Shiny Happy Childhood – Legalism

My family going for a hike in 1977

This blog series is about my reactions to the documentary series “Shiny Happy People.”

Post 1 “Background” explains why the documentary struck so close to home.
Post 2 “Authority” talks about the authoritarian teachings of Bill Gothard and how those affected my life later.
Post 3 “Spanking” works through why I was so horrified when reminded of that “spare the rod, spoil the child” teaching.

Today I’m going to talk about what that all adds up to – legalism.

When one of my brothers read my post about spanking, he said (among other things), “Mom was always the type that latches onto extreme rules to basically avoid having to ever use discernment.”

But that basically describes what Bill Gothard’s “Basic Life Principles” was going for — He pulled “principles” from the Bible so that you didn’t have to. From the documentary, he got more and more and more specific as the years went on about how you should live your life.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, the best thing that our family got from those seminars was the idea to memorize whole chapters of the Bible. My parents started with specific challenges – for example, $5.00 if we could memorize Hebrews 11 — and eventually my Mom made a whole system of paying us 10 cents per verse to say a chapter word perfect, and then 5 cents a verse to review a chapter as long as it had been a month since we’d recited it the last time.

So — that was much more fun than doing housework for money — so I started working hard at memorizing, and eventually have memorized (a chapter at a time) the entire New Testament, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, and more. (If you want to know more about that, check these posts: Memorizing Scripture and Three Tips for Memorizing Scripture.)

Now, I’ll talk about the good side of that in a minute — it was an overwhelmingly good thing in my life, because despite the fact I was doing it for money, the Bible got into my heart.

The down side? I, too, really like having a list of rules to follow instead of having to exercise discernment. I like doing things to show I’m a good person and a good Christian. Memorizing Scripture was one more thing I could do to be impressively good. And bonus: I went to Christian schools for third grade through college, and it was a big advantage for getting good grades in Bible class!

So yes, I was a very legalistic little kid — and that’s what I still have to push myself against.

Bill Gothard’s rules had a big attraction for me.

The biggest comeuppance was when I filed for divorce after my husband had an affair and left me. I had promised my kids, thinking I could make that promise, that their parents would never get divorced. And that was a big rule that I was proud I wouldn’t break.

But of course there were other things. As I said in the other post, Jesus switched from a long list of commands to a command that sums them all up and is far more nuanced: “Love one another as I have loved you.” And the apostle Paul said that’s a continuing debt — we can never be proud because we’re so good at loving people, because there’s always more love we can give.

Anyway, the good side of memorizing all that Scripture was that it backfired. Once I knew very well what the Bible said, I was no longer willing to take an authority figure’s word for it.

I memorized John 9 in I think 7th grade. Jesus heals a man blind from birth. The Pharisees explain to the man who was healed that they know Jesus is not from God because he didn’t keep the Sabbath. The blind man responded that he didn’t know anything about that — he just knows that he was blind, but now he sees!

Even in 7th grade, I realized this was an example of the Pharisees proving from Scripture — their interpretation of Scripture — that Jesus was not from God.

I began to notice that the chart of the “End Times” on the wall at church wasn’t found in the Bible. Or when our church passed out political “scorecards” showing if representatives voted for “Biblical” values — I could say with confidence that those were definitely not necessarily Biblical values, because I knew what the Bible says.

Someone once said they were surprised I hadn’t left the church altogether when I left a church that asserted that LGBTQ people are sinning. But the thing was, I knew the Bible says absolutely nothing in condemnation of transgender people, and for the rest of the LGBTQ folks, it’s a matter of interpretation – and an interpretation I don’t agree with. (If you wonder about that, check out my “Transcending” blog series I wrote at the time.)

I had confidence in coming to God without an “authority” figure between me and God because I know and love the Bible. All that memorizing plus years of Bible classes, and the Lord still has plenty to teach me, but I’m no longer a good candidate for authoritarian teachings.

And there was one last thing that I want to think about from the documentary. Thoughts about Forgiveness and the “Root of Bitterness” and God working things out for good. Some of this is from the documentary and some from my memory.

What I remember is that the seminars gave me a strong confidence that God works all things together for good. I don’t think I absorbed the toxic part about if something bad happens, you must have gotten out from authority and there are holes in your umbrella leaving you open to Satanic attack.

The part I absorbed is maybe when something bad happens to you, it helps you become mighty in spirit. Or some other reason that God will bring good out of the situation.

I still believe this. And yes, knowing that God will bring good out of even bad things can help you forgive. Dr. Fred Luskin, without mentioning God, says in his book Forgive for Good that when your life is going well, it’s easier to forgive. For example, when I got on the Newbery committee and realized that my entire librarian career wouldn’t have happened if my husband hadn’t left me, it’s a lot easier to stop resenting him for doing that. I’m happy! It all turned out good. But I am speaking from many years later.

I also remember that Gothard preached that a “Root of Bitterness” is a terrible sin that will poison your life. Today, I would call it “chronic resentment” — terminology I got from reading a wonderful book by Steven Stosny, Love Without Hurt. But I also believe it will poison your life.

However, it looks like Gothard teaches you must forgive immediately. Women must stay with abusive husbands. God will bring good out of it, so is it really so bad?

I believe that teaching is toxic. Just because God can bring good out of bad things doesn’t mean those things are not bad. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt when they happen to you.

When my husband left me, I thought divorce was wrong and I tried to pray him back. So he tried harder and harder to convince me our marriage was over. I wanted to shine by showing him love — and I think I was somehow trying to pre-forgive him. It seemed like if I was going to forgive him — and that was my plan — it shouldn’t hurt when he said cruel things.

Spoiler alert: It hurt like crazy! I needed to stop putting myself in the way of his anger.

But memorizing helped me there, too. Look at Psalms! There are more Laments in Psalms than any other type of Psalm. (And check my post on writing your own lament.) The psalmists whine and complain about what they’re going through. Then they remember that they’re trusting God and ask God to bring them through — but they don’t ever pretend that it’s easy.

Look at the beginning of Psalms, the first Lament, Psalm 3, first verse:

Lord, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!
Many are saying of me,
“God will not deliver him.”

Yes, forgiveness is something to work toward. But forgiveness isn’t denial that anything bad ever happened. And it doesn’t mean you have to put yourself in the path of more abuse. And it doesn’t mean that if there’s grounds for a court case against someone that you should drop charges. And it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get a share of your military ex-husband’s retirement. (To use a personal example.)

Now, in my case thinking of Bill Gothard, thinking of the mistakes my parents made when following his teaching — I’m long past the consequences of that, so it feels like I don’t really need to deal with forgiveness at this point.

So what am I trying to do with this series? I’m looking back as a fairly objective adult and saying: Yes, those teachings affected my life. In a few good ways and in many bad ways. It’s opening my eyes to fundamental ideas that I once took for granted and helping me shine light on them and challenge those ideas.

And my heart goes out to everyone interviewed in the documentary and everyone who was much more involved in IBLP than I ever was, with a whole lot more baggage to unpack. May you know the truth, and may the truth make you free.

Comments? Questions? I think I’m done with this blog series — unless there’s more people would like to talk about.

And if you’d like to read more of my writing:

Here’s a landing page for Project 52, written the year I was 52 and posted each week about one year of my life. That page isn’t complete, so you can also read the blog posts – but they’ll be listed in backwards order.

Praying with the Psalmists is the title of the book I’ve written about how to use patterns from Psalms in your own prayers (not published yet) – and also the title of the blog series with example psalms. And I’d love to get examples from readers in the comments.

Transcending is my blog series about why churches should affirm transgender people.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament is a series showing how the New Testament can be read from a universalist perspective – and it actually makes a lot more sense (in my opinion).

Sonderquotes is my blog of quotes from good books (mostly Christian ones) that I’m reading. is my main site of book reviews — all ages, all subjects.

And finally, I’ve got a free substack, Sondermusings, where I’m gathering my Christian writing — blog posts, quotes, and reviews.

Thank you for reading my thoughts!

Shiny Happy Childhood – Spankings

five kids in front of a door.
July 1971 with my then four siblings. I was the middle child then.

I’m continuing my response to the documentary series Shiny Happy People with my own blog series “Shiny Happy Childhood.”

Post 1 – Background – I talked about why the documentary resonated as I’m 3rd of 13 children and attended Bill Gothard’s seminars many times as a child, in about 5th through 8th grades.

Post 2 – Authority – I talked about Gothard’s authoritarian teachings. And how that was baked into my aspirations – but didn’t actually work out for me.

Today, I want to start by clearing something up. I am not saying that I did not have a happy childhood. I had a *very* happy childhood. Our parents loved us and did their best to be good parents to us. I went to Christian schools from 3rd grade through college, and I enjoyed that.

I’m not at all trying to get into the Bad Childhood Olympics. I am well aware that many people had it worse than me. Pretty much everyone interviewed in the documentary, for starters. I did go to Bill Gothard’s basic seminars, but that was before he had family camps and advanced training institutes or anything beyond that.

I think it’s the Shiny part that I mostly object to. Our family tried to give the impression of being the perfect Christian family. But if you looked under the surface, there was lots of dysfunction. And we didn’t talk about any of that.

And because it *was* a happy childhood, that makes it a little more difficult to piece out where, exactly, the problems were. When I watched the documentary and remembered how fully I believed and got excited about what Bill Gothard was teaching — it disturbed me. Gave me lots to think through.

Today I’m going to talk about what upset me the most in the documentary — the teaching on spanking.

Sometime when I was in first or second grade, living in the house in California pictured above, my parents decided to stop spanking with their hands — because who wants their hands to be associated with discipline? My Mom took a wooden ruler with a metal edge and wrote a verse from Proverbs on it. That was now “the rod.”

The verse might have been Proverbs 13:24 — “He who withholds his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently.”

Or maybe it was Proverbs 23:13 — “Do not withhold discipline from a child; Though you strike him with the rod, he will not die.”

I was pretty sure she got the idea of using a ruler from Bill Gothard. But I looked up when Dare to Discipline by James Dobson was published, and it was 1970 — so she may well have gotten the idea from that book.

The sad part is that my parents loved us — but they fully believed that if they truly loved us, they needed to hit us with a ruler on our backside whenever we did anything “wrong.” The goal was “instant obedience.” I do remember that Bill Gothard used to talk about how wonderful it was that God put padding onto every child, giving a perfect place for spanking. I laughed along with the rest of the auditorium at that line.

I was horrified by the “blanket training” discussed in Shiny Happy People. I am quite sure my parents never did that, but I do remember that I once saw my mother spank a six-month-old sibling (I don’t remember which one) with a ruler and I was horrified then, too, even as a kid. You see, they believed that we’re born with a sinful nature. So no one is too young to discipline.

The authoritarians my mother learned from believed the goal is to break a child’s will, but not their spirit. They say to not spank in anger and to spank until the crying softens, no longer defiant screaming.

Well, maybe it sounds good in theory. And most of the spankings I received weren’t particularly bad or particularly traumatic. But twice in my life, I received spankings so hard and long that I had bruises on my bottom. One of those was when we were on vacation in Washington visiting a family of cousins. I don’t remember the particulars, but I still remember that I didn’t deserve that spanking. It was something my little sister did. Maybe that’s why I didn’t get to a place of quiet crying any time soon.

Another time, I got spanked because I left the dinner table without saying, “May I please be excused.” — which was something I’d never in my life said before or been told to say. When I tried to explain that no one had ever told me to ask to be excused, my Mom said that spanking would help me remember. But I am still convinced I was never told to do that.

Now, our younger brother (#5) was adopted. The story goes that Dad didn’t think it was healthy for Mom to have more kids, so they adopted. And they changed their minds later. But this brother was not naturally quiet like the rest of us. Not naturally compliant. Needing to move around a lot more. And he got a lot more spankings. I remember telling myself that my parents must love him more because they “disciplined” him more. Yes, I had completely bought the teaching myself. Or perhaps I was trying to convince myself that my parents weren’t being unfair and were good Christian parents, so everything they did was right.

One time I remember we were walking from church in L.A. to our car a couple blocks away. My brother did something that infuriated Mom. She took him on the street corner and pulled down his pants and spanked his bare bottom. The way I remember it, she used the rod — maybe got it from the car? (And I think I remember that she brought it everywhere with us, keeping it in the glove compartment when we got in the car – which was why we had it on vacation.) But maybe she pulled down his pants because she didn’t have the rod. I was on the other side of the intersection with some siblings, and I was mortified and horrified. Mom was incredibly angry, and it showed.

Because no matter how rational and anger-free you mean your discipline to be — we’re humans.

When I became a parent – so young! – spanking just didn’t seem right. We discussed things with other young couples. One friend had been listening to Dobson. I expressed that spanking a young child seemed so wrong. She said, “But it works!” And I’m not sure how I responded, but I hope I said something to the effect of “But at what cost?”

Another friend said in a case of touching something they shouldn’t, she’d use a slap on the hand and say, “No!” We tried that for a little while. But then one day my toddler hit their head on a table. They then slapped the table and said, “No!” That was enough for me! That was not how I wanted to teach my child to react to things.

Not long after that, my then-husband read The Horse Whisperer, by Monty Roberts. We thought that if nonviolence is best for training horses, surely it’s best for training people, too.

Besides, those verses are Proverbs, not promises! Not commands! They are wise sayings — at least wise for ancient times. And I still agree that disciplining and teaching your children is important. But I don’t want to teach them violence.

And how can you punish a kid for being a kid? Curiosity is what children are all about! It’s how they learn! If you squelch a child’s curiosity – teach a baby to stay on a blanket, for example – you’re shutting down a learning machine. Curiosity is not sin.

My mother-in-law was one of the most helpful people I interacted with. When my oldest had just turned two years old and was practicing saying “No” all the time, my mother-in-law told me about an article she’d read saying that they are learning self-autonomy. When my kid would be particularly oppositional, I’d chant “Self-autonomy!” It actually helped. That’s an important part of learning, too. Saying “No” is not sinful!

In fact, I watched a John Bradshaw show on PBS soon after that. He gave an exercise for people who need to learn to say No: First, spend a week practicing saying “No” under your breath, just constantly: “No, No, No, No….”. The next week, maybe warn people around you, but say “No” to everything you’re asked. And after that, actually say “No” to something significant and not prearranged. I laughed at this, because it mirrored what my two-year-old was doing. That was the one time we could get our picky eater to eat anything. All we had to do was say, “That’s mine! Don’t eat it.”

But when I told my Mom about the exercise, she said, “I don’t think you kids went through that.”

Saying “No,” after all, would not be “instant obedience.” The Rod was to teach children not to even say No.

And that makes me think. Does God want our “instant obedience”?

I honestly don’t think God does. Consider I John 4:1 — “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

If you believe God is telling you to do something, test the spirit.

Remember – the Torah was not only religious laws, but also civil laws for a young nation. Yes, people needed to obey the law.

But Jesus brought a new command — “Love one another as I have loved you.” Obeying this command is not about fear. It’s not about instant compliance. And it’s not about legalism — and maybe legalism is what I should tackle next time.

Shiny Happy Childhood – Authority

Five children playing ring-around-the-rosie.
Me with my then four siblings in 1971. I was older than this when I first attended Bill Gothard’s seminars, but not a lot older.

When I watched the documentary series Shiny Happy People it struck way too close to home. So I decided to write a blog series to process my responses.

In the first post, I talked about my background – how I’m from a big family, like the Duggars, and attended Bill Gothard’s seminars in the 1970s, before they were as extreme as they seem to have become later.

In this second post, I’d like to talk about Authority.

Although from the documentary I learn that Bill Gothard’s teachings got much more extreme as time went on, even in the 1970s, he was already pushing Authoritarian teachings.

You’ve probably seen the diagram on Twitter, and I think it was in the documentary – the idea is the “Umbrella of Protection” – that the father/husband is under the umbrella of Christ protecting him from Satanic attack, and the wife is under the husband’s umbrella, and the children are under the wife.

Gothard preached that this is God’s design and if trouble ever comes your way, you’d better check if you stepped out from under the God-designed authority.

I don’t think Gothard was teaching then that girls shouldn’t go to college. He wasn’t pushing homeschooling then, either, and my parents didn’t homeschool until later.

When I talked about my background, I kept talking about what my Mom thought and what my Mom did. That’s because we heard the ideas from her. Dad worked full-time and wasn’t around all that much – more for fun things. Mom was the one running us kids’ lives. And if you think about it, that fits Gothard’s set-up. I do know that my mother believed in voting how my dad told her to vote, and wasn’t interested in politics or current events. She also didn’t think women should run for office, and you certainly shouldn’t vote for one. (Makes me wonder if we’ll ever get a woman President unless it’s a conservative – because that might be the only way people like my parents would vote for her.)

It’s just as well Gothard didn’t teach that women shouldn’t go to college. Because in my family, we kids did well in school, and Mom was proud of our grades. Besides, she’d gone to a Christian college just long enough to meet my dad and get married at 19. Then she got pregnant and dropped out. So when we went to a Christian school – and my older sister got married at 19 (but managed to finish her degree) – it’s not at all like Mom was ever tempted to stop us.

But Mom also thought it was a terrible thing when married women worked outside the home. And the truth was, I’d always wanted to end up a stay-at-home mom.

So when my firstborn came along a year and two months after I got married (right after grad school) and there was no way in the world we could afford to live in Los Angeles on one income – it was tough. Actually, I was teaching at Biola University, and we tried for a little while for me to work full-time and my husband at home. But he hadn’t grown up wanting to be a stay-at-home dad. It was rough. He started working part-time, and I adjusted my course load of teaching to teach three days a week. That didn’t work well, either.

So eventually, my husband joined the Air Force Band, and after that I taught night classes. I cheerfully went with him around the world, because for me, it was all about his career. My job was just a part-time one to help pay the bills. And we bent over backwards to not have to put our kid into day care.

And while I was doing that – teaching at Biola and feeling pretty overwhelmed with it all, I had a conversation with my Mom about Sesame Street. She said I wouldn’t like it now because they have things like women working. As if she was blissfully unaware how hard I was working.

Another time she told about a neighbor whose child had sadly gotten burned because their water temperature was up too high. And she said, “That’s what happens when women work.” Apparently, they had turned up the temperature to be able to get out the door in the morning more quickly. But I was flabbergasted by the comment.

And actually, looking back, I think my teaching worked out pretty well. It was nice that I had an outlet outside the home. (Albeit a bit frustrating at the time to always have papers to grade and class notes to prepare.) I didn’t feel like it was wrong for me to work outside the home – I just wished we could afford for me not to.

And I did get a year and a half as a stay-at-home mom when my husband got transferred to Germany. And I was very glad to quit teaching. But when an opening came up at the base library right when our car broke down, I realized that if we had to replace the used car, I would need to get a job — so why not apply for this one I would really like while it was available? I began working twenty hours a week at the base library. Little did I know that it would eventually lead to a wonderful career.

So I want to say this kind of thinking and teaching didn’t affect my life all that much. But — it also explains how incredibly hard it hit when my husband started talking about divorce.

It turned out he was having an affair, but when I found out he was spending time with the other woman behind my back, he told me it was not an affair, just a friendship. And I believed him. And I could have understood an exception for adultery, but if it was not adultery, then I believed divorce was WRONG. (And yes, all-caps is appropriate.)

And yes, when I heard Bill Gothard talk about divorce, I was just a kid. But I still remember that he said that God wouldn’t bless the marriage of the first person of the couple to remarry. But if your spouse divorces you and remarries someone else, then God can bless your marriage if you marry someone else. I believed that completely. I was a kid! And the ideas hung around until I was an adult.

In fact, those ideas made me ripe for a ministry I found that was all about reconciling with your “prodigal” spouse and “Standing for your marriage” and praying them back, whether they have a “non-covenant” marriage or not. It took years trying to pray my husband back before the Lord gently showed me that I was trying to tell God what to do – I wasn’t trusting God with the situation. I finally got to where I could pray that my husband would find his way back to God, but it didn’t have to be back to me. And eventually, I told my friends to be sure and stop me if I was ever tempted to take my ex-husband back.

And I’ve actually got a career now! And a job I love, that’s completely and perfectly suited to my skill set and special interests. (I’m not only a librarian, but I select all the children’s and teen books for a large public library system.)

So – this post hasn’t been so much about authority. But as a now-single woman, I do reject the idea that I need a man’s protection or that I need anyone coming between the Lord and me. The divorce process hit me much harder than if I hadn’t felt like I was disobeying God as well. But the Lord dealt with me tenderly and made me feel protected and close to God’s heart.

Oh, one last postscript – My parents both passed away at the end of 2019. So I think I can speak a little more freely about my childhood than I did when I wrote Project 52. They did their best, but I personally don’t feel like there’s a person alive who can adequately parent 13 children. Besides that, they sat under the teachings of Bill Gothard and brought us with them. And now I’m exploring how that affected my life, for good or ill.

Shiny Happy Childhood – Background

A couple weeks ago, I watched the documentary series Shiny Happy People about the Duggars (of 19 children fame) and evangelical teacher Bill Gothard’s empire. And oh my goodness I was shook up.

So I’ve decided to process my reaction in a series of blog posts. I’ll call them Shiny Happy Childhood. My goal is not to spend more than a half-hour writing each post. Which will keep them from being long to read. But that means I don’t know how long the series will run.

With this first post, I’ll talk about why the series shook me up so much.

First, I’m third of 13 children. I was absolutely horrified at the thought of the Duggars’ show when it was popular and could not have stomached watching a single episode. This is *because* I knew it would present them as shiny, happy people. I know about big family trauma, and my heart would break for those kids (when my stomach wasn’t turning). Those are kids who are not getting much attention from their parents, with the older kids having to parent the younger. (That’s simply scratching the surface of why I don’t believe they’re shiny or happy.)

However the documentary promised to look into the problems with the shiny happy presentation. And that I just had to watch. But then it turned out that it was also about Bill Gothard, and that’s when it really shook me up.

I went to Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts at least a dozen times, beginning in elementary school.

This was in the 1970s, before he called it the Institute in Basic Life Principles. And from the documentary, it sounds like it was before he formed a full-fledged cult. My family only went to the basic seminars that happened at Long Beach Convention Center. I believe they let alumni attend for free or at least very low cost, so we went over and over again. But we never did a family camp or anything that required traveling. My Mom did buy Gothard’s Character Sketches book, and when she paid us for memorizing (more on that later), we could also memorize Gothard’s “Character Qualities” definitions.

However, my Mom eventually came to believe that birth control is wrong. Did she get that idea from Bill Gothard? She began home schooling my younger siblings in the 1980s, after I was already in college (at a Christian university). Did she get that idea from Bill Gothard? Some time when I was in elementary school, she got a ruler and wrote a Bible verse on it about the “rod of correction” and began using that for spankings. I’m quite sure that idea was from Bill Gothard.

She also got a really good idea from Bill Gothard: Start memorizing whole chapters of Scripture. And she went further: She paid us kids to do the same. A whole system. I credit memorizing the New Testament with giving me confidence to analyze teachings of those who claim to be teaching biblical truth. (This will probably be a whole post in itself.) I’m no longer a good follower of authoritarians like Bill Gothard.

I think my parents took me and my older siblings before we were technically “old enough,” because they believed we were smart beyond our years. I probably went to my first seminar around age 10, very proud to get a day off school from our Christian school and go. When I saw clips from the seminar I had the uncanny feeling of remembering when I heard his words and agreed with them with all my heart — thought how wonderful it was to have these principles so clearly stated.

And that’s the thing about Bill Gothard, as I watched the documentary. He’s an authoritarian who says he has the answers and a complete system for how you should run your life and please God.

I’ve always loved systems! And I’m like my mother in that. We ate it up.

I am ever so thankful we weren’t involved in the later years when it did become more like a cult. Last week, I watched a question-and-answer from one of the women interviewed in the documentary, and he even had people following Old Testament dietary laws. And not taking epidurals for labor and delivery. And not sending girls to college.

So it’s not like I had to exit a cult. Not really. Though my own family had its own cult-like characteristics. Remember, we’re talking thirteen kids, with the middle ones home schooled. We went to church Sunday morning for Sunday school and worship service, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night Bible study. No getting out of any of it unless you were sick with a fever or vomited.

Well, my half-hour is up. Where am I going with this? I want to think through some of the teachings I got and absorbed from those seminars and examine them in the light of day.

Thinking about this, I have some sympathy for conservatives so afraid their kids will be “indoctrinated.” Because I’m remembering as a child wholly believing this stuff, to the level of taking for granted this is how the world works.

As an adult, it wouldn’t hurt to pull some of those beliefs into the light of day. I am very much still a Christian, though not necessarily an Evangelical one, and I don’t consciously believe many of Bill Gothard’s teachings any more, but it wouldn’t hurt to take a look.

Please comment if this brings up anything for you or where you’d like my ramblings to go next time.

Happy Ending Psalm

This week, we’re covering Messianic Psalms – Psalms about how the Anointed One will come and make all things right. Since I don’t claim to be able to prophesy, but I do know that God wins in the end, when I write a psalm in this pattern, I like to call it a Happy Ending psalm. It’s a good pattern to use when praying about injustices out in society.

Here’s one I wrote this week:

From Psalm 72:4

May he defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.

O Lord,
May our governments do this —
defend the afflicted among the people,
save the children of the needy,
crush the oppressor.

Thank you that, in the end, your kingdom will bring
righteousness and justice for the oppressed.

Help me to learn what my part is
in relieving the oppressed
in defending the afflicted
in helping the needy.

If my part is to supply books
to help them know they’re not alone,
then help me do my part
and not be silenced.

Father, our world is so far from safe
for so many of your children.
May your kingdom come
on earth as it is in heaven.

Creation Hymn – Knowing my Quirks

This week my church small group is looking at Chapter 8 of my Psalms book — Creation Hymns. So again, I’m going to try to write one. Not a polished one, but just as a prayer, whatever comes out.

Creation Hymns involve key concepts of God’s Glory, God’s Sustaining Care, God’s Knowledge, and Creation’s Joyful Response. And to make it read like a Psalm, I try for parallelism, repeating or emphasizing ideas in a second line.

Usually when I try to pray a creation hymn, I think about the beauty of nature. The irises by my lake have begun to bloom! So I could pray about that.

But this week, I’ve been thinking about Psalm 139, which begins:

You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.

If you’re not familiar with that Psalm, look it up! So many beautiful ways of expressing how deeply and thoroughly my Creator knows me.

And this is comforting, because I’m still feeling stressed and inadequate.

The leak from the unit above me that poured water into my home last week has been fixed. Water mitigation folks dried everything out with very loud fans.

But my bathroom ceiling and bedroom wall still have big holes in them. The place doesn’t smell good — I hope just like the inside of walls and not mold. And it still hasn’t been settled how it all will be paid for. Surely it’s the responsibility of the owner of the unit above me, but he’s an offsite landlord and his property management company wants me to make a claim on my insurance. Surely my insurance will in turn go after them, because it’s well documented that the leak came from above. They also want their own people to make an estimate before they proceed with reconstruction, and I have a feeling it’s not going to happen before I go out of town in a couple weeks.

But let me put in the psalm why I’m upset with myself. The title is from Psalm 103:

You Know That I Am Dust

You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.

I know that you’re going to take care of me
and already have taken care of me.
I’m not going to have to pay for the damage,
and it’s relatively little damage
and I’m privileged to be a homeowner
and what’s a little inconvenience?
Especially when my little niece
is suffering with relapsed leukemia.
So how can I get stressed and tired and headachy
simply from a first-world problem like this?

Lord, I keep thinking that trust
means we shouldn’t get upset.
But you know me better than that.
You made me human.
Instead, may I turn to you when troubles happen
when parts of my home literally fall apart.
And maybe I need a little more sleep,
a little more leeway in my plans for getting things done.

Why am I so much harder on myself
than you are?
And how did a problem in only one small part of my home
throw me for such a loop,
make me feel so vulnerable?

But Lord, you know that you made me human,
not a robot.
You know that my life is one-of-a-kind.
You gave me my unique quirks.
And yes, you gave me vulnerabilities,
not making me out of steel.
And they are not flaws,
but facets of your image.
And may I shine that image
more fully with every day that goes by.
And learn about trusting you,
turning to you,
even when my home falls apart,
even when I don’t know what to do.
But may I start by acknowledging that
I don’t know what to do
and I’m feeling stressed
and extra tired
and I want my place of refuge back
and I want all the paperwork done.

Thank you, Lord, for the world you’ve made,
and the ingenuity you’ve given folks
to build homes
and put them back together when they fall apart.
Thank you that it could have been so much worse
and it wasn’t.
But that it’s still okay to feel stressed,
and it reminds me to turn to you.

Thanksgiving Among the Bluebells

This week my church small group, which is going through my not-yet-published book Praying with the Psalmists, is covering Thanksgiving Psalms.

My whole point in the book is that we can use the patterns in Psalms to write our own psalms and pray our own prayers. I’ve got examples in the book. But if I’m going to be consistent, I should write another psalm with each chapter we cover. And I like doing that to build a habit.

But honestly? I don’t feel a lot like giving thanks right now.

Yesterday, I wrote a lament in honor of my six-year-old niece who has relapsed with leukemia. That news is weighing on my heart.

And today, I was going to finally tackle the big shelf in my closet that collapsed a week and a half ago and see if I could put it back up. But when I got out of bed, the tile floor in my bathroom was covered with water. Water was dripping steadily from a fire sprinkler head on the ceiling.

I live in a condo. I called and talked with several people. But the people in the condo above me didn’t see any signs of trouble, so the consensus is that I need to call a plumber and get the leak diagnosed. It may be my neighbor’s or the condo association’s responsibility to repair, but it’s leaking in my home and I need to get the work done.

So figuring all that out took most of my day, while the drips keep coming in a bucket in my bathroom at a rate of one every few seconds. I did find a plumber who’s open all weekend and will come tomorrow morning.

Then in the evening, I thought I’d finally take a look at that metal shelf that had fallen down. And when I stepped in the closet to lift it up — my foot got soaked. The carpet is soaking wet. (This closet shares a wall with my bathroom.) I think I can hear more dripping in the walls.

There are lots of good sides to it — I’d taken all my clothes out already. If the shelf hadn’t fallen, I might have never noticed that water. It’s only wet inside the closet, not in the rest of my bedroom. Now if they have to make a hole in the wall, I can have the same people who repair it also put the shelf back up.

But I am not in a happy mood!

All that said, before all this happened, I’d decided to write my thanksgiving psalm about my walk in the bluebells on Good Friday. And when I’m not in a mood to give thanks is probably a good time to remember the many reasons I have to give thanks.

A Thanksgiving Psalm has the basic form:

Call to Praise
“I Was in Trouble.”
“I Called.”
“The Lord Answered.”
Response of Praise

I’ll talk about my experience in the bluebells in the psalm. I’ll put a bluebell picture between each of the parts of the psalm.

Thanks Among the Bluebells

I give you thanks, Lord,
for you have been good to me.
You answered my prayers
and brought me so far.
You healed my heart
and filled me with joy.

The first time I visited the bluebells at Bull Run,
about fifteen years ago,
I’d heard about it in an employee newsletter,
and I went after a trip to my divorce lawyer.

I was so sad about the divorce,
and walking among flowers reminded me of my husband,
of the flowers at Keukenhof,
of hikes throughout Germany.
I told myself that now I was bothering no one
by stopping every few feet to take pictures.
I didn’t have to worry that what brought me joy
was boring anyone else.
I could simply enjoy the amazing beauty
wild and free, filling the woods.

But I still missed my husband
and felt so alone.

And my walk became a prayer walk
asking you, Lord, to help me,
to be with me.

I was still trying to pray my husband back at that time,
but I also wanted your guidance in the life ahead of me.
I had a new job at Fairfax County Public Library
(which was how I heard about the Bluebell Trail),
and I asked your help in paying my bills,
working as a librarian,
making a home for my youngest,
and somehow healing my heart.

I’d been with the lawyer,
asking for her help.
But among the bluebells, I was with you, Lord,
asking for your help.

And when I went back to the Bluebell Trail
this year on Good Friday,
it struck me how thoroughly you’ve answered those prayers
in fifteen years.

My heart is healed.
Now it’s easy to wander with joy
and the woods make me think
of other delightful rambles.
I remembered that first walk,
fresh from the lawyer,
and I thought what a different place
you’ve brought me to.

I’ve got my dream job,
feeling competent and capable as a librarian,
ordering children’s books
for the entire library system.

I’ve got a home I love,
surrounded by its own beauty of nature.
My bills have been paid
and my heavy debts lifted.

And life is so much more joyful
so much more hopeful
than it was on that walk fifteen years ago.

At that time I hoped for a joyful and vibrant life,
but then it was a request of faith
and now it’s acknowledging
where you’ve brought me.

While I was walking through the bluebells
“O Love,” a song from our Good Friday cantata,
was going through my head,
especially these lines:

“O Joy, O Joy, that seeks me through the pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee.
I trace the rainbow through the rain
and see the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.”

So I praise you, Lord,
for your unfailing love,
and your wonderful deeds for humankind.
You brought me out of a place of deep emotional pain
and filled my heart with joy.

“Weeping may remain for a night,
but rejoicing comes in the morning.”

Thank you, Lord my God.
Thank you, Father.

You’re very welcome to post your own thanksgiving psalm in the comments! Tell about a time when you were in trouble, you asked the Lord for help, and the Lord answered. I have to say it really helped my mood.

A Lament for Leukemia

This week, my small group is covering the chapter from my not-yet-published book Praying with the Psalmists about Thanksgiving Psalms. Since I want them to try praying their own thanksgiving psalm, I’m planning to take up the challenge myself.

But then my family got some terrible news — and I need to write a lament first.

Here’s a picture of my brother’s family, which I took in Maui last December at my sister’s wedding.

Their middle child, Meredith, six years old, this week relapsed with leukemia. Her first diagnosis with leukemia was January 2020, when she was three years old. She went through two years of treatments and appointments and one year ago was given a clean bill of health, and we all thought it was over and done.

So this is quite a blow. (And anyone reading this, please say a prayer for Meredith.)

So before I tackle a thanksgiving psalm (And before this news, I was thinking of thanking God for Meredith’s healing. It was a beautiful thing.) — I need to pray a lament for Meredith and this awful news.

I made an acronym to remember the form of a Lament:
Address to God
Confession of Trust
Sureness of Help
Subsequent Praise

This isn’t going to be polished. But let me pray:

Lord, I come before you.
Hear my prayer.
Listen to my heart’s cry
and look with compassion on my family.

Six years old, Lord!
She’s only six years old.
Pain and discomfort and medical appointments have been a big part of her life.
Lord, she’s a child!
Not a saint, but a beautiful wonder of your creation.
With your image inside her,
the spark of independent thought,
a little girl full of life and wonder and curiosity and fun.
Her family’s been through so much, Lord.
Her parents have lived with the fear of losing her for half her life.
On top of so many other pressures.
Lord, it’s too much!
Father, I notice that when I mention to anyone
that my six-year-old niece is again facing leukemia,
every single person responds with compassion.
How could you do anything less?
Lord, look on this child, this family
have compassion on their pain and fear.

And, Lord, you showed up before.
You got them through those two years of treatments.
They were daunted; it was hard,
but her body responded well
and she finished the treatments
with joy and celebration.
We know that your compassion is unending
and your mercy is great.

Lord, grant Meredith your healing.
Grant her family your grace and strength.
We ask for life for Meredith,
life and health and joy.
Show your mercy;
send your comfort.

“You, O God, do see trouble and grief;
you consider it to take it in hand.”
We know that you love Meredith
more than any human can.
We know that you see;
we know that you care.

And Lord, we look forward to the day
when we can celebrate again
for Meredith once more
enjoying a body free of cancer.
Somehow, we’re going to top a unicorn party!

Psalms of Confession

I’ve written a book called Praying with the Psalmists, and I’m going through it with my church small group. The basic idea is to look at ten types of Psalms and use patterns from the Psalms in your own prayers.

Since I’m urging other people to try it, the least I can do is keep doing it myself! This week we’re covering Psalms of Confession.

Psalms of Confession follow a similar pattern to Laments, and I’ve made an ACCESS acronym to remember the parts:

Address to God
Confession of Sin
Confession of Trust
Sureness of Help
Subsequent Praise

I haven’t committed any big sins lately. No lying or stealing or killing. But I think of a line from a group confession in church: “We have not loved you with our whole hearts.” I have committed plenty of sins of omission.

In fact, when I approach Psalms of Confession with my own inadequacy, I find I have plenty to pray about. And a characteristic of these Psalms in the Bible is that they overflow with the Lord’s mercy, forgiveness, and chesed, unfailing love.

Lately, my life is very good, but I feel like I’m doing too many good things — and then feeling inadequate when I don’t do them well. It came to a head the other night, when a closet shelf in my bedroom closet collapsed in the middle of my night and scared me half to death. I was relieved when I found out what it was — but also found out it stirred up all my anxieties.

Let me stop explaining and take it before the Lord.

Have mercy on me, Lord.
Grant me your peace.
See me with your eyes of love,
instead of my eagle-eyed perfectionism.

Lord, you’ve filled my life with good things —
a job I love,
an award committee,
a choir to sing with,
a small group to help lead,
a book ready to send out,
a website to add to,
a group to play games with,
weekly virtual visits with my kids,
a trip coming to see family,
a sister coming after that,
a home I love and want to keep clean…
And I am not keeping up with those wonderful things.

Worse, I’m wasting time mindlessly reading Twitter or Facebook,
when I could at least be reading for the award.
I’m unproductive and stay up late
and then don’t have energy for what I should be doing.
Yes, perfectionism is robbing my joy,
but it’s also that old problem of wanting to do more wonderful things
than a human can do.
And then I wear myself out
and fret about what I’m not doing
Or worry about how I’m going to prepare
unwilling to let things go,
unwilling to understand
that often the only one requiring perfection of me
is myself.

Lord, you “give sleep to those you love.”
And you grant me 24 hours in a day.
You have given me these wonderful gifts,
this wonderful time in my life.
You know that I am dust,
and you love me anyway.
You know I won’t get it all done,
and I won’t make perfect choices,
that I’ll often choose unwisely
and bear the consequences in needless exhaustion.
Yet you love me anyway.

Lord, grant me your Joy.
You’ve blessed me abundantly —
help me remember.
Give me wisdom in choosing how to spend my time
and grant me grace when I fail to choose wisely.
Redeem my mistakes,
show me the joy of imperfection.

Thank you, Lord, for always loving me.
Thank you that you have promised to give wisdom generously.
Thank you that you don’t find fault
when I need to ask yet once again.
If I had my way,
I’d simply do a certain list of tasks each day of the week.
Thank you for not giving me my way,
and adding so much spice and variety and job
if I’m willing to see it.

Lord, I know you will answer this prayer
and help me live with more joy.
And that joy will overflow in praise to you.
Thank you for amazing moments like the sunrise over the lake this morning.

Thank you for showing your love.
May I praise you as long as I live.

Please — anyone is welcome to add their own prayer in the comments!

Christmas Letter 2022

Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! This “Christmas” Letter has turned into a New Year’s Letter — But may every holiday you celebrate be filled with moments of joy!

It’s time for my annual reflection on my year. I try to get it written by Christmas, but allow myself grace if it doesn’t happen. This year — I had the letter written by Christmas, but decided to look through all the pictures I took in 2022, so now it’s the New Year. One thing that’s always true is how much my life is enriched by the people I’ve gotten to spend time with along the way — so do know that I am thinking about you during this holiday season and wishing you blessings and joy.

2022 was a fabulous year for me. A turning point came one morning in March. I was sitting on an interview panel, thinking how much more fun interview panels are when you’re one of the people asking the questions instead of the person answering the questions. I thought to myself, “I’m so glad I love my job and will never have to interview ever again!”

Then we broke for lunch and a Youth Services Managers’ meeting at 1:00. At the meeting, the Youth Materials Selector for our entire system of 22 branches announced that she was going to be moving to Utah. It was less than half a second after she said that before I knew that I would be applying for that position and that I wanted it with all my heart.

And, yes, I applied. They were mercifully quick about opening the position up for applications and getting the interviews done. (I say mercifully, because nine years before, the same position had been open, and what with one thing and another, it went unfilled for a year and a half.) The interview was virtual and somehow that was a lot less scary for me than in person, and I’d practiced, and it went really well. Since June, I have been working as Youth Materials Selector! And yes, I love the job as much as I’ve always known I would. Yes, I loved working in the branches, but this feels like the right job for me at the right time, and I’m still tremendously happy about going to my job every day — or teleworking and doing my job at home.

I’ve always been obsessed with new children’s books — and now that’s my job! It also feels a little bit like a game figuring out how many of which items to order and still stay within the various budgets. I spend over $20,000 each week, so I get to use my math skills as well. It’s perfect!

The rest of my life is full and happy, too. Also in March, I took a trip to the amazing Highlights Foundation Center for a writing retreat. (They feed you! Wonderful farm-fresh food.) My pandemic project was writing a book about Psalms, and now I’ve got the book where I’m ready to submit it to agents and/or publishers. I am really hoping to have more to report about that next year.

Now that I telework twice a week, I manage to get in more walks by my lake (working later if I take a long break) and still can’t resist taking pictures of the flowers, autumn leaves, and especially the great blue heron.

I still play board games, with an in-person Sunday afternoon group still going strong, and a weekly Tuesday evening virtual game time and Skype call with both my kids, Zephyr and Tim, who live in Oregon. I consider that weekly time with them the Great Gift of the Pandemic, because that’s what made me aware of the site — featuring a game I’d played with Tim all through their years in high school and college.

As of September, I’ve begun co-leading a ladies’ virtual small group with my church. Going virtual has been a good way to make friends and connect with a group without taking yet another evening out and about, because Wednesday nights, I’m singing with the church choir and still getting great joy out of that.

This Christmas felt hectic — because on Thanksgiving I took a trip to Maui for my sister Wendy’s wedding! Yes, the trip was wonderful, but it wasn’t quite what I expected, since I got a tiny sore throat three days after I got there — and the next day had a full-fledged cold — and tested positive for Covid.

The good news is that Wendy didn’t catch it and the friend I was staying with didn’t catch it and my other visiting family members didn’t catch it. I ended up doing a lot of reading and relaxing on the balcony of my friend’s house and ate all my meals outdoors. And the wedding was on the beach, with a strong wind, on Day 6 of Covid, so I was able to attend and enjoy Wendy’s wonderful windy wedding.

When I got back, I had my second negative Covid test (48 hours apart) exactly on time to rehearse for our choir’s Christmas cantata one day and perform the next. After the performances, I fell asleep for four hours! But it was a great joy to get to sing.

Yet another thing keeping me busy and happy is Book Award Committees. I took a reading retreat in October to New River Gorge National Park to read for the first round of the Cybils Awards, in the Young Adult Speculative Fiction category. This year, I’m category chair as well. We met virtually to choose our Finalists the day after Christmas, so of course I was still finishing up the reading through Christmas. After that, I have some books to read for the Mathical Book Prize, by January 10th (but those are mostly shorter). And after that, I want to cram in some more books for Capitol Choices — a local group of librarians that chooses 100 best children’s and young adult books of the year each year.

And just this week I got the good news that I have been appointed to the 2024 Morris Award committee! This group chooses the best young adult book of 2023 by a debut author. So I will need to get busy reading for that award as soon as I finish all that reading for 2023 awards.

Remember what I told you about being obsessed with new children’s books? Both my new job and these committees feed that obsession and bring me lots of joy. I’m probably a little bit overcommitted, but I’m definitely having fun.

And if you’re interested in which books I loved most from 2022, watch my Sonderbooks site for the 2022 Sonderbooks Stand-outs. I like to post them on New Year’s Day, but a bad tooth had other ideas. I hope it will be soon, though!

So that’s what I’ve been up to in 2022. How about you? I always love this chance to reconnect with friends. Drop me an email if you get the chance!

And here’s wishing you all a joyous holiday season!

— Sondy