Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Family secrets and Michele Norris’s memoir: Not with anger, but with hope

Even family secrets—secrets you could hardly envision—helped shape you. 

Imagine Michele Norris’s shock when she set out to write a book about racism in America and stumbled upon layers of family secrets that, in their keeping, had a profound influence on her childhood, the person she became, and the way she raised her children.

Nationally recognized Norris, journalist and former host of NPR’s All Things Considered, spoke at our local university’s dinner honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and legacy.

She learned from her uncle in 2008—years after her father’s death—that police officers shot her father during the ugly years leading up to the Civil Rights Act. Her father had never told her. 

After her uncle’s surprising disclosure, other relatives told more stories from that era, stories Norris had never heard.

That inspired her to research roles her family played, as a “non-confrontational family,” in America’s painful race-related issues. That investigation led to what she calls her “accidental family memoir,” The Grace of Silence.

She learned that the shooting occurred when her father, Belvin Norris, had just returned to Birmingham, Alabama, from World War II.

“He’d served in the Navy and he returned to a city full of Black veterans who had fought for democracy overseas and were eager to get a taste of it on their home turf. What they faced, instead, was a wall of white resistance. . . . They still faced old rules about segregation and carefully defined roles.”

In that era, too many Blacks were beaten, murdered, and denied voting rights.

Norris’s research revealed that only six days before her father’s shooting, another Black veteran, Isaac Woodard, still in uniform, was beaten and blinded by Batesburg, South Carolina, police.

“The story, subsequent trial, and swift acquittal of the officers caused a national sensation,” writes Norris in an NPR article.

“The Woodard case had a direct impact on President Harry Truman’s decision to integrate the military.”

The events of that period led Michele’s father to turn his back on the past, move north, raise his children in a white neighborhood, and keep earlier racial incidents a secret—even from his wife.

Why would he hide it from his children?” asks Michele.

And why did her many relatives, all of whom knew the stories, keep them secret?

The questions haunted her.

“I’m pretty sure . . . that I would have ordered my steps in life differently had I known this,” Michelle says. “I might have been a different adult. I certainly would have been a different child.”

Over time, she came to understand that her father kept the secret “not with anger, but with hope.”

Her parents “wanted their children to soar, so they chose not to weigh down their pockets with personal tales of woe.”

Our parents tell us what they think we need to know,” she continues, “and my father didn’t think I needed to know that. He wanted to make sure that my path forward was uncluttered by his pain, so he chose not to tell me about this. And that explains the title of the book . . . The Grace of Silence. That is the incredibly graceful act.”

“. . . I expect that the ones who came before us—
black and white—
had things they had to keep still about . . .
just like me and Miss Cora.
Things we had to do, whether we liked it or not.
And then we never speak of them again.”
(Augusta Trobaugh,

Do you know your parents’ stories?
Your grandparents’ and great-grandparentsstories?

Probably some of your ancestors,
like Michele’s,
made hard decisions and sacrifices
to ensure that their pasts didn’t hold you back.

Their stories, their choices, and their secrets
have profoundly shaped who you are today.

Michele concludes with something for all of us, especially memoirists, to think about:

“History is made in all kinds of little ways,
a hiring decision, a school bus ride . . . .
I bet that some of the elders
who sit at your family table
might be sitting on stories of their own.

“Those stories, those individual stories
are so easily lost if we are not willing to . . .
listen to those who might be willing to share their legacy
if only someone is willing to take the time to ask.”

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Ponder: What’s the significance of the folks who came ahead of you?

“. . . All the folks who came ahead of us
are like the brown roots of a big old vine
growing close to the porch,
and even though those roots are way down
deep in the ground
where we can’t see them,
they’re still there. Always.
And we grow from them, our whole lives,
and then, if we’re lucky, others grow from us.”

Think about such things. 
(Philippians 4:8B)

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

For you: Marty Duane’s “The Writer’s Prayer”

Many things will distract you from writing your memoir, and they might even be good things. For example, I just attended a women’s retreat and it was refreshing and inspiring. I also stocked up on groceries, went to church, monitored coronavirus cases,  emailed friends, spent a few hours with my granddaughter, texted my kids, watched a Hallmark movie, and carried out the inevitable cooking, dishwashing, cleaning, and laundry.

All good things. But I didn’t do much writing.

When life gets busy, busy, busy, let’s remember: Writing a memoir is a ministry. Like the Psalmist said, “O God, let each generation tell its children of Your mighty acts; let them retell stories of your power” (Psalm 145:4). (See also Deuteronomy 4:9 and Luke 8:39.)

Your stories can shape the lives—including the spiritual lives—of your children, grandchildren, great-grands, nieces, nephews, cousins, friends, colleagues, and even people you’ll never meet. Therefore, focus, exercise self-discipline, and manage your time well. Figure out priorities. Maybe for a while writing can’t be a priority, and that’s okay.

But because writing your memoir is a ministry, make it a prayer priority.

Make prayer your first writing assignment every day,” Bob Hostetler says.

Lloyd John Ogilvie acknowledged that in his ministry he faced “soul-sized issues,” so he prayed:

“Sovereign Father. . . . You have given me . . .
an imagination able to envision Your plan
and purpose for me,
and a will ready to do Your will.
. . . I know You will go before me to show me the way,
behind me to press forward,
beside me to give me courage,
above me to protect me,
and within me to give me wisdom and discernment.”
(Quiet Moments with God, Lloyd John Ogilvie)

Your family has soul-sized issues today, and as new generations join your family, they, too, will encounter soul-sized issues. God has a plan and purpose for you, a role to play in your family.

As you carry out that plan, God will go before you, behind you, beside you, above you, and within you. You can count on Him!

You probably have no idea just how much God can use your stories to impact soul-sized issues in the lives of those around you, so today I share with you Marty Duane’s “The Writer’s Prayer, a humble prayer for himself and for all writers:

Dear Author,
Today, the words I use, let them be Your words.
Words of Hope, of Love, of Faith.
Allow me, with trembling hands, to be Your voice. . . .
Let me never forget, the words I write today
May change the life of one, maybe two.
But as the Psalmist says, I bring You all my sheaves,
They may not be many, but they are Yours. . . .
You gave to me
this small talent of writing,
and it is through this talent
You have given my heart a voice. . . .”

Take delight in what God has put on your heart.

Recognize He has given your heart a voice.

Focus. Be single-minded. Pray. Write.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The secret to writing better than you are capable of writing

If so, you’re not alone. We all get discouraged from time to time, but author Bob Hostetler has a remedy for us.

In his blog post, “Your First Writing Assignment,” Bob tells of his own experience—getting burnt out on writing. Undone.

But then—and I’m sure it was a God-thing—he got a writing assignment that required him to pray—and it was prayer that refueled him and saved his writing ministry.

“I pray before I write. I pray while I write. And then I pray after I write that God will even further transform my offering through the work of godly publishers, editors, designers, artists. . . .

I pray, not to change God or others but to change me. I pray for wisdom to manage my time wisely, for discipline to apply my mind to my writing and my butt to the chair. . . . For some writing projects, I’ve assembled a prayer team to support my writing with their prayers. . . .”

Bob encourages all of us to “ . . . make prayer your first writing assignment every day. Before you sharpen your pencil or turn on your computer, before you outline, before you jump into a writing exercise or research task, pray.

“Whatever it takes,” he says, “if prayer is not your first writing assignment every day . . . you’re cheating yourself, your readers, your editors, and even God, who will partner with you in your writing . . . for the asking.”

You’ll be inspired by Bob’s post, “Your First Writing Assignment.” It will take only a minute or two to read it, and it will be well worth your time.

it could revolutionize yours, too.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Your memoir can have an outcome beyond your expectations

The Bible’s characters “may not have realized the privilege and certainly didn’t know the eternal impact they would make,” writes Priscilla Shirer in her Bible study, Jonah.

“How could they have known that their names would go down in God’s Word to encourage us millennia later?

Realize the truth of what Priscilla says next:

“Like those holy heroes, you’ve got an outcome you can’t make out. . . .”

In future generations, your story will be the one that encourages someone else to follow hard after God.

Read that again and believe it:

“In future generations,
your story will be the one
that encourages someone else
to follow hard after God.”

Priscilla’s insights suggest ideas for your memoir: 
  • Which Bible characters have impacted your life? Abraham? Moses? Ruth? Joseph? David? Esther? Peter?
  • What did they say or do that helped define your life’s choices?
  • What did they do that changed your life’s direction?

Include vignettes in your memoir illustrating why and how those characters have inspired you, influenced you, and shaped you into the person you are today.

Then do an about-face. God has used other people’s stories to encourage you, teach you, admonish, and inspire, so now it’s your turn to pass on the blessings. Turn from the past and look toward the future.

Stories are important. Your stories are important. You might never be able to guess how God will use them. For example:

“During my intense grieving moments, other people’s stories gave me words to describe the ache that was indescribable,” writes Dana Goodman. “They gave me hope that a new day would dawn, and I would not be stuck in the black forever.” (Dana Goodman, In the Cleft: Joy Comes in the Mourning)

“I’ve seen it happen. . . .
A lost human being feels like they’re the only one
who has ever felt this much pain.
They don’t know how to reach out for help
but then, inside of a story . . .
they see every emotion or secret
or hope-for happy ending
that they’ve ever kept bottled up inside . . .
and they start to believe—maybe there’s more. . . .”
(Martha Carr, “Just Keep Writing”)

Let me ask: Do you see your writing as a privilege? As a ministry?

Do you realize the impact your memoir can make?

“Have you ever considered,” Priscilla asks, “that just as the previous stories encourage us along the way, yours will encourage someone else?”

God can use your words
to help readers experience God’s grace,
cling to hope, remain strong in their faith,
and delight in His love.

Write your stories!

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

How can you speak the truth in love in your memoir?

Sometimes God calls us to take a stand, to take a risk, to confront the elephant in the room. What needs to change in your family? your workplace? your community? your church? your city? your nation? your world?

Dear Chuck Swindoll writes, “All over this world, around us every day, are people who are looking for the truth to be lived out. . . . There are people watching you. . . . Remember, you are here by God's appointment, you are in His keeping, you are under His training, for His time.” 

Chuck's words remind me of a recent blog post in which I suggested that we memoirists can—sometimes we must—use our voices to make a difference. I wrote about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and of the Old Testament woman, Esther, and of a young boy named Hayden. (To read that post, click on On authoring change: Break the silence with your memoir.)

And in the memoir class I’ve been leading, we talked about speaking the truth in love, speaking truth to power, and the correct way to go about it.

Then on Sunday, my son-in-law’s sermon touched on the same topic. Brian said that when Jesus spoke, sometimes he stirred up animosity and resentment, even among his disciples once in a while. (See Mark 6:1-3 and Luke 4:28-29.)

Brian also pointed out that despite the tension Jesus created when he spoke the truth, he also was a man who attracted others, who offered healing and life. He sent his disciples to speak the truth but also to be appealing to others and bring restoration and hope.

Jesus and his disciples lived out that tension, and you and I are called to do the same. He calls us to tell the truth and at the same time serve others in love.

Here’s the hard part: We need to resist being obnoxious and abrasive. We’re to offer others a message of encouragement, to share the truth thoughtfully, gently, compassionately, and winsomely. And we need to extend grace to others because we all need to grow and change and mature. Nobody's perfect. 

“As a change agent, how do you
turn your dream of making a positive
and meaningful difference in the world into a reality?

You author change.

You write and publish a book
that inspires positive action or change
in individuals, communities,
organizations, or the world at large.

The world needs change agents.
It’s your time to make a positive and meaningful impact
with your words.”

Perhaps you’ve cracked open an issue and sorted through it and have come to a clarity others haven’t yet. Take action. Speak up. WRITE.

Make a difference.
Invite others to re-think
their assumptions and conclusions.

Your memoir could help right a wrong.
It could trigger much-needed change and healing.

God could use your story
to give hope and courage to others—
perhaps it could even
make all the difference in one person’s life.

Lloyd Ogilvie penned this perfect prayer for memoirists and those who sense a need to speak up:

“Father . . . bless me with Your Spirit so that
I may disagree without being disagreeable,
share my convictions without being contentious,
and lift up truth without putting others down.
Help me to seek to convince without coercion,
persuade without power moves,
motivate without manipulation.”
(Lloyd John Ogilvie, Quiet Moments with God)

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

What can your Bible’s pages help you remember?

Which verses in your Bible have you underlined or highlighted? Look over a few and ask yourself why those are special to you.

Try to remember: Why and how did they speak to your heart? During which event or era were those verses your delight? Or your instruction? Or your only hope?

God longs for us to remember the amazing things He has done (Psalm 105:5), but too often we forget.

Mike Metzger writes,
“Many churches have forgotten the premium
that the historic Judeo-Christian tradition placed on remembrance . . .
and recalling the right things.
The ‘great sin’ of the Old Testament
was forgetfulness
(at least it’s the most recurrent offense).
Remember’ is the most frequent command
in the Old Testament.”
(Mike Metzger, Clapham Memo, 
January 19, 2007, “Back and Forth”)

Look through your Bible and notice the Bible verses you cherished in the past, and remember those verses that changed your life, passages you held onto in dark times, verses that made you fall down in worship—and those that buoyed you in your everyday happenings.

Stories that go with those verses could provide good material for your memoir.

One day I spent half an hour looking through an old Bible, one I used from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s. Reading underlined passages sent me back to the ministries I had during those years, and to specific locales, and they reminded me of people and issues and heartbreaks and joys.

Reading them again also reminded me God was always there in the midst, working out His best, even if I didn’t know it at the time.

Below are a few of the verses highlighted in my old Bible. Perhaps in reading them, you, too, will discover story ideas of your own.

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:26)

Above all else, guard your heart. . . . (Proverbs 4:23)

All my longings lie open before you, O Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you. . . . I wait for you, O Lord; you will answer, O Lord my God. (Psalm 38:9, 15)

Test me, O Lord, and try me, examine my heart and my mind. (Psalm 25:2)

God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering. (Genesis 41:52)

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done. . . . (Genesis 50:20)

You are the light of the world. . . . Let your light shine . . . . (Matthew 5:14, 16)

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

I have seen the misery of my people. . . .  I have heard them crying. . . . I am concerned about their suffering. . . . I have come down to rescue them. (Exodus 3:7-8)

When they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshipped. (Exodus 4:31)

Now you will see what I will do. . . . Then you will know that I am the Lord your God. (Exodus 6:1-7)

The Lord kept vigil that night. . . . (Exodus 12:42)

I will sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted. . . .
The Lord is my strength and my song;
he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him. 
(Exodus 15:1-2)

I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. (Exodus 19:4)

In all things God works for the good of those who love him. (Romans 8:28)

Therefore, I urge you . . . in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:1-2)

Denise Beck writes that when she takes her Bible’s crinkled pages and spends quiet time alone with God, “He meets me in a new way. He teaches me and transforms me, and those places and spaces are heavy with the stories He showed me. Stories of who He is. Stories of who I am.  Stories of who I am in Him.”

Take a few days to go through your Bible
and find passages you cherish,
verses that changed you,
verses that helped you make decisions,
passages you held onto in dark times,
verses that made you bow down in worship.

Include verses that nurtured you
through your everyday routines
and those that delighted you with joy.

Then write your stories—
stories of who He is, who you are,
and who you are in Him.