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Posts tagged "The Mockingbird"


By the Grace of Dog

You know the old truism: Wanna know unconditional love? Put your spouse and your dog in the trunk of your car for an hour. When you open the trunk, only one of them’s still going to be happy to see you…

As we’ve compiled the many essays and interviews soon to make up Mockingbird’s fourteenth magazine issue, The Family Issue, we noticed a glaring and certainly inadvertent omission. How in the world does one put out over a hundred pages of tender, nuanced reportage relating to the family unit—not to mention grace in the family unit—without paying homage to its most gracious member?

Yes, we’re talking about the family dog. While families are full of conflict, perennial victims and perpetrators of so many circumstantial slings and arrows, there is no greater emblem of unconditional love and, um, dogged loyalty. Some may call dogs “inferior” or just plain “stupid.” To those people, we offer our prayers, because they must have never heard the foolish wisdom of God. Dogs are heaven-sent. And so, in lieu of an entire essay, we’re asking you, dear reader, to send us your “By the GRACE of DOG” stories. Where has the furry, four-legged love of God found its way through the doggie door and into your heart? What blessed paw-marks has it left on your interior furniture?

Just one small paragraph will suffice. We’ll keep you confidential. Send your submissions to bythegraceofdogz@gmail.com. They can be funny, heart-wrenching, really weird, or really sweet. And then keep an eye out for your submission in the next issue. If you have a cat story, well, good for you…

I Once Was Blind but Now I Rock: Nine Conversions Put to Music

The following list was compiled and annotated by David Zahl, and published in the latest issue of The Mockingbird magazine on Faith & Doubt. Best enjoyed with the volume up: The Road to Damascus has been well traveled in pop music. Perhaps not enough to make “conversion songs” a legitimate subgenre, but enough for a pretty […]

Special Faith and Doubt Episode of The Mockingcast!

As you may know, each time a new issue of The Mockingbird hits the post office, we do a special episode of The Mockingcast to hit the highlights of the theme in discussion. The new one, ladies and gentlemen, is up! Join Ethan as he chats with Sally Lloyd-Jones, Gordon Marino, and Connor Gwin to talk about faith and doubt, and their contributions to the new magazine. Click here to listen. And click here to get a copy of your own.

See It, Believe It! The Faith & Doubt Issue!

As early as January 30, we will be putting the thirteenth issue of The Mockingbird onto mail trucks to readers like you. We’re incredibly excited for you to see it. It’s colorful, it’s insightful, and believe it or not, despite the heady-sounding theme, it’s as winsome and down-to-earth and heartfelt as all the others. But don’t take our word for it! Jump on it! Over half of our inventory will be out the door Thursday… until then, here’s Ethan’s Opener and the Contents page.

The “I Surrender” List

More often than not, pop culture depicts the faith of ordinary people about as badly as it depicts, well, ordinary people. People of faith are always “extra” somehow: ultrasincere, overeager, ubercaffeinated. On the rare occasion, though, you find a source that gets it right.

Last year the podcast StartUp—which normally follows one new business for an entire season—followed a different kind of venture taking the runway: a church plant. Eric Mennel, the journalist covering the story, is himself struggling with faith and decides to join the head pastor AJ on a silent, all-day retreat. AJ recommends Eric try the following journal exercise to jumpstart his prayer time: take three pages and make three separate lists: “I want…” and “I fear…” and “I surrender…”

The first two lists come easy: “I want someone to care for me… I want to fall in love…” And then, “I fear I’m not wanted… I fear there is no God…” But when it is time for his “I surrender” list, Eric stalls, and eventually resigns himself to leaving the page blank. When the day is up, AJ has of course had a splendid time with his best pal Christ. Eric, on the other hand, is despondent. He tells AJ, “The idea of surrendering is a real sticking point for me. I have a lot of trouble trusting God…trusting God will be around…or even if God would be that helpful.”

AJ tells him he can relate. Who can’t? Even if you are the prayerful, retreat-loving type, transcendent experiences of God are probably rarer than you’d like. And meeting people like AJ can often exacerbate the feeling that faith is a wished-for athleticism the flabby multitude will never achieve. Certainty is impressive. Those who “have it,” have it 100 percent, and the doubters who don’t, don’t. This is the popular caricature drawn by old-time religionists and New Atheists alike: that faith and doubt are two rival schools of certainty, and never the twain shall meet.

Faith isn’t certain, though. And neither is doubt. Both are by definition uncertain, always circumscribed by the unknown and unaccountable. This is why I appreciate Eric’s hesitation: I don’t even believe the neighbor when she says it’s recycling day. How could I possibly believe this Jesus nonsense? As the writer Richard Rodriguez says, any honest person going to church is also bringing their “inner atheist” down the communion line.

So, in working up the essays that came to make up this issue, it has become clear that the opposite of faith is not doubt—doubt is the enduring human companion, even in faith. No, the opposite of faith is control, the need to be in the driver’s seat for every turn in the road. Just like Eric facing that silent room and that blank page, the invitation to faith also means a resignation of will, namely your will. Faith means surrendering the notion that you are the Higher Power guiding your life, and realizing instead that it might be better off in Another’s hands.

Surrender is never considered a virtue, though, especially in a culture which champions, uh, champions, those who don’t surrender. Surrendering means failing—raising the flag of defeat or incompetence. And surrender is especially dubious when the terms are chartered by some less-than-appealing Religious Authority. Faith simply isn’t worth the risk with a God Who Vindictively Punishes or God Who Is Church Lady. But with a God Who Forgives?

Our friend Jason Micheli tells the story of a Lutheran pastor named Jim Nestingen, a hulking 6’6” Minnesota beer drinker with the belly to prove it. Jim was boarding a plane to fly coast-to-coast when he saw who he would be sharing a row with: a man just as big as him. They awkwardly wedged up against one another and exchanged niceties, preparing for the long haul, basically sitting in one another’s laps. In response to the obligatory job question, Jim said, “I am a preacher of the Gospel.” The man next to him responded loudly, almost allergically, “I’m not a believer!” Jim assured him that was okay, and they kept talking. Turned out that the man had been an infantryman in Vietnam and ever since had carried with him all the awful things he’d seen and done there. As the plane flew from one end of the country to the other, the man dumped his entire story out into the lap of his seat mate.

When he had finished, Jim asked the man, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”

The man balked. “Confess? I haven’t confessed anything!”

Jim boomed back, “You’ve been confessing your sins to me this whole flight long. And I’ve been commanded by Christ Jesus that when I hear a confession like that to hand over the goods and speak a particular word to you. So, you have any more sins burdening you? If so, throw them in there.”

To which the man balked again, “No, that’s all. But I’m not a believer! I don’t have any faith in me!”

Jim unbuckled his seatbelt mid-landing and stood over the man, which caused quite the stir with the flight crew. “Well, that’s quite all right, brother,” he said. “Jesus says that it’s what’s inside of you is what’s wrong with the world. I’m going to speak faith into you.” And he proceeded with the absolution: “In the name of Jesus Christ and by his authority, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins.”

Flabbergasted, the man balked again: “You can’t do that!” To which Pastor Jim responded, “I can! And I just did! And I will do it again!” And he did. The man began weeping uncontrollably until finally he began laughing uncontrollably, all the way down the tarmac to the gate. As the two men were grabbing their overhead luggage, Jim grabbed the man’s hand and gave him his card and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or a week from now. When you stop having faith in it, call me and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep on doing it until you do—you really do—trust and believe it.”

The man did. He called him—no joke—every day until the day he died, just to hear the declaration spoken over him in Christ Jesus. Surrendering to this absolution became something he couldn’t live without.

What if this were the kind of surrender on offer for the rest of us weary, incredulous passengers? What if the good news was actually this good, that no matter how many times you balked, no matter how many misgivings you had about belief, and how much you’d prefer to keep matters in your hands, the forgiveness of sins remained? As the man says to Jim, “It’s just too good to be true. It would take a miracle to believe something so good.”

It takes a miracle for us all. And this is the theme we’re exploring in this issue: in the fluctuations of faith and doubt, the persistence with which God bestows his grace. We have words from Francis Spufford, Sally Lloyd-Jones, and Gordon Marino. We talk existentialism, the Flat Earth Movement, and anger at God. But through it all, this is what we’re getting at: that despite our earnest questions and heavy burdens, and even still our empty “I surrender” pages, Christ is our answer. He has surrendered all, and it is on his account, believe it or not, that we have hope.

To subscribe to The Mockingbird, click here. To order Faith & Doubt alone, click here. 

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A New Recipe: Grace in Family Life

This is an edited version of a talk given by the famed child psychologist, Dorothy Martyn, at the second annual Mockingbird Conference in 2009 and republished in our most recent issue of the magazine, the Deja Vu Issue. She died in January 2018. I suppose that you are, in some way or another, engaged in […]

The Déjà Vu Issue is Here!

Dear readers, Issue 12 is officially out to print and will be in your hands in a matter of days!

Maybe you’ve wondered to yourself, “What is Mockingbird all about? And what should I read to get some insight?” If you have, or know your nosy roommate has, this is the primer to get you (or anyone) started. Even if you’re a vintage reader, this issue will sit with you like an old friend. After all, this is what déjà vu is all about: old stories/friends cropping up in new ways you never expected. Here is a collection of refurbished, rewritten posts, talks, and interviews from the dark caverns of the Mockinglibrary, an issue packed with sturdy theology, plenty of personality and, always, light hearts. In a word, it is classic.

So, to tide you over until your copy gets there, here’s the Opener from Ethan and a glimpse at the Table of Contents. Grab them fast! ORDER UP TODAY!

The Missing Word

In broaching the phenomenon that is déjà vu, there is one memory that’s bubbled up from the depths for a lot of Americans recently. The memory is of a smiling, lanky man, who sort of talk-sings off-key, who enters his house and changes out his coat and shoes for a sweater and sneakers.

It’s not that we don’t recognize the man or the place. It’s Mister Rogers, of course, and we’re in his house, which is in his Neighborhood. The déjà vu moment has been brought to us via the new documentary about the man, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? And it’s not that we’ve forgotten having watched this program as children. It’s that when we re-watch these scenes in the documentary—scenes of such simplicity and warmth—we momentarily access a feeling that we can’t quite source. It is a feeling that seems to predate our first experience of the show, and even predates us entirely. We have known the feeling before but we don’t know where from.

The new Mister Rogers documentary was inspired by an Esquire feature written in 1998 by Tom Junod. Junod tells the story of meeting Fred for the first time, in Rogers’ small, dingy New York City apartment. Before he could get down to any of his own questions, Rogers had his own.

“What about you, Tom? Did you have any special friends growing up?”

“Yes, Mister Rogers.”

“Did your special friend have a name, Tom?”

“Yes, Mister Rogers. His name was Old Rabbit.”

“Old Rabbit. Oh, and I’ll bet the two of you were together since he was a very young rabbit. Would you like to tell me about Old Rabbit, Tom?”

To his own surprise, the award-winning journalist jumped into a long lost, favorite story about Old Rabbit. It wasn’t a new story, like the one he was working up for Esquire, but a very old one. He became a child again.

We named this The Déjà Vu Issue out of a similar conviction that the old stories are the ones to pay attention to. This is not to stake a claim on the importance of tradition so much as to say that, while the world is kept spinning by fresh headlines and hot takes, the deepest stories pretty much stay the same. The experience of déjà vu is really the new experience of an old truth, maybe one you forgot you ever knew.

Déjà vu is also the experience of life in repetition. Contrary to the way we prefer to imagine our lives—as linear progressions, moving upward and onward towards an ever-improving end—they instead take on a more circular trajectory. You don’t have to look far for examples: we find ourselves saying things we only ever heard our father say. A history of some great war we read mirrors almost exactly the newspaper’s description of the political climate this week. And that old macramé lampshade in the attic, the one you nearly got rid of, is now all the rage.

Still, if these were the only kinds of repetitions, then déjà vu would be a harbinger of despair, a reminder that nothing ever changes. But Christianity proclaims that these are not the only repetitions we experience in life. The Christian faith announces that something—someone—broke through these circular histories and offered something truly new. It proclaims that this something new is like a fountain that continues to spring up all the time—it is good news, hope for a change, and it continues to surface in unexpected ways. In our own lives, we may see it crop up out of nowhere, much like déjà vu: we’ve never seen it before, but then again, maybe we have.

Mockingbird is named after this phenomenon of repetition: a mockingbird repeats what it hears. We are a group of people who have, in some way or other, witnessed paranormal déjà vu. We have experienced it in our lives, we have seen it bubble up in places no one expected it to, and we have felt compelled to share that story with others. Whenever it shows up it may be a new story on its own, but it’s really just an extension of the very old story that gave us the good news to begin with.[1]

This issue makes use of old stories to go back to the Old Story. The essays collected herein were published earlier in Mockingbird’s tenure—as blogposts, in chapters of books, in talks at conferences—and have been polished and reworked here in hopes to tell it, all over again, for you. We share parenting lessons from the late child psychologist Dorothy Martyn and the final interview with Robert Farrar Capon. We talk law and gospel, cross and glory, Halloween candy and wedding dresses, girly boys and gorilla moms. We also have a handful of brand-new lists and three brand-new poems from Mary Karr. Some of it you may remember, but none of it will be the same—that’s the way déjà vu works.

Later in that Esquire piece, after Tom Junod has followed Mister Rogers around Penn Station, and joined him on his daily morning swim and seen his office in Pittsburgh, he gets a sense that there is something heroic about the man. Despite the zip cardigans and wide-eyed wonder, maybe Mister Rogers himself is an agent of some kind of power, a reminder of an Old Story he never fully got to hear. He calls this Old Story “grace.”

What is grace? I’m not certain; all I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella. I had never prayed like that before, ever. I had always been a great prayer, a powerful one, but only fitfully, only out of guilt, only when fear and desperation drove me to it… and now this was it, the missing word, the unuttered promise, the prayer I’d been waiting to say a very long time.

This missing word is what we hope you find here too.

[1] When we were initially planning this issue, we had thought of it as a Greatest Hits Issue. Besides the inherent judginess of such a theme, there was something else about it that didn’t seem to ring true. It was only after pulling these essays together that we realized why: it wasn’t just about which essays were our favorites, or garnered the most attention, it was also which stories have portrayed this Old Story so powerfully.

PRE-ORDER THE DEJA VU ISSUE HERE

Six Times Seinfeld Illustrated Theological Dynamics

Another peek at our recent Humor Issue (which we’re starting to run low on — grab yours before it sells out…!): We all have a list of our favorite Seinfeld episodes. Mine are mainly clustered around seasons five and six (The Puffy Shirt, The Lip Reader, The Marine Biologist), with a special affection for season nine’s […]

Churches Dying for a Laugh

Another glorious glimpse into The Mockingbird’s newest issue on Humor, this one from the Rev. Aaron Zimmerman. Copies can be ordered here, subscriptions here.  “It’s a sin to bore a kid with the Gospel.” — Young Life saying “The comedian always doubles down.” — Pete Holmes The Church Is No Laughing Matter (Sadly) Quick, grab […]

It’s Up! The Humor Episode of The Mockingcast

Sliding in right between last week’s podcast and next week’s live taping in NYC, we are delighted to deliver this ridiculous journey into the Humor Issue, at the direction of editor Ethan Richardson. Ethan is joined by Ben Maddison and Aaron Zimmerman, who provide enough foolishness on their own, as well as two special guests: Harrison Scott Key, author of The World’s Largest Man, which won the Thurber Prize for being funny, even when it was sad; and Caroline Henley, who invites us into the black, bizarro world of the short-lived, MTV2 comedy Wonder Showzen. We also play the first ever game of “Who Said It: Wonder Showzen or Soren Kierkegaard?” See if you can guess…

That description alone can’t hold a candle to the fun that awaits you, both within the cast and in reading the magazine. A huge shout-out to TJ for the amazing mixing and production.

LISTEN HERE!

And get your copy of the magazine here, also available in digital format!

On Bleeding Funny (A Magazine Sneak Peek)

Our first glimpse into the issue we’ve all been waiting for, this one comes from award-winning humorist Harrison Scott Key. Subscribers, orders should be hitting the mailbox this week! For the uninitiated, YAW! GIDDYUP!  When your book wins the Thurber Prize in American Humor, our nation’s most important literary prize for a funny book, people […]

Your Very Own Magenta Wimple: The Humor Issue Is Here!

Ladies and gentlemen, wisecracks, cornballs, jesters, and twerps! We can’t wait to share the entirety of Issue 11 with you. In it, we cover the gamut: church humor, potty humor, dark humor, community humor, tumor humor, tv humor, and puppets. Hopefully, if we’ve halfway done our job, the writing is as lighthearted and truthful as the subjects we cover. Oh, and did I mention the magazine has a brand new look, too, which we think you’ll really dig? 

To order some extras for your nieces, nephews, and pets, go here. Until it lands in your mailbox, though, here’s Ethan’s Opener, where the magazine’s first wimple enters the stage.

Your Very Own Magenta Wimple

The secret sauce in every good New Yorker cartoon is juxtaposition. A good cartoon lines up two things you normally wouldn’t put together, and does it in a way that surprisingly makes a whole lot of sense. The illustration itself is usually an everyday life trope we know well: a patient and a doctor, employees in a business meeting, a husband and a wife out to dinner. They are situations we have a language for. Throw in an uninvited guest, though, and you have a recipe for jokes. Most of the time, the caption offers the curveball.

There’s the one of a pro football player, giving an on-field postgame interview, with a nasty look on his face: “First, I’d like to blame the Lord for causing us to lose today.” There’s the man in a flower shop, asking the clerk at the counter, “I need something that says, ‘I’m sorry about that thing I said that caused you to totally overreact.’” There’s the yoga class, everyone cross-legged in the lotus pose. The instructor beckons: “And now I want you to send out peaceful, loving thoughts to all sentient beings on the planet who have exactly the same political, economic, and religious beliefs that you do.” With each cartoon, the illustration sets the stage, and the caption turns that stage upside down.

This is how juxtaposition in humor works, by tearing down the barrier between the world we see every day and the subterranean, invisible world that we know but never talk about. Humor, in other words, peels back the shower curtain on our lives, revealing the banal and less-than-sexy truth, and yet does so with such a light touch that we can’t help but look. Somehow, looking makes us feel better.

At least that’s what humor can do. But not lately. Whether the subject has been the President, or Hollywood scandals, or the racial divide in America, “humor” of late has not been all that funny. Even the staples—Comedy Central standup, SNL, The Onion—have been hit-or-miss, often trading punchlines for cheapshots and laughter for scathing ridicule. This is par for the course in divided times, I suppose: moral outrage may provide juicy material for satire, but it is a non-starter for poop jokes…

I’m not saying that humor is only humor if it is toothless. Satire definitely has its place. What I am saying, though, is that humor is at its best when it is delivered at some expense to its teller and his/her audience, not at their behest. It was as true with Guildenstern as it is with Howard Stern: the joke must be on you to some extent. Somehow, the more particular that joke is, the more universal, and the more universal, the better.

Think about the person/people in your life who you feel really love you—those ones who have seen behind the “shower curtain” and yet still pick up the phone when you call. Odds are, that person (nothing against you) is a funny person. Maybe not a stand-up comic, maybe not a big jokester, but certainly someone who can handle the odd dissonance between how you ought to be and how you actually are, and can laugh at it. It takes a sense of humor for one person to love another, because the task demanded of them is absurd.

Humor has always been an emblem of grace for us here at Mockingbird. Since the beginning, we’ve felt humor is almost as essential as the message, as it tends to embody the “divine perspective” granted in being forgiven. If the world is a courtroom, full of accusations and demands, humor represents a recess in the proceedings, a superseding presence of mercy in a merciless world. Sure, some great humor comes from anger or despair, but the Christian message offers a different reason to laugh. If the Gospel is ever experienced for the ridiculous good news that it is, humor is, at least in part, an expression of relief.

Steve Brown describes it perfectly in his story about a woman who, after years of hiding an act of infidelity from her husband, suddenly feels the need to admit it to him. Though nervous, she decides to do it.

I saw her the next day, and she looked fifteen years younger. “What happened?” I asked. “When I told him,” she exclaimed, “he replied that he had known about the incident for twenty years and was just waiting for me to tell him so he could tell me how much he loved me!” And then she started to laugh. “He forgave me twenty years ago, and I’ve been needlessly carrying all this guilt for all these years!”

Her laughter is the laughter of the forgiven. It stems from a simultaneous flood of relief (“He forgave me twenty years ago!”) and a corresponding lack of self-seriousness (“How ridiculous that I carried this around for so long!”). This sense of humor comes from the ridiculousness of your happy outcome, and the fact that it had nothing to do with you.

This is why humor and hyperbole are reliable ministers of God’s grace. In various ways, they uncouple the truth from its sting. Humor has a way of including its speaker on the wrong side of the righteousness equation—there’s a delightful willingness to be wrong, because you can afford to be. Humor, in other words, is an expression of Paul’s great boast: “If Christ is for me, who can be against me?”

And yet, as “easy” and “light” as humor is, the theme has made for a shockingly difficult issue to pull together. Humor’s the kind of topic you have to embody, not just describe; if you have to explain a joke, you kill it. On top of that, try telling someone to “be funny” and see what happens. Nothing will be funny. Humor is spontaneous; it can’t be coerced.

That being said, we have plenty of laughs to dole out in this issue. We have an interview with comedian and show writer Jeannie Gaffigan, wife of comedian Jim Gaffigan, who talks to us about finding humor in brain tumors. We have an essay from award-winning humor writer Harrison Scott Key, and an essay on the sitcom of the century, Seinfeld, as well as a lesser-known puppet show from hell, Wonder Showzen. We have illustrations and comics from the New Yorker’s Miguel Porlan, from the zany and inimitable Glen Baxter, and from John Hendrix, creator of the “Adventures of the Holy Ghost” series. And that’s just to get your attention. The other gutbusters are merely waiting in the wings…

So, here’s hoping that, like a good cartoon, this issue points out an absurd juxtaposition—the most absurd truth we’d all have to be idiots to believe. I’ll set it up: there’s you, cartoon you, standing in the atrium outside the Divine Courtroom. You’re awaiting your hearing, reading back through your permanent record, mostly hoping the Judge bypasses that rough patch in ’03 (and to a lesser extent in ’04). You stand at the threshold of that courtroom on that final day, testimony ready—only to find behind the door not a courtroom at all, but a very noisy dining hall, filled with all your favorite people. Do you have the wrong room? Has there been a mistake?

The Judge approaches from the back, ensconced in light, but instead of the gavel, he’s got a serving tray. And he doesn’t hand you a verdict at all; with mock grandiosity, he instead offers you your party hat. The hat is magenta, a papier-mâché dunce cap, and if you look closely enough, the paper itself is your permanent record, all your life’s accomplishments, all glued up into this stupid-looking wimple. You’re not one for sporting magenta, or cone-shaped headgear, but everyone else has one on and, for once, being a dunce is a tremendous alternative to, well, the courtroom you expected. Lying before you on the Judge’s tray, though, lies the real test: Bud Light or Bud Light Lime.

The caption below reads: The Final Judgment.

Enjoy reading, and as always, remember the good news: that, by the grace of God, your life will one day amount to one magenta wimple, and that, most importantly, the joke’s on you.

Ethan Richardson, Editor

Subscribe today! Or preorder your copy here!

 

Just In Time for Christmas: The Mockingbird Box Set!

When we sent out our tenth issue, the Love and Death Issue, we decided we wanted to do something fun with the remaining copies of all our back issues. Thus, we unveil to you The Mockingbird Box Set! We can’t believe how beautifully they’ve turned out. Available now and ready to ship for Christmas! All of the first ten issues in a stunning slipcase, designed by our sensei Tom Martin. Price is $120 (including shipping) and quantities are limited, so if you know of a friend, clergyperson, ostracized in-law, or your very own mother, who just needs a little special treatment this Christmas, act quickly and click on the image below!