Wednesday Link Love: Birthday Horn-Tooting Edition

In a just world, this would be my birthday cake today. YOU HEAR ME UNIVERSE?

In a just world, this would be my birthday cake today. YOU HEAR ME UNIVERSE?

I’m back from a wonderful time of vacation with the family in Massanutten. We found a sweet little farm house to rent that had comfy rooms and no wifi. Perfect. We lazed about and did the indoor water park. By the way, there are two kinds of people in the world: people who shoot complete strangers with water cannons, and non-a**h***s.

We also enrolled the kids in a morning of ski school, which (after seeing James zip down the mountain) I’d call frighteningly effective.

It was great to be on the slopes and off the grid. But apparently I was quite busy on the Intertubes while I was away. Today’s bonus edition of Link Love is MAMD-specific. It’s my birthday, so you will indulge me:


Things Not Seen is a radio show devoted to “Conversations about Faith and Culture.” Last month I had a lovely conversation with David Dault about Sabbath, which you can listen to here.


This coming year I’ll be an occasional contributor to The Hardest Question, which is a weekly resource on the Revised Common Lectionary. I’ve got the texts for this Sunday, and wrote about the Gospel and the Old Testament texts.


Landon Whitsitt compiled many sermons and responses to the Newtown tragedy into an e-book, called A Good Word. I’m in there along with a huge number of others. What an undertaking!


And finally, my book is listed on Ministry Matters as a “must read” for 2013.

Happy New Year…


Image: CakeWrecks, where else?


Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land

My friend Ruth Everhart has written a book.

Actually, let me be more accurate: she’s written hundreds of thousands of lovely, honest and true words over her years as a pastor and writer. But this week, we celebrate a particular achievement, the publication of Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land. Ruth’s work is part travel writing, part memoir and part spiritual reflection.

Her book confronts the questions that confront us as we engage in pilgrimage—whether through travel or during our everyday journeys as people of faith–and the unexpected places we land in those journeys. Given recent current events, the book could not be more timely. That said, it is not a political book. It is a personal book, but in that wonderful way that the particular becomes universal.

Ruth is one of my Writing Revs—in fact, she and I are the only two charter members still in the group. (You can read about our group here.) My copy of Chasing is on its way to me, but I’ve had to joy of reading and digesting the book many times over the months and years. It’s gotten better and better through Ruth’s hard work and fine craftswomanship (I just made that word up). But what has been there from the beginning is a dogged willingness to ask hard questions of her faith and this land we dare to call Holy—steeped as it is in tradition, religion, conflict and grace.

Author Clyde Edgerton puts it well in his endorsement of Chasing the Divine:

I can think of only two reasons to buy this book:
1. You are not going to the Holy Land.
2. You are going to the Holy Land.
In these pages Ruth Everhart writes eloquently about her trip into the dust and beauty of Christianity’s cradle — about her wrestling with her beliefs, her faith, and her past. If all pilgrims were as curious, insightful, introspective, firm, and openhearted as Ruth Everhart, our old world would roll more happily and safely through the universe. In her story you’ll find bloodshed, humor, and — most importantly — love.


Ruth and I will be at First Presbyterian Church, Arlington, VA this Sunday evening, December 2, at 7 p.m. to read and sign books. Stop by for some nourishment through food and words.

The Meeting I Almost Didn’t Go To

Buttermilk Cookies… sooo good. Guaranteed to help you sell books.

Six years ago, I was on my way to a gathering of Presbyterian clergywomen here in the DC area. I was running late. I took several wrong turns and got lost. There was bad traffic. And I had baby Margaret in the backseat, who was letting me know how eager she was to get wherever the heck we were going.

We were both hungrumpy. Plus I was in that overwhelmed, sleep-deprived state. Maybe you know the one? I almost turned around and went home. But I didn’t, and there was still plenty of food from Lebanese Taverna when I arrived.

After lunch, we went around and introduced ourselves. A friendly-looking woman I’d never met introduced herself as Ruth Everhart and said, “By way of networking, I would be interested in forming a group of writers. So if any of you write, talk to me after we’re done here.”

I got a sharp elbow in the ribs from the friend sitting next to me. After the meeting ended, I introduced myself to Ruth. Others did too. Before we left that day, we had a group of 5.

We are the Writing Revs. And I can say with near certainty that there would have been no book without them.

Now granted, Presbyterian clergywomen are a peculiar subset of society. Still, it’s kind of amazing that it worked as well as it has. We didn’t vet each other. We didn’t try it out for a while. We just dove in and started meeting. Those original 5 met for quite a while. Sadly, one passed away. Two have moved away. Happily, others have joined us.

Ruth and two other Wrevs hosted an event for me yesterday at presbytery, and it was so delightful. Ruth wrote about it here at her blog. It’s called “A Writing Group Can Wave Your Flag.” It’s a post about friendship and accountability and how hard it can be to promote our work, so it’s nice to have others help you along.

Ruth was a great carnival barker: “Come in! Congratulate the author! Have a cookie! Buy a book!” I sold and signed and gave out post-it notes. I can’t wait to reverse roles in November as we celebrate Ruth’s book, Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land. Ruth’s book is part travelogue, part theological memoir. It’s funny and deep and eloquent.

I’m very glad I didn’t give up on that clergy meeting six years ago.

And not just because my Wrevs make THE best cookies.

Tech Support: Five Programs That Helped Me Git ‘Er Done

My sister-in-law is writing her dissertation and Facebooked the other day, “Do you suppose I could thank ‘lattes’ in the acknowledgements?” I told her that I almost listed Evernote in the acknowledgements of my book, but decided against it.

In lieu of that, here are the software programs and technological marvels that helped me get the book written. Consider this the “tech acknowledgements” for Sabbath in the Suburbs:


The pomodoro technique: OK, this is more of a concept than a program, although it does require a timer. The idea is simple: work for a specific amount of time (e.g. 25 minutes), then take a break for a (shorter) period of time (e.g. 5 minutes). That’s it. If you’re prone to goofing off or procrastination, it’s great because a break is never more than 25 minutes away. If you’re a raging perfectionist who has a hard time getting started because it can all be immaculate in your head, pomodoro helps you hack your brain: I’m not writing a book, I’m just working for 25 minutes. No big deal.

Of course you can download the book to learn more, or buy the cute tomato-shaped timer, but really, what more do you need?

I wrote major sections of the book using a modified pomodoro. Consider it a very practical way of living out Anne Lamott’s “bird by bird” idea, which you can read about here. Or E.L. Doctorow’s bit about how writing a book is like driving at night: you can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole journey that way.

Wondering how you could write an entire book? Do it in 25 minute chunks.


Self Control: Self Control allows you to block websites (and apparently e-mail servers) for whatever amount of time you specify. I use this program every weekend during tech sabbath but also on days when I’m feeling like that dog from Pixar’s Up. SQUIRREL!!


Social media: yes, the big two can be major black holes of time, but they are also great places to test ideas, take informal polls, and even get grammatical reality checks (is it “any of us is” or “any of us are“?). Blogging is also great for these things, of course.


Things: Things is the to-do list I use for everything, not just for the book. It’s intuitive, it’s elegant, and it jibes with Getting Things Done methodology, though you don’t need to be a GTD disciple to use it. There’s an iPhone app as well, and as of this month, the new version includes Cloud Sync so you no longer have to sync your devices manually. So far, so good.

I used the to-do list to break down the book project into manageable chunks. I do this with every writing project and it helps me maintain forward momentum. Sometimes the tasks are tiny (brainstorm for 15 minutes, print out scripture passages for exegetical article) but those are perfect for an otherwise busy day.


Evernote: Even if I hadn’t said it in my first paragraph, c’mon, you knew that was coming. I wrote the book entirely in Evernote. First I collected my information (research, anecdotes, quotable quotes) into a series of notebooks. Then I started writing short vignettes and sketches of scenes. Those evernotes became whole chapters as I realized how effortless it was to write in that program.

Writing in Evernote has many advantages:

  1. It’s in the cloud, which offers an additional layer of security and peace of mind.
  2. There’s a note history, which means you can look at past versions of notes without saving versions using crazy names like “chapter 3 REALLY NEW version 2.”
  3. It’s very fast and autosaves constantly, unlike that behemoth Microsoft Word.
  4. It has all the basic formatting you need (italics, etc.).

All that said, there are two pretty big drawbacks:

  1. Evernote for Mac does NOT have word count, which I’ve bugged them about repeatedly. So every so often I’d dump a chapter into Word and see how I was doing. It’s not a big deal, and my publisher required the manuscript in Word anyway, but I wanted to mention it. (I understand that Evernote for PC has this feature. Where is the justice? How long, O Lord?)
  2. While there is basic formatting, it does not do smart quotes. Yeah, that’s big. But once I put the doc in Word, I did a global replace and the quotes came through fine. Besides, once you’ve gotten the thing written you should be editing your work with a fine-tooth comb anyway, right? Dumb quotes help keep you on your toes.


So thank you to all the product managers, programmers, engineers, QA people, etc. who put these programs together. You made my job easier.

Incidentally, just today I saw this list of alternatives to Microsoft Word. Can’t vouch for them but I’ll be taking a look.

What technological marvels help you do what you do?

Thought for the Day, on Writing and Life

Novelist Luis Alberto Urrea was one of my favorite speakers at FFW. I went to his session with Debra Dean and they were a hoot together.

Here’s a paraphrase of something he said:

If you’re writing about matters of faith, you have to be vigilant against cliche and grandiosity. 

So go through your work and look for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir—those moments with the angelic choir, bathed in light and going “ahhhhhhhhh.” Take those out. Faith is too messy and gritty for them. Instead, replace them with James Brown.

May your day be funky, friends.


Back from the Conference

Someday I Will Forget These Things

There was the quote
I had to scribble down,
quickly, the pen faltering like a toddler’s dragging-mad footsteps.

And the wisdom,
shared in a tumble of tweets,
a paper chain across the universe.

And the poem that exploded the room,
or made the air leak out in a sigh.

There was the certain conviction that words matter.

And there were hands to receive, and offers of help.
There were people
who saw the door open a crack,
who pushed it wide
to allow others through.

And there was the tree dusted with purple
and a yellow hydrant kneeling underneath.
I could not bear to take its picture.


(Door image came from Sue Baller-Shepard, a new friend.
Check out her wonderful Spiritual Book Club site.)   

On the Eve of FFW

I leave this evening for the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College, a gathering I’ve been hearing about for years but never been able to attend. I’m eager to soak it all in, hear some inspiring speakers, deepen friendships, and network. If I’m feeling extroverted enough, my little box of Sabbath in the Suburbs postcards will be empty when I come home.

I’ve been to tons of writing things over the years: workshops, conferences and such. They provide a huge boost of energy and mojo. And if there is a lot of posturing and jockeying for attention, they can also bring out demons of competitiveness. I can’t account for why these group dynamics occur in some gatherings and not in others. Probably a chemistry thing—one or two people can really shift things into an unhealthy place. With any luck and grace, I am not one of those people.

However, there’s no denying that I am a person of ambition. I thrive on competition, particularly in academic pursuits. When this is channeled inwardly—when the competition is with myself—it’s a great source of motivation. When it’s not, well, let’s just say that Robert and I still do not speak of The Canasta Incident.

This has been a topic of discussion and reflection for me recently. You know how themes and ideas will keep coming to you when you’re working something out? That has happened to me. I appreciated this article by my friend Becky, who wrote about healthy ways to be driven to develop one’s skills.

And a friend shared this article about two best friends who are highly competitive in the area of Olympic-level kayaking. The relationship spurs them on to be better and better. I find this thrilling and hopeful:

Both Ashley and Caroline are training hard – the former near her home in Maryland, and the latter down in North Carolina. Caroline says it’ll be tough to face each other at the upcoming Olympic trials, since “we both want to be number one.”

But if nothing else, she says, it’ll strengthen their friendship… and their skills.

“It’s a very positive thing,” she says. “We push each other.”

Ashley agrees: “Ideally this year we’re pushing each other to get to that next level, to be able to compete with this international crew. Ideally, we’re training each other for the Games.”

I have been blessed to have mentors and spiritual directors who have said to me, “Stop trying not to be competitive or ambitious. Instead, keep pondering how to use that gift in a life-giving way.” Unhealthy competition means comparing oneself to others, making one’s self-worth about achievement, and being selfish and unsupportive. Healthy competition believes in abundance: one person’s achievement does not diminish another person’s; there is room for many offerings of gifts. It also means striving for personal excellence in one’s life, art, or whatever.

After all, competition is scriptural! Paul writes that we are to outdo one another…
in showing honor.

So be it.