Thursday, November 28, 2013

Feast Your Eyes: The First Thanksgiving

My friend Nathan Baker-Lutz put together this delightful little video that playfully debunks the mental picture most of us have about Thanksgiving.

I hope you'll enjoy watching it with your family sometime on Thanksgiving day - maybe even make it an annual tradition. Not only will you be entertained by it, it will also challenge some fallacious thinking that surrounds the holiday.

We have these contrived mental pictures, I think, mainly because Thanksgiving has become marketable and merchandisable, and such things require oversimplification: iconic images and caricatured characters. Hence the black outfits and belt buckles, for example, or even the forks and turkeys (which would not have been the main course; waterfowl are easier to kill).

Moreover, cultural touchpoints like Thanksgiving allow us to mythologize ourselves, recasting the past to make ourselves feel better about our present. So, for example, we (and by "we" I mean people like me, who trace our lineage back to Europe) remember our Pilgrim ancestors as reaching out to the Native Americans: a convenient image of the brotherhood of man and other self-congratulatory colonialist virtues. (Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!) In reality, it turns out, there's no record of the Pilgrims inviting the Native Americans to the first Thanksgiving, although there is some record of them being in attendance. They may, it turns out, have invited themselves.

These are, by and large, small things. History is not changed in dramatic ways by our getting this or that detail wrong. History as a discipline, in this respect, suffers from poor branding, because that's not what history is. What we learn from these errant details is the role of memory in human agency. When we misremember something, we fill the void of what's true about the past with more convenient "truths," and we step that much more blindly into the future.

In that respect, the book on which Nate's video is based - The First Thanksgiving by Robert Tracy McKenzie - is not so much about Thanksgiving as it is about how we approach history. Thanksgiving is a case study equipping us to consider the past more responsibly, which in turn equips us to more responsibly engage our present and future. So, if McKenzie's book is a Thanksgiving feast, the holiday itself is just the stuffing; the discipline of history is turkey (or goose), mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Four Cash Mobs of Christmas

I like flash mobs. Not the ones that steal your iPhone, of course, but the ones that speak truth to power or offer a moment of entertainment to an unsuspecting crowd. The best flash mobs do both, actually--they're entertaining and truth-telling at the same time. They might even steal your iPhone to make a point. Here's a good one that took place in Grand Central Station in New York, put on by Improv Everywhere.

The best flash mobs I've come across are not those I've experienced first hand. My favorite is set at Christmastime, when a handbell choir gradually assembles around a Salvation Army bell ringer to transform his annoying ring into something transcendent. But right up there next to it is the cash mob.

A cash mob is when a group of people prearrange to descend on a purveyor of some good or service with their business. National Record Store Day is a kind of cash mob, although it's specific to an industry rather than a particular shop. I first read of cash mobs when a small, family-owned hardware store was found to be planning to close due to business lost to the big boxes, and area residents decided not to wait till the closeout sales to bring the store some business. Rather than conducting themselves as vultures, residents renewed their commitment to the store and its owners. Who knows how long that commitment actually lasted, but it certainly was unusual enough to make the newspapers that week.

What I like about cash mobs is that they recognize that our consumer activity is fundamentally moral and personal; it's culture-shaping no matter how unconsciously we approach it. Such is life in the twenty-first century that more of us are consumers than producers, and so our responsible participation in the life of our community is, as much as anything, a matter of how we spend our money.

But we're besieged with invitations and enticements to imagine that our money has nothing to do with our community, nothing to do with our neighbors. So we buy from Home Depot and WalMart and Amazon, understanding (rightly) that real people work for those institutions but failing to recognize that those institutions' commitment to us and our neighbors could only ever be mercenary. They are too big to care--too remote and diffuse, with their accountabilities directed to shareholders spread throughout the world, to bother being concerned whether even their own store in your community, with all its employees, lives or dies.

So I'd like to propose that we care in their place. This holiday season, I propose that we commit ourselves afresh to our neighbors, that we emulate the loving act of God moving into our neighborhood through the birth of Christ by moving our money into the coffers of shops and service professionals who have themselves forsaken the convenience and ease of becoming a cog in a multinational machine and instead rooted themselves in your place, for your time. I'd like to propose . . .

The Four Cash Mobs of Christmas!

Here's how my friends and I envision this working:

1. Conspire with a few other people. It might be your family over Thanksgiving dinner, or your friends over Facebook, or members of your church during a boring sermon. Ten to twenty people would be good; twenty to fifty would be wild. My coworkers and I are hovering around seven now, with a few other prospects waiting in the wings.

2. Brainstorm four local, non-franchised businesses that would be blessed and not cursed by a sudden blast of business during the holiday season.

3. Make a schedule. Advent 2013 begins December 1 and ends December 24, so there's plenty of time to make it happen. My coworkers and I will be doing it on our lunch break or at the end of four workdays.

4. Commit to each person spending at least $10 per business on each business's allotted days. This was a sticking point for me and my friends, especially when we were thinking of this as the Twelve Cash Mobs of Christmas. So we made the dollar amount optional. In any case, depending on the store, the goal of giving a business your business might best be met by pooling your money. For example, maybe you and your neighbors could all go in together on a shared snow blower, bought from your local small-motor mechanic.

5. Go and do. Feel free to recruit more conspirators for each cash mob.

Anyway, that's my idea. It's not perfect--we live under the shadow a multinational economic oligarchy, and establishing an independent alternative economy is nigh on impossible. But at least it's local, and it's personal. It might even be entertaining. I suppose it'll be whatever you make it--which is, I suppose, the definition of a conspiracy. In the meantime, here's video of Guerrilla Handbell Strikeforce, my favorite flash mob, and one of my favorite ways of invoking the season that is now nearly upon us.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Great Task Remaining Before Us

I'm surprised by how short the Gettysburg address is. Two-hundred-seventy-eight words--that's about the length of back cover copy on a standard trade book. (I write the equivalent of about twenty Gettysburg addresses a year.) It barely exceeds what Susan Gunelius says is the minimum length of a blog post for search-engine optimization. It is just over half the length of President Roosevelt's request for a declaration of war against Japan, about a fifth of the length of President Kennedy's inaugural address, and about .0005 times the length of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Funny what you can do with under three hundred words. I find it ironic that Lincoln here suggests that "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here," arguing instead that it's the battle itself that will continue to captivate the popular imagination. And I suppose that's true: Gettysburg draws over a million visitors a year. But it's the Gettysburg address that's carved in stone in the Lincoln Memorial. It's the address we celebrate today. Here it is.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Your Grown-Up, Keep-Christ-In-X-Mas Christmas List

Christmas is coming. Before you get overwhelmed by ads and relatives, let me put in a quick pitch for a few books that I'm into for these holidays.

Books, if you'll pardon my bias, make great gifts; they're an opportunity to thoughtfully match content to recipient, and they "keep giving" as people move slowly through them the first time and occasionally return to them over the years. One of the books below, as a matter of fact, fits comfortably into a Christmas stocking and is priced to buy in bunches.

Books also, however, make great companions during the holidays. As things get nuts, reading a book can rest the mind. A book can refocus you from the obligatory madness of X-mas so that you're more aware of yourself and those around you. One of the books below, as a matter of fact, was intended as a kind of companion through the holiday season, to be read as you go, to keep you going.

So that's my case for books for Christmas. I should mention that the following books are all related to Christianity, which is, as a matter of fact, related to Christmas.

Only two of the books that follow are brand new, by the way, so check your shelves before you click "Buy Now!"

Coffee with Jesus--perfect for your coffee table, this book compiles over two hundred of the best offerings from the wildly popular online comic strip, along with book-exclusive special features. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll do a spit-take with hot coffee all over your poor, unsuspecting lapdog. Oh, and Santa Claus makes an appearance.

The Gospel of Christmas--Patty Kirk is a powerful writer because, like all the most powerful writers, she leans into what is true however painful the truth becomes. Christmas is not all fa-la-la-la-la, and the days leading up to it are not all merry and bright. But there's good news at the end of it, and Kirk is a great guide to take you there.

The Gospel of Matthew (Resonate)--Bible commentaries are rarely found on Christmas lists, but this is no ordinary Bible commentary. Matt Woodley writes beautifully about the theme that weaves throughout the First Gospel: Emmanuel, God with us, which Christmas commemorates.

The Twible--Jana Riess set out to entertain herself with tweets summarizing every chapter of the Bible, and wound up entertaining the rest of us. Now it's a book with all sorts of value-added embellishments. Put it on your coffee table alongside Coffee with Jesus and your friends will think you're either the most spiritual or the most heretical person they know.

The Parable of the Unexpected Guest--I wrote this. It will fit into any Christmas stocking, any Christmas card; that's how small it is. And it's super cheap, so even people you barely care about will know you care.

None of these floats your boat? Not to worry. There are plenty of books in the sea. I have lists posted to Amazon of books I've edited in recent years; you can browse them here, here and here. I endorse the books, although I don't necessarily endorse; I think you should buy books where you want books sold, and for me that's as local as possible. But I'm a realist, hence the Amazon link.

I don't make any money off of any of these, by the way--except in the very theoretical sense (I was given an advance on royalties for The Parable of the Unexpected Guest that will never earn back, meaning no future royalties for me) or after several degrees of removal (technically your purchase of IVP books keeps me employed).

The only book on this list not published by IVP, by the way, is The Twible, which is a brand-new self-published release by Jana. I include it both because self-publishing is hard and I want to make Jana's life a little easier, and because it's incredibly clever and entertaining and I want to make your holidays more enjoyable.

One more thing. In case you've not encountered Coffee with Jesus before, here's a little taste.

Friday, November 08, 2013

The Chaordic Church in Open Space: From Fetishizing Order to Embracing Chaos

Nobody likes chaos. Chaos is a dirty word. It sounds stressful -- like you know that h is in there somewhere but you can't quite flush it out; it just sits there silently, making your life harder.

The only time I hear chaos spun positively is when it's creatively juxtaposed with something more orderly -- like "organized chaos," or "controlled chaos." The phrase shows up when someone is describing the creative process, or when someone is talking about a particularly generative team or communal environment. The writers room on your favorite TV show: controlled chaos. The recording studio for your favorite band: organized chaos. We actually like chaos -- we acknowledge its creative potential -- so long as we maintain order.

I use the term creatively, by the way, with as much tongue in my cheek as those who use terms like "organized chaos." It's not creative, actually; it's quite cliche. I've used it myself with the kind of smug satisfaction I imagine others using it. The subtext of a phrase like "controlled chaos" is something like "See what I did there?" or "Aren't I clever?"

But the fact that this cliche endures is testament to how valuable we actually understand chaos to be. Imagine a world of nothing but order, nothing but control. Where such a tightly organized world has existed in the past, where chaos has been so effectively rooted out -- we describe those times and places as "tyranny."

Why do we assign so much value to order and view chaos with so much suspicion? Imagine if the creative juxtaposition were flipped: if instead of winking at chaos we embraced it, and instead of genuflecting before order we subverted it. "Arcade Fire recording sessions are a kind of 'suppressed creativity." "Putting together an episode of Game of Thrones is like an exercise in generative fascism."

It doesn't work, does it? But the reason it doesn't work isn't because chaos is inherently bad, or even because chaos is inherent to the creative process. It's because we fear creativity and fetishize control.

In my previous post I looked at the kind of "chaordic" (chaos+order) ecclesiology hinted at in The Permanent Revolution by missional church leaders Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim. A church that gives as much energy to innovation and adaptation as it gives to deeply seeding its core convictions and beliefs -- not more, I have to add to placate the heresy police, but not less -- is a church that keeps its "movementum" as a cohort of missionaries. It retains its relevance without bowing to trends and dancing around controversy. It uses what power it has rather than amassing as much of it as possible. It values order and organization as both an efficiency for its movementum and as a witness itself to a God who loves order without idolizing it.

When I was in Haiti I sat in on a regional conference of educators, organized by the U.S. evangelical mission Haiti Partners. One by one the teachers introduced themselves, each of them including some iteration of the unusual phrase "I practice open space technology." My friends at HP, Kent Annan and John Engle, later described open space to me: it's a way of convening a meeting that begins with no agenda, only a theme and a facilitator who can organize settings. Participants nominate breakout sessions and then serve as hosts for those sessions; the facilitator sets a place and time for each session, and participants decide which sessions they want to make sure they participate in. Each session takes notes and reports back to the whole group the gist of what they discussed.

Open space meetings, when well run, are perhaps paradoxically highly disciplined and productive times. They are also highly democratic: anyone in the room can lead a breakout session, regardless of tenure or notoriety. People's passions are channeled into real outcomes, and meanwhile they are revitalized in their commitments to their colleagues and the convictions that brought them together in the first place. This, to me, sounds like the first-century gatherings of the fledgling church. It sounds like what the apostle Paul had in mind when he simultaneously held up order and chaos, control and creativity, as inherent to the church's mission.

Monday, November 04, 2013

In Search of a Chaordic Conference: The Permanent Revolution Roadshow

I'm now mostly through The Permanent Revolution, the case for a rediscovered apostolic ministry from Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim. I'm highlighting a lot; it's a rich and energizing book, one that I'll return to a fair bit. It's evidence of Hirsch and Catchim's particular genius that they've read as much as they have, let alone that they've so effectively synthesized it for the church. I have, for example, roughly outlined two followup books from Hirsch, whenever he's ready.

The thing that's in my head right now is the notion of chaordic ecclesiology--the notion that a church should be equal parts chaos and order. Hirsch and Catchim appropriate the term chaordic from Dee Hock, founder of Visa and author of The Birth of the Chaordic Age. A chaordic organization "has a deeply held purpose and set of principles at the very center . . . and yet also has high creativity at the edges." As Hock puts it,

To the degree you hold purpose and principles in common among you, you can dispense with command and control. People will know how to behave in accordance with them, and they'll do it in thousands of unimaginable, creative ways. The organization will become a vital, living set of beliefs.
I don't suppose anyone reads that and pictures a church. I certainly don't, which is one of the problems Hirsch and Catchim identify in the contemporary Western church. Not enough chaos, mainly, and yet also not enough order: local churches and global denominations alike are bound more by cultural commonalities and external commitments (such as statements of faith, catechisms and other organizing documents) than they are by a unified and internalized vision. Chaos and the creative process that resembles it are viewed with suspicion; meanwhile bureaucratic checks and balances replace the internal logic of a well-ordered system.

Don't believe me? Among other characteristics of a chaordic church (which, Hirsch and Catchim suggest, would characterize the church of the first century, as well as the contemporary secret church in China) are the following, all of which eschew bureaucracy and invite creative chaos, none of which are visible in most Western expressions of Christianity:

* Are self-organizing and self-governing in whole and in part

* Are powered from the periphery and unified from the core

* Are durable in purpose and principle and malleable in form and function

* Learn, adapt and innovate in ever-expanding cycles

* Liberate and amplify ingenuity, initiative, and judgment

* Equitably distribute power, rights, responsibility, and rewards

* [Are] compatible with and foster diversity, complexity, and change

* Constructively use and harmonize conflict and paradox

Bottom line: the church, in its primal, chaordic state, was organized not as an institution or organization but as a movement. The contemporary Western church is not primal, nor chaordic, nor a movement.

I think I would very much like a chaordic church. But I'm a realist: churches aren't changed by good ideas. They're changed by changing expectations.

Churches change from the outside in. Youth group members grow up and return to church expecting loud music and chubby bunnies, and where they don't find them, they agitate for them. Enough pastors find enough interesting ideas in enough business books, and suddenly churches have org charts and executive pastors and mission statements and marketing budgets. Change in churches is like sleight of hand; it only works when people are looking somewhere they wouldn't otherwise look.

A good liminal space for such subversion is the contemporary church conference. Most church conferences, of course, aren't especially subversive: they have their own form that they're accustomed to, and they follow it as slavishly and blindly as most of us follow the Kardashian family. So conferences sandwich a few innovative ideas in among lots of bangs and whistles and sounds and fury. You sing a little, you listen a lot, you spend a little money, you trade business cards, and you go home. It's a lot like church, actually.

But a chaordic conference, now that would be interesting. I imagine a conference in which equal time is given to the celebration of order--those organizing purposes and principles that bind us together, some more consciously than others--and to the celebration of the often chaotic creative process. I go to a fair number of conferences, and I for one would like to not be a consumer of them so much as a participant in them. I'd like them to require creative collaboration from me and call on me to reaffirm who I am in community with everyone else present. I'd like to go to a conference expecting to be recentered, so that I go home with a renewed and even clearer sense of what motivates me in my mission, and to be stretched, so that I am more alert to the shortcomings in my local context that have perhaps been sanctified by the status quo. I'd like both these itches scratched, and yet when it's over I'd like them both to continue to itch.

So, that's what I want. How to get it--ah, there's the rub. In my next post I'll explore some possibilities, based on best practices I've observed. Till then, though:

* What church-related conferences do you find most compelling, most resonant, most chaordic?

* What makes them that way?