Saturday, January 26, 2008

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes--Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah

Before I begin my rant, let me first acknowledge two things:

1. The opinions expressed on this blog are wholly my own and do not reflect the opinions of my employer, my family, my publisher or any other binding relationship I find myself in.

2. I know next to nothing about anything when it comes to politics.

That being said, I'm getting really, really tired of the bald-faced claims of some of the candidates to be the "candidate of change." I'm thinking of one such candidate in particular, whose unusual name I won't mention. You'll probably figure it out pretty quickly. The thing that bugs me about this change-agent campaign is how frustratingly naked the opportunism is that's driving it. "Change" became the buzzword coming out of Iowa, and suddenly "change" is the middle name of this oddly named candidate.

Let me quickly add that "change" itself is a pretty vague concept. Do we want any kind of change whatsoever? Would the sinking of either coast into either ocean be good merely because it changes the landscape of the country? Similarly, is there nothing whatsoever that we may want to hold onto in even the slightest detail? Is the public school system inherently flawed simply because it will have existed prior to this particular candidate's taking office? Change, change change--blah, blah, blah.

So I reject the premise of superficial change as a legitimate campaign platform. But even if I were to grant the notion that what Washington needs is change, I wouldn't grant that this particular candidate is the obvious choice. Consider, for example, the current president, whose policies and perspective are among the issues demanding change:

He's the former governor of a state whose legislature was dominated by a different political party.

He's a former, relatively successful businessman.

He's a principled man of faith.

He's a "uniter, not a divider."

He had nebulous foreign policy experience when he announced his campaign for president.

He has a family pedigree in various levels of government.

He has a thing for Ronald Reagan.

Not much distinguishes the current president from this current candidate beyond the oddness of this particular candidate's name. So is it reasonable to anticipate change from such a near-doppelganger of the status quo?

All right. I'm done. Please note that I never named a candidate and that I explicitly distanced myself from all my binding relationships in this stating of my hopelessly naive political opinion. Someone, now, please change the subject.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Why Did I Like August Rush?

The first thing you may notice about this post is that I didn't title it "Why I Liked August Rush." I titled this post "Why Did I Like August Rush?" because I very seriously am not sure why I liked it.

August Rush is the story of a young boy, unwittingly given up for adoption by his mother, who has the prodigious ability to learn musical instruments and create remarkable music. His mother, a cellist, and the singer-songwriter she shared a one night stand with are separated by her driven father, who also signs away her son and tells her he's dead. She doesn't believe it, though, because she can hear him in the music of the wind, or something like that.

Her son, Evan, hears the same music, and it keeps his hope alive about eventually being reconnected with his parents. He hits the streets and encounters a malicious music manager who discovers his talent and renames him August. From there he's discovered by a pastor who knows people at Julliard. Long story short: six months later he leads the New York Philharmonic in an open-air concert that draws his parents to him and each other. Hilarity, as the face of actress Keri Russel reveals, ensues.

The premise and the plot are entirely ludicrous, almost at every turn. And the music, while entertaining, is far from innovative. But none of that seems to matter to me. I liked the movie, and I'd even consider seeing it again.

The movie isn't about plot or premise or story but music--more specifically, the idea of music. The music is communicated as much visually as aurally, and the visuals are stunning, with the minor exception of scenes where the kid pretends to conduct. The movie is about harmonics; people are brought together by the music that connects them. It's a nice idea that, for all its flaws, makes for a nice story.

The night before I saw the movie I attended the first of a series of praise concerts our church is putting on. It strikes me that praise music is the closest approximation to the dynamic being postulated in August Rush. Don Saliers, a Methodist pastor and father of Indigo Girl Emily Saliers, wrote about the dynamic in the book Practicing Our Faith:

In our present North American cultural context, the singing assemblies in our churches and synagogues are among the few remaining places where words and music actually form human beings in a communal identity. The phenomenon of public singing at civic events has shriveled to an occasional "Happy Birthday" or "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," or perhaps a weak effort at the national anthem. But when people meet to worship, . . . this identity flows out of an ancient story that continues to take on new life.

I ran into the sound technician at the praise concert during a break in the rehearsal; he had ear buds in so that he could listen to the Green Bay Packers Game. He took them out during the actual concert, of course, but that image was striking: a communal singing event subverted by the retreat to a private listening event. That's how we listen to music typically these days--in isolation from one another--but increasingly that's how we watch movies and perhaps even enter into worship.

I guess that's why I liked August Rush: it keeps alive the audacious notion that music is not meant to be captured and guarded like some ring of power but to forge a connection between performer and listener, between conductor and performer, between participant and participant, and in the most cosmic sense, between God and his creation.

Not bad for a preposterously plotted film in the cheap theaters.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Don't Make Me a Target

There's a small part of me--a small, petty, resentful, peccatory part of me--that thinks the worst possible thing you can do to a person is to hire him or her onto the staff of a church.

I don't have that thought at all times; far from it, actually. In my more idealistic moments I think it's probably a privilege to serve a faith community in such a formal capacity. But there are days when I observe the challenges that church staff endure, and I wonder what they did wrong in a previous life. And I don't even believe in that sort of thing.

I used to attend a church whose pastor spoke very openly about his view that, if you want something done, you should ask a busy person. That pastor oversaw a congregation full of very busy people, for which he was largely responsible. Burnout ensued on a grand scale--the kind of burnout people seek therapy for, the kind of burnout people oust pastors over. I left that church suspicious of such a rather rosily presented paradigm.

Since then I've wondered, in my smaller moments, whether that pastor's strategy was simply pre-emptive self-protection. I've occasionally encountered the opposite extreme: if you want something done, you should ask a pastor, or a youth director, or a church secretary, or anyone with an in-box at your place of worship. No church activity, under this model, should take place without the watchful oversight of church personnel; no event should pass, no prayer should be uttered, without the explicit "Amen" of a person of the cloth. The result, I suspect, is similar: burnout on a grand scale. And so I'm suspicious of such a superficially devout paradigm.

One thing I notice about both poles of this continuum is the hidden clause of the contention: "If you want something done (and you don't want to do it yourself) ask . . ."

Now, I'm sure churches aren't the sole domain of this sanctified sneakiness. There's a sense, in fact, in which it's a basic principle of leadership:

(1) Identify what you want.
(2) Identify what you're not willing to do about it.
(3) Delegate.
(4) Repeat 1-3.

It may even be elemental to the human condition. But there's something small, petty, peccatory in such a model when laid out so starkly.

There's a power dynamic in play: to delegate is the privilege of the enfranchised, not the disenfranchised. The weak serve the strong; the strong target the weak. That's social Darwinism in a nutshell. Churches are not immune to such power dynamics, and for that reason at least churches--from the staff to the laity, from the elder to the newer--are called to an ethic of service, something like

(1) Identify what is needed.
(2) Identify what you're capable of doing about it.
(3) Do it.
(4) Repeat 1-3.

In my more idealistic moments I might call that leadership, but I'll be honest: it's midnight and I'm in a bad mood.

I've also recently been gently chastened about leadership being a virtue to which far too many people aspire. By the simple rules of capitalism, tyranny and other such elemental forces, it's clear that most people cannot lead; most people must follow. By the simple example of Jesus, however, it's clear that all people--even the Lord of heaven and earth--can serve. And so, in those moments when I am feeling particularly paradoxical--simultaneously snarky and saintly--I pray, "My kingdom for a kingdom of servants!"

I'm going to need a good night's sleep to figure out what that even means.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Sign My Book!

I'm just back from a long trip to St. Louis, Missouri, which conveniently explains my long absence from blogging. I went to St. Louis for the triennial InterVarsity Christian Fellowship staff conference; as an editor for InterVarsity Press, I get to go to such things even though while I'm counting commas and slashing soliduses (nice alliteration, eh?) the overwhelming majority of my fellow IVCF staff are counseling college students and nurturing student souls.

But I digress. This was a pretty significant conference me, and not simply because I fulfilled a life's goal and went up the Gateway Arch that distinguishes the St. Louis skyline and haunted my youth. This was the first event of the new year, and while our first evening at the conference was marked by a look backward--a retrospective of the Fellowship's history on American campuses and a celebration of the Press's sixtieth birthday--the next morning was a prolonged reflection on what is essentially the topic of my forthcoming book.

Dan Chun, pastor of a Presbyterian megachurch in Hawaii, addressed the crowd of 1200+ campus ministers and comma-chasers on the topic of humility, specifically its application to leadership. Immediately after Pastor Chun's talk I ran into the unbelievably cool and unmistakably profound Scott Bessenecker, who leads InterVarsity's global treks and whose profiles of contemporary justice ministry in his book The New Friars I had the pleasure to edit. Between the sermon and the conversation emerged the three themes that swirled around in my head for the remainder of the conference: leadership, humility and submission.

I have a love-hate thing going with leadership. I like to fancy myself a leader even though I don't often lead any great number of people in anything of great substance. I am a survivor of several churches that, in my estimation, were flirting with an unrealistic idolization of (and unhealthy addiction to) the idea of leadership. I resist appeals to my sense of leadership, and I resist efforts by others to lead me.

Meanwhile, I'm writing a book about the cultural phenomenon of narcissism and the countercultural gospel of the messiahship and lordship of Jesus Christ. To write a book is to aspire to lead, no matter how you slice it. And to contest a culture of narcissism, to confess our inherent inability to look after ourselves, and to profess that Jesus reveals the good news that an omnipotent God looks after us, is to assert a kind of gospel of humility. And to put that on paper and slap your name on it and craft for yourself some sort of compelling brief biography is to characterize yourself as an expert on humility, which sounds empirically oxymoronic.

And then there's submission--a common term in the editorial profession but an unsavory term in almost every other context. I look at manuscript submissions all the time--in fact my book was at one time a submission--and I pass judgment on them regularly without any sense of gravity or wonder. But submission in other contexts, in a marriage or in a job or in a church or really in any relationship, is a dubious proposition. Why should I submit to him or her? What will become of me if I do? What if he or she proves to be unworthy of my submission? If I submit, do I give up my identity as a leader? If I submit, do I get credit for being humble?

Uggh. I need help.

I need help in all sorts of ways, but on the immediate horizon I'm thinking about this book. I've already gotten a fair bit of it from some helpful, gracious friends of mine, both in and out of the publishing business, all of whom are on balance in the humility business. I've also recently resigned myself to the fact that this one book will not be the final word on humility, nor should it be. I'll inevitably have more to say on the subject, and I daresay I'll have plenty more to learn on the subject.

A month or so ago I received, as a gift from my publisher David C. Cook's publisher Don Pape (it makes sense, but it'd take too long to explain), a "mock-up" of Deliver Us from Me-Ville. A printed cover had been glued onto a bound book of blank pages. It's a prop, really: my publisher used it to show the sales force what the book will look like on the shelf, what it will feel like in the reader's hands. In another sense it's a foil: it reminds me when I look at it that it's entirely possible to have a book with your name on it with essentially nothing of substance inside it.

But what I think I'd like it to become is a living acknowledgments page, an archive of the people who lead me as I enter into this audacious publishing project, who help me grow in my understanding of humility and the goodness of a God who recognizes that we tend to think a bit too highly of ourselves and yet willingly lays down his life for us and opens up paradise to us. So I'm going to start carrying the book around with me, and when a casual conversation turns to talk of humility and pride, submission and narcissism, leadership and service, grace and mercy, I'll ask them to sign this book as a record that they are on the journey with me somewhere between Me-Ville and Thee-Ville (cute, huh?)--somewhere between a creation that thinks a bit too highly of itself and a paradise that waits to house us forever.

So the next time we see each other, please sign my book.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Year's Day

All is quiet on New Year's Day.
A world in white gets underway . . .
Nothing changes on New Year's Day. . . .

Though torn in two
We can be one.
--U2, "New Year's Day"

Happy 2008, everybody. The war is over if you want it.