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February 1, 2013

Direction for Life

A guest post by Lisa Rieck. First posted at InterVarsity.org.

You've been a Christian your whole life, I told myself in a mini pep talk. You should know how to have a meaningful quiet time, a deep prayer life, a correct perception of God. But the truth was, the practices that had been helpful in the past no longer were.

The deeper truth was that I--a trying-to-be-a-perfect-adult, would-like-to-do-it-all-on-my-own-thanks, twentysomething pastor's kid--needed some assistance.

So I sought out a Christian spiritual director, a woman named Wai-Chin who lived near my office. It seemed like a nice, respectable, relatively low-risk and low-commitment way to find the help I was after.

When the day of my first appointment came, however, I wasn't quite sure how the whole baring-my-soul-to-someone-I-don't-know-that-well was going to work out.

As it turned out, my six-plus years of meeting with Wai-Chin for spiritual direction and prayer were one of the most significant factors in changing my perspective on who God is and how he sees me.

What Is Christian Spiritual Direction?

At root, Christian spiritual direction is a practice in which one person helps another see God's work in their life. In The Practice of Spiritual Direction, authors William Barry and William Connolly define it more specifically as "help given by one Christian to another which enables that person to pay attention to God's personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship." It provides an opportunity for personal, caring guidance in our walk with God in the context of a safe, sacred relationship.

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The task of the Christian spiritual director is mostly to listen--to the other person and to God. As spiritual director Adele Ahlberg Calhoun says in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, "A spiritual director listens with one ear to God and the other to the directee, always encouraging the directee to recognize where God can be found throughout the journey. . . . The Holy Spirit is really the Director of the time together as both parties pay attention to God's movements and call."

And he shows up in some very transformational ways.

Seeing God

My monthly sessions with Wai-Chin took place in a back sunroom in her home. She would serve me hot tea, light a candle to represent Christ's presence with us, and then invite me to be silent--always a welcome respite in my day. After she closed our time of silence with a prayer, I would recount to her the past month of my life--the moments of joy, the frustrations and points of pain, places I saw God's work, and instances that left me wrestling with him.

Mostly, she listened. Sometimes she asked a clarifying question, or prompted me to expound on a certain statement. Sometimes she read a passage of Scripture to me, or led me through a short lectio divina exercise. Sometimes she related a story from her own life, or had me meditate on the lyrics and melody of a particular song. And sometimes she sent me outside--one of my favorite places to encounter God--to listen for his voice. Almost always she'd offer a suggestion for a discipline I might practice in the month ahead, or a Scripture passage I might sit with, or a book I might read and reflect on.

And in those hour-long appointments (which often stretched closer to two hours), I met Jesus.

I realized that God speaks to me, in ways I hadn't imagined he could speak.

I recognized and confronted idols.

I cried.

I confessed and repented.

I saw my finances and family and job and ministry in a new light.

I worshiped.

And, over and over again, I experienced the goodness and mercy and love of Jesus.

Even in months that had been particularly painful or discouraging, where I came to our appointments with many more questions and feelings of guilt or anger than stories of God's goodness, I left knowing that I was known and loved by the triune God--Father, Son, and Spirit.

Seeing Myself

I also came to know myself--the "true" me, the person God created me to be, as well as the "false" me, the me who tries to find significance and worth apart from Jesus' love--in much deeper ways.

Having space and time to name joy and pain from the month--the intentional act of remembering and then speaking out loud to someone else where I saw (or didn't see) God--helped me make connections between events, or gave me deeper insight into what was going on inside myself. Those insights then empowered me to walk a little more closely to Jesus, and live a little more deeply out of my identity as his child.

Direction for Us All

You might be feeling stuck like I was. Or maybe you're still walking in the afterglow of a conference like Urbana. Maybe you're feeling a need for alone time with God. Or maybe you're longing for the kind of help a Christian spiritual director could bring. In any case, we hope that, not just in January but throughout 2013, you'll pursue Jesus by committing to practices that open you to him. Moving toward him, deeper into him, closer to him, more like him--that's the direction we want to move in together.

To find a spiritual director, click here or contact churches in your area.

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Read more from Lisa here.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 1:07 PM | Comments (2) are closed

November 5, 2012

Lord Have Mercy Again

Four years ago, right around this time, the United States was electing its president, and Lisa Rieck was nowhere to be seen. And yet she still managed to pump out the following post for Strangely Dim. Back then she was on the other side of the world; these days she's on the other side of the cheddar curtain. Her words still ring true, and the times once again call for them. So read on and get ready.

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A dispatch from Lisa, who is currently holed up in an undisclosed location.

I know we're all sick of political commercials; signs in yards with names and positions in big red, white and blue letters; phone calls and junk mail from candidates; newspaper and magazine articles on the candidates' past sins, present mistakes and whereabouts, and future vacation plans; the latest political poll; and so on. So I'll keep this short.

Conversations with friends and Paul's words about praying for leaders in 1 Timothy 2, as well as wise commentary from N. T. Wright on that same passage, have reminded me, in the midst of all the hullabaloo, that we're called to pray for our leaders. So, whether or not you voted early at the mall, are going to vote on Tuesday and ask for extra stickers to wear throughout the day so that everyone will know you voted, or aren't going to vote at all and didn't even know there was a presidential election this year--start praying.

I admit, it feels like such a small thing to do for an election that will affect nearly every other country in the world. Voting sometimes feels that way. (As a friend recently expressed, in a broken system can my one vote really make any practical difference for people in need? Will broken, sinful people in power really act out of the best interests of others?) But prayer can feel even a step further removed from Washington, D.C., than voting: If I throw up this prayer for our leaders, will God really hear? Will my prayers for our president and other leaders really bring about change in them, in this country?

Many days, if I'm honest, it doesn't feel like a prayer will affect national and global affairs. But as I talked with friends about the election, it struck me what a dangerous position president of the United States is: in our post-Fall world, few men or women can handle that much power and not fall into sin or greed as a result. So even when we feel like our prayers won't make a difference, I'm convinced we must pray for our leaders.

We're commanded to, for one thing. And prayer moves our focus away from the little power we have to the power of the One we pray to: the only true God, the only all-powerful One who really does hold the kingdoms of the world in his hands. If Paul can exhort others to pray for their leaders while imprisoned by members of his own government, surely we can put his words into action.

Here a few suggestions for prayers you can pray for our leaders, whoever they are.

  • Pray for grace to handle the power of their position and wisdom to use that power for the best interests of others, particularly the poor and oppressed.
  • Pray for the wisdom and humility to surround themselves with wise people who will help them handle the power.
  • Pray that they will be good listeners.
  • Pray for their family life.
  • Pray for a heart that is compassionate, that longs to see justice done.
  • Pray for protection from those who would harm them and their families, whether physically or emotionally.

Who knows? As we pray, God may move and empower us to act in some of these areas, to make a difference not for our country or our glory, but for his kingdom and glory.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:44 AM

December 7, 2009

Snow, Snow, Snow

By Lisa Rieck

When I started typing the title of this post, I accidentally typed "Snot" first, which I suppose is appropriate, seeing as how it's often a by-product of snow. As is what I really want to talk about: cleaning off your car in the winter. It's one of my least favorite parts of winter. I've had to scrape the frost off a few times already this winter, but today was the first real snow: the first snow that covered the ground, and the first day I've had to brush snow off of my car. Thankfully for all us poor (in spirit and in money) car-brushers, it was a light snow (never mind all those kiddos out there hoping for some good packing snow), and brushed off easily. But I still didn't like doing it.

I'm realizing, though (this is what too much time in the cold brushing off your car will do), that cleaning off my car is a good metaphor for Advent. (Ha! Take that, Floridians. Your lack of snow is stunting your spirituality.) The metaphor is particularly apt for this second week of Advent, which, as Kimberlee Conway Ireton instructs us in The Circle of Seasons, is the week we're to focus on preparing ourselves for the Savior. She writes: "We as Christians are to be paying attention to God's presence in the world and preparing for Christ's return. . . . That is why we need Advent--it reminds us to pay attention, to be on guard, to keep watch that we might be ready for Christ when he comes again."

The concept of preparing for Christ's second coming has always felt a little vague to me. What does that look like, specifically, aside from the "normal" parts of following Christ? How, in other words, do I learn to be particularly attentive? What types of things should I pay attention to?

Turns out, I think preparing is a lot like scraping the snow and ice off of my car. It's getting rid of all that clouds my vision of myself and the world--all the distractions that keep me from thinking about the true state of my heart, all the temptations that keep me from following hard after Christ. And, to be honest, this spiritual clearing away is about as fun as standing out in the cold brushing snow off of your car. It's messy, and hard. But I'm convinced the only way we can truly grow is by being willing to let God search our heart and tell us what's there.

That's how I'm "celebrating" this week of Advent. I'm asking God to search my heart, to clear away all the pretty snow and show me the hard, cold truth underneath. It's humbling for sure, but I believe it will give me a clearer picture of myself, of God's grace and of myself in light of his grace.

Here's another way I'm celebrating Advent: by fasting from listening to music in my car while I'm driving. I'm trying to use that time to ponder Christ's coming (his first and second coming), and to reorient my thoughts according to Christ's ways, not the world's. Not listening to music does not, of course, mean I'm thinking about Christ. My thoughts still roam all over. I have to deliberately choose to pull my thoughts from the distractions and temptations--to scrape away the frost, if you will--to get to what's underneath my worry, my need to be "productive" (yes, even while driving), my self-absorption. It too is humbling and hard; I'm sad how difficult it is for me to focus my thoughts on Christ during a twenty-five-minute drive. But this effort, this trying, is one more way I can prepare myself for Christ's coming, one more way I can make myself more available for his work of spreading his kingdom on earth.

So, all you cold-weather friends who might be feeling a little unprepared for the coming of winter, let the scraping of frost remind you to prepare for Christ's coming. Brush the snow from your windows and eyes. Wave your ice scrapers in the air. Try not to complain too much. (And don't lick any metal poles, even if someone dares you to. You can never be warned too many times.)

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 12:33 PM | Comments (2) are closed

October 26, 2009

What Genesis Has Made Us

Of all the books in the Bible, I'd say that Genesis has the most capacity to capture the imagination. Genesis features countless stories that get stuck in little kids' heads--Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Sarah, Lot and Sodom, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Jacob and Laban, Joseph and his brothers, Joseph and Pharaoh. All these stories are on every short list for inclusion in every picture Bible ever approved for publication.

But Genesis has proven that it's not just for kids. It's Genesis that keeps the debate raging over whether we emerged out of a primordial soup or were formed by God from the dust of the earth, and whether our planet is thousands or billions of years old. It's Genesis that keeps literary critics interested in the Bible, as they trace back contemporary gender, ethnic and power dynamics to this constitutional epic. Journalists, comedians, artists, musicians, poets, scientists and politicians alike look to Genesis to stimulate their imagination. We are, in a sense, what Genesis has made us.

Of course, all this appropriation of Genesis doesn't mean that everyone reads it the same way; there are seemingly infinite interpretations and biases that Genesis can support. One of the most recent is Robert Crumb's graphic treatment, The Book of Genesis Illustrated. Crumb, an early innovator in underground comix who made his mark with irreverent humor and bodacious body parts (including the notorious Fritz the Cat), has shown his genius in later works both autobiographical and philosophical. R. Crumb's graphic Genesis is generating buzz from the New Yorker to UCLA's Hammer Museum as a shockingly comprehensive and sophisticated interpretation of the first book of the Scriptures.

Crumb grew up a practicing Catholic but left the faith at age sixteen. His participation in the drug culture of the 1960s and 1970s is a reflection of his broader appropriation of the Zeitgeist; his art from that era was cutely anarchic and hedonistic, displaying a sort of existentialism that is more fully acknowledged in his later illustrated introduction to Franz Kafka. His 1978 marriage to Aline Kominsky led to a more focused exploration of Jewish spirituality and worldview, which comes through in Genesis Illustrated.

Crumb is a man of his time, and his interpretation of Genesis is a reflection of that reality. For him, Genesis's God is an angry old man, committing deicide against polytheistic traditions even as he's portrayed creating the world in six days. Genesis is a chronicle of women nurturing the divine feminine in secret while men rule and wreck the world. Genesis is a statement on the way the world works, and a call to humility that's given expression fully and finally in Joseph's merciful treatment of his brothers at the moment of their reconciliation. For all its declarations of the origin of humankind and its Creator, Crumb's Genesis is a treatise on how to live well after God.

Crumb is entitled to his opinion, of course, and while orthodox Christians may find his work unpalatable, his interpretation will take its place at the table with other serious considerations of what Genesis means. That's a good thing: a book as ambitious as Genesis, with as much capacity to capture and shape our imagination, rewards multiple readings and broad conversation. One might argue that God himself invites us to look beyond the God of Genesis. After all, there's plenty more Bible where that came from, and to live well we would benefit from looking similarly toward the God of the exodus, the exile, the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, the Pentecost, the kingdom come.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:22 AM

April 13, 2009

Easter Goes On

Likewise author Kimberlee Conway Ireton has been a gift to us here at Strangely Dim, reminding us that Christianity is a faith practiced in time and space. The subject of her book Circle of Seasons is the church calendar--not the one on the back of your Sunday bulletin but the one that infuses our days and weeks and seasons with meaning. Here's an excerpt from her chapter on Easter, which, apparently, goes on . . .

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The closest I've come to the astonishment of the disciples when they heard the good news of Jesus' resurrection occurred the Easter my son was two. Jack's Sunday school teacher had brought a huge bouquet of helium balloons and let each child choose one to take home. Jack chose red. Proudly and joyfully, he carried his bobbing balloon down the church hallway to the Fellowship Hall, where Doug and I stopped to chat with our associate pastor, Steve, and his wife about our recent visit to Steve's hometown. A few minutes into our conversation, Jack let out a piercing wail. He had let go of his balloon, and it had floated to the top of the Fellowship Hall, some twelve feet above our heads.

"Oh sweetie." I picked Jack up as he began to sob. "That's so sad."

Steve said to Jack, "Hey, pal, don't worry. I'll go get a ladder. We'll get it down."

"No, please," I said. "Please don't. We believe in letting him experience the consequences of his actions."

But Steve had already headed across the Fellowship Hall in search of a ladder. He turned around. "It's Easter, Kimberlee. There are no consequences."

I stared after him, my mouth half-open to voice an objection that died on my lips. Steve got Jack's balloon down, and I hope and pray that deep in his being, my son now knows something it will take me the rest of my life to believe: the resurrection changes everything. Everything. The reality of Easter--Christ risen, death defeated, sins forgiven, evil overcome, no consequences--is so incredible, in the original sense of the word, that it's beyond believable.

This is why I need more than just Easter Day. If Easter were only a single day, I would never have time to let its incredible reality settle over me, settle into me. I would trudge through my life with a disconnect between what I say I believe about resurrection and how I live (or fail to live) my life in light of it. Thanks be to God, our forebears in faith had people like me in mind when they decided we simply cannot celebrate Easter in a single day, or even a single week. No, they decided, we need fifty days, seven Sundays, to even begin to plumb the depths of this event.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 6:38 AM

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

March 6, 2009

In the Meantime

Each week during Lent my church provides a card with a spiritual discipline on it, along with questions and reflections, to help us engage in some specific, intentional practices throughout this church season. Last week the discipline was faith; this week it's mourning. I'm seeing that the two go hand-in-hand.

A friend told me recently she had a hard time moving into Lent, as it seems there is already so much to mourn about; we don't need more suggestions! Indeed, every day a good portion of the news is focused on the economy: unemployment numbers, foreclosure percentages, Wall Street losses, decreasing sales. But most of us don't need the news to tell us we're in a recession; we each feel the crunch in some way, whether it's higher grocery bills or pay cuts or job losses. I imagine that many, many business leaders--as well as thousands of workers all over the country--are lying awake more than ever, wondering if their company, or job, will still be there next week.

The publishing industry has certainly not been immune to the shaky economy. We at InterVarsity Press, like publishers all over, are facing the effects of these uncertain economic times. What do we do? As our publisher, Bob Fryling, encouraged us at an office meeting this week, we work, we pray. We fight to gain perspective.

Bob offered us a "theology of recession," a perspective that, ironically, struck him as he was writing on a theology of growth. I looked up recession in the dictionary, and its first, more general definition is "the act of withdrawing or going back." It strikes me that Lent is a time of intentional recession, a time when we withdraw from some of the normal places and pieces of our lives and go back to the beginning: to the fact that we're made from dust and will return to dust; to the fact that we're sinners in need of grace; to the fact that we're sinners redeemed by grace. Lent gives us perspective on recession.

In this economic crisis, many people have been forced to give up things they loved, to go without anything that isn't an absolute necessity. During Lent, however, many of us choose to give something up, to refrain from using what we have to see who we are without it, to practice restraint, to hear God speak in the stillness and longing. It gives us perspective on what grows when we go without things--whether we chose to give them up or not.

Also in these hard times, many people are mourning--mourning the loss of their job or their house or their retirement. In Lent, though, we participate in a different type of mourning, not over material loss but over our own sin and the ways it separates us from God. And as we sit in this deeper sadness, we realize the significance of eternal grace and reconciliation with God--a relationship that can't be taken from us. We're also reminded that the God who would give up his own Son to save us still cares that deeply for us now and will be faithful to meet our deepest needs.

In Psalm 39 David asks a helpful question, one that's good for us to ask in these days of mourning: "What am I doing in the meantime, Lord?" (The Message). In this economic recession we work and we pray. And in this season of Lent we sit and we pray. Both recessions bring opportunities for growth in our faith in God, which is what the Holy Spirit loves to bring about in us. As we pray, as we mourn, the Holy Spirit works. And, in the meantime, as he works we gain perspective so that we can answer with David: "Hoping, that's what I'm doing--hoping."
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 8:03 AM

March 2, 2009

My Chocolat Dilemma

We're in the season of Lent. Here's my problem: I found myself this year completely unprepared for it. I'm supposed to give something up, right? Chocolate, coffee, wine, television . . . I've done it all before. Last year, because letting go of just one thing didn't seem "big enough," I gave up the trifecta: coffee, chocolate and television (well, except for the news). But this year I've been somewhat at a loss.


I like Lent. I need its solemnity to bring me back to center, to Christ's suffering on my behalf and to my deep need of his grace. I also like chocolate (shocking, I know). So, of course I love the movie Chocolat, especially at this time of year--because the story takes place during Lent, and chocolate gets a lot of screen time. In between the shots of this luscious, tempting, dark, edible silk is a story of an entire town which, above all else, strives for a life of tranquilité.

 

Of course, this is a façade. No town is really as tranquil as this one strives to appear, and this little village is ruled more by fear than by anything else. No one steps out of line. Discipline seems to rule. Everyone wears muted colors and black--right down to the women's shoes. Everyone attends church and participates in the Lenten fast. No one appears to have any fun at all, ever. In fact, one sweet old man for many long years has remained silent about his love for a woman in the village. He doesn't want to rock the boat. With perhaps one or two exceptions, no one does.

 

Just as Lent comes upon the village, the north wind drives a strange woman and her daughter into town, bearing with them strange, atheist ways and gorgeous, sensuous, sinful chocolate. These strangers don't trace the same grain in the wood: the woman wears red shoes; they open a chocolaterie during the Lenten fast--high treason as far as the mayor is concerned. The villagers seem like deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car, simultaneously startled and paralyzed. They band together out of fear, but, I think, they privately begin to hope a little for some freedom.

 

Now, there are many things that can be taken away from this movie. But, as the Lenten season moves forward, two observations in particular have impacted my decision about this year's Lenten season.

 

First, for this village, appearance is everything. The people are compelled to live the way they do more by the steel-toed boot of their mayor than by personal conviction. Unrequited love, abusive relationships, thwarted childhood, failed marriages--all of these things lie beneath the surface, but no one acknowledges them. The town is tranquil on the surface, but no one is allowed to be human! They are miserable, but they won't admit it.

 

Second, the woman, who seems so free from what she considers useless, needless tradition and restriction, is herself trapped by the expectations placed on her by her deceased mother (whose ashes she carries with her wherever she goes). The nomadic life she shares with her daughter, while exotic from the outside, is an isolated one. She is lonely. She is as afraid to be herself, as bound by tradition, as the people she has come to liberate.

 

The characters of Chocolat remind me of how easy it is to become entrenched by the familiar, to allow the doing of things to obscure the reasons for doing them. Observing Lent is an important part of the Christian spiritual journey, and giving up things that give us pleasure has value. However, there are things about Lent that frustrate me, and this may be the real reason why "giving something up" can seem so trivial. Each of us could give up everything for the next forty days, but without the pain of real honesty--about our individual and corporate sin, about our flawed, shared humanness--we miss the boat. Fasting can become a façade.

 

So, this year, Lent is different for me. Rather than trying to just give something up, I've decided to add one or two things: sharing with friends about our Lenten path; reading Scripture more often; confessing more freely; journaling more frequently; forgiving more fully. Lent as a season offers a time in which these things, and more, might perhaps be contemplated and practiced more deliberately and carefully than the rest of the year. Perhaps as we fill our lives up with them, the rest will give way to the humanness that Christ's sacrifice frees us to embrace.

 

Posted by Christa Countryman at 2:27 PM | Comments (1) are closed | TrackBack (0)

February 23, 2009

For the Love of Lent

Last night I gathered with others from my church for our annual Solemn Assembly to confess my sin individually and corporately; to have ashes placed on my forehead as a reminder that the cost of sin is death, and that I am finite and dependent on the Creator who formed us from the dust of the earth; to hear words of truth spoken from the Bible about who I am, about sins I'm guilty of; to pray the Jesus prayer as so many saints before have:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

It's a service that called us to name our sin, to sit for a little while in the raw, ugly fact that we are sinners who have turned from God, doing what we want to do instead of what we know he wants us to do. It felt awkward, uncomfortable, unfamiliar, sitting with others I know, pondering my own sin, identifying with each other for a while not as the friends and ministry partners and small group members we are, the roles that usually define our interactions with each other--but as fellow sinners.

This, however, was not a wallowing service. It was solemn, yes, because it was serious, because sin is serious. But after we sat with our sin, after we asked Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for mercy--then we received that mercy anew. We shared in Communion, celebrating Christ's painful death and victorious resurrection on our behalf, taking it in as the free gift of God that it is. And we recommitted ourselves to living as the people of God--as sinners redeemed, as new creations in whom Christ dwells--in a hurting, broken, sinful world.

Lent, which begins on Wednesday, has become a significant time of year for me. Yet it can often feel unfamiliar or mysterious, depending on the tradition you've grown up in or depending on where you're at in your faith. Indeed, it is unfamiliar because it's so countercultural; it goes against our efforts to appear good, our perfectionistic tendencies, our desires to keep our minds on happy, uplifting topics. Lament and sin are not on any "conversation-starter lists" for first dates or parties. We don't discuss them in the hallways at work or on the train during our morning commute. We don't like to feel bad about ourselves and recognize our sinfulness, both of which usually occur during Lenten services like the one I attended last night.

But Lent as I am coming to see it is not about judging ourselves, grinding ourselves down into the dirt until we can't even get off the floor for the shame of the sins we've committed. It is, rather, a time set aside to give us perspective, to correct our vision of ourselves and the world that may have tilted to the "we can't help it that we sin" side through the year, to remind us that the world is not as it was meant to be and not as it will always be, and, above all, to help us better celebrate and understand what Christ has done. We can't really feel grateful for Christ's suffering until we understand that we are the ones who deserved to suffer. We can't understand the significance of his sacrifice until we accept the seriousness of our own sin.

In this context, then, Lent becomes not just about sin, but about the juxtaposition of sin and mercy: a confession of lust is forgiven with love; an acknowledgment of anger is answered with grace; a group of deserters has their feet washed by the One who knows they'll desert him.

So, whether you've been observing Lent for years or haven't heard of it till today, I invite you to do something to observe it, beginning on Wednesday. You might consider simply giving up something that keeps you from spending time with God, or that keeps you from seeing the truth of who he is.

You could also observe Lent with us at Likewise books. Tamara Park, author of Sacred Encounters from Rome to Jerusalem and relatively new to observing Lent herself, will send out a short email each week with a reflection and questions as well as a song, Scripture and image to keep in mind as you go through your days. These emails can help you take stock of your spiritual state and give you space for sacred encounters of your own. If you want to receive Tamara's emails during Lent, simply email us at likewise@ivpress.com and put "Lenten Sacred Encounter" on the subject line.

Kimberlee Conway Ireton, author of The Circle of Seasons, can serve as a Lent guide for you too. She explains the background and practices of Lent for you in chapter five of her book, as well as gives simple suggestions for Lenten observances that can make it a significant period of discovery for you. In addition, she's written and posted family devotions for each day of Lent at her website. Just click on "Resources" to find the guide.

Yet another option (aren't we helpful??) is to join Dave on his personal blog where, starting Wednesday, he'll be posting daily readings from his latest book, Deliver Us from Me-Ville--a particularly apt topic for the season.

Lent, admittedly, takes work. But it's work that is so necessary for our growth in Christ. As I walked from the parking lot to my office building this morning, the sidewalk gave me a clear--though unglamorous--picture of the essence of this season of the church year. There, alongside the white, unmarred snow that fell this weekend, lay a pile of geese poop. The juxtaposition of Lent is that stark as well: we see our ugly, unglamorous sin next to Christ's saving grace, our embarrassing messiness beside God's deep mercy. Starting Wednesday, let's name and sit in and walk through our sin together--that we might know in even deeper ways the gift of having that dirty sin become clean like untouched snow.
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 10:05 AM | Comments (3) are closed

January 30, 2009

The Goodness of Slowness

Monday, as you may know, is Groundhog Day. (Or, as my desk calendar says, "Ground Hog Day," which, it seems to me, would be a very different sort of holiday--more of a Spam Fest day. Which is just gross.) So on Monday, people (weatherpeople and newscasters? I'm not sure who attends this august affair) will gather around the hole of Phil, "the only true weathercasting groundhog," in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to see if he sees his shadow. If he does, most of Chicago will dig their own holes and cry for the next six weeks. If he doesn't, spring will come early (Joy! Rapture!).

Now, don't get me wrong. I actually like living in a place that has four distinct seasons. But about this time of year (or, in the case of this particular year, about a month ago), I'm ready for spring. You can only scrape ice off your car in the dark in below-zero temperatures a certain number of times before you start to feel like you're going to throw up. (You don't throw up, of course, because whatever you ate is now frozen inside your stomach, but the gag reflex kicks in.)

So I'm thinking of taking a little trip to PA this weekend, to have a little chat with Phil. Nothing overly serious, of course. Just some encouragement and cheerleading (Phil! Phil! He's our groundhog! If he can't do it--we might have to hurt him), maybe a little sweet talk to make sure he understands the urgency of not seeing his shadow--or, if he thinks he will see his shadow, the importance of not coming out at all. (If groundhog no come out, groundhog no see shadow.)

I'm realizing that that's my approach to many situations. I admit it: I'm a control freak. And I love tangible progress. I mean, I really love it. I crave it. I start to suffocate without--okay, you get the point. So when things don't seem to be moving along as quickly as I'd like--or, say, when winter is dragging on and on and on and on--I get tempted to "help," just to speed things up a little.

And then a few weeks ago I read these words from 1 Peter: "But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (3:8-9). To be honest, the verses make me a little testy. I'd like to ask Peter how else I'm supposed to understand slowness, other than what I know. Slowness is slowness, as in, it's not fast. I don't know any other way to understand it!! And thanks for the reminder that, for all I know, in God's timeless mind frame, we in the Midwest haven't even had a whole day of winter yet! I feel the gag reflex kicking in.

I know Peter is talking about Christ's return and the salvation of humans in verses 8 and 9, but the principles about God are true of other circumstances: his view of time is very different from ours, and he is more than willing to take his sweet time--as long as it takes, in fact--to teach us something until we know it, until it transforms us to be a little more like his Son. The thing is, it feels virtually impossible in our instant-gratification culture to understand the goodness of slowness, to be patient with the process and see how much we can grow in it. So, when I pray about something--a friend's discouragement, a student's pain, a marriage I know of that's not doing well--I expect to see: something. And if I don't, though I might keep praying, I'll brainstorm ways I can "help" God along. In a few cases, I have stopped praying and instead cried out to God in anger at his seeming slowness in helping. And then I assigned myself the responsibility of caring for the person (because obviously I can do a better job).

The problem with my system--okay, the multiple problems with my system--are that (a) God loves the person infinitely more than I ever could, (b) he knows them infinitely better than I ever could, and (c) he's infinitely wiser than I will ever be. So trying to take their growth into my own hands without waiting on God may actually hinder them from learning what he wants them to learn and hearing him speak.

The past few months have been a lesson in humility and trust--trusting God to take care of others and move in their lives at the time and pace that he knows is best. It's hard, but I'm learning the value of waiting on the Lord for others--of committing people to him consistently and then discerning whether and in what way he wants to use me to help them. Just in the past few months, as I'm learning to wait, God has given me the gracious gift of seeing and hearing (from their mouths) his work in others--the perfect ways he's leading them without my "help." These glimpses help me trust him a little more each time I see them.

Though I'm certainly not cured of my ways, I'm already seeing how much pressure this takes off. I don't have to figure out how to help others and move them along; I can simply be free to love them without judging their "progress," to encourage them to keep listening to God, to celebrate with them as they share what he's doing.

I can see that this lesson I'm learning is part of his good, slow work in me right now. And I guess in this case, I can be glad for his view of time, because even if it takes me a thousand days to grasp this humility and trust--he might still think I'm a fast learner.
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 2:51 PM | Comments (1) are closed

December 24, 2008

So This Is Advent--And What Have We Done?

And in despair I bowed my head
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men."

--From the carol "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 10:46 AM

December 10, 2008

The Sins of the Author Are Visited on the Editor

Sometimes when you edit a book, particularly a book of nonfiction and especially a book of Christian nonfiction, you get the feeling that the author has been spying on you. Call me a megalomaniac, but I had that experience today. What follows is a lightly edited pair of paragraphs from a draft manuscript for an as-yet unscheduled, untitled book:

I am an ENFP. If you know the Myers-Briggs personality types, you know that the ENFP is the easily distractible, often zany, poor at follow-through, overly dramatic personality type who speaks in run-on sentences and is apparently personified in the character Ariel from Disney's The Little Mermaid, which is weird because my college Spanish teacher suggested I take the name Ariel since words that begin with the "s" sound are nonexistent in Spanish and ... See what I mean?

There are numerous aspects of this personality type which make us very poor tyrants. Namely, we are too obsessed with being liked. Add to this the fact that I am a nine on the Enneagram (another personality measuring tool based on your chief sin), and dictatorial leadership becomes nearly impossible. The nine on the Enneagram struggles with sloth, or the need to avoid. In other words, that sound the car is making will probably go away if you just stop listening to it and those complaints about your supervisee will work themselves out eventually if you pretend they don't exist. Nines on the Enneagram have given us such memorable leaders as Dan Quayle and Gerald Ford. No, not the guy who mass-produced the automobile; the U.S. president Rolling Stone magazine called the most forgettable since Millard Fillmore (Millard who?).

I am an ENFP and a nine on the Enneagram who ignores noises in the vain hope that they'll resolve themselves and is mildly obsessed with being liked. The only thing about these paragraphs that I don't identify with myself is the stuff about Spanish class and The Little Mermaid. I think perhaps my phone has been bugged.

It's one thing when something you read that reminds you of yourself is objectively positive--for example, "ENFPs can make friends with pretty much anyone." Ah, that's nice. But that's not what this author is doing here. My dear author is being confessional, and he's implicating me in his confession. How dare he?!?

That's a hidden value of confession, I think. It has a corporate aspect to it that is often overlooked--sometimes even on purpose. When people hear statements that cut a little too close to the bone, they often quickly distance themselves from it: "You're right. I like being liked as much as anyone, but you're crazy about it. You should lighten up." The degree to which a personal confession takes on a corporate life, however, is the degree to which it is prophetic.

I'm reminded of Isaiah's confession in the presence of the Lord seated on the throne: "Woe unto me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips." If I had been within earshot of Isaiah, I most likely would have said something equally pious such as "Hold the phone, Isaiah! Speak for yourself!" But he was right, and there's no sense denying it once it's out there. Behold the power of confession: it opens the door for a community to better understand itself and its need for the grace and mercy of God.

Confession also, of course, alerts the community to the reality of God's grace and mercy, which is a nice side effect. At my church we offer a corporate prayer of confession, followed by a time of silent confession, followed by the passing of the Lord's peace. We wind up being the hands of Jesus for each other, speaking the words of Jesus to each other--"Peace be with you"--in the immediate wake of our acknowledging our failings in the company of one another. Behold the power of a community of faith: in case you forget, you're reminded that God is love, and sins are forgiven.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 2:45 PM | Comments (1) are closed

December 9, 2008

The Art of the Approach

We're well into Advent by now, and my pastor is preaching his way through the nativity story. This past Sunday was the juxtaposition of Herod and the Magi: the Magi, who entered Jerusalem in a flurry asking Herod, in effect, to "take me to your leader," whom they were fully prepared to worship; and Herod, who immediately set into motion a plot to assassinate whatever upstart might cause them to kneel.

A big part of the sermon had to do with our posture before God. We picture the villains of the nativity story with arms crossed, perhaps pacing to and fro, fretting over this new threat. But we picture the heroes of the story as kneeling, mostly because we're told by the Scriptures that they knelt. There's something about how we approach God that reveals where we're really at, I suppose.

Then again, if you kneel before a baby, does the baby even get it? My friend Andrew told me yesterday that his toddler son was a last-minute cast as Jesus in his church's nativity play. When the wise men bowed before him, he didn't know what to do, so he bowed back at them. Everybody laughed because nobody had really thought how Jesus--fully divine, yes, but also fully baby-like--would react to a bunch of strange men genuflecting before him in worship. I'm reminded of a post from about two years ago in which I tried to make sense, for myself at least, of the notion of finite beings approaching an infinitely approachable God. I repeat it here for your own sanctitainment.

***

January 26, 2007

What?

I recently had a long and perplexing conversation with some friends about what it means to have a "personal relationship with God." You know you've been hanging out exclusively with evangelicals for far too long when you don't get what's so weird about that phrase. This is, after all, God we're talking about--"Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen." As one friend of mine put it: "There's six billion people in the world. What kind of meaningful relationship can anybody have with that many people?"

Still, I feel very strongly that God does in fact relate personally to us. The idea that he has so many of us to relate to doesn't freak me out so much; I'm pretty comfortable with God's infinitude, which I imagine brings with it a much higher threshold for exhaustion and exasperation. Similarly, the idea that God is personal--not just some uber-ooze that keeps everything going--is a basic tenet of my beliefs.

Nevertheless, we bring a lot of baggage with us to a phrase like "personal relationship with God." Our understanding of who God is affects our approach: Is God the author of evil? Is God impotent or indifferent in the face of evil? Is God likeable, impressive, praiseworthy, approachable?

Our understanding of what comes with a personal relationship affects our take on the idea too. If I've been hurt over and over again in my personal relationships, the last thing I might want is to get personal with someone who controls the weather and steers comets. If my personal relationships have been with really boring people, I might imagine a personal relationship with an infinite being as infinitely boring. I might take my worst experience in personal relationships and expand it to a cosmic level, and decide that I'd rather do without, thank you very much.

I think, however, that I would then be oversimplifying things. A personal relationship is not reducible to one thing: my friend may be boring, but he donated me his kidney. Your friend may spit when she talks and chew with her mouth open, but she knows all your secrets and cries with you every time you get hurt. He may be heavy, but he's your brother.

That kind of complexity extends infinitely when you start talking about a personal relationship with God. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Eventually, God created me, along with the six billion people surrounding me and the various billions who went before me. Because of God I have a body and a brain; because of God I'm able to wonder whether a personal relationship with God is even remotely possible.

If a relationship with God is anything, it's complex. Sometimes it helps me to sort through how we relate to God by reading, of all things, 1 Kings 1:

Bathsheba went to see the aged king in his room, where Abishag the Shunammite was attending him. Bathsheba bowed low and knelt before the king.

Bathsheba is David's wife--the most intimate human relationship we can envision. She's also his subject--he's her king. He's also her only hope--the only person, in this context, who can keep her and her son from dying at the hands of a wicked prince. So she enters into conversation with him in this weird mix of boldness, humility, reverence and desperation. It's complicated.

It's funny to me that David's response to her entering is "What do you want?" That's a really colloquial, really earthy picture: not a king receiving a queen, not a tyrant deciding whether he will indulge or behead this upstart unannounced guest, but an old married guy who long ago dispensed with all pretense when it comes to relating to his wife. For Bathsheba, this is a complicated encounter; for David, it's a simple question: "What?"

In this picture, as I see it, David's a metaphor for God, and Bathsheba is a metaphor for the rest of us: participants in a ridiculously lopsided, complicated relationship that nonetheless puts us in an unbelievably privileged position. We approach God juggling these various ways of understanding who we're approaching, and God simply looks at us and says, "What?"

 

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:09 AM

November 25, 2008

Good News for Short Attention Spans

Pity the poor seminarian, forced to articulate the totality of Christianity in a carefully worded, highly scrutinized document. I occasionally go to a regional meeting for my denomination where candidates for ordination have to stand there while a room full of people read their faith statements and then saunter up to a central microphone to tell them what's wrong with it. The lines of each faith statement are numbered for the convenience of reading and, more important, confronting: "I think it's wonderful that on line seven you speak so movingly of the love of God, but can you help me understand how, on line eight, you contend that this loving God willfully punishes people eternally for something so minor as failing to believe in his Son?" This litany of back-handed compliments and theological posturing is sufferable only because it's so perfunctory; I've yet to attend such a meeting where the doctrinal hazing wasn't followed immediately by unanimous approval of ordination.

The statement of faith is, some might say, an artifact of modernity. They're inheritors of the creedal tradition, when communities of faith would gather and come to consensus about what God had revealed about himself, his creation and his purposes. Such creeds would then be returned to the faith communities, where they would be declared in unison as part of the service. I grew up reciting the Nicene Creed week after week after week, and never once did someone saunter up to a microphone and argue for or against including a comma in line four.

But statements of faith have served as much to distinguish communities of faith as to unite them. They're invitations to an argument, a shot across the bow of other denominations or organizations to confront perceived slippage in the integrity of the Christian faith. They get longer and longer, with more and more numbers for ease of reading and, more important, for ease of shredding. And they're required for seminary graduation, the theological equivalent of requiring someone to stand on a firing range wearing a T-shirt with a bull's-eye on it.

One countertrend to such carefully crafted documents as the statement of faith is Twitter, a forum for communicating random information in 140 characters or less. A few theologians in the Presbymergent community, most notably Adam Walker Cleaveland and Shawn Coons, have taken up the challenge of twittering their faith: stating clearly and concisely how they perceive the heart of Christianity. You can check out the growing pool of entries here.

I like the idea of twittering your faith; it's not only a good challenge to say what you believe in as few words possible, it's a good exercise to do so and then get on with your day, which presumably is an outworking of what you've just twittered. And even beyond that, to declare your faith in a forum that is necessarily ephemeral--each Twitter entry will soon enough be replaced by the next, potentially something as mundane as "stuck in traffic"--is to acknowledge that we are finite and incomplete, that we're still growing in our appreciation of a faith that precedes us by millennia and will extend far beyond us, even to the end of the age.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:36 AM

September 2, 2008

I Got the Music in Me

Last week several of us around Likewise Books participated in a little experiment, inspired by the fine folks at Word Made Flesh. Each of us would pick a song that we would listen to exclusively for an entire workday. Then we would blog about the experience--what, if anything, we discovered about the song, our workplace, our coworkers or ourselves. Keep an eye out here for those posts. This one is mine.

I chose the song "The Transfiguration," from the album Seven Swans by Sufjan Stevens. I've come to think of myself, culturally if not doctrinally, as a "Sufjangelical," a term which I'm proud to say appears only once (probably now twice) on the entire Internet. Sufjan, you're welcome; please drop the restraining order now.

A Sufjangelical, as I define it, is an otherwise orthodox Christian who likes his or her faith the same way avant-garde pop musician Sufjan Stevens likes his music: quirky, multi-textured, playful yet melancholy. An example of Sufjan's complexity shrouded in simplicity comes from the song "Kasmir Pulaski Day": "Tuesday night at the Bible study, we lift our hands and pray over your body. But nothing ever happens." One- or two-syllable words paint a simple picture that evokes sadness and perplexity, disillusionment and yet hope. And that doesn't even take into account the music.

But that song is not this song. In "The Transfiguration" Sufjan is more arcane, more ethereal, as he recounts the story of "when [Jesus] took the two disciples to the mountainside to pray; his countenance was modified, his clothing was aflame." This scene from the Gospels is a seminal moment in Jesus' earthly ministry, when the curtain was pulled all the way back and Christ revealed his glory and the fulfillment of the Scriptures that was taking place in him. The disciples were dumbstruck and comforted only when the transfiguration ended. Then they went down the mountain and everything, for a time at least, returned to normal.

But that story is not this story. "The Transfiguration" is captivating, a fitting song to listen to for eight hours straight. It's a simple rhythm--cyclical, really--that builds by instrumentation and voice as the story progresses. The melody has no real resting point, so that the end blends nicely into the beginning; the first word, when, sung on the third tone of the scale, carries the feel of an interruption, something overheard unexpectedly.

The song is in a waltz rhythm, strummed on a banjo at the start as an indication of an everyman out for an everywalk with a couple of everyfriends. Gradually, as the mystical event unfolds, voices and instruments are added, all of which carry a youthful, minstrel quality. One tinny horn plays a repeated riff; several childlike voices sing along in a unison chorus that dances back and forth between lyrics: "Lost in the cloud, a voice [a sign]: Have no fear! Turn your ear [we draw near]!" Jesus is identified in the chorus as Son of Man, Son of God, Lamb of God, in case the onlookers and overhearers weren't aware of his identity.

The song is like a dance, and--especially when played in an eight-hour loop--the song is like an eternity. Often we hear or even sing the words of "Amazing Grace"--"When we've been there ten-thousand years bright shining as the sun, we've no less days to sing God's praise than when we'd first begun"--and the faintest hint of a distressing thought might creep into our consciousness: Oh, I hope not! That sounds dreadful! But when we overhear eternity sung, when we look on while mourning is turned into dancing, the thought of ceaseless praise starts to make sense and even entice the imagination.  

I hereby apologize to my coworkers for repeating the same 3-4 minutes of music some 135 times last week. Fortunately for them, "The Transfiguration" is not a whistling song, or someone might have lost it. This song won a friend and (now former) colleague of mine over to Sufjangelicalism when he first heard it, and he now counts it among the quintessential examples of what Christian music ought to resemble, and for good reason: here is theology faithfully presented, grounded in Scripture, presented in story, intended for dance. Here is a moment in time that transcended time, some two thousand years later set to a rhythm that doesn't constrain it but sets it free. Eight hours later, I still love it, and I still love Jesus. Not bad for a banjo, a tinny horn and some quirky musicians.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:00 AM

June 13, 2008

You're Invited

Invitations are a funny thing. In the past few months, I've received formal wedding invitations, Facebook invitations to events and groups, and invitations to meals through email or in conversations.

I think for all of us, any invitation inevitably evokes a gut reaction: excitement, feeling honored and loved, nervousness, panic, dread, or a complicating mixture of these emotions. (If you're like me, you may also experience an emotion about your reaction--so, for instance, if you don't want to accept, you feel guilty that you don't want to go and badly that your reluctance overshadows the joy you should be feeling about the event. If you're not like me in this way, be thankful. It's exhausting.)

After the gut reaction, we start to form expectations surrounding the event. If the invitation allows us to be with and celebrate close friends, for example, we'll most likely look forward to it. If, however, we're only distantly connected to the inviter, we may feel nervous about being with people we don't know well (this is particularly terrifying for introverts). If the event will complicate our life significantly--whether financially with travel and gift expenses, or time-wise if it interferes with other responsibilities--we may feel overwhelmed at the thought of figuring out the details.

Whatever the event and whatever our reaction to the invitations we receive, three things are true: First, we have some kind of connection (however minor) with the person doing the inviting. The fact that we received an invitation from someone means they know we exist, they must not hate us (and in fact, probably like us!), and they believe our presence would add to the event. Second, in general the inviter is planning something they think will benefit or bless us, their guest; they hope we leave feeling like the event was worth our time and enjoyable. And third, we have to make a choice about whether or not we'll accept.

Invitations are on my mind because I've been copyediting a manuscript on group spiritual direction this week and am meeting with my own director this week. And spiritual direction has a lot to do with invitations. God, if you didn't know, is a great inviter. He loves to send us invitations every day.

When I sense his call--when I actually stop and still myself long enough to listen for and hear his invitation to me--I have a gut reaction, an expectation. Sometimes his invitation is to something so good that it causes me to marvel at his care. Other times what he's inviting me to looks so scary that I can't imagine saying yes. How I respond is up to me.

I've said no to God's invitations. And when it really comes down to it, my "no's" come out of my lack of faith in who he is; I get suspicious of his motives. Why are you inviting me, God? And why to that?

But when I accept his invitations, I see every time how good he is, how pure his motives and desires for me are, even when what he calls me to is hard or different than what I expected. Each time I say yes, I trust a little more that every invitation of his to me is all good, for my good, that I might know and live into and exclaim how good he is.

Today, tomorrow, next Wednesday, in the midst of my hope and fear, God offers me invitations if I will be still and listen: invitations to come to him, to rest in him, to serve in ways and places that fit who he's created me to be. He's inviting you too. We can help each other choose to say yes. Who knows? We might find ourselves at the same celebration.
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 1:54 PM | Comments (1) are closed

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

December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas

Jesus is our childhood's pattern;
day by day, like us he grew;
he was little, weak, and helpless,
tears and smiles like us he knew;
and he feeleth for our sadness,
and he shareth in our gladness.
--Cecil Frances Alexander “Once in Royal David’s City,” verse 3

We all live off his generous bounty,
gift after gift after gift.
We got the basics from Moses,
and then this exuberant giving and receiving,
This endless knowing and understanding—
all this came through Jesus, the Messiah.
No one has ever seen God,
not so much as a glimpse.
This one-of-a-kind God-Expression,
who exists at the very heart of the Father,
has made him plain as day.
--John 1:16-18, The Message

And our eyes at last shall see him,
through his own redeeming love;
for that chlid so dear and gentle
is our Lord in heaven above;
and he leads his children on
to the place where he is gone.
--Cecil Frances Alexander “Once in Royal David’s City,” verse 4

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:07 AM

December 18, 2007

I Can See My Breath

You'll forgive me, I hope, for not resting merry this Christmas. Frankly, this year's Christmas season has been the most stressful one I can remember. Granted, I have a bad memory, but I also have a shockingly great number of Christmases under my burgeoning belt.

This Christmas I don't have a Christmas tree, either inside or outside the house. Last year we had both: shortly after Thanksgiving we hacked down a tree to stick in our living room, and my neighbors got the cockamamie idea that everyone should prop up and decorate a tree in their front yard. My outdoor tree fell over three or four times a day, so this year I opted out of the opt-in neighborhood tradition. The spartan decor inside our house, on the other hand, was not entirely up to us. We're in the middle of a garage rebuilding gone horribly wrong, and our contractor's offer to put the contents of our garage--complete with every weapon in our Christmas decorating arsenal--in storage seemingly morphed into a hostage crisis with no ransom demands. We had no idea where, when, in what condition or even if we'll ever see our garagestuff again. And so, in the short term, no Christmas decorations for us.

Even if we had gotten a tree, we wouldn't have had any place to put it. As a result of a wood floor installation gone horribly wrong, we've been twice displaced from our living room, along with all our living room furniture. The tree would have simply gotten in the way. We caved and bought one of those tabletop neon Lite-Brite tree things that look like (but, despite the best efforts of our cats, don't taste like) real trees suffering a radioactive blast. But apart from that synthetic surrogate, no Christmas tree for us.

In short, this year all my traditions surrounding Christmas have been turned on their head. I'm off my game, I freely confess. My back hurts from moving all my furniture not once, not twice but three times. My voice hurts from the repeated phone calls to not one but two contractors. My wallet hand hurts from all the debit card swipes and home improvement invoices. My head hurts from keeping all these projects moving forward without failing my responsibilities or alienating my relationships along the way. My heart hurts from all the resultant stress and from the aching suspicion that Christmas is a burden not worth bearing. Tis certainly not, to my mind, the season to be jolly.

I'm not a terribly sentimental person. I prefer to think of myself as revolutionary: I'm generally more inclined to complain about traditions as barriers to progress than to celebrate them as something significant. And yet this year I find that I'm missing the traditions that I've had to forgo--even those traditions that I've grumbled about in the past.

In the midst of all this tradition angst I came across a passage from Thomas Merton in his New Seeds of Contemplation. Merton has been an essential guide as I've worked on my forthcoming book Deliver Us from Me-Ville. And in this instance he's once again cut through the morass of my morosity and floated an idea I find positively illuminating:

There is only one living doctrine in Christianity. The whole truth of Christianity has been fully revealed: it has not yet been fully understood or fully lived. . . . The constant human tendency away from God and away from this living tradition can only be counteracted by a return to tradition, a renewal and a deepening of the one unchanging life that was infused into the Church at the beginning.

And yet this tradition must always be a revolution because by its very nature it denies the values and standards to which human passion is so powerfully attached. . . .This is the most complete revolution that has ever been preached; in fact, it is the only true revolution, because all the others demand the extermination of somebody else, but this one means the death of the man who, for all practical purposes, you have come to think of as your own self.


In the Christian faith, for Merton, revolution is to tradition what exhaling is to inhaling--a dynamic that is as essential to our lives as it is transforming. We are what we breathe in, but what we breathe in must also be breathed out or we will die. Tradition toxifies when it is infected with traditionalism: a sentimental fondness for sameness perhaps best characterized by the mass-market Christmas decorations available at a store near you. Merton compares it to barnacles on the hull of a ship: they're inevitable to any ship worth sailing, but you'd better have a plan for scraping them off.

Scraping off those barnacles, however, is its own burden. My tradition angst this season is perhaps better characterized as revolution fatigue--sour grapes at the effortless decorating of my friends and neighbors that's translated into a general cynicism about the holiday. Thinking of Christmas as solely an occasion for people to stores to move product and people to hoard more and more junk has left me in a perpetual state of grinchiness. Having no markers of my own to remind me of the sacredness of the holiday is wearing me down.

I'm tired of not thinking about the tradition of Christmas--not the decorations per se but their significance. Through the tradition of Christmas the Christian church remembers that God so loved the world that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us.

What I'm discovering in this week before the holiday is that I need to catch my breath. I'm all exhaled out. Fortunately, through the witness of people like Merton, my family, my coworkers, my friends--and ultimately by the grace of God--I can see my breath this Christmas, and I'm reminded once again that I was made to breathe in and breathe out.

Merry Christmas from Strangely Dim. May you have a breathless--and breathful--holiday season.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:27 AM | Comments (2) are closed

December 5, 2007

The Bigness of the Small

I'm still trying to process my trip to Cambodia last month, to know all that I am supposed to know and remember right now, trusting that what is supposed to become clear later--maybe in a month, or a year--will. My trip, as missions trips and other cultures are wont to do, sparked so many ideas and thoughts that I want to process with you, Strangely Dim readers, who have shown yourselves willing to wait as strangely dim thoughts become clearer, coherent, practical, applicable.

The idea looming large in my mind right now is, ironically, small. The bigness of the small, that is.

I went to Cambodia to coteach an editing seminar. That was the task, simply stated but not, of course, simply executed.

At the end of the first day of our seminar, Elaina (my coworker and coteacher) and I were

Discouraged.
Disheartened.
Disappointed.
Dismayed.
(Etc.).

Pretty much all the difficulties of teaching editing through a translator became evident. We realized we weren't going to be able to use much of what we had prepared to be translated ahead of time, and there wasn't time to have anything else translated. I felt stuck and defeated, and the week was just starting. At the beginning of the second day, I cried.

I just want to point out that I did not cry at the end of the second day, when I opened my suitcase to find very small ants crawling around in it. Small ants in a suitcase, if you didn't know, are a big deal. But I did cry that Tuesday morning out of frustration and disappointment. I couldn't help the missionaries and Cambodians. I couldn't do the task I had been brought to do. I wouldn't be useful to God.

I can tell you that the next three days went much better, thanks to truly God-given inspiration about exercises to try. And I can tell you that Steve, the missionary we went to help, was very encouraged about the work our team did. The fact is, though, that three weeks removed from that day, I don't really know what our students took away from our editing seminar. We had no tangible way of measuring what our students learned.

And to be completely honest, in a country that has seen so much death and torture and despair, teaching a few editing principles to a handful of would-be editors seems so small. Cambodians need food and clean water and AIDS care and help getting out of the sex-trafficking industry. I was tempted at points to believe an editing seminar--particularly one taught through a translator--couldn't be useful at all.

But who am I to say what Cambodia needs? Who am I to judge what's useful to God or not? On Monday evening Steve reminded us that God's work in Cambodia is a big puzzle--say 5,000 pieces. Our work there, his family's work there for seventeen years, the work of his staff at their publishing company, are pieces of that puzzle--or maybe not even full pieces; maybe just work toward another piece of the puzzle. But all are useful and important and necessary in God's plans for Cambodia.

And who's to say teaching people to edit was my main task anyway? Maybe my job, my piece, was even smaller; maybe the role Elaina and I served in teaching our seminar was simply being foreigners. Not many Cambodians would have attended an editing class taught by a fellow Cambodian, but after a week of observing the leadership role Steve's editor Savy took in our class, the students we had may start to trust her knowledge and experience.

I read Ephesians 3:20-21 while in Cambodia. I've always been sure that God doing "more than all we ask or imagine" means that God's power and wisdom and work are more than we could ever fathom. But now I'm sure that it also means God, with his all-knowing, all-wise perspective and his limitless ability, can use efforts, words, lesson plans that to us seem so small, in bigger ways than we can ever imagine. Jesus did it often. "Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish," Andrew said to Jesus in John 6 when a large crowd needed to be fed, "but how far will they go among so many?" I can tell you that no one left hungry that day.

Three weeks ago I gave my small offerings in Cambodia. How far will they go? I don't know. I'm tempted even now, as I so frequently am when I offer something to God and others, to say "Not very far." But during and since my time in Cambodia, God has been doing some type of healing in me, growing a small, fighting piece of faith into something much bigger, so that right now I'm actually trusting his work even when I can't see it or figure it out. Because what I can see is that he is pulling together all the small things he calls each of us to do, and using them to do his big work.

Celebrate with me, reader-friends, because I sense that for me this new trust, this rest, this perspective, is a very big small step.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 11:04 AM | Comments (1) are closed

August 3, 2007

Something Old, Something's New

There's something about new. I have to admit, I like it. Not change, mind you. But new. New music to listen to (thanks to Dave for graciously lending me his new Andrew Bird CD, Armchair Apocrypha, last weekend). New shoes (there's nothing like new running shoes to motivate you to get out of bed at 5:30 a.m.). New recipes (I highly recommend sautéed eggplant, mushrooms and tomatoes over pasta, compliments of Real Simple). Ann said goodbye to InterVarsity Press and Strangely Dim for a new job, a new routine that will allow her to spend more time with her husband and sister. New holds with it the possibility of something better.

Maybe that's why I still like my birthdays. They are a second New Year's Eve for me, prompting even more processing in my brain than usual and bringing about a certain glazed, "I'm analyzing the past year of my life" look in my eyes. But after the reflection comes a peek at what lies ahead: an untouched year, in which anything can happen. A new age. Maybe that's why I like mornings so much too. No matter what happened the previous day, there is something powerful about waking to a day that's new, fresh, completely clean.

My sister and I are feverishly working our way through the television series Lost. We are, admittedly, somewhat addicted. The series follows the lives of a group of people whose plane crashes on a mysterious, seemingly out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere island. People who were mostly unknown to each other before they crashed. As the episodes reveal their histories, you realize what an opportunity this is for many of them: a new day and place, a chance to start over, to separate themselves from the painful, broken lives they were living before they crashed.

A new day doesn't offer that grand of an opportunity, of course. Nothing magical happens when the clock changes from 11:59 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. We still have to face our problems, our sins, other people's sins. The characters on Lost, too, even with their unique situation, cannot completely escape where they've come from. They have to face the habits that follow them to the island, the shadows of the past, and the ways their choices and experiences have shaped and formed them. The reality is that each new day contains some of the old.

And yet, I still feel amazed that there is something new in each day. At least a new sky--a sunrise or cloud formation that has never been duplicated before. New conversation. New insight, perhaps. New courage, maybe. New opportunities to affirm others and speak truth and show grace.

It's one thing God is all about, actually: new. Every day, his mercy is new. And, as I drag my weary, needy self to him, his new mercy becomes more tangible, more visible, I think, than even the morning's new sky.

We've been memorizing Philippians 1:6 ("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") at my church this summer, and I've been struck by its power when someone else speaks it to me. I have to have others telling me that they're confident that he'll complete his good work in me, because I have trouble seeing it. But the reality is, every day he is doing new work in me and new work in you and new work in places and people we have never heard of.

New shoes, for all their shine, at best only make me optimistic that maybe I'll run faster, or the run will be easier, or the impact on my body will be lessened. In a week, they're old, and the alarm goes off at 5:30 and I lie in bed and moan. But God's new--his work, his grace, his mercy--keeps giving me hope, despite myself, despite the old that clings to me.

So here's to waking tomorrow and Sunday and Monday and seeing the sky and giving grace and receiving mercy. Here's to helping each other see God's new.

I promise, it won't get old.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 5:33 PM | Comments (1) are closed

July 4, 2007

A Short Reflection on a Little Cicada

Last night was so lovely that I couldn't stay inside, so I took a walk around the suburban neighborhood that I live in. Families were eating outside, dogs were roaming their respective yards, and joggers and fellow walkers were everywhere. It was, uncharacteristically, a quiet night.

Except for the quiet flap-flap-flapping I heard as I walked down Washington street. Over the voices of a father talking with his two sons, I heard a sound that has become too familiar to me over the past month--the flapping was coming from a cicada that had fallen on its back and could not turn over. The more frustrated the cicadas become, the harder they flap their veined wings in an attempt to right themselves. But because of the cicada infestation that we have had in our area, I have become immune to the sound of their struggle. Most dead cicadas I see on the sidewalks are on their backs, and you begin to realize that death, whether it comes as a shock or a frustrated struggle, comes to all of these creatures eventually. It is, to be honest, a great relief. I was afraid they would go on infesting our town forever.

But yesterday evening, a strange sense of pity came over me when I heard the flap-flapping of the cicada on Washington Street. The bug had, apparently, fallen out of the overhanging tree into the middle of the street, and I knew that he would not survive long on the playground floor of suburbia. I tried to ignore my emotions and continued walking, telling myself that it was one cicada out of thousands that died every day. Still, once I ventured far enough to be free of the incessant flapping noise, I felt--how else do I explain it?--I felt sad. I know it sounds sappy (and I am not a bug person), but I knew that I was probably the only person in the entire world who even thought about that particular cicada and the ominous death awaiting it on Washington Street.

So I turned around, walked back to the flapping bug, and gently rolled it over with my sandal. The cicada immediately quieted itself and began crawling, still in the middle of the street. While I didn't know if it would live, I knew I had offered the creature what I could.

And then, as I watched the bug move, I began thinking about God, about how he never even thinks about leaving me flapping in the middle of the street. He is always gently overturning my life, righting me even when I fail to realize it.

So even cicadas can sometimes remind us of God's goodness. And somehow, his unfailing presence with us. Flap.

Posted by Ann Swindell at 8:00 AM | Comments (3) are closed

May 8, 2007

Taking a Risk

A couple of weekends ago I watched the movie Stranger Than Fiction for a second time, which made me realize something I'm not sure I want to admit: I think I might have some strong similarities to the main character, Harold Crick. Harold is a strait-laced tax auditor whose days are essentially exactly the same, right down to the number of brushstrokes he uses when brushing his teeth. (No, I don't count my brushstrokes. That's not how we're similar.) His neatly ordered world starts to fall apart, however, when he begins to hear a woman's voice in his head, narrating his life. Things start to get really messy when the woman's voice casually mentions his "imminent death." Spurred to action at the mention of the d-word, Harold sets out to locate his narrator so that he can get the details on when and how she expects him to die.

As his routine gets more and more messed up, and as the pressure mounts to figure out when he'll die, Harold decides he might as well take a few risks (since he's going to die soon anyway). Perhaps the biggest risk he takes is pursuing a spunky, defiant baker named Ana Pascal who mostly despises him because he happens to be auditing her for tax fraud. Despite the unlikelihood of any romance developing between them, and despite the high possibility of her responding to him with scorn and mockery, he shows up unexpectedly at her bakery one night with a box of flours (infinitely more valuable to a baker than flowers) and announces his romantic interest. The significance of his risk, the tension as he waits for her to respond, is almost palpable.

So here's how I'm like Harold Crick: I think it would take an audible, narrating voice in my head and the threat of imminent death (or maybe even just one of those things) to make me take a risk. I like routine and predictability. On the thrill-seeking scale I'm probably about a negative sixteen. I don't even go to lunch spontaneously (though I am, of course, up for the occasional spontaneous Starbucks run).

I wish I took risks more often. I'm inspired and moved by people who take big risks. People like the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15. She approached Jesus and his disciples with a request for help, knowing that they had every reason to reject her: She was a woman in a male-centered culture. She was a Gentile. And her daughter was demon-possessed, which probably didn't win her any popularity contests. The disciples, being human, provided the expected, culturally savvy reaction: they saw her only as an annoyance, a distraction, and urged Jesus to send her away. He, however, engaged her in conversation, even pushed her a bit to see how serious she was about receiving help for her daughter. In the end, Jesus was impressed with her. "Woman," he exclaimed, "you have great faith! Your request is granted."

As far as we know, this woman had never met Jesus before. Most likely she had only heard about him and his miracles from others. And the risks she took in asking Jesus for help and in taking him at his word that her daughter was healed could have caused her deep pain. After all, Jesus could have just been telling her what she wanted to hear without actually granting her request, to get her to leave him alone.

But Jesus didn't send her away or ignore her, like the disciples wanted to. And he did what he said; Matthew tells us that "her daughter was healed from that very hour." He honored the risks she took.

Well of course Jesus didn't mock or deceive her, you're thinking, shocked that I'd even suggest it. He wouldn't, because he isn't like us needy broken humans. But many times, I must subconsciously think he might respond to me that way, because I'm not usually willing to take risks that make me completely dependent on Christ for help. Risks like telling a small group about a painful but formational event that happened before I knew them. Or being honest with a student in the youth group about something she did that hurt me. Or even taking opportunities to test areas I think I might be gifted in but have insecurities about. But when we take Jesus seriously, he, I'm learning, takes our risks seriously, no matter how small. He doesn't scorn those steps; he actually celebrates them. And he always does what he says he'll do, knowing full well (because he did become human, like us) how hard a risk can be.

Sitting here, I don't have any "imminent death" threats to move me to take a risk. And no voices in my head narrating my life. But maybe the promise of abundant life from someone who always keeps his word will be enough.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 9:15 AM | Comments (2) are closed

April 13, 2007

The Importance of Is

As a proofreader, I am easily and often offended. Spelling, punctuation and capitalization mistakes are everywhere: flyers, ads, signs, billboards. Billboards especially get me. There's nothing like being stuck in traffic and being confronted by a larger-than-life capitalization error to really generate anger.

A few weekends ago I went to a movie with my cousin to relax and be entertained. I was comfortably settled into my seat, anticipating the start of the movie, when it happened again: the (also larger-than-life) movie screen lit up with the headline "Silence is Golden(R)." Aaaaahhhhhhhh! I should have asked for my money back. I mean really. I'm just not sure I can give my money to a company that doesn't know that if you're going to capitalize the G you have to cap the I! Or that doesn't run their headlines by a proofer before they register them and flash them onto movie screens all over the country.

I've noticed it's often the is that gets demoted to lowercase in titles. I think it's assumed that, since it's only two letters, it must not be that important. Funny, because we never forget to cap I by itself. And if you think about it, is is a pretty important verb (case in point). Crucial, I'd say. "She drives fast" is very different from "She is fast." "That movie looks good" often does not turn into "That movie is good." Water that looks clean can be very different from water that is clean. We should give is its proper respect.

The is gets much more significant when it comes to faith. I have to admit that, having had a relationship with Christ since I was a young child, there are some stories, phrases, words I have a hard time grasping the significance of simply because I've heard them my whole life. But is is not one of them. In fact, the is is why I love Easter so much, why Easter never fails to inspire awe and wonder in me. When I think about the pain and suffering Christ experienced before his death, and the guilt and sorrow and confusion and despair the disciples and other close friends and family must have experienced at Jesus' death, and then when I try to imagine resurrection morning, when the women went to the tomb and found it empty--I can't not feel wonder. The sheer impossibility and joy and juxtaposition of death--Jesus was dead--and life--Jesus is alive--strike me deeply. And the fact that Christ really is the only one those two statements can be made about over two thousand years after he walked on earth deepens my faith.

That's the significance of is. On that first resurrection day and today, Jesus is alive, bringing life from death all over the place. It's a headline, really: Jesus Is Alive.

And the Is makes all the difference.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 8:38 AM | Comments (3) are closed

March 16, 2007

A Matter of Life and Death

My sister and I have been mourning the death of our ivy. Its death is not surprising; we don't have a good history with plants. Most of them, this one included, have been gifts from our mom, and usually they die relatively quickly because we never remember--or bother--to water them. Particularly hearty ones might last a few months, in which case our mom waters them when she comes to visit, and they temporarily revive. But this ivy has been our longest living plant to date: it lasted three years, surviving a move from the small, narrow windowsill in our last apartment to a new, roomy windowsill, as well as our vacations when it was left to fend for itself. There've been a few close calls, but it's always survived. Until now.

I like to think it died because it outgrew its little pot. (Not, of course, from our neglect to water it.) We haven't thrown it out yet because we keep hoping it will revive one more time, in which case we will faithfully water it every day (or every other day?) and get it a larger pot and play Mozart to it in the evenings. But I fear it's too late.

At the risk of sounding morbid, I'll admit I've been thinking about death. Not just because of the ivy (though it is a daily reminder), but also because of Lent and the suffering of Christ we contemplate, and because of the pre-Lent sermons on mourning at my church, and because of the morning news, and because of my own sins and struggles and those of people I know. Death is everywhere, really, and it makes its presence known keenly.

I've been trying to imagine the despair the disciples must have felt that day Christ was crucified: the person they had placed all their hope in was Dead. But then--the depths of joy they must have experienced at his resurrection! As I observe Lent in personal and corporate ways but also anticipate Easter, I'm struck by the stark, extraordinary contrast of the two events: suffering and death and mourning and then almost incomprehensible rejoicing. The pain of one and the joy of the other cannot comprehend each other.

The same must have been true for the widow in Luke 7:11-17. Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd of followers encounter the funeral processional for the widow's only son as they reach the gate of the city of Nain. "When the Lord saw her," Luke writes, "his heart went out to her and he said, 'Don't cry.' Then he went up and touched the coffin, and those carrying it stood still. He said, 'Young man, I say to you, get up!' The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother."

In the midst of the widow's pain--widow, of course, meaning that she already lost her husband--I'm sure she couldn't imagine joy, life, even not crying, as Jesus told her to do. All of those must have sounded impossible; she was dead in spirit, in hope. But in one moment--there is life from death, joy from despair.

It doesn't always happen that way, of course--not that quickly or easily. Jesus healed many and raised a few from the dead, but many more died while he was on earth, and even today, some people are healed while others are not. The road from grief to hope is rarely instant. But this account of Jesus reminds me that this is what Jesus is doing all the time: bringing life in the midst of death, to remind us what wins, finally, eternally. It may not be as dramatic as raising someone from the dead, but he is bringing dead things, places, relationships to life every day if we open our eyes to see it, constantly reminding us that death does not have the final word, grief does not have the final word, the current pain we're experiencing and the sin we're struggling with do not have the final word. The final word is his own: "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."

The death in and around us is as easily seen as the dead ivy on my windowsill: broken relationships, abuse, depression, loneliness, a funeral, a sealed tomb. Can any life really come in the midst of or after these? Jesus' resurrection tells us: Yes. And today, after a stressful, tiring week when I was forced to face my own brokenness and sin, spring coming outside after a cold winter and friends' healing and my own small steps of growth tell me: Yes, life can come, even when we--like a dead widow in Nain grieving her dead son--can't imagine it.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 12:55 PM | Comments (7) are closed

January 26, 2007

What?

I recently had a long and perplexing conversation with some friends about what it means to have a "personal relationship with God." You know you've been hanging out exclusively with evangelicals for far too long when you don't get what's so weird about that phrase. This is, after all, God we're talking about--"Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen." As one friend of mine put it: "There's six billion people in the world. What kind of meaningful relationship can anybody have with that many people?"

Still, I feel very strongly that God does in fact relate personally to us. The idea that he has so many of us to relate to doesn't freak me out so much; I'm pretty comfortable with God's infinitude, which I imagine brings with it a much higher threshold for exhaustion and exasperation. Similarly, the idea that God is personal--not just some uber-ooze that keeps everything going--is a basic tenet of my beliefs.

Nevertheless, we bring a lot of baggage with us to a phrase like "personal relationship with God." Our understanding of who God is affects our approach: Is God the author of evil? Is God impotent or indifferent in the face of evil? Is God likeable, impressive, praiseworthy, approachable?

Our understanding of what comes with a personal relationship affects our take on the idea too. If I've been hurt over and over again in my personal relationships, the last thing I might want is to get personal with someone who controls the weather and steers comets. If my personal relationships have been with really boring people, I might imagine a personal relationship with an infinite being as infinitely boring. I might take my worst experience in personal relationships and expand it to a cosmic level, and decide that I'd rather do without, thank you very much.

I think, however, that I would then be oversimplifying things. A personal relationship is not reducible to one thing: my friend may be boring, but he donated me his kidney. Your friend may spit when she talks and chew with her mouth open, but she knows all your secrets and cries with you every time you get hurt. He may be heavy, but he's my brother.*

That kind of complexity extends infinitely when you start talking about a personal relationship with God. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Eventually, God created me, along with the six billion people surrounding me and the various billions who went before me. Because of God I have a body and a brain; because of God I'm able to wonder whether a personal relationship with God is even remotely possible.

If a relationship with God is anything, it's complex. Sometimes it helps me to sort through how we relate to God by reading, of all things, 1 Kings 1:

Bathsheba went to see the aged king in his room, where Abishag the Shunammite was attending him. Bathsheba bowed low and knelt before the king.

Bathsheba is David's wife--the most intimate human relationship we can envision. She's also his subject--he's her king. He's also her only hope--the only person, in this context, who can keep her and her son from dying at the hands of a wicked prince. So she enters into conversation with him in this weird mix of boldness, humility, reverence and desperation. It's complicated.

It's funny to me that David's response to her entering is "What do you want?" That's a really colloquial, really earthy picture: not a king receiving a queen, not a tyrant deciding whether he will indulge or behead this upstart unannounced guest, but an old married guy who long ago dispensed with all pretense when it comes to relating to his wife. For Bathsheba, this is a complicated encounter; for David, it's a simple question: "What?"

In this picture, as I see it, David's a metaphor for God, and Bathsheba is a metaphor for the rest of us: participants in a ridiculously lopsided, complicated relationship that nonetheless puts us in an unbelievably privileged position. We approach God juggling these various ways of understanding who we're approaching, and God simply looks at us and says, "What?"

*My brother, in case he's reading this, isn't heavy. It's a play on words. I'm being witty, not petty, I swear.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:52 AM | Comments (8) are closed

January 3, 2007

The Mystery of Expectancy

After two very different weeks--one spent relaxing before Christmas with my parents and sister in a small Pennsylvania town and the other working at the Urbana Student Missions Convention in downtown St. Louis with 22,000 people--I'm wondering the same thing: How can we be expectant without knowing what to expect?

I had a lot of time for reflection in Pennsylvania, particularly (since it was Christmas) reflection on Christ's birth. The story is, of course, full of expectancy. Births generally are. But how much more with Jesus' birth, coming as it did in the midst of Herod's reign after thousands of years of expectant waiting (not to mention four hundred years of silence from God). But the Israelites' hopes about what the Messiah would be like were, of course, full of error. Everything about Christ's birth was utterly unexpected--redemption in places you'd never guess. A virgin. A poor carpenter. A stable. Shepherds. A baby.

In ways not so different from Christ's birth, Urbana is also full of expectancy. I studied students' faces as they streamed into the opening session at the Edward Jones Dome. They were clearly expecting God to do--something.

How can we be expectant of a God who moves and acts in completely unpredictable ways and places? How should we expect a God whose presence comes in both "a gentle whisper" on a mountain and a burning bush in the desert to reveal himself to us?

Though Jews were looking for a Messiah when Jesus was born, many missed him because they expected someone different. I'm afraid that I too will miss the redemption he gives--that in the midst of my pain or distractedness or despair or busyness I'll miss the grace that comes quietly, humbly, unexpectedly, even if I'm looking for it.

Expectancy seems to hold the hope of something big. At past Urbanas I know God has shown up in unexpected, even miraculous ways. Once he even healed a speaker's laryngitis while the speaker talked and the thousands of students gathered in the arena prayed for him. When I attended Urbana as a student I too went expectantly. I received no epiphanies, yet God still brings to mind words and moments from that Urbana, and continues his work in me through them. I don't know if my expectations were met, but God has certainly moved in the years since.

At the start of 2007, after a year-and-a-half that's been full of personal struggle, I am trying to be expectant. I recently read in Philip Yancey's book Prayer that "[Jesus] understood that redemption comes from passing through the pain, not avoiding it: 'for the joy set before him [he] endured the cross.'" I also just read Psalm 5, written by David, with his high highs and his low lows:

In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you
and wait expectantly.

The story of Christ's birth and death, and Yancey's reminder, and David's prayer, and 22,000 students gathered together to seek God, give me hope for this year. When God moves in big ways in obvious places, we'll probably notice. But for the rest of the time (which is most of the time) when God is not speaking through thunder or fire or miraculous healings, maybe the fact of expectancy, the act of being still and waiting in the midst of hard moments, the choice to trust God in a day that's unknown, will help us see his redemption in the unexpected places: the painful places, the broken places, the humble places.

So here's to a year of expectancy and meeting God in the places we are (I'm raising my cup of chai to you). And thanks, to Dave and to all of you, for letting me join this Strangely Dim journey. I look forward to walking with you . . .

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 1:09 PM | Comments (4) are closed

December 20, 2006

Sanctity is Wrapping and Unwrapping

My saintly parents are moving. Someday. In the meantime, they are, like St. Francis of Assisi, increasingly eager to part with virtually everything they own, in the hopes that their children's covetousness will lower their moving costs.

Always happy to oblige, I came home from Thanksgiving with a book I've long ogled on their bookshelf: Sanctity Is a Broken Television Set on a Rainy Day. Published in 1970 by Franciscan Herald Press and written by Tom Sharkey for "wives and mothers everywhere," this nicely illustrated book exemplifies the ordinariness of sanctification--becoming more and more like Christ--in simple acts such as doing the dishes, dealing with telemarketers, entertaining guests, making mistakes and caring for loved ones. You can read it in about five minutes, but why would you want to do a thing like that? Here's a taste:

Sanctity is Knowing
When to Get Mad. When to Go Home. When to Say No. When to Say Maybe. When to Say Yes. When to Say Wow! When to Say Thank You. When to Say Nothing. When to Laugh. When to Cry.

There's more to sanctity than knowing, of course, and most of the book has to do with being, or rather, becoming. But what we come to know is part of how we come to be like Christ. In calling us to sanctification, God calls us to know as well as to be:

Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth. (Psalm 46:10)

Next week is Christmas day, and between then and now we will each have ample opportunity to be sanctified, I am sure. May we each between now and then find time to be still, and to know increasingly that God is here, and God is good.

Merry Christmas from Strangely Dim!

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 4:21 PM

December 12, 2006

An Open Letter to ER

I've been watching ER for twenty years now, it seems (even though this is only your thirteenth season). I've lived in Chicago throughout your run and enjoyed the occasional visual and verbal references you make to my city (even though technically my city is not Chicago but its western suburb Lombard). I've gone on the Warner Brothers Studio tour in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Noah Wylie or Anthony Edwards (even though neither of them was still on the show when I took the tour). I've worn ER t-shirts and ignored phone calls during ER broadcasts and badmouthed CSI (even though I've never watched it), all out of loyalty to your show. ER is must-see TV for me--even though "must-see TV" is a relic from a previous century.

So in general I applaud ER for your writers' writing and your actors' acting and your directors' directions. But one thing I have against you: you seem to have no clue whatsoever how to write religion.

That's not always been the case. Luka's struggle, for example, with agnosticism in the face of war and personal tragedy was portrayed very poignantly in his encounters with a dying priest a few years back. But this year you seem to have lost your way, and in the process you're wasting an opportunity that you provided yourself: you're wasting Hope.

Hope is the Christian character written into your show this year, aping the opportunistic antics of shows such as Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Ever since The Passion of the Christ, the conventional wisdom in Hollywood appears to be that religion sells almost as well as sex. And so giving the occasional nod to religion will prompt religious viewers to give an occasional nod to your advertisers.

I can respect that: I work in an industry that caters to the religious public, and besides that, I'm religious myself, and I enjoy being catered to as much as the next guy. My problem isn't that you're catering to people like me; it's that you're not doing a very good job of it.

The problem with pandering to people is that your creative integrity tends to suffer when you do it. Genesis, for example (the band, not the book), were critical darlings in the music world until they got a few radio hits under their belts. All of a sudden each new release sounded hauntingly similar to their previous release, which sounded hauntingly similar to lead singer Phil Collins's most recent release. It's not exactly jumping the shark; it's more like jumping on the bandwagon.

Now I am not saying that you shouldn't have Christian characters on your show. Call me biased, but I think Christian characters can bring an intriguing and dynamic energy to a story. But to do so they need to be written three-dimensionally, and Hope has not been written as such. I speak only anecdotally, I freely confess, but I have never attended a Bible study in which a group of people huddled in the dark playing the telephone game with the seven deadly sins and seven cardinal virtues, as you had Hope and Archie experience in your very special Christmas episode. Nor have I attended a Bible study in which the guest (Archie) was expected to have the seven deadly sins and their corresponding cardinal virtues memorized in order. Nor have I attended a Bible study in which a person pretending to be a confessing Christian but espousing a nihilistic spirituality was immediately praised as a guru, as Archie was by Hope.

Those experiences are the accidentals surrounding Hope, of course. Surely the person will be granted full personhood in your writing, correct? Not so, I'm afraid. Hope, apparently, managed to homeschool her way through medical school and acquire a residency at a teaching hospital without learning any actual medicine. Her clinical assessments are not medical but maternal; she coos and frets over patients without thinking to discover what's actually wrong with them or propose a realistic treatment plan. A doctor who practiced like that would be dismissed from her hospital before her employer could be sued, but for Hope, that's just another purpose-driven day in a normal Christian life.

Hope, I'm sad to say, is a caricature of a practicing physician, which is unfortunate on a show that portrays the gritty reality of medical practice. Worse in this case, she's a caricature of a Christian on a show that's capable of much greater nuance and sympathetic sophistication. Worse than either, she's a caricature of a human being on a show that has held the bar high in its writing of the humanness of its characters.

If you're going to capitulate to the cultural trend of "just add Christian," please don't surrender your creative talents in the process. ER is a great show and could do a great job exploring the ethical and moral dilemmas of living a life of faith in real time; you've added the Christian, now add the depth.

PS: If you need a consultant, my rates are very competitive.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 4:35 PM | Comments (2) are closed

November 13, 2006

My Other Life Is an Avatar

My friend Jonathan sent me an e-mail that coincidentally touches on a conversation some of us have been having at InterVarsity Press. It centers on www.secondlife.com, a web phenomenon that involves navigating a virtual world by means of an avatar which you create. You can buy "materials," "property" and even "special qualities" for your virtual self on sites such as e-Bay. For example, you can purchase a house, a music player and even super-speed for your virtual self. Beyond the obvious question this phenomenon raises--which superpower would you buy first?--the discussion can go in all sorts of ways. Check out where Jonathan and I took it, then join the conversation. We're both mere tourists in the land of secondlife, so we would certainly be helped by some more informed perspectives.

JONATHAN: I think people are drawn to these virtual communities at least in part because they can escape their real life and create the life they think will provide fulfillment. I am not saying I could pull this off on my own, but . . . what about building a virtual church? I am not talking about a building; I am talking about a functioning church where people can worship or hear teaching. Does God call avatars (the real person behind him/her) who are hiding behind their false self to risk exploring the God who sees who they really are?

DAVE: I've seen little forays into virtual church before, and I highly favor them, but as you might imagine there are some limitations. First off, although many people simply recreate themselves in their avatars, many people take advantage of the tech to recreate themselves, so a virtual church would face the heightened challenge of false selves congregating. Not that brick and mortar church communities don't have to deal with hypocricy and secret lives, but secondlife almost presupposes it.

JONATHAN: I agree that a "False Self" poses challenges to an authentic life. I wonder how much different the church is, though, with trying to pretend to be something they are not. Also, if people are running or hiding from their true self in the real world, after living that lie for so long don't they at some level want to stop? To be found?

DAVE: I wonder if there's a way of doing "short term missions" in secondlife as a kind of faith laboratory.

JONATHAN: Corporations are currently investigating how they can use virtual worlds to hold training sessions and meetings, and allow employees from around the world to work together on solving a problem. I am by no means an expert, or even an experienced user of virtual worlds. I do wonder though: is there value if someone could receive, say, evangelism training? What about a small group of disciples "entering the world" to spread the gospel? A place of healing where the hidden can be found in supportive groups? If you applied your learning in an online context, would people give you the time of day? Would trainees become more comfortable in their abilities to share the gospel or answer hard questions? Would their experience be transferable to the real world, or would they become yet another false self?

DAVE: In fact, that might be the angle for an online church: "Be Yourself for a While." It provides confessional space for the false avatar and maybe a link to the real world for people who have gotten too addicted to the controlled environment of a virtual world.

JONATHAN: Corporations spend billions of dollars on value transfer--getting their employees to buy into the corporate values, or creating advertising which causes consumers to see, believe and then take the next step. If you attract the avatar, the greater difficulty may be taking them from a virtual church to an actual church.

DAVE: As far as teaching goes, it might be interesting to explore the analogy of an avatar for the propitiation of Christ or the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

That's as far as Jonathan and I have gotten. Please do join in: what do you think about virtual Christianity? What appeals to you personally about having a virtual presence in a "second life"? What kinds of relationships would you seek out there? What kind of personal support would you need in order to remain true to yourself? What accountability would you need in order to remain true to God?

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 2:31 PM | Comments (2) are closed

April 6, 2006

Petered Out

This year, to mark the events remembered during Holy Week, I will be playing the apostle Peter in our church's play, The Living Last Supper. For me it's a promotion of sorts. Last year I played Matthew, the kooky tax collector: I stood up, said my peace and sat down. Meanwhile Peter stood up, said his peace, danced around, sang a solo and wept bitterly. The only bitter weeping I did was over my lack of time in the spotlight.

This year is very different. This year nobody is just standing up, saying their peace and sitting down again. This year we're all over the stage--every single one of us. And this year I'm playing Peter, who I'm told should be played at times whiney, at times dim-witted, at times cocky and surly. I'm developing a bit of a complex about what the casting director thinks of me as a person.

I'll be glad when the play is over, not just because then I can stop singing but because frankly, I'm getting Petered out.

Acting doesn't come naturally to me, but to authentically portray such a significant, familiar person has been especially challenging. This is Peter, after all: the rock on which Jesus would build his church, the first pope, the undisputed leader of the earliest Christian community. But this same Peter denied Jesus, acted without thinking, lied impulsively, could never quite figure out what anybody was really talking about. He was at times whiney, at times dim-witted, at times cocky and surly. He is a sinner, he is a saint. He is, in short, a lot like me.

Ever since I was a kid I've identified with Peter. When I'm feeling self-assured, I think of Peter saying matter-of-factly, "You are the Christ," as though he and Jesus were surrounded by idiots. When I'm feeling especially special, I think of Jesus saying to Peter, "Blessed are you, Peter . . . on this rock I will build my church." When I get so mad I could cut someone's ear off, I think of Peter.

I also think of Peter when I've screwed up: when I hem and haw my way through an uncomfortable conversation; when I distance myself from my friends, my family, my faith. I think of Peter when I'm trying to stay undercover and when I'm trying to grab the spotlight. When I think of Peter, I think of paradox, and when I think of paradox, I think of myself.

Yep, playing Peter cuts a little close to the ear, so to speak. Getting up in front of a room full of people to brag about myself and then, moments later, to deny everything I've said I believe, makes me a bit uncomfortable. Mix in a little singing, and I'm a nervous wreck.

They say that both John Calvin and Augustine of Hippo see a connection between knowledge of the self and knowledge of God. I might add the knowledge of others to the mix, because it's in getting to know Peter these last several weeks that I've come to know myself in a different way. And in the process of learning Peter and relearning myself, I'm coming into a fresh appreciation of all that God has to deal with, and all that God has already dealt with.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 12:26 PM | Comments (2) are closed

February 24, 2006

I Need Thee Every Hour: The Devotional Journey of Jack Bauer

I am a Christian fan of 24--the television show that chronicles the activities of counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer in real time. I own four seasons of the show on DVD and three graphic novels based on the series. I enter contests and send e-mails to people associated with 24--some of whom have even written me back. My 24 superfan resume is nearly complete.

One thing I still lack: a book of devotional readings inspired by TV's 24.

Pop-culture-inspired Christian books are common currency in today's Christian publishing environment. Some such books address interesting questions: people everywhere are wondering what Jesus would say to Drew Barrymore, for example, and speculating what we would learn from a gospel according to McDonald's. There's also plenty of exploration going on to see how modern myths and fantasy tales--from the Chronicles of Narnia to Star Wars--correspond to the Christian story. Let's face it: my own book, Comic Book Character, cashes in on this curiosity.

But really, how many Christian books about The Matrix is one person willing to read? So the Christian publishing industry keeps casting the net wider. Recent entries into the world of pop-culture devotionals include meditations on Charlie & the Chocolate Factory and Napoleon Dynamite. Not having read them, I won't comment on them except to say that they have super-cool covers. But the message behind this steady output of pop-culture Christian literature is essentially this: Anything goes.

"Anything goes" is, I suppose, a defensible notion. God told Moses to tell the Israelites to tell the Egyptians to give them all their stuff, and so the Israelites plundered the Egyptians, the argument goes. Why can't we plunder the treasures of pop culture for the glory and mission of God?

That may be true, but I'd like to test the theory (and, in the interest of full disclosure, feed my inner geek) by writing a devotional based on the anti-terrorist exploits of federal agent Jack Bauer. Consider what follows chapter one of my never-to-be-published, completely-tongue-in-cheek, utterly-at-odds-with-my-values I Need Thee Every Hour: The Devotional Journey of Jack Bauer:

Today Is the Longest Day of My Life

"Say it again, or I'll break your other wrist!" In pursuing the cause of justice and national security, Jack Bauer often has to resort to extreme measures. The willfulness of his opponents slows down Jack's progress without slowing down the clock. For Jack, every minute--every second--counts, and so he must count the cost of every delay.

Jack is an extreme disciple of justice--by any means necessary. Ultimately, Jack wins every contest of the wills because he is willing to do more, to his enemy and even to himself, than anybody else. Jack has submitted himself to prison, torture, even death in the pursuit of justice, and in the end his sacrifice is always vindicated.

As we attempt to live lives of personal virtue and righteousness, can the same be said of us? How far are we willing to go to be right with God? How much are we willing to sacrifice?

Sometimes, if we're honest, we'll recognize that too often we are like the terrorists Jack battles. Our will gets in the way of righteousness, and so our will must be broken. Once broken, it needs to be cast with a stronger mold so that we will what is right rather than what is wrong.

Once our will is rightly set, our story, and the story we find ourselves in, can continue to be told.

"Do not be like a horse or a mule,
without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed
with bit and bridle."
--Psalm 32:9

Once again--and please hear me on this--it's a JOKE! This is categorically NOT what I would want to read first thing in the morning. It would almost certainly guarantee the longest day of my life. Nevertheless, I welcome your comments.

***

For more meditations on why we love Jack Bauer, listen to the February 22 entry at Lin's Bin.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:48 AM | Comments (2) are closed

January 27, 2006

Good News, Sports Fans

There are three (count em) televisions in the men’s locker room at my gym. That’s approximately one every twenty feet—except that two of them are five feet apart. They’re also about seven feet off the ground, which means I can’t change the channels (I’ve got a pretty unimpressive standing vertical leap), which means I’m at the mercy of everyone else for what I watch.

Of course, television is even more captivating in a locker room than in the comfort of your own home, largely because in a locker room anywhere else you look is likely populated by some naked guy. So imagine my distress when I’m happily listening to Katie Couric telling me all about the latest person to get kicked off American Idol, and some seven-foot-tall, python-armed naked brute unceremoniously changes three television stations to SportsCenter. It’s disorienting, it’s emasculating, it’s . . . hmm . . . interesting . . .

There’s no doubt about it: sports reporting is a lot more captivating than news reporting. Part of that is the silliness that often gets reported as news: what Paris Hilton wore to Amy Grant’s CD release party isn’t technically news, and compared to the excellence being celebrated in sports reporting, the overnight weather forecast isn’t terribly compelling. But more than anything, sports reporting is distinctively exciting because sports reporters can often barely contain themselves.

They might be reporting plays that happened moments ago in a key contest or decades ago in career highlights for some sports luminary. They might be looking at the week in review or the season to come. Whatever they’re reporting, sports reporters are passionate about it. Even the most inconsequential sporting event of the week—say, a high school JV football preseason scrimmage—holds the reporter’s full attention and occasionally elicits a yell or a scream right into the microphone. We the viewers find ourselves on the edge of our seats, waiting along with the reporter for someone on the field to wow us.

That’s not so much journalism as it is witness: the sports reporter mediates the experience of unleashed potential for the audience, and we’re all wowed together. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, it all gets chronicled for us, and we trust that one day we will remember not just what these athletes did but how we felt when they did it. And it’s entirely possible that future generations of fans will be able to revisit this moment and witness what we’ve witnessed. The span of time may make news old, but it will never make witness obsolete.

We memorize facts and figures that at some point were news—George Washington was the first president of the United States, the Allies won World War II—but we’re inspired by the chronicles of witness. The Gospels, for example, don’t tell us what we often tell one another about Jesus: “We are all sinners; Jesus came to earth to die on a cross and save us from our sins; Jesus rose again and went to heaven to prepare a place for us.” All this is true and important, which is why we call it the good news. And all of it is contained within the Gospels. But the Gospels tell us Jesus’ story more completely than that, and they tell it through eyewitness accounts. We watch Jesus confront the Pharisees, we hear him raise Lazarus from the dead, we see him transfigured and resurrected, we even touch the scars on his hands and in his side—all vicariously, all through his awestruck witnesses. And their awe becomes our awe, and we realize experientially how awesome Jesus really is.

But we also hear through these witnesses that Jesus calls us to be witnesses as well: not cold, dispassionate purveyors of the mere facts of Christianity but witnesses. That’s how the faith has been communicated down through the centuries and throughout the world, and when people witness Jesus, they can’t help but hear what he says as good news.

***

This piece originally ran at the Sports Outreach website. If you're wondering why a sports ministry would have any interest in what I have to say, I'm wondering right alongside you, but they're good people doing good work.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 1:25 PM

December 16, 2005

Good Noise

I'm about to become Charlie Brown. I'm playing the part in a sketch for our church's Christmas pageant. I've got the dance down, which does me no good, because the part doesn't call for dancing. Instead, I've got to figure out how to match Charlie Brown's odd speech patterns and, more than anything, how to move naturally between having no mouth and having a huge, gaping hole of nothingness as I speak.

The scene we're doing is from the Charlie Brown Christmas special--Charlie Brown is talking to Linus. It's an interesting movement from Charlie's desperation to Linus's serene retelling of the Christmas story. I was cast because I'm good at being loud; my counterpart is pretty soft-spoken and a really good dramatic reader.

We ran lines last night, and whereas my big problem was how wide to open my mouth, Linus stumbled over one phrase: "good news of great joy." This was the herald angel announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds keeping watch at night, et cetera et cetera. On our first pass the phrase was conflated into two words: "good noise."

There's a paradox built into the Christmas story: heavenly peace, on one hand, and really loud angels on the other. We're often inclined to equate silence with godliness, stoic impassibility with holiness. But one of most significant moments in world history--the birth of God--was a spectacle of sound and light.

There is such a thing as "good noise," I think, and particularly as it relates to "good news." The prophet Isaiah speaks to it:

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
"Your God reigns!"

This seems as good a time as any to let you know about my new blog, which will run independently of this one. I've long been a fan of "loud time" as a way to balance an inordinate fascination with the evangelical practice of "quiet time," so I've inaugurated Loud Time as a place to explore and live out the concept of spiritual life together. Check it out and let me know what you think.

In any event, may you have good noise this Christmas, and may you sleep in heavenly peace.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:21 AM | Comments (2) are closed

October 7, 2005

Loud Time

By David A. Zimmerman

I hear all kinds of noise about the "quiet time." It's something of a boundary marker—we prove our Christian faith by how regularly we steal away for private prayer and Bible study; the longer our "quiet time" is, the more spiritual we are. I hear stories about people like Mother Teresa being "too busy not to spend at least four hours a day in prayer." I see a lot of people spell it with capital letters—"Quiet Time," like "Holy Communion"—just to give it some extra gravitas.

Advocates of the "quiet time" appeal to the times when Jesus went off by himself to a quiet place to pray and think. Jesus made major decisions in moments such as these, it's true. But what's most notable to me about Jesus' quiet times is how little ink they get in the Bible. Much more attention in the Gospels goes to Jesus' "loud time."

Now, loud time doesn't share the mystique of a quiet time. Where would you more likely expect to find God anyway—in a cave or at a circus? But we have to ask ourselves what classification most of life falls under—quiet or loud—and the answer is quite simply loud. We are active, communal people, and solitude cannot by itself fulfill our needs.

Of course, I have nothing against the quiet time. Some of my most meaningful moments have been alone with God. But then, I have to say that, don't I? A more mind-blowing statement would be that some of my most meaningful moments have been with others and God. God, after all, is not Snuffleupagus—some imaginary friend who goes into hiding when other people come into the room. In fact, Jesus tells us that "where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." God wants to be found by us—as many of us as are willing.

God speaks to us through others, and he speaks to others through us. A greater awareness of God's presence and guidance comes through a devotional engagement in conversation, listening for God's voice in the voices we're met with. But it's not only the sound of voices that characterizes loud time. As much as Jesus' major decisions were made in quiet, God's major interventions in history were noisy. Witness the parties that commenced after the Jews crossed the Red Sea, the annual feast of Purim and the mayhem surrounding Pentecost. There are many, many more such occasions of celebration, and each occurrence is thick with spiritual meaning and loud as they come.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that gentle Jesus is meek and mild while God the Father is raucous and unruly. Jesus could be as noisy as the next guy: he raised a ruckus in the temple area and shouted down the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Much of Jesus' ministry was conducted out loud, following in the great tradition of prophets from Amos to Zephaniah.

To be frank, quiet time without loud time would be meaningless. What kind of life would it be if nobody said nothing all the time? Of course loud time without quiet time would be likewise untenable: I would lose my mind if I lived, moved and had my being in an arcade or a casino. But whether we are quiet and alone or loud and in the thick of it, we have this promise: we are always accompanied by the one who will never leave or forsake us. And that is cause for all kinds of noise.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:59 AM | Comments (3) are closed

September 16, 2005

Blame God

You knew someone was going to say it, and worse yet, put it on the Internet. And that’s what happened; some preacher is preaching online that God sent Hurricane Katrina to purge New Orleans of sin.

Really though, posting something stupid online is a national pastime, isn’t it? I do it every week, and nobody makes a big deal of it. But a local radio station has been grinding its teeth about this particular statement, with DJs taking opportunity to make public mockery of people of faith.

Meanwhile, here are some of the similarly obnoxious theories about the source and intent of Hurricane Katrina, found on Google yet unchallenged on radio:

New Orleans mayor fears CIA to take him out
Did the Shadow Government decide to sacrifice an entire city, New Orleans, to cover up the coming news of Bush fraud and bribery and in order to further rig the price of oil?
As the White House unsuccessfully insists on seizing control of the Louisiana National Guard to institute full-blown martial law in New Orleans, it has brought in foreign troops moving on the Western and Eastern borders of the state.
Ivan and Katrina: These are both very Russian sounding names. . . . The former Soviet Union (fSU) developed and boasted of weather modification technology during the 1960’s and 70’s with deployment against the United States coming in 1976.

Blame Christians. Blame the CIA. Blame the Mexican military. Blame the evil Soviet weather machine. Blame God. No matter how you slice it, it’s still crackers.

What can you say to a person who floats such a cockamamie theory? On the flip side, what can you say to a person who exploits such absurdities in order to spout their own unedited ejaculations about the government or the culture or the Creator?

We’re faced with a dilemma of biblical proportions: Answer a fool according to his folly, or don’t answer a fool according to his folly? In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton dealt with this sort of manic cockiness better than just about anybody, so I’ll quote him at length:

The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way. I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument. . . .
Perhaps when the man in the street did not seem to see you it was only his cunning; perhaps when the policeman asked you your name it was only because he knew it already. But how much happier you would be if you only knew that these people cared nothing about you! How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! . . .
Perhaps you know that you are the King of England; but why do you care? Make one magnificent effort and you will be a human being and look down on all the kings of the earth.
Or it might be the third case, of the madman who called himself Christ. If we said what we felt, we should say, “How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!”

***

Now in English!
My book Comic Book Character has been picked up by a publisher in the Philippines. Everything about the book is identical to the American edition--right down to the flip animation--except that apparently the generic superheroes on the American cover won't play in Manila, so they've replaced them with all-new generic superheroes. I guess we could think of it as Justice League: Far East.

Anyway, if you happen to be in the Philippines, pick one up!

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:00 AM

August 25, 2005

Putting Words in Jesus' Mouth

A friend of mine passed me a link I wanted to pass on to you. Some church somewhere found some films about Jesus and overdubbed the dialogue with some of the common misconceptions about how God relates to us. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll laugh . . . Link and instructions follow.


Go to

www.vintage21.com

and then it's tricky because the videos are pretty deep into the site

first "enter site"
then click on the video projector toward top left of screen
click on "videos"
go to page 2
"downloadable versions available here"

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:48 AM | Comments (2) are closed

August 19, 2005

Confessions of a Former Catholic

I was at a conference not too long ago that offered the practice of morning lauds, a time of communal worship being sponsored by a Dominican brother. I took part every chance I had, but I found myself coming out of each morning with a severe case of former-Catholic guilt.

This guilt, I hasten to add, was in no way being foisted on me by Brother Dominic (that's what his nametag said, I swear). I came up with my guilt all on my own, thank you very much. I was raised Roman Catholic, and so for about half of my life I experienced the mass weekly, with its responsive and collective readings, its sung prayers and psalms, its scents and sacraments. And now here I was, sitting across from a Dominican brother all tricked out in a tunic and well on his way to being ordained into the priesthood, and I was recalling all the celebrations of faith I left behind upon my conversion to evangelical Protestantism. I sang and chanted and fumbled my way through the long-forgotten sign of the cross, and I found myself feeling guilty.

Not guilty enough to return to Catholicism, I hasten to add. That would be an artificial solution to my angst, I think. No, that day during morning lauds I was simply confronted with my past, all those aspects of worship and prayer that are no longer a part of my regular experience, those attributes of the faith of my youth that have not found their way into the religious practices of my adulthood.

I'm reminded of Abraham, back in the day when he was still known as simply Abram. God called upon Abram to leave all that he knew, all that he loved, to go someplace unknown to him. God would show him where he was going when he got there. And despite the fact that where Abram was going would be where God wanted him, it's hard to leave what you've known, the environment and culture that was cultivated in good faith to build in you a love and adoration for the God of the universe. I imagine Abram, who was not yet even Abraham, feeling a mixture of sadness, anxiety, anticipation, disorientation and, yes, even guilt.

I imagine Abram feeling all these things because I've felt them myself on the long and cloudy path toward adulthood. But I'm reassured that even in those moments when my pangs of guilt make their presence explicit, they are mitigated by the smoldering anticipation and, yes, even confidence that I'm headed toward the place prepared for me, an adventure I would otherwise have missed.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:34 AM | Comments (2) are closed

July 29, 2005

Building a Better Giraffe

Depending on your perspective, I'm either really good or really bad with kids. I can get them riled up like nobody's business--get em jumping and screaming and dancing and singing--but I can't get them to stop. I'm the crazy uncle, not the disciplinarian dad.

Usually I'm cool with that. I like to goof off, and goofiness loves company. But every once in a while I like to get serious. This week, for example, I was the master of ceremonies for our church's vacation Bible school: Serengeti Trek (where kids are wild about God!). I've had five straight days of kids screaming at me, climbing on me, dancing with me and running past me. Good times.

The first night I got a bit carried away and tried to pick up a delicately assembled cardboard giraffe. It promptly fell apart, causing no end of trauma to my screaming minions. I made a joke of it and moved on. Good times.

Every subsequent night I destroyed the same giraffe, again and again, like some torturous ritual. You'd think that Presbyterians hate giraffes for all the carnage I practiced. But the kids got appropriately desensitized, and their concern for the giraffe turned into sick, twisted laughter. Good times.

The theme of our last night was "Work for God," and I decided that I could illustrate what it meant to participate in God's redemptive work by repairing the giraffe. Because God loves me, and because God has made right what I made wrong, I can now work with God to continue to fix what's been broken. I can restore the giraffe to life and health. We can fix broken relationships and help our friends and loved ones to give their troubles to God and be healed. Brilliant, right?

So I shared my little metaphor in front of a crowd of fidgety kids, casting a vision of working for God while fixing the giraffe right in front of them. By the time I finished, they were looking directly at a better giraffe, and I led them in prayer. Good times.

As soon as I finished my benediction and sent everybody off for donuts, a kid ran up to me and shouted, "Time to kill the giraffe again!"

I've built a better giraffe and created a congregation of giraffe killers. God help us all.

***

It's official! I'll be serving as chaplain of the Wizard World: Chicago comic book convention from August 4 through August 8. Should be fun; I'll be giving a homily and everything. God help us all.

Keep an eye or an ear out for my reports on the convention at Pop Matters.com, Infuze Magazine and Bill Hogg's radio program in Seattle, Washington.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:20 AM | Comments (5) are closed

July 15, 2005

Rocky Mountain High

by David A. Zimmerman

I’ve heard of mountaintop experiences for years now, but I think I finally get what people are talking about.

“Mountaintop experiences” in religious jargon refers to the sense of awe that we experience when we’re away from our normal context and being exposed to challenging concepts about God and his call on our lives. Or something like that. Whatever they are, they’re fundamentally different from our ordinary experience.

My most recent mountaintop experience was in Vail, Colorado, at the national gathering of an organization called the Vine. I interacted with lots of really smart, really deep people interested in “building the City of God” or, if that’s too churchy for you, “infusing our contemporary context with Jesus’ vision for community life.” Either way, I found myself breathless after nearly every conversation, and near-delirious after every session of communal worship.

In the interest of intellectual honesty and full disclosure, however, I should mention that I also found myself breathless after climbing a flight of stairs or even simply walking from the coffee bar to the dinner table. And I found myself near-delirious after lifting my suitcase from the floor to the bed.

This is Vail, people—I was uphill from Denver, “the mile-high city.” And while that may sound insignificant to people who live among hills, for me this was more than a mile higher than I’ve been for an extended period of time ever in my life. I’m from Illinois, and before that from Iowa, both of which are known for their flatness. The air in Vail is quite a bit thinner than the air in Chicago, and so I was oxygen-deprived for most of the duration of the conference.

Along with my breathless delirium, I was also quite often shocked by the things I was hearing from the podium or the panel. But more often than that I was shocked by the elevator button or the metal doorframe or even my keycard as I slid it into the lock on my hotel room. The air is so dry in Vail this time of year that it’s effectively ready to zap you at a moment’s notice.

So what’s a person to think when they’re at a religious gathering and constantly breathless, delirious and charged with electricity? I’m reminded of the swoon, an experience associated with the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s. I wrote a song about it once. People would hear sermons and faint—and this wasn’t the falling-asleep kind of swooning that goes on in our own day. Some liken the phenomenon to the bewildering experiences of early Christians in the biblical book of Acts; some attribute the swoon to some kind of social psychology. I’m willing to imagine it a bit of both and leave it at that.

In any event, I’m cynical and perhaps humble enough to be skeptical of the mountaintop experience, particularly now that I’m safely back in the eastern suburbs of the Great Plains. Breathlessness and delirium and shock certainly have their place in the life of faith, but day in and day out I’m going to have to walk by faith in plain old Illinois, which, even though it’s flat, carries its own charge with it.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:17 AM

July 8, 2005

Fun with Doctrinal Statements

by David A. Zimmerman

It’s the beginning of InterVarsity’s fiscal year, which means it’s time once again for me to annually reaffirm InterVarsity’s doctrinal basis. I’m happy to do so, but as my saintly mommy always says, read it before you sign it. (Actually, I’m pretty sure she never said that, but she’d sign it if she read it.)

As I reread the statement, I realized that I hardly ever read anything like it anymore. So I thought it would be an interesting experiment to write something common, ordinary—like our instructions for people who feed our cats while we're away—in the style of a doctrinal statement. Here goes . . .

Ahem.

The Zimmerman Declaration Regarding Care of Cats

We believe in the regular and persistent nourishment of cats who are in our care—that even in our absence they require and deserve, as creations of the Creator God, food and drink.
In keeping with this belief, we keep a stock of both dry and moist food for our cats, which may be found under the sink in our kitchen.
We acknowledge that our cats, who have not been blessed with opposable thumbs, are at the mercy of human beings to negotiate the packages that contain their food.
We therefore expect that whoever pledges to care for our cats in our absence will regularly prepare and serve both moist and dry cat food to our cats on our behalf.
We likewise keep a dish filled with water easily accessible for our cats, and we anticipate that our surrogate will replenish the water as needed from the pitcher in our refrigerator.
We also strive to keep the lid to our toilet down, in order to discourage our cats from drinking water that we hold to be unhealthy, and we expect similar stewardship of the toilet water while we are away.
We believe that the air quality of our home will be compromised by the neglect, over time, of our cats’ litter box.
We further believe that the contents of our cats’ litter box should not be flushed down the toilet, but instead should be bagged and discarded with the rest of our trash on a regular basis.
In keeping with this belief, we maintain a ready supply of bags for use in discarding the contents of the litter box in the hope that our cat’s steward will regularly dispense with said contents.
We have come to accept that our cats will hide under the bed when strangers enter our home; therefore we expect that our surrogate will rarely (indeed, perhaps never) see our cats while we are away.
And while we mourn, on behalf of this faithful friend, the apparent absence of our cats during the tenure of stewardship, we trust in our cats’ prevailing presence, though hidden.
And we wait in joyful hope for our return home and our blessed reunion with our cats, kept safe in our absence.

With Gratitude,
The Zimmermans

Karen Sloan, an up-and-coming (you might say “emerging”) minister I met at a conference, offered this postmodern-esque critique of my doctrine of cat care:

Pet parents in the emerging culture may look back on our declarations (systematic instructions, etc.) as we look back on medieval litter boxes: possessing a real beauty that should be preserved, but now largely vacant, not inhabited or used much anymore, more tourist attraction than holy place. . . . If pet parenting doesn’t bear fruit in a way or rhythm or pattern of life that yields well cared for cats in real measure, they aren’t interested.

Which just goes to show, you can make fun of virtually anything.

***

I can't let pass without comment the two particularly weird advertisements I've seen recently. One is a TV commercial from Mitchum, with all the markings of a beer or hard liquor ad, except that it's selling deodorant: "If you've ever WAITED TILL THE COMMERCIAL . . . [cue hard rock music] . . . to CHANGE A DIAPER . . . then you're a MITCHUM MAN." Even weirder, I think, is the full page sexy ad for Rohto V redness relief eye drops, with the blurred images and the hip font and color changes: "are you ready for the Rohto V experience?" Brought to you, incidentally, by The Mentholatum Co., Inc.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:46 AM

July 1, 2005

The Cedar Journals, Final Entry

I spent a week recently at Cedar Campus, a camping facility associated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I was serving as staff for “Encountering God,” a study track for college students. I drove there alone, and I drove home alone, but in between I ate, played and bunked with a bunch of people I’d never met. Being a neurotically social person, I found my transition into camp life difficult, and I caught myself journaling quite a lot. The journal is presented here, in chronological installments, for your own amusement.

Last one, I promise.

Wednesday, May 18
The worst of my anxiety seems to have passed. I’ve learned and remembered the names of the people in my cabin and my small group. I’ve survived the first of my two talks. I’ve gotten some sleep. I’ve read and written myself to the point that I have little left to explore inward.

And yet I still continue to meet new people—to share table with students and staff whose faces are completely unfamiliar to me. That means a reintroduction, over and over again.

My name’s Dave . . . Nice to meet you . . . I’m not with a school . . . I’m with InterVarsity Press . . . an editor . . . I’m on the "Encountering God" track . . .

There are a lot of people here, and they’re for the most part surprisingly willing to share themselves. In that sense they’re a lot like satellite television. I’m overwhelmed by the range of opportunities before me to meet new people, make new friends and witness God’s work on all sorts of college campuses.

But there’s only so many people I can truly get to know here, and in that sense my small group is a lot like TiVo. I set aside time to settle down with them, getting to know deeply whom otherwise I would have only scratched the surface of.

I guess I miss my TV.

Thursday, May 19
Still Water
When the sun comes out
And the wind stops blowing,
The waters surrounding me come to their rest.

As they rest, so do I.
I soak sun and look past waves and currents
To scan the horizon—
My future wide open.
My sky my only limit.

And yet . . .

There are still these waters.
And still or not, these waters must be crossed
Before I reach my horizon.

And who knows what future they bring me.
And who knows how long my strength will hold out.

But for now the water is still
And I am at rest.

Friday, May 20
The Bridge
There is a bridge
in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
It spans the meeting point of two great lakes
And so it goes on and on and on.

We pay for the privilege of crossing that bridge
when we come to it.
Some believe it leads to Shangri-La
Bali Hai
Utopia
Paradise
Mackinac

But I know it leads to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—
a place no more majestic than the land to its south
a place no more protected from the sins and sons of the earth.

But it does have its bridge,
which goes on and on and on—
far beyond you’d think a bridge could safely go.
Were it not for this bridge
We’d have no promise
of safely reaching our destination
of coming to Paradise
of coming home.

***

If you live in or near McHenry, Illinois, stop by the Borders Book Store there Saturday, July 9, at 2:00. I'll be signing books and would love some company. That's the day after The Fantastic Four opens in theaters across the country, and while I've been skeptical about the film, I must confess I'm now getting giddy.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:05 AM

April 8, 2005

Recalling John Paul

by David A. Zimmerman

I met Pope John Paul II once. Well, met is perhaps too strong a term. I saw him once, from about a thousand feet away, and I was about four feet tall in a throng of six-footers at the time, so perhaps saw is too strong a word as well. But considering how little I remember clearly of my childhood, the fact that I remember my encounter with the pope is in itself significant.

I was nine when the relatively new pope came to Des Moines, Iowa, in 1979. The rock band KISS was having a concert that night, and I must confess, I wanted to go to the concert. I wasn't too familiar with KISS, but they wore funky outfits and I could buy their action figures in the toy store. The pope did not have an action figure, and for a nine-year-old sensibility, that made him second-rate.

I remember my aunt and presumably her boyfriend coming to town to see the pope with us. I remember parking at K-Mart and taking a long and hilly walk from there to the Living History Farms. I remember entertaining ourselves with songs and word-games and various other distractions. I remember John Paul stepping off a helicopter and kissing the earth. I remember next to nothing of what he said, but I remember thinking that our deacon must be pretty important, as he was in the progression of church officers who greeted our special guest.

I've not regretted missing KISS since the pope came to town, but I have wished that I had a better memory or a better attention span, or that I had been taller or older when he came. But that's mainly because I am biased toward my intellect: the fact that I was one person among thousands who traveled great distances simply to be the church is less significant than the likelihood that I missed out on something memorable that the pope said.

Where does this elevation of words come from? Why is a pilgrimage, however short, less substantial than a sermon outline, however wordy?

A few years after my encounter, Marvel Comics published a comic-biography of John Paul II. In the comic we read the perspective of a reporter experiencing something very similar to what I experienced on the outskirts of Des Moines: the pope greeting the faithful throng in what was called New York but what could have been Des Moines, Mexico City, Toronto, Warsaw or Havana.

Like me, the reporter's attention drifted from the words of this speaker to the life and deeds of the pope. Here was a man who had suffered through the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Poland, who had represented his faith throughout the world even before his ascendancy, who had been thrust into the papacy after the sudden death of his predecessor. He was younger than you might expect a pope to be, and for someone so in love with the ground, he spent a lot of time in the air, flying from country to country.

The comic culminates in an assassination attempt and, more important, the forgiveness extended by the pope to his assailant. At that point, all words fell short, and the measure of this man was made clear through the witness of his actions.

I have a friend who has taken an audience with John Paul. He keeps a photo of that encounter in his office, and the look of serenity on his face is more telling than the words he uses to describe the experience or even the words the pope might have spoken to him. I will miss John Paul, not so much for his words or even for his actions: I will miss him because in 1979 I knew that I was not alone, that even when the day ended I remained surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses that extends beyond myself or my house or even my generation. And to be in that number--to have experienced the grace of God that translates so naturally into forgiveness of even the gravest of sins--that is enough.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:07 AM | Comments (2) are closed

March 18, 2005

The Church with Nothing to Say

by David A. Zimmerman

Every time I drive past a billboard with nothing on it I'm a bit startled. I suppose that's how I know that I'm being affected by advertising--I miss it when it's missing. I also notice the signs that read "Advertise Here": I feel something like an obligation to advertise there, to fill the spot that we as an economy have abandoned to loneliness.

But in all my days I don't recall ever seeing a blank sign outside a church until a few weeks ago. I was driving down the street and realized that this church--a mainstay in my community for decades--had nothing to say to me. I was startled, of course, but I found myself moving through a range of emotions, from offense to confusion to panic to despair to anticipation.

I expect more out of church billboards, I guess. Most billboards sit in isolation from the wares they hawk--they're jutting out of the ground on a roadside in the middle of nowhere, while the product they promote is being canned, bottled or wrapped in a sweatshop on the other side of the world, for all I know. Or they're clumped together along the interstate clamoring for attention, sometimes morphing from one message to another as we drive past. Once again the product exists only in the imagination of the observer. It can't be tasted or touched from where we sit.

In contrast, church billboards sit in the church's front lawn. You know (or you think you know) who the author is of whatever message they project, and you process that message based on what you read. My all-time favorite church billboard message was a sermon title followed by a general message:

Eternal Conscious Punishment
Visitors Welcome

But this church had nothing to say to me. At first I was offended: it's the church's job to say something to me, isn't it? But then I wondered what it means when a church has nothing to say. It's a frightening thought, really. This is the institution, we're taught, that's been entrusted by God with "the words of eternal life." If the church has run out of words, perhaps God has run out of words for us--perhaps God has given up on us.

Then again, perhaps God is just clearing his throat. Billboards don't stay blank for long. They're either torn down or given a new message. Perhaps the church is preparing itself to convey the next big message from God. As Moses said to the people of Israel, "They are not just idle words for you--they are your life." This is my life--coming soon to a billboard near me.

The next time I saw the billboard it did indeed bear a new message: "Pancake Breakfast Saturday, 9 to 11."

***

I haven't given an update on my book in a while. It's still in stores, and I'm still occasionally being interviewed about it. I suspect that the spring and summer movie season will revive interest in the subject matter; there are three major theatrical releases related to comic books in the next four months. I'll be having a number of related articles published soon, and keep in mind that there's a free discussion guide available for download that gives you an excuse to watch six classic superhero movies with all your friends.

If you've read the book and enjoyed it, consider writing a review on Amazon.com or similar bookselling websites. I'd be your buddy!

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:54 AM | Comments (3) are closed

March 11, 2005

From the Heart

by David A. Zimmerman
It was a bright and sunny Valentine’s day this year. I opened a card from my wife before leaving for work. Then I had a conversation about how blood is represented by black ink in comic books. Then I had a conversation with a friend who had just cut his wrist. Then I went to donate blood.

On that particular Valentine’s day, red didn’t so much symbolize love and affection as it did blood—which, if you think about it, is appropriate. The heart, which we celebrate so zealously every February 14, doesn’t pump out chocolate or liqueur or butter cream or caramel; it pumps out blood. And blood is as symbolically potent as a thing can get. Blood is lifeforce; blood is genetics; blood is patriotism; blood is covenant.

What we do with our blood, consequently, has its own symbolic potency. When we portray it in our artwork we are conveying an intensity of experience that can’t be reached with other images. When we spill our own blood we are sending a message to ourselves and others that our life is slipping away, that our internal conflicts can no longer be held in. When we give our blood we acknowledge our interdependence. Blood may be a lot of things, but it is not easily ignored.

But it’s one thing to acknowledge that blood has entered the picture; it’s quite another to know what to do with it. Blood demands but doesn’t presume a response: I don’t give blood knowing when it will be used or who will use it. The image of blood in art and film propels the story forward rather than ending the tale. My friend cut his wrist without knowing what his next move would be.

Like Valentine’s day, Easter has taken on the character of cute little bunnies and cute little eggs, but in its origins it is marked by blood. On Maundy Thursday we hear Jesus compare his blood to the wine that slakes thirst and the covenant promise of God to his creation. On Good Friday we witness the torture and crucifixion of Jesus and we hear the crowd shout “His blood be on us and our children.” On Saturday we cover over his blood in the hopes that our shame and his pain can be outlived. And on Sunday, by his stripes we are healed, and by his blood he conquers even death.

Blood is never an ending; blood is a beginning. Blood marks not the end of life but the beginning of death, and if we take it seriously, it can mark the beginning of resurrection.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:54 AM

March 4, 2005

The Lost Art of Dining Together

by David A. Zimmerman

More than anything, my memories of Lent involve McDonald's Filet of Fish sandwiches. My parents weren't enamored with the idea of replacing a meal time at a table together with empty calories eaten out of a bag. But back in the day, fast food was a luxury for kids, and Fridays during Lent were meatless for us, and McDonald's was selling fish sandwiches for cheap.

For all I know we only did this once, but it dominates my reflections on Lent. We stood in line amid the bright colors and hustle and bustle, and two minutes later we had freshly fried fishstuff and Shamrock Shakes. You don't get memories like that everyday--Filet of Fish sandwiches really only sell during Lent. I liked them with cheese.

Meals are not typically events in the classic sense. Each day we are given our daily bread, and something so routine and so foundational to our survival as food and drink cannot be thought of as special in and of itself. The idea of ingesting food in between events--so loathsome to my parents when I was a child--is now a matter of course. More often than we might care to think about, we eat out of individual bags in bucket seats, at best facing the backs of our loved ones' heads.

But a meal together is something special; it might even be considered a lost art. On the night he was betrayed Jesus brought together his disciples for a meal not unlike the meals they'd have from day to day, except that this meal was an event--the remembrance of the Passover meal that marked Israel's exodus out of Egypt. Sharing that meal that night was a reminder that beyond our mere sustenance, God provides for our deliverance.

In retrospect we know that this particular Passover meal was a profoundly more significant event than even that ancient one: the bread that was broken at this table, the wine that was poured out, would mark the deliverance of all God's people from the burden of sin and the prison of death. Emmanuel--God with us--read his own epitaph at the Last Supper, and he did so over a meal with the people he loved.

I haven't had a Filet o' Fish sandwich this year. This year my Lenten observance involves preparing to play Matthew the disciple of Jesus at my church during Holy Week. The setting is a table, all of us disciples eating together with our teacher, like we would have every day. But what I'm learning is that a meal taken in communion with God, however routine that meal becomes, is never less than an event to be celebrated.

***

I continue to meet wildly interesting people by virtue of having written a book. Most recently Aaron Uglum posted a comment to Strangely Dim, and I read his very clever online comic, "The Flying Banner," about a duck with the uncanny ability to fly. Check it out.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:24 AM | Comments (2) are closed

December 3, 2004

Playing Jesus

By David A. Zimmerman

Playing Jesus pushes all my buttons.

Our church has a drama team that occasionally supplements the service with little sketches. A recent one had me, as Jesus, sitting around whooping it up with four disciples, when a harlot friend of mine crashes our party. Jesus and his disciples didn’t have any lines; the stars of the drama were the harlot and a singer hiding out in the choir loft, singing the Ce Ce Winans song “My Alabaster Box.” The rest of us weren’t to act; we were to “react,” as they say. I didn’t get to say cool Jesus stuff like “Let the dead bury the dead!” or “You brood of vipers!” or “Get thee behind me, Satan!” I just had to sit there, take everything in and think about how Jesus would react.

All of my issues came bubbling up to the surface. I jealously guard my personal space, and yet up came my harlot friend, rubbing her hands and her hair all over my bare feet. I worried about foot sweat; I worried about foot stink. Most of all, I worried about my personal space.

And then there was the problem that my friend was washing my feet. It’s not like my friend usually does my personal grooming for me, like she used to be my babysitter; I’m old enough to have been her babysitter, actually—except I’ve known her for only about eight months.

Oh—did I mention she’s eight months’ pregnant? Here’s this very pregnant woman struggling to get her face close enough to the stinky, sweaty feet of some old guy she barely knows, all so her hair can wipe away all the stink and sweat. And I’m just supposed to sit there and take it as an offer of kindness—no, of worship! Should I even be letting a woman who’s not my wife near my feet? What’s my church thinking? What was I thinking?

And then I realized that I wasn’t playing Jesus any longer, I was playing a Pharisee.

Pharisees, in case you didn’t know, were a politically powerful religious subculture within the community of faith in Jesus’ day. They did whatever they could to avoid personal pollution, whether from unclean human contact (like dirty feet, for instance) or sinful behavior (like, say, harlotry). They kept aloof from other people, avoiding unnecessary touch and uncomfortable situations. They were my kind of people, I’m afraid.

I don’t know how Jesus made it through a day of everyone wanting to touch him, everyone trying to catch him doing something naughty or saying something stupid, everyone feeling the need to treat him as almost unapproachable and yet approaching him anyway. I don’t know how he managed to survive when he was always on display. And yet, here I was facing my congregation, called on to be Jesus the Serene Son of God.

I couldn’t tap into Jesus’ emotions for the sketch because they were so far removed from my own, visceral reaction to the scene. But I do know from the scene that Jesus knew a gift when he saw it coming, and he was gracious enough to receive it as such. In that respect Jesus showed that he wasn’t just a good God, he was a good man. And even if I struggle to be a good man, I might be able to pull it off if I pretend I’m Jesus.

***

My book's out. If you've read it, do me a favor and write a review at Amazon--unless you hate it.

If you're anywhere near Chicago, come to my book release party at Borders Bookstore in Wheaton Tuesday, December 7, at 7:30pm. We'll have costumes, games, prizes, all that sort of stuff. Tell all your friends.

Hope you had a good Thanksgiving. Have a great Advent!

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:43 AM

October 29, 2004

He's Got the Whole World Coming and Going

So much religion, I've come to realize, is just a bunch of going. Christians go to church, Jews go to synagogue, Muslims go to mosque. Witches go to covens, animists go to the woods. Particularly zealous people go even beyond that: Christians go on retreat, Muslims go to Mecca, Native Americans go on vision quests. Some groups are convinced they're going to space.

God, in the Christian tradition, has his own comings and goings. God comes to the garden to visit with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3). God comes to the temple to sanctify it by his presence (1 Kings 8). In Jesus God comes to earth as a human being (John 1). God the Holy Spirit comes into our hearts and resides in us (Ephesians 2). And the Nicene Creed teaches that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead.

God's also gone to some significant destinations: God went before the Israelites into the Promised Land (Exodus 13). Jesus went to the cross to suffer and die (John 19). For three days he went to preach good news to the spirits in prison--whatever that means (1 Peter 3). And as he told his followers, "I go to prepare a place for you" (John 14). The Nicene Creed teaches that he went to heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the father. And as he promised, he will come again.

What's significant in God's coming and going is that he comes and he goes for us. In a sense, at least from our perspective, we are at the center of God's universe.

God wanted us, so he made us. He wanted to be with us, so he came to us. And when he came, we didn't know him, and we told him to go to hell. And in rejecting our Creator we reject our own creation. It's enough to send your head spinning.

But despite the trouble we throw at God and despite our tendency to run away from him, God has come and will come again. He has gone to great lengths to make and remake us, and he has gone even further to make a new home for us. In the meantime, he simply welcomes us and waits for us to welcome him in return. If we slow down we can see that it's our coming and going--not God's demands upon us--that's been wearing us out.

So if we can't get over our own urge to come and go, we can take up Jesus' open invitation: "Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest."

***

Wow. Preachy.

I'm now two weeks out from my book's delivery. My contractions are twenty minutes apart. In the meantime, a discussion guide is now posted online at ivpress.com. It's a big file (now in technicolor!) but gives you a good excuse to watch six superhero movies. Check it out and use it with your friends.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:48 AM | Comments (1) are closed

October 15, 2004

Underdog World

By David A. Zimmerman

I always root for the underdog. If you’re likely to lose some contest, I’ll be waiting for you to win. When I’m feeling particularly daring or noble, I’ll set myself up as an underdog by taking the most challenging of a set of options or declining to use resources made available to me. Underdog was even one of my favorite cartoons when I was very young.

It may be because my namesake, the biblical David, was a willing underdog in the classic sense. David raised sheep—arguably the most defenseless and indefensible animal on the planet—and fought lions and wolves on their behalf with nothing but a sling and stone.

David took that same sling and stone set to a battle with a giant warrior, Goliath, who had given an entire nation the willies. And he did so not after Goliath jumped him in an alley but after being told to go home by his brothers and being offered the king’s armor for protection.

David later refused to fight back when the king abused and persecuted him, he refused to use his authority as king to squelch a rebellion by his son, he refused to use his power to destroy someone mocking him on a bad day. He even refused to drink the cup of water his underlings brought him because, in fetching him a drink, they had risked their lives for his sake.

Perhaps it’s self-absorption that makes me hold a special affection for underdogs—some vague sense of calling associated with my naming. When I was a kid, my uncle (a priest; I call him “my uncle the father”) had me reach into a bag and pull out the name of a biblical character, which he would then use to preach a sermon illustration. I pulled out my own name, and though in effect I was doing nothing for him but manipulating his congregation with my boyish cuteness, in that moment I felt a profound sense of identification with King David, and the more I learned about him, the more, subconsciously I think, I committed myself to the calling of the underdog.

Underdogs can appear foolish because they set themselves to tasks that are clearly beyond their capacity, or they refuse means readily at their disposal to take on such tasks. But on some secret level we’re all rooting for the underdog, aren’t we? The underdog who does the impossible proves that everything is possible, that there’s no limit to the hope available to us. The world’s troubles, the abiding presence of evil that can be tasted and seen, seem like insurmountable challenges that we might as well ignore or acquiesce to, but the underdogs among us are equal parts crazy enough and courageous enough to look such goliaths square in the face and knock them over.

Some say God made the world and left. Others say the world’s evil is proof that God is either evil or incompetent. But imagine that God made the world his Israel and sin his Goliath, and has refused the armor offered him by the world’s Sauls. Perhaps throughout creation God has stood on the battlefield with stone and sling in hand, taking on all comers no matter how big, proving that “it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves, for the battle is the LORD’s.”

***

I've now got a direct line to my book page: www.ivpress.com/zimmer-man. The book is less than a month away from being in print!

Look for a discussion guide based on the book and all my favorite superhero movies, coming soon to ivpress.com/zimmer-man and www.intervarsity.org.

E-mail me at dzimmerman@ivpress.com.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:25 AM

September 17, 2004

The Chipmunk My Brother

By David A. Zimmerman

This summer I spent a week staffing what was essentially a retreat for college students. I went into it with some trepidation, since I was being called on to go somewhere I’d never gone to do things I’d never done for people I’d never met. But it’s not like that’s the first time that’s ever happened, so I decided to go for it.

Our first full day there included a retreat of silence, which is a period of time during which you retreat from your normal surroundings and try to keep silent. I’m not good at silence, so I kept a journal—a kind of literary noise—of the experience. Read on.

* * *

I have a new best friend. He’s a chipmunk. I suppose I don’t know for sure that he is a he, but getting emotionally attached to a female chipmunk might be considered inappropriate, so I'll continue to presume that my new best friend is a boy.

My new best friend has stopped by often to say hi, and he’s just joined me for lunch, so we’ve had several chances to connect. He isn’t afraid to get close, but he’s not overbearing in how he relates to me. He’s everything you might hope for in a friend, and more than you would expect from a chipmunk.

I guess I could have seen this coming. I’m at Cedar Campus, a retreat center operated by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. My wife came here years ago and made her own new best friend; she was visited regularly by a duck, who would join her for times of quiet and help her to process the day’s unfoldings.

I expected to see my share of animals this week; we were alerted from the outset to their presence (they’re year-round residents). Yet I didn’t expect to share a meal with one of them. I didn’t expect a confessor or a buddy. My brother the chipmunk is a gift of grace this week, a surprisingly delightful host.

I came up here knowing two people. They’re both sensitive to the needs of the people around them, but they also have many responsibilities that necessarily trump the anxieties and relational desperations of an insecure tourist such as myself. I’ve since met several wonderful people—both college students and the people who minister to them—but their attentions and obligations necessarily start with the other members of their fellowship. They’ve been very gracious, but they’re needed elsewhere.

Which is fine now, because I have my brother the chipmunk. If we will be recognized as children of God in the way that we love one another, then I can gladly attest to the faith of my chipmunk brother. This week, I will be his student, and he will teach me to love.

I think I’ll call him Chucky.

***

Read an interview about my forthcoming book, Comic Book Character.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:23 AM

January 9, 2004

A Report on the Urbana 03 Student Mission Conference, I Mean, Convention

by David A. Zimmerman

Just after Christmas I traveled to central Illinois to attend the Urbana 03 Student Mission Convention—which is decidedly not a conference. People confer at conferences; at Urbana we merely convened. Keep that in your head.

As an employee of the convention’s major sponsor, I convened with less idealized intentions than most delegates: I went to sell books—specifically, the “book of the day.” You might think that selling a few books in exchange for free entry into a historic convention would be a sweet deal, and for the most part you’d be right. I heard speakers l’ve been eager to hear and met interesting people from all over the country. I had my vision for the church throughout the world expanded and my faith commitments stretched. Go to www.urbana.org and you’ll get a feel for what I mean. But it’s a week later, and my feet still hurt.

Selling the book of the day for me was a physical challenge. I was a floater; I would travel between selling stations and make sure people had what they needed to sell books. That included books, of course, so after each morning session my fellow floaters and I collected unsold books of the day and distributed the evening’s book of the day. In the evening we would repeat the whole process with the book of the day for the following morning.

You see, “book of the day” is what we in the bookselling business like to call a “misnomer.” There are two plenary sessions each day of the convention, and each session features one book. Somehow the math works out to two books each day being the “book of the day”:

2 sessions/1 day x 1 book/1 session – 1 idea (1 sales slogan) ≈ 1 book of the day

Just to add to the confusion, one such “book” was a video compact disk—which is decidedly not a DVD, by the way, although it apparently will play on some DVD players, though not all. Keep that in your head as well.

Anyway, moving the incredibly confusing inventory around was only part of the physical challenge I faced. Our team convened (and conferred) in a basement room I liked to call the Batcave and then dispersed to stations spread out on two floors. Floaters like me would go up the stairs, around the circular building, up the stairs again, around the circular building again, down the stairs, around the circular building again, and down the stairs to the Batcave. I found myself questioning the meaning of life by my third trip.

Let me tell you something: circular buildings are incredibly disorienting. My only clear landmark was a giant Yanni poster, which only compounded my bewilderment. Adding to that was mental fatigue from trying to explain to seemingly thousands of people before and after each session that there are two books of the day every day, that neither one was available all day, that each of them was available all week with the other books of the other days at the other building.

lf you could follow that paragraph, I’d like to recruit you for the book of the day team at the tentatively titled Urbana 06 Student Mission Convention, which, it has already been decided, will not be a conference. It will, however, likely be the most meaningful experience of walking in a circle over and over again that you’ll ever have.

Send your comments to dzimmerman@ivpress.com.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:53 AM

December 5, 2003

The Impossible Task

by David A. Zimmerman

So I’m sitting at the pool when some woman in a two-piece bathing suit, sitting on a chaise lounge by the deck, says, “Honey, I’m cold. Could you turn up the heat?” She’s not talking to me; the temperature is some other guy’s problem. But we’re at a hotel, and she’s in a two-piece. The heat (or lack thereof) is out of his control.

Still, he marches off dutifully to find the temperature gauge, or the hotel manager, or a match to light the towels on fire. He may have grumbled a bit as he went, but secretly, perhaps even unconsciously, I’ll bet he was excited. He got to tackle the impossible task.

We commonly think we are masters of our environment. Often we are: humankind has effectively dominated creation from its earliest days. But that's not enough for many of us: humans individually often want to dominate each other.

Some of us try to master information, because knowledge is power. Some of us collect everything from manna to money to missiles, because the one who dies with the most toys wins. Some of us traffic in our bodies or relationships because sex sells, or might makes right, or he is not poor who has family or friends, or whatever other flimsy cliché we think we can ride to the top of the human race.

But then comes the impossible task. This one has not talked to her brother for seven years when she gets the call that he’s died in a car accident. That one has inoperable cancer and a newborn son. And at one time or another each has offended in one way or another the righteousness of a holy God. The task is to resolve the conflict with the brother or to cure the cancer or to make things right with God. The task is impossible.

Sorry, but it’s true. We are masters of our environment only so long as we hide from those things we cannot master. Once we can no longer hide, we can no longer fool ourselves that we have all we need in ourselves, that we don’t need help.

Good news, though. The God we’ve offended in one way or another is the master of our environment, our relationships, our internal and eternal lives.

Wait a minute. That may be news, but it doesn’t sound good. And yet it is good, because God is good.

Once we are faced with the impossible task of reconciling with a dead loved one, we realize that all along the conflict was not worth the separation. Once we are faced with the pain of a deadly disease and the imminent separation from our newborn child, we recognize how precious are life and health and wholeness. And once we are faced with the God who created life and health and wholeness and relationships, we understand that all that is good has its origin in him. That God is the master of our environment is good news because it means someone good—not fickle or misguided or fallen or mortal—is in charge.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:16 AM

November 7, 2003

Don’t Knock-Knock the Catechism

by David A. Zimmerman
Why is everyone so afraid of theology? Maybe one reason is that it's so darn wordy. For example, the Roman Catholic catechism runs 756 pages (plus an index) in a 1994 mass market edition. (Get it? “Mass market!” Ha!) Protestants don’t get it any easier—their systematic theologies run several volumes at a pop, and the really good ones are in German.

But is there really any reason to let theology get so complicated? I’ve written my own systematic theology, in fact, as a series of knock-knock jokes. They’re not only formative—they’re hilarious!

The Doctrine of Creation
Knock-knock.
Who’s there?
Nothing and Nobody.
Nothing and Nobody who?
Nothing and Nobody till I say so.
Who said that?

The Doctrine of God
Behold, I stand at the door and knock-knock.
Who’s there?
I AM WHO I AM.
What? Who?
I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.
Come again?
OK, OK, Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

The Doctrine of Humanity
Knock-knock.
Who’s there?
Made.
"Maid"? As in “Let’s hire a maid to clean up this mess"?
No, “Made,” as in “Made in the image of God.”
Oh, right, gotcha.

The Doctrine of Sin
Knock-knock.
Who’s there?
ssssssssssssss . . .
Who’s there?
sssssssssssss . . .
Really, who’s there?
Ssssssin is crouching at your door.
Ssssssin is crouching at your door who?
Oh, for the love of God . . .

The Doctrine of Salvation
Knock-knock.
Who’s there?
The Light of the World.
The Light of the World who? I don’t understand.
Right, like I didn’t see that coming.

The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
Knock-knock.
Who’s there?
Wooooooosh!
Wooooooosh who?
This is the way; walk in it.
What?

The Doctrine of the Church
Knock-knock.
Who’s there?
We are.
We are who?
We are the body of Christ.
What? Who are the body of Christ?
The now and not yet.
All right, I'll bite: The now and not yet who?
The now and not yet kingdom of God.

The Doctrine of Last Things
Knock-knock.
Who’s there?
Jesus.
Finally! Come in!

OK, so it’s not as straightforward as I might have hoped. And perhaps “hilarious” was a little strong. But maybe it’s worth a few laughs. And at least it’s got a good punch line.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:19 AM

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Behind the Strangeness

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

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a founder of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs occasionally at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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