A book that bares its soul and offers connection: Review of Scary Close by Donald Miller

For all the controversy he generates, I need the reminder that Donald Miller is just a guy trying to make sense of his world and himself through his faith, experiences and relationships.

scary closeOne thing I admire about him as a writer is his willingness to share his failings as well as his strengths, to acknowledge the controversies but not necessarily apologize for his words. It’s been a long time since I read one of his books but his latest, Scary Close, to me, felt like an honest, heartfelt baring of the soul. The Donald Milller I thought I knew from previous work is not the same writer of this book. That’s encouraging.

(Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book through the Booklook Bloggers program in exchange for my review.)

A writer like Miller might be tempted to withdraw and stop telling stories. But Miller opens up, however reluctantly, and talks about how relationships changed him. Healthy ones and unhealthy ones.

He writes much about his relationship with his now-wife Betsy and what he’s learned and is still learning about intimacy. I like to think I’m pretty good at going deep in relationships but Miller’s words challenge me to discover the real me behind the mask I wear.

Scary Close is written memoir-style but the truths Miller shares, what he’s learning about intimacy, are lessons for all of us to consider.

I’m glad my husband read this book before I did so that now we can talk through some of the things we read. Miller’s words make me want to improve my relationships across the board and offer the kind of vulnerability he’s received. (After reading Bob Goff’s generous and gracious foreward, I was so moved by his use of the word “love” that I told a friend I loved her. I don’t usually do this for people who aren’t family.)

Though Miller addresses topics like dating, marriage and parenting, his words apply to relationships as a whole. I love the hope he offers for those of us who have gotten the intimacy thing wrong.

Miller offers grace and encouragement for the journey.

Why we’re better together

15 people. Teen-aged to middle aged. Families. Couples. Solo travelers. This is the demographic that makes up our team heading to Kenya this summer.

It’s been a long time since I was a member of a team taking a trip, longer still since I was part of a group traveling internationally. Most of my recent travel has been as a couple or a family, with Phil doing much of the planning (or us collaborating) and the decisions and finances ours alone.

On those distant-memory trips, I was a college student, serving at a children’s home in Oklahoma or in a community hit by hurricane in North Carolina. I was traveling with other college students in Europe, some trips pre-planned, others a little more spontaneous.

Once, I ventured off on my own to walk through the museum at Wimbledon, where the tennis tournament is played. I was slightly obsessed with Pete Sampras at the time and needed to see the actual place, as long as I was close. I remember boarding the train and leaving my friends on the platform in London. I shed a couple of tears because I wasn’t the sort of person who was confident about traveling on her own. But I recovered and set off on a memorable adventure. Relief filled me when I was reunited with my friends. (There was another time when I rode the train by myself from Grantham, England to Edinbourgh, Scotland to meet my friends who had set out a day ahead of me. Together, we then traveled to the Isle of Skye. But I’ll stop now with the memories before I become homesick for a home that’s not a home.)

Solo travel is not my preferred way because I don’t always trust myself with the details. Also, there’s no one else to lean on if things should go wrong. But teamwork takes some getting used to if it’s been a while, and for a recovering control freak (that’s me!), teamwork takes patience and trust, things of which I am often in short supply.

Let me tell you about my recent teamwork experiences, though. They are making me believe, again, that solo travel is not my preferred way through life, either. That life is better together, even when it’s hard.

Zack Minor | Creative Commons | via unsplash

Zack Minor | Creative Commons | via unsplash

Our Kenya team recently organized and planned and pulled off a silent auction and luncheon as our second fund-raising event. I confess that when it comes to fund-raising, my efforts are dismal. I don’t like to sell things and since we live in an area that’s not our home, we can’t even beg our families to support us, at least not when we’re selling things. In our efforts to raise money through local events, I have felt like our contribution has been minimal. I beat myself up about whether we’re doing enough to help. Many of our friends are part of the church and would already support the team. And our families are supporting us in other ways (namely, watching our kids while we’re gone, for which we’re hugely thankful).

It is easy for me to feel like I’m not giving enough because my standards for myself are so high. Combined with insecurity and a desire to please people, I constantly feel like I’m not pulling my weight. And not just with this team, but with any team I’m on. My value is linked to my perspective of how I’m contributing, and in my eyes I’m always coming up short.

Maybe everyone else feels that way, too, I don’t know. What I do know is that my view changes when I consider all the different and necessary ways each member of the team contributes.

Prior to the auction, several of us were collecting donations. Some did shopping for food and other supplies. Others worked on publicity for the event. There were people prepping food in the days leading up to the event. And on the day of, there were people setting up the auction items, baking the potatoes, preparing the toppings. There were people serving food and organizing the auction and cleaning up trays and washing dishes. At times that day I still felt like I wasn’t doing enough, but at the end of the day, when nearly all the auction items had been claimed, I was satisfied.

Because it was truly a team effort. Sure, I didn’t have anyone there who was bidding on items, but I had people who had contributed items. And the items I had collected for the event were bid on by someone I didn’t know. And maybe I couldn’t help set up but I washed dishes (along with a dynamite team of teenagers who dried dishes and who make me think the teenage years, when they come, are going to be just fine).

The mark of a good team is having a variety of skills and abilities present and everyone using those skills and abilities to help the team’s cause. My job as a member of any team is not to do all the work but to do the work I’m able to do and to let other people do the work they’re able to do. I hope that doesn’t sound like a cop-out, but in recognizing my tendency to control, I’ve learned that it’s okay to not do it all, even if I think I could do it better. (I can’t.) wpid-img_3661.jpg

That same weekend my friend Alison and I taught a writing workshop on blogging at a one-day conference our writers’ group puts on. A few days before, Alison was sick with some kind of super-illness and there was a chance she wasn’t going to be feeling well enough to lead it with me. We’d designed the workshop to suit our styles and expertise: I talked about some of the philosophies and principles of blogging while Alison focused more on the technical side of things. It’s a great workshop (if I’m allowed to say so) that balances a lot of information, and the thought of teaching the whole thing myself terrified me because I don’t understand the technical side of blogging the way Alison does.

Fortunately, she was well enough that day to teach, and the workshop was better for it. We each did our part and did it well. We make a great team.

And it’s the same in my marriage, when I let it be. Phil and I are a team. We’re working together toward the same goal. We each have qualities that contribute positively toward our marriage and what needs to be accomplished. One example: yesterday while I was out of the house, he organized the dirty dishes for me, sorting them so like items were with like items (and yes, we have enough dirty dishes in our house that they need to be sorted so they don’t overtake our entire kitchen). I don’t understand why it’s easier for me to wash dishes when they’re sorted, but it is, and he knew that and it helped me get a better handle on the cleaning.

On the days when I think I’d be better off going it alone, whatever the circumstance, I think about the value of team work. About inviting other people into my life. How much better it is to work alongside people and share the burdens.

We’re better together, you and I. I hope you know that, too.

What is your reaction to team work?

Are you open to sharing the load or are you more of a control freak?

How do you invite other people into your daily life?

Stories of Friendship: The blessing I didn’t expect

Another Friday means another story of friendship, although I’m thinking this will be my last one for a while. Not because I’m out of friends to tell you about but because my blogging time might be less in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading along with these, and if you still want to join in, I’ll be happy to post one of your stories on an upcoming Friday. E-mail me at lmbartelt (at) gmail (dot) com.

Phil and I hadn’t lived here long when I first met Carol. We were still settling in to our new residency in Pennsylvania, to Phil’s role as a seminary student, to my role as a stay-at-home mom when we attended some event at the seminary. I can’t tell you what it was or why we dragged our little family (we had a baby, for crying out loud) to this thing, but I clearly remember sitting at a table with Les and Carol, a pastoral couple in our denomination. (Side note: their last name is Cool, and they are so much cooler than even their name would suggest.)

I remember that I’d just picked up a little writing work for the seminary thanks to a connection with the school’s president, and I was totally proud of myself for still being able to write while taking care of a baby.

We sat at the table with Les and Carol, and they asked us good questions about who we were. I remember declaring myself a writer, and when Les informed me that Carol, too, was a writer, I honestly didn’t know how to respond. I had met few writers outside of the newspapers I worked for in Illinois, so I was a bit stunned to meet one at the same table and within our church’s denomination.

Like all my best friendships, I can’t explain what happened after that. I started attending a writers’ group in the area, which Carol was also a part of, and gradually we would make an effort to meet at Panera (or wherever, but mostly at Panera). We would talk writing and church and books and life.

When I gave my first ever workshop talk at this writers group, I asked Carol, a fabulous speaker, to critique me and give me pointers because I knew I could trust her assessment and take her advice. She has encouraged me as a writer, as a Christian, as a woman with a heart for ministry.

What is so unexpected about this friendship is that, by age, Carol could be my mother. I’ve not had a problem over the years making friends of all ages, but it still surprises me sometimes to find such a good friend of another generation. (That’s a challenge to me, too, to make friends of a younger age.)

When our marriage was on the brink and we were trying to sort out the next steps, Carol and Les talked us through our options, prayed with and for us, and encouraged us to keep on the course God had set for us, even if it was different. Anything I’ve ever told Carol has been met with compassion and understanding. Never judgment or condescension.

She’s the closest thing I have to a mentor, though we’ve never labeled our relationship that way.

When our family was struggling to make ends meet, Carol took me shopping at Costco to buy fruit, and they helped fill our freezer with meat. The year we couldn’t go home for Christmas, they opened their home to us for dinner and games.

She is a passionate advocate for justice who challenges me to make better decisions about where and how I give money and time. (She talks about that on her blog, how ordinary people can make a difference in the world.)

Ultimately, Carol is one of those people I can’t imagine my life without. Had we never moved to Pennsylvania, we never would have met, and my life would be missing something.

(Plus she’s a redhead, which helps me understand our daughter better!)

Stories of Friendship: The kindred spirit

Fridays are for friendship here, specifically stories of friendship, as a way to celebrate the special people in our lives. You can catch up on past posts by clicking on the “friendship” category at the bottom of this post. And if you have a story you’d like to share, send a paragraph or two to lmbartelt (at) gmail (dot) com and tell us about your friend!

I remember the first time I met Alison, maybe because I was doing my best to not retreat into my introvert shell and actually make a friend at writers group. There I was, sitting in the middle of a row, minding my own business because I hate small talk and there are only so many times you can ask, “So, what do you write?” in one morning. And she walked in, coffee in hand, and asked if the seat near me was taken. Then she moved to take her coat off and I offered to hold her coffee while she did that because folding chairs are notoriously unreliable at holding hot coffee and hot coffee is a precious commodity on a cold Saturday morning.

Coffee was the door to conversation. I know this now because we’re both introverts. When I think about our friendship, it’s definitely a God-thing that we ever got to know each other in the first place. So, we did the chit-chat thing, discovered we both had young children and–surprise of surprises!–both had been journalists in another life. In my mind, we were already the best of friends. She didn’t run screaming from the room when I asked if I could find her on Facebook since writers group was only once a month and we lived about an hour apart.

All of this I remember clearly. How our friendship actually developed after that escapes me. We would see each other occasionally at those writers group meetings and at the larger gathering one-day conference, and eventually we found each other on Facebook, so I suppose there was some kind of natural progression of getting to know each other.

But it really wasn’t until our family moved to Lancaster last year that I truly discovered that Alison and I are kindred spirits. (I have several people I would put in this category, but it still surprises me when I find someone who fits.)

Here’s why I consider Alison among that group: She’s a writer, so she automatically gets all the craziness in my head. And she’s good at it, even though she doubts. (Um, that is SO familiar! And by the way, you should read her blog.) She is passionate about important things like orphans and adoption and justice, and she’s so passionate that she doesn’t just talk a good game, she does stuff about it and feels like it’s never enough. You want to know her heart? Just talk to her about Rwanda. You’ll see it.

She is married to a silly husband, something I thought was my curse blessing alone. (I desperately want our husbands to be friends, but they’ve only met once and I don’t want to seem pushy.)

Alison appreciates a good hot drink, and now that we both have some kid-free time during the week, we’re able to meet for hot drinks all by ourselves with no responsibilities for a few hours.

She is encouraging, intelligent and authentic. I am so comfortable with Alison that I would tell her just about anything. When we’ve had a coffee/Panera date, I walk away refreshed. Neither of us is perfect or living our lives exactly the way we want. We both struggle with some things that leave us frustrated. But our time together is one of the highlights of us moving to Lancaster.

Sadly, we do not have a picture together either, something I’m finding I must remedy with lots of friends. (I mean, it’s not like there’s a camera on my phone or anything and I don’t go anywhere without it.)

Not all friends have to be kindred spirits, but I think it’s good to have at least one. Do you have a friend like this?

Stories of Friendship: The ties you forget are there

This week’s Stories of Friendship post is a bit different than previous weeks. And a day later than normal. To see previous posts, check out last week’s, which contains links to all the posts in this series. If you’re interested in sharing a post about a friend who is important to you, send me a message.

This week, instead of focusing on one friend who has had an impact on me, I want to tell you what I learned about friendship this week.

On Monday, I received word from a friend and former co-worker that a colleague of ours had a severe reaction to something that caused her to stop breathing and be hospitalized. Her condition was serious and over the next several days, we exchanged dozens of messages with updates on her condition. During those days, I was also in contact with many of my former work colleagues, letting them know her status.

It’s been more than seven years since I worked at that company, and many of the people I keep up with marginally on Facebook. I haven’t seen most of them in seven years.

But instantly, we were a team again. Praying. Exchanging information. Connected even though we are literally scattered across the country, from California to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin to Texas. All of us were joined in mutual concern for our friend and colleague.

Though we’re not connected by a common workplace anymore, those years we spent working together solidified our bond. I mean, when you spend 8-10 hours a day, 5-6 days a week, in good times and bad, with co-workers, they really become more like family. And for me, a 20-something trying to find her way in the world, those co-workers were some of my first adult friends. And I’m sorry that tragedy has brought us back in touch with each other, but it reminded me that friendship comes in a variety of forms and just because bonds are stretched doesn’t mean they are broken.

So, today, as we continue talking about friendship, I ask you to pray for our friend, Marla. She is bold and outspoken, funny in all the best ways (I still smile thinking about things she said all those years ago), a fighter and survivor with a smile that fills a room. She is playful and unpredictable. There were times she scared me a little as I walked by her desk because she is fiercely loyal to her people and her beliefs and you don’t want to cross her.

Even if she was none of those things, I’d still ask for your prayers for her. We are waiting and watching and hoping for her recovery from this reaction.

Thank you for your prayers.

Stories of Friendship: The one who encouraged me

On Fridays, I’ve been telling you stories of meaningful friendships. You can read past posts about the friend who got me through hard times, the friend who takes me as I am, and the friends who’ve been on a journey with us across states. And you can read this guest post about a friend who was right next door. Maybe you have a story to tell too? Send it to me at lmbartelt (at) gmail (dot) com, along with a picture, if you have one, and I’ll post it here on an upcoming Friday.

tbt Lisa & Nikki

This is my favorite picture of Nikki and me, taken years ago when we were counselors for a week at Rock River Bible Camp. I love it because it is SO not our personalities. At least, not obviously. We’re the quiet introvert types. I mean, when this picture was taken, Nikki was a librarian and I was a journalist. Writer. Librarian. Not exactly the roles that bring to mind fun-loving party types.

But to me, this photo describes our relationship.

Nikki and I became friends at a time when we both needed a friend. We were post-college, career women in our 20s without boyfriends or husbands or children like so many of the people we knew. We’d both gone away to college and returned to our hometown area, attended the same church and were trying to figure out what exactly God had in store for people like us. (That’s what I was trying to figure out anyway.)

We started hanging out with other people our age at the church, half of whom Nikki was related to. I was sort of an outsider having not grown up in that church, but they all accepted me, Nikki included, and somewhere along the hanging out, she and I got to be really good friends.

After my second roommate moved out, she and I started talking about the possibility of living together. I remember this conversation because the conditions were not ideal. At the time, I lived in the smaller half of a house in town and she lived with her parents. To make this roommate thing worked, we decided we’d need to move to the larger half of the house and Nikki would need a raise of a certain amount at work. Both seemed a bit impossible on our meager salaries, but God surprised us both and made it happen.

Living with Nikki (I can’t remember now if it was years or just a year–I’m old and my memory isn’t what it used to be) was one of the best times of my life. Sure, we had bumps along the way. I was a bit immature and didn’t know that friends could disagree and still be friends. We didn’t always agree on things, but I mostly remember it as a time of deep friendship. And I think where individually we might not have been brave enough to do certain things, together, we spurred one another on.

Nikki traveled to Ohio with me for a friend’s wedding, and we stopped to visit an island along the way. We made our half-house a welcome place for people to gather and weekly hosted our friends for food and hanging out and looooong nights of Trivial Pursuit. We watched Anne of Green Gables and Pride & Prejudice and swooned over these love stories.

And as our own love stories began, we confided in each other our deepest feelings. I remember the day she told me about her growing feelings for the man she would marry. And the day I confessed that I was falling for Phil. We encouraged each other in those relationships. It was her idea that I dress as Phil one year for Halloween. (Sorry, I’m not sure where those pictures are!) She gave me this plaque as a reminder of our friendship. I still display it prominently next to a poem she wrote me about our friendship. best friends

Our lives have us in two different states right now, but she is one of the friends I most want to spend time with when we’re in the same state, even when it’s almost impossible to make it happen. Not long ago, I purposed to meet her for lunch and hang out for an afternoon so she could know the state of things in our marriage. It was the kind of conversation I wanted to have in person. And though I was afraid our friendship had changed because we’d been apart and things had changed so much for me, I was grateful to discover that things had changed for both of us, but our friendship remained. (I am now plotting a double date night for us when we’re home next. This is your fair warning.)

Not all friendships stand the tests of time and distance, but I’m grateful this one has.

Nikki is still an encouragement to me, and I’m blessed to call her “friend.”

Stories of Friendship: The ones who know our then and now

The past few Fridays have been devoted to Stories of Friendship as I aim to honor meaningful relationships in my life. You can read past stories here and here, as well as a guest post on the subject here. If you have a friend you’d like to honor with a story of friendship, e-mail me at lmbartelt (at) gmail (dot) com.

Last weekend our family took two days and headed west to Pittsburgh to hang out with some dear friends whose home is often a resting place for us as we travel from our home back to Illinois to visit family. Rarely do we get the chance to hang out for an extended time and always when we do, we find ourselves lingering and leaving later than we expected.

So today’s story of friendship is dedicated to this couple: Josh and Rachel.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is them more than a decade ago, when the story of our friendship began. Before Phil and I were an “us,” Josh and Rachel were friends of ours. I met them at a weekend retreat for college-ish age students. It was a terrifying experience for me walking into it because all of these people had grown up with each other and I was an outsider. I’m an introvert anyway, so being an outsider compounds the problem. I could have slipped through unnoticed but Josh is one of the first people I remember taking the time to talk to me.

I remember sitting on a couch, fading into the background, and him jumping over the back of it and nearly knocking my head with his feet. Then it became a running joke, how Josh almost killed me at my first retreat. And Rachel, a talented musician and singer, welcomed my feeble attempts at guitar and singing after I’d barely learned how to play.

This couple has always been an encouragement to us. They have ties and roots in Illinois. They understand where we come from. They love Chicago as much as we do and Rock River Bible Camp holds a special place in their hearts as it does ours.

About the time we moved to east-central Pennsylvania, they moved to western Pennsylvania, and it’s been a blessing to have friends who know our experiences in the past and the present. Friends we can pick up with immediately and don’t have to explain our messy past lives to. Not much anyway.

We raid each other’s fridges when we’re staying. I dig through Rachel’s cupboards looking for coffee because I know she’ll have some. We look out for each other’s kids. We talk about life and books and ministry and artistic callings and balancing all of the things we love. Rachel’s dad officiated the marriage of Phil and me, so that’s practically family right there. And when we visited their current church on Sunday, people asked if we were Josh’s family. I wanted to say, “Yes! He’s our brother!” because some relationships feel like that.

Our friendship spans more than 10 years. That picture up there was then.

This is our now.

pa kidsSo much has changed in our years as friends. Multiple moves. Lots of kids. (I remember when all these kiddos were born and now they run and jump and talk and laugh and fight and wrestle and hug!) And our friendship has rolled with the changes.

We had a chance this weekend to take a group picture of the four of us while eating breakfast out (Josh arranged for a sitter to watch our crew of munchkins so the grown-ups could enjoy breakfast! Do you see why we’re friends?!) and I totally forgot! So, the picture of the kids will have to suffice.

I’m giving myself a few tears just thinking about these precious friends and how much they add to our lives.

It is rare to have a friend couple that has lived in the same two states as we have and had many of the same hopes, dreams and desires.

Our couches and guest rooms are always open to each other.

So are our lives.

I wish everyone could have a Josh and Rachel in their lives.

(Maybe you do! If so, tell me about them!)