading this book, you’re going to wish you had a box of Cheez-Its.

At its heart, however, Spiritual Misfit is a love story. It’s the story of God pursuing Michelle with his relentless love.

Michelle writes about being transplanted from New England to the heart of the Bible belt in Nebraska where, “To be frank, few New Englanders have any clue what the Midwest is like, nor do they care.”

Having sojourned in New England for, lo, these past thirty years, I can bear witness to the truth of these words.

Michelle found herself surrounded by people who were not only comfortable with what they believed, but in talking about it. Out loud. She admits to having felt out-of-place when she realized she was the only person in church who didn’t know the words to Jesus Loves Me. She writes:

I, the person so totally uncomfortable with God-talk that I could not even engage my own husband in a conversation about religion, the woman so befuddled by her own beliefs that she coughed her way through Mass, was suddenly tossed headlong into the middle of the Bible Belt like a perch flopping wildly in the bottom of a rowboat.

Michelle writes candidly of her struggle to overcome her doubts and objections to the kind of faith which seemed to come so easily to others. She describes her conversion this way:

Truthfully, a Saint Paul-like conversion would have been a heck of a lot easier. What’s not to like about falling over in the middle of the road, hearing the voice of God bellowing loud and clear from the heavens, and then dusting oneself off and resuming life as a convicted believer? It’s quick, it’s obvious, and there’s no room for questioning or doubt. But that was not the kind of conversion I got. What I got instead was, as Methodism’s founder John Wesley described it, a “heart strangely warmed.”

I highly recommend Spiritual Misfit to those who aren’t quite sure what they believe, or who think their faith journeys don’t make sense. I believe you’ll find encouragement in Michelle’s words.

When someone asks me now, when I became a Christian, I no longer refer to a date written on a page in my Bible. I can look back and see that, all my life, God was drawing me to him—revealing more about himself and his character, and wooing me out of the depths of his great love. God knows us so intimately and has unlimited patience and means for drawing us to himself.

While reading Michelle’s book, I was reminded of these words penned by an anonymous hymn writer:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
No, I was found of Thee.

These days, if someone asks me when I became a Christian I say, “In eternity past, when God set his love on me and began to pursue me.” We love because he first loved us. I John 4:19, ESV

I believe Michelle DeRusha and I share a common spiritual birth date which, when I think about it, sort of makes us twins. Doesn’t it?

Spiritual Misfit is now available on Amazon and via other major booksellers. Disclosure: I received a free Advanced Reader’s Copy of this book, but the opinions shared here are my own.

Further disclosure: I know so many happening writer-friends who have or are releasing books, and I have failed miserably to write reviews of them all. Because I’ve fallen horribly behind. Or am terribly lazy. Or both. And yet, they still love me.

Working on a round-up of recommended reading post, just in time for beach season–hooray!

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Launching Love, Etc.

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I know, it’s been pretty quiet around here. I haven’t been doing much writing lately, at least not in this space. More on that at another time. Today, however, I want to highlight the work of my friend and fan-tab-ulous poet and publishing maven, L.L. Barkat, and her new collection of poems: Love, Etc.

Falling in Love with Love Poems: L.L. Barkat’s Love, Etc.

(reprinted by permission of Glynn Young)

We traveled south, recently, toward a funeral in New Orleans. We could see the trees and bushes along the highway changing: still stark, bare and gray in Missouri; the beginnings of greenery in Arkansas; the green growing gradually upward in Mississippi; and finally the complete greenery that is southern Louisiana most of the year.

Traveling toward a funeral, and family, and childhood and growing up, and finally leaving, it was a journey combining all of the elements of the subtitle of L.L.Barkat’s new collection of poems – Love Etc.: Poems of Love, Laughter, Longing and Loss.

I even found a poem that almost exactly described our journey south:

Winter Road Trip

The road is long as I travel south
and the sun is low in the white sky.
Last night I woke to a great silence,
in a house that is anything but silent
by day. Old pines keep watch
over that dwelling, and the moon
keeps watch, and I wish
for this kind of watching,
but my bedroom in the town where I live
looks out over streetlights and the sounds
of cars and sirens. In my room,
the road seem short, and I wonder
if tonight I will dream of the long road
home, and how the sun bathed the trees
in gold, and how the sumacs leaned with flowers
the color of some wine whose name
I can’t remember, near the trees whose names
I’ve never known, now strung with long red necklaces.

I read these beautiful poems, and I’m struck with how closely connected love, laughter, longing and loss truly are. Even love and loss, and not in an obvious way like love lost, but in a less obvious but perhaps more accurate way – one experiences love and all of what has come before becomes a kind of loss, never to be found or rediscovered in precisely the same way, because love changes everything.

Barkat takes us on a journey with these poems, and not only a winter road trip south. She takes us to the edge of illness, to the borders of erotic love, to the defined realities of sight, sound and smell and the love that stands before the stove in the kitchen, cooking soup. The poems are not only about relationships between people, and lovers, but more than that, and there is something more than that, the love that longs, that laughs, the love that sacrifices, and even the love that becomes represented by loss.

And beyond the journey, Love Etc. contains poems for the standing still, those moments that are eternity. This poem, “Ours,” is the poem our mothers repeat to themselves, including the mother whose funeral I’m attending:

Ours

We call them to the world
before we even know their names,
before we understand
what it will mean
to lean beside their beds
on breath-thin nights.

They teach us
how to hold their hands,
shut the lights
pray for dawn.

I have been leaned over on those breath-thin nights, and I’ve been taught by my own children how to hold their hands.

Love Etc. reminds us what eternity is, and what part of it is contained within ourselves.

***

L.L. Barkat lives outside of New York City, near the beautiful Hudson River. Author of six books, including Love, Etc: Poems of Love, Laughter, Longing & Loss; an experimental fiction and poetry title, The Novelist: A Novella; and Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing (twice named a Best Book of 2011). She has appeared at Best American Poetry, VQR, NPR, Every Day Poems, and Scratch Magazine.  Barkat is also a Staff Writer for The Curator and Managing Editor of Tweetspeak Poetry.

Photo by Claire Burge. Used with permission. Reprint of an article by Glynn Young

Beauty From the Outside In

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At the end of my husband’s two-mile commute to work, he arrives at a large, red, barn-shaped building at the rear of an office park. A bronze heron, legs trailing as though in flight, rests upon the weather vane atop the cupola on the barn’s roof. As he enters the building, he is surrounded by natural wood—knotty white pine floors, white-washed pine paneling, and cherry desks and tables. Suspended above the stairwell to his right hangs a flying turkey mount, a trophy from a Kansas hunting trip with his father. Windows in the conference room offer a view of the brook flowing quietly behind the building.

When my husband entered college, his intention was to pursue a degree in forestry or wildlife management. As a boy, he spent as much time as possible in the out-of-doors, developing a passion for hiking, hunting and fishing. He spent his summers working for the Youth Conservation Corps, building and maintaining trails, bridges, and dams. These experiences shaped his desire
for a career rooted in a love of outdoors, such as in the National Park Service.

My husband’s freshman adviser, however, dashed those dreams by painting a bleak picture of career opportunities within his chosen field. Openings for park rangers, he said, typically occurred only through the deaths of those holding the positions. My husband’s adviser steered him instead toward the field of environmental engineering, one in which he has worked for more than thirty years.

I’m joining the conversation over at The High Calling where, this week, we’ve been talking about beauty in the workplace. Would love for you to click here to read the rest of this story.

Before you go, however, I would love for you to click here to receive future posts via email. And click here if you would consider “liking” my Facebook page. Thanks–I appreciate you!

My Dearest Patrick, On Your First Birthday

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My dearest Patrick, how far you’ve come; on this your first circuit around the sun!

PicMonkey Collage4I suppose I’m like every other parent or grandparent who looks back through a year’s worth of pictures and shakes her head. How could you possibly have changed and grown in such a short span of time?

In twelve short months you’ve found your feet and your laugh. You learned how to hold your own bottle, roll over, crawl, sit, stand, and take your first tentative steps upon this earth. You have attended your first Pirate game, watched fireworks, flown in an airplane, dipped your toes into salt water, petted a newly hatched chick, and been licked by a Labrador retriever. You’ve tasted the goodness of ice cream and Swedish Pepparkako cookiesr; together we shared pie for breakfast the morning after Thanksgiving. You are now able to say Mama and Dada. Can Granny be far behind? And you have brought out playfulness in your Grandpa Swede which utterly thrills my heart.

You’ve also battled ear infections, had your heel pricked, endured shots, picked up a couple of bumps and bruises, and fallen down hard a time or two. Throughout all of these, you’ve been attended by the Great Physician–a friend who will always stick closer than a brother.

Those who love you—and, lo, we are many—have watched you learn and grow and develop, and we are truly amazed and so very proud of you. However I want you always to remember, my dear Patrick, my love for you will never be based on anything you can or can’t do.

I love you simply because you exist.

I know your mommy and daddy take you to church and tell you about Jesus. I watched as they read you the story of Advent while counting down the days to your very first Christmas. I’ve seen the Bibles on the bookshelf in your room—the rhyming one, the children’s version, and the Jesus Storybook Bible. Each of them holds words which taste sweeter, even, than ice cream, cookies, or pie. They are life-giving words, and they will tell you the same thing I’ve just told you about the love of your heavenly Father:

He loves you simply because you exist.

There is nothing you can do to make Him love you more. There is nothing you can do to cause Him to love you less. He loves you more than you can possibly imagine, understand, or think. Because of His great love for you, He sent His Son to pay the debt for anything and everything you will ever get wrong in this life. All you need to do is reach up your empty hands to Him and His gift of grace, the same way you do for your mommy and your daddy when you know how desperately you need them.

Soon I will be with you to celebrate your first birthday and, boy, what a party that will be! I know your mama has been busy planning, and there will be cake and decorations and presents. You won’t remember any of it, I’m sure, but there will be multitudes of pictures taken to prove you were there. I’m certain that, in at least one of them, you will have cake smashed all over your face. I’m equally certain I will likely drive my Facebook friends nuts by sharing many of your pictures.

Even though you will be the one opening the presents, I just wanted to write you this little note to let you know what a gift you’ve been to me, and to so many others, even before you drew your first breath. Since you were born you’ve brought so much joy to your parents. You’ve taught them they can do more on very little sleep then they ever would have believed possible. You’ve helped them to see that, even when life is hard, God will always, always provide for them and for you.

On the day you were born, my first instinct was to sing over you as I held you in my arms. Without your realizing it, you have helped me to understand more deeply what it means when God says He delights over His children with singing. I can’t even begin to describe my delight in you, my dearest Patrick. Yet your heavenly Father’s delight is yet greater and deeper. His delight in you is perfect.

Happy birthday, my dear grandson. I wish you much joy in your next trip around the sun. And may we always find time to eat pie and give thanks together.

I love you,

Granny Nancy

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Related: My Dearest Patrick, Believe This:

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Soul Care Toolkit #4: Nail Polish

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Last spring, I began an occasional series which I began to refer to as building my Soul Care Toolkit. I’ve never written an introduction or explained what I meant by it. Perhaps I will someday, but not today. Here’s my latest installment:

IMG_2551It’s called dermatophagia, a syndrome in which a person engages in repetitive biting, chewing, and picking of one’s cuticles. You’ve probably seen these people sitting in meetings, churches and other public places, mindlessly gnawing away at their fingertips until they bleed. Sometimes their fingers are covered in Band-Aids in an effort to conceal the evidence of their habit. I feel sorry for those who sit next to them in a classroom or place of worship. While these people seem completely unaware of what they’re doing, those surrounding them are subjected to their disgusting behavior.

I could post pictures showing what dermatophagia looks like, but they’re revolting. Photos are available on Wikipedia if you’re really curious. Or I could simply show you my hands.

Because I am one of these people.

I have no idea how, when, or where I began gnawing away at my fingertips, nor have I ever been officially diagnosed. The condition is described as being one of impulse control, possibly related to obsessive-compulsive disorder. The behavior is typically triggered by anxiety or stress, and I can attest to this being the case. During the seasons in which Jack Bauer was racing the clock to save civilization from imminent terrorist attack, my fingertips routinely resembled raw hamburger. Without my knowing it or even being aware, my fingers always seem to find their way back to my mouth until they became cracked, bloody, and raw.

Except.

When my nails are long, neatly filed, and I am wearing nail polish, I leave my cuticles alone. They begin to heal. For me, nail polish is a kind of mercy—one I need to keep packed in my soul care toolkit.

“Now wait a minute, Nancy,” you might be thinking. “Aren’t things like nail polish and makeup shallow and vain? After all, every kid who’s ever sat in front of a Sunday school flannel graph board has heard about evil Queen Jezebel, renowned for painting her eyes and adorning her hair. The makeup was emblematic of her caring about vain and worldly things instead of the things of God, right?”

Maybe. I am certainly no stranger to shallowness and vanity.

Here’s the thing, though: nobody told me if painted my fingernails, I would stop nibbling away at them. I discovered this by myself by happy accident. I noticed, time and again, when my nails began to grow and I began to care for them, my cuticles began to heal. Fortunately I happen to be one of those people born with strong fingernails, and I’ve always been able to grow a healthy set. Sometimes I pain them blue. Or yellow. I don’t know why this is the case; all I know is–when my nails are long and painted, I stop descending into one of the very worst versions of myself.

A number of my friends rely, similarly, on other things of this earth to check their own descents into places they’d rather not return. For some, it’s a sponsor who’s available anytime, day or night. Others are grateful for medications targeted toward a fearfully, wonderfully complex brain which, for whatever reasons, isn’t operating the way it was designed. King Solomon found relief in David’s music. Christ applied his spit to the eyes of a blind man and restored his sight. Some rely on the training and expertise of a pastor, therapist, or spiritual director, and many of us need a combination of these things.

These are not substitutes for God and His abundant mercy; I believe they are evidence of it. Because what but God and his elaborate love and mercy could stop me–could stop any of us–from descending into the worst possible versions of ourselves?

Around Thanksgiving, as the weather turned cold, my nails began to crack and split. I would be horrified to reveal a picture of my hands at present. The other day, however, I picked up a file and began reshaping the ragged ends of my nails, and applying a light coat of polish to them. The cycle of healing begins for me again, and I am grateful.

Other posts in the Soul Care Toolkit series:

#1: Yellow

#2: Lilacs

#3: Beach

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