Monday, December 09, 2019
I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you if you're game. What follows is an excerpt from the fall 2018 issue.
Kara’s parents are downsizing, which has meant, for us, a little bit of upsizing. They visited us this fall, bringing gifts, which for me included crates upon crates of records. This well-tended vinyl has become a portal to another time, a time when “Hang down your head, Tom Dooley” was a trailblazing lyric, a time just prior to the time when a lack of personal grooming was an act of virtue signaling. Working my way through these albums has been a tour of mid-century Americana, a regular ole hootenanny, so to speak.
Tucked in amongst the button-downs and khakis are some jazz and blues albums as well—a fair bit of Frank Sinatra, a dash of Ray Charles, a dollop of Dinah Washington. And the 1970s make an appearance as well, with a seemingly endless run of Linda Ronstadt records. It’s been fun to listen to the songs that my parents listened to when they were kids and later young adults. The times were not simpler but the tech sure was, and all the things we take for granted about popular music were still being teased out.
For whatever reason, a couple of train songs have stuck with me. Trains have a mythic quality to them in American culture, but our relationship to trains is different based on where and how we live. Neither of these examples was new to me, but they’ve been fun to rediscover: The legendary quality of the Wabash Cannonball, the legendary nuisance of the MTA.
Let me know if you'd like to be added to the Middling distribution list. Thanks for reading!
Monday, November 25, 2019
I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you if you're game. What follows is an excerpt from the fall 2018 issue.
Let me know if you'd like to be added to the distribution list for Middling. I'd love for you to get it.
Monday, November 11, 2019
I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you if you're game. What follows is an excerpt from the summer 2018 issue, focused on books I was into in the moment.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. This novel is made up in the middle of correspondence between a man and a woman working out the complexities of their relationship. How they stand up for themselves—how they fight—via letter was pretty compelling to me.
White Picket Fences by Amy Julia Becker. It takes a special kind of brilliance and humility to write a book on privilege as a white person and not be obnoxious about it. Rewarding reading.
Keep Christianity Weird by Mike Frost. I’m a geek for Mike Frost going way back, and this is the kind of book that I would only trust from someone like him. He delivers the goods.
The Message Devotional Bible. It’s entirely possible and even somewhat common to feel ambivalent about (and even scornful toward) Eugene Peterson’s Message version of the Bible, and yet be hopelessly enamored with every word of Eugene’s other writings. This project
Monday, November 04, 2019
I remember the first time I saw Len Sweet live. It was at a conference for Christian editors. I know, right? Borrrrring. But Len blew my brain all to bits. He was talking about sourdough—how this breadmaking approach dates back thousands of years and how sourdough bread has a pedigree, whole generations of loaves tracing back to the same sourdough starter. I had never heard of sourdough starter, had never thought to ask how one starts a loaf of sourdough bread. I was blown away. And of course the metaphorical potency he drew out of this sourdough story: Jesus, the Bread of Life, is our own sourdough starter, and we enrich the world when we allow our lives to be started by his life. Such a simple, organic image. Such a powerful vision for people of faith. He ended (I think; maybe this was from the second time I saw Len live) with another metaphor, the swing. How do you ride a swing? You lean back and kick forward. He was arguing that we need to consistently both think about the future and tether ourselves to our history. I was hooked. Tablet to Table, where he contrasted the two metaphors (both biblical) to consider how we might live more faithfully and fruitfully in our time. A theologian I admire tweeted the question, “Why do I think this might be Len Sweet’s best book ever?” I replied, “Because it’s awesome.” The second was his Mother Tongue, a lovingly crafted homage to Mabel Boggs Sweet, a spitfire gospel preacher who endured countless indignities in the pursuit of her vocation. That book was an honor to edit. And now, the third in his NavPress canon, Rings of Fire: Walking in Faith through a Volcanic Future. a book I had read before first meeting Len and which had contributed to my starry-eyed giddiness. The comparison is apt, because like that earlier book, Rings of Fire is the type of tome that will knock you around even as it’s getting you where you need to go. Len as future-forecaster is like the rocks we find Jesus talking about: Within this book you’ll be exposed to eruptive and disruptive social forces that threaten to trip you up and even crush you if you’re not careful; but also in here you’ll find solid rocks to stand on, even stones that cry out in witness to the work of the Spirit when we’re being too timid or cynical to pay attention. I shouldn’t be talking about rocks. Len’s operating metaphor in Rings of Fire is a volcano—generating heat, spewing destruction, dramatically reconfiguring the landscape. He counts somewhere around 25 of these culture-reshaping forces in this book, each of which could be its own book and probably soon will be, which is sort of the point. He’s looking a century into the future, considering the questions we need to start asking about our faith and our world on behalf of our kids, who are already the church of the twenty-second century. A century into the future—can you imagine? I can’t look a century into the past without getting a little bewildered. But that’s Len: He’s kicking forward, leaning back as he does. Here’s a little easter egg for you: If you look closely at the cover of Rings of Fire (I won’t tell you where) you’ll find a coffee bean. Why? Because it’s volcanic ash that makes possible the Kona bean, source of some of the richest, most flavorful coffee in the world. Volcanos are a fact of nature, and people of vision can see beyond the risk of them to the possibility of them, and can lead the rest of us to something bold and audacious and enormously gratifying. What coffee growers do with volcanoes is what each of us, with enough faith (faith being the magical mixture of vision and audacity and boldness that comes from a basic trust that God is always inviting us to lean back on his goodness and mercy as we go even as he’s kicking us forward into a desired future) can do for the world we find ourselves in: We can see beyond the eruption and disruption of our times to the possibility of the world God is leading us all into, and we can communicate that sense of possibility to the world around us as good news of the highest order. I know, right? Blowing my brain all to bits.
Monday, October 28, 2019
I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you if you're game. What follows is an excerpt from the summer 2018 issue, focused on music that was really doing it for me at the time.
Households of the future will be identified by one thing: which global corporation they’ve allowed to take up residence. We’ve recently become serfs under the House of Amazon, inasmuch as we’ve invited Alexa under our roof. For the most part this is a great convenience—we can now listen to any music we’ve bought through Amazon all throughout the house simply by saying “Alexa, play ____________. Everywhere.”
I’ve already shared with you some of the limitations of this proprietary technology (see Middling 2: Electric Boogaloo). But I’ve discovered another one: I have no idea what album a particular artist’s music comes from.
Exhibit A, in which the A stands for Audrey Assad. This very talented Catholic songwriter has restored my faith in contemporary Christian music (or, at least, has mitigated my general lack of regard for it). She’s consistently contemplative and resists the cliches and tropes that make so much CCM sound the same. Some of Assad’s songs are made for radio and yet they still defy the constraints of radio friendliness; others are deeply spiritual in that they are deeply thoughtful while also being thoughtfully crafted. She challenges the genre she competes in, which is always a good thing, even though I would imagine it sets her up for the occasional bout of loneliness.
I first heard Assad on a podcast, talking about music rather than performing it. That probably biased me toward her, as I heard her reflecting on her craft and process. I’m a sucker for such things. My wife discovered her a little later and bought her whole catalog, and now almost every weekend there’s a block of time inaugurated by the phrase “Alexa, play Audrey Assad everywhere.” I dare say such a command might make the world a slightly better place.
The only problem: I have no idea which of her albums is my favorite, which song goes with which. Here are a couple of favorite tracks; I’ll let you decide how to bring them home.
On the turntable lately is Good Thing, the sophomore effort by Leon Bridges. His first album was so good that his second album made me nervous: nowhere to go but down. But he proved me wrong by going forward. His first album was an homage to 60s soul and earned him comparisons to the great Sam Cooke; this new album is of-the-minute but no less soulful—and by “soulful” I mean heartfelt and expertly performed. We had some houseguests over and I put it on for them, and the thirteen-year-old bobbed her head in critical approval. She’ll probably still be listening to Leon Bridges when she’s thirty-three and a third; that’s how good this guy is.
Come back soon for more excerpts from Middling. And do let me know if you want to receive the newsletter.
Sunday, October 13, 2019
This is the final installment of a seven-part thought experiment, in which the myth of Sisyphus collides with the gospel of Jesus. Chapter one, along with an explanation of the project, is here. Chapter two is here. Chapter three is here. Chapter four is here. Chapter five is here. Chapter six is here. If you find you like your Sisyphii a little more cynical, read my "Triumph of Sisyphus" here.
He motioned to the others. “They need you,” he told me, “and you need them. You’ve got a rough stretch ahead. The ones who came for me are not going to stop till my message gets crushed to fine powder. They’re going to bring to bear all the power they think they have. They’re going to try to intimidate you into silence. I’m telling you now, it’s not going to work. You’re a new person. Don’t worry.
“But they won’t stop with intimidation. You need to know this. They’re kings of the hill here, and they’ll win every battle on this hill. But they won’t win in the end. In the end I’ll be with you, and you’ll be with me, and this place will be salvaged from the rock heap they’ve made it. There’s a good life ahead of you, even though it’s a hard road to get there.”
He motioned for the others to join us. “Here’s what I want you to do,” he said. “My work here is finished, and I’m going back to where I came from. When I get there I’m going to keep preparing the place I’ve been promising you. And when I come back to you, I’ll bring it with me.
“In the meantime, your job is what it’s been all along: Ease people’s burdens, not least of all each others’ burdens. When people are injured, stop and help. When overseers tell you to stop, tell them to follow you to freedom. And wherever you find yourself, whoever you’re talking to, tell them what I’ve been telling you: There’s a better life than this, and you know the way there. Tell them to follow you. Tell them that I’m coming back.
“You need to know that you won’t be alone in this. I won’t be right next to you, and I don’t expect you to understand this, but trust me: I’ll be with you. I’ll be in you, giving you strength, continuing to heal your souls from all the damage this hill has done. You won’t lose me, and I won’t lose you.
“Now, get going.” That was the last thing he said. And just as he suddenly showed up, he suddenly left.
Since then, every day has been the same. Wherever we find ourselves, whoever we’re talking to, we tell them what he told us: There’s a better life than this. And we don’t just say it, we show it: We notice people who never get noticed—even by the overseers, whose job it is to see. We take care of people (not least each other). We enjoy each other. And we remind each other that he’s coming back, and he’s bringing a better life with him.
That said, this life—this life he led us into? Turns out it’s a pretty good life.
Thanks for reading this little thought experiment. I hope you enjoyed it.
Monday, September 30, 2019
This is the sixth installment in a seven-part thought experiment, in which the myth of Sisyphus collides with the gospel of Jesus. Chapter one, along with an explanation of the project, is here. Chapter two is here. Chapter three is here. Chapter four is here. Chapter five is here. If Sisyphus is now your homeboy, read my "Triumph of Sisyphus" here.
The rock came to a rest at the bottom of the hill. We all stared at it. Then slowly, gradually, we all left.
A few of us wandered around. I helped a few folks push their boulders a bit, but I don’t know how helpful I was. My heart wasn’t in it. All those promises, dashed by the rock. I felt all the pain still lingering in my soul. I ached everywhere.
And then it happened. We were caught off guard by it. He was just . . . there. Right there next to us. We could see the marks of his injuries, but he didn’t seem fazed by them.
“This world gives you rocks,” he said. “I give you peace.”
I felt it. We all did. Whatever happened when he whispered or touched or acknowledged the hurting, happened to us. Our souls leapt back to life. Our backs straightened. Our resolve quickened.
“Where should we go next?” I asked. I hoped he didn’t remember my betrayal, but he did. “Let’s talk,” he said.
We stepped out of earshot of the others. “You know I love you, right?” he asked. I did.
“Do you love me?” I did. It hurt to think that he didn’t know it.
I of course told him, mustering all the confidence I could. But he just looked at me. Again and again, he repeated the question. “Do you love me?” Again and again, I told him I did.
I did the math. One question for each betrayal. He smiled. I think he figured out that I’d figured it out.
Tune in for chapter seven, the exciting conclusion to our collision of myths.
Monday, September 16, 2019
This is the fifth installment in a seven-part thought experiment, in which the myth of Sisyphus collides with the gospel of Jesus. Chapter one, along with an explanation of the project, is here. Chapter two is here. Chapter three is here. Chapter four is here. If you find yourself ready to declare #teamsisyphusforlife, read my "Triumph of Sisyphus" here.
The night it happened we were all caught off guard. I suppose we shouldn’t have been. He had spoken pretty plainly for a while about how the overseers were gunning for him, how they’d come for him so they could get us back. He actually seemed to believe they’d succeed. But he didn’t stop there. “Even then, trust me. I’ll be back for you, and your life will be unbelievably better.”
But that night, we had let our guard down. Nothing seemed to faze him, and no one seemed to be able to stop him. When the overseers showed up to take him into custody we couldn’t even figure out how they knew where we were.
Turns out there was a traitor in our midst. Turns out it wasn’t me.
I wasn’t a traitor—I didn’t sell him out to the overseers. But I will admit that his capture shook me. We wandered around in the aftermath, weaving in and out of all the people pushing their rocks, trying to figure out our next move.
“You followed him, didn’t you?” someone asked me.
I panicked. “No, of course not. I’m just making my way back to my rock.”
Again and again, people caught my eye and made the accusation. Again and again, I denied I even knew him. I could feel my soul shriveling a little, but what could I do? He had promised a better life, and it turns out he couldn’t deliver it. Better the devil you know . . .
It was morning. I looked up the hill and saw him, tied to a rock.
He saw me. I’m sure of it. He didn’t look angry. He looked tired. He looked a wreck, actually. The overseers had not been gentle with him.
“This is what happens to those who disrupt the work!” someone shouted. I don’t think it was an overseer. I think it was whoever oversaw them. I used to fantasize about that voice, offering me mercy, delivering me from my back-breaking work.
Then they pushed the rock, the rock he was tied to, down the hill.
It tumbled. It slid. It rolled. We heard the bones crushing, we saw the blood spatter.
Someone made a joke. “Too bad he’s not around to heal himself.” What had we become?!?
Tune in for chapter six, wherein catastrophe becomes eucatastrophe.
Monday, September 02, 2019
This is the fourth installment in a seven-part thought experiment, in which the myth of Sisyphus collides with the gospel of Jesus. Chapter one, along with an explanation of the project, is here. Chapter two is here. Chapter three is here. If you find yourself starting to stan Sisyphus, read my "Triumph of Sisyphus" here.
We looked back to him, but his attention was on the woman he healed. He didn’t seem to put much stock in what the overseer had said.
Eventually, though, he stood up and turned around to face the overseer. “No one should ever have to wait to be healed.” He looked at us. “You don’t know it and you probably don’t believe it, but you’re lucky that you had to push these rocks.” I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about, but he continued.
“You’re lucky you were stuck behind those rocks. They obstructed your view so that the rock was all you saw. And then when you saw the better life that God has in mind for you, you knew intuitively that it was better than that rock.
“You’re lucky you were so exhausted when I met you. You were able to appreciate the value of the rest I was offering you.
“You’re lucky you know what it’s like to be hurt, because with me that means you’ll know what it’s like to be healed—all the way down to your soul.”
That was certainly true. I hadn’t experienced the devastating injury so many of the others had, but my soul was getting better every day, and I knew it because I knew how it felt before.
“But you,” he turned again to the overseers. “That perch you sit on, judging everyone? That’s all there is for you. And that sense of self-satisfaction you feel knowing that you never have to push a rock like these people? It’s a mild sedative masking the emptiness of your life, and the sedative is going to wear off sooner than you think. And that confidence you have that this is all there is and it’ll go on forever without interruption? You’re wrong. Your confidence is misplaced. There’s more than this—” he motioned around at all of us, and up and down the hill, the totality of all of our experience. “And what you think goes on forever is already coming to an end.”
That sent the overseers into a rage. We didn’t quite know what to expect. They had all the power, but he had all the people. We kept looking between them and him, him and them. And then abruptly the overseers turned and left. He turned to us again.
“A lot of you think they have power over you. And in some ways, they do. This hill, these rocks—they’re the domain of the overseers. So do what you have to do with them. But don’t believe them, because in the things that matter most, they have no idea what they’re talking about. They’re trapped in the same broken environment that has held you trapped for so long. It’s all they know. And because they reap the benefits of it, the good life I’ve been promising you sounds less good to them.
“Keep your heads up, and your eyes on me. I’ve treated you well, right? Your life is better, right? A time is coming when this hill will become something completely new—a place where you can do work that gives you life and find rest whenever you need it, a place where you don’t see the people around you as enemies but as family. I promise it’s coming, and I promise you’ll love it.”
Still, we noticed, the overseers had put the fear in some folks. People who had been following him for a while went back to their rocks. Better the devil you know, I imagine they thought, than the angel you don’t.
Tune in for chapter five, wherein treachery and tragedy strike.
Monday, August 19, 2019
This is the third installment in a seven-part thought experiment, in which the myth of Sisyphus collides with the gospel of Jesus. Read chapter one, along with an explanation of the project, here. Read chapter two here. If you find yourself starting to stan Sisyphus, read my "Triumph of Sisyphus" here.
Before too long there was a group of us. The overseers didn’t know what to make of us—we climbed up the hill and back down every day, but we did so freely, with no back-breaking labor to slow us down. Sometimes we helped other people with their boulders; sometimes we convinced others to join us. Fairly often, as was inevitable in this line of work, someone would be gravely injured while pushing the boulder, and he would walk up to them and whisper something or rest his hand on their wound or even just look in their direction, and they’d be suddenly, miraculously healed! The first time we saw it happen I was dumbstruck. By the seventh or eighth time I had come to expect it, but I never wasn’t awed by it.
Everyone we talked to, he repeated what he said to me: This is not how it’s meant to be. There’s a better life for us. He would help us find it. He’d say it and people would look from him to us, as if to ask if he was telling the truth. We would nod our heads, eyes wide, every time. It occurred to me every now and then that he hadn’t actually taken us anywhere—we were still on that same hill every day—but even so, this really was a better life. Everything about it was better: I had friends, I had work that I could do that wouldn’t kill me, I had a soul that was healing from the damage that I didn’t even know had been done to it. Futility festers, it turns out. It takes a while to get to the root of it and flush it from your system. But I could tell I was better. Life was better. I believed it.
Eventually, in the eyes of the overseers, he ceased to be a curiosity and started to be a threat. Those boulders weren’t going to push themselves, and more and more people were walking away from the work and taking up with him. I remember the first time I heard one of them speak. He had just healed someone, midway up the hill, I think, and in an unprecedented move a group of overseers had tromped down the hill to see what he was doing.
We were all celebrating. This woman’s hand had been crushed, and then suddenly, it wasn’t.
“She can get healed on her own time,” the voice announced, with the same conviction I always heard from him.
We all looked at her, this angry overseer, with shock and fear. What could she do to us? What would she do to us? We hadn’t been doing our work for some time now; maybe today was the day it caught up to us.
Tune in for chapter four, wherein Jesus has strong words for the overseers and challenging words for everyone else.
Monday, August 05, 2019
This is the second installment in a seven-part thought experiment, in which the myth of Sisyphus collides with the gospel of Jesus. Read chapter one, along with an explanation of the project, here. If you find you can't get enough Sisyphus in your life, read my "Triumph of Sisyphus" here.
I had a lot of coworkers, but not a lot of friends. None of us had much energy to talk, to begin with, and while our work was the same, it didn’t overlap. I saw those other boulder-pushers as competitors for the affection of the overseers and whoever oversaw them: Surely someone out there has the power to release us from this work, to end this torture. Better me than them, I thought.
Then he showed up.
Right there next to me, just the latest sacrificial lamb to the unrelenting work. Turns out he was a little chatty.
“This is not how it’s supposed to be,” he declared. That’s really the only word for it. I don’t know how he mustered up the energy for anything beyond a grunt, but he said it with force, conviction.
“Yeah,” I responded. I didn’t have the energy for more. I was impressed, but I also didn’t want to get distracted. Maybe today would be the day I’d be delivered.
“Work,” he continued—turns out he was just getting warmed up—"is meant to mean something. This work is an exercise in futility. Seems like it’s designed to tear up your soul.”
Seems like I was in a conversation. I slowed my pace a bit so I could engage. All I could manage was, “It certainly tears up your body.”
“Why do you keep doing it?”
That stopped me short. He seemed to think I chose this life. I glared at him and returned to pushing. This conversation, I decided, was over.
“There’s a better life for you. Trust me. I can help you find it.”
I tried pushing harder, moving faster. Why should I trust him? I just met him! He was the competition, and this was the work. I wasn’t going anywhere.
And yet even as I tried to get away from him I kept turning his comment over and over in my mind. What if there was a better life? Should I trust him? Could I trust him? He spoke with such authority—he seemed to have something specific in mind when he talked about a better life.
We reached the top and our boulders slid back down the hill. Given how distracted I’d been, I was surprised we made it to the top. I started off down the hill but he grabbed my arm. “Follow me,” he said.
I surprised myself when I did.
Tune in next time for chapter three, wherein we see a movement begin to grow and the powers-that-be begin to act.
Monday, July 29, 2019
I write an occasional newsletter (quarterly when I don't forget) to friends and family about my life: music, books, work, and getting older. I'd love to send it to you if you're game. What follows is an excerpt from the summer 2018 issue.
TWEET THIS: We are people of a place no matter how transient we are, and we are sojourners no matter how long we stay where we find ourselves.
Monday, July 22, 2019
Some time ago now I had a hankering to revisit the myth of Sisyphus. (You can read that here.) I enjoyed the exercise, although I'm sure some of my friends and loved ones found it too dark for their liking; some probably started to worry about me a little. But the myth of Sisyphus is inherently dark. It's probably less a myth than a fever dream, the sort of nightmare one wakes up from not with a bang but a whimper, the sort of thing you write down in a hurry because you don't want to forget it because you think it holds something inherently true even while you're praying it doesn't. It pushes a lot of my buttons, apparently, so I wrote about it, and shared it here, and some of you read it. Thank you. More recently I wondered what would happen if the myth of Sisyphus were to collide with the gospel of Jesus. It's said that J. R. R. Tolkien evangelized C. S. Lewis by suggesting that of all the mythologies of human history, Christianity--the gospel of Jesus--was the one myth that was true. So think of this latest thought experiment as a meeting of the myths. It'd be a kind of crossover epic up there with Predator vs. Aliens if not for the whole point of Sisyphus being the dreadful mundane. In the world of Sisyphus, only a couple of things ever happen: The rock rolls up; the rock rolls down. In the world of Jesus, "the stone the masons threw out is now the cornerstone." In the world of Jesus, the rock that sealed his death was rolled away, inaugurating an age of resurrection. What would happen if Sisyphus, for whom nothing ever changed, were to encounter Jesus, who makes all things new? I've broken this thought experiment into seven "chapters," mainly because no one would read it in one sitting, and because I find it so difficult to come up with content for this blog anymore that I figured I'd stretch it out. So then, without further ado, chapter one.
Every day was the same. You started at the bottom of the hill, your shoulder pressed to the boulder, and you began to heave.
You might picture the boulder as a perfect sphere, but you’d be wrong. Boulders don’t come that way in nature, and no one in this hellish life was going to go to the trouble of shaping our boulders into things that naturally roll. No, our boulders were rocks shook loose from the earth. They had jagged edges that cut you as you pushed. The loose dirt held there by static electricity ground into your skin. Just to take the position itself was torture. Never mind the pushing.
Every heave was painful. New cuts on top of old scrapes, new scrapes on top of old cuts. Gravity was your enemy as the boulder wanted to roll down the hill even as you pushed it up. But that was the job: Push the boulder up the hill. Someone had to do it.
Whoever designed this job had it down. My boulder was just large enough, just heavy enough, just jagged enough, to take me all day to get it to the top of the hill. It took everything out of me every day, from start to finish. But I never didn’t finish; I always reached the top.
And then the boulder would tumble, slide, roll down to the bottom of the hill, and my day would begin again.
Our overseers watched us without emotion. They weren’t sympathetic to our plight, but neither were they unsympathetic. This was the job—it was for them to watch and for me to push.
We accept the reality we’re presented with.
Tune in next time for chapter two, wherein our hero meets a stranger who says strange things and asks troubling questions.