Saturday, December 26, 2009

On the Feast of Stephen

Be sure,
Wealth or rank possessing:
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.
--"Good King Wenceslas"

Merry Christmas and happy new year from Loud Time!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

We Are Carrying Love: Advent Reflections, Part 4

Here ends my advent reflections, serialized out a sermon I gave last week. Merry Christmas, everybody.

Gabriel goes on to make Mary a promise—really a series of promises that aren’t so much for her as they are for the world.

•Her son, to be called Jesus, will be great.
•Jesus will be called “Son of the Most High”—invested with the power we sing about from Sunday to Sunday.
•God will give Jesus the throne of David—the shoot from the stump that Isaiah tells us will bear fruit.
•Jesus will reign over God’s people forever; his kingdom will have no end.

Gabriel finishes his pitch with a reminder: Nothing is impossible with God. He cites Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, as evidence. So Mary is being given what Luke wishes for Theophilus and, really, all of us: the certainty of our faith.

This love that Mary is being given to carry will be a burden, no doubt, but unlike those other burdens—burdens of anxiety and shame, bitterness and pettiness, nastiness and busyness—the burden of love eventually results in the birth of love. And the birth of love, as we celebrate it at Christmas, eventually results in our deliverance, as we celebrate at Easter. And this kind of messianic love is self-propagating; Jesus didn’t merely come to earth to merely die for our sins; he came to recalibrate us not as people carrying grudges and secrets but as people who are carrying love—for ourselves, for our neighbors, for our world.

I have a friend who has given his life to carrying the love of God to all corners of the world. His organization sets up little communities in red light districts in Bangkok and outcast settlements in Mumbai and trash heaps in Latin America, and there they make new friends and explore ways of making life better. The love of God is being birthed in those places.

I have another friend who carries love back and forth to and from Haiti. In a country—a puddle-jump from Miami—where the average citizen lives on $2 a day, he’s teaching kids to read and building better schools so that those kids will be grow up with dignity and opportunity. He’s handing out some 30,000 Creole-language Bibles a year so that as folks learn to read they’re reading about this burden of God’s love that ultimately delivers.

I have another friend who decided that gay people and Christian people were talking at and past each other when they should be talking to, and listening to, the Jesus who was promised in this passage we’re reading today and who delivered on his promises in the passages we’ll read on Good Friday.

There’s no denying that these guys—all three of them—are carrying burdens. Some of them endure harsh critique for the way they’re carrying this love we’ve been given. Some of them live much less prosperous lives than they could because they’ve taken up their particular burden. All of them have a lot to juggle to make room for this burdensome love. But if you ask them why they do it—why they don’t just drop the whole thing and make their lives easier—they’ll tell you that it’s because a long time ago a modest little woman from a town of no repute was given the gift of a burdensome love. And that burdensome love gestated and grew and was born and made his way through life. And then he carried a burdensome cross to the outskirts of town, and then carried a world’s worth of shame and secrets and grudges and self-absorption to a place where it could no longer ruin us. And then he rose again to carry us through difficult days and years and centuries and millennia until ultimately he delivers us safely to a place of no tears and no shame. They do it because God is love, and carrying love, no matter how burdensome, is a gift.

All this stuff really happened, and it happened for God’s purposes, which emanate from his character, which is love. The Gospel as Luke here presents it is love throughout. Mary is given the privilege of carrying love, but in a sense so is Theophilus, and in a sense so are we.

We carry this conviction with us: that God knows what he’s doing.

We carry this confidence with us: that nothing is impossible with God.

We carry this assurance with us: that the faith we celebrate each Sunday played out in real time among real people some two thousand years ago.

We carry this promise with us: that the work God is doing among us and in us is not only for us but for the world through us.

We carry this certainty with us: that God is love, and that we are bearers of that love.

We carry this burden with us: that this love we carry is real and concrete and powerful and changes things when we give ourselves over to it.

This is the witness of Mary and the glory of Christmas. Every day, by the grace of God, we are carrying love. Imagine what we could do with it?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

We Are Carrying Love: Advent Reflections, Part 3

This is the third of four excerpts from an Advent sermon I'm giving. Come back next week for the punchline.

It’s hard to carry love, quite honestly—and if we’re more honest, we’ll recognize that it’s much easier to carry any number of other things. Sometimes it’s much easier to carry a grudge than it is to carry love, right? When someone’s wronged us, that grudge feels a lot lighter, a lot less burdensome, even a lot less painful than love. And so for a time that too often becomes a long time we put down a little love to make room for a little grudge.

Sometimes it’s easier to carry secrets, right? We do something we know we’ll get in trouble for, something we know the truth would hurt someone we love while also embarrassing us or making life more difficult for us, and so we make a little space in our hearts for a secret, and to do so we have to put down a little love.

Sometimes our secrets aren’t about the wrongs we have done, though; sometimes they’re about the wrongs done to us. We suddenly find ourselves loaded up with shame or bitterness or hurt, and we can’t imagine how to get rid of it. So if it’s permanent, we’ve got to make room for it, right? So we put down a little love and keep carrying our secret shame.

But more often than these big things are the little things that we don’t even notice we have, but as we make our way through our days love continues to be crowded out of our hearts by more pressing concerns: we’re being actively encouraged—particularly during Christmas but really all year round—to spend more, eat more, buy more, work more, hurry more, worry more, here a more, there a more . . .

We live in a time where love has been made particularly hard, and unattractive to carry. Love doesn’t seem like a gift, it seems like a burdensome luxury that we can no longer afford to indulge.

Luke is writing an orderly account of the foundations of the Christian faith, to ground the faith of Theophilus in concrete history, and so to assure him of the reasonableness of his faith. Why, then, does he so quickly proceed to such crazy stories? Luke moves immediately into the birth not of Jesus but of John the Baptist, a story that is marked throughout by marvel and miracle: an old woman, well past childbearing years, becomes pregnant in an answer to a lifelong prayer. An old man, elected for a time to be the voice of the people to God, is struck mute for his lack of faith. He won’t speak again until the birth of his son, at which time his voice is restored and he sings of “the tender mercy of our God.”

Luke moves quickly from this story to six months later, where we find Mary living in Nazareth, pledged to marry Joseph. Jesus’ own disciple Philip will one day openly mock Mary’s village: “Nazareth?!? Can anything good come out of there?!?” But here we are, in this town of no reputation, with a young virgin, the story tells us, about to marry into the line of King David—a once-great line that apparently has little remaining political clout.

But this detail tells Theophilus something: the messiah was promised through David’s line—Isaiah 11 promises the people of God that “a shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse” (Jesse the father of David; the stump a royal line that has since been diminished); “from his roots a branch will bear fruit.” By Mary marrying into David’s line, a prophecy was being fulfilled. God, it appears, knows what he’s doing.

“Greetings,” the angel Gabriel tells Mary.” He calls her “highly favored” and then tells her “The Lord is with you.” This troubles Mary, and perhaps it would trouble us as well, because if the Lord is with us, things necessarily change. If God is with us, as Paul tells us, “who can be against us?” And yet Mary was a subject of empire, a woman in a strongly patriarchal culture, a child (probably around thirteen) about to marry someone who was likely much older. When you have a lot going against you, you figure out a way to live within those constraints. People adapt to their circumstances, even if those circumstances are, or ought to be, untenable.

There are people today living in garbage dumps all over the world. There are children today growing up as sexual slaves. There are women who can’t show their face in public or they’ll be shunned, beaten or worse. There are people who endure petty acts of passive racism on a daily basis. There are people—maybe people we know—who suffer abuse or neglect at home or carry the burden of abuse or neglect in their history.

It’s people who carry these various burdens, who out of necessity adapt to entirely unacceptable circumstances, who have the most right to ask “Where is God?” And here the angel Gabriel presents Mary, who could very well speak on these people’s behalf, with an audacious claim: “The Lord is with you.” He doesn’t suggest that this is a change in Mary’s status: it’s not “The Lord is about to be with you” or “The Lord is now with you.” Gabriel is communicating reality to Mary, a reality that necessarily changes things.

What would happen if we greeted one another this way? Not “whazzzupp?!?” or “Howdy partner” or whatever, but “The Lord is with you”? We would be saying it not as a nicety but as a declaration of faith. God, who created us, isn’t aloof to our suffering, he isn’t ignorant or dismissive of our circumstances. God is Emmanuel—God is God with us. And in the moment we acknowledge that, we open ourselves to changes that God has in mind for us.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

We Are Carrying Love: Advent Reflections, Part 2

The second of four excerpts from my Advent sermon. Pray for the people who have to endure the whole thing in one sitting.

The Orthodox Church refers to Mary, mother of Jesus, as Theotokos, "God-bearer," which is a pretty handy, efficient way of characterizing Mary’s unique ministry. She was, as the story tells us, impregnated with God. Jesus gestated in her womb, where his heart started beating and his spinal cord took shape and his limbs started flexing their fledgling muscles. Somewhere along the way, undoubtedly, Jesus kicked Mary, and she felt it not as an affront or a judgment—imagine being kicked by God?!?—but as good news: this child inside her was alive and kicking, and because of a conversation she had months previous she knew that this was God inside her, eager to get out and face the world he created, eager to be not only the Lord of Hosts but also Emmanuel, God with us.

Let’s take up the story from Luke 1.
Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

We begin not with Mary but with Luke himself, who in this preamble indicates why he’s writing what he’s writing. What follows is an “orderly account,” thoroughly investigated, as a means of grounding the beliefs of Theophilus. His name means “Lover of God,” which may be a given name or may be a pseudonym Luke takes up for this book and takes up again in his second historical volume, the book of Acts. But the point is that what follows is orderly, carefully investigated, and intended to anchor the beliefs of the Christian church in a concrete history. These things, Luke is telling Theophilus and really all of us, really happened.

I heard a pastor once suggest that every time we see a manger scene we remind ourselves, “That really happened.” I thought that was cool, and so now every time I see one, that’s what I do. And if I happen to forget, a friend of mine at work reminds me. This is part of our ministry to one another, part of why Luke took it upon himself to help Theophilus to be certain of his faith. We are carrying love, and the love we carry is meant for one another.

So when you’re struggling to believe either the truth of what we celebrate every Sunday or struggling to trust that you’ll be able to make your mortgage next month, or struggling to see a future with your spouse or struggling to imagine a meaningful life without a spouse—keep in mind that there is someone near you who is carrying love for you. And not even only their own love for you; there are people near you who are carrying the love of God in trust for you. It’s right and proper for us to draw deeply from this love when we need it, just as it’s right and proper for us, as God-bearers of a kind, to be prepared to dispense this kind of love when we find a need for it: through acts of kindness, through words of encouragement, through any number of ways.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

We Are Carrying Love: Advent Reflections, Part 1

This is from a sermon I prepared for the third week of Advent 2009. I thought I'd serialize it here.

Part of what’s so amazing about Christmas is its modesty. We sing songs about heaven and nature singing, about herald angels and jubilant shepherds, but we also sing songs about little towns and silent nights. So while any day of the week we could take to the streets singing loudly “How Great Is Our God” and “Holy Holy Holy Lord God Almighty,” and we would be perfectly justified in doing so, it's also important to notice the little things, the subtle movements of God that sound best when whispered: Emmanuel—God with us.

God’s ministry to and through Mary, the mother of Jesus, is not always whispered. Sometimes it’s shouted, trumpeted. A few years ago our neighbor church down the street erected a thirty-five foot metallic statue of Mary in their back yard. People would come from miles to venerate it, to pray together next to it, to drink juice and eat picnic lunches in its shadow. It’s called “Our Lady of the Millennium,” and it’s far from modest. It crisscrosses the country on the back of a flat-bed truck, making visitations, and it makes the papers wherever it goes.

I mention this not to poke fun at people’s tendencies toward bombast, but as a caveat to my own comments. While the Mary we remember here we’ll remember as modest, she’s also unusually strong and resilient, like steel; she’s remarkably larger than life and casts a long shadow on the church, for very good reasons; she conducts herself, in any estimation but especially given her historical context, in ways that can best be described as heroic. And so this Mary we remember here as quiet and modest we should also remember as one of the greats in our Christian history; as we consider what it means to be a Christian today, we would do well to read up on Mary and consider how we might be like her.

I’d argue, in fact, that in many ways contemporary Christians are like Mary, most notably in this: as people who have embraced the call of the gospel, who have heard the message of love and justice and reconciliation that God offers us and have moved toward it, have surrendered ourselves to it, we are carrying love.

The apostle John makes it explicit to us that when we’re talking about God, we’re talking about love. If someone asks you to describe God, you could do worse than simply quoting John: “God is love.” Often we think of God and other qualities come to mind: severity and judgment when we’re feeling guilty, perhaps, or benign and disinterested, when we find ourselves disinterested in God. But John tells us what the entirety of the Bible shows us: God may show himself to be many things, but at the heart of it, God is love. And we can take comfort in that.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Altercation at the Overnight Shelter

It's worth mentioning from the start that I've been going, two or three times a month, to the local overnight shelter to serve breakfast, clean up and commiserate with local homeless folks, for the past couple of years. And I'm known, by and large, as a pretty friendly guy. I mention all this not to toot my own horn (although it's pretty clever how I managed to do that anyway, if I do say so myself). No, I mention this upfront because in that time I've had multiple heated arguments with friends, family members, coworkers, fellow churchgoers, telemarketers and business owners. And through all those heated arguments with people close and near to me, I never witnessed any significant relational volatility among the guests at the shelter until yesterday morning.

Don't get me wrong. Some of these folks strike an awfully intimidating pose, and while I can bring myself to be nice to them, I generally steer clear of them in conversation, favoring the more welcoming glances of other guests. I also know that while I've not personally witnessed a fight at the shelter till yesterday, other volunteers at other shifts have seen people go a little nuts. And I'm worldly wise enough to presume that even the nice folks with the welcoming glances, being human beings under pressure, most likely lose their cool every now and then. So I'm not suggesting that the homeless people in the western suburbs of Chicago are magically serene. I'm only observing that they're human beings living in a civil society, and they know how to conduct themselves as such. And every once in a while something gets on their nerves enough to raise their hackles and cause a scene.

That's what happened yesterday morning. Addy, notorious for oversleeping and waking up grumpy, was exceptionally tired and uncompromising. Fifty-plus people had been handed plates of eggs and toast while she slept on. Fifty-plus people--including several little kids--had bathed, dressed and packed for the day while she slept on. An entire infrastructure of mattresses and modular walls had been disassembled all around her while she slept on. Gentle nudges and whispered "Wake up, Addy" wasn't doing it today. So another guest, exasperated by the stress Addy had apparently created in the dumbstruck volunteers working quietly around her, took it on himself to show Addy a little tough love.

He yelled at her to get up. He yanked the blanket off her. He pulled the pillow out from under her head. And when she started protesting, he grabbed the mattress and started pulling. I'm pretty sure my mom and dad and scout master woke me up the same way on more than one occasion. Addy finally surrendered the mattress, but she was ticked off to no end, so while the guest triumphantly folded up her blanket and added her pillow to the pillow cart, Addy stormed over to the breakfast buffet and poured a cup of coffee. Then she marched back to him and threw it at him.

"Oh, now, that's assault," he responded. "Ma'am," he said loudly and repeatedly to our shift supervisor, "could you call the police?" She ignored him and went to talk to Addy, so he shrugged and called the police himself.

Our shift supervisor didn't know what to do. Neither did I; neither did the other volunteers. Most of the guests minded their own business, but the conversation that ensued revealed some important details: Addy did this all the time; complaints to the volunteer staff never resulted in any discipline taken against Addy; complaints to the shelter administration never resulted in anything. Addy hadn't just been chronically oversleeping, she'd been systematically alienating the community that she traveled with by default. I could almost hear the chorus: "How do you solve a problem like Addy?"

I suppose we all know someone like Addy, and I suspect, the way I've told this story, that our sympathies lie with her. If someone wants to sleep a little late, the logic in my head goes, let her. The worst thing that happens is she misses breakfast and doesn't shower, and the people charged with cleaning up the shelter add a minute or two to their schedule. Big deal.

But I find my sympathies drifting to the other guests. Addy was being a glaring fly in a delicate ointment. Addy was a visual reminder that the rules of homelessness, as designed and enforced by people who are not homeless, can be nearly as arbitrary as they are draconian. One evening someone might be turned away for showing up late; the next morning someone else might be allowed to sleep late and even have a special breakfast prepared for her because she missed the main course.

Meanwhile, volunteers such as myself don't notice when we're slipping into a way of interacting with guests that's patronizing and demeaning. Our shift leader chided the guests: "If you have a problem with someone, you need to tell us"--as though "we" the volunteers had any idea what to do. When the guests protested that they complain about Addy all the time, with no discernible response from the powers that be, our shift leader responded, "It's like the older brother beating up the younger brother with you guys." The complaining guests were, it seems, one complaint away from a time out, two away from a spanking. Meanwhile, the call to the police led, in true suburban form, to a four-car intervention. As I was leaving for work, several police officers were crossing the church parking lot to keep the peace.

I'm not dogging the cops. I don't know what it's like to be an officer of the peace, and I didn't hear the guest's complaint, the content of which may have called for a strong response. As I drove to work, however, it struck me that an argument like the one I'd witnessed would never have resulted in a raid like that. It would have been handled internally, because it was essentially an in-house argument. The coffee throw was a bit extreme, but Addy was far enough away from the other guest that she never would have hit more than his jeans and his shoes. It was a symbolic gesture, not really assault. The entire interchange was evidence that the system needed attention, that the rules needed to be restated more clearly and applied more consistently. And the community--guests and volunteers alike--needed a reminder that we had cast our lots together, at least for overnight, and we each had responsibility to the others.

Because this is a community, temporary as it is: always the same people, with occasional new faces, coming together regularly, eating and sleeping and working and commiserating together, observing and addressing the problem of homelessness together. We're all in over our heads because we're each complex individuals involved in a complex community, a collision of private interests, a congregation united by a common messiness. Throw in all the washing of clothes, mattresses, tables and bodies, and the breaking of bread and pouring of beverages, and the homeless shelter becomes almost sacramental.

I left for work--earlier than I needed to, I can admit from a day's distance. That whole altercation made me nervous: I didn't know who to side with or how to resolve it. I don't like conflict, and frankly, some homeless people scare me. People like Addy, with her wild hair and her otherworldly eyes. That's my confession for today. I ask all the angels and saints, and you my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Dr. Seuss and Other Gateway Drugs

Mary Doria Russell, author of several books including the sci-fi duo The Sparrow and Children of God, was in Lombard this weekend to receive a key to the village (insert colloquial joke here), speak with local high school students about writing, and sell some books. I got to attend her presentation at the Helen Plum Memorial Library, where she worked as a page while growing up, and get her to sign some books for my parents. I've read The Sparrow and am reading Children of God; I wanted to meet this woman who has done the seemingly impossible: written two novels that both my parents would read and enjoy.

The pitch for The Sparrow is brilliantly simple: "Missionaries in Space." Intelligent life is discovered in another solar system; the Jesuits lay down enough money to fund a mission. Calamity ensues. It's a sad and very human portrayal of what happens when worlds collide, when inadvertent error and mixed motives overshadow the better angels of our nature. Mom and Dad loved it; I loved it; my boss loved it; one of the authors I edit loved it. Who knows? Maybe you'd love it.

Russell has written a couple of other novels since these two; not being much for fiction, I'm frankly unlikely to read them. But I did enjoy her presentation. She waxed nostalgic about growing up as a reader, exploiting the addictive quality of reading. She characterized Dr. Seuss books as "a gateway drug" and Nancy Drew as "the tobacco of books": "You look like a smart little girl; I'll bet you'd like Nancy Drew. It'll make you look more mature--it has chapters." And on and on until Russell hit age forty-two and "started cooking up my own crystal meth," switching irrevocably from writing journal articles in her field of anthropology to writing deeply human novels. She says that they're in a second or third round of discussion for a film version of The Sparrow, and--news flash--Brad Pitt is doing a treatment in the hopes that the film will be his Hollywood swan song. Well, well, well . . .

Russell grew up Roman Catholic, attending mass at the church just down the street from the library. "I switched from Catholicism," she told us, "to anthropology, quite frankly," when she was fifteen--a kind of protest against trends she observed in Vatican II, which seems to amount to her preference for old hymns and Latin masses. She didn't go into detail, but she alluded as much. When she became a mother at age thirty-five, however, "cultural relativism became not terribly helpful." By then the notion of the incarnation--God taking on flesh and dwelling among his people (in other words, the divinity of Jesus)--was untenable to her, but Catholicism became a springboard to its own roots for her. "I went deeper, to the faith Jesus practiced." In Judaism she found a faith system that satisfied her intellectually and gave her an ethical foothold for making her way in the world as a woman, a mother, a whatever: "At the heart of Judaism is the question, How do we raise children who want to be good?"

That's a good question. Doesn't do much for me, as an adult with no children, but underneath it is the idea that we live and move and have our being in a real world that extends both before and after us, and the prime directive for us as a species, particularly if we're wired to self-propagate, is to trick our self-interest into being constrained by a moral and ethical compass. I'd argue that with the incarnation Christianity does that more completely: Whereas the Old Testament tells us of the good life, the life lived under God, the New Testament shows it to us, while simultaneously showing us that we are undergirded with a divine love practiced in defiance of our own fickleness. The God who dictates morality and ethics to us also loves us at the cost of his own comfort, his own existence. In the incarnation Jesus shows us that we are rooted and established in love--which is a pretty good first lesson in raising children to want to be good.

The incarnation is what we commemorate with Christmas, what we anticipate with Advent. We're a little early to start talking about that now--not that you'd know from the displays at the megastores--but it's on my mind, thanks to this wry and sassy, deeply human author. You might consider The Sparrow and Children of God as Christmas presents for the thinking reader in your life this year; they're not simple, but they're pretty brilliant.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

All This Has Happened Before and Will Happen Again

Here's an odd convergence of readings. First, from the prophet Haggai:

The word of the LORD came to Haggai a second time on the twenty-fourth day of the month: "Tell Zerubbabel governor of Judah that I will shake the heavens and the earth. I will overturn royal thrones and shatter the power of the foreign kingdoms. I will overthrow chariots and their drivers; horses and their riders will fall, each by the sword of his brother.

" 'On that day,' declares the LORD Almighty, 'I will take you, my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel,' declares the LORD, 'and I will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you,' declares the LORD Almighty."


And from the poet T. S. Eliot, in his play "Murder in the Cathedral":

You are the Archbishop who was made by the King; whom he
set in your place to carry out his command.
You are his servant, his tool, and his jack,
You wore his favours on your back,
You had your honours all from his hand; from him you had the
power, the seal and the ring.


Two signet rings--one from the king, given to the archbishop; the other from God, given to the governor. But they signify very different things: the ring of God is a reminder of his earlier covenant promise, a reminder that God yet abides with this people. The ring of the king, Eliot reveals, is an act of tyranny, a power play asserting the primacy of the king over the church. God tells his people earlier in Haggai "In this place I will grant peace" (Haggai 2:9); Archbishop Thomas effectively labels the behavior of the king as a way of the world: "Petty politicians in your endless adventure!"

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Trouble with Laughter

I like to laugh. I also like to make people laugh. When I was a kid my brother and sister and I, inspired by a TV game show, would play "Make Me Laugh: The Home Game" during quiet moments. They're both very funny.

Sharing emotions can be a really powerful experience: to laugh or cry or rage together is to declare ourselves in solidarity, common cause, with one another. It's the sort of moment you don't soon forget, the sort of moment you associate with that person or those people from that point onward. We feel understood and understanding when we share emotions. But eventually the way parts for us, and our sense of solidarity yields to an uncomfortable consciousness of our differences.

T. S. Eliot describes such an incident in his "Hysteria," which I read recently and haven't yet shaken:

As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her thoat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green iron table, saying: "If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden . . ." I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.


Some emotions are, simply, ultimately, inscrutable. We can't know from whence they come or why they linger as long as they do. We're inclined to hurry people through their laughter or tears, and then when it's our turn to laugh or cry we wonder why people are so unsympathetic. There's a certain conspiracy of deceit, I think, that pervades all public emotion. We are allowed brief display but taught and encouraged and even coerced to retreat inside ourselves before our emotions have run their full course. To laugh too long, to cry too loudly, is unseemly.

I wonder how life would be different if we were freed of this conspiracy, if we were allowed to laugh and cry freely, if we were taught and encouraged and even coerced not to stifle ourselves but to encourage and support one another through each expression of feeling. It might be chaos, I suppose. But really, it might not.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

We Celebrate the Sense of Each Other: Jonah, Pt. 3

I’m going to sing a song for you that once upon a time I thought I would never hear the end of, but recently realized I hadn’t heard in years: “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang.

Celebrate good times, come on! (Let's celebrate)
Celebrate good times, come on! (Let's celebrate)

There's a party goin' on right here
A celebration to last throughout the years
So bring your good times, and your laughter too
We gonna celebrate your party with you

Come on now

Celebration
Let's all celebrate and have a good time
Celebration
We gonna celebrate and have a good time

It's time to come together
It's up to you, what's your pleasure

Everyone around the world
Come on!


I used to hear this at every wedding, every bar mitzvah, every block party, everywhere two or more were gathered. It was the eighties—those were heady times. Now I don’t hear it so much, probably because when you get right down to it, the song says almost nothing. It’s nothing more than a suggestion: Come on—let’s celebrate.

But the song didn’t die because people no longer believed its message; it died because people discovered they no longer needed it. Celebration is almost instinctual: when people gather, when people congregate, their first instinct is to face one another, to engage one another.

That instinct makes some people uncomfortable. Some because they’re introverted and too much face time with too many people drains their energy out of them. Some are uncomfortable because they’ve not been trained in social graces and realize that they don’t know how to begin, sustain or gracefully exit such times of socialization. Some are so affected by their circumstances that their ability to enjoy a crowd is at the mercy of the day they’ve had, or the day they’re anticipating tomorrow. Some are so driven by social politics that they can’t simply enjoy the people around them without worrying if this crowd will erode their social capital, or wondering if there’s another crowd nearby that could make them more popular.

There are a million things that make gathering together challenging, even sometimes emotionally exhausting. And yet our first instinct remains to engage with the people we find ourselves with. That’s what people do, duh. It’s ingrained in us: we intuitively recognize that there’s something that binds us to one another.
Maybe it’s that we share genetic distinctions that give us more in common with each other than we would have with, for example, a cat or a squirrel or a snake. Maybe it’s that there’s ultimately so little variety in human physical features that each person we see reminds us in some imperceptible way of someone we’ve always known—a parent or grandparent, a sibling or a childhood friend. Maybe—and I think this is really the crux of it—it’s because we intuitively recognize that these other beings, like us, were made from the dust of the earth and given life by the spirit of God; that they, like us, are made in the image of God and bear the same privileges and responsibilities that we ourselves carry, as God’s image bearers. We instinctually engage (or feel the need to engage) one another because we recognize the miracle, the gloriousness, inherent in each other that in turn reminds us of the miracle, the gloriousness, inherent in us.

I like that instinct. It’s one of God’s gifts to us; one of his first. Before his benediction to the newly created Adam and Eve—“go forth and multiply, live long and prosper,” whatever—God recognized that being made in the image of God and being filled with the Spirit of God isn’t enough: “it’s not good for the man,” he said, “to be alone.” So his first gift to humankind—I mean, besides the whole of creation—was one another—the end of our aloneness. Sufjan Stevens hints at this special, yet common, grace in his song “The Man from Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”:

“We celebrate the sense of each other. We have a lot to give one another.”


It doesn’t take much, however, and it doesn’t take long, to ruin this sense of celebration that’s rooted in our very existence. All it takes is a concentration on what distinguishes us from each other and a deliberate decision to disregard one another. That’s what we see Jonah doing.

Jonah is not what you might call a celebratory fellow. While we see him in the company of two groups of people—his shipmates on the way to Tarshish, the Ninevites he’s prophesying against—he’s never really with any of them. His shipmates are fighting the storm; he’s below deck, enjoying a nap. The Ninevites are repenting of their sin and enjoying the mercy of God; he’s outside the gates, whining. Given a choice, Jonah prefers to be away from people—so much so that he goes in the opposite direction of Nineveh, leaves the city when he might be honored as the city’s deliverer, and asks to be thrown overboard rather than struggle for survival with his shipmates. Jonah is, you might say, a misanthrope. You might even be inclined to think of him as a sociopath.

So much gets in our way of celebrating the sense of each other. Some of them are clearly wicked: we’ve decided that we’re better than these other folks, and so we only tolerate them until we find something else that entertains us more or irritates us less. Sociologist Christopher Lasch declared contemporary society a “culture of narcissism” and demonstrated that a pervasive sense of entitlement and self-promotion or self-centeredness has brought us to a place where “even the most intimate encounters become a form of mutual exploitation.” Marriage researcher John Gottman has recognized that a key factor in the success or failure of a marriage is the pattern of turning toward one another versus turning away from one another: couples who consistently take opportunities to engage each other are on the right track, but couples who neglect, ignore or show disdain for one another are in deep doo doo.

Jonah shows us that this is not just a contemporary problem. He sees his shipmates not as fellow bearers of the image of God but as means to an end, his ticket from point A to point B. He sees the Ninevites not as sheep without a shepherd but as irritants, competition for the earth’s limited resources. Jonah shows us that Lasch is right, that if even a prophet can be a self-absorbed jerk, then all of us had better beware of ourselves.

But we have to look past the manifestation of this self-absorption, this misanthropy, to its root causes. Why is Jonah like this? Why are we like this?
For one thing, it’s far too easy to be alone. Direct TV and downloadable movies keep us even from seeking entertainment outside our homes. In new home construction, fences go up while sidewalks never get laid down. Houses are castles, complete with virtual moat. By our living patterns we declare our independence; we have no need of one another.

Pastor and media critic Shane Hipps suggests that what we often call “community” today—in virtual or physical settings—is more accurately described as assemblies or collectives. We’re not facing each other, even in church—we’re facing the backs of each other’s heads. We’re not engaging one another, even in “social media”; we’re stalking and spying on one another, while occasionally tagging one another’s walls with our own graffiti. Our relationships too easily devolve into mere drive-by commitment.

I don’t say this to dog on Facebook or to challenge the way churches organize themselves. I’m suggesting that truly, consistently celebrating one another is as difficult as it is fundamental to who we are. Remember, God said “It’s not good for the man to be alone.” The psalmist, inspired by the Holy Spirit, recognized “how good and pleasant it is when we dwell together in unity.” When Jesus describes the world’s happy ending, he describes it not as an assembly or as drive-by relationships but as a party, a banquet.

Jonah is a cautionary tale. Even God’s last words to him are words of caution to him and to us:
“Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”


Jonah sees a crowd and imagines them to be idiots, and he sighs in exasperation. God sees a crowd, knowing their fundamental flaws, takes pity on them and calls them great. As bearers of God’s image, may we go and do likewise.

Three Kinds of Alone: Jonah, Pt. 2

I think it’s worth considering, as we read the book of Jonah, that the prophet didn’t know that God would send a fish to swallow him up. Nothing in the text indicates that he did: He didn’t say “If you could just drop me by that big ole fish over there . . .” No, “Throw me into the water,” he tells his shipmates, and he and they alike fully expected that he was being thrown to his death. Jonah assumed he would die in defiance of God’s call on him to go to Nineveh.

I wonder how Jonah’s tombstone would read. “Here lies Jonah—he kept to himself”? “Here Lies Jonah—alone at last”? However it might read, Jonah would be remembered in death as a prophet who refused to prophesy, who would rather be left alone, thank you very much.

There are, I think, at least three ways of being alone. There’s circumstantial aloneness—we find ourselves alone, as when my wife has to work late or all our friends have other plans. I have a friend who lives by himself and doesn’t want to; he goes to sleep alone every night and wakes up alone every morning, and in between he goes about his business. But he wishes he were married; he finds himself alone, but he’s not happy about it. Another friend of mine is unmarried and perfectly content: she goes to sleep alone and wakes up alone, and in between she goes about her business, and she’s happy with her life. Aloneness as a circumstance is a perfectly legitimate way to be, but it’s not the kind of aloneness that we’re considering in the curious case of Jonah.

Another way of being alone is more assertive. We hit our limit in our interactions with other people—coworkers whose demands on our time become tiresome, or children who never stop needing us, or friends, neighbors and church members whose quirkinesses gradually morph into nettlesome annoyances—and declare “me-time.” With me-time we remind ourselves and others that we aren’t just cogs in a machine but distinct persons; we may rediscover ourselves from time to time by getting away from everyone else. In some cases this can be healthy: Folk singer Dar Williams wrote of her therapy sessions—a sort of guided me-time—“Oh, how I loved everybody else when I finally got to talk so much about myself.” In some cases, of course, me-time can devolve into something tragic, when we start to believe the insidious notion that we have no need of anyone else, when we forget to remember that the other people around us aren’t just annoying or needy drains on our energy but themselves distinct persons who deserve our honor and respect.

But in any case, like circumstantial aloneness, assertive aloneness is not the type of aloneness under consideration here. No, we look at Jonah as a case study in a third type of aloneness: solitude.

“But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah.” The aloneness Jonah enters into here is orchestrated by God, making it something of a sacramental experience. Henri Nouwen, the late great writer on Christian spirituality, called solitude the “furnace of transformation” because, among other reasons, solitude is uncomfortable. In solitude God puts us to the test.

In solitude the trappings we accumulate, for our protection, for our self-assertion, for our self-indulgence, all are put to the test. We find out which of our everyday accoutrements has slid from mere comfortable accessory to potential idol. We find out in solitude which relationships have dredged up in us an unhealthy dependency or given us license to behave in ways that are unseemly or destructive. In the belly of this fish Jonah comes to terms with his failure to respond to the call God has placed on him. In solitude we are judged by God and brought to a place of understanding that judgment.

But solitude—this sacramental aloneness that we find in Jonah—takes us beyond the judgment of God to the grace of God. “The LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah,” we recall, not as a death sentence but as a deliverance. Jonah’s prayer in chapter two acknowledges the death that awaited him when he went overboard and the grace that sustained him as he came to terms with his failure to live out his calling. God shows Jonah, and us with him, that even in our failures God is still near, and even in our desperation God still offers deliverance.

Solitude strips us of what we’ve come to depend on, in order that we can be reminded that we depend ultimately on God alone. But it’s not some accident that we stumble into. We may find ourselves alone with God, like Moses and the burning bush or Jacob and the ladder to heaven, but solitude is qualitatively different: it’s a sacramental kind of discipline that we enter into by our own volition. As such, solitude takes us beyond circumstance and assertion into the category of sacred practice, part of our everyday call to live out our faith.

And yet, solitude isn’t something that we go hunting for, as if God is a genie in a bottle that we need only to rub. Solitude is itself an act of grace, an invitation extended to us. In that respect, solitude is not so much an act of obedience as it is an act of faith. In that sense solitude is like the act of communion, in which we receive the elements and are reminded of our failings but also of our deliverance, reminded of our shortcomings but also of our salvation. We’re reminded that we haven’t solved our own problems, but that we’ve had the great fortune of entering into relationship with a loving God.

So solitude is different—dramatically different—from the aloneness we find ourselves in or the aloneness we demand for ourselves. In some circumstances we find ourselves alone; in other circumstances we declare ourselves alone. But in solitude we are reminded by the God of the universe and the lover of our souls that we are never alone, and we remember that this fact in and of itself changes everything.

Service Sucks: Jonah, Pt. 1

Here’s a dirty little secret no one tells you about service: it sucks.

Service invariably involves disruption, discomfort, dissatisfaction. You are “serving” when you’re doing something that nothing in your life requires you to do, but something in someone else’s life requires that it be done, and they can’t do it by or for themselves.

How’s that for a calculation, huh? I’m reminded of the scene in The Break-Up where the dinner party is over, but the dishes are still there. Vince Vaughan wants to chill; Jennifer Aniston wants him to help.

VAUGHAN: Fine, I’ll do the dishes.
ANISTON: No, that’s not what I want.
VAUGHAN: You just said you want me to help do the dishes.
ANISTON: I want you to want to help do the dishes.
VAUGHAN: Why would anyone want to do dishes?!?

Why would anyone want to do dishes? Those dishes, by the way, are his; he ate off them that night, and he’s going to need them for his Fruit Loops tomorrow morning. Imagine now being Vince Vaughan’s next door neighbor, and asking him to walk your dog and scoop its poop while you’re out of town. Why would anyone want to scoop poop? The further removed an act of service is from our self-interest, the more it sucks.

Service sucks. It sucks time out of your life. It sucks comfort out of your time. It sucks energy out of your imagination. Part of you—no matter how small—will enter into any time of service with a nagging thought about what else could be occupying your time.

And yet service is the heart of the golden rule, which Jesus imports into his teaching from the Levitical law:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.


My aunt sent me this poster recently that shows how all the world’s religions include some variation on this golden rule that Jesus preaches. Service is the heart of the golden rule, which is the heart of the intended order of the universe. This world thrives on interdependence, which means that it depends on all of us helping each other out. To serve is to love, because love in a material world is made manifest in service.

Here’s the thing though. The intended order of the universe is that all of us help each other out, and that extends well beyond doing our girlfriend’s dishes or scooping our neighbor dog’s poop or listening to our crazy grandfather’s long-winded story about sock hops for the fifty millionth time. Jesus puts this frustratingly clearly: “Love your enemies.” He even mocks the logic of loving only your loved ones: “Do not even pagans do that?”

No, the intended order of the universe is that we love everyone—even, and perhaps especially, our enemies—the way we wish to be loved. And that sucks.

This kind of sucky, enemy-loving service is at the core of the story of Jonah. God, who ordered the universe, intends for Jonah to serve the Ninevites, whom Jonah hates, by telling them the truth about their wickedness and showing them the way to reconciliation with God. Here’s what Nahum, another minor prophet in the Old Testament, had to say about Nineveh:

“city of blood
full of lies,
full of plunder,
never without victims! . . .
who has not felt your endless cruelty?”


Whatever Nineveh is, it is not Jonah’s friend. And yet God calls on Jonah to love Nineveh, to go and serve Nineveh in this most material way. And Jonah turns tail and runs, because this call from God sucks.

And yet what if the shoe were on the other foot? What if it were not Nineveh but Israel, not the pagan people of Assyria but the covenant people of God, who had allowed themselves to become consumed with blood and lies and plunder and victimization and cruelty? What if Jonah were not the victim but the victimizer? What if God called on someone to save Jonah from himself? What would Jonah want then?

What would we want? It’s a fundamental precept of Christianity that we are victims of our own making, that it’s the sin of the world, compounding itself, propagating itself, cultivating itself in each and every human heart, that leads inevitably to this place where we desperately need rescue, where creation itself groans under the weight of our wrongdoing. You and I, we’re like Jonah in that we don’t like what we see around us, and we don’t want to associate ourselves with what we don’t like. But you and I are also like these Ninevites, who God tells us cannot tell their right hand from their left.

The notion that God might love the Ninevites is shocking to Jonah, as shocking as the command that Jonah himself go and love the Ninevites. But it should be no less shocking that God loves Jonah, that God loves us. And so this love, which God wove into us at the creation, which God weaves into the order of the universe, is the way of life that we are called to, the vision for how we—friends and enemies, loved ones and those who are difficult to love—are meant to live.

Love in a material world such as ours means service, and service is a habit we must be trained into. If we can love our friends, love strangers and even enemies, then we find ourselves walking in step with the God who created us out of love, who created us for love, who himself loved us supremely through a service that sucked the life out of him. Service may suck in all kinds of ways, but it’s what we were made for, and ultimately, we’ll find, it’s what makes life worth living.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Should I Not Be Concerned? Prologue to a Weekend; Postlude to a Prophet

This weekend I'm speaking at a retreat being put on by a friend of mine. Originally he and I both thought I would simply hawk my books, and then the rest of the retreat would work itself out. But the rest of the retreat has become a significant point of reflection for me, so my books will have to hawk themselves, I'm afraid.

Here's the basic structure of the retreat: Friday night we arrive, and we're treated to a one-man dramatic recitation of the book of Jonah--the guy who gets swallowed by a giant fish; the rest of the weekend is a collage of three ideas--(1) service, (2) solitude and (3) celebration. If I were hawking my book, we might call point (3) "sell-abration" and accomplish the dual feat of (a) having three points that all begin with the same letter and (b) making me heaps of money. But that seemed crass.

Anyway, I started thinking about how these three themes come through in the book of Jonah, and it seems to me that all three come through negatively--not that the Bible is down on service, solitude and celebration (it's a little down on sell-abration), but that Jonah is forced into each, against his instincts.

I'll probably post my comments from each discussion once the weekend is over, but for now I thought I'd draw attention to one scene in Jonah 4, where Jonah displays a sense of narcissistic entitlement that would fit comfortably into twenty-first century Western culture.

"Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?" God asks Jonah, regarding a vine that had provided him shade but withered overnight.

"I do," Jonah replies. "I am angry enough to die."

Jonah makes the category error of assuming that his visceral feelings are justified by circumstance. The death of the vine has made him angry because it no longer provides him comfort, and he takes his newfound discomfort as a personal affront.

God clears that nonsense right up. "You did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight." This vine has virtually nothing to do with Jonah, and more to the point, Jonah has nothing to do with the vine. Jonah is not a cultivator or creator; Jonah is a consumer, a user. And when he is frustrated in his exploitation of this serendipitous vine, he makes the mistake of thinking the vine--or worse, God--has it in for him. In what universe does it make sense that the death of a random plant should make someone "angry enough to die"?

Meanwhile, Jonah had completed his mission to Nineveh, albeit under duress. The moral collapse of this city has caused Jonah no concern; in fact, Jonah had been angry enough to die at the thought that this city he hated would be delivered from destruction. Nineveh, his neighbor, didn't know their right from their left, and Jonah would have them put to death for it. He loves a vine and hates his neighbor. Nonsense.

God feels differently, however. These Ninevites, who have offended him directly, were made to grow and tended by God, who sends his rain on the just and unjust alike. God is invested in Nineveh, and not for his own sake--because they offer him some service, like shade against the heat or a place to lay his head--but because they are his creation and his cultivation, and they need his help. The Ninevites are God's neighbors, and he loves them as he loves himself.

***

For more on narcissistic entitlement and the alternate path God calls us to, take up and read Deliver Us from Me-Ville by yours truly. There--consider yourself hawked.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

David Letterman Can Do Wrong


I like to think that if an anthropologist traveled from home to home in my extended family, she would readily observe the influence of David Letterman. My brother makes jokes like him. My uncle tells stories like him. We all repeat stories and jokes well past their shelf life. We are, by and large, Letterman people.

It's not surprising that Letterman would have that much influence on my family's sense of humor--or any family's sense of humor, for that matter. Whether you consider yourself a fan or not, Letterman has had almost unparalleled influence on American comedy culture. Giants of comedy readily acknowledge his influence. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences regularly nominates and awards him Emmys for his work. He's closing in on the thirtieth anniversary of his first eponymous television program, a morning show that was eventually replaced by his late-night shows, putting him in front of millions of people five nights a week. And beyond his own show, he's produced critical and financial successes such as Everybody Loves Raymond. If you've noticed the gradual uptick of irony and absurdity in American humor since 1980, you have Letterman to thank--at least in part.

Beyond Letterman's influential approach to humor, over thirty years he's developed a particular rapport with his audience, both in audience and at home. Letterman's audience is for him, and he occasionally lays aside the veneer of showbiz to speak frankly and seriously with them. I remember his return to the air after the attacks of September 11, 2001, that took place just down the road from his studios; he better than anyone returned to comedy by first addressing the attacks in full seriousness and contagious defiance. He spoke frankly and seriously again last week when he announced that a person had been arrested for blackmailing him over his sexual affairs with women on staff at his show.

Now, admitting an affair is an entirely different enterprise from ushering in the return to normalcy after a historic, catastrophic event. The difference was plainly evident: Letterman's post-9/11 address was delivered before a silent audience; his confession this week was delivered to awkward spurts of applause and nervous laughter. The audience didn't know what was coming, and each detail sent them in a slightly different direction. The disturbing details of how Letterman's blackmailer approached him; the unfamiliar protocols for reporting and investigating extortion; the ultimate disclosure of the nature of Letterman's indiscretions. Audience members didn't know whether to laugh, clap or--could it be--boo?

David Letterman is a public figure. As such, the details of his private life, once made known, become public information. We prayed for Letterman during his bypass surgery and during his recovery. We celebrated with Letterman when his son was born and, earlier this year, when he married his longtime partner. How then, ought we to respond when we learn of his infidelity?

The issue is further complicated by the fact that David Letterman's job is to make us laugh. Every minute without a laugh is a production problem, and every production problem is Letterman's to solve. If infidelity is Letterman's private sin, dead air is his most pressing public failure. So even when he's disclosing something embarrassing and private, he's constrained by the relationship he's developed with us to give us jokes. And even when we should be lamenting Letterman's abuse of power and the distress he's brought to his family and company, we're counting the moments until our next opportunity to laugh.

David Letterman has done something regrettable, something he should grieve and we should lament. But we've been exposed as well: we are more prepared to consume humor than confront wrongdoing. Even when we should lament, we prefer to laugh.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Loud Time Endorses: Burnside Writers Collective

Call me self-serving, but I'm a fan of Burnside Writers Collective, an online venture with its origins in the Pacific Northwest but now with contributors across the United States. Very creative writing dealing (mostly) responsibly with matters (mostly) important to (mostly) thoughtful Christians. I've been a fan for years, as evidenced by the link in my sidebar that still, for the time being at least, takes you to the old site. (Give it a few seconds and it'll reroute you.) But the Collective launched its dramatically overhauled website recently, and (here's the self-serving part) as of today it includes my regular column "Becoming the Great Us."

This column, inspired by a song in my head and propelled forward by the conversation profiled in the first entry, "The Freak Show We Find Ourselves In," picks up where my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville leaves off, I like to think. One legitimate critique I heard more than once was that, for a book ostensibly about getting past self-centeredness, the focus seemed to remain on the individual self. In my defense, I think my critics stopped reading the book before they got to the "community" chapter, but I concede the point that there's much more to be said about the dynamics of on-again, off-again repentant narcissists being brought together and shaped into a single body, or temple, or other biblical image for community. This notion of "Becoming the Great Us" has become, for a while at least, the project that most inspires me; I'm reading incredible books about life together and having incredible conversations about the same. If the concept stirs your imagination, please do contact me; my voice in this conversation is far more representative than authoritative, so I'd be glad to pass on your stories and ideas in the space BWC has given me.

Some other recent favorites you'll find at Burnside:

*Editorial ruminations on dirty words, creative writing and theological seriousness.
*A report on the dilemma of listening to the Beatles and other masterful recordings on earbuds.
*A retrospective on the music of Rich Mullins.
*A review on the new book by controversial pastor Mark Driscoll, which is effectively a referendum on the same.
*A showcase of the perplexity of being wealthy and wanting to be socially conscious in a world of need.

Plenty more where that came from, folks. Hope you enjoy it, bookmark it, link your friends to it.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Julie, Julia and Everyone Else

Last night we finally saw Julie & Julia, the film version of the book about the blog about the cook. It was really good, surprisingly cheerful. I kept waiting for the crises, but they were so homey, so everyday, so manageable that they never raised my stress level. Julie & Julia wasn't exhilarating; it was merely joyful.

Interestingly, while everyone has been telling us not to see it hungry, the food was a secondary factor for us. My wife had just come home from a conference about marriage counseling (she's a therapist), so she was struck mostly by the overwhelmingly positive marital dynamics in both couples. I, on the other hand, am a blogger who's written on narcissism, and I found myself concentrating mostly on how Julie (and Julia, for that matter) processed and shared their experiences.

The film takes place early in the life of blogging as a practice; frustrated writer and amateur cook Julie decides to cook her way through Julia Child's cookbook and blog her way through the experience. Her first problem is explaining to her mother what in the world she's doing, and why it's worth doing. Meanwhile she frets over, first, whether anyone is reading what she's writing, and later, how to make sense of her connection to an ever-growing pool of readers. She celebrates benchmark moments in numbers of comments, she processes the strange of experience of having her blog ranked on Salon.com, she fantasizes and strategizes over the media's interest in her unique project. She wrestles her way through the temptations and frustrations of self-centeredness and, we're left to presume and hope, out the other side.

Julia has a similar experience. Seeking a way of finding fulfillment as an expatriate wife and non-mother in post-WWII, pre-feminism France, she meanders through hobbies till she finds her sweet spot in the kitchen. She then embarks on a vision for reviving the art of cooking in American households by partnering with two French chefs on a cookbook, at which point she launches a frustrating but ultimately successful campaign to get published.

The understated story in the film is the role of direct personal friendships. Julia and her husband quickly find a core community in France and share their stories and their struggles openly. Julie's project is launched at a dinner table with friends who will later return to the table to celebrate her thirtieth birthday and the completion of the challenge. Both women are, for the purposes of the film, the center of these communities' world--they and their husbands always sit at the head and the foot of the table, their concerns are exclusively the concerns of the supporting characters--but it's easy to extrapolate from this portrayed narcissism to imagining these friends sharing all kinds of life together--knowing each others' interests and anxieties, passing each other potatoes, all those sorts of everyday things. Both women had relationships with faceless, faraway people, but it was these flesh-and-blood relationships that kept them grounded and propelled them forward.

Even the relationship of Julia to Julie, one that apparently never became direct either through correspondence or introduction, is put in proper context by the real-time relationships each has to her husband and friends. Julia may fantasize about the far-off American woman who will put her recipes to use, but she cooks for the people she sees every day. Julie may "talk" to Julia as she cooks, but she knows and takes comfort in the fact that while the Julia in her head will never take on flesh and sit down at table with her, she has real relationships with people she can reach out and touch.

So as much as Julie & Julia is about food and blogging, it's also about community--particularly community in circumstances that make community difficult. In that respect, Julie and Julia are just like everyone else.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Jean Vanier Is a Genius, Final Entry (for Now)


Reading Community & Growth by Jean Vanier has been a long-overdue pleasure. Vanier, founder of the L'Arche communities--able-bodied and disabled people living, serving and worshiping together--is acutely aware of the interior and societal challenges that inhibit how we relate to one another. His other book, Becoming Human, is similarly profound, but this one is agenda-setting: a must-read (and must-re-read) for people who fancy themselves visionaries and architects of life together. There's a whole chapter about meetings, for Pete's sake.

The ego is a key theme for Vanier, a perpetual struggle for individuals, communities and whole cultures. Not that egoism is a bogeyman, but he does see it asserting and propagating itself in all corners of life. His solution is important: we don't berate ourselves and others for our ego indulgence; we recognize that behind it is a disordered apprehension of love. We, however, don't love others out of their egoism, because to do so would be to indulge our own egos and consequently to do harm to the other. Instead we remind others, and with them ourselves, that the love of God is the stuff that we are made of, and the love of one another is the stuff that we were made for. What follows is the last quote I'll post from Vanier for a while; I think of it as something like his benediction to his readers, a way of sending us from his book back into our life together.
We have to remind ourselves constantly that we are not saviours. We are simply a tiny sign, among thousands of others, that love is possible, that the world is not condemned to a struggle between oppressors and oppressed, that class and racial warfare is not inevitable. We are a sign that there is hope, because we believe that the Father loves us and sends his Spirit to transform our hearts and lead us from egoism to love, so that we can live everyday life as brothers and sisters.

Sartre is wrong when he says that hell is other people. It is heaven that is other people. They only become hell when we are already locked into our own egoism and darkness. If they are to become heaven, we have to make the slow passage from egoism to love. It is our own hearts and eyes that have to change.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jean Vanier Is a Genius, Part Three

Community & Growth was published in 1979, the same year as Christopher Lasch's Culture of Narcissism. Sociologist Lasch was pointing out the societal trends that reflected a turn inward and its deadening effect on culture. Vanier's Community & Growth had a different function, a sort of justification for his at that time twenty-five-year project of bringing together able-bodied and disabled people in committed relationships of mutuality and gratuity. Lasch was pointing out that we'd allowed "normal" to become something dysfunctional and self-defeating; Vanier was showing that what appears abnormal to the broader society offers a prophetic vision of what could be.

Thirty years later the gulf between Lasch's culture of narcissism and Vanier's vision for community has widened. Social psychologist Jean Twenge recently reported that contemporary college students today openly acknowledge that they're the most narcissistic generation ever. I think you could argue that some other generation still holds the title, but it is nevertheless interesting that (a) people would say such a thing about themselves and (b) not be moved to repentance by it.

Meanwhile Vanier's notion that people can commit to one another in healing relationships has been embraced and experimented with more and more broadly, to the point where one of the more interesting stories in contemporary religion is the New Monasticism, where young people commit to living together in consecrated relationships with each other and the neighborhood surrounding them. I don't know that all of them would point to Vanier as their spiritual fountainhead, but they're certainly all playing in similar waters.

The contrast between these two portraits, I think, hints at their interconnectedness: a big slide from what we were meant to be calls for a big vision of the same. Late in his book Vanier suggests the following shift in missional priorities for the church:

There are so many people who live alone, crushed by their loneliness. It is obvious that too much solitude can drive people off the rails, to depression or alcoholism. More and more people seem to have lost their balance because their family life has been unhappy. There are so many who are lost, taking drugs, turning to delinquency; there are so many who are looking for a family and a meaning to their lives. In the years to come, we are going to need so many small communities which welcome lost and lonely people, offering them a family and a sense of belonging. At other times, Christians who wanted to follow Jesus opened hospitals and schools. Now that there are so many of these, Christians must commit themselves to the new communities of welcome, to live with people who have no other family and to show them that they are loved.


It's occasionally interesting to me how much shame we assign to narcissism; when I've discussed Deliver Us from Me-Ville with people who are parents and grandparents, they almost to a person cluck their tongues and wish their children and grandchildren would read the book--even though in the book I argue that this narcissism is part of the human condition, something that we each contend with and are never entirely free of, which means that parents and grandparents have their own narcissism to face up to. I also contend, however--and I think Vanier would agree--that this plague is at its root a reflection of insecurity, that we are narcissistic at least in part because we feel alone and unprotected in the universe, and that one way of contending with inordinate self-love when we encounter it is to remind people that there is other love available to them, that the love of God for them is purer and more enduring than the self-absorption they've so often settled for. You don't cure a pandemic of narcissism by quarantine; you cure it with love, and lots of it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Who Should Be Most Embarrassed?

All right, I think the week merits this conversation: Who should be the most embarrassed by his or her conduct in public this past week?

Was it Serena Williams, whose tirade and threats cost her a tennis match she was about to lose anyway?

Was it Representative Joe Wilson (R, South Carolina), who broke protocol in the congressional chamber by shouting "You lie!" at President Obama during his health care address?

Was it disgraced former governor Rod Blagojevich, who reacted to the apparent suicide of his close friend, codefendant and possible witness for the prosecution, Chris Kelly, by suggesting that prosecutorial pressure on him to "lie" about the governor's actions led to his suicide?

Was it Michael Jordan, who used his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame as an opportunity to publicly ridicule people with whom he's had decade(s)-long grudges?

Was it Kanye West, who grabbed the microphone from award-winner Taylor Swift to berate the voters for not selecting Beyonce instead?

Was it someone I'm overlooking? Was it me? Was it you? Let's try to learn together from the most uncivil week in recent memory.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Jean Vanier Is a Genius, Part Two

Every once in a while I'm reminded of the thesis behind Loud Time, which I freely admit gets lost from time to time as any number of topics stir me to write. It's my blog, after all; I can do what I want. But the idea that started this blog was that too often people think that to hear God, to come alongside God, demands that they separate themselves from everyone else. Some, in fact, secretly (even to themselves, I suspect) use "quiet time with God" as an excuse to withdraw from people. I don't doubt that God is present when we retreat from others and quiet ourselves to welcome him, but rather with Loud Time I intended to affirm that God is also present when we gather together. Today I read from Jean Vanier's Community & Growth a lovely iteration of that idea. This dude is a genius.

Many people in community tend to see the times they are alone as times of revitalisation, as opposed to the times of "dedication" or "generosity" they spend with the community. This means that they have not discovered the nourishment of the community.

This comes in the moments when together we discover that we make up a single body, that we belong to each other and that God has called us to be together as a source of life for each other. These times of wonder become celebration. They are like a deep, peaceful and somtimes joyful realisation of our unity and call, of the essential of our lives and of the way that God is leading us. They are a gift, a message of God in the community which awakens the heart, stimulates the intelligence and gives back hope. We rejoice and give thanks that we are together; we become more conscious of God's love and call for the community.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Preaching on Me-Ville

I google myself. I've said it before, I'll say it again. In my most recent round of virtual navel-gazing I came across a sermon by Rev. Jim Lake at First United Methodist Church of Oviedo. He preaches on Luke 5, where Jesus is teaching while Peter is cleaning his nets. He gets the name of the book wrong in the sermon, but whatevs. You can access the audio here. Good stuff. If you've preached on or from the book, I'd love to hear about it.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Jean Vanier Is a Genius

I quoted extensively from Jean Vanier's Becoming Human for my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville. Vanier, the founder and voice of the L'arche communities, where disabled and abled people live together in mutual community, has a gentle grace to him that allows the cultural critique inherent in his life's work to penetrate the defensiveness and discomfort that would otherwise encounter his readers. Now I'm finally reading a book of his that came out thirty years ago, a book I rescued years ago from an apartment a group of us were cleaning out for the Jesus People in Chicago, a book that a friend of mine (and author of the recent Folly of Prayer) told me is the most important book available on community living: Community and Growth.

This book analyzes the state of communal living in the midst of the digital age, in the aftermath of the free-everything 1960s, in the wake of disco. Around the same time of this book's release came the seminal Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch, but Vanier more pointedly calls out "the prisons of our egoism" and the consequent pervasive struggle against fear and self-assertion. Vanier watched idealism give way to hedonism and narcissism during the Age of Aquarius, and he anticipated the neglect that would heap on the developmentally disabled in such an age, and so he committed himself--and people have consistently committed themselves ever since--to not just serving the developmentally disabled in some patronizing way but to communing with them, learning from them, joining with them in covenantal community.

Vanier is a realist, which is, I think, what makes him both so gracious and so challenging. Here's a great example, from pages 74-75 of the Paulist edition:

If we are to grow in love, the prisons of our egoism must be unlocked. This implies suffering, constant effort and repeated choices. To reach maturity in love, to carry the cross of responsibility, we have to get beyond the enthusiasms, the utopias and the naivetes of adolescence.
***
It seems to me more and more that growth in the Holy Spirit brings us from a state of dreaming--and often illusion--to a state of realism. Each of has our own dreams and projects, which prevent us from seeing ourselves clearly and accepting ourselves and others as we are. Dreams throw up strong barriers. They hide the psychological, human and spiritual poverty which we find hard to bear in ourselves. . . . When we discover that God lives in us and carries us, our dreams can disappear without leaving us depressed. We are held by the gift of faith and hope, that fine thread which binds us to God.
***
People in community ask how they can know if they and it are growing. St. Paul gives a clear indication in his Epistle to the Corinthians: love is not heroic or extraordinary acts. . . . Perhaps the essential quality for anyone who lives in community is patience: a recognition that we, others and the whole community, take time to grow. Nothing is achieved in a day. If we are to live in community, we have to be friends of time.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Dying in Public

As a friend of mine commented recently, a lot of people have died this summer. By that he meant that a lot of famous people have died this summer; I'm reasonably confident that the global death toll isn't substantially higher than what is typical between June and September. But the list is long of names instantly recognizable:

Koko Taylor, June 3
David Carradine, June 3
Ed McMahon, June 23
John Callaway, June 23
Michael Jackson, June 25
Farrah Fawcett, June 25
Billy Mays, June 28
Karl Malden, July 1
Martin Hengel, July 2
Steve McNair, July 4
Robert McNamara, July 6
Oscar G. Meyer Jr., July 6
Walter Cronkite, July 17
Frank McCourt, July 19
John Hughes, August 6
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, August 11
Les Paul, August 13
Robert Novak, August 18
Ted Kennedy, August 25
Adam "DJ AM" Goldstein, August 28

These names are instantly recognizable to me because of where I live, how I grew up, and what in the world around me interests me. There's a painfully long list of newsworthy people who died this summer, whose names are not familiar to me but who would give a moment's pause to other people, in other places, of other interests. I feel sorry for Canadian hockey player Ted Kennedy, who died earlier this month but whose death, even his name, is overshadowed by the death of the lion of the U.S. Senate. Senator Kennedy lay in repose for several days and was brought by car to a visitation site in Boston. His funeral is this morning, where the sitting U.S. president will eulogize him. He'll be buried next to his brothers in Arlington National Cemetery.

His death, we might hope, bookends an emotionally exhausting summer that might be thought to begin with the same-day deaths of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. Fawcett's death was anticipated, even produced for television, but Jackson's death caught us off guard and left people wondering how to pay their respects to each without neglecting the other. In the end, Jackson's death captured more of the national imagination, and was marked by red-carpet memorials in New York, Los Angeles and his hometown of Gary, Indiana.

I find myself wondering who decides the terms for mourning for any given death, and how they are decided. Why not, for example, a more public memorial for Walter Cronkite, who anchored some of the most profound moments of twentieth-century world history? Why not a nationwide "Day of Blues" to mark the far-reaching influence of Koko Taylor? Why not a broad public conversation about the interplay between Judaism, Christianity and paganism in honor of Martin Hengel's groundbreaking work?

These things happened in the particular pockets and corners of these people's primary worlds, I'm sure. And I'm sure the architects of the events that memorialized singer Jackson and Senator Kennedy had well-considered reasons for the decisions they made. But this long list of newsworthy deaths, if nothing else, should remind us of the much, much longer list of anonymous deaths, being mourned in private by people whose lives were no less touched by their little loved ones as by these big names. And likewise, these big-name deaths are no less significant for the bigness of their names. The poem by John Donne has become cliche, and rightly so, because it speaks truth: "Each man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Up with Mediaeval Impracticality

My day job is as an editor for a publisher of nonfiction books, and as such I try to help people frame and structure their ideas so that their reader won't nod off. Often, that's not an easy task. There are many shapes that a nonfiction book could take that readers will tolerate, but my favorite is something along the lines of this:

1. Articulate the problem.
2. Trace the history of the problem.
3. Identify the core principles that pertain to the problem.
4. Tease out the implications of the core principles.
5. Reorganize the world around those core principles and their implications.

(Of course this presumes some prior identification with the problem and some hope of a solution on the part of the reader. And so the book is packaged around the promise--an introduction and a conclusion (perhaps better thought of as a benediction) assure the reader that the ennui that led them to the book can be confronted and contended with--and sold by its solutions with a catchy, memorable, hope-filled title. Instant classic. Or something like that.)

This structure is, incidentally, how practical theologians tend to think. Practical theologians emphasize the feedback loop between the abstract work that historically has characterized theology and the world-made-by-and-sustained-by-God that inspires such abstractions. They ask questions like "Why are so many people getting tattoos? Why is the Bible seemingly so opposed to tattoos? Are the tattoos of the twenty-first centuries A.D. and B.C. the same? If not, how ought we to think about contemporary body art?"

My utter lack of body art aside, I suppose my enthusiasm for such grounded theological reflection may make me an armchair practical theologian. My patron saint in this vocation is G. K. Chesterton, who wrote the following as an introduction to his Heretics, a collection of essays playfully challenging the prevailing post-Christian minds of his day.

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good–” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

I've referred several new authors to this parable lately, a reminder that they have in a sense embraced the call of this monk, and while they thus may be occasionally and even "somewhat excusably knocked down," clear and cogent books are their gift to a world that too often doesn't know what it wants or even needs. I daresay their books are their ministry, their mission.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Wendell Berry Is a Genius, Part Two

In his essay "Quantity Vs. Form" Wendell Berry contrasts a long life, which biotechnology and commercialism have made the presumed norm, with a whole or complete life, which is more communal and aspirational.

Berry leads off with a discussion of an old friend well into her "latter years," whose degenerative illness had led to great pain. The doctor's course of treatment was to withhold pain medication that was inhibiting her appetite, with the goal of "getting her back on her feet." Berry contrasts this medical bias toward longevity with the experience of Lord Nelson, who died in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and whose death was eulogized by his biographer, Robert Southey, with the pregnant phrase "He cannot be said to have fallen prematurely whose work was done."

Embedded in this eulogy is a sense of vocation, of life purpose, that is subverted by a bias toward longevity. Berry is wise to say explicitly that he's opposed to euthanasia and assistend suicide, because neither is the point. The point is that, as he alludes to elsewhere, we become more and more parasitic and consequently less and less virtuous as a species when we see life as something to be consumed, and longevity as proof of success, rather than life as something to be embodied, and success as defined by the way we conduct ourselves from age to age. This corrosion of our vision is an accident of our hubris; we see the potential within our grasp to overcome the constraints that life necessarily entails for us--among which are the infirmities and limitations that descend on us as we age and the death than none of us can ultimately avoid. Medication has become the silver bullet we use to defeat the bogeyman of death ("Death no apparently is understood, and especially by those who have placed themselves in charge of it, as a punishment for growing old, to be delayed at any cost"), and we discover too late that this bogeyman is actually our friend, that as the Bible and other ancient wisdom asserts, the progression of life through death is part of what defines us and frames who we were meant to be. Berry addresses this succinctly in the middle of the essay:

We come to form, we in-form our lives, by accepting the obvious limits imposed by our talents and circumstances, by nature and mortality, and thus by getting the scale right. Form permits us to live and work gracefully within our limits. . . . The art of living thus is practiced not only by individuals, but by whole communities or societies. It is the work of the long-term education of a people. Its purpose, we may say, is to make life conform gracefully both to its natural course and to its worldly limits.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Wendell Berry Is a Genius

Check this out:

Conservative rugged individualists and liberal rugged individualists believe alike that they should be "free" to get as much as they can of whatever they want. Their major doctrinal difference is that they want (some of the time) different sorts of things.

"Every man for himself" is a doctrine for a feeding frenzy or for a panic in a burning nightclub, appropriate for sharks or hogs or perhaps a cascade of lemmings. A society wishing to endure must speak the language of care-taking, faith-keeping, kindness, neighborliness, and peace. That language is another precious resource that cannot be "privatized." ("Rugged Individualism," in The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays by Wendell Berry)


I've read Wendell Berry in small bits to date, in part because that's how I'm inclined to read, in part because that's how he's inclined to write. "I am a small writer as I am a small farmer" is how he describes himself in this collection of essays. If you can get as incisive as quickly as the above pair of paragraphs suggests, more power to you.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Not Just Anybody

This past weekend was the Fest for Beatle Fans, which my wife, my father-in-law and myself attend every year. This was a particularly good year; the special guests performed such a range of Beatle-related music as "Say Say Say" by Paul McCartney and the late Michael Jackson, and "Everybody's Got Something to Hide 'Cept for Me and My Monkey" from the White Album.

This weekend I also got spammed on a very old post at my other blog, Strangely Dim. It happened to be about John Lennon, dating to December 8, 2005--the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death. I repost it here because I still like it, and because John's mindfulness is still worth keeping in mind.


***

I've tended to be a Paul McCartney guy, myself, but as a songwriter and founder of the Beatles, Lennon was a force of popular music. You can still hear his influence even on people who don't know they've been influenced by him.

I was ten when John died. I don't remember the moment, but I do remember the aftermath. My family went to the library the next day, where we joined a room of people watching news reports. I acted like a ten year old, running around and goofing off, and I was rebuked and chased away by the gathered crowd. It was a brief foreshadowing for me that the world is not as innocent and playful as we're allowed as children to imagine it.

I was ill-prepared today to commemorate John's passing, but fortunately I was able to borrow the soundtrack to The Royal Tenenbaums, which features a little song by John: "Look at Me." I'd not heard it before, but it's emblematic of some of John's most intimate writing:

Look at me. What am I supposed to be? . . .

Here I am. What am I supposed to do? . . . What can I do for you? . . .

Who am I? Nobody knows but me. . . . Nobody else can see--just you and me.


Maybe he's singing to Yoko or his mom or his dad or the universe or me, but the genius of it is that it sounds like something you whispered just last night to a lover or a parent or the universe. Anyone can sing it to anyone at any given moment. I might sing it to God; God might sing it to me. Either way, it'll occupy my thoughts long after it's sung.

In the wake of these lyrics or these thoughts I'm reminded of my own finiteness and of the grace of God, who comes to us and reveals himself to us and abides with us--a great favor to a world of people who can only comprehend so much. I'm reminded of a quirky little line from St. Augustine I came across in David Benner's book The Gift of Being Yourself:

Grant, Lord, that I may know myself that I may know thee.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Book Review: The Truth About You


I'm surprised that a publisher like Thomas Nelson would publish a book that advises people to "break" the Golden Rule--Jesus' command to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you"--every day. But that's exactly what they did with Marcus Buckingham's The Truth About You. Buckingham offers this advice not as an act of rebellion per se but because, apparently, Jesus had some flawed logic.

This book had been sitting around the house for some time, waiting for me to work up the moxie to enter fully into it. It's like a Bible in that way, right down to the shiny lettering on the face and spine. It's also like a Bible in its dual promise of practicality and transformation: by taking it up you're not just reading a book, you're adopting a discipline, entering into a way of life.

The truth about you offers almost nothing to the desperately poor, and little more to the merely poor. That's fine; books are, arguably, the domain of the well-to-do. This book is for them--people born and raised in prosperity who are starting to chafe against the artificial restraints placed on them. As such it's pretty good, actually, except that its starting point is so secondary.

The truth about you necessarily includes the truth about the human condition, and the meaning of life, and so a book like this--which has the moxie to suggest it can tell you all you need to know to live your best life now, or whatever--really should begin with the question of why human beings exist, and why is there suffering?

To sprint past these questions to the really more mundane question of, essentially, "What do you most enjoy doing?" doesn't necessarily lead someone down the wrong path to their vocation, but neither does it necessarily generate real, deep reflection on life's purpose, regardless of how inspiring the soundtrack of the accompanying video or the typography of the pages. I think the author would agree that "no man is an island"--I get that from some of his rhetoric--but once you establish that no man is an island, digging a moat around your kingdom and casting away all the duties and responsibilities that don't enhance your self-concept makes precious little sense.

Buckingham's definition of "strengths" and "weaknesses" is a big departure from common understanding. "Strengths" are not what you do well but what you're "strengthened" by; likewise with weaknesses. So the solution to all the world's ills, we're led to believe, is to do whatever makes you happy as much of the time as possible. Tell that to the kid living in the garbage dump. I'm sure she has things that make her happy. Under Buckingham's program, that would be enough for everyone.