IVP - Strangely Dim - December 2010 Archives

December 31, 2010

Meet the New Year, Same as the Old Year

It's the week between Christmas and New Year's Day; the IVP offices are only open three days this week, and a good chunk of us are gone anyway. Meanwhile, your friends here at Strangely Dim just finished a twelve-day run of new posts, effectively exhausting all our creativity just in time to celebrate the birth of the Son of God. I don't know why you would expect a new post this week, but even if you did, you'll just have to settle for this old one--nearly six years old, to be precise. 


"So, how was your New Year's Eve? Whadja do?"

That's a relatively safe question for casual acquaintances to ask one another, which means you'll likely be hearing it a lot till the statute of limitations runs out--probably shortly before February 1, when the default question switches to "So, whatcha got planned for Valentine's Day?"

Whatcha do says a lot about you. In my case, I went to a New Year's Eve get together with some friends. They played cards upstairs while I played Spider-Man II on the X-Box downstairs. Shortly before midnight I was utterly destroyed by Rhino, so I went upstairs to play what is essentially the Star Wars version of Yu-Gi-Oh! while my wife cleaned up after me. An hour later we went home. Five hours later I woke up to finish preparing a couple of short talks to introduce two of the three Lord of the Rings films during a New Year's Day marathon.

Spider-Man II, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. What's that say about me? All three of these brands--not to mention playing video games or card-based war games--are the domain of the supergeeky. And I suppose that's a fair brand to label me with; I did, after all, write a book about comic books. I and a group of friends took an online quiz once to determine how geeky we were, and I scored lower than some but higher than many, so I don't have much of a nongeeky leg to stand on.

But from another angle, my actions over the New Year might convince some people that who I am is something less forgivable. I'm not generally known as someone who sits aloof from other people playing video games or watching movies or otherwise indulging in sedentary, passive entertainment. I like to be around people, mixing it up in noncompetitive play. But for forty-eight hours I was aloof, competitive and sedentary. So I suppose one thing my New Year's experience says about me is that I'm easily distorted.

Fair enough, I suppose: I am, after all, human, and to be human is in a sense to be distorted, if you take the biblical account of the Fall to be descriptive of the human condition as I do. Two humans--the only two, for that matter--are made perfect and given a perfect creation but find a way to screw the whole thing up. And being part of the whole thing, they get screwed-up themselves. In the subsequently distorted reality, as Job puts it, "man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward."

Even Job is distorted: it's pronounced "jobe," and it's a guy's name, but on first glance everyone pronounces it "jahb," like whatcha do. Which is almost appropriate for the whole, distorted lot of us, since we tend to think that whatcha do is who you are anyway.

Happy new year, by the way. Whadja do? Post a comment!

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 6:06 AM

December 25, 2010

To Us a Son Is Given

It seems appropriate, on the day in which we join Joseph and Mary in welcoming the infant Jesus into the world, that we congratulate two Likewise authors and their wives, who got good family news this week. Adam Taylor (author of Mobilizing Hope) and his wife, Sharee, welcomed their son Joshua Russell Taylor into the world; and Jamie Arpin-Ricci (author of the forthcoming Cost of Community) and his wife, Kim, received the name (and picture) of their son, three-year-old Micah James Nigatu Arpin-Ricci, who will be coming home to them (from Ethiopia to Manitoba--two words that are fun to say) in the next six to nine months. 

The journey to (and through) parenthood can be fraught with moments of frustration and discouragement. It's easy to lose hope along the way and eventually give up the ghost. But blessed are those who wait, for hope defines our faith even as it anchors it--even as it is confronted with the scrutiny of all-too-common bitter disappointment. It was the hope of God that gave the universe its shape; it is the hope of God that endures betrayal after betrayal from God's people; it is the hope of God consummated in Christ that secures our salvation.

Today we celebrate the incarnation, a promised moment in history that emboldens us to hope in a promised future that, like Christmas, like Adam and Sharee, like Jamie and Kim and Micah, takes the shape of a family:

God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 'He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. . . . 

I will be their God and they will be my children.

Congratulations, Adam and Sharee and Joshua. Congratulations, Jamie and Kim and Micah. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 6:45 AM

December 24, 2010

And One Child Present with Us (in a Manger Made from a Tree?)

Christmas Eve always seems to hold a hint of expectation and excitement. Maybe it's leftover from when we were children; on this day, our bodies still recall that too-excited-to-sleep feeling of wonder and anticipation. It's fitting, of course. Advent is all about anticipation and expectation, longing and preparation: Something is going to happen.

On that first Christmas, for Mary, in particular, that anticipation had a very physical form. There was her growing abdomen. There were small feet kicking inside her. There were contractions to tell her that, after hundreds of years of waiting, after nine months of expecting, Something was going to happen.

No doubt there were thousands of babies born the same night as Jesus, and probably even a good number in Bethlehem alone. As joyous of an occasion as those other births must have been, only Jesus' birth was announced to shepherds by angels, and only Jesus' birth was followed by a special star that led wise men hundreds of miles to worship at his feet. And only Jesus, even as a baby, proclaimed a long-awaited message: Immanuel, God is with us.

Christ's presence with us, on earth, to love and teach and mourn with and redeem us, is the gift we celebrate at Christmas. So, on this day before Christmas, whether you have all your gifts or none of them, consider giving that same gift to others: the gift of presence.

Of course, our presence cannot redeem anyone. But our presence with someone else can communicate love and truth. When we're present to others, we can mourn or celebrate with them. We can remind them of their value. We can help them in tangible, practical ways. You might, for example, offer to clean a friend's house as your gift to them. Or babysit for free. Or simply sit with them in silence in their sorrow. In so doing, you remind them of, and invite them to receive anew, the gift of Immanuel, God with us.

Advent is just the beginning, of course. As believers, our anticipation keeps building as we look forward to celebrating the resurrection of Christ--the event through which he defeated death and saved us from our sin--and then Pentecost, where he gave us the gift of his Spirit, to be present with us always. So celebrate tomorrow, for sure, but continue to celebrate, to live in expectation and gratitude for the God who is with us still.
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 6:00 AM

December 23, 2010

Two-oo Turtle Doves

According to the Honolulu Zoo, turtle doves "are more slender and more graceful than many pigeons." And this doubtless explains why they are associated with true love and immortalized in poems by Shakespeare, Robert Chester and King Solomon, and why they're the second gift to the beloved in "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Because pigeons, I'm sure you'll agree, are among the most graceful birds you'll ever see.

Of course, such a an opinion is subjective, beauty and all being in the eye of the beholder. And I hope you know I'm being facetious when I call pigeons graceful. Because I think they're rather odd birds--with the cooing and bobbing and nesting close to the ground (unsafe for fledglings, I would think). But they are loyal partners when they pair up to mate, remaining monogamous and mating for life, which is the reason they have been the subject so often of loverly poems. But in addition to their place in poetry, turtle doves (the name for which is derived from the "turr turr" sound they make, rather than for their resemblance to the hard-shelled reptile) are associated with biblical sacrifice (in the old and new testaments), and loss.

Thus, the bird, in my mind, makes a rather strangely appropriate correlation with the Christmas season. This is a time of year in which we talk about Love itself coming down to dwell among us. Even as the Christian church celebrates the advent of Christ, we are mindful of the coming sorrow of his Passion and solemnity of the Lenten season. And we live even now in anticipation of the reminder of his victory over death at Easter. The humble turtle dove, associated with love, sacrifice and sorrow, is a fitting creature for a song that is both about a "true love" and the gifts of the season.

In addition, the turtle doves--indeed, the whole of "The Twelve Days of Christmas"--can also be a testimony to how small gifts and efforts add up more quickly and substantially than one might anticipate. Case in point: as nearly all the articles I've read about the "Twelve Days of Christmas" report, the beloved has 22 turtle doves by the time the song is over. Taken in this literal sense, by the time the song ends, the single partridge in its pear tree has become a menagerie in an orchard, comprised of 12 pear trees, 12 partridges, 22 turtle doves, 30 French hens, 36 calling birds and 42 geese and swans, respectively. And (if one counts the cows being milked by the maids) 40 bovine quadrupeds. Not to mention 12 drummers and 22 piping pipers leading the leaping lords (30) and dancing ladies (36) in what has apparently become quite a party, and not simply a series of sweet gestures.

Whew! Talk about a snowball effect! Let's take a breath here, shall we?

We've been talking a lot in this fortnight of blogs about the things we might give and the benefits of giving certain kinds of gifts. But it's easy for things to get out of control--with Christmas parties at the office, church, with friends and family. And shopping. And cleaning.  And packing, and all the rest. But simple is good, too. So for this second day before Christmas, I humbly suggest something simple: the gift of a story, or poem, or other simple series of moments to be spent with those you love. If you're inclined to write, I encourage you to do so. But here are some recommendations for stories and poems written by people kind enough to take all the heavy labor of wordsmithing upon themselves:

  • The biblical story of the Nativity can be found in the beginning chapters of Matthew and Luke.
  • Isaiah's fortelling of the savior in Isaiah 9
  • The Legend of the Three Trees (this is is more of an Easter book, but still very good for Christmas)
  • "The Night Before Christmas"
  • A Christmas Carol
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas
  • "Love's Martyr" by Robert Chester (a "turtle dove" poem)
  • "Christmas Eve" by Christina Rosetti
  • "Nativity" by John Donne
  • "The Phoenix and the Turtle" by William Shakespeare (also a turtle dove poem)
  • "Our Christmas Tree" by Wendell Berry (from A Timbered Choir)
Numerous other suggestions can be found here.

As Christmas Day comes nearer, let's mark all those little moments, kindnesses and simple gestures that so often surround us but go unnoticed. At the end of your reminiscences may you find your life has been much fuller and richer than you ever knew--and bless others in similar small ways, too.

Posted by Christa Countryman at 8:15 AM | TrackBack (0)

December 22, 2010

Buy Three French Hens (if You're Living in France . . .)

Well. I'm not gonna lie to you: it's pretty close to Christmas, so if you haven't finished (or started) your shopping, you might want to get on that. (I'm not criticizing; I'm "exhorting." And those of you who are being completely countercultural and not buying any gifts this year can feel free to "exhort" me via comments to this post!)

I fully realize that some of you who love a challenge might just need--or thrive on--that last-minute pressure. Others of you may be experiencing unexpected stress that has taken up time you might have spent shopping. Still others may have been given a lottery ticket for your birthday in the past week and won a million dollars and are now waiting for the check so that you can buy your friends and family not just any old set of steak knives, but top-of-the-line ones. (That's sweet.) Or maybe you're planning to make "stop procrastinating" your New Year's resolution. Whatever the case, we hope that our guide to more justice-oriented, somewhat countercultural gift ideas and Advent practices has made these twelve days before Christmas richer for you, and has focused your thoughts on Christ and the nature of his kingdom.

My gift suggestion for this, the third day before Christmas, will be particularly helpful for those of you feeling pressed for time, because you don't have to go very far (in fact, we hope you can walk instead of drive to buy these gifts). Why not support a local business--the businesses probably hardest hit by our recent economic decline--by buying products or gift certificates from independently owned shops and restaurants in your town?

I did this for some of the gifts I bought this year, and it was definitely a win-win-win: I found some really fun, unique presents; I got to support the community I live in; and I got to wander through some great stores and interact with great employees. Buying local can be an especially great option if you're not sure what you're looking for; employees at smaller, independently owned stores tend to know really well what's in their store, and they're usually very personally invested in it (more than most big-box store employees, which is not a knock against those workers; it's more a comment on chain stores themselves). It's like going to a restaurant where the waiters and waitresses have tried everything on the menu and can give you very informed and enthusiastic recommendations based on what you're in the mood for. Shopping at local stores and products also gives you a chance to get to know more people in your community, whether it's store owners or neighbors of yours who might be shopping there.

Even beyond all those great benefits, though, shopping locally reminds us of the nature of Christ. At Christmas, we celebrate the Savior who is Immanuel, God with us; the Savior who left his throne and came near to us--as near as a baby to his mother when he's in her womb; the Savior who, as The Message version says in John 1, "became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood." That is the God we celebrate and worship--who gave up his very life so that we could come near, and whose Spirit dwells in us still when we surrender ourselves to him in faith. Christmas reminds us of his deep love for us that sent Jesus from heaven to earth, to the middle of a bustling, Middle Eastern town where he was born, and to a small village where he grew, learned a trade from his earthly father and knew his neighbors.

In this small gesture of shopping locally, then, we have one more opportunity to imitate him in our daily lives. And, as we buy gifts that support the community, we'll be reminded even more to praise him for his great gift to us: the gift of his Son, born in a town out of love for us, to save us from our sins.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 6:00 AM

December 21, 2010

Four Exploitative Words

We're well into our "Twelve Days Before Christmas" series here at Strangely Dim, wherein we propose practices and purchases that contribute to a more just, more peaceful world. December's a particularly good time of year to undertake such an adventure, since it coincides roughly with the onslaught of year-end appeals by nonprofits. During a recession such organizations find it harder than usual to generate their operating budget; people's perceived discretionary income shrinks and their concerns become increasingly localized. It's tempting for people doing good work throughout the planet--good but often mundane and inherently unappealing--to sex up their appeals with big promises:

Give us $35 and we'll lift a little child out of extreme poverty! Look at the little child! Isn't she adorable! How can you let her continue to languish in these awful conditions while you enjoy your hot buttered rum and figgy pudding! Thirty-five bucks and all this goes away--act now!

As much as I enjoy the song, there's probably no more brazen an example than "Do They Know It's Christmas?" (Hey, remember the 80s?!?)

There's a world outside your window
And it's a world of dreaded fear
Where the only water flowing is a bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you. . . .

Here's to you
Raise your glass for everyone
Here's to them
Underneath that burning sun
Do they know it's Christmas time at all?

There are, for the record, literally chimes of doom clanging while a bitter Sting, Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon and U2's Bono sing along. Even songwriter/organizer Bob Geldof regrets this one.

It's a delicate balance charitable organizations must strike. They do good work, they need money, and they have all these pictures of the people they help. And their pitch is, essentially, true: there is a world outside most of our windows that bears little resemblance to the comfort and joy people of means experience as everyday reality. The sad fact is that there are ways of exploiting people in unfortunate circumstances that extend well beyond forced prostitution and political oppression. Sometimes we exploit those we love, unwittingly, simply in the way we talk about them.

Chris Heuertz, author of two IVP books (most recently Friendship at the Margins) and contributor to a third (Living Mission), has written a helpful reminder for the Washington Post. Those pictures in those mailings feature people who have names and lives; they're not "the poor," "the unfortunate," "the slaves" or "the blank." They're flesh and blood and soul and spirit. We need them as much as they need us; our redemption is caught up in theirs.

So on this fourth day before Christmas, as we go through our mail and consider our last-minute 2010 tax deductions, we would be well served by remembering that the faces peering at us are not mere props; in the eyes of God "the slave is our brother . . . and in [Jesus'] name all oppression shall cease."


If, by the way, you're looking for a last-minute gift, take a peek at Think Out Loud, a collaborative project put together by Minneapolis/St. Paul musicians and led by poet Tyler Blanski, to raise awareness and funds for the needs of homeless people in the Twin Cities. Tyler just sent it to me out of the blue; heck of a way to make a new friend. Anyway, it's great music in a variety of genres from a state that's been home to some of the biggest names in pop music. (To wit: Prince, Dylan, Westerburg, et al.; none of those folks appear on the album, for the record, although a cover of Dylan's "Ride Me High" is on there.) Pay for the CD here and forward the link to someone you like who likes good music. At least I think that's how it'll work; if not, I suppose you'll have bought yourself a little treat at the end of the year.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:32 AM

December 19, 2010

Six Beans A-Roasting

So, we talk a lot about fair trade and social justice stuff here at Strangely Dim. And, since I'm writing this post, I'll own up (again) to talking a lot about coffee. I did it in my previous post, and it's even in my little bio on the sidebar to this blog. (If you can solve the mystery of how I can read a book while holding a pen in one hand and a mug of hot coffee in the other, I'll give you a high-five.) But recently I had an experience with coffee that made me start thinking differently about the whole thing.

I usually feel like I'm doing very well buying coffee that is either organic or fair trade. If I find coffee that is both organic and fair trade, I feel like I've just found the end of a rainbow. If it tastes good too, well, you can just imagine how wonderful that is. To be sure, I don't always drink fair trade, organic, palate-pleasing coffee. But I'll admit to being enough of a coffee snob that I'll take the good-tasting stuff over the bad-tasting non-organic/fair-trade varieties.

The most excellent cup of coffee I recently sipped (yesterday, in fact) was roasted locally and hand-delivered to my door the same day. It had a heavy, caramelly sweetness, and it was roasted by a local business that hires ex-offenders as part of a vision to prevent recidivism among former offenders. This helps to build stronger families and communities among a group of people regularly forgotten or ostracized. Was this coffee fair trade or organic? Probably not (at least, the blend description did not include that information). But Second Chance Coffee Company of Wheaton, Illinois, "operates under the premise that we can use every part of our business to 'love our neighbor as ourselves' to positively impact the spiritual, social and economic condition of our employees, their families and the communities in which they live." They do roast fair trade and organic beans (and those are labeled as such). But there's another purpose to their company, and their website spells it out pretty clearly:

Over 20,000 prisoners are released from Illinois State corrections facilities into the Chicago area every year. More than 12,000 of those ex-prisoners are re-incarcerated within three years of release. The cycle of recidivism is a ubiquitous tale of wasted lives and victimized communities that is repeated among more than 600,000 ex-prisoners in communities across our nation each year. . . . Recognizing that what we offer only addresses part of the problem, Second Chance Coffee Company also works closely with post-prison support organizations that provide the help that we cannot. These organizations share our faith and provide counseling, mentoring, life skills training and a supportive community for the former offenders that we employ.

Second Chance Coffee Company's premium brand, I Have a Bean, is roasted locally in Wheaton, delivered locally for $1.00 (shipping to everywhere else is easily determined on the website) and has a constantly changing variety of blends to choose from. I've looked on the website three days this week, and there have been new roasts and blends to choose from each day--so there's a good variety for the restless palate to enjoy. They currently roast four days a week, and offer customers the option to pick up their orders onsite. They have several very nice gift packages as well, including several with sample sizes of their coffee.

In addition, 50 percent of the purchase price of their Uganda Kapchorwa Sebei blend (a limited-edition blend) goes to support the People's Resource Center. It's pricey ($25.00 per pound), but proceeds contribute to a great cause, in addition to fulfilling Second Chance's vision to assist ex-offenders and their families.

There are numerous options for buying fair-trade coffee, including Land of a Thousand Hills and brands sold at Ten Thousand Villages, which support fair wages and justice around the globe. But if you're looking to go local (or maybe do something new), get some Sumatra Mandheling Guyo Supreme Fair Trade Organic (whew!) from I Have a Bean to go with your new eco-conscious travel mug.

As Lisa reminded us in her recent post, the people that organizations like IJM and Second Chance Coffee Company seek to help are real, and have names--even if we may never know them or their very real lives. Another great part of supporting companies like these is that it's easy to become involved in the lives of these people in the regular course of our own daily walk. Even as we buy our daily bean throughout the year, we can be reminded of those who grow, process, roast, grind and deliver it, and invite the Spirit of Christ to change our lives as well.   

Posted by Christa Countryman at 8:00 AM | TrackBack (0)

December 18, 2010

On the Seventh Day Before Christmas . . . You'll Just Have to Wait

When I think of the seventh day of Christmas, I think of the seven swans my true love gave to me. And when I think of swans, I think of two things: The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White, which even when I was five years old made me a wee bit weepy; and Seven Swans by Sufjan Stevens, which may be one of the greatest albums ever.

I was turned on to Sufjan Stevens after a chance encounter with his song "Chicago" on the great Chicago radio station WXRT; there I learned of his groundbreaking album Come on Feel the Illinoise, the second in his supposed fifty-state concept effort. He's since abandoned that plan, but I became obsessed with him anyway. I sent an e-mail to his label inviting him to write a book for IVP (he never wrote me back!); I gave Illinoise to everyone I could think of for Christmas; I bought albums by artists he liked; and I snooped around in his backlist. There I found Seven Swans, a more subdued, reflective album than Illinoise (and that's saying something, people).

This year I learned that there's a tribute in the works, with a variety of artists (from Derek Webb and David Crowder to Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Half-Handed Cloud). Proceeds from the album will go to fight breast cancer. Not sure why, but that's the plan. Here's the sticky point: the album won't be out till March 23. It's enough of a letdown to make me think Sufjan had this in mind when he wrote "Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)"

I honestly never thought of Seven Swans as a Christmas album before. I always wondered about the title, but never made the connection. Now I see it: the album is wildly christocentric, with allusions to Old Testament messianic prophecies and beatific visions. I once spent a whole day listening to one track--"Transfiguration," which recounts the time Jesus ascended a mountain with two of his disciples to meet with Moses and Elijah. You can read about that encounter (mine with the music, not Jesus' with the prophets) here. As reasons for the season go, Seven Swans makes a pretty good case.

Since the tribute album won't be out till closer to Easter (which is similarly appropriate, I suppose), I guess we just have to wait--which, seven days before Christmas, technically still Advent, is what we're supposed to do. So on this seventh day before Christmas, maybe preorder the tribute album for someone who needs a fresh encounter with Jesus. Maybe listen to the original all day long. Maybe make time to pray for or visit with someone who's struggling with (or has struggled with) breast cancer. Maybe buy The Trumpet of the Swan for your niece or nephew or daughter or son or grandpa or grandma and read it to her or him. In any case, remember today that while we're preparing for Christmas, we're waiting, always waiting, for Jesus--who's with us, always with us.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 6:01 AM

December 16, 2010

Nine Ladies Dancing

If you know your Christmas carols, you'll know that today, the ninth day of (or, in the Strangely Dim world, before) Christmas, if I had a true love, he would give me nine ladies dancing. This is not, inherently, a particularly useful gift (especially considering the fact that my apartment living room will just fit nine people who are calmly sitting--but nine people dancing would cause some serious injuries), which eases some the fact that I don't currently have a true love to give me anything on the ninth day, dancing ladies or otherwise (and thanks for bringing it up. Oh wait . . .).

If you really know your carols, though, you'll also know that the nine dancing ladies in the song actually stand for the fruits of the Spirit (yup, there's nine; go ahead and count 'em: love, joy, peace . . .). The fruits of the Spirit are, of course, a fantastic gift for any true love to give his beloved (not me, of course, because I don't currently have a true love, but some of you may. And I'm not bitter about it. I'm at peace about it. In fact, I'm full of joy anyway, and patiently waiting, with gentleness, love and self-control. Also kindness, goodness and faithfulness. So there.). But we know that no person can give us those fruits (though some people may play a role in traits like patience being developed in us)--which is why the true love, in the song, stands for God, the one who transforms us through his Spirit (and, I might add, who thankfully serves as the true love for us all, married and single alike. So I would take a little refill on those fruits of the Spirit, God. Some of them are running a little low . . .).

We're hoping our Strangely Dim guide to Advent and thoughtful gift-giving will be part of that cultivating, shaping work that he does, by helping us get outside of ourselves and the craziness of December and honor, love and serve those around us, both friends and family and people we may not even know. People like Rati and Astrid Rosa and Manjula and Chenchamma and Charlyn and Luisa and Manali and Margaret and Veronica.

These nine females are just a few out of thousands of men, women and children rescued through International Justice Mission, a human rights agency that works for justice in the areas of sexual violence, slavery, illegal detention, police brutality, illegal property seizure and sex trafficking. Through their work, many, many men, women and children are dancing for joy because they're now living in freedom.

I could go on and on about IJM and the great work they're doing, but it is, after all, just nine days before Christmas, and I'm aware that you might be feeling a little short on time. So I'll get right to the point: Consider donating money in honor of a friend or family member to an organization like IJM (there are thousands of great ones). What better gift could you give to someone you love? With many organizations, you can even make it personal and designate what part of their work (an area related to the person you're giving the gift to, perhaps) you want the gift of money to go toward. And, of course, it's tax exempt! You can't say that about a Proud to Be American Chia Pet.

So here's the plan (in case you're feeling a little overwhelmed about the number of organizations out there):

1. Think of someone you still need to buy a gift for (it shouldn't be too hard).
2. Think about their life experiences and things they're interested in. (Have they had cancer or some other type of illness? Are they involved in children's ministry? Do they love to share the gospel? Do they have a heart for those with addictions?)
3. Then donate money to an organization (preferably one that's well known and reputable, so you know where your money is going) related to one of those interests.

Simple, huh? Just a few clicks of the mouse and you've taken care of another Christmas gift--and participated in God's work of bringing his kingdom to earth.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 3:24 PM

December 15, 2010

Ten Cups A-Brewing

So . . . when was the last time you thought about your local landfill?

You weren't expecting me to say landfill, were you? Especially this close to Christmas, when we're talking about giving and receiving gifts, not throwing them away. We here at Strangely Dim like to keep you, our readers, both informed and on your toes. We've got that multi-tasking thing down to an art.

I haven't thought about landfills in years. On the other hand, I do think a lot about coffee. I drink plenty of it--at home, at work, in my car, in coffee shops. And recently I was made aware of a very sobering fact: every time I get my fix in a paper cup, that cup probably ends up in a landfill. It doesn't matter if it's recyclable paper; unless you live in one of the rare locations where commercial recycling is available and businesses and patrons participate in recycling, your cup most likely ends up in a landfill too. Eventually.

Paper cups are so commonplace that they're almost unnoticeable, unless they fail to do their job and their contents end up on your favorite white shirt or on the seat of your car. They are, in the main, a convenient delivery system for our daily habit. When we're done with them, we simply throw them away. If the cup is recyclable, it's understandable to think of it as "better" for the environment. But it takes a while for even a recyclable cup to break down--even longer if it's wrapped up tightly in a very non-recyclable plastic garbage bag. And let's consider: according to this article by Earth911.com, Starbucks customers alone contribute approximately 3 billion cups to landfills all on their very own. That's just Starbucks customers. The article goes on to say that, according to Global Green USA, "every year, 58 billion paper cups are used in the U.S. at restaurants, events and homes. If all paper cups in the U.S. were recycled, 645,000 tons of waste would be diverted from landfills each year."

I think we can do much better than this.

My solution (albeit an imperfect one) has been to keep a travel mug with me, or to order my cuppa in a mug if I plan to drink it in the store. So, for the coffee and tea lovers in your life (or any hot drink lovers, really) let me humbly suggest a travel mug as a welcome Christmas gift, along with some fair-trade coffee or tea (or other sustainable or community-minded product--more suggestions on that to come). Travel mugs are regularly available pretty much anywhere you buy coffee or tea, but I did find one earth-friendly option: the Eco Travel Mug--made from 100 percent corn, organic and compostable. (Please don't ask me how it works . . .)

Some other alternatives to plastic or stainless steel travel mugs include ceramic, glass or recycled glass tumblers. Even tea drinkers can find travel mugs with convenient loose-tea brewing baskets in them. (I have one of those, too, and I love it.)

So, if you're into the "new year's resolution" (or just into the sustainable lifestyle/sacramental worldview thing) thing, this gift is a great way to get started: A new year, a new mug, a new goal. Merry Christmas, all!

Posted by Christa Countryman at 4:03 PM | Comments (2) are closed | TrackBack (0)

December 14, 2010

On the Leavened Day of Christmas . . .

We continue our "twelve days before Christmas" series with this reflection on owning our leaven--or something like that.


Of all the Christmas kitsch in the world, my favorite is perhaps the image of Santa Claus kneeling at the manger, praying to the baby Jesus.


This collision of Christmas symbols strikes me as the crux of our holiday ennui: we like the glitz and glam, we like giving and getting presents, but we feel conflicted because we like Jesus and want to give him his due. We want the holy night, but we also want the figgy pudding. It's like we're matzo with a little yeast--something doesn't seem quite right.


I revel in such discomfort. We are, after all, made for eternity and yet fundamentally finite. We're sinner-saints, if you believe in that sort of thing. We demonstrate as much folly as we do greatness, as much silliness as sanctity. And we believe that Jesus came to earth not just because he wanted to hang out with such lofty personalities as ourselves, but because he saw a world full of people in need of comfort and joy. We need the Son of God to save us from ourselves; we need the light of the world to brighten the eyes of the children of darkness; we need someplace for all the faithful to come, joyful and triumphant, to lay down their gold, frankincense and myrrhic burdens.

Likewise authors Chris Heuertz and Phileena Heuertz (they're also each contributors to our recent release, Living Mission) have an annual tradition called the "Star Wars Nativity" (mostly Chris, I'm fairly certain). Different action figures from Chris's expansive collection are arranged in such a way as to tell the story of Luke 2. (I think Yoda is always Jesus--although mainly because he's baby-sized, not because the Heuertzes worship Yoda.) It strikes me that pretty much everyone has the means at their disposal to re-create the nativity using the silly accoutrements we've loaded up on over the previous twelve months. There's a way of looking at such a creation that would deem it sacrilege, but I'd like to propose that it's a way of taking stock of our leaven, noticing the degree to which we have tethered ourselves to the world we inhabit rather than separating ourselves for the kingdom Jesus envisions for all of us. Anthony de Mello observed this tendency toward varnishing what we believe with what we've become attached to:

You see persons and things not as they are but as you are. If you wish to see them as they are you must attend to your attachments and the fears that your attachments generate. Because when you look at life it is these attachments and fears that will decide what you will notice and what you block out.

Once we've owned our leaven, however, we're better prepared to welcome the bread of life into our midst--to be unleavened where needed and to share a laugh with our maker where appropriate. So on this eleventh day before Christmas, enjoy my makeshift action-figure nativity (Dwight, Oscar and Batman are the wise men; Sylvester Stallone and Juggernaut are the shepherds, and perhaps you can figure it out from there). Then take stock of your life, and acknowledge the leaven you've kneaded into the bread of life this year. And then wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

action nativity small.jpg  


Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 10:37 AM

December 13, 2010

On the Twelfth Day Before Christmas . . .

Snowbound Lisa Rieck sent in the following post to launch our "Twelve Days Before Christmas" (or whatever you prefer to call it) series.




Christmas is now just twelve days away (I know you don't believe me, but count 'em--it's true), so some of you might be feeling the pressure as far as Christmas shopping goes. Others of you, we know, will not start feeling the pressure for another ten days or so. And still others--those of you with bumper stickers on your car that say, "Don't hate me because I'm an overachiever"--finished your Christmas shopping in July. (Don't worry; we don't hate you. We might like you less right now, but come New Year's Day, we'll like you as much as ever. Especially if you found us a really great gift.)


Whatever shopping state you're in, Strangely Dim is here to help. (Aren't we always? We know. You're touched. Feel free to send chocolate. Or cheese logs.) Over the next twelve days, we'll offer you twelve unique, somewhat countercultural ideas for gifts that actually help us remember--in the midst of the frenzy that December often becomes--what we're celebrating in the first place: God with us in flesh and blood, loving us, saving us and inviting us to participate in his kingdom.


(As an aside, we do recognize that, according to the church calendar, the twelve days of Christmas actually start on Christmas day. But we're helping you out here, so cut us a little slack, K? If you want, you can think of this as "A Gift-Giving Guide for the Last Twelve Days of Advent." It doesn't quite have the same ring as "The Twelve Days of Christmas," of course, which I suppose is why that song was never written. If you can make it into a song--well, we just might send you a cheese log.)


So for our first day of Christmas/twelfth-to-last-day of Advent, let me direct you to one of my favorite stores ever: Ten Thousand Villages. Think beautiful, completely unique, hand-crafted ornaments, dishes, sculptures, nativities, jewelry, soaps, scarves, bags. Think fair-trade coffee, tea and chocolate. Think of things you haven't thought of before (like this Whiskered Wrist Rest for Mac and PC lovers alike; this gift unites them all). And think of artists and farmers in Third World countries actually getting a fair wage for their product--which means, among other things, that they can pay for shelter, healthcare and education.


The gifts are so unique that you can just about guarantee you won't be giving someone something they've already gotten. And there are great gift ideas for anyone you'd need to buy for--spouses, kids, siblings, nieces and nephews, teachers, pastors, bosses, even that impossible-to-shop-for male (whoever he is--try a messenger bag, bamboo CD holder or wooden Solitaire game; the break from the video games will be good for him). The Ten Thousand Villages website offers a great gift guide for gifts in all kinds of price ranges.


In addition, shopping at Ten Thousand Villages gives you the opportunity to give anyone with ties to a Third World country (whether due to missions trips, missionaries or Compassion children they support, or children they've adopted) a really personal gift--and one that's supporting a people and country they care about. Everything sold lists the country where it was made, and the store's website allows you to read about the artists and farmers who make the products.


So what are you waiting for? (Well, maybe you're waiting for your lunch break to shop. We affirm that kind of waiting.) And why, now that you're so enlightened, would you want to buy a friend a gift card to Dunkin' Donuts when you could get them this Cheerful Morning Mug and some fair-trade coffee, and support people in Bali and Ecuador?


So. There you go. Gift idea #1. You could easily find five or six--or nine or ten--gifts at Ten Thousand Villages just during your lunch break (or the kids' nap time) today, in the comfort of your work space or kitchen table. But you might want to save a few people to shop for, since this is just the start. We have eleven more days of smart, thoughtful, justice-oriented gift ideas for you--ones that will make people think you've been thinking about their Christmas gift for months (which is really what it's all about, right?). You can thank us later--or now: there is this bracelet that I think is really great . . .




Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 10:52 AM | Comments (2) are closed

December 10, 2010

The Scholar and the Scum of the Earth, Part Three

Lots of IVP's authors know each other. A few of them attend the same churches. But there's probably no odder mashup among our author list than Craig Blomberg, distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary and author of six IVP books (including two of the acclaimed New Studies in Biblical Theology), and Mike Sares, author of the Likewise book Pure Scum and pastor of Scum of the Earth. Here (understandably over the course of three posts) Craig explains the divine logic behind his odd journey to membership at a church called Scum. Enjoy this refreshing story of how God brings diverse people together and uses them to bless the world. 


After consulting with Mike Sares, I experimented for two years with an after-service time, once a month, for those who wanted to hang around in the small lounge adjacent to the auditorium and discuss issues in a "Bible Answer Man"-like format. 

I was stunned that we would gather up to forty people, sometimes for up to a couple of hours. Skeptics and seekers alike attended. If a question was more an opinion than a factual one, I clarified and explained the range of Christian opinions as well as my own. Where I was dissatisfied with conventional evangelical views on a topic, I did not feel obligated to uphold them. Where there was truth in non-Christian or nonevangelical views on a topic, I affirmed it. All that seemed greatly appreciated. I thought of how often I had tried to create something like this kind of forum in other churches, even on my seminary campus, but people were always too busy or didn't feel they had the need for it. My wife also began to mentor--first one, then two, then three young women. Soon she was co-leading a Bible study. 

During those two years we got hooked. After nine years as missions pastor in our suburban church (except that the church changed the title from pastor to director whenever a woman held the position--even though the job description remained unchanged), my wife realized it was time to move on. Our suburban church had voted to embark on a $33 million relocation and building program, only three years after the previous elder board on which I had served (now all rotated off) had unanimously voted that they believed God's will was for us to stay on our current property and maximize the growth of our facility there (subject to local zoning regulations). The new board discovered that those regulations wouldn't allow them to build everything they wanted, and "God's will" was, equally unanimously, redefined. 

Scum, by contrast, got its first building of its own two years ago for $650,000, thanks to generous gifts from friends. A two-year internal capital campaign had netted only $100,000, which was actually extraordinary given the resources of the congregation. Average monthly offerings are about $7,000, of which $2,000 or so goes to benevolence and $2,000 goes to mission. Mike and the other, largely very part-time, younger pastoral staff all raise their own support. Despite all its dysfunction and dysfunctional people, Scum is a wonderful place to serve. The people there are more interested in keeping in touch with us outside of church than our suburban Sunday School class ever was.

The contrasts couldn't have been clearer. My heart was broken. I don't leave places or institutions easily. I cherish long-held friendships. But God's call became increasingly clear. We were to join Scum. 

Please pray for us. Please read Pure Scum. And then ask God if there might be even a few small ways, as a result, that he's leading you to help change your church somehow.


Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 2:40 PM

December 7, 2010

Required Reading

I just got a digital copy of the new book Besides the Bible: 100 Books That Have, Should or Will Create Christian Culture, edited by three of the architects of Burnside Writers Collective--Dan Gibson, Jordan Green and John Pattison. You might think of it as a shopping list for Christmas; the featured titles range from classic to very new and widely recognized to practically invisible (full disclosure: I wrote a review of nature's most nearly perfect book, Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose), so I think it's a safe bet that there's something for everyone in there--even, for your friendly atheist friends, a profile of three recent books challenging the historical and moral legitimacy of Christianity.

Four books published by InterVarsity Press made the list. Dan Gibson did the write-up of three of them, and John Pattison wrote the fourth, so I'm afraid Jordan Green will be getting a lump of coal from IVP this year. In what I think is chronological order, here are the picks from IVP:

Congratulations to these four contemporary classics!

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:05 AM | Comments (1) are closed

December 2, 2010

The Scholar and the Scum of the Earth, Part Two

Lots of IVP's authors know each other. A few of them attend the same churches. But there's probably no odder mashup among our author list than Craig Blomberg, distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary and author of six IVP books (including two of the acclaimed New Studies in Biblical Theology), and Mike Sares, author of the Likewise book Pure Scum and pastor of Scum of the Earth. Here (in the second of three posts) Craig explains the divine logic behind his odd journey to membership at a church called Scum. Enjoy this refreshing story of how God brings diverse people together and uses them to bless the world. 


Why do I appear in Pure Scum? Why did an evangelical New Testament professor and his wife, happily ensconced in suburban church life a decade ago, begin to visit Scum of the Earth Church five years later on Sunday nights, when their services were held, without any intention of leaving their "morning church"? Why did they make the transition two-and-a-half years later from trying to juggle participation in two churches to full involvement with Scum?

I knew Mike Sares from his years as a student at Denver Seminary. Raised in a culture remarkably similar to the Greek Orthodox world and family life depicted in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Mike is a large, strong, former blue-collar worker who became a pastor because of his equally large, strong heart for young adults in the city from dysfunctional backgrounds who need Jesus. As much as just about anybody I've ever known, Mike is a "what you see is what you get" type of person. He speaks his mind, shoots from the hip, apologizes when he blows it, dreams big dreams, loves to delegate responsibility to others so that they can grow, can come down strong when he has to but tolerates others trying to push him around a fair bit when he knows they are well-intentioned--and occasionally even when they are not. And he passionately wants people to come to Jesus and grow in him.

Scum was looking for mentors. Apart from the dozen or so homeless people that attended Scum, there were probably less than a dozen of the 150 or so attenders in 2005 who were over 40. Most weren't over 30. I was asked if I would consider mentoring a young African American man who was a very gifted Christian rapper. The commitment was only to meet for an hour once every couple of weeks for a year. 

I chuckled to myself. Could they have picked anyone I had less in common with? There aren't very many African Americans at Scum. There are a few. There are a few Hispanics, a few Asians. But overall Scum is pretty white. As for rap music, I had heard of Eminem, been turned off by his lyrics, and that's about all I knew of it. This young African American man dressed creatively, groomed creatively, but was extremely talented and artistic. He wasn't the least bit intimidated by my position as a New Testament professor at a seminary. In fact, I had to overcome the stereotypes associated with such an individual in his mind.

If there's one thing Scum has touted, it's authenticity, genuineness. Be yourself. Not your sinful self, of course, but in all neutral matters related to subcultures. So I decided to test the waters. I dressed down to attend church and to meet with my new friend, but I didn't wear anything or act any way I wouldn't when I was at my most casual in public elsewhere. Sometimes subcultures tout authenticity but they mean only via their definition of it. My new friend was different. Scum is different. If you come dressed just to try to impress someone, it doesn't matter what you wear, they'll see through you. If you're being yourself, no amount of jewelry, body piercing, hairstyle or color or clothing (so long as the key body parts are covered) can lead to rejection.

What most of Scum's attenders can spot and dislike a mile away is being fake. Artificial flowers in the sanctuary will turn them off as fast as anything. Exaggerated stage "performance" where everybody stares intently at the musician being featured with sappy grins on their faces will do the same.  So, too, with people sneaking about quietly to be ready for what's coming next when in fact everybody is supposed to be praying. People getting bent out of shape because the projector didn't work, the microphone battery went dead or the temperature was too cold or too hot are all sure-fire turn offs. They long for genuine worship where the focus is on God and not on the people up front, so the lights are usually dimmed. The preaching is almost always expository, more often than not working through books of the Bible, seldom slick or polished, but the illustrations and applications are more relevant, transparent, and true-to-the lives of the people who come than in most congregations.

I hit it off with the man I mentored in ways I couldn't have dreamed. One of my most precious tributes in writing, in fact, is not in one of the books by friends who have quoted me because of my scholarship but because I am thanked on the back cover of one of this young man's CDs.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 4:34 AM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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