Friday, August 28, 2009

Fruits of our labor

I was just handed this Bible at work. They've just arrived in our warehouse and are due in stores October 1. I'm really excited about it. (Sorry that you can't see the whole cover. What you're looking at is part of the cover--in dark brown--with a packaging wrap--in tan.)

Inside is a straight-text Bible with cross-references in a center column on each page. Up front is 330 pages of writings from every continent and every century since the advent of the Church. Everyone from Clement and Clairvaux to the lesser-known believers like Yahya ibn 'Adi (10th century Iraq) and John Tulloch (19th century Scotland). These writings follow the Church year, so they have readings for Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. Along with each weeks' readings are full-color pieces of art from around the world--ancient and modern. The hardcover design is great, but I may just get myself a LeatherLike cover: The design is amazing.

I'd love to show it off sometime! Just ask.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Narrow Shoulder. Or, Don't Do a Dam Thing.

(Reading Time: 4 minutes)

At the beginning of the summer, I heard to a Haitian gentleman talk about the support that Americans could provide to third-world countries. He was the guest speaker at church. “Don’t feel guilty for all the good things you have,” he said. “But you are blessed so that you can bless others.”

I said “Amen” to that.

When the local pastor got up, he put it another way. “Give out of the margins of your life.” I liked that way of saying it. We often think of the margins as the less important spaces. They're the roadside shoulders we blow past. The margins are the luxury we have in our lives. Disposable income, weekends and vacations, square footage and acreage are all margins we have in our lives. They’re the buffer zones between the road and the ditch.

Just like on the highway, it’s often in the margins where we see those in need. And just like on the highway, we often bypass them. We see that luxury as our luxury, and we dismiss our responsibilities of managing those margins wisely.

Instead, we become the reservoir for all that excess. I know I do. It’s called my savings account. It’s my buffer zone. It’s my stress reliever. That savings account looks a lot like the Hoover Dam. Inside it is a flood of blessing, but I’m damming up, holding out. There’s a recession, I need to increase my margins, is my rationale.

So why do we dam up blessing like we do? Why do we build new barns? It’s easy to justify or, if nothing else, to ignore. I think part of the reason is that we begin to believe we deserve the margins, that we have rights to them.

With our financial margins, we invest for retirement and we save up for new cars, TVs, computers, or clothes. I do. With our margins of time, we schedule our weekends full of activities and plans. I do. With out margins of space, we clutter our houses with couches and guest bedrooms and entertainment centers. I do. We treat the margins like the rest of our lives. We get quite comfortable with them. We're used to them being there. We don't use the margins ourselves, but we get quite frustrated, quite indignant actually, if someone asks if they can have some of it. I resent them quite regularly.

There’s a name, in the Middle East, for a body of water that has no outlet. It’s called the Dead Sea.

Your bank account is God’s tangible blessing. Look at it. God’s in that. You’ve got problems? Go check your bank balance (you can do it from your phone!). But just like all that water in the Hoover Dam, if it’s just sitting there, it’s doing exactly one thing: evaporating. And you know what God's doing? God’s drawing it back up—slowly, imperceptibly, graciously—so that he can rain down blessing on other fields, giving other people opportunities to use it faithfully.

But if the water is flowing through the Hoover Dam, those blessings generate energy. It generates heat and light. Of course, the recipients of your blessings can waste it, but that’s not your problem.

Maybe you budget and know where your money goes. Hi, school bills, car payments, apartment rent. The size of each person's margin is different. But I'll bet there’s still a margin in there. There’s still a blessing in there. If not, then I'm not writing this for you. But if you do, then you have the opportunity. You could give to those who have no margin. You could be the blessing.

But instead we shrug our shoulders. As much from boredom as from a vague unease. The idea of being a blessing doesn't capture our imaginations. We don't consider that we could do anything with that money. We dream of books, vacations, games, concerts, movies, but we can't get even a little creative with the ways in which we could bless others. We find no joy in giving because we don't use our imaginations.

Or maybe it's fear, our hijacked imaginations. Maybe we're afraid to see our blessings get wasted on others. Maybe we're afraid of giving without getting back. Maybe we're afraid of being taken advantage of.

But maybe the people we blow past aren't themselves the burdens, but the blessings. Maybe the burdens weighing on our shoulders are really the blessings in our margins. But we shrug or shiver, with boredom or fear. And we readjust the blessings on our back, and carry them a little farther.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

"Waiting 'til the shine wears off"

(Reading Time: 2.5 minutes)

CT's June cover story caught my interest, mainly because of its subtitle: "How Tim Keller Found Manhattan: The pastor of Redeemer Church is becoming an international figure because he's a local one." It caught my attention because it supported an idea that I've suggested before: When we speak to and from a particular context, we often find a universal audience.

The CT article doesn't make a strong case to support their subtitle, but that argument isn't really their point. They're focusing on Tim Keller, the man. But his influence is expanding, and the article brings that out at the end.

Indeed, one reason Keller's influence is growing is that he's in one of the most influential cities in the world: New York City. It is a fountainhead of culture, fashion, economy, art, and beliefs. New York often leads the U.S. and the world, and eventually they both follow in all these areas. It makes sense then that a man who speaks to people out front will eventually be relevant to the people who come after. (I think Paul grasped this in his desire to go to Rome, and CT alludes to this.)

But for Keller, relevance isn't a matter of trying to be relevant really. Sure he targets his audience, but not the way you'd expect. CT writes,

Redeemer's worship is seemly and traditional. Instead of using video monitors, casually dressed worshipers follow a 20-page bulletin that includes hymns, prayers, and Bible texts. Organ and a brass quartet lead the music. For evening services, jazz musicians play contemporary Christian songs.
Standing 6'4", with a bald head, glasses, and a coat and tie, Keller, 58, does not look hip. Nor is his sermon funny, charming, or daring. He preaches from the first chapter of Genesis, on the doctrine of Creation.

This is not the relevant format that we often hear advocated. In my opinion, the reason this format has worked is that it doesn't attempt to compete with culture. Megachurches can have the best programmed service with the most entertainment of any megachurch out there, but "the secular world has the means and motivation to make your operation look rinky-dink." ("You might be a big fish in a little pond. Doesn't mean you've won, because along may come a bigger one," sings Coldplay.) The attempt to compete by being more like doesn't make sense. The Gospel isn't in competition. It would rather lose if that meant it would transform its enemies. Placing the church and the Gospel in competition with mass culture by trying to be superficially relevant sends the opposite message, that winning brings transformation.

The beauty of the Cross is that when all is lost, everything changes. ("Just because I'm losing doesn't mean I'm lost," sings Coldplay.) Then, we understand that our measures for "win" and "lose" are defined by the wrong yardsticks. That Jesus wasn't using those dimensions at all. I think that's why we so often can't make sense of his kingdom. We're using the wrong yardstick.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Playing by the Rules

I was as excited as anyone when Kris won “American Idol.” I liked his humility, and, like a good American, I love the underdog. After that, friends sent me links to video of him singing hymns, but more importantly, popular evangelical worship songs. Those videos confirmed the rumors I’d been hearing. Kris isn’t the first, nor is he the last, Christian to appear on “American Idol.” There have been numerous contenders of their ilk before. Indeed evangelicalism has positioned plenty of people in prominent places in U.S. mass culture.

I’ve thought about Kris’ win a bit since then. In that time, I’ve begun wondering, “Have evangelicals hijacked television’s most popular show, or has TV hijacked evangelicalism?”*

In the end, I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think both have occurred to some degree.

This for me raises, more than others, the question of the church in power. In this case, power is not exercised through strength but through influence. Can the church exercise power rightly? How does the church function when it is the dominant power? Are cultural power structures antithetical to the way the church is supposed to function?

I don’t have the answers to that.

My sister made a good point when I raised this church-in-power conundrum. I was suggesting that the church’s role was to serve—period—not exercise authority. And she pointed out that influence can come through serving, but influence is not the reason for serving. Serving is its own end, but influence often is a byproduct. Look at Joseph or Daniel or Nehemiah. I think she’s right.**

So perhaps Kris will have some influence from his position as “American Idol.” In mass culture, I think it will be almost inconsequential. In the opportunities it brings him to personally rub shoulders with celebrities of all stripes, I hope he represents Jesus well.

Is the church in power a bad thing? My brother-in-law challenged me. I couldn’t support my reasons for saying Yes very well. A church that serves from a place of power could certainly be good for the people served under its authority.

I guess my big concern is for those (Kris’ fans, and followers of other popular evangelicals) who put their hopes not in the church’s service but in its power. That power, that influence, isn’t established by the church, nor by God. It’s defined by the culture in which the power is exercised. It’s power that is given by those who defer to it. The value system underlying that power is not like the church’s value system. So even while the church may be given that power, the people who give it likely do so based on values the church cannot stand for.

* It’s a bit disorienting to talk about cultural systems like they have human motives and strategies. Only people can have them. I doubt Kris set out to strike a blow to “the liberal TV media” or to chalk up a victory for Jesus. But I’m sure that many of his evangelical fans have seen it as a victory for the good guys. The same goes for the people sitting in board rooms doing the business of American Idol: I don’t think they’re looking to upend evangelicalism.

** But we get so focused on influence that we often begin to pursue that, at first through serving, but later more directly, more efficiently, without all the costs associated with serving. But I digress.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sunday Morning Serving

Many people I talk to complain about the church they are part of. I feel lucky because I love my church. This weekend we are doing something that makes me proud. We are gathering on Sunday morning but the purpose of the gathering is to serve. How cool is that? Christians getting together to serve on a Sunday morning! It's an anomaly but it shouldn't be. I don't see why we don't gather together more often to "do outreach." Sure, singing, teaching, preaching, and the sacraments need to be practiced. But I think most churches would be more abundant and vibrant if they gathered once a month to serve others.

Also the nature of the service is quite unique. Chicago is home to the biggest gay pride parade in the country that takes place on the North Side. Some friends who live in an intentional community up there have a heart for gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual people. Often the only Christian presence that shows up are the ones with picket signs and angry words. So as an alternative we are going to hand out bottled water. Bottled water void of any "Christian" label or Bible verse. Imagine thousands of dollars worth of bottled water as an act of compassion. Just a practical way to love people because God first loved us.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Open Road

This spring I made a few trips home to Iowa. I decided to drive some different routes through western Illinois and eastern Iowa. In the process, I found a small town in western Illinois I really liked. Main Street is just one block off the old Lincoln Highway. It's a one-way street with bars, restaurants, and offices looking onto the street from curtained plate-glass windows. The names are handpainted on the glass.

While I liked the stark, dry storefronts and the local menus, I think something else attracted me to the town: anonymity. At the restaurant where I ordered an open-faced ham sandwich, they didn't take a credit card. I had to run to the ATM a block and a half west to withdraw cash. When I asked the waitress if she needed to hold on to my license or something, she looked at me, "Just come back." When I drove out of town, there was no receipt with my name or signature on it.

I savored my meal sitting alone at an oversized table against the wall. I exchanged pleasantries with my waitress, but nothing more. I ignored the locals as much as they ignored me. I made up stories about the house for sale along the highway on the way out of town. I imagined the neighbors rumbling away from the bar on Main in their unmufflered truck, and the gossip criss-crossing town. I wondered whether the local pastor of the community church was hoping one day to cast his nets into bigger ponds.

All the stereotypes I was planting alongside the highway as I left town gave me another reason to like the town: It was an escape. This was not my home, not my community. I had no reputation to live up to. These were not my people, not my friends. I had no responsibilities to follow through on. I was whoever I chose to be. I was undefined. That seemed like freedom, that place where I had only possibilities.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

First Things

My first post in almost a month (thus, the welcome back). My excuse for the absence is explained with a series of first things:

First time ever in Boston. My friends documented it well here and here

First wedding of the year in Indiana

First time graduating from Seminary

First extended canoe trip from Wisconsin to Illinois

First time wearing a brown tuxedo in a West Virginia wedding. Props John!

Now I'm back and I'll tell you what is next but give me a second.

26 + 1 First Date = 27

I went on one date when I was 26. It had all the makings of a great first date. I was so excited. I’d met her through a friend and then run into her, a second time, at a bookstore. Having a mutual friend seemed promising for the chances. I love books so I figured meeting again in a bookstore gave us at least one more thing in common. She was reading a book by an author we both could quote, and she invited me to sit down. We talked for a while, even laughed.

After that we became friends on Facebook where the conversation continued. Things were looking good. Two weeks later we were on our first date. I had tickets to a play adapted from that same author’s works. I had found a little Argentinian café just down the street. I thought she was gorgeous, and she had said yes.

I picked her up and we drove a half-hour to the theater. As we talked, I learned that she’d thought about doing more schooling, getting a theology degree, but hadn’t taken the plunge. She said she was frustrated with her big church. It was too big and impersonal. I resonated with that sentiment. I was tired of big church too. And her interest in school, in theology, resonated in me too. I loved serious thinking, about anything, but especially about God.

Smart. Beautiful. Spiritual. Everything seemed to add up. I couldn’t have orchestrated things better if I’d been a control freak.

We got to the theater a few minutes late. I apologized. The usher led us in and we slipped into the back row quietly. We hushed to hear the actor’s voice. The audience was rapt.

When the play let out, it was still early, too early to really be hungry. So we passed the café and kept walking, talking. We found ourselves 5 blocks down, looking at a red light, on a blank corner. I looked around, nothing promised anything better. We turned around and retraced our steps to the café.

There were blank silences as we drove home. I let them hang, hoping out of the emptiness something more genuine might emerge. We sat waiting for a green light with nothing to say. I dropped her off, and we thanked each other for the evening and the company.

I was at a loss. I couldn’t find an explanation. I’d done the math and it worked out nicely. It made sense. But the flat contour of the whole evening told a different story. The math worked, but the chemistry didn’t. I couldn’t explain it more than that.