Friday, December 31, 2010

A New Year's Eve Meditation

I’ve always assumed that destiny—my destiny, your destiny, our destiny—is out there, out front, down the road a bit and around the corner. Destiny isn’t; destiny will be. I’ve always assumed that destiny was a future event that we aspired to. And in a sense I suppose that makes sense: destiny has the same etymology as destination, after all. But lately I’ve been wondering whether I have placed destiny so far forward for no other reason than to keep it handily out of reach.

Is destiny something I, you, we, aspire to, or is it something we defer for as long as possible? I think of Augustine, who saw purity and continence as his destiny—“but Lord, not yet!” I think of Oz, the Emerald City, the reality of which proved less inspiring than the idea of it, or the yellow brick road that led to it. I think of my own destiny fantasies—the inevitable celebrity, the inordinate wealth—that I somehow intuitively recognize are more valuable when they remain ethereal, better coping mechanisms than life coaches.

So now I’m wondering whether destiny isn’t so much some future, far off thing as it is something present and parallel, another way possible that pokes me now and then with its possibility, a ghost that haunts my everyday existence and urges me to repent and hear the good news. The kingdom of God, Jesus tells us, is near—more now than not yet. The life I’m meant to live—not the “best life” that involves conspicuous, relentless consumption and obnoxious self-assertion and –preservation but the responsible, mature, vocational life fashioned for me in secret by the Creator of the universe—is knocking me off my horse, tapping me on the shoulder and whispering in my ear: “This is the way, walk in it.”

No destination, only destiny. No future, only the ever-present now awaiting my awakening, your awakening, our awakening.

Maybe not. But it does make me wonder . . .

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Getting Better All the Time

Paul McCartney has had a pretty good 2010. His Beatles catalogue was finally made available on iTunes; his post-Beatles discography is being remastered and re-released; he was awarded the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song by President Obama; he was honored alongside Oprah Winfrey and other artists by the Kennedy Center; even a street he once walked on in his bare feet is now a landmark protected by the British government. Money can't buy McCartney love, but in 2010, he had love (and money) to spare.

The problem with all these accolades is that they're almost entirely retrospective. Meanwhile, Paul is regularly putting out new music. Of course, among his more recent releases is the album Memory Almost Full, which includes songs like "Ever-Present Past" and "At the End of the End," a song about his death. I fear that Paul feels his best years are behind him; I worry that he thinks back to "When I [was] Sixty-Four" and decided it was, for all intents and purposes, "The End."

That doesn't need to be the case. I think what Paul needs, to reinvigorate his own creative process and reassert his reputation as a living artist, is some creative collaboration.

Paul is known as much for his collaborations as for his personal creative genius. The overwhelming majority of Beatles songs, whether he wrote them in total solitude or had nothing whatsoever to do with them, are a shared songwriting credit with John Lennon. His post-Beatles work was marked by the upfront participation of his wife Linda and the distinctive contribution of ex-Moody Blues guitarist Denny Laine. He charted hits with Stevie Wonder and king of pop Michael Jackson. It's difficult, actually, to think of Paul McCartney in isolation; he's at his best when he's working with someone.

But since the mid-1980s Paul has, more or less, as a commercial artist, been keeping to himself. And since the mid-1980s, he's been thought of as an artifact of the past moreso than an artist of the present. So I would like to propose that Paul get back in the collaboration business.

He's not totally given up on collaboration, for the record. He's put out three albums with the techno-artist Youth (Martin Glover) as "The Fireman." But Fireman music isn't radio-friendly, and I want, for Paul and for the rest of us, more McCartney on the radio. So may I humbly suggest the following artists as a sort of to-do-be-do-be-do list for Sir Paul in his forthcoming creative renaissance.

Ben Folds. Ben Folds is the sort of angry genius that nicely offsets Sir Paul's cheery genius. Ben writes great melodies, crafts brilliant harmonies and comes up with startlingly honest lyrics. So does Paul. And the energy! Ben Folds tops my list.

Jeff Tweedy. Tweedy fronts Wilco, he has a respect for music history and a good track record of working with music and artists from earlier eras, as evidenced by his partnerships with Billy Bragg on the Woody Guthrie catalogue and his recent work with Mavis Staples. Speaking of whom . . .

Mavis Staples. In many ways the moral conscience of the late 1960s music scene, she once turned down a proposal of marriage from Bob Dylan, telling him to get religion. And he did!

John Legend. Legend meets legend, come on now.

They Might Be Giants and/or Justin Roberts. The biggest names in "kindie rock" would allow Paul to explore his silly, still-youthful side. Also, I went to high school with Justin, and that would bring me one degree closer to the Beatles.

Alicia Keys. She's a soulful genius, as is Paul at his best. I don't believe Paul has collaborated with a woman to date (besides Linda, at least), but Alicia Keys would be a good start.

Win Butler. The singer-songwriter for Arcade Fire is so hot right now, and he knows how to craft a highly textured song, something Paul mastered with tracks such as "Live and Let Die." Imagine the possibilities!

Elvis Costello. Elvis produced Paul's great Flowers in the Dirt album, which I believe Paul called his most energizing collaboration since John Lennon. It's time for a reunion.

Willie Nelson. A genius and legend in his own right, Willie Nelson has some experience with collaborative projects, having helmed the supergroup The Highwaymen and sung with Elvis Costello, among others. And speaking of country . . .

Alison Krauss. Alison Krauss is younger than I am but is already a legend in country and bluegrass music. She collaborated with Led Zeppelin alumnus Robert Plant to great effect. Gorgeous melodies and harmonies, what could go wrong? And speaking of bluegrass . . .

Chris Thile. The mandolin player from Nickel Creek went Beatlesque in his collaboration with Switchfoot lead Jon Foreman for their Fiction Family project; bluegrass (or, as a friend of mine called it, "new-grass") would be relatively unexplored territory for Paul, which is hard to imagine, but it's true.

Jon Foreman. See above. And Switchfoot is anthemic in ways that early Wings were anthemic. Time to rock again, Sir Paul.

Sean Lennon. All I am saying is give it a chance.

Sam Phillips. She recorded John Lennon's "Give Me Some Truth." She released the enormously Beatlesque (and enormously awesome) Martinis and Bikinis. She's one of my all-time favorites. Do me this favor, Paul! And speaking of favors . . .

Neil Finn. Lead singer of Crowded House, in my opinion he is the best singer/songwriter of my era, having picked up lyrically and musically where the Beatles left off. He's written a song that everyone can sing along to, "Don't Dream It's Over," and several others that people would do well to learn; singing along to songs like his makes the world more awesome. Paul's written several such songs--imagine trying to decide whether to close your concert with "Hey Jude" or "Let It Be"--and he deserves the company of someone who knows what that's like.

Anyway, that's what I wish for when I think of Paul McCartney. Anyone I've overlooked?

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Self-Publishing Class

I keep track of what I read--I use that "Living Social" service somehow connected to Facebook to log books I'm reading, books I've read, books I want to read. I adopted the service sort of on a whim; I'm reasonably certain that there are better alternative services, with more utility at least. But in any case, I've found it useful and, at times, gratifying to be able to click on a button announcing "I'm finished" when I turn the final page.

One of the apparent shortcomings of Living Social is that it doesn't access self-published books--at least not all self-published books; it's not clear to me which it lists and which it doesn't. I discovered this because lately I've been reading a fair bit of self-published books. Right now I'm reading two--one by three friends, one by a "friend" whom I've never met--and I'm reading about a third (a friend just released his self-published book, and it's generating some buzz around his core networks). I find it mildly frustrating that my reading some of these books will go unannounced, unarchived--this despite the fact that I work for a conventional trade book publisher, which one would assume ought to feel threatened by the self-publishing industry. We make our money, after all, not only by selling books but by signing authors:

no authors to sign = no books to sell
So when authors choose a route that doesn't require us, well, that feels less like a snub and more like a shot across the bow.

We're not generally threatened by self-publishing, however. I'll be honest: most of what gets self-published is not saleable. That's not to say it's not good (though I'll be honest: much of it is not good), but the otherwise good author may not be able to attract a crowd, and a trade publisher needs a crowd as much as it needs an author.

no author to sign + no crowd to buy = no job for Dave

I thought about publishing my next thing--The Parable of the Unexpected Guest--through a self-publishing outlet. But I started researching it and got bored + lazy, so I sucked up to the right people at my employer and got them to sign it. Now I just have to find a crowd . . .

But I digress. I thought about self-publishing because I've started to really get it: it's not merely the vanity thing I had once made it out to be--or, at least, it's not necessarily more vain a move than publishing with a conventional trade publisher. In fact many of the self-published books I'm reading strike me as a new kind of humility, or what passes for humility in an age of living online--a kind of humility that doesn't denigrate the life of the mind and the creativity that's inherent to being human. These folks self-publish because they write, and they write because they think, or they write in order to think, or they write because or in order that they can be creative with words.

I'm coming to the conclusion, actually, that for a particular class of people writing a book is a sort of rite of passage. It's a discipline, really, a way of synthesizing, processing and communicating what they have come so far to understand. It's like a dissertation for the student of a particular life, an intellectual travelogue for a postmodern pilgrim. Whether the book itself is broadly read is ancillary to the act of writing itself; in a world where publishing has become a working-class utility rather than an aristocratic luxury, it's enough to have written. You can then go on with whatever's next.

Some self-publishers go on to write books for publishers like my employer; some others continue to publish "off grid" as a sort of conviction, even though they have the attention of publishers like us. Some others will never write another book. Not everything any of them has written is great or even good, but for this class of people it's good nonetheless that they've written. God bless them: they honor a tradition older and more profound than publishing. They honor writing, and thinking, and creating. May their tribe increase.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Joy Slips In Unnoticed

This very nearly made me cry the first time I saw it. From the creative minds at Improv Everywhere. Merry Christmas from Loud Time.


Guerilla Handbell Strikeforce

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve: A Tale of Two Cities

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
(O little town of Bethlehem)
Dressed in holiday style.
(How still we see thee lie.)
In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas.
(Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.)
People passing, children laughing,
(Yet in thy dark streets shineth)
Meeting smile after smile.
(The everlasting light)
And on every street corner you hear . . .
(The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.)

Silver bells, silver bells
It’s Christmas time in the city.
Ring-a-ling, hear them ring.
Soon it will be Christmas day.

Strings of streetlights—
(How silently, how silently)
Even stoplights blink a bright red and green.
(The wondrous gift is given)
As the shoppers rush home with their treasures.
(So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.)
Hear the snow crunch, see the kids bunch.
(No ear may hear his coming)
This is Santa’s big scene
(Yet in this world of sin)
And above all the bustle you’ll hear . . .
(Where meek hearts will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.)

Silver bells, silver bells
It’s Christmas time in the city.
Ring-a-ling, hear them ring.
Soon it will be Christmas day.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Pray for the Imprisoned

Former Illinois Governor George Ryan is still in prison. He was denied his request for a new trial, based on changes to "Honest Services" laws imposed by the Supreme Court, and to be allowed to live free during the retrial to attend to his dying wife. The details of Ryan's conviction are complex, amounting to abuse of office while he was Illinois Secretary of State that resulted (somewhat indirectly) in the accidental deaths of six children. His wife Lura's cancer has spread throughout her body, and she will likely die in a matter of months.

Governor Ryan could not seem more different, on the surface at least, from his successor and fellow convict Rod Blagojevich. Ryan looks like a stereotypical Republican--old, white in hair and skin, stocky and suity; Blagojevich looks like a Chicago Democrat--young and healthy, with bushy dark hair and mildly progressive white skin, with an inexplicable optimism and an aura that invites suspicion or derision, depending on the context. I've never really liked Blagojevich; I never really liked Ryan either, but I feel more sympathy for Ryan than for Rod.

Ryan, for one, has served time. He's in prison and dealing with it. He has been since 2007. Also, his wife is dying, and he can't get to her; she can get to him, of course, but she's unwell and they're separated by a state and a penal system. It's hard not to feel for a guy who has to endure these extreme hardships--including watching his wife die from afar--in the public eye.

Beyond his current situation, I'd like to suggest that Ryan handled his scandal better than Blagojevich. Rod became a national laughing stock in the wake of his arrest, embarrassing himself on talk shows and reality television--even making a commercial for pistachios, of all things. After his scandal broke, by contrast, Ryan became a national leader, declaring a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois and commuting the sentences of all Illinois death row inmates, and visiting Fidel Castro in defiance of a national embargo on Cuba. Both were reasoned acts that provoked nationwide conversations; the closest Blagojevich came to such statesmanship was a showy offer of free public transportation for senior citizens, which many didn't need and which deepened state debt and nearly undid the public transportation system for everyone.

So I think of Ryan as a governor, and Blagojevich as a politician. That doesn't mean I think Ryan is innocent of the charges he was convicted of, nor does it mean I think he's incapable of playing politics. Ryan is unique among people in the prison system in that he can appeal his situation not only to the courts but to the public. He has a willing accomplice in the media, many of whom are now old family friends by virtue of his career in politics and their career in news. They also have their own interests: there's value in milking a story as prolific in human drama as Ryan's, from the kids that died to the cancer that's killing his wife. We follow this drama not because Ryan is an inmate in federal prison but because he knows the right people to play, the right buttons to push.

There are doubtless countless other inmates in prisons throughout the country who face the loss of loved ones while they're inside; they have no reporters visiting their cells or their loved ones' hospital beds. Prison is a desolate place, with so much attention given to keeping order that little time or energy is left for tending to the hurting. I don't blame the guards or the wardens or anyone for that; it's the system we want, I think it's fair to say. We just don't want to admit we want it.

We feel bad for Ryan because we know who he is; we feel nothing for most inmates because we don't know who they are. Ryan is asking for clemency and special treatment; I'd love to see him lead again, to tell his story not as a plea for special circumstance but as an illustration of a fundamental flaw in how we dispense justice. I'd love to see Ryan show solidarity with his fellow inmates, to use the power available to him to provoke a national conversation again, to help us figure out how to acknowledge the humanity of the convicted--with all the relational complexity that attends to it.

So, while I'm not a fan of George Ryan per se, I'll be praying for him this Christmas, him and those like him who are separated from their loved ones for reasons we understand. I'll also be praying for me and those like me who don't like crime but are uncomfortable with our current system of punishment.

Monday, December 20, 2010

An Open Letter to Survivor

This morning Jud "Fabio" Birza will collect a check for $1 million, thanks to his ability to "outwit, outplay, outlast" twenty people in the Nicaraguan rainforest. I'm happy for Fabio; as the season unfolded he became my pick to win--not because I thought he had the goods to pull it off, but because he was the least onerous of twenty seemingly irredeemably onerous people.

I knew we were in trouble this season on Survivor when "the young tribe" (contestants under forty--please don't make teams by age ever again) openly fretted that the woman with a prosthetic leg ("Kelly B") would win sympathy votes from the jury and so (a) made her life horrible at camp and (b) conspired to get rid of her early. I don't think a sympathy vote was going to be a problem with this crew of misanthropes.

The "old tribe" (I can't believe I've reached the point where I would be on the "old tribe") wasn't any better, with alpha males conspiring to take down a person, Super Bowl-winning coach Jimmy Johnson, who (a) should have been their hero, (b) could have gotten them all the way to the end and (c) would have refused the money had he gotten there. I think "the love of the game" was present in most of the contestants this season, but I also think "love" in this case is a misnomer: I saw no real love, of neighbor or enemy or anything, only obsession.

In a season where a neurotic woman (Holly Hoffman) steals a teammate's shoes and doesn't get voted off for it but instead becomes the beloved preachy matriarch; in a season where the "hero" (Jane Bright) hoarded food and pouted and would not shut up about North Carolina; in a season where a guy (Dan Lembo) who repeatedly proved himself useless in competitions and in camplife made it to the final five; in a season where the winner (Fabio) didn't make any enemies despite peeing in the pool that his fellow contestants had to keep jumping into; in a season where the villain (NaOnka Mixon) got bored and quit--in a season this annoyingly dysfunctional, we your fans are less excited by the finale and more relieved. Even hobst Jeff Probst seemed to be glad it was over; he was more eager to talk to audience member Terry Bradshaw than many of the actual contestants.

Probst announced some changes for the next season, which were as wonkish and boring as the weird ramblings of the winner when asked what he'd do with the money: a rewritten contract with the competitors, so that if they quit, the show can use its discretion to decide whether to include or exclude them from the jury (insert dramatic tribal music here); also, starting next season, eliminated players have a chance to earn their way back into the game (at which point they will most likely be immediately voted off again).

Dearest Survivor, I fear you've lost your way. In season 1, the winner was obvious from the beginning; Richard what's-his-name was clearly, undeniably outplaying, outwitting and outlasting everyone else. The losers recognized and accepted that they had been beat. The audience understood the logic of the final vote, drama included. And for all Richard's quirkinesses and controversies, he remained likeable.

We've come a long way, since now the show comes up with ways to give money to "fan faves" and the final vote is more often than not a full-on pouty protest--like the airing of grievances, the jury's own "Festivus for the rest of us!" Sorting out the heroes and the villains doesn't work for a show like Survivor; the heroes get kicked out early by the villains, who are better at capitalizing on their defeats than playing to their strengths. We're left to root for the lesser of twenty evils, and the show no longer makes sense. Up becomes down, young becomes old, winner becomes loser, and vice versa.

I suggest, dear Survivor, that you worry less about protecting and shoring up the "fan faves" and concentrate on making an exciting show. Find contestants who are interesting in and of themselves, whose egos are in check in advance. Reward teamwork more than infamy, both in airtime and in playtime. Kick a player off for being a jerk; give a player a reward for being extraordinarily kind. How about a season of players who don't care about the money? Players who want to test themselves, not prove themselves? You change things up a little bit every season; I submit that, if you concentrate less on changes to contracts and more on the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, you'll wind up with viewers anxious to learn who won, rather than an audience that's relieved to be through with you.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent: O Come, Immanuel

Over the Rhine wrote "The Trumpet Child" as a riff on the future coming of Christ. Here's the song being performed (not by OTR) at a church; lyrics (from Over the Rhine's website) follow beneath.



The trumpet child will blow his horn
Will blast the sky till it’s reborn
With Gabriel’s power and Satchmo’s grace
He will surprise the human race

The trumpet he will use to blow
Is being fashioned out of fire
The mouthpiece is a glowing coal
The bell a burst of wild desire

The trumpet child will riff on love
Thelonious notes from up above
He’ll improvise a kingdom come
Accompanied by a different drum

The trumpet child will banquet here
Until the lost are truly found
A thousand days, a thousand years
Nobody knows for sure how long

The rich forget about their gold
The meek and mild are strangely bold
A lion lies beside a lamb
And licks a murderer’s outstretched hand

The trumpet child will lift a glass
His bride now leaning in at last
His final aim to fill with joy
The earth that man all but destroyed

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Perpetual State of Incarnation

It’s not unreasonable, I think, to consider the best art a sort of blood sacrifice. I hate to draw attention to all the popular songs with lyrics referencing the loss of blood, because I know people for whom such lyrics trigger awful things, but trust me they are many. Maybe the best example of what I’m getting at is a line from Red Smith about the art of writing: “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

It’s blood because it’s so personal, so passionate. It’s a sacrifice because, regardless of motive (and much motive behind art is egoistic in the most notorious sense), it is spilt on behalf of others—often people you’ve never met or will meet, often people you don’t or wouldn’t particularly enjoy being around. Your blood, shed for them.

In that respect, Jesus may rightly be thought of as an artist. Maybe that’s why so often Jesus’ words are set in red ink: to remind us that while his crucifixion was a blood sacrifice for all of us, his life to that point—the things he did, the words he spoke—were no less born out of passion, no less shed for us. The incarnation itself—God taking on flesh, Jesus being born and growing up and spending three years announcing that the kingdom of God is near—was a passionate act of sacrifice.

We don’t think about the sacrifice of Christ in the incarnation very much during Christmas. We celebrate the baby Jesus and we sing songs about how awesome it is that he would come, but we don’t think about the cost of the coming. Containing an infinite God in flesh cannot be comfortable; forsaking the power and privilege of divinity can’t be pleasant. Speaking truth to the powers that be, all the while knowing that they will respond to your truth with violence, and that while you could stop it at any time, you won't—we speak of Christ’s crucifixion as his passion, but his passion in truth attended to his whole time on earth, occupying every act, flowing through every word.

I just got back from a gathering, sponsored by living legend Tony Campolo, called the Red Letter Fellowship. It was suggested to us that the call to Christian discipleship is a call to speak and act in pursuit of a perpetual state of incarnation—that God’s kingdom would come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. To illustrate what this state might look like, Tony points to Isaiah 65:

Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere child;
the one who fails to reach a hundred
will be considered accursed.
They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the work of their hands.
They will not labor in vain,
nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the LORD,
they and their descendants with them.

Jesus illustrated this state of incarnation variously, but when he announced his mission, he turned likewise to Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus got in trouble talking like this, and as I looked around the room at the members of the Red Letter Fellowship, I saw a great number of people who have gotten into trouble for taking Jesus seriously when he talked like this. These days, to speak and act in pursuit of a perpetual incarnation is itself often a sort of blood sacrifice. In that respect, following Jesus is a good art, and Jesus himself is always looking for more artists.

So, on this third Sunday of Advent, allow yourself some creative space: what art might Jesus be inviting you to make with him? What good news might Jesus be asking you to proclaim with him?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Rest in Peace, John Lennon

Thirty years ago, John Lennon was shot dead. Forty-one years ago he wrote the following, with Yoko Ono (and during the time that he shared all writing credits with Paul McCartney).

Ev'rybody's talkin' 'bout
Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism
This-ism, that-ism,
ism ism ism
All we are saying is give peace a chance

Ev'rybody's talkin' 'bout
Minister, Sinister, Banisters and Canisters,
Bishops, Fishops, Rabbis, and Pop Eyes,
Bye bye, Bye byes
All we are saying is give peace a chance

Ev'rybody's talkin' 'bout
Revolution, Evolution, Masturbation, Flagellation, Regulation,
Integrations, mediations, United Nations, congratulations
All we are saying is give peace a chance

Ev'rybody's talkin' 'bout
John and Yoko, Timmy Leary, Rosemary,
Tommy Smothers, Bobby Dylan, Tommy Cooper,
Derek Taylor, Norman Mailer, Alan Ginsberg, Hare Krishna
Hare Hare Krishna
All we are saying is give peace a chance

The song goes through occasional reiterations, reflecting on new passing fads and controversies, always retaining the intro of "everybody's talkin' 'bout" and ending with the chorus of "all we are saying." So today, on the thirtieth anniversary of John's death, why not take a stab at your own verse. Here's mine:

Everybody's talkin' 'bout
fashion glasses
lads and lasses
fumbled passes
greenhouse gasses
death and taxes
Latin masses
veni, vidi, vici.
All we are saying is give peace a chance.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Gospel According to Bob Dylan

For the second Sunday of Advent, the lectionary calls for a reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Here Matthew designates John the Baptist as "a voice" foretold by the prophet Isaiah, "calling out in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way for the Lord.'" If I were to make a musical out of Advent, I think my pick for the role of John would be Bob Dylan.

Dylan has in recent years been cast as many things, from the unseen prophet of the Cylon apocalypse in Battlestar Galactica, to the minstrel accompanying Victoria's Secret models as they prance around in their underwear. This year an album was released that imagines Dylan's music as the score of the African American experience in the United States. And yet as well-executed as those castings have been, I think John the Baptist is much less of a leap.

Picture a wild-haired, wild-eyed man on the edge of a river, who despite his utter lack of self-regard (and even self-care) and profoundly counter-cultural appearance and demeanor, can't help but attract a diverse crowd. Picture them looking warily at one another until a gravely, nasaly voice penetrates the ambient noise and lays into one and all with this prophecy:

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.

If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'.

For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside ragin'.

It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.

There's a little of nothing and a lot of something in the phrase "the times, they are a-changin'"--enough, I suppose, to unsettle those of us who need unsettling; enough to encourage those of us who need encouraging. But you can't just say it, because change that merits this kind of anthem doesn't just happen. You can't point to seasons changing or micro- or macro-evolution and get off on a technicality. This isn't a song of chronos, in which every tick of the second hand is, for the record, a change. This is a song of kairos, a ripeness of moment in which change is as profound as it is necessary--a curse to some, perhaps, but an overdue blessing to the minds of many.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin'.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.

This is what I imagine John the Baptist singing about, out there in the wilderness. This is what straightening paths for the Lord sounds like. The changes John baptized people into got him killed--got Jesus killed, even--and yet the changes themselves vindicated the suffering of those who suffered then, just as they vindicate the suffering of those who suffer now. To the intransigent on the shores of his river John the Baptist pleaded "start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone!" But to those whose suffering had reached its fullness of time, I picture John anticipating the words of Julian of Norwich, whispering into the ears of the poor and suffering as he dipped them into the water:

All will be well,
And all will be well,
And every manner of thing will be well . . .
For the times, they are a-changin'.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Dangerbooks! Living Mission

Let me first make a commitment: not every "dangerbook" I review will be one that I edited. I'm not so naive as to think I, who live in relative comfort and who rarely venture outside my home, let alone into discomfort of any kind, might be thought of as a "dangereditor." But I have found particular gratification in the editorial process on those books that challenge me, and so I freely admit that I sometimes seek them out. Hence my first "dangerbook" review, found here, was a book that I edited.

The nature of challenging books is such that, in the current reading climate, they're often strategically overlooked in favor of books that are "safe for the whole family" or some other category of innocuousness. Don't cry for these dangerbooks, of course: they're doing fine, and they're not so naive as to think writing books that threaten to change people is a viable retirement strategy anyway. Nevertheless, I like to do my part to showcase these books, as much out of appreciation for their impact on me, as out of my conviction that the responsibility of publishing is to push and stretch and confront and afflict, even as it encourages and empowers and even comforts. With that in mind, I bring you Living Mission, today's book o' danger.

Living Mission is a followup of sorts. Its editor (and author of chapter one) is Scott Bessenecker, associate director of missions for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and author of the book The New Friars. That book profiled five contemporary mission organizations that defy the caricature of missions and instead live among people in extreme poverty, advocating for justice and developing self-sustaining communities undergirded by faith. In Living Mission Scott hands the microphone to representatives of each of these movements to give further definition to how they came about and what they're all about. (Full disclosure, I've also edited books by two of the contributors.) As they see it, mission that is living and not hollow has essentially five traits:

* First and foremost, mission is incarnational--which is to say, emulating Jesus by living among and like those they serve (even though they don't have to).
* Next, mission is missional--which may elicit a "duh" from the audience but needs to be said anyway. It chases after the things God chases after--kingdom values--which often grate against the overarching values of the status quo.
* Next, mission is marginal, seeking out the places and people being neglected (and often actively suppressed or simply sacrificed) by the powers that be.
* Then mission is devotional, striving to keep its savior and lord and source of strength in view. This type of mission attracts a lot of activists, after all, and such people can often lose sight of their "why" as they chase hard after a particular "what."
* Finally, this living mission is communal. Those who engage in this type of mission are making a home for themselves, with new neighbors and an expansive and diverse family. Outsiders cannot swoop in and save a community; this isn't a comic book. No, communities are saved when they discover Christ and one another together, and when they step out in search of God's kingdom come, God's will done, in their neighborhoods and cities as it is in heaven.

As foreword writers Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove rightly observe, in a world where as many as two billion people live in megacity slums, "is the good news . . . really the promise of Disneyland and a trust fund?" We don't need to read this book just out of appreciation for the people who take such a difficult challenge for themselves; we need desperately to read it because the world so many of us occupy--the world of Christian publishing and suburban living--is not the whole world in God's hands. Whatever normal is, it's not us; whatever God's doing in the world, it's not leading to a utopia of shopping malls and worship CDs.

Some of the contributors to Living Mission live in Cambodia or Mexico or other harsh urban environments, but some of them live in San Francisco, London, Omaha, where they also regularly confront the underbelly of economic idolatry. We need to read Living Mission because it offers a map through the world where we find ourselves to the place where God is leading all of us together.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Successful, Short, Sinner/Saint Son of Abraham

Bless me, Blogger, for I have sinned. It has been sixteen days since my last blog post. I'm finding it increasingly difficult to come up with stuff to write about on a consistent basis. That's a problem for me, since I desperately want to be known as a writer.

I think I figured that out about myself pretty early on. My first creative writing assignment (at least the one I canonize as first in my memory) was a short story, a wildly meta fantasy in which the protagonist (whose name was, most likely, "Dave"--or perhaps "Danny," which as a kid I considered an objectively better name than "Dave" and thus a better name for myself) was soooo much smarter than his peers that he kept being advanced into later grades. Eventually his precociousness took him to high school where he could no longer reach the handle to his locker, and he returned to school among the hoi polloi of his age-appropriate class. Poor Dave/Daniel: the one thing he lacked on his rocket to success was a growth spurt.

I was as proud of that story as I was of my presumed advanced intelligence. I wrote songs, short stories, book reviews--you name it--all before adolescence. Even as I shifted my self-concept to "musician," I kept writing. I was proud of the essays I wrote for my college applications, proud of the essays I wrote in my literature class to stave off failure, proud of the one-liners I'd come up with on the fly to defy my teacher and entertain my French class. I bragged about my wit and mastery of language during a parent-teacher conference, to which my eighth-grade Basic English teacher responded, "Well, I suppose you have to be clever when you're small."

Ouch. In the narrative arc of the hero's journey, this moment might be considered my passage through the first threshold, "which is crossed in such a way that it appears to be death."

That's really the way it works, though, isn't it? Our fantasies about ourselves (which likely have some base in reality) clash with the more common perceptions of us among our peers: "I am smart," despite the fact that I had not qualified for advanced English and was stuck in a remedial English course with an insensitive teacher; "I am known as witty," despite the more immediately obvious designator for me as "small."

Today, for the purposes of feeding this blog and my own ego, I find myself identifying with another short but otherwise impressive fellow, Zacchaeus. A tax collector in first-century Palestine, he gets nine verses in Luke's Gospel--not enough to really know him; just enough to get a sense of him. But we get quite a sense of him, because in meeting Zacchaeus we once again encounter Jesus.

Jesus always drew a crowd, and Luke 19 is no different. Everyone in Jericho wanted to get a good look at him, including Zacchaeus. We learn two things about Zac right off the bat:

1. He's the chief tax collector.
2. He's rich.

So in matters of wealth and accomplishment, he's a big deal. Bully for him. But we very quickly learn one more detail:

3. He's short--so short "he could not see over the crowd."

I imagine the citizens of Jericho begrudgingly paying their taxes to Zac and then consoling themselves by ridiculing him for being tiny. Zac has, conceivably, a Napoleon complex, aggressively and myopically chasing success as a way of compensating for being small. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Napoleon had a Zacchaeus complex. Maybe I have a Zacchaeus complex. Maybe all of us "fun-size" (to borrow a term from my friends the Heuertzes) humor the taller among us with reaches that exceed our grasp.

Anyway, Zac didn't get rich and accomplished by giving up, so he climbs a tree, at which point Jesus sees him and invites himself over to Zac's house for dinner. This audacious act by Jericho's newest big thing must frustrate the townspeople. Wee Zac comes out on top again. To quote the band Midnight Oil: "The rich get richer, the poor get the picture. The bombs never hit you when you're down so low." So for the sake of posterity Zac's neighbors give us another description of who Zac is:

4. He's a lowdown sinner.

But Jesus knows there's more to Zac than what his neighbors think; there's even more to Zac than what Zac thinks. In a move that nobody saw coming, Zac offers restitution for his unjust (though not illegal) practices in collecting taxes, in keeping with the commands of Torah. Beyond that, he publicly pledges half his wealth to the poor folks in Jericho, again honoring the spirit of Torah. This is so out of keeping with who Zac knows himself to be, who the townspeople know Zac to be, that it can only be thought of as a miracle. But in the eyes of Jesus, this miraculous Zac has simply returned to normal, because Jesus knows a fifth thing about Zac:

5. He's a child of Abraham.

Zac is a child of Abraham just like all his neighbors, which means he is a beneficiary of the promises of God, a member of a covenant community that, according to God its head, takes care of the poor and treats one another justly. The children of Abraham, the scriptures tell us, love God and love their neighbors as themselves. Jesus tells us that these two rules sum up all of Torah. So this is who Zac is, who his neighbors are--or, more accurately, who they would be if they lived like they were born to live.

Jesus doesn't demand that we be something other than what we are--he didn't lay hands on Zac and make him tall; he didn't take his ill-gotten gains from him by force or expel him from the covenant community for violating usury laws in Torah. Jesus called it as he saw it, and he saw more clearly than anyone what needed to happen and indeed what had happened for Zac:

6. He's saved.

Today, then, as Advent begins, let us wait together with joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who will deliver us from the prisons of our reputations and the cells of our self-concepts, and restore us to our original identity as children of a loving God--with all that entails for us, and all that demands of us.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Friday, November 12, 2010

On the Death of a Flower

I never see it coming.
I'm always surprised
To look down and see petals,
To look up and see death.
This thing of beauty, now necrotic--
I'm always surprised, but
It shouldn't surprise me, for
Such is the end of all the living.

And not only that:
I should have seen it coming
Because the flowers I see most readily
Are the flowers that die by my own hand—
In what I have done,
And what I have failed to do.
My hand which neglected to nourish
My hand which cut off and cut away.
I have not celebrated beauty,
Nor have I cultivated it.
I have killed it, I have consumed it.

I ask the angels and saints—
and you, my brothers and sisters—
When my hour of need comes,
When my cry for deliverance goes out,
Treat me not as I have treated
The least of these,
But as a thing of beauty,
To be celebrated, cultivated—
Not to be consumed, but to be seen.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Folly of Permanence

Instead of adding chairs to the table of permanent UN Security Council members, I’d like to offer what I think is a more efficient proposal: end the era of permanent seats.

This will never happen, by the way. Having only two people in my semi-sovereign household and having only negligible geopolitical value to the five governments that hold veto power over any UN action, I don’t get a say. Nevertheless, I think the era of permanent seats at the UN probably should have ended in 1946, right after the Security Council first met; or if not then, then as soon as France and England and other has-been-ocracies got kicked out of their colonial territories. They had ceased to fit the profile; they were no longer major players on the global scene.

And what about Russia? Once Eastern Europe decided they were better dead than red, didn’t Russia cease to be a major concern? Or if Russia was still a concern, wasn’t it mainly that they’d have a fire sale on nuclear weapons and otherwise drag the global economy down with them? Is Russia still a logical choice to be able to control the agenda for global action?

Permanent seats on anything are generally eschewed, aren’t they? The only people who really champion permanence are the already permanent—the tenured professionals who can get away with anything; the multinational corporations that are "too big to fail" but not so big that they can't regularly fail their shareholders, employees and economic dependents; the “Washington establishment” whose incumbency is fuel to the fire of the candidates seeking their office. We just wrapped up a “kick the bums out” campaign season; President Obama seems to want to fill the UN with more bums.

No disrespect to the president or to India; I generally agree that they belong on the Security Council more than, say, France. (I can’t quite bring myself to say they belong there more than the United States, but I’m biased. I can admit that much at least.) The fact that India is now more globally relevant than France to me confirms not the right of permanence for India but the folly of permanence for anyone. Almost nothing changes as inevitably as the distribution of geopolitical power, and almost no one can be trusted less to wield permanent influence in the world than individual nation-states. Seriously, what move has any government made recently that displayed total objectivity about the needs of the world compared against the needs of that government?

If not the abolition of the permanent seats at the UN Security Council, perhaps the powers that be would accept a slightly more modest proposal: two tables—one based on GDP or total number of weapons of mass destruction or ethnicity or however they came up with the original list, and the other based on population.

That’s how the US Congress does it, right? The Senate was created to protect the interests of the powerful, and the House of Representatives was designed to give the populace a voice. I suppose India and China would probably have seats at both tables under this scenario, but really, whose fault would that be?

Still, I think getting rid of the permanent seats is the better option. Populations change, economies and empires rise and fall, but the needs of the world remain relatively constant. Whatever sovereign states serve temporary terms leading the UN, they won't generally be surprised when they take their seats. They might even take some action, if there weren't five countries hanging veto power over their heads. Maybe the world would have slightly fewer than a billion people living on dungheaps, subsisting on $1.25 a day, if the governments charged with their care got a little more respect from the table of nations.

Just a thought. In any case, USA all the way!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Dangerbooks: The Story of God, the Story of Us

I got two problems. Problem a: I keep running out of ideas to post. Problem 2: I got books to promote.

I work for a publisher, and I edit a lot of people who over the course of the publishing process become friends. Selling your own book can be tough; you need all the help you can get. So I have these friends in need, and I have this blog in need, and I think they can help each other.

So, without further ado, the first in an occasional series of reviews of books that make my work worthwhile. I call them dangerbooks.

***

Today's dangerbook is The Story of God, the Story of Us, by Sean Gladding. Sean is British, but he's spent most of his adulthood in either Lexington, Kentucky, or Houston, Texas. He's back in Lexington these days with his wife, Rebecca, and two kids. Sean and Rebecca serve in pastoral roles for Communality, a new monastic community active in urban agriculture and other community development efforts. Before this most recent stint at Communality, Sean was copastoring Mercy Street in Houston, a church made up largely of people in the recovery movement. I met Sean five years ago at a retreat in New Mexico, where he told me about a teaching tool he and Rebecca had developed to help people understand the "grand narrative" of Scripture. Sounded wicked awesome to me.

I developed a bit of a man-crush on Sean during that retreat, and I made it something of a personal mission to get that teaching tool into book form. Five years later, it's now in print. It still sounds like Sean, but it covers the whole terrain of the Bible--and not only that, it manages to transport the reader into the story itself. Eight chapters are set around a common fire lighting and warming an exilic Jewish community in Babylon. The Jews gather in the evening to sing songs of defiance and recall the glory days of the kingdom of Israel, but invariably their praise and memory gives way to bitterness: How did we, the people of God, wind up here--slaves again, exiled from the land of God's promise?

The community turns to a wise elder, one who recalls the days of temple worship in Jerusalem. This elder is himself chastened by his time in exile, and he embraces this call to confront and encourage his people: they have arrived in this place for a reason, but they have reason to hope. He retells the story of God--which, he reminds them (and us), is our story as well. from creation, where we are reminded that God is creative and good, to conceit, where we are reminded that we all too easily lose sight of God's goodness and banish ourselves from God's presence.

We leave the Old Testament with hope that God will once again deliver his people. After a brief interlude, when a student of the elder--now fully grown--tells of her return to the land of promise and her people's wait for a fuller deliverance, we are introduced to a new scene, this one an ekklesia in a major city. A visiting merchant learns what motivates such joy in his host and the people gathered in her home: the promised one of God who taught the Law, performed miracles, died and was resurrected. Now, the host tells her guest, everything is different. We see Jesus as the fulfillment of the messianic promise and his story as a continuation of the story that begins in Genesis. That merchant provides the link to the final chapter--he is now the leader of another ekklesia, this one meeting secretly to avoid persecution. He tells the end of the story, with the Roman empire (and all empires) subverted by the kingdom of God, the Roman tyrant (and all tyrants) supplanted by the Prince of Peace.

I loved this book; it's remarkably creative, pastorally sensitive, prophetically provocative. It rewards private reading but is intended to be read out loud in community. You can get the book at ivpress.com or at fine booksellers wherever.

Just for kicks, Sean teamed up with the folks at The Work of the People to supplement his book with a six-session video series. The videos run eight minutes each and cover six core themes in the Scriptures. Here he's not telling stories; here he's raising questions and suggesting ways of living more in sync with the love of God. The videos sell for $15 each, but you can get all six, along with a discussion guide, for $30. Trust me, they'll provoke plenty of discussion and reward regular viewing--I've found myself moved every time I've watched "Reconciliation," to say nothing of everything else.

This was a great book to edit; it was also an adventure, since we rushed the book so it could be made available at a conference called, fittingly, "Story." That meant multiple conversations every week with Sean over the course of several months. I miss those regular conversations, honestly. So I'm hoping a ton of people will buy the book so we can acquire another one from him. Do Sean and me--and yourself--a favor, and pick up a copy of The Story of God, the Story of Us. Then pick up another one and give it to someone you enjoy spending time with. You'll be doing them a favor too.

***

That's it for episode one of "Dangerbooks." Hope you enjoyed it. Look for the next installment whenever I run out of other material to report.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Snubbed by the Homeless

This past Sunday at worship I bumped into a guy I've met a number of times. I said "Hi." He said, "Do I know you?"

Apparently he didn't know me, but I knew him. I recognized him even though he was wearing a bloody hockey mask and carrying a bloody machete. (I'm assuming it was a Halloween costume, but in all honesty I don't know him very well.) I, on the other hand, was dressed in almost exactly the same way that I am every time I see this guy. It's worth noting that he recognized at least a couple of women, but me--nope. Nothing.

I'll be honest with you, I felt a little snubbed. I see this guy three out of every four Wednesday mornings. I make him breakfast, I fold his blanket and collect his dirty linens to be laundered. I let him sleep as much as a half hour longer than everybody else. He's a guest at an overnight shelter; apparently I'm his servant.

His name's Dave too, I found out. The women called him that. It's been a frustration of mine at the shelter, actually, that nobody ever uses anyone else's name; I never learn what to call people. I suppose I could ask, and I'm pretty sure I have asked once or twice, but I can't retain people's names to save my life, apparently.

I like to think that I'm not a particularly vain person, but when I get snubbed by a homeless guy, my vanity gets poked at. I like to be recognized, thanked, celebrated even. Noblesse oblige is traditionally thought to be the responsibility of the well off, but generally it's also their privilege, and when that privilege is withheld, it stings a bit. Especially when on most days the well off (e.g., me) don't feel particularly well off.

Then again, obligation never really motivates us. More compelling motivators are personal: self-preservation, personal gain, relationships, that sort of thing. And what really stings, I guess, is not that this poor homeless guy isn't adequately deferential to the middle-class guy schlepping eggs for him; it's that this guy I've gotten friendly with at weekly gatherings is friendly but not, apparently, a friend.

That's my fault as much as anyone's. I haven't remembered his name, I haven't gotten to know him. Instead of finding out about his life, I found myself surprised to run into him in the church building where both of us worship.

Jesus once told his followers, "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends" (John 15:15). That's what I want for me and Dave, I guess: in this scenario he's Jesus and I'm one of the guys who are about to abandon, betray or deny him. But Jesus called them friends nevertheless. I'm hopeful that, sooner or later, Dave will call me friend as well.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sympathy for the Evangelical

We’ve hit that point in the election cycle where I’ve become sorely tired of campaign commercials. Most of my voting decisions are, I’ll admit, this year being made based on superficial factors: no to the guy who had his own theme song written, no to the guy who does a bad Obama impression, yes to the guy who doesn’t stand a chance. (Apparently women in my district don’t run for political office.) But one thing I’ve come to appreciate this year is that people seem to be laying off the evangelicals.

In Chicago, church affiliation is not a disqualifier for public office; a prominent pastor is a serious contender for Chicago mayor, for example, and every Sunday I hear a sound bite or two from sermons by gubernatorial candidates and aspirants to the state senate. These church appearances tend to be on the liberal side of the divide, but it’s telling that no one is raising significant protest against what, in other days, might have been considered a serious breach of the division of church and state.

Meanwhile, on the right, candidates who in previous years might have pandered to the conservative church seem to be leaving it alone: no loud professions of faith, no “Jesus is my favorite philosopher” blindsides, no voter’s guide tucked under my windshield wiper during worship (yet). There’s been private pandering, I’m sure, at fundraisers and the like. And once or twice candidates have been set up to admit, however awkwardly, that they would separate their faith from their politics a little less than their opponent. But by and large, it seems that in this election, we’ve forgotten that personal faith exists: in this cycle, it’s the issues, stupid.

Maybe we should credit President Obama, who two years ago successfully negotiated a controversy involving his home church pastor and helped the country put personal faith in a new political context. Maybe we should credit Don Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, who stumped for then-candidate Obama and changed public perceptions about the monolithic political nature of evangelical faith. Maybe we should credit political activist James Dobson for stepping down as president of Focus on the Family (or credit the Focus board for giving him a little push). Maybe Jimmy Carter, whose Our Endangered Values is unabashedly Baptist and unapologetically progressive. Or maybe we should credit the Tea Party, whose sympathies clearly lie with conservative evangelicals but who have found better traction by identifying with the economically frustrated.

In any case, I’m relieved. Evangelical has been far too weighted an identifier for me to be comfortable with for, really, most of my adulthood, so the less press it gets, I suppose, the better. And yet it’s still an identifier, and in other parts of the world being evangelical can still get you into trouble, as Chinese delegates to the recent Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Capetown, South Africa, recently discovered. So particularly when it doesn’t hurt me but does hurt others, I find it helpful to revisit the term: what does it mean to be evangelical?

For some, evangelicals are equated with “Bible-banging homophobes,” as a friend of mine puts it. For others, evangelicals are driven by family values like gun rights and low taxes. For still others evangelicals believe the world is flat and was created, like, a thousand years ago for human beings to trash. For many, quite frankly, evangelicals are better bearers than Muslims of the term jihad.

There are more technical definitions of evangelicalism; Wikipedia assigns it four distinctives, based on the analytical work of David Bebbington:

• The need for personal conversion (or being "born again")
• Actively expressing and sharing the gospel
• A high regard for biblical authority, especially biblical inerrancy
• An emphasis on teachings that proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus

I’d like to return to this idea of jihad, however, because I think it’s helpful for defining the starting point of evangelicalism (its “genesis”—ha ha) and what might be considered its guiding ethic. Jihad, according again to Wikipedia, translates as “struggle” or “striving in the way of Allah.” The idea of faith and piety of any kind, Islamic or otherwise, as a struggle is as compelling as it is self-evident: the rational mind, the self-interested mind, the passions, the primal urges all might pull us in any number of directions; the mind of jihad stubbornly declares “But wait.” This internal jihad often extrapolates culturally, even politically and militarily, as the stubborn jihadist seeks strength in numbers to offset the power of the passions, the cool reasonableness of rationalism, the clarion cry of “collective self-interest.” But at its heart, jihad is primal, an impulse of the person (and by extension, the people) aiding the complicated process of making our way through the world. We stifle this interior struggle at our peril.

Evangelical jihad, however, adds a wrinkle to the term. The evangelical, I’d like to submit, doesn’t merely wrestle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12—pretty sexy verse, eh?); the evangelical wrestles against him- or herself, all the while wrestling with none other than the God of the universe.

We see it throughout the Scriptures, from Adam and Eve protesting their innocence, to Abraham negotiating for the salvation of a city, to Moses pleading for his people, to David on a hunger strike for the life of his child, to Job lamenting his sad condition, to Jesus crying from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). We see it carry through the formative years of the church, where Peter resisted the instructions of God before finally giving in and “actively expressing and sharing the gospel” to non-Jews, where Paul hears the voice of Jesus remind him that to fight the will of God is as effective as “to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). Personal conversion, submission to the authority of Scripture, belief in and proclamation of Jesus’ unbelievable saving actions on the cross and at the resurrection—these are preceded by, supported by, and indeed sustained by, struggle.

Three things keep the struggle alive for evangelicals (there are probably others):

• God is with us. We don’t struggle in a void or suffer in silence.
• God always wins. God is sovereign over all creation, after all.
• God is love. However bitter the struggle, however abandoned we feel in it, we are told that the author and perfecter of our faith, our jihad, is whatever love is.

That love, it’s worth noting, extends beyond ourselves, so that our interior struggle is not just our own private experience but our part to play on behalf of the whole. Paul helpfully reminds us in Ephesians 6 that, for all that our struggle is, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood.” Our neighbor—next door or far off—is not our enemy. If God is love, then, part of our jihad is to become love ourselves. That’s no walk in the park, but it’s God’s desire for us, and God always wins.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

What Would You Tear? A Meditation

Has anyone else noticed this? Saturday Night Live has adapted its thirty-plus year tradition of host photographs as segues from commercial to sketch. Instead of one static image, the viewer is now treated to flip animation: Amy Poehler turns slowly to the right and breaks out a staccato smile; Jane Lynch runs a gamut of facial expressions. What once seemed to be a delaying of the inevitable—the commercials are over, the show is back on—is now something of a show of its own.

I’m a word guy. I edit words for a living; I even edit words that other people have already written for my own entertainment. I write three blogs for kicks; I write books whenever a publisher will agree to publish them; I write, word for word, whatever I’m preparing to say in public. So when a static picture shows up on a screen, I tend to tap my feet and wait for something to be said, for something to be written. And yet, there’s something about a moving image—even something so simple as a flowing sequence of photo stills—that can be moving in ways that words strung linearly together simply can’t.

I hesitate to admit that. After all, I make my living off stringing words linearly together. Besides that, my faith—the ground of my being, the lifter of my eyes—is intimately associated with words strung together. To be a Christian is to claim, among other things, a special relationship with at least sixty-six distinct books, bundled together to tell the story of God as well as our own human story. To describe people of Christian faith as “people of the Book” makes sense; “people of the moving image” would seem to be some other communion entirely.

And yet we find these strung-together words in the Bible taking shape in our imagination; we hear the Bible and we see not sentences parsed but sentences carried out; not subject-verb agreement but bloody conflict and merciful reconciliation; not words made into paragraphs but the Word made flesh. So as much as the Bible is a set of words, it’s also kindling for our imagination. And so as much as Christian faith is a matter of words, it’s also undeniably a matter of power.

That, I suppose, is the idea behind Spencer Burke’s “monotations,” in which he combines one word with one image and invites people to reflect on what God might be communicating through the experience. We grow when we’re stretched, I think, and part of the stretching experience is to interact with our environment, allowing our environment to shape us even as we reshape our environment.

I write this and two scenes from the Scriptures come to mind. Both involve sovereign powers interacting with holy writing. Both involve acts of violence (not against human beings, though neither story is far removed from such violence, but rather violent reactions to holy words). One is a cautionary tale, the other is a high-water mark in the history of God’s people.

Imagine a room filled with a handful of men, one sitting, the rest standing. A fire pit heats the room on an otherwise frigid day. Those who are standing are anxious, not sure what to expect in the scene that unfolds. The one sitting is the king, and whatever he says, goes.

The king bids Jehudi to read from a scroll. Jehudi begins to read. And “whenever Jehudi had read three or four columns of the scroll, the king cut them off with a scribe's knife and threw them into the firepot, until the entire scroll was burned in the fire.” What was written on the scroll? An appeal from the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Judah to repent of their wickedness and return to the Lord, and a warning of disaster planned by God for the unrepentant. “The king,” it’s worth noting, “and all his attendants who heard all these words showed no fear, nor did they tear their clothes.”


Now imagine another room filled with a handful of men, one sitting, the rest standing. Perhaps a fire pit heats this room as well, as one man reads from the long-lost and recently rediscovered Book of the Law to the sitting king.

“When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes.” These were the words of God, and the implications were obvious: having not kept faith with God’s commands, God’s people stood condemned. The king repented of his own wickedness, and with it the wickedness of his people, and committed as a nation to return to the Lord. As a result, the king heard more words from God: “Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the LORD when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people, . . . I will gather you to your fathers, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.' "


Two scenes, two kings, two acts of violence. One ripped up the words of God and burned them in the fire; the other tore his own robes and wept.

Now imagine your own scene. Whatever you say, goes. Then, all of a sudden, God says something. So . . . what would you tear?

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Such Is Life in the Age of Ephemera

I'm embarrassed at the length of time I've gone without posting anything--not only to Loud Time but to my corporate blog, Strangely Dim (good thing I have colleagues who also post there), and my column on Burnside Writers Collective, "Becoming the Great Us" (good thing nobody reads it). Such is, I'm afraid, the state of my life right now. I've actually been doing a lot of stuff which would normally generate posts--trips to conferences, retreats, workshops, author meetups, family get-togethers, you name it--but the pace has been such that I couldn't collect my thoughts long enough to form a coherent sentence. I've been either on my feet or out of gas.

A fellow I admire, Andy Crouch, tweeted not too long ago (is there a verb that represents updating your Facebook status?) a comment that sticks with me like that popcorn husk firmly nestled somewhere between your molar and your canine:

Who is the most effective person in your sphere of culture? Chances are they exercise outdoors more and watch TV less than you do. And in ten years we will add, they take more regular technology sabbaths. (The comparative advantage of technobusyness is disappearing.)


I found it frustrating, mostly because I don't regularly exercise outdoors and I typically watch TV to wind down and I don't take tech sabbaths. Ergo, per Andy Crouch, I could be more effective (whatever that means). But I suppose necessary messages often come across as nuisance, because as much as I've resented the poke, I've found myself looking for opportunities to get outdoors more, and I've tried to resist the urge to turn the TV on at the end of the day (to limited effect, I freely confess). The tech sabbath is a different thing, because in the rush of the last month, the moments of contemplation have been those stolen moments when I've scrolled through my twitter feed; my moments of confession or self-expression have been when I've updated my status or posted a picture. My maintenance of community has been dependent on my access to phone and e-mail and other social media. Such is life in the age of ephemera: we live and move and have our being at a brisk pace--forgetting what is behind us as we press on toward some nebulous goal.

I'll get some breathing space soon. Barring any last-minute urgencies, Monday begins my first full week in the office in six weeks or so. But if I've learned anything in this marathon month, it's that I can subsist but not exist on my own, in my own strength; it's only to the extent that I tether myself to a place and some particular people that I maintain a healthy sense of self, and a rightly ordered relationship with the world around me.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Honoring the Dead and the Living

My niece is studying algebra in school, she tells me. I'm telling myself that it's because she's precocious, not because she's getting older. I guess I'm not quite ready to accept that.

My niece is precocious, that's for sure. Give her an audience and she's in heaven, raining down drama and hilarity on the just and unjust among us. She likes to put on grand demonstrations--a dance here, a wedding there, a five-act play everywhere--but I think her best work is off the cuff, one-liners that cement themselves in the memory of the hearer and will define her in the minds of her loved ones until only an even better line displaces it. I take credit for that, if I do say so myself: as her godfather and official crazy uncle, I designated her very first catch-phrase ("That's what I'm talking about!") and formally acknowledge each new zinger as soon as I hear it. Last night's entry? "What the heck, lady?" directed at her grandmother.

Precociousness is power, and power always has the capacity to cause pain. Last night my niece discovered a collection of written tributes to my late grandmother (her great-grandmother). She had died before my niece was born, and as the matriarch of a large, precocious family, her death had generated a fair amount of circumspection among her kids and grandkids. At the time I was mailing out a monthly newsletter, of which I devoted an issue to her; my uncles and aunts wrote eulogies and childhood memories; my mother wrote a poem. All these had been collected and curated by my mother and distributed to the whole family, some of whom were gathered last night at my brother's house.

Enter my niece, stage left. Hopped up on ice-cream cake and extroversion, she grabbed the booklet and flipped through it, arriving eventually at my newsletter. "My grandmother was . . ." she began to read, then interrupted herself: "Boooorrrrinnnng!" She then proceeded to "edit" the newsletter entry, which for a child her age amounts to embellishment along the lines of the Amplified Bible ("She lived the bulk of her life on a farm--with chickens, and cows, and hay, and mud . . .") and demonstrative body language: stepping dramatically to the left, then to the right, her hands all along flapping in the air like a penguin ready to take flight.

It was funny at first. As someone who admires moxie, I found it entertaining and rewarded her with laughs. But then she turned to my mom's poem and started up again. My mother, the poet who for years taught the love and power of poetry to kids only a little older now than my niece. My mother, who as a sister of seven can recall a lifetime of the inevitable injuries that come from being always around precocious people. My mother, the daughter who wrote this poem on the occasion of her own mother's death.

My niece never met my grandmother. I wonder how they would have related to one another; both of them witty and sly and lovers of laughter, I can see traces of my grandmother's gleam in the irritated sideways glances my niece occasionally throws my way. And yet their particular precociousness took shape in very different eras, in very different settings. My grandmother, attending to dying relatives on her century farm in an era before computers and cable television and the Sixties' civil disobedience, an era in which people lived closer to death and experienced more fully the cycle of life. My niece, coming into her own during an age of dramatic and rapid change, when every minute of every day has a soundtrack, when every person is a brand to be managed, when new information overwhelms tradition, when the bonds between memory and creativity are frayed and nearly severed. They would have liked each other, I'm sure, but my niece and my grandmother would have struggled to understand each other.

They also would have had very different responsibilities to one another. My grandmother's, to change my niece's diapers and to tell her right from wrong till she could figure it out for herself. My niece's, to listen to my grandmother's stories and remind her that she's not forgotten simply because she's old, to remember her after her death and to respect the legacy that my niece and her siblings and her parents and my mother and I are living out day after day after day just by living. Responsibility is not something that comes naturally, I think; it's something we commit ourselves to, something we have to remember to pass on to those who come after us.

Last night my niece and I danced. A lot. I hate dancing, but I'll do it for her because it's funny and it's a thing that I can share with her, a memory I can keep of her. Her mother shouted from the sidelines, "Someday you'll dance with your uncle Dave at your wedding." That made me sad; I'm not ready to acknowledge that she, like me and my mother and everyone, is getting older. But it also made me happy, because it foreshadows a future in which our lives remain knitted together. There's responsibility embedded in that observation from my sister-in-law, but it's commingled with a promise.

Every year on the anniversary of my niece's baptism I write her a little note. Like my note about my grandmother, it's reflective and circumspect. In it I try to draw lines between my niece's life and the grand story being written by God, and I try to make it easier for her to grow up and accept the challenges and responsibility that are foisted on her as each year passes. Last night I imagined her--no, her children, actually--coming across these letters long after I'm dead, reading the first line, throwing up their arms and shouting "Boooorrrrinnnng!" The thought was a little sad at first, I admit, but I got over it. They'll just be kids, after all, and I think it's their privilege as kids to play with whatever they lay their hands on. Any unintended injury that leads out of it won't have robbed me of anything, won't have undone any of the work the letters were intended to do. It'll be a little sad, but it'll undoubtedly be funny.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Between Churches: A World Without Dee

Dee wasn't what you'd call a friend--although she was infinitely friendly herself, and our interactions were always friendly, and even after I left her church, we remained friends on Facebook. I was in her home twice; as well as I can remember, she was never in mine. We never ate together except during church events. We didn't do the things that you might reasonably expect friends to do together. We didn't have much in common, to be honest. So friend doesn't seem the right word for her.

Dee wasn't what you'd call an elder--at least not in the technical, churchy sense of the word, or at least not during the time that we were involved in the same church. She served on plenty of committees, I'm sure, but she didn't attend meetings of the church's session (I did), and so she didn't have a vote on the issues that were moved and seconded and discussed and resolved there (I did). She was older than me, I guess, but I don't suppose I can, with ecclesial precision, refer to her as my elder.

And yet Dee, it seemed, was always around, mostly because we were both always around the church. We acted in plays together (she got the bigger laughs); we attended the same Sunday school classes; we participated in the same children's ministry; whenever the choir sang, my eye went to her--partly because she was the only woman singing the men's part, partly because she swayed and smiled and emoted more than most. I knew Dee's opinions about most everything, and there were times I was sure I could predict what she would say before she raised her hand and said it.

I've been at a retreat this weekend of people in my industry, and one of the women there reminds me a bit of Dee. And as she shared in a circle what's going on in her personal-professional-spiritual life she gave us language that I think best describes Dee for me: "I'm not an elder in my church," she said; "I guess you'd call me a fixture."

That's what Dee was: a fixture. Larger than life, impossible to ignore, technically on the periphery of power but powerful nonetheless, she was her own thing with her own rules. I've met a lot of fixtures over the years; some of them I refer to always by their full name, as though a less formal attribution wouldn't carry enough weight. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, C________ H________, K________ C________--I would never think of the latter two (I know them; you probably don't) alongside the former three, but when they come up I treat them the same. Fixtures of world history and fixtures of my history--they are rewarded with the same gravitas. But then there are the one-word fixtures--the Napoleons, the Stings, the Bonos, and Dee. More than one word would be gilding the lily, I suppose.

What would the world be like without its fixtures? That's a pointless exercise if I've ever heard one. The world would continue to turn; maybe others with their own expansive personalities would step in from the margins to take their place; maybe civilization would collapse. Who can say? It's enough to acknowledge that they were fixtures and move on. But the question is different when it's not the world but your world. It's our fixtures that are holding things together for us; without them, things fall apart. Not necessarily big things, and not necessarily things that needed desperately to be held together. But they do fall apart, break down, and so consequently we don't often discover how much we depended on the fixtures until after the fact.

Dee ceased to be a regular part of my life nine months ago, when I left the church we attended together. Yesterday I found out that she had died, after a long and painful struggle with all sorts of health problems. How do you say goodbye to a fixture? Who knows. This is how I'm doing it. I'm also praying for her husband, who already knew how much he depended on her, and who will undoubtedly discover things he never noticed that anchored him to her. I'm also praying for her church, which I once called my church; it has lost one of its fixtures, and while it will surely go on, it will not be the same without her.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Gospel According to Biff

I've been reading a satirical novel about the life of Jesus--Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore. I like it; it's randy and funny and syncretistic and oddly reverent. Joshua--the given Hebrew name Biff uses for Jesus--can do little or no wrong, he performs all the miracles attributed to him in the Bible, and he demonstrates superiority to competing theologies of the day, from Judaism to the great religions of the East.

Nevertheless, Moore's Gospel reflects more the moralistic therapeutic deism detailed by sociologist Christian Smith in his book Soul Searching than the Gospel as recorded in the Scriptures. Here's a passage from chapter twenty-eight, where Biff helps Joshua write the Sermon on the Mount:

Here's the gist of almost every sermon I ever heard Joshua give.
You should be nice to people, even creeps.
And if you:
a) believed that Joshua was the Son of God (and)
b) he had come to save you from sin (and)
c) acknowledged the Holy Spirit within you (became as a little child,
he would say) (and)
d) didn't blaspheme the Holy Ghost (see c),
then you would:
e) live forever
f) someplace nice
g) probably heaven.
However, if you:
h) sinned (and/or)
i) were a hypocrite (and/or)
j) valued things over people (and)
k) didn't do a, b, c, and d,
then you were:
l) f***ed.

I'm not necessarily saying this stuff isn't accurate, but it is sterile, and vanilla, and nondescript. Moralistic therapeutic deists, as Smith describes them, worship a grandfather-god who likes people who are nice and enjoys being nice to children, but who otherwise generally stays out of the way; Jesus the Son of the MTDeity did what he did and his relevance ended there. The Holy Spirit is our own spirits super-sized. Heaven is, if nothing else, "someplace nice."

Smith's research was on the religiosity of American adolescents; his book was published five years ago, which means the first official MTDs are now entering the workplace; some of them are considering marriage; some of them are having children, telling those children stories about Jesus the Son of MTD, and dreaming of living happily ever after in someplace nice. It's a nice story, but it's sterile, and vanilla, and nondescript.

Ah well. At least Christopher Moore makes it funny.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Blog a Qur'an Day

I've not read the Qur'an--technically, I'm told, it can only be read in Arabic, although there are English-language commentaries with translated text--but I thought I'd dip my toe in the water today as an act of solidarity with the billion people around the world whose faith is being mocked somewhere in Florida by fifty people with a match. Andrew Jones, I believe, organized this response, which I thought was a good idea. Creating is nearly always better than destroying, I think.

I'm struck by how foolhardy some people can be, actually--how lost they can get in their own conflation of faith and national identity, how senselessly they equate acts of violence with acts of piety. The impulse to burn a Qur'an is similar to the impulse to burn non-KJV Bibles, to bomb abortion clinics, to fly planes into buildings: to hurt people as a supposed act of discipleship.

What follows is found early in the Qur'an, the English translation of which I'm here quoting from Maulana Muhammad Ali's commentary, found here. I thought it seemed germane to the day, and the events inspiring this post. Please note that I'm quoting out of context, not out of disrespect or in an attempt to distort the meaning of the text, but rather to provide a framework for measuring the actions of "Dove World Outreach," and everyone like them who think faith is a matter of righteous violence:

In their hearts is a disease. . . . And when it is said to them, Make not mischief in the land, they say: We are but peacemakers. Now surely they are the mischief-makers, but they perceive not. . . . These are they who buy error for guidance, so their bargain brings no gain, nor are they guided. . . . Their parable is as the parable of one who kindles a fire, but when it illumines all around him, AllÄh takes away their light, and leaves them in darkness--they cannot see. Deaf, dumb, (and) blind, so they return not.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Real Meaning of Relativity

As a willing participant in the sins of the book publishing industry, I feel compelled to warn you: the people who have recently released Stephen Hawking's new book (The Grand Design) are trying to sell you something.

By saying this I mean no disrespect whatsoever for Dr. Hawking. That dude is a straight-up genius, I'm sure. Plus, he's been a leading scientist and cultural icon for decades, and should be given the respect due such a public treasure. Nevertheless, the "big idea" being culled from his new book is, I respectfully submit, no big idea at all. As publishing events go, this emperor has no clothes.

The central idea being promulgated is that, according to Hawking, there's no need to presume that God had anything to do with the origins of the universe. By saying that, Hawking is discounting the people putting forth "intelligent design" as a counterproposal to evolution. And by doing that, Hawking is joining the chorus of any number of his peers who have already sung the same song. An astrophysicist disputing the role of a divine force in the origins of the universe is not news, people; it would be only slightly more newsworthy to report that an astrophysicist had allowed for the possibility of a God bringing the universe into being.

I feel reasonably confident in how the debate will proceed from here--including, no doubt, the release of a handful of books along the lines of The Case for the Grand Designer or Debunking "The Grand Design." That's because this perennial argument across the divide of faith and science sells books. For the next several weeks, every time you see Stephen Hawking showing up in your Twitter trending topics or on your Yahoo breaking news board, it would be helpful to imagine a room full of publishing professionals brainstorming how they're going to move product. Consider that your grain of salt; don't say I never gave you anything.

Meanwhile, I've taken to reading the late great G. K. Chesterton's The Well and the Shallows, a relatively late entry in his corpus, contending with the controversies of his day (which, in case you're unfamiliar, was the first half of the twentieth century). Today's reading took me through a handful of reasons he offers for being inclined to convert to Catholicism--if only he weren't already a Catholic. Tucked in among the follies of state churches in the Protestant tradition and other musings of the modern era is a rant against materialist critiques of theism--the new scientists, taking on old-time religion.

Many scientists contemporary to Chesterton were particularly dismissive of religion, which they saw as an outdated artifact of a less sophisticated era. Chesterton prefaces his critique of such dismissiveness with the provocative phrase "In order theorise, it is sometimes useful to think." The presenting problem for Chesterton was a paper delivered by Dr. David Forsyth, whose "thesis" regarding what eventually came to be called the "non-overlapping magisteria" of science and faith

was essentially this; that science and religion, so far from being reconciled or even reconcilable, were divided by the vital contradiction that science belongs to what he called "reality-thinking," or we call objective truth; while religion belonged to what he called "pleasure-thinking," or what most people call imagination.

But this imagined divide between science and faith has a different source, according to Chesterton: not the intransigence of the Catholic but the "the very common combination of a superiority complex with arrested development."

Scores and hundreds of times I have heard . . . the repetition of that ultimatum: "You must accept the conclusions of science." The new scientists themselves do not ask us to accept the conclusions of science. The new scientists themselves do not accept the conclusions of science. . . . The finest intellects among them repeat, again and again, that science is inconclusive. . . .

The Victorian agnostics waited hopefully for science to give them a working certainty about life. The new physicist philosophers are in no way different, except that they wait hopelessly instead of hopefully. For they know very well the real meaning of relativity; that their own views may pass from being relatively right to being relatively wrong. And meanwhile, as I say, there is such a thing as wanting a working rule as to whether we should pay our debts or murder our enemies. . . . If we want a guide to life, it seems that we must look elsewhere.

Again, no disrespect to Stephen Hawking or any of the other great minds who have developed our understanding of the way the universe works. But regardless of the role of gravity in causing the universe to come into being, or the nagging question of where the law of gravity came from, meanwhile we ourselves are but dust--and to dust we shall return, and we must one day give an account for all we've done and left undone, and fall on the mercy of whoever calls us to account.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Between Churches: The Dance of the Christ-Culture

One of the tricks of looking for a new church is the presumption that this new place will not suffer the shortcomings of the old place, that "different" is somehow inherently equal to "better"--although "too different" is more often thought to be "worse."

Presbyterians with a highly developed sense of personal space, for example, might chafe at the hugging and laying on of hands at a Pentecostal service down the road. Meanwhile megachurchfolk wince at the smells and bells (and scarcity of jumbotrons) at an Anglican communion. "Different" is the order of the day for those of us who find ourselves between churches, but it has to be the right kind of different.

The "right kind of different" has, in fact, been a question plaguing the church for the duration of modernity at least, and maybe, in a sense, for the length of the church's existence. In his 1951 book Christ and Culture Richard Niebuhr identified five postures the church takes toward the culture surrounding it. Examples of all five could be immediately called to mind by Niebuhr's contemporaries, and can still be easily found sixty years later. Is Christ against, of, above, paradoxically related to, or transforming culture? The answer to the question is necessarily historical, because whatever their relation, Christ and culture are the central organizing motifs of history: What has God done in the world, and what has the human race made of the world?

That's what makes the search for a church home so tricky: it's not just a question of where and how a person fits; it's a question of how this potential church home completes, even fulfills, the history of the world--even the history of God. To declare a church "home" is, at least in a sense, to declare to the whole world (even to God) "This is where you belong; what are you doing out there?"

I'm serious: there's an undeniable ego in the mix when you go hunting for a church. It's not entirely conscious, and it's ultimately not as heartfelt as I made it sound above (this is far too vulnerable a quest for sustained pomposity). But to the person on such a quest, the dance of Christ and culture starts to look like a slow song at homecoming, where in the shadows the dance partners look less like two separate beings and more like one indecipherable thing--too close for the onlooker's comfort. A church, to the church-hopper-shopper, looks like a "Christ-culture"--whatever that is.

That's not a bad way to describe a church, I suppose. But whatever a Christ-culture is, we need to remember, it's a bunch of people gathered in one place. Your mind will play tricks on you, trying to convince you that you're looking for the holy grail, the fulfillment of history, the ladder to heaven. You'll be faced with the optical illusion that these people are Jesus, that the Holy Spirit is in the planks and drywall of that building, that God looks like this pastor and likes those ushers best. In reality, however, you're looking at a bunch of people gathered in one place--in good, albeit fickle and faulty faith. Every Christ-culture is like a kid at a school dance, trying not to look ridiculous, trying to remember the steps. Our faith is lived out in such stumbling, but such stumbling is not the object of our faith. The perfect love of God is where our stumbling Christ-cultures are headed, and where we should be headed as well. As theologian Donald Bloesch reminds us in his Crisis of Piety:

God's kingdom is to be associated with a new heaven and a new earth. Moreover it will be manifested in God's time and in His own way. . . . We cannot build the eternal kingdom, but we can pray and hope for its realization. . . .

Since the kingdom of God ultimately lies beyond history the Christian life is one of pilgrimage. We can anticipate and approximate the goal of perfect love, but we can never finally arrive in this life. Ours is a theology of wayfarers.