Sing the Laughter of God

The communion table pictured here was collaboratively created in December 2012 by the community at Emmaus Way Church: Durham, NC. 

You're afraid. I know that's a bold statement, but I fear I'm right. The discovery that most people are deeply -- perhaps even fundamentally -- motivated by fear has been the single biggest epiphany of my adult life. I see it everywhere now. Behind my even-tempered, rational approach to conflict: abject fright at the possibility of being considered illogical, unworthy, gender-stereotypical, dramatic. At the core of the more free-spirited folk I know: a terror of commitment, of mediocrity, of conformity, of failing to conform to the surprisingly narrow definition of "free spirit." I could go on. Pick your poison; it picked you a long time ago.

I'm being ominous for ironic effect, of course -- a sort of homeopathic hair-of-the-dog. Gallows humor can be sword as well as shield. Besides, conflict management skills and free spirits are wonderful. Sometimes I wonder if we'd really do anything outside of amusing ourselves if fear's motivational properties evaporated along with fear itself. But maybe that's just it. Maybe fear isn't itself so much the problem; rather, the problem resides in how we so often fail to filter fear. Unprocessed fear might make us fight or flight, but it inevitably makes our inner selves curl up like a pillbug poked by a child, at once protecting who we are now and crippling our progress toward where we should be tomorrow. Acknowledged fear, on the other hand, is the raw material for freedom.

The idea that artists channel their negative emotions into the process of creation would be totally cliche if it didn't also feel utterly profound. I know; it happened to me this year, and I'm still trying to sort out why my response to anger, pain, and fear has been an almost overwhelming rediscovery of creativity. Bono once wrote that "the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty." I find that compelling not only for the refinement of perspective it invites, but also for the implicit hint that part of finding freedom is determining which of our binaries are false. What is the opposite of fear?  One would not be wrong to say courage, but what of love, joy, faith, artistry, community? Apart from these there is no courage. 

My church, Emmaus Way in Durham, NC, delights in celebrating creativity within community. During Advent, a season of waiting in sober reflection before the angel says "be not afraid," we collaboratively painted a new communion table. The original design featured concentric circles embracing a point of light. The circles were purple because that color of both mourning and royalty represents the season. It was a lovely concept, yet early in the process something interesting happened that sent us on a new direction. Someone painted a little circle off on its own. I was so impressed with how generously the table's original designer, Katrina Williams, relinquished control and encouraged others to join in casting the vision. Soon the scene was laced with rings in interlocking orbit. Many of us see planets in a great solar system, and for me it calls to mind the old hymn that revels in "the music of the spheres." Together we painted the paradox of a universe that is characterized by darkness and yet bears all the light in existence. One could see that without ever knowing the table's origin story, but those of us who were lucky enough to wield brushes know that sealed in its very genesis is the truth that love and trust freed us all to make something new.

Last Sunday was the first time I got to see the finished table, and Pastor Tim Conder read a prayer that expressed much of how I feel about it. It was originally written in the eighteenth century by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (how's that for a title?), but Tim altered it from first person "I" to second person "we." 

Let us be weary of the dark voices crying doom;
let us be weary of the fearful voices crying only for their nation;
let us weary of the disinherited voices crying in hopelessness;
let our voices sing the laughter of God;
let our voices sing good news to the poor;
let our voices sing restitution of the oppressed;
let our voices sing healing of the violated;
let our voices sing the return of the banned;
let our voices be the laughter of God. Amen.


I'm prone to falling in love with places I've never been, and I'm rarely disappointed upon arrival. I sure hope that is true about Chattanooga, because at 40 minutes from my new home, it will be my source for arts, dining, and maybe even church in less than six months. If this nationally award-winning film bears any accuracy whatsoever, I'm about to be seduced.

P.S. I wonder how long this tilt-shift trend will wield so much influence. It is fascinating that such an old technology could suddenly spring to the fore, thanks mostly to iPhone app developers.

+ Video produced by the Johnson Group, in partnership with Atomic Films and Jack Parker Photography. Song by Allen DiCenzo and Roger Vaughn.


The rumors are true. iPhone photography is the most addictive legal pursuit in the world. I've been doing it for one delightful week, having begun in the wake of the Great Instagram Fiasco of 2012, and I've already become a total hypocrite by twiddling my phone in social settings. Apologies to both those I've reprimanded for it in the past and those I've offended by it in the present. Perhaps one day soon we'll edit via hologram so that our conversation partners can see what we're doing and not be bothered -- sort of like knitting while talking. In the mean time, I have to tear myself away.

If you'd like to see what I was doing when I was supposed to be sleeping on a redeye, cooking a balanced meal, or making eye contact in a  l o n g  discussion about agripolitics, visit my new gallery or my Instagram page. I'm still learning the ropes -- that's why there is a rectangular picture in there that will doubtless lose the trust of the purists -- but my creative ambitions are reaching intoxicated heights. Now if I can just turn down that danged competitive streak . . .

"A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap."

After three difficult years searching for a full-time professorship, I was surprised and delighted by an abundance of options early in the 2012-2013 market season. I have accepted a tenure track post in English at Lee University in Cleveland, TN.  The energy, leadership, and warmth in Lee's Literature and Language program parallels nothing I have ever seen, and I am so excited to begin teaching and learning there in August.

Administrative Approval.jpg

The Honourable Mr. Bunbury of Derbyshire extends his approval, though I imagine he will attempt to rescind it within the first ten minutes of our seven hour trip to Tennessee.

Poems From Thin Places: Nativity

Swiss Postcard of Whitby Abbey, c. 1890-1905.  Color-corrected by Jan Arkesteijn. Public Domain Via Wikimedia Commons.

Swiss Postcard of Whitby Abbey, c. 1890-1905.  Color-corrected by Jan Arkesteijn. Public Domain Via Wikimedia Commons.

Ruined abbeys are my favorites. As I type that, however, I feel a pang of guilt; I'm fearing I might be falling into my old trap of valuing the natural sublime over the messier beauty of community. Can I defend myself? I think there is actually a special sort of community at a ruined abbey. The one at Whitby teeters at the edge of England, on a high cliff battered by the North Sea. Its roofless arches point straight to the majesty of the sky. Underneath all that glory, however, the comic effects of wind and the abundance of climbable stonework allow something just as worthy as awe or meditation. Whitby's ruins make an exhilarating place to play.

Whitby's most famous story reminds us just how vulnerable and sacred the act of play can be. The Venerable Bede -- he of that loveliest of names -- tells us that once upon a time, when the abbey was just as windswept but still had a roof to its credit, all its denizens would gather of an evening to pass around a harp. Caedmon, the lowly shepherd, could not sing or rhyme. Ashamed, he would creep out and sleep with his sheep rather than reveal the terror these entertainments induced. One night, an angel came to the stable, expressly demanding he sing. How frustrated he must have been! If one can't squawk out a tune for a bunch of unwashed monks and farmers, isn't it a bit cruel for a member of the heavenly host to demand a command performance? And what was he to do but try? Yet one would hope an angel always knows what he or she is about, and this one surely did. That night Caedmon, the first English poet, found his voice. 

by Katherine Leigh Carlson

In Whitby,
where the ribs of the ruined abbey 
card sea mist like wool, 
I think of the shepherd Caedmon 
going early to bed in the barn 
for fear that the harp would pass to him.

I think of him lying in the musty hay 
away from the warm light, 
the laughter, and the honey-colored mead 
inside, where he longed, but could not bear, to be.

Beside him the herd jostles quietly, 
steam rises from manure,
and wind seeps through the cracked door.

Then sudden crush of whiteness, 
chaos of animal screams,
and the voice of the angel
slicing away all other sound.

"Sing, Caedmon."
"I cannot!"
"Sing of all Creation."
So we lift our heads 
and sing.

Susan Cain On Honoring Introverts

My mother used to laugh when I'd invite a friend over just to read next to him or her. Thus, I grinned to hear Susan Cain give the exact same example in her Ted Talk on introversion. Deeply introverted, I have nevertheless been rather wary of all the press lavished on this quality lately. Introverts tend to be perfectly happy doing our own thing, so I didn't see why we'd need authors to champion us. I've never felt like a victim. Cain, however, makes a compelling case that our culture favors the charisma of stimulus junkies and sends the quieter types to second class -- a practice that benefits no one.

"Stimulus junkie" is not Cain's term or mine. An extrovert I once knew described himself that way, and I'm now inclined to challenge his diction. Maybe the word "stimulus" has been co-opted by the extrovert majority. Do you think of bright lights, loud clubs, and city streets? I do, and I suspect that's what the self-proclaimed stimulus junkie meant. Perhaps unwittingly accepting this definition is one of the "self-negating choices" that Cain says introverts make daily in order to function within our culture. Dancing in a glittering city can be fun, but most of the time I prefer noting bird migrations, studying the serration of a leaf, pondering art, or conversing over wine. These are stimuli too -- magnificent stimuli. Everyone is a stimulus junkie!

I have many more thoughts, but I'll save those for a forthcoming post on introversion and intellectual property. Besides, a well-adjusted introvert will value the opinions of others, and I want to hear yours. What is your experience of the introversion-extroversion spectrum? If you watched Cain's talk, what stands out to you?