Artist Statement: About the 'On Pilgrimage' Series

I was a reluctant artist, self-doubting leader and a broken soul.
I was in search of healing.

After a series of traumatic experiences that culminated with my hospitalization in Zambia, I went on a sabbatical in search of courage, tenacity, and renewal to continue in my vocation. It was early 2014, and we were entering into the year commemorating 20 years since the genocide in Rwanda. During this time, my mentors were leading a pilgrimage to Uganda and Rwanda to journey through places of immense pain and tremendous hope as a means to engage in the pain and hope in one’s active life. Because of my closely related work in Africa, I didn’t want to go — I knew I would have to intentionally delve into the hellish reality of a violent massacre I knew very little of. Simultaneously, I knew that by stepping into the pain, I would find the hope I was so desperately searching for. And so, together with eight other pilgrims, I went. We journeyed alongside of survivors and perpetrators of genocide as an attempt to identify in the incomprehensible pain that oppresses us all. It was through this experience that healing came in a profound way.

The Truth About God, Life, and Death

Image via /

“Christ agrees to die so that mankind will live,” wrote Girard in his book Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.

Many progressive Christians who do not know Girard’s work will bristle at that statement. Indeed, without reading his books, it could sound like a form of penal substitutionary atonement theory that claims Jesus allows humanity to live by saving us from the violent wrath of God.

But nothing could be further from the truth. The truth that Girard revealed throughout his career is that wrath doesn’t belong to God. It belongs solely to humans. In anthropological terms, what was revealed by the death of Jesus was the human scapegoat mechanism. Once you read Girard’s works, you realize how obvious it is that the violence at the cross had nothing to do with God, but everything to do with the human propensity to scapegoat.

If Girard taught us anything, it’s that humans have been projecting our own violence onto God since the foundation of the world. We justify our violence and hatred against our scapegoats in the name of God or peace or justice, or whatever we deem to be important to our well-being.

Jozef Wesolowski, Former Vatican Diplomat Accused of Child Sex Abuse, Is Dead

Orlando Barria / Catholic News Service / RNS

Jozef Wesolowski, in 2011. Photo via Orlando Barria / Catholic News Service / RNS

The Polish ex-nuncio — as Vatican ambassadors are called — had been due to stand trial on charges he paid for sex with children during his time in the Dominican Republic. Criminal proceedings were expected to get underway on July 11 but were halted after Wesolowski was hospitalized.

A lawyer for the former bishop said at the time he was unaware of Wesolowski’s suffering from health problems.

“I saw him two or three days ago, and, given his age and his state of mind, he was fine,” said Antonello Blasi, according to The Associated Press. The lawyer told the court that Wesolowski had been “willing and able” to come to court.

Officer Charged in Murder of Sam DuBose Pleads Not Guilty

Brad Sauter /

Photo via Brad Sauter /

The officer indicted for the murder of Samuel DuBose just blocks from the University of Cincinnati campus pleaded not guilty, NBC News reports. Outrage over the shooting death of DuBose, father of 10, during a traffic stop on July 19 has been widespread since video footage surfaced Wednesday, with calls for a murder conviction for officer Ray Tensing. 

Finding the Missing Pieces

Holding hands in a nursing home

Holding hands in a nursing home, Eduard Darchinyan /

The nursing home was quiet, which is typical for a late Sunday afternoon. I walked to the end of the hall where Grace lives in a room decorated with clown figurines that make her smile. I knocked at the doorway and announced myself. Grace was awake in bed, but upset about something.

“Oh, Joe! Come in! Can you do me a favor? I’ve lost something and could use your help finding it.”

Grace (not her actual name; I have to change it because of privacy laws) once had bright red hair that fit her personality. The red is gone now; her hair turned a pretty, cottony white after chemotherapy.

And today, something else was missing.

“I can’t find my left boob,” she said. “Would you be a dear and look around for it?”

'That Song You Sing For The Dead'

BIBLICAL LAMENT includes both pleas to God for help and mournful dirges. Sometimes they are rooted in individual travails and grief, other times in anguish for those crushed by injustice or war.

The psalmist and the prophets dig deep into visceral images of bodily suffering—and stretch up, out, yearning to find symbols and metaphors in nature that might capture the mercy and presence of a God who, the psalmist isn’t afraid to say, is sometimes a bit elusive.

The album Carrie & Lowell is indie musician Sufjan Stevens’ multifaceted lament: For a mother, Carrie, he lost at least twice—to mental illness, addiction, and abandonment when he was a child and to cancer when he was a man. For the grief that surprised him after her death. For his inability, as he sings to his mother, to “save you from your sorrow,” hinting at that lingering, impossible guilt felt by so many children of troubled parents. Stevens reaches no tidy resolution in the course of the work (although early on, in the first song, he does offer that most basic, difficult, and saving grace: “I forgive you, mother”).

So why would you want to listen to something that speaks of so much pain? For starters, these are exquisitely spare, beautiful, and haunting folk-not-quite-rock songs. Stevens’ gift for hook and melody here is distilled, deceptively delicate, carried by few instruments and subtle effects. Layered vocals and harmonies swell up on a bridge or carry a song wordlessly to the end, like waiting choruses of angels, or ghosts.

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Tell Me About Eternity: A Reflection on Mothers, Death, and God’s Love

kuruneko /

kuruneko /

“So, tell me about eternity …”

“Eternity?!?” I thought to myself. “I’m just beginning to learn about the present! Eternity is mystery.”

As a pastor, I’ve been trained to not answer those kinds of questions. It’s best to invite others to explore and answer their own questions, as opposed to giving our answers. But for some reason that felt inauthentic in the moment. Sometimes providing answers is the most compassionate thing we can do. But, in the face of eternity, who has answers?

Songs of Ourselves: Grief, Hope, and Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens. Black and white version of image via Tammy Lo/

Sufjan Stevens. Black and white version of image via Tammy Lo/

Sufjan Stevens’ newest album, Carrie & Lowell (out now), is a heartbreaking meditation on personal grief. It’s also joyful, baffling, and delicately mundane. 

In the spirit of a listening party, a few of us sat down to play through the album, sharing liner notes and meditations on the songs that grabbed each of us. Conclusion: it's really, really good. Stream Carrie & Lowell here, and listen along with us below.


Death With Dignity” — Tripp Hudgins, ethnomusicologist, Sojourners contributor, blogger at Anglobaptist

Tripp: I love the first song of an album. I think of it as the introduction to a possible new friend. “Where The Streets Have No Name” on U2’s Joshua Tree or “Signs of Life” on Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason, that first track can be the thesis statement to a sonic essay.

So, when I get a new album — even in this day of digital albums or collections of singles — a first track can make or break an album for me. I sat down and listened attentively to “Death With Dignity.” It does not disappoint. With it Stevens introduces the subject of the album — his grief around troubled relationship with his mother and her death — as well as the sonic palate he will use throughout the album.

Simple guitar work, layered voicing, and a little synth, the album is musically sparse. The tempo reminds me of movies from the nineteen sixties or seventies where the action takes place over a long road trip.

Catherine Woodiwiss: I was thinking road trip, too. There’s real motion musically, which, given a claustrophobic theme and circular lyrics, is a thankful point of release. It’s a generous act, or maybe an avoidant one — he could have made us sit tight and watch, and he doesn’t quite do it.

Julie Polter: This isn’t a road movie, but the reference to that era of films just made me think of Cat Stevens’ soundtrack for Harold and Maude, especially “Trouble.” (This album is one-by-one bringing back to me other gentle songs of death and duress and all the songs I listen to when I want to cry).

Mario Cuomo’s Overlooked Contributions to Bioethics

Photo courtesy of SGT TRACY SANTEE, USAF / Wikimedia Commons / RNS

Then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo speaks at a rally. Photo courtesy of SGT TRACY SANTEE, USAF / Wikimedia Commons / RNS

Lost in the extensive media coverage of Mario Cuomo’s recent death was mention of one of the former governor’s most enduring achievements: the New York state biomedical Task Force on Life and the Law.

During his first term as governor, Cuomo established the 25-member task force because he was concerned that as developments in medical technology and science accelerated, neither society nor state government was prepared for the critical decisions required in the face of such rapid change.

Cuomo’s instruction to the task force was to study the new frontier of bioethics and make specific public policy recommendations for state lawmakers.

The task force included Christian and Jewish clergy, physicians, nurses, lawyers, ethicists, philosophers, academics, social workers, community leaders, and hospital administrators.

I was a founding member of the task force in 1985. During that time, I recognized that some long-held beliefs must be updated, reinterpreted or sometimes even abandoned in the face of medical advances.

Cuomo wanted us to focus on the right of patients to informed consent about their medical conditions. 

Brittany Maynard Advocates from the Grave

People Magazine cover featuring Brittany Maynard. Photo courtesy of People/RNS.

Brittany Maynard chose to die Nov. 1, but on what would have been her 30th birthday Nov. 19, her voice in support of the Right to Die movement rang loud.

Maynard, who had an aggressive brain tumor, was the face of Compassion & Choices, the advocacy group campaigning to legalize physician-assisted dying in all 50 states. She still is.

On her birthday, the group released a “call to action” video with passages and narration drawn from prerecorded videos with Maynard (pronounced MayNARD) and other advocates explaining why the right to die by legal prescription is important to them. It is now legal in Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont, and New Mexico.

In the video, Maynard concludes: “If there’s one message to come away from everything that I’ve been through, it is no matter what life kind of presents you with, is never be afraid to use your own voice. And even if you are uncertain, even if your voice is shaking, ask the questions you want to ask, speak up for yourself. Advocate.”