Descending into Darkness with a Christ Enshadowed

In honor of Good Friday, here’s an answer to a Tumblr ask I received last week: “If someone were to ask you what you thought the Christian Gospel was about, what would you tell them?”

I sat on this question for some time, because it’s so…insurmountable. All I can do is bring a perspective, a tiny reflective shard of the mirror of truth to this issue, since there’s no way I can comprehend everything the Gospel is and does, much less fit it into one post. I will say before we begin that I think that God’s activity in the world has numerous facets, and people resonate with some of them more than others. This is why language of ransom, enlightenment, absolution, gift, acquittal, mercy, transformation, rescue, and paid debts clamor against each other in Christian hymns and poetry when people try to describe what the Gospel is about.

Christianity is so many things: a social system that privileges the poor and downtrodden, a flowering philosophical offshoot of the tree of Judaism,a framework of power that orders the universe and our place in it, a liturgical heartbeat of repentance, feasting, fasting, and forgiveness that circulates through the year. But ultimately, I resonate most with Christianity in its aspect as a mystery cult of death and rebirth.

There’s plenty to be said here about the Hellenistic syncretism that led to this designation, and the interaction of Jewish philosophy and Greek ritual piety in places like Alexandria and Antioch, and while the historical-critical elements are important, I’m always going to be most concerned with the stories. The myths (here meaning a story that is sacred outside of its veracity, not one that is inherently false) that underpin the whole belief system.

Christianity is what happens at the intersection of the eternal, unfathomable divine and the mutable mortal body. It’s the story of a God descending into flesh to instruct us and enter into relationship with us from a position of deep empathy. This relationship and instruction brings about transformative, supernatural rebirth in everyone Christ touches, and the Bible talks constantly of putting the old self to death again and again so the new self can rise. The cross is painted as one of the darkest moments in cosmic history, when the veil between heaven and earth is torn violently open, and the natural order of the universe is turned on its head and swallowed up in a lightness eclipse. The cross is the ultimate transgression, the ultimate taboo, the ultimate dark night of the soul. But it’s also the cauldron of chaos out of which new life emerges. There’s explicit, literal regenerative properties to the godly blood that drips from a battered human body, and Christ’s broken corpse is the verdant soil from which the vine of the church springs.

One my pet doctrines is the harrowing of Hell, a sometimes divisive belief that Christ descended into Hell in the period of the time between the crucifixion and the Resurrection to proclaim good tidings to those who died before his incarnation on Earth. It’s an idea that’s echoed in so many other religious and mythic systems worldwide, and something about it resonates deeply with me. Christ is the Lord of light, and of new life, but he is also Lord of death and commander of darkness. Because of this unique nonduality, because God deigns to step down from the numinous and embrace mortality, sensation, anguish, hunger, pleasure, and pain as well as death, mere mortals can transcend the bounds of sin and death as well. The Gospel (and I also think the entire Bible on this one point) is a story about nothing staying dead, everything coming back to life, and God never giving up on the material world. That. to me, is the crux of this whole religion, made perfect in the incarnation.

So yeah. Maybe it’s because I’m a Scorpio and already closely aligned to death and rebirth energy, or because I’ve needed a God in my life that was bigger and darker and more wild and strange than a pastel-colored stained glass man hugging a lamb, but that’s what does it for me. That’s what makes me stay. The promise that death is merely a passage, that evil will never get the last word, that God waits in the darkest places of the world to transform and resurrect us again and again.

Reclaiming Our Attention from the Distortion Machine

This is a reprint of a guest post I wrote for the Fratres Dei blog. Be sure to pay some love forward and check out Rachel’s amazing blog about embodied spirituality and contemplation in the material world!

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Social media is kind of my thing. I met my future spouse through Tumblr, I’m an author who promotes her work on Twitter, and, as some of you may know, I’m the digital communications manager for Fratres Dei Spiritual Direction & Ministries.

Thoroughly a product of the digital age, I’ve been privileged to witness the best social media has to offer. I’ve seen friendships forged, beautiful art created, valuable information exchanged, and online spaces for religious expression blossom. However, I’ve also lost weeks of my life to mindless scrolling, been “dragged” and “cancelled”, participated in unwarranted digital pile-ons I still regret, and woken up in a cold sweat from nightmares about being doxxed.

Sometimes, friends, the internet is bad.

At the start of 2019, I knew that something about my relationship to social media had to change. As an increasingly public figure, I was placing too much of my worth in my public persona. My attention was becoming more and more fragmented, and time on social media was the only “leisure” time I was allowing myself away from my day job and writing, even though I viewed social as just another form of work. I had no inner life I didn’t perform for the internet. My prayer life was nonexistent, because I couldn’t sit still that long, much less devote intentional time to something that didn’t have an immediate material benefit or reward.

But what do you do when the internet feels like an increasingly essential, increasingly centralized feature of the human experience, and if, as for many of us, being active on the web is part of your job?

Common sense advises moderation, but I’ve never been good at finding balance. As I started listening to podcasts about the effects of social media and reading Cal Newport’s phenomenal Digital Minimalism, I realized this isn’t a Sarah-specific compulsion. The majority of Americans have a disordered relationship with social media. Like a gaslighting lover, social demands a glance at our phones every spare moment, yet convinces us to consistently underestimate how many hours a day we devote to the tryst. And as we uncover more about how social media is configured to work on our brains the same way slot machines do, keeping eyes on screens for as many minutes as possible to turn the highest profits for companies, whether or not those minutes wreck our sense of self, warp our view of our political reality, or urge us to throw money down the drain on products we would never otherwise want…The straits get a bit more dire.

As this year’s Lenten season commenced, I felt that gentle nudge, that divine voice in the back of my head saying here’s your chance. A chance to pull the plug on social for forty days and re-set my inner schema. It wouldn’t be a total fast, since I do spend a handful of hours a week managing the Fratres Dei social, but there would be no more browsing, posting, or scrolling from my own accounts for the rest of Lent.

By and large, I’ve taken God up on the offer, and the results have been quietly astounding. First of all, the jittery fear of missing out (on what? Malicious gossip and highlight reel announcements of rivals’ successes and the thousandth click-bait headline heralding society’s demise?) faded in about a week. What followed was overwhelming relief that I didn’t have to care about it all. Human empathy is a divine gift, and social media constantly exhausts it. We swing wildly from outrage to apathy, which makes it hard for us to be attentive and compassionate towards the real needs that surround us. Secondly, I got time back I didn’t even know I had lost. I started finding hours to cook big, wholesome meals while listening to audiobooks, and since I didn’t have the illusion of connection from seeing friend’s Instagram posts all the time, I started calling them a lot more. But most of all, I got my focus back.

The fragmented attention created by the noise of social media is really no attention at all. Conversation with a friend, playing with a child, reading a book, and especially listening for the stirrings of God in our lives require real, sustained attention. Constantly flipping from platform to platform, or article to article, trains our brains to make only the most cursory skim of information. Re-training the brain takes time, but we can start by setting aside hours of our day where we leave our phones on the charger, whether we’re out for a run, meeting someone for coffee, or scribbling idea in a notebook. It’s only in these moments of receptivity that God can press in with soft revelations, interesting food for thought, or divine encouragement.

I observe both the church calendar and the wheel of the year, a cycle of seasonal holidays used by Wiccans and other earthy types. The wheel’s holidays usually involve baking, candle-lighting, handicraft, and other things I love to do but never seem to have time for. But when the spring equinox rolled around during Lent, I suddenly had the time, and without the pressure to post aesthetically pleasing pictures and a description of my practice online for the edification of the masses, I didn’t experience the usual sense of poor planning or inadequacy. So, I pulled out the yellow candles, put a bit of soda bread and calendula tea out on my altar, and said some prayers praising God for light, and for new life. The ritual existed for no one except me and God, and that, I found, was empowering. For the first time in a long time I didn’t worry about how I looked or if I was doing “enough”. I just followed my intuition and listened for God.

Like chocolate, long naps, sex, and whisky sours, social media is good, if used in intentional moderation that doesn’t throw off the balance of the rest of our lives. It should be a tool that we use, not a corporate-run outrage machine that uses us for clicks and buys. Philippians calls the faithful to turn their thoughts towards “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable”. Personally, I find that hard to do when I spend hours a day being fed an inane stream of war crime, advertisement, callout post, wedding pictures, advertisement, human rights violation, cat picture, bad faith political meme, advertisement through my smart phone.

Now, I haven’t jumped off the social media bandwagon entirely. In a move I hope my audience will find charmingly meta I’m currently denouncing social media in a social media post, after all. But for now, I’m enjoying being time-rich and having the space to simply notice my emotions, my relationship to space, and my own breath. I’ve been noticing God a lot more too, not because God wasn’t there when I was scrolling or posting, but simply because I was too tapped in to digital white noise to notice.

Yearning to take better notice of the divine already in your midst? Learn to listen with a spiritual direction session with Fratres Dei.

CATCH ME ON THE LATEST EPISODE OF THE PRAYER TO GO PODCAST!

In case you need a ten-minute shot of encouragement, pop in your earbuds and listen to me talk about writing as a spiritual practice, the catharsis of being angry with God, and good representation in books as a ministry. If you like it, be sure to check out the other awesome episodes in Carolyn’s series on creativity, or her bite-sized prayers for use with yoga, silence, a latte, or a rosary.

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On iTuneshttps://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/prayer-to-go/id1435044569?mt=2

On the PTG Websitehttps://prayertogo.blubrry.net/2018/10/23/024-pen-and-paper-writing-as-a-spiritual-practice/

ODD SPIRITS is on 99¢ sale through the month of October!

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This novella will be on sale for the ghoulishly low price of $5.99 for paperbacks and 99¢ for e-copies until All Hallows Eve. You’ll never see it at a lower price, so grab your ticket to flirty tarot readings, folk religion, and mysterious hauntings today! 

It takes a lot of commitment to make a marriage between a modern ceremonial magician and a chaos witch work, but when a malevolent entity takes up residence in Rhys and Moira’s home, their love will be pushed to the limits. Brewing up a solution is easier said than done when your magical styles are polar opposites; throw a psychic ex and a secret society in the mix, and things are bound to get messy.

This diverse paranormal romance novella is perfect for fans of The Raven Cycle and The Haunting of Hill House!

“Like a lovingly-prepared home-cooked meal, Odd Spirits compels its reader to both devour and savor…Gibson’s background as a poet allows her to deftly create richly-drawn little moments.” –Rouges Portal

See what people are saying about the novella on Goodreads!

On Writing Southern Gothic

Today over on tumblr, someone asked me for “tips for writing about those foggy marsh drenched southern gothics”, and I decided to share what I had to say with ya’ll as well.

Gothic genres are squarely situated in their geographic locations, so the best way to get a feel for a Gothic genre is to get a feel for the land. If taking a trip to the bayou or Piedmont is prohibitive, read the greats. I recommend Flannery O’Connor’s entire body of work, the Anne Rice novels set in New Orleans, and Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”.  You can also check out  My Blood on the Scrarecrow Southen Gothic inspo tag.

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Photo courtesy of Rodney Harvey

As far as craft advice goes, avoid dialect. Dialect is phonetically rendering words the way they may sound in an accent (nuthin’, wassat, sho’nuf) and it tends to be distracting to the reader and insulting to the speakers of the accent you are invoking. You can invoke an accent through word choice and placement instead (see my use of vernacular terms like “best believe” in the prompts below) and the best way to learn these turns-of-phrase is to listen to native speakers

Similarly, steer clear of tropes that have now crossed the threshold into hurtful stereotype such as the ignorant redneck, “magical negro”, Jezebel, mammy, or in-bred mountain family, unless you have a very good reason. Odds are, unless its intelligent subversion, your reason is not good enough.

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Still from AMC’s Preacher.

I still feel like my Southern Gothic writing is bit of a caricature in many ways, because the first breath I took wasn’t muggy and magnolia-sweet, but after a decade of my formative years spent in the mountains of western North Carolina, I’ve got an inkling. Here are some jumping off points for you:

  • If you don’t leave this town by nineteen years old, you won’t leave at all. If you try, you’ll find all roads lead back to your now-abandoned high school.
  • You can do all the brutalizing, cheating, and bloodletting you want inside this house, but God help you if the neighbors hear about it.
  • The forest takes a couple of human sacrifices a year, lost hikers or fresh graduates who had a little bit too much to drink at the homecoming party. It’s simply the way of things.
  • The cicadas do the screaming for every neglected child, battered wife, and dispossessed son who can’t shout for themselves.
  • Everyone sees the sinful things their neighbors drag across their backyards in the middle of the night. They just have the good sense not to go around letting on that they know about it.
  • Heredity is horrifying. You wouldn’t believe the kinds of things you can inherit.
  • You’d better not break the heart of the wrong local girl, because there’s a good chance she’s got a granny witch living up in one of the hollers who’ll stick your name in a mason jar with some piss and pins and make your life a living hell.
  • If you cut the magnolia trees, they’ll bleed red as you or me.
  • It’s not a matter of if the preacher man has seen the devil, it’s a question of whether or not he greeted him as an old friend.
  • When you finally meet Jesus, you best believe he’s going to be carrying a list of crimes for you to answer for.

If you’d like to hear more of my  overgrown,God-haunted thoughts on the subject, check out my Southern Gothic story REVIVAL in the Fiends in the Furrows anthology! This story is my homage to the South, and it’s got snake handling, brave little girls, and fiendish prophecies in it.

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INDIE RADAR: Queering Lent

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After seeing a number of my friends toting around Queering Lent, I decided to pick up the slim volume of devotional poems penned by a nonbinary pansexual Presbyterian pastor. Written as a spiritual practice over the course of last year’s Lent, the highly personal poems touch on interwoven themes of suffering, identity, and empathy burnout, all while employing classical mystical language of God as Lover.

Independent publishing can be a toss-up, so when I find something that shines in the lackluster mire of self-published titles, I’m quick to promote it. Queering Lent gleams despite its unpretentious packaging, and while some of the poems are unremarkable, many have a sort of understated profundity to them that’s hard to forget. In particular, I found the poetic sermon on binaries, the expansiveness of God, and the upside-down kingdom of Heaven in the back of the book to be particularly stirring, and I’ll be returning to it again and again in this Lenten season and beyond.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Slats a number of times, and they’re a truly unique artist and ardent lover of God who has a way of infecting atmospheres with joy. If you’re  interested in learning more about the creative process behind Queering Lent, you can check out this feature on Slats over at Sanctified Art. You can buy a copy of Queering Lent on Amazon, and 100% of the proceeds go to organizations committed to supporting queer and trans people in the church.

Spirituality Review: A Bigger Table

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Title: A Bigger Table by John Pavlovitz
Genre: Christian Nonfiction/Memroir
Rating:  ★★★ (3/5)

John Pavlovitz is a widely-read Christian blogger known for the generous hospitality of his theology and his commitment to championing honesty within the church. However, this wasn’t always the case. Pavolovitz was raised in a culturally homogeneous, shame-based Christian culture, and it wasn’t until he moved to Philadelphia in college that he began to experience humanity in all its colorful, dynamic diversity. As Pavolovitz came to love his black and latinx and queer and poor and atheist neighbors, all while discerning a call to ministry, he also began to form a vision of the table of God to which everyone was truly welcome and truly accepted.

Like many works of Christian nonfiction, A Bigger Table juxtaposes anecdotes from the author’s life and ministry with more theoretical theology. This, for the most part, works, and I enjoyed the stories about Pavolovitz’s Catholic Italian family and the troubled pastors and gay youth he has counseled throughout his career. Overall, the message of “radical hospitality, true diversity, real authenticity, and agenda-free community” comes across loud and clear, and is well supported by examples from the life of Christ. The chapter on the lies pastors are forced to tell in order to be accepted by their boards and congregations was particularly strong, and I appreciated the way Pavlovitz – though openly left of center – critiques and encourages both sides of the isle in an effort to build true Christian community.

However, the book ultimately suffers from a meandering structure and lack of concrete ways readers can help build the “bigger table”. Very little practical advice was given amidst all the excitement about doing church in a more authentic, healing way. The full inclusion of LBGTQ Christians into the church is a central theme of the book, but the chapters regarding it were separated in a way that felt random, and it seemed as though the author couldn’t decide how much time he wanted to spend on the issue. In addition, despite drawing from the life of Christ to support his model of radical hospitality, Pavlovitz effectively ignores most of the Bible, and I think he could have enriched his position by bringing in Second Testament writings and stories from the First Testament.

Despite its weaknesses, The Bigger Table will be soul-soothing to anyone beaten down by the partisanship and fake warmth of so many Christian congregations. I would recommend it to anyone looking for straight-talk from a pastor who wants to see the lavish love of Jesus spread more liberally through the world.

Note: I received a copy of A Bigger Table in exchange for an honest review.