IVP - Strangely Dim - Holiday reflections Archives

January 21, 2013

Remembering Birmingham

A quick thought from Dave.

Every year on Martin Luther King Day I read his Letter from Birmingham Jail to white clergy who had called on him to take it down a notch. Here's the passage that stuck out to me this morning, which apparently also stuck out to me two years ago.

***

On the Blemished and Scarred Body of Christ

An observation by Martin Luther King Jr., from a cell in Birmingham, Alabama, on the history and responsibility of the body of Christ.

I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

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There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.

***

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Letter from Birmingham Jail. Read the whole thing here. And keep an eye out for Ed Gilbreath's forthcoming ebook Remembering Birmingham for a consideration of King's ongoing challenge to us today.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:10 AM

December 23, 2012

What Jesus Started: Part Five of Five

An Advent reflection based on the book What Jesus Started by Steve Addison. Read parts one, two, three and four here.

Advent is the beginning of the Christian calendar. While the world waits till January for its hard reboot, Christians have already moved on. Advent, which begins typically toward the end of November, ends with the beginning of Christmas, which itself is not a day but a season and carries the church over the changing of the civil calendar. By January 7 the church is in its third season, already marking Ordinary Time.

Advent is a beginning that culminates in Christmas, a time that has become a time of gathering. We travel far and wide to see and reconnect with friends and loved ones. We sing songs together and give gifts to one another. We share meals and make memories. If Christmas weren't sacred for what it marked--the incarnation of the Lord in the world--it would be sacred merely for what it elicits in us.

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Of course Christmas is sacred because God was made flesh and took up residence among us. But it's a false dichotomy to say that because the one is true, the other is insignificant. In fact Christmas is marked from the first by a gathering. Having seen the need of the world, and having purposed to make meaningful connection to the world, and having developed a plan that would involve training in the ways of the kingdom of God and sharing in the life of one another--having done all this, God inaugurates his incarnational mission by gathering people to himself.

  • Zechariah, a priest in the Temple of the Lord, is recruited even in his old age to parent a child who will prepare the way of the Lord.
  • Elizabeth, elderly wife of Zechariah, is commissioned to bear that son--a commission that fills her with joy.
  • Mary, a modest young woman from a backwater town, is asked to sacrifice her body and her reputation, with the accompanying promise of power and grace, and the utterly unique experience of carrying God inside her body.
  • Joseph, a righteous man of the lineage of the great ancient king David, is called upon to sacrifice his own reputation and serve as foster parent to the Son of God.
  • Shepherds keeping watch over their fields at night are invited to come and see a newborn king,
  • Kings from afar are beckoned westward to witness the fulfillment of ancient prophecies and to meet the child to whom the whole universe points.
  • Simeon and Anna are vindicated in their long wait with the joy of seeing the coming of the Lord with their own eyes and formally welcoming him into the covenant family of God.

In Christ God acts singularly, without need of anyone. But God does not act in solitude. The act of incarnation is at its foundation an act of solidarity: God willfully eliminating the distance between God and the Other. In Christ God binds himself to the people he created.

God is also, however, binding us one to another: Zechariah and Elizabeth to their son, John the Baptist; Mary to Joseph; Elizabeth to her cousin Mary; John to Jesus; Jesus to Israel and, through the ceremonial action of Anna and Simeon and later John, Israel to Jesus. Once, the apostle Peter tells us, we were not a people; but in Christ we have become the people of God (1 Peter 2:10).

So now, as Advent 2012 yields the floor to Christmas, and as our anticipation of Christ's coming gives way to our celebration of Emmanuel--God with us--let us not give up gathering, as so tragically many are in the habit of doing, but rather let us gather regularly--to encourage one another, to spur one another on in the mission God has for us, to remind ourselves that we are bound together by the God who made us and who so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

In this way the church is regularly birthed in the world. In this way it carries on the mission of God in the world. In this way the world, which year after year seems to turn on itself, gets set right and bound back together. Thanks be to God.

***

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Read chapters five and six of What Jesus Started, along with the interlude "Church on the Porch." Then go through sessions nine and ten in the implementation guide. (You can get the book here.)

As you gather for Christmas this year, make a concerted effort to see the need of the people you've surrounded yourself with. Then seek meaningful connection with them--beyond the polite conversation that too often subverts such gatherings. Share what you've been learning about What Jesus Started and how it might impact on the lives of the people you're with. And then make plans to gather again as the year continues in January and beyond.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:51 AM

December 16, 2012

What Jesus Started: Part Four of Five

An Advent series inspired by the book What Jesus Started. Read the entry for the first week of Advent here, and the prefatory post here.

Advent is an act of faith. In the weeks that lead up to Christmas we declare that God is, that God sees, that God reaches toward a people in profound need of God's touch. "O Come, Emmanuel," we sing, "and ransom captive Israel." We long for this Emmanuel--this "God with us"--to intervene in the desperate condition of every Israel among us--each of us who "strives with God."

The amazing thing is, God does in fact come to be with us, and the God with whom we so often strive makes equally forceful commitments to us. "Surely I am with you always," Jesus tells his followers at the moment he departs from the earth, "to the very end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). It's not unusual to cry out to God for deliverance; it's life- and world-changing when God actually does it.

So, if our lives and our world are changed by this intervention from God, then our attitudes, perspectives and approach to life need to change as well. Jesus recognized this during his time on earth, and while we might anticipate that a great and cosmic God would invest his one and only incarnation in magisterial, majestic, world-altering acts, we find in the Scriptures that instead Jesus consistently started remarkably, frustratingly small.

  • Rather than starting in the house of the emperor, Jesus started in the womb of an unmarried adolescent girl, in a town of no account among a people of no power.
  • Rather than starting with the storming the temple or palace gates, seizing control and establishing his rule, Jesus started in the wilderness, where he was tempted by the Satan, and at the river Jordan, where he was baptized by his cousin.
  • Rather than starting with the best and brightest, the movers and shakers, Jesus started with a ragtag collection of followers from the margins of society.
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Whatever Jesus was starting, it would be unlike the movements and institutions it would be set against. It would, in fact, serve as a prophetic symbol against those movements and institutions. Everything that made sense to the world would be overturned by Jesus, from the merchandise tables at the temple to the presumption of power at the governor's residence. Even the presumed finality of death would be turned on its head, as Jesus emerged from a grave and declared himself the resurrection and the life.

This radical reordering of reality would blow anyone's mind. So Jesus invested himself not simply in restructuring the world but in training the people who followed him to live in the way of his counter-cultural kingdom.

  • "The greatest among you," he told them, "will be the servant of all."
  • "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you."
  • "Blessed are you who are poor . . . who hunger . . . who weep . . . who suffer because of me."

Time after time Jesus drilled into the minds of his followers principles that would sound absurd if they didn't feel so true. In Jesus the intuitive logic of the world God created came to the surface and confronted the imposed logic of the ways of the world. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear were confronted with a choice--the same choice that confronted Moses' followers on the mountain and which confronts us still today: Will we choose the ways that seem so sensible to us but which lead inevitably to death, or will we choose the ways that defy conventional wisdom but lead us steadily into life?

One of Jesus' more perceptive followers--we're not told which one--once said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray." Jesus taught them gladly, and he teaches us gladly today, as an act of service to the world, so that it might be set right in us and among us. Jesus taught and teaches his followers in joyful anticipation of an earth and everything in it recalibrated to be as it is in heaven. And even as he left earth for heaven and turned over the administration of his kingdom to us, he encouraged us to go and do likewise. So let's go do it.

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Read chapter four of What Jesus Started, and work through sessions seven and eight in the implementation guide. You can get the book here.

Get together with a friend or two, pick one of Jesus' provocative, counter-cultural teachings, and develop a plan for trying to live it out. See the experiments at the Jesus Dojo for some examples of what you might try.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:10 AM

December 9, 2012

What Jesus Started: Part Three of Five

An Advent series inspired by the book What Jesus Started. See week one's entry here, as well as a prefatory post here.

The season of Advent is the beginning of the Christian calendar. As the world around the church winds its year down, the church is starting its year up. This is appropriate, since Advent culminates in Christmas, where we remember the birth of our Lord and the inauguration of the Christian epoch.

It can be difficult, however, for the church to remember that Advent and Christmas are seasons of beginning. Ironically, the ways of the world encroach on the church at Christmastime in painfully evident ways. Rampant busyness, chronic materialism and corresponding consumerism subvert the sacred nature of the holiday. Remembering that Christ is born on Christmas day is tricky enough; remembering that Christ's birth symbolizes the beginning of Jesus' world-changing and history-changing movement is trickier still.

So this Advent season it's worth remembering that Jesus brought a message with him to the world.

  • An angel told Mary that her child "will be great . . . the Son of the Most High," and that "his kingdom will never end."
  • Mary recited to her cousin Elizabeth the great character of God, who would be manifested in her son: "His mercy extends to those who fear him. . . . He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty."
  • An angel told Joseph that Mary's child "will save his people from their sins."
  • An angel told the shepherds that they would soon be introduced to "a savior."

The New Testament springs from these pronouncements, fulfilling each in the story of Jesus. As an adult Jesus traveled the towns and villages and highways and byways, illuminating the scriptures and refocusing the faith of the people he encountered. He made promises to people and delivered on them. He demonstrated by his words and his acts that he had come for the people he encountered.

In previous posts in this Advent series we've considered that the movement that is Christianity would be nothing had God not first looked closely on the world he created. Every movement begins with a kind of seeing, and the movement Jesus started is no different. We've also considered that merely seeing something accomplishes nothing; the move toward the Other is what sets a movement in motion. But no movement sustains itself without a kind of mutuality, a shared life and vision that extends beyond the act of seeing and the moment of connection.

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Movements are ever-expanding shared experiences: what was true for the instigators is embraced as true by more and more people further and further removed from the point of inception. What the angel declared to Mary as Jesus gestated in her womb, what the heavenly host pronounced to shepherds up the hill from the manger where baby Jesus lay, what Jesus announced to his friends and neighbors and disciples and enemies--these are affirmed two thousand years later by people of every tribe and tongue and nation as an act of faith and a pledge of commitment: Our God who is with us is for us.

This enduring allegiance is one miracle of the Christian movement. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, "Christ is Christ, not just for himself, but in relation to me. His being Christ is his being for me." Christianity is a shared faith from the beginning; we share our faith freely and broadly because our movement's founder, Jesus, shared himself.

This sharing was not just lip service, nor was it simply random acts of kindness. From birth to death to resurrection Jesus was giving himself to us as merciful Savior and righteous King. This remains our task today: to share what has been shared with us, to invite others to share in the good news we have heard, in the goodness of God that we have seen and tasted and touched. Only by sharing will the world be set right.

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Read chapter three of What Jesus Started, as well as sessions five and six in the implementation guide. (You can get the book here.)

This week look for opportunities--whether by word or by deed--to share with others what in Christ God has shared with you.

Read the songs of Mary and Zechariah in Luke 1. Reflect on the character of God demonstrated in those songs. Try singing each of them yourself.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:00 AM

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.

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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:

And sche bare hir first borun sone, and wlappide hym in clothis, and leide hym in a cratche, for ther was no place to hym in no chaumbir.

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:

And sche bare hit first boring some, and wlappide gym in clothis, and leide gym in a cratche, for ther was no place to gym in no chaumbir.

Here's how Da Jesus Book puts it:

An she wen born her numba one boy, an wrap him up inside some cloths, an lay him down inside one ting fo hold da cows food, cuz no mo room fo dem inside da small hotel.

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

May 25, 2012

Remembering Is the First Act of Love: War, Peace and Memorial Day

Today's post is from David A. Zimmerman.

When I was a kid I'd go to mass on Sundays and hope that this week's eucharistic hymn would be my favorite:

We remember how you loved us to your death
And still we celebrate, for you are with us here.

Our shared memory in the mass was indirect; no one in the room had actually been present at the crucifixion of Christ. But we remembered it nonetheless, because we had (or our parents had) joined ourselves to a faith tradition built on that central event: a living God, sacrificing himself on our behalf, never lost to us but willing to be lost for us. With that sung we would take communion, the body and blood of our Lord, and return to our pews.

Probably because this sacrificial act at the heart of Christianity has so pervaded Western culture, we prize and celebrate sacrifice, regularly and creatively remembering those who have "made the ultimate sacrifice." We don't celebrate military exploits in the way that ancient Greek and Roman poets did; rather we mark moments such as Veteran's Day (in November) and Memorial Day (this weekend) by taking our hats off our heads and putting our hands to our hearts, standing in sober silence at the thought of someone taking bullets for us, firing weapons for us, paying the ultimate price for us. There's the Savior of the world, in the cultural imagination of the West, and then there's the Soldier by whose stripes our freedoms and rights are vouchsafed.

I don't have a military background. I have some uncles who long ago fought overseas, but I have an equal number of extended family members who fought against American military actions all over the world. My dad spent some time at the United States Military Academy at West Point, which captured my imagination for a while as a kid (Edgar Allan Poe spent some time there too, in case you were wondering), but I never seriously considered military service or dedicated serious time to reflecting on the military. Memorial Day has never meant all that much to me, to be honest.

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I feel a little differently anymore. That's due in part to the fact that my country has been at war for more than a decade, much of that time on more than one front, and seems to keep a running list of future targets, just in case. As far away as the U.S. military travels, it's never not close to home anymore. I'm particularly conscious of the state of war and the challenges faced by military personnel and veterans thanks to Logan Mehl-Laituri, whose book Reborn on the Fourth of July is now in print. Logan served in Iraq during our most recent war there, and sought to return for a second tour as a noncombatant conscientious objector, thanks to a conversion of conviction along the way. His request to return to Iraq as an NCO soldier was denied, and he was later honorably discharged. Now he advocates for veterans and speaks broadly on issues of faith and nationalism and militarism. I edited Logan's book, which opened my eyes in new ways not only to the cost of war but to the cost of conviction. I may pray and even fight for peace (whatever that looks like), but the greater commandment from the Prince of Peace is to dignify every person (whether enemies foreign and domestic, or ideological opponent) as created in the image of God, and to love our neighbor (whether across the trenches on the battlefield or in military hospitals or on picket lines outside of a NATO summit) as ourselves.

We love our neighbors best, perhaps, when we remember them; I daresay that remembering is the first act of love toward a person. Remembering literally means to piece them back together, to reattach them to ourselves and ourselves to them. Soldiers, fallen and discharged and active alike, are first and foremost our neighbors; whatever your convictions about war in general or particular wars in particular, soldiers have, by entering into our conflicts on our behalf, loved us as themselves. Along the way some of them have been dismembered; some of them have been lost. This Memorial Day let's rediscover and re-member them, even as we pray for the Prince of Peace to deliver us from our enemies and, I daresay, ourselves.

***

See Logan discussing his book here.

Learn about Logan's organization, The Centurion's Guild, here.

Read or contribute to the Wall of Remembrance here.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:20 AM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a writer and copyeditor on the communications team for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. She likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky.

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 founder of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs occasionally 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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