‘called’ available for pre-order

good news: my forthcoming memoir on calling is now available for pre-order on amazon. check it out here.

Called_final

here’s the full description for called: my journey to c.s. lewis’s house and back again from amazon:

Called is the heart-breaking, humorous, and refreshingly honest account of one twenty-something’s adventure of learning what it means to be called by God-an adventure that took him to England, C. S. Lewis’s house, and back again–and why it was only in the reality of his worst nightmare that he learned what it means to be called.

What is it like to be ”called” by God for a particular purpose? What can you learn for your own life of faith from such a calling?

Through a series of personal anecdotes, illuminating conversations, and candid reflections,Called brings you face-to-face not only with the world of C. S. Lewis, but also with the very real peaks and valleys of pursuing a calling. Seeking to reclaim the uniquely Christian sense of calling, Pemberton shows that God’s call cannot be reduced to one’s dreams, skills, or passions, vividly and powerfully illustrating how Christ turns ideas of failure and success on their head.Called will encourage you to realize God has entered into your story, calling out to you anew each day with the words, ”Follow me,” leaving you to ask, Will I be obedient to the calling set before me?

called is due out feb 2015, but you can pre-order your copy now.

commodifying myself: my piece for the image journal blog

“It’s a funny feeling,” I confessed to an editor-friend as we worked on my first memoir, a book on calling. “In a few months perfect strangers will be able to read some of the most intimate stories from my childhood that even my closest friends don’t know.”

She nodded thoughtfully, her brow furrowed.

“And the conclusion I’ve come to is that strangers can know these stories about me and still not know me. They’ll still be strangers.”

read more of my reflections on the process of writing as self-commodification for the Image Journal blog here.  

first look: “called” cover art

so my publisher has just given me permission to share with you the final cover art for my new book, called: my journey to c.s. lewis’s house and back again, and i could not be happier with how it turned out.

Called_final

this image of the famous oxford spires framing the cover instantly brings me back to memories of strolling through the bodleian library‘s old schools quad on my way to the radcliffe camera. the golden sky sets the classic look i was hoping for, and the whimsical typeface matches the book’s voice.

for the unfamiliar, called is the humorous, heart-breaking, and honest account of my journey of learning what it means to be called, a journey that took me to oxford, england; c.s. lewis’s house; and back again, and why it was only while sitting in the reality of my worst nightmare that i learned what it means to be called by the living God.

called is due out february of 2015 with leafwood publishers.

stay tuned for more updates as the release date gets closer, including a new book website, book trailer, a special sneak peak at the intro and first chapter, as well as announcements about book readings i’ll be giving. and if you want to make sure you don’t miss any called news, feel free to sign up below to receive e-mail updates.

until soon, peace.

-ryan

identity: this is who you are

taped to my bathroom mirror so that i see it every morning is a small, two by four inch sheet of lined notebook paper. its top edge is frayed from being torn out of a notebook, and on it is a handwritten bulleted list in black ballpoint ink:

  • child of God
  • husband
  • father
  • everything else

like i said, it’s a bulleted list. but the order is important.

who am i?

i recently gave a sermon on a passage from matthew’s gospel, from the scene when Jesus asks His followers, “but who do you say that I am?

i asked the largely gray-haired congregation sprinkled across the three orderly rows of pews why they thought Jesus would ask such a question.

‘do you think this is an insecure 30-something struggling with existential questions of his identity?’ i asked.

the question was rhetorical, of course, but it was also meant as a reminder of the obsessive nature of such questioning. particularly among those of my generation, and the generation coming up behind me

it was meant as a reminder of the fact that many of us often look to other people to tell us who we are.

“you are not the moon kissing the black sky,” someone wrote in a letter that was floating around online a while back.

and i love that line. in fact, i love the entire piece. but mostly, i love this bit at the end:

‘you’ve got to stop asking everyone for their opinions… love yourself, kiddo. you’ve got to love yourself.’

i love this line for the same reason i taped this sheet of notebook paper with the bulleted list to my mirror: because i am that thirty-something (just turned, thank you) struggling with existential questions of identity. wondering who i am, and hoping someone might be able to tell me.

work

“that is horrible,” a friend of mine said with a laugh from his seat beside me in my favorite local coffee shop. “everything about that is terrible.”

i had just recounted to him a dream i had had the night before. a dream that was still fresh on my mind as we sat together early on this morning over hot coffee and oven-warmed muffins.

i had shared about how, in this dream, i was standing in a long, snaking line of recent graduates, all waiting their turn to speak to someone seated behind a desk. a mysterious figure who i could not pick out from my spot in the line.

i told my friend about how when i finally made it to the desk, i was greeted by the principal from my former college in oxford.

“so, what are you doing with your degree?” was his question for me. innocent enough, except for the fact that its stung stuck with me long after i awoke.

and i think the reason this question stung is because i felt like, in many ways, the emptiness of my response somehow reflected an emptiness inside myself.

in this dream, just as in so many conversations i have had in the past few months, i confessed that i was still looking for full-time work. and each time this confession made me feel as though i had to apologize.

in a culture where the first question asked in most conversations is, “so, what do you do?” it is easy to think our work defines us. it is easy to think that by telling you what i do to earn a paycheck, i am somehow telling you who i am, or what i am worth, as a person.

“well, i am working on wrapping up my first book,” i confessed to my old principal in this dream. “and i’ve been doing some consulting work. but i’m still looking for what’s next. still having conversations and praying. still applying.”

a knowing smile spread across his face. an attempt at reassurance. and then i woke up. feeling empty, somehow.

if i tell you i make my money by lining up words end-to-end and trying to make them dance, you will know something about me. or if i tell you i spend my time wrestling with other people’s words like disheveled, excited children in a school pageant until they’re finally in just the right formation, you will know a bit about who i am.

of course, this would hardly tell you all you need to know about me. or even the most important thing about who i am.

what’s worse, if this is how i think of myself, it will only be a matter of time before who i am comes crumbling down and i am left trying to put the pieces back together.

when we find our identity in our work, it is guaranteed that we will all of us face an existential crisis sooner or later.

when we’re laid off. when we make a job change. when we’re certain God is leading us down a different road than we could have ever imagined, away from the dream job we thought certain to bring us the kind of security we spent our entire childhood longing for.

if we continue to think that our endless, “so, what do you do?” greeting-of-a-question is the best, or even an appropriate, way to identify ourselves, the day will come for all of us when we’re left wondering, who am i? who in the world am i?

bodies

“pepsi, please,” i tell the waitress staring with a confused face at my grandfather. “he’d like a pepsi.”

it was a year or so ago that my grandfather–a man who has had as much of an impact on my life as anyone i know–was diagnosed with parkinson’s disease.

since that time, our family has watched helplessly, like drivers passing by a wreck on the side of the road, as his body gives up on him.

this man who taught me how to swim, who used to pull me on an old cement truck chute across the concrete slab behind his house, now struggles to walk. struggles to speak loud enough for others to hear him.

and now i am the one pulling him in his seated walker from his house to the car, and from the car to our table in the restaurant where this waitress smiles at me and leaves with our orders in hand.

my grandfather stares blankly as she leaves, wondering, perhaps, what has happened. wondering where his voice has gone. anguishing over the fact that his legs now refuse to cooperate more often than they comply.

“i am so tired of this,” he confesses to me in his most candid moments. after he has fallen, again. for the tenth time that day. or more. his bruised knees striking the ground with a sickening thud. like the sound of a milk jug falling from the fridge on a linoleum floor.

we can no longer do the things we used to do together. working on the projects around the house like we used to. he now sits in his motor scooter while i mow the yard. or watches as i use the skilsaw to cut a board, like he taught me long ago.

things no longer look as they once did for my grandpa, for this man who grew up in the dustbowl era, and who used to work around the clock in a physically demanding job to make sure his family always had food on the table.

but it’d be silly to say he’s no longer my grandfather. he is, of course. his body may be failing him, more and more quickly by the day, but he’s still my grandfather.

soon, even i will be unable to make out his words. soon, his mobility will be completely gone. but even then, even when his body has all but given up, he will still be the same man who helped raise me.

because that’s who he is.

as one writer recently put it, “as the body and mind deteriorate, [people] are not less themselves.”

the truth is, all our bodies are deteriorating and failing us more and more by the moment. all of us are getting older. and the promise of youth so revered by our culture is passing through all of our fingers like sand.

which means we’re all in great danger if we locate our identity solely in this flesh and bone package we’ve been given.

in his now-famous address to future graduates of kenyon college, the writer david foster wallace warned his young audience of the dangers of placing their identity in their bodies (especially for those particularly good-looking folks among us):

“Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”

to place your identity in your body, wallace insists, is to bury yourself long before the undertaker ever arrives on the scene. because none of us can ever be properly defined solely by our body.

in some ways, of course, i am my body. who i am is very much shaped by my body.

may God forgive me, for example, if i ever ignore the privilege afforded me by way of my maleness. and my whiteness. those are real. they cannot be ignored.

and yet, who i am is not reducible to “white male.” i am both of those things, sure. but i am also more than those things.

nor am i to think that i am somehow no longer me when my hairline makes its embarrassingly premature retreat backward across my forehead. or when my waistline begins to resemble the spare tire in the trunk of my car.

who i am is somehow located beyond all of that. just as my grandfather is somehow more than his failing limbs and crippled speech.

stories

“we are our stories,” a jewish writer recently suggested, reflecting on the palestine-israel conflict.

and i thought that was fascinating and intriguing and challenging, all at the same time. i thought there was something true in that sentence.

but the more i chewed on this line, the more i began to realize i had some serious hesitation with thinking who we are is somehow located in our stories.

i was talking with an editor friend not long ago, who happened to be proofreading my book manuscript for me at the time, and i was talking about memoir and sharing our stories and what i think that means for our identity.

“it’s a funny feeling,” i confessed to her, “the fact that, in a few months, perfect strangers will be able to pay a few bucks and read some of my most intimate secrets, stories from my childhood that even my closest friends have never known about me.”

my editor friend nodded a thoughtful nod, her brow lowered and furrowed. her eyes narrowed to slits.

“and i guess the conclusion i’ve come to is that, strangers can know these stories about me, and still not know me. they’ll still be strangers.

“if you think about it, it’s a bit like us and God, right? i mean, you can know things about God, and still have no relationship with God.”

what i was trying to communicate to this editor friend of mine is that our stories shape us, of course. in undeniable ways. and knowing those stories allows others to know things about us.

if i tell you a story about growing up in one of only a handful of single-parent families in a small farm town where dairy cows outnumber people 10 to one, you will know something about who i am. if i tell you a story about what it was like growing up as the oldest child in said family, you will know a bit more.

but this does not mean that i am somehow reducible to my stories.

you will never fully know me even if you know all my stories. because i am a person, not a story to hear and to somehow possess in its hearing.

what defines us

at any given moment, there are countless stories being told, whispering to us that this is what defines us. that this is what shapes who we are. things that have no right whatsoever to determine who we are. and which will, if we let them, if we allow ourselves to live into their narratives and define who we are, eat us alive.

there are narratives being told that tell us who we are is determined by something as banal and arbitrary as the make of car we drive. or the brand and style of clothes we wear.

others want to tell us that who we are is best determined by our particular body shape. or by how much hair we have. or don’t have.

there are long-standing traditions that teach us, from a young age, that the most important thing about is is our last name. our family. or the town where we grew up.

we’re told that who we are is somehow defined by whether we’re attracted to the same sex, or the opposite sex.

we’re told that our identity is somehow determined by our level of education. by the letters behind or name. or by where we go to school.

nearly as old a narrative is the idea that who we are is determined by the size of our paycheck. or where our paycheck comes from. or whether or not we receive a regular paycheck.

these are the stories we’re told all the time. every day. from the moment we wake up to the moment we close our eyes to go to sleep at night. from the time we are old enough to listen to such stories, to the day we’d give anything for someone to listen to our stories.

i no longer wrestle with the question of whether or not the car i drive somehow reflects who i am–i mean, it’s a car–and yet, there are those moments when i need the reminder of who i am.

there are those moments when i need to be reminded that my identity is not something that can be defined by the work i do, by my body, or even by the stories from my life that have doubtlessly shaped me in important ways.

this is who you are

“this is who you are,” the words came in the faint hint of a whisper. “you are Mine.”

i was standing on a ladder at the time. painting a friend’s house back in my old hometown, in the same community where i grew up, after leaving several years before for the kind of elite education i never could have imagined for myself.

in that moment on the other side of grad school where i began to think that this menial work somehow defined me, or that this farm town community where i grew up defined me, the whisper of these words was enough to steal my breath and wet my eyes.

“this is what you,” of all people, “are,” the words whispered.

“you are,” of all things to be, “Mine.

a simple note

the taped note on the top corner of my bathroom mirror is simple, really. a sheet of lined notebook paper not much bigger than the palm of my hand. but it helps me in ways i struggle to put to words.

  • child of God
  • husband
  • father
  • everything else

when i start my day, staring into the eyes of the face looking back at me, this note helps remind me who i am. it helps remind me that who i am is something that can never be taken away or commodified or lost with age.

it reminds me that who i am is, instead, somehow interwoven with the story of the world’s beginning. somehow wrapped up and found in all of the world’s greatest stories of coming home.

this note on my mirror reminds me that my identity is something to be received anew every morning, with tears in my eyes. and the kind of rich joy and deep laughter that comes from the kind of good news we struggle to believe when it’s told to us.

like a secret whispered so softly for fear that it might be lost in its telling. like the best joke we’ve ever heard. like the best dream we’ve ever dreamed.

turning 30: help me dig a well in bihar, india

i remember talking with a friend of mine when i was in high school about the fact that, one day, we’d be turning 30. and i remember thinking how old we would be when that day finally came.

funny how 30 doesn’t seem that old now that it’s nearly here. funny how, in some ways, in some places, i still feel like a kid.

anyways, i’ve decided to do something special this year to mark the event. i’ve decided to use my birthday as a way to help others with the very real struggles and needs they are facing.

check out the video below to find out more.

and please, please click here to find out more about how you can get involved.

you can’t go home again

bill bryson once said there are three things you cannot do in life.

“You can’t beat the phone company, you can’t make a waiter see you until he’s ready to see you, and you can’t go home again.”

and i think that’s true. especially the last one.

i was sitting on a wood bench recently, watching my (almost) two-year-old daughter run across a playground, brown curls flowing in the air behind her, pea-gravel crunching underfoot.

behind me, a baseball field stood silent and awkward. its hair slightly overgrown, the infield unkept. the same ballfield where i learned to play third base.

on the other side of the playground, a river floated slowly by. the same river on which i used to spend lazy summer days floating on large, black inflatable tubes with friends.

the stop sign across the street is where i used to catch the school bus, when i was not all that much older than our little girl, now grinning widely at me from the top of the yellow slide, making sure she has my attention.

it was home, in many ways. but it was then that i realized, in many ways, it was no longer home.

things have been quiet

with the exception of a few intermittent posts–some words on the saturday afternoon when my sister-in-law was struck by the nightmarish news of cancer at just 25 years old, a handful of posts on holy week, and asking what it means to grieve the death of a loved one as a christian–things have been pretty quiet here over the past four years.

as quiet as things have been here, things have been pretty busy in the rest of life over the past four years.

for starters, we left home, work, and community, and went to england. and we had some pretty incredible experiences along the way, while i earned a degree in theology.

in the two months between wrapping up one degree and starting another, we welcomed our first child into the world. a beautiful girl we named emma.

we moved, again, to north carolina–an entirely new country for us, in many ways–where i completed another degree in theology.

along the way, i tried to get a couple books published, and I ended up batting .500 (more on that later).

then, after another round of ‘goodbyes,’ we came home. sort of.

trying to wear someone else’s shoes

a lot has changed since we left, it seems. as much about home as about us.

some buildings have come down. others have gone up.

my grandmother’s 30-plus year prayers have come true: we finally won a superbowl.

new relationships have been formed. others have died away with time and distance.

some new people have come since we’ve been gone. others have left.

we’ve come, and we’ve gone. and we’re not the same for it.

and no matter how much i know, deep down, that this place is the place we used to call “home,” there’s still much about it that feels as though i’m trying to wear someone else’s worn-in shoes.

“you can’t go home again,” bryson wrote. and it would seem he was right.

this isn’t home. not exactly. but we’re here, we’re back, and we’re looking forward to doing life again from here.

picking up the pen again

i am looking forward to picking up the pen and beginning again. and there are a few things i’ve thinking about, things i’d love to spend some time writing on. i’m hoping to do that here, as well as pitch a few of them elsewhere.

here are some of the things i’ve been chewing on during my early morning jogs, with the smell of fresh-picked raspberries floating through the air, and the snowcapped mountains framing the horizon.

calling

i’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about calling for the last couple years.

i’m thrilled to announce that i have a memoir being published on the topic of calling–and, specifically, what it looked like in our life when we set out to pursue a calling.

it’s titled, Called: My Journey to C.S. Lewis’s House and Back Again, and it’s due out in february of 2015 (leafwood publishers). i’m looking forward to sharing the cover artwork very soon.

i’ve had the chance to give a few talks on the topic of calling over the past year or two, and i’m looking forward to doing more of that as things wind up for the book release.

in addition to telling our story of what it was like to leave everything and set out in pursuit of what we believed to be God’s call on my life, more and more, i’ve begun to wonder whether we even know what we mean when we use the word “calling.”

especially as christians.

whatever it means to be called, i am more and more certain that it doesn’t merely mean following our dreams, putting our talents to use, or even simply responding to the needs of those around us.

i think it means something totally different than that, and i’m looking forward to spending more time writing about this in the near future.

life & death

i was talking with a friend before we left north carolina–a friend who had just found out that he and his wife were not going to give birth to their second child after all–and we were talking about the fact that, in the face of death and the messiness of grief, silence really is the worst response.

and yet, it’s also one of the most common responses to grief.

and i think one of the main reasons we so often respond to death with silence is because we don’t know what to do with death.

when what was supposed to be the joy of preparing to welcome a new family member into the world turns out to be a painful surgery in a matter of just a few days; when the phone call comes on saturday saying the test results came back and it looks like cancer; when the brain tumor shows up at 50 and you’re trying to put back the pieces of your life after your mom, wife, neighbor is no longer there, we are left speechless.

we don’t know what to do with death. and i have a theory about why i think this is.

i think one of the reasons we don’t know what to do with death, at least among many Christians, is because we skip right over Jesus’ death. and the reason we skip over Jesus’ death is because of our joyous expectation of the Easter Resurrection.

and i think that’s a massive problem, for which all of us pay the price.

anyways, that’s my theory. i need to flesh it out a bit–sorry, unintended pun. i’m looking forward to doing so soon.

commodification of everything

i recently heard about a theologian who was asked at a conference what he’s trying to prevent in his work. his response? “the commodification of everything.”

for some reason, i cannot get my mind off of that statement.

specifically, i’ve been thinking about the fact that the commodification of everything is the natural, logical result of capitalism.

now, i’m not about to sign up for marxism (is that still a thing?), but i do think there are some important questions to ask when everything is available for purchase.

for one thing, i’ve been thinking about the fact that, in our visual-centric society, to be seen is already to be commodified (think hipster clothing for sale at target, reality tv, artists who begin their careers on youtube, etc.). i’ve been using the term ‘ocular commodification’ for this idea. but i have much more thinking to do here.

anyway, this idea is related to two other things i’d like to write about.

raising a daughter

i’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to raise a young girl who is already praised for her beauty before her second birthday in a culture that commodifies bodies (especially physically beautiful bodies), while also, simultaneously, giving girls impossible models for what their bodies should look like, making them feel hopelessly, endlessly inadequate.

(i think boys run into the same issues, of course. it’s just that i only have a daughter at the moment, and so that’s what i’ve been thinking about).

i’m not exactly sure what this means for raising our daughter, but i think a lot of it will have to do with talking about the kind of stories we are told.

about how some stories lead to life, and some stories lead to the kind of life that is better described as death. and about how those stories that try to tell us that our bodies are something that can be purchased, or used to make us feel hopelessly inadequate, are deadly stories.

there’s much more to say here, of course, and i’m looking forward to doing so soon.

identity

with my 30th birthday looming just around the corner, on the other side of graduate studies, and still seeking clarity on what my next professional role will be, i’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately.

specifically, i’ve been thinking about the fact that i hate how identity-less i feel when i don’t have a seminar paper deadline, or when i am not entering my time card at the end of another work week.

i’ve been thinking about how much my identity is tied up into what i’m doing, instead of who i am.

i’ve been thinking about the fact that, in publishing a book that will involve the most important, intimate stories from my life–the kind of stories that have shaped who i am as a person–i have actually, voluntarily, commodified myself.

of course, i am more than my stories. which has left me wanting to think and write more about identity.

the poor & the oppressed

i’ve had the privilege of being involved with a couple organizations whose purposes are to care for the poor in the developing world and come to the aid of victims of human trafficking.

they’re both great causes, of course. but, something i’ve been thinking about lately is the question, why?

why should we care for the poor? why should we care for victims of sexual abuse?

because it’s the right thing to do? that can’t be a good answer.

i think we all assume these are good causes to be involved in–and i absolutely believe both are vitally important causes–but i think the reason why these are important causes matters greatly.

i think i know the answer, i think i know why these are important, but i need to think and write a bit more about it. i’m looking forward to doing that soon.

the living Word

and, of course, all of these questions will involve that question i simply cannot seem to shake, no matter where i am, or what i’m doing:

why does it matter that Jesus is the living, enfleshed Word of God, in Whom God is reconciling the world to Himself?

you can’t go home again

my daughter comes flying out the end of the yellow slide wearing a wide, apple-slice grin and i catch her in my arms.

‘let’s go home and get some lunch, whatta ya think?’ i ask her.

she nods her head and mouths, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah,’ as she does.

on our way back to the house, a 50-something woman i do not recognize smiles and waves to us, as though to say, ‘it’s good to see you again. it’s good to have you home.’

“you can’t go home again,” bryson says. and i think he’s right.

the place called home as well as the home inside each one of us is always changing. always moving.

and as much as i want to fight that with all my being, as much as i want to go back to how things used to be at times, i am beginning to think it might not be such a bad thing that we can’t go home again.

i’m looking forward to picking up the pen and beginning again, here from our new, old home.

as always, thanks for reading.

saturday afternoon cancer: a lament

it was 2:00 on a saturday afternoon when the phone call came, which is exactly the moment and day you would not expect such news. but it did. and with it, our entire day, week, month dissolved slowly into the shrill ringing noise of the destruction of our former peace.

we were feeding emma lunch at the time, and i was still holding her small, red plastic spoon between my thumb and forefinger when i watched the blood flow from my wife’s face. when i saw her eyes turn from a look of shock to horror and then, finally, to agony.

someone once said the most devastating news comes at the most unexpected hours. and i think that’s true. it is precisely in the surprise of unexpected devastating news that its devastation explodes exponentially.

“leann… has cancer,” she told me through tears when she had set the phone down on the table, her hands and legs searching in desperation for something to stabilize her.

leann, her sister. her only remaining sister. death took her youngest sister at the age of 19.

leann, mother of two young, beautiful girls who could not be more different, both under the age of three.

leann, 25. now staring death in the face. so close she can feel its breath.

has cancer. the news no one wants to hear. in fact, the news that means, for many of us, our greatest fear.

has cancer. as though she possessed it, rather than the other way around.

and all i could think in that moment—so, too, my wife—was why? why, God? why this? why now?

three and a half years, and our heart still aches for the loss of hayley. and yet, in these few brief years, we have only just begun to get our feet back under us, even as we struggle against the forceful tide of time that refuses to allow us to go back, to see her again, to hold her again, even if only for one brief, final moment.

and now this. why, God? are You not good? are You not merciful? Your Word tells us You are, but on this saturday afternoon, at 2:00, all signs appear to suggest otherwise.

prayer. what does it look like, in moments such as these? we are supposed to go to You? we are supposed to trust You?

but we’ve done that before. we’ve laid our hearts in Your hands before, and they were crushed, like grapes.

prayer. what are we supposed to say? because the truth is, God, that You have not been very good to us lately. our hearts hurt. and we do not know if we are yet ready to trust again.

and yet, somewhere, in the confusing, silent, upside-down mess of it all, words appear. not from us, God knows, but from somewhere.

“Lord, to whom shall we go?”

silence. and then, the words begin again.

“You have the words of eternal life.”

and in that moment, which is this moment, they are perhaps the only words for us.

sigur ros, “kveikur”

this hard-hitting, true-to-life album soars from darkness to light

-4 out of 5-

Sigur Ros - Kveikur - Album Cover

sigur ros, kveikur, album cover via RollingStone.com.

after a lengthy hiatus, the enigmatic icelandic band sigur ros recently returned to the music scene with the one-two punch of valtari (2012) and kveikur (2013). though both albums were released in late spring / early summer, they could not feel like more different seasons. if valtari’s soft, drifting sound found inspiration in the sleepy ambience of lead-singer jonsi’s side-project, riceboy sleeps, it seems their latest album took a few notes from trent reznor. The industrial rock in several of kveikur’s tracks would be at home in a trailer featuring rooney mara sporting a dragon tattoo as she kicks in a hornet’s nest.

for the uninitiated, sigur ros has been growing a cult-like following around the world since the mid-1990s, imported to the united states through such unassuming vehicles as the 2001 sleeper film vanilla sky. lead-vocalist, jón thor birgisson, or jonsi, often eschews icelandic or english lyrics for vonleska: a melodic language jonsi created that is only sung, not spoken. think scat in jazz music. the band’s hard-to-pin-down sound is often referred to as ethereal, ambient, post-rock, and even spiritual.

kveikur wastes no time in introducing its heavy sound. “brenninstein” opens with the crackling eruption of a spaceship taking lift off, incinerating the track’s edges. cue industrial rock, with massive, robotic beats thumping throughout, and jonsi’s otherwise angelic voice laying an ominous introduction to the album. the tone is enough to prompt headbanging from long-haired, heavy metal shirt clad twentysomethings, as I noted during a recent show in a rainy vancouver park.

“hrafntinna” continues the morose feel, though more subdued than angry, with what sounds like cymbals fashioned out of metal trash can lids replacing the robotic beats. the second track concludes with a showcase of haunting, funeral-like horns that play to their own distant-marching death.

if “hrafntinna” ends with a funeral procession, the next track, “isjaki,” didn’t get the memo. things pick up here, with what might very well be the most singable sigur ros chorus in years. it seems jonsi has hid his aching heart in a track that otherwise sounds optimistic, with (rare) icelandic lyrics roughly translated, “you knew about me, i knew you / we always knew that this would end / you miss me, i miss you.”  even so, “isjaki” feels festive, like a chinese new year parade, complete with brightly colored dragons dancing down the street and jonsi extending his hand, inviting the listener to join in.

though no more than my own interpretation, the emotion of the first three tracks on this album play out like an accompaniment to the paschal triduum (Jesus’ trial, crucifixion, and resurrection). but we’re not out of the dark yet. several songs later, “kveikur” is perhaps the most haunting of the entire album. jonsi’s voice rips and roars in a blend of ghostlike and sinister tones, before the track concludes in a cacophony of relentless crashing drums and screeching bow guitar.

“rafstraumur” could be at home on jonsi’s 2010 solo album, go, or the playful soundtrack to we bought a zoo. its sound is flat-out jubilant, thanks to his celebratory falsetto and percussionist orri páll dýrason’s machine-gun drum lines. “bláþráður” is classic sigur ros  (see agætis byrjun). the one I keep coming back to, “stormur,” continues the optimism of “isjaki,” albeit with less parade-like jubilee. the pace is even, and jonsi’s voice soars and yearns brilliantly, threatening to make a sigur ros fan out of the most skeptical listener.

true to life, kveikur does not follow a direct path from dark to light. instead, it ebbs and flows from one to the other—and then back again—before leveling out with a sublime track in “var,” the closest things come to valtari. If a piano and strings accompaniment were set out to sea on a life raft, this is what it would sound like. at the conclusion of an album that starts out with a rocket launch and robotic drum base, the peaceful conclusion of “var” calls to mind the confident, hopeful words of 14th century christian mystic julian of norwich: “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

time will tell whether any of kveikur’s songs have the staying power of such classics as “glosoli,” “hoppipolla,” or “svefn-g-englar,” but the true strength of the album is its diversity. kveikur showcases the full range of the group’s capabilities, making a fitting introduction for first-time listeners. the rich texture and diversity of this album makes it feel real to life in a unique way. kveikur not only gives time to some very heavy, emotional tracks, but it also warms like a sunrise at points.

when i heard the first songs released from kveikur, the dark sound was a bit much for my taste. but witnessing several of the more menacing tracks performed live, with jonsi bent at the waist, wrenching on his bowed guitar with all the strength his lanky frame could muster, i got it. they work.

for those turned off by the heavier sound, stick with it. when we fail to acknowledge the tragedy of human experience—which some of the darker songs on this album get at—we miss the full reality of hope. the only way to easter morning, of course, is through the darkness of good friday. contemporary worship music would do well to take note.

-kveikur is available for purchase on itunes.

a prayer in the aftermath of the boston marathon tragedy

i was scheduled to pray before today’s new testament class, the day after the boston marathon tragedy, and the last class of the semester before finals. taking a note from a well-known duke theologian, i decided to write out my prayer. here it is.

dear Heavenly Father,

we thank you for this place to study, and for its commitment to telling, and re-telling, Your story.

we thank You for instructors such as mark who give of their time, energy, and knowledge, and whose sacrifice means our benefit.

in the aftermath of such a horrific and senseless act as our country experienced yesterday afternoon, when persons who clamor for power try to inflict fear upon the world, with heavy hearts, we thank you for difficult moments, as such instances of this world’s brokenness refuse to allow us to grow comfortable, and remind us that the meaning of our work is not found in grades, but in something much deeper.

help us be ever diligent in our work, that we might, more and more, become beacons of hope in this world that desperately seeks something to hope in as we witness to the beauty, love, and hope of Your story.

though our legs are tired and we wish to stop long enough to catch our breath, strengthen us by Your Spirit so that we might finish the race set before us with deep joy and gladness.

we pray in the holy name of Your Son, Jesus Christ. amen.

when He returned

[this is the third of a three-part imaginative reflection on the first holy week.]

i woke up early that morning. before the birds began their songs. it was still dark outside, but i felt urged awake. like someone had softly touched my arm, telling me it was time.

and so i awoke, quietly. not wanting to disturb anyone, i climbed out of my window, as i had two nights earlier, and dropped to the ground. still unsure why, i began to walk, not knowing where i was going.

everything was still. everything was quiet. no one was yet up. but i felt led, somehow. and soon i knew where to.

it wasn’t long before i found myself back in the garden, making my way to the tomb of the Man on the donkey.

the woman and the Gardener

two men passed by me, before i made it to the tomb. i waited, quietly, behind a tree as they passed, not wanting them to spot me.

they looked confused. their eyes and minds distant as they walked. as though they had seen a ghost.

i held my breath until i knew they were gone, and then continued to make my way toward the tomb where the Man on the donkey had been buried.

i was not far off when i heard the faint sound of crying. it was coming from the direction of the Man on the donkey’s tomb.

i continued making my way toward the tomb, but more quietly now. not wanting anyone to hear me. not wanting to disturb whomever i had heard weeping.

and that’s when i spotted her. a woman. bent over. crouched just outside the Man’s tomb.

the large stone blocking the tomb had been rolled to the side, somehow. and the roman guards who had been there when i last visited the tomb were nowhere to be found. just the woman, weeping.

and then, suddenly, a man was there. beside her. a man i did not recognize.

“the owner of the garden, perhaps?” i thought to myself.

and then he spoke, to her, “woman, why are you weeping?” he said in a heartfelt voice. his eyes looked heavy. and sad. “whom are you looking for?”

she raised her head at his voice, seemingly taken off guard.

her eyes were glossy in the first signs of early morning light. tears ran footpaths down her cheeks. she looked as though she hadn’t slept in days.

“sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

you could hear her heart aching as her voice strained in a note of exhasperation. her words were weak and very nearly drowned out by her tears. she had nothing left. and she begged the man to help.

and then i recognized her. i had seen her that day, that day i first saw the Man on the donkey. she was with Him. she was one of His followers.

she was seeking His body, and, finding only an empty tomb, she now had nothing left.

the mystery of this scene was all more than i could take. who was this man? what had he done with the body of the Man on the donkey? why wouldn’t he just help her?

my heart raced in my chest, which now rose and fell heavily. i wanted to yell out. “help her! why won’t you just help her?!”

but i didn’t. i held back, still not wanting to be found.

the man spoke up again.

“mary,” he said to her, now in a calm, confident, and knowing voice. “mary,” He repeated, the corners of His lips upturned only slightly.

and that’s when it happened. the unknowable. that which there are no words for. and if only you could have seen her face.

her eyes fell open, as her eyebrows darted upward. her bottom lipped dropped, extending her cheeks. she opened her mouth to speak, but no words could come out.

she closed her mouth. and then, after a moment, she opened it again. quickly this time.

“Rabboni!” she said, the words now leaping out of her throat, as if they had been pulled out. as if she had no control of them.

…and then i realized what she realized, this Man was the Man on the donkey. returned! returned to life!

my mind went numb, shocked at this realization, as i felt my body awash in a warm bath of excitement. as though my heart had burst within my chest, painting my rib cage with its warm contents. as though my feet had, if only for a moment, actually lifted from their spot on the garden floor.

“He has returned!” i thought to myself. “the Man on the donkey… He’s come back!”

the woman lifted herself from her crouched position, which appeared to take all her strength, and took a step toward the Man, lunging at Him in a wave of excitement. as if to embrace Him.

but He stopped her.

“do not hold on to me,” He told her, “because I have not yet ascended to the Father. but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”

and, with a face of knowing, with a face that, once again, shone with hope, she looked into His eyes, smiled deeply, and then turned and left from her spot in the garden. in a hurry that surprised me.

my eyes followed her out. and by the time my eyes returned to her previous spot, there in front of the Man’s tomb, He was gone. He was nowhere to be found.

my eyes darted around, not knowing how i had missed Him. wondering if i had somehow overlooked Him. but i hadn’t. He was gone. and yet, He had returned. and with Him, hope.

good news

i still didn’t know what it all meant, as i turned to make my way back home. i had only fragments of a story. a Man on a donkey. a quiet tomb. and now this. this good news: the Man returned.

i didn’t know what it all meant. in fact, there seemed to be more that i didn’t know than what i did know. and yet, and yet i had this good news.

i had seen what i had seen. the unspeakable. the unimaginable. i had–though i hardly believed it myself–seen a Man return to life.

and though i didn’t know quite what it meant, the stories my grandfather used to tell me soon came flooding back to my mind. the stories of a great King Who would come to restore peace to the land. Who would set all things right. and it filled me with deep gladness and hope.

my pace picked up as i walked back toward home, from a walk to a jog. and soon, before i knew it, i was running. at full speed. as quickly as my legs would carry me.

the sun was now beginning its ascent and i could feel its warmth on my face as i ran.

i had good news. and i had to tell someone. anyone. everyone.