The Sky Pieces

This is not an Independence Day blog. It’s actually about genealogy and the preservation of history.

In genealogy, we strive to remember. We take pieces of an infinite puzzle and struggle to fit them together into a picture that reveals something of our heritage. We write down names and dates and connect people with one another. If we’re really good, we may connect faces in photographs, as well.


This morning, in my attempt to write about the fellows at the coffee shop, I listened to stories of the old buildings downtown. Some are still standing, many others have come and gone. The men remembered the buildings, their names, their owners, the businesses they housed, whether they depended upon steam power, the first time they stepped inside, the last time they stepped inside, its color, its scent, its atmosphere and lighting, and how it was decorated at holidays.

It occurred to me once again: History dies with the passing of each generation.

Genealogy can feel infinite, I think, because it kind of is. I remember my viola teacher telling me years ago that he was “still learning” to play his instrument, even though he was a magnificent violinist from South Africa who had been Concert Master for many big-name Symphonies. There is always more to learn, he told me, because there is always “more music.” Genealogy is the same. No matter how many names on a pedigree, there is always more we can learn about our ancestry. There is always more we can learn about our ancestors.

And let’s be honest: Ancestors can be difficult. Elusive. Sly. Confusing. I’m sure they don’t mean to be (unless you’re part of my family–in which case, I’m pretty sure they mean to be!). What we miss about them, what we leave for the next generation of genealogists, becomes harder to uncover. Each generation is one more lifetime removed from the facts than the previous generation, and so details are lost; memories are faded; facts are forgotten. Births? Deaths? Marriages? Those things are relatively easy to come upon and verify. The stories are less so.

I think of my uncles who, like the fellows at the coffee shop, have lived rich lives and have myriad stories to tell. They make us laugh, but they also impart a heritage and culture that belongs not only to my family, but to the communities in which they have lived. What are the buildings they remember from their hometown? What experiences can they pull out of their memories faster than a snap of the fingers? With four of my five uncles now gone, I realize what time I’ve wasted. I realize what stories I’ve lost. I realize what a ridiculous thing it is to say, “I just don’t have time,” or “I can’t afford the trip,” or “I’m not really sure how,” — the last of which is my personal Achilles.

All of this is to encourage you–and to encourage myself.

Interview your oldest living relative.

Interview as many of your relatives as possible.

Ask questions more than names and dates.

Capture stories as well as facts.

And for that matter, I beg of you, genealogists!–don’t forget your own story! Write it down. Write it all down. It doesn’t have to be perfect or perfectly edited. But if you don’t share the stories of your life, if you don’t prepare it for future generations, the things you remember will also be lost. We take for granted that someone else will remember, but guess what? They won’t.

Case in point.

Folks who’ve lived in Manistee for years can tell you there was a store there called Dewey’s. It’s probably on an old city map at the library or archives. Town records can tell you when it was established, when it closed its doors for the final time; old newspapers can tell you what its hours of operation were, what products they sold, what the prices were. Those are wonderful elements to bring to a family story.

What you don’t learn from records is that we could walk there from my Grandma’s house. It was just a short jaunt down the road and around the corner. We used to love their olive loaf. I remember the smell of the deli there–in my childhood, before my aversion to fresh meat, I loved the smell. It didn’t stink; it smelled fresh and earthy. It was a treat for us to go to Dewey’s. I remember my Uncle Dave giving me a dollar bill one day–to go to Dewey’s and get a treat. A whole dollar! In the 80s, that was a lot of cash.  ‘But don’t spoil your dinner,’ he advised, ‘and don’t tell your Grandma.’

Maybe it’s not spectacular, but it puts an historical event (Dewey’s business) into context of a family and a culture. These pieces of sky blue give the puzzle its character and background. Allowing our relatives to pass on without documenting some of these things is akin to throwing away the sky pieces of your puzzle. If you only want the nuts and bolts, names and dates of your family history, and you throw away the sky pieces, don’t complain that your finished picture has no sky.

Don’t count on someone else searching and solving a section of the puzzle tomorrow that you could easily put together today.




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Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

There are some passages in Scripture that are, perhaps, more loved than others. When you ask someone about their favorite verse in the Bible, or if they have a Life Verse, it’s probably safe to assume they won’t quote Leviticus or Deuteronomy. (I don’t know why… personally, some of the Best Stuff of Scripture is in Deuteronomy!) Psalms and Isaiah get their fair share of quoting, and the Gospels and the Epistles. And that is how it should be, I think. When we speak of passages in the Bible that really impact us and change our hearts, it is often something that expresses God’s grace, His love, His desire and delight in His people. It’s still a mystery to me that God would love us, but He does.

One of the expressions we hear quoted often from the Bible is this one: “…speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” You’ve heard that one, right? These are Paul’s words, and like any honest writer, he actually uses this material in two different letters—to the churches at Ephesus (Eph. 5:19) and at Colossus (Col. 3:16).

If we go back and read the words surrounding each use of this expression, we find that the contexts are very similar. Paul is writing to encourage and admonish us in how to live—particularly, how to live as Christians and as a Christian body.

It’s just a beautiful idea, isn’t it? Speaking to one another in song? You’ve heard the analogy of the old dog who has a favorite bone that he always goes back to chew on? This is my “old favorite bone.” It’s always nearby, and I can be in the midst of some other study or project altogether, and I’ll find myself gnawing on it: Speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs? What did Paul mean? Was he just being poetic?

Largely, I think we assume he was being poetic—as evidenced by the fact that we don’t often experience gatherings of Believers wherein they are singing to one another. We sing together as a means of corporate agreement in worship, but we almost never sing to each other.

This morning, I was singing an old worship chorus and this idea of speaking in song came back to me; it birthed a new question.

What if we spoke to one another—not necessarily in song—but in the same manner and phrasing that we sing our worship songs and hymns? When we remove the music, do the words mean something? Or are they just fluffy and feel-good?

I need some volunteers. I need to test this out.

You will be agreeing to receive and respond to written correspondence with me through a medium of your choice—postal mail, email, or facebook messenger. It’s not ongoing (unless you keep responding, then we’ll make it ongoing).

What do you say? I need several people. I know there are a few I can count on already (you probably know who you are)…

Let me know.

Pax, friends!

Posted in SemStuff | 9 Comments

What’s in a Name?

A few days ago, I spent some time at the Catholic cemetery taking photos of grave markers for fellow family historians online. It’s a hobby I genuinely love. It’s nice to give back to a community that has aided me in my own genealogical searches. But more than this, I am inspired by the thought of how many stories are locked within those gates each night. Each grave remembers one life. Each life remembers a million stories. Each story represents many perspectives. Each perspective is shaped by experience. Each experience is another story. Each new story is part of a legacy.

This weekend, Jonathan Dunne* asked his facebook followers a poignant question: What identifies you?

Questions like this always send me into a whirlwind of self-reflection. The question was coupled with another: Do you always seek an earthly defined reward for your works?

It made me think of a grave I spent several minutes with the other day.


Someone out there knows the name that goes with this marker, but sadly, time and weather has broken this stone and it’s no longer apparent who is buried here. Still, I found great hope in the beauty of this adorned grave. Someone remembers this person. His story impacted lives. Though it looks as if he’s been gone more than 100 years, he is honored yet with a simple white flower.

Legacy isn’t about making a name for ourselves; it’s about loving those around us. There may be moments in our lives when we see how our choices are changing the lives of others, but for the most part, we never really know, do we? That’s because our reward was never in this temporal existence; it is a reward held safely for us in eternity.

So in all of my soul-searching, trying to figure out (yet again… or maybe still) who I am and what makes me “me,” I find a new answer today: Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe, in the end, someone will remember our words to them or our generosity or our kindness or our encouragement in their struggle. They may forget our name, but the legacy of our  love cannot be snuffed out like an ashen wick. Maybe all that matters is living out our passions, our callings, our convictions in a manner that exemplifies the love of Christ.

Maybe, in the end, that’s all we have.

Pax Christi.


* If you’re not following him, take a moment to do so. You won’t regret it. The man’s passion will challenge you.

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A Writer’s Guide to Online Etiquette

As a writer, doesn’t it really grill your beef when you comment on someone’s blog and they never reply? Recently, I stumbled upon a writer I find both challenging and insightful. She had begun a series of articles on her website that looked promising. The first piece read with passion and conviction, and though I did not agree with her conclusion entirely, I really appreciated the time she had obviously invested and the boldness she exhibited in taking such a stance on such a controversial matter. So I did what every Blogger would do: I commented on her article. I even hit that little button that asks if I want email notification of future comments. I was genuinely interested in dialogue with this writer.

After several days of not receiving an email with the news that she’d answered me, I returned to her site to find she has posted her second piece. ‘Okay,’ thought I, ‘maybe she legitimately hasn’t had time to respond, right? Give her a second chance.’ Additionally, I was genuinely interested in the progression of the ideas she’d established with the opening piece. So I did what every Reader would do: I read the next piece and, finding myself again appreciating her conviction and fire but not quite agreeing with her approach and resolution, I left a another comment.

Here it is necessary to say: I try very hard to be non-put-off-ish online. It is so, so easy to come across poorly when responding to someone else’s writing – especially online! So I worded my comments to this writer carefully in an effort to engage her and not come off as a random know-it-all who wanted to diss her on her own turf. And after several days of no email, again, I returned to her site to see if I’d missed a reply.


This blog is not an attempt to shame the writer. You’ll notice I’ve been vague in describing the circumstances and the only thing I’ve revealed about the writer is that she can be defined as a “she.” This blog, rather, is a reminder to all of us that writing presents the great opportunity of networking, of meeting people who have connected at least on some level (even if they don’t agree) with your words, and – quite frankly – of promoting our work and our selves. I think of C.S. Lewis, one of my few heroes, who wrote (I seem to recall) that he spent the first hour of each day responding to letters from kids who’d read his Narnia series. I doubt many authors today spend much time responding to fans in this manner, but the internet provides a unique opportunity to involve with fans and critics quickly and easily. And while situations and personalities insist there are no steadfast rules on how to exist as a writer in today’s interweb world, I would suggest there are a few key ideas we should all consider when branding ourselves online.

  1. Be Politic. It is true that there are folks out there who will stalk your words and try to make you look bad –trolls, as it were. You are under no obligation to give them voice or to condone their behavior towards yourself or others. However, I’ve seen it happen many times where an individual is labeled a troll simply because he doesn’t agree with someone else and may be less articulate in expressing his views. Call a spade a spade, right? A troll is a troll is a spade is a spade. But don’t assume that someone who disagrees with you is a boogeyman out to ruin your online image.
  2. Be Engaging. Invite others to get involved in the conversation, whether it be individuals who read your writing or individuals who may want to write a response piece. These are good things. Encourage them.
  3. Be Engaged. When someone reads your piece and “likes” it or leaves a comment, respond. A “like” often comes from another writer who happened upon your blog because you’ve used similar tags as them or because they were searching for a piece on a certain topic. Encourage that. Follow their link and even if you cannot “like” anything they’ve written with honesty, you will at least have visited their site and it will encourage them to keep writing and to keep visiting your site. And if they leave a comment, for crying out loud, respond. No reader who wishes to dialogue with you should feel unwelcome (unless you can judicially ascertain him to be a troll). Choosing to ignore reader comments is a good way to stop traffic to your blog – and no, I will not be returning for the third article in the example writer’s series.
  4. Be Gentle. In Beta work, I use what many describe as the Oreo Approach, where the critique and suggestions are sandwiched between two layers of encouragement. When someone does something well in their writing, we need to encourage it. And if you can only find one good thing to say, offer it, give your critique, and then reiterate the praise. Almost every writer I’ve ever read has done at least one thing exceptionally well, if I’m willing to open myself up to their style and tone and habits (we all have writing habits, for better or for worse—mine are em-dashes, ellipses, and parentheses).
  5. Be Humble. Nobody has to read your writing. Nobody has to click a link to your site. Nobody has to share your work with friends and family. Nobody has to comment or like or return for future pieces. Nobody owes you anything. Appreciate each and every person who encourages your writing – whether by liking, linking, commenting…each piece builds your online presence, and that is not something you innately deserve. You are not the bee’s knees. Don’t think more highly of yourself than you ought.
  6. And finally, Be Confident. You may not be on the cover of “Amazing Bloggers USA” or anything (if you are, congrats—cause I’m pretty sure I just made that up), and you may not be “the bee’s knees.” Nonetheless, you are the only you on the interwebs (hopefully!). You are the only person alive with the perspective, the opinion, the word choice, and the conviction that you bring. Don’t be intimidated by bloggers who have ginormous followings. Just keep going. Keep being you.

Keep writing; keep reading; keep smiling!



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Write Me

My perception of the world is shaped by one recurring idea:

We all desire to belong, to be known.

It looks different for each one of us, I’m sure, but time and again I see it play out in the most astonishing (and unexpected) ways. I stumbled upon it this morning at the coffee shop downtown.

I’ve marveled for months at the fellas I write about — how they seem to take a certain pride in the notion that I would want to write about them. Maybe they feel honored. Maybe they feel respected. I don’t know. At times, I am convinced they ham it up just to make it “more interesting” for me. And listen, they are about the funniest bunch I’ve ever met. I love their wit and random tales! But I always find it curious that they try so hard to give me something “good” to write. It’s almost as if they don’t realize that they are ridiculously memorable. It’s almost as if they don’t realize they are amazing men with amazing stories and amazing insight and amazing personalities. Or if they do know it, they have long stopped believing it. I think, in a sense, they are humbled by it (though you wouldn’t know it from listening each Saturday).

I met a couple this morning. It’s not the first time I’ve seen them, not the first time we’ve spoken, and certainly not the first time they’ve made it into my ink. We were introduced this morning, however, and I spent several minutes chatting with them and learning more about them, laughing together over the time their dog managed to get loose and ran into the cafe. As they were preparing to leave, the gal asked me if they had made it into the book — if they get their own chapter. It made me smile and offer assurance that there is, in fact, a place for them.

I don’t know why it surprised me, but it did. Suddenly everyone in the cafe seemed to be attentive to our dialogue, interested in the idea that someone was writing about strangers in a cafe.

And that is where I saw it: In the faces of people whose names I didn’t know but who were now anything but strangers to me, I saw a longing to be known, to be written about, to be remembered, to belong.

If we’re honest with ourselves, I suppose we all experience that yearning. Sometimes we call it legacy. Sometimes we call it belonging. Sometimes we call it remembrance. Sometimes we call it story. Sometimes we call it love. Always, it is a desire to not be forgotten after our bodies fail us. Always, it is a desire to belong with those we’ve shared moments with along our journey. Always, it is a hope that something about our lives, our words, our own individual journeys are worth being preserved — being remembered, being retold to future generations. It reminded me of a lyric from an old song by 4Him:

…and if the Bible had no closing page,

and still was being written to this day…

Oh, I want to be a man that you would write about.

Oh, a thousand years from now, that they would read about.

That is why, I suppose, as children we dream of doing great things. We read story books and imagine that we are the hero or heroin. We hear stories in history class of people who changed the world and we feel a sense of longing. We hear of atrocities and boldly claim that if we’d been there, we never would’ve silently allowed it to happen. We were created for this — for greatness, for changing the world, for making bold moves — all in the name of belonging. As we grow older, our spirits have a tendency to age, also — to become more “rational,” just as if we’d tasted the fruit ourselves and our eyes had been opened to everything that follows the loss of our innocence. It isn’t simply that we lose the purity of not knowing sin or pain or separation; it’s that we lose the reckless confidence and certainty of our identity as God’s beloved children. And so we grow old, and we stop believing that we can — or are meant to — change the world. We stop believing that ours is such an important piece of the puzzle. And we stop investing in one another, because we are too busy with “the real world,” like a 9 to 5, mowing the lawn, and balancing the checkbook.

And too often, we become so consumed with those things that we allow those we love to lay in rest before we even realize how deeply our souls belonged together. I’m not talking about eros — or at least not only eros. I’m also speaking of phileo… and agape. Whether your spouse, your children, your parents, your siblings, you friends, your neighbors, your teachers, your pastors… you belong with them, and they with you. When we fail to recognize it during a lifetime, the loss is tragic. We are left with regret for so many words left unsaid, or for not having spent more time together. When we do realize it during a lifetime, the loss is as my wise Wicket told me recently, “Oh my dear, I rejoice for my friend!”

I think about those men, that couple, and all the strangers visiting to celebrate their kids graduation from the University — that humbled longing in their eyes and in their tone and in their attention to “the Author,” and the humility shifted. How humbling that anyone — I mean it, anyone — would want me to write about their life. How humbling that anyone would entrust themselves to me, hoping to keep their stories — the ups and downs, the struggles and triumphs — alive. How humbling that anyone would use the words “the Author” to define me. How humbling to realize that when it comes to the written word, people still believe that having their name in print is recognition of having accomplished something in their lives, that it is something to be attained with pride. How humbling to know that they’re counting on me to do justice to their experiences and character.

As writers, we often feel as thought our writing is about our own accomplishment. And it is. We take pride in a story well written, because it is ridiculously grueling at times. It is ridiculously painful. We have to kill off words and sentences we may really, really love. We have to choose the most appropriate words and the most appropriate details. We have to determine what part of the story is the part that needs to be remembered. And so we own it. We take pride in finishing a project. When we do finish and we finally see our words in published print, it feels like the first day of Summer Vacation when we were kids. Writing is both gloriously high and gloriously low.

I forget.

I think most writers forget from time to time.

Preserving truths and heroes in print… is not just a way to help others; it is very much a means of affirming to another person — whether the reader of a novel or a man who drinks coffee every Saturday morning and is quoted up and down the margins of your journal — they are not alone; they are not the same as everybody else; they are important; they are worth being remembered or thought of; their piece of the puzzle is necessary; they belong.

You belong, friends. Don’t disbelieve the importance of your life story. Don’t disbelieve the irreplaceable nature of your journey. Don’t shrug off that feeling of destiny, because nobody else in all of creation is able to do the things you are able to do. You don’t have to be the greatest to leave a great legacy. You don’t have to be famous to belong with those who know and love you. If I had all the time in the world, I would write your story — each one of you.

And so with me… you belong. I affirm your story. I validate your legacy. I vow to you, I will preserve as much as I can of your life, because that is my story.

My belonging… is that you belong with me.


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