Advent Junk Journal

advent junk journal - inside

Advent is coming, and I am ready.

I’m always ready for the Advent season — but this year, it feels like it can’t get here soon enough, like I need the sacred space that it has to offer.

If you’ve read much here, you know that I am one of those people who is always so aware of the gap — that emptiness that exists in life whether you are a person of faith or not. I don’t know if it’s the depression or just my artistic leaning, but I feel it all the time like a gaping hole in my side.

And much of my faith angst comes from the cliches and formulas and bumper stickers that we slap over that gap in order to pretend it doesn’t exist.

God will not give you more than you can handle.

Let go, let God.

If you feel far away from God, guess who moved?

That hole in your life is God-shaped…and only He can make you feel whole!

But the songs and scriptures and of Advent aren’t like that.

They’re songs of longing and need and desperation. The hymns that are reimagined by a hundred different artists this time of year — O Come O Come Emmanuel and Come Thou Long Expected Jesus and Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming and all those others — recognize the darkness while also holding a space for the coming light.

Sit in the dark, but leave the Christmas lights on, Advent says.

See the beauty in the darkness. Light is coming, light is coming, light is coming.

Light. Is. Come.

And I need this season. I need this validation of both darkness and light…particularly as we begin another long, dark winter in Minnesota.

There is something important, vital, beautiful, essential that I find when I take the time to sit in this tension…

But it’s Advent in America, and so there are Hallmark movies and Christmas Light Shows and Big Giant Sales and Christmas parties and cookie exchanges, and so Advent requires a kind of intentionality.

It requires us to find a sustainable way to choose it all over again, year after year after year.


Because I love the Advent season so much, I’m annually tempted to do every possible Advent related thing. (And there are so many beautiful ideas. A couple of years ago, I crowd-sourced with my readers, and we came up with a pretty exhaustive and amazing list. And my friend Tanya Marlow has cultivated a great list for 2015 here.)

But his year, I’ve decided to just pick just a couple of things. (Sometime in the next week or so, I’ll tell you what I’m planning to do with the kiddos to help them to learn to make space in their hearts this season. But today’s post is just about my own personal engagement with Advent.)

Enter my Advent Junk Journal.

simple advent junk journal

A few years ago, at my church women’s group’s Christmas session, there was a table filled with all sorts of paper scraps. There was cardboard and envelopes and scrapbook pages and notebook paper. Anything you could think to write on was there. Old teacher logs. Calendar pages. Pizza boxes. Vellum. They even brought in a couple of old typewriters.

After we’d talked around our tables about Christmas and intentionality and noticing, we were invited to get up, to take whatever we wanted, to create our own space.

I was, to use the old cliche, like a kid in a candy store.

But that year, that Advent season, something weird happened. I actually wrote things down. 

That junky journal with its helter-skelter pages — all of which were different widths and lengths, all of which were shoved into a sort of messy, beautiful pile — gave me exactly the space I needed to capture the skittering thoughts and insights that I found coming my way that season.

Now I make one every year.

I don’t have quite the same variety of papers available to me, but I can always find random stuff around the house. Scrapbook paper I forgot I had. A notebook with lines that are too wide-ruled for regular use. That grocery list pad from the fridge. That stack of paper that Liam colored on and then decided he hated.

I cobble them together into one book with just the smallest space for writing. And then I keep it around when I’m reading through my motley collection of advent books. When I’m sitting in front of my sun lamp in the morning. When we have the Christmas music on in the evening. And so if some old hymn stops me in my tracks, the book is there. And I have just enough room to write it down.


I have a rotation of favorite Advent books that I read here-and-there throughout the month of December. They are the best — guides and voices as I try my best to sit still in the mystery.

I like having a few different ones because it gives me options depending on my mood. My favorite go-to’s are:

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas – If you get just one, make it this one. It is such a well put-together compilation of great voices; you won’t be disappointed.

Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation, by Luci Shaw – The poet’s eye on Advent is a crucial one, and I love Shaw’s particular take. Gorgeous and haunting.

God is in the Manger, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – I just got this one last year and didn’t get a chance to read much of it. Still – there is something powerful about the advent prayers written in prison cell, and I’m looking forward to engaging with this one more this year.

I’m constantly going back to the Advent section of the Henri Nouwen reader Seeds of Hope, but I imagine that these same bits — plus more — are compiled in Advent and Christmas Wisdom from Henri J.M. Nouwen: Daily Scripture and Prayers together with Nouwen’s Own Words.

Advent with St. Franics, Diane M. Houdek – This is not, strictly speaking, a series of writings from St. Francis, but Houdek does a nice job of integrating his quotes, insights, and life to deepen the advent experience. It’s also the tiniest book I’ve ever seen, so it’s easy to keep in my bag and read when I find myself out and about and with a minute of boredom.

Preparing for Christmas, Richard Rohr – I’ve gotten in the bad (awesome?) habit of ordering myself a new advent reader at the beginning of each season, and I just bought this one for my 2015 read. I’ll keep you posted on that one, but it’s come highly recommended and I’m looking forward to checking it out!

advent required reading

But here’s the great thing about the Advent Junk Journal. There is only the tiniest space to write. There is no daily scripture reading with study questions and fill-in-the-blanks that mock you if you don’t have time to do them.

I make a point of never including much more writing space than a small notecard or post-it…and then I write down one thing.

One line or quote or insight or metaphor that struck me in my reading…

One verse…

A line of a hymn or a Christmas song that keeps running through my head…

A moment of transcendence with my children…

One unexpected thing that happened today…

One glimpse of a slant of light as it falls over the icy pond…

There are a thousand ways to encounter God, to experience the hard beauty of Advent, and what I’ve discovered is that more than spending hours reading and praying and journaling — it’s just catching one minute. Capturing one small incandescent bit of beauty falling like a snowflake. To jot it down before it disappears.

advent journal inside 3

What you need to make an Advent Junk Journal:

  • Random papers of any types/sizes. Envelopes. Grocery lists. Graph paper. Computer paper. Notebook paper. I had a bunch of unused Christmas scrapbook paper at the bottom of a drawer, so I used a bunch of that, along with cut-up dictionary pages, ripped up notecards, Post-it Notes and
  • Cardboard for the cover (Literally just rip the top off of some cardboard box. It looks even cooler if you rip it a little to reveal the corrugated inside.)
  • Book binding rings. The ones at the Dollar Tree are too small. Go with the bigger ones. (You want to have space to be able to add photos, cards, a random church bulletin, flier, or newspaper article)

That’s it. It’s the easiest craft project ever because it looks even better if you don’t line up everything perfectly. (This is perfect for Christmastime when the pressure to be PERFECT seems to reach its boiling point.)

Not crafty? There is no shame in that. You can still have your own version of an Advent Junk Journal. Get one of those tiny moleskin notebooks with just enough space on each page for one small thought. A stack of post-its. A handful of notecards. You could even just use the space in your daily planner to jot things down.

You can do this project however you like. Do whatever helps you mark the days. Whatever centers your heart toward beauty.

Whatever helps you to wait and watch for the light.

advent journal inside 2

What about you? How do you make space for intentionality at Advent?

In Which I Become an Unlikely Advice Columnist


This fall, at a weird little “resort” in the Wisconsin Dells that had two goats and a wasp-infested outdoor pool, I cracked open Cheryl Strayed’s book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, and I learned the phrase radical empathy, and my world tilted off its axis a little.

Tiny Beautiful Things is a compilation of advice columns Strayed wrote during her time as “Sugar” at the literary website The RumpusWhile at The Rumpus, she vaulted the standard “advice column” into uncharted territory: instead of giving barebones advice, Strayed gave her stories. She gave empathy. She gave herself.

I sat next to a patch of sugarcane my kids were feeding to the penned-up goats, and I read and read and read. I read people’s most fragile, terrifying questions. I read Sugar’s answers, which were so often rooted in her own moments of pain, grief, and confusion.

To the one whose friends don’t like his girlfriend, Sugar wrote, “The complicated thing about friends is that sometimes they are totally wrong about us and sometimes they are totally right and it’s almost always only in retrospect that we know which is which.”

To the woman who’s worried about whether she’s attractive: “There is nothing more boring and fruitless than a woman lamenting the fact that her stomach is round. Feed yourself. Literally. The sort of people worthy of your love will love you more for this, sweet pea.”

To the envious writer (who could be me most days of the week), Sugar said, “There isn’t a thing to eat down there in the rabbit hole of your bitterness except your own desperate heart. If you let it, your jealousy will devour you.”

People wrote their barest questions to Sugar, and she answered with the most wonderful cocktail of compassion and candidness. More often than not, she responded to the letter writer’s story with a story of her own—a memory, a confession, a distinctive vulnerability—and it was in that place where Sugar’s experience met her readers’ that radical empathy was born.

The advice she offered was not from above and beyond the problem, but from the complex middle of it. And because of that, it was searingly beautiful.

As I read the book, the thought that kept scrolling along the marquee of my mind was,

The church NEEDS this.

[Continue reading at Off the Page]

Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark {Official Book Reveal!}

3D Book Image smallOnce upon a time, I was on fire for Jesus, and that meant, more than anything else, that I felt my faith. It was palpable, tactile, tied inextricably into my emotions, making me weep openly in church on any given Sunday.

“How do you know God is real?” the impassioned speaker at the yearly Acquire the Fire conference asked. And we knew the answer before he said it: “Because you’ve FELT him.”

And I did. Faith was something that burned in my heart and in my veins. It made me stand up and raise my hands up high in worship. It made me passionate. It made me sure.

I FELT God like the bright morning sunrise on my face, like the strobe of a fluorescent light pounding against my closed eyelids

Until I didn’t.


In February 2014 – fifteen years after boiling point of my own on fire youth – I buckled my sons (ages four and two at the time) into our old, clunky minivan and set out on a 3000-mile road trip south. There was minimal thought or planning involved.

The North Polar Vortex was shifting oddly down into the United States, plunging us all into record lows. Flights canceled all along the East coast! Snowstorms in Georgia! The numbing winter darkness was spreading ink-like around me, into me, and I was pouring red wine into my own ravenous emptiness, trying to feel something. Anything.

My only thought was escape. My only thought was anywhere but here.

“It’s my chance to do something special with the boys before they start school,” I told my husband when I showed him the planning spreadsheet that I’d labeled Epic Winter Road Trip??? The spreadsheet listed the names of old friends, distant relatives, and Internet-strangers – anyone I could think of en route to Florida who might be able to give us an air mattress to crash on for a night.

“It’s a great way to promote my new book!” I told my Mama friends in the preschool parking lot as I waved goodbye, pulled away from the school, away from Minnesota, away from my life.

To my sons, blinking at me from their car seats, I said, “It’s an adventure! It’s going to be an adventure.

But of course, really, the trip was not about any of those things as much as it was a desperate attempt to get to the Light. It was gas station coffee and strangers’ houses and the mile markers ticking by as I made one last-ditch effort to find a faith I could feel.

It was a disappointment.

It was a revelation.


My first memoir, When We Were on Fire, was the story of untangling myself from a faith that was consuming, fiery, passionate, dangerous.

Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark is about the blank space after that, the gap between the faith you used to have and the dimness of reality. It’s about learning to make peace with the darkness – both around you and inside of your own heart.

It is the most terrifyingly personal thing I’ve ever written, but I’ve always believed that telling the truth of our darkness is the way that we heal, move forward, feel less alone.

And I think that maybe this story is a lot more universal than a girl in a minivan bulleting south toward the coast. It’s the story of all of us who are trying to move forward, trying to find God, trying to get to the Light.

Here we are, scraping always at our own emptiness, trying to make a spark.

Here we are, running away from the cold, looking for someplace sunnier, someplace warmer, someplace where all of this is easy.

Here we are, learning to survive the winter.

Night Driving is a book for anyone who has ever felt far away from God. For anyone who has felt far from themselves. For anyone groping for faith in the dark.

For you.

Night Driving - road pic

Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark officially releases on March 15, 2016 with Convergent, but you can pre-order it now on Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Books-a-Million, and IndieBound (support your local bookseller!)

In the meantime, you can sign up for my newsletter to keep updated on Night Driving and my upcoming events…and to get unique content delivered right to your inbox.

(OK, that sounded really marketing-y. Gross. But still. Sign up. It’ll be fun.)

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Thank you for your support, encouragement, comments, emails and patience as I’ve worked through the long, beautiful, excruciating process of writing this book.

I can’t wait to share it with you.


On Learning to Love My Cynic Voice

“It’s good you’ve worked hard to resolve childhood issues while in your twenties, but understand that what you resolve will need to be resolved again and again. You will come to know things that can only be known with the wisdom of age and the grace of years. Most of those things will have to do with forgiveness.”

~ Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things

Inside Out

Graphic from Pixar via Forbes

Last night it was a Family Movie Night, so we bought 5 Dollar Pizza and rented Inside Out and snuggled up together in the basement room, where Andrew’s projector beams DVD images onto the wall.

Dane climbed into Andrew’s lap – “I’m gonna share this blanket with my old pal, Dad” – and Liam leaned against my chest, and the movie started.

If you haven’t seen this movie, stop reading now and watch it immediately. But if you can’t watch it right this second, here’s the brief synopsis from Pixar:

“Growing up can be a bumpy road, and it’s no exception for Riley, who is uprooted from her Midwest life when her father starts a new job in San Francisco. Like all of us, Riley is guided by her emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. The emotions live in Headquarters, the control center inside Riley’s mind, where they help advise her through everyday life. As Riley and her emotions struggle to adjust to new life in San Francisco, turmoil ensues in Headquarters. Although Joy, Riley’s main and most important emotion, tries to keep things positive the emotions conflict on how to best navigate a new city, house, and school.”

It’s a beautiful story about the role of emotion in memory and the painful ways that we become integrated people.

I was most fascinated, as I watched, by the complicated relationship between Joy and Sadness. Once in San Francisco, Sadness – who has always been a less dominant emotion – starts to infiltrate Riley’s daily life more. She keeps gravitating toward the command center and pushing buttons, steering Riley into teary territory. Without meaning too, she keeps touching the crystal orbs of Riley’s most happy memories, turning them blue with sadness.

At one point, Joy, desperate to stay in control, draws a circle of chalk and tells Sadness that her job is to stay in the circle, just keep all that Sadness in the circle.

But of course, Sadness can’t be contained – as is evidenced when I get weepy over a particular poignant scene between Riley and her Dad.

“Whys Mom crying?” Dane asks, looking side-eyed at me from the rocking chair.

“No reason. Sadness just got control of Mom’s steering wheel. Again,” Andrew says, winking at me across the darkness


A couple of months ago, I started to see a Spiritual Director. Lisa is a certified therapist, but I’m not seeing her for traditional therapy. I see her because I keep slipping off that icy, blustery highway of my own spiritual journey and ending up stuck, wheels spinning, at the snowy side of the road.

I see her because I needed a place where I could talk directly about my complicated faith journey with someone trained, qualified and passionate about helping me navigate it.

So, once a month, after I drop Liam off at preschool, I drive to her office in St. Paul, and I sit down on her couch and I stare at the flickering candle on her table that is meant to remind us of the presence of God in our midst.

She prays. I sit in the silence until I’m ready to talk, until I’m ready to say the complicated truth about my spiritual life right now:

I thought I was past cynicism, but it’s still, all the time, creeping up, debilitating me.

Sometimes when people begin to talk about the Bible, I feel my heart closing down, walls going up.

When someone suggests ‘praying out loud’, I feel angry and resistant…and I can’t understand why. I believe in prayer. I love God. So why the angst? And how do I get past it?

But Lisa doesn’t tell me how to get past it. She asks me to think more clearly about this angsty voice. What does it sound like? Look like?

And if my cynicism is a character on Inside Out, she most closely resembles Disgust – but with a little anger and sadness thrown in. She is arms-crossed, eyes-narrowed – an irrational sixteen-year-old-girl kind of stubborn, I tell my Spiritual Director.

“I love that voice,” Lisa tells me conspiratorially. She tells me that I don’t get to choose whether or not the cynicism is there. I get to choose whether to ignore it…or to love it, value it, see it, listen to it. “Shushing a part of ourselves doesn’t resolve anything,” she says. “If you don’t listen to that voice, it gets more powerful. It comes out sideways.”

“It is the most surprising, beautiful thing when God uses a part of us that feels dangerous and threatening to bring Life,” she says, and the candle burns and she looks at me gently across the coffee table, and I feel something tinge with hope deep inside of my heart.

cynic voice - small


Maybe it’s the evangelical version of Christianity that I grew up in…or maybe it’s just the American flavor of life and faith – but I can’t seem to stop believing in this kind of narrative arc where you get past things and then you are past them. For good. You pass through the valley; you navigate through the five stages of grief.

You get through and you are done.

And so, at some point, I drew a circle around this part of myself, this Cynic Voice. You’ve had your say, I told her. You’re done now. I’m moving on. You stay here.

But of course, we know that no one puts Baby in a corner. She will not stay in the circle I made for her.

My faith has turned out not to be a straight path at all but a spiraling mountain road full of switch-backs and turns….and maybe my Cynicism was never a road-block that I needed to get past…but rather, an essential part of my heart.

Maybe she is more beautiful and complicated than I thought.


Meet my Cynic voice. She is still so young and angsty, and she talks in that voice – the one used by angry sixteen-year-old girls universally. But if I have learned anything, it’s how completely love can change us. How love can change everything.

“What if you learn to love your cynic voice?” My spiritual director asked me that day. “What do you think would happen?”

Maybe she would grow into herself. Maybe she would become something like Discernment, something like Wisdom, something like Strength.


At the end of the Inside Out, Liam is so tired that his head is lolling to the side as he sits on the couch. The crappy Redbox DVD freezes…then starts again, and you see that Riley’s memories are no longer the colors of one individual Feeling each – Red for Angry, Blue for Sad, Yellow for Joyful, Green for Disgusted – but instead a swirl of color. Complicated and abstract and beautiful.

The credits roll, and we hoist the kids off the couch and up to bed, and I think of my own heart full of memories, marbled with feelings and voices – a half dozen colors of truth and beauty.

“When you’re cynical,” Lisa said, “It means there’s an unhealed wound. Meet the wound with compassion. See what happens.”

I kiss my boys goodnight, and in my heart’s own Headquarters, there are a dozen voices, all of them essential to the conversation.

One of them calls herself Cynicism…but it’s only because she doesn’t know her true name yet. The name that God has given her. The one she will put on when Love makes her whole.

Photo from Pixar Wikia

Photo from Pixar Wikia