Tuesday, December 31, 2013

We'll Take a Cup of Kindness Yet

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?

. . .

Let us pause in life's pleasures
and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There's a song that will linger
forever in our ears;
Oh hard times come again no more.

While we seek mirth and beauty
and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent,
their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more.

And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
Give me a hand o’ thine!
We’ll take a right good-will draft
for auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
This is my 700th post at Loud Time. Thanks to everyone who meanders over here occasionally enough to keep me typing. Happy New Year from me to you; may the good of 2014 overwhelm the bad of 2013.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The World, in Solemn Stillness

And ye, beneath life's crushing load,

Whose forms are bending low,

Who toil along the climbing way

With painful steps and slow,

Look now! for glad and golden hours

come swiftly on the wing.

O rest beside the weary road,

And hear the angels sing!
Merry Christmas from Loud Time!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Please Don't Crucify Christmas!

Any last-minute shoppers out there? You're not alone. I guarantee that there are some last-minute sermon writers out there as well.

The Christmas season is busy for pastors--beyond the normal holiday preparations, pastors' visits with the sick and the elderly ramp up, even as their congregants drop in unexpectedly on them. There are end-of-year church business meetings, holiday dream weddings, and multiple additional worship services--which, for the pastor, means multiple additional sermons.

It can be tempting, I'm sure, to phone in a holiday sermon or two. Everyone's minds and hearts are elsewhere, after all: children have visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, and adults are recalling auld acquaintances long forgot or newly missed. Who would notice if the pastor pulled out a well-worn script to usher in the baby Jesus?

I don't begrudge pastors this merciful cheat. I only have one request: please don't crucify Christmas.

Especially among Protestants, I think, and particularly among evangelicals, and certainly among fundamentalists, it's de rigueur to steer the once-a-year church visitors from the manger to the cross, to remind everyone that Jesus was born, yes, sure, of course, but that he also died a horrible, painful, shameful death on our behalf, because we're all a bunch of sinners. The more zealous preachers will remind their audience that on the other side of death is either heaven or hell, and while heaven's halls are decked with boughs of holly, in hell the unrepentant among us will be forever wailing and gnashing their teeth.

It's a shame, really. In a season where we could reflect on and draw strength from the incarnation of God in Christ--the grand notion that God doesn't stay far off or turn his back on us but rather draws near to us and abides with us--too often preachers hit the fast forward button on the story of Jesus so that we can remind one another that we're totally depraved, hellbound, et cetera. There's something a little twisted about it, frankly: I, for one, have never heard any preacher rehearse the story of Jesus' birth on Good Friday, when we remember how Jesus loved us to death. If the cross is so important at Christmas, isn't the incarnation important for Easter?

At the cross we commemorate the actions of God on our behalf, which we recall is done out of love, even out of joy. But at the birth of Jesus we celebrate the character of God, who refuses to sit idly by while people suffer, who created human beings in his image, who took on flesh and dwelt among us out of love. Christmas is a celebration of the life that God breathes into us, the life that God knit together in us, a celebration of Immanuel--God with us.

So there you have it, last-minute sermon writers. Go ahead and do your worst, with my blessing. God knows you've earned as much of a Christmas break as the rest of us. Just keep in mind my one little Christmas wish: let baby Jesus have his moment, and let us have our moment, remembering that God didn't love the world just enough to save it; he loves the world enough to abide with it.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Four Cash Mobs of Christmas: A Recap

Well, we did it. I and a group of my friends descended on four locally owned, independently operated stores with our gift-buying money this season, contributing to our local economy and avoiding, in large part, the mass merchandise that we might otherwise be tempted to give our loved ones.

I wrote about the idea for the Christmas cash mob here. A couple of notes:

* Originally, I had hoped for twelve cash mobs. My friends talked me down to four, which in retrospect was super smart.

* "Mob" is a generous term to describe us. On our best day we had six people, which will impress the staff of a small shop but for a larger retail space just looks like Tuesday. Only three of us made it to our last store, Jeans & a Cute Top, which I think we anticipated but which was a little anticlimactic.

* Technically, we didn't shop local. We cherry picked a local suburban downtown area that had enough shops to keep us motivated throughout the adventure. That locality was Downers Grove, the previous home base of our employer, InterVarsity Press, and the community my wife grew up in--so, not completely cut off from our sense of place, but a bit of a stretch, I freely admit.

* We might have ventured beyond Downers Grove into Westmont (current location of InterVarsity Press) or Clarendon Hills (our neighbor to the east), but Downers Grove had these punch cards that enticed us to keep coming back. We actually won a gift bag from our first location, Gabby's Gifts, and we may still win $100 from the Downers Grove Chamber of Commerce.

* I didn't do all my Christmas shopping during these cash mobs. I just couldn't find everything I was looking for. Maybe next year.

All that being said, I certainly enjoyed myself and hope to make the Christmas cash mob an annual tradition. At the very least, it's a way to make Christmas shopping a communal event, rather than a solitary experience, which means you get less lost in it. If you had a similar experience this season, I'd love to hear about it in the comments below. Otherwise, I'll leave you with my favorite flash mob video, by Improv Everywhere, and simply wish you a merry Christmas.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Oh, the Places You've Gone! 17 Unbelievable Realities About Our Elders

My childhood neighbor and surrogate grandmother, Ethel, died recently. She was just a few months shy of a hundred years old, but I'm willing to round up. It struck me just how much happened over the course of her lifetime, something that often escapes my attention. I, like many if not most of us, am usually preoccupied by youth - all those things that are arrestingly true of generations younger than mine:

* They think of the 1980s as ancient history!

* They presume you can watch, see, read or review anything that ever existed at a mere swipe of the hand!

* They've never seen a roll of film!

* They've never known a world without the Internet or The Simpsons!

It's perfectly understandable to me why such things amaze and enthrall us, if only because I find myself amazed and enthralled by them. But our attention is directed toward youth, and as a consequence we overlook what's amazing and enthralling about those older than us.

Here, for example, are some things that were true about my dear Ethel:

* She was born without the right to vote.

* She watched soldiers return from battle in World War I, World War II, the Korean conflict, the Vietnam War, Iraq and Afghanistan and countless other military actions.

* She lost the right to drink alcohol when she was seven. She regained the right to drink alcohol when she was twenty.

* She was nearly finished with high school at the start of the Great Depression.

* She heard Franklin D. Roosevelt say "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" in 1933, and "Today is a day that will live in infamy" in 1941.

* She saw film reels of Jesse Owens winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Hitler's Berlin.

* She heard the news about the German airship Hindenburg exploding over Lakehurst, New Jersey.

* She endured food and material rationing during World War II. She later endured long lines at the gas station during oil embargoes in the 1970s. She was encouraged to shop as an act of patriotism in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, DC.

* She witnessed the destruction of two Japanese cities by nuclear bomb.

* Sound and color changed the way she watched movies.

* She wrestled with her whiteness as Southern blacks fought for their basic human rights.

* She saw President Kennedy say "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," and she also saw him get shot to death.

* She saw Martin Luther King Jr. share his dream with the world, and she saw him shot to death in Memphis.

* She paid little attention to the arrest and decades-long imprisonment of Nelson Mandela.

* She prayed for American ambassadorial staff held hostage in Iran, and for the loved ones of the astronauts killed in the crash of two space shuttles.

* She witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the inauguration of America's first nonwhite president.

* Her parents would have been amazed and enthralled at the realization that she had never known a world without cars or airplanes.

This is the world my dear Ethel witnessed from her little house in Des Moines, Iowa. She kept her chin up through it all, and she never lost a sense of amazement in all the time I knew her. Folks like Ethel are all around us, and if we give them our attention, I suspect we'll be enthralled by what they share with us.

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Church Has Enough "Leaders"

In England, priests, vicars and other religious authorities are generally not trusted and seen as out of touch.

In the United States, a majority of Catholics consider their ecclesiastical authorities to be out of touch with their views.

Whatever the church needs right now for its witness to have impact on the world, apparently it's not another "leader."

By "leader" I mean people with positional authority, with whatever vestments and titles and ordination qualifications a particular denomination or tradition requires.

But I also mean people who assume authority--people who, in taking responsibility for some aspect of the church's mission, simultaneously assume power that they don't need over people who don't need another authority figure in their lives.

I'm pretty conscious of the fact that this sounds like yet another Gen-X rant against authority. And we can see how that turned out for Gen X. (Remember us?) I'm reminded of an insight from the great John Cougar Mellencamp: "I fight authority; authority always wins." But most of my rants against authority are particular and situational; I'm frustrated by a particular expression of authority under specific circumstances. This here is something more philosophical, more circumspect. The last thing anyone would expect of a church would be to eschew power, to lay down authority, to accept the influence of some powerless other.

Who, for example, would expect to see a senior pastor yield the pulpit to a theologically untrained layperson, even a visitor who hasn't yet cut a check to the building campaign? Who would expect a church's business meeting to be conducted without a prior agenda, with the head elder yielding the floor to any and all comers? Who would expect a church to go to a village board or neighborhood council meeting and just sit and listen--maybe pray quietly a little?

Strategically, these sorts of zig-zags would unsettle people's presumptions about the general posture of people in religious leadership. But there's another value to these moves: authority figures in the church might learn something new. They might be reminded that they don't somehow, magically, have all the answers to life's toughest questions tucked away in their sportcoat's breast pocket with their tiny little Bible. They might be reminded that they're human, like everyone else, and not required by God or anybody to be the final word on anything. They might reimagine the role of the church as humble witness to the faithfulness of God in Christ, who saves even wretches like me.

Just a thought.Do with it what you will.

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 Amazon.com; 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?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

This Is Who I Am: A Personality Profile Matrix

I thought it might be interesting to see all my various personality profiles mashed up together. So I went to tagxedo.com, which is one of those nifty wordcloud generators, and came up with a rough system for weighting the profiles:

* I typed in my top term from APEST and Enneagram five times.

* I typed in my second APEST category four times, then three, then two, then one, till all five were represented.

* I typed in my two Enneagram directions three times each.

* I typed in my Myers-Briggs and StrengthsFinder terms twice each.

* I typed in my Enneagram wing once.

Then the wordcloud generator did its funky work. Here is what it kicked out, designed as a footprint, which I think is a pretty good visual representation of how I fit into the world.

Or, if you prefer, here I am as a trendy, self-aware giraffe:

This is not at all scientific. It's just for fun. If you do something similar, let me know; I'd love to see how you look. If you're wondering what any of these words means, let me know and I'll fill you in.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Whistling--A Life Plan

My dad taught me to whistle. I've recently become aware of this. I don't think he taught me how to whistle; I would hope that I taught myself that, since the mechanics of whistling are simple: as Lauren Bacall put it, "You just put your lips together . . . and blow."

But the bliss of whistling -- that I learned from my dad. He whistles a lot. Like, all the time. And, like, everywhere. Walking through a store. Walking through the neighborhood. Stepping into the pews at church. Sitting down for dinner at home. He whistles while driving, while reading, while waiting around for the next thing to happen. He's a whistler. And so am I.

I started to become aware that I had inherited my dad's whistling disposition when I got the eponymous first album by "newgrass" band Nickel Creek. The trio that made up the band played their respective instruments with the speed of youth and the acumen of veterans. And I whistled right along with them. I whistled the melody; I whistled the harmony. I whistled the fiddle part; I whistled the mandolin part. And I did it all from the comfort of my desk at work.

Imagine how that must have annoyed my neighbors. I got made fun of a fair bit, and I know that I deserved it. I'm pretty confident, however, that as annoying as I was, no one stayed annoyed at me. Whistling is too innocent, too blissful, to resent for long. Plus, there's no denying I'm good at it. Anyway, I kept doing it --not out of conviction but out of habit.

Something happens to you, I think, when you make a habit of whistling. It lightens the load of life, I think. It's hard to nurse grudges while you're whistling. It's hard to dwell on some slight, to fret over some mistake. It's hard to stay angry or stay panicked. Whistling takes you out of time and drills you down deep into a particular moment. If you're whistling, chances are you're in the zone.

Or maybe you're desperately trying to get in the zone. "Whistling in the dark" is what we call putting on a brave face; ironically, it's roughly equivalent to keeping a stiff upper lip, a state that is hardly conducive to whistling. Whistling somehow, mystically, shores up our resolve, emboldens us in the face of danger. We distract ourselves by whistling in order to do what we might not otherwise want or feel able to do. If you find yourself whistling, chances are you're in the thick of it.

My dad taught me to whistle not out of fear but out of serenity. He didn't set out to do so; he just whistled everywhere he went, and he gave off a sense of serenity in the process. The message kind of stuck with me, and the habit embedded itself in me. And now, the older I get, the more I get it: life is no match for a person who whistles.

You think you're a good whistler? Put your lips together and blow through this one -- "The Lighthouse's Tale" by Nickel Creek.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Prophetiquette: How to Be a Prophet Without Being a Jerk

In my previous post, most excellent blogophile, I identified some pitfalls that people facilitating a paradigm shift often stumble into. As a reminder (although, come on, how long would it take you to read a 500-word post?), they were as follows:

1. Treating smart people like they're stupid.

2. Treating competent people like they're incompetent.

3. Treating committed people like they're uncommitted.

I suggested that these pitfalls could be avoided, or their impact mitigated, by a prior commitment to the second great commandment of Jesus: Love your neighbor as yourself.

Today I read, in Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim's energizing book The Permanent Revolution, a similar set of rules for people of a prophetic temperament. The authors are setting up a kind of taxonomy of spiritual "intelligences," the various aptitudes listed by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:1-16 that, taken together, are the engine of Christianity as a missionary movement through history: Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds (or pastors) and Teachers (APEST). Everyone, it seems, is bent toward one of these intelligences, something that appeals to the Myers-Briggs junkies among us. But the emphasis here is not on the individual but on the collective--how the five share their energies, pool their resources and engage in common mission. I'll concentrate here on prophetic intelligence, since it's related to paradigm shifting (and since that's as far as I've gotten in the book), but the greatest value in any one piece of the APEST puzzle is found in the context of the whole.

Anyway, Hirsch and Catchim define a prophet generally as a "guardian of faithfulness."

They are seen to be the God-intoxicated, biblical existentialists, calling all to live faithfully in covenant relationship with God and consistent with his kingdom and rule in the world. The effect of prophetic ministry is to bring our world into divine focus.
This presumes, all too rightly, that most of us live out of sync with what we profess about God and the world, making the prophetic intelligence a somewhat maddening burden:

This experience of encountering two contradicting realities causes the prophet to passionately call into question the existing order of things. ... By forcing us to face up to these gaps in our faithfulness, the prophet creates a context that allows us to perceive the truth of our situation. ... People, and the institutions they inhabit, can find themselves being held hostage by their own logic and systems of justification. In such situations we need prophetic imagination to deconstruct and dismantle these systems of justification that so often conceal our fears and selfishness.
Sound like a paradigm shift? It's a helpful reminder that paradigm shifts aren't just change for the alleviation of boredom; they're an acknowledgment, arrived at gradually by increasing numbers of people, that something is out of sync with reality, and a commitment, arrived at with varying levels of enthusiasm, to return to equilibrium. Paradigm shifts need prophets, not just to shake the foundations but to identify where the foundations are and how we find our way back to them.

Given this setup, prophets sound awesome, right? But they have their own rules of engagement. Hirsch and Catchim identify six.

1. The prophet is to point people to God, not to the prophet's preferred reality. There's something objective driving the prophet's concern, which is why we test prophets to distinguish between something objective and something loudly, annoyingly subjective.

2. "Criticism is not a license for cynicism." Underlying the prophetic task is a commitment to the possibility of change and to the responsibility to point people toward that change--not just to chide people for their stasis.

3. Love is the foundation of prophetic ministry. If you're not motivated by love for the people you're prophesying to, you're doing it wrong.

4. "Critical distance should not translate into permanent distance." Prophetic imagination has its own allure, and can draw us into a bubble of our own insight. No man is an island, and no prophet is without a people.

5. "Prophets are not infallible." Prophets rely on intuition, which can be wrong. Prophets, again, need the rest of us to test and approve their prophetic imaginations, just as we need prophets to keep pushing our buttons.

6. Prophets can make a situation worse. Prophets have a responsibility to their own message, to keep refining it and asking questions of it and considering the pitfalls of it. There's nothing worse than a prophet who doesn't know what she's talking about.

Anyway, that's how Hirsch and Catchim see it. It's a tragedy when prophets get stoned, or killed, or marginalized or suppressed. But sometimes, when they lose sight of these rules, a little suppression might be in order. Prophets aren't messiahs, after all. They work for us, just like we work for us.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Shifting Paradigms 101: Pre-Course Requirements

I run around with a lot of people who are trying to change people's minds on a lot of things. How we do church, how we do publishing, how we do social change, how we do what we do--all of these things are, in the minds of my friends (and, for the most part, in my mind as well), up for revision.

Some of these things are better primed for change than others. "There's something about the gallows," a publishing executive I know likes to say, "that focuses the mind." Publishing, in other words, is in danger of perishing--unless we make some changes. I think that's hyperbole, but I think that mainly because I'm predisposed to change and see it as the normal order of things.

In any case, a change junkie would say something like that, wouldn't they? "Don't waste a crisis," I think Rahm Emmanuel said when he stepped into the role of White House Chief of Staff for new president Barack Obama. "The sky is falling!" doesn't have to be cause for panic; shouted by the right Machiavellian mouth, it can be the preamble to a paradigm shift.

Many a movement has been dissembled from within, however--even by the loudest, shrewdest champions of it. I'm pretty sure that the following remedial rules apply to any effort to lead people through significant change:

1. Don't treat smart people like they're stupid. You see the need for change sooooo clearly; your colleagues see things differently. Do them and yourself (and even your agenda) a favor and assume they have well-reasoned reasons for being dubious about your proposal.

2. Don't treat competent people like they're incompetent. You'll be tempted to point to failures under the current paradigm. Remember as you do that these failures trace back to real people, who acted in good faith on their best effort drawing on the best information they had available. Even if they acknowledge that the failure was in fact a failure (they may well disagree with you), it will still sting to hear it discussed, and they won't be especially excited to stick their neck out for something new.

3. Don't treat committed people like they're uncommitted. Just because you perceive that people's hard work is misdirected doesn't mean that they're not working hard, in good faith, toward a desired outcome that looks a lot like yours. Some of these folks will have been at it for years--years more than you have, actually. I've found this often to be the case that newcomers see the dead ends more quickly and clearly, but old-timers see the potholes and pitfalls, and they know from experience the damage they can do.

Pitfalls and potholes are, of course, common along the journey through a paradigm shift. Just because they're there, looming on the horizon, doesn't mean change isn't in order. You know that; the other early adopters know that. So do, as a matter of fact, the smart, competent, committed people you're trying to coax into the change you're seeking.

Paradigm shifts aren't the sort of thing you can manufacture or manipulate; they are a kind of collective epiphany that people arrive at in staggered sequence -- some subtly, some dramatically, some begrudgingly. Paradigm shifts don't need puppet masters, mercilessly pulling the strings of people they think are too stupid or lazy or unskilled to respond to reality. Paradigm shifts need something more like a midwife: knowledgeable about the signals for action, attentive to the vulnerabilities and anxieties that get exposed along the way, ready to respond to any crises that present themselves, committed both to the one to be born and the one giving birth.

Like everything, then, the first requirement of a change agent is love--not love for the idea of change or the imagined future some change may bring, but love for those among whom some change is being born. For some change agents, this kind of love may be its own paradigm shift.

I don't suppose I'm the only person who's thought about this, nor am I the only person who's struggled through needed change in an organization or two. So I hope you'll share your stories and insights about prerequisites for paradigm shifts, either here in the comments or on my Facebook page, Google Plus or Twitter.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

How Not to Pray

My church has found me. I must have passed some threshold of monthly giving or something, because lately everyone in every corner of the church is inviting me to serve with them. Youth ministry, homeless ministry, marriage ministry, small group ministry, communications, uh, ministry, and even . . . prayer ministry.

Yes. I, who scored "present" on an online test measuring the quality of my faith, hope and love, am now regularly praying for people after our worship services. Don't worry, I don't get a lot of traffic. But occasionally someone comes up to me for prayer, at which point I am, occasionally, sent into a tizzy.

Recently I was sitting around, trying to look welcoming and spiritual, trying not to look at my phone, when I was approached by a woman I'll call Joan. Joan needed prayer, mainly for discernment, because she had two friends who she was trying to figure out when and how to inform that they were sinners and she would no longer be hanging out with them.

Seriously. This is the sort of thing some people request prayer for. This is, I believe, how not to pray.

I listened to her story and tried to remain sympathetic, but inside I was sort of seething. Who does this woman think she is? I wondered. In what universe would this kind of prayer make sense? What kind of God would respond well to a prayer like that? I asked her some questions for clarification, and then I closed my eyes and started preaching.

This, by the way, is also how not to pray. I learned this from Andrew Wheeler, in his excellent and woefully underappreciated book Together in Prayer. Preaching with your eyes closed is not praying. When you tell God what you want other people in the room to know--when you teach God Christian doctrine or remind God how bad people are at following him--you're not praying. You're preaching, and you're not even dignifying your audience by looking them in the eye.

I know this. I get really testy whenever I am invited into prayer, and I close my eyes, and someone does this. I gripe about it in the car to my wife on the way home from such proto-prayer times. I'm hip to the fact that this is not how to pray. And yet I did it. I think it's fair to say they set the bar pretty low for prayer team at my church.

Most of us are unaware of when we're preaching with our eyes closed. And in fairness to us, it's an easy habit to slip into. God is invisible, ineffable; God may be present, but he's not in view. In the meantime, there's any number of visible, effable people standing right in front of us, and we're pretty sure they need to hear what we need to say. It's instinct, the way any will to power is an instinct.

Anyway, I "prayed" for this woman, thanking God for placing her in proximity to these two friends, praising God for being loving and merciful and patient and grace-giving and for loving even those who reject him. I asked God to help her sort out when to speak words of challenge to them, but mainly I invited God to show his love for these two people through this woman. I laid it on thick, I can tell you.

I opened my eyes and she was still there, so I asked her what she was thinking. She softened a bit, talking about her concern for her own children, who were learning some bad habits from one of these people. She talked also about her concern for the children of the other person, who were suffering from the mistakes their mom was making. She lamented how many people call themselves Christian and yet ignore obvious ways that Christ might speak into their relationships, their morals, their life decisions.

I softened too, considering how hard it must be for a parent to make decisions not just for herself but for her kids, how desperate in particular Christian parents must be to see their kids embrace faith in the way they've embraced it, and how scared they must be given the increasing cultural disaffection with a Christian subculture. So we closed our eyes again, and this time I tried to keep it prayerful. I again prayed for love and grace and mercy, but I also prayed for courage and opportunity to speak truth and all that stuff. When we were done, I opened my eyes again. So did she.

Then she complained about how this generation has rejected good family values, and how the previous generation was all great and awesome. I hate that stuff. I prodded her a bit on it, and to her credit, she gave in a bit. Then we shook hands and parted ways.

Ta da! I had prayed for someone. Mission accomplished. Box checked.

This coming Sunday I'm all in: I watch that Bible TV show with some homeless folks, then I talk about following Jesus with a bunch of middle schoolers, then I attend the worship service, then I pray again. And a few hours after that I discuss a book over snacks with my small group. I may even edit a church newsletter or something. I'll feel pretty good about myself, I suspect--good enough that I'll be tempted to preach at someone with my eyes closed. Maybe you could pray for me that I won't do that. I'd go so far as to say that something like that is how we should pray, and I'd welcome it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Introduction of Gravity to the World: An Anniversary Post

I remember the first time I interacted with Chris Heuertz. At the time he was the international director of Word Made Flesh, a network of folks who love one another in real and practical ways whether they come from the wealthy West or were born into and trapped in extreme poverty or systems of injustice in the Majority World. I was a book editor; Chris wanted to convert some of the essays he'd collected from friends on behalf of WMF into a book. I told him that was a bad idea--collections like that don't sell. I hung up the phone and felt a little bad that I'd squelched this guy's vision and lamented that collections like that don't sell. And then I went on with my day.

Turns out I hadn't squelched Chris's vision. We stayed in touch and went back and forth about what would make a more appropriate and viable first foray into book publishing. Soon enough we had a good idea that was true to the heart of Word Made Flesh and played by the rules of the publishing industry. Now all we had to do was come up with a contract. I sent the contract to Chris and he proofread it, finding numerous spelling and grammatical errors (filling him with confidence in us, I'm sure) and demanding (in jest, it turns out) cell phone charms and bobble head dolls and other forms of ridiculousness. I fell in love a little that day, I'm at home enough in my sexuality to admit.

As part of the editorial process--the part of our contract negotiation that he wasn't kidding about--I flew out to Omaha to spend time with Chris and his community. It was an unbelievably fun trip, with Chris's manic humor mirrored back to him by his staff and harmonizing well with the depth of soul I discovered in his wife, Phileena. While Chris and I ate Pop Tarts in their library, Phileena spent a chunk of time in centering prayer--right there in the midst of us.

Not long after I wrapped up working with Chris on his book Simple Spirituality (which he's since followed up with two others: Friendship at the Margins and Unexpected Gifts), I started working with Phileena on her first book, Pilgrimage of a Soul. Contract negotiations, I'm happy to say, were much more straightforward, and the experience was just as delightful and soul-shaping for me. In the Heuertzes I discovered a rare quality: totally invested in the hard work of bringing justice and compassion to overlooked and exploited people throughout the world, they are nevertheless at peace with themselves and joyfully engaged in the day-to-day experience of life. They are big-hearted in ways I've never seen before.

A year ago today Chris and Phileena ended their tenure at Word Made Flesh to devote the next chapter of their lives to helping people find their center even as they pour themselves into the problems of the world. Gravity is a center for contemplative activism, bringing the insights of Thomas Keating and other mystics ancient and contemporary to bear on the challenges of global justice work. They offer retreats and pilgrimages, spiritual direction and other services throughout the year with the goal of keeping activists in touch with their souls and spurring the rest of us to live out our spirituality in ways that improve the lot of our neighbors. It's a remarkable vision, and the two of them are uniquely gifted in it.

When Phileena and I first talked about Gravity they had already launched it; Chris had given me the scoop, but Phileena rounded out the vision. She did so, oddly enough, while we were riding to a retreat on a disco party bus, complete with neon lights and what I have convinced myself was not a stripper pole. She told the story of Gravity in patience and good humor, given the chaos of our environment, and I was struck again by how centered, how tethered to reality, these two people really are. I'm blessed by them--and I find that language far too earnest to say about too many people too often. But today, the anniversary of the introduction of Gravity to the world, such language is only appropriate: I'm blessed by Chris and Phileena and the vision that motivates their work:

It IS possible to live from the Divine center of gravity within us that orders our chaos and frees us to live the values of the Gospel: freedom, reconciliation, peace and unconditional love. Values that can change the world.
Visit the Gravity website to get a better sense of them and to consider how you can support their work. Doing so will be a great anniversary present to them and a great investment in the well-being of the world.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Hugs Aplenty! #HuganAuthorDay 2013

Many of my friends have written books. It's a remarkable feat in and of itself: in the cracks of an already full and busy life, they toiled at odd hours or on rare and costly retreats, drafting and redrafting the best possible ways to say a million different things about an idea that'd been burning a hole in their soul.

They worked up the courage to share that idea with loved ones, friends, an editor or two or three hundred.

They faced the hard realities of the publishing industry--increasingly demanding of an author's time for ultimately not a lot of money.

They committed themselves passionately to their work, all the while striving to not lose their humanity while they built their brand and platform and invited the world to treat them like nothing more than the words on their pages or the concepts in their chapter titles.

They dealt with the indignities of being misunderstood by reviewers, interviewers, readers, audiences, even their publishers.

They sweated their Amazon ranking, loitered in the subject-specific aisle of their local Barnes and Noble, cyberstalked GoodReads, bookmarked the Library of Congress.

Lots of people in the world need and have earned a hug, not the least of whom are the authors among us. So today is Hug an Author Day. Not all of us have direct access to an author, but in a virtual age, all of us have myriad ways of hugging them:

* Write them a letter or email, or comment on their website. Trust me, their publisher has made them get a website.

* Write a five-star review of a book you loved reading somewhere where people will see it; make sure to remind your readers that behind the book is an author in flesh and blood.

* Pin your favorite books on Pinterest. (That's how that works, right?)

* Invite some friends to read and discuss a book you've had on your mind. (Not Fifty Shades of Gray--that would be creepy.)

* Or you could, you know, buy a book. Or two.

I'd love to hear how you celebrate Hug an Author Day. You can let me know in one of two ways:

1. Post a comment on this post. (On the off chance you don't have anywhere to write a five-star review of a book you loved reading, feel free to do so in the comments here.)

2. Add the hashtag #HuganAuthorDay to your review or your pins(?) or your comments or whatever. That way I and others can track your contribution down.

I see no reason why we couldn't have other similar celebrations--Hug a Firefighter Day, for example, or Hug a Transportation Security Administration Employee Day (although those folks might return the favor with Invasive Pat-Down Day, so maybe not). But today is for the authors. Let them know you love them.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Hug an Author Day Is Coming! This Is Why We Write

I wrote the following shortly after last year's inaugural Hug an Author Day. Still true today.


God knows authors don't need any more exploitation in their lives. What they need are hugs: concrete assertions that they exist and have value, that what they've invested so much of themselves in was worth doing and has had an impact. They need to be reminded that they are not merely the insights and assertions of their writing but real and whole human beings whose needs are legitimate claims on the rest of us. They need to be given permission to do the awkward self-promotion that their publisher and their own ego-needs are crying out for them to do, and they need to be reassured that they are not less loved or respected for having done so. They need a hug--or something very much like it--and they're not likely to get one unless there's time and space devoted to it.

Call me biased, since some of my best friends are authors, but I wish every day were Hug an Author Day. I'll settle for every September 15. I've marked my calendar; I hope you will too.


Some Ways You Can Celebrate Hug an Author Day

* Take an author to work--invite some coworkers to start a lunchtime book discussion group.

* Write a review of a book you enjoyed as a kid or more recently on Goodreads or some other social media outlet.

* Change your profile picture to the book cover of a favorite book.

* Like a favorite author's Facebook page.

* Find a book signing event happening in or near your community, and go to it.

* Or, you know, hug an author.

What ideas do you have for celebrating Hug an Author Day? Figure it out soon--Hug an Author Day is coming quick! Mark your calendar for September 15!
One last idea ... My book Deliver Us from Me-Ville is available as an ebook for 99 cents for another week or so. If you haven't gotten the book yet, you can get it for a song right now. (Seriously; it's cheaper than "Good Girl" by Robin Thicke.) One reader called it "a joyfully sarcastic look at our own self-absorption from a Christian perspective." That reminds me: if you post a review of the book during the sale, send me a link and your mailing address, and I'll send you a free copy of my booklet Parable of the Unexpected Guest.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Not an End, But a Beginning: The March on Washington Fifty Years Later

No less a luminary than Martin Luther King Jr. called it "the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation." He opened his comments by celebrating the one-hundred-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, in which President Lincoln ended slavery in the states that made up the Southern Confederacy that had seceded from the Union. "But one hundred years later," King lamented, "the Negro still is not free."

One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.
Fifty years have since passed. The question still haunts: are there yet Americans who are crippled by segregation and discrimination? Is the "lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity" still demarcated by race? Is the United States truly united, or is the African American experience, by and large, still fundamentally different from that of white America?

Those are rhetorical questions. The answers are as haunting as the questions.

Every year, on Martin Luther King Day, I read his fabulous Letter from Birmingham Jail. You can hear in that letter the tested patience of this Nobel Peace Prize winner, the exasperation that was nearer to the surface than our history books and national monuments acknowledge. And yet the Civil Rights Movement under his leadership was characterized not only by nonviolence but by hope--hope that stood in open defiance of the status quo and the forces dedicated to its preservation. King encouraged his audience that day to "forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. . . . Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force."

It's that soul force that propelled the movement forward--a consciousness of the inherent dignity of the cause and its champions, and a confidence that though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends inevitably toward justice.
We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
This hope was not naive, not pollyanic. It was disciplined and defiant, living in a stark truth while not allowing its vision to be constrained by the starkness of the truth of the moment. King was not ignorant of the tension of the time, and he was quick to alert the hegemonic forces of the status quo to the mess they'd made for themselves:

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
Until that day, Dr. King assured his audience, "We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back."

The quarter of a million people gathered that day heard this message from Dr. King--"We shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back"--even as he called on his audience to go back where they came from:

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.
All this came before Dr. King mentioned his dream, the dream we all associate with this march on Washington. And all Dr. King's comments came after seventeen others--including future congressman John Lewis and NAACP leader Roy Wilkins--made similar remarks about economic and racial disparity in the United States. Taking nothing from Dr. King's contribution to the long arc of moral history, this day was about more than his dream.

And, in the grand scheme of things--in the long arc of moral history--the day isn't over yet. Poverty rates for African American and Latino populations are twice those of white and Asian populations. As of 2008, one in every 106 prisoners in America was a white man over the age of eighteen, compared with one in every thirty-six for Hispanic men and one in fifteen for African American men. The unemployment rate among black people in the United States is almost exactly double that of white people.

So, fifty years after the march on Washington--and 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation--we still have a long way to go. "Now," Dr. King told his audience--and now, fifty years later, more than ever--"Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy."

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.
That's the dream that Dr. King articulated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial a half-century ago. It's a dream inspired by the prophetic words of the Scriptures--"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together"--and it's a dream propelled forward by hope that defies the cynicism of the status quo.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
That day isn't here yet, but this day isn't over yet.


Read more about the roots and early years of the Civil Rights Movement in volume one of Rep. John Lewis's graphic-novel memoir, March. Find my review here.

Read the ebook Remembering Birmingham by Ed Gilbreath to get a fuller understanding of the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Hug an Author Day Is Coming! Notes from Last Year's Inaugural Event

I wrote the following post for Hug an Author Day 2012. It still rings true today.


I should really probably start keeping a gratitude journal. I think I learned about such things from Oprah--indirectly, of course, via my wife. Write down what you're thankful for in life on a regular basis, and magically your thoughts will be transformed from paranoia and bitterness to gladness and a general openness to the world. In the third millennium of the church, it seems, God uses gratitude journals as much as anything to take people's hearts of stone and turn them into hearts of flesh.

I could list any number of reasons I need to start keeping a gratitude journal. An ingratitude journal would be easier for me, quite frankly; I've been called Eeyore by more than one person in my life. But to preface my gratitude journal with a list of laments seems somehow counterproductive. Light a candle, they say, and there will be little darkness left to curse. So I'll just start with gratitude, and in so doing I'll start with authors.

Ah, authors. They are the wingnuts that hold the whole publishing enterprise together. I publish people, not books, I regularly remind myself, because books don't wish me happy birthday on my birthday or graciously include me in their acknowledgments even after I've dropped the ball more than once on their precious project. Authors do that.

Before there is a book, there is an author. Books are not an end in and of themselves but a means to both the author's and the publisher's end: in IVP's case, to equip and encourage people to follow Jesus as Savior and Lord in all of life. That's a lofty ambition, and you don't get there just by assembling random words on a page and mass-producing it; you need authors with hearts, souls, minds and strengths to put forward such audacious ideas and give them life. I appreciate book authors for that.

I appreciate book authors because unlike communicators who look directly into the eyes of their audience or who write with the assurance of a subscription base putting eyes on their words, or who have access to analytics that help them gauge and react quickly to reader response, book authors publish into a void and wait--sometimes months and even years--to learn the impact of their words. As glamorous as being an author appears, in many ways it's actually quite thankless.

Worse than thankless, sometimes being a book author seems to be more trouble than it's worth. Once a book is out, its author has to cash in favors, chase an audience, move units, all in coordination with a publishing house biting its nails and tapping its feet to see if the potential audience takes the bait. Even more pressure descends on the self-published author, who faces the same demand with ewer resources (and less moral support) to draw from in their effort to get their message out. Authors wait anxiously for the first and then the next review, and thanks to an increasingly uncivil and combative cultural context, it's reasonable to expect as many negative reviews as positive.

And then there's the conventional wisdom that assumes the last thing anyone wants to do is to read a book. Books are too long, too wordy, too linear, too monochrome, too, too, too. Some ideas can't be crystallized into a sound bite or conveyed in an image--everyone knows that--and yet the notion of giving an idea adequate space to make its case is considered among many as quaint at best, stupid at worst. "Great minds discuss ideas," Eleanor Roosevelt said, and yet book-length attempts to discuss ideas in a format that allows them to be considered in full scope are out of vogue. It's hard out there being an author, I tell you.

Hey, look at that. My gratitude journal has become a list of laments. I really am quite good at that, aren't I? OK, so maybe instead of a gratitude journal, I'll just start a new tradition: Hug an Author Day.

Seriously, given the portrait I've painted above, don't you think an author could use a hug? So let's do it. Let's say September 15. Why not? Don't be creepy or anything--a side hug counts as a hug in my book. But let the authors you know know that you love them, that you get that it's hard, that you still appreciate the hard work of giving an idea its due. Give them a hug, people!

Or, better yet, buy their book and read it.

*** So, which author would you like to give a hug on Hug an Author Day? Post their names and why you want to hug them here!

On the off chance that it's me ... My book Deliver Us from Me-Ville is available as an ebook for 99 cents for a couple more weeks. If you haven't gotten the book yet, you can get it for a song right now. (Seriously; it's cheaper than "The One That Got Away" by the Civil Wars.) One reader called it "a joyfully sarcastic look at our own self-absorption from a Christian perspective." That reminds me: if you post a review of the book during the sale, send me a link and your mailing address, and I'll send you a free copy of my booklet Parable of the Unexpected Guest.

Monday, August 19, 2013

"This Is the Way Out": My Review of March: Book One

March (Book One)March by John Robert Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was stopped in my tracks at the Nerd-vana known as the San Diego Comic Convention when I noticed a man handing out short, yellowed copies of a fifty-plus-year-old comic book emblazoned with the face of Martin Luther King Jr. I had to stop. I struck up a conversation with Nate Powell, the graphic artist behind March: Book One, a graphic memoir of Congressman John Lewis. Lewis was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and speaker six at the March on Washington, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year (King was speaker ten). This black-and-white graphic novel tells the story of his early life, culminating in the desegregation of lunch counters in downtown Nashville. Two future volumes will round out Lewis's story with the march on Washington and other seminal events in the history of civil rights in America.

I hadn't known that a comic book had featured prominently (and been used strategically) in the mobilization of youth for the civil rights movement. That comic, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, shows up midway through March and introduces the concepts of passive resistance and nonviolent action. Being a comic book geek of sorts, and a student of the movement after a fashion, I found this quite heartening; it makes much more sense of the decision to retell Rep. Lewis's story in a graphic novel, which struck me as odd at first blush.

You forget, every once in a while as you read March, that you're sitting in on the story of a legend. That's partly because of the congressman's approachability even in print, and the structure of the storytelling, which floats between Lewis's interior memories and his telling stories to student visitors to his congressional office. But it's also partly because of the lead-up to other legends whose stories intersect Lewis's.

We meet Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall--from a distance, since they weren't known personally by the congressman--and we see their faces: Parks as she defies the order to give up her seat, Marshall (in a moment of disillusionment) as he appeals to protestors to give up their protest. The most disarming moments come when we meet Jim Lawson (always in shadow, but orchestrating the congressman's epiphany about nonviolence) and Martin Luther King Jr.

King's sequence is particularly effective: we follow Lewis (with few words, mostly pictures) from his parents' home in Pike County, Alabama, to the bus station, to the home of civil rights attorney Fred Gray, to the doors of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and down a hall and down a flight of stairs and down another hall and around a corner into the office of one of the great moral leaders of all time. There he is, Dr. King, rising from his desk to greet "the boy from Troy," to incite him toward a vocation of justice even as he warned him to count the cost of engagement.

Ultimately Rep. Lewis is unable to follow through on this initial exchange with Dr. King; because (at this point) he is still a minor, he needs the approval of his parents, and they are unwilling to take the risks along with him. But the epiphany of recruitment is effectively conveyed in the art and the sparse dialogue, and it is no surprise to the reader how quickly the story moves from that encounter to the scenes with Lawson and ultimately to the successful confrontation of segregation in downtown Nashville.

March is designed as a trilogy; the remaining two volumes will be released over the next couple of years. I'm eager to read them.

View all my reviews

Friday, August 16, 2013

Inane Ramblings of a Middle-Aged Publishing Professional

Here, reposted from the Young Professionals page at the High Calling, are excerpts from a conversation I had recently with Sam Van Eman about stewarding influence over the course of your career. I enjoyed the conversation; I thought you might as well.


SVE: YPs [young professionals] are hot off the education press and want to know that they matter in the workplace. Give us a story from your twenties when your voice shaped something at work.

DZ: I remember this time we were brainstorming a new corporate tagline. (I should mention here that IVP is remarkably flat in its hierarchy and wildly collaborative in its strategic planning.) Sally Craft, then leading our publicity team, floated the Wesleyan Quadrilateral—Scripture, tradition, reason, experience—a grid by which we make responsible decisions. We liked the flow of it, but our audience, we thought, is much broader than Methodists. I threw out the language of the Shema, which Jesus identified as the greatest of God's commandments: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and all your strength" (Mark 12:30)

“Heart. Soul. Mind. Strength.” resonated with everyone, and I developed a reputation as a bit of a wordsmith.

Of course, when we announced our new tagline in our next catalog, we screwed up the order of the terms on the cover: "Heart. Mind. Soul. Strength." Sigh.

SVE: At IVP, you work with Likewise, an imprint which focuses on making a difference in the world. The name itself comes from Jesus’ words to the lawyer after telling the Good Samaritan story: “Go and do likewise.” So Likewise has a voice; it has influence. How much of that voice is Dave Zimmerman’s?

DZ: I'd say that even given the "all-in" collaborative culture of IVP, it's safe to say I've been the primary curator of Likewise's voice. I’ve served as the editorial liaison for the line (my colleague, Andrew Bronson, is our marketing liaison). Andrew likes to stay a bit behind the scenes; me, I like the attention. So I blogged fairly regularly about a “Likewise ethos,” and I wrote regular newsletters trumpeting the line to Likewise authors and readers. We’d also often gather together people who matched our "psychographic" within larger events and conferences, so we could commingle with them and reinforce what we saw as the core values of the line.

There's a reverse process in there, of course; the books we've determined along the way to be Likewise books have shaped my worldview and informed my values, even messed with my voice. So I suppose it'd also be appropriate to ask, "Dave has a voice. How much of it is Likewise's?"

SVE: Touché. I read a mystic who said the things we build “are outward manifestations of inward realities.” You’re implying that this goes both ways. Something to ponder.

DZ: Thanks for that. I won’t be sleeping for a few days.

SVE: How much "Dave" would we see in Likewise 10 years from now if you were to stick around?

DZ: Likewise has always had a strong countercultural bent—for example, The Unkingdom of God by Mark Van Steenwyk calls for a posture of repentance as the basis for our discipleship, an orientation he arrives at by thinking of Christianity in anarchist terms. Given that, it's ironic that I'm the editor. I live in a single-family house in the suburbs. No one looking at me would think Who let that anarchist hippie in the building?

The authors I acquire and develop, and the character of the line I've tried to cultivate—I think these are reflective of my aspirations for myself: I want to be someone who's thoughtful, passionate, who doesn't settle for abstractions and isolation. I want to be led by my authors, to be taught by them, to be transformed as I edit their stuff.

Ten years from now the world will look quite different, I'll look quite different, the publishing industry will look quite different. I hope that taken together we'll all look more like Likewise looked on its best days: thoughtful, active, hopeful, realistic, humble, audacious, all that and more.

SVE: Do you have a superhero power when you’re at work?

DZ: I take possession of the authors I edit. I take a little credit for their ideas. I see myself less clearly because I cloak myself in the best of what I see in them. Take Mark Van Steenwyk, for example: I see him as a moral genius, and I see myself as a moral genius for recognizing that genius in him. And I see myself as heroic for having made space for him to share his vision.

SVE: Your talent and his, joining to create something more than the sum of the two. I like it. What’s at stake when it comes to having influence?

DZ: The let-down. I tell people that their idea doesn't merit publication all the time. That's not how I put it, and that's not even always what I mean—I often mean that we're the wrong publisher or medium for their work—but I've sought publication enough on my own to know that what gets heard is "You're not good enough."

That unintended message gets heard even by authors I do acquire for publication; they hear it when I call on them to revise their draft, when I critique their assertions, when I make casual jokes that I thought would strengthen our relationship. I once edited a book that, in one passage, went into more detail than I thought was needed about some particular plot point in some particular sci-fi or fantasy film. I wrote in my comments, "Nerd alert!" I thought I was being funny, but in that one comment I eroded nearly all the trust we'd built together to that point. Writing is an act of vulnerability, and editing very easily becomes an act of tyranny, of colonization, of violence.

SVE: We’re fragile people, and I’ve seen this interplay in many places: between managers and cooks, teachers and students ... between me and my kids! What’s the tension like for you?

DZ: It's weird: editors are both behind the curtain and up on a pedestal. Writers want to hear from us, they want to talk to us, they want to be around us. We have a lot of power. But we're also standing behind our authors, whispering in their ears, steering some of their steps. It's a private, arcane, almost secret work, and yet we get sought out and crowded around when we are out and about in any kind of official capacity.

SVE: It’s clear that you have an influential voice—even power—in others’ lives. Give us another story that makes you proud to don your cape.

DZ: I recently had lunch with a woman who, by virtue of her vocation (and her gender, unfortunately) has developed a tragic lack of self-confidence in her ability to communicate truly life-changing messages in her writing. I've watched people get moved to tears when she talks; I've been similarly moved myself. I've seen people go through paradigm shifts in her audience. She's, like, a dream author. But she's been forced into this artificial mold, and she struggles to find her writing voice. So my challenge with her will be to help her cut free of the constraints that have been placed on her, to help her write like she talks instead of writing like she's being judged for it. It can be a terribly traumatic experience, but it can also be incredibly freeing and empowering.

The editor-author relationship, I'm convinced, is built almost entirely on trust: the author must feel safe and secure with the editor, the editor must help the author find their footing in this new realm. On the days when I get to participate in that, I feel pretty dang good about my job.

SVE: I would too. You’re helping people find their way. What’s the best advice you´ve received on developing influence?

DZ: Well, "Be not afraid" is always a good one. And Frederick Buechner wrote a book whose title was Speak What We Feel, not What We Ought to Say. I always thought that was a good one, too. You have to own your influence and your message—own your voice and the words that take shape in it—while also recognizing that you're not infallible.

Another thing that's been helpful to me: If something's worth doing, it's worth doing for free. It's also worth getting paid to do, of course, but don't let money and all it represents—security, prosperity, etc.—tyrannize you.


Don't forget: My book Deliver Us from Me-Ville is available as an ebook for 99 cents for a few more weeks. If you haven't gotten the book yet, you can get it for a song right now. (Seriously; it's cheaper than "Come a Little Closer" by Cage the Elephant.) One reader called it "a joyfully sarcastic look at our own self-absorption from a Christian perspective." That reminds me: if you post a review of the book in the next three weeks, send me a link and your mailing address, and I'll send you a free copy of my booklet Parable of the Unexpected Guest.

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'...