Disquiet Time: Company for the Desert

When my biggest crisis of faith (to date) began, it felt like I had not just lost the main road, but gotten so lost I wasn't even standing on a trail of any kind -- just marooned somewhere in an unknown, unmapped, sprawling stretch of wilderness.

Where was civilization? How could I get back?

At 21, I still thought that most of life's disasters could be prevented by forming adequate plans in advance. On account of this, I'd begun making up and refining my future courtship story in childhood, whispering new installments to myself in the dark until my parents finally shushed me for the night. (I didn't know all that rehearsing would leave me still single at 36.)

Win a copy of Disquiet Time! Details at the end of this post.
By comparison, I spent far less time imagining the future state of my relationship with God, but I had vague expectations that things with God would gradually but steadily improve as life continued.

When big, honest, questions about God, the Bible and Christian faith began to surface — and refused to subside either quickly or without answer — I freaked out. Was this the start of my spiritual divorce, a rift that would not just sever me from God, but deeply disappoint all the loved ones who had helped rear me in faith?

For a few months, I languished in intellectual and spiritual limbo, unsure how or which way to move. Even the words of the Bible rang dully on my ears, like piano keys cut from their strings.
Something similar happened years later, when I got separated from my English-speaking tour group the day we were slated to visit Machu Pichu.

I’d traveled to Peru to visit my sister, visit friends and see the famed ruins, picking only the most limited Spanish beforehand. The night before my tour group went up the mountain, I found myself thinking about the site's religious history with some uncertainty. So as I prayed before going to bed, I asked God to show Himself God on the mountain the next day.

I don't really know what I meant by that, but perhaps I'd been reading through stories from 1 Kings in my daily Bible times.

When my wake-up knock came early the next day, I quickly dressed and packed a light bag before heading downstairs to grab a quick bite before the bus ride up the mountain, To my growing horror, the dining room was empty. For some inexplicable reason, the hostel had woken me up an hour late and my tour group and English-speaking guide had left without me.

Outside, the sky was bright with early morning light, a sure sign I'd missed the magic, "perfect postcard picture" our tour guide promised us, of the sun rising over the ancient city's ruins.

Fighting panic and tears, I raced to the bus line, thankful my guide had distributed bus and entry tickets the night before.

Unfortunately, I'd spent so little time talking to him that I knew I'd never pick out his face in the crowds of tourists and guides that flocked to the mountain that July day. In fact, I could hardly remember anyone's face. I'd mainly spoken to an American woman with henna-dyed hair. How would I ever find them?

When the bus at least deposited me at the entrance, dust billowing lazily from our ascent, I noticed the sun's rays had not yet touched the ruins. I might have lost my group for the day, but perhaps I could still get that "postcard picture."

Hurrying through the entry gate, I quickly took stock of the sprawling, terraced ruins before me, beyond which the mountain dropped off in a steep, green cliff. Though it was not yet 8 a.m., crowds of tourists were scattered all over the almost primordial slope. After a moment, I realized visitors were mostly clustered in small groups, probably waiting to capture that same great shot our guide had promised my group.

They were sitting or standing. The sun seemed minutes from touching the ruins, but if I had any chance to find my group that day, this was it. If only I could recognize someone!
Breathing out a trembling prayer for help, I started forward along the stony path. Soon I reached my first juncture, and inside, some quiet thought seemed to nudge me left. Another juncture. Again a quiet thought.

I was too panicked that my expensive, once-in-a-lifetime trip would be ruined to question the instinct, so at each turn, I followed what I thought I heard.

Shortly after the sun finally did National Geographic proud, I caught a glimpse of slightly maroon hair over on the next terraced hill. It was my dinner companion! I'd found my group!

Whether the quiet prompts that led me turn-by-turn back to my group were God or some providentially accurate instinct, I got similar help through my spiritual crisis. Only in that case, many of the small encouragements came from books or other people’s stories.

One day, shortly after the lowest point in that agonizing, long season of doubt and confusion, I found Daniel Taylor's The Myth of Certainty on a cousin's bookshelf. As I began to read it, I heard for the first time not concern or warning, but encouragement about the questions that had divided me from so many of my friends and relatives.

It was enough to light a pinpoint of hope in me, to help me reach the next juncture.

I'd like to think Disquiet Time, the new essay collection edited by Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani, could serve as a similar lifeline. I'm still working through each of my co-contributors' essays (I contributed one on doubt), but by page 40 I'd laughed several times and teared up at Ian Morgan Cron's account of a church's help with reading lessons.

These essays may not answer many of the various questions they pose, but each invites the reader to continue the conversation with God and the Bible. And as Falsani writes in her essay, "Just as I Am," "polite conversation with God puts no topic off-limits."

At the start of my crisis of faith, I mostly wanted a clear, direct map back to where I'd been and what I knew. I had no idea of the treasures hidden ahead of me in desert, the surprisingly fierce loyalty that would bloom only after hours of desperate and sometimes angry prayer walks through the streets of Brooklyn and now Richmond, California.

I didn't know that sometimes faith looks like and grows through the courage of questions.

For those still learning to struggle with God and the Bible, Disquiet Time offers forty-odd vignettes of others' efforts to faithfully wrestle.

Win a copy!
Share your honest question for God in the comments to be entered in a drawing for one free copy of Disquiet Time. Provide enough contact information that I can notify you if you win.


Prince, Picasso, Nov. 8 book event + concert giveaway

Monday I returned from a 12-day, mostly work trip to Chicago, DC and a Virginia suburb. Due to the length of the trip, I promised my homeless friend April that I'd text her a picture from Chicago every day (she owns a smartphone, not unlike many tech-equipped homeless, as WSJ reported a while back).

This proved a more interesting task than I expected, as I tried to capture a different Chicago distinctive each day -- from the city's elegant riverfront and skyline to its split-layer streets and famous blues scene. I've made several trips to Chicago in the past few years, but this was the first time I really noticed how much public art they have. Maybe someday I'll write more about public art, and why I think it can be such a gift to communities.

Speaking of gifts, let me know if you're a boogie-woogie fan. Friday night I won tickets from my favorite blues radio show to go hear the second annual San Francisco international boogie woogie festival, Nov. 8, 4 p.m. at the SFJAZZ Center near Civic Center. From Friday night's interview with the organizer, it sounds like it should be great (read this HuffPo piece on last year's festival for more.

I'm offering my extra ticket to artRecs readers first! Let me know if you're interested and free next Sunday.

:: events ::
  • Nov. 8: Disquiet Time discussion at the American Baptist Seminary of the West, 2606 Dwight Way in Berkeley. 7-9 p.m., FREE. See more details below. Nearest BART station: Downtown Berkeley.
  • Nov. 9: Second annual San Francisco boogie woogie festival, SFJAZZ Center.
  • Nov. 13: Postmodern Jukebox at Slim's, 8 p.m., $25. The band has made a name for themselves with genre-bending covers of pop songs like "Anaconda" and "Call Me Maybe," as well as their slow-jam versions of TV theme songs. I don't always go in for acts like that, but they're talented musicians and I do love a good swing tune (which genre they turn to often). Anyone want to come with?
:: our stuff ::
:: film ::
  • Dear White People recently opened in the Bay Area. A.O. Scott reviews it for NYT. Anyone interested in watching it? I'm really curious to see it, but this seems like the kind of film where you could get as much, if not more, out of the post-viewing discussion as the movie itself.
:: tunes ::
  • Prince played an eight-minute set on SNL this weekend. Sharing the video on Twitter, musician Ryan Adams said, "Prince just broke music again." Consequence of Sound had more on the performance.
  • NPR's First Listens this week include a new set of basement tapes from Bob Dylan and a Neil Young album recorded two ways: "He recorded all of its 10 songs with either a 92-piece orchestra or an elaborate big band (not to mention the occasional choir), for a sound that couldn't be farther from the raggedness exemplified in his acoustic and electric recordings alike."
  • Joshua Bell recently reprised his famously unappreciated Metro performance in Washington, D.C. -- this time, to a more discerning crowd.
  • New Gregory Porter: His latest album (sort of) is the compilation Issues of Life. Porter also sang in the month-long iTunes festival in London. For a limited time, iTunes has the video of his performance available for free viewing. (I cannot praise his live shows enough; I'm seriously thinking of flying to SoCal in January to catch one there.)
  • New soul radio program: Since my move almost a year ago, I've been listening to the radio a lot more than before. That has given me a new appreciation for the breadth of programming on KCSM, the local jazz station. Not only do they feature three hours of blues on Friday nights, and a Sunday afternoon Latin jazz program (2-6 p.m.), they also run play two hours of swing-era jazz from 6-8 p.m. Now I find myself wanting to listen from 6 to 10 p.m. on Sundays, though, thanks to a great new soul program that starts at 8 p.m. Tune in to 91.1 or find the station on iTunes to hear for yourself. The more I hear, the more I think of the station.
  • Dwight Garner's review of the new Mark Whitaker Cosby bio emphasizes Cosby's love for jazz and its influence on his work. 
  • I haven't read enough on Lecrae to say where this Religion News Service interview falls in coverage of him, but I appreciated Sarah Pulliam Bailey's work. Read the full interview transcript.
:: visual art ::
  • The Bay Bridge Lights show could be extended permanently, but backers are still seeking additional funding. I don't love leaving work after dark, but it's one of my favorite parts of  after-sunset commutes.
  • Behind the Wall: The New Yorker publishes photos from a new book by Ute Mahler, chronicling life in East Germany during the years of the Berlin Wall. In contrast to the period's "'sugar-coated' propaganda, Mahler, along with a few others, set out to photograph the less promising realities of life in East Germany."
  • Picasso show looks at the influence of his second wife Jacqueline: This story includes a nice slide show of the couple, my favorite picture of which shows them dancing in his studio. Several of the photos were shot by Life photographer David Douglas Duncan, an interesting third party in WSJ's account of the couple.
  • The Root reviews eight London exhibitions scheduled for Black History Month. One curator interviewed said, “One hopes that this is a sign of changing times where the appreciation of black artistic practice is no longer tied to a designated month of the year and is perhaps indicative of a Britain that is ready to critically engage with stimulating art, regardless of the cultural backgrounds of its creators.”
  • Malkovich as Marilyn, Warhol and Einstein: Starting in November, a Chicago gallery hosts a new portrait series by photographer Sandro Miller, in which he recreates famous photos by Dorothy Lange, Warhol and others ... all using John Malkovich. Some of them I found eerily close to the originals. Others, like recreated portraits of Mohammed Ali and Three Horses, raised a lot of questions for me.
  • How The New Yorker's covers have changed - this almost makes me want to finally subscribe, though magazines always end up in a massive to-read pile.
  • Portuguese illustrator Andre Carrilho on Ebola: A pointed depiction of Westerners' fickle interest in the outbreak
  • In the latest in an increasingly storied portrait series, the 40th photo of the four Brown sisters has been released. Begun when the women were in their late teens and early 20s, the annual portrait has become a fascinating chronicle of life and aging.
  • A college friend of mine contributed to this documentary about two brothers' return to Haiti and attempt to find their family after the 2010 earthquake.
:: reading/food for thought ::
  • Walking in New York: One of the best, most delightful essays I've read in some time -- by my dear friend Garnette Cadogan. Print this out to read at leisure, over a good meal or flavorful cup of coffee. So many great lines and images in his account of walking through the streets of New York. If you like this piece, Garnette also contributed to the new anthology Tales of Two Cities, featuring essays about New York by the likes of Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, Colum McCann, David Byrne, Teju Cole, Jonathan Safran Foer and many others.
  • How to be funny: A while back, Stephen George introduced me to one of funniest short stories/serials I've read in a long time -- the hipster send-up Simon's Sell-Out by Simon Rich. In a new interview, the precocious young writer talks to Longreads about his new short-story collection Spoiled Brats and other projects. 
  • National Book Award finalists announced (NPR). Nominees range from Marilynne Robinson's Lila to books of poetry on racism and segregation. I wish I had time to read more of the books than I'm likely to. One nominee explores local history: Steve Sheinkin's The Port Chicago 50 recounts the explosion at a segregated naval site in Suisan Bay that led to charges of mutiny after several men refused to work until the government fixed safety issues. (More than 300 died in the explosion.)
:: food ::
  • Virginia beer to watch for: During my recent trip, I had a chance to try two beers from craft brewery Hardywood Park. I particularly liked the rye whiskey-barrel pumpkin beer. In fact, I set my alarm for 7 a.m. my last day there, just so I could walk the 1.4 miles to Trader Joe's to buy a few bottles for my trip home (bus service is limited, and my sister leaves for work at 5 a.m.). Alas, this errand only yielded one bottle, due to brisk weekend sales, but I'm still investigating other ways to get the beer, short of a follow-up trip or paying a friend to check a suitcase of beer. If you find yourself in Virginia, check out Hardywood Park beers ... and then let me know if you're open to some small-scale beer transport.