Tuesday, January 20, 2015

My 2015 reading list (and other things I'm looking forward to this year)

I read about a book a week in 2013. I wrote a lot of book reviews. It was something I was intentional about, something I made time to do.

I didn't really continue that practice in 2014 – but it seems like maybe I really wasn't supposed to.

One book I had agreed to review for a publisher mysteriously never arrived in the mail. Another was supposed to come as an e-book, and I never got an email with the download. I was approved to review two more on NetGalley – after they already had been archived.

Maybe that was part of my gentle year, taking that one demand off myself and allowing me just to enjoy what books I did read that weren't part of research for articles.

But there are so many books I'm looking forward to this year. As I printed release dates into my planner, I told my husband, "2015 is going to be THE SINGLE BEST BOOK FOR YEARS," and I hadn't even been drinking. So I'm planning to start reviewing again in the coming months.

Here are some of those books I'm looking forward to in 2015:

Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God by Lauren F. Winner. I read "Girl Meets God" and "Mudhouse Sabbath" when I was in college, and they changed everything, the way I thought about faith and writing. "Still" came out just as I was getting married and as several loved ones were divorcing, and it challenged me to radically love rather than pass judgement on others' experiences of marriage. Lauren F. Winner's latest book will explore metaphors for God, which sounds all kinds of nerdy and awesome.

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans. Rachel Held Evans structured her book around the seven sacraments and, really, what more do you need to say to sell me on a book?

Out of Sorts: On Being Comfortable with Unanswered Questions by Sarah Bessey. Sarah Bessey's "Jesus Feminist" was my favorite book of 2013, and I can't think of anybody who better could do justice to the mystery of God, to the questions He leaves unanswered – one of the topics I've been most interested in these past few years.

Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy by Donald Miller. I liked "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years" even better than "Blue Like Jazz," so I have high expectations for Donald Miller's latest.

Embracing the Body: Finding God in Flesh and Bone by Tara Owens. Tara Owens and I are members of the same online writing group, part of Awake the Bones, and she read part of her book at our our meet-up last spring at the Festival of Faith and Writing. I have been on pins and needles ever since.

I'm trying to keep this to a Top 5, because my ENFJ/3 brain likes things that way, but Pope Francis and Richard Twiss both have new books coming out this year that I undoubtedly will read. I also have review copies of Dianna Anderson's "Damaged Goods" and Jon Acuff's "Do Over" on my nightstand, waiting to be read, and there are exciting rumblings coming from the women in my writing group.

And if you're still setting reading goals for your year, you might want to check out Modern Mrs. Darcy's first-ever reading challenge.

Other things I'm looking forward to in 2015:

Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens. It's Sufjan Stevens' first album since "The Age of Adz" nearly five years ago, and it sounds like a return to his folksy "Seven Swans." It's coming out the same day as "Wearing God" – new releases from my favorite author and favorite musician on the same day! – and I just may pass out from excitement.

Transgressor by Quiet Company. The two best concerts I saw in 2014 were Pocket Vinyl and Quiet Company, both small shows that packed a big, emotional wallop. I listened to nothing but Quiet Company's "We Are All Where We Belong" for weeks afterward and have been looking forward to "Transgressor" ever since.

Jurassic World. Because Jurassic Park was my favorite thing when I was a kid.

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Because Star Wars was my other favorite thing when I was a kid.

The World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Specifically, the part where Pope Francis visits the U.S. I'm angling hard to be there and cover this for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Why Christian? Rachel Held Evans and Nadia Bolz-Weber are planning an event together the weekend before the World Meeting of Families, which means I may have to fly straight from one in Minneapolis to the other in Philadelphia. That's totally not a crazy idea, right?

What are you looking forward to this year?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Photos: Amazon.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Year in Review: What I learned from my Top 10 tweets of 2014

Be a nerd.

That's one of the lessons I learned looking back over my Top 10 tweets of 2014, the ones that got the most engagement – the most retweets and replies and favorites.

It's something I almost didn't think to do: I've been focused on pulling last year's most successful social media posts for the Chicago Sun-Times, analyzing what worked and sharing those lessons learned with my coworkers.

But I noticed a few patterns as I glanced at my own tweets, so I thought I'd share them here in case those things were useful to you, too.

Here are my Top 10 tweets of 2014 (something you can find for yourself here):

1. The Winter Olympics, one of my favorite things of all things.

2. #Cumberbomb.

3. That time I was retweeted by Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, the NPR quiz show.


5. Yeah, I have a pretty cool job.

6. Geeky Star Wars stuff.

7. Still my favorite reaction GIF.

8. Actual news.

9. Sort-of news.

10. That time we all watched a barge sink in the Chicago River from the newsroom.

On to those lessons learned...

Be a nerd. Social media is called "social" for a reason, so don't be afraid to show your personality. Geek out a little about the royals and Benedict Cumberbatch, if that's what you're into. People connect with people over shared interests, and they trust real human beings over self-promotional robots.

Interestingly, I posted several of my Top 10 tweets while live-tweeting events: The Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics, the Oscars and the White House turkey pardon. Check for an official or trending hashtag during big, communal events like these and use it; not only will it clue your followers in to what the heck you suddenly are talking about, but also it will help others following the same event to find your content. That can grow your average new followers by about 50 percent during an event, according to Twitter.

And a picture is worth 1,000 words – or a 35-percent increase in retweets, according to a study by Twitter. Adding a video, quote, number or hashtag also significantly boosts engagement.

What's working for you on Twitter?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Photos: For more photos of my everyday adventures, follow me on Instagram.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Year in Review: My Top 10 blog posts of 2014 (and how to find your top blog posts)

As somebody who works in digital media, I know this is a good thing to do.

You want to know who your audience is and what they are reading, so you dig into the numbers. (For those new to blogging, your most-clicked posts and other data are easily discoverable using Google Analytics. Here's a how-to.) That way you can make sure what you're writing about is what readers are interested in – it will keep those readers coming back, and it might even spark some good ideas for you to write about. Or, if you realize you're not reaching the audience you had hoped to reach, you can make changes accordingly.

As a journalist and artist, though, I know it isn't everything.

You don't go into journalism just to get clicks; you do it to keep people accountable and connected and informed, because you have some weird, quasi-religious commitment to the Truth. You don't create art just based on social shares; you do it because the words and images and melodies come bubbling out of you. Because creativity is a kind of madness; it pushes you, obsesses you and keeps you up at night.

Keeping all those things in mind, here are the top 10 posts I wrote here on this blog in 2014:

1. My 10 favorite books of 2013. Reading was something I was intentional about, something I made more time for in 2013. I read about a book a week. I wrote a lot of book reviews. And I realized if there is one topic people like to read about on on this blog, it's books. I think this is because most of us here seem to be writers, and writers always are curious what other writers are reading; at least, I know I am. I didn't really continue writing book reviews in 2014, but there are so many books I'm looking forward to in 2015, I'm planning to start again.

2. 31 Days of Gentleness for the Rest of Us. This was a series exploring what gentleness means for the rest of us, the loud and the forceful ones, the ones who care about theology and politics and changing the world. It also was my first time participating in The Nester's 31 Days... project, and I didn't exactly finish all 31 posts in a month. I didn't even finish them before the end of my year of gentleness. Regardless, I "met" a lot of great new bloggers and learned a lot from our discussions, and I already have some ideas for this October.

3. Happy Wives Club Blog Tour: What's your secret to a happy marriage? Friends don't generally engage me in real life about things I've written online. Maybe that feels a little stalker-y – oh, I saw on the Internet you were doing such-and-such because I read all your posts in a totally not-weird-and-obsessive way. Maybe none of my real-life friends actually follow me online. I don't know. I don't mind either way. But this was one of the few posts I'd written that friends mentioned they had found helpful over the past year, even though I feel like I dodged the original question.

4. Have we gotten Jesus wrong? (RELEVANT). I got to interview an all-star lineup of Christian thinkers for this article in RELEVANT Magazine about how millennials view Jesus. That included Rachel Held Evans, Eugene Cho, Matthew Paul Turner and Preston Yancey. Believe me, I know exactly how lucky I am to have really interesting discussions with really fascinating people and then get to write about it for a living.

5. My 2014 summer reading list. I made it through five-and-a-half of these seven books. Two ended up being among my favorites of the year: "Girl at the End of the World" by Elizabeth Esther and "Courageous Gentleness" by Mary Ann Froehich. I also loved and wrote a lot last year about "Portals of Water and Wine" by R.L. Haas.

6. Humboldt Park woman, sick of dibs, shovels entire block (Chicago Sun-Times). If ever I had an article go viral, I'm glad it was this one. It was a short piece I wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times about a woman who decided to shovel out all the cars on her street one day because, she said, "I just think it’s a better way for us to live as a community: as people who look out for each other instead of fighting for spots."

7. Stations of the Cross: Jesus is judged by Pilate (guest post by Ed Cyzewski). Congratulations, Ed! You nabbed the one guest post on the list! It was part of my Stations of the Cross series for Lent, which I'll share more about below.

8. Our third anniversary: A love story in suppers. If there are two topics people like to read about on this blog, the second one is this: marriage. I often am invited to write about marriage and relationships for synchroblogs or blog tours or guest posts, and often those are the posts that engage the most people. But unlike books, this isn't a topic I often feel terribly comfortable writing about. Some things are sacred, not meant to be shared with the Internet, and, for me, my marriage is one of those things – plus, I worry about embarrassing my husband, who is much more private than I am. He's probably embarrassed I just wrote that. Like I said, it's not all about chasing clicks. You get to decide what you write about.

9. Stations of the Cross: Walking through Lent in a new blog series. I'm not sure what possessed me to gather bloggers to write a series of reflections on the Stations of the Cross this Lent. Despite the fact one of the search terms that apparently brought somebody to my blog was, "What's the happy ending to the Stations of the Cross story?" it's a pretty grim topic. But it was something I wanted to read, and I wasn't alone: 13 other writers all joined me on this journey. What obscure liturgical season should we tackle next in an ambitious blog series?

10. A Christian response to trolling (Her.meneutics). This probably was my favorite article I wrote this year, simply because it grew from my biggest struggle over the past year: not just dealing with Internet trolls (as opposed to the Norwegian "Trollhunter" kind), but dealing with trolls as a Christian. How does that look different? Does that look different?

How do you find the balance between writing for art and writing for clicks?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Photos: For more photos of my everyday adventures, follow me on Instagram.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Fellowship of the Ring: Inside the church's growing culture of hypermasculinized faith (RELEVANT)

If you're visiting from RELEVANT, welcome!

This article was a fun one to write, mostly because during the writing my Facebook wall turned into a weird thread about cupcake parties and gender-neutral baked goods. My friends and followers really are the best.

It's also a topic that always has left me scratching my head. In Genesis, we're told God created humans "male and female," so obviously that means something. I just don't think it means what the church seems to think it means. Most of the time I find its generalizations, like "women want love, and men want respect," to be unhelpful. I don't see the two as mutually exclusive, but given the choice, I'd probably pick respect. And oftentimes men's ministries, with their theological debates and pipe-smoking, seem a lot more appealing to me than women's work, like, say, running the church nursery.

So I like how blogger Micah J. Murray expressed it in our interview: “I feel like we would be a lot better off talking about how to be a fully-engaged, holistic human.”

And I wonder what that would look like.

Last September, filmmakers Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel released the documentary Fight Church, following several pastors who moonlight as MMA (mixed martial arts) fighters. Some of the featured pastors host fight ministries at their churches, and they’re not alone: More than 700 churches have some sort of martial arts ministry, according to the film.

Micah J. Murray didn’t grow up in one of these “fight churches,” but he did grow up in a church that very much promoted masculinity.

He was part of Bill Gothard’s Advanced Training Institute from first grade on. There, emphasis was placed on men filling the role of “leader, provider, protector and of almost, like, prophet, priest and king of your own home,” he says.

It was the same kind of message former Mars Hill Church pastor Mark Driscoll preached, Murray says: If you couldn’t provide for your family, you were a “man fail.”

And it was a message that appealed to him when Driscoll became popular around 2008.

At this point, Driscoll’s proclivities for Fight Club-y rhetoric are well known. He wrote that the modern Church has transformed Jesus into “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ.” He has said the American Protestant culture is populated by “chicks and some chickified dudes with limp wrists.” He told his congregation that he asked an “Ultimate Fighter” for advice on how to respond to an employee who was pushing back against orders.

“His answer was brilliant,” Driscoll said. “He said, ‘I break their nose.’”

This sort of thinking had an effect on Murray.

“It was right before I got married,” he says. “He had a lot of macho things to say, and I thought he was edgy. At the time, there was something about that that was appealing to me.”

This past fall, Driscoll—who has invited controversy with his smackdowns on “boys who can shave” and insistence he “cannot worship a guy I can beat up”—stepped down from his position at Mars Hill after being investigated for charges of misconduct brought against him by former elders at the Seattle church. In the wake of his resignation, the once thriving, influential church disbanded.

Around the same time, pastor Heath Mooneyham stepped away “for a time” from Ignite Church in Joplin, Missouri, after he was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated. Ignite had grabbed national headlines earlier in the year after giving away two AR-15 semi-automatic rifles for Father’s Day.

All have sparked a conversation about the Church’s efforts to reach men—or, depending on your perspective, find an excuse to indulge their own hypermasculine impulses. It has also re-ignited a conversation about the belief shouted from some corners of Christianity that the Church has become “feminized”—and what that says about what we believe about Jesus.

Photo: RELEVANT Magazine.

Monday, January 5, 2015

What I'm Into: An all-out-of-order Christmas season {December 2014}

You know that thing when you have a too-busy month and then you finally sit still long enough to record it and your computer eats your "What I'm Into" blog post and then you have to start all over again?

Yeah, that.

It was an all out-of-order Christmas season. I mean that literally.

On the third Sunday of Advent, I visited my family's church downstate to see my nephew reprise his role as Joseph in the Christmas pageant. They were lighting the third candle in the Advent wreath to remember "love," the pastor said. Back in Chicago, thanks to a misprint in our church's Advent reader, my Bible study group was remembering "peace." The Advent devotional I was reading was talking about John the Baptist.

Meantime, the correct answer is "joy." The third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday. It's a whole Sunday about joy in a season that's about repentance, sort of a mini Lent. It's why the third candle on the Advent wreath is pink: pink symbolizes joy, while purple symbolizes repentance. And it was fresh in my mind, as I just had had an innocuous Twitter conversation with the Archdiocese of Chicago's Office of Peace and Justice about a funny Advent doge meme that noted, "only one pink."


Anyway, with all the traveling and partying and shopping and planning behind us, I've been able to settle into the 12 days of Christmas, the actual Christmastide season on the liturgical calendar. I've been able to stop moving long enough to focus on those moments of joy in the past month.

And I'm happy to relive them again to share with you here.

Things I love

Ancestry.com. The present my mom was most excited for me to open this Christmas turned out to be an AncestryDNA test. We know we're Polish, German, Scotch-Irish and English, and she said she'd be pretty surprised if anything else showed up in my results. I would be, too. But we'll see; Mom got into that show "Finding Your Roots" on PBS, and she tells me people always are surprised with their results. Inside the test kit was a vial to spit into (science is gross), a specimen bag and a postage-paid box. I spit and shook and sent it off, and while I wait for my results to come back, I started in on my family tree on Ancestry.com. Word got out to The Fam, and now pictures and names and stories are coming in. I've subscribed to a few genealogy blogs and started following hints and applying some of my research know-how as a journalist, and I'm getting pretty excited about my new role as Family Historian. This is something I probably will be writing about more this year, so let me know if you've done any genealogy work or what you'd be interested in reading and learning more about it.

HFtFN Christmas Trip. I've been working with Hope for the First Nations on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota for the past 15 years – that's half my life – and I never had been on one of our Christmas trips. That changed this year. Joel and I baked a couple dozen gingerbread loons and packed up some sweaters and headed north for a few days leading up to Christmas with a handful of other HFtFN volunteers. We all were so grateful to be a part of the Pine Point community Christmas party, helping to serve dinner, bag gifts and bring pillows and books and blankets, and just spending time with so many friends.

Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. Joel and Kristin and I went to see a taping of the NPR news quiz "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," and if that weren't awesome enough, the guest was Sir Patrick Stewart, who recited poetry in his native dialect, told stories about his first job working at a local newspaper and said, "Space, the final frontier," in a French accent.

Portals of Water and Wine Book Release Party. Joel and I have hosted album release parties before, but never a book release party: This is the kind of magic, though, with which I long to fill our lives and home. And so when R.L. Haas announced the release date for "Portals of Water and Wine," I offered to throw the party. You can read more about the book release party here.


Justin Timberlake. In concert. That happened.

'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime. This song followed me through the Christmas season. I'd never realized it was written by a Jesuit missionary to the Huron in Canada; its lyrics include references to Gichi Manidoo (the "Great Spirit" or "Great Mystery"). All this time, my church, which generally has amazing music, has been singing some lyrics about angels, and this song could've really meant something to me.

But then my friend Lewis Knudsen included it in his free download of Christmas songs for 2014 (highly recommended).

And it turned up again on a Burl Ives record I picked up at a thrift store in Minnesota.

Oh, and this song pretty much sums up my life...


The Meaning Is in the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent by Paula Gooder. This is a slim companion for the Advent season, but it packs a lot into its short readings. It follows the patriarchs, the prophets, John the Baptist and Mary through the season and expounds on what waiting looked like for each of them. And it was especially thought-provoking in a year when, more than usual, I felt the tension of the now and not-yet of the Kingdom of God.

Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen and How They Can Change your Life (Audible version) by Eric Metaxas. Eric Metaxas takes an intelligent and balanced look at miracles – a discussion that's not just about religion, but about the nature of reality, he said. His book is a helpful, thought-provoking and entertaining addition to a discussion so many are interested in now.

The Grave Robber: How Jesus Can Make your Impossible Possible (Audible version) by Mark Batterson. Mark Batterson walks readers through the seven miracles in the Gospel of John and shows what those miracles mean for us today. Some I'm not sure I agreed with. Some helped me look at these stories in a new way.

Our Great Big American God: A Short History of our Ever-Growing Deity by Matthew Paul Turner. I've been looking forward to this book since it was released earlier in 2014, and I finally picked it up with a Barnes & Noble gift card I got for Christmas. It's a quick and irreverent read, drawing connections between movements in American Christianity and how they continue to reverberate in the country today. But it also challenges readers to think about the fact God doesn't change, but the way we think about Him does; to consider how we pick and choose and make Him in our image, rather than dig into what it means to be made in His.

Other books I got for Christmas: "The Joy of the Gospel: Evangelii Gaudium" by Pope Francis, "Pope Francis: A Guide to God's Time" by Catholic News Service, "The Sacred Year: How Contemplating Apples, Living in a Cave and Befriending a Dying Woman revived my Life" by Michael Yankoski and "The Nesting Place: It Doesn't Have to be Perfect to be Beautiful" by MyQuillyn Smith.

And all the books I am looking forward to in 2015 (so far): "Walking with Jesus" by Pope Francis, "Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church" by Rachel Held Evans, "Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy" by Donald Miller, "Out of Sorts" by Sarah Bessey, "Wearing God: An Exercise in Enriching our Spiritual Imagination" by Lauren F. Winner and "Rescuing Theology from the Cowboys: An Emerging Indigenous Expression of the Jesus Way in North America" by Richard Twiss.

On the InterWebs

Here are my favorites from the blogosphere this past month:

On the blog

So this post with the recipe for my favorite Christmas cookies, part of my 2012 Advent synchroblog, "Born in our Darkness," suddenly picked up a lot of traffic because... it got retweeted by ALDI? Like the grocery store ALDI. That was a first.

Honestly, the most-read thing every month all year on my blog has been "My 10 favorite books of 2013." So I get the hint: I'll be writing a favorite reads of 2014 post soon. (Related: I maxed out my "holds" list at the library adding titles from everybody else's year-end lists.)

In other publications

I finally got around to writing about the Bucktown Apple Pie Contest and the ways tradition root us to seasons, to place and to each other. BAPC is the country's largest apple pie-baking contest, and my husband Joel and I have participated the past five years: We've judged twice, I came up with the theme for 2013 and one of our pies made it as far as the semi-finals.

And I got to write about it for by blog-twin Cara Strickland's lovely de(tales) series, which, if you haven't already, you most definitely check out.

What have you been into this month?

Linking up with Leigh Kramer.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Photos: For more photos of my everyday adventures, follow me on Instagram.
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