June 21, 2011
Experiments in CommunityAs Dave has explained, we at Strangely Dim are blogging our way through Mark Scandrette's Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love. Truth be told, I'm a little behind in my reading. But, as it turns out, I might be a little ahead in my experimenting. About a year-and-a-half ahead, actually. Here's how.
Mark's approach to discipleship is as much about life together as it is about practicing the way. One of his first experiments (called Have2Give1, in which he and a group of others committed to sell or give away half their possessions and give the money to global poverty relief) was born out of a desire for "a context that would encourage honesty, invite us into community and move us from information into shared actions and practices." And one of the (many) powerful results was the connection that formed as the group practiced and learned together. "We were surprised at the depth of connection we felt with a diverse group of people we barely knew when the experiment started," he writes. "Working on an intensive project seemed to produce an accelerated sense of intimacy. Rather than merely trafficking in ideas or rituals, we now had a common story to tell."
My experiment in community over the past year or so has been just like Mark's (without that bit about giving away half my possessions). Which is to say, I've moved toward community much more intentionally in the past year than I have in a long time, in some normal and some unusual ways, and I've seen God's work in growing intimacy and connection among his people as a result.
For an introvert like me, almost any move toward community is risky. And anxiety-producing. However much I might want it, it takes a pretty good pep talk from myself to get up the gumption to meet new people. And sometimes, as you can imagine, my pep talks are less than convincing.
This past fall, though, out of a desire for more community, I started to think and pray about leading a small group at my church. It's a relatively small and normal step in relationship-building, but I was nervous about it on a few levels:
In May, I took another risk in community. After living with my sister for several years (read: very low risk) and then a good friend for a year and a half (read: still very low on the risk spectrum), I found myself needing to find a new living situation. The introvert/control freak in me was shouting (well, at least speaking loudly; introverts don't tend to shout too much), "Be on your own! Find your own space! Retreat, retreat, retreat!" (The more practical side of me was shouting, "You can't afford it!" but that's a different story for another time and place. Like when gas here hits five dollars a gallon.)
I explored some options; I prayed; I listened. And I sensed God leading me to move in with a family . . . whom I'd only met once . . . with four kids under the age of ten. In case you're not an introvert, let me just say that moving in with six people you don't know and sharing all the living spaces except for your bedroom and bathroom is right up there on the terror scale with swimming with sharks or having to dance on national television as a guest on So You Think You Can Dance. I was afraid I might get a little overwhelmed.
Not to mention the fact that, because the family had agreed to rent the bedroom/bathroom suite to someone else for the summer, living with them would require three (count 'em, 3) moves over the summer: moving out of my apartment and into their house, moving out of their house and into someone else's place for the summer, and then moving out of that pIace and back into their house.
But I moved in anyway, because I wanted to intentionally move toward community, instead of away from it (which living on my own would have done). And that step toward deeper "life together" with others, of all different ages, has been one of the best decisions I've ever made. The chance to live with a family--to observe marriage and parenting up close, to develop relationships and hang out with great kids, to build new friendships with their parents, to observe hospitality, to learn healthy boundaries, to share living spaces--has been invaluable.
Just last week, I made my second move into my "summer home"--the house of a coworker-friend (and IVP author!) and her husband, who also belong to my church. This is a new kind of community for all of us, but one that I've already been grateful for in many ways.
So what's my point? Here at Strangely Dim, we'll each--and together--be choosing experiments in faith to try. We hope you'll join us in that and tell us about it; we'd love the chance to do "life together" with you, even in that long-distance kind of way. I hope, though, in the practice part, that we intentionally pursue community as we go. Choosing to fast from all media for a week is one thing, but asking someone else to do it with you might be a little scarier. I'm guessing, though, it will be that much more meaningful, and grow you in ways a solo-media fast can't.
As for me, having completed my second of three moves, I'm thinking of giving away half my possessions. Anyone want to join me?
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 11:19 AM
June 15, 2011
Experiments in the Kingdom of Love: Taking the Sermon on the Mount Seriously
In response to the recent release of Mark Scandrette's remarkable Practicing the Way of Jesus, we at Strangely Dim are trying our hands at "experiments in the kingdom of love" built around five categories of primal need, alluded to in the Lord's Prayer:
Good experiments, according to Mark, are based on the real, lived experience of the disciples in question and stretch them into uncomfortable (yet ultimately transformative) realms of experience. My first experiment has been seven days of daily reading the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5--7). I chose this experiment for a whole variety of reasons, principally because a verse from the Sermon on the Mount was the first part of the Bible I ever memorized:
I memorized that a looooooong time ago, when I was an angst-ridden college student, and the memory of it has survived all the high-falutin theology and low-brow culture I've crammed into my brain since. A person could do worse than to remind himself those words of Jesus every day or so, but it's been a loooooong time since I went to the trouble of doing just that.
Beyond this nostalgic motivation, the Sermon on the Mount is the subject of another Likewise book I'm really excited about--Jamie Arpin-Ricci's Cost of Community, releasing this winter. Jamie wrestles with the sermon from the vantage point of his urban monastic community in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with guiding insights from the life and teachings of Francis of Assisi. Jamie's a deep soul doing good work, and I could do worse than emulate him in my ongoing faith formation.
The sermon is also the high point of Jesus' teachings in the Gospel of Matthew, which is the subject of yet another Likewise book releasing this winter. This second volume in the Resonate series is written by Matt Woodley, whom I came to admire as I edited his Folly of Prayer. He's a great, wise writer, and the sermon is a focal point of his latest work.
As if all that weren't enough, I've been reading Eric Metaxas's massive biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which includes a pivotal moment in 1934, during the rise of the Nazis and the apostatization of the German Church, when Bonhoeffer wrote the following to his brother Karl-Friedrich:
All this to say, a week in the Sermon on the Mount seemed appropriate, to say the least.
Over the past seven days I've read the Sermon in various translations, from the archaic to the folksy/contemporary, from the Roman Catholic to the flaming fundamentalist. At the suggestion of my friend Mark I "read" it aurally, using the audio feature provided by the You Version. A few things have jumped out to me as I've simmered in the sermon.
For example, Jesus talks about reward a lot. The poor in spirit and the righteous persecuted "get" the kingdom of heaven; the meek "get" the earth; the pure in heart "get" to see God; those who are persecuted for Jesus' sake "get" the reward of the prophets. And on and on and on.
Reward isn't the only topic, of course; there's also judgment--against the angry and spiteful, the lecherous and lustful, the cold and the calculating. There's a way of reading the Sermon on the Mount that is decidedly "do this, don't do that." In this way I suppose it recalls another sermon on another mount--Moses' reiteration of the Law to the people of Israel from Sinai in Deuteronomy 28--30, where he sets before his people life and death, and encourages them to choose life. Jesus is doing something similar, but ironically, he's encouraging people not to choose life but rather to choose him: we are blessed when we suffer persecution in his name, and we are wise to sacrifice our bodies in an effort to protect our fidelity to him.
If everyone practiced the lifestyle outlined in the Sermon on the Mount, the world would be a better place. But what if everyone practiced it except for one person? How handily could Hitler have trampled over a world of the meek waiting to inherit the earth? Arguably, as I'm learning from Bonhoeffer's story, a collective, steadfast turning of the other cheek in the face of evil merely allows evil to continue unchecked. We may be storing up treasures in heaven, but we're capitulating to evil on earth.
And yet the great justice movements of the past century have been characterized by exactly this turning of the cheek, this refusal to repay evil for evil. I don't know fully what to make of it, but I note that Jesus' sermon is directed not to all the onlookers, who nevertheless heard every word and marveled at it, but rather to the disciples--called out ones whose resoluteness in the face of suffering and persecution by the powers that be would gradually convert the world.
It could be that the world can only learn to distinguish good from evil, to choose life over death, by watching evil and good in action. "Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit" (Matthew 7:17). There are any number of people, it seems, willing to play the part of the bad tree; playing the good tree, it turns out, is harder than it looks, and its rewards are generally deferred far beyond our preferred timeline. But as Bonhoeffer put it as he held out against the rise of the Nazis, "here alone lies the force that can blow all of this idiocy sky-high."
Anyway, these are the thoughts that have gone through my brain as I've undertaken this experiment, as I've read and reread the Sermon on the Mount. There's something undeniably appealing about blowing all the idiocy of the world sky-high. So here's to the audacious aspiration to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. No seven-day experiment can accomplish that, but as a lifelong commitment, it's something that on my more self-confident days I'm willing to undertake.
June 10, 2011
Next weekend I will attend a concert by one of my favorite musical artists. This feels, oddly, both momentous and mundane. In my life I've attended maybe a handful of concerts, and most of those were free (usually a prerequisite). One was logistically complicated, including a multicar caravan of college friends, an overnight stay, and some relationship nightmares--but at the time we felt that it was worth it to see both Jennifer Knapp and Third Day. (I'll let you do your own math on how long ago that might have been.) They billed it as a worship service, which was weird to me--I considered it a concert, since I'd paid for it.
This year I discovered Florence + the Machine. Who knows why certain artists capture our attention; I grew up on Willie Nelson and the Forester Sisters, then for a while listened to lots of "Contemporary Christian Music" in college. Artists like Florence, who represent a much broader range of music, have sometimes felt like a reward at the end of a long process. At any rate, I've been surprised by how strongly I connected to Lungs, Florence's debut album. In some ways, listening to it has felt like therapy.
Perhaps one reason Florence's lyrics captured my imagination so fully is connected to my lifelong enjoyment of science fiction and fantasy literature--where a properly oriented sense of realism makes an image of Snow White stitching up a circuit board seem both shocking and even a bit blasé, as is the case in "Blinding." I'll even go so far as to admit my fascination with the Twilight and Harry Potter stories. Indeed, some of the lyrics from Florence's songs sound to me like attempts to get onto movie soundtracks. "Cosmic Love" is kind of a musical embodiment of the Twilight Saga's New Moon; "Rabbit Heart" reminds me very strongly of Alice in Wonderland; "Dog Days are Over" was a kind of theme song for the movie Eat, Pray, Love. And, in fact, I first encountered Florence on the Eclipse soundtrack, on which her song "Heavy in Your Arms" melded magic with tragedy in the depiction of a deeply troubling love--a dark compulsion that ultimately drags both lovers down--entirely appropriate for the story of Bella, Jacob and Edward. I'm pretty sure a werewolf is part of the scene in her song "Howl."
The way in which she combines her odd, disturbing, dark stories and images with whimsy is probably another reason I've kept returning to Lungs. Part of the whimsy is in the instrumentation (as especially heard in "Cosmic Love," "Rabbit Heart" and "Blinding"), which includes the use of flowing harp arpeggios--unusual in some music genres, especially in rock-esque music. The effect is lovely, ethereal, sobering, hopeful and lofty. In other words, she satisfies my intellectual need for realism and my ego's need for a bit of creative self-indulgence. For instance, when she sings "No more dreaming / like a girl so in love with the wrong world," I find myself questioning whether I need to change my perspective on things a little. When she sings about being a "rabbit-hearted girl" who needs to be "lion-hearted" I think of Alice in Wonderland and courage. And when she sings of the dog days being over and happiness hitting her "like a train on the tracks," I am conflicted--does such a violent happiness, when it happens, really make us happy? Are we sometimes afraid of embracing something good out of fear of losing the familiar? Is there a downside to being surprised by joy?
At the same time, it's bewitching to think of being hunted down by happiness, instead of endlessly seeking it out, only to be met by disappointment.
But much of what Florence writes about is visceral as well as ethereal, and the title of the album should be considered fair warning. Lungs, hearts, eyes, the cosmos, death, sex, depression, happiness, disillusionment and freedom all figure in. Even God makes an appearance at the end of the album. And while I have a feeling it's a strategic inclusion, the lyrics are also a simple yet worthy reminder: when things are rough, when "sometimes I feel like throwin' my hands up in the air, / I know I can count on you.../ you've got the love I need to see me through."
All that to say, seeing her live should be quite an experience.
June 7, 2011
Experiments in the Kingdom of Love
I have long held that Mark Scandrette, author of the new Likewise book Practicing the Way of Jesus, is the coolest guy in the room, regardless of the room. Bono, Bonhoeffer and Bon Jovi could all be playing euchre together, but if Mark walked up and asked to join the game, they'd all start feeling giddy and self-conscious. I'm sure of it.
Anyway, Mark is now part of the Likewise family, which makes all of us cooler by association. Congratulations to all of us. In celebration of his book's release, we've decided to try his book on for size, and report on our experiences to you, our devoted and decidedly cool readers.
Mark has been described by my colleagues in marketing as what you get when you put Dallas Willard (intellectual champion of embodied, kingdom spirituality) and Shane Claiborne (soulful activist who makes his own clothes) into a blender. Not that we'd ever do that, but you have to admit that a Scandrette SmoothieTM is a pretty cool mental image. But I digress. The gist of Mark's book is that the spiritual formation that we've come to accept for ourselves--largely informational and taken in relatively passively, maybe best visualized by a lecture hall or a museum--is more a reflection of our contemporary culture than the model of discipleship put forth in the Gospels. Jesus didn't call a class to order or send his followers on a self-guided tour to read the captions of untouchable works of art; rather he invited followers into a tactile, three-dimensional experience of God and community.
A better image of for discipleship, Mark argues, is a workshop or an art studio, where scraps and flickers and stains surround works in progress, where people are perpetually honing their craft. Discipleship, according to Mark's vision, is less like a lecture hall and more like a dojo, where people learn by moving their bodies, by taking action, by going and doing.
You can perhaps imagine how disorienting such a thesis can be to people who work with books for a living. So much of Christian publishing is intellectual exercise--and appropriately so, for reading is a discipline of the mind, and discipleship of the mind is as important as discipleship of the body. We are, remember, commanded to love the Lord our God with our heart, soul, mind and strength. But for a few weeks at least, we'd like to consider how following Jesus changes when you--as Mark advised me the first time we met--"get out of your mind and into your body." (He prefaced that statement by calling me "Dude," something I imagine Dallas Willard rarely says.)
After setting up the premise of his model, in Practicing the Way of Jesus Mark offers "experiments" of varying lengths of time organized around five primal needs he observes in the Lord's Prayer: identity ("Our Father in heaven . . ."); purpose ("Your kingdom come, your will be done . . ."); security ("Give us this day . . ."); community ("Forgive us . . . as we forgive"); and freedom and peace ("Lead us not into temptation . . ."). The experiments in the book are intended to help people get started, but they're not a checklist: the ideal experiment is not parroted but discerned, based on the context and particular struggles of the community gathered. In fact, Mark has set up a website to allow groups to share stories of experiments they've come up with, and the first fifty groups to sign up at the site will be able to meet privately with Mark via live video chat to get started crafting their own exercises.
With that in mind, our Strangely Dim community is discerning experiments for us individually (and perhaps collectively) to take on. Some of us may do more than one; I, for example, am starting with a seven-day experiment of reading the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) every day. I'll talk about the why behind this experiment in my next post, but given that "reading" is a far cry from "getting out of your head and into your body," I'm already trying to discern what more experiential experiment will be on my to-do list this summer.
We invite you to experiment with Practicing the Way of Jesus this summer as well. And let us know how it's going! This is a kingdom of love we're experimenting with, after all, and--as with every portrait of the kingdom Jesus paints--the more, the merrier.