That Awkward Mom Thing

I was on the dance floor. I guess I could have been sitting on the sidelines because I'm not 21 and thin. But I wasn't. I was on the dance floor. All night. Dancing with kids, with my husband, with my son, with my daughters, with random people, with groups of people, alone, line dancing... you know, all the different things that happen on a dance floor at a wedding when the band is great and they never take a break. And you're with the people you love. Or around people you probably would love if you talked to them. And life is good. 

And a woman a little older than me (but not much older) came over and said, "Don't do that awkward mom thing." Or "Don't be that awkward mom." Or some such encouraging remark. I've repressed the exact words though the spirit of it has stuck with me longer than I'd like to admit.


What are the appropriate responses to that?

"Oh, ok, I'll go sit down. Sorry if I humiliated our generation."

"Thank you for letting me know I move awkwardly (you're in fact right)." 

"At least I'm on the dance floor. I haven't noticed you out here."

Tempted to feel shame, I think I gave her a big, God-empowered smile (I didn't have one of my own to spare) and danced off in the other direction... to a hidden spot in the very middle.

But I keep thinking about her. I wonder what's in it for us ("us" because I probably do the same thing sometimes and don't realize it) when we need to tell someone they look foolish or tell someone anything that shames, shuts them down, smooshes their spirit, or hampers them.

I would have spun off the planet with joy if she had said, "Look at you, go!" Perhaps even if she'd needed to add, "It's amazing that at your age you can still dance for three hours."



The Pain that Walks through the Front Door

I needed somebody to fix something in my house. I called a repairman. He said he could come out in two hours. In spite of having hoped to get some solid, uninterrupted time to concentrate on some projects, I said, "Come on over."

He did.

I was business-like and, I hope, pleasant enough. But I wasn't particularly warm or curious about him or about his life experience. I was thinking I just needed the toilet to stop leaking.

As he was leaving, somehow a conversation about his car having been wrecked turned into an admission that it hadn't exactly been a good season. His wife died on Christmas morning. In the midst of having the ambulance come to get her, it was discovered that he had too many cats, and so they were taken away too. His son moved away recently, leaving him without a car, and his other two children have had rough break-ups, one just yesterday.

Thanks to my son, Charlie Umhau, for sharing this sketch he did, one that comes to mind in circumstance after circumstance. For more of his work, see

Thanks to my son, Charlie Umhau, for sharing this sketch he did, one that comes to mind in circumstance after circumstance. For more of his work, see

He said, "I'm doing a little better, but for a long time I just cried." I said, "Well I'm going to cry now." And I did. 

I had almost let a grieving person walk in and out of my house without hearing his story and naming the pain of it. And letting him see my tears on his behalf. 

I hope he felt a little less alone to tell someone, but I almost missed seeing his brave face and watching him walk slowly to his company van, heading home to ... what? 

I just wanted the toilet fixed and wasn't much thinking about the human who would come and do it.

But now I am.


He Used a Bullhorn


Observing someone's actions doesn't mean I know his heart or motives; I acknowledge that. Yet I'm trying to sort out what it means when someone screams at people through a bullhorn and then won't engage someone who stops to respond to the message.

I fear that I do it sometimes, even if I don't own a bullhorn.

Ascending the escalator at the Farragut North subway stop in Washington, DC, I was early to meet a friend for happy hour. I was barely into daylight before I heard the rants of a middle-aged man, bullhorn in hand, worn Bible under his arm, urging repentance, telling everyone on the crowded sidewalks and, I imagine, those in offices nearby too, that they were going to hell and needed Jesus, that it was almost (but not quite) too late to turn back.

It was an assault. People weaved around him, creating a wide berth, and tried to ignore him. I know I was tempted to.

And then it hit me how sad I felt for the man, perhaps well-intentioned, thinking he was doing something helpful or important for people but nevertheless using methods that -- to my eyes at least -- seemed likely to have the opposite effect than what he intended. 

And I felt sad for those walking by... some of whom may genuinely wonder if God would take them back after what they've done and where they've been, prodigal sons and daughters like me who've thought life would work by figuring out our own pathways (when God invites us to depend on him, to rest in the fat cushion of his love for us, and to operate in this crazy world out of his strength, bearing his hope to a hurting world). Because all the bullhorn guy was telegraphing was anger, judgment, hatred. I doubted anyone would want to run to the God he described. Which is a shame. Because the God I know is kind, even as he cares how we live.

So I decided to talk to the bullhorn guy. I wanted to approach him with kindness and curiosity. To just ask what his own story is, what change or reaction he hoped to effect in those passing by, how his day was going out there alone with everyone walking way far around him.

I took up a position about 10 feet directly in front of him. And with my best benign, "I'm open to conversation" smile, I waited and stared, assuming he'd draw a breath soon and see that I wanted to talk. Maybe all day he'd waited for someone to stop and talk, to ask him to open that Bible and tell them a story of good news. And I'd be that person. That's what I thought.

But as four minutes stretched into five, the only reaction I got, the only acknowledgement that I was there, that I was a human person in front of him, the very man so eager to "talk" to people that he was using a bullhorn... well the only reaction I got was that he clenched his eyes tight and kept on yelling. And ignored me entirely.

Thinking better than to walk up and touch him, I eventually moved on. 

And I've wondered since about the role of bullhorns. If we have so much to say and insist that others hear it regardless of context, interest, invitation, curiosity or relationship, what are we yelling for? Who are we yelling for? And how can we expect someone to listen?

Is he still there? Will he keep going? Is anyone listening? 

And more important for me to consider: How often do I answer questions no one is asking? And how often do I forget that people don't care what we have to say until they know we care about them.

And that takes time.

And rarely happens with a bullhorn in hand.


Picking up strangers in the rain and other social risks


I love this post by Sasha Dichter. It's called Walking in the Rain. I'll repost it here but go check out more of his posts on generosity. Good stuff. Just wanted to share it with you Burning Down the Fireproof Hotel readers because it mirrors my experience. In my case, I found that I didn't even care very much that I wasn't so connected to others, that I didn't really have a vision for what it would look like to take risks on others until I asked God to change my heart. That was a powerful prayer that has yielded all sorts of cool social interactions, love exchanges that have enlarged my heart (and hopefully others'). 

Anyway, read Sasha (and this is my favorite line: "That pushing against these norms creates real discomfort. And that pushing through this discomfort creates a giddy sense joy that can be addicting."):

Walking in the Rain

Posted on June 2, 2015 by Sasha

I’ll admit it, I’m terrible at checking the weather. It’s just not part of my morning routine. So, even though I spend 30 minutes a day walking to and from the train and to my office, more often than is reasonable I end up trudging through a downpour as everyone around me pops open their umbrellas.

So the starting point here is that it’s on me.

That said, the other day, while I walked home from the train in the leafy suburb I call home, the rain turned from steady to torrential. I was apparently one of few people who was surprised by this turn of events, since, as I got out of the train, the line of cars waiting to pick up passengers was 30 deep rather than the usual 5 to 10.

As I slowly made my way up the hill, my light blue shirt having turned a deep shade of violet from the downpour, I scanned the lineup of cars, looking for a familiar face. And, when it became clear that I didn’t know any of the drivers, I couldn’t help but wonder: is anyone going to give me a wave and a nod and offer me a warm dry seat?

Apparently not.

Why does no one roll down the window to help? To boil it down, how we act in these situations is the result of our assessment of four things:

  1. How dire is the need of the person?
  2. What is the perceived social cost and benefit of action?
  3. How much do I perceive that I, and I alone, am responsible for taking an action?
  4. In the story I tell myself about myself, how do I act in these sorts of situations?

Put this way, it’s pretty clear why I got drenched on my walk home: my need was far from dire (it’s just a bit of rain); it is mildly socially awkward to invite someone in to your car; lots of people could help so we have a Kitty Genovese situation (bystander effect) going on; and….well, what about #4?

This last one – the story we tell ourselves about “how do I act in situations where I have the opportunity to help?” – this strikes me as the wildly unaddressed leverage point for anyone in the social change business.

Since launching my Generosity Experiment in 2008 I’ve been trying to understand what it takes to unlock the sense, in myself and in others, that in situations where help can be given, more of us will be the kind of people who chose to act.

While this is lifelong work, as I trudged through the rain I reflected on some of the things I think I’ve learned so far:

That everyone starts in a different place, and that these starting points come first and foremost from the values we were taught at a young age.

That there are real, powerful social norms that hold us back from acting.

That pushing against these norms creates real discomfort. And that pushing through this discomfort creates a giddy sense joy that can be addicting.

That one of the most important jobs that social groups perform is to tilt these norms in favor of care of others….and that, as these social norms become weaker as societies modernize, and as we hide behind our screens, car windows, and devices more and more, it is the job of new actors to set a new set of norms.

That, for those folks who routinely do more than the least that’s expected of them, their work began with a decision it’s not enough just to believe we all have the same potential. What’s required is living that belief through actions.

That part of the story we need to tell ourselves is that it (whatever “it” is) is up to us, not to someone else.

That, like everything else in life, the first step towards living more generously is the belief in and commitment to making a change in ourselves. It is in that moment of decision, and in the actions that reaffirm that decision, that we open up a new conversation about who we are and what we can become.

That there’s a profound sense of alone-ness in the world, and that finding moments to break through by creating a personal connection is one of the most powerful things we can do.

And, like everything else in life, we must find the balance of pushing ourselves to be better and forgiving ourselves for our limitations today.

In the end, I didn’t mind so much getting wet – my kids certainly didn’t seem to care when they ran to greet me as I got home.

Plus, if I am honest with myself, I wasn’t sure I’d have opened my door for me walking by. Not yet. But I’m working on it.

And yes, I’m also working on remembering to bring an umbrella.

He ate alone.

A friend and I were in a café eating Tater-Tots (really). Cold Tater-Tots actually. The food's not great but the people who work there are, so we go often. And sit at the same table.

One day a guy who looked like an acquaintance of mine walked in. And sat nearby. I thought it might even be the guy I sort of knew. So I was staring. But he looked bad, not enough like himself for me to be sure.

He spoke to me, because it was the guy. And we bantered back and forth a minute. He told us that it was his birthday and he was treating himself to a birthday breakfast.

We wished him a "happy birthday" and went back to our Tater-Tots and conversation. 

I thought about asking the acquaintance to join us but when I looked over to do it he had his eyes closed in what looked like deep prayer, so I left him alone.

Later in the day I went on his Facebook page to say that I'd wished I'd asked him to join us. And there I saw the notice that his son had died, the day before. Unexpectedly. At age 23.

And I'd missed the chance to sit with a grieving father who ate alone on his birthday, the day after his namesake died.

And that's not okay. 

New policy: err on the side of asking someone to join me. And let them, not me, decide.

May we never eat alone when we don't want to.

Foot Washing, Cell Phones and The Pull of Another World

"Couldn't you stay awake with me one hour?" Jesus asked his disciples in his final hours of life.

Last week as I celebrated Maundy Thursday,  the commemoration of Jesus' last supper, the passover meal, with my church community, we left the church sanctuary to wash one another's feet in an adjoining room.

As we began trickling back into the sanctuary for the rest of the service, I instinctively picked up my phone and started to check it for... what? 

I was taken aback as I heard Jesus' words, applicable to me, "Couldn't you stay awake with me one hour?" "Can't you focus on me for one hour?" "Can't you leave behind lesser things for the important thing?"

Jesus told Martha, who was stressing over meal preparation and tasks, that her sister Mary had chosen the more important thing -- to sit at his feet. 

I want that single-minded focus. I want to journey through Holy Week, from solemnity and betrayal through death and waiting to, finally, the raucous remembrance and relief that Easter always comes, that death has no sting. None. No, not really. No, not ultimately.

On Easter Sunday, I went to download a song that a friend shared. It's called simply Easter Song. And iTunes suggested instead, "Bitch Better Have My Money." I'm not sure what algorithm got me there. Maybe it's a perfectly good song; I've got nothing against Rihanna. But I was looking for Jesus. And a reminder of how he triumphs over everything. And it was a little hard to find him.

So much conspires to destroy a single-minded focus on Jesus. It's hard to stay awake even one hour. 

But it's the important thing. And as Jesus said about Mary, "it won't be taken away." 

Where Can I Meet Up with You?

The feedback loop is what matters. You, the reader, and I, the author, connecting. Sharing stories. Mine, yes, but yours too.


I'm out on the town or out on the road a lot these days, talking about feeling fireproof and then being set free, admitting years of being racist, judgmental, tired and cranky, confessing that I wasn't so sure if this life with Jesus was all that it's supposed to be... until I encountered laughing Jesus. And I'm interacting with readers -- hallelujah! Finally, after three and a half years of being cooped up trying to fling these stories out of my head, out beyond the defense mechanisms and fear factor, into the world, I am hanging out with people. One friend said, "The book is now a book-end, containing others' stories too." I love that.

Why did I write a book? "Because somebody had to go first." That's what I say when asked. That and being pretty sure that others might be encouraged by some of my stories of God's fiery love and pursuit. 

If I tell mine, maybe you'll tell yours. If you see that I am surviving vulnerability, then maybe you'll risk it. Cause when we risk letting others know who we are, we are less alone.

And every person we meet shows us something new about God.

Anyway, the book is prompting some good conversation. People have a lot they want to talk about. Sometimes they just need to be asked. And I love asking.

So I'm doing that in (so far) DC, Maryland, Virginia ("DMV" we call it locally, collectively, though I'm also going beyond the DC area to Richmond and Roanoke), North Carolina (Charlotte, Raleigh), South Carolina (Spartanburg, Aiken), Tennessee (Nashville, Bristol), Georgia (Atlanta, Athens, Gainesville), West Virginia (Wheeling) with expected, though as yet unscheduled, stops in Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco Bay area, Carmel, CA, to name a few.

Events we've had and those planned have a few different formats, but I'm open to others: 

  • Someone invites friends to their home or a room in their apartment building or office, tells me what theme in the book they'd like me to focus on, and then I facilitate conversation for that group of friends (with the hope that they will go forward into something deeper and ideally even into neighbor-loving action together).
  • A bookstore hosts an author event, with me reading a selection or two, speaking briefly, fielding questions.
  • A church asks me to come in and speak about a theme in the book (risking engaging the poor, openness ot the "other," naming our "current spiritual location," the "both/and" of life (joy and suffering), the value of disruption, learning to hear and heed God's voice (as opposed to the voices of our various subcultures), love beyond romance, owning our passions and purpose, answering the questions people are asking in the name of Love.
  • A book club invites me to come to a session where they do what they usually do, but with my book. (So far I've been spared the "I hated this book; what was this author thinking?" conversations).
  • A church asks me to lead multiple weeks on Biblical passages and themes related to the book.
  • A (good) friend has a party to celebrate the book -- with a bit of reading, a bit of conversation about process and motivation and a little "How'd you finally do what you said you'd do when you were 10?" thrown in for good measure.
  • A library invites me to a book conversation over lunch.

Invite me somewhere. Or join me somewhere. Check out the calendar of where I'm going (and where I've already been) and use the form there to contact me about your event.

The One Amidst the Thousands

"The cattle on a thousand hills...." That phrase pummeled my brain as I drove for a month alone, day after day all over the country, a couple of years ago.

"Every beast of the forest is Mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird of the mountains, and everything that moves in the field is Mine," is the actual reference, Psalm 50:10, 11.

When my car was a speck on the GPS screen, when the next turn I'd need to take was 595 miles away, I felt small, almost lost in a big world. 

And then I'd remember anew that the cattle on a thousand hills (over there... look at them!) are His. As am I.

Today I was thinking about a number of friends and acquaintances who are struggling, depressed or anxious, discouraged, lacking hope, wondering if they've been forgotten, wondering if God or anybody knows that they are floundering, drowning, not doing well. And it hit me again: the sad ones on a thousand couches in front of a thousand televisions are His.

The lonely ones who will pretend tonight ("Thank God it's Friday!" not withstanding) that they're having fun at a thousand different bars... well, they are His.

And the thousand men and women in flat marriages or abusive ones... they are His too. 

And yesterday I brainstormed entry-level jobs for a friend who's been homeless, who needs a break, who needs someone to take a risk on him in spite of the gaps on his resumé. And it's hard to imagine that a great prospect will open up and his entire life will change. Maybe, but probably not. Yet the homeless in a thousand shelters are His. He's got it all.

Not that we can't and shouldn't join in and try to help. Not that our heart shouldn't ache in solidarity. But ultimately God's got it all -- cattle, birds, us.

We are His.

Zippy Will Be 100

Zippy is a main character in the book. She's my anthropomorphized, blue MINI Cooper. She and I had a couple of adventures in the form of solo, cross-country road trips. And in spite of the fact that I've had to replace her engine, have her hauled cross-country on a trailer, and regularly endure the jolts and jarring of her pothole dips, I adore this car. 

And she's turning 100. Her mileage, anyway. It's heading to 100,000.

I'm planning to celebrate with a party, with free swag given away out of the trunk (it's gotta be a small item; she can't haul a lot of cargo), with cake. I'm not sure... but it's gotta happen.

I don't know if I'll be far from home on the book tour and will get to meet strangers through celebrating her milestone. Or if we'll be partying in our own driveway.

But life's short. Any excuse for a party. Especially for major book characters.


I Ate A Homeless Man's Cookies

Lord, have mercy. I'm an inconsistent little creature. 

I came up with a brilliant solution to the street-corner dilemma I often have -- whether to give money to someone who is begging or to offer to take them to a restaurant and buy a meal, or to say, "No; sorry!" with a big smile. None feels quite right.

So I came up with another not-quite-right solution -- carry around homemade cookies in baggies, offer a bag to someone who asks for money, and tell them that I made them with them in mind. Which I more or less would be doing, since I'm praying that I'd have eyes to see the people on the streets as God sees them, even if I don't (yet) know their names.

I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone and make the cookies with my toddler granddaughters while babysitting -- and there'd thus be extra love in the batch for sure.

The double batch was made, and I bagged up the cookies, put them in my freezer, and planned to take a few with me each time I went downtown to areas where I'm often asked for handouts.

I delivered one bag. Uno.

And then I started going to the freezer when I was hungry, taking just one cookie from a bag (because the recipients would never know that there were supposed to be four cookies in the bag instead of three), and eating it.

Like I said, "Lord, have mercy. I'm an inconsistent little creature."

Ricardo on the Sidewalk

It's not his real name, but this is a true story. 

One morning I was at home and in a funk. I asked a friend to pray that I'd be really open and receptive to God, that I'd listen well. I don't know why I asked that. I just as easily could have asked for chocolate chip cookies and a pony.

I left home an hour later and headed for the subway, heading downtown to meet a friend. I was listening to music with earbuds. I sensed, as I approached a disheveled looking guy from behind, that I should be open to an encounter with him. I removed my ear pieces and, as I passed, turned and said, "How're you doin'?"

He answered, "I'm sad." 

I said, "I'm sorry. Nothing's worse than that feeling."

He, randomly I thought, asked where I go to church. I answered with the name of my church, downtown, not near my house. He immediately said, "Oh I know that church. The former pastor taught me about being an overcomer. He taught me about grace. I've never been there, but I know about it."

He asked where I was going (to meet a friend for lunch). I asked where he was going (to find his long-lost father, about whose whereabouts he had absolutely no idea). 

I asked if I could pray for him. He said, "Well, even better we can pray for each other."

So we did. Right there on the sidewalk, for a good 15 minutes. We prayed he'd find his father. We prayed for my church to love the city well. We prayed for several other churches that came to mind for him. He prayed for me and my work and my family and my lunch with my friend.

And in the end, before I ran for my train, he asked, "Is St. Brendan's on the way to where I'm going?"

"Well, since you don't know where you're going, I'd say it just might be. You are welcome any time," I said (and told him where and when we meet).

Sure, we can gather at church buildings. But we can also have church on the sidewalk. 

"Where two or three are gathered together…."

Means and Ends

The book journey is just beginning. And I was tempted to think that finishing it was an ending.

Putting on a book launch party was a lot of fun. I gathered random food products mentioned in the book (Red Bull, Twinkies, marshmallows, animal crackers). I chose people for everyone who attended to meet, in the spirit of one of the book's themes of taking risks on strangers, and I wrote the assignments on personalized index cards. I had fun procuring and setting up the food, drinks, and books to be signed.

What sticks with me, however, from the day spent doing errands in preparation, is an elderly, disheveled lady in a chair at the back of my local pharmacy. She was there when I came breezing in, giddy with excitement over "my" book's release, two different times an hour apart. She was awake once, asleep the next time. Both times she looked weary, care-worn, and not likely to be hosting or going to a party that night. 

And I can't stop thinking about her because the book isn't about having a party to celebrate a finished product. The book is about that lady and all the other ones we are tempted to pass by because we have important business or are in a rush. The book is for the people I wrote about — Charles who asked me to eat breakfast with him and who nibbled a giraffe animal cracker as he slipped in and out of clarity, Nicole whom my friend Joey and I found drunk on all fours downtown and ferried home, people I've misjudged and critiqued, and those I've yet to meet. The book is about what God is doing with all of us who are willing to let him mess with us — changing us, transforming us, slowing us down to see each other. The book is about love.

It's not an end in itself — a published book from which I can now turn to other projects.

It's simply the means for sharing all of our lives, for hearing your stories, for gathering people together, for challenging all of us to stop for the lonely woman in the chair even when we're excited about our own successes or wrapped up in our own pain.

The book is about whatever happens next. 

Yes, I wrote this book. But only because somebody had to go first.