Friday, December 8, 2017

I've Moved!

If you were signed up to receive my blog, I've moved! I have a new website at Please come on over and sign up to receive updates over there!

Appreciate your support.


Monday, September 25, 2017

A New Novel Worth Persusing

Debut author Katherine James' discomfort with self-promotion has led her to share photos of dogs on social media promoting her new book. But some of us who deeply enjoy and respect her writing feel it's worth helping her out with a human voice.  :)

In her novel, Can You See Anything Now?, an eclectic group of characters find their lives overlapping in the small town of Trinity when tragedy strikes, all with unexpected results. The novel features a suicidal painter and her evangelical neighbor, the town therapist, and a college student and her troubled roommate in this gritty, grace-filled story.

To hear directly from Katherine about why she decided to write a novel when so many bookstore shelves already are filled with both new and old books worth reading, take a peek at her behind-the-scenes blog post here.

Pre-ordering is available now by going to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Paraclete Press.




Wednesday, August 9, 2017

So Much Sky

An excerpt from my empty nest essay, appearing in the latest issue of "Under the Sun" literary journal.  


The note appears hooked to the knob of my front door, a warning. The emerald ash borer disease has ravaged the hundred-year-old stately ash trees lining our road, and our city has decided to take them all down. The forty trees that spread their canopies over the length of six blocks like cupped protective hands will be removed as a permanent solution to cure the infestation. The city offers a plan to replace the trees in the spring with saplings, but how do you replace a tree that took a hundred years or more to grow its roots down deep while sending branches toward the heavens?  And saplings come with no guarantee of surviving even one brutal Chicago winter with its hostile winds and temperatures.

Gusty autumn winds have already stripped the trees bare. I stare at the silhouetted branches most days as I come and go, as I stand in the living room holding a warm cup of tea, watching neighbors walk their dogs. The demise of the trees creates grief as I prepare to say goodbye to their shade that protects me while I read in the yard, goodbye to the whispers I hear through my open window on windy days, the haunting call of leaves brushing together like two hands meeting in applause.
Then one day as I study the silhouette of the trees against a gray November sky, I see something settled into the meeting place of several branches, many dark and dense objects cupped in those tree limbs. Empty nests—and lots of them. In the warmer weather, a city-sized community lives just above our heads, hidden from sight. Maybe former birds' nests or squirrel's nests, but all that matters in my mind is the picture of these shelters once formed by a mother to protect her young and prepare them for life, built with twigs and leaves and probably even a few gum wrappers – whatever it takes. CONTINUE READING HERE


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Spoken Blessings

Today I have the privilege of writing over at The Mudroom blog, "a place for stories emerging in the midst of the mess."
When my twin sons accidentally caught 17-acres of land on fire while filming a World War II movie with their high school friends, it wasn’t the scorched trees I remember most. Or the helicopters flying over head to drop water. Or even the news stations capturing the flames on camera. It wasn’t the shots of nearby residents emptying their million-dollar homes of irreplaceable objects in case the fire took over.… Continue reading over at the Mudroom Blog.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Keeping Place

In my last blog post, I reflected on my own longing for home and simply mentioned Jen Pollock Michel's book, Keeping Place. I've been needing a book like Jen's for a very long time as she addresses many of my own reasons for always longing for home. I believe others will find her book to be a rich read. Today, I'm posting a Q&A with Jen, allowing her to speak about her reasons for writing this book.

Why write a book about home? Is it your experience as a wife and mother that most informs this book or something else? 

There’s no doubt that my experience of making a home for my family these past twenty years has informed the writing of this book. But Keeping Place isn’t only meant for wives and mothers. In fact, I think the longing for home is a human longing. It’s not particular to women. Men feel it, too—even if they might characterize that longing in different ways. 

I’ve spent my entire life searching for home. Partially this is because I’ve experienced so much loss in my life: the premature death of my father, the suicide of my brother, a sometimes emotionally distant relationship with my mother. It’s also true that home has been elusive simply because I’ve been so geographically mobile, somehow ending up in Toronto as an American expat. 

These life experiences springboard a Scriptural exploration throughout the book. I want to hear what God has to say about the longings for and losses of home.

What’s the challenge of writing a book about home for both women and men? 

I recently had coffee with a young woman from church, and at the end of our conversation, she said that she looked forward to my book on “homemaking.” Later, I couldn’t help but wonder if she imagined a book of recipes, table setting ideas, and the best way to organize a linen closet.  

I think that’s the fear: that men will see a book on the topic of home and immediately think it’s a book meant for their wives or mothers or sisters. That’s why the history of home is a really fundamental part of this book (chapter 2). I want to trace how home was once a shared space for residence and commerce and industry up until the Industrial Revolution. That historical analysis might sound sort of heady, but it’s really meant to provide a backdrop for the way that we read the Bible, which never talks about “home” as something which women are solely responsible for.

What books have influenced you to keep a wider perspective in your home-keeping? 

I really do see Keeping Place as having resonance with a lot of the great work that’s being done on theology of place. In particular, I really appreciated the early chapters of Craig Bartholomew’s Where Mortals Dwell, because it makes the case for God’s good gift of place. I have also loved books like C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison’s Slow Church, which I believe help us see the role that the local church can play to “keep place” in our cities. And a perennial favorite is also Kathleen Norris’s The Quotidian Mysteries. Beyond that, it’s always been important to me to read outside of my own experiences: books like Kent Annan’s Slow Kingdom Coming and D.L. Mayfield’s Assimilate or Go Home would be two examples.

How do you combine motherhood, writing and speaking? How does your home-making life practically work in the day-to-day? 

A lot of my day is taken up with the practical care of my family, especially because I’m the primary parent for our five kids. And even though I’m the first person to try and find help when I need it (I pay someone to clean my house, someone else to do virtual assistant work for me), there’s also something irreducible about the labor that love requires. I have five kids and a very busy executive husband, which means that my work life is sometimes more constrained than I would like it to be because of my responsibilities at home. I can’t accept every speaking invitation I want to. I can’t write on every topic that interests me. I can’t stay connected on social media (even if truthfully, I don’t really want to). But I think this is what it means to be human. We are limited.

Who do you hope is reading this book, and what do you hope they will gain? 

I suppose it’s fair to say that women like me will probably read the book, and I hope that they’ll come earlier to the realization that their home is a shared responsibility with their husbands. This “sharing” benefits children, for sure—who need both mom and dad fully engaged at home. It also gives women permission when other God-given callings sometimes call us away from home. 

But I hope it’s not just women like me reading the book. I’d love to see women and men who aren’t married, who aren’t parents, find ways they can have and make home today, especially in their local churches and communities. I’d like for people to catch a vision for justice in the world—to see that the gospel isn’t solely a spiritual endeavor to save souls but that it also inspires practices of caring for physical bodies and environments. 

And if I could just dream a bit, I’d love for someone on the margins of faith, maybe even on the outside looking in, to read this book and start making sense of the life and death, resurrection and return of Jesus Christ. Sadly, when we get to telling that story, we often use a vocabulary that people are not familiar with. But what if we could talk about the promises of the gospel through the lens of home?

Last question: isn’t there a DVD video series to accompany the book? 

There is! It’s meant as a teaching companion to the book, and what I especially love about the videos (and something I can claim NO credit for) are the personal stories shared in each of the five sessions. Women talk about their dreams for home, their disappointments of home. I think it makes it really relevant to our everyday lives. You can watch the trailer here or buy the DVDs at


Buy: (30% Promo code for book/DVD: READKP)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


Our family loves to drive past our old homes in Massachusetts and Virginia, trying to catch a glimpse and a memory of the rooms we once inhabited, the place where we loved and laughed, cried and fought. We critique the changes the new owners made, wonder why they took down that tree fort built by our sons’ young hands, cut down the tall trees out back, or why they changed our favorite paint color.

 My childhood friend owns a home in the same Cape Cod neighborhood where my grandparents once lived. When I visit her, we walk over to my grandparent’s old house and stand at the end of the driveway. I silently long for my grandmother to walk out the breezeway door and invite me in for her homemade clam chowder and gather me up for one more walk along her beach over to the boathouse—our final destination where we always turned back for home. She’s been gone a very long time.
Once, my twins stood outside our old home in Virginia after our move to Illinois. The new owner recognized them and kindly came outside, saying, “You used to live here, didn’t you?” When they nodded, she invited them inside to take a look. They respectfully declined.
We can never really go home. My twins knew the house wouldn’t be the same. They knew they wouldn’t find our Brittany spaniel sitting by the backdoor, watching the squirrels. Their room would be painted a different color with different furnishings and Godzilla their bearded dragon lizard would be gone. Their brothers wouldn’t be inside listening to music, playing guitar, or reading.

Our home during my teen years in Massachusetts.
Recently, I’ve discovered I can find my old homes online by typing the address into Google and watching the most recent Real Estate ad pop up. In the case of our old home in Massachusetts, I caught a glimpse of the rooms where we lived, the grape arbor in the backyard, the renovations the new owners made to improve the place.

But the irony of longing for these old days, these old homes, is that while I lived there, I longed for home somewhere else. As a young person, I assumed everyone else’s home was more peaceful than my own turbulent home. When my sons were growing up and I had found the family I always longed for, a part of me still longed for a more ordered home, some idyllic place where I would never feel the anxieties of this world and the push of needing something, anything 
I know now that my imagined home doesn’t exist anywhere on earth. I know this because of my skewed thought process when I look into lighted windows on my evening walks in our neighborhood, imagining the lives of the occupants, thinking surely they have fewer problems than me, better health, more robust financial portfolios. Surely they live in the perfect home, that place where I want to live. I imagine their lives with symphonic music playing quietly in the background, the lighting dim and warm, the bookshelves lined with great material. An easy chair sits by an ottoman laden with stacks of books and literary journals. Someone reads there with a cup of hot tea by their elbow while the smell of dinner wafts from the kitchen. In the cold weather, a fire burns warmly in the room. Voices are quiet or silent in this safe, safe place where strife ceases to exist.

This imagined home is a mere fantasy, a mirage in most cases. Many of the homes I pass likely have worries over bills, grief over the tension between spouses when one reclines in the basement watching sports for hours on end and one uses their tongue to slice and dice people. But here’s the puzzling part. Why create this phantom life in my mind when my home today fits the lovely description above, a comfortable refuge for us and for others who visit? My home may not be luxurious or fit for Home and Garden magazine, but it’s the kind of home that just might be the best you can find on earth, despite its small size and simple furnishings. Everyone feels welcome and safe here. We enjoy a steady stream of rich company and great conversation around the table, creating memorable moments.
Yet I continue to imagine home elsewhere as a place where strife truly ceases to exist, where some sort of internal longing quiets. Even as I write these words, I hear the absurdity. Could it be, as Jen Pollock Michel writes in Keeping Place, that we are “hardwired” for a true home? Will our souls only recognize this place when we find it finally satisfies all our longings?
I write about homes a lot, especially old New England homes with their sturdy construction and the way they’ve passed the test of time still standing through nor’easters and New England winters. I long for permanency provided by one of these colonials or farmhouses that when I walk through their doors, I stop searching for a new and different home. Despite all the houses where I’ve lived, I’ve never stopped longing or found my true home here. Yet I hear its call on those evening walks through my neighborhood, on those internet searches to find my old abode, on those visits to past residences, in my longings to move someplace warmer, less expensive, closer to the ocean. C.S. Lewis wisely describes this longing in Mere Christianity: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”  
Some may attribute my longings to my own failing, my own lack of contentment and craving for what others have, and at some level, this may be true. But I know I mostly feel deep contentment in my life, which adds to the perplexing state of my longings.
In the meantime, instead of entertaining fantasies that the perfect home exists in another state or in my past, I will sit down by the fire, relish the good and safe conversation in the home I do have as it images a future home.
I’d love to recommend a more in-depth reflection on this topic. Jen Pollock Michel’s Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home addresses this innate longing uniquely and with far more detail than this brief post. I’m so enamored with her book that I want to buy multiple copies and pass it out to my friends. So many people long for something this world doesn’t offer. I’d love to hear if you are one of them. In my next post, I’ll be sharing a Q & A from Jen’s thoughts on this topic. But for now, enjoy this excerpt from her book:
In the foreword of Jen's book, Scott Saul writes, "Keeping Place is both memoir and rich biblical theology, and is, in all of its parts, an aroma of the Home for which we are made and for which we are destined. With wit, candor, a good bit of humor, and with transparent glimpses into her home, her history, her travels, her travails, her worship, her marriage, her table, her rest, and her longings—Jen offers an oasis for all of us who are homesick."

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Everbloom Book

Everbloom is a collection of essays written by women of the Redbud Writers Guild. The pages are filled with their stories of living life with intentionality, purpose, and wisdom as they walk out their faith. I share Catherine McNiel's essay here during this Easter Holy Week with her permission.

 Passover, Betrayal, and Deep
by Catherine McNiel
he leans over to pass the plate of bitter herbs, her shawl grazing the edge of the Passover table. The bitterness is to remind us of our bondage, our suffering. And my phone rings.

Reaching down to silence the ringer, I recognize the name of a neighbor I hardly know, rarely talk to, and never call. I ignore it.

“Why on this night do we dip the herbs twice?” My child asks the traditional question, and our host offers the traditional answer: The greenness of the herbs reminds us of springtime, of new life. We dip the parsley in salt to remember the weeping. We dip the bitter herbs in sweetness to recall that from suffering comes redemption.

And my phone rings again.

Around the table we drink a cup of wine, symbolizing deliverance— and my phone rings.
We cover and uncover the matzah, a picture of brokenness and division that will one day become wholeness and unity—and my phone rings.

Finally, I am alarmed enough to excuse myself and step into the next room. As the rituals of suffering-becoming-redemption are carried out around me, I struggle to absorb the news from my frantic neighbor: I have been the victim of a crime. During the reenacting of this Passover I am pulled away—away from this same reenactment that Judas hastily left so many years ago. He left this ceremony of suffering and hope to betray. I am pulled away to discover that I am betrayed.

All through the long dark night my husband and I search for understanding. Silent car rides, meetings with police, confrontations with the accused. We stand outdoors in the cold, looking through windows—our windows—from the outside. Standing in darkness, peering into a dimly lit room, wondering how to get from where we are back into the light.
We had moved recently, and our condo, our first home, was under contract to be sold. Everything about this change was outside my comfort zone. The market was poor, and the financial hit was staggering. The process moved forward on a knife’s edge. And then, just weeks before closing, on Passover, came the unbelievable news that someone we knew had broken into our now-empty home, moved herself in, replaced the locks, drawn up a forged lease, and called it her own.

Amazingly, the law was not on our side; at least not at first. Squatter laws—written with vulnerable women and children in mind—give rights to whoever lives on a property currently, however shaky their legal right to be there. The same laws that offer dearly needed justice to unwanted ex-girlfriends tossed out on the streets by their homeowning boyfriends now put us in an impossible position. The police believed us, but they could not remove the woman and her children from our house. The expertly forged lease she waved in their faces gave them reason even to doubt our story.
For days we held vigil, one of us outside our condo, the other at the police station. For a week, this went on day and night.

It was Holy Week.

Our vigil kept us from marking the sacred days: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday. But the liturgy and its meaning are written so deeply into my soul that the words echoed through my mind all the same.

So it happened that while I reflected on Holy Week and the alchemy of redemption in Christ—in whom death, sin, pain, suffering, injustice, forgiveness, and love are mingled—in the same physical and mental space, I suffered pain and searing anger, strained for justice, encountered injustice, and longed to be known and vindicated, to forgive and be forgiven, to love and be loved.

Above all, I pondered redemption.

Late at night on Friday, Good Friday, we received a call from the police. New information had been uncovered, and the woman who stole our house had been arrested on other charges, and her children removed. While we still could not legally clear out her things, have keys made, or take back our condo (it would require her voluntary change of heart or a sheriff with a judge’s eviction notice to do that), the police let us in to sort out our own belongings.

What a poignant and painful thing it was to walk up the steps to my house—through the doorway where I brought my own babies home from the hospital on their second day of life; that sanctuary now a place of fear and pain.

Inside that doorway was another woman’s life, a woman who also sought sanctuary for her babies. Everything was deceptively arranged as though she had lived there for months, as the forged lease indicated. Her things, my things; the two us intertwined without my consent.

In the hours between Good Friday and Holy Saturday, we went through our-home-that-was-her-home, sorting our things from hers.

Touching with our hands the intimate mingling of ourselves and our adversary.

Never before or since have I received such a bittersweet gift, an invitation to see an enemy’s life as she sees it.

Her pantry and her closets. The gifts hiding for her children’s birthdays, and the homemade presents they affectionately made for her. The DVDs promising escape and a better life through romance. Postcards from televangelists promising a get-rich-quick theology. Her intimate hopes and dreams reflected in everyday things, like those we each gather around us.

In those hours of sorting, I saw how she was raised and how she lived. I saw what resources she did and did not have, her feisty courage, her brokenness, her desperate attempts and frightening failures. I saw the layers upon layers of injustice others had heaped upon her, as well as the social and systemic abuses in which we all play a part. I saw that these things were intermingled with her own wrong, illegal, and unjust choices.

But the first and overwhelming thing I saw when I looked at my perpetrator was a woman who was utterly broken, herself a victim of so much injustice and pain; and I saw that I could not pick up a stone to throw at her. Legal recourse, yes, for her sake as well as my own. But even the furious anger pulsing through me was not large enough to keep down the compassion and—yes—love I felt for her. From just a glimpse through the lens of God, who sees all things, I saw she was my sister. Yes, I had filled my life with better choices—but only after others filled me with better resources, training, encouragement, and love. That I have these things—unearned and overflowing at my disposal—does not qualify me to look down on those who do not.

To whom much is given, much will be required.

Late that night, in the middle of literal and spiritual darkness, I wrote down this cry for redemption:

She has only processed white flour and sugar, bologna and junk food— no fruits or vegetables, grain or meat. She has cable in every room but no books, games, music, or friends. She has letters and promises and formulas for wealth from God but no evidence of Good News, of Love and Grace. She has tips on how to win the lottery and a trail of shortlived employment start-date letters and pay stubs. She has love notes from her babies and school notes reporting their fights, suspensions, and failures. She has a journal of love songs and poems and court documents for her divorce and custody disputes.

She has committed crimes against us, lied to and about us, forged legal documents in our name, broken and entered our house, pushed us to the limits, and forced the loss of finances and property.

She is lost, scared, and desperate. She has nowhere to go and no one to help her. She has children and dreams of security for them and for herself. She is homeless and has a picture of a sprawling California mansion on her nightstand.

She needs mercy.

We need justice.

My longing is for restoration, but my recourse is the law.

We spend our working days advocating for the vulnerable, while advocating in our spare time for her arrest.

I am vulnerable to her crimes, and she is vulnerable to my rights.

She needs compassion but seeks help through lawlessness.

She has hurt us and is hurting.

She is the wicked and evil in my life but the broken victim in her own.

I cannot accept a redemption story that does not keep her in its deepest and most precious heart. You can see her childhood and her past, those things that molded and broke her, the life built by junk food and junk companionship.

You know it all and more.

This Easter, and in the final day, what redemption do You have in mind? A new earth must have room for the living things that both kill us and give us life and for this woman who is both criminal and precious child.

I am undone.

Rebuild me according to your truth.

As the sun rose, we went home and to bed. My troubled thoughts wandered to a friend walking through a time of darkness, meandered next to my children, then to my husband, then to other friends and family in their own darknesses. I pondered how each person is as valuable to someone as my babies are to me, that somehow life is both unfathomably precious and utterly fragile—that God-sized redemption must swallow us all, not merely skim a little off the top.


Just after sunrise, the room floods with light, the scent of spring flowers, and the sound of bells—the symbolism of new life, of darkness vanquished, of Good News that interrupts all sounds of weeping. On this Easter morning my mind is jammed with tortured thoughts, the abstract theology of Jesus’s triumph over evil juxtaposed starkly with the crime that has overtaken my life.

She sits in jail this morning. I sit in church.

Theology, this Easter, cannot be abstract. Suffering, redemption, grace, sin, and forgiveness stare me in the face and demand an answer. The pain and anger in life up close means that Resurrection cannot be limited to the safe domain of songs and stories. It cannot be contained by those of us dressed up in the pews on Sunday.

Surrounded by jubilant celebration, I can’t help but ask: What does this mean for her? For my enemy who is my sister? And more, what can this possibly mean for her-and-me, one entity meant to sit and receive together the shocking news of Resurrection?

Redemption is wholeness for both of us, not one of us triumphing over the other.

When he announced his redemption of the world, to the world, he did not address only those who were only a little broken and could run to him; he did not overlook those so shattered they could neither hear his voice nor lift broken arms toward his saving hands. It is not redemption if the most broken and destroyed among us are not made whole. God’s promise cannot be limited to me and those like me. If he is to make things new, then redemption includes my enemies. If God’s redemptive story is true, it is true for the real world and every ugly, broken thing suffering within it. Resurrection redemption reaches all the way into death and decay.

The question pulses through me with every breath: if I understand what Easter is about, how can I celebrate it without her? The redemption initiated by Christ is not my righteousness triumphing over her lawlessness. That is simply the righteousness under the law, the former thing. But now, in Christ, a new mystery is revealed. Resurrection redemption is full restoration of her life and mine. Restoration of her life with mine.

We cannot truly celebrate alone. After all, in God’s kingdom the lion will lie down with the lamb.

If I believe Christ’s Easter story in its fullness and follow it to its conclusion, what can the truth be but this? And if this is true, what other truth could be large enough to overcome it? 

My phone rings again.

The police officer assigned to our case asks to meet me at the condo; the woman who stole our home has agreed to leave. Even so, the law states that only she can remove her possessions from our house.

Since she is in jail, her friend is coming to pack up instead.

A moving crew joins us, and as they carry clothing and furniture to the truck, they look at me quizzically. “We just moved this stuff into the condo two weeks ago. What’s going on?”

My job is to be a witness, along with the police, as this friend boxes the possessions, as the movers carry them out. My heart breaks as I realize that the “friend” is a sister of a former boyfriend. The two women haven’t spoken in years—yet this was the closest kin she knew to call at such a desperately dark hour.

Finally, the empty house is ours again. The sale under contract can continue toward closing. What was lost has been found. What was stolen has been redeemed.

At least, for me.


“Why on this night do we dip the herbs twice?” On Passover night, my child asks the traditional question and receives the traditional answer: The greenness of the herbs reminds us of springtime, of new life. We dip the parsley in salt to remember the weeping. We dip the bitter herbs in sweetness to recall that from suffering comes redemption.

This is deep redemption. Not pruning a bit off the top, but swallowing up from the roots. New Creation must undo and remake every broken, breaking, destructive piece and turn it to wholeness and life. Only by joining this story of redeeming power can we ever hope. Not for protection, perhaps, or safety, but for ultimate salvation and love. The sort of love that, once or twice in a lifetime, feels so tangible you could reach out and grab ahold of it.

On Resurrection Sunday, as on Passover, the bitter herbs of all our brokenness are dipped, twice. In the deepest magic of his redemption, our suffering and bondage are taken into his fathomless arms—and made green with new life.

She sits in jail; I sit at home. She chooses deception and theft against me, while I pursue her conviction. She will lose everything she sacrificed for; I will recover all I have lost. Deep redemption has not yet come, for we cannot yet sit together and rejoice, made new and set free. We are truly enemies.

And yet.

I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Even in the darkest hour. Each of us.




The matzah crumbling in my hands is broken. But it will be brought back together. Somewhere in the world-made-new my enemy and I sit and drink the wine of rejoicing, whole.


Catherine McNiel is a seeker who writes to open eyes to the creative and redemptive work of God in each moment. She is the author of “Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline” (NavPress 2017), and her writing has appeared in numerous books and articles. Catherine serves alongside her husband in a community-based ministry, while caring for three kids, two jobs, and one enormous garden. Connect with Catherine at or on Twitter @catherinemcniel

To read the other Everbloom essays, pre-order from, Paraclete Press, Barnes & Noble and Christian Book Distributors


Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Year Without the Internet

“This is a story about going all still and quiet—and how that changes you.”                                                                                      ~Esther Emery

I’ve only owned a smartphone since December. The day my husband and I ventured into the Verizon store to make the purchase, I had a very dark and bad attitude toward the sales clerk and technology in general. My computer’s screams felt like more than enough distraction in my life. How would I ever focus and function with the noise of a smartphone? But I wanted to be able to Facetime with my sons and receive texts that weren't garbled on my old phone, among other things. I felt forced into this new, beeping, pinging, ringing world where someone or something would have constant access to interrupt me and my thought life anywhere at anytime. The world I love to abandon when I enter the refuge of my home now tags along in the new digital age, and this private introvert does not always like all the company.
So I was curious about Esther Emery’s experiment of giving up the Internet for a year, a journey she chronicles in her beautifully written memoir, What Falls from the Sky.  As a successful playwright and theater director, wife, and mother, one day she found her professional and personal life starting to unravel. Many of us would seek out a counselor, change our location, look for a new job—but Esther logged off the Internet and dove into the silence. She took the drastic step of leaving behind ATMs, social media, and email.
And she began to listen.
“If you’ve heard it said that God can be found in the silence, or that silence can be found in God, then it is fair to say that I found both at the same time.”

Without the Internet controlling her life, she learned to love her neighbors in her Massachusetts city, visit the library with her children, buy books at Goodwill, use a phone book, read a paper map, shop at brick and mortar stores. She stared longer at her children, played with them on the floor, visited church for the first time in a very long time, and wrote letters by hand.

She began to ask questions and wonder what happens when we leave the digital world and open space and margin in our lives.  I know for me I deepen and hear the voice of God better when I allow more space and margin. I change, feeling a little less angry, annoyed, inadequate. Esther made many of the same discoveries.

What happens when we find our validation somewhere other than the false affirmation of the Internet? A hard question for many of us to answer but worth the asking. The result for me is an internal warning saying I should retreat from using  the Internet so much, exercising caution and awareness over its pull. I should try with all my might to pull back from the constant barrage of information, communication, and false affirmation, fighting the urge to scroll through my phone in a doctor’s waiting room or the lobby of a restaurant, instead sitting in stillness and thought.
In my nod to Esther’s book, I decided I would try to give up social media for Lent. I failed miserably. First I began checking Facebook because some people use FB to reach me--but I vowed not to scroll. But then I was scrolling. I’ve only been on Instagram when my husband told me my four sons posted pictures of their brother trip to the mountains. (But I didn’t scroll)
My failed and minor experiment has shown me the power of the Internet to woo me and distract me, waste my time, and destroy my attention span, which seems to be decreasing by the week. As a writer, I used to be able to write for hours without yielding to a distraction. Today I check my email and Facebook constantly…and I hate this behavior.
So as a result of reading What Falls from the Sky, I will be making an intentional effort to resist the pull, however poor my efforts. I want to take long walks without any noise, go on a drive without playing any music, sit in a park with a paper book, and write a novel or a blog post without reading people’s status. (And if I write a blog post, you can always receive it by providing your email over at the right-hand side of your screen. Wink.)
And if you’re wondering how Esther’s story ends, you’ll have to read her book, which you can buy here. But I will say that she now lives off the grid in a yurt in Idaho with her husband and three children on three acres of land. And that sounds like a life enriched by silence.


Saturday, February 25, 2017

Interview with Author Catherine McNiel

Recently Catherine McNiel published her first book, Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline (NavPress, 2017). Catherine's fresh, wise perspective and beautiful language stood out in a culture where books on motherhood abound. If anyone is feeling like they can't do one more thing as they navigate the years with young children, let me just say this book doesn't heap on more guilt or add to the to-do list. The book simply offers hope and assurance right where you're living. I had a chance to interview her recently about her book.

Catherine, tell us a little about yourself.  
Thank you! I’m a mom with three kids (and a few part time jobs). I love to read and garden. I love to study theology and ancient cultures. I’m always trying to learn something new. I’m enamored by the creation of new life but find that working in the garden is less exhausting than pregnancy. J 

I found Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline to be a refreshing look at motherhood. Can you tell us a little about your book? 
In each chapter I tell stories from our real lives—the seasons and stages of motherhood, pregnancy and delivery, infant days, sleepless nights, caring for children of all ages—and the tasks that fill them. I look at spiritual tools that already hide there—like sacrifice, surrender, service, perseverance, and celebration—and consider how we can open our eyes to the spiritual boot camp we walk through every day. Without adding anything extra to our live or to-do lists, we practice so many disciplines every moment of the day.  

Why did you decide to write Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline?  

A few years ago I was a work-from-home mom with a baby, a toddler, and a preschooler. These precious, demanding children took me all the way to the end of my rope…and left me there indefinitely! My life changed in every way, yet I heard only the same spiritual prescriptions I’d always heard: spend quite time each day with God. Find 30-60 minutes each day to be in silence and solitude before the Lord. As I considered the classic spiritual practices (which I love!)—prayer, worship, fasting, meditation, service, solitude, etc.—it became abundantly clear that the realities of motherhood meant I was likely to fail. Or opt out entirely.  

But my spirit didn’t allow me to do that. I heard a lament rising in the hearts of the women around me—I have nothing left, nothing left to care for myself or give to God. But as I looked at the actual seasons and tasks of motherhood, I was convinced that there was no better “boot camp” for my soul. Each day we mothers create, we nurture. Each day we are pushed to the end of ourselves and must surrender, sacrifice, and persevere. Each day we serve, pouring ourselves out. We empty ourselves for those in our care—and isn’t this emptiness the very reliance on God that the spiritual disciplines are designed to produce?  

I’m convinced that motherhood is doing an eternal work on my soul, even if I’m too exhausted and overwhelmed to notice just now.  

What are the “Practices” that you describe in Long Days of Small Things? 

At the end of each chapter, I list three things we are doing already—things like walking, eating, driving, changing diapers, going to work. And I explore how we can use these things, already in our daily routines and schedules, to awaken to God’s presence with us. Moms often don’t have time to add additional tasks and tools into our days, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use the tasks already there! In fact, in many cases, I think these natural things are the most effective.  

How has motherhood impacted your understanding of spirituality?  

We think of spirituality as something that happens in our minds, in silence. We are taught that our bodies, our mess and complications and noise hold us back from being with God. That doesn’t leave a lot of hope for moms, whose pregnant or post-partum bodies, newborns, toddlers, and van-full of carpool kids have no end of loud, messy, physical, chaotic needs. 

But God made us, didn’t He? Genesis describes Him getting in the dirt and forming us from the dust by hand, then breathing His own breath into our mouths. That’s pretty physical and messy! Then He actually took on a body Himself. The King of Kings wiggled around in a woman’s womb, surrounded by amniotic fluid. He entered the world through her birth canal. God was born, you guys. That’s our Good News.  

All this physical stuff that we feel keeps us from Him is the same stuff He used to meet with us, to speak to us, to save us. 

 So Long Days of Small Things is a book for moms “who have neither quiet nor time” as the cover says—or dads, grandparents, and other caregivers.  

Describe an experience that first caused you to understand motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline. 

 I was shopping with my three kids. Can you imagine the scene? Lugging my infant in one of those terribly unwieldy baby-carriers. Holding my toddler by the hand, while my preschooler zoomed around the store. The diaper bag was falling off my shoulders, and I clenched the grocery bags with the same hand that grasped my toddler.  

And then…the door. I couldn’t figure out how to get us all through. The baby was wailing for milk and a nap, the toddler and preschooler needed lunch (and a nap). I wanted lunch and a nap too, truth be told. But mostly I just wanted to get us out the door. No one held it open for me, but plenty of people watched me make a fool of myself trying to wiggle us all through without banging any heads or pinching any fingers. It felt like a hero-feat, an epic win.  

When I finally got everyone home, fed, and sleeping, I sat down to read an article I’d been saving; a short biography of a favorite Christian teacher. The biographer described this hero of the faith as so spiritual, he radiated peace just by walking through the door.  

This stopped me in my tracks. The memory of how I looked going through a door was so fresh in my mind. I realized that if spiritual growth entailed developing an aura of peace and radiance, I was never going to arrive—at least not without getting rid of these precious babies!  

The contrast between this teacher and myself was so stark, and I realized he and I were simply on two separate paths. I was seeking God through the chaotic but life-giving seasons and tasks of motherhood, and this was going to look entirely different from the classic spiritual practices. “Results may vary” as they say. 

How is this book different from all the other books and conversations out there regarding motherhood today? 

There are so many books out there for moms on the topic of devotion and spirituality.  Almost all of them have this in common: after admitting that moms are exhausted, stretched too thin, without any margin or time or energy, they look for a few extra minutes here or there which might be harvested for God; or offer a Bible study or prayer list that might fit in the tiny slots. Get up at 4:30am before the baby wakes at 5am! Read two minutes of the Bible each day! 
I’m all for doing these things when it works, but I’m convinced that we don’t need to exit motherhood to have a spiritual life. Our children are what we create, and this is where our Creator God meets us. I’m certain of it. Without adding more “should’s” or “to-do’s” to our days, we can open our eyes to a unique spiritual journey, made just for us—and find him here. We’re already doing it. All that waits is for us to breathe deeply and being to drink.  

What are your hopes for the moms reading Long Days of Small Things? 

I told my publisher and editor so many times: I want the title, the cover, and every word to convey that I’m not saying you should do more. You are enough. You are seen. You are loved. You are doing so much already, and there is value here. God is here already. These long days of small things make us feel shunted to the side, second class, invisible.  

But I’m certain of one thing: this is the very place God meets us. That’s why we practice spiritual disciplines—to arrive at this place. I’m confident that every flowing, bleeding, dripping, sticky, crying, dirty, wet, exhausted piece of motherhood is a piece that God made and loves, a place where He came, and place where He is 

If moms can hear me say that, and accept the invitation, and find Him there—I will be overjoyed.
Thank you for your words, Catherine! You can find Long Days of Small Things here and visit her website at