Friday, December 31, 2010

Reflections on Preaching, Ministry, and the Five Finger Exercise

This week I start a new sermon series. I'm ususally a "let the text pick me" kind of preacher, either sticking to the lectionary or preaching through a block of texts related to some sense of a balanced, biblical diet. So, it usually takes a pretty good reason to bounce me off of this. Sunday's sermon is the start of a series on what people in Churches of Christ, if they've been around awhile know as the five finger exercise, or the five steps to salvation.

This might come as a surprise to many. I'm not exactly known as a straight down the line Church of Christ preacher. I once had a member tell me that I would make a good BAPTIST preacher. He didn't see that as a compliment (and neither did I, but for very different reasons). I have from time to time made what sound like strange sounds to Church of Christ orthodoxy. Some of my friends might suppose that this is a series thrust opon me by a group of nervous elders. Not, so. This was my idea, and I think I was fully present and in charge of my mental faculties.

For those of you not of CoC pedigree, or of a more recent vintage, the five finger exercise has a large place in CoC lore. Walter Scott, a 19th century evangelist and colleague of Alexander Campbell, is said to have travelled the Western Reserve in Ohio and Pennsylvania preaching a rather Arminian form of the gospel. When he would ride into a town, he would gather school children and teach them the five steps to salvation--one for each finger. It is often said that if humans had six fingers per had, there would have been six steps. Children would go home, tell their parents, many of whom were not sure if they showed the requisite marks of regeneration to be counted among the elect, who would in turn receive with gratitude (on occasion) a simple message of assurance related to salvation.

By the time the steps to salvation reached my generation, they had morphed a bit from Scott's original list. I learned them as hear, believe, confess, repent, and be baptized. Any Church of Christ member worth their salt could reproduce this list along with the requisite prooftexts. The list provided me and countless others what it provided Calvinists on the Westerm Reserve--assurance. And that's no small thing.

The power of the five steps lies in its simplicity, and this is increasingly an important goal to me in preaching and in life in general. Simplicity, however, is often the gateway to simplistic. And the five steps approach is certainly open  to that charge. I simply do not understand salvation in the way it is arranged and presented in this little exercise. So, why would I propose a series on this?

Let me say right up front that I am not doing this series as an exercise in deconstruction. I am not hoping to turn the five fingers into a fist with which to beat poor, unsuspecting members of the congregation. I happen to think that hearing, believing, confessing, repenting, and being baptized are pretty important things. I am doing this series, in part, because I believe that if these things could be lived into as more than just a list, we would be producing some health in our congregation. I am not looking to suspend these categories, but to enlarge them.

But there are other reasons as well, central to how I view ministry in general. Our congregation has gone through a series of pretty rapid shifts in the past few months, one of which was to invite me to preach 20 Sundays per year. I was not a member of this congregation at the time. I only within the last year moved to the area to teach ministry at a local Church of Christ college. This is my first gig east of the Mississippi River, which is a fairly significant boundary in Churches of Christ. I have preached in Texas and in Oregon, and these places are  not  Michigan. Things are simply different here. As one example, it is striking how much of church politics here relates to how Catholic the area is. These things are simply not issues in Gresham, Oregon and Arlington, Texas. So, they have taken as a congregation several significant risks in the past year, one of which was to invite a little-known foreigner  to stand in their pulpit for roughly half the Sundays a year.

I will say one  more thing about this. My sermons are an aquired taste. It's not obvious to listeners what exactly they are at first. When I first preached at for the congregation in Oregon, the first few weeks the notetakers eagerly pulled their spiral notebooks from their purses (yes, they were all women) and look at me expectantly for the first part of the sermon, only to put away their notebooks 10 minutes into the sermon with looks of clear disappointment. It wasn't until about two years later that the notebooks came out again. They has discovered some of the rhythm of my preaching and now knew where to anticipate the thumps and rim shots that make up the take-aways of many sermons. My current listeners are still in that bewildered state. Their faces are twisted in question marks. I am hoping they give me about two years.

So, I represent change in many ways whether I want to or not. I am not business as usual. And part of ministry is the capacity to interpret oneself in light of the congregation's narrative and expectations. I have symbolic value that is in surplus of my own self-understanding or intentions. And effective symbols do two things.They orient and disorient. They have to do both to have any kind of dynamic staying power, or for a congregation to utilize them for continuing life. Anderson and Foley, in their outstanding book, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals, talk about the mythic and parabolic functions of symbols and rituals. The mythic provides orientation, the parabolic upsets equilibrium for the sake of new understandings.

My sense is that I am primarily now a parabolic symbol. That has positive value. It represents the possibility of growth and newness. But it also introduces a sense of instability and uncertainty. The positive aspects of parabolic function, I am convinced, can only be realized if people feel sufficiently oriented. Put another way, people are more willing to take the necessary risks associated with newness (discontinuity) if they feel adequately moored in what they already know (continuity). Good ministry knows how to manage or engage various moments of continuity and discontinuity.

So, in this large moment of discontinuity, I am hoping to find some rich places of continuity. I am hoping someone will accuse me of being a good Church of Christ preacher.This week--Hear!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

My Eastern Bloc Haircut

The hardest part of moving is finding someone to cut my hair. I'm happy that this is still a problem for me. A lot of guys my age are not so lucky. In fact, I never get my hair cut without a comment about how thick my hair is. It's the one sure plus gene that I have.

My haircut history, however, is dotted with trauma. When I was about 8 or 9, my mom bought this ronco haircut "comb." Just drag it through your hair, and voila. Dang, that was a bad next day at school. We moved to Portland a few years later and my dad would walk me down to the barber college for haircuts. College is a very generous word for this place. Barber primary school? Barber I-can't-do-anything-else-why-not-this school? The walks home were often teary-eyed. I carry the scars deeply.

I have found people through the years who gave me good haircuts. Typically, I just followed Nancy to whomever she found. Friends would tell me, usually female friends, "just find a friend whose hair you like and ask him where he gets his hair cut." I understand the logic of that sentence, but the first clause is existentially incomprehensible. What would it be like to look at another guy and think, "dude, nice hair cut." I have no frame of reference. I tried it, but seriously never once thought "that's the haircut I want." So, I would overpay a woman in a trendy salon to cut my hair and wax between my eyebrows.

So, what to do once I moved to Rochester? Nancy was growing her hair out when we got here and didn't like the first few haircuts she got. I held out for trips back to Abilene or St. Paul and made sure I got haircuts there. But you can't do that indefinitely. So, I decided to be brave and just see what happened. I had visions of barber college in my fearful brain.

I saw a sign in the window that said "Men's haircuts, $15." It was under a sign that read Beauty and the Beast. I'm neither, waxed eyebrows notwithstanding. Still, something drew me in. (I get my hair cut in a place called Beauty and the Beast. Seriously.). And I've been going back ever since.

This is not a place where you have to have an appointment. The same woman cuts my hair every time, and I have yet to wait except for her to stop chewing whatever it is she's snacking on. I've always been the only "beast" in the place, and always the youngest person by at least 20 years. It's not a place that inspires confidence.

She's an older woman. And she's Romanian. And she's never happy. And she cuts my hair in about four minutes, even through her complaints about how much hair I have and how her son is bald. I'm pretty sure communists taught her to cut hair. Her approach is very marshall. No fine movements here. Large whacking strokes. Whack, whack, whack. She's done. I've got myself a worker's haircut. She always forgets how low my hairline is and she complains about having to get the clippers out again to shave my neck. But all in all, its a haircut I can live with and I feel like I'm living out my missional commitments by crossing ethnic, cultural, ideological, and political boundaries.

It's not a perfect haircut. She never gets my sideburns right. I always have to do a little scissor work of my own between haircuts (and it shows). I ask her every time to cut it a little shorter on the sides and she nods and gives me the same haircut. I've endured worse. I had a woman in Texas who could cut an arc around my left ear, but only a jag around my right. It's like I had one vulcan ear that she had to cut around. But I endured it because its traumatic to find someone new.

I'd be open to someone new here. I know there's a better haircut out there, but its $15, no waiting and no trauma. And it fills that space in me that thinks my life is too soft, absent hardship, or military discipline.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Night Without Vision

I've been hanging out in the book of Micah the past few weeks. There are some stunning pictures there. All of us know, "do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God." But there are several other striking oracles found in this "minor" prophet.

Last week I preached on Micah's warning against prophets, those who cry "peace" when their bellies are full, but declare war against those who put no food in their mouths. For these pray-for-pay prophets, it will be night without vision. The point is bigger than this for Micah. It's the refusal to see some things, mainly injustice, that makes us blind to everything. Worse, sometimes worship can be precisely the thing that keeps us from seeing what God is up to in the world. It can be our refuge from God, not our refuge in God. We can use the talk of God or the things of God precisely as a hedge from doing what God requires of us. My fear, as someone who gets his bread from being a professional theologian, is not that someday it will be for me night without vision, but that this might already be the case.

The realities of globalization mean that I can't buy a piece of fruit or fill my tank with gas or fund my ira or max out my credit cards without participating in a system of decisions, policies, trade agreements, labor practices, etc, that are largely invisible to me. They are invisible to me because they are pervasive and complex. I cannot simply excuse myself from them, nor can I get at their complexity. And so, I turn a blind eye and go to worship. And here's the thing--most of these structures and systems and policies in the main do not favor the least of these. Night without vision.

This week, I'm in this ironic little hope oracle in Micah 2. Things are desperate in Jerusalem. The Assyrians have the place surrounded. The walls of Jerusalem, the very thing Judah depended on to keep them safe, has become their prison. But God knows what to do in situations like these--he tears down the walls. It's the last thing we'd expect. These walls represent for us the very promises of God. We can't imagine that God could be present apart from them, or that there would be meaningful life apart from them. But Micah knows that it is absolutely the case that the things we trust for our security can become our prison. And God is gracious to tear them down, even if it means using Assyrians. That's grace I can usually live without.

So, do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

There are two new books out on Dylan and I'm trying to create the space and money to read them both. I don't read everything on Dylan. I've been given books on Dylan on the mistaken assumption that I am as obsessed as the person who gave the book to me, and I haven't read them. But I'm anxious to read these books. The reason is a great interview with both of the authors that I found last week.

Greil Marcus, Bob Dylan, is a critic who has followed Dylan closely and written a lot about him through the years. Sean Wilentz is a historian who has written something of a cultural history, Bob Dylan in America. Wilentz claims to have become a writer because he became a fan of Dylan's. "I was never interested in figuring out what the songs meant. I was interested in figuring out my response to them, and other people's responses. I wanted to get closer to the music than I could by listening to it—I wanted to get inside of it, behind it, and writing about it, through it, inside of it, behind it, was my way of doing that."

I love the interview because both talk about things that in which I am interested in my other life--the way words and performances create worlds, and the way an artistic imagination works and is funded. For both, the song is the medium that allows Dylan to capture multiple, stray worlds in a single place. They know his world, the literary references, the folk history, Dylan's own notions of historical consciousness. They hear the echoes, recognize the allusions, and know just how large the imaginative landscape is from which Dylan performs. And I'm interested in that. So, over time, I will buy and read these books.

But the interview is great as well. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts:

SW: One of the marks of Dylan's genius is the ability to shuffle time and space like a deck of cards. He can make the past sound like the present and the present sound like the past. In doing this, he is a great, great historian, like Greil says. But Dylan also does something that historians can't do, which is to actually commingle the past and the present in ways that are astonishing.

GM: So it's that sense that there are so many worlds behind and within the songs to discover and live in, but also this sense of empathy for the people who appear in his songs. Dylan once said, maybe sarcastically, that all of his songs really ended with "Good luck." But that may be what he says to the people in his songs.

SW: In the liner notes to World Gone Wrong, he talks about how virtual reality has taken over, or is taking over—he calls it "hegemony"—and people are just not able to write songs like the ones that he is singing for the dead and out of the dead; they can't write those kinds of songs any more. He makes it pretty clear that, in some ways, all he can do to battle this hegemony, as he calls it, is to sing those songs, and to continue to write his own songs out of that tradition, out of those traditions, the many traditions, not just one. It's not exactly the attitude of a big rock star who thinks he's all powerful; this is a guy who feels like he and the world are up against forces that are so complex and so overpowering that singing these songs is all that he can do.

SW: You're up against a lot in this world, and you may be up against more now than you were in 1961. But as he says, he finds his lexicon in the songs, and in the songs he can find a measure of hope to battle against it. But that means more than just protesting; it's not about protesting. Well, maybe it is always about protesting—all of his songs are protest songs. But it's really about exploring realms of human imagination that he finds being flattened out in this virtual reality in which we live.

I hope my work is in some measure is recognizable in light of that last sentence.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Thoughts on Hipster Christianity

A recent book by Brett McCracken has brought a new term onto the scene--"hipster Christianity." McCracken's book and his notions of hipster Christianity (which I should note I have not read) have gotten a lot of play in places like Christianity Today and even the Wall Street Journal. If you google the phrase now you'll find all kinds of sites noting the phenomenon from one perspective or another. There's even a quiz you can take to discover whether or not you're a hipster Christian. Turns out, I'm borderline hipster. Who knew?

Who does McCracken have in mind? Young evangelicals rebelling from the evangelical sub-culture that created them. A hipster, Christ-following leader might do the following:

    Get the church involved in social justice and creation care.

  • Show clips from R-rated Coen Brothers films (e.g., No Country for Old Men,Fargo) during services.
  • Sponsor church outings to microbreweries.
  • Put a worship pastor onstage decked in clothes from American Apparel.
  • Be okay with cussing.
  • Print bulletins only on recycled cardstock.
  • Use Helvetica fonts as much as possible.
So, I recognize myself a little in this list. I'm definitely a beer snob, though I doubt I would ever sponsor a church outing to a microbrewery. I've hosted Christian coffee houses where we've featured music from Arcade Fire and clips from Cohen brothers films--though Nick Hornby and recent Clint Eastwood films are more my speed. And I've never in my life voted for a Republican presidential candidate.

But I'm definitely not young, not evangelical. I would rather worship in a pew with a kneeling bench than on a sofa in a room full of sofas next to someone texting on their iphone (I don't own an iphone, but I do own a Mac). I don't have any clothes from American Apparel and still believe passionately in preaching as an indispensable aspect of a healthy worship ecology.

The biggest evidence I have that I might not be a hipster Christian is that when I'm around them, I don't feel cool. I do feel cool in most groups of ministers I encounter, but that's typically a very low standard.

I was with two of the "hipster" leaders that McCracken has in mind just a few days after the Wall Street Journal piece came out. Tony Jones was kind enough to host some of our graduate students for a week in Minneapolis to talk about Christian practices of hospitality, and part of that time we spent at Solomon's Porch with Doug Pagitt. They were having great fun with McCracken's book (at the expense of?), though neither were particularly convinced that McCracken had an argument. We spent much of the week identifying the ways we were not hipster. Hipster was the most used word during our time together.

But here's the thing. This whole discussion has me thinking about belonging in Christian community. It's so easy to think of church as a place where flourishing occurs for people like me. Tony said as much about Solomon's Porch. It's not a particularly diverse group. In some ways, they are very hospitable. But they've created a particular way of being church in which some move more easily than others. 

This is not a rant against the emerging church movement or a congregation like Solomon's Porch. I could point this critique just as easily at the congregations that I have served, or at the fairly traditional congregation with whom I now worship, or at church movements like the Vineyard. The forms we choose, the aesthetics we create through language, music, art--all of this tends to invite some and exclude others. I suppose some of this is unavoidable and we should even celebrate the fact that the Christian movement is not a mono-culture, that it can be expressed in so many ways. I'm sure, I know beyond a doubt, that there are some serious, practicing Christians at Solomon's Porch who would not be if the Porch didn't exist in its unique configuration.

But I don't want that to be the last word on this subject. I do think the measure of a congregation, its particular cultural relevance, should always be that persons who have a hard time flourishing anywhere else can flourish in Christian community. One big measure of a church should be how it functions for the least of these. Put another way, how high is the bar set for cultural competence? Can only those particularly adept at a fairly complex set of cultural practices flourish? Or more properly, can only those who can produce and appreciate certain cultural forms find a home among us?

Finally, I am concerned about the category "cool" in this regard. Cool is a very high bar in terms of cultural competence. I know that no congregation would say that its aspiration is to be cool. But congregations and their leaders are always setting cultural markers that determine what it means to really belong, and some of those markers tend to be more exclusive than others. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Out of Practice

I've recently agreed to a semi-regular preaching gig. In many ways, I'm excited about this. I think in terms of my craft, I'm still improving. And I'd like to see what that looks like on a more regular basis.

But in other ways, I realize I'm out of practice. Sermons aren't just speeches. They come from what Barbara Brown Taylor calls the preaching life. It is more than just reading a text and finding something to say. Sermons come from life as much as they come from the Bible--and they come from a particular kind of engagement with life. And I think I might have a little rust in this regard.

For instance, I used to be in the habit of having two kinds of books going all the time--a novel and a biography. I wasn't surfing for sermon illustrations. I was widening my interpretative horizons by listening to other stories and other lives. I can't tell you the last biography I read (maybe Dylan's, Chronicles) and the only novels I've read recently were the Harry Potter books I read from Thanksgiving to New Year's last year (yes, I read all of them straight through). I've been reading other kinds of books the past few years. And while they have changed me, deepened, me, challenged me, they haven't done what stories of other lives do. (I've decided that getting a PhD is reading the same 10 books over and over for four years. I'm ready to read some different books).

I refer to this kind of reading as funding the imagination. The more thickly textured your imagination, the more you have to say about things. There's more raw material lying around that allows a spark to become a fire.

I'm more and more convinced that really interesting people read across diverse literatures. They know more than one thing, and because of that, they are able to draw inferences and make connections in ways that surprise us and leave us wanting more. I think this is the genius of my friend, Richard Beck, whose blog is never dull. And I never see Richard when he doesn't have a book in his hand, and not just a psychology book. He reads broadly in diverse literatures. Good preachers do the same thing. And I will need to find a rhythm again for this kind of life.

And please don't tell Richard I think he's interesting. He's insufferable already.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

Though I write here frequently about Bob Dylan, the truth is I listen to him much less than I listen to other artists. I don't have a Pandora station for Bob Dylan, (though I'm more likely to listen to the channels I've created where he is likely to pop up now and then). Dylan songs are sprinkled throughout my itunes playlists, but none of them appear in my top 25 played songs list. Don't get me wrong, there are times when I could spend the whole day listening to Dylan, especially his later stuff (I seldom listen to an entire album of his early songs), but these days come along only occasionally.

I'm not exactly sure what mood it is that makes Dylan the appropriate musical companion. I know there are musical moods for which Dylan is not particularly useful. Joy, for instance. If I want ridiculously happy music, better said, music that makes me ridiculously happy, Dylan's not the choice. If I need background music, something to stay comfortably in the background, Bob's not the guy. And, somewhat surprisingly, he wouldn't be a choice for a broken heart. I mean, Dylan sings about the gritty moments of life, and broken hearts are certainly on that side of life. Dylan's songs know about broken hearts, but not in an overly sentimental way. Everyone's heart gets broken. That's the deal. Move on. Dylan knows love, and he knows love disappointed, but he doesn't linger there.

The possible exception might be, Till I fell in Love With You.

Well my nerves are exploding and my body's tense
I feel like the whole world got me pinned up against the fence
I've been hit too hard; I've seen too much
Nothing can heal me now, but your touch
I don't know what I'm gonna do
I was all right 'til I fell in love with you

It's not so much that his heart has been broken, but life is hard enough without the burden of love, or worse the loss of love's safe harbor. It's the absence of love that makes the other stuff, the bad stuff, harder to bear.

Still, Dylan is no Sarah McLachlan, nursing love's pain for all its worth. Or Elvis Costello for that matter. They'll hand you the stinking kleenex. Dylan, not so much. And I like that about Dylan.

So, here's a few stabs at what kind of day would send me to Dylan. An ironic day. A thoughtful day, but in a whimsical kind of way. A look the world in the eye kind of day in order to wink. Or a day to remember things deeply. I hope I have one soon.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Because Some Days You Can See It

Today is one of those days--one of those days when it seems worth it all.

I work in one of those jobs that is more about planting seeds than bringing in the harvest. It's not always obvious that you're accomplishing anything. Somedays its invisible. It's just grading papers and going to meetings and hearing yourself talk.

But today Wayne Beason came by my office. He's just accepted a job to work with InterVarsity as a campus minister in Chicago. He gave me his spiel (he has to raise support), and it was good. He's taken some of what he's gotten in our new degree in missional leadership and made it sing. He sees the differences. He's choosing some things and not others. He's exercising critical judgment in impressive ways--ways that will definitely make a difference.

I put Wayne in contact with Mark Willis, a young, gifted, imaginative church planter in Chicago. And I thought about how many of those kinds of guys I know. The people who are willing to venture onto ministry frontiers, like my new monastic friends Ryan Woods and the Allelon house (featuring my son, Josh). Or a guy like Travis Stanley who is a community organizer in New Orleans. Or a woman like Cheryl Russell who along with her husband Tim is making courageous decisions about her life in ministry to the city. Or a woman like Jen Christy who is directing student ministries at Pepperdine University.

After Wayne left my office, I read a facebook notification from a group, Half the Church, that is taking concrete steps toward addressing gender issues in Churches of Christ. I certainly don't think of Stephen Johnson, one of the leaders of this group, as a student of mine because he's always been a peer and has surpassed me in so many ways (though I did have the privilege of chairing his DMin thesis). He is, however, working with former students like Laura Clark and Olivia Hodges. I can't tell you how proud I am of what they're doing and how hopeful I am that their efforts will make a difference.

So, I've spent the better part of the day giving thanks for all the outstanding young church leaders I know because of the fact that I've been fortunate enough to hang out at places like ACU and Rochester College--guys like Ben Ries and Aaron Metcalf, Jarrod Robinson and Collin Packer, Josh Ross and Richard Maddeaux, to name but a few. I am having a thankful day.

I should be quick to point out (am I too late?) that I'm not taking credit for who they are and what directions they've taken. Many of them are doing things I don't have the first idea about. And they have certainly had many outstanding teachers and significant influences. With some of these I've mentioned, I have had only passing interaction. But I've been a part of this enterprise--the seed planting enterprise--this business of calling them, along with many other seed planters, to something bigger than themselves. And they have delighted me. They are the dirt under my fingernails (in the best possible sense), the proof that I have real dealings with the world. And I know that the best I've given some of them is to not get in their way. And maybe for others to say what little I know with conviction. But they have passed across my life like fireworks. And so today, I'm glad that I get to do what I do.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Band of Joy on a Sunday

Before Robert Plant was the front man for Led Zeppelin, he sang for Band of Joy, a group backed by Zepp drummer John Bonham. Band of Joy is also the name of Plant's new cd. The question might be, is the name a tribute to his past or a nod to a certain continuity that marks all of Plant's work?

Plant's body of work since Zeppelin has certainly been diverse. He's done everything from cover old 50's rock and roll classics to his recent T-Bone Burnett produced collaboration with Allison Kraus. He has been at the very least musically adventurous.

I really like this new offering. It's mostly covers from a diverse catalog, everyone from Los Lobos, to Richard Thompson and Townes Van Zandt. There is still a Nashville feel to the cd, but its sweatier and bluesier. There's feedback and distortion, a swirling bit of tremolo. Alison Kraus has been replaced with Patti Griffin and there are accents of the Delta and the Mediterranean reminiscent of his previous cd, Mighty Rearranger. I love the songs Silver Rider, Can't Buy My Love, and Angel Dance.

The darker arrangements make the title Band of Joy seem out of place. But the cd does deliver joy. It's not a giggly kind of joy, but a belly laugh kind of joy. Though the settings are dark and rolling, Plant's voice hovers above it all. Because whatever a Plant cd should be, it should be about his voice, the one thing that marks the continuity in Plant's music. And against these settings, his voice is the light, blond as his hair. Blond joy. And not a cheap joy. It's dancing after you've admitted the worst and still find cause for celebrating. And if the gospel aspires to anything, it should be this brand of joy.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Greg Boyd on Driscoll's Tough Guy Jesus

There is a way, evidently, to read the Bible and come away with the idea that God's answer to violence is more violence, only bigger. God's biggest virtue here is that he is big. Mark Driscoll is the leading voice in the tough-God arena, claiming that he can't worship any God that he could beat up. Even those who think Driscoll goes too far say we should pay attention because of the feminization of Christianity. Maybe. But my problem is with the way this is a serious distortion of the gospel and a  reading of Scripture. 

So, I was happy to find Greg Boyd's post on the book of Revelation where he takes on Driscoll's impressionistic reading. My favorite line: "I frankly have trouble understanding how a follower of Jesus could find himself unable to worship a guy he could “beat up” when he already crucified him."

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

Dylan came to me in a dream last night. Veeery vivid. And I think the only time I've ever dreamed of Dylan. Certainly, the only one I remember.

He was short and slight and soft-spoken, (looked like he does in the Oh, Mercy days) and amazingly reassuring. He was there for me, not the other way around. He said hello to me and I was dumbstruck. All I could think to say was, "I saw this guy named Jakob Dylan in concert recently." I thought he would walk away. Maybe they don't talk, or he's behind on child support. Or worse, it's just so horribly obvious and not cool. But despite my clear inability to say something meaningful, he smiled at me and asked, "was he any good?" I assured him that he was very good.

Then he looked at me and said, "It's gonna be alright. Your tremor makes you a better guitar player." (I have this tremor in my hands that is increasingly making my life a challenge and definitely doesn't make me a better guitar player). Then I told him I needed to go to bed, and he said he did too and could he stay at my  place. And so he did, in an orange sleeping bag in a guest room I didn't recognize.

I'm sure this all means something bizarre, and I know I haven't eaten healthy foods the last few days, and that the orange sleeping bag probably means I will die in the near future or lose all my toenails or something. But today I'm leaning on the words, "it's gonna be alright." And I think if an angel appeared to me in a dream, Dylan would be the necessary visage to make me listen. And I've thought today that maybe he's my spirit-animal, like in a Native American sort of way. And that's pretty cool too. You can have an owl or a badger or a trout. I've got Dylan. And that's nice.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Freshman and the Bible

I teach at a small liberal arts, Christian college. Most of my work is with graduate students, but this semester I have the privilege of teaching a freshman section of Introduction to the Bible. Rochester is a school affiliated with Churches of Christ, but my guess is that only about 10 of my 50 students are CoC kids. This is a very diverse group, many of them only nominally Christian, and it has been an exciting challenge to get them all into a meaningful conversation about Scripture.

Their first assignment was to write a two-page essay describing their relationship to Scripture to this point in their life. Wow, did I learn a lot.

First, the most common story I heard went something like this: "I attended church when I was younger, not so much when I got to be a teenager. I have very little idea what Christianity is all about, and even less what the Bible is all about." A lot of these kids were Catholic, although it was also reported among Presbyterians, Batpists, and Church of Christ students, etc.

Second, most reported finding the Bible odd, too hard to read and understand, and unrelated to their life. This was true of the Sunday school kids and those who didn't attend.

Third, the single biggest factor in a student having a close relationship with Scripture had to do with its use in the home. It had very little to do with church attendance. If parents dragged their kids to church, but had no relationship with Scripture themselves, their kids were unlikely to as well.

Fourth, the most moving and compelling stories of student relationships with Scripture came from people who'd seen some hard times in life. Prison, drug rehab, divorce, the death of a sibling, a child with a psychosis--these were the people who relied on Scripture in ways that no one else spoke of. Scripture for these students was a daily companion.

There were more than a few students who wrote about how boring church was for them until they found a youth group in a large community church. They still don't know much about Scripture, but these experiences kept the possibility of faith alive. And that's not nothing.

Finally, I've been trying to get them to make some sense of the phenomenon of Scripture on Scripture's own terms. Yesterday, we talked about Galileo and the trouble he got in for having a heliocentric view of things. It wasn't hard to see that the Bible has a geocentric perspective. And it also wasn't hard getting students to agree that Galileo was right. They all raised their hands in the affirmative when asked if they sided with Galileo. The next question I asked was, "is it fair to say then that in some things, like astronomy, you might be willing to say that Galileo is a more trustworthy authority than the Bible?" Some of the Sunday school kids turned pale. But the non-Sunday school students had little problem seeing that the Bible was written within an ancient worldview, but still might be the authority on God. They had no problem affirming that Scripture might not hold up well if we expected it to be a modern science or history book, but could still be a God-inspired book.

I want all of these students to come away with a high view of Scripture. I want them to see my own commitment to the Bible. The things I expose them to are not designed to show them supposed problems with the Bible. Just the opposite. The Bible, taken on its own terms, says some powerful things about God and how he relates to human communities. In fact, it is precisely my contention that a fundamentalist view of Scripture makes it a smaller book, locks it into a narrow interpretative framework that limits its relevance to life in cultures different than first-century Palestine. I want their relationship with the Bible to come on Scripture's own terms so that they can develop a life-long relationship with the God who stands behind the Bible.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Half the Church

I practice the presence of God within a tradition that has limited the public gifts of leadership by women in most of our congregations. This grieves me. I am the son of a mother who has enormous public leadership gifts. Her life is marked by bravery and humility in ways that I will never be pressed to. I have several female students, both current and former, who have extraordinary gifts and who believe with all their hearts that God has placed a call on their lives. You can't hear their stories, know the character of their lives, observe their gifts and believe otherwise.

So, I am thankful for my friend Stephen Johnson who is collecting their stories. He has put some of them online for us to hear. You owe it them and to your congregations to listen and to invite others to listen as well. I am particularly proud to listen to Naomi and Olivia tell their stories. Naomi is an alum of Rochester College and was starting the MDiv at Abilene Christian University in my last year or two there. I had Olivia as an undergrad Biblical studies major at ACU and have watched with great interest and pride as she has moved through the MDiv program there.

Please listen.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Streaming: Biblical Conversations from the Missional Frontier

My main exposure to Rochester College before I became a faculty member here was the Sermon Seminary they used to host every May, directed by my friend David Fleer. It was a first rate event, bringing together the best in the areas of biblical scholarship and preaching (homiletics). My favorite year was the year Walter Brueggemann and Paul Scott Wilson presented on preaching from the Psalms.

Well, in my duties as Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership, I have been asked to revive the May (16-18) seminar, though with a different focus. Instead of preaching, we will be bringing the best of biblical scholarship into dialogue with missional leadership. We are calling the event, Streaming: Biblical Conversations from the Missional Frontier.

Before I explain the name of the event, let me tell you who we've lined up thus far to be on the program. You have to start with Miroslav Volf. Volf is the Henry V. Wright professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School. He is without a doubt one of today's most important theological voices. His book, Exclusion and Embrace, is a profound theological reflection on human identity born out of his own experience with the Balkan conflicts. He will be presenting material from his forthcoming book on reading Scripture theologically.

We also have Scot McKnight coming. He teaches New Testament at North Park Seminary in Chicago and has become a widely read author on a number of important issues. He has been particularly involved in conversations related to the Emerging Church movement. His recent book on Scripture, The Blue Parakeet, is a delightful and accessible read. He will be presenting material from his forthcoming commentary on the Book of James.

We will have several others on the program, but we are particularly pleased to have Volf and McKnight kick off the renewal of our May seminar.

But what about this name?  Well, naming an event is no easy thing. And naming it with a participle is a bold move, if I say so myself. Streaming. But we have five things in mind that come together in one image.

First, streaming is a commonplace word in the world of digital communication. Events are "streamed" live across the internet. It gives us some cultural cache, if you will, and in a way that we like. It says live and dynamic. It says participatory and communicative. So, there's that.

Second, we want to use the term in an unconventional way to suggest the activity of navigating a stream. If we are in a new missional era, then we need images related to frontiers or adventure. So, we have in mind here a group of adventurers "streaming" through whitewater.

Third, we like the fact that stream is moving. You never step into the same steam twice. It comes from someplace and it is going somewhere. It is a temporal image, connoting both a past and a future. It's a nice way to think about the relationship between God, scripture, and the world.

Fourth, streams gifure fairly prominently in Scripture. You can hardly open your Bible without getting wet. And a stream in Scripture is a refreshing thing--life giving.

Fifth, streaming also evokes a picture of pilgrimage--a journey together toward sacred space, like the OT images of the nations streaming to Zion.

My friends have already pointed out to me less-than-helpful ways that streaming might be understood. My friends are philistines. And so we will limit our imaging to the five things I've listed above.

So, anyway, I'm thrilled about our new event and hope some of you will make plans to join us this coming May. Hopefully, we'll have a new webpage up soon with more detailed info on the event.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

By Way of Clarification: Generosity of Spirit

Friends, in an attempt to live into the spirit of my own words, a word of clarification about my first paragraph in the last post. My words could have been more generous. Ouch! I hate when that happens. Truth is, I like Dallas Willard books and would eagerly look forward to attending a conference featuring him as a speaker. I think prayer is a good thing. And I have been in the habit of walking labyrinths myself. And in the scheme of things, one of the most profound experiences I have had that I consider coming from God came at the center of a labyrinth. And I think that in doing these things you are more likely to find a path toward generosity of spirit than if you don't. And I learn a lot about the generous life from people who consistently walk these paths.So, I would ask that you read my previous blog in light of these statements and hug a contemplative today. Clearly, I am still on the journey toward generosity of spirit.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Generosity of Spirit

This is the ballgame for me. Don't tell me how many times you pray. Don't tell me what amazing spiritual experiences you are having. Don't tell me how many Dallas Willard seminars you've been to or labyrinths you've walked. Like any human activity, these kinds of activities can be the quickest way to self-justification. As the prophets knew well, some take up spiritual pursuits precisely as a hedge against God.

I want to see fruit, a manner of life. And not manner of life in some kind of puritanic, holier-than-thou kind of way. I want to see a manner of life that is open to others--that keeps the opportunity of life open. And I've come to call this generosity of spirit.

A person who is generous of spirit sees the other. And by this, I mean the capacity to see the other with some empathetic depth. Most people don't have as a life ambition to become pains-in-the-rear (Resisting my "those who aspire to be elders" jokes). And many of us would resign from this position once we got there if we knew how. And all of us carry around unfinished business, some pain or scar or exclusion or disappointment that frames what we see and keeps getting in our way. And some of us didn't win the genetic lottery, and so we struggle with things that other people make look easy. It all starts with the capacity to see this way.

And so it also means having the capacity to love someone for who they are, not for who they could be or for who you want them to be. And love here is not how you feel about someone. Love is the capacity to act on behalf of the other. Love is not a reward, something we extend or withhold, some quid-pro-quo related to good or bad behavior. It is the condition of acceptance that honors the fact that we are all creatures, none of us having spun our own lives out of whole cloth, all of us dependent on something that came before us, all of us products of some prior grace.

And of course it means the refusal of judgment, and its flipside, the offer of the benefit of the doubt, the refusal to assign the worst to another even if the evidence points that way. It is this capacity that allows people to come back from the dead, to have another chance, to begin again. So often, we seek to play situations to our advantage by trapping others in a mistake they made, or by pronouncing a verdict or by labeling them, or by refusing to forgive them. The generous of spirit make every effort to keep second acts alive.They don't nurse grudges or vilify their enemy or fill their thoughts like a war-chest with arguments or counter arguments.

The generous of spirit are able to reflect on their own lives. All of the above require the capacity for self-reflection. The refusal of judgment comes from someone who knows their own brokenness. The capcity to forgive comes from someone who knows how much they need forgiveness. So, the generous of spirit are able to name their weaknesses, to claim limited perspective, to own their part. They are open to being wrong and know what to apologize for. They are willing to say that their account of things is their account of things and that this is likely not exactly what happened. And so they are open to the perspective of the other, even when it disagrees with their own.And they refuse to present themselves only as a victim. All of these perspectives keep new possibility open. They are generous.

And of course, this would carry over into so many other things. The offer of our time, our resources, our bodies, our stories.

If you show me these things, I will assume they're from God one way or another. Some people, I am convinced, are genetically predisposed this way. It's naturally easier for some than for others. Since they came this way, I'm willing to say that's a gift from God. Others learned this way from their environment. Because they learned it from someplace else, I'm willing to say that it came from God's involvement in the world. Others come to it through the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit. Whatever the source, generosity of spirit marks you with grace.

Now, I should be clear here. I don't think any of us completely embody what I'm calling generosity of spirit. I certainly don't. In so many ways, I have failed to be who I want to be. I am having a particularly tough time right now being generous in light of a perceived injustice. But even to the extent that I do live in these ways, this capacity was given to me. It is not a source of boasting or pride. And I've noticed that the people who are most generous of spirit are often those who have a hard time beliving in God or praying or devoting themselves to spiritual practices. But this I believe about that--God believes in them.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

VH1 has been airing a series of shows under the banner, "The Greatest." They compile votes to determine the top 100 in various categories. One category is greatest artist, and by artist they mean musical. Dylan came in at number five behind only (in ascending order) Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, and the Beatles. Not bad company.

Asked for a comment, Dylan said he was going for a walk.

No, not really. But I imagine if he knows at all, he shrugged. This is because I have only an imaginary relationship with Bob (or Zim, which is what he lets me call him), and I want to project certain values of mine on him. And I don't want this top five thing to matter to him.

And part of that is because I don't want this kind of stuff to matter to me. Not where Dylan stands, but where I stand. I know that all of us are prone to comparing ourselves to others, and sometimes this gets in the way of being an authentic person. People who have a certain public-ness though are more susceptible than others, I think, to this temptation. And I have a modest amount of public-ness.

How do my speeches measure up? My publishing? My programs? My blog? My hair? My guitar playing/songwriting vis-a-vis other theologian/wannabe rockstars? These are demons I beat back on a regular basis. (But seriously, for an olding dude, I have great hair).

I have a John Updike quote taped above my desk that I try to believe in. "One can either see, or be seen." I'm trying to see, but wouldn't mind being seen in the process. I want Updike's quote to be true. And I want it to be true of me. Which means I also have to believe things like, "if you want to save your life, you must lose it." I know for some people its the resurrection that presses credulity. For me its this losing and saving business. More than anything else, I want this one to be true.

So, I hope Dylan shrugged.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Things that Matter

I went to the Tigers game last night with my friends, Garth Pleasant and Randy Harris. The game itself was of little consequence. Two out-of-the-running teams playing out the string. But it was live baseball in a beautiful park with good friends. I was happy to go.

At one point in the game, Johnny Damon had his bat shattered by a pitch, shards of wood flying across the infield. The bat boy sprinted from the Tigers' dugout after the play ended collecting the various pieces of wood. And of all the things I noticed that night, the picture of him sprinting effortlessly around the diamond struck me. It struck me, because I know he takes for granted the ability to run effortlessly. This is not a luxury I enjoy anymore.

My left knee simply doesn't work the way it once did. And since knee surgery a few years ago, my leg strength has simply not returned to what it once was. When I run, I pray for pain free, not effortless. I walk a lot these days, most days around four miles. And my hips are sore and stiff as a result. When I sit for awhile, the first few steps make me wonder if I'll ever walk normal again.

I'm doing all the right things. I'm taking the glucosamine-condroitin tablets (though I fear I'll choke to death on them) and I stretch, wear good shoes, etc. The truth is, whatever I do I simply will not be able to run effortlessly across the infield collecting Johnny Damon's bat fragments.

Now, this is not a feel sorry for Mark blog. That's the thing. I'm different, not just in my physical limitations. Different things matter to me these days, and this overall is an improvement.

I think of how sports-obsessed I was for most of my life. I lived and died with the morning sports page. I learned to read a box score about the time I learned to tie my shoes. And some of the most romantic aspects of my boyhood are related to sports. Seeing Lew Alcindor play. Stomping my feet on the Heyward Field bleachers in cadence to Steve Prefontaine's footfalls. Sitting in the end zone of Autzen stadium to see Dan Fouts, Bobby Moore, and Russ Francis lose to O. J. Simpson or Gary Beban or Jim Plunkett. Watching Jim Ryun beat Marty Liquori, or Kenny Moore outduel Gerry Lindgren. I lived and died with the Cardinals and Red Sox, the Celtics and Trailblazers, the Cowboys and Ducks.

I'm still a fan, but I know the names of the '68 Tigers or '77 Sixers more than I do their current lineups. And the best part of the game last night was being there with Garth and Randy. Telling stories and laughing and eating overpriced food. I know that this shift might also be accompanied by wearing shorts and black socks. This might just be a part of getting older, my life adjusting to the fact that I'm closer to the end than the beginning. I recognize it in others, so it has to be true for me as well. But I like the fact that now I want to read the editorials before I read the sports page. That when others are caught up in the worship and vilification of this team or that, or this player or that, I just don't care--at least not like I used to.

Some days I think about just giving in. Let the waistline go. Buy some adjustable pants and Hawaiian shirts. Get some velcro walking shoes. I'm not there yet (and hopefully never will be). I still try to run through the pain and lift weights and stay in my skinny jeans. But I'm ok with the fact that I'll never again run 10k in 40 minutes or even 50. I'll let someone else chase the bat splinters and hate Kobe or Rex Ryan (I still despise Buddy Ryan) or USC. I'll let my passion burn for other things. And that's the thing. It's not that I care less about life. It's that I care differently, and in some ways more deeply. Some things still make my heart pump faster. And all-in-all, I'm good with that.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

Last Sunday, Bob Dylan was in concert at McMenamin's Edgefield in Troutdale, OR. And I was stuck here in Michigan.

I'm reticent to see Dylan in concert these days. I've only seen him once, a few years ago in Dallas, and it was perfect. And I know from many who have seen him several times that this is not always the case with Dylan. So, I'm reluctant to mess with that. But to see him at Edgefield...

I worked for eleven years for a congregation located about three miles from Edgefield. It's simply one of my favorite places in the world. Edgefield, like Dylan, has been many different things in its existence. It started as a New Deal poor farm and later did a stint as a home for the mentally ill. Now the McMenamin brothers, known for their brewpubs throughout the Northwest, have turned it into a hotel/vineyard/winery/artisan hangout/pitch and putt golf course/brewpub/lush gardens/fine dining/billiards room/music venue extravaganza.

When I have the chance to introduce friends to Portland, the greatest city on the planet, I always take them to Edgefield. (Those of you who read Richard Beck's blog should ask him about Edgefield. Ask him what "any flat surface will do" means). Nancy and I have stayed often in the hotel. In fact, I celebrated my last birthday there--the big five-o--with several of my favorite people. It's just a great place.

They only started doing concerts outdoors at Edgefield in the last five years or so, so I've never been to a concert there. They have started to attract great bands--Wilco, The Black Crowes, Avett Brothers, and now Dylan (who shared his two days there with John Mellencamp). I would love to see a concert there.

Edgefield makes me feel connected--connected to the earth, to people, to art, to my body, to pleasure. And this is increasingly important to me spiritually. I consider myself a theologian of the cross. It is my one theme. Too often, however, the cross is only seen as punishment or suffering or enduring. But it is more to me. It is God's complete identification with creaturely existence. It is God going to weddings, eating with tax collectors and sinners, welcoming children, and enduring death. God on the cross is full contact life. It is joy and sorrow, love and grief. It is life fully embodied and embraced. I go to Edgefield because it is good to be reminded often of how delicious life can be.

I can't say for sure that I would have risked the one great taste of Dylan live that I have. But I can say that seeing him at Edgefield would surely have tempted me.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Be Subject to One Another

Today I begin a course for undergraduates, mostly freshman, "Introduction to the Bible." I am anxious to begin.

I suspect I will have students (55 of them) along a continuum of experience with a Bible. Some will have owned a Bible since birth, been to Sunday school all their lives, etc. Some will never have opened the book at all. But I'm kind of assuming one thing for all of them. They will not have encountered Scripture as a phenomenon. I think I will be able to show all of them the Bible in ways they've never seen it before, and on the Bible's own terms.

But I also want them to know that the culture they live in has been shaped in some pretty important ways by Scripture. Even if they've never read Scripture, they've encountered it--in a song, a TV show or movie, a book, a well-worn phrase. Though its influence is not what it once was, we still have a lot of Scripture and its echoes sounding down the chambers of our culture.

I will show them this clip this afternoon. It's from one of my favorite all-time TV shows, The West Wing. And it features President and Mrs. Bartlett quarreling over church, and specifically a sermon from Eph 5:21. It's pretty stunning. My students will be asked to find three cultural artifacts like this during the semester. Maybe you have some suggestions of where to look.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

We See in a Glass Darkly

So, what's my dissertation about? Thanks for asking. And I'll try to tell you without your eyes rolling back in your head.

First, its about theology, or how we think and talk about God. If God is living and active, engaging the world, then there should be some evidence of that. From this perspective, theology is about God, not just the history of ideas about God. And if this is the case, then theology should be done in the world and for the world, not just in a library. That's one thing my dissertation is about.

Second, its about salvation. God's engagement with the world, from a Christian perspective, is a saving engagement. Thinking of salvation this way requires a larger view than what we typically have, and in my estimation it requires a more biblical view. Salvation in the Bible is bigger than an individual's status or eternal destiny. If we expand our view, then we will look at what God is up to differently. That's another thing my dissertation is about.

Third, its about what counts as data. Talk of God's involvement in the world is tricky business and much harm is done in the endeavor. An earthquake in Haiti or a hurricane in the gulf or the prosperity of a particular person or group are too casually assigned to God's agency in the world. We have, for a long time now, been conditioned to think of the world in relation to strict causation. If "a," then "b." This is a good way to think about some things, but not everything, and especially not complex things. As Paul says, we see in a glass darkly and need to develop both a particular perception and some modesty about our claims. How we attend to the world conditions what understandings we develop. I am suggesting that Paul's phrase "being saved" represents a particular way of engaging the world that produces a unique wisdom. It represents a particular type of practical reasoning that both uncovers and enacts a particular way of being with God in the world. This is another thing my dissertation is about.

Fourth, congregations are not typically good at this. Other kinds of practical reasoning tend to dominate congregational life--like problem solving or strategic planning. And these get in the way of an imagination rooted in God's saving engagement with the world. How would congregations actually develop competence in this way of viewing the world? So, my dissertation is about the work I'm actually doing with two congregations as we kind of experiment along these lines together. This is another thing my dissertation is about.

How's that sound? Thanks for asking.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Scene from a Checkout Line

Today I found the shortest line at the grocery store, like I always do, like everyone does. George Clooney's character in Up in the Air knows which security line at the airport to choose by profiling the passengers. There is no virtue in getting stuck in the slowest line.

I had four items: cherry tomatoes, two kinds of lunch meat, and cheese. Easy in, easy out.

I clearly don't profile as well as Clooney. The line I chose was the shortest, but I was there for a long time. There was a group of four in front of me. An older woman, a pregnant young woman, her younger sister (about 12 years old) and a baby boy, the son of the pregnant young woman. Each of the women wore head coverings and long skirts. Only the young girl spoke English.

The check out lady was tired--tired of working, tired of problem customers, tired of life. And she didn't pay attention as the young girl tried to explain that she needed to swipe their wic card before she rang up their groceries. She had done this before, often. But the checkout lady ignored her and when the wic card was finally swiped at the end, there was a remaining balance of $25, and our family of four had no money. The young woman said they would have to give back what was not covered on the card. Evidently, this was not clear by simply looking at the receipt.

By this time there were several other customers behind me in line. This would not be pretty. The woman directly behind me saw the trouble clearly. She was immediately exasperated, clearly disgusted with the way this family was slowing us all down. She scooped up her items and looked for another line. The cashier told us all that this could take awhile and that we should find another place to check out.

My eyes were on the young girl. She had been in this situation before. She was stuck between her older companions speaking her native language and an overtired cashier who clearly wished that her family had selected another check out line. I decided to stay and was determined to be patient.

The young girl was amazing. She calmly showed another receipt that itemized what they could purchase with their wic card. Calmly, she pointed out to the cashier where the mistakes had been made, but the cashier was confused and in little mood to help. The girl looked up at me and calmly said, "this could take awhile, maybe you should find another line." I smiled at her and said I was in no hurry. I wanted there to be one non-anxious person in the middle of all of this for her.

A manager came to help and after listening to the cashier's incoherent account of the episode, finally turned her attention to the girl who again flawlessly explained the predicament. The manager went through each item on the receipt. People lined up behind me and left, lined up and left, lined up and left while this unfolded. There were sighs and frowns. The girl looked at me again as if to say, please find another line so I won't feel bad about slowing you down. The old woman looked at me curiously. I smiled at them both.

I considered just paying the difference for them, sending us all on our way more quickly. But I wanted this young girl to experience victory and I was willing to wait. The manager quickly lost patience working through the register tape. The credit card swipe on the line next to us was not working and that cashier was asking for help. She voided the entire transaction in our line, which meant this family would have to start checking out all over again.

The girl looked at me and said, "you should go to another line." "I'm not in a hurry, it's fine," I told her. "These things can be complicated and you're doing your best." I could see her shoulders shrink, the tension ease. The manager took a long time at the other register. Finally, the girl asked the cashier, "why can't you check this man's groceries while you're waiting." The cashier had clearly not considered this. "I guess that would be ok." And she checked me through.

I was so impressed with this young girl. She stood straight, head high, hands on her hips. She was confident, persistent, patient, insistent, and smart. And all of this in a young girl's costume, a cheap dress and scuffed shoes. As I walked past the family, I looked in the old woman's face and told her, "you have a very smart girl here." The old woman smiled, though I'm sure she didn't know what I said. The girl looked at the ground.

We were all caught in this snarl. A snarl of impatience and bureaucracy and bigotry and poverty, and all of this was caught on the shoulders of this girl. And I thought about how often this must happen for her, how seldom it happens to me. The powers are aligned for me, but not for her. And patience seems like a small gesture over against it all. But today, it was what I had.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

Satellite radio this morning. Listened to the station, The Loft. First song, Van Morrison. Second song, Bob Dylan. That's already a good morning. The Dylan song was "When I Paint My Masterpiece."

Masterpiece. That's a tall word. And not one you want lurking around when you're writing a dissertation. It's hard enough to put one word after another without them having to be so many sparkling bits of glass for a stained glass window.

Honestly, most days I'm writing to finish. If I happen to put things together in an interesting or compelling way, so much the better. But there are days when I think to myself, "dang, this could be something." These are dangerous thoughts.

Its words like masterpiece that keeps dissertations from getting written. After all, its often the first great album that keeps the second one from coming out, or that keeps Pet Sounds from being released for years (Brian Wilson's rumored "masterpiece").

I believe in masterpieces, though perhaps not for me. But I also believe they are mysterious. They're as much lightning in a bottle as they are sweat and toil (though I do believe they also require sweat and toil). I think Dylan, who has had a few in his career, knows this. Life is what happens while you're waiting for your masterpiece. So, I'm going to find the best ordinary words I have, string them together as quickly as possible, and live my life.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Missional Musing: We're Not Afraid of Strangers

My friend, Cheryl, in talking about the missional journey of her congregation says, "we're no longer afraid of strangers." This is the mark of a community in mission.

One of my favorite ways to distinguish missional churches from others is that they're learning to ask a different question about others. Instead of asking the question, "how can we get others to belong to us?", missional communities are forming their life around the question, "how in Jesus' name do we belong to our neighbors?"

The first question tends to sort "prospects" around their fit with the members who are already there. We tend to look for people who will be attracted to who we already are. The rub here is that if they're already like us without being a part of our church, why would they need to belong to our church? Or, it requires people not like us to do all the adjusting.

In contrast, the question of to whom do we belong puts the "other" in the place of priority. And it requires on my part the challenge of boundary crossing. And this is the Christian story, that Christ gave up the security of heaven for our sake. And if there are Christian gifts of the Spirit, boundary crossing surely must be a part of that.

Cheryl's church is now two years into a commitment to being with strangers on their terms. They have found people of peace, developed new skills, found new partnerships in the mission of God. And in the process, they are no longer afraid of their neighbors. This is the beginning of missional wisdom.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Morning in Minnesota: A Reflection on Language and Sight

I am in Northern Minnesota at a cabin sandwiched between a lake and a swamp. It is beautiful. And this morning I took a walk and wrote the following in my journal:

This is beautiful. I don't have the words to describe what I am looking at this morning. And I worry that with the lack of language, I will be unable to see all that is before me. Yesterday, Ryan talked about an article he read about a study on language. People with only one word for blue lacked the capacity to distinguish between shades of blue. They couldn't see a difference.

But, this is what I can say. I am sitting on a moss-covered log among ferns wilted with a glistening, morning dew, overlooking a swamp lined with rushes. Still, still water, without expression. So still, that things are allowed to grow on it, like a layer of dust, like doilies on a glass table.

And low-angled light cuts through the trees and illumines the underside of sleepy, morning leaves, and makes visible the rise of misty spirits that walk the bog.

And I am still, absorbed into what I see.

So, reflection on my reflection. Our host, Tony, could have described the scene in much greater detail. The kinds of rushes, ferns, trees, algae (or whatever grows on the water). And this undoubtedly would have created a larger space of articulation, undoubtedly deepened my reflection. But with the words I had, common words, lacking any real descriptive precision, I was still able to get at what I was seeing.

My sense of fit between what I was seeing and what I wrote was enabled by metaphor, by what Ricouer calls a predicative impertinence. By employing language beyond its normal semantic field, I was able to evoke what I could not otherwise describe. This is the power of poetic structures.

One more reflection. The more I described, the more I saw. The effort to describe, the attention given to bringing to words, brought out things of which I was not immediately aware. It was, for instance, only in describing the peacefulness of the scene that the light became apparent to me.

I am committed to this practice. To a reflective attentiveness, to writing a world into view.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Missional Musing: Narrating the Transformation

In working with over 20 congregations over the past few years, I've been thinking a lot about why some of them experience "missional" transformation, and why others go through the process we offer and stay roughly the same. There are no doubt many factors, and none of them in and of themselves guarantee a shift in congregational imagination. Still, there are some things that seem to be predictive.

Here's one: congregations that have someone who can faithfully narrate a coherent story in the midst of the confusion of change fare better than others.

I think there are several reasons for this. Venturing a narrative with plot and characters brings a congregation closer to naming God as an actor in their midst. This is huge. The act of narrating also brings together a useable past with a promised future. If there is no narrative, then the past is simply a mistake, something to be discarded, and people need to hold on to aspects of their past to be able to imagine a habitable future. One more. A faithful narrative has to ring true. All narratives are selective, some details highlighted, others repressed. The ring of truth comes when the worst can be admitted out loud without foreclosing on the future. Hope.

This kind of work is an art. I am wondering whether it can be taught.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

If you ever go to Houston, better walk right
Keep your hands in your pockets and your gun belts tied
If you're asking for drama, if you're looking for a fight
If you ever go to Houston, boy you better walk right

These lyrics are from Dylan's latest cd, Together Through Life, which drips with Southwestern culture. I listened to it Saturday as I drove from Dallas to Houston (long story). The cd (good, but not one of my favorites) is at home on the river walk or in a taqueria or in a seedy honky-tonk with a neon lone star bottle, half burned out, shining in the window. It sweats like a hot and humid hill country night. And this might be why its not my favorite Dylan work.

Of all possible weather conditions, hot and humid is for me the worst. If hell is a dry heat, I would prefer that to Houston. So, if you want to scare me righteous, the line would be "if you lie, you'll go to Houston." After two Minnesota winters and one in Michigan, I can say with a chest full of conviction that I prefer a northern winter to a south Texas summer. Which is to say, I'd rather thaw my eye balls than endure sweaty underwear all day. (Too much information?). I simply don't understand people who hold the opposite view.

Which is why I'm so puzzled that my friends who either live there, or who have in the past, love Houston. They love it. Last Fall, I spent an evening with my son and some of his friends in downtown Houston, and I have to admit I had a lot of fun. My friends who like it find the cultural life energizing. There's stuff to do, great food, museums, concerts, night life. And for them, sweating, horrendous traffic and sharing a city with George H W Bush is not enough to overwhelm the benefits.

I will say this. Both Houston and Dallas seem pretentious to me (unlike P0rtland or Minneapolis), but at least Houston can pull it off. Pretentious in Dallas is posing. Houston wears it more comfortably. One more thing, and this is big to me, diversity in Dallas plays only as a threat. Houston embraces its cosmopolitan-ism. I am at this moment sitting in a Starbucks near the Galleria, and its one of the most ethnically diverse rooms I've ever had coffee in.

None of Dylan's songs are about a Starbucks in Houston. He's going for belt buckles, wildcatters, accordions, pentecostal manliness, and sweaty, serial romance. And that he delivers. I'll listen to it again as I drive today from Houston to the Dallas airport (long story). But at this point I'm happy that Texas and I are not Together Through Life.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

I started this day in Federal Way, WA. My friend, Jerry, drove me to the airport in his Toyota pick-up at 6 am. I took a commuter flight from Seattle to Portland on a prop plane manufactured in Canada. I got a shuttle from the airport to my hotel room for this evening where they let me check in early. I dumped my stuff in my room and walked to the nearest light rail stop (the Max), changed to the Gresham line at the Gateway transit center and rode it all the way to the end. That left me about a mile and a half from the East County Church of Christ, where I ministered for eleven years. I walked and arrived just in time for the opening song. After services, I walked about a mile to Edgefield, one of my favorite places in all the world, a kind of constant carnival of music, good food and beverage, golf, glass blowing, gardens, etc.

There should be a song in all of that, or two, or three.

I thought about that as I walked to Edgefield. I walked past a long stand of blackberry vines, which are omnipresent in Western Oregon and a nuisance. Except for this time of year, when they have ripe berries. And the best part of that is the smell. I used to run along trails in this area and the smell of the blackberries on the breeze made the run immensely more enjoyable.

Anyways, as I was walking past and smelling the blackberries, I thought this is the kind of thing that would show up in a Dylan song. While the song wouldn't be about it, (or if it were, only in an oblique way) a line about berries on the wind could very well make it into a song. The power of his observations are often what make his lyrics so great.

I am not always the most observant person in the world. Some things simply evade me. So when a particular smell opens up a fist-full of memories, I want to be a poet. I want the few things that I deeply observe to have a mark on the world, to linger, to have a shared existence. And I wish most of all that I could combine that with melody, and a great middle eight, and a chorus with a subtle, but memorable hook. Today will be content with a blog post, oh underachieving today.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Dylan on a Sunday

I visited my Aunt Dorothy today (my mom's aunt, actually). She's in hospice care and so this may very well be the last time I visit with her. She's been a presence in my life. She was my 4th grade Sunday School teacher. During worship, she sat on the aisle on the second row opposite my mother on the other side of the aisle. I have told people that I learned the gospel by paying attention when Dorothy and my mother would nod during my father's sermons.

When I preached for the East County Church in Gresham, OR, Dorothy and her husband, Jess, sat on the second row as I preached. They were always dressed to the nines and became fixtures in our congregation. There was simply no one like them, especially Dorothy.

Dorothy is a Guild, one of my grandfather's younger sisters. And all of them are strong-willed, outspoken, insightful women with a more than a little bit of cantankerous mixed in. My favorite Dorothy story consists of an encounter she had with a famous Church of Christ preacher who had retired and attended the congregation she attended. He had a peculiar view of the Holy Spirit. He couldn't deny that the Bible talked about a personal indwelling of the Spirit, but he maintained that the Spirit was only active in relationship to Scripture, kind of a modified word-only position for those of you CoC'ers.

So, to demonstrate how ridiculous this position was, she bought a necktie, wrapped in in a gift box and gave it to him one Sunday after church. Once he opened it, she told him that she never wanted him to wear it. He protested. "Why would you give me a gift and expect me not to use it!" "Exactly!" she pounced. "Why would God give us the Holy Spirit and not expect us to use it."

Classic Dorothy.

I talked to her husband, Jess, yesterday on the phone. He promised Dorothy he would never put her in a home. And a few months ago, it looked like Dorothy's decline would be fast and final. But she's a tough old boot and is hanging in there. She's improved. And this could go on now indefinitely. And even thought the hospice workers come to their home periodically, along with other helpers, Jess is exhausted. He's 84, and while he's in good health, this is an ordeal.

He told me yesterday that he has fought in the war, been shot at, and had other difficulties in his life, but that this was by far the most difficult thing he's ever done. "I think I can do it, though, see it through, if I could just get a little rest."

I admire Jess. He's been married to Dorothy for 60 years and she is the more dominant figure in their relationship. I'm thinking not everything has gone his way, that he's had to swallow a few things here and there. But here he is, serving Dorothy, beyond his endurance and stamina allows. He wants more than anything to see it through to the end.

So, for Jess today, Dylan on a Sunday is When the Deal Goes Down.

In the still of the night, in the world's ancient light
Where wisdom grows up in strife
My bewildering brain, toils in vain
Through the darkness on the pathways of life
Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air
Tomorrow keeps turning around
We live and we die, we know not why
But I'll be with you when the deal goes down

We eat and we drink, we feel and we think
Far down the street we stray
I laugh and I cry and I'm haunted by
Things I never meant nor wished to say
The midnight rain follows the train
We all wear the same thorny crown
Soul to soul, our shadows roll
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down

Well, the moon gives light and it shines by night
When I scarcely feel the glow
We learn to live and then we forgive
O'r the road we're bound to go
More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours
That keep us so tightly bound
You come to my eyes like a vision from the skies
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down

Well, I picked up a rose and it poked through my clothes
I followed the winding stream
I heard the deafening noise, I felt transient joys
I know they're not what they seem
In this earthly domain, full of disappointment and pain
You'll never see me frown
I owe my heart to you, and that's sayin' it true
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down