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.