Thursday, December 25, 2014

Love Shall Be Our Token

Love came down at Christmas -
Love, all lovely; love divine.
Love was born on Christmas;
Stars and angels gave the sign.

Love shall be our token;
Love be yours, and love be mine.
Love to God and to all men -
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Merry Christmas from Loud Time.

SEND A CHRISTMAS TWEETING: Love came down at Christmas ... Love shall be our token. Happy holidays!

Friday, December 19, 2014

My Paragraph from Birmingham Jail

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to participate in a reading of Martin Luther King's letter from Birmingham Jail. We recorded it; it'll eventually be made available at Red Letter Christians. This was the letter King wrote, on scraps of paper snuck in and out of prison by his lawyer and other visitors, in response to white moderate clergy who had criticized the nonviolent direct action King and others had conducted against the city's segregationist policies. In addition to putting people in prison, Birmingham police and fire fighters attacked protesters, including children, with dogs and fire hoses.

The letter is one of the most significant moral documents of the twentieth century and is especially poignant in the wake of recent acts of violence by police against black men and children in various precincts throughout the country, and the failures of the justice system to properly prosecute the deaths of black men like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York.

We read this document in the context of a larger conversation about race, institutional bias and violence, and the role of white allies in the cause of racial justice. There are, of course, other racially tinged conversations taking place in the United States these days, principally related to immigration reform. Our group was relatively ethnically diverse, made up mainly of activists and community organizers of various stripes, with a progressive bent. It was still hard to talk about race, and especially to talk about the role of white people in the pursuit of what King called the beloved community. We didn't resolve anything in particular, and I suspect more conversations were started than wrapped up. But we sat together, and in ways small and large we stood together.

I mostly operated the video camera for the reading of the letter, which was profound for me in and of itself. Tony Campolo, a decades-long champion of justice and racial healing, spoke with his typical passion. Urban hippie Shane Claiborne was powerful in his soft voice; new monastic Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove read slowly and deliberately, letting every word count. Seminarian Micky ScottBey Jones and organizer-scholar Alexie Torres-Fleming read with the passion of a mother and a prophet; pastor and blogger Anthony Smith delivered the opening and closing paragraphs of the letter with the same delicate balance of vision and cynicism that I see reflected in King's text. And there were many, many others, people of all stripes, giving voice to King's words, reminding us that though we've come a long, long way, we have terribly far still to go.

In addition to recording the letter, I also got to read a portion of it. I actually requested the paragraph I read; it references my wife's great-uncle, Ralph McGill, at the time the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, who I'm proud-slash-relieved to say was on the right side of history. I think of Ralph often, as our work overlaps: he, the editor of a historic newspaper in a major city; I, an editor of books. That's about where the similarities end, but I like to think about how hard it must have been for him to have a public voice, to curate messages and stories for a divided public, at a seminal and painful moment in American history:

  • How do you bring hard news to the hard-hearted?
  • How do you give voice to the voiceless?
  • How do you hold up justice while holding out for peace and restoration?
  • How do you mediate and moderate conversations that are packed with rage and loaded with the weight of history?
I have no idea how Ralph carried this burden - he died well before I met his great-niece - but I think of him when I think about the weight of history I sometimes find landing in my in box.

Here's what I read from King's letter:

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this need [the need for intervention in the oppression of blacks in the segregated American South]. Perhaps I was too optimistic; perhaps I expected too much. I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers in the South have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still all too few in quantity, but they are big in quality. Some - such as Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden and Sarah Patton Boyle - have written about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms. Others have marched with us down nameless streets of the South. They have languished in filthy, roach infested jails, suffering the abuse and brutality of policemen who view them as "dirty nigger-lovers." Unlike so many of their moderate brothers and sisters, they have recognized the urgency of the moment and sensed the need for powerful "action" antidotes to combat the disease of segregation.
I wanted to read this paragraph for the video because I thought it would honor Ralph's memory. It was, nevertheless, a hard paragraph to read. There are words in it that I am loathe to say. More than even that, however, was the challenge underlying these words.

Ralph McGill, Lillian Smith, Harry Golden, James McBride Dabbs, Ann Braden, Sarah Patton Boyle and the other unnamed white allies in King's letter are not characterized as "radicals" or even "progressives." They're certainly honored as "brothers" (and, presumably, "sisters"), but brothers and sisters "of the oppressor race." Moreover, their acts of moral courage - to write to a white audience in favor of integration and the civil rights of black people, to march with blacks in hostile towns, to endure imprisonment, to experience official violence in solidarity with their black neighbors - these acts of moral courage are merely, in King's vision, "moderate."

It is not in the least bit radical, King demonstrates methodically throughout the letter, to acknowledge the basic human rights of another human being. It's hardly progressive to recognize the difference between a just law and an unjust law, to obey the one and defy the other. We are not saints when we stand with people who are persecuted and oppressed. We are doing the basic thing, the only right thing.

TWEET THIS: It is not in the least bit radical to acknowledge the basic human rights of another human being.

When we fail to do these things, we fall short of even moderation; when we fail to stand for and with those whose rights are being violated, who are suffering violence in service to an unjust system, we have fallen into sin.

TWEET THIS: We are not saints when we stand with people who are oppressed. We are doing the basic thing, the only right thing.

The burning question, I think, for most white people, especially white people of good will, when it comes to race relations, is "How much is enough?" That elusive "enough" will ease our white conscience, but it will not serve the cause of justice; it will not settle the matter of racial inequality. King addressed the elusive enough in another historic paragraph, delivered only a few months after Birmingham:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. ... We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. ... We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream." ... 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."
That day is slow in coming. But it is coming. And we who are white would be wise to be at least moderate enough to stand on the right side of history with our neighbors of color who have waited long enough.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Black Lives Have Always Mattered

I've just made my first ever visit to Birmingham, Alabama, where fifty-one-and-a-half years ago Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed for his role in organizing nonviolent protests by black Alabamans against the unfair, inhumane and fundamentally unjust policies of their city. While King was in prison, men, women and children of color were attacked on the streets of Birmingham with dogs and fire hoses. Their attackers were police and fire fighters; the attacks were sanctioned by the commissioner of public safety.

These things happen. I like to think they don’t. I like to think that they used to happen but we know better now; that we’re wiser and more enlightened than the people who decided fifty-one-and-a-half years ago that attacking children was the right thing to do. We like to think that, unlike those silly old Southern racists, we always handle power and authority responsibly, that our motives are more pure, that we are always acting for the greater good.

But history bears out that at least some of the time - certainly more of the time than we'd like to be true about ourselves - we’re not. Sometimes we participate in (or we affirm or we tacitly endorse by our silence) things that are horrific and fundamentally unjust.

  • Things like a pervasive and persistent disparity in how laws are enforced on black people as compared to white people.
  • Things like a legal and cultural predisposition that official acts of violence are above suspicion.
  • Things like the execution of young black men for such crimes as walking through the wrong neighborhood or listening to the wrong music or not showing enough deference to the powers that be.

TWEET THIS: Sometimes we participate in (or affirm or tacitly endorse by our silence) things that are fundamentally unjust.

Black lives matter just as much now as they did fifty-one-and-a-half years ago when white moderate clergy were complaining that Martin Luther King was stirring up trouble. Those well-intended white folks back then encouraged black people that their inherent dignity as human beings was a matter to be deferred till white people were more ready for it. They counseled black people to be patient and understanding toward white racists who were actively, in legal and insidious ways, cultivating a permanent race-based underclass. Black lives mattered back then; those of us who are white just didn’t fully appreciate that fact. It seems so silly now.

Black lives matter just as much now as they did twenty-five years ago when South African whites finally agreed to stop secretly executing black dissidents and officially oppressing the 90 percent of the country who were not white. Black lives mattered back then, even if in every meaningful way, their government demonstrated that they did not. It seems so silly that they didn’t see the fundamental injustice of what they were doing and allowing to be done.

Black lives matter: it seems so silly to say in the abstract. But we say it now as much to ourselves as to everyone else because we as much as anyone, black and white and otherwise, need to be reminded on a regular basis that it’s true. Because in the absence of such reminders, a much quieter system continues to function as though black lives don’t matter that much at all. And the consequences of that system are not silly; they are in fact sobering and solemn: daily injustices and indignities regularly punctuated with the violent deaths of young men — children, more often than not — at the hands of people of power and privilege.

Future generations will read the stories of our time and think us silly; with time the absurdity of it will obscure the bloodiness of it, the inhumanity of it.

TWEET THIS: Future generations will read of our time and think us silly. The absurdity of it will obscure the inhumanity of it.


Read Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from Birmingham Jail here. Read it out loud; read it in a group.

Monday, December 08, 2014

A People's Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew 2

For all the Reformation-yelping about sola Scriptura and the priesthood of all believers, the Bible is, by and large, mediated to the masses through an elite few - through scholars who write commentaries, through trained (and untrained) clergy who interpret the text in their sermons, through Sunday school teachers who direct the learning of their students, through publishers with fallen and finite editors such as myself. Nothing wrong with that - except that, like everyone, the elite have blind spots.

The Scriptures are, by and large, set in a context of oppression and marginalization. Sometimes the audience is the oppressed; sometimes it's the oppressors. Sometimes both audiences are, for all intents and purposes, one and the same. We overlook stuff when we forget that about the Scriptures, and when we forget that those of us who are comfortable are not necessarily the ones to whom God is speaking words of comfort.

TWEET THIS: Those of us who are comfortable are not necessarily the ones to whom God is speaking words of comfort.

Hence the project I'm now thinking of:

A People's Commentary on the New Testament

This ongoing experiment is an attempt to notice in the Scriptures a running theme of "striving" (in the words of people's historian Howard Zinn) "against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make ideals [professed in public] a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that."

I fully expect to add confusion alongside insight to the popular conversation about the Scriptures. In other words, I see the folly in this undertaking. But I'm still going to undertake it. :) I invite you to undertake it as well, because otherwise it's not a people's commentary, it's a person's commentary. If you're game,

  1. Pick a chapter of the New Testament and interpret it online.
  2. As you write, think about people you know (or see, or imagine) who are not sitting in the halls of power.
  3. Think of the author of your particular scripture text not as someone with an advance on royalties in the bank and a Macbook Pro on their lap but as someone with no place to lay their head.
  4. Use the hashtag #PeoplesCommentary so the rest of us can find it, and so eventually we can sync the whole thing together.

You can see an example of what I'm proposing in this commentary on Matthew 1.

And now, without further ado, a people's commentary on Matthew 2.


After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship ... Matthew 2 begins with a study in contrasts: Jesus ("God saves"), the "Christ" (anointed one) and "Immanuel" (God with us) as declared in Matthew 1, is born in Bethlehem during Herod's kingship in Jerusalem. Bethlehem is mocked in the Old Testament as "bringing up the rear" of the Israelite empire (as Micah is quoted in verses 5-6); meanwhile, Jerusalem is the home of Israel's king, the center of Israel's political and religious life (or so it would seem, as Jerusalem is where Israel's kings have built its temples and their palaces). The fact that Jerusalem is currently under occupation by the Roman empire, and Herod's reign over Israel is subject to Rome's jurisdiction, is ironic: God's people have been looking for salvation in the wrong place, and scorning those marginalized places which God has actually promised to bless. It takes "a band of scholars ... from the East," beyond the reach of both Herod and his Caesar, to look past the marks of power and privilege to see where Israel's actual power resides

Herod ... was terrified — and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. Why would the people of Jerusalem be terrified by the fulfillment of their God's promises? We can only speculate, but our speculation is informed by the balances that had been struck by Rome. Jerusalem retained its cultural and religious influence over the rest of Israel, even if it was in effect controlled by Rome. The political and religious authorities allowed to remain in place functioned similarly to the bread and circuses of Roman rule. It was enough, for Herod and Jerusalem, to be seen as powerful, however empty that perception actually was. And in fact Herod did have power, as we will see in the slaughter of innocents to come. But Herod and Jerusalem only had power over those below them, and now here are signs that it is from those below them that a new power is rising up.

Herod offers the scholars from the East aid in tracking down the child. But for all his claims of piety - he offers to "join you at once in your worship" - his real agenda is one of violence, of self-protection. "Herod is on the hunt for this child," Jesus' father Joseph is warned in a dream, "and wants to kill him."

They entered the house and ... kneeled and worshiped him. It is no small thing for citizens of one empire to kneel before the child of another. This is an act of treason, seen in one light; seen in another, it is an acknowledgment that there is power and authority beyond the reach of any earthly empire, and - given the modest and marginalized location of this particular king - this power and authority is exercised in ways that will confound the powers that be.

In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they ... left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country. Like the scouts of ancient Israel who snuck in and out of Jericho, these scholars have been given an advance look at a new world order. The rest of the world will be made aware soon enough.

“Get up. Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay until further notice." Egypt's destiny has never not been interwoven with Israel's destiny. It has been the temporary home of God's people before, but Israel's reliance on God's provision quickly degraded into reliance on Egypt's might. We worship power before we worship false gods, but the one leads inevitably to the other, and false gods always betray us. Israel learned these lessons the hard way, with enslavement; Jesus will retain his allegiance to God during his time in Egypt, rejecting the allure of force until he fulfills Hosea's prophecy that God "called my son out of Egypt."

TWEET THIS: We worship power before we worship false gods, but the one leads inevitably to the other.

Herod ... commanded the murder of every little boy two years old and under who lived in Bethlehem and its surrounding hills. Here Herod embraces the way of violence practiced throughout history, most infamously by Pharaoh, who tried to defy the work of God through the people of Israel by killing a generation of Israelites. This is not genocide but fratricide; Herod is killing his own people in a vain attempt to shore up his own power and privilege. No wonder we are reminded of Jeremiah's lament about "Rachel weeping for her children, Rachel refusing all solace." Rachel represents Israel under God's promise: she is the miracle mother, the one who couldn't have children until she suddenly could, the one who carried forward God's promise to Abraham not through his firstborn but through his miracle child, the one who gave birth to a child, Joseph, who would be exiled to Egypt and who would ultimately deliver God's people from devastation. If we kill the children of promise, we reject the promise of God. If we kill the children of promise, we kill ourselves.

"All those out to murder the child are dead.” Joseph hears from God that he is free to leave Egypt. He does, as an act of faith, but fear is still a present and pressing problem among God's people. Joseph fears Archelaus, the successor to Herod, so he is afraid to go home. God meets this moment of faithlessness not with punishment but with grace: is it really, after all, any surprise that those who live in darkness, under violent oppression, with no assurance of self-determination, might look for ways to hedge their bets? God redirects Joseph to Nazareth, another town of no reputation, far removed from the halls of power. In so doing he fulfills another prophecy and makes another statement about the nature of divine power and authority as opposed to the powers of this world: "He shall be called a Nazarene."


OK. That's the latest entry in A People's Commentary on the New Testament. I hope you'll join me on this experiment. Remember, mark any entries with the hashtag #PeoplesCommentary so the rest of us can find what you've written. And do me a favor and message me on Facebook to let me know when you've posted. I'll do my part and spread the word.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Short People: An Advent Reflection

For the first Sunday of Advent, a throwback post from 2010.


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

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

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

That's really the way it works, though, isn't it? Our fantasies about ourselves (which likely have some base in reality) clash with the more common perceptions of us among our peers:

* "I am smart," despite the fact that I had not qualified for advanced English and was stuck in a remedial English course with an insensitive teacher.

* "I am known as witty," despite the more immediately obvious designator for me as "small."

I find myself identifying with another short but otherwise impressive fellow, Zacchaeus. A tax collector in first-century Palestine, he gets nine verses in Luke's Gospel--not enough to really know him, but we get quite a sense of him, because in meeting Zacchaeus we once again encounter Jesus.

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

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

So in matters of wealth and accomplishment, he's a big deal. Bully for him. But one more detail colors our perception of Zacchaeus*:

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

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

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

4. He's a lowdown sinner.

But Jesus knows there's more to Zac than what his neighbors think; there's even more to Zac than what Zac thinks.

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

5. He's a child of Abraham.

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

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

6. He's saved.

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

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

* My friend Ruth tells me that some scholars speculate that it's actually Jesus who is short--so short that Zacchaeus has to climb a tree to look down enough to see him. That's cold.

** My friend Sean tells me that this text in the original language suggests that Zacchaeus isn't announcing that he will offer restitution but that he already is regularly directing his profits from collecting taxes to the betterment of his society. According to this interpretation, Zacchaeus isn't a lowdown sinner; he's a child of Abraham the "righteous" people of Jericho have decided they don't have to accept. In that respect, they're the sinners, not Zacchaeus.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving (For Every Wrong Move)

Somehow I find myself far out of line
from the ones I had drawn.
Wasn't the best of paths -
you could attest to that -
but I'm keeping on.
Giving thanks is sometimes an act of faith.

There was no pot of gold,
hardly a rainbow lighting my way.
But I will be true to the red, black and blues
that colored those days.
To all of you who are acting on faith this year ...

I owe my soul to each fork in the road,
each misleading sign.
'Cause even in solitude, no bitter attitude
can dissolve my sweetest find.

Would our paths cross if every great loss
had turned out our gain?
Would our paths cross if the pain it had cost us
was paid in vain?

Thanksgiving for every wrong move
that made it right.
Happy Thanksgiving from Loud Time.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Shazam! Hallelujah!

My wife recently introduced a friend to the most important mobile-platform application ever devised. With this app you can instantly identify any recorded music overheard in any environment. No more "What is this song?!? I know I know this!" No more "Note to self: Remember to purchase this song hours after having heard it." No more delayed gratification or missed opportunity. Now there is only ... Shazam!

Shazam! Hallelujah!

Our friend was awestruck by the Shazam app. And rightly so. It is truly awesome. The world of sound, right there at your fingertips. You may be thankful for your friends or your family; me, I'm thankful for my app.*

There are some limitations though - or, to be fair, some limitations on the devices where this precious app is stored. Shazam! works by listening to broadcast music and comparing what it hears to a digital music database; if it can't hear the music, it can't make the match. So if your device is too far from the music source, or the volume on the music source is set too low, or if there are other ambient noises overwhelming the song, Shazam! can't identify it. When that happens your best bet is to lift your device up to the music.

This limitation can lead to some awkwardness. For example, imagine that you're in your favorite local coffee shop, and you hear an unfamiliar song piping through the PA. You don't know the song, but you like it, so you Shazam! it. Unfortunately, you're sitting right next to one of those ubiquitous men's Bible study groups crowding every coffee house. They're all "Bro" this and "I just wanna" that, with their big macho Bible study voices, and Shazam! can't hear the music. So you raise your hands in the air, as you might in an act of worship, and you try again.

Shazam! "The HIV Song." You just worshiped Ween.

Not really, of course, but it does strike me as funny how the songs we invest ourselves in carry messages that, in another context, we would never admit to believing. If songs of the people (which is, essentially, what pop songs are) mirror the moment in which they're written, then they do in fact reflect what we're preoccupied with. And frankly it's not a big leap from preoccupation to idolatry. In these ways, the pop songs we find ourselves humming to, find ourselves laying down money for, tell the truth about us in uncomfortable ways. Who can deny what we learn about ourselves when we learn what song has burrowed its way into our brain? Shazam! "I wanna be a billionaire so freakin' bad ..."

TWEET THIS: It's not a big leap from preoccupation to idolatry.

Our money, our power, our prestige, our friends, our family, our Bible studies, our Bibles, our coffee, our apps, ourselves - all of these have the capacity to lead us into idolatry. We bend our knees before all of them without stopping to consider the cost; we close our eyes to their shortcomings, their incapacity to do what we expect idols to do - to save us from ruin and misery and worse. All of these are songworthy; none of these is worship-worthy. Sometimes it takes Shazam! to catch us in the act.

I'm not freaking out about idolatry, for what it's worth. If everybody does it all the time, it's hardly worth freaking out about. But still, being reminded that we're doing it is a gift: it's an opportunity to redirect our focus, to let our idols off the hook and let them be simply human - or simply things, as the case may be. Idolatry is silly; the Bible demonstrates just how silly it is:

The carpenter ... makes an idol
and bows down to it.
Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
over it he prepares his meal,
he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
“Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
“Save me! You are my god!” ...
No one stops to think,
no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
“Half of it I used for fuel;
I even baked bread over its coals,
I roasted meat and I ate. ...
Shall I bow down to a block of wood?” (Isaiah 44)
If it's silly, we can laugh at it. And if we can laugh at it, it loses its power.

TWEET THIS: If it's silly, we can laugh at it. And if we can laugh at it, it loses its power.

So I'm not complaining; I'm just pointing out something funny. I'll leave you with my most recent accidental act of idolatry, a song I discovered via Shazam! when I lifted my iPhone up to the heavens. Hope you like it.

*For the record, I'm thankful for friends and family too. Relax.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Values Voting and the Wheel of Misfortune

On one occasion a values voter stood up to test Jesus.

"Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?"

He answered, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"

"You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live."

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

In reply Jesus said: "A Jehovah's Witness was going door to door in a suburban neighborhood, when he was attacked by some folks who didn't appreciate being interrupted during the lightning round on Wheel of Fortune. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and tossed him from their entryway to the sidewalk, leaving him half dead.

"A volunteer for the ______________________ Party happened to be canvassing the neighborhood, warning residents about the evil deeds of the incumbent candidate, encouraging them to vote the bum out in the upcoming election. When he saw the man, he stepped over him and wisely decided to skip on to the next house.

"So too, a volunteer for the incumbent candidate, eager to alert residents to the out-of-touch and dangerous policy positions of her candidate's opponent, came to the place and saw the Jehovah's Witness. She too stepped over him and hurried on to the next house.

"But then a young man from the other side of town, carrying a milk crate full of candy he was being forced to sell door to door "so I can go to youth camp this summer," came where the man was. He took pity on him, dropped his crate of candy (to the consternation of his handler, watching him carefully from a car down the street), picked the man up, and carried him to a nearby church, waiting there with him while the church receptionist speed-dialed the head of the deacons to decide how to handle this situation (which perhaps understandably wasn't covered in the church employee handbook). Eventually it was decided that the church receptionist should call 911, and soon thereafter an ambulance and a police car came.

"The Jehovah's Witness was rushed to a local emergency room, where nurses bandaged his wounds. The police took the young man into custody. For his one phone call from the police department, the young man called the emergency room and told the triage nurse, 'Look after that Jehovah's Witness, and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have - no matter how many candy bar sales it takes.'

"Which of these people do you think was a neighbor to the man who was beaten for interrupting Wheel of Fortune?"

The values voter replied, "The one who had mercy on him."

Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise." (Luke 10:25-37, paraphrased)

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Simple Act of Singing Together

The other day I had occasion to dig around in the trunk of my car, and among other treasures I found was what has become my soundtrack for the week: Farewell to the World, the double-CD of Crowded House's final concert (in its original lineup) from the Sydney Opera House. Lead singer Neil Finn is one of the world's great living pop song writers, and that is surely on display, but the thing that's captivated me on this listen, the thing that keeps me listening - the thing that makes me glad for an excuse to get in the car, quite honestly - is the band's showmanship.

"She came all the way from America.
She had a blind date with destiny."
A crowd that had waited on their feet the whole day hears that line from "Mean to Me" off the band's first album and erupts in no-longer-contained excitement. The band knew it would happen, and they milk it and reward it throughout, with interactive interruptions to the set, like a call-and-response recitation of a beer slogan, a segue from the nightmare-inspired "Sister Madly" into "Climb Every Mountain" from the musical Sound of Music, and a Tina Turner impression that I can only guess is of her dancing, not her singing, since it's announced from the stage but YOU DON'T HEAR ANYTHING.

An unbelievable energy fills the record from beginning to the final chorus of "Don't Dream It's Over," with the crowd singing along and occasionally taking over singing and not bothering to forgive the band when the drummer drops his sticks or the guitarist plays the wrong chord or the singers butcher the lyrics of "Italian Plastic" because there's nothing to forgive: the goal of the evening has been achieved, the world and the band have had and bidden their fare-thee-wells.

"Hey now, hey now - don't dream it's over!
Hey now, hey now - when the world comes in
They come, they come to build a wall between us.
We know that they won't win ..."
You can't end a Crowded House concert with anything other than "Don't Dream It's Over," their first and most enduring hit. But the song that I keep going back to, the one I play on repeat, isn't a Crowded House song; it's not even an entire song, actually. It's the chorus of a song by the Australian group Hunters & Collectors, a song that has become a treasured classic there even though it's hardly known here in the States. The band quickly cedes the singing of it to the audience.

"We may never meet again.
So shed your skin and let's get started.
And you will throw your arms around me."
The original version of the song is intensely overproduced in all the ways you might imagine a mid-1980s pop song might be overproduced - sonic equivalents of too much hairspray and eyeliner and apocalyptic angst. But here it's stripped down: an electric guitar strumming the chords and thousands of people shouting the wordless refrain in unison. Originally an ode to a sexual encounter with a lost love, in the Sydney Opera House it takes on a more transcendent quality: Our lives are so fleeting, so transitory, and yet the things we do even in the limited encounters we have with one another can go on and on and on. Let's not weep over it; let's allow ourselves to be awestruck by it. Let's give ourselves to this moment together.

This is the sort of dynamic that churches all over the world would give their left lung for, I think. There are a lot of naysayers who think that contemporary praise and worship are thinning the theology of the church, that the fault for the church's cultural decline lies square at the feet of songwriters and worship leaders who force congregations to repeat the same pious pillow talk over and over and over again. I can see their point; song lyrics should mean something, and too often in mass-marketed pop worship (likr mass-marketed pop anything) they start to mean nothing. But there's something that those who fetishize ancient hymns often overlook: We are bound together not just by what we sing together but by the simple act of singing together itself.

TWEET THIS: We are bound together not just by what we sing together but by the simple act of singing together itself.

"Our lives," Dorothy Bass writes in the introduction to her book Practicing Our Faith, "are tangled up with everyone else's in ways beyond our knowing." It's why we can sing a nonsense lyric such as "Oh yeah!" at the top of our lungs alongside 160,000 other people and walk away feeling like we've been to church. We already know what we know, what we believe, what we assume to be true. What amazes us is the hints we get here and there that there is more to it than what we know, that there is life and meaning and majesty beyond us.

It's why atheists are having church services now, and it's why even agnostics and cynics and Baptists will still receive the Eucharist in moments of pregnant silence. It's why message art of any kind is so hard to pull off: putting too fine a point on our songs and paintings and films and sermons and blog posts for that matter stops a moment of transcendence in its tracks and shouts "Did you see what I did there!?!"

My point? I guess it's this: You don't have to make a point to make a moment sacred; you just have to enter into it, receive it and take it with you. And it helps if you're not alone when you do it.

TWEET THIS: You don't have to make a point to make a moment sacred. You have to enter into it, receive it and take it with you.

Here's video of Neil Finn singing the entirety of "Throw Your Arms Around Me" with his friend and Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder. I hope you enjoy it, and if you can muster up the moxie, I hop you join in on the chorus.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Hidden Cost of Making All Things New

Toward the end of the apostle John's grand apocalyptic vision, our Lord Jesus Christ takes his seat on the celestial throne and declares with triumph:

"I am making everything new! ...
These words are trustworthy and true!"
Having now arrived on the far side of quitting one job and taking another, selling one house and buying another, leaving one state (Illinois) and taking up residence in another (Colorado), I must confess that, at least lately, these words don't sound like unqualified good news to me.

Don't get me wrong: I love my new job and my new house and my new state. It has mountains in it. I've seen them. People who live here apologize to you if the weather isn't absolutely perfect. It's a good thing that we're here now. And yet the way from there to here has taxed my energies and revealed my insecurities. And it's cost a lot of money.

Mountains of fees and unexpected costs associated with selling and buying a house. License and registration fees for our cars, my wife's counseling practice, even our cats. Little things we need for setting up and settling into our house, some of which we know we already have but can't find in our basement full of boxes. Money, money, money.

TWEET THIS: "I am making everything new!" ... These words don't sound like unqualified good news.

And that's just the money part. The logistics of attending to all these adjustments taxes our brains and drains our energy. We drove all over town for several weeks, dealing with this or that, never really knowing where we were going. I still couldn't tell you how to get to Target, and yet Target constantly beckons.

And that's just the logistics part. A new town means new church, new neighbors, new friends, and until you've worked that all out a new town means no church, no friends, and neighbors who wait for you to make the first move even though you don't have the least bit of energy left to make the first move. Not to mention that you're lost in this new place, craving a new familiarity, persevering as best you can until the bewilderment finally passes.

I'm making it sound awful, I know. Pity the poor blogger. In fact we've been helped immensely along the way by people who have, in fact, reached out to us. A longtime acquaintance became a treasured friend virtually overnight; a couple of coworkers have been reliable guides and gracious companions throughout our transition; we've had dinners with friends and families we rarely saw back in Illinois, and we've got a surprisingly full social calendar. Stepping back and objectively assessing the scene, I can see the good in all the new.

But life isn't a matter of stepping back; it's a matter of stepping in and wading through, of accepting the reality you're presented with and living well in the midst of it. And reality is a story being written, which means there is always something new on the horizon, some resolution to the current drama, some plot twist that no one saw coming. Even we are changing, not simply our circumstances: I'm not the person I was in Illinois, because in the process of moving from there to here, of letting go of then and accepting the reality of now, I am being made new.

TWEET THIS: "Life isn't a matter of stepping back; it's a matter of stepping in and wading through."

So are you, for the record. Don't get cocky. The process of change, happening as it is on both a cosmic and a subatomic level, is a humbling thing, and whatever it produces in us, it probably will make us more humble if we let it.

And humility isn't just a virtue in this case; it's a resource. With humility we are better equipped to endure the embarrassment of asking for what we need. With humility we are more prepared to see the needs of people experiencing change and to offer ourselves to ease the burden. With humility we are better positioned to step back from the story we find ourselves in and to see the good news hidden in all this change, all this newness.

"I am making all things new!" Jesus says, and he wouldn't say it if he didn't mean it, and if he didn't mean it for good. I'm sort of counting on that, because in the midst of all this change, any good news is a gift.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Mass Destruction

I recently attended a reunion of my mother's family. Not everyone in the family was there, but it seemed at times as though everyone in the world was there. The Gradys are Irish Catholic, which means they are both prolific and prodigious. And well-lubricated; in addition to two Grady-reunion-themed t-shirts we each went home with a Grady-reunion-themed pint glass - an appropriate memento if ever there was one.

I had to leave early the day after the reunion for a cross-country road trip, so while I got to enjoy the fun of the reunion, I missed what might have been the most memorable part of the weekend. My uncle, the priest (now retired) offered to have the family over to his house for Sunday morning mass. Now, I'm not sure who all went - a few of my uncles, aunts and cousins have left the fold over the course of their adulthood - but my uncle the priest estimates about a ton and a half's worth of people showed up for the Eucharist. (That may be his subtle way of suggesting that some of us need to lose some weight, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.) I've heard of ministers comparing attendance numbers, but I've never heard of them calculating by tonnage. Anyway, at some point that morning the mass was interrupted by what my uncle describes as the "big bangs."

We have photos from the crawl space beneath the living room in my house. Two of the three bricks that, together with a cinder block, support the floor joists are cracked.
There's a joke in there somewhere. And if not a joke, there's at least a sermon illustration. I can't really think of one, but maybe you have ideas you can share in the comments.

I'm no great fan of church construction; I think a lot of money goes into it that could be better spent on other things. Moreover, I think often church architecture enhances the separation of the church from the world around it, and subtly trains congregants to assume a fortress mentality, as though the church is their only protection from the world, as though their first priority ought to be protection from the world. I rather like the idea of something so quintessentially Christian as liturgical worship being celebrated in a family room packed to the gills with rough-and-tumble guests. It's a dynamic tension that, apparently, can make a big impact. It's a potentially atomic mass.

Anyway, no one was hurt at the extra-dense mass in my uncle's family room, although apparently none of my family members saw anything wrong with sending my cousin into the crawl space of a house that could collapse at any moment. My uncle is looking into what would be involved in repairing or replacing the damaged bricks. In the meantime, I'll keep thinking about what jokes, and what applications, can be culled from this momentous mass. I welcome your help to that end.

Friday, August 01, 2014

On Making Like a Tree

It's just one of the many memorable phrases from the great film Back to the Future: "Make like a tree, and get out of here." Oh Biff. He means "Make like a tree and leave."

I suppose that's what trees do: they produce leaves; it's part of the natural order of the universe. But by bungling the phrase Biff draws our attention to what's more obvious about trees: they stay. Often -- barring any disruptive event (say, deforestation) -- they stay for centuries.

And yet Biff remains essentially correct: trees also "leave," by which I mean they generate leaves, which eventually fall off and mulch the ground, each tree's own little contribution to the circle of life. As fiercely protective as trees are of their roots, enabling them to out-stay virtually everything around them, they are also decidedly prodigal with their leaves.

This is meaningful for me these days, as my wife and I prepare to leave our house of thirteen years, my home city of twenty-two years and her home city for her whole life. We're moving from greater Chicagoland, where it often seems we know everyone, to Colorado Springs, where we know virtually no one. We're making like a tree and getting out of here.

But that's only part of the story, isn't it? Even when trees uproot -- when they're burned by fires, which occasionally happens in Colorado, or when they're blown over by storms, which occasionally happens in Illinois -- they are still participating in the ecosystem in which they were planted. When anything ends, it becomes the incubator of something new; it's the great economy of creation and the triumph of the God of the living over the tyranny of death.

TWEET THIS: When anything ends, it becomes the incubator of something new.

I recently read some thoughts on trees from Andy Summers, the guitarist for the Police, in his memoir One Train Later:

"Guitars begin as trees, float down rivers, get hauled into lumberyards, are sawed into planks, and then are dried, cured, and left to age. They arrive in the player’s hand still with the memory of a tree, atoms and molecules reforming to become a guitar. A history begins; fate is determined; events take shape."
I like this. Before a guitar is a guitar, it's a tree. A tree gives up something true and beautiful about it, and through a careful, deliberate process it becomes something out of which truth and beauty can flow. Its treeness remains, but now its guitarness can take shape.

It's part of the calling of every human, I think, to make like a tree: to take root, and to bloom and blossom, to offer shade and support to the ecosystem we find ourselves in; but then also to leave, and in that leaving to make new and different contributions to the world around us. They may be less, they may be more, they may cost us much, but they are ours to make, and we do no good if we refuse to make them.

TWEET THIS: It's part of the calling of every human to take root, but then also to make new and different contributions.

So we're making like a tree, and we're getting out of here. And when we arrive in our new place, we hope to make like a tree, lay down roots, and give ourselves to something new. It's scary, and it's costing us a lot, but it's what's next for us.

Moving is like a death. It's worth mourning as such. But it's also a new beginning; indeed, the death itself contributes to the new thing being created. We're grieving our leaving, but we're eager to plant new roots and start our new life.

Image shamelessly lifted from Kurt Willems's Facebook page.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Finding Your Voice: Reflections from a Guitarist

Long before he was the guitarist for the Police, Andy Summers was a guitarist at large, first in London, eventually in the United States, touring with bands both known and unknown. One day, after an abrupt and curt dismissal from the Soft Machines that sent him straight into the arms of the Animals, Andy got an invitation to swing by a music studio in LA, where Jimi Hendrix had booked some time to record.

This wasn't Andy's first encounter with Jimi, but it was a more relaxed environment than their earlier encounters, and Andy and his mate passed the time doodling with guitars in a corner. Eventually Jimi came and joined them on bass. They jammed for a while, and then Jimi asked if he could take the guitar, so Andy switched to bass and they kept on jamming. Finally the moment had passed and they all knew it, so they nodded appreciation to one another, and Jimi returned to the recording booth, while Andy returned home.

Try to imagine that feeling, sitting alongside the master of your chosen instrument, the universally acknowledged exemplar of your chosen vocation. Try to imagine how you would conduct yourself with him, how you would process the experience afterward. What course would it set you on? What changes would you make to your life? What decisions would such an encounter demand of you?

For Andy Summers, this was a moment of truth:

That night when I finally lie down, I know I have just passed through a seminal moment in my life. Jimi is having a huge influence on guitarists everywhere: people are mimicking his style, and little Jimis are springing up everywhere. The Hendrix style is very seductive, and at this moment in the world of rock guitar, it’s hard to resist trying to get all his licks and aping his style. But I wrestle with it because from almost the first moment I began playing the guitar, the one precept that has consistently come at me, been hammered into my brain, held up as the sine qua non of playing music, is the idea that you must find your own voice, you must - in the words of countless musician interviews in the magazines I read as a teenager - "have something to say." Jimi has something to say, but somehow through a combination of natural stubbornness, in-born musical instincts, and the long embrace of the "own voice" idea, the thought of being a Hendrix clone is anathema to me.
TWEET THIS: Imagine sitting alongside the exemplar of your chosen vocation. What decisions would such an encounter demand of you?

Andy Summers writes this memoir in the present tense, an interesting quirk for most of the book, but in moments like this the memories crackle with energy. The fact is, so much of contemporary music, of any creative endeavor, actually, is mimicry. We emulate those we admire, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Earlier in One Train Later Andy wrote about the Eric Clapton fever that spread throughout the guitarist community in England, another occasion for him to resist the temptation to co-opt someone else's style. I'm impressed with Andy's capacity to honor those musicians whose innovations he rejects; he doesn't deny the greatness of Clapton or Hendrix or anyone else, he just declines to play their way.

There's a cost to this commitment. To continue to seek an elusive voice of your own is to make yourself less marketable; other, lesser artists will happily don the Jimi mask and take the gig you refuse to take. It hurts to not have a voice; you suffer for continuing to search for it. But it's out there, and with patience and vision, you'll find it.

I am in a position [as lead guitarist for the band The Animals] that many guitarists would covet, but inside I have a nagging feeling that it is temporary and that I have not yet found the environment in which I can be the most expressive. . . . Other guitarists I started out with — Clapton, Beck, Page, Albert Lee — are well on their way. Maybe I have been sticking to my own path too rigidly, maybe I should have taken a more obvious route like everyone else, or maybe my time hasn’t come yet. But like anyone, I need the setting in which it can take root. At the moment the partners I am seeking are both still at school in England: one at Millwall in the English west country, the other at St. Cuthbert's grammar school in Newcastle.
TWEET THIS: It hurts to not have a voice. But it's out there, and with patience and vision, you'll find it.

The partner Andy sought at Millwall in the English west country was drummer Stewart Copeland; the partner at St. Cuthbert's in Newcastle was bassist Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting. Together they would become the Police, who carved out a unique sound in the 1970s and 1980s by blending jazz, reggae and punk music with smart, literary song lyrics. They've sold over 75 million records and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and are included on numerous lists of the greatest artists of all time. Andy Summers eventually found his voice, and it sounded nothing like Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix. I, for one, am glad he held out for it.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Being the Change, Being Yourself

I've started my new job as a telecommuter; after a few weeks I'll shift to working onsite. I was always attracted to the notion of telecommuting - fewer disruptions, plus the acceptability of pajama pants as "business casual" - but my wife wisely warned that I wouldn't take to it. I'm too relational; I miss the group dynamic.

So I'm glad I'll soon be entering more fully into my new work environment, but I've been around long enough to recognize that the introduction of a new element to an ecosystem (which is a very vogue way of talking about being a new employee) introduces a fair bit of disequilibrium. And with the introduction of disequilibrium comes a crisis for the collective: who must change, the person or the system?

TWEET THIS: A new element in an ecosystem introduces a crisis for the collective: who must change, the person or the system?

This is the old evolutionary dilemma: adapt or die. Except that in this instance we're dealing with human personalities, and to change oneself simply to fit in to an existing culture can feel like the end of a significant part of oneself. In this instance, we contend with a more existential dilemma: adapt and die. Just a little bit.

Is that melodramatic? I suppose it is. I'm not going to die just because I can no longer play music through the speakers of my computer as I work from my office. Given the environment in which I'll be working, I'll have to do like one of my new coworkers and wear headphones. Then there's style - another challenge to my existing habits: as an editor, I have to conform my work to the house style guide of my new employer, which, unlike my previous employer, seems to think, that commas, should be used, like, everywhere.
These are survivable adaptations - microevolution, if you will, rather than macroevolution. But there are more inherent, more subterranean cultural markers of any defined network of people - any culture - that present more significant evolutionary quandaries to the new guys among us, and when we come upon them we have to decide how much, how often, and for how long we will adapt to suit. And similarly, we have to gauge how receptive our new environment is to change, and what and where the levers of change are.

(I'm sure my new boss has read this far and is starting to panic; I sound a bit like a Bolshevik or something. I'm not. I'm an editor. Although as with Bolsheviks, it's in the nature of editors to change what they're presented with.)

Anyway, to prepare myself for adapting to (and, where appropriate, adapting) my new environment, I loaded up on some new books. I picked up Change by Design by Tim Brown, a great read about extending the method of designers from the production of artifacts to all corners of an enterprise - to galvanize imagination and collaboration toward the whole health of an organization. Something like that. It was good. And then I shifted to a book by Debra E. Meyerson: Rocking the Boat: How to Effect Change Without Making Trouble.

(Happy, boss? I'm not "making trouble"; I'm just "effecting change." It's all good.)

I expected something very different from Rocking the Boat than I got. What I expected was practicality, utility - a method for stirring the pot without landing in the hot seat. I was looking for, I suppose, advice on how to win new friends and influence new people. And there are elements of that in this book, particularly in later chapters. But instead of reading this book and looking forward to my new job, I found myself looking back, through many years, at how I've managed to survive being what Meyerson calls a "positive deviant."

"Positive deviants" are those people who don't naturally or comfortably conform to an established environment, and yet they've committed themselves to that environment and seek its good. In the process, they make small strides toward making the environment more receptive to people like them, and other people who are, like them, unlike the dominant culture. I identified immediately with this characterization. It's hard to know why, since most of Meyerson's examples have to do with minority identities in majority settings - people of color, women, LGBT folks. As a straight white man I better fit the profile of the dominant than the deviant. But it turns out that once you've defined a norm, it's hard not to notice the ways in which you deviate from it. It might be more helpful to think rather of "positive deviance" than "positive deviants," since really anyone at really any time can feel like an outsider to the system they find themselves in. But telling a positive deviant that what they're feeling is normal actually does very little good.

Meyerson's other term for this type of actor in a system is "tempered radical," one that I greatly prefer. A "positive deviant" has a relatively passive challenge; she has only to come to terms with her deviancy and try to stay positive along the way. "Tempered radical" implies something more active: the challenge facing such a person is to pursue her radical agenda in tempered ways - to make the change she wants to see in the world, as Gandhi sort of put it, causing as few headaches as possible for the people affected by those changes. A "tempered radical" focuses externally, on effective change; a "positive deviant" focuses internally, on not losing sight of oneself. Plus, I'd rather be thought of as radical (or even tempered) than as deviant.

Nevertheless, both are good, accurate, helpful terms, and whichever one you identify best with, you're going to need some encouragement. "Most organizations," Meyerson writes, "implicitly reward people for maintaining, not disrupting, the status quo." There's a tyranny to equilibrium; to disturb it is to engender confusion and anxiety, and to invite a suppressive response. If you deviate from the norm - even if you are positive about it, even if your particular deviation offers positive benefit to the environment - there are forces in play that will push you back toward acceptable norms. Any proposed change to your environment, no matter how tempered, will seem radical to some. The tempered radical, the positive deviant, can be seen as oppositional and treated as such; they face the threat of formal punishment or insidious, even subconscious, marginalization.

People who stand out as different face ongoing pressures to prove their loyalty to the majority. One way people do so is to distance themselves from those who are similarly "different."
Yet another way the norm tyrannizes the deviant: the norm pits the deviants against one another. And the deviants play along, because simply by acknowledging their commonalities they establish a new norm, which establishes new deviances, which invites more marginalization. It's stunning how effective we all are at attacking one another's sense of self.

Whatever. It's hard out here being a deviant. Shocker. The question is, what are you going to do about it? And how will you, a tempered radical, pursue your radical agenda in appropriately tempered ways?

TWEET THIS: Any proposed change to your environment, no matter how tempered, will seem radical to some.

I do wish I'd read this book fifteen or twenty years ago, when I was first facing up to my deviancies, when I was first being radicalized. Not that it isn't helpful in my current season of life, and not that it won't be helpful in my new environment (and, frankly, not that I suffered all that much for being different), but I do think we first contend with these challenges to our identity early on in adulthood, in our earliest encounters with organized environments. John Lennon actually sees this pressure reaching all the way back to our infancy:

As soon as you're born
They make you feel small.
The ways we engage our environments with our uniquenesses, with our distinct visions, are cast relatively early and harden into fixed attitudes relatively quickly. Cynicism plagues the tempered radical when an environment resists change; it's increasingly hard for a deviant to stay positive (or recover positivity) when their deviancy is actively, formally discouraged. Indeed, when simply being yourself feels like a battle, when your vision for the future is seen by your host culture as aberrent, Meyerson advises that "it is important to know when to stop fighting and instead look elsewhere." But because so much of tempered radicalism is a matter of identity, because our positive deviancy sets so quickly and follows us forward in life, we also have to be patient, circumspect, resolute and resilient. Meyerson quotes Keith Hammonds to remind us, in a way that is simultaneously inspiring and discouraging, that "Tempered Radicals .. are irritants to their organizations in the way that pearls are irritants to oysters." She goes on:

The capacity to push people to confront the conflicts and adaptive challenges facing a system is one of the most crucial and difficult aspects of real leadership.
In this way, and really in countless other ways, tempered radicals and positive deviants are assets to any environment; the disruption to equilibrium they offer may occasionally be sloppy or produce unintended consequences - they are human, after all - but it unsettles environments that, as often as not, need to be unsettled.

I count ninety-five commas in this post. Happy, new norm?

Friday, July 25, 2014

What Is a Church?

As my wife and I prepare for our move across country, one of the many questions that nags at us is, "What do we want in a church?" The question seems positively quaint, I suppose, in the grand scheme of history; for increasing numbers of people, the answers to that question range from "We want a church that contributes to the tax base of our community so our property taxes can be lower," to "We want a church that minds its own business." Meanwhile, however, for evangelicals such as we, what we want in a church is a natural and even necessary question. Evangelicalism has been, historically, among the more entrepreneurial movements in Christian history, such that local church cultures are notably distinct from one another (even though by and large they read the same books, listen to the same radio stations, and play the same music at roughly the same volume).

So we have to ask, and I suspect we will have to take our time in discovering the answer. But the process will be helped, I think, by wrestling with a prior question: What exactly is a church?

Much noise has been made in the past several years that a church is - contrary to popular, unconsidered opinion - not a place but a people group. We don't go to a church; the church of which we are a part gathers together in one place. It's this distinction that sets up the old evangelical joke: "Going to a church doesn't make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you a car." Trust me, it's funny if you're an evangelical. But more recent conversations are uncovering an even finer distinction, one that centers on why we gather.

Why we gather is an increasingly important question because increasing numbers of people reject the premise: If you decline to gather as a church, then the reasons why you would gather become irrelevant. The jokes that challenge this "leaving" phenomenon, of people who practice their faith outside the confines of Christian community, have yet to catch on. And really, how could they? They're really hard to make: "Not going to church doesn't make you a non-Christian any more than not being in a garage makes you a non-car." What? It doesn't work.

TWEET THIS: "Not going to church doesn't make you a non-Christian any more than not being in a garage makes you a non-car." What?

It's possible to make too much of the exodus of disaffected Christians swearing off organized religion, but it's equally possible to make too little of them, especially those of them whose faith remains vibrant and, in some cases, becomes more personally meaningful and culturally significant. These folks may have left the church, institutionally speaking, but theologically speaking, the church has not left them. They can't not wrestle with the meaning of this phenomenon of church, spoken of in such sweeping, emphatic language in the Christian Scriptures that it clearly must somehow exist.

So, in what form must it exist? What makes a church a church? What have we imposed on the concept of church over the course of multiple millennia? What do we strip away from it at our peril?

Another shift is in order, I think, one that is talked about in a number of circles: a shift from the notion of church as an institution, even an immaterial institution overarching our individual faith practices, to church as a movement.

When we think of movements, we don't think of church per se. We think of Baptist pastor Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, which organized and mobilized largely through church gatherings. We think of Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker Movement, advocating for immigrants and other marginalized people in the shadows of big cities. We think of Lech Walesa and his Solidarity Movement in Poland, resisting the oppression of the Soviet Union and leaning on the support of the Catholic Church. So I suppose when we think of movements we actually do think of the church - only not in the way we typically think of church.

Writers and thinkers in the missional church conversation have leaned in to this understanding of church as less an institution and more a movement. Steve Addison of Move (a missions agency in Australia), as only one example, has read the New Testament and the broad arc of Christian history through the filter of movements; he sees five "key commitments" as central to any successful movement and as undercurrents of the church's movement through time:

  • White-hot faith - a very conscious confidence that the values driving the movement are pure and right and good.
  • Commitment to the cause - no ambiguity about what constitutes commitment and who counts as committed.
  • Contagious relationships - a real charisma to the people advancing the movement, grounded on real concern for the "unreached."
  • Rapid mobilization - a sense of urgency mobilizing and actualizing the high commitment of the devotees.
  • Adaptive methods - perhaps the most vulnerable of the five keys, a freedom to experiment and an honest though undeterred assessment of existing constraints.
But maybe the most important aspect of a movement - and the easiest one for American evangelicals to lose sight of, given the emphasis on the individual so prevalent in our cultural context - is that a movement is fundamentally communal. You can't be a part of a movement by yourself.

TWEET THIS: A movement is fundamentally communal. You can't be a part of a movement by yourself.

This shift toward thinking of church as a movement throws open the whole meaning of church. The language of church is now interpreted communally, contextually, as the movement takes shape in each particular place. (For an example of how these implications might tease out, take a look at the book The New Parish by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight Friesen, founders of the very movement-friendly network of churchy people Parish Collective.)

We've had our expectations shaped by all these conversations, which means among other things that we won't so much know what to look for when we move across country as we will know it when we see it. So as we go looking for a church in Colorado to park ourselves in, I hope that what we'll find when we get there is not a consortium of institutions but a network of people following Jesus together, both locally in small gatherings and collectively in culturally meaningful ways. I hope that when we go looking for a church, we'll find ourselves caught up in the movement of God.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Best of InterVarsity Press: Reflections on My Last Day

July 11, 2014, marks my final day as an editor for InterVarsity Press. IVP was my dream job when I arrived seventeen years ago, even though I was convinced at the time that I'd only be there a year or two. I had bigger fish to fry back then, and IVP was just a way to put some bacon back in my piggy bank.

Nevertheless, I was quickly labeled a "lifer," with some of my colleagues comparing me to coworkers who'd been there for decades. And now, decades later, I'm finding it hard to leave. IVP has been the site of many life-changing conversations, the point of origin for many lifelong friendships. It's where I discovered my vocation and began to live into it. It's where I honed my craft as a writer and experimented with other avocations, from public speaking to improvisational comedy. The running debate at any organization like IVP is whether it is best thought of as a business or a ministry, but for me IVP has always made the most sense as a family, a community.

As such, when I think of the "Best of IVP," I don't think first of the books we publish, which is where the mind of the typical consumer would probably go. I think of the authors I've edited, the colleagues I've worked together with, the "friends of the Press" I've shared meals and jokes with on the road. They deserve their due, so I acknowledge them all here. I'm sure I'll neglect more names than I'll list, but I hope you all know who you are, and what you've meant to me over the years.

So here, in no particular order, are the best of IVP.

Forge America
I stumbled onto the Forge Mission Training Network a few years ago; Forge America based itself in Chicago's western suburbs, not far from where I live, and I went to some trainings out of curiosity. Scott Nelson was my early guide; it's appropriate, then, that he eventually wrote five Forge Guides for Missional Conversation for IVP.

Through Scott I met the adorable Kim Hammond, Forge's (now) international director, whose thick Australian accent has made phone calls nearly impossible but whose warmth and humor have made every encounter memorable. Gradually my contacts with Forge expanded, leading me to a wildly entertaining dinner with Lance Ford and Brad Brisco, and fun and gracious conversations with Ryan and Laura Hairston, Kimberly Culbertson, Eric Lerew, Hannah Seppanen and any number of other great folks.

Somewhere along the way I worked up the courage to strike up a conversation with Alan Hirsch, whose intellectual heft and inherent coolness made me assume wrongly that he was unapproachable. I got over that after my first "Hirsch sandwich," when Alan and his wife, the equally brilliant and incredibly endearing Debra Hirsch, simultaneously kissed me on both cheeks. I've been working with Debs on her forthcoming book Untaming Sexuality for some time now, and while I'm sad I won't be at IVP to see it roll into the warehouse, I'm excited for everyone who gets to read it for the first time.

And then there's Mike Frost, who lives in Australia but travels regularly to the States. I'm in awe of him every time he speaks, whether from the stage at a conference or from the back seat as we're driving around Seattle. His book Incarnate was my precious while he was writing it and I was editing it.

Through Forge I got to meet a number of other friends, including the delightful and sharp Jo Saxton, the innovative JR Woodward, and theo-guru David Fitch. Forge is highly relational and not artificially bound by institutional divisions; they welcome and befriend all, and they encourage the same in the people they meet. May their tribe increase.

Forge Books from IVP
Forge Guides for Missional Conversation
Creating a Missional Culture
More Than Enchanting
The Missional Quest
The Story of God, the Story of Us
Dwell (forthcoming)
Beyond Awkward (forthcoming)
Untaming Sexuality (forthcoming)

Red Letter Christians
Under the auspices of the legendary Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne, and guided by the leadership of Brian Ballard, there has coalesced a network of writers, thinkers, activists and ministers who are inspired by the possibilities that unfold when we read the Scriptures through the lens of the teachings of Jesus, rather than the teachings of, for example, the Apostle Paul. I met most of my friends in Red Letter Christians before I had ever heard of such a thing, but the annual RLC retreat has become a highlight of my year. There are plenty of attenders of this retreat I've never had the pleasure of editing, but then again every year I reconnect there with around fifteen IVP authors, some of whom have become dear friends.

Long, heartfelt conversations with Chris and Phileena Heuertz, Andy Marin, Bart Campolo, Tony Jones, Mark Scandrette, Kent Annan, Sean Gladding, Hugh Hollowell, Lisa Sharon Harper, Leroy Barber and others; robust conversations and even debates about the appropriate Christian participation in the pressing concerns of the world; howls of laughter and occasional tears. The dear and brilliant Richard Twiss offered a formal blessing to each of us at a Red Letter gathering; two months later he died without warning, and we were bound more tightly together by our shared sorrow at his passing.

Last year we released the first ever RLC-branded book from IVP: Faith-Rooted Organizing by Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel. I'm hopeful that we'll continue to see the RLC logo on future books, signaling the distinct and compelling vision of the world that comes when we put Jesus first.

IVP Books by Red Letter Christians
Faith-Rooted Organizing
Everyday Missions
After Shock
Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle
The Unkingdom of God
Practicing the Way of Jesus
Simple Spirituality
Pilgrimage of a Soul
Love Is an Orientation
Rescuing Christianity from the Cowboys (forthcoming)

A few years ago the good people at Christianity Today launched a blog, Her.meneutics, to showcase the best of robust thinking and good writing among women of evangelical faith. I was inspired by this vision of giving space to women thinkers without partitioning them off into so-called women's issues, and I began regularly to look to them, and other coalitions of women writers, for authors to work with. The result has been truly gratifying, both in the relationships I've developed and the books I've had the chance to edit.

I've since managed to be the token male at not one but two gatherings of the Redbud Writers Guild ("Fearlessly Expanding the Feminine Voice") and edited three of the first four books to be released in IVP's Crescendo line of books by women. I've occasionally found myself in the midst of some uncomfortable conversations, and experienced more directly the gulf of understanding between men and women, but I've also gotten the chance to participate in the bridging of that divide and, along the way, to be guided and led by some remarkable women.

Crescendo Books and Their Offshoots
Refuse to Do Nothing
Breaking Old Rhythms
The Easy Burden of Pleasing God
Troubled Minds
Teach Us to Want
Anxious (forthcoming)
Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going
Commitment Phobe (forthcoming)

In 2006 IVP launched a seven-year experiment in galvanizing an audience that had proven hard to galvanize: young evangelicals, newly out in the world, stress-testing the received traditions of their evangelical upbringing. Likewise Books were about social responsibility, shared spirituality, creative missiology and a world of possibility. In the process of developing this line I met some real characters and developed long-term relationships. I've mentioned many of the authors and books that fell under Likewise already, but there are many more than that, and they like Likewise itself, defy easy categorization. They're friends, and I'm glad I had the excuse to work with them while I was at IVP.

Likewise Books and Their Offshoots
Pure Scum
Community Is Messy
Faith Without Illusions
God on Campus
The Cost of Community
The New Friars
Living Mission
Sacred Encounters from Rome to Jerusalem
Letters to a Future Church
The Circle of Seasons
This Ordinary Adventure
The New Conspirators
Flirting with Monasticism
Mobilizing Hope

Everyone Else
I know I'm forgetting people who I will never forget. The Wild Goose Festival, the National Youth Workers Convention, the Christian Community Development Association, the Missio Alliance, the Parish Collective, Radio Free Babylon--these and other networks and events have been the breeding ground of new friendships and creative collaborations over the years.

  • Lynne Baab
  • Brian Godawa
  • Noel Castellanos
  • Steve Addison
  • Dale Hanson
  • Scott Boren
  • David Dark
  • Ken Gire
  • Wayne "Coach" Gordon and John Perkins
  • Garth Hewitt
  • Daniel White Hodge
  • Amy Jacober
  • Mike King
  • Terry Linhart
  • Marie Little
  • Deborah Loyd
  • Brandon McKoy
  • Chad Meister
  • Tim Morey
  • Mark Oestreicher
  • Lindsay Olesberg
  • Wayne Rice
  • Matt Rogers
  • Andy Root
  • Tom Ryan
  • Brian Sanders
  • Jason Santos
  • Amy Sherman
  • Carol Simon
  • Chris Smith and John Pattison
  • Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight Friesen
  • Andrew Wheeler
  • Dave Wilkie
  • Matt Woodley

And more and more and more and more. Thanks to all of you, mentioned and unmentioned here (not least of which are all my coworkers, for whom colleagues seems too stuffy and friends seems too casual). It's an axiom of business that "everyone is replaceable," a kind of coping mechanism during times of transition. But I think it's also true that everyone is irreplaceable. I'm reminded of John Donne's genderized lament of death:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were
I'm not dying, I'm just moving on. But it's not easy to move on, and I'm glad it's not. Life would be much less if leaving were easy. Leaving IVP is hard in part because life is good.

There's a good life out ahead of us all, however, and I look forward to the irreplaceable friendships I'll make at and through NavPress in the years to come. Till then, thanks IVP and everyone it signifies; you're the best.

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