June 29, 2012
Missional Malaprops, or My Schadenfreudean Slip
A reflection on calling by David A. Zimmerman.
"I came to get my foot out the door." I laugh every time I hear it, this off-the-cuff malaprop from a bright-eyed, ambitious attender at the 2009 Urbana Student Missions Conference. She's interviewed in a promo for this year's conference. Silly little student, I condescend to myself, I think you mean "get my foot in the door."
That, after all, is the actual idiom, which suggests that you're doing a small, undignified thing as a means to the greater end of a large, profitable thing. If you take an entry-level job at an Internet startup, for example, you've gotten your foot in the door at a ground-floor opportunity. You'll spend ungodly hours doing grunt work for little pay in the hopes of getting stock options for a billion-dollar IPO down the road. A little pain now, great gain later.
Getting a foot in the door was what aggressive salespeople would do as they traveled from town to town, house to house, physically preventing people from slamming the door as they tried to hawk vacuum cleaners or magazine subscriptions or tickets to heaven. Broken foot bones, the logic goes, are a small price to pay for a big fat commission, or a jewel in your cosmic crown.
It's no wonder students today get the words wrong on idioms (idia?) such as this one. Respect for cultural history is as lost an art as the English language, I'm afraid. But it's not entirely their fault: selling things door-to-door is itself an artifact of a pre-digital age. Besides, it's rude to slam the door on people. So maybe the idiom has run its course.
The malaprop, though, now there's a whole different kettle of fish. This student didn't get her foot in the door; she got it out the door. I'd never heard that before, and after my condescending chuckling subsided I started thinking about it, and I really, really liked it.
This is Urbana, after all, where hundreds of thousands of college students have convened over the decades in pursuit of some vocational clarity, or to start marking out the path of costly discipleship that leads to mission work overseas or in the inner city. Some undoubtedly have left the conference frustrated, with no greater sense of assurance about where they should be or be headed. But ask around and you'll meet lots and lots of people for whom Urbana set the bar, set the course. Urbana has served, over the years, to issue the same challenge issued by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship: "When Christ bids a man [or, we assume, a woman], he bids him [or her] come and die."
Some students, I'm sure, have left Urbana and entered work that led to their death. Not just in some exotic missionary outpost, either: lots of work can be hazardous to your health. But even for those whose call led to something desky and cushy, there is a death that happens in the realm of discipleship (which is in a sense the realm of vocation), the results of which we must live with.
Our vocation, when viewed from the perspective of the sacrificial mission of God that culminates in Christ's atoning work from the cross but extends to even today in the ongoing work of God's people in the church, isn't so much a matter of arriving--of getting your foot in the door and gobbling up stock options or padding your 401k--but of going. God sent Abraham from the land he knew to a land he did not yet know; God sent David from the work of a shepherd, which he knew, to the work of a king, which he could not have imagined for himself. God sent Esther, an orphaned child of a marginalized and despised ethnic minority, to become a queen and deliver her people from genocide. God sent his Son to the earth and ultimately to the cross; God sent his Son's followers from a cramped and secret upper room to the streets of Jerusalem, and Judea, and the ends of the earth. The last thing God has in mind for us, it seems, is to arrive.
Again, Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship:
It's an absolutely counterintuitive call, this vocation of a disciple that God has in mind for each of us. Each of us hears it and enacts it differently, and I suppose each of us corrupts it and compromises it in our own unique ways. But maybe part of the reason the Western church seems so adrift sometimes is because God has charted a course for us, and we keep trying to get our feet safely indoors.
Maybe this generation, this Urbana class, isn't so much manufacturing malaprops as it is flipping the false scripts we've written for ourselves. Maybe, if we turn enough of such self-serving idioms around, the world will start to be set aright.
***For more information or to register for Urbana 2012, click here.
For historical and contemporary examples of God moving people into mission and vocation, read Movements That Change the World.
For a brisk introduction to the concept of God's call on us, check out Everyday Missions.
For a thought experiment on how Jesus draws us out of ourselves and into his kingdom work, read The Parable of the Unexpected Guest.
June 20, 2012
What I'm Editing: Pidgin Miracles
By David A. Zimmerman
When I'm bored in church, I often switch my Bible reader from displaying the New International Version (our pastor's Bible translation of choice) to Da Jesus Book, a Bible delivered in Hawaiian pidgin. Sometimes I tweet key verses because they strike me, and people poke fun at my tweets: "Who talks like that?" they share, sometimes in texting shorthand ("Who tks lk tht?").
Duh. Apparently Hawaiians do. What part of "Hawaiian pidgin" didn't you understand?
Pidgin languages are found all over the world, wherever the need of communication demands it. They are typically mashups of two distinct languages, combined to allow for rudimentary commerce: say, for example, when a Hawaiian native wants to trade goods with a European marauder. They need to understand each other to do business, so they work something out. Pidgin languages are mostly verbal/aural, though they eventually get written down because we can't help ourselves, plus we need to teach them to our young, plus we need to diversify our Bible portfolio.
Anyway, I like pidgin languages. I think they're interesting; they feel closer to the ground than the hifalutin language people so often resort to when they're writing books, which I spend my days reading and sometimes suffering through. For all their quirkiness, pidgin languages are almost by definition as plainspoken as people get.
I feel more justified in scratching this itch today as I make my final pass through a forthcoming book: The Gospel of Christmas, by Patty Kirk. Among the best-written books I've ever had occasion to edit, it is slated for release in September, in time for stores to become aware of it and stock/promote it for the Christmas season. It's strange to read about Christmas in June--even "Christmas in July" would make more sense--but such are the demands of the marketplace, which we editors dutifully accommodate.
Patty bypasses the glittery, tinselly cutesiness of Christmas in this book, opting instead to dive into the dirt that surrounds the modest accommodations of the newborn King that Christmas glories in. That means, among other things, taking a down-to-earth look at the manger scene. It helps that she's a farmer, as well as a professor of English; she can get you into the moment like nobody's business. To do so she quotes poets like Edmund Spenser: "Beginne from first, where he encradeled was / In simple cratch, wrapt in a wad of hay."
Poets get a bad reputation for being opaque and otherworldly, but read them and you see that they use words like wad and cratch, and you realize that it's we, not they, who have become addicted to abstraction.
Cratch, I learned from Patty, is a Middle English rendition of the French word crèche, which is where we lay baby Jesus in the manger scene on our piano or credenza or our front lawn. Cratch was the vernacular "back in the days when there were no spelling rules," Patty tells us. It appears in a slightly different spelling in the fourteenth-century Wycliffe translation of Luke 2:7:
Slightly less than half the words of that verse are marked as misspellings by my word processor, but you can figure it out pretty well. If I had written this on my iPhone, on the other hand, it would have autocorrected into something inscrutable:
Here's how Da Jesus Book puts it:
Two of these renditions of Luke 2:7 make sense; the dignified, digitized third, brought to you by my "smart phone," does not. Not only, then, is Luke 2:7 an indictment of autocorrect; it's also a demonstration of the inherent value of plain speech, which does not trouble itself with such abstractions as rules of spelling but focuses on getting the point across, making the connection, sealing the deal. There was a time when English itself was a pidgin language, connecting disparate people groups one to another, allowing for trade and cross-pollination and ultimately peace. There was a time as well when the Word was made flesh, the ultimate pidgin expression of a fundamental truth of the universe: that God so loves the world that he gave his only son.
On the day of his dedication at the temple, two pigeons were offered up, which we've since remembered as the cleaner, more abstract "two turtle doves" and so, to a degree, stripped the Son of God of a little bit of his down-to-earthy humanity. But that's OK; Jesus has been stripped and worse by the arbiters of appropriateness before, and while it was degrading and scandalous and part of our history that we grieve, it was forgiven and ultimately redeemed at the cross and the resurrection. He still bears the scars, because he's fully human, but he's also fully divine, so that by those scars we are healed.
Keep an eye out for Patty's Gospel of Christmas; it's a soulful book that will get you right and ready to recall that pidgin miracle when God became man, when Word became flesh, when our earth became the cratche that held the Son of God.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 1:01 PM
June 15, 2012
Created Uniquely for a Purpose: Thoughts on Calling and Vocation
By Lisa Rieck
On December 26 of this year, thousands of college-age students will gather in St. Louis for the twenty-third Urbana Student Missions Conference. They'll study Scripture, explore missions opportunities, buy books, sing, pray, and attend seminars and plenary sessions full of rich content from ministry veterans. Above all and in all, they'll be asking how God might want to use them, with their unique gifts and passions and experiences, in his great kingdom work.
I attended Urbana as a college student and asked the same question. For me, the conference provided truth and direction as well as ignited passions in me that have continued to inform my sense of purpose. But the journey to answer The Question "What am I supposed to do with my life?" didn't end there, of course. I'm still asking and discerning and learning. (I've heard that the thirties bring good clarity and definition to the process. I hope so. Several thirty-something friends who have recently discerned a more specific direction for their life are encouraging me.)
We all desire to have a calling and purpose, a sense of our contribution to the vast planet we live on. The good news is that God creates each of us with unique passions and gifts that, when used well, reveal his goodness, strength, beauty, power, peace, wisdom to a broken world. The harder reality is that we rarely discover our calling in an instant, no matter how much we might fantasize about receiving a one-sentence Personal Mission Statement from God via burning bush or audible voice. Becoming aware of the contexts that utilize our gifts and make us feel alive is often a lifelong process of knowing ourselves better and discerning how our gifts and passions meet a need others have. It's an exciting journey, to be sure, but one that requires patience, community, risk, and faith in the goodness, purposefulness and wisdom of God.
It's also a journey that will be different for each of us, and different even in various seasons of our own life. For some of us, a job outside the home may be the primary place where we fulfill our sense of calling. For others, ministry or family roles may be the place where we feel most alive. Some people will be called to roles that put them in the limelight, while others will be most fulfilled in less public roles. And sometimes the demands in front of us--the urgent, nitty-gritty life details and unexpected crises--require all our energy, leaving little room for pursuit of our passions. Whatever stage we're in, though, we can trust that God has created each of us beautifully to bring an important piece of his kingdom to earth.
To inspire you (because we like to be helpful like that), we at Strangely Dim are going to post reflections on calling over the next several months. We'll share the questions we're asking, the stories of God's leading in our lives so far, the way our sense of calling has changed or is changing, the frustrations we've faced and the areas we're passionate about. We've also invited some guest bloggers to offer perspective from their different vantage points, whether eager and energized in college, or juggling work and life responsibilities in mid-career, or feeling a sense of deep joy and contentment after years of living out a perceived calling. Along the way, we'd love to learn from you and hear your story as well. Where are you at? What resources have been helpful? What questions are you still asking? What are you passionate about? Together, our stories of calling tell God's Story: his plan, from the beginning, to use us in his great, purposeful work of restoring all things.
Wherever you're at in your journey, here are a few books that might help:
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 12:43 PM
June 13, 2012
Quick Thoughts: Names Will Never Hurt Me
By David A. Zimmerman
Earlier this year I got a post to my wall: "What did you do to piss Al Sharpton off?!?"
As it happens, Rev. Sharpton had grown frustrated with slow and seemingly disparate law enforcement, and he began publicly pressuring police in Florida to arrest George Zimmerman for shooting Trayvon Martin to death
When Zimmerman surrendered himself to police, I had hoped the story would pass out of vogue. But then it came out that in making the case for bail Zimmerman and his wife misled the court regarding their finances and their inexplicable possession of multiple passports. So now he's back in prison with bail revoked, and headlines earlier this week read "Zimmerman's wife arrested." She's out on bail now, but the whole thing gave my wife a temporary case of the willies.
I've written elsewhere about this case and my inner angst about hearing my name associated with a possibly racially motivated crime. Suffice it to say, it's no fun these days being a Zimmerman. Back in the day, it was a point of pride: people would ask me if I was related to Bob Dylan, whose given name was Robert Zimmerman. I wouldn't say "No"; I'd say, "Not that I'm aware of," which left open the possibility that I shared a molecular connection to musical genius. These days people don't ask me about Bob Dylan; they ask what I did to cause Al Sharpton such distress.
I had a similar problem a few years back when my first book was released. When I googled myself (don't judge me) using "Zimmerman Comic Book Character," I learned that comic book writer Ron Zimmerman had recently reinvented a classic Western comic hero, the Rawhide Kid, as a gay cowboy. I had written precious little in my book about gay culture (even less about cowboys), so I was worried about confusing potential readers. (Turns out you have to have readers first before you can confuse them, so all that worry was for nothing.)
Names are interesting things: people put as much energy into selecting a name for their child as they do making their home child-ready. For centuries women surrendered their name and took another name when they got married; that happens less often now, but an interesting twist on the tradition is when both parties to a marriage join their names together, a hyphenated acknowledgment of a one-flesh union. Names are significant, covenantal, in some traditions almost sacramental.
But on a more day-to-day level, names are not so much sacred trust as they are personal brand. When my Facebook account was hacked, the hacker changed the base identity on the account to "Marlo A. Bacuz," and while I was able to recover most of the functionality of the account, thanks to the inner workings of Facebook I can never change that base identity back. That's a problem when people are googling me, which in my vain imaginations I am convinced happens all the time. It was a problem as well when Marlo A. Bacuz started trying to sell high-end hip-hop high-top shoes to all my Facebook friends. My brand took a hit that day.
Personal brand management is as interesting as names, actually, in that managing a personal brand is inherently paradoxical: it's simultaneously both all-consuming and dreadfully boring. The emotional energy I expend fretting over whether people wonder if I'm related to an alleged murdering racist is largely escapist fantasy; the more likely scenario is that most people are too preoccupied by their own emotional distractions to research my genealogy. And all the effort I put into recapturing my Facebook profile taught me more than anything that Facebook is not all that important. (Sorry, day-traders.) To the extent that my name is my brand, I think I could be convinced in most circumstances to go generic.
Ah, but name as sacrament. That's more interesting, with a greater promise. To the extent that my name is a sacrament, it is thus a sacred trust. People might think of me and remember that God is good and loving and just, or they might think of me and imagine that God is uncaring and unjust and not good. My name, to the extent that it is sacramental, carries weight. To bear it requires a kind of ordination, an embrace of the covenant implied in it.
At the fulfillment of all things, the book of Revelation tells us, Jesus whispers secret names to each of us, telling us fully and finally who we really are. In the end the sacrament is finally fulfilled and we will all dwell in grace. Till then, I suppose, we bear the burden of the names we've been given, and in so doing fulfill the will of Christ.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 12:23 PM