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I just finished a book I really didn’t want to read: Present over Perfect by Shauna Niequist.
Shauna’s dad is Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, which was where my mom started going to church when I was in junior high. I never knew Shauna personally, but to me she represented an ever-increasing number of authors telling me something I didn’t want to hear: SLOW DOWN.
It’s not so much that I didn’t need to hear the message; to the contrary, it is exactly the lesson I need to heed. In fact, it was one year ago that I suffered from a TIA (or mini-stroke, in layman’s terms) the doctors believe was due, in large part, to stress and my busy schedule.
But I just couldn’t hear that message anymore from people like Shauna.
You see, there are many authors, leaders, and business people I respect, but seem to shout the same message loud and clear: DON’T DO WHAT I DID!
They tell tales (usually in a book…after several best-selling books preceded it) of how they hustled and killed themselves to get to where they are today, but on some level they regret it because they _____ (fill in the blank here: it varies from losing time with their family, suffering from poor health, watched relationships disappear, etc.).
And I get it. I see it happening every day.
But the irony is that we wouldn’t be READING THEIR BOOK about how to slow down if they hadn’t hustled to get to the point of being a best-selling author in the first place!
I couldn’t handle the irony any longer.
But then a close friend asked if I wanted to join a book club.
Let me be clear: never in my life have I ever wanted to join a book club. The thought of sitting around with other women sipping wine and gossiping (because that’s all I ever imagined a book club to be) has never appealed to me.
But I knew I had to step out of my comfort zone to be vulnerable to meeting more women and walking in community. Plus, it met at Starbucks, so how bad could it be?
Then I learned what we would be reading: Present Over Perfect.
SHOOT. ME. NOW.
But I didn’t run. In fact, I leaned into it.
Besides not wanting to read THIS book, I don’t typically like memoir-style books (I know, I know, I wrote a book filled with personal experiences…but I did put practical tips at the end of each chapter – so that balances it out :).
I’ll admit, I hemmed and hawed through the first three sections (the book is divided into six “Parts”, each with about seven chapters, all of which are only a few pages each). But because the book is so easy to read, I kept going.
With each chapter, Shauna drew me in. Where I wanted to blurt out phrases like, “You don’t know me” and “Who are you to challenge me?“, I instead found myself thinking, “This hits too close to home“.
Honestly, I made it further than I normally do in a book without pulling out my pen and dog-earing pages (probably because I had determined in my head not to enjoy this book), but I couldn’t drag my heels past page 74, a chapter entitled, “Vinegar and Oil”.
In it, Shauna tells about something her friend Geri taught her about prayer that’s stayed with her:
“She told me that when you begin to pray – whether you write your prayers or speak them or form them silently in your mind – picture a bottle of oil-and-vinegar salad dressing, a cruet like you’d find on the table of an old-school Italian restaurant, with a plastic red and white checkered tablecloth and a shaker of hot pepper flakes.
The vinegar…rests on top of the olive oil. The oil is at the bottom of the bottle, rich and flavorful. Geri said that when you begin to pray, pour out the vinegar first – the acid, whatever’s troubling you, whatever hurt you, whatever is harsh and jangling your nerves or spirit. You pour that out first – I’m worried…lonely…scared…pour that out first.
Then what you find underneath is the oil, glistening and thick: We’re going to be fine. God is real and good and present and working. This is the grounding truth of life with God, that we’re connected, that we’re not alone, that life is not all vinegar…but you have to start with the vinegar to get to the oil.”
Shauna then goes on to say “I’m learning, though, that the God who loves me isn’t just looking for apologies and report cards. He wants me to bring the vinegar so that I can taste the oil. He has all the time in the world to site with me and sift through my fears and feelings and failings. That’s what prayer is. That’s what love is.”
For someone who spent most of her life in what I would call “Performance Mode” – trying to seek love and gain acceptance through what I did, not who I was – this knocked me out cold. Shauna wasn’t simply just telling me, “Do as I say, not as I did”, she was inviting me to know God in a new way.
Present Over Perfect isn’t so much about self-help as it is about soul-care.
Are they the same thing? Maybe.
Was it hard for me to read? Possibly.
Did I need to hear it? Definitely.
From that point forward, my pen stayed out and at the ready. I found myself re-writing phrases in my own hand so that I would be sure not to miss the lesson…things like:
He is love itself, grace embodied
Live a courageous rhythm of rest, prayer, service & work
The only way through emptiness is stillness
Find beauty in the space between the notes
Quick love costs us enduring love
In seasons of deep transformation, silence will be your greatest guide
This is who I am, this is who I’m not, this is what I want, this is what I’m leaving behind
Jesus rescues before He scolds
Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find
Our secrets are largely the same
and finally, the one I didn’t want to hear from her:
Hustle is the opposite of Heart
And there you had it. The lesson I thought I knew that I didn’t need to hear from this person was finally heard in the final chapters.
Yes, this is a book about one woman’s journey. Yes, this is a book about community. Yes, this is a book about wrestling with what you know about Jesus, the world and everything you embody as a woman.
But it’s more.
What surprised me about Present Over Perfect is that (once I let it) it ushered me deeper into my own story.
I don’t know what your pre-conceived notions are about this book or this author, and I’m not here to say we would be best friends if I ever moved back to Chicago or if I met her in our mutual group of friends next time she happened to be in Nashville, but I will say that I’m glad I put my prejudices aside long enough to listen – not necessarily to Shauna – but what God wanted to say to me through her words.
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Disclosure: This book was provided to me by Zondervan for the purposes of review. I was not given any directives on what to say, how to say it or when to say it. I can’t tell you the last time I actually took time to write a book review beyond just videoing it. I couldn’t NOT write this review. If you click the link above to purchase the book, I will make a small commission of that sale (and I mean small) at NO extra cost to you. If you read all the way to this point, God bless you!