Broken Elm

Our first two years of marriage, when we lived in Tallahassee, Florida, Miska worked in the office of the Speaker of the House. Miska kept the staff’s schedules, greeted politicians and lobbyists and expended her energy grinding out the administrative minutia that push forward the rusty wheels of government. Miska even wore suits to work. None of this was right of course – it was death to her soul. Only, she didn’t exactly know this yet. She had to live into the deeper truths of who she is.

Over dinner at a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant (checkered tablecloths, little candle, the whole bit), we had a conversation that altered the trajectory of our life. We moved to Denver for Miska to go to grad school, and though I had no idea what my job would be or how we would pay the bills, I knew important things were happening. Something powerful and alive had begun to resurrect in her heart, and I was hellbent on not missing that beauty.

In the years since, Miska’s voice and art, her way in the world, has grown solid and true. She’s a joy-maker. Miska is, at her core, a creator. Wherever she decides to give her energy, good and beautiful things blossom.

For years, Miska has offered her creative art via her presence with people, in her work as a spiritual director. She’s kept most of her other craft close, only shared with family and a few friends. Sometimes this has frustrated me. I love what Miska creates, and I’ve wanted her to let her work out into the world. She has resisted. “The time’s not right,” she’d say. Typically, I’d feign agreement, while really thinking whatever...

Now, however, it’s time. I get to share at least some of her craft.

Broken-Elm-FB-Banner

Broken Elm offers Miska’s all-natural, hand-crafted skin care for women and men (that’s the apothecary) and, for the moment, hand-printed tea towels (that’s the mercantile). You’ll want to check out her philosophy on all this. I love it.

And in honor of the grand opening, there’s free shipping if you spend $30 (code: StartTheParty). Just in time for Valentine’s Day, gents.

Broken on Good Friday

christ cross stone

In 1983, Eric Wolterstorff died in a tragic accident while climbing the Alps. He was 25. His father Nicholas, a theologian and philosopher from Yale, journaled his sorrow in the months that followed. Among his weary words were these:

I tried music. But why is this music all so affirmative? Has it always been like that? Perhaps then a requiem, that glorious German Requiem of Brahms. I have to turn it off. There’s too little brokenness in it. Is there no music that speaks of our terrible brokenness? That’s not what I mean. I mean: Is there no music that fits in our brokenness? The music that speaks about our brokenness is not itself broken. Is there no broken music?

If we are to walk backwards in our world and if we are to reckon with the true horrors, then we need broken music. We need brave people who are not afraid to linger in the falling-apart places. I do not mean folks who by their disposition only see the bleak, for bleak is thank goodness not at all the whole of it. I do not mean artists who use the grotesque as their shtick or politicians who use our fear of calamity to bolster their power. I mean people who know the Beauty of the world but who also know there is a wasteland in the human soul. People who know Love but who also, deep in their marrow, know how many of our nights and days are overwhelmed by sadness.

And we do not need people to pontificate all these sorrows we know full well but are unable to escape. We need brave souls who will enter with us, who will help us meet our afflictions honestly and help us grapple in the dirt. We need friends who know that we must, like Jacob, wrestle into the cold midnight with an angel or a demon – who can say which just yet?

We need musicians who will sing the song with us – and sometimes for us – that we have not yet been able to sing. We need poets who will write the costly verse, born out of their own travail, and then offer it as gift to those of in such disarray that we are unable to locate the language. We need writers who, after they have cut their skin and their soul and bled onto the page, say, “Come, I’ll walk with you for the next hard mile.” We need preachers who don’t merely give us homilies from on high but who wonder with us if the good news could be true – and then preach with the conviction of one whose very life hangs on this hope. We need the broken ones.

Of course, offering one’s broken self for the healing of another is central to the Christian narrative and to how our faith takes on flesh in every time and place. Good Friday gives us a God broken. A God shattered under a dark sky. A God with us in our bleakest place. A God spilt out as balm for our wound, as hope that points us toward Easter.

Simon Høgsberg

Simon Høgsberg is a Danish photographer, currently living in Copenhagen. His images are intensely human. With his camera, Høgsberg asks human questions and tells human stories. One of my favorite projects is when he snapped shots of 10 New Yorkers and got them to talk about their faces.

I recently interviewed Høgsberg for HalogenTV. A common theme in his work is separation, the human tendency to hide from one another, to keep our distance. Høgsberg narrates how photography forces him to come up close to people and resist his private narcissism (a narcissism we all struggle with). Check out the interview. I love this guys’ work.

Mumford and Sons

Every once in a while, I stumble across a musician (or group) that captures me. It has happened again – I’m enraptured with Mumford and Sons. Four Londoners with an innovative yet old-time take on folk and bluegrass (and with just the right bit of British accent), these fellas were born to sing (or sang). With names like Marcus Mumford, Country Winston, Ben Lovett and Ted Dwane, what other profession could they take on, really? I guess they could have been Texas sheriffs or oil rig hands… I’m glad they chose music. Any band of friends that describes themselves as “misty-eyed men” is more than alright in my book.

They recently played at Bonnaroo, and you can listen to the concert below. Or you can purchase their album Sigh No More for $7.99.

Skylight and Starlight

Well, I’m typing this on a bus, the Starlight Express from New York City back to Charlottesville. Did you get that – on a bus! Yet another technological wonder. I was at a conference, but I needed to come home early – our house is full of sick people.

I wanted to share this piece (interview, really) I did with Kate Barton and Skylight Studios. Juli Kalbaugh (our friend, painter and current housemate) works with Kate @ Skylight.

The conference I’m leaving and this piece I’m sharing have a common theme: the hope and belief that art can (should) do good and make our world more beautiful. I’d like to say more about it, but I’m running out of electrical juice on my laptop – and that is one technological feat that has yet to be conquered. But my friend Andrew Albers is working on it…

But what about you? Any art that has made your world more beautiful?

Shalom

sirens wail
mother sobs
iron clinks
Shalom

stomach gnawing
nightmare haunting
refugee slumping
Shalom

tires squeal
dad disappears
again, again
Shalom

moonless night
sunless soul
forever alone
Shalom

violence
poverty
anarchy
here

goodness
well-being
feasting
everywhere

Shalom.

Writing with the Body

If I did not resist with my life, I should be unable to write…The Christian idea has got to be served; that the word is made Flesh. One must write with one’s body. {Antoine de Saint-Exupery}

Antoine de Saint-Exupery was an acclaimed author (primarily for his children’s book The Little Prince) and also an aviator who volunteered as a fighter pilot during the French Resistance in WWII. Older than most combat pilots, Saint-Exupery refused to surrender his commission. He believed that to write honestly required that he live honestly; and, in the historic moment in which he lived, Saint-Exupery believed that honest living demanded he offer his full self, even his life, for the just cause of resisting the Nazis. In the end, his choice did demand his life – Saint-Exupery went missing in July 1944 during a reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean, shortly before France’s liberation.

For Saint-Exupery, writing was not merely something he did, but integral to who he was. His writing both flowed from and fed into the whole of who he was as a man. If he lived dishonestly or without courage and integrity, then his writing would suffer the poison. He could not ignore the great cause of his day (perhaps his life) without his cowardice and selfishness corroding his soul.

He believed then that a writer “must write with one’s body.” In other words, a writer writes with their whole self – or we don’t write truly at all. We write with our actions, with our friendships, with our laughter and our tears. We write with our hopes and our commitments and our generosity ever bit as much as we write with our words.

With Saint-Exupery, these notions of life and writing emerged from his faith. The central notion of Christian faith is the Incarnation, the belief that God went physical in Jesus. God is not an idea, but a person. Christianity is not primarily a moral code or set of theories and principles. Christianity, rightly observed, is the story of how God is making (and re-making) the world (and the people who make up this world) to be splendidly overrun with beauty, truth and goodness. Energized by this, then, how could a writer not write with intense passion, conviction and truthfulness. (And, the same is true for a painter, a baker, a builder, a grocery clerk.)

As a writer, I’m pondering Saint-Exupery’s words – and asking myself the question: what do I need to write with my body before I write with my sentences? As a writer who is also a Christian, I’m pondering Saint-Exupery’s words – and asking myself the question: where does my writing need to imbibe the way of Incarnation, to go physical and move toward beauty, truth and goodness?

Make the World Beautiful: Autumn Film

For the next installment of our make the world beautiful collection, here’s another recommendation (introduced to me by Rob Johnson): The Autumn Film. I’ve just begun listening to them, but there is a rich texture to their music that makes me want to listen longer, more intently. Something there reminds me of one of my favorite bands, Over the Rhine, with perhaps a little Snow Patrol or Coldplay thrown in.

Best of all, they are giving away 3 separate EPs right now, 11 songs in total – and the video for “Joy,” well, you’ll just have to give it a watch. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard something so haunting and original done to an old Sunday School tune. In fact, the only reinterpretations I’ve heard that compare to this are from my friend Tom Conlon.

Enjoy the beauty.

Make the World Beautiful: Josh Garrels

Art matters. Beauty matters. As image bearers of our Creator, we have been handed the mad joy of joining God’s work in making the world beautiful. To that end, I’m going to offer posts here and there contributing to the conversation, whenever the moment seems right, whenever I have something to say or an artist to share.

To start us off:

words: I couldn’t agree more with this guy

music: If you haven’t heard Josh Garrels, now is the time. One (1) of my beefs with Christian music (as with much “Christian art” – and perhaps my reason for quotation marks will be a topic for another day) is that it often merely mimics. Little fresh energy. Almost nothing unexpected. Far too little that is truly creative. Not Josh Garrels, Honestly I don’t even know if Garrels fits in the “Christian” genre, but his lyrics are richly theological, with piercing depth and nuanced texture. And his music – wow! his music. It’s alive. It’s haunting and vivid. It makes me want to listen better, to pay attention. When I hear a Garrels tune, I’m wondering where it will take me. And in the pop world of “heard 1, heard 1,000,” that’s saying something.

Garrels song “Zion and Babylon” is one of my favorites. But, there are a number. Listen here. And then buy an album.


Get a playlist! Standalone player Get Ringtones

p.s. Due to a recommendation from one Justin Scott, this Wendesday night @ 11, I’ll be catching the Modern Skirts @ The Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar. We’ll see what kind of creative goodness they have to offer.

The Echo Within: Robert Benson

A writer ought to offer something worth saying as well as something worth hearing. Some authors have a thing or two to tell me, but frankly, after a few pages, I don’t care to hear it. I’ve come to believe that truth without beauty … well, isn’t truth. I reveal my bias here, but writing is a sacred calling (just as is photography and carpentry and mothering and leading a parish); and I don’t understand “writers” who don’t seem to give a rat’s ass about the actual craft of writing. And it’s no better with religious books (maybe worse). Slapping the name Jesus on bad art still leaves bad art. My hunch is that Jesus doesn’t much appreciate the association.

Thank God, however, there are writers like Robert Benson.

If you’ve hung around Miska or me very long, you’ve probably heard Robert’s name tossed about. Miska has recommended (or given away) Benson’s Living Prayer more than a few times. And a few summers back, the small community that met in our home read A Good Life, Benson’s exploration into St. Benedict’s Rule.

Robert’s latest book, The Echo Within, offers his ruminations on embracing one’s calling and vocation. It’s a fabulous read. I loved the numerous (and conflicting) ways I encountered his wise mind and artful pen. On one page, I’d find myself saying, ah, yes, that’s what I’ve been trying to say. And on the other pages, hmmm, I’ve never seen it that way before. One moment, I’d laugh out loud; other moments I’d sense a deep piercing where a word or image had landed well. I think collisions like these signal how we are on to something good.

Our exploration for what we are called to be and do, for what deep gift is uniquely ours to inhabit and then give away, is one of our most central, most human, questions. By virtue of both living so many years in a university context (among young friends beginning to chart their way) and by simply having the kinds of conversations pastors tend to have, I’ve long lost count of how many times I’ve heard this question: how do I know what I’m supposed to do with my life? We’re all asking this when we’re twenty-three. Many of us are still asking when we’re fifty-three.

I wish I’d had The Echo Within to recommend in all these conversations. Now I do. When I pass it along, however, I will also pass along a warning. Some will find Benson frustrating. When we ask these questions of our life’s direction, we often are looking for someone to tell us what to do – or at least to give us some fool-proof system that will tell us what to do. Exactly. Prescisely. Clearly. And quickly. Even if you didn’t know Benson and were unaware that such things will always be the opposite of what Benson provides, you’d know soon enough by skimming a few of his chapter titles: Listening (ch 1). Hearing (ch 3). Waiting (ch 6). Dreaming (ch 10). And there’s more where that came from. Lots more.

Benson reminds us that finding our vocation is about finding our truest selves. Or, to put it another way, it is about finding the “echo of the Voice that spoke us into being [which] is the sound of our own true voice.” To find ourselves, we must listen to what God has spoken uniquely to us, in us.

This is the heart of the matter. Finding our vocation, our call, our life’s work, is not first or foremost about what our business card says about us or how we find the way to pay our mortgage and put food on the table. Your life’s call is about embracing the beauty God had in mind when he took joy and delight in making you. And then, your taking joy and delight in singing the song you (and only you) were intended to sing.

“Your vocation” says Benson, “is not only about the work you do with your hands and your heart and your mind; it is about what shapes the work, the person you become in and around that work as well.”