Blessed Are the Tentmakers

For my daughter, Evangeline Sofia, who celebrated her first birthday on the second day of October.

Cozy_Fort“Can you build me a tent in the living room when you get home, Chad?” My wife Becki made this request via Google chat.

“A tent?” I replied, laughing. “In the living room? What?”

When we were children, my sister Alyssa and I built tents in our living room, draping sheets over strategically positioned chairs. But it had been years since I had roughed it indoors.

Becki had always nested, so it occurred to me that her request for a tent might not be so strange after all. When she craves comfort, she surrounds herself with pillows, blankets, boxes of Kleenexes, teacups filled with cherished Chinese teas, and copies of Vogue magazine.

She had never enlisted my help in building a nest before though. I knew male birds sometimes helped females build their nests, but—

Could she be pregnant? [Read more…]

The Treasure in the Trash

Johnston graphicAs much as I associate Kansas with The Wizard of Oz, I have yet to come across one canary-colored brick in my eight years as a Kansan. There are, however, a number of historic red brick sidewalks and streets in Lawrence, the city I call home. The words “LAWRENCE KANSAS” appear, imprinted, on the bricks, so no one can mistake their parentage—they belong to their municipal mother.

One day, while walking alone on one of those sidewalks several years ago, a red milk crate sitting next to a dumpster in a nearby alleyway caught my eye. I decided to investigate, and soon found myself thumbing through the cache of rejected records inside—my inner pop culture junkie jonesing for a fix, my eyes sparkling in their sockets like twin disco balls.

Had my wife Becki seen me, she would have said I reminded her of the silver-haired hoarder who rummaged through the rubbish bins outside of her old apartment. How could either of us forget that bow-backed man, whose spine was shaped like the curve of a shepherd’s crook?

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The Afflicter of the Comfortable

Last December, a woman at church used Jedi mind tricks, or something very much like them, to persuade me to participate in our house of worship’s Christmas play.

“Okay, I can do that,” I said, the words leaping from my lips without my consent.

“I can’t act,” I added quickly, hoping she would set me free and turn her powers upon someone else. “I can’t even act like I can act.”

The following week, when she handed me a script as thick as a phonebook, I begrudgingly accepted my fate: I would play a servant at the final inn Mary and Joseph would visit in their search for lodging. With eyes as big as milk saucers, I would point at the star in the sky, which was hovering above the stable out back, and shout, “It’s huge!”

I lamented my lack of backbone for at least a week after agreeing to appear in this play. When I found out my friend Tim had been enlisted to direct it, however, I felt less alone. Like me, he had probably been bamboozled into accepting his role, as he is hardly the sort to direct—let alone attend—a church play.

The sole bohemian fifty-something who attends my church, Tim is a jazz-loving, Zappa-worshipping, cigar-smoking, beer-swilling, swearing scoundrel who reminds me of Han Solo, but with less hair than Harrison Ford. His glasses sit atop his shaved scalp as if he doesn’t actually need them to see, which kind of kills me. Best of all though, Tim does not suffer fools, even though he kind of is one (and even though he suffers me just fine).

What I like best about Tim, though, is his gift for afflicting the comfortable. Churchgoers tend to be a pretty comfortable lot, too. We do not like to be afflicted. Even the slightest change threatens to undo us. We are deathly afraid of new hymns, for example, and prefer to sing songs that predate the invention of the cotton gin.

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Daniel Amos’s “Dig Here Said the Angel”

Dedicated to Billy Corgan, who challenged Christians to “make better music” and branch out beyond U2’s musical blueprints in an interview with CNN in September. I challenge you to buy and bury yourself in this album, Billy; it sounds nothing like U2—in fact, Daniel Amos influenced U2!

Just as the films Sunset Boulevard and American Beauty are narrated by dead men, so too is the Daniel Amos song “Now That I’ve Died.” Unlike these undead narrators, however, the protagonist of the song is literally better off dead.

“I lost my stiff, stiff neck and my hard, hard heart / my self-respect is off the charts,” he sings. “Just hanging out here on the Other Side / dead to my pride, now that I’ve died.”

The song simmers for most of its duration and ultimately reaches a boil. In five minutes, the band reimagines the resurrection life, and succeeds in clearing the clouds of harpists who spend all of eternity bored out of their God-fearing gourds.

“Now That I’ve Died” is one of many highlights on Dig Here Said the Angel, Daniel Amos’s fourteenth proper studio recording in a career that spans almost forty years. To fund the record, the band launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2012, hoping to raise $14,000; fans donated over $32,000.

The result is my favorite album of 2013 thus far.

[Read more…]

Why Should Darkness Seem Truer Than Light?

In her memoir, Pieces of Someday, my friend and periodic “Good Letters” guest writer Jan Vallone shares the story of the time her writing instructor—“an aging Clint Eastwood” named Professor Véreux—questioned the integrity of her writing. After class one day, he pulled Jan aside to discuss her most recent assignment one-on-one.

“I’m returning your memoir,” he said. “The ending is dishonest.”

Of course, since the piece Jan had submitted was a work of non-fiction—a memoir—I found Professor Véreux’s conclusion questionable at best. How could he possibly know whether Jan was telling the truth or not?

Jan found herself at the receiving end of this criticism when she enrolled in a summer writing program at the Bread Loaf School of English in Ripton, Vermont. The assignment that drew Professor Véreux’s fire focused on Jan’s time as an English teacher at a Jewish high school—a yeshiva—and her interactions with a troubled student named Kalindah.

In the end of the story, Jan succeeds in reaching this unreachable student, and shines much-needed light into Kalindah’s darkness. More than a mere writing instructor in this story, Jan becomes a channel for the flow of God’s grace.

[Read more…]