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October 4, 2011

Hospitality: It's Not Just for Dinner Parties Anymore

October is hospitality month--at least here at Strangely Dim. In various posts (including a guest blogger or two) we'll be exploring the notion of hospitality from all angles.

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When I think about hospitality, what usually comes to mind is a dinner party at someone else's house, where I benefit from another person's generosity by enjoying their delicious food and company. They do all the work. I reap all the benefits. Or I think of friends in Kenya who, despite meager resources, treated me and my friends like family when we visited, in part by giving us delicious food to eat. I think we can all agree that this is a pretty selfish, minimalist understanding of hospitality.

Many spiritual gift and personality assessments tend to assume that hospitality is the particular gift of a special class of people. The sad result of seeing hospitality as something that only some people possess as a divinely bestowed character trait is the polarizing of our understanding of it: some people have hospitality, others receive it. If one is not naturally inclined to be hospitable, then there's no reason to pretend, because "that's not how God made me."

Perhaps like many others, then, I have only rarely thought of hospitality as anything like a discipline, a verb, a gift from one person to another, a Christian duty--all of which are categories under which hospitality should fall. I think we can all see the striking difference here: one understanding of hospitality is selfish; the others are markedly less so. The beautiful thing about hospitality as a discipline, when all of the polarization is done away with, is that it starts to look a lot less like an obligation, compulsion, mandate or opportunism, and begins to look much more like love.

For me, the most astounding biblical example of hospitality is that of Christ's incarnation. Not only did this gift require the hospitality of Mary and Joseph as they welcomed Jesus into their home as part of their family, but it opened the door for all of humanity to draw near to God in renewed relationship to him. God, in his love, graciously gave his most precious gift to humankind so that we could know him better, draw near to him and enjoy his presence. Sacrifice, hospitality, love--all together.

If hospitality is like love, then every encounter with another person is an opportunity to give it
and receive it. This means that our own kitchen, the grocery store, and yes, even in traffic--in all the places we love to be, and in all the occasions which try our patience, we have the opportunity to be utterly hospitable to one another.

Examples of unhospitality:

  • A person in a hurry berates an employee new at his job for seeming slow to process an order.
  •  Crew members of an airline make fun of passengers struggling to stow their belongings in overhead compartments, even pantomiming them and threatening to delay the flight.
  • A visitor to a church is ignored and not invited to join in conversation with regular attendees.
  • In an effort to evangelize, a person is aggressive, condescending and rude, unwilling to hear others' perspectives.

Examples of hospitality:

  • A person in line at the grocery store at the end of a long and frustrating day is pleasant to other customers and to store personnel.
  • In a road construction zone, someone lets you merge into traffic when it would be very easy to ignore your attempt to merge in front of them.
  •  In a theological discussion between members of different religions, each person considerately hears the other's thoughts, comments and arguments, and relates their own in a respectful manner.

I think most of us can relate to these examples, because if we're honest, we've been at the receiving and giving end of at least some of them. In fact, all of these examples are from actual events that I've either observed or been directly involved in. I'm not saying practicing hospitality is easy. In fact, it's sometimes the last thing that crosses my mind (in a traffic jam, when I'm late for work . . . as an example). But it's something to shoot for as we all navigate this world together. Thankfully, we have an expert in hospitality to help us along the way. I think he might simply say, "Go, and do likewise."

 

Posted by Christa Countryman at 11:47 AM | Comments (1) are closed | TrackBack (0)

September 29, 2010

Shalom, Anyone?

A week or two ago I babysat for two fantastic boys, ages three and four, so their parents could go on a date. I was feeling great about how the evening was going. But then, out of the blue, an innocent question from the eldest: "Do you know Hebrew?"

This from the child whose teeth I'm helping to brush, whose Cars pajamas I will help him into momentarily--and whose father, a coworker of mine, does know Hebrew and is teaching it to these very boys. Do I know Hebrew? Well. Shalom is Hebrew, right? "Shalom your pajamas on!" I should have shouted in response. "Shalom to bed now!" Somehow I don't think they would have been impressed. What I said instead was a very demure "No, I don't." It's hard to admit to the pre-K crowd what you don't know.

"My daddy knows Hebrew," he replied (again, so innocently).

"I know," I humbly responded. "I've asked your daddy Hebrew questions before." (My teeth-brushing chant that got them from the kitchen into the bathroom to start the bedtime routine no longer seemed like such a remarkable accomplishment.)

But then the conversation was done, and they seemed fully accepting of me and my lack of Hebrew as I read Bible stories to them in English (the only measly language I know, in case you've forgotten).

After they were safely nestled in bed, I settled down on the couch with a light, easy-reading, very nonscholarly (read: no Greek or Hebrew knowledge needed) magazine. Humbling as their question was, I have to admit that it was one of my favorite parts of the night. It's why I think it's so good for me to be around children. They remind me of my limits but accept me anyway, which helps me laugh at all I don't know.

And really, our own limits, whether physical, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, spatial, verbal or what have you, are why we need relationship with others: I need you to do what you're able to that I can't (like, say, translate Hebrew), and you need me to do what you can't. I need to hear (or, by extension, read) your perspective, see through your eyes, learn from your knowledge--and not just from you, but also from my coworkers and my friends and my family and my church and the woman I'm behind in line at the grocery store.

Moreover, our limits also turn us toward God by reminding us of our own humanness. Though we don't always see it this way, needing God and needing others is part of the beauty and genius of how we're made. Contrary to popular opinion and well-known songs, we are not rocks, or islands, or the one, solitary sailboat afloat on the great lake that is our world . . . (Ahem. Sorry.)

Letting our limits lead us to--instead of away from--God and others is a choice, however. I, for example, don't have much experience working closely with and tangibly helping the poorest of the poor. If the opportunity or desire to do that comes up for me, I can either run from it because it feels too big, too hard and too overwhelming, or I can admit the limits of my experience and knowledge and ask for help, by talking with people I know who are doing it, or by reading about the experiences of those who are serving in Third World countries. When I see my own sin, for another example, I can turn away from God because I'm afraid he'll reject me, or I can ask for his--and others'--forgiveness, and let the grace he shows form me more into his likeness. We can choose to let our ignorance make us fearful and defensive, or we can let it move us to learn. We can wallow in our limitations, or we can seek out people--and people's books--that help us live and think more faithfully in this world we dwell in.

I admit, this is hard for me. Being an introvert, I'd often rather do things on my own. Being single, I've learned to do a lot of things on my own, and generally like the independence I feel as a result. And having some pride in me (unfortunately), I'd rather not admit what I don't know or make myself vulnerable by asking for help. But the richness of all that others have brought to my life, and the innocence and humility and acceptance of children as they learn and grow, and the grace of God that I'm only just beginning to know the depths of, make me want to keep trying. So ask me for help when you need it. I'll ask you for help. And, uh, shalom to us all in the process.
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 10:02 AM | Comments (2) are closed

March 24, 2009

We Interrupt These Women . . .

While it's still Women's History Month, it's also still Lent. As such I wanted to once again riff on some recent Lenten reflections by our publisher Bob Fryling.

Bob is delightfully elliptical; in fact, his leadership style is modeled after the ellipse, which he tells us has not one but two focal points. You don't choose between two apparently contradictory targets; rather, you embrace the paradox of both and allow them to simultaneously inform your mission. An example is the suggestion that the goal of ministry is "to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." When you think elliptically, you get to write funky sentences like that.

This elliptical orientation makes sense of some spiritual realities that occupy the background of our faith experience. Most of the year, for example--especially in a culture as preoccupied with the self as one might accuse contemporary Western culture of being--our faith experience orbits the central idea that we are loved by God. One of our authors once critiqued this lopsided theology as "Goduhluv," to be said with an Elvis-Presleyan sneer. And in fact, if we're honest, even while we eagerly worship the "Goduhluv" we retain this nagging instinct that if God loves us totally, it's because he's overlooked something about us.

We retain this nagging instinct because it's the other focal point of the ellipse that we inhabit. "We are sinners," Bob told us this morning. He didn't wag his finger and shout it in accusation but rather shrugged his shoulders and spoke sheepishly, apologetically. "It's embarrassing," he admitted, and he's right.

We tend to think of sin from the side of triumph and distance ourselves from it, denouncing it as horrific and detestable. It is those things, but it's also central to the ellipse we inhabit, and to admit as much is to shrug, not out of cavalier resignation but out of exhausted futility.

Sin is where we live during Lent. It's a helpful corrective, I think, to the general tenor of our year, in which we hover around a different focus. And yet to live too long in Lent alone, to enter into the orbit of our own sinfulness, to gaze on it too intently, is to lose sight of the equal and paradoxical Easter reality that organizes our ellipse: we are loved by God.

Bob told a story about a time while he was working in campus ministry when a young woman asked him for some advice. He thought she needed to pick a class for her fall semester and was taken aback when she broke down crying. "I can't believe that God would love me."

Who knows what occupied her field of vision as she wept; perhaps she was embroiled in a low self-image, or perhaps she was orbiting the reality of sinfulness. Really, who cares? What was obvious was that this woman was trapped in Lent. She had lost sight of Easter. Bob wisely offered her a glimpse. "I challenge you to read Romans 8 every day for a month." Here's a key passage:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There are forty days in Lent. Sundays don't count. Every Sunday in Lent is a reprieve, a day of rest in the midst of our forty-day Lenten observance. So maybe on the remaining Sundays of this year's Lent we can begin and end our days, and so begin and end our weeks, and so occasionally divert our orbit during Lent, by reflecting on this passage; by remembering that God is not subordinate to our sin, and that whatever else occupies our ellipse, we continue to live in the love of God.

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In other news, I was recently sent an analysis of Strangely Dim from a college student who shall remain nameless. She had several insightful observations of the site and its authors (I feel a bit found out, to be honest), but I wanted to highlight one judgment she handed down on us: as a blog, we are, I'm simultaneously proud and chagrined to say, "always family friendly." Put that in your bubble pipe and blow bubbles with it.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:27 AM

February 17, 2009

Schmoozing, Stalking & Social Compacts

There are two ways to violate a social compact: (1) fail to live up to your end of the deal, or (2) fail to end the relationship where it is supposed to end. I experienced both over the past week at a national conference I attended. Gathered together were some two thousand people, each of whom came to the conference for their own complex network of reasons. Among those reasons were invariably the chance to stalk someone famous, the chance to schmooze someone influential, the chance to convalesce after a significant time of uninterrupted hurriedness, the chance to grow personally and professionally, and--let's be frank--the chance to eat more than perhaps one ought.

These were, at least, some of the reasons I attended. The problem with schmoozing and stalking, however, is that your prey does not necessarily approach your social compact in the same way as you. They have, it's fair to say, their own prey to pursue, and so while they might offer one eye and ear to you, they keep the other on alert for either an out or a better offer. Consequently, I was occasionally given the cold shoulder, even in the same moment that I was schmoozing and stalking with all my might.

I'm not bitter; I get the game, and I get the rules of the game. Every once in a while, however, the game is thrown a curve, and the players are left wondering where the playbook went. This happened to me when I inadvertently bumped into one of the most influential people in the whole place. I covered my ignorance with a cheeky grin and admittedly slick eye contact, and I put out my hand for the conventional Western greeting.

This venerated elder took my hand and shook it, and shook it, and shook it. He shook it like a Polaroid picture, if I might borrow an analogy. I tried to let go, and then tried to regain my dignity by reengaging his handshake--again and again and again. It may not have been the longest handshake in recorded history, but it was strikingly long and seemingly impossible to break. I felt like the Millennium Falcon, caught in the tractor beam of the Death Star. Might as well kill the engines and go where you're led.

Almost immediately prior to this encounter I had been reading the first half of Miroslav Volf's Exclusion & Embrace, which offers ethical parameters to individuals and even whole cultures for our interactions with one another. In contrast to exclusion, the way of the world that disempowers others by dehumanizing and marginalizing them, Volf characterizes authentic encounter as an embrace in four acts:

Act one: You open yourself to the Other, perhaps by spreading your arms or, in my case, extending your hand.

Act two: You wait for the Other to reciprocate your advance by willingly entering into your embrace.

Act three: You close the gap between one another to establish the embrace.

Act four: You release your embrace and allow the Other to continue being Other.

To leave out any of these four creates a breach:

  • By not opening yourself, you refuse to let down your guard and can't fully enter into relationship.
  • By not waiting for the Other to reciprocate, you trespass on the person of the Other and trample on their dignity.
  • By not closing the gap, you reject the opportunity to be vulnerable to the Other, and the authenticity that accompanies that vulnerability.
  • By not releasing the embrace, you colonize the Other, disregarding their uniqueness and again trampling on their dignity.

I had these ethics of embrace in mind as I endured the eternal handshake of this venerated elder, but to be honest, I found his colonization of my uniqueness endearingly gracious: by keeping the embrace going longer than social convention would expect, he was effectively transferring some of his own dignity onto me. We later even shared a delightful meal together, completely stripped of the agendas that tainted so many other meals throughout the week. I must confess that I saw him in a different light from other subjects of my schmoozing and stalking; here was a whole person, whose significance extended beyond his utility to me.

I'm reminded of Jesus' encouragement to his followers to always take the lower seat at a feast table. It's not so much an ethical command as a nugget of advice: you can't know in advance whether your host wants you to take the seat of honor or "the least important place," so it's infinitely better to be invited up than to be cast down, to be embraced rather than excluded. The advice works in reverse as well, I suppose: be attentive to all your guests--from the powerful to the powerless, from the naive dreamers to the disillusioned schemers--because you never know which one you'll wind up embracing as a friend.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:24 AM

May 27, 2008

I Confess

Today is May 27--one day after Memorial Day--and the forecasted high temperature--57--is twelve degrees warmer than the air temperature at lunchtime. This is strange, and my outlook today is correspondingly dim. On such days I am sorely tempted to pray for, rather than against, global warming. I'm also sorely tempted to feel sorry for myself.

I'm privileged, however; I have a home and a car and an office, all of which can easily bounce back and forth from "cool" to "heat" based on my circumstance or whim. Others are not so fortunate--among them the guy in a parka trimming the grass outside my office; the homeless men, women and children who rely on temporary shelters, many of which close between Memorial Day and Labor Day for maintenance or convenience, counting on the warmer weather to make homelessness easier to bear; the folks in Tornado Alley across the Midwest who over the weekend went from being homeowners to being homeless; the people, places and things across the world who suffer from the effects of climate change even as I pray my self-indulgent, tongue-in-cheek prayers for more of it.

I'm reminded in these moments of vague clarity of a prayer I prayed in concert with hundreds of fellow congregants week in, week out throughout my childhood. It's a prayer of confession that morphs gradually into a prayer for transformation. It's a prayer directed not only to God but to God's church, and though I am an avowed Protestant and as such am uncomfortable with the line about Mary, I pray this prayer today as much to you and the great cloud of witnesses that anticipated and yet surround us, as I pray it to God:

I confess to Almighty God
And to you my brothers and sisters,
That I have sinned through my own fault,
In my thoughts and in my words,
In what I have done, and what I have failed to do.
I ask Blessed Mary, ever virgin,
And all the angels and saints,
And you, my brothers and sisters,
To pray for me to the Lord our God.
Amen.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:53 AM | Comments (1) are closed

January 8, 2008

Love Is All We Need

I have a mild confession to make: I like angry music.

I don't like hateful music--at least not most hateful music--but I do like angry music. I listen to it a fair bit. Who can deny the potency of a line as simple as "We don't need no education" or "This ain't my American dream"? These folks are so angry they use contractions; they're so angry they use bad English.

Something in my upbringing--maybe because despite my surname I'm largely Irish, maybe because I live in post-Watergate America, maybe because I always got picked last for dodgeball--made me predisposed to think that anger is the most efficient path to truth, that no matter how clever they both were, there was something simply more profound about John Lennon singing "Instant Karma's gonna get you" than Paul McCartney singing "Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs; what's wrong with that?"

Then again, what is wrong with that?

The bias that's become so prevalent in our culture is that truth emerges out of anger, that we are most right when we are most outraged, and that we ought to be outraged when we're right.

I've watched enough campaign coverage by now, and 24-hour news channels prior to that, to know that news reported without snarkiness is not really considered news. We've been taught, even conditioned, to create truth by speaking our opinions in our outside voices, and to defend truth by escalating our rhetoric. We are, as a culture, cultivating our inner angry musicians.

Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you that such a life is not a life worth living.

It's that kind of life, in fact, that the apostle Paul was called out of. We first meet Paul in the seventh chapter of Acts, where using the name Saul he joins the religious authorities in Jerusalem as they throw stones at a follower of Jesus until he is dead. Saul apparently doesn't throw a stone himself; perhaps he has too lofty political aspirations to get his hands so dirty. But we're told that "the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul . . . and Saul approved of their killing [Stephen]" (Acts 7:58--8:1).

Saul soon after that began going from house to house, dragging Christian men and women to prison simply for being Christian. In fact he was still, in the words of the biblical book of Acts, "breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples" when he heard the voice of God tell him to cut it out, to lighten up and to turn his life around.

Fast forward a couple of decades and we see that this angry young man has done just that. Saul, the best and brightest of the young religious zealots of his day--a kind of Barack Obama on steroids, in traffic, with rabies--has taken the name Paul and written the following beginning to his letter to the Philippians:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God's holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ--to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:1-11 TNIV)
That's not an angry song; that's a love song. And not some sappy, pollyannic prom theme either. This is love tested by time, distance and pain. This is love that gives any anger its proper context, because it's love in the spirit of the God who made us and the Savior who died for love of us.

So good riddance, 2007. We don't need no evil, no injustice, no sin, no victimization, no violence, no power plays, no vitriol or calculated rhetoric. In 2008, by the grace of God, all we need is love.

Love is all we need.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:51 AM | Comments (5) are closed

October 17, 2007

Virtual Contemplatives amid Structural Agnosticism, or Something Like That

The book I'm writing has me reading a lot of stuff by Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk of the mid-twentieth century. That sounds so exotic that you'd never believe he lived in Kentucky, but there you go. (All respect to Kentucky, of course.)

Where was I? Oh yes, Merton. Though he eventually landed in Kentucky, his life took him all over the world, even from his early youth. After his mother's death, for example, his father took him to France to build a home and paint the days away. They found themselves in the rustic, pungent bourg of St. Antonin. "And . . . the center of it all was the church."

The town was set in a valley and structured so that a cathedral sat in its middle. All other structures, both professional and domestic, and even the view from the hills all around the town, looked toward the church. As if that weren't enough, every so often someone at the church would ring a bell, reminding everyone who couldn't not see it that it was still there, marking the town's time, centering the town's universe.

Oh, what a thing it is to live in a place that is so constructed that you are forced, in spite of yourself, to be at least a virtual contemplative! Where all day long your eyes must turn, again and again, to the House that hides the Sacramental Christ!

A virtual contemplative in a pre-Internet Trappist monastery in Kentucky, reflecting on his childhood experience in rural France. The mind boggles.

Contrast Merton's experience in a rural throwback to medieval France to the contemporary experience of a post-industrial post-Christendom. There's a sense in which we can never recover that medieval centrality of faith: our cities are not built around churches anymore. While sacred spaces in the United States still don't have to pay real estate taxes, neither do they get a pass from local zoning boards, nor do they get the pick of the litter when it comes to prime properties.

Of course, part of the reason for that is that there are so darn many churches gobbling up real estate. The church (in the more abstract sense) is itself decentralized, in a whole variety of ways. The net effect for the church is a shift from the center of a community's culture to some peripheral other point--or points, for that matter. A friend of mine (according to the Facebook understanding of friendship) lists his "religious views" as "I can see 4 churches from my window." Har har.

Nevertheless, a structural reminder of Christ's proper place at the center of the universe has its appeal. I hear from a lot of people that they'd like the future church to link back to the ancient church, and there are ways, I'm sure, of doing that in personal and even communal ways. Merton's way of framing it goes even further, daring to suggest that the whole community--in the church or out of it--benefits from an explicit reminder that its center is not the individual or the family or channels of commerce or politics, but a God who rightly orders the universe he has made.

I'm curious how people who fancy themselves virtual contemplatives these days recover this luxury of having their eyes turned, again and again, in spite of themselves, toward Christ at the center of creation.

Seriously, I'm curious. Please post your suggestions.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:47 AM | Comments (2) are closed

August 24, 2007

The Power of No Power

I'm not sure how the weather is where you all are, but it's been a little wild in Chicago the last few days. If you like water, skip out on Hawaii and come visit us instead. We have plenty. And, if Benny Franklin were still alive, we'd be his favorite city--lightning for hours on end.

What we're a little short on, unfortunately, is electricity, at least on my lovely block and in a few of the nearby suburbs. When my sister and I arrived home at our apartment yesterday, the power was out. And when we got home from Caribou after meeting friends in the evening, the power was out. And when we woke up this morning--the power was out. Thankfully, we like candles. A lot.

I'll admit, not having power is inconvenient. Food in our freezer and fridge could spoil. It also takes longer to do things in the dark. And, of course, there are many things we just can't do at all: cook dinner, iron (though I'm not so upset about that one), read, charge cell phones, watch TV (which usually wouldn't bother us much but is particularly disappointing this week since we happen to be in the middle of season three of Lost . . .)

I'm trying to see it as an "adventure." If you're Erik Weihenmeyer (you know him; he's the one who's blind, who climbed Mt. Everest and reached the top), power outages do not adventure make. But if you're as fond of routine and predictability as I am, just having to take a different way home from work can qualify as an exciting escapade. (You're in awe of how thrilling my life sounds, I know.) So a power outage could definitely fit into the "adventure" category. Or it could just be pure inconvenience and put me in a bad mood. My perspective affects my response, my attitude.

I was reminded of this yesterday as I was sitting in the local Secretary of State's office in the dark, waiting for the power to come back on (it didn't) after driving through a torrential storm to get to the Secretary of State's office before it closed. (Did I mention that power outages are inconvenient?) There was a young girl there with her parents; they were already there when I arrived, so they had obviously been waiting in the dark longer. I wondered, as I watched the girl, if she even noticed that the power was out. She played with the rope designating where lines should form. She chattered. She sang happy birthday. From all appearances, she might have thought this was the "fun family outing" for the day--not an inconvenient power outage that kept her parents waiting in line much longer than they expected. Watching her, you'd wonder what you really do need electricity for after all, since you certainly don't need lights and computers to sing happy birthday.

So, in an effort to gain perspective and stave off the bad mood, here's one comfort I take from her example, and from all weather-related disturbances like Chicago summer storms and winter blizzards that interrupt my normal routine: I'm relieved to discover that I'm not so tied to electricity that I can't make do without, and I'm not so dependent on activity that I can't simply sit in a dark Secretary of State's office, waiting and watching. In our work-driven, frenzy-paced culture, I love that there are forces that make us stop--and there's nothing we can do about it. It does my control-thirsty senses good to remember that really, I never had power, and actually, I'm not in control, and truthfully, right now--without electricity--I still have far, far more than most of the people in the world.

Tonight I may return home to a dark apartment. Is it inconvenient? Yes. Will I vote for the presidential candidate who proposes banning electricity to start paying off the national debt? Probably not.

But is this power outage good for me? Yes. And can I still sing? Yes. And will I have gained some perspective on my life when it's over? Yes. It's so good, in fact, that you should come visit. You can help my sister and me eat up our food, you can sit on our couch and chat with us, or listen to the quiet.

We'll leave a candle on for you.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 2:36 PM | Comments (4) are closed

July 18, 2007

Make New Music and Keep the Old . . .

For my birthday this year I got a bunch of new music from an eclectic bunch of musicians: from Arcade Fire to Crowded House, from Andrew Bird to Paul McCartney. Being a music snob, I set out immediately to pick apart and pass judgment on these albums. But right around the same time, my hard drive here at the office crashed, and I lost all the music I've been storing on my office computer. (Don't tell my boss.) I wrote about that experience over at my other blog, Loud Time, but the gist of it was that my music snobbery now had a higher purpose: I had to decide again what music merits sharing with my coworkers.

My reputation is at stake, of course: we are known increasingly by our iPods. Politicians will even hire consultants to load the most poll-responsive music onto their portable listening devices and then leak the playlists, hoping in the process to win, for example, the Nickelback vote. Then they steel themselves for the inevitable aesthetic backlash: "Let me make this perfectly clear: I did not have musical relations with that band . . . Nickelback."

So I consider passing judgment on musicians an act of self-preservation. But the mix of artists I'm currently judging is giving me trouble.

On the one hand you have Andrew Bird, a consummate songcrafter with a great experimental vision, both lyrically and musically. Armchair Apocrypha is a deeper, more somber collection than I've become accustomed to in my limited exposure to his music. Next to him on the shelf is Arcade Fire, who have convinced me that they're the next U2, the next anthemically brilliant band to galvanize the energies of their generation--they will be, I think, what ColdPlay expected to be. Their Neon Bible wears their influences in its arrangements, and I already have a short list of songs from the album that will never leave my head.

But then I come to Paul McCartney and Crowded House. I've long been convinced that Sir Paul and CH lead singer Neil Finn are two of the greatest pop songwriters who have ever graced the airwaves. Paul too often doesn't get his due; his clever and nuanced lyrics have coupled with brilliant melodies and chord structures for decades now, but he lacked the visceral edge of John Lennon and so is regularly dismissed as the vacuous Beatle. Neil Finn, on the flip side, is a victim of his own success: his breakout "Don't Dream It's Over" was too good too soon, and so two decades before his beautiful "Gentle Hum" was even written, consumers decided he'd sung all he had to sing.

That being said, both McCartney's new solo album and Finn's revived Crowded House are playing to type on their new records: each has a signature style that reflects the worldview of professional musicians and songwriters who long ago left behind the notion that their music would change the world (in the case of Paul, it did) and now content themselves to write songs that they find personally meaningful and enjoyable. Their creative instincts are such that what they enjoy and resonate with translates well to a broader audience, and so despite the absence of grand innovations that are present with Arcade Fire and Andrew Bird, the music of Crowded House and Paul McCartney is still worth hearing, still worth sharing.

Books are more like music than we often give them credit for. Well-crafted books, like well-crafted music, marry the present to the progression of history, so that books that were new in 1967, if they were crafted well and with the right vision, still speak in 2007. InterVarsity Press publishes a lot of authors whose writing careers stretch across the decades precisely because they wrote of things that were resonant in their day and which still ring true today.

But time marches on and brings with it the rise of new generations--and with them new dilemmas and expectations. These new times demand new thoughts, which require new thinkers. The best of those new thinkers not only familiarize themselves with the progression of thought that predates them, but they recognize their debt to their forebears. Without the Beatles, there would be no U2, and consequently no Arcade Fire. Without Paul McCartney, there would be no Neil Finn, and consequently no Andrew Bird.

So as a reader I celebrate the news that important voices such as Lew Smedes and Robert Webber have become InterVarsity Press authors even after their death. But I also keep an ear open for the new voices--people such as Don Everts, Brian Sanders and Rick James--who continue to offer us a new resonance.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:06 AM | Comments (4) are closed

June 21, 2007

If the Shoe Fits . . .

In the summer at my church, we have what we call "side-by-side" worship on Sundays, meaning that, in the absence of Sunday school, children and adults of all ages worship together. But we don't just worship together; often children help lead the adults in worship. This past Sunday, a woman leading worship invited children to come up front to help her lead the rest of the congregation in hand motions as we sang. With a little coaxing, a number of children ran forward. But instead of running to the floor space that had been cleared for them, they ran right up on to the platform where she was standing. And, though the kids were at different ages and skill levels, it was clear for some of the songs that they had no idea what the hand motions were. But they tried to follow the lead of the woman the best they could, not minding (or even thinking about it, I'm sure), that you could tell they didn't know what they were doing.

It was, you might say, as beautiful as the day is long. Their authenticity and eagerness challenged my worship after a week of days that were long and full of me trying to make it look like I knew exactly what I was doing on every "song," every task and situation that came up in a day.

Watching children reminds me of the wonder that each day and each event hold. I'm always amazed at the trust children possess, at their delight, at the bigness of their imagination and the possibilities of what can happen in a day. In their eyes, pigs could fly, maybe, and sliced bread (especially with peanut butter and jelly) really is the best thing since, well, sliced bread.

But I'm also amazed by their authenticity, their un-self-consciousness and straightforwardness. They don't try to hide what they're feeling. They will cry over spilled milk if it makes them sad. What's more, they're highly inefficient. They'll never kill two birds with one stone because days are about discovery more than productivity. The tying of the shoes before going to the park and the walk to get to the park should be as leisurely as the walk in the park, because all are new opportunities to see new sights, learn new skills.

My carefree childhood days seem very long ago. And I'm not, of course, getting any younger. In fact, I'm trying to do my best to put up a good front as a "responsible, mature adult," one who is efficient at work, pays her bills on time, serves in ministry, knows how to cook more than macaroni and cheese, gets her oil changed regularly and would never cry over something as trivial as spilled milk because she knows she can go to the fridge and pour another glass (even though she'll have to clean up the mess herself).

But.

One of my goals this summer is to become more like a child. And maybe that points to how far I have to go to get there, the fact that I've made it a Goal. Maybe it can't be a goal. I suspect it starts with something as simple as slowing down to notice a few more details, and wonder about them. Maybe it comes with asking more questions. Maybe it happens by admitting as often as it happens that I don't have a clue what I'm doing.

I like to believe that, even though we lose so many of our childlike qualities--like wonder and imagination and delight--they are still in us, innate in us, part of the image of God we're created in. I imagine that, before they sinned, Adam and Eve were extraordinarily childlike in the way they viewed the world. I think those pieces still exist in us, and can be brought out if we're intentional and willing to be humble enough to learn. Christ, in fact, calls us to come to him as little children, so we must still be able to somehow retain and live out the wonderful qualities children possess, even as adults. I think living out those qualities again is part of becoming more like Christ, part of us fulfilling his image in us.

And, if the shoe fits--take your time tying the laces, and marvel that you know how to do it.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 3:18 PM | Comments (5) are closed

May 24, 2007

Mix It Up Day

Yesterday, apparently, was Mix It Up Day at InterVarsity Press. (It was also Sarcastic Wednesday, according to Hallmark's Hoops and YoYo.) Yesterday I parked in the parking spot normally taken by the director of production and fulfillment (gasp!). Yesterday the associate editorial director led a meeting normally led by the editorial director (wow!). Yesterday the director of sales and marketing sat in the seat normally occupied by the senior marketing manager (huh?!?). Yesterday the editorial intern took the favorite lunch spot of Craver VII. And yesterday the editorial department cancelled its weekly popcorn meeting in favor of a Thursday bagel meeting. I even switched stalls.

We were all mixin' it up yesterday. This post even mixed it up; I scheduled it to go online yesterday afternoon, but here it is, one day late. We didn't plan Mix It Up Day, but in all sorts of ways we honored it.

It's good, I think, to mix it up on occasion. It's far too easy to settle into habits and routines that once were refreshing and innovative for us but have become regimented, subconscious, automatic.

Some things, of course, lend themselves to becoming regimented, either by their nature or by design: our bodies require regular rhythms of sleeping, eating, whatnot; we discover the most efficient path to a repeated outcome, and we repeat it because to do otherwise would be silly, wasteful. Those things notwithstanding, I think there often comes a time when we need to look squarely at what we've become accustomed to, in order to determine whether we've become enslaved to it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (my favorite Dietrich) gave at least one example in his book Life Together:

"Let him who cannot be alone beware of community."
"Let him who is not in community beware of being alone."

I'm struck by this pairing of statements both because they caution us against the type of settling we're vulnerable to--when we seek out community or solitude by default, we miss out on the benefits and responsibilities of their opposites--and because the paradox itself mixes it up for me. Every time I read these statements together, my initial reaction is "Huh? . . . Wait a minute . . . Huh?"

So for a time at least I get interrupted from my presumptions about what it means to be in community or in solitude, and I revisit my own understandings of what I need from others, and what they need from me. What happens next is unpredictable, which is, I suppose, why we don't often like to mix it up.

Nevertheless, I welcome you to make your own Mix It Up Day. Share your favorite memory of mixing it up (or getting mixed up) here. Then go, as they say, and do likewise.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:12 AM | Comments (1) are closed

May 7, 2007

Product-ivity

This month has, already, been full of many "things to do." I hear words like this passed between people on a daily basis:

"I've got lots of things to do today."
"I've got so much stuff to do this week."
"If I didn't have so many things to do, I could get some sleep."
"There's not enough time in the day for all of the things I need to do."

And the like.

A few days ago I had many "things to do," including a load of reading for grad school and some papers to write. As the night turned out, I never got any of those things done.

I came home from work and helped my husband, Michael, with a paper. It's finals week for him, and I'm the editor-in-residence in our apartment. Shortly thereafter a friend called me, and we met to have some coffee together. The conversation was great and we were able to pray for one another, which was especially encouraging because we are both heading into some new transitions in our lives. It was a spiritually refreshing and relationally rich time, but not very "productive" in relation to all of the "things to do" in my life.

Not an hour after returning home, one of the people who lives in our apartment complex knocked on the window, and we invited her inside. This woman lives alone and we barely know her, but she obviously needed some other people to connect with. The three of us shared some words, some food and some prayer. By the time she left, I needed to get in bed.

So I accomplished nothing Monday night that was on my "things to do" list. I was not "productive" in the sense that most Americans use the word: I had not accomplished any tangible thing that could prove my worth to the world at large.

But "doing things" and being "productive" are not necessarily spiritual realities. Even the word itself implies that we are creating a product: product-ivity. We have enmeshed Christianity with the American dream and so we find pride in describing ourselves as productive: "I'm productive today!" or "I'm a productive human being!" are phrases commonly praised by others. All too often, we understand our worth in relation to what we produce, sometimes even seeing ourselves as a product to be presented to the world. And yet humans are not products. My fault is in using this language of "product-ivity" to try and craft myself into the very thing I am not designed to be.

Monday night was a reminder that I am not a product. I am a creation of the God who has more on his mind than grad school papers, the God who knows when talking with a neighbor is the most important thing I can do. The papers can wait, the "things to do" and "productivity" can be put on hold. God is in the process of crafting fuller human beings, and if I actually paid attention to the cliché of "being a human being rather than a human doing," I might lead a life that is a little less hectic and perhaps even less self-focused. I might even begin to see others (and myself) as creations rather than as product-creators or even as products themselves. Wouldn't that be a lovely thing to do?

Posted by Ann Swindell at 2:16 PM | Comments (1) are closed

March 9, 2007

If It's Too Personal, You're Too Old

A friend of mine sent me an interesting article from New York magazine ("The magazine that never rests") that offers a surprisingly sympathetic take on personal blogging. While many hoity-toity, high-brow, big-shot wordsmiths deride bloggers as "fame whores" "farting [their] way into the spotlight," and while social psychologists are worried about the longterm effects of putting body and soul on public display, some others are seeing a cultural sea change comparable only to the early days of rock and roll, when accordion players were scandalizing the popular music industry.

Clay Shirky, who teaches new media at New York University, puts the naysayers in their place:

Whenever young people are allowed to indulge in something old people are not allowed to, it makes us bitter. What did we have? The mall and the parking lot of the 7-Eleven? It sucked to grow up when we did! And we're mad about it now.

Of course there are the extremes of online behavior, where virtual exhibitionists imagine a world in which they're Paris Hilton and the rest of us are paparazzi. And there's the opposite impulse: to change your password with each new online registration, to limit your Flickr or Facebook account to approved audiences only. But the new conventional wisdom about the Internet is that it's a kind of external hard drive for your personal memories.

The residual fear of people who grew up before the Internet is the invasion of privacy--that we will be known and judged by what we leave unguarded. I'm reminded of a lyric by Dar Williams:

If I wrote you, you would know me, . . . and you would not write me again.

The new, prevailing perspective may be dismissed as naive by those folks, but it has its own internal logic, even its own internal ethic. As one particularly self-disclosing blogger put it:
You've got to be careful what you say--but once you say it, you've got to stand by it. And the only way to repair it is to continue to talk, to explain myself, to see it through.

So, let's continue to talk, to see it through. Post a comment: What scares you about Internet exposure? What appeals to you about the prospects of it? Maybe ten years from now millions of people will be living with great regret. But then again, maybe if it's too personal, you're just too old.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:58 AM | Comments (5) are closed

December 6, 2006

Everybody Needs a Theme Song

I'm not ashamed to admit it: I'm a fan of John Mayer. Sure he's a pretty-boy, sure he dated Jessica Simpson, sure he's on shuffle on my thirteen-year-old cousin's I-Pod and on the wall in her room, sure he's a little smug and self-important. But I'm a fan, for a number of reasons.

For one thing, when he was a kid he liked to dress up as a superhero, and you have to respect that. For another thing, he plays guitar like he invented it. But more than those reasons is the fact that he dares to speak for an entire generation of people. That takes moxie, and I respect moxie.

He's written about the bitter nostalgia of life after high school, the social awkwardness of relationships, the wonders of sexual intimacy, the perils of vocational uncertainty and the quarter-life crisis. He's a living, breathing discography of early-adult ennui. And now he's written what I hereby nominate as the theme song of Generation Me: "Waiting on the World to Change."

Generation Me, characterized by author and psychologist Jean Twenge as adult survivors of the self-esteem movement, is known for confidence that borders on arrogance and self-importance that borders on narcissism, but also for a profoundly fragile self-image and a low threshold for depression. Twenge argues that where twenty-somethings in the late 1960s were characterized by statements such as "I can change the world!" Generation Me is characterized by statements such as "You can't beat the system."

You could spend forever exploring the origins of this pandemic of fatalism among people born after 1970, but thanks to John Mayer, you don't have to look far to see its impact. In "Waiting on the World to Change" he asserts that "me and all my friends, we're all misunderstood." He doesn't try to overcome the misunderstanding, he just embraces the reality. You can't beat the system. You have to play the hand you're dealt. Fill in your own cliche here.

The self-esteem movement shows its influence as Mayer claims a critical omniscience--"We see everything that's going wrong"--but he then confesses an inability to address the problems: "We just feel like we don't have the means to rise above and beat it." You could understand why a person who sees all the bad in the world and yet feels powerless in the face of it would struggle with depression. And why does Generation Me feel powerless to change their world? Because someone else pulls all the strings: "When they own the information, they can bend it all they want." You can't trust what you know because you can't trust the people who put it in your head.

Mayer and his fellow twenty-somethings are often derided as hopelessly apathetic, which is a pretty hopeless and apathetic thing to say about a group of people, if you think about it. In reality, apathy is an understandable response to hopelessness; a defense mechanism, so to speak. Here's the lyric that jumped out at me more than anything in the song, maybe because it's such a clever rhyme, maybe because it betrays just a hint of attitude by using the word ain't: "It's not that we don't care, we just know that the fight ain't fair."

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the world we inhabit: a chronic sense of helplessness in the face of an unrelenting onslaught of big problems, combined with an ingrained suspicion of authority born out of scandal after scandal across the spectrum of life experience. Our government and industry leaders, our local and international authorities, our priests and pastors, our parents and teachers, our friends and neighbors, have all fallen short of the glory of God--and we see the impact on ourselves and everything around us. It's all too much.

Nevertheless, Mayer is able to muster up some meager hope, and that hope may just be enough to tide him and his friends over: "One day our generation is gonna rule the population, so we keep on waiting on the world to change." There's plenty of circumspection that needs to take place between now and then--particularly that what we are thinking about everybody else, they are thinking about us--but in the meantime let me share words of encouragement from another cynical yet insightful songwriter, Tom Petty: "You're all right for now."

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 12:39 PM | Comments (2) are closed

September 29, 2006

We're Not Gonna Take It! and Other Bad Art

A theater in downstate Illinois has shut down for a few weeks, rather than be forced by the marketplace to subject its community to the best Hollywood has to offer this month: Jackass 2 and Beerfest. Read about it here.

Hey! Come back!

It's not that these movies are morally offensive, per se, that's led to the business owner's boycott. It's that they're just awful. The Chicago Tribune called one of the two films "an insult to sophomoric movies everywhere." The owner, Greg Boardman, has put a lot of money into making his theater a destination point for movie fans--cutting edge tech, roomy seats, fancy carpet. Adding a film that relies on vomit and self-flagellation for laughs is, I suppose, a bit like gilding the lilly--although only a bit.

I'm intrigued by this story because I don't often see people who make money off of mass culture proactively filter content for their customers. The only instance I can recall, in fact, is a music video that MTV restricted temporarily nearly two decades ago. I'm sure there are other cases, but I can't think of any.

I can hardly think of anything else to say, I'm so shocked by this guy's moxie. Hollywood is more Goliath than David, and the private owner of a two-screen theater in a small Illinois town is more David than Goliath, but he certainly took his shot. Maybe the rest of us can be encouraged by my new hero to expect a little more from our entertainment.

By the way, Likewisebooks.com is now up and running. Be sure to check it out.

Hey! Be sure to come back too!

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 12:16 PM | Comments (1) are closed

September 11, 2006

I Grieve

I remember September 11, 2001. I remember how naively I began the day. I remember, having recently read the book Long Wandering Prayer, deciding to begin the habit of taking a morning walk in my new neighborhood. I remember picking up a hollowed-out walnut shell that had the natural markings of a peace sign, and I remember pocketing the walnut shell as a reminder of the tranquility of the morning. I remember deciding not to listen not to the radio on my morning commute, opting instead to listen to "Silly Love Songs" by Paul McCartney, which I had heard live recently and thought poignant. I remember the phone call from my bleary-voiced wife, who woke up to a DJ announcing that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I remember my coworker interrupting our prayers for the victims to announce that the tower was collapsing. I remember clenching my fists.

I remember September 12, 2001. I remember searching for a way to surface the sense of bewilderment, mixed with rage, that I was feeling but couldn't articulate. I found it in a song by Shawn Colvin, "Cry Like an Angel," the lyrics of which remains on the wall of my office: "The streets of my town are not what they were. They are haloed in anger, bitter and hurt. . . . May we all find salvation in professions that heal."

The hollowed-out peace sign remains in my office as well. May God grant us peace, despite all our efforts to the contrary.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:33 AM

June 2, 2006

Walk Much?

I just walked into a wall. It wasn't like I had my head in a comic book or was testing to see if I had sonar or anything; I just walked into a wall. My head was somewhere else.

This weekend my eighteen-month old nephew ran into a wall. He was so excited running down the hallway that he turned too early. It was cute because he's so little, and he's cute when he runs, and he got over it quickly. But I'm not little, I wasn't running, and I'm clearly not over it. Not cute.

I've noticed lately that when I get stressed, I start to check out. I don't listen as well when people talk to me, I don't notice how people are feeling when I see them or talk to them. And lately it seems like I can't stop running, like I'm facing wave upon wave of hyperactivity--family visits here, road trips there, writing projects there, special events here. I'm coping by checking out, which is clearly not coping at all, if it means that I'm stepping on toes and walking into walls.

This really should be a time of reflection for me: my birthday is coming up, my annual performance evaluation at work is coming up, and I have a blog--the center of the navel-gazing universe. I should have self-awareness coming out my nose. But I can't seem to collect my thoughts: it's like my brains have been rattled from banging my head on too many walls.

It strikes me that a person is much less likely to slam into a wall while walking than while running. At the very least, it's easier to stop, but walkers are also more likely to be aware of their surroundings--unless, of course, their minds are racing and their heads are somewhere else.

I came across this passage from Henry David Thoreau's Walden, which I think offers a pretty astute analysis of the crisis of pace: We think we have to know everything, even though we cannot, and so we strive continually and thereby gradually and unrelentingly run ourselves down.

Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance -- which his growth requires -- who has so often to use his knowledge?

So I'm going to try to run less and walk more. As soon as I can pry my head out of this wall.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 12:07 PM | Comments (3) are closed

May 4, 2006

That's No Longer Hot

Apparently, Paris Hilton is tired of saying "That's hot." So I heard on Letterman or Leno or somewhere. She's now moved on to "That's sexy." Which reminds me of one of my all-time favorite Strangely Dim posts, which you can access here.

But I've been inspired to come up with my own catch phrases. I gave my god-daughter a catch phrase a couple of years ago, almost as soon as she learned to talk: "That's what I'm talking about!" Earlier this year I was drawn to the phrase "How you livin'?" as a conversation-starter. But both of these pale in comparison to the functionality and flow of Paris Hilton's masterful taglines. So I'm inclined to emulate her. What do you think of this for my new catch phrase?

"That's original."

Think you can do better? Post a comment, you're so smart.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:36 AM | Comments (6) are closed

April 4, 2006

Weird Wednesday

My friend Al Hsu made the following observation:

On Wednesday of this week, at two minutes and three seconds after 1:00 in the morning, the time and date will be 01:02:03 04/05/06. That won't ever happen again.

You know why it will never happen again, right? Because seven ate nine!

Ha ha! I love that one!

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:03 AM

March 10, 2006

This Friday Brought to You By . . .

Fridays at InterVarsity Press used to be casual. And in a sense, I suppose, they still are. But ever since we announced our new imprint strategy, Friday has taken on a new look. To celebrate our new identity as a publisher of multiple imprints, InterVarsity Press (never hereafter to be referred to as IVP) has been handing out shirts like there's no tomorrow.

Shirts are a key element of any branding strategy, from the look of things. My brother works for a major corporation, and it seems that every time a senior executive sneezes, tens of thousands of branded t-shirts come shooting out his or her nose. God bless them--after all, who doesn't like a t-shirt? My brother didn't have to go clothes shopping for the first year of his employment there. The employees get free duds, the corporation gets free advertising: everybody's happy.

So it's no surprise that InterVarsity Press would cough up a lot of shirts during the branding year, even though in terms of size, we're small and my brother's company is triple-XL. Really, we're like grasshoppers to them. But now, with all our swanky new shirts, at least we look nice!

On any given Friday, these days, you'll see employees of IVP-I-mean-InterVarsity Press wearing branded t-shirts, long sleeve tees, hoodies, button-downs or oxfords. Beyond clothing, you'll see my coworkers toting branded totebags, slurping coffee out of branded coffee mugs, attaching keys to branded keychains, writing letters on branded paper using branded pens. If I were to attempt to count the number of IVP-I-mean-InterVarsity Press logos decorating my office alone, my heart, soul, mind and strength would all give out on me before I finished.

There are two forces at work here, I suppose. One is the assertion of InterVarsity Press. "We are here!" we proclaim. "Notice us! Embrace our vision! Buy our stuff!" That's a defensible effort for an organization to make: we exist for a particular set of reasons, and those reasons are better fulfilled when we are in view of our audience.

The other force, I think, is the assertion of the employees (and authors and perhaps even our audience): "We are with you! You are with us!" I, for one, draw strength from my associations: I am bolder, for example, in a room full of Alpha males when I can say, "I'm with X" and reasonably expect them to know what "X" is. Similarly, I am more likely to invite someone to my church than tell them about Jesus all by my lonesome.

In a sense, then, it's a shame that my faith tradition doesn't include uniforms. Everybody knows a nun is a nun by looking at her habit, but nobody knows I'm a Christian by looking at my boot-cut jeans and IVP-I-mean-InterVarsity Press hooded sweatshirt.

Nevertheless, we are promised association: "I am with you always." And we are promised identification: "Everyone will recognize that you are my disciples . . . when they see the love you have for each other."

Try to fit that on a t-shirt.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 1:11 PM

February 28, 2006

The End of Two Eras

Today marks the end of two eras. My mother-in-law retires today after years of managing the office of a social service agency. She's the first of my parental units to retire--uncharted territory for our family.

Also today, longtime InterVarsity Press employee Andrew Craft leaves to concentrate on the crazy scope of personal projects he's launched over the last few years. Andrew, among other things, designed the InterVarsity Press website and the Strangely Dim weblog. That road sign was his idea.

Eras end with a lot of fanfare. There's a big party today at my office and another big party where my mother-in-law works. There will be shared memories and conversations about what the future holds. There will be jokes and teasing and food and drink and general revelry.

And then tomorrow comes, and with it the beginning of something new, with patterns that have yet to be established and connections that have yet to be made. Officially, the workplace is the place we work, but under the surface it's the place we most frequently gather, the relationships that are most consistent in our lives. What are Andrew and my mother-in-law giving up by moving on? They won't know till Wednesday.

Leaving a job is a scary proposition. I know one person who hopes to die at his desk, in part because he doesn't want to face the music at his retirement party. I'm drawn to the idea because without my job I'm forced to determine for myself who I am apart from what I do. Is the end of an era the end of days or the beginning of something new?

Ben Folds sees the end of an era, in the grand scheme of things, as relatively meaningless:

Today's just a day like the day that he started . . .

Cat Stevens looks at the end with relief:

If I ever lose my hands--lose my plow, lose my land . . . I won't have to work no more.

I'm not moved by the end as meaningless or the end as nothingness; the end as beginning is what appeals to me. Both before and after the end of an era we remain inherently relational people looking for something to do. When Samwise Gamgee parted from the Shire in The Lord of the Rings, he surrendered his comfortable present in order to embrace a new calling. It was hard, and the way forward was hard too, but one day he would hear songs sung about these later days, and he would know that the end of one era had marked the beginning of the next.

***

Read Pete's comment on "The Best Imitation of Myself" at Loud Time to see how the movies separate our workplace selves from our true selves.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:17 AM | Comments (2) are closed

February 17, 2006

I Gotta Question

Hey, everybody, I've got a question. I'm so interested in this question that I'm going to post it here and at my personal blog Loud Time (yo! check me out!):

What would help American Christianity to be more thoughtful?

You can interpret thoughtful in whatever sense you prefer, and you may think about Christianity as one big collection of people or as a demographic of individuals or anywhere in between. My only stipulation, I suppose, is that I'd like you to at least think about how you would answer if "American Christianity" were replaced by "me" or "us." Spread the word, too; I'd like to get a good cross-section of people involved in this.

I don't know the answer, myself, so I choose not to respond but rather to make comments about your responses. So there.

Thanks! Have fun--play nice.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 1:15 PM | Comments (5) are closed

January 17, 2006

Stalled

May I be frank? If not, click here.

Still with me? Thank you very much. I have a favorite toilet.

Perhaps favorite is too strong a word. But somewhere along the way at work, I realized that whenever I went to the bathroom I gravitated toward the same stall. In fact, I reckon that if you lined my shoes with some kind of ultra-violet ink, and then replaced all the light bulbs at my workplace with black light, you’d notice a remarkable continuity in the path my steps take—even beyond the bathroom.

I’m a creature of habit, I guess. I have a number of routines, from the steps I take in making coffee to the alarm I set for purging my spam. In that respect I could be the poster child for Presbyterianism, where everything worth being done ought to be done “decently and in order.”

For the most part I’m comfortable with a life marked by routine; predictability can be quite comforting. But there’s an opportunity cost to routines in that they are highly resistant to change, and sometimes change is needed.

It’s possible to get stalled in life. I’ve certainly been there, in relationships, in my profession, in the state of my soul. If we are people in process, which I think we are, then stalled is a dangerous condition, which makes routines, for all their day-to-day value, dangerous. My dad often explores new routes when he’s driving to familiar destinations. Sometimes we get a little lost, but only temporarily; when you ask him why he’s taking a different direction, he replies, tongue in cheek, “So the terrorists can’t find us.”

The history of the church can be understood (though probably oversimplified) as a cycle of renewal—followed by routines—interrupted by renewal. We have some experience that spurs new creativity and energy in our self-discovery or our understanding of God and his claims on us. New church movements, from the formation of the Franciscans to the emergence of Emergent, inspire new hope and enthusiasm for the things of God. Gradually these new movements, in order to move from vague enthusiasm to meaningful impact, create systems and routines, even jargon, to empower their day-to-day progress. Over time, these systems and routines can cause a movement to atrophy, until they are interrupted by some kind of renewal.

It happens at the personal level as well. I like to read, and when I started taking my faith seriously my reading life was revolutionized. The things I read and the duration of my reading time were entirely different. But I reached a point where people started telling me I needed to get out of my head and into my body. I had atrophied in my routines. I needed renewal.

I’ve had a hard time getting out of my head and into my body. The routine is incumbent; it’s difficult to unseat. But I know my routines can be changed, because I’ve done it. My favorite toilet for 2005 was not my favorite toilet for 2004. And so far, my favorite toilet for 2006 is one other than the title-holder for 2005.

Changing a routine is difficult, however: I get a bit of vertigo when I remember to change at the last minute, and when I forget I’m tempted to chastise myself. And let’s face it: changing toilets is not going to change the world or the fundamental condition of my soul. But it’s a good occasional reminder that change is possible.

The most meaningful renewal, of course, doesn’t originate with us. Most often we are the objects of renewal—not the subjects. God is in the business of renewing and has been since the second week of the world. Our routines are practiced in response to that renewal, and in the process redemption is taking place. In the words of the psalmist:

These all look to you

to give them their food at the proper time.

When you give it to them,

they gather it up;

when you open your hand,

they are satisfied with good things. . . .

When you send your Spirit,

they are created,

and you renew the face of the earth.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 10:52 AM

January 11, 2006

Quantum Phamily

A friend of mine is working on her master's degree, and as she was selecting courses for the coming quarter she was proselytized by an instructor to take her family ministry course. My friend, however, works a full-time job here at IVP and doesn't have time for classes that demand a lot of extra time or don't nicely fit her educational goals: I suppose you might say she's purpose-driven(tm). So my friend asked if she'd be obligated to do family ministry in a local church setting as part of the course. The professor replied, "Not likely; I don't think any churches around here do family ministry."

Now, I have great respect for theoretical studies, but family ministry? Sure, you can do math with imaginary numbers or do quantum physics based on last week's Star Trek, but "family ministry" seems like simple arithmetic: family + ministry. Two great tastes that go great together.

I suppose it's idiots like me that are keeping churches from fully understanding the intersections between family as a social complex and church as a social complex. How your family functions shapes your expectations and your participation in church, and so every local family system directly affects the life of every local church. And how ministry is practiced, because it is intrinsically relational, places obligations on every family touched by it. The bringing together of family and ministry becomes less like math and more like a marriage.

Ah well. I just thought it was funny. Diana Garland's exhaustive Family Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide defines family ministry as

any activity of a church or church representative(s) that directly or indirectly (1) develops faith-families in the congregational community, (2) increases the Christlikeness of the family relationships of Christians and/or (3) equips and supports Christians who use their families as a channel of ministry to others.

I'd be interested in what you think of that definition and how you'd characterize the state of family ministry in your own church. Play nice though, please.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:20 AM

December 8, 2005

Not Just Anybody

All the mania surrounding The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe notwithstanding (some of which has trampled me underfoot; see yesterday's post), "Narnia Eve" shares a date with another significant milestone: the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of John Lennon.

I've tended to be a Paul McCartney guy, myself, but as a songwriter and founder of the Beatles, Lennon was a force of popular music. You can still hear his influence even on people who don't know they've been influenced by him.

I was ten when John died. I don't remember the moment, but I do remember the aftermath. My family went to the library the next day, where we joined a room of people watching news reports. I acted like a ten year old, running around and goofing off, and I was rebuked and chased away by the gathered crowd. It was a brief foreshadowing for me that the world is not as innocent and playful as we're allowed as children to imagine it.

I was ill-prepared today to commemorate John's passing, but fortunately I was able to borrow the soundtrack to The Royal Tenenbaums, which features a little song by John: "Look at Me." I'd not heard it before, but it's emblematic of some of John's most intimate writing:

Look at me. What am I supposed to be? . . .
Here I am. What am I supposed to do? . . . What can I do for you? . . .
Who am I? Nobody knows but me. . . . Nobody else can see--just you and me.

Maybe he's singing to Yoko or his mom or his dad or the universe or me, but the genius of it is that it sounds like something you whispered just last night to a lover or a parent or the universe. Anyone can sing it to anyone at any given moment. I might sing it to God; God might sing it to me. Either way, it'll occupy my thoughts long after it's sung.

In the wake of these lyrics or these thoughts I'm reminded of my own finiteness and of the grace of God, who comes to us and reveals himself to us and abides with us--a great favor to a world of people who can only comprehend so much. I'm reminded of a quirky little line from St. Augustine I came across in David Benner's book The Gift of Being Yourself:

Grant, Lord, that I may know myself that I may know thee.
Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 12:00 PM | Comments (2) are closed

November 4, 2005

Scavenger Culture

For three years now 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--a portable CD player, for example, or an iPod, or an iPod Nano--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."

***

Next Friday I fly out to Alaska, the land of the rising sun, or something like that. I'll be speaking to a group of high school students, which should be a lot of fun. I seem to be encountering a lot of giants in the field of youth ministry lately--and by giants I mean highly accomplished and creative youth ministers who happen to be big, athletic guys with perfect teeth who could crush my spindly, geeky spine in a heartbeat. Pray for me.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:57 AM | Comments (11) are closed

October 20, 2005

Cafe of the World

I’m about to go on vacation, and my flight is scheduled to land in Florida at about the same moment that Hurricane Wilma is scheduled to land in Florida. I find myself tempted to exploit this coincidence as a metaphor , but hurricane metaphors seem particularly inappropriate this year. The whole country is still standing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, scratching our heads, trying to make sense of it.

I’ve always loved New Orleans—for all its weirdness, it wears its soul on its sleeve while other cities hide behind masks. One of my favorite places is Café du Monde, a large outdoor café lined by chess tables. Every time I’ve gone to that city I’ve gone to that place. New Orleans without Café du Monde will not be New Orleans for me, but then again, why should I have a say in defining a city I only rarely visit? At my most sympathetic I remain a tourist; the residents of New Orleans can’t afford to indulge my sentimentalities as they come back to themselves.

There’s widespread resolve to rebuild New Orleans, and I find myself imagining what life in that city might be like on the far end of that recovery. I picture an old man lingering around the café on a Sunday afternoon . . .

***

Wanna know something funny? Back in the seventeenth century they called coffee houses “penny universities.” You paid a little money and you got to argue for hours about whatever you want.

Here at the Café du Monde, nobody wants to argue, they just want to play chess over café au lait and beignets. Play the wrong person and you get schooled, though. I’ve seen some folks play two, three games at a time, and they wipe the floor with the tourists.

You can beat a tourist at chess in four moves—four moves! Maybe people just don’t learn chess right up north, but I like to think that some people come to New Orleans to get a little schooling.

Me and Charlie were regulars. Had our own table right here. We’d spend hours on Sunday working the board, talking over this and that. I beat him most times, but he made me work for it.

We met in the service. I taught him chess ‘cause I needed a rival. He grew up out west where chess never got played much, but he took a liking to it. We’d pass time by playing chess, and he’d tell me about his girl back home, and I’d tell him about New Orleans. The more he heard, the more he liked it, so when we got discharged, I hooked him up with a job in the city.

New Orleans is a beautiful town—you hear about wild nights and gators and voodoo, but that’s all just cream and sugar. New Orleans is hot music and spicy food, heart and soul, coffee and chess. Nothing like it anywhere else in the world.

Charlie took up the clarinet for kicks and played with a combo Thursday nights at a little bar down the road from Tulane. Me and Sharon would meet Rachel there every once in a while and just listen to him. After Rachel died, though, Charlie quit playing. His boys would come home over Christmas and beg him to play some Dixieland for the grandkids, but he wouldn’t do it; once you stop playing, you lose your chops.

He never quit playing chess, though. There’s no game like chess: at first it seems you’ve got an infinite number of moves you can make from one turn to the next—you can do anything. But the further you get into the game, the more you realize there’s a method to it. So you try to think five or six moves down the road, and you try to think of all the tricks ole Charlie might pull on you. With a little luck, you pull a few tricks of your own and Charlie buys the next round of café au lait.

You never quite master chess; you just enjoy it. You’re there hovering over the table, watching it unfold like the whole universe is coming into being and then coming to its end. And it just makes sense as you watch it, even if you’re bewildered by it. No matter how hard the game gets, you know each piece has its spot and every ending, even when you lose, is a happy one.

Once I got “retired,” me and Charlie added a Wednesday game. Sharon didn’t seem to mind, and Charlie was kind enough to buy the beignets. Then, of course, the hurricane hit. Wasn’t the first, probably won’t be the last, but Katrina did a number on us in 05. Beat us in one move, like a bunch of tourists! Me and Sharon were able to salvage the house, but once Charlie’s castle came down he just gave up. We all left town, but Charlie never came back.

He’s up in Chicago with his oldest now. We talk every once in a while, and once a month I send him a can of coffee and chickory—best coffee in the world. One cup keeps your mind sharp; helps you plan your next move. And with all the changes that hit you when you least expect it, you need all the help you can get.

Me, I’m here for life. This is my home—no place like it in the world. Life’s gotten me into check once or twice before, but I just keep on playing. I come down here Sundays and sit here at me and Charlie’s table, sipping my café au lait, waiting for a rival. Four moves or four hundred—doesn’t matter; I’m just looking for a happy ending.

***

I'm busily preparing to give four talks at a high school retreat in Alaska next month. I'm really looking forward to it, although I think November in Alaska qualifies as "off-season." My theme is "We Could Be Heroes," which has been a recurring theme for me for the past two years because of the book. But I think it's a good theme for kids--who wouldn't want to be a hero? Who knows what a hero really is?

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:12 AM

October 12, 2005

Chez Lounge

The other night I was driving home and saw a neighbor doing something that I absolutely hate doing, and yet I was jealous of him. He was sitting comfortably on a chair on his sidewalk spraying his lawn. He had achieved serenity, shalom, nirvana, whatever you want to call it. Even his labor was leisure.

Let me clarify: I don't hate sitting comfortably, I hate spraying my lawn. It smacks of waste and futility--waste because I'm doing what God meant for rain to do, futility because grass withers in my presence. Right now I'm watering twice a day everyday because our wildflower garden, which supplanted our above-ground pool, has been supplanted by what we hope will one day soon be grass. It's a faint hope, though, since I killed the pool and wrecked the wildflower garden.

As a result, most of my thoughts while watering are occupied not with hope but with grumblings of how I might otherwise spend my time. I could be writing or serving the poor, although more likely I'd be quoting the Lemonheads: "What if something's on TV and it's never on again?" On the surface of things, to be condemned to sit in a chair watering my lawn for the rest of eternity would be, for me, like an eternity of wailing and grinding teeth. I looked at that guy in his khaki shorts and his long black socks and his fishing cap and Hawaiian shirt, and I thought, That dude is lazy. But then I thought, That dude is lucky.

I'm reminded of Frederick Buechner, whose definition of sloth is hanging on the wall of my office, just high enough that I don't have to see it every day:

Sloth is not to be confused with laziness. A lazy man, a man who sits around and watches the grass grow, may be a man of peace. His sun-drenched, bumblebee dreaming may be the prelude to action or itself an act well worth the acting. A slothful man, on the other hand, may be a very busy man. He is a man who goes through the motions, who flies on automatic pilot. Like a man with a bad head cold, he has mostly lost his sense of taste and smell. He knows something's wrong with him, but not wrong enough to do anything about. Other people come and go, but through glazed eyes he hardly notices them. He is letting things run their course. He is getting through his life.

So if that guy's lazy, then I'm a ten-toed sloth.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 1:16 PM | Comments (1) are closed

October 4, 2005

Dirty Thoughts

Yesterday I bought dirt. Again. The only redeeming value of buying dirt is that it gives me the opportunity to revisit one of my favorite SD posts of all time: Dirt Cheap. Hope you like it.

If you don't like it, try this link to a very clever revisioning of the movie The Shining. Proof that perspective does count for something.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:37 AM | Comments (1) are closed

September 21, 2005

INXS Through the Out Door

Well, I can't say that INXS's pick for lead singer was my last choice, but J. D. Fortune certainly wasn't my first or even second choice. Last night was the finale, and since Jordis was eliminated a few weeks ago, I was eager to see Marty take the reins. He sang "Don't Change"--the second INXS song I ever heard but perhaps first in my heart--and ruined me for any other INXS lead singer. Tremendous. Marty is from Chicago, which makes him a local hero, so I'm hoping his band will get picked up so I can get his song "Trees" out of my head and on to the radio.

Brooke Burke, with characteristically little emotion, invited viewers to sign up for the next season of Rock Star, but I'm racking my brain to figure out what big-name band needs a new lead singer. Maybe the Ramones? Maybe the Clash? Maybe, however, some band will take advantage of this opportunity to give their current front person the boot. Therefore, I invite you to nominate bands that need a new lead singer, whether they know it or not.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:01 AM | Comments (2) are closed

September 2, 2005

INXS in Excess

This summer INXS is doing what it's always done pretty well: overexpose themselves. Three nights a week we're called upon to watch Rock Star: INXS, as admittedly talented singers perform an odd range of songs on the slim chance that INXS--and America with them--will give them a steady gig. Every week one or sometimes two people are eliminated from the competition for the lead singer spot, and between performances we're shown the rigors of band-leading--from choosing whether you should wear a boa and which one goes with your stilettos, to how you can protect your voice well into your thirties. Meanwhile we observe what's come to be considered normal on reality television: interpersonal conflict, trauma and corresponding drama, and back-stabbing hypocrisy.

We're narrated through this rock-n-roll ropes course by Dave Navarro, himself the master of overexposure both literal and figurative, and Brooke Burke, who never quite adds enough edge to the "edgy" lines she's fed by the teleprompter.

I've never watched American Idol, and I swore I wouldn't watch Rock Star, but I found it almost impossible not to. The only time Rock Star was taken off the air earlier this summer was to make room for CSI something-or-other and advertisements for Rock Star. So I've been watching it, and I admit that there's a steady stream of good musical performances that span the years and genres of rock music, right up to the present. For every Beatles or David Bowie song, for example, there's a Hoobastank or Franz Ferdinand song not far behind. And occasionally you'll even hear a song by INXS.

I should say that I've always liked INXS. I liked INXS while my brother and sister were busy liking Duran Duran. I have Shabooh Shoobah on vinyl and Kick on tape, I went all the way to Nebraska to see them in concert, and I even bought the album MaxQ for kicks. (The reason you haven't heard of this side-project from their lead singer is because I bought the only copy.) But since the death of Michael Hutchence the band has been quiet, and their songs have gone by the wayside.

Now with Rock Star I'm able to imagine INXS with another bandleader--a woman, perhaps, or an African American, or a southern rock junkie. Or at least I'm invited to try and imagine it. INXS was a band of a distinct era, and for all its coherence as a band (they dress completely alike throughout the interior photos of Welcome to Wherever You Are, and inside Shabooh Shoobah we see the band lying naked together under a teeny tiny sheet), Hutchence was the quintessential lead singer. Distinctive voice, distinctive swagger--he was even talked about to play icon Jim Morrison in the film The Doors. So whoever wins this thing had better be something distinctive.

Consider, for example, other bands who have had to replace their lead singer. Natalie Merchant was replaced by 10,000 Maniacs with someone who sounded eerily like Natalie Merchant. Queen finally recoiled from the death of Freddie Mercury by tapping a lesser light from the same era: Paul Rodgers, formerly of Bad Company and Free. And neither group has reached their previous heights of fame. By contrast, drummer Dave Grohl mourned the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain and then moved on, fronting the profoundly successful Foo Fighters himself.

INXS has hype going for them, but I wonder if they've thought this through. For one thing, they're subjecting their new lead singer to weeks of very public humiliation, not the least of which is having to perform his or her heart out while they sit in the back row with legs crossed and sunglasses on, complaining about being too "pitchy." By the end of this game, everyone will have an opinion about who should be INXS's lead singer, but only one-sixteenth of them will be happy about who will front the band.

Or consider this: INXS, a family band to be sure (three of them are brothers), will have as its figurehead the neophyte they've been systematically deconstructing for a whole summer. Are they ready to be led by their new lead singer? Are they ready to perform songs written by him or her? Ready to travel in the musical direction their new lead singer takes them? They're a family band, but they're sticking their most prominent member at the kiddy table, and that kind of disparity is no way to build trust or community.

I'm hopeful for INXS. Michael Hutchence was in no way the only great talent in the band, and if they have more music in them, more power to them. But for the sake of INXS, their new lead singer, and the scores of rock bands eager to follow them into reality TV land (I'll give odds on Rock Star: Genesis but not on Rock Star: Nirvana), I hope they'll turn the cameras off for a while and spend some quality time with their newest family member.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:19 AM | Comments (3) are closed

August 15, 2005

So many songs, such a little coupon

Congratulations to me! Simply for spending a boatload of cash on groceries, I've earned five song downloads (that's like a free $5 bill, people!). Now I just need to decide which five songs to download. I'm open to suggestions, so start posting now.

Thanks,
Dave

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:16 AM | Comments (8) are closed

July 22, 2005

Consumerism Will Eat Itself

by David A. Zimmerman

I've seen a lot of things, but until recently I'd never seen a giant get waylaid by a dwarf. That's just what happened in my local Walgreens parking lot not too long ago.

OK, just to clarify: when I say "local Walgreens," I mean one of the three Walgreenses within a short bike ride of my house. And when I say "a short bike ride," I by no means am saying that I actually ride my bike there. I have a bike but only recently purchased a bike lock, which I have used as my chief excuse for driving all over Lombard and surrounding territories when I could just as easily walk.

I also didn't see an actual giant or an actual dwarf. Walgreens wasn't offering a drive-in showing of The Lord of the Rings. Actually I was watching a massive SUV wrestle with, and lose to, a mini-shopping cart.

It started out innocently enough: the driver hiked the long climb from the ground to the driver's seat of his suburban tank, and in the interest of efficiency pulled forward rather than back out of his parking space. Trouble is, parked immediately in front of his truck was a cute little shopping cart--one of those junior models that fit in the narrow aisles of your local Walgreenses. As the SUV made contact, the cart toppled, as might have been expected. But instead of being crushed (as might have been expected) the cart attached itself to the ramming bars on the front of the SUV and refused to let go.

The driver tried to break free by driving back and forth for a little bit, but eventually he had to admit temporary defeat. He put the truck in park and rappelled down to the parking lot and hiked around to the front bumper, where he and I assessed the situation.

Proposed solution 1: Driver lifts the truck, I pull the cart out from underneath.
This solution failed miserably. The driver couldn't lift the truck high enough, and the cart had this little piece that had lodged itself deep within the hollowed out ramming bar.
Proposed solution 2: Driver wiggles the cart until it breaks free from the truck.
This solution likewise failed miserably. We couldn't get enough leverage on the cart to wriggle it loose; the piece that was lodged in the ramming bar was locking the cart in place.
Proposed solution 3: Driver lifts the truck, I pull the cart out from underneath.
This solution was hauntingly reminiscent of proposed solution 1, with essentially the same outcome.

By this time my groceries were starting to spoil and I was getting bored. I also got the sneaking suspicion that the driver was blaming me for my lack of ingenuity while he was hoisting the car two centimeters above its resting position. Fortunately for our relationship, however, two other guys noticed our dilemma and came over to try out

Proposed solution 4: Driver plus two others lift the truck, I pull the cart out from underneath.
It worked! The cart suffered no apparent damage, but the ramming bar--which had only done what it was designed to do--was scratched up quite a bit. We all parted ways feeling quite macho and ready to get on with our lives, but I've since been trying to figure out how to justify posting this story on Strangely Dim. I'll venture a moral to the story, but feel free to post your own.
Proposed moral 1: Bigger isn't necessarily better.
The shopping cart--with no engine, no steel reinforcements, no ramming bars--handed the big bad SUV its cowboy hat. The driver drove off with his tail lights between his legs.
Proposed moral 2: Consumerism will eat itself.
Combining a lust for the biggest, baddest car on the road with a ubiquitous corporate selling machine that caters to a lust for convenience leads to the sort of outcome we might expect by combining matter with anti-matter, if you are geeky enough to follow my meaning.
Proposed moral 3: "In the abundance of counsel there is wisdom"
or
"Many hands make light work"
or whatever proverb you'd like to apply.

Being naturally geeky myself, I'm partial to proposed moral 2.

***

Next week I'm the MC and songleader for our church's Vacation Bible School. I'm nervous--kids are a tough crowd for me. But we'll have a strong police presence, I'm sure.

The week after that is the Wizard World Chicago Comic Book Convention. I get to go and sit at a booth and (I hope) serve as chaplain for the event. Can't wait to take someone's confession . . .

Go in peace.

Dave

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:13 AM | Comments (10) are closed

July 14, 2005

Twenty-First Century Mullett

I woke up this morning wondering if the Caesar cut will one day be counted as the twenty-first century equivalent of the mullet. I'm very concerned about this; I've been wearing a Caesar cut for more than a decade now, and really, how long can a hairdo inspired by George Clooney continue to satisfy the American public?

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 3:09 PM | Comments (2) are closed

June 30, 2005

Confessions of an Annoying Theater Goer

It's now been thirteen hours since I started watching Batman Begins last night. I know because I forgot to turn my timer off. I turned my PDA's timer on during the movie so I could reference scenes in a project I'm working on, with the added benefit that the glow from my PDA illuminated the page of notes I was taking.

So there I sat, in the center of the theater, munching on the ice from my Pibb X-tra, glowing, scribbling, crossing and uncrossing my legs. My friend leaned over and said, "Any way you could reduce the backlight on your PDA?" "Oops," I said.

My friend gave voice to what I'm now certain the people around me and perhaps throughout the theater were thinking: That guy sure is bright. Or more likely, come to think of it: That guy sure is annoying.

Technically, I had not violated any commonly held theater etiquette: My cell phone wasn't on, I wasn't kicking the seat of the person in front of me, I wasn't yelling at Bruce Wayne to watch out for that ninja! But I was annoying nonetheless. And for that I apologize to my friend and all his fellow theatergoers.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:13 AM

June 7, 2005

Revenge of the Sith

I finally saw Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, and though I enjoyed it, I experienced it more as a homework assignment that I turned in about thirty years late than as the blockbuster hit of the summer. Besides, everybody knows that Batman Begins is the the best prequel and true blockbuster hit of the summer.

Come on, you know it's true.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:12 AM | Comments (8) are closed

May 26, 2005

The Final Word

by David A. Zimmerman

I've never thought of myself as pollyanic or even optimistic. I think it's fair to say that I'm more like Eeyore than Tigger. As my sainted daddy always says, "An optimist can never be pleasantly surprised."

Nevertheless, I don't think I'm alone in wanting a happy ending. You invest your time in a book or a film or a conversation, and you expect that you'll walk away from such an encounter with a positive feeling toward it. The hero will ride off into the sunset with newfound love riding alongside. The city will be at rest, now safe from its most recent and all future threats. Your friend will wrap things up with a "Nice talking with you. See you real soon."

Even confessional conversations and all-too-real documentaries and nonfiction treatises end best when ended on a hopeful note: "Americans are too fat . . . Here are some suggestions for how we can all lose some weight." "Bless me father for I have sinned . . . Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit."

So imagine my disappointment when I turned today to the last page of a four-hundred page tome about the role of myth in culture and read eagerly to the final word: "despair."

Despair?!? Are you kidding me?!? What kind of ending is that?!? There's not even nobility tucked into the word despair. You can read A Tale of Two Cities, get to the last page to witness an execution and still walk away hopeful, even inspired:

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
The End

But walk away with the sound of "despair" still ringing in your ears, and whatever you hear next will carry its taint.

Giving despair the final word doesn't just say something about a book or a movie or a relationship, it says something about our world. You've summed up existence in seven letters; you've given the worst benediction ever. The end of one thing is of course the beginning of the next, so to end so hopelessly is to infect your future with hopelessness.

Some assign that kind of hopelessness to death: the ultimate last word. In death we rot, we fade away; all that we've spent ourselves on over the course of our life comes to nothing. Death as the last word is a terribly unhappy ending, particularly because it wasn't intended from the beginning of the story. Death entered the world as a plot point with the rebellion of humanity against its creator, and now death comes to all as we reap what we have sown.

But death has ceased to be the final word in Christian theology. Resurrection serves as an epilogue to death; in rising from death Jesus defeats it and removes its sting. Death is no longer an end but a beginning. Our heroes live happily ever after.

There. I feel better. Despair shouldn't be allowed to get the final word, and we are good editors who steer the storytellers among us toward a more hopeful finish.

If we can't bring ourselves to end on a hopeful note, maybe it's enough to leave our story unfinished, and wait for the climax to be revealed to us. The Bible, of all things, ends on such a note of anticipation, after a thousand pages of staring despair square in the face and daring to hope:

Amen. Come Lord Jesus.
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God's people. Amen.

Now that's a good book. I know, cheesy. But I feel better.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:37 AM | Comments (4) are closed

May 6, 2005

Spam of the Year

I got an e-mail today that I'd like to nominate for Spam of the Year. It's artful with just a hint of dementia, and it contains no vulgarities or sales pitches for mortgage refinancing or body enhancement. There's probably some kind of viral worm coursing through my computer as I type this, but this spam may be worth it to me.

If you think you have something better, feel free to post a comment. Just keep it clean, is all I ask.

***

In the middle of the night, I was walking by the sea, and baby baluga jumped out from amongst the bushes. SO one day Mr. Gregor exclaimed "Why do skater normals have no preppy either?!?!?!" So I wanted to watched. or Maybe if I wanted to watch it then I had a dream that countless historian lost their credit but i dont Remember what it was. I don't like you but can I have your autograph. No one wants your autograph so I started to cry in the pizza shop. Where did Ryan go? He must have moved to Ohio.

***

If you know where Ryan went, let us all know. Thanks!

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:36 AM | Comments (2) are closed

May 3, 2005

Old Friends

I'm getting old. I can see it and even feel it--the grey nose hairs, the popping joints and the intermittent back spasms. But more than the physical indicators that I'm getting old, I'm getting signals that I'm getting old from all the young people around me. I've very nearly reached the age of irrelevance.

You may think me inordinately morose--a coworker of mine told me I have plenty of good years ahead of me--but demographically speaking, turning thirty is tantamount to a kiss of death. You switch from MTV to VH1, and you're well on your way to NPR. You switch from Sunny D to V8, and Metamucil is starting to sound sensible.

For those of us who try to stay hip, we find that twenty-somethings look at us funny every time we name-drop: "Hey, have you heard that new Coldplay song?" And just in case you're not conscious of this shift, you get all kinds of reminders from the annoyingly young. Joan Girardi, the title character of the TV show Joan of Arcadia, took a cold shot while lamenting her own aging process: "I'm seventeen years old--that's half the age of a really old person."

For all you math fans out there, here's what the equation looks like:

17 x 2 = Really Old Person
17 x 2 = 34
Dave = 34
Dave = Really Old Person

I'm comforted by the knowledge that I'm not alone in feeling old. Liz Phair, who was hip way back in 1991 and continues to be one of those names I occasionally drop, is feeling her age a bit. She wrote a song about being in her thirties and dating a college boy. One line spells it out in large print: "Your record collection don't exist / You don't even know who Liz Phair is."

I'm also comforted by the fact that although I'm ancient in the eyes of the young, in the mind of America's founding fathers I'm very nearly the age at which I can be trusted to run the country. For you math fans out there, here's another equation to play around with:

17 x 2 = Really Old Person
Really Old Person +1 = 35
35 < Absolute Political Power

So, although I have virtually no chance of actually being elected president, I am now only two months away from having at least potential access to absolute political power. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Joan Girardi.

Lately, though, what's comforted me more than anything is the relatively new presence in my life of old friends. Until last year, I went to a church that helped people to build relationships by grouping them demographically: married couples were introduced to married couples, retirees were introduced to retirees, and so on. If someone fell outside your principal demographic, they were effectively invisible to you within the confines of the church.

My new church is small enough, though, that it would be silly to group people so narrowly. As a result, I recently spent three months in a discussion group with people who were twice my age. I felt like a student, except that I was treated as an equal. We talked about health and loneliness and family, as I've done with my demographic peers in the past, except that these discussions came from a completely different frame of reference. I found myself with a different outlook: in the past I've dwelled on my youth and consequently I've feared aging; in this group I looked forward and saw people experiencing life in all its fullness, and aging lost a bit of its sting.

Since our group disbanded, one of my old friends was sent to a hospital, and I had my first inkling that I will over time watch many of my loved ones get sick and eventually die--some sooner than others. But the older we get, the more we understand that dying is OK; God uses death to usher his people into a life without tears, fulfilling the vague longing that's followed us throughout life.

This awareness of death eludes the young but regularly tests the faith of the old, and in that respect having old friends is like a spiritual discipline: none of us is immune from death, and the sooner we face up to that the sooner we can make our peace with God and get on with living.

***

Mark your calendars: Batman Begins hits theaters June 15; Fantastic Four hits theaters July 8. For a guy who's inexplicably enamored with superheroes, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas . . .

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 10:04 AM | Comments (12) are closed

January 14, 2005

Ducks & Cover

By David A. Zimmerman

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, he was wearing camouflage.

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.
2. When you're wading through the muck, and you've had your fill of duck, stick close to your friends or you'll be out of luck. (That's about as far as I've yet been able to take this soon-to-be-famous country song. If you have an idea for another verse, post a comment; note that I have yet to use the phrase "pick-up truck.")

***

I've had the opportunity recently to talk to a lot of people about my book Comic Book Character, although people seem quite a bit more interested in talking about my spandex body suit. If you want to talk comic books or superhero movies or how someone who believes in God could waste their time on such silly fantasy stories, shoot me an e-mail at dzimmerman@ivpress.com.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:12 AM | Comments (1) are closed

November 5, 2004

Yoga Ate My Socks

Fair warning: I'm about to reveal some of the secret wisdom of the Eastern art of yoga.

Secret one: when stretching your chi, wear something--anything--other than blue jeans. They're a bit, um, bindy.

Secret two: no pair of socks can survive a vigorous round of yoga.

I learned both these lessons the hard way--on the dilapidated tennis court of a New Mexico retreat center, surrounded by emerging leaders of the American church. My trip was a crosscultural experience, a trip from the suburbs into the land of granola, soy nuts and urban mission.

I was introduced as "the Establishment"--which I suppose is true, though the label left me a bit queasy. I was invited to get out of my head and into my body--which I suppose is an apt prescription, though I hadn't exactly packed for such a course of treatment.

I had expected, I think, to play with my hacky sack a lot, to beam things back and forth on my PDA, to hawk my book (due in next week! Only $12!), to talk about pop culture and to stay up really late each night.

Instead I learned right away that these people weren't kidding around. I was with folks who saw a gap between what we profess and how we think and behave. And they're doing something about it. Some choose to live with the homeless. Others pool their resources so there will be no poor among them. Some are reexamining what Jesus said and adapting their stance toward culture and the church accordingly. Others are recalibrating their faith so it is centered in their bodies rather than their brains.

All this came to a head for me as I prayed through the Lord's prayer, moving from Lotus through Upward Dog and finally to Rag Doll--or something like that. I was short of breath due to the high altitude and sweaty like a pig due to my poor fitness. That's not how I usually pray; I usually pray between sips of cappuccino while lounging on my love seat with my feet in slippers and my cat on my lap. No sweat.

There's something to be said for sweaty, breathless praying, though. Talking to God can seem to be such an abstraction, really the most unusual thing about believing in God altogether. Embodying my prayer that day was, in a word, stretching.

I've since imagined yoga routines for the Doxology and Psalm 23, and I'm gearing up for St. Francis's Canticle of the Sun. And I'll do all these things just as soon as I finish my cappuccino.

And once I get myself some proper yoga pants.

And I should probably invest in some new socks while I'm at it.

***

Going to Dallas for Thanksgiving? Stop by the Logos Bookstore at 1:30pm Friday, November 26, so I can meet you and so you can see the fly flip animation in my new book.

Dallas a little inconvenient for you? Try the Borders Bookstore in Wheaton, Illinois, on Tuesday, December 7, at 7:30pm.

More to come . . .

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:09 AM | Comments (2) are closed

October 22, 2004

Ticked Off

By David A. Zimmerman

Part of my church's ministry to the community these days is a program called Alpha. If it were a macro in Microsoft Word, it would look a little something like this:

For n = 1 to 15
1. Enjoy a meal together.
2. Sing together.
3. Watch a forty-five-minute video together.
4. Talk together.
Next
End

As weird as that may seem to you, it's pretty standard stuff. Ask any programmer. The really weird thing about the program is that the speaker on the video is British. Now, I don't hold it against anyone for being British, but they shore do talk funny. It's cute, in a way, like watching public television on Sunday nights.

My line of work puts me in contact with lots of British books. For roughly the same amount of time that I've been going through Alpha, I've been busy translating two British books from English to English. As weird as that may seem to you, it's pretty standard stuff. British grammar, for example, calls for single quotation marks around quoted material: 'Four score and seven years ago'. It also calls for terminating punctuation (that's "periods" for all you laypeople) to be placed outside quotation marks, as you can see in the same quoted material above. To translate the phrase from English into English, then, I would render it thus: "Eighty-seven years ago."

Subtle, I know. It can take some time, but in general most English-to-English translation is relatively straightforward. Where it gets dicey is in the arena of idiom.

British people call the subway the 'tube'. They call the bathroom the 'wc'. They call a line a 'queue' or something like that. They say things like 'quite right' and 'tally ho' and 'jolly well good'. None of these has a direct equivalent in English. It's my job to decipher their meanings and make them meaningful to American readers.

I find myself applying this skill to my experience at Alpha. The most notorious example thus far comes when the speaker starts talking about lists. Several things on his lists have invariably been 'ticked off', which seems on the surface to be unlikely--unless, I suppose, his list included the job of 'ticking off my American audience', for example.

For Americans, intentionally ticking something or someone off is offensive, a willful act of malice. For a British speaker to go around ticking things off so cavalierly should lead us to count his message as not worth hearing.

But wait a minute: the context of his comment tells me that 'ticking off' may require translation from English to English. I sleuthed it out a bit and concluded that 'ticking off' is English for "checking off," as in "I'm so excited to be checking this week's Strangely Dim off my list--even though it is a bit hard to understand and for the most part meaningless."

So there's hope for us yet, we Americans and our British neighbors. As long as they don't tick us off, everything will be jolly well good.

***

Hello out there! E-mail me at dzimmerman@ivpress.com or post a comment here.

The covers for my book are now printed, just waiting to be glued in place. It's now only a matter of time . . .

Read more about me (because I know you're dying to) by clicking here.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:08 AM | Comments (2) are closed

October 8, 2004

The Hizzouse of Usher

By David A. Zimmerman

Nothing gives me the willies quite like being an usher. My anxiety, I think, goes back to my youth; I ushed poorly at my uncle’s wedding, effectively ruining the pageantry of the event by marching my grandparents down the aisle after the bride had made her entrance. My aunt and uncle are still married, but I don’t think my ushing has had much to do with their marital success.

Nevertheless, the usher is, in more ways than one, the point of entry into a church service. In my case, being an usher is, if you will, ushering me into the next phase of my involvement with my local church.

My wife and I started visiting our new church regularly eight months ago, and went through what I think is a natural initial process—curiosity, excitement, commitment and disillusionment—before finding our footing as regular attenders. We went through a similar process as we became members. Now we’re ushers, and we’re experiencing our new church through yet another set of lenses.

Suddenly, the fact that we don’t have a key to the building presents a potential problem. Suddenly, we have to know where everything is. Suddenly we need to understand how the service progresses, who needs to touch what, and what’s happening before, between and after the Sunday schedule. We need to have a working idea of who’s new, who’s old, and who gets the money from the collection plate.

We were getting along fine as members without all this information—until we started to ush. Suddenly we find ourselves not just associated with our church; now we’re participating in the church’s week-to-week life.

There really are three ways of experiencing church, I think: visitor, member and participant. You have particular responsibilities no matter which you pick, of course. Visitors must endure curious glances and hyper-enthusiastic handshakes and a barrage of questions and bewilderment in the face of an unfamiliar church order. I remember my wife’s first experience of a Roman Catholic mass, which involved intuitive standing, sitting and kneeling, and a sermon about broccoli. No way around discomfort—it’s a natural reaction to something new.

A member has a different set of expectations to fulfill, though of the three ways to go, membership may well be the easiest. You have to surrender some amount of personal information—perhaps no more than your address and e-mail—and you can expect to get some mail asking you for money from time to time. But your membership can conceivably take you a long way toward church legitimacy without much exertion on your part.

But to participate—now that’s where things get dicey. To participate is to leave part of your life open, to link not just your identity but your schedule to a particular faith community. You don’t just consume, you produce. You no longer have the luxury of complaining about what you don’t like about how things are; you have to either come to peace with it or make it better. Your very sanity and the natural cohesion of your community depend on it.

Ushers were the first people we met at our church; the second were people participating in the music ministry, and there followed pastoral staff, elders, trustees, stewards, and any variety of other participants in the life of the church. They shook our hands enthusiastically, shot curious glances in our direction and chuckled as we fumbled our way through unfamiliar rituals in the Sunday service. Eight months later, we’re going and doing likewise. It seems like a pretty natural progression.

***

I'm still scared of posting comments online, but if you have something to say about all things usherish, e-mail me at dzimmerman@ivpress.com, and I'll post it manually.

Read interviews with me or various other IVP authors here.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:20 AM

September 24, 2004

Get Yer Own Apocalypse!

By David A. Zimmerman

OK, really. What’s the big deal with hurricanes? Oh, I suppose I can accept that it’s a big deal to people in Florida and on the Gulf coast, but hurricanes dominate the news from Cincinnati to Seattle as soon as the winds pick up.

My wife and I went on a cruise a couple of weeks ago to celebrate our tenth anniversary, and our itinerary took us from New Orleans through Jamaica and Grand Cayman and back, with a side trip to Cozumel, Mexico. Our travels kept us two days ahead of Hurricane Ivan, a category 5 storm in the middle of the worst hurricane season in recent memory. Ivan decimated Jamaica and Grand Cayman, and it threatened New Orleans as well—enough so that my aunt had to relocate to Mississippi.

I will, therefore, gladly grant that hurricanes are a big deal. But come on now: even the sports coverage on my local Chicago newscasts gets drenched with hurricane reporting.

The net result of Chicago’s grand obsession with Ivan was that my friends and family thought I was a goner for sure; I’m pretty certain there were claims staked on my office. My three-year-old niece--who’s not normally one for talking--left a message of concern on my answering machine: “Hurricanes sure are scary; see you later, alligator!” or something like that.

Nothing so apocalyptic ever hits the Chicagoland area—even though we are, as a coworker gleefully warned me, sitting right on top of the longest fault line in North America. Just because there’s been no earthquake in Chicago since before Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star Spangled Banner," the argument goes, doesn’t mean that we couldn’t be hit with devastation at any given moment. Until the earth shifts beneath our feet, we have to content ourselves with mediocre weather systems like tornadoes and occasional flash flooding. And believe you me, those second-rate storms will get more than their share of press.

I’m not surprised, considering the fascination with natural disasters, that apocalyptic fiction has become such a literary force. No sooner is the Left Behind series wrapped up (I hate to ruin it for you, but the good guys win) than one of its principal authors begins yet another apocalyptic series. Meanwhile, knockoff series litter the landscape like unraptured accoutrements, all titillating their audiences with how bad it might get and how noble the survivors will be. It’s like watching the Milwaukee news during a hurricane: you get to fantasize about how you would bear devastation from the comfort of your own home.

I’ve read portions of one apocalyptic novel—I read it sitting in a bean bag, actually, probably while guzzling a diet soda and chomping on corn chips. Ah, the irony: the closest I get to preparedness is highly processed food chocked full of preservatives, and I’m reading a call to be prepared to meet my Maker, to stare down the Antichrist, to usher in the end of history. I didn’t finish the book, but I’m pretty confident that I finished the corn chips.

***

Read what others are saying about my book Comic Book Character--coming soon!

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:01 AM

September 3, 2004

On the Near-Death Experience of My Wife

By David A. Zimmerman

My wife and I have a running speculation that one of us is going to die young--she thinks it's me, and I think it's her. Neither of us can explain the reason for our speculation; it's a shared, gut instinct that we both hope we're wrong about. But it's there, nonetheless. So, when she comes home late after a meeting, I worry that she's been in an accident. When I don't call to tell her I made it to Michigan, she worries that I never made it to Michigan.

This past summer we got our closest yet to seeing this proto-prophecy fulfilled. We took a lazy river tubing trip on the way home from my parents' house. The river, incidentally, was by no means lazy. The current separated me from my wife, and she went dashing into a thicket of trees, where she was separated from her tube and her life jacket.

I fought my way to the other side of the river, where I could do nothing to help her except shout silly pep talks. She sat silently, grasping on to a large branch both to keep herself from going under and to keep the branch from beating her senseless. Finally a man in a canoe got to her, and she got herself free.

Now, the thing about tubing with the current is that once you commit to the route, you're committed to the route. We couldn't get to our car from where we were; we had to get back in the river--barely two miles into our six-mile trek. Four more miles of tubing and fighting the impulse to never enter the water again, and we were back safe at our car for another ten hours of dreaded cross-country driving.

I wonder how much of my panic that day was for Kara's sake, and how much of it was for me. Imagine driving ten hours alone after witnessing the death of a loved one. Imagine telling your friends and family about the senseless death of someone you and they love. Imagine suddenly recalibrating every detail of your life from two people to one person. That's what I narrowly avoided that day. But then again, that's the deal: once you commit to the route laid out for you, you're committed to the route.

Part of the journey of faith is trusting our Guide through its twists and turns and sudden tragedies. During their exodus from Egypt to Canaan, the fledgling people of Israel had only the food that God provided them, only the water God brought them. They had to walk and keep walking, and every once in a while they had to come to terms with the fact that some of them--from their whiniest gripers to their fearless leader--would not complete the trip. The generation that entered Canaan first had to bury the generation that left Egypt. But they committed, for better or for worse, to the route, and history has proven their route to be worth the trip.

Neither my wife nor I has stared down death since her near-drowning, but we have greater confidence now that at least she could if she had to. And I've been working on some new cheers from the sideline, since I'm apparently good for little else in an emergency: "Go, Kara! Hang on tight! God will save you from your plight!"

That's all I've come up with so far, but it's better than nothing.

***

I'm in the Library of Congress!

I'm on Amazon.com!

I'm on InterVarsity Press Online! Oh . . . wait . . . so are you!

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:50 AM

July 2, 2004

Because We Can-Can

By David A. Zimmerman

Recently, President Clinton released his memoirs and reflected on his affair with a White House intern: “I think I did something for the worst possible reason, just because I could. I think that's just about the most morally indefensible reason anybody could have for doing anything, when do you something just because you could.”

He’s right, I think. “Because I can” is a miserable justification for anything, particularly anything morally wrong. Even the Bible makes apparent concession for some sin based on the spirit behind the act: King David and his cohorts ate bread already devoted to the Lord because they were hungry and desperate, and a man will steal bread to feed his family. The circumstances mitigated the offense.

Not so with the near-unpardonable sin of “because we can.” The same King David committed adultery and murder because he could, and it stained his legacy throughout history. St. Augustine stole pears from a private orchard even though wild pears were growing right down the road; he stole them because he could, and only years later would he recognize the gravity of that decision.

There’s a corollary to this sin of commission which is a sin of omission: “Because I don’t have to.” Not to belittle the concept, but another president declared this sentiment toward the end of his presidency about, of all things, broccoli. “I don’t like it, and I don’t have to eat it!” whined President George H. W. Bush, in what may be the only words people born between 1985 and 1989 remember from him.

I recently heard a pastor say that in our culture, having more than we need is considered admirable; by extension, having less than you need is considered shameful. We are encouraged to keep more than we need on hand at all times, “because we can,” without reflecting on the fact that countless people the world over have less than they need at all times, “because we don’t have to.” The sad state of our culture is that we have made admirable what is shameful, and shameful what is admirable. God help us all.

No one can make us do what we don’t want to do, and no one can keep us from doing what we want to do. And yet many things we don’t want to do need doing, and why shouldn’t we lend our hand? Many things we want to do are hurtful and shameful; why shouldn’t we be kept from doing them? Such a change of mindset is almost beyond the capacity of mere humans to make, which makes our future seem pretty dim. God help us all, indeed.

***

Visit The Hunger Site; one click helps hungry people get food.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:12 AM

June 17, 2004

Inside the Circle of Women

By David A. Zimmerman

If you’re like me (and by that I mean, if you are male), you are likely overwhelmed by equal parts dread and curiosity by the phrase “circle of women.” I remember, back to the fourth grade, a general sense of frustration at having no idea why only the girls in my class were called into a special assembly. I have some idea now, and frankly I’m left a bit nostalgic for the days of my youthful ignorance, but I digress. The point is, early on we men are systematically excluded from this “circle of women.” We have to content ourselves with the meager provisions left for us outside the circle, which consist mostly of overwhelming systemic cultural, political and financial bias toward the male gender.

But I recently found myself smack-dab on the circumference of the circle of women in, of all places, an ice cream parlor. Suddenly, I was the minority. I would not be directing the conversation; I would not be the center of attention; I would not have occasion to share stories of all my accomplishments or talk about weighty matters of sport and golf. No, we talked of girly things—things that you spray on yourself, for example.

Don’t get me wrong. I have great respect for the women I was gnoshing with. Perhaps what surprised me most of all about the afternoon was how comfortable I felt in the circle. I mean, let’s face it: guys’ conversations can be somewhat stilted. The “circle of men,” if there is such a thing, might often be confused with a “cone of silence.”

I have a friend over for chess every once in a while, and we could easily play one game of chess for an hour and a half without any dialogue beyond the occasional chess smackdown. My wife is dumbstruck when she comes home and asks me, “How he’s doing?” and I tell her, “OK,” and she asks me, “Did he tell you about the big changes in his job or that his wife is pregnant or that he’s thinking about joining the Peace Corps?” and I tell her, “No.”

She’s dumbstruck, I think, because she’s used to life in the circle of women, where people seem to be taught to set aside their agendas and enter into communion with one another. I, on the other hand, am not put off by silence because I so often inhabit the cone of silence myself. It’s easier there—if no one knows what you’re thinking, they’re less likely to disagree with you and more likely just to shut up and move their bishop.

Perhaps I’m idealizing the circle of women. Perhaps I’m even oversimplifying the circle of men. I do, after all, have very healthy, soul-building relationships with men, and I know of some women who do not feel safe with one another. But I do find my fourth grade memory a little easier to take when I imagine the girls assembly as a half hour of chit-chat over ice cream rather than a half hour of talking about what I think they were talking about. Some things are none of my business.

***

Enter the circle of superheroes here.

Check out my secret identity at www.ivpress.com.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 4:21 PM

June 11, 2004

The Unscented Leader

By David A. Zimmerman

Leaders are like deodorant. I’m serious. I drew this conclusion in a moment of epiphany as I was anointing my armpits with what my family has affectionately called “stink-juice.” My deodorant had a sticker on it that read “Unscented leader!” Nobody smells less than these folks, apparently, and in the world of deodorant, unscentedness is next to godliness.

I liked the phrase so much that I peeled it from my deodorant stick and stuck it to the back of my PDA, a gentle reminder to myself that if I am to lead, I am to do it in away that doesn’t raise a stink.

After all, unscented leaders are uncommon. We live in a celebrity culture that stretches to big business, to the point where corporate big shots such as Les Moonves (CBS) or Michael Eisner (Disney) or Steve Jobs (Apple) or Jeff Bezos (Amazon.com) are household names.

Such high-profile leaders render their employees anonymous—probably not on purpose, for I’m sure that they recognize the contributions their staff make to their companies’ success. But if you work under a celebrity CEO, you’ll probably find that you punch in each morning and clock out each night, and even your family members, on mention of your company, are more apt to think of your boss than you. Don’t take this personal, all you high-profile CEOs out there, but you smell a little.

But a celebrity culture generates celebrities as a matter of course, as much because we demand to have them as because people strive to be them. The high-profile leader broadcasts the scent a group wants to be known for, and as consumers, we want to know ahead of time whether, for example, we’re going to smell like waterfalls or fire or any such other manly scent. There is, however, an internal odor to leadership that’s more onerous to me: the stink that power can bring to an otherwise collaborative relationship.

There is absolutely a place for leadership in most ventures, I’ll gladly grant. Without coordination a complex task is doomed to failure, and to borrow from the Scriptures, without vision a people perish. But just as deodorant is meant for the armpits and not, say, for the eyeballs, leadership has a specific and limited function in any collaborative effort. The leader who rolls over her subjects without cause impedes the agenda of the group and potentially causes pain and a nasty rash.

Pastor John Ortberg has spoken of church leaders as “leading servants” to convey the idea that they serve the cause of something bigger than them just as their workers do. Similary, Jim Collins in his book Good to Great exhorts leaders to aspire to “level five,” where they see themselves as part of a team earnestly working together toward the same goals rather than seeing themselves as shepherds looking after a bunch of dumb sheep. Their concepts appeal to me as someone who is more often sheep than shepherd: If I’m trying to do my part in a collaborative effort, an unscented leader will do for me what I can’t do for myself but let me do what I can do best, for the good of all of us.

But mostly I like to think of leaders as deodorant because it helps me take them off the pedestal that I or we or they have put them on. Leaders serve a purpose, and I benefit from them when they are adequately serving their purposes. With the right leader applying the right leadership to the right place at the right time, we all come through the toughest problems smelling like a rose.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 3:27 PM

May 28, 2004

If I’m So Invisible, Why Do I Need a Haircut?

By David A. Zimmerman

I feel quite justified in my hatred of cell phone use. Now, before I go any further let me say that I do not feel any hatred toward cell-phone users, nor do I hate the phones themselves. Some of my favorite people—including my wife—own and regularly use cell phones, and the phones themselves have pretty neat features. If there were only cell phones and cell phone users I’d be quite content. But in between the two comes cell phone use.

My most recent experience as a cell phone casualty came during my monthly haircut. I sat down for some nice chit-chat and a little off the top and sides, but no sooner had the bib been tied around my neck than my hair-cutter-person’s cell phone rang.

Now, when a phone rings a person must make a decision: do I answer it? I take calls at my desk when I want a break from whatever task I’m working at, or when I want to end or pause a conversation with someone in my office; otherwise I let the call divert to voicemail. Accepting a phone call is effectively rejecting everything else. The question that supports that decision making process as such becomes, What impact would taking a call right now have on what I’m doing right now?

Let me preemptively answer this question for those of you in the hair-cutting professions: the impact would be pretty severe. Let’s just say that my current haircut is not my wife’s favorite, and no one has yet said to me, “Oh! I see you’ve had a haircut,” which presumably has allowed my friends to avoid the socially compulsory follow-up statement: “It looks very nice.”

My de-follicizer didn’t stop cutting my hair while she talked with someone who, I later learned, was her coworker. She stopped only briefly to wave as her colleague drove by and honked the car horn. They finished their conversation about the same time that she finished my haircut.

If instead of calling my hair-remover, her colleague had stopped in for a chat, I wonder, would either one have deferred the conversation till my hair was appropriately dealt with? Probably, but there’s something about that ring that suckers people into an inflated sense of self-importance. There’s something thrilling about being able to provide a potentially different answer every time you’re asked the first question in every cell phone conversation: “Where are you?”

Cell phones are great because they make your life as it’s occurring seem so important, so exotic. Yet the moment you answer your cell phone you take a time out from where you are and what you’re doing, even if you continue to stay there and do it. I did technically get my hair cut that day, but I did not have a satisfactory hair cutting experience. Maybe I should have had a cell phone with me so I could tell my friends, “Oh, I’m just sitting here getting a haircut.”

After all, that’s all I’m really looking for out of a haircut—a chance to be the center of someone’s attention.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:02 AM

May 7, 2004

I fight authority (authority always wins)

David A. Zimmerman

I guess I need to be concerned for my reputation. My editor is telling me to be more "authoritative"—less deferential to competing and critical voices not only in my writing but in my casual conversations. People need to be given confidence, the argument goes, that whoever calls them to follow along knows where they're going to wind up and what they'll encounter along the way.

Here's my problem, though: I'm thoroughly Gen X. I ride the slacker waves that birthed, among other things, the song "I'm a Loser, Baby (So Why Don't You Kill Me?)" Let's just say I'm not comfortable with the concept of authority—at least as authority is commonly understood.

"The authorities" are the ones who come get you when you've done something wrong. Their opinions are incontrovertible and their decisions decisive. Authority in this sense is a thoroughly modern concept—patented property of the Baby Boomers. No wonder I resist it.

Still, authority has the word author written right there in it. So if I want to claim the one, I'll have to contend with the other.

I brainstormed a list of what I might convincingly claim authority over in the minds of my Boomer friends:

 self-promotion
 underachievement
 humor as defense mechanism
 musical snobbery
 sinning

Rereading this piece, I'm starting to have my doubts about that first one, though I think I can now make a strong case for being named chief of sinners. Nevertheless, with a resume like this you can understand why I favor a more nuanced understanding of authority.

My preferred model comes from the U.S. House of Representatives. You don't necessarily get to Congress because you know Arabic or have secured cheap prescription medication for your octogenarian parents. You get to Congress mainly because you've convinced a plurality of the population that they’re safe authorizing you to speak and act on their behalf.

That’s a whole different ball of authorial wax. Rather than dictating to their subjects—“Respect my authority!” in the language of South Park—people of authority under this model are accountable to their constituents. They are obligated to responsibly represent the needs and wishes of their audience no matter what they come across. They govern with the consent of the governed.

Maybe I’m making too big a deal out of this. It’s not like I’m writing foreign policy or security codes for the Department of Defense. I write about stuff like comic books and television and eating with the wrong fork. But we’ve become a culture that wants immediate, authoritative answers, even though many of our questions can’t really be answered immediately or authoritatively. If you want to know the meaning of life, you won’t turn to a dictionary or a phone book; you’ll start out on a quest that likely won’t end.

A quest like that can be humbling and perplexing—not something that cultivates authoritarian impulses in people. We need to commission people willing to embark on such a quest and brave the confusion it engenders, authorizing them to report back whatever they discover.

Hmmm. Authorized confusion. That sounds right up my alley.

***

Check out my secret identity at www.ivpress.com.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:12 AM

March 26, 2004

Leadership Is for Losing

By David A. Zimmerman

Which of the following is a better example of leadership?

 “I have a gun. Put the money in the bag or I will hurt you.”
 “I have a gun. Put the money in the bag and nobody gets hurt.”

Comparatively speaking, the second thief clearly gives the better example of leadership: she offers a “win-win” scenario. In contrast, the leader in the first example sets up a natural antagonism: she gets her way, or everyone suffers.

But really, neither of these examples is good leadership. Each thief is exploiting an arbitrary position of power to manipulate others. The idea of setting up these two people as examples of leaders is absurd.

But we live in a leadership culture. People are commonly divided into two classes: leader and follower; shepherd and sheep. Invariably leaders are cast as better than their follower friends, though in democratic cultures we minimize that distinction to protect the followers’ fragile egos or to protect the leaders’ subtle power base.

In reality, followers are good at surrendering power and following orders, but few followers are good at following their conscience or holding the powerful accountable. Leaders are good at gaining and using power, but few leaders are good at setting power aside forever or even only for a moment.

Most people don’t need to be led through most of their life, even most of their day. We agree to a task or a role and are competent under most circumstances to make decisions relevant to it. We may need leaders to intervene in a crisis, but crises eventually end, and most of our calling can be pursued without such interventions.

Even in the life of faith we don’t often need direct leadership:

[God] has showed you . . . what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

Pretty straightforward: God has a job for us to do and gives us what we need to do it. Occasional crises call for divine intervention or for people particularly gifted in one way or another to lead others through troubled times or difficult circumstances, but such times are temporary. The trouble is, how does a leader stop leading once he or she is invested with such authority? How does a follower stop following when to do so distracts from his or her calling?

Leaders are as accountable to God as followers because each is fundamentally a follower of God. If we lead unnecessarily, we intrude on the relationship of our sometimes-followers to our always-leader. We make ourselves idols, and we cause our sometimes-followers to stumble.

There may be days when we are called to give leadership, but may we never love leadership more than we love God and our brothers and sisters. And when the day comes—and it will come—when our time of giving leadership or followership has ended, may we have the will to set aside our position of power and take up once again our calling.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:59 AM

February 27, 2004

Dirt Cheap

by David A. Zimmerman

Last year I bought air, water and dirt in one weekend. Don't judge me--I had my reasons. I might even have bought fire if I could have found a place to sell me some.

You know that your culture has tread onto supremely consumerist ground when you can purchase primal elements. I mean, really, try not to see dirt or water throughout the course of a day. And air is literally in the air we breathe. It's also in the hardware store and the yellow pages; in some places it's bottled per serving. But what does it say about me that I actually paid for the basic building blocks of life?

In my defense, I bought air because I had a flat tire, and the buckets of air freely available to me at any given moment aren't quite pressurized enough to fill the tire--at least not in the time frame I was willing to invest.

Water and dirt are slightly less defensible. My wife and I buy bottled water because we don't like the "taste" of the water out of the tap. The purchased water is allegedly bottled from sources uncorrupted by the evils of congested city life, which is funny, since it's overwhelmingly cityfolk who buy it.

That being said, I imagine I still have a sympathetic audience. Bottled water sells like hotcakes, and though my wife and I buy a lot of it, we surely don't buy all of it. And anyone concerned about their tire pressure will forgive me for paying good money for air. But dirt?

Again, I'll offer my meager defense. I had a gigantic hole in my backyard, the former site of an above-ground pool I had recently sold. As much as I hated the pool, once it was gone I had the hole to contend with.

A contractor had mounded a giant hill of dirt a mile from my house and offered it free to whoever would come take it, and I did try to take him up on the offer. But that dirt was compacted so tightly that I could hardly break the surface with my shovel. Not enough time at the gym, I suppose.

Again, I had no desire to set aside the time it would take to get what I needed from that pile, so after a quick cost-benefit analysis, I bought some beautiful loose dirt from a materials provider. They sell rocks too, by the way. In the end, I paid more for the dirt than I was paid for the pool. But I'm happy, and that's all that really matters, isn't it?

I've found since that I love to stand on the supremely consumerist ground in my backyard, sipping some cool, pure water and enjoying my dirt. I go cheap on the air though--I don't need that kind of pressure.

So whoever said that money can't buy everything should spend an afternoon in my backyard. With money I bought air, water, dirt and happiness. Still, I'll probably be happy only so long with that bare patch of dirt in my yard. Eventually we'll do some landscaping, once we've saved up enough money to buy some rocks.

Check out my secret identity at www.ivpress.com.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:11 AM

November 14, 2003

Accidental Friendships

by David A. Zimmerman

I boarded a bus to Florida with the youth group I was working with. My seat partner was a sophomore whose parents had decided she needed “church friends.” Being ordered to spend a week on the beach would usually be OK, but a larger issue clouded this trip: she had been told who her friends should (and would) be.

Such relational tyranny offends the ears of a “free society”: our ancestors fought wars for the freedom of association, among other things. But even if we can pick our friends, does a pure freedom of association really exist? We are stuck in this time and place, and we have to make do with the people here with us—I can’t make friends with Moses, for example. The Internet doesn’t eliminate these boundaries; I can’t form a virtual friendship with someone who doesn’t have Internet access any more conveniently than I can be pen pals with someone who can’t read.

So there are people I can never, for all practical purposes, be friends with. On the flip side, there are people I can be friends with without any real effort. I didn’t meet every neighbor before moving into my neighborhood; I didn’t interview every coworker before taking my job; I selected my church without much thought about who sits in the congregation. And yet my neighborhood, my job and my church (among other social networks) all place me in these “accidental” relationships.

The Bible tells us it’s not good for us to be alone, and so we aren’t alone. God made a number of us: first one (Adam) and then the other (Eve). They had to cultivate a climate of friendship, which involved both hospitality (Adam’s welcoming of Eve) and incarnation (Eve’s entering the reality of Adam). Whether we are outside looking in or inside looking out, neither one is an easy task. Either way we find ourselves suddenly grafted to the same tree.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood the fragile nature of “life together”:

“The serious Christian . . . is likely to bring . . . a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.” (Life Together)

It’s a foregone conclusion that we’ll be hurt by others, and we’ll hurt others. But moving from coexistence to friendship requires the willingness to enter into this give and take in full awareness of both our failings and the failings of our accidental friends.

My seat partner and I finished that trip to Florida as friends, more aware that friendships are hard to come by and hard to maintain. The emphasis lies first on the climate we set: whether we are willing to risk rejection as we place ourselves into the reality of others, and whether we are willing to make room in our reality for the sudden entrance of others. Either way it’s hard, but either way it’s worth the effort.

***

“Accidental Friendships” first appeared in Student Leadership Journal, a publication of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:47 AM

October 31, 2003

The Winter of Our Disconnect

by David Zimmerman

I get to know my neighbors in six-month installments. They’re within walking distance, so there’s doesn’t seem to be any point in calling them on the phone; e-mailing them likewise seems too . . . distant. Nevertheless, come winter they might as well drop off the face of the earth. We lose all contact. Blame the weather, blame network television programming schedules, speculate about a human hibernation impulse—however you slice it, I know that the last time I saw my neighbors is likely the last time I’ll see my neighbors till the leaves start growing back on the trees.

I suppose that’s not always a bad thing. If familiarity breeds contempt, then a built-in check against familiarity goes a long way toward keeping us civil toward one another. But that would be nothing more than a side-effect; unfamiliarity does its own breeding.

We have imaginations of what people are really like, and I don’t know about you, but my imaginations keep people at a pretty subhuman level. Neighbors who are soft-spoken in my presence make hardly a peep all winter; I imagine them shuffling around in a zombielike state, waiting for me—their fair-weather messiah—to breathe some type of life into their semiconscious bones. Neighbors who like to have parties, I imagine, spend all winter alone in a drunken stupor, waiting for me to give them some reason for temperance.

It’s hard to recall that our seasonal friends and neighbors continue to exist once we close the door on them, mostly because we have our own lives to live, and our transition from summer to winter is seamless to our own eyes. But my neighbors do go on living, and even thriving, without my regular intervention. I said goodbye to one neighbor last fall, and hello to her newborn when spring came along. Next time I see the baby, she’ll probably be picking all my flowers and tramping on all my plants.

It’s a good thing my neighbors don’t count on me for their existence, and it’s good that I don’t have to count on them. If God were given to hibernation, would we ever see the light of day again?

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:17 AM

October 24, 2003

Halloween, Schmalloween

by Dave Zimmerman

I thought it might make for a good, timely column to look at the history of Halloween, but then I realized that I don’t care about the history of Halloween.

When I was a kid, I cared. The tradition surrounding Halloween in my community was that candy would be exchanged for jokes or riddles. We would dress up and approach our neighbors with a hearty “Trick or Treat!” They would open the door and admire our costumes, and the barter would begin.

I would wait my turn as my brother told his joke and received his candy. Then I would tell my joke and receive precisely the same amount of candy, and my sister would follow in turn. Then we’d move to the next house and tell the same jokes. My dad, who was following us around, protecting us from fearsome creatures of the late afternoon, would occasionally be rewarded for his diligence with a can of beer.

But these days, I don’t care. You might expect someone who works at a Christian company to get exercised over Halloween. After all, the hype connects it to the occult, to satanism, to evil. And countercultural Christians link it to All Saints Day, a celebration of the people of God. The whole climate of Halloween invites passionately held opinions—Halloween is virtually a battle between good and evil.

Perhaps I should establish that I vehemently disagree with evil and Satan, but Halloween itself is so . . . so lame. Really, what is so celebratory or even threatening about grade-school kids dressing up like witches or ballerinas and hitting people up for candy? At least at Easter kids have to hunt for their food; at Halloween kids are rewarded simply for being cute. If I were to ask any of the endless stream of children who this year will be eating all my bite-sized Twix bars “What keeps us celebrating Halloween?” I would be met with as glazed an expression as a mummy on a sugar-buzz can offer.

Holidays such as Christmas and Easter are given weight by the Christian faith—these dates mark nothing less than the birth and the resurrection of the Savior of the world. National holidays such as Independence Day and Martin Luther King Day are guarded by the U.S. government as memorials to key events and figures in national history. But then there’s Halloween, which every year shows more and tells less.

The Scriptures commissioned the Israelites to not lose sight of important events. Israelite children would learn the significance of the Passover because their parents were given the words to say: “When your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians’ ” (Exodus 12:26-27).

Halloween doesn’t even compare to the Passover. But the kids look so darned cute in their costumes, and a neighborhood gets closer by the simple act of handing bite-sized Twix bars to one another. I suppose some moments can be enjoyed simply for the temporary happiness they afford us, and the sugar coma that follows Halloween as inevitably as All Saints Day affords us the chance to clear our minds and prepare our hearts for the Advent that lies ahead.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 1:04 PM

October 17, 2003

Discipleship of the Wit

by Dave Zimmerman

Sometimes I’m so funny that I feel guilty about it. Other times I’m so unfunny that I feel the need to be forgiven.

I take humor seriously, perhaps too seriously. For example, how can I be funny without being mean-spirited? Is there a greater purpose to an off-hand humorous remark, or am I wasting my breath when I go for a quick laugh? Do we hide our true beliefs in humor, and if so, should we confront people when they are joking around?

But humor is necessarily fast-paced, action-packed. We prize the quick-witted, who draw humor out of a comment or situation without delay. How many of us have reflected on a conversation only to come up with a potentially classic but now-useless one-liner? One character on the television show Seinfeld spent an entire episode orchestrating events so that he could use his one-liner-come-lately on his rival, only to be one-upped barely a breath mark after he finally made his play. Timing is everything to humor; there’s no time to reflect on it.

Fundamentally, humor is a means to an end. “A cheerful heart has a continual feast,” says the writer of Proverbs 15:15, and what could be wrong about a continual feast? Only gluttony, perhaps, or maybe feasting while others are being starved. Oops—it seems even a cheerful heart is an ethical matter. A morally responsible person must come to terms with how humor can be used without being abused.

What strikes you as funny? What’s so funny about these things? We need to look deeper than “such-and-such makes me laugh” to understand what’s happening to us and around us when we pursue humor. Humor is prophetic in its own way; whether we want it to or not, our humor has an impact on our community that must be measured against our own self-interest. There is a time for laughter, most certainly, but there is a time for no laughter.

Humor properly understood gives us insight into who we are and who we ought to be, and points us to a middle ground between delusional arrogance and debilitating self-deprecation. When we can identify what is silly in and around us, we can begin to address such absurdities without defensiveness and continue to grow into the person and people God made us to be. Humor also makes us laugh, by the way, which makes for a nice side-effect.

I’ll close with my wife’s favorite joke. You’ll probably groan, but you’ll also probably grin.

Q: What should you say when the Statue of Liberty sneezes?
A: God bless America!

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 2:04 PM

October 10, 2003

Is the Employee of My Employer My Friend?

by David Zimmerman
Let’s say you sleep eight hours per day. (It’s OK, we can say it, at least.) Now let’s say that you are employed in full-time work—another eight hours per day. Then let’s say that you spend two hours alone (driving to and from work or school, or waiting for other people to get home, or dressing or undressing), one hour eating, three hours entertaining yourself or your loved ones, and two hours doing chores or homework. Quibble all you like about the breakdown, and you’ll still wind up with sleep and work filling the overwhelming majority of your time.

Given the fact that precious little relational activity takes place during sleep (except perhaps the territorial elbow poking and blanket swiping that accompanies bedmate politics—which would be a good topic for some other article), the associations you have during your working hours dominate your relational life. You may live with your kids or your parents or your roommates, but you say goodbye to them after eight hours of sleep and touch base with them for about two hours per diem if you’re lucky. Meanwhile, you work alongside particular people of a particular setting in a predictable pattern much more than that, and you’re supposed to be awake for pretty much all of it. And yet, workplace relationships are often our most superficial.

I can sympathize with the fear of deep friendships at work. Office hierarchy may get in the way of authentic friendship, such that employers might even be tempted to lay off employees just to get some quality time with them. Some jobs are transient—we work while we shop for a better offer. Some workplaces are politically volatile—coworkers wait for you to say the wrong thing, then pounce and feed on your failure. Some working environments are even sexually charged—fast-paced collaborations turn into intense emotional attachments, or coworkers use power as flirtation or flirtation as power.

No one appears more two-dimensional than a coworker. We have our jobs to do, our agendas to pursue, and if our coworkers are not for us, they are against us. End of discussion. But presume for a moment that your coworkers are fully formed human beings with histories and destinies, created by a personal God, infused with life by a personal Holy Spirit, suffered and died for by a personal Savior. Suddenly the coworkers seem more important than the work.

Obviously the work remains, and you shouldn’t expect a big bonus at the end of the year if you can name every coworker’s favorite color but can’t name a single task you’ve completed. Still, a place and occupation that occupies so much of our lives ought to be a place that nourishes our spirits and channels our calling as a royal priesthood. That, ultimately, is our real job, and we all report to the same boss.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 4:17 PM

October 2, 2003

Pools, People and Other Works in Progress

by Dave Zimmerman

A friend of mine called to tell me about an argument he had with his wife. He was refreshingly contrite, aware of his own failings that contributed to the conflict, but also aware of the problem he was trying to address. He became increasingly upset as he watched his character flaws frustrate an overdue discussion.

I was glad for the call; I had been fighting a losing battle with my above-ground pool. If you own one, you understand: you scrub its walls, scoop out the leaves that fall constantly from surrounding trees, pour in chemicals and filter out toxins, skim the floating dandelion fluffs and water bugs off the surface, and occasionally wonder what you would do with more square footage of lawn in your backyard. Meanwhile the pool continues to be uninhabitable (unless you are a water bug) until the moment when the water comes clear and the chemicals balance out. Congratulations: your pool is now usable for the next forty-five minutes. Hope the water’s warm.

Pools and people have this in common: the whole is affected by the presence of corruption. Chemically speaking, pool water is corrupted by decaying leaves, breeding algae and flaking skin cells. Theologically speaking, people are corrupted by a sinful nature.

Not every choice is foolish and not every act bad, but every aspect of our personhood must contend with the fact that linked to our nature, leeching our virtue, is the perpetual stain of original sin. We were created good but infected early, and we are continually frustrated by its intrusion into our noble pursuits. It affects how I write this article: Do I write out of sheer benevolence, the desire to share what I’ve learned with a needy audience? Or do I write out of arrogance, thinking I have something worth sharing with people who in reality are likely better than I? Do I write out of a need to prove something to my boss, my parents, my spouse, myself, my God? And what I write may have its good points, but do I even want to know its bad points?

I am an editor, and I respect the editorial task, which is not to say I enjoy it. An editor commits to scrubbing and scooping and skimming and priming and filtering the writer’s work for what is valuable. Of course, the editor is no less sinful than the writer, which I remind myself occasionally as I edit and more frequently as I write. But a second perspective has a different set of failings and foibles to contend with, and four semi-blind eyes are better than two.

People, like pools and manuscripts, are works in progress vulnerable to error and misjudgment. That being the case, people benefit from having at least one editor, one person committed to their success who will draw out their best and confront their worst. I crave editing like I crave dental work, but I need editing perhaps even more than a good drill in the mouth. So does everyone. My friend had the courage to submit his life to an editorial eye. May he have the clarity to filter my failings out of my perspective and bring the best out of his own life.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 1:27 PM

September 8, 2003

Why Strangely Dim?

by David Zimmerman

I have two cats. Wait, I also have a point. I mention my cats because they, like you and I, are things of earth created by a watchful, careful God. They’re also cuter than I am; you wouldn’t have kept reading if I had opened with “I have a wart on my third knuckle.”

But back to the cats. Such divinely inspired stuff doesn’t grow dim without a catfight. And yet, Christians often disregard the things of earth. Some churches even sing about it:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus.
Look full on his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.

The insinuation is clear: nothing else warrants a close look once we’ve caught a glimpse of God. Fair enough. I can’t imagine what could be more compelling than the face of our Maker.

But why, then, all this stuff? Surely a world could be fashioned in which all we could see was God, with no other people, institutions, animals, plants or minerals to distract us. But that’s not the reality God created.

The prophet Isaiah once turned his eyes on God in full glory.

"I saw the Lord sitting on a throne high and lofty. . . . The house filled with smoke. And I said, 'Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King.'"

Maybe we’re better able to appreciate the glory of God after experiencing our failings and the failings of those around us. Prodigal creations celebrating God with clearer vision—that would be a happy ending. But Isaiah’s encounter is far from an ending; in fact, it serves as a beginning for his project: “Go and say to these people . . .”

Isaiah encounters God, and God sends him back from whence he came. Something smells funny.

The apostle Paul tells us that “what can be known about God is plain. . . . His eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” We see all this stuff and recognize the glory of God. But if we are anything like Isaiah, God will quickly point us back toward the things he has made—the people who rub us wrong, the institutions we support or endure, the creation we steward or pollute.

The things of earth are important to God; they ought to be important to us as well. We each have a perspective limited by our location in space and time, but given that God created each of us from scratch and placed us where we are, when we are, who knows but that we were created for such a time and place as this?

So I propose that we explore the things of earth afresh, searching for what God has for us in them, and for them in us. God has created the things of earth—from cats to kids—for a purpose, and though they occasionally dim in the light of his glory, with his help we can see them more clearly than ever.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 10:53 AM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

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 member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs 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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