The Divorce of Strangers You Love

A few days ago a pair of songwriter-musicians, who are Christians, announced their divorce.  I am thinking of them tonight, Easter Saturday, the Great Vigil, and feeling sad and solemn.

Why should I feel so sad?  I don’t know them; they are not my friends and they are not my heroes. And I don’t believe that sadness is the only appropriate emotional response to the news of a divorce, especially when I know next to nothing of the stories behind it.

But when the people whose particular brand of confessional, spiritual music has companioned you for half your life announce that the love they’ve organized their lives around is broken, apparently it hits you personally.

My best friends and I used to play his songs on the guitar in our undateable college years.

Danny and I spent another late night over pancakes/ Talking about soccer and how every man’s just the same./  We made speculation on the who’s and the when’s of our future/ How everyone’s lonely, but still we just couldn’t complain./  And how we just hate being alone/ Could I have missed my only chance… But if the birds and flowers survive, then I’ll make it ok.

In Southeast Asia, my fledgling-faith sister sang his words, too.  Take to the world this love, hope and faith.  I strummed awkwardly on my Thai guitar.  She took the bread of life to the villages.  And let the bread on your tongue/ Leave a trail of crumbs/ To lead the hungry back/ To the place they are from...


My children sing her songs, and fall asleep with her melodies in their ears as the sun sets.  I sing them, too, and cry, even before this happened, I cried, because they’re beautiful and true, and maybe I’m broken in some of the same places she is.




I grew up in knee-deep in the world of Christian radio.  I waded through the Christian Bookseller’s Convention and the National Religious Broadcaster’s convention wearing Doc Martens and no make-up.  I was cynical about the Testamints and the Go Against the Flow t-shirts before I even knew the word commodification.  But I loved it, too, especially in those perfect days, the late nineties, when we had the burgeoning “indie” Christian albums, and Rich Mullins was still alive, and we got beautiful first albums from so many artists: Jars of Clay, Carolyn Arends, Waterdeep, Jennifer Knapp, Sixpence None the Richer, Caedmon’s Call.  


Even then, in the late nineties, CCM was changing. It wasn’t the same place it had been a few years earlier.  Remember when Amy Grant and Sandi Patty announced their divorces, how the stations stopped playing them? How we all judged them, skeptical of their commitment to Jesus.  We spoke about the failure of the Christian music industry, how it took naive artists and thrust fame upon them without shepherding them, uprooting them from their churches and accountability structures.  It was the industry’s fault, but also, Amy and Sandi were our role models, and they had let us down. We couldn’t play, or sell, their music anymore.  Because they weren’t married anymore. And we had to make sure everybody understood that that was wrong. If we kept playing their music, people might be confused.


That was the wrong response - or at least, it wasn’t the right response.  It wasn't the best response. And I’m happy to see that the vapid and vituperative internet hasn’t exploded with judgement or criticism or calls for boycotts for these musicians; things have been mostly quiet about the end of this marriage.  Granted, this couple doesn’t quite have the Amy and Vince level of celebrity, and they removed themselves from true “CCM” many years ago.  But maybe the difference in response also stems from a growth in humility in us listeners.  I’d like to think it does, anyway.  I’d like to think that when Christians who write songs make mistakes they still get to keep writing songs, and we still get to listen.  That we don’t think we have the right to call their very salvation into question.




But what is the right response?


In one sense, unless you know them personally, it’s nothing.  You don’t need to say a thing.  The state of marriage and family and salvation is not suddenly in question.  It’s not the case that if you stay silent  but keep listening to their music you are implicitly affirming divorce.


In another sense, the right response is prayer.  To pray for them, and for anyone whose love is broken or breaking.  To ask for humility and clear vision of yourself, to ask for God’s grace to strengthen your marriage.  To acknowledge that you could be in the exact same situation, but for the grace of God; and yet that the grace of God is with them in that situation too.


And maybe the response is to be more willing to invest in your own friends.  To go to the hard places with them.  To ask more questions instead of tiptoeing around; to invade their privacy, if they'll let you.  To be more honest about your own struggles, too.


These songs have been with you from your restless teens to your broken twenties and your tired thirties.  They were from Texas, and you were from Texas.  They were Presbyterian and then Episcopal, and so were you.  The pushed back against convention, they said bad words, they got prophetic.  They married a little later, they had little children, and so did you. 


The grace of God is with them, and the grace of God is with you.


I want to say that it’s a minor tragedy, tonight, as I sit in vigil, thinking of the rescuer.  I’m thinking too of a man in Texas who lost his nine year old son yesterday.  Of a refugee family of eight in Minnesota who can’t find work because they don’t know English, don’t have a car. I’m thinking of the fears that keep me from living whole-heartedly, of the selfishness that turns me inward instead of outward.  


But none of these failures of love is a minor tragedy, they’re just all bits and pieces of the one great tragedy, the reality of a broken world, the need for a rescuer.  As we keep vigil and lament tonight, we lament in hope, because he's coming.

my favorite albums of 2013

photo credit
Last night Jack and I drove to Chicago to see Andrew Bird's Gezelligheid concert. Gezelligheid is a Dutch word for cozy. Wikipedia says it can also connote "belonging, time spent with loved ones, the fact of seeing a friend after a long absence, or general togetherness."

After Vietnamese food, we got cozy in the beautiful in 4th Presbyterian Church on Michigan, and I couldn't help but get nostalgic about the first time Jack and I were in Chicago together, eight and a half years ago. We saw Andrew Bird then, too, remarkably enough, at the first ever Pitchfork music festival (then called the Intonation music festival).

Jack and I both love music, but his love is far more informed. The guy listens to easily five times as much music as I do, and he listens methodically, like a few years ago when he made a spreadsheet of albums released in the year of his birth, and systematically listened to them all over twelve months. He's read extensively on music history, and he's also an amazing songwriter.

All this to say: I always feel a little silly talking about my favorite albums because I feel so unqualified to have favorite albums. Jack's very democratic about it all though, and says I shouldn't feel silly. And actually this year our top three albums are the same!

1. Modern Vampires of the City - Vampire Weekend
This album is amazing- full of catchy, poppy, songs that display a range of musical ability and influence yet make a cohesive whole. Thematically centered on religious faith, identity, and mortality, it's the most poignant wrestling with God through song that I've heard in a long time. (Full review here.)

2. Denison Witmer - Denison Witmer
Songs about what it means to grow up comprise this haunting, lyrical album. (Full review here.)

3. Southeastern - Jason Isbell
Serious and sad, this album by former Drive By Trucker Jason Isbell doesn't shy away from sexual abuse, suicide! and heartbreak. But it's beautiful and I love it.
Try this track: Relatively Easy

4. Desire Like Dynamite - Sandra McCracken
This album, largely inspired by Wendell Berry's writings on interdependence and sustainability, is lovely. (McCracken wrote about her visit with Berry for Art House America.)

5. Songs by the Nashville Cast

Just gotta be honest. Listening to some of these songs gives me the same pure pleasure that watching the soapy show itself does. And they've had some great songwriters write for them - Gillian Welch, John Paul White, and Elvis Costello, among others. The link above will take you to a playlist of my favorite songs from the show's first two seasons.

Honorable Mention: Elizabeth Mitchell's The Sounding Joy is a collection of folk carols drawn mainly from Ruth Crawford Seeger's classic songbook American Folk Songs for Christmas (1953). This joins Sufjan and Rosie on my list of Christmas albums I love to listen to.

Other albums I want to listen to more: The National's Trouble Will Find Me; Mark Kozalek & Desertshore; Mark Kozalek and Jimmy LaValle's Perils from the Sea; Arcade Fire's Reflektor; The Handsome Family's Wilderness

Previously: my favorite movies of 2013

the seven year mix

With absolutely none of the seven-year-itch. Here's our annual playlist, only two months late. If you want the bonus tracks (Rosie and Owen originals), you'll have to get a copy on CD.

a few things at the end of spring

Yesterday, I finished grading all the essays. The chickens are pecking at the remains of dandelions across the yard, and the grass needs to be mowed again every time I turn around.   Lilac branches spill out of a silver pitcher on the dining room table, and we cooked outside this week, sipping cold whiskey-gingers.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that summer is here.  The seniors graduated and we said goodbye to our Korean and Chinese friends - goodbye for the summer, to most of them, and goodbye indefinitely for a few favorites who are going back to finish university in Korea now.
Rosie and Owen dressed up for graduation, too.

 In just seventeen days we'll be moving into our new house. In the meantime, the chickens (whose story you can read at the Renew and Sustain blog) are free-ranging in the backyard, with a portion of the storage shed cordoned off as shelter for them.

We've been very into fairy princess ballerinas around here - but the kind who dig for worms, make mud pies, climb fences, and chase chickens. (I'm a sucker for old-fashioned fairies and bought this book for Rosie and me to share.)

We are journeying into Narnia, too - Rosie and I have read the first three books, and are currently in the middle of Prince Caspian. She can't follow the stories too well, but doesn't care at all, and refuses to let me switch to Betsy-Tacy.

At Christ and Pop Culture I've been reflecting on books and television and music and theology - you can click through if you want to read -

"The Office" Ends, but Love Never Fails  (my take on the "The Office" - which had a really surprisingly great run of episodes at the end!)
Denison Witmer- Songs to Grow Up To (a new album from one of my favorite songwriters - this is on repeat at my house)
A New Wave of Complementarianism (a round-up of other people's posts)
Where'd You Go, Bernadette (a review of a really fun novel - especially for anyone who has ever lived in Seattle)
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Lesson in Community (a review of conservative columnist Rod Dreher's memoir)

Incidentally, Christ and Pop Culture has launched a new magazine for the iPad and iPhone - you can get a free trial subscription and check it out.  It's a well-designed, curated collection of perspectives on pop culture.

For a few months now, this essay's been bouncing around in my head about buying our first house and reading Alain de Botton's Architecture of Happiness.  Maybe now that it's summer I'll finally get to writing it. Or maybe I'll just go make some popsicles.

just to be simple again

When I went to Chiang Mai in January 2005, I was ready to give Jack the cold shoulder.  We'd been friends for eighteen months, though you could count on your fingers the number of weeks we'd actually been in the same city. But I was angry with him. In the last six months, he'd gone from emailing me regularly and semi-flirtatiously to emailing me not at all, and as I had been secretly in love with him, this stung. I didn't want to mess with it any more.

On our second day in Chiang Mai - we were staying at the YMCA and taking intensive grad classes - we both ended up in Derek's room to play cards. "I brought you some cds," Jack said, and handed me two discs, plus track lists he had just printed at the internet cafe down the road. We played them on Derek's computer as the card game started.  Jack had followed Nick Hornby's rules, and kicked it off with a song that blew my mind ("Crab, Clam, Cockle, Cowrie" by Joanna Newsom). Then he cooled it down with Jason Molina's Songs: Ohia.

Needless to say, things thawed between us pretty quickly.

When I listen to this song, I'm always transported back to Southeast Asia, to bus rides to the coast and across the border, to long stretches of rice field, to riding in the open back of a truck because the bus never showed, to food poisoning from roadside cafes, to silent beaches and dinner caught fresh from the sea.  I'm always transported back to the heartache and doubt that followed me through that year, the loneliness that finally began to abate.

Jason Molina died Saturday, March 16 of organ failure due to alcohol consumption.  He was 39.  

I guess I just wanted to say that I'll always be thankful for his songs, for his willingness to fight against the darkness, for the way that one song spoke to me in my darkness. He was maybe the first person to make me consider the fact that my wanderlust was an attempt to solve the problem of loneliness.

You'll never hear me talk about one day getting out
Why put a new address on the same old loneliness?

He allowed me say to God what I was really thinking as I processed what had happened with my students the year before.

If Heaven's really coming back
I hope it has a heart attack
When they see how dangerous it is for guys like that

He reminded me, like Rich Mullins, that sin has complicated life, and that in this broken world, we're all mostly just trying 

to be simple again.

To be like children, to receive the kingdom.  I hope now he has.

a few (more) things in January

I have the February cranks. The winter grumpies. The pre-spring meanies.

What I am really into right now is sun.  Sun on my skin.  

Instead, the world is grey and white, and I'm trying my best to stay happy. Staying happy includes sneaking bites of frozen chocolate cake and having an afternoon french press of coffee; but also starting a pilates class with friends this week. 

(I'm getting dangerously close, still, to putting blond highlights in my hair and getting a tanning bed membership.  Sun. Warmth. Skin.)

I'm only teaching one class this semester, and it started last week.  I've got double the enrollment I had last semester, which will make for some long nights of grading, but I'm glad to be teaching.

Here are a few other things I've been enjoying lately:


Still by Lauren Winner. I read Winner's other books 6-8 years ago, when they came out, and loved them.  One of my happiest memories is sitting in a gazebo in Thailand at sunset, reading parts of Mudhouse Sabbath out loud with my girlfriends.  But I have mixed feelings about Still. It just didn't sit quite right with me.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. This is a YA novel about teens with cancer.  Still with me?  Good.  This made me laugh, cry, and stop and think.  It's lovely. (And the author lives in Indianapolis! Go Indiana.)

Currently Reading: The Blind Contessa's New Machine by Carey Wallace; The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House; Everyday Justice by Julie Clawson


Pitch Perfect - I watched this fun teenybopper comedy about a college show choir one blue afternoon after seeing some twitter friends chirp about it.  
To Rome With Love - this newest Woody Allen movie wasn't worth finishing, for us :-(
The Dark Knight Rises - enjoyable, if not as good as Nolan's first two Batman movies.


I have to admit that I love Nashville.  I just do.  I love the music, and I want Connie Britton's hair. Other than that, we are staying current on: Downton Abbey, Suburgatory (really the funniest sitcom that no one is watching), Parks and Rec, The Mindy Project, New Girl, Bunheads, and sometimes The Colbert Report. We're on season four of Foyle's War (on Amazon Prime), which I love, and I also love falling asleep to.  Is that a lot?  Yeah, that's a lot.  


Since Iron and Wine announced  their new album coming this April, we've been obsessively listening to old Iron and Wine stuff. I also find Bon Iver pretty perfect for dark winter days.  For the kids, I love turning on the Elizabeth Mitchell Pandora Station (stream it through the tv via Roku), and Rosie has been falling asleep every night listening to Lullabies by Page CXVI.


I've started writing a few times a week for Christ and Pop Culture.  So far I've written about reviving the tradition of the boarding house and about abortion, feminism, and feelings.  I won't link to all my pieces here, so if you're interested in keeping up with them, you can follow me on twitter, or subscribe to their blog.

I'm also going to contribute occasionally to a lovely new website called Renew and Sustain.  Today I'm sharing my homemade deodorant recipe over there!

I've read some truly wonderful things online recently.  Check these out:

  • Prizes and Consumables: The Superbowl as a Theology of Women by Matthew Voss
    " The way we consume iconic national events like the Super Bowl better depicts what we really believe about women and their so-called roles than do our formal theological statements, denominational position papers, teachings about the spiritual disciplines, and admonitions toward modesty and fidelity. For in the invisibility of normality, there we find our idolatry."
  • Educated Beyond My Level of Obedience by Danielle Vermeer
    "The speaker started confidently, explaining how “females are always a sellable commodity because…,” before pausing to think how to word his response, “because of the depravity of man.” From a Christian perspective, yes, sinfulness is the root of this evil. But saying that human trafficking exists because of our sinful nature is not the most precise answer, nor it is the most actionable."
  • War Photographer: How Free Do I Have the Right To Be? by JR Goudeau
    "Any act of simplification is also an act of violence.  The expectations of the audience who is reading these representations, whether it be Hill Tribers’ customers or mission-board members or Facebook friends, affect the way we portray people. It is something I constantly resist—the desire to play up my friends’ poverty and their gratefulness and downplay the difficulties we have in relating to each other. I have to recognize the conversation I’m entering and my own position of power within it...It’s hard. And yet, translation is important. The representation of poverty is important. The telling of these stories is important. This struggle to be an effective, ethical, aesthetically-pleasing, economically-helpful translator war photographer is important.

In My Kitchen

Successfully made yogurt for the first time, thanks to a hand-me-down yogurt maker.  It's delicious.  Jack's on a gluten-free kick, which I did for two weeks and then quit.  But I'm still cooking gluten-free dinners.

In My Life...

We've been renting our current home for two and a half years, and we just found out that we will have to move out by May 31.  So we will be jumping back into the (sort of deplorable) house hunt quite quickly here.  Prayers gratefully accepted.

(I'm linking this up with What I'm Into at Hopeful Leigh... I've been doing these posts for a while and never been on the right schedule to join the link up, but here goes!)

What I'm Into at HopefulLeigh

sufjan plays christmas songs, but my church doesn't

By the time the three-hour Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice finished last night, my desire for Christmas music had been more than sated. Sufjan, Rosie, and the band covered it all: holy hymns in hushed four-part harmony, spectacular costumed performances critiquing American culture and "christmas," and jolly sing-a-longs of tunes chosen by the "wheel! of! Christmas!" I wore my handmade "christmas unicorn" shirt and ate fish-n-chips beforehand and tried not to think about children being gunned down in kindgergarten classrooms, but when in encore Suf sang To Be Alone with You, and then John Wayne Gacy, Jr., what could I do?

But back to what I wanted to say, about Christmas music.  Did I tell you that last year, we didn't sing a single Christmas song at my church?  I didn't understand it, because for my whole church life, the first Sunday of Advent has been the first Sunday for Christmas carols, and sure, maybe we'd just start with "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," but each Sunday we'd add a few more, until Christmas Day and then All Christmas Music All the Time.

You probably already know this, but I didn't: that in Catholic and Episcopal church traditions, at least, there is a distinct difference between the music of Advent and the music of Christmas.  My episcopal church didn't play any Christmas music last year because it was playing the songs of Advent - I had just never heard them before, and didn't recognize them.

And, actually, recognizing this difference in music has helped me understand better how to celebrate the season of Advent.  I told you that in the past, I've always felt like observance of Advent meant achieving some deep meditative state contemplating the image of baby Jesus, and that it never worked for me.  Writing through this season of Advent, and listening to Advent music, is helping me understand that the joyful focus on baby Jesus is for Christmas, and that the focus of Advent is wholly different.

I like it, now, that my church doesn't play Christmas songs until Christmas day. I've long been infatuated with the idea of following the church calendar, but I think my infatuation is maturing into a deeper appreciation of its value, maybe especially as a way to disconnect our holy day from the materialistic, commercialized holiday season that reigns in America throughout December.  

Maybe next year I'll remember that the day after Thanksgiving isn't the day for "Joy to the World," just yet. Maybe I'll put up Advent decorations that weekend, but not Christmas decorations.  Maybe we'll celebrate St Nicholas and St Lucia, and wait to play Sufjan's Silver and Gold album until Christmas Day, and the twelve days of Christmas following. (There's a nice post along these lines at The Other Journal, if you want to click over and read it.)

Sufjan seemed utterly exhausted last night, really even before the show began. He admitted at one point that he hates Christmas.  Being the Christmas unicorn is exhausting, after all - chasing that mythical Christmas of your personal nostalgia, wearing a credit card on your wrist, attempting to be this thing which is pagan and magical and American and hysterical and Christian, all at once.  Maybe the long wait of Advent is part of the answer.

{PS: I have a little work-in-progress spotify list of Advent songs, calm and quiet for your Sunday rest. (If you're in a Reader/email, click through to see it.)}

Christmas Again

So, we did it again - made a Christmas album for your, our own dear friends and family; and this time, it's even better, because it's got a number of original compositions by one Rosemary Peterson, and the cute factor is through the roof.

We create - songs, children, homemade marshmallows, snow sculptures, computer code, what have you - not because we're awesome at it, but because it's in our blood. We're made in the image of a Creator.  Jesus, too, son of a carpenter, son of a Creator, used his hands to make things; and we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus.

Here are a few notes on the songs:
#1 - believe it or not, my daughter does not believe in santa claus, and in fact has already tried to disabuse her preschool classmates of their faulty beliefs
#2 - a classic reworked
#3 - my only contribution to this album. my brother david played banjo with me.
#4 - going sledding with you is my favorite thing to do, in snow time
#5 - what happened when I told Jack, "this album should have a romantic Christmas song on it."  he recorded it while giving the kids a bath, hence the background noises
#6 - let's just call him rudolph the reindeer, not rudolph the red-nosed.  c'mon people.
#7 - just some classic country-style mournful christmas singin', here. my brother john played djembe, and david played banjo
#8 - yoko ono wrote this song. seriously.
#9 -mash up of angels and santa
#10 - a kind of counterpoint to "Christmas Day" on our first album
#11 - i sincerely love this psalty this singing songbook classic.

Here are the lyrics to my one contribution.  I wrote it thinking about types of Christ in the Old Testament, particularly the passover lamb and Isaac.

there was blood on the door frame
a ram in the thicket
there's the promise she laughed at
of hope for the wicked

you are
every good gift
from the father of lights
through the shadows that shift
are all things coming right

mothers are crying
fathers will strike
brothers are lying
it's for blessing we fight

the tree that we cut down
the ham that we carve
the babies we're nursing
the songs in our hearts

you are every good gift
the ram in the thicket
you are every good gift
all things coming right

So, which of Rosie's songs is your favorite?