Ellie Roscher is a writer and theology teacher from Minneapolis. She is also a Collegeville Institute board member and the host of the Unlikely Conversations podcast. She has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in Theology from Luther Seminary.
In her latest book, 12 Tiny Things: Simple Ways to Live a More Intentional Life, published last week, Ellie writes about the power of spiritual micro practices. Stina Kielsmeier-Cook recently interviewed Ellie about her book and why it’s important for Christians in the new year.
One reason I wrote this book is because I was working with teenagers and was hearing a huge uptick in feelings of overwhelm. Many young adults of privilege feel paralyzed by the enormity of the world’s problems. They want to consider the responsibility that comes with privilege and work for the common good, but they need help getting started. My co-writer Heidi Barr, who is a wellness coach, and I can often successfully work through the experience of overwhelm. We realized that it is because we share a belief in tiny things. Tiny things are exactly what they sound like: small, committed actions that gradually lead to more and greater actions. Three years ago, Heidi and I started a Facebook group to help young adults combat these feelings of overwhelm by picking 12 tiny things, one for each month of the year, to practice. It was wildly successful.
Tiny things are small, committed actions that gradually lead to more and greater actions.
In our book, each chapter has a theme, with an essay, and a tiny thing to try with a body practice. There is even an appendix of tiny things to try if one doesn’t work for you. Really, it’s a way to cultivate rootedness and discernment over the questions: What is enough? What is my next step for the common good?
What is the tiny thing you are leaning on right now?
One of my favorite tiny things is so simple, it may sound silly. It’s to go outside and look up—all the way up—to the sky. I once asked a group of young women which of the senses they most underutilized. One woman said sight because she is always staring at her phone. Oftentimes, we need to be reminded to look up from our phone or computer or device.
When I look all the way up, it immediately does things to my body. My face and shoulders relax. I take a deeper breath. Seeing the vastness of the sky calms me. It situates me in the universe as tiny, and I find that extremely comforting. I am a person who takes herself too seriously. I can be intense. During Covid-19, many of us get stuck in our homes and online communities. Going outside and looking up at the sky reminds me how good God is. It reminds me that I am a creature. It inspires joy and release. Every time I look up it’s beautiful, even in the bleak winter. It only takes three seconds of my day and it speaks to my mind, body, and spirit.
We use a tree metaphor in the book and looking up at the sky turns my body into a tree. My feet become aspen roots, which are connected to other roots, and together we reach up to an expanse. Tiny things are like tiny cheats. Looking at the sky guarantees that I go outside everyday. We are creatures, we are supposed to be outside. We need to be reminded of that often.
How do you hope people use 12 Tiny Things in the New Year of 2021?
The presidential election is finally over and it’s time for Americans to keep doing the work. These are our lives; this is our country. I am hoping that, in 2021, we can remember we have a ton of power to lead beautiful, simple, intentional lives. But to get there, healing has to happen in our bodies and in our lives after this traumatic year.
12 Tiny Things is not a silver bullet, but part of a larger conversation. It’s a collection of tools. In the midst of the pandemic, where I am facilitating distance learning at home with my small children, I need to use all of my tools to stay healthy and grounded every day. I’ve had to lower my expectations. My mental and physical health matters. I need the tiny practices to stay awake to my life, to stay inside my body. Focusing on small things helps sustain my action for the common good.
I need the tiny practices to stay awake to my life.
In Minneapolis where I live, I work with many young adult activists. After George Floyd’s murder, I saw so much burnout. It’s part of the work to stay in the fight, to find ways to be rooted and healthy. I keep hearing from teenagers and young adults outside the church that they want sustainable spiritual practices without the trappings of religion. This is a book of micro spiritual practices. It teaches that the things that ground us can be prayerful. Spiritual practices are for our own healing and the healing of the world.
Why is this book important for the Church?
I work with young people who are skeptical of organized religion, and I wanted to write a book they would be open to reading. In 12 Tiny Things there is a chapter on spirituality but it’s not explicitly Christian. Churches can use the book to engage young adults both online and in person.
12 Tiny Things is important for the Church because it looks at the whole of a person’s life. Only one chapter is about work. The boundaries between work and other parts of life are disintegrating and young adults want their whole lives to matter. Annie Dillard wrote that how you spend your days is how you spend your life. Only part of that is what you get paid to do; a lot of it isn’t. And it’s all holy. The more we can find the holy in the ordinary, the more active our faith life can be.
I think this book is relevant for Christians because Jesus loved real people and paid attention to tiny things. Our scriptures talk about God, who knitted us together, who created us, who knows the number of hairs on our heads. We get overwhelmed when we think too broadly. Turning back to the particular parts of our day is where the reenagement happens.
Jesus loved real people and paid attention to tiny things.
For example, a lot of people leave their phones on their nightstand. That’s where the overwhelm can start. You can learn about the next natural disaster or violent death before even getting out of bed. Young adults are coming to age with this information; their brains are being shaped by a numbing amount of content that they can’t act on immediately. It’s paralyzing. Where is their entry point as global citizens? How do they claim agency?
They can start by moving their phone out of their bedroom. It’s a tiny shift, but it’s a start. Not to disengage from the world, but to wake up in their bodies and their immediate context first. We can talk about God in big ways, but if we start to see Christ moving at the tiny things level, there is an access point.
What do you wish the Church understood about engaging with young adults?
Young people are leaving because the Church has not done a good enough job of confessing things like white supremacy. One young person I know tells his peers that he is an atheist even when he is not because he doesn’t want to be mistaken as a homophobe or a racist. He is not using the label “Christian” because the actions and attitudes of the larger Church don’t reflect his convictions.
Trying to get young people into our church building is the wrong goal. Christians need to leave the building and walk with people and listen hard. I hear from young people that, because they grew up with access to news from all over the world that feels very urgent to them, and because their faith communities are not addressing things like racism and homophobia and climate change, they will go somewhere else. They want a community to do this work to help ground them in their humanity.
Until the church is doing a better job of confessing its complicity, we need to drop the Christian language when we talk to young adults. A lot of folks are looking for ways to be part of the healing and reconciliation and they are feeling disempowered. 12 Tiny Things invites them to take that first step in their own body and allow that second step to emerge from a place of rootedness. The work for the community, for the common good, will emerge from that.
When we are a community that is holding itself accountable, then we will have earned the right to talk about Jesus, who cares about those same things. But we need to start by listening, by letting Christ lead the way. I see power in tiny things.
When we are a community that is holding itself accountable, then we will have earned the right to talk about Jesus.
This book is not just for young people, though. It’s a way for all of us to mark time in our day. It’s good for when you’re at a crossroads. It’s a way to check in, to name challenges, to commit to simplicity and intentionality. Tiny things are important in a time when it’s hard to commit to anything without getting overwhelmed.