Thursday, August 30, 2018

Summer 2018 Pop Culture Roundup

Previously: January 2018, February 2018, March 2018, April 2018, Winter/Spring 2018


I read Denial is My Spiritual Practice by Rachel Hackenberg and Martha Spong, a collection of personal reflections on personal struggles, failings, and hopes that each has experienced in life and ministry. Some essays were painful to read, as each shares moments of uncertainty, rejection, abuse, and second chances in relationships, where each has sought new beginnings after what seemed so certain has crumbled or become unreliable or unsafe. The title refers to the changes and revelations that have come for each when they have finally admitted to themselves certain truths about themselves or situations in which they are immersed. I don't know if "enjoyed" is the right word, but I was certainly moved by what they shared.

I read I'm Still Here by Austin Channing Brown, a memoir about her experiences as a black woman in mostly white spaces. What struck me most was her description of the behavior of white people who think of themselves as allies. She describes times when people will claim to be so right up to the point when something happens and they'll try to explain it away, or when after a talk people will use her as a "confession booth" of sorts to seek forgiveness for their ignorance or for times when they'd let something hurtful slip. While reading her experiences in general was eye-opening and informative, these accounts helped me see what not to do or how to be better.

I read Christ in the Psych Ward by David Finnegan-Hosey this summer, which is part memoir, part spiritual reflection on the author's struggles with mental illness. He's a very good writer, and he's able to balance his own experience with larger issues related to supporting people with mental illness from a faith perspective. He doesn't offer up easy or pat answers; rather, he can be brutally honest in what it is like for many who not only are seeking help but have to deal with those around them who don't understand what they're facing. But there's also a theology of hope that guides his writing: he pulls from scripture and other thinkers to show how God cares for those struggling with these illnesses, while also showing how damaging certain theological views and Biblical interpretations can be.

I read a pair of novels by Cherie Priest this summer called Maplecroft and Chapelwood. I'm a big fan of Priest's Clockwork Century steampunk series, and wanted to check out other stories of hers. These two re-cast Lizzie Borden as a detective of sorts, first investigating a strange affliction that changes people into violent creatures obsessed with the ocean. Among other victims were her parents, which led her to those killings, and many others in her town. The second book calls her far away from home to see what's behind a strange religious cult in an Alabama community, which recalls certain aspects of her earlier experience. Both books are written in a style reminiscent of Bram Stoker's Dracula, as each chapter is a journal entry or other written account from different characters' perspectives. I hope that there will be more of these.

I recently read and reviewed God and Hamilton by Kevin Cloud. You can read that here.

I also read and reviewed Outside the Lines by Mile Kim-Kort. You can read that here.


My son and I went to see Solo: A Star Wars Story shortly after it released. As people familiar with the Star Wars franchise could guess, it's an origin story for one of the original trilogy's three main characters, and includes many of the plot points one would expect: meeting Chewbacca, meeting Lando, making the Kessel run, and acquiring the Millennium Falcon. I don't feel like mentioning any of that is spoiler-ish, because again, most people would anticipate this movie incorporating them. Aside from that, Solo makes a lot of use of the "don't trust anyone/no honor among thieves" theme, and there are a few genuine surprises. But for the most part, the movie was pretty straightforward and predictable.

I watched Molly's Game, starring Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom, a former skier whose Olympic hopes are dashed after an accident and tries to hit reset on her life in Los Angeles. She finds work as an assistant to a powerful person entertainment who runs a poker game, and who enlists her services to keep track of the buy-ins and earnings. Molly eventually begins her own high-stakes games, with ups and downs along the way, several "downs" of which involve being threatened by mobsters and raided by the FBI. Chastain is brilliant in the title role, and the supporting cast includes fantastic performances by Idris Elba, Michael Cera, and Kevin Costner as well.

I watched Lady Bird, starring Saoirse Ronan in the title role as a senior at a Catholic high school trying to navigate her way through friendships, an itch to explore the world beyond her hometown, her family's financial struggles, and her contentious relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf). It's a nice coming-of-age story that realistically portrays the ups and downs of teenage self-discovery.

We went to see Ant-Man and the Wasp, where Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is under house arrest after he helped Captain America in Civil War. Not only that, but Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) are mad at him because his actions have caused them to go on the run as well. In the meantime, Pym and Hope have been working on a way to get the original Wasp (Michelle Pfeiffer) back from the Quantum Realm. But some new threats in the form of a ghostly adversary and some organized crime guys throw all of that off and cause the old gang to get back together. This was a fun and often hilarious movie that tied multiple stories together very well, as well as provide a nice lighter palette-cleanser after Infinity War.

I watched The Shape of Water, which I was totally preparing to be contrarian about because it won a bunch of awards and most people I know who've seen it have fawned over it. But now I understand why it has received so much praise. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a young mute woman who works as a cleaner at a 1950s government facility and who hangs out with her lonely apartment complex neighbor. After a mysterious project is moved to the place where she works, her curiosity gets the better of her and she ends up beginning a relationship with the amphibious man being kept there. I was pleasantly surprised by this film's originality and charm, and while parts of it were definitely weird, it at least was an original kind of weird.

TV Shows

We watched the 5th season of Arrested Development this month, where the entire cast and assorted side players come back to resume their dysfunction. I am a huge fan of the original series and thought the 4th season revival was well done, but something felt off about these latest episodes. A lot of the jokes took a long time to set up and many interactions kind of meandered without much of a payoff. A lot of the snappiness just wasn't there this time around.

I watched the entire series of Penny Dreadful the past few months on Netflix. Originally airing on Showtime, it was a series set in Victorian London that combined characters from many of the classic horror stories such as Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, Dr. Jekyll, Dracula, and Van Helsing, along with many original ones as their tales intertwine to tell new ones together. Eva Green, Josh Hartnett, Billie Piper, and Timothy Dalton head an incredibly talented cast that bring these stories of vampires, witches, werewolves, and demons to life. When I got to the end, I was sad that they'd ended it after three seasons. It deserved 3-5 more and I gladly would have watched all of it.

I kept up with Marvel's Cloak and Dagger on Freeform over the summer, starring Aubrey Joseph and Olivia Holt as the title characters. The first season was an origin story, placing both as teenagers just discovering both their individual powers and their connection to each other. Each is also working through personal tragedy, as Tyrone (Cloak) is trying to prove his brother's murder and Tandy (Dagger) is trying to find out what happened during a fatal accident that killed her father. It was reminiscent of the Netflix Marvel shows, with its "street-level" vibe, albeit perhaps geared toward a slightly younger audience. I thought it was well-done, and look forward to season 2 next spring.

I gave in to curiosity and watched season 1 of Legion this summer, mostly because I discovered that Aubrey Plaza is in the cast. We meet David, a man who theoretically has been suffering from schizophrenia most of his life, only to eventually discover that his troubles actually stem from 1) being an incredibly powerful mutant, and 2) a parasitic ancient being taking up residence in his head. David eventually finds allies in a secretive group of fellow mutants to help get to the root of his condition while also keeping a government group wanting to capture him at bay. This show is very trippy, but after a while I was able to keep up with its general aesthetic. I know there's been a season 2 but it doesn't seem to have been released on DVD yet. I look forward to when that happens.

Finally, the 6th season of Orange is the New Black released on Netflix in late July, which picks up in the aftermath of last season's riot. Litchfield's inmates have been separated out with some going to its maximum security facility and others being shipped off to other places around the country. This season focuses on those who have ended up in max and have to adjust to their new surroundings, which are largely dictated by a feud between two inmate sisters who run separate cell blocks. Accompanying this are an investigation into which inmates to blame for the riot and for one guard's death, as well as other guards trying to cope with PTSD from their being taken hostage during the riot as well. All in all I thought it was a better season than the last, with familiar characters trying to cope with their new situation. New characters didn't always land with me and I at times found myself wanting more of what the show chose not to focus on, such as the trial or even some of the guards' struggles. The shine has come off this show a little for me, and that's too bad, but I'll be right here next summer waiting for the new season.


My musical summer began with Come Tomorrow by Dave Matthews Band. The album encompasses a wide selection of previously unreleased songs and brand new ones, with four different producers credited with helping. The sound from the band's earliest work is gone in favor of a more straightforward rock sound, with simpler arrangements and at times with anybody besides Matthews nowhere to be found. After losing violinist Boyd Tinsley, some of this was to be expected. Whereas the last two albums seemed to promise a return to an earlier beloved sound, this one presents their current incarnation. Here's the first single, "Samurai Cop (Oh Joy Begin):"

Another favorite, Florence + the Machine, released a new album called High as Hope. Florence Welch is as passionate as ever, yet also very focused in tunes such as "Big God" and "Hunger." Here's "Big God:"

Electronic duo Phantogram released a pair of singles called Someday/Saturday, the former being an original song and the latter being a cover of a Sparklehorse song. Proceeds from purchases go to help suicide prevention. Here's "Someday:"

I've been listening to and enjoying "You're Somebody Else" by Flora Cash quite a bit this summer, which is off of an album they released last year called Nothing Lasts Forever (And It's Fine). Here it is:

Monday, August 27, 2018

Creativity as Prayer (book excerpt)

Below is an excerpt from Prayer in Motion: Connecting with God in Fidgety Times.

In his book The Music Lesson, accomplished bassist Victor Wooten explains his approach to music in a series of imagined conversations with a mysterious man named Michael. Michael is a mystical figure who guides Wooten in looking at the spirit of musical concepts like technique, tone, dynamics, and notes, beyond the nuts and bolts of how to apply them to practicing and playing.

In one chapter, the discussion turns to the subject of how emotion can be an integral part of playing. Michael tries to get Wooten to understand that following emotion rather than resisting it, infusing music with emotion rather than ignoring it, can deepen both the player and hearer’s experience:
“It is like trusting the river current to take you where you want to go. To fight the current could be disastrous. In each situation, whether it be in Music or in Life, take a moment to close your eyes and feel the current of your heart taking you where you need to be. After your awareness develops, you will no longer need to close your eyes. You will feel the pull of your heart’s current and ride it with open eyes, allowing you to view all the astounding scenery around you. I tell you this: If you can follow the current at all times, you will not have a thing to worry about, ever.”
Via Michael, Wooten shows the reader that how one feels has an inevitable influence on how one plays. In the paragraph above, he advocates a spiritual practice of attentiveness to how one feels and following it while interacting with one’s chosen instrument. Developing an awareness of one’s mental and emotional state informs not only one’s act of creating but one’s awareness of themselves: why they feel the way they do, and how they can express it through this creative form.

Artistic practices of all kinds serve both as methods of self-expression and of emotional release. The better attuned we are to what is happening inside of us as we play, paint, draw, write, and so on, the more in touch we are both with our chosen medium and with ourselves.

Along with attentiveness to our own emotional responses to the world around us comes attentiveness to what God is trying to say to us or how God is present with us. Just as we are discovering ourselves in creative actions, we are also expressing God’s creativity that resides within us. Spiritual director William Barry notes that when we experience God’s creative touch, “we are talking about an action of God that is going on continually, not one that happened in some distant point in time.”

To create is to experience an intersection of our own self-realization and God’s creative spark continually manifesting through our gifts. Whether we are novices just learning how to us a paintbrush or a set of knitting needles or more experienced practitioners of our chosen craft, we are faced with the opportunity to bring beauty into the world just as God first did, is doing, and chooses to do through us, as well as consider our own mood and mindset as we do it.

Have you ever sat down to draw, sing, or cut a block of wood and before you know it, several hours have passed? Have you ever become so lost in your chosen creative outlet, so locked into what you are doing, that you are able to forget the world around you in order to become one with the creative process? Have you ever noticed an inward movement of joy or sadness or anger that your work seems to inspire, where you’ve either chosen to let it guide you or stopped for a moment to let such emotions happen to you completely before continuing?

Such moments during times of creating can be times to wonder at what is happening, both in terms of questioning where it comes from but also to take it with awe, having found yourself in the current and allowed it to move you downstream into a new understanding of God’s presence and of yourself. Just as we read in Genesis 1 that God rested on the seventh day of creation, we too could stop for a moment and perhaps even utter an “amen.”

One year during the season of Lent, a 40-day period before Easter that many Christians use to prepare and reflect before this celebration of resurrection, I decided to spend that time writing a song. I have what I’ll call a moderate amount of musical skill, and my spiritual practice during this season would be to compose something using my acoustic guitar. The only criteria that I set for myself for this was that I just needed to work on the song for a little while every day. If I came up with a single word for the lyrics or just strummed the chorus a few times, if I worked with it for two minutes or for a half hour, it didn’t matter so long as I did something every day.

During this particular year, Lent fell right in the middle of a career transition for me. I was changing churches, having finished my time at one to begin anew at another. This significant life change inevitably made its way into my songwriting, as while I was trying to create this piece I was also attempting to work through all the emotions of leaving a place and a group of people I’d known for so long while also attempting to become acclimated to a new such place and group.

The first week or so of this exercise mostly had to do with chord progression and song structure as I tried to figure out what the song would sound like. Then as I began working on the lyrics, much of it ended up reflecting this transition that I was experiencing. I wrote about how no one place has been my home for very long, but also how I end up making home of my latest destination as I settle in with the geography, culture, and people given enough time.

While I never consciously prayed during my time of creativity, I could sense God’s presence at various points as I worked through my own internal experience of change and its accompanying swirl of emotions. I used the creative skills I had as a prayerful act that involved healing, anticipation, adjustment, lament, thankfulness, and excitement for a new adventure.

Creating had helped me go with the current of my heart, allowing it to carry me into a new space both internally and externally. I’d made use of the creative spark placed within me by God, letting it lead the way and to bring something new into the world, just as God had done with me. As with my carefully crafted communion set, I’d infused my song with prayer even if I wasn’t always aware I was doing it.

Prayer in Motion: Connecting with God in Fidgety Times is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble in paperback and electronic formats.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Frequently Asked Questions about Prayer in Motion

Now that Prayer in Motion: Connecting with God in Fidgety Times has been released into the world, here are answers to a few of the most common anticipated questions that might arise about it.

Wait, didn't you just release a new book in June? Why, yes, I did. The story goes that I sent a proposal for Wonder and Whiskey pretty much on a lark, just to see what would happen. When I didn't hear back for a while I assumed that nothing would come of it, and turned my attention to the idea for Prayer in Motion instead. Then in the middle of receiving some interest for the latter, I heard back from Wipf and Stock about publishing the former. So as strange as it seems for me to be publishing two books pretty much back to back, it's all due to a fortunate series of events and coincidental timing.

So, what's this book about? As a pastor and spiritual director, I've accumulated enough anecdotal evidence that a lot of people find prayer difficult either because they don't think they have enough time or because they feel distracted when they do sit down to try it. Prayer in Motion states that you don't necessarily have to sit still to pray, and that in fact you can do it while engaging in other activities.

How specifically does Prayer in Motion address this? Most chapters focus on a specific activity that most people may engage in on a typical day: doing chores, commuting to work, fidgeting with a pen while doing something else, taking a walk, eating a meal, and so on. Then it pulls from a variety of classical spiritual practices, well-regarded spiritual figures, and scriptural passages to show how each of these can take on a prayerful quality if we approach them in a certain spirit. So the chapter on taking a walk uses the labyrinth, the one on commuting borrows from the practice of pilgrimage, the one on chores uses wisdom from Brother Lawrence, and so on.

This sounds similar to your first book. How's this one different? Coffeehouse Contemplative did talk a great deal about finding God in the ordinary and mundane of everyday life, but it was more theoretical in nature. Prayer in Motion is kind of the practical sequel, with more hands-on tips for carrying out the earlier book's reflections. And just like the first book, this one has a section at the end of each chapter with questions for reflection, but also suggestions for how to make each activity prayerful.

But doesn't this book end up encouraging a busy and distracted life rather than advocate for carving out time for rest and quiet? Some critics might react that way, but no. I address that possible objection early on, saying that folding prayer into other activities isn't a substitute for time off and renewal. What I am trying to do is 1) acknowledge the person with the full day who just wants to collapse rather than add one more activity onto their to-do list, even if it's prayer, and 2) show how they can cultivate an awareness of God's presence while checking those other things off. It makes more sense to me for people to learn how to seek God in all things rather than shame them into doing one more thing after finishing all the other stuff. Such shaming to me seems like the opposite of encouraging rest.

Where else can I keep up with book and author news besides this blog? I send out a monthly-ish e-newsletter that you can subscribe to here. I also provide updates on my professional Facebook page and on Twitter.

Any plans for a release event? Oh, probably. I'm thinking another Facebook Live event and something in-person. Stay tuned.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Prayer in Motion: Connecting with God in Fidgety Times

Now available through Apocryphile Press!

Does your daily schedule make setting aside time to pray difficult? Do you feel too distracted even in those rare times when you can finally sit down to pray? Learn spiritual practices to seek God’s presence even in your busiest moments.
Jeffrey Nelson is a pastor, spiritual director, author, and blogger who has been speaking and writing about ways for busy people to deepen their spiritual lives for years.
Prayer in Motion is an accessible commentary on how to weave spirituality into one’s entire life, where it was always meant to be. Grounded in wisdom from some of the great Christian spiritual thinkers, Prayer in Motion offers easy-to-use spiritual practices while at work, exercising, doing chores, during one’s daily commute, and more.
In this book you’ll learn:
• Stories from the Bible where people discover God’s presence in ways besides sitting in stillness or silence;
• Personal anecdotes and stories that help illustrate what spirituality in everyday activities looks like;
• Insights from classic spiritual practices such as walking the labyrinth, using prayer beads, and making a pilgrimage adapted and applied to everyday activities;
• Real-life application through thought-provoking questions and useful suggestions for prayer at the end of every chapter.
Prayer in Motion not only gives you permission to move while praying, but tells you how to do so in easy-to-use, concrete ways. This is the practical guide you’ve been looking for to carry spiritual practices out of retreat centers and houses of worship and into the places where you spend most of your time.
Get Prayer in Motion and start using its tips to connect more deeply with God in the midst of fidgety and frantic days.

Available at these retailers:

Apocryphile Press
Barnes and Noble

This book is for...

...those interested in spiritual practice but unsure where to start...

...those who think they're too busy to pray...

...those who have time to pray but have trouble sitting still to do it...

...those wondering if it's possible to pray in ways other than sitting still...

...those wanting to connect their spirituality with the rest of their lives...

...those seeking how to sense God's presence in the midst of time with family, work, and hobbies.

Praise for Prayer in Motion:

"We live in fidgety times. And now we have a prayer guide for those of us who have trouble sitting in silence or finding large blocks of time for prayer and meditation. Pastor and spiritual director Jeff Nelson writes from his own experience and uses stories from scripture to show us how to begin to see all of life as an opportunity to connect with God. Prayer in Motion explains the “why” of integrating prayer into our daily activities and ends each chapter with the “how,” giving suggestions and reflection questions. This is the perfect book for the new parent, the stressed out graduate student or any other person currently overwhelmed by life!" - Teresa Blythe, author of Spiritual Direction 101 and 50 Ways to Pray 

"We live in times where every moment of our day something or someone is clamoring for our attention. Our everyday living has been hijacked into a false assumption that we either must be consuming or producing something at all times or our lives do not have meaning. It is no wonder that there is a deep hunger for spirituality in our time and, yet, even the most spiritual among us find it hard to carve out the time necessary to nurture that hunger. I used to think of this as a struggle of life-work balance, that if I could just summon a way to get them in harmony I would have reached the height of spirituality. What if I have this backwards? Perhaps it is not a life-work balance, but rather one of life-work-spirit integration. Jeff Nelson, in his deep kinship with the mystics and spiritual practices, reminds us that our everyday living is not separate from our spirituality. In fact, Jeff places God and spiritual practice directly in the middle of clicking pens, folding laundry, and parenting......the everyday stuff of life. From communing in the words of Brother Lawrence, walking, eating, or creating art, Jeff suggests that each moment of our lives presents us with an opportunity to connect with God. This is a much needed book in these very anxious, busy, and overwhelming times. Take the insights of this illuminating book and allow them to inspire within you new practices of connection with God, neighbor, and the world around you." - Chad Abbott, Indiana-Kentucky UCC Conference Minister and author of Sacred Habits

This is a wonderfully practical book for busy people who want to have a deeper relationship with God but have been discouraged by examples that require more time, money, or freedom than they have available. Prayer-in-Motion blends scripture and story with spiritual exercises that emanate from real life: our day planners and iPhone calendars, our carpooling and grocery shopping, our fidgeting and questioning. The author’s kind and realistic voice reassures us that even the most complicated day of our lives can be full of opportunities to pray. - Martha Spong, co-author of Denial Is My Spiritual Practice

Sunday, August 19, 2018

I'm on Pulpit Fiction This Week

I have contributed the "Voice in the Wilderness" segment to this week's edition of the Pulpit Fiction podcast, which takes a look at the Revised Common Lectionary texts each week leading to the coming Sunday.

This time around, my assignment was 1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43, one of the texts for next Sunday, August 26th. You'll be able to listen at their website or on iTunes.

Thanks to the guys for another chance to contribute.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

A Prayer for Heavenly Bread

based on John 6:35:41-51

Faithful God, we crave so many things that ultimately leave us hungry again. We crave status in the eyes of others and hope that our own accomplishments or those of our family will help us achieve it. We crave material possessions that we believe will make our lives more comfortable. We crave the love of someone who always seems to ask more of us before they will give it. We crave food that may tickle our endorphins for a while but may cause regret later.

Through Jesus, you offer fulfillment for these cravings in a different way. Through him you offer living water that will quench thirst, and bread from heaven that will satisfy our spirits. While our seeking after other cravings will leave us ever wanting more, this new life freely given offers a wholeness that these more fleeting pursuits never will. So we pray that you will direct our hearts toward that which is truly gratifying and lasting, so that we in turn may share it with others in such need.

O God, give us what we cannot provide for ourselves. As we partake, so may we with glad and generous hearts pass it along for others to receive it as well. Amen.

(Image via PxHere)

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Fall Reading

With summer beginning to wind down, I've been planning what I'd like to read as my favorite season finally approaches yet again. I mostly enjoyed the books on my summer reading list, and now I have to come up with a new one for the last part of the year.

Here's what I've come up with so far.
  • My Own Devices by Dessa
  • I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
  • Preacher, Book 6 by Garth Ennis
  • The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton
  • Grace Period by Kelly Baker
  • The Zombies are Coming by Kelly Baker
  • The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
  • On the Other Side of Freedom by DeRay Mckesson
  • Ghosts in the Schoolyard by Eve Ewing
  • The Walking Dead Volume 30 by Robert Kirkman
  • Joy to the World by Kenneth Osbeck
  • Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel by John D. Witvliet and David Vroege
A few memoirs, some graphic novels, a couple theology/spirituality books, some social commentary, only one novel, and a little Advent preparation.

What's on your to-read list nowadays?

If you need suggestions, how about Coffeehouse Contemplative or Wonder and Whiskey?

(Image via Libreshot)

Monday, August 06, 2018

Book Review: Cultural Savage by Aaron J. Smith

All of this is my reality of living with mental illness. I hope it gives you some insight into the lives of people around you who live with these illnesses. But listen to their stories. Mental illness is different for each person. Don't assume that I can speak for the entire population affected by mental illness. Still, I hope you will hear my words [and] they will help you see those of us suffering. We deserve to be seen. - Aaron Smith, Cultural Savage

The world needs more personal stories about living with mental illness. And the Christian community is in special need of such stories that wrestle with how to reconcile faith with such illnesses. While many in general hold conscious or unconscious stigma, there tends to be an extra layer of misunderstanding and cruelty in the church, as the message many receive is that it is a sign of weak faith or needing more prayer. While faith and prayer may assist one in pursuing health, it is not the only thing that one needs. Therapy, medication, patience, and basic acknowledgement also often factor in to one's need for recovery and management.

Thankfully, books such as Sarah Lund's Blessed Are the Crazy have emerged in recent years to aid people in understanding what this struggle really entails, including its spiritual implications and what constitutes truly helpful behavior on the part of people of faith seeking to aid in someone's mental health journey.

Later this month, Cultural Savage: The Intersection of Christianity and Mental Illness by Aaron J. Smith will join the growing chorus of stories and experiences so crucial to helping others--Christian or no--understand what such a journey really involves.

Smith is a blogger who has long chronicled the ups and downs of his health at a blog from which the book derives its title. The contents of the book appear to be a collection of these posts, signaled by each essay's relative brevity but also because I recognized a few from their original online appearance.

That itself is not a knock on the content: while edited, most retain a raw quality that makes the stories they share more vivid. Smith shares his difficulty to remain employed when the worse days of his illness hit, how hard it is some days to take his medication, and the lack of understanding that he faces from others. Several of these include a call to people who claim the term "Christian" to be better at listening and slower to offer platitudes and quick fixes, as he finds neither helpful. He shares this with a necessary honesty that helps convey how he and others receive such sentiments.

While the bulk of Cultural Savage addresses these issues, Smith also occasionally offers commentary on how Christians view sex, human trafficking, self-doubt, the importance of addressing one's feelings, and body image. Like his essays on mental illness, each of these are engaged with a confessional tone reminiscent of a journal entry. They retain their blog origins in that sense, but also make them personable for the reader.

Cultural Savage is a highly personal and reflective contribution to the discourse both the church and the world needs to have about mental illness. It will release around August 15, 2018.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Permission to Lament

Earlier this year, a band called Bad Wolves released a cover version of the song "Zombie," which was written and originally recorded by The Cranberries in 1993.

The Cranberries' lead singer, Delores O'Riordan, wrote the song in response to a bombing in Warrington, England which killed two children. The band is from Limerick, Ireland, so this tragedy was very dear to them having taken place so close to home. The song expresses O'Riordan's feelings of sadness, anger, and protest in response to this act of violence.

The Bad Wolves version retains the core spirit of the song, with a few slight updates. You can listen below:

This is probably not a song that you'd put on when sitting down to dinner. Or when you're hosting a cookout or big family gathering in your backyard, it's unlikely that someone would say, "Hey, put on 'Zombie!'" Due to its jarring, angry tone, you might not think that that would be the right time and place for such a song.

But there are other times and places when it'd be exactly what you might need.

To state the obvious, there are plenty of songs in the world that aren't very uplifting or joyful. Even if the music seems to be so, a closer listen to the lyrics might indicate darker themes. Many songs have been borne out of heartbreak, loss, despair, loneliness, or indignance. They express sadness or anger about personal issues or about injustice in the world. They're songs that acknowledge that life isn't just a series of jumping from one happy moment to the next. Rather, they give voice to those other moments. And the power of music in general is that they can help name those thoughts and feelings as we experience them.

The Bible has plenty of songs like these, too. Take, for instance, this snippet from the third chapter of Lamentations:
I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; against me alone he turns his hand, again and again, all day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me sit in darkness like the dead of long ago. He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has put heavy chains on me; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked. He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; he led me off my way and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; he bent his bow and set me as a mark for his arrow. He shot into my vitals the arrows of his quiver; I have become the laughingstock of all my people, the object of their taunt-songs all day long. He has filled me with bitterness, he has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.” The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me. - Lamentations 3:1-20
The prevailing theory about Lamentations is that it was written by the prophet Jeremiah, who hardly ever seemed to like his job. In the book bearing his name he is constantly asking God if he can stop doing what he's doing, because he so often is charged with bringing bad news to the people. His overall message is one of judgement, repentance, and calling out unfaithfulness, and to nobody's surprise, it didn't make him many friends.

We hear that in the above verses when he says things like, "I have become the laughingstock of all my people, the object of their taunt-songs all day long." He sings this song of despair, naming his feelings of affliction and wallowing in darkness. He says he's filled with bitterness and that his soul is bereft of peace.

This song echoes those of others that we find throughout scripture. There are many other instances when various writers and characters voice their own objections to their situations, and question how or whether God is present or cares. We hear it from Abraham, Moses, Job, some of the psalms, and even from Jesus. They had no intentions of holding back when voicing their thoughts and feelings to God about their anger or emptiness.

And the thing about passages like this is that they also knew they have permission to sing such songs. God could take it, and still can. Passages like these serve as signals to us that receives our prayers and songs of lament just as much as those of joy. Our times of grief and sorrow are just as important to God as those happy times.

When writing about her story of conversion to Christian faith, author Anne Lamott describes it as more of a process. After a long struggle with addiction and self-doubt, she slowly begins asking spiritual questions, even popping into worship services every so often. She even sets a meeting to talk to a pastor. 

During this time of questioning, Lamott describes a feeling of a presence in her home and following her around. She likens it to a stray cat tailing her, following her home, where she knows that if she sets out a saucer of milk, it's never going to leave. She resists welcoming this presence in, because it's too strange for her to do so.

Then she finds herself in the back pew of a church yet again, hungover, not really getting anything out of the music or sermon, wondering why she even showed up. Then during the last hymn, something comes over her. She doesn't even name what the hymn is, but there's something about the way the music soars and lifts and the emotions of her fellow churchgoers as they sing that causes her to rush home, open the door, and rather unceremoniously say, "I can come in."

After the verse quoted above in Lamentations 3, Jeremiah's tone shifts:
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” - Lamentations 3:21-24
In times of lament and anguish, God's steadfast love is still present. We may not always realize it, or acknowledge it, or even want it around. But it nevertheless follows us around, waiting to be let in, and in fact is already in, granting permission to express ourselves fully even in times of struggle and heartache.

We may not always need to sing a song like that, but we can when we do.

(Image via Pixabay)