Saint Saviour’s songs of quiet strength

British singer-songwriter Becky Jones adopted the moniker “Saint Saviour” after seeing it while running in the St. Saviour’s Dock area of London. Those who appreciate the lyrical honesty of the psalms may also be drawn to the intimate beauty of In the Seams, which lets listeners in on the intricacies of Jones’s inner life.

“I’ve made considerable mistakes/tried to be/someone else,” Jones confesses in a delicate, ethereal voice on the first track, “Intro (Sorry).” Throughout the record, her airy vocals are accompanied only by piano, acoustic guitars, and cinematic arrangements by Manchester Camerata, a chamber orchestra.

This collection (her second) is indeed plaintive in places—yet it is never entirely despairing. Many of the verses describe painful experiences such as romantic betrayal and childhood bullying, but the choruses are often calls for forgiveness and reminders of life’s promise. These songs of quiet strength are fitting companions for a pensive walk or a tranquil hour at home.
(Banner review)

Andrew Peterson after all these years

TIN-100 After All These Years_mediumSinger-songwriter Andrew Peterson entered the contemporary Christian music scene in 1996 with his first album, Walk. Since then he has released nine more studio albums—in addition to bootlegs, compilations, and live recordings—and been consistently acclaimed for his thoughtful, Scripture-infused pop-folk songs.

Peterson’s newest album, After All These Years, is a retrospective collection of early songs rerecorded alongside a handful of new tracks. There are songs of overflowing gratitude to God for his faithfulness as seen through gifts of relationship and creation’s beauty (e.g. “Dancing in the Minefields,” “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone?”).

But when it comes to expressing the wounded state of the world—from broken marriages to war to grief—Peterson does not balk at expressing the pain and fear that can arise when God seems silent or hidden.

This album is Peterson at his best, offering longtime fans and new listeners an unflinching and deeply felt documentation of this artist’s life and work.
(Banner review)

The broken favored — an Advent devotional

For Advent 2014, two ministries of the Christian Reformed Church — World Renew and the The Office of Social Justice – are together providing a daily devotional series called “Reconciliation: Breaking Through.” I am thankful for the opportunity to contribute this year. You can read my devotional below–but even before you do that, I highly recommend signing up to receive this excellent series in your inbox and catching up the devotionals here.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Luke 2:14

All my favorite people are broken
Believe me
My heart should know . . .

This forthright acknowledgement of human frailty is the refrain of a beautiful 2011 song from the folk group Over the Rhine.

The song—titled simply “All My Favorite People”—is not meant specifically for the Christmas season (although the band does have several lovely Christmas recordings). Even so, its lyrics linger fittingly in my mind these Advent days.

Broken is an important word to dwell on while pondering how Christ entered humanity so he could serve as an atoning sacrifice for us—God’s conflicted, hurting, and estranged children. In order to understand Christ’s reconciling work, we have to recognize that we are all deeply broken, so very much in need of a Savior.

In this season of reflective expectation, I am also pondering the phrase “favorite people as I revisit the Incarnation story. For most of us, a large part of Advent anticipation is eagerly awaiting celebrations with friends and family—our favorite broken people. Every year, I am grateful to lean into the narrative of hope together with those I love, with meals and songs and lights. I know that these people are gifts from God.

At the same time, though, I know this narrative extends far beyond the men, women, and children whom I know well and hold dear. Nor can it be celebrated as a narrative meant only for the people whom the world holds dear. Worldly favor falls crookedly, curved by injustice and fear. Most of our economic and political systems favor the strong over the weak—the wealthy over the poor and the healthy over the sick. These are haunting indicators of humanity’s woundedness.

All of our favorite people and places and nations and institutions are broken. This our hearts should know. The good news—the news made known through the miraculous reality of the Incarnation—is this: all of God’s broken people are favored.

Mary was a young woman living in obscurity and poverty; yet she found great favor with God, and so carried his Son. Shepherds, in Jesus’ time, had little stature; yet they were the first to hear the news of Christ’s birth from the angels’ holy mouths. And when these angels famously proclaimed that a child—a Messiah—had been born in the tiny, no-name town of Bethlehem, they pointed to this gift as evidence of the Lord’s generous favor.

From the family down the church pew to the stranger in another country to the friend across the table—all of us are beloved and worthy, broken and chosen. And we have unique gifts to offer as we aspire to unite the fractured pieces in our time, until God’s ultimate reconciliation comes to pass.

This broken person is God’s favored child.

If we let this refrain shape our interactions with others, I believe that even our imperfect efforts to promote mercy and encourage peace can become powerful testaments of the radical inclusivity of our Father’s grace.

(Originally posted here over at The Office of Social Justice – December 8 2014)

Eugene Cho on cultivating a heart of justice 2009, Seattle pastor Eugene Cho and his wife, Minhee, founded One Day’s Wages—a grassroots movement aimed at alleviating extreme poverty around the world. His book Overrated is in part a behind-the-scenes look at the convictions and issues that led to this organization’s creation and that drive its work today. While the book is deeply personal, it is a call for all followers of Christ to examine the attitudes and actions that arise as we attempt to impact the world for the better.

Working from Scripture, his own experiences, and the words of other ministry leaders, Cho challenges readers with examples of how efforts to help those in need can sometimes be ineffective in addressing the core causes of poverty and even harmful to those we are seeking to help. He also shares inspiring examples of people using their creativity and generosity to bring about lasting change.

Cho’s tone is conversational, even confessional, as he offers up what he has learned through coming alongside nonprofit professionals and the very people hurting as a result of systemic injustice. His voice flashes with humor without straying into flippancy, which helps him to carry even the hard stories and difficult facts graciously. Even when those stories and facts are convicting, they are also encouraging in that they help us serve better.

In an era of quick-click charity, Cho emphasizes cultivating a heart of justice out of a deep calling rather than an “emotional idea” by “tak[ing] more time to listen, pray, and allow the injustices of the world to break us in lasting ways, as opposed to wanting to immediately make an impact.” Perhaps this is one of the most powerful takeaways for readers. (Banner review)

Don't be overwhelmed. It's not our calling to save the world. Do what you can. Do it well. Do it with love.God doesn't challenge us to just change the world. He invites us to change.

Pausing over scripture with Marilyn Chandler McEntyre

The Bible can trouble us, comfort us, and perplex us. Sometimes even just a few words can bring us to a stop. In What’s in a Phrase? Pausing Where Scripture Gives You Pause, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre invites readers to join her in quietly and prayerfully contemplating passages that have caught her attention over the years. As McEntyre notes, hers is a book shaped by lectio divina, the ancient Benedictine practice of spiritual reading. That practice is built on the belief that “allowing associations to emerge around the phrase that stopped us is an act of faith that the Spirit will meet us there.”

In over 50 brief yet pensive reflections, McEntyre uses etymology, theology, history, literature, and her personal experiences to explore the subtleties and possible connotations of phrases such as “in the beauty of holiness” and “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Her thoughtful and vulnerable pondering leads her to pose the very questions at the heart of any spiritual journey: “What is the church?” “Who are the poor?“ “What does it mean to be known by God?” This book embraces the Bible as God’s living Word—mysterious, powerful, and meant to be engaged. The structure of What’s in a Phrase lends itself for use as a daily devotional, but the book could also be read straight through or even worked into teaching materials for educators and spiritual leaders.
(Banner review)

Mutineers by David Gray

David-GrayMost people know David Gray best for pop-folk romantic radio hits such as “Babylon” and “This Year’s Love” that found their way onto romantic comedy and television drama soundtracks in the early 2000s. Faithful listeners can attest that there is more to this prolific English singer-songwriter than lonesome love ballads. Throughout his 21-year career, Gray’s lyrics have occasionally pondered questions of belief and doubt (even though he does not identify himself as a religious follower).

Gray’s latest album, Mutineers, will appeal to those especially interested in subtle spiritual exploration. “If it’s love lifts us up from the dark, is it God by another name?” he asks in one track. Another song—inspired by the work of a Belgian poet—includes the lyrics “I’m climbing hand over hand / Toward that pinprick of light / Toward the seed that God sowed.”

Stylistically, the album is not a huge departure from his past few efforts. But Gray’s love of electronica is a little more pronounced here, which adds an appropriately joyful energy to a collection featuring themes of rebirth and renewal.
(Banner review)

Writers Blog Tour 2014

photo-2A couple of weeks ago, my friend Nancy Nordenson kindly invited me to participate in a “blog tour” for writers. Basically I answer four questions about writing (see below) on my blog. In this post I ‘tag’ two more writers who then answer the same questions and ‘tag’ two more writers. And on the tour goes, building community and giving interested blog readers a glimpse of other people’s writing process along the way.

I first met Nancy in the New Mexico mountainside, where we were both studying Creative Writing through Seattle Pacific’s MFA program. She is a thoughtful and eloquent essayist, and her latest book, Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure, is due to be released in 2015.  You can read her blog tour answers over at her blog, where you can also treat yourself to more of her work. I am honoured she asked me to participate. Thanks, Nancy!

The blog tour questions are:

What am I working on?
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Why do I write what I do?
How does my writing process work?

Here goes…

What am I working on?

Although I have a couple of small reviews and essays on the go, my fiction is my main focus right now. Specifically, I am revising a series of stories (some interconnected) that I have had “in the drawer” for a while. I’m grateful for the non-fiction opportunities that have come my way in the past few years, and for my 9-5 writing for a relief and development agency. I know these opportunities sharpen and refine my writing skills (and also teach me the art of writing under a deadline!). But there are only so many hours in a day, as they say, and I’ve been neglecting my fiction for far too long. So it is exciting to set aside time to make it a priority again.

(Oh yes, and related to this fiction revision/revitalization quest: I’ve also been using writing exercises to help me reclaim the joy of writing regularly. I want to get back in practice of filling pages, even when I’m between projects. Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook: A Guide to Writing Imaginative Fiction has been great for this so far. It is an eclectic, visually stunning collection of craft advice even–and it is not just for sci-fi or fantasy writers, either. I highly recommend it.)

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Ah, an interesting question for a writer to answer, as it seems readers might have an easier time talking about what separates writers from each other.

Well, first I want to say that it seems pretty paralyzing for a writer to be too preoccupied with being ‘different’. That is, think that they have to offer the world writing that is completely unlike anything else that has ever been written—in style, tone, or plot. I have come to believe that the first concern for any story should be that it is well-crafted. Everyone carries influences into their work, just as everyone carries unique experiences and personal histories.

Does that sound like a bit of a cop out? It’s not meant to be. I just believe that if a story is truly well told then it is always new and fresh, and a strong voice will always set the story apart. And trust me, I still have days where I am stuck in the everything-has-already-been-said-better-than-I-could-ever-say-it mentality. But for the most part I have learned to break free and focus on writing what I feel called to write (and on these days it helps to read Henri Nouwen’s great, peace-giving quote about why we have to “trust that our stories deserve to be told.”)

I admit, too, that part of my difficulty with this question comes from my struggle to sort out where my current stories fit, genre-wise. See, like many short story writers, I began writing stories after falling in love with the masters of realism—Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, and so on. I loved—and I still love—stories centered on ordinary people, with subtle builds of tension, and small revelatory moments that offer insight into characters. My early stories stuck closely to this model. Over the years, though, I’ve also encountered stories with elements of magical realism and odd, often comedic (even if tragicomic) plots. And now I’m finding it more natural to write in the space where the realistic and the fantastic collide, especially when it comes to exploring matters of faith and questions of justice—what people do or do not believe in. I’m writing a little …weirder and louder these days. It is definitely not fantasy, and it’s not an attempt to be flashy. Let’s just say I’m noticing places in my old work that I can bend in fresh ways—ways that feel truer to the spirit of my voice than strict realism. I’m also staying open to this approach in my new work. So, we’ll see where this takes me!

Why do I write what I do?

In the previous question I talked about fiction as a way of exploring matters of faith and questions of justice. But I don’t want to make it sound like I write it just to push my own beliefs or set answers into the world. I write what I do because it is an honest   way for me to wrestle with the world and the many mysteries, pains, and subtle miracles of being human. When I can sit with these tensions and capture what is true about them by creating something from them, it is deeply satisfying. And, quite simply, I write what I do because I enjoy it—and I hope that this joy is generative to those who encounter my work. It can be lonely and intimidating work—especially when you throw in all the considerations related to publication. But it can’t be about that—not at its core. It has to be about joy.

How does my writing process work?

My process is changing all of the time.

I keep a journal, for, example but that’s mostly for character details, sensory observations, and images. I never get my whole drafts out by hand, but when I’m computer-screen-bleary, there’s nothing like scribbling down images, phrases, and ideas on paper.

While I am not an outliner, I sometimes I find it helpful to sketch out where a story could be headed—especially if I’m stuck on setting up a scene when really I just want to get the scene down on paper before it flees my brain.

As I mentioned, revisions can take me a while, and I end up putting a draft “in the drawer” for a while so I can return to it later and work it into a final version.

I could go on. Instead, though, I’ll end with a bit from a guest post piece I wrote a couple of years ago about how I begin a story, and how I learned to embrace the wandering nature of my process in general. So here are a few snippets that explain why writing often feels to me like meandering—like “roaming around without my shoes” :

Often I start with an image—but not always. There is no always in this process, for me.

Sometimes I start with snatches of dialogue of fragments of setting. Like many writers I know, I have entire documents and notebook sections that don’t contain a single complete sentence—odd testimonies to my nomadic process.

I might begin by mimicking lines (often first lines) I love—sentences that are mysterious and simple in all the right places. My own creations are shoddy in comparison, of course. But, I am writing. And I am writing sentences, and I am starting something, here.

Forget that someday-reader, I tell myself—I am writing, now. I am meandering, but not—as the common definition of the word suggests—moving about from place to place without aim. My aim is to make, and making I am.

The only truly aimless days are the days I dismiss these raw pages. I deny their place in the process, too afraid to see them as the beginning of what could one day be called…literature.

(You can read the rest of the piece here, over at Ross Gale’s excellent blog)


Among some of my lovely writer friends in Santa Fe, NM. Meg and I are the ladies in shades.

Who are you tagging to continue the Blog Tour adventure?

Okay, so it’s not a real blog tour question, but it’s a good one! I’m excited to tag the following two friends to carry on this tour:

Meg Sefton. Meg is another dear friend I made in grad school. We have spent many wonderful hours together drinking wine, talking fiction, and pondering the power of a story well told. Her writing is evocative and bold–and I am particularly in awe of her gift for flash fiction (not an easy form).

Nicholas Siegel. I met Nicholas while writing a piece for antler, an online writing community he is involved in. He is a fiction writer and a kindred spirit in terms of his love for exploring the intersection of art and faith (and his adoration for The Office US). You can find out more about Nicholas and read his blog tour answers here.

Thanks for reading, good readers.