Thursday, January 31, 2013

Serving Time: Governor George Ryan Returns Home

I wrote the following about two years ago, when former Illinois Governor George Ryan was seeking early release from prison to attend to his dying wife. He was released yesterday and is now on house arrest till the full term of his sentence ends sometime this summer.

On the same day Ryan was released I got together for coffee with my friend Fred, a pastor and volunteer chaplain at Stateville Prison in Joliet, Illinois. Fred wrote a book for inmates, Spiritual Survival Guide, which I helped him get into print. Every few weeks he takes a team to the processing center for new inmates and passes them out. Having met some of the inmates Fred quotes, and having handed some new inmates Fred's book, I've developed complicated feelings about the penal system in the United States. Governor Ryan, I suspect, has similar discomfort with the system and, I hope, could lead a truly constructive conversation about how it could be reformed. Time will tell; for now, he's sitting at home, finishing his time, coming to terms with the past five years of his life and the decisions that precipitated them. I'll say a prayer or two for George Ryan, and for the folks who aren't so fortunate to serve their time at home.


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, January 28, 2013

Missional Discipleship: Part Last

This is the last in my six-part series on missional discipleship, based on a talk I gave to the fine folks at Forge Chicago.Thanks for hanging in there with me. (Read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here, and part five here.)


Play is not always play; sometimes it’s performance before a hostile audience. Jesus warned his followers of this. They would be persecuted because of him; they would be called to testify. They would be sifted like wheat. Jesus himself performed his mission in front of a hostile audience, no more hostile than while he hung from a cross. “Play” is sometimes too gentle, too playful a word to describe the cost of discipleship, the cruciform life God has in mind for us.

Performing in such hostile environments itself requires preparation. Well prepared disciples perform by instinct under stress. It’s why quarterbacks can still complete passes while a thousand pounds of defensive linemen bear down on them with the threat of a perhaps career-ending sack; they’ve prepared themselves. They’ve practiced. Their senses, instincts and muscle memories take over.

John and Peter’s muscle memories took over as they were dragged before the Sanhedrin, as they shouted “We must obey God and not men.” Paul and Silas’s muscle memories took over as they sang in prison for daring to speak the gospel in public. Steven’s muscle memory took over as he told the salvation story of Israel while onlookers pelted him with rocks. Each of them had practiced, prepared for such a performance. Each of them performed well.

So yes, not all discipleship is playtime. But the resurrection—and the resurrection life—is I think best described as playtime. Because the resurrection is good news, and play time is good news. Who isn’t happy to hear that it’s play time? Who likewise isn’t happy to hear that God has conquered death?

The last chapters of the gospels—the descriptions of the days and weeks after Jesus has been crucified and buried—bear a striking resemblance to a running game of hide and seek. Jesus is not found in the tomb. His followers set out to look for him. He’s hidden, he is sought, he is found.

Then there are the disciples, hidden in the upper room. They don’t want to be found, and yet Jesus tracks them down. They are hidden, they are sought, they are found.

This game of hide and seek extends into the book of Acts, as the Spirit sends various people to find one another—Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, Ananias and Saul/Paul, Peter and the Roman Centurion (and the Roman Centurion and Peter), Paul and the people of peace in every city he entered. They had been trained to seek, and so they became masters of the game.

When you see discipleship as a matter of both play and practice, something done in private as preparation for its performance in public; when you see discipleship as the privilege of the children of God, made joyful and exhilarating thanks to the victory over death displayed in the resurrection, you start to see even those times of preparation, those gathered times of practice, as playful. You start to get in touch with the playful God of the universe, who, in the words of G. K. Chesterton,

is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that [like a child at play] God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
To be a disciple, Jesus tells us, is to be like a child. It is to have the eternal appetite of infancy that God displays in each act of creation, each act of redemption, whether in the private space of a gathered, practicing church, or scattered throughout the public and sometimes hostile space of a world that has sinned and grown old. So missional discipleship is the act of becoming childlike, personally, collectively, culturally. It is something to be practiced, of course, but with an eye toward performance. It is to be playful in a world that takes itself far too seriously. It is to repent of our own tendencies to take ourselves far too seriously. I’ll wrap up with a thought from Tim Morey in his book Embodying Our Faith:

Too often, Christianity is seen by those on the outside (and often those on the inside as well) as concerned only with believing the right things, attending church and avoiding certain behaviors. What a contrast this is to the kingdom announcement of Jesus! The church serves as a sign, instrument and first taste of God’s kingdom. When the church lives as it is called to live, the world receives a powerful apologetic: a glimpse of what it looks like when God reigns in the world.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Missional Discipleship: Part Five

I recently gave a looooooooooong talk on discipleship to the very accommodating folks at Forge Chicago. Here's part five. (Part one here, two here, three here, four here.)


We want the glory of the Lord to fill the earth. We want the world to be set right according to the values of the kingdom of God. We want ourselves to be cruciform, both individually and collectively, to look increasingly like Jesus.

What we want by faith, and what we want in practice, however, are not always compatible with one another. That’s another key aspect of discipleship: the syncing up of what we believe we want with what we actually set out wanting.

The most effective discipline begins with a question: “What do you want?” Jesus asked that question, and by answering it people grew in faith and knowledge of God. Blind people came to see but also came to profess Jesus as Lord; sick people became well while becoming devoted to Jesus.

“What do you want?” happens also to be a key question for community organizers. Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, advised organizers to gather people from the community and ask them questions that would lead to a kind of social epiphany, the realization of their oppression and the identification of what stood in the way of their liberation. Saul Alinsky, author of Rules for Radicals (the bible of community organizing), asked a similar question in an effort to tap into people’s self-interest as fuel for social change.

“What do you want?” is not as simple a question as it sounds like at first pass. Here’s the impact of it on a young Thomas Merton, before he became a monk, as he describes it in his memoir Seven Storey Mountain:

Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question: “What do you want to be, anyway?”

I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:

“I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”

“What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”

The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.

Lax did not accept it.

“What you should say” – he told me – “what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”

A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said:

“How do you expect me to become a saint?”

“By wanting to,” said Lax simply.

“I can’t be a saint,” I said, “I can’t be a saint.” And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,” but which means, by those words: “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments."
The challenge of discipleship is at least in part to slow down enough to answer that question, “What do I want?” rightly, not as we think we should but also not in a way unbecoming of a child of God and a follower of Jesus.

Mark Scandrette, who leads the Jesus Dojo in San Francisco, does this as well as anyone I’ve met to date. He invites people to gather and sort through that question together, getting from the surfacey, circumstantial answers—“I want more money” or “I want more respect from my boss” or even “I want to be more like Jesus”—to answers that cut to the core and start each person on a journey. “I want to feel more in control of my life.” “I want to be free from money pressures.” “I want to no longer be an addict.” Even “I want to be more like Jesus.”

And then this gathered group works together to figure out ways to play with what they want. For example, when a group of friends decided they wanted to be less materialistic, they ran an experiment they called “Have2Give1,” described in his book Practicing the Way of Jesus. They noticed that John the Baptist had invited people to do exactly that in the gospels, and they discussed why he might have asked that of people. And then they gave away, sold or threw away half of their possessions, just to see what would happen.

It wasn’t dutiful, legalistic, cultic. It was play. Hard play, sure, and they needed a lot of persistent practice to prepare themselves for it—really taking ownership of John the Baptist’s logic, really opening up to one another about what they had and why they loved it, that sort of thing. But all that practice led soon enough to play, and when they’d liberated themselves from half their stuff, they found themselves freer to bless those around them while enjoying what they still had more.


Next Monday, the grand finale of the series on missional discipleship, with a little help from G. K. Chesterton and Tim Morey.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Missional Discipleship: Part Four

I recently gave a presentation on discipleship in the missional church to some friends at Forge Chicago. Here's part four of that talk. (It was really long . . .) You can read part one here, part two here and part three here.


The third step in Jesus' movement strategy, according to Steve Addison in his What Jesus Started—sharing our lives and our good news—is a discipline of boldness. We train ourselves not to shrink back from speaking God’s good news in this new setting, not to be afraid of the power God wants to demonstrate in us. We might gather to ask God for such power, such boldness. We might do physical exercises, from breath prayers to yoga to running, to make us more aware of our bodies, the space they occupy, and the energy they contain.

And then we scatter to be bold in places where boldness is risky. We speak God’s good news to people who have come to think of God and his messengers as bad news. We act in public as though God is in us.

The fourth step is training, which involves disciplines of study and communication. We drill down deep into the gospel, coming into ever fuller understanding and appreciation of the God we follow and the mission we’ve embraced for ourselves. This step is familiar; it’s the most well-practiced of the steps in the church of the Reformation, of the Enlightenment. At least the side of the equation that involves drilling down into the gospel is familiar; the mission has, I think, been neglected as the church has focused so heavily on doctrine and dogma.

So the challenge is to scatter these disciplines, to imagine study and communication as a missional enterprise. Andy Root, a theologian at Luther Seminary, has recently written the book Taking the Cross to Youth Ministry; there he does a good job of imagining how conversations about the gospel might look if they were unshackled from the catechism of Christendom, as in this contrast of youth pastors Kendall and Nadia as they think about the unconventional youth group kid Justin:

For Kendall, discipleship was static. . . . He construed discipleship to be about assimilation of knowledge rather than participation in God’s own action. Bringing Jesus to kids assumes that Jesus is inert, a product or idea that kids need to follow, rather than a person who encounters them. . . .

Since Justin did not speak the language, in Kendall’s view, he couldn’t be a disciple. But Nadia had witnessed Justin seeking for the action of God. She had seen him open up what was dead in his life and seek for God to bring it to life. . . .

Nadia believed Justin was skeptical of happy shiny Christianity, which, because of his own impossibility he knew he could never measure up to. . . . Discipleship . . . is seeking to participate in the action of God from the core of one’s own being; it is to seek for God where God can be found.
This center-set approach to discipleship is our calling as Christians: not to sell a product or to retain members or to ascertain who’s in and who’s out, but to make disciples.

The fifth step in Addison’s template is gathering, which might seem like a challenging step to scatter. It is worth noting, however, that Jesus’ movement was not opposed to gathering people; Jesus himself said that he longed to gather his people together, as a hen gathers chicks under her wing. Gathering for a missional church is a discipline in itself; the author of Hebrews had to remind her audience not to give up meeting together so they could encourage one another toward love and good deeds—the demonstration of the kingdom of God.

The sixth step is the reward for the first five: the multiplication and extension of the church is the natural outcome of the disciplined practice of seeing need, connecting to it, sharing with those around us, training them in the ways of God, and gathering them into mutually supportive groups. Where the church has made a habit of these five things, it has grown; where it has let them slide, it has atrophied.

Even this, however, is a discipline, since the temptation in the wake of such multiplication will be to bring it to order, to bureaucratize it, to carve out space for it. Multiplication, however, is a matter of scattering: like Abraham parting with Lot because they had grown too large together, the wise course is to resist the temptation to stay gathered and make gathering easier, and instead to discover the margins that this gathering has created and seek out the need there, and begin the cycle all over again in a new context.


On Wednesday I'll post part five of this series, where we'll consider how the question "What do you want?" serves the purposes of missional discipleship. In the meantime, what do you think of Root’s definition of discipleship: “seeking to participate in the action of God from the core of one’s own being; it is to seek for God where God can be found”? What's good about it? What's lacking in it? What's your definition?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Missional Discipleship: Part Three

I recently spoke on the issue of discipleship for the missional church at a weekend intensive for Forge Chicago. Here's part three of that talk; read part one here and part two here.


Missiologist Steve Addison, in his new book What Jesus Started, lays out a six-part process by which Jesus set in motion a self-sustaining gospel movement: He saw the need in a place, made connections with local “people of peace”—or people who would embrace his vision—share good news and good life with them, train them to do what he was doing, and then collect them into gathered units to better coordinate efforts. As Jesus, his followers and those who came after them passed through these five steps, the sixth step came naturally to pass: the church multiplied. When these steps stalled, the process stopped.

Each of these steps is a matter of discipleship, each a matter both of practice and play.

The first step—seeing the need of a place—is a discipline of attentiveness. We train ourselves to look on a place the way Jesus might, the way his first followers might. We gather together to take the measure of our neighborhood, our town, to acknowledge the good in it and identify the need in it. We might pray alone or together, asking God to strengthen our resolve to engage that need meaningfully, to not turn away from it. We might fast in order to remind ourselves of the feeling of need. We might worship our God who is a provider, to reinforce in our imaginations that what our neighbors need, God can provide.

Then we scatter through our town like Paul went through Athens, identifying the piety of the place and noting the need to name the God the Athenians had yet to name. We move toward our place, and the need God has directed us to there, and we name it, and we lay into it. We perform the disciplines of truth-telling, of faithfulness, of steadfastness, of neighbor-love.

The second step—connecting to people of peace—is a discipline of mutuality. We train ourselves to recognize our own limitations, our own lack, and to see God at work not just in us but around us. We might gather to pray to God not to be petrified by our finiteness but to be broken vessels out of which God’s power flows. We might take Sabbath rests to remind ourselves that we are not the messiahs of our neighborhoods, but that God has arrived before us and is providing what is needed to transform places of darkness into places of light. We acknowledge not only our lack in and of ourselves but our abundance thanks to the goodness of God.

And then we scatter like Jesus scattered, as he reached out to a person of peace at a well in Samaria while his disciples went for supplies. We accept kindnesses from these neighbors and invite them to join us in exploring how God might be changing things in our midst. We hold our stuff loosely and our new friends tightly. We speak up when we see God acting in and around our new friends. We thank them for what they bring to our lives by their presence. We play-act the kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdoms of this world.

Alan and Deb Hirsch emphasize these first two steps in their discussion of the practice of proclamation in Untamed:

Following the logic of the incarnation itself, our message is heard properly only when we have gone through the process of identifying with people, hearing them, understanding the issues they face, humbly living with them, and knowing how they experience and express their search for meaning. If we do this, we will have earned the right to address the hearts of the people and bring salvation to them. If we don’t do this, we will simply impose a cultural Christianity on them, and they could well end up in a worse situation than before.

On Monday I'll post part four, where we'll consider what disciplines correspond well with the missional tasks of training, gathering and scattering the church. We'll also look at how a center-set view of discipleship contrasts with a bounded-set view, especially in how we look at other people. See you then.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Missional Discipleship: Part Two

The second post from a talk I gave for the folks at Forge Chicago.


When I was in high school I played in our school jazz band. At performances our jazz director, Harry Jansen, would count off each song, then walk off the stage while we played together. He put his faith in our capacity to play our individual parts well, and to mesh our individual parts into something collective that represented the song well and drew out its power to move the audience. At the end of each song he would walk back on stage and help us end together. The performance was the thing, and our director knew it, so he would get out of the way and let us do it.

In rehearsal space, though, Harry was omnipresent. He was in all our faces when even one of us blew a riff. He would stop a song in the middle and start it over from the top. He would take us all the way to the end and start us right over. Practice was the thing, and he wouldn’t let us off the hook.

But we were never far from the next performance. Harry knew we weren’t there to practice; we were there to play. And so he helped us to prepare for each next performance, and when we were ready, (or even when we weren’t), he set us loose.

I’ll contrast that very briefly with my junior high band director, Dr. Loman. We were utterly dependent on Dr. Loman at every performance. One time he started us out on a song—the theme song to Hogan’s Heroes, if I remember correctly—and eight bars into it we had gotten so off track that he stopped us and started us over again. It was the kind of performance every parent of a child musician dreads but fully expects: awful sounds, shoddy showmanship, a hot mess of music. For Dr. Loman, God love him, every performance was simply a practice in front of an audience. Consequently the audience suffered, and eventually even the band revolted: we went on strike in rehearsal, refusing to perform the notes he was directing us toward.

The role of the director is reserved for practice—the private preparation for public play. Once performance time comes along, the director can be a liability rather than an asset. That’s why bandleaders like Count Basie and Miles Davis are best remembered not for their leadership—though they were great leaders—but for their performances. They led in private; in public they played.

The APEST, in the vernacular of the missional church conversation, acknowledges this logic as it applies to discipleship: in public the apostle does the work of apostleship, the prophet prophesies, the evangelist evangelizes, the shepherd shepherds and the teacher teaches. In private, by contrast, the logic of APEST is one of training and directing. The apostle holds high the value of apostolic work and calls out other apostles; the prophet speaks truth into the gathered community while also calling for truth-tellers to go out into the world; the evangelist demands that we recall the gospel to be good news worth sharing; the shepherd drills into us that the gospel is wholistic and directed toward whole, hurting people; the teacher teaches in order that the people of God are equipped for every good work. Organizationally, the APEST is for the discipleship of the church as it gathers.

Too often those commissioned to serve those directorial roles in local faith communities block or otherwise inhibit the discipleship of people as they scatter into the world. They direct in public when they should either be playing along or getting out of the way.

Too often those following APEST directors settle for outsourcing their discipleship. They never play themselves, never perform, never make an impact. They love gathering to enjoy the APEST; they loathe scattering where they are left to their own devices.

Gathering and scattering is part of the natural rhythm of the church, but historically it’s been too easy for the gathering to be reconceived as performance space and the scattering to be reconceived as practice space. The challenge is to recognize gathering times as practice times and scattering times as play times.

This was how Jesus did it. The disciples would go away with him to quiet places, where he would teach them privately, indulge their questions, resolve their conflicts, identify and call out their gifts, communicate a future vision, stretch their imaginations.

Then he and they together would set out, or he would send them off on their own, and while thus scattered they would heal the sick, feed the hungry, cast out demons, overturn tables, confront and be confronted by hypocrites, face the wrath and impersonal injustice of empire, and spread the good news of the kingdom of God. They would gather for private practice, and then go out and perform the work of the kingdom, playing the salvific games Jesus had prepared them for and prepared for them. Then they would return to Jesus, debrief on their experience, and go through the process again. Practice and play, play and practice.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Missional Discipleship: Part One

I was recently asked to lead a discussion about discipleship for the Chicago residence for the Forge Mission Training Network. I love those Forge people--they think about the church in really fresh, really energizing ways. They're lots of fun too; I feel cooler by virtue of hanging out with them. But I was a little anxious about leading a training session for them. Nevertheless, I had a good time, thanks largely to the conversation that came as a result of my very long talk. Here's the first installment. More to come.


When I was a kid I was desperate to be a professional musician. I played the saxophone. I wrote melodies. I joined the best David Bowie cover band in the entire state of Iowa. I wrote an essay for my college applications in which I named myself “Sax man.” I declared my major to be music. I did everything it takes to be a professional musician except practice.

Two weeks into my college career I determined that I didn’t want to practice enough to be a music major. I might be willing to practice enough to be a music minor, but that would be pushing it.

I continued to play in a band, and we did pretty well in terms of how many gigs we got. But once I got out of college my musician days were numbered; my opportunities for performance very quickly dwindled when I got into the real world and had to compete with performers who practiced. Before too long the only place I was fit to play was at church. Soon even that field dried up.

It’s now been about nineteen years since I’ve played. Probably twenty or more years since I practiced.

Now, I’m not the only person in the world who used to be a musician. Most people don’t quit because they’ve run out of places to play, however. Lots of people quit being musicians when they run out of places to practice.

You remember practice, I bet. Scales and arpeggios, eight-measure sections over and over and over again. Conductors stopping and starting and stopping and starting. I hated it with a passion; that’s why I kept blowing it off and seeking out bands that would let me play without doing it.

But for many former musicians, practice was the extent of their musical experience—school bands, daily or weekly rehearsals. Playing for an audience was the rare exception; one performance a semester if you were lucky. Many former musicians stopped performing long before they stopped practicing. Music for them became insular, technical, bureaucratic. It ceased to be play. And eventually, it ceased to be worth it.

Play and practice—these are the two pieces of the puzzle of musicianship, among many other activities. All play and no practice is a mark of low commitment and weak execution. Your performance goes nowhere, affects no one. You cease to be a musician, even if you’re still playing regularly. Practice is important.

But practice isn’t the whole story either. Practice is really meant to be preparation; it’s a means to an end, with the end being performance. Without performance—without play—what’s the point of making music in the first place? It goes nowhere, affects no one.

In these respects, music and discipleship have a lot in common. Discipleship, the active participation of the Christian in the life and mission of Christ, is a matter of preparation, of practice: we familiarize ourselves with the teachings of Jesus, the way that he calls us to be in the world.

The church has done pretty well in this regard over the centuries—and particularly in the age of enlightenment. We have focused on doctrine and dogma that engages our brains, offering us means to resist the encroaching doubt of a scientific age that refuses to accept mystery and yet lusts hard after it. The work of the church in the modern age has been focused on chasing down certitude and holding it tight.

Even spirituality has followed this path. The task of engaging and shaping our spiritual selves has been centered in the intellect, a private outworking of the logic of God in us. We read Scripture, pray, fast, meditate, practice Sabbath. When we’re together we sing, pray, listen to the Word preached, fellowship with one another. Whether our spiritual practices are personal or corporate, they’re turned inward, removed from the world God created. The church of the modern era has been mostly practice and little performance. All preparation, no play.

And yet discipleship is not simply a matter of private practice, not merely a matter of guarding ourselves in our spirits against the corruption of the world. Nor is it merely a matter of the ecclesial life where we offer each other encouragement to not be tainted, to not lose our faith, as we necessarily brush up against heathens Monday through Saturday.

No, discipleship is also a matter of performance, of being followers of Jesus in arenas where Jesus is largely not followed—admired, perhaps, even sometimes studied and even sometimes adored, but not followed.

If Jesus were being followed, things would look differently, wouldn’t they? Business decisions would be made differently, politics would be negotiated differently, conflicts would be settled differently. Neighborhoods would look different. Cities would look different. Economies would look different. Everything would look different.

That’s a lot of pressure, isn’t it? No wonder the church has been so preoccupied with practice. But like music, the performance of discipleship isn’t just a task—it’s not just practice in public. It’s also a matter of play.

Following Jesus in the world is actually the only good reason for practicing discipleship alone and in our Christian enclaves. Having learned to see the world differently, we get to go out into the world and give it a new name, show it a better way, live in it in ways that ignite the imaginations of those who watch. God has given us the privilege as disciples to play in the world he made.

In this respect discipleship, like music and like the body of Christ itself, is a combination of gathering and scattering. We are not absolved from retreating from the world in order to refocus our imaginations on what Jesus tells us about himself, ourselves and the world. Neither, however, are we excused from re-entering the world to tend to Jesus’ vision for the world taking root and sprouting into new life. We practice, we play; we play, we practice.


Think back on a childhood experience or activity that involved both practice and play. Maybe it was music, or drama, or sports, or debate, or Awana. Which aspect was more compelling to you—play or practice? Which tended to dominate? Are you still engaged in that activity? Why or why not?

Monday, January 07, 2013

Moron Making a Scene: David Byrne on How Christianity Works

In a previous post I recounted the eight priorities of making a scene, according to Talking Heads frontman David Byrne in his recent book How Music Works. Based on his observations of the 1970s hub of groundbreaking music, CBGB in New York, these elements of a scene interest me as a (former) musician. I welcome innovations like those that took place at CBGB, launching such interesting and unique artists as Blondie, the Ramones and Talking Heads. I wonder if a similar gestation to that of CBGB is what led to the recent rise of innovators such as Arcade Fire, Avett Brothers and the Lumineers, whose sounds all overlap in my imagination.

But I'm actually more interested in the elements of a scene as they apply to new directions in the life of the Christian church. That's where my energy goes these days, after all: as an editor of Christian books I'm compelled by what's new and fresh, intrigued by the people who look and act different from the churches of my youth but who nonetheless stand in the continuous Christian tradition and, I think, are setting its course for the future.

Byrne follows his chapter on making a scene with a chapter on how music shapes culture. Here he rants considerably on the hegemony of classical music and other genres tied to Western modernity and the Industrial Revolution. (Arguably the forms of church that have been handed down to us have similar ties.) Classical music gets underwritten by the people populating the halls of power, but it creates only a small cadre of virtuosos who commit themselves totally to the genre, on one hand, and an ever declining class of passive consumers of the genre, on the other. The bar is set too high for the general populace to participate meaningfully in classical music, just as (possibly) the bar is set too high in the church of modernity for people to embrace membership in it.

Meanwhile, "popular" music sets the bar much lower and feels no loyalty to the constraints placed on pedagogy by classical music education. Children are encouraged to play around with instruments rather than being rushed into scales and arpeggios. Students pluck out melodies and tease out harmonies by ear and experimentation rather than first learning to read and score music. In the process children are learning less about appreciating music and more about making something, which they ultimately come to appreciate on their own. Along the way they learn to collaborate and cooperate with one another, to give artistic expression to the feelings they otherwise might struggle to convey, to relate to their environment in ways that are harmonious and, consequently, redemptive rather than consumeristic and competitive (and too often, consequently, violent).

I'm sure an apologist for classical music would go hard after Byrne for his hagiographic write-up of popular music. It's not the Messiah, after all--neither the Messiah of classical music nor the Messiah of Christianity. But for those of us who do follow the Messiah (see what I did there), Byrne's argument raises legitimate questions for how we practice and propagate Christianity in a postmodern era.

So, here's how I might apply Byrne's eight elements of making a scene to contemporary discipleship and spiritual formation. I'm sure I'll have more to say (and I hope you will too), but here's a quick send-up:

  • There must be a venue that is of appropriate size and location in which to present new material. The architectural structure of most churches doesn't allow for this. They are presentational and authoritarian by design: an elevated pulpit that fits one person standing over rows and rows of seated students; that person officially sanctioned by credentialing schools and elder boards to present a gospel rigorously vetted by centuries of religious writing and internecine conflict. Whatever traditional church structures convey, they don't convey "new" material. Especially in the West, churches signal to their neighbors that whatever is taking place inside those walls, they've heard it all before. Faith communities that aspire to make a scene will make concerted efforts not just to look different but to foster newness by the environment they create for themselves.
  • The artists should be allowed to play their own material. There is a class divide within the church between those who are ordained and those who are not. It's ultimately gnostic; those who are ordained know something the rest of us don't, and they are better than us because of it. There's a better function for ordination--Moses, for example, got plenty sick of being the only ordained person in the entire tribe of Israel and actively sought out ways to lend authority to others. Once he did that, he became less the voice of God and more a trainer for how to hear and convey the voice of God. Everybody, from Moses to the most marginalized children of Israel, was better off for it. So the ordained folks should consider themselves not authoritative voices but curators of content and patrons of the Christian message. The pulpit, such as it is, should be as open as possible.
  • Performing musicians must get in for free on their off nights (and maybe get free beer too). A scene starts out as a third place, which means the space is as open as possible and a tight, mutually encouraging band of regulars is considered a good thing. These regulars are "behind the scene," though; their ownership of the scene results not in cliquishness but in a sense of responsibility for the scene's flourishing and concern for (and care of) newcomers.
  • There must be a sense of alienation from the prevailing music scene. There has always been a sense of alienation from the prevailing church scene. This is almost laughably axiomatic. But such alienation can be channeled, as St. Francis channeled the disillusionment with proper Christian society in Assisi into a vital, stunningly redemptive Christian order. Clusters of disillusioned Christians are always a scene waiting to happen.
  • Rent must be low--and it must stay low. I read recently that the "cost" of a single baptism on the mission field is currently calculated at @$762,000. That outrageous figure is largely based on the kind of bloat that takes place over centuries as an organic impulse gets institutionalized. Remove the barriers that such bloat erects, and it's like scales falling from your eyes. Keep missions cheap should be rule number one.
  • Bands must be paid fairly. Keeping missions cheap can't come at the cost of human well-being. Martyrdom should come at the hands of enemies of a movement, not from its champions or beneficiaries. People who are making a scene make plenty of sacrifices, but the curators of that scene should not add to the pain of mission.
  • Social transparency must be encouraged. Again, ordination and cliquishness are enemies of the church. They are, in fact, enemies of the gospel. That sounds mildly scandalous in the case of ordination, but when we set up a special class of people, who are perceived as more spiritual or closer to God, we are saying something about God in relation to his creation that is not true. Ordination doesn't have to look like that; it can look like something much truer to the gospel and can function in a way much more effective to the transmission of the gospel.
  • It must be possible to ignore the band when necessary. This, in fact, is how you subvert the creep of bloat and special spiritual classes. People's participation in the life of a community is not predicated on their giving attention and deference to the architects of that community. The ethic of people of the way of Jesus is to love God and love one another; it's not to kiss the rings of the preacher, the teacher, the elder, the bishop.
These are my thoughts. I'm sure there are more to come. In the meantime, to see a scene up close, check out Mark Scandrette's Jesus Dojo in San Francisco. He's one of many who are doing something different.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

So This Is the New Year . . .

And a happy new year to all that is living
To all that is gentle, kind, and forgiving
Raise your glass and we'll have a cheer
My dear acquaintance, a happy new year