Seven years ago, on a cold day in December 2009, I entered Elizabeth Detention Center in Elizabeth, N.J. — a minimum-security prison on a pilgrimage organized by the Interfaith Center of New York and Human Rights First. This one-day journey ushered me into the story of immigrants in the New York and New Jersey area, and changed my life.
Churches flung open their doors on September 11, 2001, and people gathered on that day, and for some days later. There was a draw to sacred space in the midst of our everyday space being turned into dust–profane, unholy, hollowed out. The liturgies I attended in those days that followed were stripped down, bare, and profoundly vulnerable. The psalms were prayed. People wept together. We clung close. We resisted asking questions of meaning, and allowed ourselves to grieve, to lament.
A lot fewer churches flung open their doors on September 11, 2002. And even fewer today. The gravitational pull to gather in sacred space has waned. And it has become impossible, for the most part, to disentangle our liturgies from our politics. No longer gathering together out of unvarnished need for the divine presence, some of us gather now precisely to ascribe meaning to the unfathomable through the inextricable linking of nationalism with religion.
“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability … To be alive is to be vulnerable.”
These are the words of Madeleine L’Engle, and this week I’ve been reminded of the wisdom they contain.
This weekend, Christianity Today posted an excerpt from my new book, Jesus is Better Than You Imagined, in which I share a story about childhood sexual abuse and my adult struggle to understand my sexuality. Many have asked why I would do such a thing.
This wasn’t a career move or a brazen attempt to sell more books. Being open about these experiences as an evangelical writer leaves me, like so many scarecrows, exposed. I do not plan to become a spokesman for any of the issues addressed in this article. The events shared are a part of my story, but they are not the whole of my calling. Today, I return to my job as a columnist committed to exploring the interface between faith and culture and helping foster difficult conversations that others may be unwilling to have.
We may not all be rich. We don’t all have successful careers. We aren’t all healthy. But the one thing we all have are stories. From the beginning of time, we have thrived on connecting via stories. We consume stories for leisure, speak our stories for sanity, and create stories to capture our imagination.
We are swayed by stories. Stories can compel others in ways propositions and facts statements cannot. Our attention wanes at statistics and exegesis, but perks at vivid characters in an engaging plot. Stories have been proven to be an effective rhetorical device. They draw people’s attention in and leaves them satisfied upon conclusion.
You cannot debate a story. While it may be tempting to try and deconstruct the reasoning behind stories when it goes against your agenda, the genius of stories is that it can’t be used as an argument. The story of a chain smoker’s longevity sits uncomfortably in the presence of someone advocating the ills of nicotine. The story just is. We cannot alter it, the only thing we can control is how we choose to respond to it. Any attempts to dishonor or discredit someone’s story is an assault to their humanity.
Earlier this month, the public radio show This American Life held a wide-scale live event in New York City. I attended the two-hour event via satellite in Washington, D.C. Like its weekly radio broadcast, the live show included pieces from a variety of storytellers gathered around a common theme — in this case “the invisible made visible.”
The medium of radio doesn’t lend itself to visuals — it is "theater of the mind" after all — but the live-on-stage iteration of This American Life took full advantage of the occasion (and change in medium), including many extra bells and whistles they could never pull off on the airwaves alone.
Winter has always been a sweet spot for discovering and sharing music. A little bit mellow, comforting — something you can listen to as a fire crackles or cozy up beside with a mug of hot coffee.
In heeding the groundhog's warning of "six more weeks of winter," here's a short list of independent music to help you make it through the season's chill: Three albums hosted over at Bandcamp that might provide a little warmth on the colder nights.