Shari Zook, author of story Peanut Butter and Dragon Wings: A Mother's Search for Grace

“Searching” with Shari Zook

~ing podcast Season 2 Episode 14
Full Episode Transcript

Season 2 Episode 14: “Searching”, with Shari Zook was released on April 12, 2022. The audio recording is available on all major podcasting platforms. More information is available here.

Episode Description:

In this week’s episode, ~ing producer Ben Wideman is joined by Herald Press author, Shari Zook, to reflect on themes from her recently published book, Peanut Butter and Dragon Wings: A Mother’s Search for Grace. In her book, she expresses the confessions of a woman learning to live under the overwhelming expectations of motherhood. Dealing with faith and doubt, she reflects on letting go of her need to appear super-human and reached out to receive God’s unfolding grace. What does authenticity and vulnerability have to do with deepening our faith? Listen to find out more!

Shari Zook, Michael John Cusick, Ben Wideman

Ben Wideman  00:00
Welcome to Season Two of ~ing Podcast, a production of MennoMedia’s Leader Magazine.  What does it mean to authentically follow Jesus? Each week ~ing Podcast invites you to join us on a journey. Join us as we talk with people of faith who are creatively thinking, growing, and being… people who are reimagining and exploring what it means to enrich faith in a complex world.

Shari Zook  00:27
Just writing down those stories, gathering them all into one place for me was a very powerful visual reminder of God’s goodness through our story. There were some of the stories that I was still angry about when I wrote them. And as I wrote them again three months later and rewrote them again six months later, I could see that God was doing the work in my heart and actually changing my anger into more compassion.

Ben Wideman  00:50
Our conversation begins now. Join us as we journey together.  Friends, Welcome to ~ing Podcast. I’m really excited today to be sitting down with another one of our Herald Press authors. I’m joined by Sheri Zook, she is the author of a fantastic book called Peanut Butter and Dragon Wings. Sheri, thanks so much for joining us today on ~ing Podcast.

Shari Zook  01:15
Of course, I’m delighted to be here.

Ben Wideman  01:18
You have a really interesting story, some of which is is in your book. But I’m wondering for folks who haven’t read it or don’t know you, how do you introduce yourself?

Shari Zook  01:26
Well, sometimes I’m known by the parts of my story that are difficult. And I’ve walked through a lot of griefs. So miscarriage has been part of my story, saying goodbye to children through foster care has been part of my story. I was a pastor’s wife for 14 years. And so there’s been a lot of church experiences that contributed to our, our story and what made us into who we are. So I’m also a mother of four children born to me, and we have one foster child with us at the time.

Ben Wideman  01:56
And I understand like me, you’re also calling Pennsylvania your home these days. Is that correct?

Shari Zook  02:03
That’s right. Yes. We’ve lived here ever since we got married 18 years ago.

Ben Wideman  02:07

Shari Zook  02:08
Northwest corner of Pennsylvania.

Ben Wideman  02:09
All right. Great. Thanks, again for being with us here on the podcast. And one of the things we wanted to do is talk a little bit about this book that you’ve written with a wonderful title, Peanut Butter and Dragon Wings. Can you talk about arriving at this book? How did this project come to you? And what was the process like of, of feeling like you had a book’s worth of material to share with the world?

Shari Zook  02:34
I wanted to write a book ever since I was a little girl. Writing is something I’ve done since I was able to probably about age five, I started sounding out words and writing them. But I always imagined I would write a really triumphant book, something that just, you know, impressed the world with, with the the joys of serving God and everything turning out well. That was my dream is to live so well, that my story made sense, and that everything worked. And instead, I found myself living a pretty ordinary life. And being a wife and a mom engaged in a lot of practical physical tasks that did not last and did not feel meaningful to me a lot of days. But along the way, I started having to face my own inadequacies and my own inability to pull off that perfect life that I was imagining. And the day that this book was born, I think I can actually pinpoint a moment. I was walking, driving actually away from my house. And I had everything done. I had loaded my foster children to go for their visit with their parents. And we were shining, clean, sparkling. Everybody’s hair was combed. Everyone had had breakfast, my house was reasonably clean. And then my stomach rumbled. And I realized, I took care of everybody but me this morning, I made sure everybody had what they needed. But I’m hungry, and I’m empty inside and something in my life is not working as well as I’d like it to Why isn’t this working better? What am I missing? I started dreaming about a book that talks about the things I can’t accomplish. I can’t get done, I can’t perfect for myself. And that’s kind of where the idea started coming face to face with the places in my life that were not as functional as I wanted them to be.

Ben Wideman  04:19
How has that felt to, to make an offering like this that is not about your triumphs, but is more vulnerable? Do you still have mixed feelings about that? Knowing that you once thought it would be something and now it’s it’s this different thing?

Shari Zook  04:34
Yes, I do still have feelings about that. I told a friend I still hope to someday write the triumphant book. I’m still kind of holding out some hope there. Mostly though. What I have realized in connecting with people is that first of all, I’m not the only woman who feels this way. I’m not the only woman who’s projecting a lot of competence and functionality and success but privately dealing with A lot of fears and insecurities and putting places inside. And secondly, that when I go to reach out to connect with somebody, I don’t go for the highly functional successful one, I go for the one that has some empathy, because she’s walked through some hard things, and she knows how to reach out and care. So those two pieces give me courage in sharing my story, but it’s not courage without fear. I mean, whenever we open our lives to evaluation, or people looking in, there’s always that risk that they will misunderstand or miss judge or be cruel instead of kind, I feel very blessed people have received what I have to say. And most of the time, what they say is, me too. That too, I’ve struggled as well.

Ben Wideman  05:43
It was interesting for me to skim through some of the online reviews of your book and to read things from people who are not mothers, to say how much your authenticity and vulnerability, touched them deeply, even not having children or not experiencing some of the things you did. There’s something really powerfully humanizing when we when we show our full selves, to people. And it strikes me too, that that’s such an incredible gift to model for the church too. There are lots of different kinds of churches, some display vulnerability better than others. But a lot of churches really do try and have a very polished, perfect looking facade, right that we show up on Sunday morning, wearing our best clothes, with our church voices and everything looking seemingly perfect, right. And then we don’t know what to do with the things that are difficult. So if we don’t offer them there…

Shari Zook  06:43
That is something I’ve definitely noticed, I think our human tendency is to cover the parts of ourselves that we’re ashamed of, we all do that. It’s always our tendency. But in the church, it’s almost like we take it to a new level, because now we should look good, and we should live lives without sin. And we somehow owe it to Jesus or to each other, to sort of have come to resolution in our stories. We don’t know what it will say about him if we’re not doing well. And so it puts that extra pressure on unfortunately, to really perform or to look good or cover in the areas where we’re not doing well. And it’s sometimes, sometimes a more difficult place to bring yourself is to the church. Sometimes we haven’t learned the kindness of our own, walking through our own failures. Sometimes, the people who know they’re broken and messed up can be kinder, because they don’t have any arrogant place to stand on and speak from there. They know they’re messed up, and it’s okay, they’ve made peace with that. So I hope that with time the church comes to a more honest place as well. And that starts with individuals. And I think we are seeing a curve toward that with some of the wonderful work recently on empathy and vulnerability and connection. I think we’re understanding better how that happens.

Ben Wideman  08:02

Shari Zook  08:02
So I have a lot of hope for our future going forward, that maybe we can carve out some space for faith that’s not complete or perfect. It’s a faith that includes doubt and some holiness, that that doesn’t always have it together.

Ben Wideman  08:20
Finding those points of empathy are such a relief too, I mean, especially, especially when it comes to difficult things like parenting. I was just with another family this weekend, and one of the children had a bit of a meltdown. And there was this feeling in me like, “Oh, good, other people’s kids have bad days, too.” And, and it’s not because of the way you’re parenting. It’s not because of something you did wrong, but just the circumstance of being a child. And I wish that we were better sometimes that sharing that authenticity with each other and not trying to sweep it under the rug.

Shari Zook  08:59
Yes, sometimes we have to get forced into it a little bit. And children are very good at forcing us. Because we’re not brave enough to choose it unless someone else chooses it for us. But it does address that fear. Am I the only one I think we asked ourselves had a lot.

Ben Wideman  09:13
Yeah. You mentioned in your introduction. You know, the kind of parenting that you’ve done has included challenges with miscarriage with letting go of foster children. Those are things that some people haven’t, haven’t experienced. But my hunch is that when you share them, a world opens up in awareness of all the others who have actually carried these things that that are similar to your lived experience.

Shari Zook  09:42
Yes, I sometimes describe it as having accidentally joined a club I didn’t want to be a part of there’s a lot of people who’ve been through similar experiences. And the other piece of that is that if you haven’t been through those experiences, sometimes you have to have it explained to you and that’s the way it is with all of life. If you’ve been to child or if you have had an unfaithful spouse, or if you’ve walked through grief with a wayward friend, or whatever it is, that’s that you’re struggling with. Sometimes somebody has to say this is what it feels like. And the problem is that when we’re walking through it, it’s very hard to find those words, to explain what we’re going through and to ask for the care of other people. And so I not only want to connect with those who have experienced what I’ve experienced, but I want to create a narrative that others can look in and say, Oh, I didn’t know that’s what it was like, but I can see it now. I think that the more we talk about our experiences, the more bridges we build, be a stronger community, and to know how to support and care for each other so that you don’t have to have walked through exactly what I walked through, in order to care for me and to recognize what I might need as a human in that situation.

Ben Wideman  10:56
Yet it, it strikes me that there’s the power in that to go a little deeper than some of the cliches that we lean on, like, “God will never give you more than you can handle” or something like that. But if you’ve had a similar kind of experience, you know, how traumatic that has been.

Shari Zook  11:11

Ben Wideman  11:11
Suddenly, you’re at a place of empathy, where you might be more aware to not say something like that… well intentioned, but but maybe harmful. My wife and I experienced a stillborn child, between our two oldest, and I preached from the pulpit, a sermon where I referenced that and how difficult it had been for me. And I was met at the back of the sanctuary that morning by a man in his 70s, who gave me a hug and said, “you put words to something that I’ve held silent for most of my life.” And I thought, Oh, wow, like, again, that unexpected community, a community I didn’t want. He didn’t want either. But suddenly there was that connection, that bridge when we name things out loud.

Shari Zook  11:52
That’s right. Well, I’m so sorry, you walk through that. It’s incredibly difficult.

Ben Wideman  11:57
Yeah, it is. And knowing how to, to claim that story as your own, to not read it into the lives of other people, it can be a challenge to I know that our stillborn loss is very different than someone… who, a friend of mine who experienced the death of their 11 year old, for instance, and I cannot project my story onto them and say, Well, I know what you’re going through, because we had a loss. I have to let their pain be theirs and and let their story be told in their words to write. And it’s a it’s a fascinating thing to try and to try and navigate that together. But I think your book reminds me again, of how important it is to try and do this in community. Rather than trying to carry it on our own shoulders all by ourselves.

Shari Zook  12:54
Yes, exactly. And maybe what you’re saying is that walking through something difficult, makes you walk a little softer, in addition to other people’s grief, you want to engage, but you’re less less quick to come in with the cliches and make it feel better statements, and more willing to just be with that’s a huge gift.

Ben Wideman  13:14
Yeah. Why do you think we have this this tradition in our churches, unhealthy tradition of trying to hide our pain? What is it about people of faith that we’re so hesitant to open up in in that kind of way? Do you have any theories or ideas of why we’ve defaulted to that posture?

Shari Zook  13:41
Well, I think there’s been a lot of hurtful judgment in our past. And I think, like I said earlier, the climate of the world today can be to come in swinging, when we see someone who’s vulnerable, our tendency may be to step in with care. But just as often, our tendency is to come in defensive and angry, and trying to prove that we’re not the ones who hurt them, or it’s not our fault, or we’re going to join them in, in hurting the people who hurt them. I can’t describe. It’s just a very volatile world that we live in. And people come in angry and hurt a lot of the time. And of course, that makes more people get angry and more people get hurt. So I think that’s maybe the bigger place but in the church. I think that in the church. We want so badly to be good to make God look good and to make ourselves feel better. And sometimes we were taught from little app that if you follow God’s ways, your life story will work. It will make sense and it will work. I believe that I don’t know if someone specifically taught me that but I grew up strongly believing that my life would work if I did the right things. And when I ran into grief and parts of my story that were baffling and painful, I didn’t know what to do with them. I thought I must have done something wrong and I wasted a lot Trying to figure out what, um, but the other thing is, I think that when we are walking God’s ways, and God is working in our stories, I think Satan really comes in with a lot of attack on that. And I’m not a big demon behind every bush kind of person. But I sometimes notice this in the animal kingdom, so predator pack, moving in on a herd of innocent animals, and the ones that they always go for that, that the wolves or the carnivores always go for, is the weak one, the one who is isolated, dehydrated, a little separated from the pack, too young to run, a little injured. And what I watch, when I watch these nature, documentaries about this is they always the injured one tears off on a tangent and hides. And there is no way in the world that we will make it on our own, we always have to either rejoin the pack, or else we’re going to be a casualty because we cannot make it on our own. And I think that’s a really big trick of Satan to make us think that when we have a difficulty, to make us sort of intuitively self destruct by going off in private by hiding by saying you can never tell anybody about this part of you. Yeah, I feel like I’m really mixing the metaphors there.

Ben Wideman  16:16
No, I like that, I like that. I always appreciate a good nature metaphor to help crystallize something.

Shari Zook  16:25
So I think there’s more going on than just our own discomfort with need, there’s actually a strong tactic of Satan that wants to isolate people in order to harm them. And we play right into it by believing those lies and thinking it’s our own rational brain talking like, of course, I need to protect myself, of course, I need to be careful where I share this. And it’s actually Satan saying, “Don’t you dare tell anybody, you’re such an embarrassment. Nobody will understand you.” And we fall right into that.

Ben Wideman  16:54
Well, and I think we’ve got some global circumstances here… living through a pandemic,

Shari Zook  16:59

Ben Wideman  17:00
A lot of us have been intentionally or unintentionally more isolated than before. Even things that have existed long before the pandemic, like the sort of traps of communication primarily by social media, it means that we often feel more isolated than before. And so in some ways, I think we are ripe for the the predatory behavior, right, when we, when we’ve accidentally arrived at this place of more and more people feeling isolated.

Shari Zook  17:29
Yes. And sometimes their circumstances outside of our control.

Ben Wideman  17:32
Yeah. And I guess a, you’re a blogger, and have done that for for quite some time. I I’m guessing that both through blogging, and through writing this book, your story has carried far beyond the circles that you, you know, live your daily life, and there’s some power in some of these new spaces as well. We just don’t always know how to use it.

Shari Zook  17:55

Ben Wideman  17:56
For good.

Shari Zook  17:57
That’s right. That’s right.

Ben Wideman  18:00
What’s been the biggest surprise of being authentic and vulnerable in this way, putting words to paper? What’s been surprising about having this book out there in the world for people to engage?

Shari Zook  18:12
Well, I think about two things. The first surprise has been just writing down those stories, gathering them all into one place, for me was a very powerful visual reminder of God’s goodness through our story. There were some of the stories that I was still angry about when I wrote them. And as I wrote them again three months later, and rewrote them again, six months later, I could see that God was doing work in my heart and actually changing my anger into more compassion, or making me rethink the solutions that at the time, it seems so obvious if this would just happen. If God would just bring this about, then it would be better. He sort of slowly opened my eyes to His goodness in our stories, even in the really hard ones. And I loved that that was an unexpected surprise. And it gave me courage to keep walking forward through difficulty. The second surprise is just that. People really connected with what I had to say even if they had not walked through my exact story. And I didn’t expect that I thought maybe people who foster would connect with a fostering story. But instead, people sort of looked down beneath the layers of my exact circumstances, and connected at a heart level saying, Wait, I have those needs to I have those questions, those fears. I have doubts. I have nights when I cry myself to sleep. And somehow, we were able to get down to just being human together. And really realizing that no matter what our circumstances, our hearts are not that different. Of course, there’s unique things about us. But we want such similar things as people and we need and we longed for such similar things. And that was a really lovely surprise to realize that it wasn’t just people in my niche, not just people in my church group, my corner of Pennsylvania, who connected. But actually across a wide range of faith practices and life stages, people understood what I was saying and brought their own stories to share, and found a little courage to share their stories in their own communities. And I loved that. That was really exciting to me.

Ben Wideman  20:17
You’ve also done, I think, a commendable job of acknowledging that mental health is a part of this, too, not just in the struggles of day to day life, but that, you know, something that many of us experienced very personally is that burden, I guess, of not always feeling mentally healthy. And I think that’s one other area of our of our world that even though we’re getting better at talking about mental health publicly, it still is so misunderstood and alienated sometimes. Has that been your impression in that sharing about that sort of thing, you start to get another sort of hidden world opened up?

Shari Zook  21:00
Yes, it has opened up a lot of people’s stories, when I start talking about mine. I think mental health is one of the hardest things to talk about. Because it’s sort of the maybe almost a disenfranchised grief that we don’t quite know what to do with. And also, we have no one really to blame, I guess we could blame our genes, or, you know, there is a kernel of our ancestry. But it’s not as easy as saying something terrible happened to me yesterday, and I’m really upset, you know, I’m grieving this external thing. It’s like it’s something in your own head. And so it’s you and shouldn’t you be able to change that? And, and then as Christians, we come in with our answers, like if you just had more faith, if you just, you know, trusted Jesus more? Or if you found these passages of Scripture, surely, surely we could fix this for you. And mental health is still misunderstood. And it is isolating, it’s very difficult and painful to start opening up about those things. And I still struggle with that. I think it’s easier to talk about the 10 years ago story than the current story and to say, you know, I’m not doing well right now. But it’s so important to keep talking about those things and to keep making it Okay, increasingly, okay. For people to ask for the help that they need without there being so much shame and stigma attached to it. Yeah, particularly within the church.

Ben Wideman  22:28
Yeah, so, so much still to go. But I think a book like this gives me some hope and some optimism. So thank you for for this offering to the world. I’m wondering, where do you find hope for future generations these days.

Shari Zook  22:47
I just came away from a ladies retreat hosted by the women of my faith group. And it was amazing to watch 50 to 75 women come together. It was particularly for women in from difficult circumstances. And so there was a lot of history there of pain, and abuse and misunderstanding. And for them to come together and care for each other. And offer hope, offer healing offer empathy. That gave me so much hope that actually we’re getting better at this than we used to be, we’re getting better at talking about the taboo subjects. And we’re getting better at knowing how to sit with each other in that those griefs and struggles. I have a lot of hope that we are also raising a generation of people that knows better how to connect, and we did maybe two generations ago. So I think, for example, we’ve opened this up a lot with gender, that we’re allowing our our boys and our young men to feel a lot more feelings and connect a lot more deeply than their fathers or grandfathers did. And the same with women. But I think we are, we are sharing more ownership of being human. And we are allowing ourselves to maybe claim all the parts of our birthright, not only not only the parts that look good and are functional by the parts that are empathetic and gentle and nurturing, or were the parts on the other side that are powerful, that give voice to our feelings and that name, what we’re going through. I think we’re getting better at it. And I’m so excited to see what that looks like in another generation.

Ben Wideman  24:29
Thank you again for for sharing this time with us. For people who want to follow your writing and what you’re doing. Where do you point them?

Shari Zook  24:39
Yes, so I blog at Confessions of a Woman Learning to Live it’s my name – And that’s where I put out most of my content. My book is available on Amazon as well or through

Ben Wideman  24:55
Friends, please check out Peanut Butter and Dragon Wings. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you. Shari, thank you so much for sharing your story in this way.

Shari Zook  25:03
It was so good to talk with you too, Ben, I appreciate it.

Ben Wideman  25:07
Next week on ~ing Podcast, we sit down with Michael John Cusick. He describes himself as a wounded healer, a licensed professional counselor, spiritual director, speaker and author.

Michael John Cusick  25:19
In the American church, I think the future of the church flourishing is embodied spirituality. Because we live in a time of trauma. We live in a time where all of the reactivity and the dualism of us and them, and me and you, and good and bad, and right and left, all of that comes out of a restlessness inside of us that the intellect and more doctrine, and more putting information in is not going to penetrate that.

Ben Wideman  25:54
As always we’d like to thank our guests and all who support ~ing Podcast. Thank you for joining us on the journey. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a review in your favorite podcasting app. And if you have something to share, send us a message at [email protected] or by leaving us a voicemail. ~ing Podcast is hosted by Reverend Allison Maus and Reverend Dr. Dennis Edwards. And produced by me, Ben Wideman. Views and opinions expressed on ~ing Podcast are those of our hosts and guests and may not represent that of Leader Magazine or MennoMedia. ~ing Podcast is a production of MennoMedia, a nonprofit publisher that creates thoughtful Anabaptist resources to enrich faith in a complex world. To find out more, visit us online at