Wednesday, December 31, 2008

It's the End of the Year as We Know It

It's been a long December
and there's reason to believe
maybe this year will be better than the last. . . .

Now the days go by so fast . . .

I tried to tell myself to hold on to these moments as they pass . . .
--"A Long December" by Counting Crows

Happy year-end. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

O Little Town of Me-Ville

No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

Merry Christmas from Loud Time.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

So This Is Advent--And What Have We Done?

A final reflection for Advent 2008.
And in despair I bowed my head
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men."

--From the carol "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Ministry of the Missional Church

I serve on the elder board and the “vision team” of my church. I also serve on the “banner committee,” because the village our church is in (Lombard, Illinois) has a thing about how, where and when churches hang banners on their property. But that has nothing to do with anything.

As is often the case during staff transitions and annual budgeting, my church is in the midst of a discernment process. I took this as an opportunity to get better acquainted with the trend du jour among church planters and planners—the missional church movement—so I read the cheapest book I could find on the subject, which happened to be a copy of The Ministry of the Missional Church by Craig Van Gelder, a professor of congregational mission at Luther Seminary.

Left by one of my coworkers on the free table, it’s a densely written and highly complex book about, essentially, “what the church is—that is, a community created by the spirit and . . . has a unique nature, or essence, which gives it a unique identity.” (p. 17) Van Gelder seeks to establish the primary mission of each church, which is, in brief, “to understand the leading of the Spirit in shaping the church’s ministry.” (p. 19)

Each church’s responsibility is twofold: the church embodies the Spirit in pursuit of (a) the integrity of the body of Christ and (b) the mission of God. So we have this dual responsibility that is both harmonic—we resemble Christ in how we relate to one another—and melodic—we follow God into our locality and beyond to reconcile the world to God and itself. This is not an easy task but it is also not an uphill climb: the mission of God has been accomplished in the ministry of Christ and is now proclaimed and projected forward. Likewise we are empowered by the Spirit in our pursuit of a communal life that rightly bears the name “body of Christ.”

Nevertheless, the challenge of “maintaining our harmony” and “keeping sight of our melody” is very real, in part because contexts are always changing. “Contexts go through fundamental change, which require congregations to consider how they might respond. . . . On the surface such congregations [might] appear to be in inevitable decline and a slow death. In reality, new opportunities for mission and ministry await their engagement.” (pp. 48-49)

So the responsible church keeps an eye out for the inevitable changes in its context.

• How has the economic status of its community changed over time?
• How has the demographic mix changed over time?
• How does the average person in the church’s context define “the good life”?
• How does the average person define moral and ethical responsibility?
• What expectations does the average person bring to relational life? God?
• What forecasts can be reasonably anticipated regarding the church’s context?
• How do these changes manifest themselves in outreach and life together?

Beyond these observations, however, the church has the theological responsibility to view its context through the eyes of Christ, “to discern the work of God that is taking place.” (p. 59) Van Gelder filters this down to two questions:

• What is God doing? This is a question of faith and discernment.
• What does God want to do? This is a question of wisdom and planning.

So the vision of any church is a responsive exploration of those two questions: What is God doing in my town? What is God doing among the people of my church? Moreover, what does God want to do in these little communities? “Every congregation,” Van Gelder concludes, “needs to learn how to confess the faith within its particular context.” (p. 66)

The Ministry of the Missional Church isn’t the book to systematically retrofit your church for its next season of meaningful ministry. The average layperson—say, for example, me—would be regularly confused by the mix of scholarship, theology and jargon, and the chapters don’t yield immediate, specific action plans. No, this is a foundational book, and as such it’s worth a slow read among the culture leaders of your church, to figure out what questions to ask of their church, their community and themselves in order to lead their culture well.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Auld Acquaintance

A few weeks ago there was a meeting in Philadelphia that brought together all sorts of Christian speakers, authors, thinkers and activists. I have little sense of what they talked about, since I wasn't invited. (Sniff.) But I know that at least a few of the people there talked about me.

I know because some of them told me. Several of the people there I've had the pleasure of editing their books; a few of them are early in the process of being edited by me. Some of them I occasionally fantasize about editing their next book. Many of them I've met face to face; some of them have let me crash their parties or camp out on their couch; a couple of them I know only through e-mail or Facebook. They spent a few moments in Philadelphia laughing together over my quirks and nincompoopery, and those who hadn't seen the seven-minute video of me prancing around in a spandex bodysuit were strongly encouraged to do so by the others. Ha ha very funny.

As I heard back from folks who attended this conference I realized why the past year and a half has been so gratifying for me professionally--to the point where my job satisfaction is now linked to a different set of expectations than previously. Somewhere along the way in the last couple of years, many of my authors became my friends.

Editing is, perhaps surprisingly, in many ways a numbers game. How many books did you acquire this year? How many did you publish? How much did you pay out in advances? Which book sold the most copies? Books are artifacts, someone like the great Andy Crouch might tell you, and as such they're objects that we can be objective about as we reflect on our career path.

These days, however, I think of my publishing career more in terms of relationships. I think of Andy, whose book I had nothing to do with, who indulged my geeky hero worship and allowed it to morph into friendship, who offered me gracious yet candid feedback about the first draft of my own book. I think of Karen Sloan, who is everywhere and knows everyone. I think of Scott Bessenecker, who gets this look in his eye when he's about to be a genius. I think of Chris and Phileena Heuertz, who let me sleep on their couch and drink their wine and crash their parties and pester their colleagues, who make jokes that nobody else in my life has the moxie to make, and whose work with Word Made Flesh inspires me and convicts me. I think of Jason Santos, who wears cool glasses and left the staff of my church long before I arrived and who makes me laugh even while we're discussing the sixty-year evolution of the Taize community. I think of Kimberlee Conway Ireton, who fed me souffle and killed me at speed Scrabble, and who brings a bold thoughtfulness and authenticity to everything she does. I think of Tamara Park, who cracks me up, devotes the lion's share of all our conversations not to her book but to my psyche, and who teaches me about writing simply by showing me what she's written. I think of Mike Sares, who can't get his book finished because he's too busy ministering to the right-brained and the left-out. I think of Matt Rogers, who popped out two books in one calendar year and was shockingly humble throughout the process. I think of Laura Barkat, who's far too young to be a sage but seems to nevertheless serve that purpose. I think of Andy Marin, who is unrelentingly optimistic even when people are banging on him for no good reason, and who showed up out of nowhere to singlehandedly change a controversial conversation.

Then there are folks whom I've not yet had the pleasure of publishing: Dan Kimball, who can't help but be cool; Margaret Feinberg, who can't help but be wonderful; Sean Gladding, who can't help but be insightful; Anthony Smith, who can't help but be brilliant; and Kent Annan, who now that he's signed his contract can't help but be edited by me. These and all sorts of other people whose orbit of the Christian publishing industry occasionally crosses my own are what make publishing fun, fulfilling, worthwhile work.

I know for certain that I'm forgetting more than one person whose book I've edited or whose path I've crossed as part of my job. I also know that publishing is not the only environment in which I've made meaningful friendships in the past couple of years. I further am painfully aware that this is a uniquely sappy post. I apologize for all these failings, and yet I write this post for a relatively modest purpose: to serve as an artifact for 2008, a reminder to myself and a symbol to the folks who wander by here that, despite all its challenges and frustrations and even great sadnesses, at the end of this year I am content.

Go to to find books by many of the people I mentioned in this post. If you don't find them listed there, here's to hoping that I can get their signatures on a contract and their last names on the spine of an IVP book.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Hope Trumps Cynicism, Cynicism Poisons Spirit, Spirit Yearns for Hope

"I am beginning to think that cynicism might be a luxury only the privileged can entertain. For those not privileged by race or power or money, hope is what you rely on for life." Leroy Barber, New Neighbor

"I have no response to that." David A. Zimmerman, cynic

Saturday, December 13, 2008

I’m the Governor! I’m Important, Yo!

Pardon my long post, but I'm feeling a bit heady. Illinois is a heady place these days, after all: the Bears may make the playoffs, the junior U.S. senator is about to become president, and the governor is about to be impeached and imprisoned. The 2016 Olympics are a possibility here that is strengthened by our favorite son ascending to the presidency but weakened by our chief executive allegedly conducting a political crime spree.

I’m fascinated by the governor’s story. He’s been in view here far longer than President-Elect Obama, to be honest, and his own presidential aspirations have never been far below the surface. Senator John McCain, the “maverick” reformer cum failed presidential candidate, told David Letterman that Governor Blagojevich once told him that he considered himself a reformer like McCain, thanking him for being a political role model. McCain and Letterman shared a laugh over those comments, absurd as they sound alongside transcripts of foul-mouthed shakedowns from the governor’s office.

The conversation about Governor Blagojevich has shifted, at least temporarily, to the question of his mental health. People think he must have been crazy to conduct so brazen a campaign as the one to sell a senate seat and force the firing of critical journalists. The mental health community, however, is stopping short of calling the governor psychotic; instead, they’re calling him a narcissist.

Dr. Daniela Schreirer is a forensic psychologist at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and she does not see any sign of mental illness in the public Blagojevich, but believes he does have sociopathic traits.
"We're just talking about traits. We're not talking about full-blown diagnosis. But certainly, there's the same sense of entitlement, the same sense of thinking I am superior. I can do whatever I want. I am not going to be caught," Schreirer said.

Blagojevich was, at one time, a rising star. He achieved office initially by being charming and self-deprecating; an advertising campaign consisted of everyday Illinoisans struggling to pronounce his last name but admiring his qualifications and energy. He eventually became a U.S. Representative and made a name for himself by helping to negotiate the release of three American soldiers, who were being detained in Yugoslavia under dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

Three years later he was running for governor, but the presidency was on his mind. In an ad that cemented his reputation in my mind as a twerp, he had grade-school students quiz him about American presidents: “Sixteenth president?” “Abraham Lincoln! . . .” Ostensibly about his commitment to education, the ad told me that he viewed the governorship as a stepping stone to his true destiny as president of the United States. And yet he spoke clearly, candidly and winsomely with interviewers, among other things stating with enthusiasm that he and his family “love Jesus.” This at the time was one of the most plainspoken, unambiguous comments on personal faith I'd heard from a candidate who wasn't in the pocket of the religious right. So while I didn’t vote for him (remember, I thought he was a twerp), I had hopes that his tenure as governor would be marked by policies that reflected his love for Jesus—just and compassionate programs, ethical policies and practices.

Blagojevich became governor in what might be considered the easiest campaign ever: the current Republican governor, George Ryan, was on notice that he’d be facing trial after his term ended, and the Republican candidate to replace him shared the same last name: Jim Ryan, no relation. For the second time in his career, Blagojevich’s last name carried him into office. Four years later the Illinois Republican party still couldn’t get its act together; State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka was the only Republican holding statewide office, and when she ran against the governor on the argument that he had failed both to manage the state’s economy and to fight corruption, one video of her dancing with former Governor Ryan put an end to her chances to unseat Blagojevich. He made Elvis jokes about being “All Shook Up” over his victory and settled into his second term.

The governor’s second term has been characterized mainly by gridlock. It seems that he’s systematically alienated everyone in state government, such that the legislature and the Chicago Transit Authority, among other institutions, faced near-implosion while he sat in the bleachers enjoying hockey games. Some tried to call a constitutional convention for the express purpose of making it legal to recall his position; others spoke explicitly and frequently about his grandstanding and bullheadedness.

Barack Obama, it’s presumed, frustrated Blagojevich’s career plans by taking the national spotlight in 2004's Democratic National Convention and launching an ultimately successful presidential campaign in 2007. This was to be Blagojevich’s year, if you believe the scuttlebutt, but public and peer opinion had turned against him, so that by election day 2008 he had, among his liabilities, a federal investigation into his office and a devastatingly negative reputation among his constituents, and as almost his only asset, a recently vacated senate seat.

I feel bad for Rod Blagojevich. That’s a relatively new feeling for me; I’ve typically dismissed him as a mere worshiper of “the characteristically American bitch goddess of Success,” as Mark Stritcherz put it in America magazine. But Blagojevich is merely the most recent and most pronounced example of the pervasive streak of narcissism, with its attendant sense of entitlement and invulnerability, that runs through our culture and, I think, every human heart.

Blagojevich is, in that respect, this year’s Gary Hart, who dared reporters to follow him in their suspicions of his infidelity, and who resigned his own presidential campaign when they did exactly that and caught him in an affair. Blagojevich is this year’s Richard Nixon, who publicly told onlookers “I am not a crook” but who privately and obscenely violated the law on tape. He’s this year’s Ananias, who made a grand public gesture in donating his wealth to the early church but who was revealed to be just another poser with a wicked heart. He's this year’s Cain, who killed his brother and then stared down God with a brazen dismissal of the accusation: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He's this year's me, and all the mes here in Me-Ville.

Stritcherz goes on to lament the Me-Ville we find ourselves in, a world effectively incapable of policing itself or aspiring to self-sacrifice toward the greater good, by describing the world we've fallen short of:

In a morally and spiritually robust society, institutions identify such characters as rascals and discipline them accordingly; they can separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were.

I paraphrase the apostle Paul: Who will rescue us from this city of death? Thanks be to God who, if we dare follow, will deliver us from Me-Ville, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Shameless Stocking Stuffer Solicitation

To be an author in the third millennium is to be a shameless self-promoter, a crass hawker of wares; consequently, I have selfliness* to promote and wares to hawk. So let me humbly remind you that Deliver Us from Me-Ville makes a fine, inexpensive Christmas gift!

Nothing says "Merry Christmas!" quite like a book in a decorative stocking, if I do say so myself; I have a Batman(tm) Christmas stocking hung on my office bulletin board with care, and the copy of Deliver Us from Me-Ville sticking out of it really adds to the ambiance. After all, nothing keeps Christ in Christmas quite like a book which presumes that all of society--including the people on your gift list--is hopelessly narcissistic.

To those of you who are even now muttering, "Put a sock in it, Dave!" I respond in true humility: put it in your sock.**

Happy holidays,
Dave Zimmerman,
author, Deliver Us from Me-Ville

*A word coined by a kid in my church. I like it; it's clever.
**The one hung by your chimney with care.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mortgaging Mansions of Glory

This week I sat in on a meeting to discuss how to finance a multi-million dollar settlement to victims of sexual abuse. This conversation was on top of an earlier report on another case of abuse currently under review. These are horrific, horrific things, and the discussion unavoidably and appropriately included a lament for the kind of people we've become, the kind of world we inherited, the kind of world we're cultivating.

The meeting took place inside an unbelievably ornate sanctuary in a church in the heart of downtown Chicago. I was billed $26 for five hours of public-access parking, although it was discounted to $6 by the church. As we discussed our options for paying this settlement, I was struck by the idea that the group we represented had multiple millions of dollars in assets, enough for which such a large settlement was an appropriate decision.

Bundled with this settlement, of course, were the realities of a difficult economy and a denomination in decline. We were forced to decide what line items in the budget to cut, how many people to lay off, what investments to sell. All the while I was distracted by how ornate this building was, how appropriately it sat among the impressive architecture of the city of Chicago, how much money over the decades had gone into its upkeep and expansion. My friend commented that this church's budget for maintenance probably rivaled our church's entire annual budget.

I don't mean to bang on this church. It actually does a great deal for its community and has a pretty clear commitment to social responsibility in its context. Two homeless men were sleeping next to me on the pew throughout our meeting, for example, and no one asked them to leave or bothered them at all. And the denomination of which this church is a part has a longstanding, firm commitment to pursue justice and love mercy. But the surreality of this discussion--these assets, these liabilities, this dying tradition, these horrific crimes, this troubled context--hasn't left me since I drove out of the city and back into the suburbs.

I'm no stranger to church capital campaigns. I've been involved in at least one at every church of my adult life. I am, however, a relative stranger to the ornate church. The churches I've been involved with are decades, not centuries, old. They were built in a more pragmatic time and place than the cathedrals of the great cities, so they're built to suit, not to impress. They don't skimp on budget for their physical plant, but the decisions they make--even the really weird ones--are relatively utilitarian. We need lights and sound and video and audio for worship and special events. We need double-pane glass windows and air conditioning for climate control. We need an elevator to assist the elderly in getting from worship to fellowship.

These are all sensible expenses in the midst of discussing annual budgets and in the localized conversation about the ongoing work of a particular church. But when you step out of the budget meeting and even out of yourself and notice that you're in a room that cost millions to decorate, that you're discussing how you're going to pay off people that someone in your community molested, that you're about to tell a handful of people that they no longer have jobs, that there are two people who have nothing sleeping in the middle of the day in the middle of this ornate complex . . . Suddenly it's hard to justify the cost of paint and lighting and carpet.

I have no solutions to this dilemma, mostly because I'm lazy and fearful and uncreative when it comes to addressing need. Chris Heuertz in his book Simple Spirituality writes about a girl who gave all her pacifiers to poor children as an expression of solidarity; Brian Mahan in his book Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose writes about Dorothy Day's childhood epiphany about poverty over a plate of donuts; Francis of Assisi wrote about his vision of God telling him to rebuild the church, and when he started actually rebuilding an actual church building, how God redirected him to give all his wealth forever to the poor. These are moral guides for the wealthy church, but they're hard to follow when we have these day-to-day decisions to make about paint and carpet and technology. They say the devil is in the details, and in weeks like this I suspect that when they say this, they're talking about budget meetings.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Gift That Keeps On "Smashing Those Sacred Cows into Oblivion"

Nice review of my book from the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding. Many thanks to Walt Mueller, who also endorsed the book. Makes a good Christmas gift to older high school students, college students and above, and the parents and pastors who deal with them, if I do say so myself.

We need people who help us recognize the sacred cows that are so familiar to our lives that we don’t even know they exist. And, we need those people to take us a step further, helping us to catch a vision for smashing those sacred cows into oblivion so that we might grasp and live God’s grand vision for our lives.

In his book, Deliver Us From Me-Ville (David C. Cook, 2008, ISBN #978-1-4347-0009-4), David Zimmerman takes us on an aerial tour of Me-Ville, the place where many North American Christians have laid down their roots and have called “home” for a long, long time. Zimmerman masterfully and simply exposes the lay of the Me-Ville land, helping us see how living there keeps us from living fully in the Kingdom of God. What Zimmerman delivers is a compelling call that we can either follow, or choose to walk away from—as the Scriptures tell us—with deep sadness.

Deliver Us From Me-Ville is a timely and challenging guide out of worshipping and serving the contemporary “holy trinity” of me, myself and I, reminding us that our purpose only can be found in the relentless pursuit of Christ and His Kingdom. This is a book that you can read and teach, prayerfully asking God to challenge our materialistic and selfish American-Dream distortion of Christianity, while providing a road map to the place where we belong.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Jean Vanier Is a Genius

I ran into Jean Vanier over and over and over this year. Vanier is the founder of L'arche, an international network of communities in which the able-bodied and the disabled live together, serving to heal one another and flourish as a community. I'ver read about, and read from, Vanier in the past, but this year he seemed to be everywhere I turned.

* I had a moment of epiphany where I thought he might be a good teacher for my book, so I re-read Becoming Human and quoted him frequently in Deliver Us from Me-Ville.

* My friend Chris Heuertz, director of Word Made Flesh and author of a book I edited, Simple Spirituality, received a really nice endorsement from Vanier.

* Vanier coauthored a book with Stanley Hauerwas, Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness, which my employer published this fall and I just finished reading this morning.

* I once rescued a tattered copy of his book Community and Growth from a broken-down home being renovated in a rough-and-tumble Chicago neighborhood, but I've never read it. Matt Woodley, the author of Holy Fools, told me it changed his life.

Vanier, it seems, is everywhere I want to be. He offers a deceptively simple understanding of what it means to be Christian and what it means to be human. He addresses the first in Living Gently in a Violent World:

Faith in Jesus is trust that we are loved. It is knowing that deeper than being part of a group, religious or otherwise, there is the fundamental experience of becoming a friend of truth, a friend of Jesus, a friend of God. But I can't do this alone. I need community. I need friends.

I was recently challenged to write a statement of my faith in 140 characters or less. It strikes me that such an exercise would be relatively easy for someone like Vanier, whose strong intellect is eclipsed by his courageous ethics and his steadfast humility. I imagine his Twitter of Faith might read something like this:

I am loved, therefore I am.
I am, therefore I must love.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Of the Making of Books There Is No End

A friend of mine in the publishing business has often compared books to little missionaries: they go where we can't, they speak to people we might otherwise never meet, they propel conversations that otherwise might have died on the vine of our own locality. It's a nice image, a helpful rationale for publishing as an industry. No less voluminous a writer than N. T. Wright, however, offers a counterpoint in the closing paragraphs of his John for Everyone commentary:

Once the Word has become flesh, all the books in the world can't do justice to it. Nothing less than flesh can now do justice to the meaning of the Word: your flesh, my flesh. Books can reach a small way out into the world. Our lives, in the power of the spirit, can reach a lot further.

I suppose that both these statements are true. Books serve their purpose, and to the degree that we share our scholarship among various localities we are binding the whole church together and deepening its discipleship. But to the degree that books are nonrelational--to the degree that they dictate rather than converse, decree rather than contextualize--they fall short of the relational kingdom that Jesus calls us into. Books are means to an end; the end is that author and audience, like Paul and his correspondents, would have one another in their hearts, would share in God's grace.

Incidentally, and appropos to this post, if you're looking for a nonprofit to throw your money at this December, consider Word Made Flesh. Their executive director, Chris Heuertz, wrote a mighty book this year called Simple Spirituality, but their main work is to build relationships of justice and mercy with some of the poorest people in the world. Helping them out is tantamount to helping a community of women trapped in the sex trade find their way out, or helping a garbage dump community of outcastes fight for just treatment and human dignity. Plus, they're just really good people to be in a relationship with.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...