One open gate after another

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I listened to a podcast the other day. It was evangelical in flavor, interviewing a Christian semi-public figure about the ministry work she’s been doing.
 
She spoke of a terrible season of her life, one of emotional loss and physical suffering. As she told her story in that interview, she was asked what was her biggest regret of that season of despair and pain. Her answer was that she wished she had regular Bible reading during that time, and not let her physical pain keep her from God’s presence.
 
And as I listened, I felt a internal constriction, my chest tightened and my breathing sped up. This is my kryptonite, when another believer discusses what she failed in doing during a painful season of her life. I know all about failure, all about spiritual practices I should have done.  There’s a scarcity mentality that I see often in the evangelical church, an acceptance of shame that my younger self learned to live in, that I still work hard to push back against, knowing that shame warps my faith to look more like fear than freedom.
 
After hearing about her suffering, I longed for her to say she regretted not leaning into God’s kindness sooner, not letting herself experience grace. I thought of how close God must have been then, how much God’s presence must have longed to warm her and hold her, to cover her broken body and spirit like a blanket. But instead I heard failure in her voice, failure in her answer.
 
Now, to be fair, I can’t judge her answer, or her experience of God in that season. She spoke as someone who loves scripture. And I so value her commitment and love for experiencing God through the pages of the Bible. The response I had to her words in that moment was born out of my own shame, my own fear that God’s grace is not enough, that my success at spiritual practices is the only way God will want me, accept me, love me. I’ve been on a long, ten year journey of believing that what God wants to offer me is an invitation, not an obligation: That prayer and Bible reading is not a way to earn God’s love or delight.
 
Spiritual Practices are an invitation into that blanket, that covering of God’s love. Spiritual practices are gifts we can receive, not tasks we perform to make God happy, or feel better about ourselves, or even to heal ourselves. 
 
As we head into the Advent season, my prayer is that we would choose to practice God’s presence with a lightness of heart, a belief that we are not on a spiritual performance hamster wheel, but that instead we are on a walk through a beautiful garden. Every time we pray, every time we open our sacred texts, we’re entering through another gate, invited into another garden. This one holding something new, something hope-filled, something good.

A poem for Holy Week

Last year my church commissioned me to write a poem for our Good Friday service based on the Seventh Station of the Cross. I'm publishing it here because I'm glad to share it with you.

Feel free to use with attribution.

Jesus cares for his mother - John 19:25b - 27

Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

 

Near the Cross, Christ’s Mother Speaks

By Micha Boyett

 

Oh God, I sang those words like the angel who once blazed before me,

left me light-soaked, my virgin-clear voice lifting the poems

of the ancients into song. I was only a girl then, and still

you gave me this child. I received him, I believed.

 

His birth was worship. The praise I sang in naïve faith:

Magnify the Lord, rejoice in God. I claimed mercy

for generations, for this generation. I sang because you chose me,

because my child’s very living was hinged in wonder. 

 

God, despite your quiet retreat, despite the early years of fear,

when my exhaustion and earth-bound vision cast a veil between us.

Though he pulled from me toward you, toward danger, toward this world.

Still, I told him his story, his past and future as the Always-One.

 

I sang him into the song the prophets wrote:

How Yahweh shows strength with his mighty arm.

I whispered in the dark, his boy-body resting on mats,

You are the Mighty Arm, child.

 

And here, oh God, is where it ends: That boy I dressed,

the one whose meat I cut in bits, who—for your sake, Lord—

I told the Story. There he is—your Mighty Arm—

on that cross, writhing, calling his mother, Woman.

 

I’ll go with John to his home, my old shoulders

wrapped in wool, I’ll shiver by the fire,

grief my companion, let the women spoon me broth.

But I will not sing the song you gave me.

 

I will not sing of deliverance, of mercy, or strength,

of hungry filled, of goodness in the hands of weak ones.

No, I will die an old woman without a son,

in the home of a stranger who loved my child.

 

And what will become of our visions and dreams, of the prophets’

words I pressed into that boy’s hands? Your angel promised power,

vowed to shatter thrones in Yahweh’s name. Yet my son—

our son, Lord—was power cloaked in peace. He shattered us all.

 

What can I do but receive this? Let John

lift the bread and wine to my lips, bitter in the mouth

of this old woman who waits to kiss—one last time—

the face of her broken, miraculous son.

 

Or perhaps you will grant me hope enough

for a solemn hymn, the final prayer of a desperate mother:

 

Look upon your Mighty Arm, Lord. Save us all.

 

© Micha Boyett 2017. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

Liturgy and the Wild Stream of Prayer: Prayer for the rest of us

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Liturgy, a practice as old as the Church itself, had been a room closed to me in my faith tradition. And when the door opened, I discovered within it the treasure of wisdom. Liturgy was prayer I couldn’t use to make myself look better. It humbled me, reminded me of how many of the faithful had come before me. I found in that room an antidote to my skepticism.

 

I read Episcopalians and Catholics, writers who spoke of prayer as something they were invited into, not something they were creating for themselves.. I had been living as if prayer was my daily task to produce, words I needed to speak or think to build a bridge of connection with a living God. What I began to see was that prayer was not dependent on me: it was a living organism—a stream—I could enter. It was, thank God, beyond me and outside of me and something I was invited into.

 

Nowhere was that clearer than when I begin to pray with liturgy, something I’d been warned in the past was “hallow” and “vain repetition.” What I found in those early days of breaking open The Book of Common Prayer and fumbling through the local Episcopal church service, was that these prayers written hundreds of years prior were new and fresh to me. They were a reminder of the depth and breadth of the Church—both past and present. When I prayed a prayer someone else had written down—words that had been uttered around the world, in generations past, words lifted in expectation toward the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, words that would be voiced again long after me—I entered the miracle of the Body of Christ. Something which was (shockingly!) bigger than my generation, my understanding of faith, my culture, and my personal experience of God. Suddenly, prayer was opening up my world.

 

What was at first a way for me to pray when I no longer trusted my own words became a connection to the people of faith who came before me. Through liturgy the communion of saints offered me prayer when my own words had run out, when I was full of doubt, when I didn’t know how to thank God, or ask for help. Far from being empty, the words of the morning prayer liturgy gave me life when I couldn’t find it anywhere else.

 

Today I have a new piece up in my "Prayer for the rest of us" series at Off the Page. Find it here!

Prayer and Panic Attacks: Prayer for the rest of us

Sometimes you find yourself walking out of the challenges of your life, and you no longer recognize the landscape that changed while you were in the fog.

So it’s true to say that these years have brought me to a richer spiritual space. But it doesn’t look like I would have expected. My faith is deeper but also ragged. I’m a bit battered and I’m still figuring out what it means to live here, on the other side of the crisis. What does faith look like now, when the wild wind has calmed, and I’m not sure I remember how to walk without being forced to lean in?

 

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A couple of months I wrote a piece about panic attacks for my "Prayer for the rest of us" series over at Off The Page. Find it here to read the rest

 

Introducing . . . My new series at Off The Page!

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I'm excited to announce that this month I began a new series on prayer and spiritual formation at one of my favorite sites, Off The Page

Each month I'll be exploring "Prayer for the Rest of Us," aka those of us who don't have our spiritual stuff together. What does prayer even mean? Why do we do it? How do we do it? I'll take on a different spiritual practice each month and talk about my experience with it, and invite you into with me. 

This month I'm sharing about the desperation and the "Uneasy Silence" we face every time we come into the sometimes uncomfortable space for prayer.

If you haven't seen the article yet, I hope you'll take a look. Here's a bit for you:

 

Here’s what I know: When the doctor’s reports refer to your two-year-old as “malnourished,” and when he’s vomiting (again), and refusing to eat (again), when the doctors’ appointments and the therapists’ evaluations recommend a new system for eating, a new medication, a new calorie-heavy product to try or to stop trying, when you think you cannot face another day of begging your child to eat, and telling yourself it is not my fault when he doesn’t get the 200 calories he was supposed to get this morning, because you tried (because you used the vibrating mouth tool, and the cheesecloth trick, and made the elephant puppet sing about how yumminess of the bagel with cream cheese), when you aren’t sure if there will ever be a day you won’t wake up afraid for his beautiful, tiny body; that’s when prayer is breath.

 

Desperation often clarifies the why of prayer. I’m learning I pray not to let God know I’d really like some help over here (God knows, I’m sure), but to train my own eyes to see the help already available: the presence of God’s spirit in the kitchen, at my son’s highchair, holding us both.

 

Lately, it’s been helpful for me to think about the spiritual life as a movement towardor away from the presence of God. If Jesus is a dot in the middle, and we’re all arrows positioned at different places, spaced at varying times further and closer to the holy bull’s-eye, what matters isn’t how close we are to the middle, but whether or not our arrow is pointed toward the center.

 

What prayer does is reorient our arrows toward the presence of God. It reminds us what direction our true life comes from. It turns us from the darkness to the sun. It helps us shift and lift our faces from the anxiety or grief, the uncertainty or monotony, the desperation or maybe just the boredom of our lives, toward the One who holds life in its completeness, its fullness.

 

Read the rest at Off the Page.

Upon Turning 38 (And having a babysitter so I could write this.)

Twenty years ago today I turned eighteen. Now, that’s something. It was my first week at college. My New Student Orientation group took me out to dinner at Chili’s. I was a wearing a yellow and purple beanie and I was equally in love with my cute cheesy college and tortilla chips dipped in ranch dressing. Twenty years ago I stood on the padded Chili’s bench and let the table sing to me and me only. I loved it.

Twenty years ago. It’s just like all the annoying Hallmark cards always said. It goes too fast.

The night before last I held my baby throughout the night as he vomited every ten minutes. I whispered, “It’s okay. Mama’s here. I’ll always take care of you.” I told him he was brave every time I held his tiny body over the toilet. Every time he fell back against me, immediately asleep.

Then, after a night without sleep, I downed a cup of coffee and turned on the world’s best First Day of School Kids Bop music. I packed new backpacks and helped find missing pants. Sent them off to the terrifying world of new classrooms.

There’s a twenty year gap there between the girl dipping tortilla chips and the girl shushing her two year old in the night, telling her eldest that he is fun and interesting, just like fourth grade. And the gap between those years is deep and ravenous. Also, it’s sweet and small. I still love to stand on a bench and let the table sing me a song. I still love to eat tortilla chips, though I’ve given up on the ranch dressing. And Chili’s.

Here’s what I think I know, now that I’m 38:

  • If social media is too mean and you feel terrible about the shouting on it, it’s okay to stop hanging out there. Actually, I’d recommend it.

  • The world is a hard and scary place and we need each other to tell the truth.

  • As Ace has taught me, if you sing about the task in front of you it feels a lot easier to do it.

  • There is not as much time in a day as I used to think. So, sleeping is a good idea.

  • Also, exercise makes you happier.

  • Life is not what you accomplish, no matter how many “important” people say otherwise. It’s about hugging and playing.

  • I’m not perfect, so it’s not all going to get done. Especially email. (It took me a lot of therapy to learn that one. So if you’re still waiting for an email from me, that’s why.)

  • Raising kids is not about constructing something from the ground up using raw materials. It’s about growing a garden: surprising, hard, beautiful, sometimes heartbreaking. And rarely what you planned for. (See The Carpenter and the Gardener, which I’m currently reading.)

  • Hats are cute and they keep you from getting wrinkles.

  • Wrinkles are sometimes cute too.

  • There is not a perfect body. There is just the body you have.

  • God is not all air and mist. God’s in the flesh and making Godself visible through all the pain and goodness. The question is whether or not I’m paying attention.

  • Leading is hard. Making decisions is hard. Following Jesus is hard.

  • Early childhood specialists are the best people in the world. So are speech, physical, occupational, and feeding therapists.

  • The little rituals are the heart of a marriage. Our six am coffee dates are my favorite part of the day.

  • Birthdays should be celebrated every time, because nothing is guaranteed and being alive is a beautiful thing.

Untangling Gnarled Roots: Recognizing My White Privilege

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The conversation around race is hard. To have it each of us has to be willing to challenge our own assumptions about the world, to see life through another's eyes. The beautiful thing about Jesus is that he is always asking us to challenge our own assumptions, to see the world with the eyes of mercy and justice and compassion. Jesus always asks us to be uncomfortable, to hurt with those who hurt.

This is a story I've always been intimidated to write about before, but it's time. Today I'm over at Off the Page, sharing how I came to a place of acknowledging my own white privilege, how my eyes were opened to racism's long, hairy roots.

___

Molly and I sat at the round laminate table that had been my great-grandmother’s in the eighties. I’d been home from my month-long trip to Kenya and South Africa for one day, and we were doing what we always did in that year post-college: eating our feelings in burritos. She was my best friend in the world.

I’d collected a thousand thoughts for her in my journal, prepared to explain each story, to tell her each wild idea of God I’d consumed in my graduate African Cultures and Religions class, and share the names of the people I’d met in South Africa whose faith had given them courage to fight for justice, to put an end to Apartheid.

But I was mostly silent. We stuck chips in guacamole.

She stared at me across the table. “You seem older,” she said. “Sadder.” And I knew it was true—forever. I could never go back.


Read the rest over at Off the Page today. I'd love to see you there!

10 life lessons I can rely on during these troubling times

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(This was originally published at Atleteia's For Her magazine, but is no longer available there.)

This past week, in the midst of this country’s political upheaval, I’ve been shaken, and so have many people around me. There is much at stake right now. There is much to fear and much to work for, and it can feel overwhelming. When life is troubling, I’m learning to go back to the kernels of wisdom I’ve already gathered, the smooth stones I carry in my pocket to remind me what matters, what God has taught me, what it means to move forward with joy and gratitude.

  1. The peace of Jesus is not passive. Jesus is called the Prince of Peace, yet he had a way of always making someone angry. Jesus constantly offended the religious leaders and welcomed everyone into the circle, whether they deserved the invitation or not. Peace is never ignoring hatred or evil, and it always includes having the courage to tell the truth. Peacemaking requires action. Following the way of Jesus usually requires more pain on my part. It asks that I be quick to forgive, set relational boundaries, speak with honesty, and often, that I give up my rights to comfort. It is never the easier way, but it is always the way of Jesus.

  2. Questions are not something to ignore but to embrace. A life worth having is a life where you choose to stare your doubts down all the way. Once you get to the bottom of them, they shrivel. Their power is in their position in your periphery, lurking, hinting that what you believe or what you’re committed to is empty, or worse, a lie. They are loudest when you try to ignore them. But if you’re brave enough to hold them to the light, to examine their realities and their flaws, they have something bold to teach you, and their power withers. When I choose to turn my attention to my fear, to pull each sliver of my doubt from my mind, place it under the examination of God’s presence, God has proven up to the task. There’s a reason Jacob wrestled with God: The more we are brave and bold enough to deal with the fears and doubts and questions, the more we experience a God who meets us in the darkness, stays with us through the night, and sends us back into the daylight—altered, yes (Jacob walked with a limp for the rest of his life), but changed into something real-er, wiser, more our truest selves.

  3. When it comes to lines in the sand, I want to draw mine on the side of generosity and grace. In politics and theological frameworks, everyone has their opinion, and most of the time life—for better or for worse—has clarified their stance. There are reasons to be liberal; there are reasons to be conservative. If there weren’t, our two party system wouldn’t still be going strong after 240 years. In the same way, theology is a complicated system. There are many ways to read the scripture, and there is much to wrestle with in the Bible. When it comes to politics and theology, I want to form my framework in the place where kindness dwells. I want to look at the world, the church, and my community through the lens of Jesus’s life and teachings. If I have to draw a line in the sand, if I have to choose what I believe about a specific issue, I want to err on the side of generosity and grace.

  4. What makes a human being valuable is not success, but love. My son who has Down syndrome may not live up to most of the world’s expectations of power or prestige, performance or impressiveness. But our performance is never what makes us human. Intelligence is not what makes humanity as beautiful as it is. It is our ability to love and be loved, to make connections, to show empathy—these are the things that allow us to stand out from the rest of creation. These are the things that should be celebrated, in our children, in ourselves.

  5. Kindness should be our native language. The longer I’m married (only 13 years, so I still have much to learn), the more I believe that the key to happiness in a marriage is mutual kindness. It’s the hardest and the simplest thing. (Most of the time, the simplest thing is the hardest.) Also, the key to moving forward as a country? Kindness. The key to unlocking the deep and gnarled roots of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia? It’s kindness. The more we practice listening, knowing, and befriending one another, the more the world will change around us. I believe that. Fiercely.

  6. The elderly have powerful things to teach us, and they deserve our time and our attention. I believe our culture and our nation is suffering acutely because we have forgotten how to listen to our elders. The simple way is always the hardest, but if we want to slow down our wild lives, we could start by visiting the vulnerable; start by listening to the ones whose wild lives have been forcibly slowed down. There is deep wisdom there.

  7. I choose whether time is my friend or my enemy. If time is controlling me, and my schedule does not reflect what I say are my priorities, I’m the one who has to make a change. I can’t blame the world for asking too much of me. I have to choose to slow my life down, and choose to make space for the people who matter most, even if that means sacrificing my status or my success.

  8. Wise people pay attention to their bodies. My body is not simply an annoying ball of feelings that I’m forced to carry around. It’s a gift from God. It’s a friend that wants to teach me about my soul if I’m careful enough to listen. Exhaustion and stress lead me to anger and anxiety. Every time I’ve hunkered down, forced myself to work through the pain or ignore my sadness or fatigue, the more I become the person I don’t want to be: quick to rage, less able to listen to the needs around me. God gave us our bodies so we can test the wind, learn the direction from which the storm is coming. The more we listen, the more we are prepared when the storm arrives (and it always does).

  9. Sorrow and suffering will be part of my life no matter what: I choose what that suffering does to me. I can either run from the pain of this world, or lean into it. Those who lean into suffering are battered, of course. But they come out of the battering smoother, like stones at the bottom of a river. Those who run from pain are still battered by it, but it doesn’t make them stronger, only more bitter. I don’t want pain, but when it comes I pray I’ll allow it to make me wise, that I’ll come out on the other side closer to the woman God has created me to be.

  10. Prayer changes us because God changes us. There is nothing easy about prayer. Also, prayer is incredibly simple. This is the rich dichotomy of the spiritual life. God wants to meet with us, and also? God is already here, already active. Prayer is simply allowing ourselves to be loved by our Creator, to be redirected toward the Way of Jesus, to be made whole. There is much work to be done in the world, much work to be done in our own hearts, but it all starts with the movement of God: in us, in the world. We are loved, and prayer is simply coming back home to that love, choosing to live there in the space where our Creator is endlessly making peace, mending brokenness, and creating beauty.

Hospitality and the Secret Power of Weakness

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I'm taking a break from my Not Writing Anything and sharing on Grace Table a little nugget of what I've been learning and thinking about this summer.

"We as a humanity are obsessed with power. The sorrows, the tragedies of this summer might as well be narrowed down to the powerful, the powerless, and those who will do anything to keep their power. And all those who are crushed along the way? They’re the casualties of turning our faces from what makes us human. When we fail to care for the weak, we fail to flourish. We fail to be what God has made us to be.

Ace worries me. He’s too small and he doesn’t gain weight easily. He’s on a high-fat diet, sitting in his high chair at least three hours a day while I coat bite after bite in oil, or cream cheese, or butter. At the amusement park last weekend, his feet couldn’t touch the bottom on the baby boat ride and there were no seat belts to hold him steady. So his five year old brother Brooks—the only one among our extended family who was small enough to ride with him—climbed in the boat. He put one arm around his brother and one hand on the bell and rang it for the both of them, holding tight to Ace.

Hospitality is everywhere. Hospitality is not about performance. It’s not about perfection. It’s not even about beauty. It’s about weakness.

It’s about us—individually and as a society—turning our faces toward the weakest among us. Extending our power to the powerless.

Read more over at Grace Table. 

Wednesday: Ashes and Death

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I wrote this post five (FIVE!) years ago when I was pregnant with Brooksie, now a little boy who is making some extravagant plans for his fifth birthday next month. It's one of those rare things when I can come back to an old post and can still say, Yes, that's what I wanted to say. It's Ash Wednesday. I hope this day and your Lenten season is full of grace and goodness.  

I love Ash Wednesday because it reminds me that I will die.

I am a product of a culture obsessed with youth and beauty. We honor the young and ignore the elderly. We worship comfort at the expense of wisdom. We refuse to consider that each of us are constantly moving closer to our own deaths. And we convince ourselves that we have control over the reality of living and dying…until the cancer, the terror, the tragedy.

I don’t know what it is about pregnancy, perhaps those millions of years (until this past century), when a woman’s body knew that giving birth meant the possibility of death. Maybe my body and my brain still haven’t connected over the existence of modern medicine and the rarity of death in childbirth for the average American woman. And so I’m feeling in these final days of pregnancy like my womb has switched on an awareness-radar, saying: Love everything! It could all end soon! The world is suddenly brighter and more fragrant. August is charming even as he whines while I’m on the phone. I’m seized by a need to stroll instead of hurry. What a strange thing to have hormones telling you you’re risking your life, possibly dying, and doing something so significant it could change the world.

So tonight, I will sit alone in an Ash Wednesday service, preparing myself to stand before a priest of the gospel and hear the words that ring the bell signaling the Lenten season: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. I will feel near to death. Not like it is a monster coming at me, but like it is a sleeping terror I am allowed to approach.

The older I get the more often I know people who have lost those they love. I know it's possible. The tragedy could come to me. I could be the tragedy. There’s something to sitting alone with that thought on this first day of Lent, for a mother and a wife who is never completely alone, to approach the bowl of ashes and feel them pressed into the skin that covers my brain. I am made of this. I will be this again.

The ashes tell me that I am broken. I am human, not a god, not a marvel, not a woman of accomplishment. They tell me that whatever I do with my life, this body, in all its beauty, will be the same lump of ash as the vilest criminal in prison. The ashes make me look at myself: thirty-one years old. Have I lived long enough to have become the woman I want to be? Have I loved completely?

I want to ooze hospitality in my life. I want to see the people around me as Jesus. I want to care. I want to carry peanut butter and jellies in my diaper bag to offer to those begging just blocks from my home. I want people who meet me to sense peace in my presence. I want my son to joyfully remember his childhood as full of color and kindness and rich love. I want to patiently listen to my husband instead of storing up bitterness until I lose my temper.

I’m thankful that the ashes are about more than my own death. They’re about the death of the God whose brokenness and ultimate restoration heals my failure, who brings purpose to a life that could easily be written off as ordinary.

Last year, as I sat through our Ash Wednesday service, I watched a couple carry their ten-month-old baby with them to the pastor, who marked not only their heads but their little girl’s as well. I watched them carry her back to their seats, a bit shocked at the sight of ashes on a baby’s face.  I couldn’t help but consider their intentions. Were they reminding themselves of their child’s own brokenness as well? I thought: August will die. At some point he will die.

As I write this, he is asleep in his room, snuggled up with around 12 different stuffed animals. My other son, the one whose feet press into my side long enough for me to measure a length that simply should not be (those things are not going to fit on the birth certificate), is waiting for our God to give him a little shove out of me. He’ll breathe oxygen for the first time and scream at the injustice of life outside of my warmth. He will be fresh and beautiful and it won’t take long before he will be scarred.

It’s Ash Wednesday. So let these ashes remind us that what we need is not the avoidance of age, the fear of our own endings, but the glory of healing, of purpose, of life lived fully.

To Ace, after his baptism

Photo by  Matt Hardy  on  Unsplash

Photo by Matt Hardy on Unsplash

 Ace Christopher,

As I write this you are on the floor wiggling around, rolling from tummy to back and back to tummy. You’ve got your eye on a red ball and have been trying to decide if it’s worth the hard work of scooting yourself over to it. After all, your little navy booties are just as fun to play with and they’re already attached to your feet.

I wanted to write something for you two weeks ago, buddy. I hoped that on the day you were baptized I would have it together. I wanted to host a big party and raise a glass to you, let our pastor give you an extra blessing, and then read this aloud and weep. But I didn’t get it done, and I know you. You’re not mad. You’re proud of me for trying, right?

I call you my Love Sponge, always soaking love in and pouring it out on whomever will take it. Your physical therapist says if given the choice between another person’s eyes and a toy you’ll choose the person. Your love for people is contagious. I feel like a celebrity when I carry you around, the way people look at you first, and then at me like I’ve done something wonderful. Daddy jokes sometimes. He uses his silly, deep voice and holds you high into the air: “We shall call you Joy-Bringer!” he says.

Have I ever told you what you’ve done to your brothers? Their love for you is remarkable. They delight in you. Delight. You won’t remember this. You’re only 7 months old, but I wish you could remember what Brooksie does when we get to school each morning. It takes him two minutes to leave the car. He’s kneeling beside your car seat whispering his love to you. “You’re such a sweetie. You have a good day, Acey, okay? I’ll see you later. I’ll see you later.” You just gaze into his eyes and smile back. No one can stand to leave you.

You’ve taken to grabbing faces. While I talk to you your hands are on my cheeks, squeezing my nose. You love giving big open-mouthed kisses to the face in front of you. So I shouldn’t be surprised that during your baptism you leaned in to Matt, our pastor and dear friend, and held his face between your hands, blessing him as he blessed you. Our love sponge.

Have I told you about my baptism? I wrote:

I asked Jesus to be my Only One and two weeks later, I was robed in white in a warmed tub, three feet deep, looking out into the crowd of faces. My church said that baptism was a choice we must make for ourselves. And I will never forget the moment I leaned back, let the water wash me. I will never forget giving myself to God.

Your father was baptized too. He was younger than you. Two weeks old in a baptismal baby suit, he was given to God too, marked and sealed.

It was a big deal when I decided to baptize August as a baby. I studied all the scripture passages, prayed for wisdom, asked all the wise people in my life. And you know what I finally came to? I came to the same spot as I’ve come in all my theological struggles. I came to a choice. There’s a reason people disagree on things. Usually it’s because both sides have a good support for believing the way they do. It’s natural for me to see most challenging disagreements through a both-sides lens. That’s just my way. I imagine you might be that way too.

You know what finally sold me on baptizing my babies? I believe God’s grace is here with you already. I believe your ability to do enough for God, to be old enough or intellectually aware enough to follow Jesus doesn’t have as much merit as what God already believes about you, Ace. I believe Jesus has welcomed you in to this family of God already, though you know nothing of it yet, little one. And I want to celebrate that.

We’re not waiting for you to make a decision to belong to Jesus, to align yourself with the story of forgiveness and mercy-giving. (Not because we don’t long for you to make that choice, dear boy.) Today we offer you to the water because we want you to know that you’re already here, you’re already loved, you already belong to the family of God. You are welcome at this table with us.

And this is how the Church has welcomed its family for two thousand years and for more to come. This baptism is just the celebration of what is already true. Every Sunday night of my childhood, I would hold hands with the people beside me in church, usually my brothers or mom and dad and our hands would spread out across that huge sanctuary, arms extending across aisles, and we would sing this hymn:

There's a sweet sweet Spirit in this place

And I know that it's the Spirit of the Lord . . .

Sweet Holy Spirit, Sweet Heavenly dove

Stay right here with us, filling us with your love

When I sang those words, I always felt like I was part of something bigger than I could ever understand. And I was: across the sanctuary, but also across the land where I lived, across oceans, across centuries, across the barriers of time and space, I sang: I’m a part of the family of God.

As you are sealed and marked as Christ’s forever, your dad and I will do our deepest best to remind you to Whom you belong:

The One who loves the least of these, the One who forgives 70 times 7, the One who turns the world upside down and says that the least influential are the most important and the meek are the ones who end up with the great big earth. The One who gave his life for you and, just when everyone thought the story was over, took up his life again: For you, for us. So that we don’t have to live bound by the rules of this world: There is a bigger world and a bigger hope than mere survival. Real flourishing is possible . . .

We’re making this choice for you in preparation for the day when you will make a choice for yourself. And when you do, I pray you’ll hear Saint Peter’s words in your ear, saying: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of life.”

Ace, Pastor Matt held you and you held his face. He declared that Jesus died and lived for you. He asked us if we would raise you to follow Christ and we said “I will, and I ask God to help me.” And then he kissed your cheek.

He poured water on your head like I do every night in your little blue bathtub. He made a cross of water over your head. And when he was done, when you were sealed and blessed, you know what we did? The same thing we do for you every time you sit up by yourself or grab the toy you’ve been working hard to get. It’s the thing we’ll do for you when you learn to crawl or pull yourself up, when one day you perform in a play or kick a goal in the soccer game. We cheered.

We cheered because you are worth celebrating, sweet one. We cheered because you are our delight.

And one day when you understand more deeply how loved you are by Jesus, we’ll cheer again. One faith, one baptism, Paul says in Ephesians. One God and Father of all, who is above all and in all and through all.

I love you Love-Sponge, Joy-Bringer, Ace Christopher Evans.

Mama

God has a surprise for you (Guest post at Her.menuetics)

Today I'm sharing the story of my prenatal diagnosis of Ace's Down syndrome, which I received exactly one year ago this week. I've been thinking about as my own "annunciation" of sorts, God showing up and letting me know that my life was about to change, all because of one little baby. Sound familiar?

Here's a little bit of it.

I stare at this morning’s passage in Luke. The angel has just said to Mary, “God has a surprise for you” (MSG, 1:29-33). I’m reading The Message transliteration, and its words sound fresh to my ears.

I’m practicing , an ancient form of Scripture-reading long used by Benedictine monks to encounter the Bible anew. It can be translated as “divine reading,” a way of listening for God’s voice in the text of Scripture.

When I’m talking to people about lectio divina, I usually describe an image of the heart as a metal detector hovering above the words. I ask God to help my heart go beep beep beep when I hit the word or phrase that God wants me to see in some new, valuable way. Maybe it’s a message I need to take from the passage. Maybe it’s just a moment to tell me that I’m not forgotten, that I am God’s beloved. Either way, on good days, I come to this time listening.

There it is: God has a surprise for you.

In my experience, God’s surprises are almost always complicated. Last year during Advent, God interrupted my typical pregnancy with news that my life was about to change. It happened about as quickly as with Mary.

Click here to read the rest of this story on her.menuetics.


LectioCasting and Advent

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Hey readers!

It's officially Advent. I'll be back with some words on the season soon. But for now I'm directing you to my friend's lectionary podcast. Daniel is a New Testament scholar, author, and blogger. Each week on his podcast he chats with someone else (usually a theologian with REAL credentials. Somehow I slipped through the cracks!) about the passages of scripture in the lectionary for that week, in hopes of giving pastors who are just now working on their sermons a little direction.

This week we're chatting about passages in Malachi, Luke, and Philippians. If you're doing the dishes or sitting in the carpool lane or writing your sermon(!), I'd love for you to join me over here at Homebrewed Christianity for the LectioCast.

When the promises are in the distance, waiting to be welcomed home

 

Photo by  Timon Studler  on  Unsplash

We’re way behind schedule when we walk in the door and I call out a litany of frantic mother phrases, “Shoes off! Hands washed!

August-do-your-reading-for-ten-minutes!” while I lay Ace on the quilt in the living room and toss a couple of toys his way before starting dinner.

Brooks is not happy about my plan for fish tacos.

He’s on the verge of a meltdown all the time right now. He whines in the kitchen and I ignore his protests.

“Sometimes you like dinner and sometimes you don’t and that’s just how it goes, darlin.” I say. The last remaining bits of my Texas drawl show up when I lecture my children. Can’t help it.

August is not whining. He’s in his room with his nose in a book about snakes.

I breathe out a Thank you, Lord for that reality.

He’s seven now and beginning to overcome his temper. Asking him to read for ten minutes last year might have erupted in a full-blown big kid tantrum.

And, bless it, my child is actually doing what I asked.

Brooksie takes his whining away from the kitchen. The fish is salted and peppered and ready to go on the pan. I’m moving from fridge to cutting board, listening for Ace, watching the timer for August’s reading. Chop the onion, slice the avocado.

I hear Brooks’ little four-year-old voice. He speaks quiet: “You are the cutest baby in the whole world, little Acer. Cutest little baby in the whole world.”

I put down my knife and peek into the room next door, where Brooks is on his belly, his chin propped up by his hands. Ace is on his back, his neck contorted in that way only babies can bend.

He’s staring at his big brother in awe.

Brooksie sings, “I am Ace-y, I am Ace-y. I’m a sweet little boy! I am Ace-y, I am Ace-y. And I bring so much joy!

“Careful with your kisses, Brooksie!” I call from the doorway of the kitchen. Brooks is covering Ace’s face with wet smooches, and Ace is grunting his discomfort.

The giver of the kisses lets go and turns his head to me, still hovering above his brother’s face.“Mama, look. I can’t stop. He’s just too cute.”

I'm sharing the rest over on Ann Voskamp’s Good Reads blog today. On Ace, his brothers, and the hard work of learning to show hospitality to God's promises in the distance.

Prayer is making a home. Prayer is expanding the universe.

 

Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me.

I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing.

-John 15 (The Message)

 

Photo by  Ben White  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

 

The universe is expanding. I learned that in 1999 in the Astronomy class I almost failed in dramatic fashion. If only I hadn’t been required to learn equations about the expansion of the universe. If my professor had let me simply wax eloquent on the metaphorical implications of an expanding universe, I would have crushed that class.

The universe is expanding, expanding. Always making space. What is it making space into? The only presence outside of space and time: The universe makes space into God.

And that same God says to us, “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you.”

We wring our hands. What does it really mean to pray? How do we pray correctly? How do we make a home in God? We want rules. We want equations. We want to set goals and accomplish prayer.

And all the while the universe is expanding into God.

. . .

Live in me. Make your home in me. What is prayer but the act of making our home in God, and simultaneously inviting God to make a home in us?

And still we know it. Don’t we? Deep in our insides, we get what it is to make a home. To make space for another in daily life.

Ace is five months into our lives around here, and in that time, his very presence has taught us to make space for him. It’s the same home we live in. The same square footage as we lived in before he was even present inside me. He is only a small thing. But his presence, his needs, his vulnerability has expanded our home, demanded that we create space for him to live with us.

Some of that comes organically. My older boys hover around him to see what he’ll do next. And some of it is preparation for the future: Yesterday I pulled out the bin of 6-12 months baby clothes. I sorted through.

I rock him. I feed him. I help him build his baby muscles. I laugh with him. If I were to tell you that having a baby consists of only one daily exercise of talking with Ace for fifteen minutes in the morning, you would scoff. Having a baby takes over everything. And that in itself is the joy. He has entered a world that was waiting for him, asking him to show us who he is, who he will be. Yes, it requires much of all of us, his brothers included. We are all learning a new way of living as a family.

Making space can be painful, but it is the only way to grow. Ask the universe. Expand. Expand. Create space where there was no space before.

That is my new definition for prayer. Not one specific way of communicating with God. But making a home in God. Prayer is the process in which I make space for God, and I invite God to make space in me.

We are simultaneously making our homes in one another. That is relationship. Prayer is relationship.

And here is the where the metaphor goes:

The universe is expanding. God is making space for you. God is the God of expansion. So if you want to know how to live in God, look to the God who lives in eternity, who lives outside of time and space. The God who is making space in you.

Making a home in you. It’s as simple as physics. As simple as home.

So much we pray in so few words

Photo by  Aaron Burden  on  Unsplash

We lean over the pack-n-play travel crib in a dark room at their grandfather’s house. August is a newly minted seven year old whose past two weeks have been filled with swimsuits and slabs of sunscreen. We’re on an extended trip to the east coast, where the sun shines hot in the summer and grandparents and aunts and uncles seem to be waiting in every town in the mid-Atlantic states.

It’s afternoon. He’s followed me and Ace into my room where the crib is. He wants to help. I swaddle his baby brother and he sings with me a silly lullaby, the same one he sings to Ace when he cries in the car.

“Mom,” he whispers. “I want you to pray for Ace.”

“Okay.” I lay his brother down inside the crib. “What do you want me to pray for?”

August, who faces scary dreams on a regular basis, asks first that I pray that Ace won’t dream at all. (“I don’t want him to have a bad dream. And if it’s a good dream, then he might be sad it isn’t real.”)

And then he adds, “And pray for his Down syndrome.”

“What should I pray about his Down syndrome, buddy?”

“Pray that it won’t hurt him.”

When Ace was born 12 weeks ago, Chris and I weren’t sure how to tell our boys about Down syndrome. They’d never known anyone with DS. How could they understand what it would mean for their baby brother, what it would mean for their lives? When we were given Ace’s prenatal diagnosis I wept first for them, for the responsibilities they’d have to hold, for the challenges they had never asked for. How would it feel to hear some kid in their class make fun of their little brother? Which of them would feel pressure to care for their brother when Chris and I one day can’t?

We’d been reading a book lately. So when I told the older boys about Ace’s diagnosis, when I took the book’s advice and described DS as being something that would make Ace really good at some things (most flexible member of our family!) and in need of help in other things (“Crawling and walking might be harder, but we’ll cheer him on and help him learn”), the boys weren’t afraid at all.

In those early weeks, when other parents at August’s school would ask about how Ace was doing as I walked my first grader into class, August would tug on my sleeve (“Mom, tell them about the Down Sin Drum!”), excited. Something was wonderful and important about his brother.

We haven’t faced the hardest things yet. Ace was born with a healthy heart. When he was 10 days old I held his six-pound body as cardiologists strapped electrodes to his tiny chest. I sat beside him and stared at the screen while the fluttering tree of his heart’s chambers swayed from side to side. Such beauty inside him. A heart that worked.

When August asks me to pray for Ace’s Down syndrome, I think first about how grateful I am for that healthy heart. Then I think about the blood tests Ace will have every six months. It's the possibility of blood diseases that keeps me up at night.

Then I think about how it will feel to watch my friends’ babies develop typically, while my Ace struggles to sit up, or crawl, or say his first words. I worry that Ace’s speech will be difficult for the world to understand.

I think about how much I love words, how I want Ace to be able to read books and write his own stories. I think about how gentle and loving he already is, and how afraid I am that despite all the love he has to give, the world will fail to love him back.

Pray that his Down syndrome won’t hurt him, my oldest son says.

There is so much we ask in so few words, Lord. Such depth to this prayer.

My seven year old leans over the crib and says, “Have a good nap, sweet baby.” And I take a deep breath. So many deep breaths lately. So much weight for so small a life.

That it won’t hurt him. We pray that it won’t hurt him.

Reflections for Easter Sunday


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"Testimony" Copyright © 2012 Jan Richardson Images. All Rights Reserved.

From  Girl Meets God:

The Last Battle, the final volume of Lewis's Narnia chronicles, pictures the end of time. Aslan---the lion who represents Jesus---has returned, folding all of culture and humanity into his kingdom. In the novel's lasts pages, he tells Lucy, a child from London, that everyone she knew back in Blighty is dead and raised to new life. And as Aslan spoke, writes Lewis, "the things that began to happen...were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better that the one before."

On Easter, we glimpse the beginning of Chapter One.

-Lauren F. Winner, (193-194)


Descending Theology: The Resurrection

by Mary Karr

From the far star points of his pinned extremities, cold inched in–black ice and blood ink– till the hung flesh was empty. Lonely in that void even for pain, he missed his splintered feet, the human stare buried in his face. He ached for two hands made of meat he could reach to the end of. In the corpse’s core, the stone fist of his heart

began to bang on the stiff chest’s door, and breath spilled back into that battered shape. Now it’s your limbs he longs to flow into– from the sunflower center in your chest outward–as warm water shatters at birth, rivering every way.

"Descending Theology: The Resurrection" by Mary Karr, HarperCollins, 2006.

 

Joy is radically different from happiness, for it does not depend up on the "ups" and "downs" of our existence. It is the constant moving away from the static places of death toward the house of God, where the abundant life can be recognized and celebrated.

Henri Nouwen (102)


For more from Jan Richardson, visit her website.

Cultivate: Choosing Love & Humility Over Rightness, or When Resurrection is Our Story

I could say that my silence here has been because I’ve been “busy.” And that would be true, at least partially. Busy covers a multitude of realities, doesn’t it?

But if I want to be honest about the past few weeks of my life, I have to tell you that I am in the midst of a tumultuous season, a time that has felt emotionally raw, frightening.

My church is in a moment of uncertainty, when questions over doctrine feel bigger than anything else, when people who love each other deeply fall passionately on opposite sides of the issue at hand, and learning to talk about it out loud feels painful and impossible at times. There have been a lot of tears at my kitchen table this week, a lot of conversations about the gospel and how to read scripture. In short, we’re living in a moment in our church that has been lived in many times before in other communities, both now and throughout the past 2,000 years. What we must decide is how we will choose to wrestle through these questions, whether we will choose to engage with one another or leave one another.

Stability matters. And, just as I reflected in , it is always the harder choice.

And, in the midst of loving my church community, , for such a time as this. I believe that. I have to. All I can do is pray for mercy and make decisions with humility. All I can do is beg God to take my offering and bring forth something beautiful.

I’m also an elder who is eight months pregnant, carrying a pregnancy that has been anything but certain. Since December I have held tightly to a challenging prenatal diagnosis, one that may or may not be accurate. I have settled into the pattern of weekly non-stress tests, to see if this is the week my baby may be in distress, if this is the week we are rushed to the hospital to deliver a baby my body is not yet ready to deliver.

And each week, I have been sent home to my little boys with the instructions to rest. I drink water and try to help with homework from my spot on the couch. 

These two tender things must be walked through before I can really write to you about them. They are two living organisms: my church and my baby. Both must be tended, cultivated, allowed to grow into the sunshine, even if I don’t know what will come of them.

And what else can I write about? This is the season of my life right now. Uncertainty, yes. But also responsibility. And deep belief in God’s goodness. And hope, that whatever this season of growth and tenderness and prayer brings, Jesus resurrected will be my courage, my compassion, my wisdom.

In the past two weeks I have had some of the hardest conversations of my life with people in my church community, people I love.

And you know what else? In the past two weeks I have had meals delivered to my home. My kids have been picked up and taken to the park because I needed to rest. My church community has fed them ice cream and read them stories. My church community has mopped my floor while I napped or fed my kids chicken nuggets while I talked through difficult issues on the phone in another room.

I sat on the pew this past Sunday and cried as a dear friend and pastor shared his process in this uncertain time, and asked us to enter into a conversation that is not easy. “Healthy families have to learn to have hard conversations,” he said.

And I know that’s true. You know what else I know?

Our doctrine doesn’t make us a church. What makes us a church is how we love the pregnant lady who needs to stay on the couch. What makes us a church is how we mop each other’s floors and take each other’s kids to the park. What makes us a church is how we learn to see one another as God’s beloveds, and speak kindness to one another even when our passion is loud and fiery. What makes us a church is how we choose love and humility over rightness.

Yes, I wouldn’t have chosen either of these uncertainties. But cultivating something beautiful always demands pain. Isn’t that the way this world has always been? The seed is planted whole into the earth, but it must split open before the sprout can push its way from the darkness and into the bright sun.

How The Examen Empowers Us to Pray and Write

Photo by  @gebhartyler  on  Unsplash

Ed Cyzewski's writing is always thoughtful and gracious and challenging, and I love that his newest book is one that considers the disciplines of prayer and writing together. What a beautiful idea. When he approached me asking if I'd like to host his thoughts on how he uses the Prayer of Examen both in prayer and in writing, my word-nerd/prayer-nerd (can you be a prayer nerd?) self exploded. Between now and March 16 his e-book is available for only $1.99!

So happy to host him here . 

 ___

When I try to pray, I often find that my anxious thoughts get in the way.

When I try to write, I often find that I can’t form a single thought.

It feels like feast or famine most days.

How can I face my thoughts for prayerful contemplation without getting swept up in anxiety and worst-case scenarios?

How can I hang on to a few thoughts that are worth exploring through writing before the blank page wins?

Thankfully I’ve found that one practice can help with both problems. The Examen, developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, offers a lifeline to stressed out, over-thinkers like me, while coincidentally prompting writers to address what matters most.

 

Praying with the Examen

Ignatius believed the Examen was a gift given directly from God. After spending a significant time in prayer, he found that prayer could move forward best with this time of reflection and meditation.

The Examen is set apart from run of the mill self-reflection right from the start by its first step: Awareness of God’s Presence. We don’t face the most challenging parts of our lives alone. God is with us as we begin the Examen, and as we move forward into it, that awareness will only grow. In fact, the Examen encourages us to invite God into our days and our times of reflection.

The genius of the Examen is the way it stops the roller coaster of worry and distraction when I begin praying, while still offering a path forward. It provides an orderly, prayerful direction to my thoughts so that I can honestly face what I’m truly thinking without feeling restrained.

My own Examen practice follows the guidelines in the (Apple Store only). The initial reflections on God’s presence and gratitude for the day are followed by “consonance” and “dissonance” questions or prompts where I type in my replies.

The consonance section focuses on the positive relationships, events, and experiences of God throughout the day. The dissonance section focuses on what is discouraging, restricting, or provoking fear. It ends with an invitation to five minutes of silent meditation. Other Examen guides offer variations of this approach.

Any practice of the Examen should include reflection on our days and awareness of our emotions. Some guides distill the Examen into :

1.  Become aware of God’s presence. 2. Review the day with gratitude. 3. Pay attention to your emotions. 4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it. 5. Look toward tomorrow.

I encourage you to begin with at least one period of reflection in the evening (Ignatius practiced the Examen twice a day). While I can’t speak highly enough of the Examine app, perhaps you can begin with just a few questions or prompts and then add new questions as you develop a routine.

If you don’t use the app, I also recommend journaling your replies to each prompt. Even just writing a few words for each prompt on the page can be tremendously revealing—as if we can finally own up to the truth once we see them typed on a screen or penned onto a page.

While the Examen often ends with an invitation to silent contemplation, there are plenty of directions you can take. I’ve often merged it with either , where I use a sacred word to still my thoughts, or the Divine Hours where I use one of the scripture readings for —using slow, repetitive scripture reading to guide prayer.

However you choose to move forward, I’ve found that the Examen provides an essential first step for confronting the issues on my mind, guiding my contemplation, and then freeing me to pursue other spiritual practices.

 

Writing with the Examen

Whether you write regularly for publication or you simply keep a journal, the Examen can provide a steady supply of writing prompts. I’ve often finished my Examen and prayer time by jotting down a few ideas in my journal or in a notes file.

Good writing, like any good art, needs to confront the most challenging aspects of life. Whether exploring our pain, anger, or fears, writing won’t ring true if it fails to confront these deeper issues or only offers pat solutions to complex issues.

The Examen pushes us beyond our filters and even the shame that could keep us silent. When we face ourselves as we truly are before entering into prayer, we’ll start to see clear paths forward for writing.

Some may only need to write privately about an issue in order to gain additional clarity and direction. Others may tap into their fears and insecurities and find that they have something to share with their readers.

From my fears about work to my struggles with anger and control while at home with our kids, the Examen has helped me take important first steps toward the kind of writing topics I needed to pursue. However, I don’t think I would have ever seen these topics with the same degree of clarity if I hadn’t spent month after month addressing them in my Examen.

As I followed up on these issues in my writing, I found a space to process them further. Once I had a better grasp, I knew what to pray about that evening. Prayer and writing became a self-sustaining cycle.

While my prayer and writing stand apart as distinct practices, they blend together and support each other. There is no sacred and secular. There’s just life, and both practices work together.

I trust that my approach to writing and prayer isn’t for everyone, but even the most basic use of the Examen may bring a sense of peace and order to your thoughts that could create a deeply needed space for prayer.

This post is adapted from my new book .

Order the eBook version for $1.99 between now and March 16: 

Ed Cyzewski is the author of A Christian Survival Guide and Coffeehouse Theology. He’s a freelance writer who regularly addresses the intersection of faith and writing on his blog and tweets as @edcyzewski.