Friday, December 25, 2015

The Leftover Shepherd

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off.
What if one stayed? After all, what kind of shepherds would they be if they left their flocks untended in the middle of the night? Not good shepherds, that's for dang sure. Good shepherds stay. Didn't David, the future king of the Jews, get left behind to tend the sheep when good news came to town?

So here's what I'm thinking: X - 1 shepherds ran off, in the wake of the heavenly host, to welcome the Son of God to the world. One shepherd stuck around. What must he have been thinking?

He was probably the youngest, the shepherd of no account. He probably knew that to be the case, as much because the other shepherds would regularly remind him as because the culture of the day was accustomed to pecking orders. There would have been no question of who got stuck with the sheep while the others got face time with Messiah.

That doesn't mean that this good shepherd of no account resented his position or his fellow shepherds or even the heavenly host that left him with the work of multiple men. It does mean he made a sacrifice of himself, missing out on the big good news in order to do his little good work.

I imagine that one of the host of angels stayed behind too. Because angels are a little like shepherds, if you think about it. But there's more: Here, on this lonely field at night, far removed from the shaking of history somewhere in Bethlehem - here was something worth seeing. To tend the sheep so that others may fall at the feet of the God of all mercy is a sacrifice of the highest order, the kind of thing that angels long to look on.

I imagine that lone shepherd, left alone by his friends in the stark silence of a holy night, might actually, finally, feel seen by the God who sees.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

You're Welcome, Internet: Ten Years of Loud Time

Today marks my tenth anniversary posting to this blog. I haven't gone to great lengths to publicize it or promote it; I've just posted here and there and shared the links through whatever means were available to me at the time. In the beginning I didn't have Facebook or Twitter or any social media presence, apart from my work blog. Now I don't have a work blog, and in fact blogs may well have run their course. I, of course, blog on, undeterred.

I may, over the course of the next year, repost some of my favorites from the past decade, and when I do you may assume that I've been too lazy to write something new. In any case, I've enjoyed keeping this log of my interactions with books, films, music, and people for ten years. If you've read any of my nearly eight hundred posts, then thanks; if you've commented, God bless you. If you've shared my posts with other people, is there anything I can do for you?

Here's the text of my first post. Enjoy!


Long Overdue

It's about time I blogged privately. I've been designated blogger for InterVarsity Press, where I work as an editor, for three years now: I post to Strangely Dim weekly. But I've been wanting to do my own thing, unconstrained by the needs of the press. So here I go.

I've liked the idea of Loud Time for a Long Time. I come from a subculture that puts a lot of emphasis on the Quiet Time as the critical ingredient for spiritual growth. That's all well and good, except that you can only effectively be quiet in isolation, and while occasional isolation is a good thing, most of life is lived in real time with real people.

Enter Loud Time! In this blog I'll blather away about virtually anything, but my chief aim is to borrow wisdom from others and extend both the range and the depth of my relationships. If Loud Time is anything, it is a conviction that God abides with us even when we are not alone--which is perhaps a novel concept--and even when we are not quiet--which is perhaps a controversial subject. We grow together, which to my mind is how God intended it.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

A Lament for Eric Garner

A year ago today, a grand jury declined to indict a police officer for his role in the death of Eric Garner in New York. In his book Prophetic Lament, theologian Soong-Chan Rah wrote a prayer-poem, inspired by Lamentations 5, on behalf of Garner and Michael Brown and suffering black communities throughout the United States. It's excerpted here.

Remember, Lord, what happened
to Michael Brown and Eric Garner;
look, and see the disgraceful way they treated their bodies.
Our inheritance of the image of God in every human being
has been co-opted and denied by others.
The children of Eric Garner have become fatherless,
widowed mothers grieve their dead children.
We must scrap for our basic human rights;
our freedom and our liberty has a great price.
Corrupt officers and officials pursue us and are at our heels;
we are weary and find no rest.
We submitted to uncaring government agencies
and to big business
to get enough bread.
Our ancestors sinned the great sin of instituting slavery;
they are no more - but we bear their shame.
The system of slavery and institutionalized racism
ruled over us,
and there is no one to free us from their hands.
We get our bread at the risk of our lives
because of the guns on the streets.
Michael Brown's skin is hot as an oven
as his body lay out in the blazing sun.
Women have been violated throughout our nation's history;
black women raped by white slave owners on the plantations.
Noble black men have been hung, lynched and gunned down;
elders and spokesmen are shown no respect.
Young men can't find work because of unjustly applied laws;
boys stagger under the expectation that their lives
are destined for jail. . . .
Woe to us, for we have sinned!

Taken from Prophetic Lament by Soong-Chan Rah. Copyright (c) 2015 by Soong-Chan Rah. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas: A Thought Experiment

Thought experiment inspired by Makoto Fujimura and Walker Percy, and the guy who was whistling "Little Drummer Boy" at O'Hare International Airport in March.

Imagine that you are roaming the local mall when you find yourself swept up in a mystical current of air, ushered from where you find yourself to a new and strange place, as yet largely unreached by Western markets and Christian missionaries. You check your calendar: it is the day after American Thanksgiving—it is Black Friday.

This place has never known Christmas.

It looks as though you're going to be here for the duration, and it seems that someone has prepared a place for you, a nice ranch single-family household with a porch and a small tree in the front yard and a picture window visible from the street. The weather is, by and large, identical to the weather at home. You may not be in Kansas any more, but you are, effectively, living your old life in this entirely new place.

Your neighbors are friendlier than most, and they greet you warmly at your door, welcoming you to the neighborhood. Not that you'd want to, but you can't seem to avoid them. They're curious about you, genuinely interested in who you are and what you're about.

How do you prepare for Christmas?
Do you prepare for Christmas?
How will you celebrate?
Will you celebrate?
How will you explain the holiday to your neighbors?
Will you explain it to them?

What does Christmas mean for you, what does it look like for you, when you remove it from here, and now, and this, and that?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving from Loud Time

Thank you for the days,
Those endless days, those sacred days you gave me.
I'm thinking of the days -
I won't forget a single day believe me.

I bless the light -
I bless the light that shines on you believe me.
And though you're gone,
You're with me every single day believe me.

Days I remember all my life.
Days where you can't see wrong from right. . . .

Now I'm not frightened of this world, believe me.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

The First Time I Fell

Of course I don't remember the first. Nobody remembers the first. Little kids fall all the time. They're still babies, really, the first time they fall, and the second, and the third, and the umpteenth. Falling is part of learning to stand, learning to move. We call them toddlers because they toddle, and falling comes with the territory.

No, the first time I remember falling was the first time it made an impact. The first time I fell and it mattered, the first time it hurt, the first time it made me feel like a failure.

That time I was, I believe, five years old. I was at my neighbor's house, and he had recently gotten a skateboard. Not those twenty-first-century fatties but the dangerously narrow board of the 1970s, the kind of board your feet hang off at both heel and toe. I saw that board and I saw my future. It was glorious; I was triumphant.

I climbed onto that board in a crouch, and of course it began to roll — slowly, wobbly, but I was determined. I kept my center of gravity low because standing up, I could walk away at any time, and I was committed. I kept my crouch, wedded to the board. Its fate would be my fate.

We rolled down the driveway, my borrowed board and I. Never had the world passed beneath me so fluidly. Even on my tricycle I had to work, and I would feel the friction of my forward motion. Not here. Not now. Never had I moved so quickly. I felt like I was flying. It was my first taste of the world ahead of me, my first taste of freedom.

And then I hit a bump.

A crack, really. The kind of thing that would break your mother's back if you stepped on it, but to a five-year-old kid on a skateboard from the 1900s, it was an immovable object. My board and I were abruptly divorced; it stopped, and I fell forward.

On to my knees, my hands, my face. The way I remember it, I broke a tooth.

I cried. I'm sure of it. But not because of the pain. I cried at the betrayal of it — the board that let me fall, the universe that refused to protect one of its vulnerable citizens. I cried at the shame of it, that I would not be able to hide my failure from my family or friends, or even total strangers. My failure would be part of my smile forever.

(Don't worry, it was a baby tooth; it would still be a few years before I broke teeth fully grown. But I didn't know that then.)

So I fell, and I felt the full force of my failure. But I was only five - still a toddler, really. Forty years later I still remember it, and I'm sure in some ways my life has been shaped by it. But my life wasn't ended by it. I fell. I cried. I got up. And life went on.

We fall. We cry. We get up. And life goes on. And we are shaped by the falling and the crying and even the getting up. But we are never stopped by it. And in fact we are shaped by the going on of it.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Cover Girls: New Music by Shawn Colvin and Natalie Imbruglia

The music I've gotten the most excited about this year has been inherently and unashamedly unoriginal. Two albums were released that featured great singers covering songs by great songwriters. The songwriters are almost exclusively men; the singers are both women. I find it impossible to not compare the singers to each other, which I suppose is one of the many burdens of womanhood.

The singers are both blasts from the past: Natalie Imbruglia, who came rushing out of Australian television in the mid 1990s with her devastating single "Torn," released her collection of interpretations of songs by male songwriters (Male) mid summer. It was followed in late September by Uncovered, the second collection of cover songs (third if you include her Christmas album) released by Shawn Colvin, best known for her mid-90s single "Sunny Came Home." I used to have a thing for both of them, if I'm being honest.

These two singers could hardly be more different. Imbruglia had all the marks of a pop sensation when she broke. She had cut her teeth as a soap opera actress, and she looked the part. There was great drama in "Torn"; you could imagine her feeling "all out of faith ... lying broken on the floor." She sold the story of the song with her voice, and the video only drove it home for her.

Meanwhile, Shawn Colvin had come from the ground; paying her dues in the heartland before taking a risk on New York, "walking these streets forlorn" (maybe the least impressive phrase in her brilliant song "Polaroids") until she won a Grammy for her first record and again years later for "Sunny." Imbruglia was a pop princess; Colvin was a folk goddess. I used to have a thing for both of them, if I'm being honest.

The heyday for both singers was a millennium ago, of course. But they have not gone away, and this year they both had great ideas for albums. Imbruglia's Male was a kind of thought experiment: These guys wrote these great songs; how would their meaning, their resonance, change if the voice behind them were a woman's rather than a man's? What emerges from the songs when their arrangements come from the heart of a woman?

Some of these experiments fare better than others, honestly. Her song selections are ambitious and somewhat eclectic, ranging from the urgent "Instant Crush" to the spartan "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" and the done-to-death "Melt with You." I knew nine of these twelve songs in their original versions, which suggests to me that Imbruglia didn't waste a lot of time researching her playlist. I can see the sense in that, actually: The point of the project is comparison, so the shorter the path to recognition, the better.

Some of her interpretations, unfortunately, suffer from comparison. There was nothing whatsoever wrong with "I'll Follow You into the Dark" by Death Cab for Cutie, and Imbruglia's modest lullaby version just makes the inherent fatalism in the song seem misplaced and confused. Why would you subject a baby to such sadness? When I hear "Let My Love Open the Door" these days, I don't think of Pete Townshend, as great as his original is; I think of Steve Carell's heartfelt performance in the film Dan in Real Life; Imbruglia's cover is certainly different and nicely feminine (again, I could picture singing this to a child, something that never occurred to me with other versions of the song), but it's still an odd comparison. She's at her best when she's less maternal and more sad and/or desperate: with "Instant Crush," "Naked As We Came," "Summer," and covering Neil Young, of all people.

The big weakness of Male, I think, is in the production: The recording sometimes sounds like it was started in Imbruglia's home studio in Australia and then finished off at a music factory in an LA suburb. Her voice is way out in front on every track, and aspects of some arrangements seem to be afterthoughts (for example, the hoots and hollers in "I Melt with You" and "Friday I'm in Love") .I think she would have benefited from collaborating with someone a little further removed from the pop charts, like Damien Rice (she covers his "Cannonball") or Duncan Sheik (another 90s standout). I'm reminded of the excellent collaborations of Bangles singer Susannah Hoffs and Matthew Sweet, for example. Still, I love the concept of the album, and I find myself cheering her with each new listen.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, nobody interprets a song like Shawn Colvin. Her previous collection (Cover Girl) features some of my favorite songs of my early adulthood, and it seems to me she puts a cover single out whenever she needs a little money. (Exhibit A: "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley.) I only recognized half of the songs on Colvin's "Uncovered," and most of those songs are either deep tracks or decades removed from cultural memory. Here the song itself is the point, not the space between interpretations or the role of gender in making meaning. If Imbruglia is a singer interpreting other singers; Colvin is a songwriter paying tribute to fellow songwriters.

In a smart, smart move, Colvin released a few of these tracks early, including the Creedence Clearwater Revival song "Lodi" and "Hold On," a song I was sure came from Emmylou Harris but actually came from Tom Waits. Either way, every time I hear it I come thisclose to crying, and then I listen to it again. Likewise, Bruce Springsteen's "Tougher Than the Rest" cuts through your defenses and puts you in touch with the vulnerability of love and the urgency of commitment. Even the poppy "Give Me a Little Sign" (featuring Marc Cohn, whose cover album 1970 is a favorite) picks up some edge and pathos in Colvin's capable hands. Best tracks: "Tougher Than the Rest," "American Tune," "Private Universe" and, of course, "Hold On."

Colvin's Uncovered released just in time for me to listen to it on a flight to Oklahoma City, but as with much of her catalog, it's ideally suited to a road trip. Male, in contrast, is meant to be heard in spurts; listening straight through the album requires too many gear shifts. But I'm glad I have it, and I expect I'll dip into it now and then, just as I'll regularly return to Colvin's disc. If I'm being honest, I used to have a thing for both of them.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Best Books of the Year: As Put Forward by Book Editors

For the past several years I've been part of an association of book editors who are Christian, known as the Association of Christian Editors (ACE). You would think, being part of such an organization, that I could write a better opening sentence than that. But I can't. Deal with it.

Every year ACE puts on a retreat, rotating from Chicago to Colorado Springs to Nashville to Chicago again, based on where our membership tends to live, along with proximity to airports. This year's retreat was put on in Colorado Springs, where I live, which made it easy to attend. The retreat is always good and particularly so this year, with an emphasis on soul care and wellness, along with the typical commiseration and idea sharing about industry-specific concerns. A highlight of every retreat is Friday evening, when we circle up and share with one another our favorite book of the past year.

There are few rules regarding this time of sharing. The book may or may not be new. You may, although most don't, share a book you edited. You may, although most don't, share a book that someone else has already shared. You may not, although most do, exceed the allotted time for sharing, nor may you (though you likely will) mention more than one book. This year's list follows. I've removed editor's names to protect their privacy, but I'm thankful to the member who took the following (lightly revised) notes, and I'm thankful to each member for taking the time to share. (I believe the notes are themselves adapted from sales copy on the website of some online bookseller.)

So many books are written haphazardly or edited sloppily, and these unfortunate variables don't necessarily factor in to a book's success. Editors' work is in this way thankless - a book succeeds or fails largely irrespective of the quality of editing - but as we slouch our way to Bulwer-Litton, help save Western civilization by adding these books to your wish-list.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller (and Pulitzer Prize winner) about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Oct. 11th, 1943. A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it's barely begun. A Michael L. Printz Award Honor book that was called "a fiendishly-plotted mind game of a novel" in The New York Times.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
In this bestselling and “charming debut” (People) from one of Sweden’s most successful authors, a grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door. (Honorable mention: Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County by Kristen Green.)

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
The #1 New York Times bestselling story about American Olympic triumph in Nazi Germany.

Small Victories by Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott writes about faith, family, and community in essays that are both wise and irreverent. It’s an approach that has become her trademark. Now in Small Victories, Lamott offers a new message of hope that celebrates the triumph of light over the darkness in our lives.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
Writing at the height of her narrative and imaginative gifts, Sue Monk Kidd presents a masterpiece of hope, daring, the quest for freedom, and the desire to have a voice in the world. This exquisitely written novel is a triumph of storytelling that looks with unswerving eyes at a devastating wound in American history, through women whose struggles for liberation, empowerment, and expression will leave no reader unmoved.

Vango: Between Earth and Sky by Timothee de Fombelle
In a world between wars, a young man on the cusp of taking priestly vows is suddenly made a fugitive. Fleeing the accusations of police who blame him for a murder, as well as more sinister forces with darker intentions, Vango attempts to trace the secrets of his shrouded past and prove his innocence before all is lost. (Also check out book two: A Prince Without a Kingdom.)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end. Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive.

Benediction by Kent Haruf
From the beloved and best-selling author of Plainsong and Eventide comes a story of life and death, and the ties that bind, once again set out on the High Plains in Holt, Colorado. Bracing, sad and deeply illuminating, Benediction captures the fullness of life by representing every stage of it, including its extinction, as well as the hopes and dreams that sustain us along the way. (Honorable mention: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver.)

Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie
An enthralling literary debut that evokes one of the most momentous events in history, the birth of printing in medieval Germany.

Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar
When the San José mine collapsed outside of Copiapó, Chile, in August 2010, it trapped thirty-three miners beneath thousands of feet of rock for a record-breaking sixty-nine days. After the disaster, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Héctor Tobar received exclusive access to the miners and their tales.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
Two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize David McCullough tells the dramatic story-behind-the-story about the courageous brothers who taught the world how to fly.

Out of My Life by V. Raymond Edman
Vignettes and spiritual takeaway by the fourth president of Wheaton College, published by Zondervan in 1960/61. (Honorable mention: Lila by Marilynne Robinson.)

The Road to Character by David Brooks
With the wisdom, humor, curiosity, and sharp insights that have brought millions of readers to his New York Times column and his previous bestsellers, David Brooks has consistently illuminated our daily lives in surprising and original ways. Now, in The Road to Character, he focuses on the deeper values that should inform our lives.

Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey and Rajendra Sisodia
Whole Foods Market cofounder John Mackey and professor and Conscious Capitalism, Inc. cofounder Raj Sisodia argue that both business and capitalism are inherently good, and they use some of today’s best-known and most successful companies to illustrate their point.

The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson
From London’s inimitable mayor, Boris Johnson, the story of how Churchill’s eccentric genius shaped not only his world but our own. On the fiftieth anniversary of Churchill’s death, Boris Johnson celebrates the singular brilliance of one of the most important leaders of the twentieth century.

The South and the Southerner by Ralph McGill
A wide-ranging blend of autobiography and history, The South and the Southerner is one prominent newspaperman's statement on his region, its heritage, its future, and his own place within it.

In other media, one editor couldn't recall a book that rose to the top this year. Instead she recommended the British spy series MI5 (ten seasons, all on Hulu and Netflix).

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Power of a Slow Burn: Staying Is the New Going

I recently attended a celebration, hosted by one of my authors, on the eve of the release of his book. Alan Briggs is a pastor in Colorado Springs; his book Staying Is the New Going is a rallying cry to reject the wanderlust that fuels so much of our consumer-tourism (even missions and charity tourism), and instead to commit ourselves to the places we live. It's a good, brisk, energizing book, and I hope a lot of people pick it up and reimagine how they relate to their communities.

It struck me, as Alan was thanking his guests, what a spectrum he had at the table, from recent relocates (some who left the more exotic mission field to settle in the Springs) to people whose families helped found the town nearly two centuries prior. This notion of staying isn’t just about where you find yourself; it’s about your posture toward your place. We can stay and consume a place, or we can go and consume a place. When you get down to it, tourism isn’t all that different from the home-as-castle/city-as-fiefdom consumer mentality of most people. There’s nothing magic about staying or going in and of themselves. The magic is in the attitude: Missionary isn’t something you do; it’s something you are, and that’s irrespective of where you find yourself. Alan and his friends are exemplars of cultural participation and missionary concern, and it came through brilliantly at that dinner party.

TWEET THIS: Missionary isn’t something you do. It’s something you are, irrespective of where you find yourself.

I once heard Andy Crouch talk about institutions, and I was pretty conflicted by his presentation. On the one hand, it seemed like I was being chided for being too self-centered, for failing to appreciate the institutions I had been born into and grafted into — this despite all the clear failings of any number of institutions, from the church to the government to corporations to employers. Why should I just shut up and take what these big behemoths dished out?

As I thought about it, however, I thought about our mortality, and our simultaneous impulse for eternity. How does that play out on this temporal plane, in this physical space? I may want to live forever — in Christ, I may in fact live forever — but what meaning does that have for where I work or where I live? These things predated me, and they will, in all likelihood, outlive me. If I’m to have meaning in the material world — if I’m to find meaning in the material world — I have to look to these institutions that I find myself in symbiotic relationship with.

The secret value of Alan's book, I think — the value that only emerges as someone puts the book down and picks the vision up — is the rediscovery that place doesn’t matter as merely a place but as a partner in our work in the world. Where we are informs what we do, and by extension, who we become. And who we become shapes where we are. And so on and so forth.

TWEET THIS: Where we are informs what we do and who we become. And who we become shapes where we are. And so on and so forth.

I think this book will have a slow burn, both as a seller and as a conversation generator. I think that’s a good thing; the kinds of conversations it will generate should take time, because participants move slower than consumers, and institutions such as neighborhoods and cities are not going anywhere. The space this dinner party created — for people to celebrate the culmination of a year of hard work while simultaneously reflecting on their own life decisions, life patterns and missionary postures — is a great example of the power of a slow burn, and the change it can ultimately ignite.

Monday, September 07, 2015

A People's Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew 4

I've been slowly but surely (but mostly slowly) building what I'm calling a people's commentary on the New Testament. So far only one other person, to my knowledge, has joined me in this task. The gist of it? 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 those of us who are comfortable are not necessarily the ones to whom God is speaking words of comfort.

In this project I 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." Here's how it works:

  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.
I'm up to Matthew 4. (You can read Matthew 1 - 3 here.) Here we go.


Next Jesus was taken into the wild by the Spirit for the Test. The Devil was ready to give it. This is a test; it is only a test. But the stakes are high. Jesus, we have come to learn, is the Son of God, the Word of God made flesh, an unprecedented experiment: How fleshy is flesh? Would common, even primal temptations, so enticing to people made in the image of God, prove to be enticing to one who was not merely the image of God but God himself? The results were never in doubt - this is God we're talking about, after all - but the test was no less a trial, no less a sacrifice, as is evident in his preparation for it: "fasting forty days and forty nights [which] left him, of course, in a state of extreme hunger."

We are meant, of course, to recall the exodus of the Jews from their enslavement in Egypt. That was less a moment of liberation than a change of allegiance, both because technically the Jews were not slaves in Egypt (they had their own property and representation before the government) and because God was in fact inviting them into a new kind of enslavement to God. When the devil challenged Jesus, “Since you are God’s Son, speak the word that will turn these stones into loaves of bread,” he was enticing Jesus with his own agency, with the temptation to flourish by any means necessary. Jesus responded with God's instructions to the Jews on exodus: “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.” We owe our lives, our livelihood, to God, not to our own self-sufficiency or even, as the exodus proved, the provision of those who would declare themselves our overseers. This recognition that no one controls us without our complicity is an act of liberation at a high level.

For the second test the Devil took him to the Holy City. Here we see how our sacred structures, even the Words of God, can be used maliciously, to serve an evil purpose: We are ushered to the Temple of Jerusalem, where the devil dares Jesus to jump by quoting Psalm 91: “He has placed you in the care of angels. They will catch you.” But Jesus is still thinking not of his power but his people's liberation, so he again quotes the texts of the exodus: “Don’t you dare test the Lord your God.” Obviously, then, we can test the Devil, and as Jesus will surely show in the chapters that come, we can test those who would assert control over us. Only God is above us.

The Devil [pointed] out all the earth’s kingdoms. . . . “Just go down on your knees and worship me, and they’re yours.” From basic provision to absolute power, the Devil has run the gamut of temptation. At our most benign, we want to feed ourselves, and to hell with everything/one else. At our most brazen, we want to rule the world. Neither of these is appropriate because neither is necessary: The world already has a ruler, and that ruler provides for our needs, and the needs of everyone around us. Jesus tells the devil to “Beat it!” and reiterates his vocation of liberation by once again quoting Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and only him. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.”

So ended the test. Exit the devil; enter the angels, who "took care of Jesus' needs" as he prepared to move from Test to Work.

When Jesus got word that John had been arrested, he returned to Galilee. He had been raised in Nazareth, but now his work would take him to Galilee, "crossroads for the nations," according to Isaiah. Jesus' work would be the shedding of light - good news for people "sitting out their lives in the dark." We are told that Jesus "picked up where John left off" - John, whose harsh words for those in power were balanced with words of comfort for the afflicted. John's ministry was important: heralding the coming kingdom. In Jesus, the kingdom had come.

“Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you." For whatever reasons, these new, first disciples asked no questions and surrendered life as they knew it without a word. The work God calls us to is not so different from the work we take on for ourselves. A lot is made of this statement from Jesus, but in fact "Jesus made the same offer" to the next two disciples he recruited, and Matthew didn't see the need to repeat it. "they were just as quick to follow, abandoning boat and father." Instead of giving our focus to the exploitation of resources for our sole benefit, we are to give our focus to the people around us, made in God's image, sitting out their lives in the dark, waiting for light.

God’s kingdom was his theme. Beginning right now, God was their sovereign authority - not the Romans, not the high priest, not their parents, not their own will to power. God proved worthy of the responsibility, as Jesus "healed them, one and all" of whatever they were plagued by. This new kingdom was self-sufficient in a way that no prior kingdom had been. It was all to the good, an absence of suppression and oppression. The people Jesus met were finding themselves released from bondage and invited into a bondage that looked and felt exactly like liberation.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

First Annual Day of Ignorance

I don't mean to brag, but the social media tracking site Klout has deemed me an "expert" in the following:

  • Authors
  • Bible
  • Books
  • Christianity
  • Churches
  • Evangelism
  • Faith
  • Freelance Writing
  • Marriage
  • Nonfiction Books
  • Publishing
  • Religion
  • Spirituality
I can, in fact, if I understand Klout correctly (and please note that I am not considered an expert in Klout), be an expert in up to twenty-three things. I'm pretty sure expertise is gauged by how often I post to social media on these topics, and not on any demonstrated mastery of the subject matter. My wife, for example, might dispute my expertise on marriage; my authors (I'm an editor) might take issue with my mastery of them.

But such is the nature of our times. We get immediate affirmation for our briefest, most passing thoughts. I tweet 140 characters about freelance writing and someone "favorites" (not a verb) my tweet; there's exhibit A in my case for expertise. I post to Facebook a quick bon mot about religion, someone likes it, and I'm on the fast track to "expert" status. There's no harm in trying - there's no dislike button - and so we post and repost and repost. Measured in volume, our opinions are profound. Measured in depth? There is no such measure.

We want to participate in the urgent and weighty conversations of our time. And we are raised to perceive (or at least portray) ourselves as omnicompetent. And we are offended by disagreement. Put them all together and what do you have?

You have a mess, is what you have. A never-ending argument, pitched at high volume in the public square to the lowest common denominator. A false sense of expertise and a compounding pile of hurt feelings. More heat, less light. More feigned and presumed expertise, papering over a crisis of collective incompetence. As the proctor of the final exam said to Adam Sandler in his critically acclaimed film Billy Madison (did I mention I'm an expert on the cinema?), "Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened."

Funny, right? But it can get tragic. When we weigh in on serious matters with unconsidered thoughts, we derail important conversations and forestall social progress. We listen to the wrong voices in a debate because they out-shout the voices who have invested the time and passion to come to know what they're talking about.

We need a regular reminder to ourselves, a common clearing of the air. We need a kind of Yom Kippur to acknowledge and divest ourselves of nor our sins but our ignorance. So I'm calling for a first (and, let's be honest, probably last) Annual Day of Ignorance.

Ignorance because to admit we are not experts in something doesn't prohibit us from becoming experts. Competence in any area of consideration isn't a natural gift; it's a learned skill. To confess our ignorance can be to commit ourselves to become informed.

Day because having something on the calendar means we can anticipate it and prepare for it. We can recall it when it's over. And for twenty-four hours we can lean into what we want, which is less heat, more light, more humility and, yes, more competency.

Annual because our current environment fosters the problem we're trying to solve, and so even as we earnestly seek to minimize the damage our individual ignorance may cause, and even as we strive to speak more meaningfully into the weighty matters of our day, there are insidious, automatized forces encouraging us to speak without thinking, to make summary judgments without discerning, to let our tongue loose before we have listened. We need to enter into a pattern of admitting what we don't know, and only then might our public discourse and our social action become more responsible and more effective.

When we admit our ignorance and commit to pursuing competency, we might just have our eyes opened to who the true experts are. As just one example, Professor Soong-Chan Rah often says (regarding one of my supposed areas of expertise, religion), "“If you, as a white person, want to move into an urban setting and do ministry, and you don’t have any non-white mentors, you’re not a missionary, you’re a colonialist.”

This informed critique of the collision of a missionary impulse, evangelistic zeal, and a naivete about matters of systemic racial privilege, confronts our ignorance and challenges us toward circumspection and thoughtfulness.

There are countless other conversations taking place today that would benefit from us listening and not speaking, learning and not preaching, finding true experts and inviting them to advise us in the things that concern us. Just when we think we've overcome our ignorance in one area, another issue surfaces and exposes the vastness of what continues to elude us. And still we are encouraged at every turn to see ourselves as omnicompetent, our opinions as authoritative. We need this, folks: We need to accept the limitations of our competency and embrace our responsibility to listen, learn, grow and do better.

I propose that we mark each July 5 as an Annual Day of Ignorance. July 5 is the birthday of P. T. Barnum, who once famously (or so the Internet tells me) said, "There's a sucker born every minute." One minute years ago, you were that sucker. So was I. So is everybody.

Monday, June 29, 2015

In Praise of 45

In this post:

  • Great music.
  • Reflections on the music of the 1970s.
  • A birthday request.
When I was your age, you didn't download a song off the internet. You didn't even listen to it streaming on the internet. You didn't even order it from a store on the internet. You bought it at the mall, and you took it home, and you took it out of a paper sleeve, and you put it on a record player. And a needle read that song off a disc spinning at 45 revolutions per minute.

I have today reached the age of 45, and yet I grew up in the age of 45s - a generation much like this, in which singles are king and full length albums are for suckers. The pop age of today is like the disco age of my youth, when older artists struggled to remain relevant while young, fresh faces put confection after forgettable confection in front of children and encouraged them to imbibe. Rarely can a child appreciate the full canon of an artist's work, reaching past the hits to the deep tracks that extend the listening time of the slow-spinning LP record. A child's world is pop-pop-pop, defined by the radio and (soon enough) the video. Two songs by the same artist--the A side of the 45, reserved for the officially released, radio-friendly track, and the B side, often assumed to be a throwaway just filling empty space--test the tolerance of a kid, let alone a full album's worth; 33-1/3 revolutions per minute are, with few exceptions, wasted on the young.

So, when I was a kid, I rarely listened to full-length albums, preferring instead to play the A side of a 45 and, if I were inspired or even just lazy, flipping the 45 over and listening to the B side. The two 45s seared into my memory from childhood are very different from one another, but I loved them both.

The Ballad of John and Yoko

"The Ballad of John and Yoko" is a jaunty, jaded journey through Europe. Performed by the Beatles, it's a song of a particular moment, a commentary on his current reality that would come to characterize much of John Lennon's solo work. I have no idea what John is singing at times, but I like this song a lot, particularly Paul McCartney's background harmonies and prominent bass line. On the B side was "Old Brown Shoe," written by George Harrison. More a product of its era, it sounds unlike most Beatles songs, foreshadowing again George's solo work to come. This song was a rocker, and I loved it in a way that made me more open to B sides and other deep tracks to come.
Old Brown Shoe

The other 45 I wore out as a kid featured two songs by, of all people, Nancy Sinatra. Like the Beatles 45, I inherited this from some uncle or second-cousin-once-removed; I would never have found it on my own, because even if it had graced the radio in its first release, those days were more than a decade gone. But its tracks reflect an entirely different popular genre from the Beatles. Hers was what came to be known as "incidental music," the music of camp. "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" is as American as the Beatles were British; it had a great, catchy bass line too.The boots were surely go-go boots, zipped all the way up to the thigh.

I was, frankly, less likely to flip this 45 over from the A side to the B side, but I was occasionally in the mood for "The City Never Sleeps at Night." There's a 60s-era New York sensibility to this track that I like.

These songs exiss as singular entities, but they also play off each other, A side and B side, to give a fuller portrait of the artist. We consume the A side, we discover the B side. You don't get a B side when you download a song off iTunes; music streaming services leave artists behind after one track in search of something sonically similar. The gateways between music consumption and musical discovery are no longer easily accessible to us.

For my birthday this year, I'm hoping you'll accompany me on a journey of musical discovery. I'm asking you to recommend 45s to me - two songs by artists you appreciate: a popular, released track, along with deeper tracks that are less familiar to the masses but that demonstrate why you're a fan. List them here in the comments, post links to my social media, whatever you like. I hope you'll include in your recommendations a comment on what makes these songs great for you, or a story that explains why they linger in your memory.

I'll expand my musical library based on what you recommend. And if I'm not too intimidated by the technology, I'll build a playlist of all your recommendations on Spotify, so we can discover some great music together. "A splendid time," John Lennon once promised from the B side, "is guaranteed for all."

Monday, June 22, 2015

My Top Five Superheroes (and Why)

My sister asked me, the other day, to list my top five superheroes. She may have been fishing for birthday ideas; she may have been looking for ways to raise her son's standards higher than Hawkeye. Whatever the case, I gladly listed the following (in order):

  1. Daredevil
  2. Batman
  3. Robin
  4. Captain America
  5. Moon Knight
I struggled more than I expected to finish this list. The top three were easy; the bottom two were hard, and I suspect that I'll second-guess this list even before I post it. But I do notice some commonalities:

  • None of these heroes is super-powered at a cosmic level. There is no Superman or Hulk. Captain America is, of course, a "super soldier," and was recently listed among the most powerful superheroes in the Marvel Universe, but his power is essentially enhanced strength, coupled with shocking discipline and focus, and high moral character.
  • Only two of these heroes are not in the Marvel Comics universe, and those two (Batman and Robin) are tightly connected to each other.
  • Only one of these heroes has a public identity; the rest are in the shadows, although they have a tight network of supporters who know their secret.
  • Each of these heroes is associated with a particular place.
Daredevil, as ably demonstrated in the Netflix series of the same name, sets his focus on Hell's Kitchen in New York, a neighborhood that has never enjoyed the benefits of New York's hubris. While the Avengers are saving New York from giant robotic lizards coursing through a wormhole to another universe in the skies above, Daredevil is confronting drug dealers and dismantling crime networks in the same span of city blocks he grew up in and refuses to leave.

Batman and Robin are inextricably identified with Gotham City, which is Superman's Metropolis after the lights have gone out. Although their adventures have taken them to the farthest reaches of time and space, Gotham remains a principal character in their story. It's no surprise, in fact, that the city has its own television series; place matters supremely in the Batman universe.

Captain America's association is right there in his name. He was created jingoistically; his first cover shot as a superhero showed him punching Adolf Hitler in the nose. In his first iteration during World War II he was a salute to the greatness of his country of origin, but in subsequent iterations, beginning in the comics in the 1960s during widespread civil unrest and carrying over into contemporary films with the cynical sensibility of the postmodern age, he represents the tension between our sense of our national potential and our unease of our tragically flawed history as a country.

Of all five superheroes, Moon Knight is my least familiar and also the most tenuous connection to a place. Whatever power he has comes from Egypt, but he locates himself in New York - except when he doesn't, when he moves to the West Coast or meanders throughout the world. There's a kind of schizophrenia to Moon Knight's story; his superhero persona is only one of the many characters he plays in his life, and his sense of dislocation does damage to his relationships and even his psyche. Maybe that's why I'm so intrigued by him; Moon Knight is what happens to us when we aspire to greatness but lose sight of our placedness.

Obviously there's more to the story than placedness with these characters. Three of the five have capes; two of them don't. I don't think that's overly significant, although a childhood fascination with comic book superheroes surely has something to do with the color and fluidity of the art. It's sort of trendy to claim that placedness is the primary driver of my hierarchy of superheroes; I recognize that. But the fact that place is one of the particularly cool things about these heroes is not lost on me, and I wonder how much their broad acceptance in the broader culture (with the exception of the relatively rootless Moon Knight, all of them have a strong foothold in pop culture) is tied to the idea that a particular place breeds a particular kind of hero - the hero a place needs, the hero each of us could commit ourselves to being.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Charlie Chaplin: The Cautionary Tale of a Missional Genius

My boss sometimes takes me to bookstores. It's not a habit of mine, oddly enough, even though I'm a book editor and a lifelong reader. It's the sort of thing I'm supposed to equate with nerd heaven, and I do enjoy it, but it's not something I regularly indulge in.

But when my boss takes me to a bookstore, I like to pick something up, especially when the bookstore is an independent. Most recently we went to the Tattered Cover in Denver, a sprawling store in the classic sense. Picture tall shelves with rolling ladders. Picture effusive recommendations from staff. Don't picture music or teapots or "Readers do it spine-out" bumper stickers; true believers don't need such ornamentations. Tattered Cover is a booklover's bookstore.

I wandered the shelves, making mental notes, but the book I bought was in the last place I looked: Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life is a relatively new biography of the most celebrated actor of the silent film era, the first worldwide celebrity, the icon of a generation. I've watched many (though by no means most) of his films and remember Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal from the 1990s, but I'd not dug into his story. Now seemed as good a time as any.

Watch early talkie movies and you'll quickly see how married to the stage the medium was. The actors deliver their lines to the back row of the theater, not to the overhead boom, and their reactions are exaggerated in ways that film doesn't require. It was in the silent era, the age celebrated in the recent film The Artist, that the particular strengths of film as a new medium were explored and tested. One director cut every fourth film cell to his action scenes to give a heightened sense of frenzy; chases and other intricate scenes were carefully choreographed so that the impossible seemed both unavoidable and entirely natural. Early films were short - around eleven minutes on average - but they packed a lot of punch.

Chaplin came up in the theater scene and honed his craft mainly by observation. His capacity for acting drunk became legendary; his lampoons of class divisions were spot-on. But the thing that struck me, the thing that took his work from caricature and spoof to high art and cultural relevance, was rooted in observation. In the first days of his foray into film, after success in vaudeville in Britain and the States,

He wandered for some days among the actors and sets without actually being assigned a role. Then the moment came. ... He was not yet the Little Tramp; he was reprising the role of stage villain complete with cravat, top hat, monocle and costume. He had become a "dude" or seedy "toff." In this first film he is insidious, wheedling and oddly threatening. When he kisses a girl's hand, he then goes all the way up the arm. That is an early Chaplin touch. He was rpobably the first to do it on the screen. He already has a full range of facial mannerisms, twitching and smiling and scowling. He also tries out a distinctive walk, the ancestor of a more famous one. ... Moving Picture World said that "the clever player who takes the part of a sharper ... is a comedian of the first water."
Observation is the first virtue of comedy and really any meaningful engagement of society. I once heard theologian Soong-Chan Rah tell an audience of missionaries, "If you seek to change a city without first becoming a student of that city, you're not a missionary, you're a colonialist." Acting without first observing is destructive and is ultimately exposed as artifice, as imposition - at its worst, as violence. But critical observation that informs action is almost inherently transformative. The student of a culture, whether that culture is film or fashion or faith or something entirely different, discovers what that culture values, what it fears, what it longs for, what it assumes to be true. Even the culture under consideration is not as aware of these things as its student. We need the student, ironically, to teach us who we are and what we need.

TWEET THIS: We need the student, ironically, to teach us who we are and what we need.

With the release of Kid Auto Races at Venice, his second or third film (the sequence is unclear, but shot within five days of his first film), Chaplin had discovered the character his audience wanted: a Little Tramp, clearly conscious of high society but far removed from its benefits, never welcomed into the in crowd but never defeated by its rejection. He is the outsider looking in, lifting up society's quirks for society to laugh at, making a hero of an outcast.It is this character, who will evolve over the course of many films, who becomes known the world over and who will define the new art form of film.

He is already dressed in a distinctive fashion, with clothes that are too small for him. ... He "hogs" the scene, serenely self-confident of his own image and aggressive to those who hinder his presentation of himself. He is bristling with the desire to perform. He gets in the way of the camera filming the races, and resists every attempt of the director to exclude him. He wants to commune with that camera but, more significantly, with the vast and unknown audience that is assembled behind the lens. He sets up a direct relationship with those who are watching him, both mocking and conspiratorial. ... He is absurdly solipsistic, as if to say that only he matters. Only he is worth watching. Chaplin would maintain these sentiments for the rest of his film career.
Film is barely a thing, and already Chaplin has knocked down the fourth wall separating the actor from the audience. This is, in fact, what they want - in an impersonal, detached medium Chaplin has supplied personal connection and attachment. The audience identifies with him; they cheer him on even as he violates social protocol right and left. Armed with that trust, Chaplin will go on to expand and ennoble the craft of filmmaking; no longer confined to slapstick, the laughable Little Tramp becomes our guide into a world in which the poor cannot escape poverty because the system is hard-wired against them.

Chaplin had learned early on, in his stage career in London, the proximity of laughter to lament. As actress Marie Lloyd told him, "I believe that's what real comedy is, you know, it's almost like crying." And yet this lament that Chaplin led his audience to was never the final word: The young man who overcame adversity to become the most recognizable person in the world would end his films with a kick of the heels and shuffling strut off to his next adventure. In the world Chaplin observed and acted upon, there was always hope and never defeat.

This was Chaplin's genius, and it is a good model for those of us who follow Christ to emulate. We study our society, we learn what is laughable and lamentable about it, and we bring it to the foreground so that it is no longer overlooked. We help those around us to see what must be seen, and we offer hope that what we see will not defeat us.

TWEET THIS: We help those around us to see what must be seen, and we offer hope that what we see will not defeat us.

If that were all there was of Chaplin's story, that'd be a great thing. But Chaplin has sixty-some years to go, and while much of his art is brilliant, much of his life is tragic. The rewards he earned for his careful observation and sympathetic portrayal went to his head. There's little worse than a student who thinks they have nothing left to learn. Chaplin was officious and tyrannical as a director, going so far as to ignore obvious gaffes in his films because he was convinced the audience would never notice them, being as focused as they were on his performance. He was notorious for his treatment of women, most of whom began as muses and ended as used-up lovers. He liked young girls for their innocence, but he repeatedly stole innocence from them. He visited the tenements of his childhood but recoiled at the notion that he shared anything in common with their occupants. And over time this hubris affected his art as well, so that his characters became less a portrayal of Everyman and more a patronizing send up of everyone but himself.

TWEET THIS: There's little worse than a student who thinks they have nothing left to learn.

Chaplin's tragic story has lessons for us as well: our successes in life don't make us better than our neighbors, and the true student of society never graduates. We've never fully uncovered the mystery of our neighbors, and whatever story we might tell on their behalf is never complete. It is always an honor, always a burden, and however we tell such stories, we must always look not just for what's laughable or lamentable in it but for the defiant hope on the other side of it. Without hope, even our most profound portrayals degrade into caricature. Without hope, all comedy degrades into tragedy.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Take Off Your Shoes: The Holy Ground of Airport Security

A woman hasn't seen her sister in eleven years when she learns that her sister is dying. A car accident bogged down her effort to visit, and her sister died before she could get there. She went for a walk on the beach and found a long knotted rope. She started untying the knots, thinking about her sister as she loosened the knots and untangled the rope. Six hours later the rope was neatly collected and she was ready to take her place as the family matriarch.

She hasn't flown in a plane since 1987. She just got married, so all her identifications show her maiden name. Her husband, a merchant marine, is at sea for two weeks. Her flight was, of course, booked at the last second. But you have to go, to return and be restored to your place in the family, as much for your family as for you.

I want to call my sister, to tell her I won't let the years separate us. I want to cull the herd of my life so I can quickly go where I need to be in a hurry. I want to say something more profound and resonant than "She's in a better place" and "She's looking down on you in love" or "I'll be praying for you," as much because that can't really be comforting, even though she's clearly comforted by it, as because I must be a better wordsmith, a more sophisticated thinker, than that.

I've got nothing. I just offer my prayers and nod in agreement. Her sister is in a better place than the place where she contracted lung cancer and lost touch with her sister for more than a decade. She is looking down in love, because love is the thing that survives death.

We're in line together at security, and the TSA agent is wonderfully compassionate, even though she thought we were a couple when clearly I'm younger and could do better, right? And then we are through security and she's going to concourse N and I'm going to concourse C. I say goodbye and she doesn't hear me because she's in her own head. I haven't made a friend; I've just made my way through the security line. And it's not even 7am yet. But the world spins madly on, and the finger of God holds the axis steady, and my shoes are off, because the place where I am standing is holy ground.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Throw Down Your Ace in the Hole: Happy Easter from Loud Time

Such is the way of the world
You can never know

Just where to put all your faith
And how will it grow?


Peter got really nervous and swore, “I never laid eyes on this man you’re talking about.” Just then the rooster crowed a second time. Peter remembered how Jesus had said, “Before a rooster crows twice, you’ll deny me three times.” He collapsed in tears.

Such is the passage of time
Too fast to fold

Suddenly swallowed by signs
Lo and behold


Mary stood outside the tomb weeping. As she wept, she knelt to look into the tomb and saw two angels sitting there, dressed in white, one at the head, the other at the foot of where Jesus’ body had been laid. They said to her, “Woman, why do you weep?”

“They took my Master,” she said, “and I don’t know where they put him.” After she said this, she turned away and saw Jesus standing there. But she didn’t recognize him.

Jesus spoke to her, “Woman, why do you weep? Who are you looking for?”

She, thinking that he was the gardener, said, “Mister, if you took him, tell me where you put him so I can care for him.”

Jesus said, “Mary.”


Gonna rise up
Burning black holes in dark memories

Gonna rise up
Turning mistakes into gold


Monday, March 23, 2015

A People's Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew 3

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 those of us who are comfortable are not necessarily the ones to whom God is speaking words of comfort.

Hence the ongoing project I'm working on:

A People's Commentary on the New Testament

In this project I 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 invite you to undertake it as well:

  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.

So far at least one other person has taken me up on this populist crusade. Let me know if you take it on; I'd love to see what you come up with.

And now, without further ado, a people's commentary on Matthew 3.


His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings. John the Baptizer, born into privilege as son of a temple priest, was also a miracle child, having been born to parents who had long before given up on having children. His character here demonstrates the turbulent religious climate at the time of Jesus' ministry, as he rejected the formal religious system of his father and embraced the ascetic lifestyle ("a diet of locusts and wild honey") and fiery message of a renegade prophet: "Prepare for God's arrival! Make the road smooth and straight!" Here he references the prophet Isaiah:

Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
(Isaiah 40:4-5)

While these words allude to a great leveling in society - bad news, generally, for people who had secured power for themselves - its context is a message of comfort: "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem," Isaiah is instructed by God. It is worth remembering at all times that God offers good news to people who struggle and suffer; God's words of confrontation always have a larger context of loving concern.

TWEET THIS: God's words of confrontation always have a larger context of loving concern.

That John drew diverse crowds is noteworthy, both as a demonstration of the religious upheaval taking place, and as a context for Jesus' first public display of his divine mission.

When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded. As is often the case, sincere acts of repentance often degrade into pious performance; much as politicians who make a show of going to church, or scandalized televangelists who make a tear-filled public confession of scandalous behavior and immediately return to fundraising, such appropriations of earnest acts of commitment simultaneously buttress the public profile of people in power while also subverting the enduring value of more authentic demonstrations. John's response is telling: "Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life." As Jesus himself will affirm, John declares that public spectacles and public behavior alike are suspect; our character and commitment are revealed in small, even secret ways, far removed from any derived benefit.

“The main character in this drama — compared to him I’m a mere stagehand — will ignite the kingdom life within you." As powerful and momentous as John's ministry was, it was effectively remedial; the more proactive, constructive, directive ministry was still to come, through Jesus. "He’s going to clean house — make a clean sweep of your lives." If John represents a renaissance of the prophetic tradition, with strong confrontational language leading to a renewed commitment to justice and social parity, then Jesus (at least according to John) represents revolution, a total overhaul of the social order.

Note that John sees himself, and consequently his ministry, as subordinate to Jesus. He is "a mere stagehand" for the main act to come. And when Jesus ultimately presents himself for baptism, John objects: “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”

“God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” Why would Jesus, self-conscious of his unique mission, accept a baptism of repentance by John, who himself admits his inferiority? A recurring theme in Jesus' teaching (and, importantly, his visions of the end) is the great leveling of Isaiah 40, the flattening of social hierarchies. Guests at the wedding banquet that represents the end of the age range from the powerful to the penniless; moreover, men and women of ill repute and little to no means made regular appearances alongside Jesus at meals throughout the Gospels. It isn't the pecking order in this baptism that is important to Jesus; it's "God's work [of] putting things right" that matters. In this respect, both John the Baptizer and Jesus the Messiah are playing roles in an epic story; their vocation is fulfilled not by achieving status but by playing their part well.

“This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” Jesus may be playing a part in a story, but he is the central character in it. He will have his credentials repeatedly challenged by powerful people in scenes to come, but here his credentials are clear: God himself participates in Jesus' baptism, which becomes effectively an ordination, a king's anointing:

"You are my son;
today I have become your father.
Ask me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession. ...
Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction.
(Psalm 2:7-10)

TWEET THIS: Jesus' mission is good news for the people, but bad news for those who have achieved power and status.

This first public declaration of Jesus' mission is good news for the people, but once again it is bad news for those who have achieved power and status, often on the backs of people they were sworn to serve and protect. Jesus' anointing is a warning to "you rulers of the earth": they, like everyone else, are subject to the ultimate Sovereign God of creation, and their rejection of Jesus - and the social order he represents - will be counted as treason, and dealt with accordingly.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Dangerbooks! Vulnerable Faith by Jamie Arpin-Ricci

I had the privilege, some time ago, of editing Jamie Arpin-Ricci's book The Cost of Community. I had been introduced to Jamie by my friend Adrianna Wright, and we had the opportunity to travel to Haiti together on a learning mission hosted by Haiti Partners and funded by InterVarsity Press, which had recently published another great book, Following Jesus Through the Eye of a Needle, by another good friend, Kent Annan. Publishing is not always so friendly, so familiar, but when it is, it's particularly rewarding. Jamie has remained a friend (at a distance, as he lives in community in Manitoba and doesn't venture out much), and so I was honored to be invited to review his latest book, Vulnerable Faith, this time published by Paraclete Press.

Jamie gets right to it in this book, challenging a common but distressing element of contemporary Christian faith: "cheap faithfulness."

Cheap faithfulness is taking the name of Christ as our identity without requiring the renunciation of self and selfish ends. It is seeking full intimacy with God yet giving little, if any, commitment. It is about negotiating terms with Jesus, as though we have anything at all to bring to the table. It is an abuse of love no better than trying to achieve the pleasures of intimacy by using another person for cheap sex. (Vulnerable Faith, p. 22)
Cheap faithfulness is only one manifestation of a larger crisis in the human condition, one that causes us to lean toward cheapness in all our relationships and away from the more risky, but more rewarding, relationships with God and others characterized by vulnerability and authenticity. Vulnerable Faith is, essentially, a conversation about the nature of truth and our essential distance from it at all times, thanks to our regrettable finiteness. A fear of death inspires in us a sense of self-preservation that puts us at odds with one another, at odds with God. The best we can hope for, as this sense of self-preservation lives in us, is what Scott Peck calls "pseudo-community," a kind of conspiracy of pretense underlying all our relationships, and ultimately a self-deception that renders us other even from ourselves. Jamie demonstrates this problem by looking at the life of none other than St. Patrick, the manliest of saints.

If you would put half as much effort into being who you could truly become, rather than trying to be who you think everyone else wants you to be, you could become a man people would follow. (Calpurnius, father of St. Patrick, to his son, aged sixteen, p. 36)
So few of us are our true selves; perhaps this is why so few of us are saints. To be a saint is to be other than what we are, in our striving, self-protection and self-deception. But in another sense, to be a saint is to be finally what we were created to be, what we are underneath our own fortresses of artifice and pretense. We have lost sight of ourselves; Only God can understand us now. Only God can save us. And how he saves us? We're not going to like it.

"The cross is an instrument of death" (pp. 29-30). Taking up the cross of Christ involves the emptying of our lives of all pretense to be replaced with the Truth. The embrace of truth is not a conceptual, intellectual thing, but an embrace of Jesus who is the truth and who gives his life for us and calls us into a daily martyrdom from which we are resurrected as better, humbler, more compassionate, saintlier versions of ourselves. Jamie calls this the "martyrological" life. "Because Jesus embraced this emptiness and because it glorifies God," Jamie assures us, "it is not a punitive emptying, but a meaningful and hopeful one, promising that something far greater will fill us" (p. 93): vulnerability, authenticity, humility, born of the grace and truth of Christ.

In this respect, the cross is not just an event - the salvific work of Jesus - it is also an ethic. We often think of dying to ourselves as living self-sacrificially, and that's a part of it. But as Jamie explores in this book, dying to ourselves is also more existential than that, more fundamental than that. After all, we can live self-sacrificially and still be incredibly pretentious, even violently judgmental. But dying to ourselves? This is the type of martyrological life uncovered in, of all things, the recovery movement. We die to ourselves by admitting our incapacity to kill it at life. We acknowledge the thing we love, cling to, the thing that is slowly killing us but that we have entrusted our security to. Alcohol, food, gambling, sex, sin, whatever, these are presenting problems of an underlying issue: our fear of our own mortality, our own vulnerability. We are on an undiverting path toward death and we can't handle it. We are contributing to our own demise and it's freaking us out.

By the grace of God we are delivered of this fear of death (as if we are ever delivered from the fear of death without first going through it), emptied of our pretensions and self-deceptions (as though we are ever rendered invulnerable to such things). On the far side of the cross we are no longer diverted from the mission of God, which has as its goal a world rightly ordered under the sovereignty of a good God of love, with all of creation demonstrating loving mutuality without pretense or self-protection. The poor among us are no longer "the poor" but brothers and sisters who need our help; the struggling among us are no longer objects of our impatient pity but those we struggle with. While most of Jamie's book is personalized, it is never individualized: indeed, he demonstrates very effectively that reconciliation between people is prior to reconciliation with God, according to the gospel of the Bible.

This isn't works-righteousness; it's the nature of our healing. Jamie tells the story of a husband who was confronted for flirting with another woman; his wife's cross to bear was neither to silently endure this indignity nor to cut ties and forge a new life - either of which is commonly prescribed in our highly transactional, hyper-individualized age. Her cross to bear was to leave her husband for a time, to endure the embarrassment and complication of separation, and to pray for her husband to die to himself. And she and her husband, though separated from each other, were accompanied in their cross-bearing by their supportive community. This was a communal challenge, and though in this instance it ended tragically, it still demonstrates the fundamentally plural nature of the Christian life. "The relationship," Jamie observes, borrowing from the sponsor relationship in Alcoholics Anonymous, "is not about positional authority but dynamic mutuality." To be Christian is, above all, to not be alone: we are led by a God who promises to never leave us or forsake us, but we are also bound to one another by our crosses.

Jamie's portrait of Patrick and his transformation, from spoiled child of privilege to patron saint of Ireland, is insightful and arresting. Not only is Patrick's story dramatic enough to bear telling, it's also existentially significant: there is more to his story than the facts--the people, the place, the things. Patrick is a saint, but he is also us. And this is both bad news and good: We are as vulnerable as was young Patrick, but we are also as capable of great things as he, as available to transformation as he. We are us, but we are also, somewhere in the DNA of us, saints.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Rise of the Remedial Christian

I attended a church service recently (bully for me) as part of our ongoing quest to find a "church home" in Colorado Springs. The search here is something akin to going to the grocery store for cereal when you don't really know what you have a taste for: Colorado Springs is the land of evangelical ecclesiastical overchoice, which, I assure you, can be paralyzing and perplexing.

(My friend Sean Gladding, on loan to the United States from England, once complained about the cereal aisle: "How many combinations of white flour and sugar do we really need?!?" He's a foreigner, folks; cut him some slack.)

My antennae may be up a little higher these days as I visit these churches; I notice little quirks and tics of each preacher, I scrutinize song choice, I look for typos in the bulletins. Admittedly, I'm not my best self in these moments. But at this particular church service I noticed something interesting: the pastor started to say something, caught himself, took a deep breath, and went for it:

"I think ... it's possible, actually ... that Jesus ... might have ... maybe ... been a progressive?"

Nobody stormed out of the sanctuary, to my knowledge, and I think he still has his job - even here where "progressive" seems to be a euphemism for "heretic." Seriously. I was forewarned by a friend never to say anything nice about President Obama. Anything. Even "Nice suit, Mr. President" requires a pronounced tone of sarcasm.

I've only scratched the surface of the broad swath of Colorado Springs churches, so I'm sure progressive is not a universal byword here. But it did strike me how scandalous a mere word could be, how damaging a label it can become.

Meanwhile, I recently read a portion of Martin Luther King Jr's letter from Birmingham Jail for a video project some friends of mine put together for Martin Luther King Day. (You can watch the fifty-minute video here.) The portion I read was in praise of my wife's great uncle Ralph McGill and other "white moderates," whom King acknowledged had taken brave stands against segregation and for the reconciliation of the South. "They are still all too few in quantity," King wrote, "but they are big in quality." It struck me at the time (you can read my reflections here) that King didn't call these folks "white radicals" or "white progressives"; he referred to them as "white moderates." This is significant, I think: championing the civil rights of another human being isn't a radical or even progressive stance; it's fundamentally moderate, almost the least a person can do.

And then I went to a brief conference to discuss the church's relationship to the millennial generation, which was described at one point as a mosaic of "nomads, prodigals and exiles." All nouns. All labels. All fixed identities which can quickly degrade into caricature. It's saying a lot about a person to say that they are a nomad, or an exile, or a progressive, for that matter, It says a lot about a person to call them (even to call yourself) a conservative, or an evangelical. It simultaneously sums a person up and says more about them than is possible to know.

When adjectives (such as "progressive" or "conservative") become nouns, beware. When words are applied to human beings that are better applied to abstract concepts (such as "exile"), we are in danger of abandoning our humanity and converting ourselves into abstractions.

Abstractions can be helpful, as means to an end, and so conversations about progressivism and conservatism, nomadicism and the like, and how they are embraced and engaged among various demographics can yield helpful insights. But people are not abstractions: they are not means to an end. They are not even ends, really; they are active subjects, in constant flux. If anything, they are middles, or beginnings.

In any case, to quote the great Ferris Bueller, "Isms in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an ism; he should believe in himself." Good point there. We are more than the isms that enthrall us, and we should be wary of where our isms take us. A progressive or a conservative becomes a caricature to her ideological opposites: to the progressive, all conservatives are probably racist, xenophobic, homophobic tyrants; to the conservative, if you're a progressive, you must have been at some point dropped on your head.

But more than that, a person who has been absorbed into an ism will find herself with strange bedfellows, uncomfortable allies, Facebook friends who demand explanations but are without excuse. Who hasn't winced at the careless comment of an ideological ally, knowing that we're somehow going to have to excuse or defend them for saying it?

We are tempted to surrender our identities to our isms, and once we've done so, we've succumbed to idolatry and become accessories to all kinds of evil.

The kingdom of God will allow no isms. There are Jews and Greeks in the kingdom of God, but there is no Jew nor Greek. There are men and women in the kingdom of God, but there is no male or female. There is no slave or free in the kingdom of God, because slavery exists only under the auspices of our isms, and our isms have no place in the new creation. It is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for our isms to accompany us into the kingdom of God.

That's why I propose a new category of Christian, one that abandons the artificial polarities of conservatism and progressivism, which are far too often partners in pointlessness. Please join me in welcoming ... the rise of the remedial Christian!

There's nothing magical about the word remedial, but as a modifier of Christian I like it very much. It suggests what Dr. King declares: that submitting and subjecting ourselves to the right thing, even in the face of hostility or marginalization or ridicule or violence, is nothing terribly special. It's not especially progressive to say that all human beings are vested with the same God-given rights. It is at best moderate but in fact remedial, almost the least we can do.

Similarly, it's not especially conservative to acknowledge the fundamental responsibility of each person for their own decisions, though it's claimed as a tenet of conservatism. Such an idea is remedial, roughly akin to stating the obvious.

Remedial implies something basic, so basic that it's easily overlooked and often undervalued. It implies something that resolves a problem not by creating something new but by going back to the beginning. "This is a football" is remedial coaching; with it Vince Lombardi kicked off each season with a reminder that the basics are what's important, and everything else builds on it.

Remedial has etymological connections to remedy, which implies healing, relief. Ferris's dad, believing him to be sick, encouraged him to "wrap a hot towel around your head ... then make yourself some soup, get a nap." Not the cure for cancer, but then again, Ferris didn't have cancer. It was a remedial prescription, and everytime a Gen-Xer feels a fever coming on, it's one of the first things that comes to mind.

Remedial is a good thing in the same way that reform (a la "Reformation") is a good thing, in the same way that repentance (as in "Repent! For the kingdom of God is near!") is a good thing. But in the same way as repentance, remedial is nothing to brag about. "Amazing grace ... that saved a wretch like me" is a statement of remedial faith: its author recognized that grace is not an achievement but a gift. We can't be boastful or judgmental when we're being remedial, when we understand ourselves as remedial. It just doesn't sound right. It's hard to pull off blustery entitlement on a news show panel when the caption under your name reads "Remedial Christian."

Now, I recognize that what I'm proposing is a little silly, but then again, silly proposals aren't necessarily bad. Consider when Naaman, a general of the army of Aram, found himself leprous. He sought help from the prophet Elisha, who told him to take seven baths in the river Jordan. Naaman was offended at the lack of complexity in this proposed remedy, but his servant challenged him:

“Father, if the prophet had asked you to do something hard and heroic, wouldn’t you have done it? So why not this simple ‘wash and be clean’?”
Remedial, yes, but it worked: Naaman took seven baths and came out completely healed. Imagine how much healing might be available to us if we set aside our commitments to complexity, our idolatry of our isms, and just allowed ourselves and each other to be what we are already: basic people, all trying to figure it out together.

Enjoy it while it lasts, though. As soon as we embrace "remedial Christianity," we'll start crafting a new idol: remedialism. God help us, every one.


Sunday, February 01, 2015

A Prayer for Super Bowl Sunday by Walter Brueggemann

Leave it to Walter Brueggemann to have both the moxie and the skills to sacralize Super Bowl Sunday, which he does in his 2008 collection Prayers for a Privileged People. "It is no challenge to me," he writes, "to rethink myself along with other privileged believers, even if our privilege tends to work against openheartedness." It's no challenge to him because he recognizes that he is a person of privilege, enjoying benefits accruing to his ethnicity, gender and social class that were woven into the cultural fabric years, decades, even centuries before he was born. That's all well and good, but what could the Super Bowl possibly have to do with social privilege?

Read on and find out. If you have a little moxie, you might even pray it.

* * *

The world of fast money,
and loud talk,
and much hype is upon us.
We praise huge men whose names will linger only briefly.

We will eat and drink,
and gamble and laugh,
and cheer and hiss,
and marvel and then yawn.

We show up, most of us, for such a circus,
and such an indulgence.
Loud clashing bodies,
violence within rules,
and money and merchandise and music.

And you - today like every day -
you govern and watch and summon;
you glad when there is joy in the earth,
But you notice our liturgies of disregard and
our litanies of selves made too big,
our fascination with machismo power,
and lust for bodies and for big bucks.

TWEET THIS: Our life consists not in things we consume but in neighbors we embrace. Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People

And around you gather today, as every day,
elsewhere uninvited, but noticed by you,
those disabled and gone feeble,
those alone and failed,
those uninvited and shamed.
And you whose gift is more than "super,"
overflowing, abundant, adequate, all sufficient.

The day of preoccupation with creature comforts writ large.
We pause to be mindful of our creatureliness,
our commonality with all that is small and vulnerable exposed,
your creatures called to obedience and praise.

Give us some distance from the noise,
some reserve about the loud success of the day,
that we may remember that our life consists
not in things we consume
but in neighbors we embrace.

Be our good neighbor that we may practice
your neighborly generosity all through our needy neighborhood.

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'...