Saturday, October 29, 2011

We're Just Entertainers

I used to have this standing argument with a friend of mine. He always initiated it, probably because he's better at initiating arguments (I'm conflict-avoidant) and because he found my exasperation entertaining. The argument was, which is the true universal language: music or sports?

I know, right? It's a no-brainer. Music is a universal language. Sports is just people running around, occasionally knocking into stuff or one another or both. But not so fast: much to my dismay, he actually made a compelling argument. You find sports in all cultures, and sports always attracts a crowd. Whatever the manifestation, sports invites both participation and witness, and as transportable as it is (consider as only one example the "sports evangelism" groups that travel from America to foreign lands to beat the locals at basketball and then brain them with Bibles), it's also a cultural marker. Baseball is a "national pastime"; "football" is not merely football but soccer or American or Australian or some other domestic derivation. Sumo wrestling is known the world over, but it's known as inherently Japanese.

Not so fast, though, sporties. Music is likewise both universal and contextual. You can tell the geographical origins of a music even as you enjoy it from afar. You hear it everywhere you go, either ambiently or in some intentional broadcast. It's appended to the news and the weather and our driving and our working and in some cases even our sleeping. It almost by definition demands both a performer and an audience, and the lines between the two are easily and regularly blurred. I, for example, surely annoyed all the people around me as much as they annoyed me as we all sang along, as loudly as we could, with U2 or Paul McCartney or the various other artists I've seen perform this summer.

We'd go back and forth, my friend and I, in our ritual dance/sparring match. He would observe that thousands of people pile into stadiums every week to watch the same group of people run back and forth for a few hours. I would observe that all of them would be listening to marching bands and electric organs and AC/DC riffs while they did so. He would note that evening news programs had blocks of time dedicated to sports; I would counter by pointing out the music that played at the beginning and end (and sometimes the middle) of the block. I don't think I ever lost, at least by my estimation, because I could always close with the acknowledgment that you often saw trumpet players run across a football field, but you never saw football players run across a symphony stage.

Anyway, today I read a portion of A Cure for Gravity by Joe Jackson (the musician who performed "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" and "Breaking Us in Two" and countless other great new wave songs of the late twentieth century) in which Jackson argued that musicians and athletes "actually have a lot in common." I was scandalized, but he makes some good points.

From a coldly rational point of view, what we [athletes and musicians] do is useless, unnecessary. Yet we pour years of dedication into it, training our bodies and minds, striving to transcend human limitations. We work in teams, we take solos, we go on tour. We're heroes and role models, and then again--as someone is always on hand to point out--we're just entertainers, and we should all be bloody well grateful if we can make a living doing something we like.
Well, that pretty much says it, I guess. Cue the music. (Ha! I win again!)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

What I Would Have Said: The Vocational Life, Part Three

This is the third and final entry in a series of posts taken from a talk I wound up not giving at a men's retreat last weekend. The other two can be found below. Enjoy!


That means that when we're at work, we're actually on mission. The life of a disciple is not removed from the context of a disciple. Where we live, move and have our being is the fertile ground in which our God has planted us, and what will emerge is what God has for us to do. A watching world, observing the discipleship lived out in its presence, will be inclined to say “Surely the presence of the Lord was in this place, and I was not aware of it.” We do our work as unto the Lord, because we seek the righteousness of the Lord, and God’s righteousness applies to the way we apply ourselves to the work given us. We relate to our coworkers (and our neighbors, and the people we encounter when we’re shopping or dining out) in ways that honor the image of God in them and that inspire them, by our words but also by how we conduct ourselves, to give glory to God. We strive, whether we’re in a worship service or in a meeting, whether we’re on session or on the golf course, to see God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And we do all this with confidence that the God who spoke to Peter in a vision and who visited the household of Cornelius when no one thought God would ever do such a scandalous thing—that God has a mission for us in whatever place we find ourselves.

That also means that our mission doesn’t end with our retirement, and we don’t cease to serve God when we’re laid off. The work of the church extends to whatever we’re doing and brings us into all kinds of odd encounters. Retirement or layoffs aren’t the termination of our identity; they are the introduction of a new context. We may be being called to a new kind of work. We may be being called to advocate for people for whom retirement or joblessness have been like a kind of death; they need the good news that only a resurrected Messiah can offer, and they need the kind of justice that is characteristic of a kingdom ruled over by a merciful, loving God. We may be called to relationships with people whom our careers have blinded us to—the neighbor we’ve never had time to get to know, the staff at the restaurant or coffee shop we frequent. We aren’t lawyers or doctors or businessmen or teachers or retirees or anything like that, any more than Peter was a fisherman. We’re disciples who practice law or medicine or who teach or have retired. We capture people with a vision of the kingdom of God, where every tear is wiped dry and every suffering brought to an end.

You can’t do that sort of thing in a church; you have to be the church and go do it wherever the Lord calls you. That’s what Peter did with Cornelius, and when the church heard about it, they couldn’t say anything other than Wow, so that’s what God is up to.

We end our day in the life of a disciple where we started, with an encouragement from Jesus to dispense with the illusions we’ve inherited and embraced, and instead pursue the path that God invites us onto, a path that is as restful as it is expectant:
Do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor to your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? . . . Do not worry, then, saying “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear for clothing?” For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:25, 31-33)
This is the calling of a disciple. It starts with our disillusionment—when we sometimes painfully but always redemptively part with the illusions that distract us from God. It ends with our fulfillment, as we experience the joy of the Lord giving us strength, and at the time of our death when we hear the most fulfilling words we’ll ever hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of my kingdom.”

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What I Would Have Said: The Vocational Life, Part Two

This past weekend I spoke three times at a men's retreat about discipleship, disillusionment and the things that make up a disciple's day. I junked my third talk in favor of talking further about some stuff that had come up with the guys, so I'm posting it in chunks here instead. Part one can be found below; here's part two. Part three is coming.


We return to Peter, who’s been a helpful guide this weekend through a day in the life of a disciple. Peter, who told Jesus to go away but who was then invited by Jesus to stop catching fish and start catching people. Peter, who struggled to embrace the label “rock” in a way that accepted both its limitations and the full redemptive possibilities of it, to the point where he could invite all of us to be rocks like him. Peter, who returned again and again to the waters of chaos because at least he understood them, but who was called again and again by God to leave the waters, even to walk on the water, as an act of discipleship. Peter’s path to his vocation was filled with fits and starts, but if I were to characterize it I would call it an invitation out of his limited vision into a much fuller vision of the world God has created and his place in it.

The best example of this, I think, is found in Acts 10. Peter, now the de facto leader of the apostles and, by extension, the early church, is in one corner. In the other corner stands Cornelius, a God-fearing centurion in the Italian regiment. God-fearers were a special category of gentiles, but they were one degree removed from the covenant community to whom Peter and the apostles belonged. Peter and Cornelius could be neighbors, but according to the understanding of the early church, they couldn’t be brothers in Christ.

And yet Cornelius had this vision, and a message from an angel of the Lord directing him to Peter. Was Cornelius one of the men that Jesus had called on Peter to catch?

Peter had his own vision, challenging his understanding of what it meant to be devout. Staying within the boundaries and prescriptions of the faith Peter was raised in was, in Peter’s mind, an act of piety, of worship. To serve God was to stay safely within the confines of his religious practice. But the word of the Lord came to Peter: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” I’d like to suggest that we have failed to acknowledge the “cleanness” of the work that God has called us to, work that takes place outside the ordained offices of the church, and so have had obstructed vision about what God would have us do in the world.

The clean jobs we recognize in the church community are too often those that are ordained and funded, and so the work attended to by those who are ordained and funded, from the preaching of the Word to the teaching of children’s Sunday school to the maintaining of the physical plant of the church, float near the top of our lists when we think of serving God and following Jesus. And these are all important and significant contributions to the vitality of the contemporary church and its sustainability into the future. But these are only a small part of the totality that God has in mind for his church.

Jesus told his disciples, before his ascension to heaven, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” This is a worldwide commission, one that simply can’t be accomplished by the special few ordained or funded by the church. Neither can it be accomplished solely from the pulpit or on the campus of any given church. The great commission—a challenge to introduce the whole world to the kingdom of God and his righteousness—is a mandate to everyone who has entered into a discipleship relationship.

Peter was challenged to set aside the parameters he had been enculturated into and invited to see the Spirit at work in the lives of people historically outside the reach of the kingdom of God. The scandal of this encounter was such that Peter had to go back to Jerusalem and explain himself. And explain himself he does, such that Acts 11 is almost a mirror of Acts 10. Reading Acts 11 feels like a redundancy until you consider that everyone, even Peter himself, was awestruck by the grace of God demonstrated in the lives of Cornelius and his household.

This is the invitation that God extends to us as his disciples. It begins with disillusionment; we cast aside the illusion that the particularities of our faith experience exempt us from a real encounter with people God loves who live outside the walls of our faith experience—that the special status we’ve afforded to a clerical class grants us dispensation from the commission Jesus laid out for his church, that the magical power we’ve assigned to a church building gives us permission to not bear witness to the work of Christ when we’re in our neighborhoods or among our friends and coworkers. Peter’s encounter of the Holy Spirit at work in the household of Cornelius radically changed the focus of the church; we are reminded by this encounter that the earth (not just the church) is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof (not just the parts that fit comfortably alongside church culture).

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What I Would Have Said: The Vocational Life, Part One

I spoke at a men's retreat this weekend. It was a small group of guys from a local church; I was at least their second choice for a speaker, but that didn't scare me off. I spoke about "a day in the life of a disciple" and focused on disllusionment as a portal to discipleship in the interior life, the intimate fellowship and the vocational life. Except that at the last minute I decided to junk my prepared talk on vocation and went another way. I'm glad I did, both because the group needed to cover some different ground than my talk covered and because now I have two or three blog posts for Loud Time. You're welcome, America.


The vocational life—what we make of the world we find ourselves in—can be immensely rewarding, both materially and emotionally. We are coached and trained and encouraged toward a particular career throughout our childhood. Kids get asked all the time, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” (Note: not what do you want to do, but what do you want to be.) Kids’ most important decisions are tailored toward their vocation: good grades and a good mix of extracurriculars are critical if you want to get into a good college so you can be set up for a good life. More risky interests such as the arts or academia or athletics are fine for our kids, so long as they have a good backup plan in place. We want our kids to be happy, and we associate their happiness with the kind of security and fulfillment that we expect a job can offer them.

Once we enter the workforce we spend the lion’s share of our week, over the course of our professional lives, at work—as much time as (and perhaps more time than) we spend sleeping or looking after our kids. We get judged for what we do at work and rewarded with paychecks and raises and job promotions and notoriety. Sometimes we get penalized but we know what we did wrong. Except when we don’t.

For all the rewards and security that our worklife purports to offer us, the facts on the ground tell us something different. Nine percent unemployment, with millions of people long-unemployed. The financial crisis that fed the unemployment rate is only one piece of the puzzle. I work in publishing, an industry that is in dramatic transition on a variety of fronts—from its delivery systems to its aesthetics and even the possibility of its obsolescence. New technologies subvert whole industries, and new cultural trends send whole professions reeling. Economic realities send jobs overseas. Suddenly the thing we spent our whole childhood preparing ourselves for, the thing we’ve given a full third or more of our everyday lives to, abandons us.

Even if we manage to survive the turbulence of a professional life, eventually it ends dramatically—if not with our death, then with our retirement. Honestly, my boss is praying that he’ll die at his desk, mainly because he’s afraid of the jokes we’d make at a retirement party. Retirement is stark. There’s a commercial right now, for some financial planning company, that consists of a series of photographs of the sun coming up on a person’s first day of retirement. It’s very inspiring, except that for so many freshly retired people it’s the first day in decades that they have no idea what lies in front of them. Retirement, beyond the mere financial vulnerability of it, can be something of an existential crisis. Here’s a little bit of a song that Ben Folds wrote about the phenomenon of retirement, its impact on a person’s self-assurance:

Fred sits alone at his desk in the dark. There’s an awkward young shadow that waits in the hall. He’s cleared all his things and he’s put them in boxes—things that remind him: “Life has been good.” Twenty-five years he’s worked at the paper. A man’s here to take him downstairs. And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, it’s time.

Depression spikes for men at retirement age. Lethargy can kick in; I know of a guy who spent the last fifteen years or so of his life sitting in a chair, despite his family’s best efforts to get him interested in something, anything. We’ve equated vocation with career, and once our career is over, what’s left for us?

To say nothing of the absurdity and frustration we encounter in the workplace. Bad decision making, political infighting and back biting, frustrating customers who are nonetheless always right, pet projects that go bad or delegated tasks that drag on our enthusiasm. In many ways our experience of vocation can be a prolonged, protracted experience of disillusionment.

But this weekend we’ve come to understand disillusionment as not a life sentence but as somehow life-giving, a dispersal of the illusions we’ve inherited from others and cultivated in ourselves about who we are and how life works, in order to invite us into a more fully real experience of the world God made and is in the process of bringing to its fulfillment. Vocation isn’t a manufactured word; it’s a word from God that suggests that we have been called into something bigger than ourselves, and when we’re called we’re simultaneously invited not to fear.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Shut Up, Dietrich Bonhoeffer!

I'm rereading Life Together by theologian, pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in anticipation of a men's retreat I'm facilitating later this month. (If you're interested in attending, I think there's still some space. Go here for more information.) I find myself wondering if I would like Bonhoeffer as much as I do if he were living and writing today, as opposed to his prophetic ministry in opposition to the rise of the Nazis in WWII-era Germany. There are contemporary writers and speakers who use similarly stark language to say arresting and provocative things, and when I read them (and when I hear them speak, as happened just a few days ago, quite frankly), more often than not I want to tell them to shut up. In my defense, I think that a person's words are judged and best understood by the times in which they were spoken or written, and by the means by which the were propagated and disseminated. In that respect, Bonhoeffer's open-secret subversive theology and spirituality in the face of historic evil gets more attention from me than, for example, a weeping prophet on a jumbo-tron. So, while I groan inwardly and smirk outwardly when I hear some flavor-of-the-month preacher telling a roomful of sycophants that we all just need to get over ourselves and start serving God better, I sit up and take notice when Bonhoeffer says something similarly straightforward and confrontational. Like this, from his chapter on "Ministry," under "The Ministry of Helpfulness":
Nobody is too good for the meanest service. One who worries about the loss of time that such petty, outward acts of helpfulness entail is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly. We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks, as the priest passed by the man who had fallen among thieves, perhaps--reading the Bible. . . . It is a strange fact that Christians and even ministers frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them. . . . But it is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God. . . . Only where hands are not too good for deeds of love and mercy in everyday helpfulness can the mouth joyfully and convincingly proclaim the message of God's love and mercy.
On my best days the spirit of this passage from Life Together, if not the text of it outright, crosses my mind in the moment I start to resent the occasional interruption or unexalted task. But most days are not my best days, I'm afraid, and if Dietrich Bonhoeffer were alive today, up on a stage with spotlights and PowerPoint and whatnot, throwing this kind of challenge in my face, I suspect I would groan inwardly and smirk outwardly, probably stifling the urge to shout "Shut up, Dietrich Bonhoeffer!" I'll try to remind myself of that next time I'm trapped in an arena with a jumbo-tron preacher in my face. God help me.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Parable of the Unexpected Teaser

My friend Nate made this video promotion for my booklet. My friend Rachel Snavely acted in it. I stood around and watched. I hope you like it. The video is approximately one minute and forty-eight seconds long. For kicks try muting the video and playing a short song behind it. I particularly enjoyed "Being Around" by the Lemonheads, "That Someone Is You" by R.E.M., "Is That Your Zebra?" by Sam Phillips, and "Bus Stop" by Tin Machine. Let me know of you find a song that you think works particularly well.

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'...