Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Successful, Short, Sinner/Saint Son of Abraham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. He's a lowdown sinner.

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

5. He's a child of Abraham.

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

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

6. He's saved.

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

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Friday, November 12, 2010

On the Death of a Flower

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

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

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

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Folly of Permanence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Dangerbooks: The Story of God, the Story of Us

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, November 01, 2010

Snubbed by the Homeless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

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