May 16, 2011
There's Good New . . . And There's Bad New
It's taken me five years to finally accept that I hate being new.
It's disappointing, really, because I've always considered myself a fan of all things new. I like to learn new things. I like to meet new people. I like to experience new places. I like to try new food. I like to buy new clothes. But somewhere along the way (about the time we moved from small-town Ohio to fast-paced suburban Chicago without the benefit of knowing or being known by anyone), I realized that consuming something new is not the same thing as being something new.
Consuming I enjoy. Being . . . not so much.
For the last week I've written and rewritten this, my inaugural Strangely Dim post, anxious to come up with the right mix of intelligence and charm, profundity and wit, strangeness and dimness (and apparently edifitainment and sanctitainment) for which my counterparts have become well known.
But in my quest to strike the perfect balance, I've been reminded once again of my first days in a new city and my first days here at IVP, and the angst, uncertainty and insecurity that comes with trying to find your place in an environment whose edges you're still trying to define.
So I'll say it again: I hate being new. The stress of it all, I've learned, can manifest itself in the oddest of ways -- one of which, for me, was a matter of logistics.
A little known fact about the inner trappings here at IVP: we have fourteen printers in eight different locations. When I started here a little less than a year ago, I'd pull up the list of printers on my screen and scroll over their names -- names like Production Printer, Production Color Printer, Production Color Copier, Production Color Printer Copier. Eventually I'd click on the one I thought made the most sense. Then I'd head out of my office only to wander the halls, unsure of which direction to turn or on which of the fourteen printers my paper would actually end up.
Go ahead, laugh if you must. But when you're new (no matter the context) and everything is new -- from procedures and systems to people and places to personalities and culture -- small things like not being able to find the printer (which has a document containing acronyms you can't interpret, for a meeting whose purpose about which you're unclear, with people whose names you don't know, in a culture whose nuances you haven't yet mastered) is enough to cause a breakdown of monumental proportions.
I've since learned that in business this is called "onboarding." If it were up to me, I'd skip the entire painstaking process.
Somewhere during my anxiety over writing this post and reliving the trauma of my onboarding, it dawned on me that since Easter, my fellow bloggers have been wisely nudging our hearts toward Pentecost. During a time of year in which my soul is musing more about Memorial Day plans, summer vacations and, well, anything that might seep warmth into my cold Midwestern bones, the church recalls God unleashing his something new upon the church. That day wasn't so much about being new as it was being made new.
In the process, I've been reminded that while I really do--truly--hate being new, when I ingest the patience and humility and even grace uniquely present in this new experience, I'm reminded not to simply sit and wait for my confidence to return, but to thank God in every circumstance. I hope I never forget how it feels to be the new person, but I also hope I'm increasingly aware (and even thankful) that even when I'm wandering the halls, trying to find my way, by God's grace I'm being made new.
Thanks to the Strangely Dim team for inviting me along. I'm excited to see what new things may come our way.
April 24, 2011
Five Little Letters: An Easter Reflection
The other day I found this sheet of paper sitting in the printer. About two thirds of the way down the page, about an inch in from the left margin, were five little letters in tiny little type: J-e-s-u-s. That's it - nothing else. Such a tiny little word, made more weighty by being surrounded by nothing.
It was an accident of formatting, I'm sure, that "Jesus" showed up all by himself on that page. Maybe a misplaced hard page break or a cell that spilled over the printable area on the page previous. These things happen in a publishing house. But it's an interesting way of looking at Jesus: five little letters, all by themselves, not where you'd expect them. It's arresting in its simplicity.
We're generally uncomfortable with simplicity attached to greatness. Simplicity isn't appropriate to superstars, we figure, and so we try to do them a favor by filling up the space with whatever gravitas we can. I'm reminded of King Saul, dressing up shepherd boy David in his kingly armor to the point that David couldn't even move. I'm reminded of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt, the foal of a donkey, with random people making all sorts of obsequious gestures in his path. When simplicity is perpetrated upon us by people we admire, we overcompensate a bit; we offer what we can, even if no offering is solicited. Sometimes all we can think to contribute is our own beard-stroking, chin-tapping egos. If our heroes are going to be so stubbornly simple, we'll have to be pretentious on their behalf.
I'm reminded of one of the more remarkable meetings of the twentieth century, at least in terms of popular culture: John Lennon's first encounter with Yoko Ono. She, an avant-garde performance artist, was exhibiting at a gallery in London; he, a world-renowned singer-songwriter, was looking for a good time. Two giant personalities filling one room; simplicity was probably the last thing on anyone's mind.
Part of the exhibit was a white ladder to the ceiling, where the viewer would find a magnifying glass. Looking at the ceiling through the magnifying glass, the viewer would find three little letters: Y-e-s. Yes.
"You feel like a fool," John told an interviewer years later, "you could fall any minute - and you look through it and it just says 'YES.'" It was a stark contrast to the sort of hypercritical vibe that attends to much pretentiousness and characterized the time: "all anti-, anti-, anti-. Anti-art, anti-establishment." Lennon was hooked, and he soon came to be more identified with Yoko than anyone else in his life - even his songwriting partner Paul McCartney, even his iconic band The Beatles.
John eventually wrote "The Ballad of John and Yoko," a plainspoken chronicle of their relationship that compared their experience to that of Jesus: misunderstood, expected to behave in ways they were unwilling to behave, persecuted for being countercultural and having convictions and being, for lack of a better word, simple. "The way things are going," Lennon mused as he sang, "they're gonna crucify me." What sustained Lennon in the face of such pretentious backlash was those three little letters, that soft-spoken "Yes."
I'm reminded of the apostle Paul's declaration to the Corinthian church, an assurance that sustained them through the early decades of the church's formation, beset with persecution and misunderstanding: "No matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ." Yes is a hard word to come by, to be honest, particularly during a recession or a depression or a natural disaster or a nuclear calamity or whatever. I have a friend who once whispered to me gravely in the wee hours of the night that the world will be devastated within twenty years by at least one of three things: a global weather event, a global economic catastrophe, or a global war. So far it looks as though all he got wrong was the timing.
And yet still God has made these promises, and still by faith every Easter we declare with Paul that all those promises are "Yes" in Christ. It's an act of defiance that looks suspiciously like an act of naivete, even delusion, and yet what else can we say?
I'm reminded of three little days after the death of God, when a woman named Mary shuffled despondently, in her mourning clothes, into a garden to honor the dead. There, unexpectedly, she found Jesus--no big fanfare, no bold or italic or serifs or 40-point type; just Jesus, plain and simple, all five little letters of him. And while the Scriptures don't report this, I imagine when she cried out in awareness that she saw a resurrected Jesus standing there, he responded simply by whispering three little letters: "Yes."
April 11, 2011
All this talk about rabbits--as well as numerous signs all over these western Chicago suburbs about where and when the Easter Bunny will be appearing (it appears he has a very full schedule in the next couple weeks)--has me thinking about the first poem I remember writing. I was in second grade, and in my best cursive, with all the creative force I could muster, I wrote a touching (at least, my mom thought so) account of a particular rabbit and her habit. (Lest you get the wrong picture in your mind and then later feel disappointed, my poem was not the tale of a Catholic hare garbed in black and white, like Maria in The Sound of Music, though that, no doubt, would have been a much more interesting poem than the one I actually wrote.) Budding wordsmith that I was, I'm pretty sure the poem started very originally with "There once was a rabbit that had a habit." And I'm pretty sure the next two lines went something like this:
Unfortunately, I don't remember the rest of the poem (though I'm sure it was scintillating), so I'll have to leave you in suspense about what actually happened to the rabbit and its habit. But those few lines are enough to make me think that, even if my poetry skills were lacking a certain something, my theology may have been relatively advanced. Because, after all these years of thinking that the only two lines I remember don't even really make sense (though the rhyme scheme has a nice ring to it, you have to admit), it's struck me lately that they encapsulate Lent pretty well.
In Lent, we often name a habit that's bothering us by keeping us from God in some way. The habit might be a characteristic like our tendency toward anger or bitterness, or a propensity to lie. Or maybe it's an addiction: to food, exercise, television or affirmation from others, for example--things that can be good and healthy (and necessary) in moderation but that easily become idols, habits that hold a higher place in our lives than God.
Once we name the habit, Lent offers a built-in period of time during which we can intentionally engage in disciplines that "bother" that habit (though we can, and hopefully do, do this at other times of the year too). Essentially, Lent stirs things up; the disciplines we engage in upset the evil one's plans, and parry attacks from the likes of Wormwood in The Screwtape Letters. Moreover, facing, naming, mourning our bothersome, sinful habits as we ponder Christ's suffering can allow us to receive and experience his forgiveness and freedom. The writer of Hebrews offers us encouragement toward this end:
This is the hope of Lent that moves us forward toward Easter--the hope of his continued work in us that helps us persevere when we're tempted to believe that freedom from a particular sin [read: hindering habit] is impossible.
In second-grade-rabbit-poetry terms, I imagine the exhortation would sound something like this:
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 10:40 AM
March 17, 2011
March Music Madness: To Life
March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. That's what they always tell us. Along the way March carries us through Lent and welcomes us into spring and makes us wish we were Irish. So, yeah, there's a lot going on in March--especially this week.
This week I attended the funeral of my sister-in-law's mother. My mom broke briefly from the procession to let me know that my sister-in-law and my brother weren't there--they were at the hospital. My sister-in-law had gone into labor that morning. We said goodbye to her mother and hello to her daughter on the same day.
During the funeral we sang "Morning Has Broken," a song made popular in the early 1970s by folk singer Cat Stevens but originally published in 1931, according to Wikipedia, as a hymn for each day. It borrowed its tune from a traditional Gaelic song, "Bunessan," which was also used for the Christmas carol "Child in the Manger, Infant of Mary." The text of "Morning Has Broken" was likewise repurposed, modified by its author, Eleanor Farjeon, for the hymn "A Morning Song (For the First Day of Spring)." So it's appropriate for spring, for St. Patrick's Day--for any day, really. But a funeral?
When I was a kid, we often sang "Morning Has Broken" as part of our Sunday mass. I never thought of it as a death song. Maybe a spring song, perhaps a birth song, possibly even a resurrection song. But I don't associate beauty or hope or even Ireland--all of which I associate with "Morning Has Broken"--with death.
After this week, though, I'm starting to think that's because sometimes I lack vision--or, maybe more to the point, sometimes I lack faith.
During mass we recalled Betty's baptism and anticipated its fulfillment. We remembered that in dying, Jesus destroyed our death and in rising he restored our life. We recalled Jesus' cross and resurrection, and professed our faith that he will come again in glory, ushering in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. We reflected on the fact that Betty, like each of us, was a bearer of the divine image, sprung from the word of God and inspired by the breath of God. And we sang "Morning Has Broken" as much as a reminder to ourselves as an acknowledgment of the objective truth that each day we are given, from the first day of all creation to the last day of our life, is a gift to be embraced and celebrated as "God's recreation of the new day."
So, yeah, maybe "Morning Has Broken" is a funeral song, if only we have ears to hear. If nothing else, it's a song I wouldn't mind having in my head as I pass from this life to the next. It's a paean to life, of which God is the author and finisher; and it is right, by means of it, to give him thanks and praise.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 12:59 PM
March 8, 2011
March Music Madness: The Time to Rise Has Been Engaged
Today is important. It's the convergence of three significant events: International Women's Day, commemorating the working women of the world; Mardi Gras, a celebration of indulgence of all stripes, from paczkis to parades; and the release of Collapse into Now, the fifteenth studio album from R.E.M.
I've been a fan of R.E.M. for, literally, decades. They were my first foray into alternative music (not much made it onto the airwaves in Des Moines, Iowa, circa 1985); my friend Patrick and I intentionally misinterpreted the lyrics to their song "Catapult" (off their first full-length studio album, Murmur) as "Cat Food." That song is ridiculously catchy, so if you're looking to mine their discography, "Catapult" is a good place to start.
That's not my song of the day, however. My song of the day is off the album Document, which came out in 1987 and was to be the band's last album with minor label IRS Records. The opening track, "The Finest Worksong," was also the third single (after their wildly popular "The One I Love" and "It's the End of the World As We Know It [and I Feel Fine]"); it kicks off the album's eleven-track flirtation with populist uprisings, including the labor movement (hence the connection to International Women's Day). Document is a fiery album, and "The Finest Worksong" will get your blood pumping.
But it's not simply a work song, just as Mardi Gras is not just a celebration of self-indulgence. Today is also the last day of Ordinary Time, the eve of the circumspective season of Lent. And "The Finest Worksong" invites a certain amount of circumspection, even as it compels its listeners to raise fists to the air. "What we want, and what we need," Michael Stipe sings painfully, "have been confused."
In some ways that's the story of the labor movement, which has evolved from its origins as a collective epiphany that there's power in a union, power among groups of people, that wealth and privilege can't overwhelm, to an institution that never doesn't have a place at the table and must now figure out how to wield its own established power and privilege.
But in a more profound way, the notion that "whate we want and what we need have been confused" is also the story of the human condition--women and men alike, who too often think that their desires are needs, and the things (and people) that inhibit their desires are evils or enemies.
In "The Finest Worksong" R.E.M. advises us to "take [our] instincts by the reins"; that's a pretty good practice to guide us through the forty days leading up to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It's also pretty good advice for Ordinary Time, and particularly for Mardi Gras, when our instincts can often run rampant. It's also good advice for when the time to rise has been engaged; let us speak truth to power, but let us not hoard it or lust after it.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 10:15 AM
March 7, 2011
March Music Madness: Spares Me
Continuing our series on March Music Madness.
I wish I were the type of guy who follows a local music scene. I bear all the markings of such a person: I listen to a lot of music, I regularly thumb my nose at the mass-consumption music on offer, and despite having not played a musical instrument for about fifteen years, I still fancy myself a musician. I watch American Idol, but I only like the weirdos, like this guy, or that guy. So yeah, I guess you could say that I'm that type of guy.
And yet I don't typically follow the local music scene. I blame it on two factors: (1) I'm cheap, so I don't like to pay cover charges; and (b) I'm sedentary, so I don't like to leave my house. I occasionally part from my normal behavior, however, particularly when I'm allowed to take center stage.
This was the case when the good folks at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Park Ridge invited me to give a talk at their monthly Reimagine Worship event a couple of years ago. Sharing the bill with me was a local two-person Americana band, who very kindly accommodated my request that they learn the song "40" by U2. I got to talk with both of them during the break and after the show, and we did what I suppose you might call an "artisan barter": copies of my books for copies of their CDs. By the end of the night I was a raving fan, and even though I've not caught a live show since, I'd gladly hop out of my recliner and throw down some money to see them again, if anyone's interested.
The Spares are Jodee Lewis and Steve Hendershot. They've been described as "hauntingly gorgeous," which I think is apt and thanks mainly to their willingness to be spare and selective with the sounds they pull together. Jodee's voice is shockingly clear, penetrating every barrier between her lungs and your soul. Steve's a highly disciplined guitarist, concentrating on riffs and rhythms that keep songs moving without veering off into self-indulgence and without distracting from the vocals. He's also got a lovely voice that complements Jodee really nicely. They remind me more of the Cowboy Junkies than anyone, although they've drawn comparisons to Gram Parsons and Alison Krauss. If you like Over the Rhine you'd probably like the Spares, but they're really nothing like one another.
No, the Cowboy Junkies are the best comparison, as the Spares can put together a driving rhythm and the end result will still work as a road-trip song. This is late-night music, melancholy-mood music, life-is-what-it-is music. I suppose that makes it, generally, good Lent music, which may be why this week I'm into the Spares.
Lent is a late-night, melancholy-mood, life-is-what-it-is sort of celebration of the church. For forty days leading up to our commemoration of Jesus' resurrection, we consider why Jesus died in the first place: because he so loved the world, because the world so loved the darkness, because we were made to live in the light. Lent is a time of confession, most fundamentally a collective confession that we don't understand Jesus or a divine ministry that includes suffering and death. As the apostle John puts it, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it." Whatever Easter is, it's anticipated by the acknowledgment that life is what it is, and what it is, without a God who conquers death and brings good news, is melancholy.
Forty days of melancholy is a pretty long road trip, so you better pack some good music. If you want a taste of the Spares go to their Myspace page, or better yet, download a couple of tracks: I recommend "Waiting for the Smoke to Clear," "Not Break Just Overflow," "Center of the World" and "Jesus I Long for Thee." They're cheap (like me) and they may just get you out of your chair and onto the road set before you this season.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:32 AM
April 6, 2010
Lent is, traditionally, thought to be a time of reflection. This year, however, I find myself reflecting on Lent after the fact. This is a consequence of circumstance: I'm currently "between churches," and my churchlessness left me this year in a state of relative Lentlessness.
It's now Easter, of course--a happier time for Christians, however sad their current state of churchlessness makes them. Lent is now a done deal, which means thinking about Lent is less a crisis of faith and more a "teachable moment."
Lent was weird from the beginning this year, and it ended as uncomfortably as it began. In the past, I've marked Ash Wednesday by getting marked--by having someone I know well look me in the eye while smearing the ashes of last year's Palm Sunday palm fronds onto my forehead and whispering conspiratorially to me, "Remember you are dust." This year, while the fact of Ash Wednesday was not lost on me, the experience of it was; instead of being marked as an icon of Christ's suffering, I sat at home and watched American Idol.
And then, before I knew it, along came Holy Week. I spent the evening of Good Friday with non-churchgoing visiting family members in a comedy club being consoled by the performer that it was OK to be there with "all the other heathens." Well-intended friends tried to pietize our entertainment choice with the thought that "that's probably where Jesus would be." No, on Good Friday Jesus would not be in a comedy club; on Good Friday Jesus would be on a cross.
Being between churches, my wife and I struggled to decide how to mark Easter, with what community we would share the good news that "Christ is risen--he is risen indeed." We opted for a large church in our community that has a decidedly more traditional mode of worship than we're generally accustomed to; we got there late and sat in the last row of the overflow; we sang the Hallelujah chorus under our breath, as the folks all around us seemed to think that singing in an overflow room was unseemly.
Over the course of this year's Lenten season we've visited a number of wonderful churches with wonderful people doing wonderful things in their communities. But we were never not visitors, never not outside observers--never not critics. Oh, we were gracious critics, I promise you, recognizing the good in each fellowship. But we were critics nonetheless--too wise to the ways and wiles of church ministry to marvel at the sheer oddity of so many people coming together on a weekly basis to sing, pray and learn together; too spiritually sophisticated to be awestruck by the integrity between the life of Jesus, the prophecies of the Old Testament and the realities of contemporary everyday life; too jaded, in short, to be moved.
This, brothers and sisters, is not how Lent is intended to be lived. Lent is a time in which we prepare our hearts for the gravity of Good Friday and the ebullience of Easter. During Lent we face the disillusionment of ourselves in order to be reminded afresh of the grace of deliverance from our sins. During Lent people give things up or take things on in order to make room in their hearts for a fuller, truer, purer understanding of the saving work of Christ. This Lent it could be argued that I gave up being a part of the church. Now that we're in the season of Easter, here's to hoping I can take it back up again.
April 4, 2010
Easter Goes On
Likewise author Kimberlee Conway Ireton has been a gift to us here at Strangely Dim, reminding us that Christianity is a faith practiced in time and space. The subject of her book Circle of Seasons is the church calendar--not the one on the back of your Sunday bulletin but the one that infuses our days and weeks and seasons with meaning. Reposted from last year, here's an excerpt from her chapter on Easter, which, apparently, goes on . . .
The closest I've come to the astonishment of the disciples when they heard the good news of Jesus' resurrection occurred the Easter my son was two. Jack's Sunday school teacher had brought a huge bouquet of helium balloons and let each child choose one to take home. Jack chose red. Proudly and joyfully, he carried his bobbing balloon down the church hallway to the Fellowship Hall, where Doug and I stopped to chat with our associate pastor, Steve, and his wife about our recent visit to Steve's hometown. A few minutes into our conversation, Jack let out a piercing wail. He had let go of his balloon, and it had floated to the top of the Fellowship Hall, some twelve feet above our heads."Oh sweetie." I picked Jack up as he began to sob. "That's so sad."
Steve said to Jack, "Hey, pal, don't worry. I'll go get a ladder. We'll get it down."
"No, please," I said. "Please don't. We believe in letting him experience the consequences of his actions."
But Steve had already headed across the Fellowship Hall in search of a ladder. He turned around. "It's Easter, Kimberlee. There are no consequences."
I stared after him, my mouth half-open to voice an objection that died on my lips. Steve got Jack's balloon down, and I hope and pray that deep in his being, my son now knows something it will take me the rest of my life to believe: the resurrection changes everything. Everything. The reality of Easter--Christ risen, death defeated, sins forgiven, evil overcome, no consequences--is so incredible, in the original sense of the word, that it's beyond believable.
This is why I need more than just Easter Day. If Easter were only a single day, I would never have time to let its incredible reality settle over me, settle into me. I would trudge through my life with a disconnect between what I say I believe about resurrection and how I live (or fail to live) my life in light of it. Thanks be to God, our forebears in faith had people like me in mind when they decided we simply cannot celebrate Easter in a single day, or even a single week. No, they decided, we need fifty days, seven Sundays, to even begin to plumb the depths of this event.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:52 AM
March 28, 2010
It's Not About the Donkey
About this time last year Shane Claiborne (coauthor of Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers and a few other books you might have heard of) introduced the inaugural issue of Conspire magazine by telling the story of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, carried by the foal of a donkey, on the first day of the last week of his life. It seems a fitting way to begin Passion Week here at Strangely Dim as well.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:02 AM
March 24, 2010
"The Resurrection of a Dream": A Q&A with Tamara ParkContinuing our reflections on Lent and our highlighting of the Women of Likewise, today we offer you a glimpse into the doings and thinkings of Tamara Park, author of Sacred Encounters from Rome to Jerusalem. (Have I said recently that this is a wonderful book? It's a really wonderful book.) In North Carolina and Africa, in grief and hope, in fulfilled dreams and unfulfilled longings, she drinks deeply of life and of God's love in the midst of it all.
Strangely Dim: What have you been up to since Sacred Encounters from Rome to Jerusalem came out?
Tamara: Life has taken some significant twists since I wrote Sacred Encounters. Last spring I ended my job as pastor of community at my church, Warehouse 242. I loved my church community but thought it might be time to move to this fabulous little wild-west of a country called Burundi. I hoped to learn from the people there and eventually share their stories with those back in the States.
Well . . . that didn't work out exactly. I ended up getting a job as a TV producer and trekking from Mozambique to Morocco to discover what the West can learn from Africa. Now a coproducer and I are currently putting together the TV series Noble Exchange Africa and preparing for a second season in South America.
While the trip to Africa was my most challenging one I've ever taken, the whole project has been the resurrection of a dream. Since I was a teenager I dreamt of being a foreign correspondent. In my early twenties I felt that dream died. My father told me growing up that God often gives you a dream and lets it die only to resurrect it in a more beautiful form. I feel I'm in the midst of a resurrection.
SD: Could you tell us about a "sacred encounter" you've had in the past year?
Tamara: I met Africans who are literally transforming their communities and countries--from Erik Charas, a social entrepreneur in Mozambique who started a free newspaper that is now being read by his nation's top business leaders and the newly literate; to Jolly Okot, a former child soldier who is now the Uganda Country Director for Invisible Children; to Liberate, the first Twa/Pigmy woman member of Burundi's Parliament, who has twenty kids, including Hutus, Tutsis and Twas, she's adopted. I was so humbled by the opportunity to meet such sturdy and inspiring souls.
I prayed for sacred encounters, and expected incredible interviews. However, what I didn't expect was to make a true friend, an anam cara (soul friend), en route. I met a South African woman named Tracey Webster on my trek. She's a creative genius, an extraordinary leader and a true advocate of the marginalized. While we've had quite varied experiences--her growing up in the throes of apartheid and I in the midst of the U.S. Bible Belt--in many ways our deepest desires and thorniest questions are the same. We are both in our late thirties, single, and long to live passionately and authentically for God and with others. We both can't believe our fortunes to have the opportunities we are getting and yet are curious if we will ever get the husbands and children we thought might come our way. It's been such a gift to happen upon a new friend sharing a similar plot line in this stage of life. A surprising sacred encounter, indeed.
SD: Are there any books or films that have been meaningful or formative for you recently?
Tamara: I name my years, and this is my Year of Story. So I am focusing on God's story, learning from others' stories, along with desiring to better understand story structure.
I'm going through the Mosaic Bible this year and savoring it!
And I can't shake a quote by Robert McKee, screenwriter and author of Story. He said, "Stories are equipment for living." So I've enjoyed reading and watching some soulful stories. Here are a couple I've encountered in the past month or so:
I recently read Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder. This book captures a young Burundian's journey--from surviving war, to being dropped off in NYC with only $200 cash, to studying at Columbia, to investing back in Burundi. I was moved by the young guy's moxie and brilliance, but also by the compassionate people who entwined themselves into his story.
Invictus--I loved how this film showed one of Nelson Mandela's ingenious efforts to build a new country based on reconciliation versus revenge. Mandela said: "Forgiveness liberates the soul. It frees you of fear."
The Blind Side--I found the story line inspiring and the characters engaging. It reminded me of why I desire to write a compelling screenplay one day. I was grateful for how the film left me with a winsome challenge: how can I more intentionally contribute to those in need?
SD: What new facets of God's character have you seen or experienced recently?
Tamara: I'm focusing on hearing God's voice of love . . . and trusting that love. I know, focusing on God's love is nothing novel, but it's curious how often I have to be reminded of it.
SD: Are there any practices, in addition to meditating on the prayer of Sir Francis Drake, that have been stretching or helpful to you this Lent?
Tamara: Yes. While I am still eating stacks of chocolate during Lent, I've given up doubt for the season (there's a back story, of course). I am asking to embrace greater hope and hear God's voice of love.
SD: Is there anything specific you are mourning over or grieving right now?
Tamara: While I guess I tried to be all evolved and strong last year when a romantic relationship ended, I suspect I'm still mourning the loss of that daily connection to another . . . oh--and the sauciness it brought out in me . . . and the permission to care deeply for another . . . and now that I think about it--that momentary opportunity to be in "the couple's club" since most of friends are married or on the brink of it. Just that.
You know, the tricky thing with both grieving and desire is to own up to it but not be consumed by it. Tricky indeed.
SD: What most often reminds you of the hope we have in Christ as you go through your days?
Tamara: I love feeling the sun on my cheeks as I sally around my favorite neighborhood park. And . . . reading Scripture and doing Zumba are definite ways I feel hope and utter aliveness.
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 8:48 AM
March 23, 2010
A Prayer from Tamara ParkAs you know, March here at Strangely Dim has mostly been focused on Lent. But in honor of Women's History Month, we've also been highlighting some of the Women of Likewise. Today's and tomorrow's posts combine the two and give us a quick peek into the days and thoughts of Tamara Park, author of Sacred Encounters from Rome to Jerusalem (a really wonderful book). Tomorrow you'll find out what Tamara's been up to since she wrote Sacred Encounters, why she'll be heading to South America, and what books and movies have inspired her lately. Today, though, we offer you a prayer, attributed to Sir Francis Drake in 1577, that Tamara's been ruminating on during Lent:
Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 8:21 AM
March 22, 2010
Lashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down
For some time now, I've been on the hunt for The Perfect Mascara. (Bear with me here, boys. There is a point to this. And it might give you some insight into the opposite sex.) No clumping or smudging. Not too thick but still visible. The right color for my eyes. Small brush. Not too expensive. Trying out a new kind is risky, though, as one tube of mascara lasts for quite some time. Even if I hate it, I feel obligated to use it up before buying more, since I spent money on it. You see the difficulty of the situation.
When one tube finally does come to an end, I get excited to try a new kind in hopes that it will be stunning, smashing, revolutionary. (Okay, maybe not revolutionary, but certainly eye-opening--in a lid-lifting, lash-lengthening kind of way.) I recently had just such an opportunity when, after giving up on two kinds of mascara I had gotten for free, I conducted an unofficial poll among friends, read about a few suggested brands in a magazine, spent entirely too long wandering around the makeup section in Target and finally made my selection.
Since I know you simply won't sleep until I tell you how it turned out, I'll spare you the suspense. The new kind was better but not perfect. Definitely tolerable for the duration of the tube, but maybe not worth buying again. So the search continues. (I feel your sympathy dripping through the wireless access.)
I notice the difference between each kind of mascara, whether it's good or bad. Each brand has its own particularities, its own nuances. Each does something a little different with my lashes, for better or for worse. Yet each time I've switched brands and eagerly applied the new mascara, guess how many people have noticed? Zero. No "Hmmm . . . something looks different about you today," or "Are you getting more sleep? Your eyes look really bright today," or "Wow, I never noticed what long lashes you have." Not a single comment to date. And I think I know why.
Because nobody cares.
Apparently I am the only one who studies, examines, analyzes, critiques and reexamines my face, and particularly my eyelashes, closely enough to notice a change as subtle as new mascara.
And this is why (one reason among many) I desperately need Lent. In our self-oriented, image-crazed, "it's all about me" culture, it's easy for me to get distracted by not just what I own or don't own, not just what I'm wearing and how I feel about how I look in it, not just what my hair and makeup look like, but also the minutia of what the heck my eyelashes look like on a given day.
Lent pulls me away from my bathroom mirror, outside my apartment with all its stuff, farther back, even, than my job and my relationships, way back before I was even on this earth, to three essential truths about myself:
I am created in the image of God.
I am a sinner.
I am saved by God's grace, through the love and sacrificial death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Lent reminds me of this bigger picture, this reality that is so much truer than the distractions I so often live in. On Ash Wednesday we're reminded that from dust we came, and to dust we will return. We're marked with ashes. Next week, Holy Week, we're reminded that, through Jesus' death for our sin, we're marked with blood. Then, on Easter Sunday, in Jesus' resurrection, we're reminded that we're marked with life: abundant life that manifests itself in compassion and love and unity and grace and truth and light. These markings point us to the final day, the culmination, when Jesus returns and every tribe and tongue and nation falls down before him and confesses Christ as King. On that day, our earthly possessions will pass away, worth nothing, and our broken bodies will be made new, whole, glorious.
And I can guarantee you I won't be thinking about my eyelashes.
One brave and beautiful coworker friend of mine gave up makeup for Lent. I hope one day I'm courageous enough to do the same. I won't give it up because makeup is bad, of course, but just because it will be a tangible reminder every time I look in the mirror, every time I'm tempted to get obsessed over the petty details of my life, of what really matters, of what world we live in--God's kingdom reality that has different values and priorities from this fallen world that he's using us to redeem.
I suppose, when I use up this tube of mascara, I'll try a new kind. By then another Ash Wednesday will most likely be just around the corner, with its needed perspective on who I am and what really matters. In the meantime, I hope my eyes will simply be open to see the minutia of God's kingdom--the hundreds of ways he's at work redeeming the earth with compassion and truth, with love and light.
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 8:47 AM
March 19, 2010
The End and the Beginning
Today's post is bittersweet: with it we bid farewell to guest-blogger and editorial intern Christina Jasko. Today she takes us into some of the weirder artifacts of a Christian college in order to uncover the beginning embedded in a sometimes too-familiar ending. Once you've finished reading today's post, you might enjoy rereading her post from Monday; in some respects they might be considered a bonded pair.
One of the peculiarities of a Christian college, one of which I attend, is the movie selection in the school library. It tends to be rather strange. We do have secular picks--and of a greater variety than one might expect--but we also have a stunning array of the most random movies on religion you've ever seen. On a slow weekend, my roommate and I like to pick out some of the weirder ones and watch them.
Jesus (sporting an afro, a Superman shirt and face paint) is encouraging, silly, childlike--but when he needs to be, still deeply serious. He's a far cry from the stoic Jesus of most passion plays, and it surprised me how very endearing he was (which makes it disturbing to realize that the actor also played the sketchy professor in Legally Blonde. The inevitable crucifixion scene, accompanied by the disciples' screams and a shrill electric guitar, is heart-wrenching.
The end of Jesus' earthly life was just the beginning of our new lives. For now we still wait to receive these in fullness.
March 17, 2010
A Victorious God Active in Us
March 17 traditionally is a celebration of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. But St. Patrick's Day all too often descends into self-indulgent caricature; we wear green, therefore we are Irish, therefore we drink ourselves ridiculous. Meanwhile, March is both Women's History Month and the heart of Lent. So, with no disrespect to Patrick, today editorial intern and guest-blogger Christina Jasko will celebrate the legacy of Corrie Ten Boom, who like Patrick lived a life worth emulating far more than the silliness typically perpetrated on March 17.
For most of her life, Corrie ten Boom was more or less a nobody. Until she was about fifty, she led a quiet life in the Netherlands, living with her family and working at the family watch-making business. Her commitment to God was, however, evident in her devout lifestyle and her ministry to children and the disabled in her spare time.
When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, things took a turn for the dramatic. Corrie and her family became active in the Dutch Underground and had a small secret room constructed in their house so that they could hide Jews there. They succeeded in helping many people, but eventually the family was found out and sent to prison. Corrie spent four months in solitary confinement, reading a copy of the New Testament over and over and learning to follow Jesus even through this suffering.
Eventually, she and her sister Betsie were transferred to a concentration camp, ending up in Ravensbruck, where the conditions were horrible (even for a concentration camp). While fending off starvation, illness, vermin and the real possibility of death, Corrie and Betsie still found the strength to pray for their fellow prisoners, read Scripture to them and share what little they had. All along the way they witnessed small miracles of provision and protection.
Betsie told Corrie, "We must tell people how good God is. After the war we must go around the world telling people. No one will be able to say that they have suffered worse than us. We can tell them how wonderful God is, and how His love will fill our lives, if only we will give up our hatred and bitterness." Whenever my faith is having a bad day, that sentiment from Betsie helps me believe in God--believe not just in the concept of deity (that's easy) but in the radical idea of a powerful, self-sacrificing God working redemption into human history. It is amazing to me then that anyone could go straight into the jaws of the Holocaust--into what seems like such irredeemable evil--and come out singing about God's goodness. It's so impossible that it screams of the supernatural.
Betsie died in the camp. Not long after that Corrie was released, due to a clerical error that narrowly prevented her execution. She dedicated herself to doing exactly what Betsie had said. In contrast to the quietly devout first half of her life, the second half was spent engaged in a worldwide ministry of sharing the message of the gospel and the need for forgiveness. She became, in fact, such a famous exemplar that I fear we might miss the point of her life.
It's easy to take incredible Christians like Corrie ten Boom and turn them into saints, but to do so diminishes their witness. Her story does mean, as I said, that there's a good God active in our world, and that's a powerful truth. But it's more than that: there is a victorious God active in us. If an ordinary Dutch spinster, faithfully serving God while making watches, could end up overcoming so much through the power of God, then anyone with the same God has the same hope.
March 15, 2010
What a Name Reveals
March is Women's History Month. It's also typically given entirely over to Lent. It's also a popular month for editorial internships at IVP, candidates for which are mostly women. We complete the circle this week at Strangely Dim with three guest-posts about women, Jesus and suffering by editorial intern Christina Jasko, a student at Wheaton College and a very helpful unpaid worker over the past couple of months. Today's post offers Christina's insights into the often underreported role of women in the Bible, and the often underappreciated role of Jesus in the lives of women.
Growing up, I used to think ruefully that God only really liked men. Of course he loved women and died for them and all that, but it seemed like only men got to do the exciting kingdom work.
I realize now that there were just a few flaws in this idea, starting with my strange division between "like" and "love," and continuing with my narrow definition of "exciting." But it still makes me sad that such an idea could ever seem feasible to me.
In Scripture, women prophesy, kill bad guys, help establish the church and get raised from the dead. Of course, they also lie, kill good guys, persecute God's people and get struck dead. I'm not saying the record is all rosy, but I am saying that Scripture portrays women, like men, as fully vested in humanity's struggle to learn how to relate to God.
Jesus is particularly willing to engage women in this process. From the woman with the issue of blood, to the Samaritan woman at the well, to the women who followed Jesus and supported his ministry, we see throughout the Gospels that Jesus intentionally invested in women. Jesus specifically commends one woman for her great faith and another for seeking him above all. And the first person on earth to witness Jesus' resurrection was a woman, Mary Magdelene:
Leaving aside (for now) the observation that Jesus' first resurrected act is to appoint a woman to proclaim his word to men, I love this passage because such a glorious accomplishment is being revealed. But Jesus doesn't declare it with a cool quote like, "I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!" (Revelation 1:18). The big moment of revelation is hidden in a single word: her name. It's a surprisingly intimate moment.If I could chide my younger, disgruntled self, I'd tell her that (1) this moment was probably one of the most exciting things anyone in the Bible got to experience, and (2) Jesus died for us all, but the corporate doesn't exclude the individual. In the same way that he spoke Mary's name and suddenly she understood who he was, Jesus is still calling out to each of us. Regardless of whatever qualities we have that make us think he must not like us too much, he calls us into our true identities as witnesses to his gospel that changes everything.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:28 AM
March 9, 2010
A Serious Act of Solidarity
Working at InterVarsity Press, you can't help but be into John Stott. The history of IVP is incomplete without his Basic Christianity, The Cross of Christ and countless other titles, and his approach to writing has shaped the approach of countless other of our writers. So yeah, I dig John Stott. But I always thought of him as a "scholar-pastor," not as a punk--until I read this, from Roger Steer's biography Basic Christian:
Hard-core, no? This wasn't urban tourism or reconnaissance for gentrification; this was frontline missiological research, a serious act of solidarity.
When nobody took pity on him, he began to feel rejected. He walked into the East End of London and, since he had had little sleep, lay down in the sunshine on one of the many bomb sites. Rosebay willow herb was growing in profusion, making a reasonably soft bed, and he fell asleep.
When evening came, he made his way to the Whitechapel Salvation Army hostel for the homeless and queued for a bed. When he got to the window where you booked, the officer in charge was brusque with the man in front of him. Momentarily, John forgot who he was meant to be that day.
'As a Salvation Army officer,' he burst out, 'you ought to try to win that man for Christ and not treat him like that!'
The officer looked at him sharply, wondering who he was, but said nothing.
No wonder Stott has become so influential the world over. No wonder his readers and students and congregants and biographers alike hold him in such high regard. For John Stott, the gospel isn't something to be merely appreciated; it's to be embraced and embodied. Likewise, the world isn't something to be dissected; it's a place to be loved and served.
March 8, 2010
The Sublime & the Sick
A post from three years ago, for your Lenten amusement.
I've got a thing for spring. When I first moved into my house, the above-ground pool in the back was covered in snow and served no real purpose until spring sprang, at which point the snow melted and the pool became a temporary home to a family of ducks. I took out the trash one morning and found myself face to face with a lackadaisical duck, waddling around my driveway, minding his own business, being wondrous. I got over my buyer's remorse in a hearbeat.
I've since junked the pool, so the ducks don't come around the house anymore. But this morning I noticed a family of ducks crossing the road (to get to the other side, I'd imagine), and then I noticed a mother in a car pointing out the ducks to her young son. He became quickly overcome with wonder, and my day started to perk up a bit.
Ducks and, really, let's admit it, all waterfowl are wondrous. The sleekness and vividness of a duck's feathers, the casualness of its waddle, the dignity of its beak, the intricacy of its webbed feet--I'm awestruck by it when I come across it. I don't really know why, except that having grown up in Iowa and now living in the suburban midwest, waterfowl remain mildly foreign, faintly exotic.
After my commute I stepped into the office and noticed, perched high above me on the building's skylight, a goose freshly returned from its wintery exile. I'd never seen webbed feet from below, and it was wondrous. I called my friends to come give witness to this sight, to mark this moment. But then, somewhere between the call and the response, the goose decided to mark the moment on its own.
That's the seedy underside of the wondrous waterfowl. They poop. Everywhere. All the time. I know peaceable people who get positively serial in their desire to kill waterfowl, based solely on the animal's propensity to poop. And really, who can blame them? Goose poop is gross to look at, gross to smell, gross to accidentally step in. And in some areas (say, for example, our parking lot), it's nearly impossible to avoid.
So there I stood, trying to avoid direct eye contact with the slowly rippling stain above me, while simultaneously transfixed by the wondrously webbed feet mere inches away. It was sublime. It was sick. It was irreducibly complex.
Yesterday I started reading the book Becoming Who You Are, a series of reflections by Jesuit author James Martin about the spiritual process of Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton and Mother Teresa. What I've read so far is a fascinating exploration of Merton and Nouwen, both celebrated for their spiritual depth and profound humility, yet both remarkably confessional about their inner pride and pettiness. Readers of Nouwen and Merton are generally awestruck by them and inclined to see them through the lens of that depth, but in reality humility and pride are there in them both, tightly commingled. Merton and Nouwen are sublime, but they're also sick. In a word, they're complex.
So am I, of course, when I step back and think about it. The psalmist recognizes both the inherent wonder in being human and the wickedness that so tragically attends to us. "I am fearfully and wonderfully made," he writes, only to admit shortly thereafter that he can't clean himself up: "See if there is any wicked way in me" (Psalm 139:14, 24). We're sublime, but we're also sick. In a word, we're complex.
Not so complex, however, that God can't see us for who we truly are, and not so complex that God can't take delight in us. I'm unwilling to suggest that God is awestruck by us, but I do think he's willing to endure the gross in us out of love for the grace in us.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:36 AM
March 5, 2010
Confessions of a Former Catholic
For your Lenten consideration, here's a post from five years ago about the dynamics of leaving, by faith, something good. Incidentally, the event described here is where I met Karen Sloan, author of Flirting with Monasticism--the original "woman of Likewise" (based on release date), which we're celebrating during this Women's History Month.
I was at a conference not too long ago that offered the practice of morning lauds, a time of communal worship being sponsored by a Dominican brother. I took part every chance I had, but I found myself coming out of each morning with a severe case of former-Catholic guilt.
This guilt, I hasten to add, was in no way being foisted on me by Brother Dominic (that's what his nametag said, I swear). I came up with my guilt all on my own, thank you very much. I was raised Roman Catholic, and so for about half of my life I experienced the mass weekly, with its responsive and collective readings, its sung prayers and psalms, its scents and sacraments. And now here I was, sitting across from a Dominican brother all tricked out in a tunic and well on his way to being ordained into the priesthood, and I was recalling all the celebrations of faith I left behind upon my conversion to evangelical Protestantism. I sang and chanted and fumbled my way through the long-forgotten sign of the cross, and I found myself feeling guilty.
Not guilty enough to return to Catholicism, I hasten to add. That would be an artificial solution to my angst, I think. No, that day during morning lauds I was simply confronted with my past, all those aspects of worship and prayer that are no longer a part of my regular experience, those attributes of the faith of my youth that have not found their way into the religious practices of my adulthood.
I'm reminded of Abraham, back in the day when he was still known as simply Abram. God called upon Abram to leave all that he knew, all that he loved, to go someplace unknown to him. God would show him where he was going when he got there. And despite the fact that where Abram was going would be where God wanted him, it's hard to leave what you've known, the environment and culture that was cultivated in good faith to build in you a love and adoration for the God of the universe. I imagine Abram, who was not yet even Abraham, feeling a mixture of sadness, anxiety, anticipation, disorientation and, yes, even guilt.
I imagine Abram feeling all these things because I've felt them myself on the long and cloudy path toward adulthood. But I'm reassured that even in those moments when my pangs of guilt make their presence explicit, they are mitigated by the smoldering anticipation and, yes, even confidence that I'm headed toward the place prepared for me, an adventure I would otherwise have missed.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:29 AM
March 3, 2010
Bad Guy Blues
A post from four years ago, reposted here to support your journey through Lent.
I like Lex Luthor. I sent him a letter once, along with a copy of my first book. I thought he might endorse it. He never wrote me back, but that's OK; Lex Luthor is a busy guy.
Luthor, played on the television show Smallville by Michael Rosenbaum, earned my appreciation in the first season. Here was a character known universally as a villain--the villain in the minds of many--reconceived as a tragic hero, struggling to come out from under his cold, calculated machine of a father's thumb to do right by his friends and his community. I knew that Lex would eventually go bad, but on Smallville Lex won my sympathy.
We meet the fully grown Lex Luthor in Superman Returns. He's a villain again, but maybe he's just getting bad press. After all, he's playing opposite a superhero--the superhero in the minds of many--that some equate with the Messiah.
There's more to Lex than a bald head and a bad attitude; recent storylines in the comics are reconsidering the Superman-Luthor conflict not as muscle-envy or longstanding grudge (the early 80s SuperFriends cartoon suggested that Superman caused Lex to lose his hair) so much as a clash of worldviews. Lex sees humankind, not Superman and not even necessarily himself, as the world's savior.
According to Lex's worldview, Superman is in the way, a pressing problem in humanity's evolution. Superman is not one of us; he's an alien come to Earth by accident, merely pretending to be human. He can't be hurt by men or women or anything natural. He can't even be grounded. He isn't human and thus can't appreciate the human struggle. It takes one to know one, Lex believes, and by extension, it takes one to save one.
Lex reflects as he looks out the window of his helicopter in Lex Luthor: Man of Steel:
He's not the only person to hold this conviction; consider the reflections of David Carradine in Kill Bill, Vol. II:
If Bill and Lex aren't authoritative enough for you, orthodox Christianity professes a Savior who was fully human. To presume that a being not fully human could accomplish our salvation is to commit heresy. Superman, of course, is not at all human, and so Superman condemns us even as he saves us.
Score one for Lex Luthor. But where, then, does he turn for salvation? Humankind is its own hope, Lex argues, the source of its own deliverance from its unique crisis: lives of mundane mediocrity. Addressing the entire world in the miniseries Justice, Lex allows that heroes like Superman
The ultimate solution to this fundamental human problem is the actualization of human greatness. "Someone has to change the way this world works. That's what we're about to do. That's what we are inviting you to be a part of." Lex argues that we create hope out of nothing; it's our birthright, our responsibility. Again, in Lex Luthor: Man of Steel: "We were created to create ourselves. . . . Fate was invented by cowards. But destiny is something we hold in our hands."
Lex manifests his worldview for the rest of us. According to the first Superman motion picture, he's the greatest criminal genius of all time. In some continuities he's president of the United States. He's an icon of power and greatness. But how he achieves greatness exposes the flaw in his worldview. His power is consolidated through the methodical manipulation of people and events. He'll even help his greatest enemy on occasion; in issue 123 of Superman he co-opts messianic language: "As always, the question is this: do I gain more from Superman's suffering--or his salvation?"
Behold our "savior" in action, according to the worldview of Lex Luthor. A savior that is not fully human is insufficient, but a savior that is merely human creates a similar problem. The capacity to save is a kind of power, and power, in the hands of mere humans, corrupts. Mere humans cannot save themselves without destroying themselves and others in the process.
So we're left with a paradox: the source of our salvation must be human but cannot be merely human. We need the otherness of a deliverer as much as we need the sameness of a savior. Superman and Lex Luthor alike are not enough. But a God who created us, who took on flesh out of love for us, who is not so distant as to be "unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but . . . has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin"--such a savior would be enough.
March 1, 2010
The Cup of Tears
Today's post is provided by Kimberlee Conway Ireton, author of the lovely Likewise book The Circle of Seasons. Here Kimberlee does what she does best--writes brilliantly, boldly, about the intersection of the great realities of the Christian faith with the daily challenges of life on earth.
This year I was ready for Lent. I was even eager for it. That's not usually the case. Usually Lent sneaks up on me and is halfway over before I even begin to feel my way into it.
But two weeks before Ash Wednesday, a dear friend's four-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. I was stunned. We'd had a playdate with this little girl the day before her diagnosis. She'd had a slight tummy ache and a lingering cold--nothing to indicate she was seriously ill.
Suddenly, life seemed precarious, fragile, ephemeral. I looked at my own children and wept--knowing, as I rarely allow myself to know, that their lives are not in my hands, not in my control, not in my power. I looked at my own self, at the bump in my tummy that shows new life, and I wept. So much can go wrong. Life, health, breath--none of these are givens. They are all gifts, each day. And one day, we will not receive these gifts.
So yes, I was ready for Lent. Even before Ash Wednesday, I was weeping over the fragility of life, I was weeping because I knew the truth of the words my pastor would speak over us: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return."
Marked with the sign of the cross in ashes, we returned to our seats. My daughter was crying. She wanted to receive communion, and my husband would not let her. We decided years ago that our children must wait to receive communion till they are able to articulate what it means. For the first time I questioned that choice. It's cruel, really, to mark them with that horrible cross and then not let them eat the body and drink the blood. The body and the blood are all that make the cross bearable.
The body and blood are all that make life bearable in months like this, when all around me people I love are in pain, when I myself am in pain. The body and blood proclaim God's presence in brokenness, proclaim God's brokenness to a broken world, to a broken me.
I confess, sometimes I do not want a God who humbly meets me in brokenness. I want, in the words of Tim Dearborn, "a God who exercises enemy-annihilating power." I want God to obliterate the cancer that is eating Michaela's bone marrow. I want God to eradicate my pregnancy-induced queasiness--both physical and emotional. I want God to show up with power and might. I want God to raise his victorious right hand and for all to be well.
But God chooses a different way. In Jesus, God chooses the way of suffering, the way of sorrow.
This Lent, I am learning once more to look for God in the midst of pain, in the midst of fear, in the midst of sorrow.
I am learning again to be comforted by the tears of Jesus, those tears like drops of blood, shed for me.
I am learning that my own tears for my friend, for her daughter, for mothers everywhere who must watch their children suffer--these tears are prayer.
I am learning that these tears are the tears Jesus drank when he tipped the cup of suffering to his lips and drank it to the very dregs.
And I am learning to allow my tears to be a place where Jesus meets me, a place where I cling to him, a place where he takes even my fear that I cannot trust him and transforms it into love.
This Lent, when I eat the body and drink the blood, I remember that Jesus "drank the cup of my tears so that I might drink His cup of life."
All quotes are from a sermon by Tim Dearborn, "In the Garden," delivered February 21, 2010, at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Washington. You can listen to this sermon here.
To keep tabs on Kimberlee, visit her website.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 12:19 PM
In Like a Rabbit
OK, first things first: "Rabbit." With that one word I win this month's installment in an ongoing competition here at Strangely Dim: Be the first to say or write "Rabbit" on the first of the month. To be honest, we tried to pull the plug on this game months ago, but every time we think we're out, someone pulls us back in. So if you can't beat em, join em.
In other news, we find ourselves here at Strangely Dim with a collision of significant events. We're smack in the midst of Lent, that annual season of preparation in the Christian calendar that culminates in Resurrection Sunday, aka Easter. In addition, today marks the beginning of Women's History Month, an opportunity each year to acknowledge the particular contribution of women to the history of the universe. In previous years we've not attempted so audacious a task as taking on both Lent and Women's History Month at the same time, but this year we think we're up to the challenge.
So for the month of March you can expect to see new and revisited posts from the Strangely Dim archives, selected for their relevance to the traditional disciplines and thought experiments associated with Lent. You can also expect to be introduced or reintroduced to the women who through their writings have helped us shape Likewise Books over the past several years. You'll hear what these authors are up to, what inspired them to write their books, and what's going through their minds as they navigate this content-rich March in the year of our Lord 2010.
February 26, 2010
The Anxious Bench and the Mercy Seat
More Strangely Dim reflections to aid your journey through Lent.
In the early nineteenth century, American evangelist Charles Finney would direct those considering faith in Christ to sit on a bench, where they would wait for personal ministry. He called it the "anxious seat." The practice became a focal point for the despisers of Finney's demonstrative revivalism, with Reformed theologian John Williamson Nevin delivering a scathing critique of the movement in his tract The Anxious Bench.
Because I'm not much of a historian, I came across this term only by reading Peter Heltzel's great Jesus and Justice and surfing quickly to Wikipedia. And because I'm a shameless hawker of Likewise Books, the mention of "bench" sent me shortly thereafter to Tamara Park's delightful travel memoir Sacred Encounters from Rome to Jerusalem, in which the benches of Italy, Bosnia, Syria and elsewhere serve as icons of encounter. It's an apt image, really: on benches we meet people who are vastly different from us and discover that the divine longing they feel, even if only unconsciously, is the same as our own. Or something like that.
Anyway, if there's any time of year that's custom-made for the anxious bench, it's probably during Lent. Not only because Lent coincides with the time we do our taxes--when we bite our nails in anticipation of how much we'll owe and whether we'll be audited--but also because Lent is dedicated to the anxiety of the pious.
During Lent we focus on our need for salvation, and we intentionally forget for a time that our salvation has already been procured. We begin the Lenten season by being reminded that we are "but dust," and we end it with shouts of "Crucify him, crucify him!" before turning off all the lights. During Lent we make ourselves uncomfortable in creative ways--going without things that bring us some delight or satisfaction, taking on practices that are unfamiliar and at times cumbersome. During Lent we engage in a kind of pious theater, setting aside whatever blessed assurance we carry with us throughout the year and considering what it would be like to not know that Sunday's coming, to live without the confidence that "Christ is risen, he is risen indeed."
In the temple of the Lord there's a relic that has always captured my imagination. The mercy seat sits atop the ark of the covenant and is occupied by God on the Day of Atonement. (Once again, my thanks to Wikipedia.) The New Testament takes up the image of the mercy seat as an icon of Christ's sacrifice; here the greater sacrifice was made, the atonement was made permanent. But the mercy seat offers its own anxiety: the atonement is a reminder that our relationship with God is uneven. He forgives, we fail; we beg for mercy, he grants us absolution. We bow, he sits. To remain in that dynamic perpetually seems to me more anxious than gracious.
Thank God, then, that the atonement is not the end of the story. The risen Christ actually appears impatient with his followers, who seem reluctant to move on from the cross: "Why are you crying? . . . Do not hold on to me . . . Stop doubting and believe . . . If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me" (John 20--21). The gospel isn't static, Jesus is reminding his followers. The gospel has legs. As the old blues song says, "When the Lord gets ready, you gotta move."
Benches--whether of the bus or park variety, or those that are marked by anxiety or mercy--are temporary settings. We sit for a while until the time comes to take up and move again. For Jesus, the mercy seat was a three-day tenure; on Easter he rises and walks, and bids us follow him. We weren't made to sit forever, whether in anxiety or grace; we were made not to sit but to live, and to move, and to have our being in him.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 10:06 AM
February 22, 2010
Hidden to Death
A post from five years ago, to encourage your movement through Lent.
You hear some stories and you feel compelled to comment. Forgive me . . .
Arkansas attorney Ben Lipscomb decided recently, as he is given to do, to spend the day duck hunting with his friends and his beloved dog. Eventually he separated from his friends to find more ducks to shoot. He hit the gold mine--ducks to his left, ducks to his right, ducks above and all around him. He just kept turning in circles, shooting and reshooting, while his dog retrieved his bounty for him. By the time he hit the legal limit of dead ducks, however, he had turned so many times that he couldn't tell where he had come from.
He couldn't find his friends, and they couldn't find him. All he had was his dog, some dead ducks, a rifle and the clothes he was wearing--camouflage hunting gear over bright white unmentionables. He ate a duck raw to stave off his hunger, he sloshed through the ice-cold waters to find some indicator of the way he should go, his dog barked intermittently to draw someone's attention to his plight. But no luck--they had been left behind.
The hunter's friends, realizing the problem, had returned to their car and called emergency services for help. So began the manhunt. Helicopters flew overhead in crisscross patterns trying to find this solitary hunter somewhere in the expansive hunting grounds. They actually flew directly over him a number of times during the search, but they couldn't see him, despite his jumping, waving and shouting, for, you see, <em>he was wearing camouflage.</em>
The purpose of camouflage is to conceal its wearer so that no one can see him (or her, I suppose, although I don't recall ever seeing a woman decked out in cammies from head to toe). In this case, the camouflage did its job too well: Ben Lipscomb was in danger of being hidden to death.
What would you do? Our hero came up with an idea that sounds as insane as it was pure genius: He took off his clothes.
Underneath the camouflage, as I mentioned, was a pair of bleach-white underwear. Lipscomb dropped his hip waders, ripped the underwear from his waist, tied the undies to the barrel of his rifle, and waved his makeshift flag as the helicopter was making another pass. Presumably he paused to pull his hip waders back up.
His trick worked. The Arkansas State Police spotted his flag and made a beeline for his briefs. Shortly thereafter, he was out of the woods.
Fortunately for Lipscomb, he was smart enough to wear white at night; camouflage underwear, while undeniably stylish, serves no real purpose and, as we learn from this story, could very well kill you.
If that moral to the story doesn't do it for you, try following one of these two paths:
1. At a certain point, concealing your true self becomes counterproductive.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:58 AM
February 20, 2010
Making an Ash of Myself
When I was a little girl I spent quite a bit of time in our school library. One day--a Wednesday, in fact--one of the ladies who volunteered there showed up with a mysterious smudge on her forehead. Ha, I thought. She had gotten some black stuff on her face and had gone the whole day without anyone telling her. How embarrassing! Later I found out that the black stuff was there on purpose, and that I was a silly girl for laughing at her. But I still didn't get the meaning of the mark.
Growing up Baptist, I didn't really have Lent on my radar screen. It wasn't until fifteen years later, after switching to a Presbyterian church, that I attended an Ash Wednesday service for the first time. Unsuspecting, I went forward to receive the ashes. I stepped up to the elder, who looked me in the eye and gently whispered, "Becky, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
WHAM. I felt like someone had hit me over the head with a two-by-four of my own mortality. My eyes filled with tears. My knees got weak. I was crushed. And yet I also felt a beautiful freedom--freedom to let go of all of my grandiose ambitions to make myself into something in this world. Here was the truth: I am dust.
Last week NPR did a story about the twentieth anniversary of the "pale blue dot" photo taken from the Voyager spaceship in 1990. The photo doesn't look like much: a black field with some streaks of light across it and one tiny, two-pixel-wide dot. That dot, which could easily be confused for a bit of dirt on the lens, is Earth from nearly four billion miles away.
Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
This past Wednesday night I was again reminded of my status as dust. And my mind was cast back to that photo. Not only am I dust, but I'm a speck of dust living on a speck of dust floating through a vast universe.
All this smallness can lead us to despair unless we remember the true meaning of Lent. Compared to God I am nothing. And yet I am not nothing. Because of his steadfast love and compassion, not only am I something of value, but someone. A life. A person. A daughter. During Lent we see clearly who we are: infinitely valuable specks of dust. Our smallness is completely outweighed by the unspeakable greatness of God and his love for us.
As I presented myself in dusty repentance and took the symbol of soot on my forehead, I savored these words of the psalmist, and worshiped:
Posted by Rebecca Larson at 4:58 PM
February 17, 2010
Forgoing and Letting Go
A post from five years ago. Something to think about on Ash Wednesday.
For three years I dutifully woke up early every Monday, Wednesday and Friday (unless I could come up with a decent excuse) to drive to a local gym. For that same three years, whenever I was asked by machine or muscle-bound consultant what my goals are for working out, I replied "Losing weight" or "Burning fat." And for that same three years I lost no weight and, so far as anyone can tell, burned no fat.
Then, for two weeks, I reluctantly cut carbohydrates and sugars out of my diet. No Oreos, no Nutter Butters. No ice cream, no cream cheese. No instant oatmeal, no sugary cereal. I lost sixteen pounds and found three more holes in my belt.
I share this story reluctantly, in part because I don't want to be taken as poo-pooing exercise or endorsing a particular diet. But I find it interesting that I so willingly embraced a major lifestyle change--joining a gym and working out regularly--that yielded none of my desired results, while for three years fighting hard against a discipline that ultimately delivered beyond my best hopes.
My best guess is that for me, and I suspect for most Americans and perhaps most humans, it's easier to take something on than to let something go.
I think it's fair to say that I live in a scavenger culture. In fact, I scavenge for a living. I do a fair bit of editorial acquisitions, which means I go out looking for books for IVP to publish. In that respect I'm the poster boy for scavenging. My business card shouldn't say "Editor," it should say "Book Scavenger."
We start scavenging for fun when we're little kids: "Here's a list of worthless junk; whoever is able to come up with the most junk from the list wins even more junk!" Suggest to me that I should go get something--an iPod, for example, or an iPod Touch, or an iPhone--and odds are I'll rearrange my life to fit it in. It works in other ways too: I know of a magazine that markets the simple life through page after page of high-end purchasing opportunities--spend $500 to be more simple, the logic goes. I've bought books and videos on working out, step aerobic equipment, dumbells and gym bags, and even a stairmaster in my drive to drop a few pounds. If there's something we want to happen, chances are there's something we can acquire to make it happen.
But ask us to forgo something--dessert, perhaps, or political power or 10 percent of our income--and we're distressed. Saying no is infinitely more challenging than saying yes.
Something supremely self-evident evades the understanding of a scavenger culture: Sometimes scavenging is the enemy of desire. Sometimes what we need is found not in groping after but in letting go.
Jesus saw that in a rich young ruler who had everything but wanted more--assurances that he was on the right track, that when he died he'd go to heaven, that he could have everything and still be a good person. Jesus confronted his consumerism head on: "One thing you still lack," he said, in language that sets any scavenger to drooling. "Go, sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor. Then come, follow me."
No stuff. No money. No home. Just Jesus. Yikes. I need some comfort food--fast. If anybody needs me, I'll be hiding out at the gym, eating Nutter Butters and "burning fat."
O Lord, in Thy Wrath, Rebuke Me Not
Today, Ash Wednesday, begins the Lenten season of the church. This song, based on Psalm 38, aptly captures the solemnity of this season of confession, repentance and longing for Christ.
O Lord, in thy wrath, rebuke me not,
April 7, 2009
The Whole Picture of Holy Week
At dinner last Sunday--Palm Sunday--friends and I looked out
the window and saw snow falling to the ground, sticking to green grass and
budding trees, and covering our cars. Months ago, I would have been delighted--I
love snow in winter. But this time, after we'd had a taste of spring (a
seventy-degree day and several nice, mild days in the sixties), I was ruined. I
long for "real spring," not this "fake spring" which brings back freezing
temperatures, cold rainy days and more abominable snow. Several of us present
at dinner uttered collective sighs of dismay. Snow in April. It's just not
Before the snow began to fall, Palm Sunday had held much joy for me. At
last, a respite from the gravity of Lent! The morning rain had let up and the
sun was shining as our processional (which consisted of musical instruments, a
choir, prayer and eucharistic ministers and clergy, preceded by incense and the
cross and followed by the children of the church) walked up the hill to the
building where we gather for Sunday services, met by a palm-waving crowd that
joined us as we sang. Here we remembered the day Jesus traveled into Jerusalem
on a donkey and was met by crowds who greeted him with palm branches and
praises, and threw their cloaks on the ground to honor him. We remembered the
hope of Easter--both Christ's actual resurrection and the coming celebration of
his saving work on our behalf. We remembered the people's joy at his presence
in their midst.
But this week we again plunge into darkness: Tenebrae, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday. Easter is coming soon, but first we must remember: Christ was tortured. He entered the city in triumph, but he was arrested, betrayed, tried and convicted. He was humiliated. He died and was buried, and the world was plunged into darkness for a time. This week we walk with him through that time of abandonment, pain and grief. We remember, as one, the present hardship and the hope to come. We recall the bleakness of the winter of our Lord's crucifixion even as we wait expectantly for the joy of the coming spring--his resurrection.
This sequence is more than just a mere remembrance,
though. This is our opportunity to participate in the resurrection story in a
concrete way. After years and years of remembering Easter, it's easy to take
for granted the very reason we come together each week for worship, why we
celebrate Christmas, why we pray, and why we observe Lent, Palm Sunday and the
rest. We experience things in cycles: seasons of nature, of life and longevity,
of health, birth and death. We see many beginnings and endings in our lives, so
it's intensely difficult to comprehend such things as the end of suffering and
the infinite love of our Savior, whose sacrifice is the beginning of our
eternal hope and joy.
My church has a practice which I find both moving and beautiful: after Palm Sunday, the palm leaves are burned and the ashes collected for use in the following year's Ash Wednesday services. Next year, as the ashes are placed on my forehead in the shape of a cross (itself a symbol of death and new life), I will remember that they came from a day of celebration of Christ's coming. Here, too, is a reminder that even as our joy turns now and again to grief, winter turns to spring, and our sorrows will turn to dancing. And we can say with confidence and thanksgiving: Christ has died! Christ has risen! Christ will come again!
March 2, 2009
My Chocolat Dilemma
We're in the season of Lent. Here's my problem: I found myself this year completely unprepared for it. I'm supposed to give something up, right? Chocolate, coffee, wine, television . . . I've done it all before. Last year, because letting go of just one thing didn't seem "big enough," I gave up the trifecta: coffee, chocolate and television (well, except for the news). But this year I've been somewhat at a loss.
I like Lent. I need its solemnity to bring me back to center, to Christ's suffering on my behalf and to my deep need of his grace. I also like chocolate (shocking, I know). So, of course I love the movie Chocolat, especially at this time of year--because the story takes place during Lent, and chocolate gets a lot of screen time. In between the shots of this luscious, tempting, dark, edible silk is a story of an entire town which, above all else, strives for a life of tranquilité.
Of course, this is a façade. No town is really as tranquil as this one strives to appear, and this little village is ruled more by fear than by anything else. No one steps out of line. Discipline seems to rule. Everyone wears muted colors and black--right down to the women's shoes. Everyone attends church and participates in the Lenten fast. No one appears to have any fun at all, ever. In fact, one sweet old man for many long years has remained silent about his love for a woman in the village. He doesn't want to rock the boat. With perhaps one or two exceptions, no one does.
Just as Lent comes upon the village, the north wind drives a strange woman and her daughter into town, bearing with them strange, atheist ways and gorgeous, sensuous, sinful chocolate. These strangers don't trace the same grain in the wood: the woman wears red shoes; they open a chocolaterie during the Lenten fast--high treason as far as the mayor is concerned. The villagers seem like deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car, simultaneously startled and paralyzed. They band together out of fear, but, I think, they privately begin to hope a little for some freedom.
Now, there are many things that can be taken away from this movie. But, as the Lenten season moves forward, two observations in particular have impacted my decision about this year's Lenten season.
First, for this village, appearance is everything. The people are compelled to live the way they do more by the steel-toed boot of their mayor than by personal conviction. Unrequited love, abusive relationships, thwarted childhood, failed marriages--all of these things lie beneath the surface, but no one acknowledges them. The town is tranquil on the surface, but no one is allowed to be human! They are miserable, but they won't admit it.
Second, the woman, who seems so free from what she considers useless, needless tradition and restriction, is herself trapped by the expectations placed on her by her deceased mother (whose ashes she carries with her wherever she goes). The nomadic life she shares with her daughter, while exotic from the outside, is an isolated one. She is lonely. She is as afraid to be herself, as bound by tradition, as the people she has come to liberate.
The characters of Chocolat remind me of how easy it is to become entrenched by the familiar, to allow the doing of things to obscure the reasons for doing them. Observing Lent is an important part of the Christian spiritual journey, and giving up things that give us pleasure has value. However, there are things about Lent that frustrate me, and this may be the real reason why "giving something up" can seem so trivial. Each of us could give up everything for the next forty days, but without the pain of real honesty--about our individual and corporate sin, about our flawed, shared humanness--we miss the boat. Fasting can become a façade.
So, this year, Lent is different for me. Rather than trying to just give something up, I've decided to add one or two things: sharing with friends about our Lenten path; reading Scripture more often; confessing more freely; journaling more frequently; forgiving more fully. Lent as a season offers a time in which these things, and more, might perhaps be contemplated and practiced more deliberately and carefully than the rest of the year. Perhaps as we fill our lives up with them, the rest will give way to the humanness that Christ's sacrifice frees us to embrace.