Just a Person (6)

A while back I read Tig Notaro’s book, I’m Just a Person. That title really stuck with me: “I’m just a person.” It’s not an excuse. It’s not apologetic. It’s just one way of explaining why things don’t work out as planned. It’s become a regular saying for me when my genuine best isn’t good enough.

I used to say, “It is what it is.” Now I tell myself: “I’m just a person.”

clavicle square

In high school I was armed and prepared to defend against threats to my faith, whether real or imaginary. One year, the choir teacher had us singing a medley from Jesus Christ Superstar, and I was queasy about Mary Magdalene’s song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” It came down to this line: “He’s a man, he’s just a man.” I refused to sing it, determined to be some kind of musical teen martyr.

After class I approached the teacher with my reasoning, which was that Jesus was a man but not just a man. The problem was the word “just”—the diminution of it. The teacher patiently explained the character’s point of view in context and that it was just a Broadway tune, not Christian doctrine. Then she gave in, choosing new music for the spring concert.

I was using the tools I had, but they were none too sharp. I was just a person.

Kind of like Jesus was just a man. But he was also God. (God is big enough to be both.)

I think now of Paul’s letter, when he waxes poetic (no, really – it’s written like free verse) about Jesus, who,

Though he was in the form of God,
did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings. (Phil. 2:6-7)

Jesus didn’t claim his divine rights. Instead, he poured himself out to become “just a man,” like Mary Magdalene sings.

Paul continues:

When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,

even death on a cross. (2:7-8)

Emptied out, humble, obedient: that’s exactly how we find Jesus in this week’s Last Words from the Cross. After taking a sip of sour wine, “Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30).

The curious part of this Last Word is not his saying it’s finished but rather what comes next. Most translations say that he bowed his head and gave up his spirit (or “gave up the ghost”). Recently I came across a version worded differently: “And, letting his head droop, he delivered up his spirit.” I like this wording because it feels truer to the circumstances of dealing with a failing body.

“Bowing his head” sounds as if Jesus is bowing in prayer, which gives the event too pious a sheen. He’s not bowing in prayer but surrendering to death. His body can take no more. His flesh-and-bone neck has given out. He’s yielded to human limitations. He’s just a person.

I don’t know which version is more faithful to the original text. My point is this: I don’t want abstract Lenten piety to eclipse the real, human agony of the man who was God—and also just a person. It’s easy to do — I’m just a person. And maybe — if I’m being honest — like Mary Magdalene, I don’t know how to love him.

I’m doing my best. But you know, I’m just a person.

This is the sixth post in a multi-post series for Lent. Find the most popular one here and the first one here. As ever, thanks for reading. -Em : )

I Need (5)

A couple years ago, I started attending writing conferences and learned how very much I need. I’ve listened to credible people with tons of clout in Christian publishing explain what is needed for success.

If you want a literary agent, you need at least 10,000 followers. If you want a book deal, you need a lot more than good writing. If you want your book to sell, your writing needs to satisfy a big need among readers.

Experts say these things not to dishearten but to disenchant. I guess you could say I’m now less enchanted with the prospect of publishing.

However, I do feel called to write, but my need to write is stronger than the need to amass followers or try to figure out readers’ big need. And so, I’ve been operating on the assumption that maybe readers need the same thing I need, which is a big need, which is Jesus.

Sometimes when I write the words come easily, and sometimes there’s a hole in the bucket and the well is dry. Like today. I’ve learned to ask for the words—words that are needed.

Not long ago, I remembered a song from my childhood that seemed like the perfect Invocation of the Muse. It’s a hymn by Gloria and Bill Gaither, and this is the verse I remember:

Come, Holy Spirit, I need you,
Come, sweet Spirit, I pray,
Come in your strength and your power,
Come in your own gentle way.

Lately when I sit down to write, I sing it. On days I’m too discouraged to sing, I whisper it.

Lenten rose

Weighed down by despair, Jesus whispered one last need from the cross: “I’m so thirsty.” They offered him a sip of vinegar. The only needful thing left was to die. So he waited. Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit waited in the wings. Jesus had already promised to send his friends someone to help them:

“The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you” (John 14:26-27).

In Jesus’ absence, the Holy Spirit brings us God’s presence. Of all the things I need–marketing prowess, intellectual clout, a social media miracle–that’s the main thing I need.

This is the fifth post in a multi-post series for Lent. Find the most recent one here and the first one here. Thanks for reading. -Em : )

I Hope (4)

Caroline fell in love with the new Disney movie Zombies, a Romeo-and-Juliet musical with cheerleaders and, you guessed it, zombies. Generally, zombies are not my thing, but the songs are so catchy. I know this because she’s had Alexa play them many, many times.

When we get in the car, though, she’ll ask me to turn on the radio and say, “Oh, I hope they play my song!” This is a new thing. When I let her have my phone in the car, she can bring up any song she wants, but lately she’d rather wait for the lucky surprise of hearing her song on the radio.

This is how we listened to music back in the day. We hoped and waited for the radio to play our song because our moms wouldn’t buy the cassette, and we certainly didn’t have Alexa on call to play music. I remember waiting hours (?) for those first notes of Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up,” my boom box poised to record at two seconds’ notice. When the song finally played, it was everything I’d hoped for.

I have the cassette tape in my basement. If you ever want to borrow it, straight up now tell me.

Caroline’s new habit reminds me how fun it is to hope for something, then poof it appears. So far, Radio Disney has not played her song while we’re in the car, but when it happens there’ll be smiles for miles.


What happens, though, when you wait and hope for something, but it doesn’t appear? No poof. You think, “Maybe, just maybe, they’ll play my song.” But it’s always some other song.

Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” wise old Solomon wrote. Ain’t that the truth.

Looking at the Seven Last Words, I notice this week’s saying is the most heart-sick of all: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus had given up his wants, but I wonder if he held on to some tiny sliver of hope. Passersby had been mocking him, but perhaps the last remark stung the most: “He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him . . .”

Maybe, just maybe, the heavens will open and angels will execute some dramatic, nick-of-time rescue. I hope. But, of course, it wasn’t to be.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast; / Man never is, but always to be blest,” Alexander Pope wrote. Sometimes I hate how hopeful I am, especially when there is no poof of fulfillment, no good reason for it. In these Last Words, Jesus not only quotes David’s song of despair, but he simply asks why. Probably he partly knows and partly wonders. Whatever the case, his words signify the stark clarity that accompanies the loss of hope.

This is a long way from hoping to hear your favorite song, but the impulse is the same. The difference lies not so much in the things for which we hope but the one on whom we pin our hopes. Again, Solomon: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, / but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” And the tree, for a time, was draped with a suffering Savior who hoped in God. The poof had to wait through all of Saturday.

I wait in hope for several things: responses from publishers, a report of students’ test scores, a call that my new glasses arrived, a decent grade on Caroline’s math test, and her song to play on the radio. Varying degrees of importance, maybe, but they depend on one thing:

I hope.

This is the fourth post in a multi-post series for Lent. Find the first one here and the previous one here. Thanks for reading. -Em : )

Photo: Robert Indiana’s Hope sculpture on Michigan Avenue on a cloudy spring morning.

Take Care (3)

My favorite sign-off for emails is “Take Care.” It’s pretty informal, but it conveys feelings of affection without inadvertently weirding out the recipient.

When I was in college, I encountered people who signed off emails with “Best,” which I found new and strange.

“Best what?” I wondered. Best wishes, best of luck, best punch to the throat? “Best” leaves things too open ended for my taste.

My favorite professor, however, signed off messages with “Warm Wishes,” which I thought was nice. I’ve borrowed it myself a few times, but I always go back to “Take Care.” Sometimes I end phone calls with it—and I mean it. I do care about the person on the other end and his or her “wild and precious life.”

“Take care” was one of Jesus’ last words from the cross, in a way.

“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that time on, this disciple took her into his home” (John 19:26-27).

Jesus cared deeply for his mom and for John, but he wouldn’t be around to care for them much longer. So he asked them to take care of each other.

John, take care of my mom. Mom, take care of John. Please take care of each other when I’m gone. Take care.

When Caroline was born, I experienced the privilege of actually taking care of someone. I’d really only been responsible for myself up until then, but with her I first understood caretaking as an honor—as well as (or maybe in spite of) being hard work.

Phil still teases me about the time she asked me to cut up her pancakes and I said, “It would be my privilege to cut up your pancakes.” Over the top? Yes. But sometimes I have to remind myself.

I’m convinced that “take care” is the seed—the beginning—of love. Taking care, caring about others, caring for others’ needs—that’s how the sheep get fed.

Jesus asked Peter a third time, “Do you love me?” and he replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17).

This is the third post in a multi-post series for Lent. Find the first one here. Thanks for reading. -Em : )


Photo courtesy of Jill Biehl, photographer and farmer extraordinaire.

Special to Me (2)

Just often enough to exasperate Caroline, I ask her, “Did you know you’re special to me?” As the words are leaving my mouth, I feel just like Mr. Rogers.

She’ll say, “Yes,” and I’ll gasp and say, “Who told you?!”

This bit of mommy-and-me theater played better when she was little. Nowadays, she pretty much knows that she’s special to me.

“You, Mom. You literally just told me.” (She recently caught the fever for “literally.”)

It’s no secret that Caroline is special to me. She’s our one and only, the child we prayed for, the daughter I never could have imagined. Personally, I think she’s pretty special, but I want her to know she’s special to me. In this superficial world of social media stars and kid celebrities with giant hair bows, I want to teach her it’s far better to be special to someone.

Every week, depending on the whims of the fickle public, people go from somebody special to nobody special and back again. Better to have one close friend than a zillion “likes.”

To some folks Jesus was nobody special when they crucified him. He was the man in the middle, hanging between two other criminals paying the ultimate price for offending the Romans. But he was special to his mother Mary. He was special to his best bud John. He was very special to a handful of people. Still, the special place he held in others’ hearts couldn’t shield him from being injured and insulted like a common nobody.

Of the two nobodies to his left and right, one of them joined in with the crowd’s taunts. But then the other nobody came to Jesus’ defense, asking, have you no shame?

“Jesus,” he then turned and said, “remember me when your kingdom comes.” And Jesus said he would. Because Jesus loves people. Jesus loves shoplifters and hookers and gangsters. Jesus loves thugs and nobodies, including the two crucified on either side of him. Jesus loves.

Something meaningful happened when the crook turned and asked Jesus to remember him. He became special to Jesus. His hands were tied, but he hoped it wasn’t too late to make a plea, to remake his life. Dying and scared, of mixed-up motives and mustard-seed faith, he turned to Jesus and asked to be remembered.

Jesus couldn’t forget him.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
fail to pity the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
but I won’t forget you.
Look, on my palms I’ve inscribed you . . .” -Isaiah 49:15-16

“Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.” -from Toni Morrison’s Jazz

This is the second post in a multi-post series for Lent. Find the first one here. Thanks for reading. -Em : )


Detail of “Enlist” (1915) by Fred Spear, published by the City of Boston Committee on Public Safety after the sinking of the Lusitania.

Lord, Have Mercy (1)

Last week I went to Nashville, Tennessee for a writing conference. I’d been to Nashville only once before—on a high school field trip—so I hardly know the place. I landed in the evening, rented a car at the airport, and drove to the hotel. Easy peasy. It wasn’t until the next day, trying to follow Siri’s directions during rush hour, that I realized I can’t see.

My glasses are nearly two years old, and I do just fine driving around familiar places where I don’t have to read highway signs. However, while approaching a fork in the road in exotic Nashville, it’s hard to know which lane to take if you can’t read the numbers inside the blob. Thankfully my rental car had Georgia plates because I was driving like a true out-of-towner.

After the conference, I made the drive from Belmont University to the airport during rush-hour traffic—arriving in one piece only by the grace of God and the mercy of strangers. May God bless the driver of the white Jeep Cherokee who let me merge from the random exit-only lane in which I was trapped, not realizing it was “exit only” until I was exiting.


Lent is again upon us. I’ve grown to appreciate the contemplative mood of Lent and its traditions. Last year, I studied the Seven Last Words from the Cross and wrote a short piece on them for each week of Lent. This year, I’m writing in the same general vein but thinking about my seven lasting words. By seven lasting words I mean persistent words, durable sayings that bounce around in my head, phrases that I say every day to myself or to God or to others.

The first of Jesus’ Seven Last Words is, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” I was less magnanimous while white-knuckling it to the airport. Unlike the last words of sweet Jesus, my words were peppered with curses and pleas, the chief of which was, “Lord, have mercy.”

Straining to make out the overpass signs, squinting against the sun setting in my rear view mirror, I simply repeated, “Lord, have mercy.” And the Lord showed me mercy even as I muttered my favorite bad word. (It’s “shit.” Super versatile.)

God didn’t give me miraculous vision or send angels to carry me to the airport, but God’s mercy appeared in the gaps that opened amid bumper-to-bumper traffic so I could merge. God mercifully allowed me to miss important turns—twice—and still get to my gate in time to find a seat and work the USA Today crossword start to finish before boarding.

I learned that day what is meant by the phrase “traveling mercies.” I also made an appointment for an eye exam. Lord, continue to have mercy.

Thus, not mild, not temperate,

God’s love for the world. Vast

flood of mercy

flung on resistance.

-Denise Levertov, from “To Live in the Mercy of God” from the collection Sands from the Well

Brook Watson shark painting

Watson and the Shark (1778) by American painter John Singleton Copley. I would have titled it Lord, Have Mercy.


Looking Back on Fave Reads

So, lists like this are supposed to come out at the end of the year. However, the end of 2017 afforded me no time for reflection, much less thinking back on things I read.

Of the 35 books I read last year, three were fiction. I strongly prefer nonfiction to fiction. Not sure why. A few years back I went through a phase when I couldn’t stand music. These days I can’t tolerate most fiction. Give me a stylized slice of real life, and I’m happy.

The exception to my nonfiction preference was Diane Glancy’s The Reason for Crows: A Story of Kateri Tekakwitha. I’m not sure how I came to read this work of historical fiction, since it’s far outside my usual taste in books. Still, I could not put it down. After I finally did put it down, it haunted me.

Glancy narrates the story of Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th century Mohawk woman who was converted to Christianity by the Jesuits. A smallpox epidemic has left her badly scarred, nearly blind, and orphaned, but her life in the aftermath is both piercing and tender. (Another novel I read last year, Molokai, similarly told the story of a girl whose entire life was altered by leprosy.) My fave quotation:

Father James de Lamberville read the scriptures for scriptures to read to us. He told us about the cherubim in Ezekiel—they had four faces, a man, a lion, an ox, an eagle. They had hoofed feet on wheels and wings. They were full of eyes. There were animals in heaven, they said. The Indian spirits were counterfeit of these (30).

My favorite 2017 book, nonfiction category, was Ilana Kurshan’s memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink. Kurshan tells the story of her life as an American woman living in Jerusalem in the aftermath of divorce, and joining the “world’s largest book club”—that is, reading the daily page of the Talmud with fellow Jewish people all over the world.

First off, a memoir about reading is right up my alley. Second, I’m fascinated by Torah study and the wild creativity that seems to be not just acceptable but standard in midrashim. I lapped up this book. Here’s a favorite quotation:

I knew God—and I continue to know God—primarily in shadows cast by other people. . . . I sought out God the way a traveler through the forest might seek out the moon through the trees; sometimes it was hidden, other days it was just a faint crescent, still other days it was a full orb with mountains and valleys of variegated hues. But it was still just a play of shadows, as all moonlight is (70).

Other favorites in 2017 include Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (once I worked up the courage to read it), Bitten by a Camel by Kent Dobson (a work of astonishing honesty about finding God), and The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs (a well-researched book exploring infertility and the author’s individual experience of it).

What magic words will 2018 hold? Well, I just finished my pastor’s book, Love God, Love People, Don’t Do Dumb Crap by Rev. Shane Bishop, and I will soon crack open Philip Jenkins’s Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution that Made Our Modern Religious World. (Caroline also assigned me some Rainbow Magic Fairy titles to read.)

What book(s) will stick with you beyond 2017?

school hallway

Dream. Read. Learn. Good advice from the hallway at East St. Louis High School.