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Faithful Rebel: Songwriter Carrie Newcomer on A Permeable Life

Carrie_Newcomer_Before_and_After_guitar_case“When you live a permeable life, you’re making a deal with the universe that I will be here and I will be present and I will take in the world,” Carrie reflected with me over the phone last week. I say her name plainly but this is Carrie Newcomer, folk singer and songwriter, who on April 1st is officially releasing her fifteenth studio album, A Permeable Life, and – for the first time – a book of poems and essays with the same name to accompany it.

Songwriting, like a permeable life, requires the practice of attention, says Carrie, and the choice to show up as your true self in the world. Even after just a few moments of spotty cell coverage, me in my Durham office and Carrie in her home in the Indiana woods, it’s clear that this woman practices what she preaches. Her speaking voice is as kind and slow as her singing voice is deep and wise. I decide to count my conversation with her as my spiritual practice for the day. She’s that good for the soul.

I’m a fairly new fan to Newcomer’s music. I met her for the first time last August at our annual Habits of the Hearts for Healthy Congregations retreat with Parker Palmer where she shared her music with a group of over 100 clergy and faith leaders and shared her life in quiet conversations played out over mealtime. I remember asking her about dogs, and whether Rush and I should get a second one. I worried we couldn’t love another with the kind of teeth-clenching intensity we felt for our red-headed mutt Amelia. “Love is not like a pie where there are only so many pieces to go around,” she said. “With every dog, or every child, you just get more pie. There is always more love available to us.”

With that same bent toward simplicity, she set out to create her latest album. Her voice quickens for a brief moment as she divulges the collaborative process with producer Paul Mahern and a handful of talented musicians, many under thirty. “There is simplicity when you don’t know what else to do and then there is simplicity when you can play all sorts of notes and say all sorts of things but you don’t. It’s elegant, myself and all the musicians, it’s a very ego-less kind of playing.” These are true enough words for a musician as they are a writer or a preacher. Two kinds of simplicity – the one that comes out in your first draft, lazy in its pomp and wordiness, and the one that finds you on the other side of time. It’s after the throat-clearing quotes and meaningless jargon disappear that what you’ve been trying to say all along becomes clear.

I listen to Carrie’s music when I need to de-clutter my mind. I put her music on when I do yoga in the sun room; sometimes Amelia comes in and does a downward dog under the bridge of my downward dog and I collapse over the mystery. I put her music in my CD player when I’m driving to church on Sunday nights and mustering the courage of true self. Carrie is by no means a “Christian artist.” She says, “Theologically you get the eight crayon box in the Christian music world; theologically I’m the 48 crayon kind of girl. There are beautiful things than can be created with the 8 crayons but at the same time, there’s a hunger and longing for music and story and dance and art forms that lean into the spiritual, that is looking for new language.”

I ask Carrie about her spiritual heritage; I tell her I suspect she’s what I call  on this blog a “faithful rebel.” She grew up Methodist but her fury with the traditional church’s treatment of women led her to find spiritual community with the Quakers. Friends commented, “You make your life with sound and yet you go to a silent community!” She laughs as she’s telling me this, but then becomes serious. “We talk at the universe or God or the Light as Quakers would call it, but something really amazing happens when you are quiet long enough to hear.”

A_Permeable_Life_CoverIt’s hard to be quiet in a culture like ours where the impulse is to do more, be more, throw one more ball up in the air. Carrie challenges the assumption of “not enoughness” in her pie-life-philosophy and prophet-like-words in the new album and book (available for pre-order on her website). When we’re all scrambling to find a life of more, maybe the answer is to do less. “We expand time by actually being there,” Carrie tells me.

We’ve only been talking for forty minutes, but what she says is true; my breath is deeper than when we started.

What are you holding back?

Consider that most fear
is not fear of failure:
rather, it’s fear to live fully,
in full power.
- Clarissa Pinkola Estés

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For a decade and a year, I’ve had the feeling that I’m holding something back.  I told a friend this over pasta salad at Parker & Otis and she said, “Maybe it’s because you’re an introvert.” This is one explanation. Another explanation is that I am afraid of something. This is the more likely explanation. I am afraid of showing up in church as my full, true, complicated self. I am afraid I am too much to handle.

I am afraid you won’t be able to handle me. You won’t know what to do when I say during the prayers of the people, “I am mad (and I have been mad since I was eight.)” You will want to comfort me, make it better, make the madness go away but what you don’t understand is the madness is a part of me. I wish you would ask “Tell me why you’re mad,” or “What does it feel like to be that mad?” or “Where does the madness live in your body?” Instead, I fear I’ve rendered you helpless, put you out, made you uncomfortable. I didn’t want to do that. I just wanted to be mad.

I am afraid I won’t be able to handle me. Silence is a romantic kind of thing. Sometimes it’s easier not speaking my voice. It’s easier not knowing if there are a few good souls who can hear my story and say it is theirs, too. It’s lonely to say in a small group “I am always finding and losing myself in marriage,” and to hear in response, “How old are you? You’ll learn to comprise.” It is as if I am a caricature of my generation rather than a real person. When I speak about who I am, what I love, and the questions I hold close, I risk feeling more alien than before I spoke. I can hardly bear the disappointment of finding out there is no echo for my longing here. I’m already mad enough.

I am afraid that God won’t be able to handle me. I’ve always believed that God can handle anything. I also believe that God loves what is holy, and if I could just decide to be more holy, more obedient, more intentional, I wouldn’t be such a mess. I would show up in prayer contrite not confused. I would show up on my blog confident not questioning. I would show up in worship controlled not abandoned. It’s not that I think God can’t handle me; it’s that I behave as if I can handle me without him. I wouldn’t want to make him mad.

To celebrate Women’s History Month, I’ll be co-leading a Talking Taboo workshop at Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan on Sunday, March 16th from 4:00 – 5:30 p.m. Joining me are two contributors, the Reverend Jennifer Crumpton and Poet Aja Monet; together we will ask the question “What am I holding back?” and “How can I start showing up?” at church.

Because a holy life or a “wholly” life takes public practice, not private perfection. It starts with a decision to show up, then another to test that feeling in the quiet, and then another to speak your knowing out loud. It continues on like this with a lot of bumps and bruises as your complicated self gets tangled in my complicated self, but it always ends in a live encounter. And isn’t a live encounter the best any of us can hope for in church? That moment where the spirit of God breaks through the b.s. and we can say to the person beside us with awe, “That shit just got real”?

It only takes one person to show up as her full, true, and complicated self at church to make it a little bit safer for everyone else to do the same. The only thing holding us back is our fear, and fear can’t handle a love like ours. God’s love is too much.

Perfect love casteth out fear – 1 John 4:18

Sometimes I wish I were a dude

photo (32)This post is an excerpt from my piece in the booklet, Courageous Conversations (2013), edited by elizabeth mcmanus and published by RCWMS press. Search books on the RCWMS website to order ($5)

I’ve been trying to figure out how to say this for a while now. Maybe even for a year or three. Probably since I moved from California to a place called Durham where the women seemed more womenly and the men folk seemed more, well, khaki. I’ve been trying to figure out how to say this without sounding like the type of woman I loathe, without sounding ungrateful to mothers, sisters, and feminists everywhere, without looking the gift-God in the mouth.

Sometimes I wish I were a dude. More precisely, sometimes I wish I could act like a dude.

1.) Dudes aren’t expected to do as many dude things with one another. Oh, they might have a pancake breakfast once a month at the church but it’ll be on Saturday and they’ll cite wanting to spend more time with the wife as their reason for missing and some woman will surely end up giving them a pat on the back for being that sort of family man. Women’s bible study, on the other hands, meets every Thursday morning according to the bulletin. It wasn’t until a girlfriend recently shared aloud that she just “doesn’t do groups” that I thought to myself, “Really? You mean it’s okay for a woman to not hang out in packs? It’s okay for me to be kind of a loner? You mean that’s not just for cowboys and Jack Reacher?”

2.) Dudes tell it like it is (or at least how they think it is). This, in turn, frees me up to do the same. I can be competitive without offending and interrupt without clamoring and trust that no one’s analyzing my every move more than I because I am, afterall, a woman. It’s the emotional labor expected of being a woman that I find so awkward and unbecoming on me. A friend tells me her husband is lonely and would my husband be willing to call him up? Sure, I think. But why not just ask him? Why do I have to be responsible for my husband’s social calendar on top of my own? Another friend says she’s worried about a girlfriend of ours. Okay, I think. But what do you want me to do about it? Why do I have to sit here strategizing when we might as well just ask her? And who made it a woman’s job to anticipate the needs of others before they’ve even been named? Call me callous, uncaring, or unchristian but I don’t want this undercover job.

3.) Dudes drink beer at lunch. I can’t tell you how jealous I am of a standing date my husband has every Friday at Sam’s Quick Shop to grab a pint with a buddy who’s on lunch break. When I asked a girlfriend why we rarely drink together, she said she didn’t really like alcoholic all that much and, besides, there were those calories to account for. It’s no one’s fault really, a freak of context that I’ve found myself in a place where the lady drinkers are few and the wine lovers among them fewer. But I want the carelessness or carefreeness of dudes who don’t worry as much about growing guts and going out budgets. It helps, too, that they’re not worrying about making babies in their bellies, or eyeing their friends shrewdly when they pass on a French 75.

Hear me when I say I want to act like a dude not a man. Because, of course, I know that the dude is a caricature, no more an accurate picture of all of manhood than my one experience is of womanhood. I know, too, that no one is stopping me from acting not like a dude, but as an independent, straight-talking, “what the hell it’s noon” kind of woman. Perhaps it’s I who has all the hang ups about the expectations others have hung round my neck.

Sure, I’ve found a rare group of women or two where I can soar with more than four in the room. But who’s to say that a feminist has to love women’s groups? I’ve spoken up with close friends when I sensed there was a need going unnamed.  But who’s to say that a Christian has to be not just her sister’s keeper but every sister’s keeper? I’ve counted calories and dollars signs and decided I’d rather not fall asleep at 2pm today. But who’s to say that a woman can’t drink a tall one over a grilled cheese sandwich without being a lush?

And that’s just the thing. I don’t know who’s saying.

Only that I want a say.

Consider this teleconference good for your health

t1larg.juiceLast week, I came across this quote from Sister Joan Chittister: “Not only does what our churches, mosques, synagogues, and faith communities teach and do about women become the morality of the land — what they do not say or do on behalf of women condones what becomes the immorality of the land.” Is this not true? I’ve met more kindhearted pastors who don’t have much to say about women at all (other than we support ‘em) than I have the fork-tongued, slandering kind. Sin is an easy silence.

This month, I was joined by contributor Robyn Henderson-Espinoza in a teleconference with the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ritual, and Ethics. You can find a link to the recording and notes from it by clicking here. Robyn talked about being a Queer Baptist seminarian who tattooed her body with memories of faith and doubt.  I shared how my sense of identity as a Christian without children has grown stronger as I’ve been able to say to others with increasing grace, “I am not the woman you had in mind.” Sometimes I have to say this to myself, too.

In just a few days (Wed, Feb 5, 1-2pm ET), there will be another teleconference with four more contributors talking about women’s ordination to the priesthood, the temptation of adultery, worldwide reproductive health, and the belief that broken bodies are Spirit-filled bodies. Sign up for the teleconference by clicking here.

Consider it a matter of health to register, your extra dose of Vitamin-W for our bone-drying deficiencies in women’s voices.

Why Using “He” in Worship Could Be Hurting More People Than You Think

showImageThis post was originally published on Q Ideas.

“Give me one moment while I have a conniption fit,” I cautioned Rush. We had been fine a few minutes earlier, talking about a worship service he was planning for his youth group. Our friend Will, who would be leading music with him, had just spent an hour picking and strumming and singing in our living room. I apologized to Rush for being a hermit and not coming out of the bedroom to say hello, but there was no bad blood between us. Not until he mentioned a particular song he was planning to sing.

Sunday worship is the hardest hour of my week. And it’s not because I’m an introvert who often sits alone. Nor is it because I have trouble hearing God in a service that relies so heavily on words, words, and more words. Sunday worship is the hardest hour of my week because it’s the one in which I show up begging to get a glimpse of God’s abundance and leave feeling a little less human. It’s the one where I worship a God who is always a he.

“You’re singing the jealous song?” I asked, actively working on my tone. Rush tells me my tone is often off-the-charts awful. I tell him maybe he’s tone deaf. Either way, I wanted to play nice with my partner.

“And that’s the song that says something like, ‘He loves like a hurricane and we bend like a tree under his wind and mercy?’”

By now Rush could tell something was festering because I was trying too hard and trying too hard was the telltale sign. Something did not fit.

Let me dispel your fears that I am looking to make God into my image. I am not. But I expect this happens to us, men and women alike, from time to time. We are, after all, talking about God, the God whose thoughts are not our thoughts, whose ways are not our ways (Is. 55:8.). No, I am looking to worship the God of reality, from whom the image of both male and female and everyone in between was patterned. Genesis assures us of this much. God is not some neutered, gender-less spirit in the sky. Rather, God is more than, higher than, fuller than our human thoughts and ways of gender. I’ve come to believe that we worship a gender-full God.

This belief makes worshiping such a God rather, well, complicated. While most mainline Protestants I come across agree with me that God is neither male nor female, the majority is unwilling to change the lyrics of modern-day music to reflect said reality. One former pastor assured me that I was free to change the lyrics myself, singing God for every he, God’s self for every himself. I told him this didn’t seem to be the point of worship considering the biblical mandate that we be of one mind and spirit (Phil 2:2.) Shouldn’t we at least be able to be of one lyric?

So, I asked Rush, kindly I thought, “What do you think about changing the lyrics of that song? To be honest, singing about a nameless he—even if it is meant to be Jesus—kind of reminds me of a domestic violence situation. I mean, we bend beneath his weight like a hurricane?” I thought about the recent statistics I’d read in which one in every four women is expected to experience domestic violence in her life time. Was it safe to assume one in every four women sitting in church might experience the same? Was it possible worship leaders did not know this, did not know one of these women?

To continue reading the article, head over to Q Ideas.

Drinking my weekly dose of superjuice, and other good reasons for going to church

Darkwing“Push. Off. The. Bed.”

It was our clarion call to wrestle. There we would be, my older brother Charlie and I sitting at the counter with spoons still clanking the bottom of cereal bowls, when one of us would taunt the other with these four words.

To signify the other had accepted, he or she would answer the call with a theme song, one stolen from our favorite morning cartoon. “Darkwing Duck! When there’s trouble, just-a call D.W.” It doesn’t make any sense now, and it didn’t then. But we laughed, racing down the hallway to my parents’ bedroom for the match.

We climbed up on to the bed, picking up pillows and dropping them on the ground below for padding. To start the fight, we’d face each other on all fours and wiggle our butts in the air until someone made the first lunge. It was usually me. I had no restraint at 7-years-old.

Charlie usually pinned me quickly, but the game was called “Push off the bed,” not “Keep her in a headlock.” I had my nails though – long, sharp, girl nails – for the swiping. He had the strength of a boy two years older than I. I was often on the ground in less than ten seconds.

It didn’t take more than a few blows before I started feeling defeated. It was then that I underwent my ritual for recharging. Wordlessly, I’d vanish from the room, surfing on my socks back to the kitchen. I’d open the refrigerator, poor a huge class of milk, and then run back to the room, white drops falling to the floor behind me. Charlie and I always loved a good dose of drama.

There, in front of him, so he could witness the superhuman strength I was about to receive, I drank the whole thing in one gulp, like Popeye and his spinach. I wiped my mouth. Let out a big AH for effect. And returned to the ring with the ferocity of a feral cat.

So what does any of this have to do with going to church?

Going to church is like drinking my weekly dose of superjuice.

Lately I’ve been trying to focus less on the sermon as the pinnacle of Sunday worship and refocus on the sacraments as my instruction in gratitude. So it was a feast for my Catholic appetite when last Sunday at church we got to receive not just one, but two off these gifts.

Our march down the aisle to receive the Eucharist was interrupted by a stop at the font where we remembered our baptisms. One of the pastors raised his hands to my forehead and dripped water down the bridge of my nose.”You are my beloved, Daughter, in whom I’m well-pleased.” The words of the Father, spoken to her son after his baptism, washed down my face. Next, I proceeded to the communion table where I was handed a piece of bread by a man I didn’t know and dipped it into a cup shared by many. “Body of Christ, broken for you. Blood of Christ, shed for you.”

I marveled, Where else could I go to let old men wash me? Where else could I go to let strange men feed me? Where else could I go to witness a guaranteed miracle between water, wine, and my wounded heart?

I was kneeling at the front of the sanctuary now when the song started playing in my head. God’s been speaking to me on my knees these days. Strange things. Fun things.

“Darkwing Duck! When there’s trouble, just-a call D.W.”

Aha, I thought to myself. This is like that.

I looked around the room, sort of teary eyed. These are my witnesses.

I wiped the corners of my mouth with the back of my hand. This is my superjuice.

I stood up to return to my pew. This is my AWE.

There is strength enough for another wrestle. And I’m feeling wild with courage.

The sermon I would have preached syndrome

iStock_000003059336XSmall-300x197Does it happen to you, too? You show up to church on Sunday morning, listen to the Scripture read aloud, and God speaks a word to you in the silence of your wandering mind. It’s not audible this word. It doesn’t often come out of the mouth of the liturgist, exactly, or even the mouth of the preacher who often slides into theological abstractions and thickly veiled anecdotes. It’s what would come out of your mouth if you were called to clip on the lavaliere mic and stand, with your trademark tic, behind the pulpit for all to hear. I call it the “sermon I would have preached” syndrome.

Say the parable about Jesus and the lost sheep is the focal text for the week. You know the one. Jesus says, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” And the thought pops into your head right then and there, Well, what exactly happens to those ninety-nine while the shepherd is out looking for the one? You start to play with this idea as the Scripture reading is coming to a close and the song of response is kicking in. You know you should be paying attention and all but now you’re on to something, this one thing, and sometimes this one thing is all you can bear to learn in an hour, and sometimes you will have to learn this one thing without the help of the preacher.

Because very often the preacher will want to preach on the one lost sheep. The preacher will want to reassure you that no matter how far you wander away, God will find you. And you will say to yourself, I know, I know. I mean, you don’t fully know because it’s hard to grasp these sweeping spiritual truths, but you at least know in your head and the preacher telling you again isn’t doing much to bury the nugget deeper. It’s not that you don’t fancy yourself a lost sheep. But aren’t the odds in your favor that you’re one of the ninety-nine from time to time, too? And who exactly is in charge of the ninety-nine and why should they have to suffer their master’s absence? We are grateful God goes looking when we are lost. But are we not also resentful when God’s favor leaves us, us the well-behaved, us the dutifully-corralled, us the faithful-flock? And I’m not just referring to Scriptural rule-followers like the dogmatic Pharisees or the harried Martha or the dutiful brother of the Prodigal Son but real-life people who live quiet and disciplined lives without ever feeling the heat of God’s attention.

Speak to me about this I want to say, and every so often I work up the nerve to begin parting my lips but nothing ever comes out. Instead, I keep preaching to myself, tumbling down the rabbit hole of my mind, or I table my internal discussion and listen intently, if not irritably, to a word someone else would have for me. It is hard to tell what God prefers that I do.

This Christmas I heard things in church that were beautiful and right and good. I heard that we, as people who follow Christ, are called to be a light to the world. I heard that a baby boy was born to make an upside-down world right-side up. But these things did not speak to me. Instead, I dreamed up my own sermons. Instead of meditating on how the baby Jesus must have cried like any other, I dreamed about what it means to cradle a vulnerable God. Instead of pondering the bravery of a barely pubescent Mary who heeded the voice of God, I dreamed about how Jesus was brave, too, to risk showing up on earth’s doorstep wrapped in flesh.  Tell me how I can care for this God. Tell me how I can be brave like this God. Tell me how you do it.

The problem with this syndrome is its symptoms are often narrow self-focus with occasional bouts of arrogance. For every sermon I would have preached, I forget that the sermon that actually was preached might have spoken a needed word to someone else. Take for example a lessons and carols service earlier this month that I described as “just fine” to my husband. Later I learned that the preacher received awe and compliments from a couple of old timers in the room for whom it was a refreshing revelation. I need reminders like this. So, too, do I need to be reminded of times I’ve heard sermons that I never in a million years would have preached but that comforted and convicted me in ways I couldn’t imagine if left to my own thoughts.

To temper myself from becoming overly critical or self-involved during worship, it’s important for me to check-in with others I trust afterwards. On the car ride home, I often wonder aloud, “When, if at all, did you hear a word from God today?” This helps me take the pressure off the sermon as being the sole point of instruction. It also gives me space to share what God spoke to me and listen to what God was speaking to those around me.

Sometimes I wish my mind would behave itself and learn to follow along in peace like all the rest. But that’s the complexity of Scripture, I suppose. Sometimes I am the 99. And sometimes I am the one who wanders away from the pack, only to be reminded that God will come looking.

An interview on being childless by choice, making friends with married men, and why God needs you to be you

I would be remiss if I didn’t help you check a gift of your Christmas list. A free copy of Talking Taboo, that blessed baby of a book, is up for grabs over at Jonalyn Fincher’s site Soulation. All you have to do is watch and comment on my interview with her on being childless by choice, making friends with married men, and why God needs you to be you.  The conversation is already crackling with some thoughtful comments on how we navigate the expectations and awkwardness of cross-sex friendships, as well as how introverts can practice hospitality to the stranger.

Click the image below to watch.

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Where we will not go

unnamedIt’s a question that keeps coming up in interviews. It’s why titling a book is no small thing, why titling ours took over 100 e-mails. What does it mean to be “talking taboo?” And more specifically, how do we as a culture decide where we will not go in polite company or public conversation?

I come from a family who will go almost anywhere. Maybe it’s the Midwestern in us that makes typically tacky subjects commonplace. I remember climbing the steps to my bedroom at Grannie Annie and Grandpa Bob’s house as a young girl and seeing the vandalized “No Parking Zone” sign turned into a “No Farting Zone” with a little bit of gumption and white out. My mother was the first to tell me about the mechanics of sex, and I, in turn, was the first to tell my elementary school friends. When I married Rush, I informed him that he would be coming with me to my gynecological appointments because it was important that he knew “how it all worked.”  My body was his business now.

It’s not surprising that when we “talk taboo” so  much of what we’re talking about has to do with the body. Anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote about how the regulation of the social body always plays out in the regulation of the human body in her classic book, Purity and Danger. It’s no wonder then that the margins of our body, the orifices that are responsible for letting the right things in and keeping the wrong things out, are so hotly contested. The margins of any system are a threat to its stability and thus the most susceptible to being controlled – whether by force or cultural coercion. Even a cursory look into the systematic regulation of black bodies in America – from slavery to Jim Crow laws to mass incarceration –  proves as much. (Watch the recent PBS series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)

In Talking Taboo, there are many essays that address what happens at the boundaries of our body –  in the form of breast milk and menstrual blood, in the act of masturbation and sex. So, too, though are there essays about what happens at the borders of our social body – in the debate over immigration reform and in the silence on domestic violence victims in prison. Taboo is not just something that is considered off-limits. It’s something so powerful that it must be contained.

In a recent interview for God Complex Radio (click here to listen), I explain that taboo is not something dirty. It’s something sacred. We see this in the purity laws of the Old Testament that carefully laid out rules for protecting the “life-force” of women’s blood or men’s semen. While these rules are often perceived as antiquated or oppressive, they nevertheless show reverence for the body’s ability to create and expend life, a power that is God-like in its mystery . Some things are circumscribed from public conversation not because they are impolite but because they are intimate. Some things are meant for a community no bigger than the trinity.

It is a lesson I am constantly negotiating as a writer. I have had many frank conversations with friends about if I can write about what they said to me, what I thought about that conversation, or where I am challenged. Some have said, no, that was private. Others have said, yes, change my name first. One friend altogether disagrees with my writing publicly about my personal life. Then there is my dad who when I say, “I wish I could write about you getting handcuffed last week,” says “My life is an open book.”

Where I will not go is never just about me. Taboo is never entirely personal. There are always communal constraints – deforming ones, yes, but good ones, too. My body is not my own. Neither is my life. It’s yours, too. Ours. Tend to it.

Writer’s Envy: Strangers at My Door

photo (26)“Every writer needs writer friends. There are no water coolers in the writer’s office,” writes Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove in the acknowledgements of his new book. Yes, even the acknowledgements is quote-worthy. It is enough to make one of his writer friends go mad.

Strangers at My Door: A True Story of Finding Jesus in Unexpected Guests just pubbed this month, and it could hardly be more compelling. A perpetual critic and contrarian, I gush only when feeling particularly dopey or grateful and Jonathan’s book serves up heaping spoonfuls of the latter with none of the former. Jonathan is director of the School for Conversion and a member of the Rutba House, a community in Durham that takes many of its cues from monasticism; out of this context he shares striking stories of hospitality.

It’s hard not to envy the man. He wrote his first book in two weeks. He wakes up in the wee hours of morning before the kids are awake to put thoughts into words, and says, like running, the discipline gives him a high. He’s the kind of guy my also non-gushy friend Juli says she could sit at the feet of for hours. The first time Blair heard him speak at a panhandling forum here in Durham, he said Jonathan’s country accent put him at ease. If the world needs more folks with a “non-anxious presence,” it’s hard to think of a better model.

I met Jonathan through another writer friend named Jason. And because we do what we are told when Jason’s involved, we met up and swapped writing. His is powerful. Sparse on adjectives and adverbs, his stories let the Spirit of God work her way into the reader at her own pace.

It’s a simple enough premise. On the knocker of his front door, the words of Jesus read: I was a stranger and you welcomed me. We know the words to be true, we know the gift of strangers, how they douse us with surprise in a world dripping with boredom. But we also know how we deceive ourselves when we are hearers of others’ conviction rather than doers of our own. Jonathan writes in the book,

“I have often found myself sorely disappointed, both by my own easy answers and by my fellow Christians, as I’ve tried to wrestle with the unspeakable reality that so many homeless friends face. This book is a confession that, at precisely the places where we should have been, people of faith have often been absent. What’s more, many homeless friends who have struggled in the darkness, lonely and losing hope, have prayed, “Who’s there?”- only to hear silence. These stories seek to honor their struggle with faith.”

Perhaps that’s the best thing I know how to do these days: tell stories. Stories are the way we speak about what matters to us in detail, rather than dogma. Nonprofit consultant Andy Goodman says, “If you don’t have the kinds of stories that people want to tell and retell, you haven’t gotten the most basic skill.”

It’s how I know Strangers at My Door is worth reading. I found myself wanting to tell Jonathan’s stories over and over again like they were my own. It’s the kind of book you read aloud to someone else while sitting shotgun. It’s the kind of book you don’t lend out, instead grunting, “Get your own,” followed by an apologetic laugh. It’s the kind of book that could give you writer’s envy if you let it, but it doesn’t.

Because strangely, you recognize yourself as the stranger, too, knocking on the door of belonging and waiting, hopping from one foot to the next, for it to open wide enough for us all.

Want a free copy of Strangers at My Door? I’m buying. Enter to win by answering the following question in the comments section: When were you the stranger who was welcomed? I’ll choose a winner on Monday, November 25th.