Housekeeping Notes

flower-side*I have a couple of blog/writing-related notes at the end of this post. Thanks for reading!

Earlier this year, trapped in a quiet waiting room while one of my children was doing academic testing, I picked up a book from a shelf and flipped through it. It was a book about Christian missionaries ministering to Muslim women, and it was compiled from the experiences and wisdom of women missionaries who’d served in Muslim countries for many years. I loved reading the accounts, but oddly enough, now there is only one I can recall with any clarity. It was from a woman missionary who felt amazed she’d been asked to contribute to the conversation. She, her husband, and their two daughters had been sent, years before, to a strict society, one in which she had very little freedom even as a Western woman, one in which her daughters had even less freedom.  She said something like this: “I have spent most of my time ministering to only two young women, our daughters. I have been their teacher, their spiritual mentor, and their mother. That has been my ministry. I do not know what wisdom I will be able to share.”

And yet, I remember clearly, she had much wisdom, the kind that comes from humility, quietness, watching, waiting, praying.

I wonder if I have been called to just such a season. My husband’s work is most definitely ministry, and it requires deep attention. It is good, good work, and we know he is impacting young men and women who desperately need good education and good male role models. Many of them need father figures. He is being used.

My children are in the middle of good work as well. They go to schools where they are the racial minority (except for my youngest, of course); they go to an after-school program with kids from our neighborhood; they befriend the three young boys who end up at our house many afternoons.

And I? I get them all out the door to do these works. I do the laundry and fix the meals and help with homework and encourage and remind and pray with and, when belonging seems far away, cry with. I homeschool the oldest child part-time, and my paid work is writing, which most of the time is done in quiet. Most days, I do not feel as if I am doing much of anything that is related to what we feel we’ve been called to here, to the work of being integrated, to the work of equality and justice and being/showing Jesus.

I recently wrote an article on the documentary film made about Lilias Trotter, one of the pioneer missionaries to Algeria in the late 1800s (look for a blog post in the next week or so about this). In the research process, I read this quote from her:

Surrender – stillness – a ready welcoming of all stripping, all loss, all that brings us low, low into the Lord’s path of humility  – a cherishing of every whisper of the Spirit’s voice, every touch of the prompting that comes to quicken the hidden life within: that is the way God’s human seed-vessels ripen and Christ becomes “magnified” even through the things that seem against us.
– 
Parables of the Christ Life

This, too, I am reminded, is good.

This, too, is God’s good work—in me, through me.

~~~

NOTE 1: If you’ve never visited my “freelance writing” page (follow the link here or scroll to the top of the page and click on the link there just under the header picture), check it out. If you have any writing or editing needs, please feel free to contact me. I love to help people get their ideas out of their heads and onto paper in clear and lovely ways. No job is too small!

NOTE 2: I added a donate button to my blog (well, actually it reads “Buy Now,” simply because I can’t get the formatting right for it to say “Donate”–oops!). Please do not feel any obligation to donate; I just wanted to give readers the option of contributing to the work of this blog and, through it, to the pro bono work I do for non-profits and churches.

 

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Working through poopy

Processed with VSCO with hb1 preset

Em’s lettering–and Em’s photography (I think she’s amazing!)

My friend B calls it “working through poopy.” I think it’s a very accurate description. I worked through a little bit of my own poopy this morning: some jealousy, the desire to be noticed more/sought out more, some self-pity and fear and insecurity…

I’ll stop there.

After I spilled it all out in my journal, I felt better: ready to pray, ready to confess, ready to be grateful for the oh-so-much that has been gifted to me.

But God had one more step, one more gift.

I got up from the bench in the park where I’d been writing (so Chai [dog] could be outside) and noticed another woman entering the gate. She, too, had a dog. We exchanged pet names and then our own. In the chitchat that followed, we discovered we are both writers and the chitchat became conversation, with the shared language that comes with a shared vocation and shared concerns/frustrations/struggles/fears.

It was time for both of us to go, and as I walked toward the gate, I remembered, again, that we all—not just my fellow writer and I—are working through poopy. We’re all wondering about our purpose. We all want to be seen/known. We all struggle with identity. We all have very deep fears.

The second half of the St. Francis* prayer came to mind (another gift, that St. Francis!): Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen.

 

*Technically this poem is “attributed to St. Francis.” Here is the full text (also seen in the picture above):

“Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

I’ve got a post up on the Redbud blog

flower closeupI’ve got a post up on the Redbud blog today. “The Myth of Mediocrity” appeared on this blog a while back, so it may sound familiar if you’re a longtime follower.

While you’re at the Redbud blog, you may want to check out some of the other posts, all written by my fellow Redbud writers. There’s some really amazing and encouraging stuff there–and if you’re a writer, helpful writing advice as well.

Thanks for reading–I’m praying today for all those who read this blog. This very day may you see the Lord more clearly, love Him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly.

Grace and peace,

~Jen

Small things–and my dream job

Rez's New Name team members standing behind the gifts donated by WA girls' soccer team

Rez’s New Name team members standing behind the gifts donated by WA girls’ soccer team

I’ve decided what job I want in heaven.

It came to me as I sat with a few other women around a table covered in toiletries, jewelry, lotions, and other small gifts. These items had been donated by the girls on the Wheaton Academy soccer team my husband, Dave, coaches. An annual tournament they play in encourages every team to create a service project, and for the past two years the WA girls have supported New Name, a local ministry that partners with area churches to reach out to and walk alongside women in sex trafficking and adult entertainment industries. Last year they made cards to go into the gift bags that New Name teams deliver. This year they went a step further and purchased items to go into the gift bags. Dave gave up a practice for the girls to shop and then gather back at school to make cards and listen as I told them about New Name’s ministry.

gift driveA few days later the members of my church’s New Name chapter unloaded all the purchases at Church of the Resurrection, and we organized them and packed gift bags for outreach.

We oohed and aahed over the pretty soaps and the jewelry, and I told the group, “You know, one of these gifts may be used specifically by God to open a woman’s heart to Him. In a few weeks the girls who purchased these may not even remember what they bought; they might see what they did today as a small thing, but they may discover when they get to heaven that this very lotion”—I held up the bottle in my hand—“may make an eternal difference. Won’t it be awesome to trace it all back! To see how all our stories connect into the Big Story!” It hit me then, and I said, “That’s the job I want in heaven—to follow the stories of people’s salvation and growth in Christ back to all the ‘small’ things that played parts in it. What an awesome job it would be to write down the creativity of God in weaving it all together!”

In chapter 4 of Zechariah, the angel of the Lord visits Zechariah and gives him a vision that encourages the Israelites to keep on with the slow, laborious work of rebuilding the temple. This new temple is a very small accomplishment when compared to the temple that was destroyed, but the angel says, “Who dares despise the day of small things…?” and he goes on to tell Zechariah that the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth and see each act of obedience.

In Matthew Henry’s commentary on this passage, he wrote, ”In God’s work the day of small things is not to be despised. Though the instruments be weak and unlikely, God often chooses such, by them to bring about great things. …Though the beginnings be small, God can make the latter end greatly to increase; a grain of mustard-seed may become a great tree.”

Don’t despise the small things you’re doing. Don’t get discouraged. Keep doing them! Encourage others to persevere as well. Listen as the Spirit leads into seemingly “small things.”

And maybe in heaven I’ll get to write down one paragraph of God’s great story, and we’ll see that each of our “small things” has great significance.

New Name checkBy the way, the tournament directors awarded the top three service projects with a cash prize, and the WA team won first place! They’re donating their $1,000 prize to New Name.

Sharing a site

I’ve been following “Leaf and Twig” for nearly a year now, and it just struck me that I’ve never passed it on as a suggestion. Each day Catherine Arcolio, the artist behind “Leaf and Twig,” posts an incredible nature photo and a short poem to go with it. I’ve found it a wonderful way to celebrate God’s beauty found in both creation and word. The link above takes you to the entire site, but the links below take you to a couple of my favorites from months past.

“Steeple”

“Seeing Through”

“Unexpected Blooms”

Not an Agent

I took this shot the other night when the kids were doing sparklers.

I took this shot the other night when the kids were doing sparklers.

I am in the process of getting my young adult (YA) novel ready for submission to an agent. I’ve created an entire file full of synopses and “back of the book” blurbs of different lengths, character descriptions, chapter summaries, market analyses, etc,–all the elements different agents want in the proposals writers send to them.

In the middle of writing all these documents, I realized I must also trim the novel itself because right now its word count—which is often required on the first page of the proposal—is long enough that many agents won’t even read all those other carefully crafted pieces—or the manuscript itself.

When I told my husband this, he protested (sweet man). “What if it needs to be that long? What if it actually decreases its quality to shorten it?”

Years of cutting news and magazine articles down to word count specifications make me doubtful of that. A good cutting generally clears the fluff so the essential and good stand out more clearly.

Besides, the question of quality is moot. I read my husband this quote from Chuck Sambuchino at Writer’s Digest:

“Agents have so many queries that they are looking for reasons to say no. They are looking for mistakes, chinks in the armor, to cut their query stack down by one. And if you adopt the mentality that your book has to be long, then you are giving them ammunition to reject you.”

I transition here to the real point of this blog post.

As I was cutting last week, feeling a bit overwhelmed and very uncertain, I thought, “Oh, God, I am so thankful you are not like an agent!”

It’s true! God is not looking for reasons to turn us away, to narrow the field.

He is longing, in fact, to accept us, all of us, with open arms. He calls for us.

But as I thought about this more, I realized I/we act as though God were an agent.

Following his quote above, Chuck Sambuchino went on to say that writers can, of course, assume that all the fine points of their manuscript will outweigh the flaws, that agents will be so amazed by them, they will overlook the too-long word count or editing errors or…

We do the same with God. We come speaking of our tidy editing, acceptable word counts, stunning plot, or brilliant characters; we spread chapter summaries, 35- 50- and 75-word summaries, a 2-page synopsis, character descriptions, and a back-of-book blurb out on the table.

We pretend God is an agent we must impress.

We pretend we can impress Him.

Agents’ requirements remind me of the Old Testament Law, which Hebrews tells us could never make us perfect and Galatians calls “our guardian until Christ came.”

When we continue to live under the Law, coming to God with hands full of our offerings, our work, He will not accept any of it; He rejects it because every bit of it is flawed.

But here is an incredible difference: He hopes we will agree with His assessment.

Because that is the one thing, the only thing, that will gain us entrance with God: our acknowledgment that we need His provision (Christ), that we are incapable of producing anything acceptable.

He wants us to cry out in desperation for Him.

When we do, He crushes us in His arms.

Because though He can’t accept our work, doesn’t want our work…

He does want us.

Dry Wells

A reading of this post is at its end.

I really DO like dandelions--and wild violets.

I really DO like dandelions–and wild violets.

The well has run dry. At first it was simply, “I have to push off writing a blog post until I meet other writing deadlines.” Then, during a weekend when I spent MUCH time in the car running errands, I noticed an emptiness. No strings of thoughts connected in my head. Phrases popped up, but a blog post generally requires more than my observations on the nude dandelion stems I noticed when stopped at a red light. (Trying to put together a line that sounded like poetry, I played with ideas like “a tangle of hollow stems, wound round each other, trying to hide their nakedness” and “look-at-me blossoms withered to fluff. Now even that has blown away”).

But not only did that seem very negative toward dandelions–which I like–it was as far as I got. The thought trail ended, and my mind jumped next to “what to fix for dinner.”

Still, there wasn’t time to actually write, so the vague feeling of emptiness was easily shoved aside.

But this afternoon, the deadlines aren’t as pressing, so I’m writing a blog post.

And nothing is coming!

Usually panic would already be fluttering (“Will I ever be able to write again? Am I done?”), but today I’ve been able to pin its wings and tell it to “Settle down” in a firm voice.

It has.

That’s Grace.

Grace in painful kindness lets my well get bone dry so I stop looking at it and stop trying to sponge up the droplets. Grace helps me to see the cracks in my cistern and, oddly, to be at peace about my own brokenness.

Then Grace turns me to the spring that never runs dry.

Sometimes this Source is like a waterfall, spilling over me with power. Today, though, it is a gently bubbling brook, smooth, with no undercurrent. I will eventually wade, will plunge in, but for right now I am content to stretch out in the quiet shallows.

Grace knows exactly what I need.

I am very grateful for this, not only for the trust I am able to rest in today in regards to my writing, but for the understanding that this applies to my motherhood, to my marriage, to my friendships, to my running of a busy household.

My wells run dry—much of the time.

Making way for Grace.

And that’s good.

NOTE: I wrote this yesterday afternoon. This morning, at my church’s women’s Bible study, we sang “You’ll Come” by Hillsong United. These words jumped out at me: “You’ll come, let Your glory fall/As You respond to us/Spirit rain/Flood into our thirsty hearts again/You’ll come, You’ll come.” Here’s a link to the entire song performed by Hillsong: “You’ll Come.”

NOTE 2: I had already discovered some beautiful verses in Isaiah 58 that are incredibly inspiring (who doesn’t want to be known as a “repairer” and “restorer” of things/people who are broken!?). Then, also in the Bible study, I was reminded of the following verses in John 7. Enjoy–and thanks for reading.

John 7:37-39a (click on the link to read the entire chapter)

On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”[c] 39 By this he meant the Spirit,whom those who believed in him were later to receive.

Isaiah 58:10-12 (click on the link to read the entire chapter)

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

The neon of vanity

Look close--you can see the neon reflected in his eyes!

Look close–you can see the neon reflected in his eyes!

When seen in the light of bright sun, neon doesn’t shine.

You can’t even tell it’s on.

It has to be dark for neon to “look” bright.

My son, Patrick, questions, “Mom, why can’t we look right into the sun?”

Were we able to before sin darkened our souls?

Could we look right at God’s glory, brighter even than the sun He created, and gaze right at it?

Were we able to, moonlike, reflect it? To shine like Moses did—and that even when he wasn’t able to directly LOOK at God?

Anything I create that wars with God for supremacy is like neon,

But to reflect requires abdication of self

And I don’t find that in me.

It must require a looking elsewhere–

Like up.

536224_10202174906961243_2094760043_nTill I’m dazzled.

Celebrating our slivers

I took this pic in Kenya last summer. Those are discarded water bottle woven into a wire fence. Very creative!

I took this pic in Kenya last summer. Those are discarded water bottles woven into a wire fence. Very creative!

Not long ago one of the pastors at our church mentioned a scene in the movie Amadeus to illustrate a sermon point, and I was gripped by a line he repeated from it: “I am the patron saint of mediocrity.”

The musician Salieri says that at the end of the film. He has made a full confession to a young priest and finishes with that line. “You, too, are, mediocre,” he says in effect to the priest. “I, the patron saint of mediocrity, will speak for you.” He is referring to his musical talent as “mediocre,” but he didn’t always see it that way. As a younger man, he viewed it as a reward from God for his piety and devotion—until he was faced with the genius of Mozart, and realized his own talents paled in comparison. Not only does Salieri grow jealous of the younger composer’s gift, he is angry at God for giving them to such an irreverent man while he, Salieri, labors and toils “to the glory of God” and produces far less stellar work.

In the film (which is based on a legend and not exact truth) Salieri’s jealousy sours him. He stops producing music and fixates on Mozart’s destruction. He allows Mozart’s music to silence his own.

We all have that option. There are few geniuses; most of us muddle about in a state, comparatively, of mediocrity. But that shouldn’t dishearten us. It shouldn’t have disheartened Salieri.

No, he was not talented to the degree Mozart was. But what if Salieri had music only he could create? What if his abdication of his talent resulted in something being left undone that was meant to testify to some particular facet of God’s creativity and beauty? Compared to Mozart’s broader testimony, perhaps Salieri’s would have been but a sliver, but when Salieri abdicated his talents, he failed to redeem a portion of the manifestation of God lost to mankind in the Fall.

I’m extrapolating here in my application, but in trying to imitate someone else’s gift, or in failing to pursue the unique way in which God has gifted us (though it may be far less in scope and greatness than others), we “create” a lack. We “live” out and perpetuate the Fall. No, we in essence say, God is not purposeful and good. He plays favorites, and the amount of His love can be measured based on the ways He has gifted us. The cruel lie comes full circle when we believe we must earn God’s love and can do so only by exercising our talents; therefore, the lesser the talent, the less able we are to please God and “get” His approval and love.

Scripture tells us this is a lie. God honors the widow’s mite; Jesus extols the woman who anoints his feet with her tears and wipes them with her loose hair. He flat out says He chooses the weakest among humanity. The Beatitudes praise those who accept their vulnerabilities. The Gospel “works” only when we admit how greatly we need it, how completely unable we are to earn it.

So press on into your giftedness, no matter what it is. Press into it as part of God’s purpose for you, not as something you deserve, but as something He’s given so you can know and point to Him as the author of all good, of all creativity. Don’t compare your gift with others’ and don’t measure its greatness by how others react to it. Know (and remind yourself often) that since God gave the gift to you, He has purpose for it, and He is pleased when you exercise it. Your gift may not reach millions or even dozens of people. Your gift may be meant to touch only one. But to that person, your gift can be the touch of God.

There is a wonderful by-product to this: when we view and use our gifts in this way, we do not begrudge others theirs. We can rejoice. We can encourage. Salieri hurried down the road to bitter envy. We, instead, can support others in their talents. When we do this, our gifts mingle and grow, and our creativity is not only a testimony to God’s imagination but also to His love.

Early in Amadeus, when Salieri is still honored and praised as a gifted musician, Mozart listens to one of Salieri’s compositions. He immediately sits down, plays the piece from memory, critiques it, and then plays it again with his own vastly improved improvisations. Salieri’s face reveals his heart. He is shamed, and he is jealous. These are our natural reactions. But Romans tells us Christ has set us free from our natural “body of death” to think and live as redeemed people. How different might Salieri’s and Mozart’s stories have been had Salieri rejoiced in providing Mozart with an idea that Mozart was able to bring magically alive. Who knows what their partnership might have produced!

God certainly creates geniuses, people touched to create in seemingly effortless ways—it’s a little glimpse of God’s work! But the rest of us, gifted to one degree or another, in one way or another, are celebrated in Scripture as a body—working in harmony, honoring each other—especially those whose gifts are less celebrated by the world—and together providing a shimmering image of Christ.

 

 

I ramble with a purpose

At one of Wheaton Academy's bball games not long ago, the students brought glow-in-the-dark bracelets/necklaces. After the game, PJ gathered as many as he could, and we had a light show/photo shoot that night at home. Here he is twirling a handful of them.

At one of Wheaton Academy’s bball games not long ago, the students brought glow-in-the-dark bracelets/necklaces. After the game, PJ gathered as many as he could, and we had a light show/photo shoot that night at home. Here he is twirling a handful of them.

I like cool blog titles. Here are a few of my favorites: Everyday Epiphanies, Still Point in a Turning World, Logic and Imagination, A Place of Abundance, Writing from the Margins, The Middle: Encouragement for the Journey Through, A Holy Experience

(I think very highly of all these blogs as well as their titles, which is why I provided links).

I used to have a blog title.

But it wasn’t very cool.

Journey to Jen—how’s that for catchy!?

My husband, Dave, hated it, from the very beginning. I won’t tell you what he said it sounded like, but I will tell you I laughed and was also a little horrified. “It wasn’t the title I wanted,” I told him, “but ‘Jen’s Journey’ was already taken.”

I wanted “Jen’s Journey” because that’s all my blog was supposed to be: a reflection of my journey, what I’m learning, how I’m growing. I write to process, and the blog is my outlet.

Plus, I love the word “journey.” I also love the word “pilgrimage,” which is the word that led me to “journey” because, when I suggested “pilgrimage” as my blog title, Dave said that sounded weird.

(And if you don’t know my husband and are thinking right now he seems a little grumpy, he’s really, really not. In fact, he’s my greatest encourager and he makes me laugh.

A lot!

Anyway, back to my blog title. I finally bought my domain (at the urging of Dave) and simply named it “Jen Underwood.”

As in, “Here’s me—and my journey.”

Come to think of it, “journey” was a bit of a misnomer, unless you think of a journey as a meandering path that sometimes goes in circles and follows rabbit trails and then comes back to another circle, much like one of the previously traveled ones, and at this point you’re all turned around and have no idea which direction you’re facing or, for that matter, where exactly this path is taking you.

That is the kind of “journey” mine seems to be. Every once in awhile I look back at my blog entries of the last few weeks and think, “It’s ramblings! Just ramblings. I’ve been all over the place, thinking about all kinds of things. There’s nothing linear about it at all.”

And sometimes I get discouraged about this, because the erratic nature of my blog is a reflection of the erratic nature of my spiritual growth. I share this with God. “Lord, I have this vague idea of the godly woman I want to become,” I tell Him, “and I have, really, no idea how to get there. In fact, I’m not even sure what this ‘godly woman’ looks like, but every time I try to plan out a ‘point A to point B’ sort of journey that I think might lead me closer to her, You rip up my map!”

“Come to think of it, God,” I tell him. “’Ramblings’ could be a good title for my blog, for my LIFE.”

But when I look further back than just a few weeks ago—when I read blog entries of a year, two years ago, when I pull out one of the notebooks I’ve been writing in for two decades—I see growth. I recognize that true good was formed out of disappointments and “rabbit trails.” I understand that each time I followed a circular path, it was a little bigger and a little deeper. I realize that I may not “look” more godly, but I’ve been drawn into a deeper faith in God.

I see a very masterful hand at work.

All my ramblings have had purpose! I just didn’t know it!

God knows very specifically how to draw me closer to Him so that I trust Him in and for everything.

Therefore, I am not responsible for planning my spiritual growth, just for following Him into it, one step after another.

And though that is frightening in one way, it is incredibly reassuring and hopeful in another!

I ramble with a purpose.

His.

And His purpose is sure.

 

VERSES TO PONDER (in the Amplified version today)

Ephesians 2:10 For we are God’s [own] handiwork (His workmanship), [a]recreated in Christ Jesus, [born anew] that we may do those good works which God predestined (planned beforehand) for us [taking paths which He prepared ahead of time], that we should walk in them [living the good life which He prearranged and made ready for us to live].

Psalm 57: 1-2 Be merciful and gracious to me, O God, be merciful and gracious to me, for my soul takes refuge and finds shelter and confidence in You; yes, in the shadow of Your wings will I take refuge and be confident until calamities and destructive storms are passed. 2 I will cry to God Most High, Who performs on my behalf and rewards me [Who brings to pass His purposes for me and surely completes them]!

Exodus 40:37-38 But if the cloud was not taken up, they did not journey on till the day that it was taken up. 38 For throughout all their journeys the cloud of the Lord was upon the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel.

Isaiah 25:1 O Lord, You are my God; I will exalt You, I will praise Your name, for You have done wonderful things, even purposes planned of old [and fulfilled] in faithfulness and truth.