August 29, 2011
The Quiet Will Inherit the EarthMy sister grew up Irish Catholic. Her husband grew up Quaker. For some reason this is funny to me. At my most awfully gleeful I sat at her wedding, a mashup of Roman Catholic rite and Quaker meeting, waiting for the moment of silence to find out which of my loud Irish uncles would crack under the pressure and shout something ridiculous. Nobody took the bait, sadly, and the wedding proceeded without incident.
Silence is not a significant part of my heritage. I'm a bit of a loudmouth when I want to be, and I regularly enjoy the often boisterous interaction of friends and family. My personal blog is called "Loud Time," for Pete's sake. But my college flirtation with evangelicalism introduced me to quiet time, which is something of an identity marker for evangelicals, and the more I think about it, the more I think it's one of the more important things going right now.
Quiet times are intended as a daily practice that collects together a variety of devotional activities and spiritual disciplines. In the morning, when you rise, the logic goes, the first fruits of your day ought to go to God, by means of prayer, Bible reading, meditation, solitude, silence and private worship. It's your one-stop shop for spiritual growth. Some people are not morning people, of course, so concessions are made such as the evening quiet time, or the midday quiet time, or other more sporadic times of quiet. The main thing is that your piety be buttressed by (and often measured by) the amount of time you dedicate to being still and knowing God is God.
Evangelicals aren't the first to come up with devotional practices and spiritual disciplines, of course. Monks do this stuff every hour on the hour. But monks, by and large, live in cloister, whereas evangelicals tend to live in the real world--cloistered in their own cliques though we may be. Finding a quiet space for a morning quiet time before the morning commute, or before shuttling off the kids to their daily activities, or before looking for a job or a spouse or a next meal or whatever is compelling us on any given day--this is how we do spiritual sustenance in the real world.
At least, that's how we did it before everything went limitless. Now the news cycle is constant, our friends and family even when physically distant are virtually present, our email and text messages and tweets and status updates buzz and brrrring and otherwise beckon. Now there is no quiet time because there is no quiet place. We are harried and helpless, like robots without an off switch.
This is why I'm starting to think that the quiet will inherit the earth.
The quiet time was never really natural. It's a technology, the same as (though, in true postmodern fashion, also radically different from) the printed Bible as a technology for Bible reading, or the guitar as a technology for musical worship. It's the same in that it's a devised means of facilitating a desirous outcome, a utility that makes it easier to do certain things, and leads to those things being done more fully and more effectively. It's different, of course, in that it's immaterial--the quiet time isn't so much a thing as it is, well, a thing. But with a liberal enough definition, even such an immaterial thing can be thought of as technology.
The thing about technologies is that they first get made, and then they start making. Someone once had the bright idea that people use a quiet time to organize and ritualize their devotional lives, and then it became an identity marker and a way of explaining what devotional life is. Meanwhile, someone once had the bright idea that our music, literature, visual media and communications technologies ought to all reside in a cloud city that was always overhead and within reach. That idea caught on quickly and has completely reoriented life. Consider the insights from Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains:
In the choices we have made, consciously or not, about how we use our computers, we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration. . . . As the time we spend scanning Web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work.
Our minds are carried along with us as we give ourselves entirely to technologies of distraction. We are never alone, never unhurried, never undistracted, never quiet. Except for those lucky folks who keep a quiet time.
They say that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. I'd like to suggest that in the land of the manic, those who can keep still are kings and queens in waiting. In stillness we are reminded that God is Lord and we are not, while those who are never still too easily forget that they are not God and busy themselves trying to do what only God can do, to merit what only God merits. In stillness we have the occasion to contemplate the wrongs we have done and the wrongs done to us, as well as the opportunity to discern the path of wisdom for the day. No such opportunity exists for the constantly distracted, who too often stumble in the dark and too rarely heal from their own wounds or repent of their own wrongdoing. The quiet time has become the check and balance against the dominant technologies of our time, a daily occasion to remind ourselves that we serve God, not our machines or ourselves.
So when all you quiet people inherit the earth, do me a favor and remember me, track me down, take my iPhone away from me and invite me to enjoy the silence with you. I'm not a particularly quiet person, but I know what's good for me.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 2:36 PM
August 22, 2011
Equal Time Now! Practicing the Way of Joel Osteen
For most of the summer we at Strangely Dim have been playing with Practicing the Way of Jesus, a new book by Mark Scandrette. Mark is a spiritual director of sorts who believes that discipleship--our lifelong reconfiguration of ourselves according to the teachings and leadings of Jesus--is not a mere intellectual exercise or even a simple matter of private practice but a communal experiment involving our whole selves and a trusted community. We've had fruitful experiments over the course of the summer, and I anticipate that even after the newness of the book wears off, the poignancy of the message will stick around.
But Mark is just one guy, with one guy's perspective on discipleship. In the interest of equal time, I thought it would be prudent to try the experiments on offer from a different source: Joel Osteen.
I first encountered Osteen at a book signing in Nashville. I was signing my first book; he was signing his. I was visited by a handful of people; he had busloads of people snaking through the exhibit. I was bitter and resentful; he just kept flashing that annoyingly friendly smile of his.
Osteen is pastor of one of the largest churches in the United States. This summer he joined U2 and Paul McCartney as the only arena acts to visit Chicago. (U2 played where the Chicago Bears play; Sir Paul, the Cubs; Osteen, the White Sox). His message--his gospel, really--is arguably summed up in the title of that first book of his: Your Best Life Now. Contrast that with Mark's Practicing the Way of Jesus: the subject of Osteen's book is you, the reader of the book, rather than Jesus; the end (your best life) is in view rather than the means (practicing the way); an immediate reward is promised by Osteen, whereas there is no promise to be found in the title of Mark's book. That's not to say Mark's title is bad; it just highlights that these are two very different approaches to the good life.
So, I decided, for seven days I'd take in insights from Osteen and conduct myself accordingly. I wasn't in the mood to drop ten bucks for the daily Osteen app, so I settled for free online content--blog posts, archived articles, that sort of thing. My first Osteen reading was a blog post about a time he was stuck in traffic en route to a big rally. He called ahead to the stadium, and they sent a police officer to get him unstuck. With an officer taking the wheel, Osteen's car violated lane limits and speed limits, with police waving them along all the way. (I can imagine a few stuck commuters offering a different kind of wave.)
The lesson? Like the police, who are (allegedly) above the law, God is not constrained by the laws of medical science, or of finance, or the laws of nature. So don't let your buzz be prematurely killed by the fact that you're in debt, or that you have a debilitating disease, or whatever other circumstances you face that seem insurmountable. Laws are made to be broken, when circumstances call for it and connections allow for it.
I'm reminded of a scene from Gilligan's Island, in which Gilligan floats suspended above his hut, flapping makeshift wings and defying gravity, until the Skipper shouts "You can't fly; it's impossible!" and Gilligan plummets to the earth.
Much of Osteen's message is a matter of what my therapist-wife calls "positive self-talk." Here's an example, which he draws (appropriately) from Psalm 42:
You have to stay on the offensive. Don't wait until you've been down for three days before you decide to do something about it. The moment you feel that discouragement trying to come on you, rise up and say, "No, I'm not going there." You wake up in the morning and feel the blahs, you say, "Nope, that's not for me. This is going to be a good day. It's the day the Lord has made."
In an era when futility can seem to rule the day, when it seems the machines have won, when it seems the best that we can hope for is mere financial prosperity, when, as I read recently, we are miraculously adept at healing rotting bodies but at a loss when it comes to rotting souls--in such an era as this, a regular dose of hopeful defiance, even defiance of the self, can actually help. We do well to remember that this day, however sucky it seems, is the day that the Lord has made. And because God is good, there's potential for every day to be good.
That being said, I can hardly ignore Osteen's (likely unintentional) allusion to Jesus' time in the tomb. Down for three days before removing the stone covering and reclaiming the day, Jesus seems (in this scene at least) to actively resist the preemptive positivity Osteen so regularly preaches.
But I'm running an experiment. I'm not supposed to critique; I'm supposed to kick Osteen's tires. So I spent the week refusing to accept the limitations of my debt burden, my physical fitness, and so on. And I reminded myself to concentrate on the good in the people around me, rather than the things that bug me about them. And I reminded myself whenever I was discouraged or frustrated or disappointed with myself that God made me a masterpiece, or whatever. And I generally felt better about life.
It strikes me that the principal difference between Osteen and Scandrette's models of formation is that Osteen focuses on outlook, whereas Scandrette focuses on lifestyle. Scandrette suggests that we behave our way into a way of perceiving the world, whereas Osteen encourages us to perceive the world a certain way and then act accordingly. We assert ourselves onto our environment, according to Osteen; according to Scandrette we face reality and act wisely in the face of it.
But the assertion Osteen invites us to make overlooks the reality that Scandrette points out to us: we are not alone in the universe; our outlook is not the only one; our best life is always overlapping, and sometimes in conflict with, the best lives (even the barely survivable lives) of others. There are people besides us whom Jesus would call on us to sacrifice for, even to fight for. No matter how much I read from Osteen, that rarely seems to come up--and when it does, it's generally immaterial, a kind of "be nice to others" pat on the head.
Osteen focuses on the individual, not the kingdom. That's not necessarily bad--every kingdom is constituted by a collection of individuals experiencing life together--but it's certainly not complete. Osteen assures us that all these things that we ache for will be added unto us; Jesus assures us of the very same thing, but he advises us, even commands us, to look after his kingdom first.
So while I can now better appreciate Osteen for what he is, I'm still far more compelled by the kingdom of love Mark Scandrette is pointing us toward--where our personal outcomes are less important than the way we walk and the people we walk with.
August 15, 2011
This year, for me, has been the Year of Biography. I've been reading memoirs, autobiographies, histories of particular historical figures, that sort of thing, almost exclusively since January 1. I've read books by two winners of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor as well as a posthumous autobiography by Mark Twain himself; I've read an authorized biography of Nelson Mandela and a somewhat jaded story about the breakup of three pop superstar groups in 1970. If it's biographical, or autobiographical, or memoirish, or at all defensible as fitting those categories, I'll read it.
Lately I've been reading a book by Paul Elie that collects the stories of four American Catholic writers from the twentieth century: Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy and Dorothy Day. I was pleased to find these writers described in Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own as what I might (somewhat self-servingly) call "original Likewise." If our line of books might reasonably be described as "contemplative activism," then these four writers would have fit the bill: "four individuals who glimpsed a way of life in their reading and evoked it in their writing, so as to make their readers yearn to go and do likewise."
Today's subject was Dorothy Day, at the founding of her newspaper Catholic Worker. Contained in its first issue (if I'm reading Elie correctly) was the following "easy essay" by Peter Maurin, a French Catholic who served as the catalyst for Catholic Worker and who set Day on the path toward sainthood. Check this out:
Chew on that for a while. This is the sort of plainspoken elegance that wisdom dresses itself in, the kind that we aspire to publish, the kind our authors aspire to write. Elie sums up the power of this kind of writing, which inspires readers and writers alike:
Here's hoping that you and we and all of us read or write something life-changing today, and every day. And here's to the great writers in the long tradition of the church--the "original Likewise" from the first century A.D. to the twenty-first--who help us see that hope not as mere idealistic fantasy but as a particular vocation of the church in every age. Books can still change lives, we contend, when they're written by people who seek all manner of salvation, when they're inspired by a God who makes a habit of changing things for the better.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 2:17 PM
August 12, 2011
Behind the Booklet: The Parable of the Unexpected Guest
Just this month I released my latest publication, The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. I wrote it on a lark, and then IVP agreed to publish it. Darn decent of them-I-mean-us. IVP publishes lots of booklets such as this one, and has done so for lots of years, starting in the 1950s and continuing to today. IVP booklets generally run about five thousand words; mine originally ran about six thousand, one thousand of which were an admittedly self-indulgent pulling back of the curtain on the writing process. My editor wouldn't let me leave it in, but he very insightfully suggested I post it to my admittedly self-indulgent blog. So here it is. Read it and retweet.
Once upon a time I was bored, so I decided to write something. I had been reading Frank Viola's From Eternity to Here, in which the author suggests that all of history is three interwoven stories: God searching for a home, Jesus searching for a bride, the Holy Spirit searching for a body. Or something like that; it's been a while now since I read that book.
Anyway, the bride and the home stuff reminded me of a little booklet that has been in print more than half a century. Published by my employer, InterVarsity Press, My Heart--Christ's Home by Robert Boyd Munger goes through the occasional new iteration or refreshed design every few years or so. But the basic story remains the same: Jesus shows up at the narrator's door, moves in to the narrator's house, changes the narrator's life. I suppose you might say my booklet is an homage to that booklet, a reminder that of all the ways we might think of a relationship with God, one of the most endearing (and most intimidating) is welcoming him as a guest into our everyday experience.
As much of a fan of My Heart--Christ's Home as I've been over the years, the story has shown itself over time to be an artifact of its era. The home described there sounds like the home you might see on the blackest-and-whitest shows on TV Land or Nick At Night. How we inhabit our personal space and occupy our time has changed dramatically in the intervening decades. So with all due respect to My Heart--Christ's Home, I set out trying to write an artifact of my own era, a story that presents Jesus as our current context might best understand him, how we might most likely be endeared and intimidated by him. What if, I wondered, Jesus wasn't in our heart but in our face?
For me, that meant, among other things, confronting the sense of isolationism that in many ways characterizes contemporary Western culture. I wrote about it in my earlier book Deliver Us from Me-Ville; it's something we're born into and swept along by, and only an intervention by a savior with a broader vision for us can deliver us--often kicking and screaming--into a fuller life now and forever.
That's my contention anyway. The result was The Parable of the Unexpected Guest, a "thought experiment" for evangelism and discipleship. (I should acknowledge here that I stole the idea of a "thought experiment" from Scott Adams, best known for his comic strip Dilbert but who also speculated about the origins of pain and suffering in the world in his book God's Debris. My friend Dan turned me on to that book, and it's stuck in my head since. "Thought experiment" is a good characterization of the purpose for that book and my booklet.)
Some might flip through The Parable of the Unexpected Guest and wonder, "Where's the atonement?" They're right to ask: Jesus' redemptive act to contend with our sinfulness and restore us to wholeness is the heart of Jesus' story. Jesus without atonement is just a guru, one might argue. And Jesus is no mere guru; the history of the world has borne that out. That being said, there is no central atoning act in this story. In my defense I'd only argue that there's a tone of atonement that pervades. "Jesus honors us and threatens us with his visit," I wrote in Deliver Us from Me-Ville, a play on a concept by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer that Jesus is both our deliverer and our judge at one and the same time. The intersection of Jesus and our world is thus inherently cruciform--cross-shaped. So ask me where the cross is in this story and I'll tell you: it starts at the beginning and ends at the end.
The beauty of My Heart--Christ's Home is that it showcases simple disciplines that a Christian could put into practice that would more consistently align their heart to God's purposes: Bible study, devotional time, prayer, avoiding strong drink, stuff like that. (I may have made that last part up; I did, however, once see a dramatic interpretation of My Heart--Christ's Home in which the main character got drunk, and then Jesus made him feel bad about it.) Sadly, those clear suggested practices are only hinted at in The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. My main goal has been to present the Christian life as an embodied faith--one that is not characterized solely or even primarily by extremely private, internal practices (the just-me-and-Jesus sort of disciplines) but by relationship--with Jesus (through conversation, which is essentially prayer, and through wrestling with the Word of God, which is essentially Bible study), with those we work with and neighbor (through acts of compassion and willful engagement), with the strangers among us (through Christ, our brothers and sisters).
In this regard, I find the motto of the Benedictine Confederation to be a helpful summation of the Christian life: ora et labora, or, "worship and work." Jesus himself characterized it this way: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. By the grace of God, this is life to the full. To the degree that this parable has given light and texture to that idea, it has served its purpose. To the degree it falls short, well, I'll just have to live with that.
A lot of people are asking me about my "nom de plume," which is different from how I've referred to myself in previous books. Some wonder whether I'm paying homage to scholar D. A. Carson. Others wonder if by writing a story I'm thinking I'm something special, like C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien. Some may even wonder if I'm trying to create distance between this publication and other stuff I've written. The reason is far more simple: the main character, the narrator, of the parable is a girl, and I'm a boy, and that was confusing for some of my friends who read early drafts. So it's my act of sacrificial service to you, dear reader, that I'm willing to let you imagine "Doris Avery Zimmerman" or "Deanna Anna Zimmerman" as the author instead of me. You're welcome.
That's it. I hope you enjoy the parable. As for what to do once you've read it, I can only suggest that when there's a knock at your door, you answer it. By the grace of God, may you live happily ever after.