nonsermon #8: my soul

My final nonsermon is about my soul, which it has taken me this long to see as whole and not merely broken. Endless gratitude to New South Journal for giving me the space to share this series.

New South

by Ben Lewellyn-Taylor

A few months ago, I bought some flowers for my wife. She likes Queen Anne’s Lace, Anne
being her grandmother’s name and their shared favorite flower, but the florist had none, so I settled for a mixture of orange and white flowers, the names of which I have since forgotten. In the months that have followed, I have somehow managed to keep the orange flowers alive (the white not surviving the first month). Or—rather—I should say that I have managed not to kill the orange flowers. They have perhaps survived in spite of me.

For my part, roughly once a week while drinking water I will remember that the flowers—like me—need water to survive. I will fill my glass and share the water with them, letting in the light through the window and realizing that both the light and water are good for me and this plant…

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nonsermon #7: my church

nonsermon #7 is about spaces I have held sacred, both places I have and have not called church.

New South

by Ben Lewellyn-Taylor

It’s true what they say, though acknowledging this doesn’t make it easier to accept: sometimes you can’t go home. I was exiting a toxic relationship, searching for a place within my friendships, and for the first time in my life wondering who I was, worrying it wasn’t who I believed myself to be. I had recently met a band and went to see them play down the street from my apartment. Though the venue was a coffee shop, there was something else about the building that I couldn’t quite figure. In addition to the coffee shop was also an art gallery, a lot of seemingly unused space, but no explicit purpose stated anywhere. Later, I found myself on the building’s website, reading about Sunday morning worship.

I had never known a church to remain so close to the chest, like a secret to be kept instead of…

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nonsermon #6: my ghosts

nonsermon #6 is a meditation on ghosts, how we move on from or alongside that which haunts us.

New South

by Ben Lewellyn-Taylor

I’ve long been drawn to the idea of ghosts. At first, I was fascinated by the ghost as symbol: what it means to have something hanging over your head or within your psyche. How you are haunted by what you do and don’t do, by what happens to you. Something from our past always lingers in the peripheral, awaiting our attention.

I eventually came to turn a critical eye toward the Western distrust of anything in the spiritual realm, both by those claiming religion and not. The idea that everything can be explained by logic and reason seems, rather, a way to assert dominance over nature and the supernatural world, and subsequently any minoritized group that believes in the power of these worlds. Thus, this disbelief acts as thinly veiled arrogance and overall ignorance of the unseen. But a thing is not nonexistent only because it cannot…

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nonsermon #5: my prayers

For my understanding of prayer to expand, it first had to collapse. nonsermon #5 is about learning the many forms that prayer takes:

New South

by Ben Lewellyn-Taylor

I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer: what it does, how different people practice it, if it works. Mostly, I’d like to know why it worked for me for so many years, then it didn’t. I cannot place the moment it happened, but over time, when I bowed my head to pray, the words rolled around my mouth like rocks, felt ill-fitting and awkward.

Eventually, I stopped trying.

Prayer was a ritual I would practice every morning, every evening, and in the day when I felt compelled. I prayed before meals, with friends, alone. How did it become almost nonexistent? When did it become reserved for times when my family asks me to bless our holiday meals, deferring to me as a qualified person to connect with the spirit of God?

And how to say that out loud to them? Or anyone?

My mother often asks…

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nonsermon #4: my unbelief

My fourth nonsermon is a celebration of unbelief alongside beliefs. How do we honor and hold in tension that which we believe, that which we don’t, and that which we are caught between and beyond?

New South

by Ben Lewellyn-Taylor

Although these nonsermons are decidedly against preaching, I am still drawn to a particular Gospel narrative that speaks to me even now. The story of Matthew 9 states that when a man asks Jesus to rid his son of a bad spirit, Jesus tells him that all things are possible for those who believe. The man replies, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”

This nameless man, whose son is afflicted by a spirit, asks for help, and Jesus tells him to believe. The agonized father has the audacity to tell Jesus that he does believe, but he needs something tangible to believe in beyond words and statements of conviction. This is not a man who is lazy and unwilling to do the work of believing, but a man in distress: his son needs help, and he’s putting his efforts into believing but not seeing the part where…

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nonsermon #3: my meanings

nonsermon #3, on finding meaning and honoring the meaning others find:

New South

by Ben Llewellyn-Taylor

For most of my life, Christianity defined my experiences of meaning-making in this world. I was raised in the church, came to my own beliefs in high school and college, and shaped my understanding of the world around mine and others’ interpretations of the Bible.

When I began to understand that my worldview was shaped by more than just Christianity, I wondered if it was dangerous to my faith to allow “outside”—that is, “non-Christian”—influences in. After all, outside influences were made out in my faith communities to be a no man’s land of sin and corruption. While all of my youth group friends in high school were listening to Relient K and Switchfoot, I was mining the lyrics of Manchester Orchestra and Bright Eyes. Of course, I also listened to the heavier Christian bands, but I felt far more rebellious wearing a Say Anything tee to…

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nonsermon #2: my selves

My second nonsermon, about the difficulty of being and becoming a self, is here:

New South

by Ben Lewellyn-Taylor

If you’ll forgive me, I’m going to use this space to talk about myself, because I am both the subject I know the best and also—it sometimes seems—not at all. As these nonsermons are inspired by e.e. cummings’ nonlectures, I am drawn to his reasoning for spending so much time on the self: “Who, if I may be so inconsiderate as to ask, isn’t egocentric? Half a century of time and several continents of space, in addition to a healthily developed curiosity, haven’t yet enabled me to locate a single peripherally situated ego.”

Perhaps, he goes on to say, he hasn’t met the right people; perhaps neither have I.

I have returned to the subject in my mind already too many times, but I believe repetition is necessary in order to really live the lessons we claim to have learned. Maggie Nelson refers to this perpetual…

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nonsermon #1: my religion

I am thrilled to begin a biweekly series, entitled ‘nonsermons’, with New South Journal. The first nonsermon, “my religion,” is live.

New South

by Ben Lewellyn-Taylor

In 1952, e.e. cummings was invited to Harvard for a series of what he referred to as nonlectures. From the outset, cummings clarified that he had no interest in the traditional lecture form: “Lecturing is presumably a form of teaching; and presumably a teacher is somebody who knows. I never did, and still don’t, know. What has always fascinated me is not teaching, but learning.”

I grew up in a conservative Christian home, set out to become a youth pastor in my college years, then found myself in my 20s somewhere between faithless and unsure, among friends who had similarly fallen out of love with religion, the church, God, or all of the above. Oddly, we had met years prior at a church that only a few of us now attend.

Finding ourselves lost within a story we had been a part of our entire lives, we…

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Short Story & Anniversary Article

Two places you can find my writing today:

I have a short story in PIVOT Literature‘s very first issue. Years ago I started a story featuring Adam and Eve’s domestic troubles, and I gave it an update. You can read “The Hole in Everything” here.

For my tenth article with DJBooth, I had the chance to reflect on one of my all-time albums, Kanye West’s Yeezus. It turns five today, and I wrote about its creator, his followers, and his detractors. You can read “Listeners in the Hands of a Projected God” here.

As always, thanks for reading.