Faith in the Darkness

I’m spearheading an event at my church this week about faith in the darkness. We’re bringing in local author Addie Zierman to talk about what we do when God feels far off, whether it’s tragedy or hardship or just the malaise of daily struggles.

We’re in the midst of the bitter cold darkness of winter here in Minnesota, and while it’s starting to lighten up, this is a struggle we know all too well.

I’m a big fan of Addie’s debut memoir, When We Were on Fire, which chronicles her early love affair with evangelical culture (which I can relate to) and then her slide into adult faith—which included bouts of depression and near-alcoholism.  I thought Addie would bring the ideal perspective of someone who understands that life isn’t about the ideal.

It all dovetails nicely with Addie’s new memoir, Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark. I finished reading it last week and loved how she’s still a mess. She’s still struggling with the darkness and most of the book is about her attempts to literally run away from it.

But she can’t.

And neither can we.

Case in point: Last week a woman from our church died unexpectedly. Margaret Ryther was 56, a mother of five and her youngest daughter was 16. She died in her sleep.

That was it. Just never woke up.

I knew Margaret best through our book club. Every other month a half dozen of us would gather at my house to talk about our latest book. Margaret was one of the faithful, always with an opinion or perspective to share, always with a passion for books.

She couldn’t make it to our last meeting in January when we talked about When We Were on Fire—her husband had been out of town and she felt she needed to stay home with her daughter (talk about a small moment that now feels very profound). But she gave us this impression of the book via email:

Am enjoying the book.  We were the parents of kids during the 80s and 90s, but the home school version, which has its own bittersweet legacy. Funny thing is we were never very good at living up to the image and expectations, so even though I think we really wanted to be on the perfect Christian family bandwagon—it took much more energy than we had, and our efforts to control our kids to perfection, of course, backfired.  Oh the things we learn and the price we and our children pay.  So glad for a Redeemer who sees all our foolish strivings and still claims us.

When I initially planned this event, I was thinking about darkness more in just feeling lost in our faith. Not in any grand sense of loss or tragedy, but just in that way darkness can have an almost physical presence. The way sometimes our faith feels weak and empty, and we wonder what’s wrong with us.

I didn’t really think about the tragedy of death. I wasn’t thinking about husbands losing their wives or 16-year-old daughters losing their mothers.

I was thinking about depression, but not anything that depressing.

Turns out death is so common. Last week Addie also blogged about death, about driving down to her cousin’s funeral on Ash Wednesday.

And so even if we didn’t think it was that dark, it is. Life haunts us. Friends struggle with divorce or cancer or whatever tug of despair is pulling at them.

So I feel like this event is necessary more than ever. Surely every week at church we’re reminded about light overcoming the darkness. But sometimes it’s hard to translate that pew-side perspective to the rest of our lives.

It’s hard to recognize our “foolish strivings,” as Margaret said, and be thankful that our Redeemer claims us.

I’m looking forward to this event on Thursday. Probably building it up too much now, but even the act of pulling this together and pushing back against the tide of darkness feels like a necessary act, worthy in and of itself.

This is the work of the church.

God has a history of going quiet with his people. His silence stretches over years, over countries, over generations. But it’s not an abandonment, it’s an invitation. It asks something different of us than the fire does. It asks for our trust, for our hope, for us to stay as the night darkens around us and we can’t hear a thing. … Love doesn’t always look like romance and faith doesn’t always look like fire and light doesn’t always look like the sun—and that this matters. (Night Driving by Addie Zierman)

Romantica Pre-Valentine’s Day

On the eve of Valentine’s Day, I took Abby to a barn 50 miles south of the Cities for a pre-release concert by Romantica. It was a little bit magic.

After being on hiatus for about five years, they crowd-funded their new album, Shadowlands. One of the rewards was this exclusive pre-release show in the barn where they recorded the album. I couldn’t resist.

I’ve been a fan of Romantica since long before their debut album turned me into a fawning fan boy. The new material is great: atmospheric and soulful, dripping with depth and beauty. I haven’t seen the band play in a long time (they have been on hiatus), so this was the first time I saw the addition of Jayanthi Kyle on backing vocals (yes, she’s frontman Ben Kyle’s sister-in-law). Wow. I love the depth she adds. (And bonus: I was already a fan of her work, I just didn’t know it. She wrote the Black Lives Matter protest song, “Hand in Hand.”)

The show started with the mournful/hopeful “Harder to Hear,” which resonates with the doubt, depression and yearning of this season. Here’s a poorly filmed snippet:

Another stand out track is “Here It Comes,” which Jayanthi described as her favorite. Talk about soulful and yearning. Ben said the song came to him on the last day of recording, a gift. “Cecil Ingram Conor” is another barn-burner, though I’m not sure my crummy video does it justice (Ben’s solo living room performance might be a better taste).

So many other good tracks, but that’s a start. (And the letterpress packaging design is beautiful. Worth getting a physical copy.)

Braving the Minnesota tundra to discover tender music with the woman I love is like a tonic for my soul.


Is How I Feel About Trump How You Feel About Obama?

The presidential candidacy of Donald Trump scares me.  Like more than just the usual disagreement with someone with opposing political beliefs. This isn’t just pro-life vs. pro-choice or tax policy or foreign policy. It’s his proud racist/misogynistic/xenophobic views and his ‘I’m Trump, you suck’ demeanor.

And I’m not the only one scared of Trump.

This will be the fifth presidential election I’ve followed, and while I’ve disagreed with and spoken out against candidates, I’ve never been afraid of the possibility of one winning.

Maybe the scariest thing is that people are voting for Trump.

So here’s my honest question for my Republican friends: Is this how you feel about Obama?

I get being passionately opposed to Obama, but except for the crazies (He’s a Muslim! He’s wasn’t born in the U.S.! … and who led that crowd? Oh yeah, Trump.), I would guess that opposition is mostly policy based. Or do you find Obama that odious?

Trump just feels like something different. I keep expecting his campaign to deflate as people come to their senses, but it just isn’t happening. (Yet. Lord, let it be ‘yet.’)

So are Republicans just as horrified by Trump? Even though we disagree on a lot of issues, is being anti-Trump something we can all agree on?

Or is Trump saying things that a lot of conservatives agree with and he’s just doing so with brashness and bluster that pisses off (and scares) someone like me?

I guess I’m asking if this is a fringe, splinter movement like George Wallace in 1968 (the pro-segregation campaign that captured 13% of the popular vote and carried five states for 46 electoral votes, possibly swinging the election—though I’m no political historian, so that last bit is uninformed speculation)? Or is this relatively mainstream GOP, just in a brassier packaging?

We’re a pretty polarized country right now. But one of those options means we have some hope. The other means it’s just going to get worse.

(FYI: I don’t like writing about politics. It usually starts Internet fights and I bristle when other people do it, so I hate doing it myself.  But sometimes you can’t sit there wondering about it anymore.)

Stuff I’m Enjoying Lately

A few months back I borrowed Addie Zierman’s post style and shared music I’ve been listening to lately. I keep meaning to do it again and put it off, so today I thought I’d share a smorgasbord of stuff I’m excited about lately: crowd-funded comic book projects, music, books, picture books, an event and a little self promotion about what I’ve been doing.

Comic Books to Support

The lack of diversity in, well, just about everything, is a common theme these days. That’s why I track the diversity in my reading and actively work to diversify my life (it’s slow going).

I think an important part of that is supporting diversity. Vote with your dollars. Today I came across two opportunities to do just that:

  • Black – What if only black people had super powers? That’s the premise of this comic book being funded on Kickstarter. The creators came to that question after thinking about the outsider nature of comic book super heroes vs. how people of color often feel like outsiders. The difference is most people of color can’t just take off the cape, as it were, and be “normal.” The project is nearly funded already (which is encouraging).
  • Tuskegee Heirs – The history of the Tuskegee Airman meets Voltron. This just sounds like a fun adventure story. Plus, it’s already blown passed the $10,000 goal, with over $45,000 so far.

Continue reading Stuff I’m Enjoying Lately

A Black NASCAR Driver in the 1960s?

This quick, animated history of Wendell Scott is pretty great. He was the first black driver to race and win at NASCAR’s highest level. And he did it the early 1960s facing incredible racism—this was the age of Freedom Summer, Birmingham and Selma.

The hatred even led to denying Wendell Scott his only win. Here’s the story:

They didn’t acknowledge the win until two years later. NASCAR awarded his family the trophy in 2010, 47 years after the race and 20 years after Scott’s death.

NASCAR is just now acknowledging this mark in its history. In 2013, Darrell Wallace Jr. became the first black driver in 50 years to win in a NASCAR national series race with his first career win at Martinsville. In 2014, Wallace repeated at Martinsville driving a truck with a special paint scheme honoring Wendell Scott. In 2015, NASCAR inducted Scott into its Hall of Fame.

There’s a great children’s book, Racing Against the Odds: The Story of Wendell Scott, Stock Car Racing’s African American Champion, that gives a good overview of his grit and determination.

Nekima Levy-Pounds on Racial Justice in Minnesota

I went to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at Luther Seminary today to hear Nekima Levy-Pounds speak. She preached.

Powerful words like hers are so needed today and every day.

  • We are part of the solution or we are part of the problem. Our silence makes us culpable.
  • We’re living off the legacy of Hubert Humphrey, but we haven’t done the work.
  • Instead of compassion we’re taught to look the other way and focus on self preservation.
  • We’re told to trust the law, to rely on the system. But the law gave us slavery. The system gave us Jim Crow. It gives us mass incarceration today.
  • Public policy changes incrementally or not at all. Sometimes you need direct action to disrupt and get attention.
  • People are not going to be Minnesota nice when their brother is killed.
  • We need to personalize these injustices.

So many thoughts.

I think our problem today, especially here in Minnesota, is that we fall back on a lot of excuses instead of engaging in the hard work of racial justice.

We talk about the importance of supporting our police officers instead of acknowledging the disparities in our criminal justice system.

We complain about the disruption of protests and plea for tactics that will bring people together, when those disruptive protests are the only effective way to bring attention to the issues. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” was a response to white pastors urging King to find less disruptive tactics.

The reality is that there is very real and justifiable rage in our communities of color. If you don’t know that or understand why that rage is happening, you need to listen and start understanding instead of constantly dismissing.

Many of these protests that some people bemoan and dismiss are the only reason Minneapolis isn’t burning to the ground. These protests are offering productive ways to channel that rage. The 4th Precinct Shutdown protest in Minneapolis after the police shooting of Jamar Clark is a perfect example.

This work of racial justice is hard. It’s not going to be a simple conversation on social media or a blog post. It’s going to take personal investment instead of self preservation and defense.

My favorite story that Nekima Levy-Pounds shared is from the 4th Precinct protest when they were going to shutdown I-94. She was talking about it with her 10-year-old son.

“I might be arrested tonight, are you OK with that?” Nekima asked.

Her son responded, “Can I be arrested too?”

Getting Into Graphic Novels

I spent an hour talking books last week with Mykl Roventine for the Social Media Breakfast Minneapolis-St. Paul podcast. One of the topics that came up was trends in my 2015 reading and I think graphic novels were a huge trend.

I read a lot of graphic novels.

It’s an interesting medium that really takes some time to find your footing as a reader. I tend to read too fast because there are so few words. While graphic novels are quick reads, if you go too fast you tend to miss a lot.

So a few thoughts on the trend of graphic novels, at least within my reading from the last year:

Comic Books

It starts with comic books. Certainly not all graphic novels are comic books, but they get lumped together (for good reason), so deal with it.

I think comic books are a weird industry. They have an exceptionally high barrier to entry. It’s really hard for newbies to figure out how to get into comics.

But one approach I’ve discovered is to forget the weekly one-off comics and wait for the trade paperbacks. This is when they gather up half a dozen comics and print them in one book. You get the benefit of a longer story arc and don’t have to hunt down each individual comic. And many libraries will stock these.

In 2015 I really enjoyed Ms. Marvel, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Serenity: Leaves on the Wind and Princeless.

Historic Graphic Novels

Lately there seems to be a mini-trend of historic graphic novels. I don’t know if this is some attempt to get those pesky kids interested in books again, as if graphic novels are some kind of gateway drug. I don’t think it works that way.

But graphic novels about history are pretty cool. It’s a gateway drug to history. See March Book One and Two by John Lewis, Harlem Hellfighters and the Boxers/Saints two-part set by Gene Luen Yang as examples.

Graphic Memoirs

Then there’s this oddly new trend of memoir in graphic novel form. I don’t know if it started with Blankets by Craig Thompson, but that’s certainly an early one that got a lot of attention. El Deafo and Honor Girl are more recent ones. All three are sort of coming of age stories, dealing with a fundamental faith, deafness and same sex attraction respectively.

I think the genre can be an engaging way to tell the deeply personal story that is memoir.

Straight Up Graphic Novels

Finally, there are a lot of just interesting stories told in a graphic format. It really frees up the narrative structure and allows for some interesting things, without being too literary and weird.

Gene Luen Yang is perhaps my favorite. His American-Born Chinese is just a mind-bending riff on race in America. It would definitely benefit from multiple readings.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson is another favorite. It’s got a reluctant super-villain, quirky humor and an original story. Good stuff.

Top 5 Nonfiction of 2015

Another year of big reading and I’ve got some favorite nonfiction to share.

  1. Kid President’s Guide to Being Awesome by Robby Novak and Brad Montague
    He’s good in videos and he’s good in book form.
  2. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
    I generally don’t like poetry, but this was great. An honest and challenging look at racism.
  3. Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Chuang
    This memoir has such a fresh voice and gives a great perspective.
  4. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving & Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans
    So many echoes of my own journey here.
  5. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
    This book has been on a lot of lists this year and rightly so. It’s a challenging book and needs multiple reads. Perhaps if I’d done that it’d be higher on the list.

If you want to read more, check out my booklet 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading Again.

Top 10 Fiction of 2015

After another big year of reading I present my favorite fiction reads for 2015.

  1. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Garbrielle Zevin
    A story about a dad who runs a bookstore. What could be better?
  2. Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
    I read this with my daughter and really enjoyed the unique perspective of the main character.
  3. How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
    This book confronts racism with a mutli-perspective approach that was just great. The audiobook with a huge cast was great.
  4. Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
    A graphic novel FTW. I really like the unique and fun storytelling approach in this one.
  5. Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick
    Another story with a really unique voice.
  6. Sorta Like a Rock Star by Matthew Quick
    This YA novel hits so many of my buttons—a unique voice, homelessness, Jesus.
  7. A Gift Upon the Shore by M.K. Wren
    Here’s this year’s post-apocalyptic story.  I loved the emphasis on women and confrontation with religion.
  8. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
    The issues of Black Lives Matter in a book.
  9. The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman
    What a fun time travel yarn.
  10. Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata
    I haven’t read many international adoption stories and this one really dove into the complexities with honesty.

I usually do a list of 15 nonfiction reads, but this year I had too many 4 out of 5 star reads—books that were good, but not amazing enough to add to the list. So we’ll stick with 10.

If you want to read more, check out my booklet 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading Again.

A work-at-home dad wrestles with faith, social justice & story.