IVP - Strangely Dim - Stuff About the Self Archives

October 19, 2012

Walking into a Strangely Dim Future

A farewell post from Lisa Rieck

Way back in June, July and August, when the trees were not the beautiful reds and oranges that they are now and the Halloween decorations were not yet out (thankfully), we did a series here at Strangely Dim on calling. I intended to write a personal post, reflecting on my own sense of calling as I have discerned it/am discerning it thus far. But alas, that didn't happen; all you got from me was reflections on mourning (so fitting, no?).

I suppose this, my last words as an official Strangely Dim blogger, is that post. As Dave mentioned, I've taken a job as a writer/editor/proofreader at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Madison, Wisconsin. This admittedly large step has come out of my sense of God's calling on my life at this time and place, as I've paid attention to my soul and to what makes me feel alive, and as I've sensed God speaking to me about fear and trusting him and writing and community and change (among other things). And I think, when it comes to calling, that's really how it is: we pay attention, we listen, we explore, we step out in faith.

I make it sound so easy, I know. Change and stepping out in faith and trying new things never are; following God's leading rarely is. But even in the midst of the stress of wrapping up at IVP, the sadness of all the goodbyes, the deep concentration it's taking not to pack my car keys in a box--it's good. I sense God's presence and leading, and have seen his confirmation and grace in so many ways in the process.

I don't think every change will be that way. Sometimes, perhaps, the road is not as clear, and our sense of God speaking and leading is not as tangible. Those steps are even less easy. But even in those changes God is good, as he is now, and we can trust him to be near, to lead, to hear us when we cry for help. The goodness of God I'm experiencing so richly now will be a stone of remembrance for the times when I can only believe--but perhaps not sense--that he is near.

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My prayer for you, sweet readers, is that you too would know God's goodness and nearness--always by faith, but also in tangible ways as you pay attention and come to see him at work more and more in you and around you. Here's to living and moving and having our being as we're called and led by God. One last time, I'm raising my cup of hot tea to you.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 9:49 AM

August 23, 2012

What's the Right Calling Plan?

Bob Fryling, publisher for IVP, continues our series on calling with some thoughts on how and when he sensed a vocational call to organizational leadership.

I dislike shopping for phones. This is not because of the phones themselves, which are amazing in their cool technology. Rather it is because of the expensive decision of choosing a carrier as the salespeople robotically ask, "What is the right calling plan for you?"

In a strange way I have felt similarly about discovering my calling in life. There are lots of wonderful books with principles and special features on both vocational and spiritual calling, but they have not always led me to determine what has been the right calling for me.

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For instance, I started my vocational journey wanting to be an astronomer. I had my own telescope, looked at the moon and read books on the stars. I was following my dreams until I realized I didn't like staying outside on cold nights!

Then my guidance counselors in high school encouraged me to study engineering in college. I was good at math and it seemed like the patriotic thing to do in light of our country's desire to stay ahead of the Russians in the "race for space." So I studied materials science in college and then worked for Ford Motor Company as a research engineer.

I could and indeed did do well in this vocational path; the major problem was that I was not motivated by it. I began to realize that the right vocational calling plan for me was neither just what I dreamed about doing nor just what I was good at doing. I needed something more.

Reluctantly, I began to accept that maybe organizational leadership was part of my calling. Although I had been captain of my Little League team and president of my high school choir, I never saw myself as a "natural born leader" who could just walk into a room or situation and command immediate attention. I never ran for any elected position or made any long-range achievement goals. Yet people kept asking me to take organizational leadership positions--and that is what I have been doing most of my adult life now.

In fact, it was really this affirmation and calling by others that has been most significant in my own sense of calling. I have certainly taken initiative in learning about leadership through books and seminars, and I really do like helping others to work together successfully. But I needed others who saw my gifts and potential and gave me opportunities and words of encouragement to use and develop my gifts. I wasn't so much on an independent personal career track as I was working in tandem with the career track of others. The more I connected with others the more they connected with me.

This was even true during some very difficult times in my career when I was fired (twice, in fact--from the same job!) for primarily organizational reasons. The reasons also brought to light some of my personal shortcomings, though, and those times of loss and self-examination drew me closer to God and to not only what was not happening with me vocationally but also what was happening within me spiritually.

Consequently, over a period of years I developed a vocational prayer that was more focused on who I was becoming as a person than on what I was doing in my job. Yet it also captures what the Lord has been calling me to in leadership. This may change in the years ahead, but right now this is the prayer and calling plan that seems right for me:

Lord, grant me a quiet and contented heart that is not distraught with internal regrets or frenzied by external circumstances or immobilized by fears of the future, but rather finds its peace and satisfaction in you.

Please circumcise my heart from temporal attachments and entanglements so that I may love you with all of my heart, soul, mind and strength and my neighbor as myself.

I pray that you would also create in me a burning heart for understanding, obeying and delighting in your Word. And grant me a dancing heart of joy that is attentive to others and engages the world around me with you and your kingdom.

Fill me with your Holy Spirit that I may wholeheartedly lead and serve others with beauty, wisdom and purpose as an instrument of your grace to the glory of your name. Amen.

***

Read Bob's book The Leadership Ellipse for more insights he's gleaned from his years in organizational leadership.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 12:35 PM

August 16, 2012

Keep Plugging Away

An Untheological Reflection on Calling by Suanne Camfield

One of my favorite moments of the 2012 Olympic Games was when Great Britain's Jessica Ennis snagged a gold medal in the heptathlon. If you didn't see it, I'm sorry you missed it. Headed into the last event of the competition--the dreaded 800 meters--all Ennis had to do was finish respectably and she'd win gold. But with an entire stadium on their feet, and an entire country's hopes pinned on her shoulders, Ennis did more than just finish respectably. She smoked the pack. Nike must have been on to something: she totally found her greatness.

I think I wept.

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We've been doing a little series here at Strangely Dim on calling and I can't help but wonder how often we (and by "we" I mean "I") think the Ennis endings, as great as they are, are the only ones that matter. I once had a missionary tell me that people often think God has called them to do something great, but what they forget is that God has called them first and foremost to himself. I think there might be something to that.

As a senior in high school (a long, long, long way from the Olympics) I was recruited by my soon-to-be college of choice to compete for them in the heptathlon--the event where Ennis found her greatness this summer. One day, only a few months into my training, I was running a 400-meter sprint, only instead of crossing the finish line, I sat down on the side of the track and started crying. A few weeks later, a bone scan confirmed that I had developed stress fractures in both of my shins. I was "redshirted," suspending my eligibility to compete during my freshman year. I was devastated. Well-wishers said redshirting was a respectable way to start a career, but I didn't much care about respectability. I wanted to smoke the pack.

[Insert Identity Crisis here.]

I'd often call home and lament my "failure" to my parents. I couldn't do the thing I thought I was brought to college to do. Adding insult to injury, my team went on to win the conference championship that year (the only year they'd do so in my tenure there) and I had to sit on the side and watch--no skin in the game for me. At the end of each conversation I had with my dad, he'd leave me with the same bit of encouragement: Just keep plugging away. It will eventually pay off. Just keep plugging away.

That was nineteen years ago. Now in my mid-thirties, identity crises (mostly) resolved, I'm deeply convicted to do the things I feel God brought me to this earth to do . . . if only I knew exactly what those things were. As I've tried to draw the mystery of calling out of others, the more I've realized how infinitely mysterious calling is--few people actually know what they want to be when they grow up. Even when they are grown up.

The first time I felt what I'd describe as calling was about seven years ago. My husband, Eric, two kids and I had just moved to the western suburbs of Chicago from rural Ohio. As an at-home mom of two toddlers, I was exhausted, overwhelmed and ridiculously lonely. A few months into our move, a nasty stomach bug hit our entire crew. As luck would have it, I was the first to recover. Before anyone could stop me (and, moaning from a fetal position on the couch, they couldn't) I snagged Eric's laptop and dashed out of the house. I sat at a coffee shop and did something I hadn't done in four years--I wrote.

And something inside of me came alive. I think my soul actually lurched.

While I realize I can't exactly build a theology on "lurch," I've never looked back at that day with anything but certainty that it was a life-changing moment--the one in which God impressed upon me a sense of purpose and direction. For the next three years, I threw myself toward that direction. I started writing more and speaking quite a bit, but my freelance gigs weren't exactly paying the bills. So once my kids were in school, Eric gently "suggested" that I look for a job. I wasn't opposed to the idea, but I had been an at-home mom for eight years--quite the gap in the 'ol resumé. More to the point, though, I was afraid that the more time I spent working, the less time I'd have to speak and write. At the end of the day, working seemed like the best option so, on a wing and a prayer, at the age of thirty-five, I took an unpaid internship at IVP. Four months later, I had me a job. And it's been good.

But now life is about juggling. I work thirty-two hours a week as a publicist. My kids, now nine and ten, are physically more independent but need me more than ever. I manage meals and bills and car pools and Little League and swim team and homework until my head hurts. I try to be a good life partner to my megachurch-pastor husband who is working on his MDiv. I exercise at 5 a.m. to keep my sanity. I have friends I couldn't breathe without. And in the midst of it all, that moment in the coffee shop sits in my soul and beckons me to return to it again and again. And so I do. I write and I speak as much as I can. And each night I climb into bed so tired I could cry.

Sometimes I wonder if it's worth it. Often I wouldn't be surprised if it's not. I'm pretty sure, given the scope of the world's problems, God could care less about my budding resumé. But somehow, against all odds, I believe that he does care.

And so what do I do?

I get out of bed. I fall to my knees and plead. I surrender any false notions about finding my greatness and ask Jesus to first and foremost call me to himself. I stand up and put one foot in front of the other and trust the things I know to be true--that God cares more about my character than my competency, more about redemption than my resumé. That I can only do what I'm capable of doing, that I can only give what I am capable of giving, that I can only live the story that God has given me to live. My future is not ultimately mine to script anyway.

I hold fast to bits of wisdom that people have shared with me over the years:

From my friend Ed: "We're always looking for what God calls us to do next and in the process we forget that he's called us to do whatever we're doing right now."
From Mindy: "You can ask me how I got to where I am, but the truth is I couldn't have planned it if I tried."
From Adele: "Maybe instead of asking what you want to do, you need to start asking who you want to be."
From Eric (and I really hate this one): "Moses was a shepherd for forty years before he saw the burning bush." In other words, be patient. God knows what he's doing.

And I read things from those who have spent quite a bit of time wrestling with their own calling:

Brennan Manning in The Wisdom of Tenderness: "Everybody has a vocation to some form of life-work. However, behind that call (and deeper than any call), everybody has a vocation to be a person fully and deeply human in Christ Jesus."
Michael Card in The Walk: "Behind every specific call, whether it is to teach or preach or write or encourage or comfort, there is a deeper call that gives shape to the first: the call to give ourselves away--the call to die."
I remember what Eugene Peterson so clearly shows us about calling--that it's all about a long obedience in the same direction.

And somehow I become okay with doing what my dad told me to do all those years ago--just keep plugging away--and trust that the God who has formed me, gifted me and called me will take care of the rest.

***

Read senior editor Dan Reid's reflections on his vocational calling here and here.

Read Dave's reflection here on our calling as Christians to be people who go.

Read Lisa's reflection here on our calling as Christians to be people who mourn with hope.

Posted by Suanne Camfield at 11:15 AM | Comments (2) are closed

August 6, 2012

Selling Apples on the Same Corner: Dan Reid's Vocational Journey, Part Two

Dan Reid, senior editor for IVP's academic and reference publishing, continues the story of his arrival in the "providential profession" of an editorial vocation. Read part one here.

Let me make this clear: No one in my earlier years would have said to me, "Dan, some day you are going to be an editor. I just know it!" No. Not at all. Never. My high school English teacher has (so I've been told) used me to illustrate the point that you never know what your students are going to do, particularly your less promising ones. This makes some of my IVP colleagues suck in their breath and feel slightly nauseated. But my old high school friends love to hear me tell my story. And from where I sit today, I can look back and see all sorts of interests, experiences, propensities and educational opportunities that prepared me for my vocation in theological publishing. And when the time was right, the desire to do it--and the sense of calling--was strong.

Dan 1 cropped.jpgI also see a stream of associations with IVP meandering through my life. Various IVP books had been part of our household as I was growing up, and some of them had entered my life at strategic points during my college and seminary education. There was a period when I eagerly awaited the next IVP book from Francis Schaeffer--in fact I had taken along a book or two of his for nearly three weeks of solo backpacking through the North Cascades of Washington State in 1969. It's very likely I had The God Who Is There in my pack that night on Aspen Mountain. I had also used IVP books in teaching. But still, it was something of a wonder to one day find myself at the source of this stream, in an old brick building on Main Street of Downers Grove, Illinois. That was over a quarter century ago.

My father likes to quote a very successful family friend's key to success in business: "I just keep selling apples on the same corner." This man was being very modest. But I have come to see the wisdom in that homespun reflection. I have come to doubt that anything really worthwhile is achieved apart from devoting yourself to it consistently, day in and day out. Not many of those days are very thrilling in themselves, but put them end on end and they can add up to something. And besides, we need that time to grow into our vocation, to slowly gain wisdom and build things where we have been placed. Impatience can impair that process. I'm much less enamored of brilliance these days, particularly the kind that flares ever so brightly . . . and then either burns out or dissipates in a shower of sparks. I'm moved by stories of those who have played the long game.

The vocational field I've been called to cultivate, year in and year out, has been remarkably uniform: acquiring and editing reference and academic books for IVP. But it has also been motivated and carried along by a particular vision of what evangelical biblical scholarship might become. For the most part it has only taken a few good ideas, executed with consistency and a sense of calling--and undergirded by a whole lot of providence--to make it whatever it is today.

I have frequently thought there are any number of people who could have done this job as well or better than I have. And I marvel that I was in the right place at the right time and given the opportunities I've enjoyed. I also wonder why there are people so much more gifted than I who just don't seem to find a vocational niche that fits them well. I do not have an explanation. And I sometimes feel embarrassed by the richness of my own calling. (Though I do realize many will find this an amusing delusion, since they view my work as immensely boring!) Yet I have also seen Christians who are capable of so much more than their job requires of them, who have nevertheless used their surplus of giftedness and character to make their work far more than it would have been without them. This too points to a deep sense of vocation and reminds me that it's not only what you do but how you do it that counts as witness to God's kingdom.

In my previous post I mentioned the sense of loss when I returned from the Philippines. Today from my desk I can see a shelf of foreign-language editions of reference works that I've built from the ground up. They are translated into Chinese and Russian, Portuguese and Italian, to name a few. It turns out that publishing can indeed bear witness to God's kingdom in a variety of tongues. I am taking part in that crosscultural missionary calling, though not in a way I had anticipated.

I still have moments--particularly when the routines and occasional crises of publishing seem to overwhelm--when I am sure I should have pursued a career in the mountains. But apart from the possibility that my life might have been quite a bit shorter, I still conclude that, for me at least, I would have missed my true calling. I can always satisfy my hunger for the outdoors. (And I do. My dream vacations are most people's worst nightmares.) Then, with body and soul ventilated, I get back to the particular work God has called me to do.

***

See IVP's books by Francis Schaeffer here.

Check out Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good here.

See some of the fruits of Dan's vocation here.

Read Addenda & Errata, Dan's IVP blog, here.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:18 AM

August 1, 2012

The Providential Profession: Dan Reid's Vocational Journey, Part One

Dan Reid, senior editor for IVP's academic and reference publishing, tells the story of the long and winding road to an editorial vocation.

I've heard the editorial profession called the "accidental profession." I guess a lot of editors have just fallen into this line of work. Many of us have not had any specific training for it. But in my case I'd call it the providential profession, or vocation.

Books have always been important to me. That doesn't mean I've always read the "right" ones. I've often pretty much followed my interests--whether it be stories of adventure and arctic exploration, or philosophy and theology, or just a good read. Unfortunately, for many of my earlier years my interests seldom lined up with school curriculum. I didn't like school. So up through high school and early college my grades reflected this. This is not what most people assume of me. You read it here.

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Fortunately I came from a family where the King's English was honored and enforced. And I was schooled in a time and place where the instructional level was of such a caliber that even a drifter didn't stray too far from the main channel. I also came from a missionary family--three generations, in fact--so I grew up negotiating two cultures and two languages. I was--and am--a Third Culture Kid. They say this explains a lot, and I'll allow that.

I had quite a bit of theological education early on in college--a Bible college, to be specific. Then my interests broadened into philosophy and the humanities in general. Finally, my focus ratcheted down and I launched off into seminary with a general aim of heading into an academic line of work. Would I teach? I hoped so. The pastoral life didn't seem to match up with me, at least those parts that aren't related to preaching and teaching.

But before I go any further, I need to backtrack to September 1971. I was camped one night on the upper slopes of Aspen Mountain in Colorado, on my way back to Portland, Oregon, where I was due to resume my college education. I'd spent the first half of the summer bicycling down the Oregon and California coast, then traveled east to the Grand Canyon, where (on my last twenty dollars) I found a job and lived and worked until mid-September. I was a devoted mountain climber and skier, and being in Aspen set me to seriously contemplating finding a job right there and "living the life." But I had a revelation that night--and it boiled down to the fact that ski bums often don't end up doing much with their lives. (This should have been borne out by general observation, but there were enough attractive exceptions to distract my attention from the main lesson.) So I got back into my one-hundred-twenty-five-dollar 1949 Chevy (bicycle now within) and headed back to Portland, with a sensible detour through the Grand Tetons. But now with a new sense of purpose.

By the mid-70s I was married and in seminary. I was a much better student than I'd ever been before. I ate up Greek and everything else put in front of me. By 1979 I was the father of two and in a PhD program, and in 1982 I finished the degree. I had no assurance that this extended education would prove to be vocationally fruitful. But I knew that if I didn't do it, I would surely regret it. I thought I would fulfill my vocation teaching in a seminary in the Philippines. And I did that for two years, growing and learning through the experience. I enjoyed it. But in 1985 a family health problem brought us back to the States, and I was wondering what was next for us. I wouldn't be truthful if I didn't mention that with my missionary background, I was feeling a sense of loss. Would I find a position teaching? Maybe. Maybe not. I had nightmares that we would be living in one of the packing crate we'd shipped our stuff in (not an improbable scenario if you'd been living in the Philippines!). And I prayed.

Interestingly, the idea of working in publishing had been worming its way into my thinking. For a book guy, the idea of reading books before they were published, and being involved in the process of bringing books to birth, was tremendously attractive. I started to inquire of publishers. I got some freelance work with a publisher. I began to dream of working in publishing (rather than living in a packing crate). And the only concrete opportunity that surfaced was a new job opening at IVP for a reference book editor.

The job description was made for me--it had everything but my name on it. And IVP, after an interview, was courageous enough to make it mine. In the early years I really didn't know whether this new role as editor would work out for the long run. But over the years--twenty-six of them now--I've found it's my place, and a fascinating one at that. I work with great people, for a great company, and there is a constant stream of new ideas in the form of books and book proposals moving across my desk. I feel like I constantly have my finger on the pulse of evangelical thought. And I've come to know and work with all sorts of authors and scholars, some of whom I might not have met otherwise.

***

More from Dan in a post to come.

See some of the fruits of Dan's vocation here.

Read Addenda & Errata, Dan's IVP blog, here.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:40 AM

July 30, 2010

The Blessing of Becoming

I've been thinking about identity lately. This can be good or bad for me. I'm a processer by nature, and sometimes that brings a deeper knowing of myself, a firmer confidence in who I am. Other times, it just makes me more confused and causes me to spend way too much time making decisions about extraordinarily trivial things, like what Kleenex box to buy for my bathroom (and therefore how others will frame or reframe their perception of my identity upon visiting my apartment and perhaps using the bathroom and viewing the deliberated-over tissue box).

You see how it can get a little confusing.

Lately, however, a couple of resources and experiences have converged to invite deeper (helpful) reflection about who I am. First, books. I too, like Rebecca and Christa, am reading Unsqueezed and am grateful for the reminders about what gives us value and what we're created for. And then I recently finished copyediting a forthcoming IVP book called The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are (look for it in April 2011) by Jenell Williams Paris, a professor of anthropology (at my alma mater, thank you very much). While I wasn't particularly thinking about or wrestling with sexual identity before working on it, the book provided plenty of food for thought about what does--or should--define us, and how we can reframe the ways we categorize and perceive ourselves and others. (Hint: it has to do with us all being human.) I've also been meditating on some Scripture passages suggested in David Benner's book Surrender to Love, particularly Matthew 19:13-15, where Jesus calls his followers to become like little children. That adds more to the identity mix for sure. (As an aside, does Benner, or does he not, look like Harrison Ford in his author photo??)

Then at the beginning of July, I had the opportunity to take a weeklong systematic theology class taught by my esteemed colleague Dr. Gary Deddo. (I should note here that the fact that I wanted to take a systematic theology class caused me to do some identity reflection right off the bat. And the fact that I loved it was the source of further reflection. This was my first foray into anything deeper than a college Intro to Theology class.) Some of the many fascinating and brilliant hours of lecture on a whole range of topics such as the nature of God, God's providence, evil, Scripture and predestination (to name a few) were spent on the topics of gender and humanity. And, though there's so much more to these ideas (hint: it all comes back to the Trinity), a few pieces I've been reflecting on are that (1) we belong to God--all of us, whether we realize/acknowledge it or not; (2) as we become more like Christ we become more and more human--more and more of what we're created to be; which leads to (3) we are "becoming" people.

This idea of "becoming" as a central part of our identity is, if you'll let me say so, a very becoming way of thinking about who we are as human beings created by God. And it has far-reaching implications as we reflect on it, understand it more deeply, live into it. It also leads me to the last event that's caused me to reflect on who I am: I became part of a new age bracket, the thirtysomethings. Birthdays are, of course, a natural time to pause and reflect on who we are, where we've been, what we've accomplished (or not accomplished), who we've served (or not served), how we've grown (or regressed), areas of strength and weakness, regrets, victories, new skills learned, old skills forgotten, goals for the next month, year, decade. (Or maybe that's just me. Maybe others just blow out the candles and enjoy the cake.)

In any case, while in one sense turning thirty simply means turning another year older, it feels more significant to me in that it's a new decade, after a decade that has held the hardest years of my life. Right now, this new phase looks squeaky-clean, and breeze-dried-laundry fresh, even more than a non-new-decade birthday. Also, I've heard from others that the thirties are great.

I hope so.

But whether or not that ends up being true, and however I change/settle in to who I am as I come to know myself more and more, I want to hang on to the truth of being someone who is always becoming. For a girl who thinks she should have already figured out and perfected _____________________ (fill in the blank with anything--sword fighting, organizing the paper and mail that threatens to take over my life, Asian cooking, etc.) yesterday, having "becoming" at the root of who I am--who I've been created to be--is very freeing and encouraging. It takes the pressure off of having to be someone who has arrived or who is supposed to have arrived or who is fooling herself or others into thinking that she's arrived, and lets me be someone who is constantly on her way (which is what's always true anyway) to deeper gratitude and broader generosity and more noticeable peace and hospitable authenticity and childlike faith.

Besides being more accurate in describing who we are, "becoming" is also much more preferable than many other adjectives. For example, I had to laugh when, shortly after my birthday, I noticed the following verse in the Psalms: "Once I was young, and now I am old." I suppose I'll have to face that piece of my identity at some point. But the verse that follows that one is even more true: "The LORD directs the steps of the godly. He delights in every detail of their lives. Though they stumble, they will never fall, for the LORD holds them by the hand" (Psalm 37:23-24). The Father-Son-Spirit God, who made us and loves us, is the One who helps us become all that he created us to be.

So those are my reflections thus far, a few weeks into thirty. (On another aside, though, if Asian chef is part of your becoming self, my non-Asian-chef, thirty-year-old becoming self would be glad to come over and process some more with you . . .)
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 11:25 AM

July 22, 2010

Self-Image and the Shoes of Death: On Unsqueezed

I love shoes. Tall shoes, especially. But I've always felt that in the area of shopping and fashion I was a pretty late bloomer; and having always been rather tall, wearing shoes that drew attention to this uncomfortable fact made me . . . uncomfortable. So I was in my twenties before I got over my height issues and started wearing more than a one-inch heel. It may seem trivial, but it was significant for me to realize that being tall is, really, just fine.

 So now every time I see the cover of Margot Starbuck's Unsqueezed, the first thought in my head is often, Oooh, I really want that shoe! And then, even though the thought of wearing a stiletto is, shall we say, a bit over the top for me, I run through in my head all the places I might possibly go to procure such a lovely, sexy, impossibly-angled pair of shiny red stilettos at a reasonable price. I even had, for a while, this annoying sing-song phrase running through my head (like the McDonald's "Filet-o-Fish" ad): give-me-that-sti-let-to-heel / give-me-that-heel.

Unsqueezed #3616.jpgAs you can see, I've come a long way.

The shoe on the cover of Unsqueezed gets to me because in one sweeping blow it identifies something that I really love and then tells me that I need to be free of it. And it's not just the shoe that it tells me I need freedom from, but everything the shoe represents--which is, according to Starbuck, our culture's "ill-fitting," "death-dealing" concept of beauty. Says Starbuck, "Enlightened women like us know better. . . . we're aware of our culture's distorted perception of beauty. . . . [But] dissatisfied with our bodies . . . and against our better judgment--many of us still buy into it all." Preach it, Margot!

Honestly, though, I want to argue with the shoe on the cover: Really, wearing high-heeled shoes is proof of how accepting I've become of my height. What's so bad about that? Or, Would not wearing these awesome shimmery purple pumps really mean that I have a healthy self-image? No. I like them, I'm wearing them, and I don't care what anyone says--including you, silly red-shoe-bedecked book cover! Never mind the fact that my toes go numb after standing in them for twenty minutes; or that my back swells and aches from compensating for the unnatural position it must adopt to accommodate my otherwise impeccable taste in shoes; or how hugely impractical these contraptions are when your car breaks down in a blizzard five miles from help. (Though they smite me, yet will I wear them . . .)

Yes, when it comes to how we present ourselves, women (and men, too) take far more drastic steps than wearing tall shoes, to be sure. But why do we insist upon making our bodies billboards of self-awareness? Starbuck has honed in on some reasons--lies, marketing, greed, shame. And she helps us redirect our self-obsession toward an understanding of what our bodies are really for--worship, mission, movement, relationship, service, justice--and how we can use them for the good of others and the world around us. (And she accomplishes all this while being really funny. Seriously.)

Here's Margot's take on how to step out of the mold:

Many of us think about ourselves, our bodies, all day long.

"Yeah," you might agree, "but how do you not do that?" That's the real question.

Telling someone not to think about themselves is like telling someone not to think about a pink elephant. Only, instead of an elephant, it's more like telling them to not to think . . . thoughts. Deciding not to think about ourselves, not to dwell on our bodies, is no small feat. 

If we are to succeed, we sort of need a better plan.

Pastor and author Tim Keller mentions, in one of his sermons, the way that C. S. Lewis describes this humble sort of person who's not so obsessed with himself. "Do not imagine," writes Lewis, "that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call 'humble' nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody."

Please stay focused and try not to be distracted trying to visualize a greasy smarmy person.

Lewis continues, "Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him." If you've ever encountered someone like that, someone who's genuinely interested in what you're saying, you know how fantastic it is to be in their presence.

Did you catch that movement? Our eyes are freed up from being glued to ourselves when they are turned toward others. Granted, this is sort of a chicken and egg situation. Which comes first? Do we have to be freed from self-obsession first, before we can turn completely toward another? That seems like a tall, unlikely order. Or could it be that when we purpose to be concerned about someone else, when we take little dropped-stitch baby steps to make it happen, that's when the magic happens and we're liberated from having to think about ourselves so much.

I see an awful lot of hope in the latter. For everyone. However it happens, the shift from obsessive introspection to other-centered living is the movement into which we're called.

-------------------------------

--The very brilliant cover of Unsqueezed was impeccably designed by Cindy Kiple.

--Excerpt taken from chapter eight, "Self-Preoccupation."



Posted by Christa Countryman at 1:22 PM | Comments (5) are closed

April 16, 2009

"I Still Crave the Extravagant Gesture"

The halls of Likewise Books are alive on a regular basis with the sound of Over the Rhine music. This husband-wife duo have been making soulful music for a couple of decades now, with just the right infusion of jazz and alt-rock and lyrics that are crafted, not written. Pianist Linford Detweiler sent out a missive through the band's Facebook(tm) group this week, one that rambles a bit, the way people ramble a bit during the wee hours, but that offers some nifty insights into the question of calling. He encouraged his raving fans to pass along pieces of the whole, so I thought I'd excerpt it here; you can read the whole thing here.

***

Someone sent me this little excerpt awhile back, in a beautiful letter of encouragement I should add, the sort of letter that makes everything slow down, hold still:

Here dies another day
During which I
have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?
(GK Chesterton)

I'd really be okay with this being my epitaph.

When I was younger I would often write myself short job descriptions. I was thinking out loud about what might be worth hanging a life on, a life I was willing to sign my name to:

Create spaces where good things can happen.
Give the world something beautiful, some gift of gratitude, no matter how insignificant or small.
Write love letters to the whole world.
Build fires outdoors, and lift a glass and tell stories, and listen, and laugh, laugh, laugh . . .
Flip a breaker and plunge the farm into darkness so that the stars can be properly seen.
Do not squander afflictions.
Own the longing, the non-negotiable need to "praise the mutilated world."
Find the music . . .
***
That's what musicians see themselves doing, I guess. Detweiler is a writer but he's also a performer, someone who creates spaces for people. It's hard to imagine how that service translates to the makers of artifacts, such as books. I was thinking earlier this week about how American Idol contestants and youth ministers consciously attempt to "make moments" for people; is there any sense in which something static and concrete like a book can "make a moment" for people?

I posted that question and was told by a friend that I need better role models, but I haven't given up the notion. Books may be artifacts, but writing is a service--a service to the self, most definitely, but the best writing is a service to others as well: not just an information dump but a tilling of the ground so that the seeds of epiphany can germinate and flourish. Books are far too long to demand that they make a moment, but I think it's entirely possible for a book to prepare its reader for that moment when it does come. Meanwhile, writers continue doggedly in their craft, and I suppose experience the occasional moment of their own, which is as it should be. As Detweiler puts it: "If you don't do the work, the work can't change you."

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:48 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 . . .

***

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

April 3, 2009

Slow Trips & Sudden Urges

We were recently put in contact with Kady Bram, a senior at Northwestern College who's about to complete her degrees in religion and writing & rhetoric. We discussed the practicalities and challenges of a "virtual internship," and decided it would be fun to experiment. So here's the first of a handful of guest posts from Kady, part of the "Likewise Generation," if we might coin a phrase and exploit an entire demographic.

Kady loves reading, writing and snuggling with a slobbery bulldog named Ellie. Be sure to post a comment and tell her hi.

***

Sometimes I get an immediate urge to write something down--a sentence, a description, perhaps even a single word that suddenly supersedes everything else I could or should be doing. Then, as soon as my pencil touches paper, one of two things happens: either I am overcome by a fast and persistent splashing of words that my fingers quickly splatter onto the page; or, as mysteriously as it began, the clarity gurgles away and I am left to stare at the few sad words I've left to drown on my blank sheet of paper.

I suppose you might compare these sudden urges (what those in creative circles call a visiting "muse") to those sudden stomach pains that send their victim rushing off to the bathroom for one of two, umm, outcomes. Such is my muse: it's as if I don't know I have to write until I have to write right now.

When the timing is just right and I'm in the right position to let the muse flow freely, the result can be distractingly wonderful: a mess of words from my mind gets put to rights at my fingertips. However, assigned writing is usually a different story: projects with pressing deadlines are rarely relieved by my spontaneous internal process. Sure, I might occasionally find myself aware of the perfect metaphor, say, to describe my one-armed, saggy dorm-room couch, but that in no way helps me to write the ten-page book review that's due next week.

The majority of my writing is slow, painstaking. A lot of my time these last four years of college has been spent in writing and revising . . . and then revising again. You might call it a honing craft, but I liken it to a horse-drawn buggy that plods along the side of the road: it may be passed by all number of vehicles, but it always, eventually, fortunately, gets where it needs to go. And slow drives can in themselves be inspiring--even create spaces where the trickle of a resistant epiphany can slowly begin to flow.

Despite their obvious distinctions, the slow drive and the sudden urge have one important thing in common. I know that wherever I may be--whether in the pinch of a deadline or in the throes of an ecstatic moment of clarity--I am always with the best of company.

Do not fear; do not be dismayed, for I am your God, I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)

It is wonderful for me to be reminded that my moments of inspiration are not the only times that God's gifts to me should be evident. I credit him with those moments when I feel no other purpose than to write what has been placed on my heart; but I can also recognize and appreciate him in all the other times that I sit down to write and get stuck. I know I have been blessed with a love for and ability to communicate through the written word. I also know that such abilities are cultivated over time, and therefore, they require patience, which is itself one of God's beautiful gifts. So I'm up for the long, slow drive--with the occasional pit stop--and I look forward to seeing what God has in store for the rest of our ride.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:28 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.

***

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

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:27 AM

February 17, 2009

Schmoozing, Stalking & Social Compacts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To leave out any of these four creates a breach:

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

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

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

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:24 AM

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

December 4, 2008

Waiting Well

Thankfully, so far in this holiday-shopping season, I haven't had to wait in any excruciatingly long lines. In fact, I think the longest line I've stood in was at a Starbucks (surprising, I know), and the store was well-prepared for the frazzled, in-need-of-an-extra-shot-of-espresso shoppers, so the line moved relatively quickly. Since many of the gifts I have left to buy can be ordered online, I might manage to entirely avoid overcrowded stores. That would be a welcome gift in itself.

 

I like to think I'm a relatively patient person, but the truth is, like most of us, I don't like to wait. Our immediate-gratification culture only makes things worse; it's not just that I want something now, it's that I think I should get to have it now. The Chicago traffic has not helped my patience level either. Unexpected traffic volume (read: even more than the usual amount) quickly makes me angry and cranky. I'm probably either running late or hungry too, which means I'm likely not in a good frame of mind to begin with.

 

The start of Advent has made me look a little more closely at waiting, though. My thoughts first turned in that direction thanks to Dave, who led a reflective Advent exercise at the office one day during lunch. On my own later, I journaled about one of the questions he asked: What are your connotations of the word waiting? Mine were largely negative, I discovered--words like long, discipline, unfulfilled longings.

 

In an effort to be a little more positive, I decided I should look at what waiting builds in us. The only thing I could think of, however, was patience. Patience is, of course, admirable and should be desired by us all, but it's really only useful for one thing: more waiting. Great! Excellent!! Can't wait--I mean, I will wait patiently (with excitement and shouts of praise!) for the next period of waiting, so that I can show off the patience I've gained!! Somehow, the allure of patience didn't quite make my eyes shine with anticipation. In fact, I felt a little gypped.

 

The next night, I decided I needed to try again. I felt like there must be more to waiting than that. Actually, I felt like I had to know there is more to waiting than just patience, because I feel like I've been waiting for God to work--to speak to me, unearth some joy in me, free me from fear, break through--for a long time now. Let's just say whatever patience I've gained thus far in my life is wearing a little thin.

 

As I pondered waiting a little more, I thought of my cousin. Her (now) husband is a number of years older than her. It doesn't matter much now, but when they first met, she wasn't sixteen years old yet, which was the age her parents had said she had to be before she could go on a date. So he waited. He waited until she was old enough to date and then, once they were dating, he waited a number of years until she was old enough to marry. I realized from their story that waiting shows our devotion and commitment to someone. It reveals how much we think of them. And that realization shifted waiting in my mind from drudgery to a gift--something I can offer to God to show him that I trust his timing and I'm committed to him, even when I have a hard time seeing him and have no idea what he's up to or when he'll act.

 

Advent itself gives me perspective on waiting as well. Israel waited hundreds of years, longing for their Messiah. Zechariah and Elizabeth waited years for a child. Mary and Joseph waited nine months (with not a little anxiety, I'm guessing) for Jesus--their Messiah--to be born, and they waited to consummate their marriage, a hard task for any newly married couple. Simeon and Anna waited in the temple to see the Messiah God had promised. The Advent story is full of people waiting and longing and then discovering that the end result was so much more than they could have imagined--worth every minute of their waiting.

 

The reality is, I can't force God to act. And I can't bring about his results, because I don't know what he's planning; I only know what I want to happen (which is most likely different than what he's planning for me--what I really need). My prayer, then, this Advent, is that God would help me wait well: to wait in trust and hope and contentment, out of devotion to him. I've tried the alternatives: waiting impatiently, with whining and complaining (it didn't help), and trying to take things into my own hands (it makes the waiting much worse. And maybe longer. Trust me.).

 

I'm realizing, too, that waiting works both ways. God, I'm quite sure, has been waiting on me, perhaps waiting even for this change in perspective--this small transformation--before he reveals the next thing I need to know. He knows what I can handle and when. And he only gives what's good, when the time is right to give it. This is the God I wait for, the hope I'll wait with when the waiting is hard.


So whether you're waiting in line to buy gifts (or chai!) or waiting for joy to somehow emerge from the place it's been buried inside you, here's to waiting well this Christmas, and to trusting--like Elizabeth, like Simeon, like Mary--that waiting itself is a gift that gives birth to more gifts: the ones we really need.
Posted by Lisa Rieck at 4:45 PM

June 16, 2008

You Are the Marketing Plan

One of our authors sent me a link to a funny video about book promotion by Dennis Cass:

 

I watched this video not long after sitting down for coffee with another author about his plans to promote his book and not long before sitting down with someone else to explain why unknown authors struggle so much to get book contracts. I'm reminded what a friend of mine--herself an accomplished author--says repeatedly: "You are the marketing plan."

That, frankly, sounds awful. Imagine, for example, my own current plight: promoting a book on escaping the culture of narcissism and representing myself as an expert on the same. Add to that the common temperament of writers--withdrawn, quiet, bookish, occasionally indolent--and you have a recipe for futility.

It's a tricky business to show your enthusiasm for a book--especially your own book--without becoming obnoxious. I know of at least one person whose efforts at book promotion have earned him a reputation as a pest. In the case of books having to do with Christian virtue or discipleship or worldview, it's even more difficult to avoid seeming or even being condescending, paternalistic, self-congratulatory and a host of other onerous vices of the personality.

I've come to think that most efforts at self-promotion are inherently absurd and, as such, inherently funny. That in itself takes the pressure off. So sin boldly, first-time authors, obscure ethicists and armchair theologians. Spread your unique insights and cleverly themed cultural prescriptions, your own little idea virus, with the brazenness of Typhoid Mary. Enjoy yourself while you do it, and don't forget to occasionally giggle at the silliness of it all, because when it's all said and done we're all on balance saying and doing what we think is best, and hoping that the rest of our universe will fall in line.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 5:23 AM

May 27, 2008

I Confess

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

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

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

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

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

March 10, 2008

Retreat! Retreat!

Last weekend I attended the annual winter retreat for my church's high school youth group. It was my fifth winter retreat with this group, and while the kids are fantastic, the snow beautiful and the options for activity numerous, to be perfectly honest this retreat usually makes me want to--well, retreat. A long winter weekend in northern Wisconsin with a couple hundred high-energy people does not a happy space-heater-loving introvert make. In years past, the goodness of being away and the fun of being with students were somewhat overridden by coldness, lack of sleep and a desperate desire at some point in the weekend to find some place--inside--besides a small shower or bathroom stall to be alone.

After all that, I get back Sunday night, almost too tired to drag my poor suitcase--overstuffed as it is with almost everything warm I own--through the church parking lot to my car. Then I try to decide if an overpowering need for personal space can constitute a sick day on Monday. I always decide it can't, so I drag myself to work Monday morning after emerging from a sleep so sound that I'm pretty sure not even the arrival of firefighters to put out a fire in my own bedroom would wake me up. (I probably would just enjoy the extra warmth a fire brings.) Needless to say, I approached this year's retreat with some trepidation.

But, even with trepidation intact, the retreat last weekend was a good one--maybe my favorite of the five years I've attended. The senior girls, my coleader and I had a cabin all to ourselves, and therefore lots of time to talk and laugh and eat chocolate. And I actually got to play in the snow--as opposed to just scraping it off my car and driving around in it like I've been doing at home. And the camp has peanut butter and bread set out the entire weekend, day and night, for the snacking. You can hardly complain about a camp that is hospitable enough to provide peanut butter round the clock. Not to mention the fact that the youth group I help with won the extraordinarily competitive broomball tournament, my fellow youth leaders and I successfully snuck the speaker's car onto the broomball court during the final large-group worship session, and I learned that high school students still like to be read to.

In the midst of the fun and the stress and exhaustion of a retreat that was not exactly a retreat, I was tired enough, quiet enough, still enough, open enough to listen to God and watch for God and hear God and see God. I was also reminded what an amazing privilege it is to walk alongside others--especially this small group of fantastic senior girls whom I've watched grow and learn for the past three-and-a-half years--and help them look for and see God too.

I'll admit that the following weekend I thought a couple of times how grateful I was to be in my own bed and apartment, to be warm, to not have to be constantly social. But I've also been even more grateful for the girls I lead, and for the ways and places God speaks. Extraordinary Tiredness met God and had to depend on God in new ways. And God answered--like he does here, in the midst of my everyday life when I'm still enough, quiet enough, open enough to go to him.

While you ponder that, I'm going to go fix something hot to drink and turn up my space heater. I'm still making up for lost time.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 1:20 PM | Comments (5) are closed

January 23, 2008

I Vote for Waffles

True confession: I'm waffling. Floundering, if you will. And not because I've been eating a lot of breakfast food and fish. Why am I feeling even more strangely dim than usual, you ask? Because we're in the thick of the primaries for the presidential campaign, and because we're actually in the year of the election now, and because I don't know what I think.

Politics and I are like--well, maybe like third cousins: I've heard some good stories about him, I've heard some bad stories about him, we only meet about once every two or four years. Mostly we live as indifferent relatives, with occasional, hard-to-ignore reminders that we are, in fact, related by blood.

Some days it seems to me like politicians are the ones who can really make a difference; they can make the systemic changes needed to really help people. But other days it's hard for me to tell if there's anyone in it for anything other than themselves.

During election time, I generally get cynical: frustrated by the blame on all sides and the obscure mistakes dragged out of candidates' pasts, tired of hearing people talk without saying anything, and sick at the thought of all the money that gets spent on campaigns that could go to, say, paying off the national debt, providing health insurance or improving education (Oh man/woman--to be politically correct--I'm starting to sound like a politician).

But I also think voting is a great privilege, one that I want to take seriously. I appreciate the freedom we have in America. I'm grateful that there are people pursuing careers in public service, fighting for a better life for others through good government. I'm glad--though I cannot for the life of me understand it--people want to run for president.

Now, I realize that some of you Strangely Dim friends may be way ahead of me. Election years might be your favorite years. You might be watching and rewatching every debate, hanging posters of your favorite candidate from your windows, planning your next vacation to said favorite candidate's hometown to take pictures of the house they grew up in and interview their dentist and elementary teachers, and taping said favorite candidate's photo to your travel coffee mug.

Or you might be feeling like I am: a little overwhelmed by it all, interested but confused, conflicted over issues and candidates.

If that's you, here's a story for you, and maybe some help. A coworker of mine and Dave's sent around a link to a charmingly helpful and seemingly objective quiz (probably one of many out there) that helps you see how you match up with candidates on particular issues. Dave took the quiz. I took the quiz. Here were my results: my last-choice candidate and my first-choice candidate (preresearch preferences) tied for first as far as a match for me. For Dave, the two candidates he's most inclined to support wound up in sixth and tenth place, while the candidate he's most turned off by came in first, and someone he's never even heard of took fourth place. How is this helpful, you might ask? It's helpful because it reminds us of the importance of really knowing the issues more than getting caught up in the hype of campaigns and candidates. I had to leave some questions blank, to be honest, because I didn't know enough about the issue to say what I think. The website, however, is a helpful starting point for me in becoming more familiar with candidates and their stance on particular issues.

So that's where I'm at in my election processing: a bit muddled, but relieved I have till November to figure out what I think. Take heart. Persevere; you won't see donkeys and elephants and red, white and blue forever every time you turn on the television or close your eyes. This election year, like all those before it, will end. But, while we're in the speech-making season, allow me to offer a few more parting words (hey, if everyone else gets to make a speech, I want a little air time too.) Ahem. In this election year, 2008, whether you choose to vote or not, and whomever you choose to vote for: choose thoughtfully. What happens in America affects millions of people, here and around the world. Know the issues. Know the candidates. Know what you're choosing and why. Waffling or not, go grab a real waffle and spend some time researching, listening, praying. I promise (and I can back it up), it won't be time wasted. (If you get syrup on your keyboard, though, don't blame me.)

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 12:40 PM

January 14, 2008

The Words We Use: New Words for a New Year

I'm feeling foursquare about using new words this year. Actually, not so much new words as two very old words in a new way: thank you.

Now, if you know me, you've heard me use those words often. I am unfailingly polite. I always say my pleases and thank-yous, and write thank-you notes after Christmas and birthdays. (I am not, however, unfailingly punctual, so the note may unfortunately arrive a few months late. My apologies if you haven't received a thank-you note yet for the birthday gift you sent me in July.) In high school I think I may, on occasion, have driven a few opponents crazy during tennis matches by my thank-yous when they returned balls to me. I sign my e-mails and end the messages I leave in voicemail with "thanks," even when I haven't asked the other person to do anything and am, in fact, getting back to them about something they need me to do. Thank you, in other words, rolls off my tongue easily.

And I mean it, of course, when I say it. But sometimes I think it comes out a little too easily. Without enough thought. Without me lingering in the gratitude, or really pondering what another person did or said, what they may have sacrificed on my behalf.

Now, I realize that if a word is going to slip out without you noticing, "thank you" is a pretty good choice. No need to cover the kids' ears. But the words are too important to say thoughtlessly. Gratitude is too important a gift to slide over or miss.

Even more, I'm noticing all the times I have opportunity to say thank you (followed by specific words of affirmation) and don't: to coworkers who are excellent at their jobs and who make mine easier, to my landlord who takes such good care of our building, to the pastors at my church who give so much, to family and friends who overwhelm me with their generosity. Every day I miss many opportunities to say thank you.

My goal is not, of course, to simply increase the number of times I say thank you in a day, as if reaching a certain quota will land me a spot on Oprah. Too many thank-yous will most likely drive those around me crazy. And repetition, after all, can cheapen a word, to the point where no one believes you're sincere when you say it. But saying thank you more intentionally, with specifics after it, will, I believe, cultivate a deeper attitude of genuine gratitude in me.

Our consumer culture, obviously, tries to make us discontent and nurses a baleful spirit of jealousy, bitterness, anger. Personal struggles have also added a deeper bitterness in my heart that comes out more times than I 'm willing to admit, along with an impatient longing to move out of the stuck places I find myself in. But intentional thank-yous to God and others force me to see what's good, what's true, and help me recognize the gifts around me in people and circumstances.

So I've determined to start and end each day with thanksgiving. Some days, I suspect, I will say my thank-yous to God with gritted teeth, and there will be long pauses between the first and second item while I rack my brain for something to thank him for; my vision, unfortunately, can be extremely dim and extraordinarily unimaginative. But the intentional stopping and thinking of what I'm truly grateful for, and the act of actually saying thank you to God in recognition that he is good, and he gives good gifts, seem like hopeful steps toward becoming a truly grateful person, whose heart and mouth overflow with thanks in genuine gratitude for what others and God give.

So let me say to you: thank you for reading, for commenting, for being willing to let me process and share the ugly and beautiful with you. I'm truly grateful.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 3:54 PM | Comments (1) are closed

July 31, 2007

Saying Goodbye

I have never been good at saying goodbye. Part of the reason is probably because my family is very rooted—I grew up in the house that my grandparents built, that my father grew up in, and that I hope my own children will live in (or at least visit). I attended the same elementary and high schools as my grandmother and my father, and my friends remained the same for the first eighteen years of my life. As you can probably imagine, I don’t like change. I like stability. I appreciate rootedness.

But I am in my twenties and very little is certain right now. A year ago, I married my best friend, and Michael and I are still unraveling how to live life as partners, as a team. Friendships continue to morph as our friends accept new jobs or get accepted into new schools and trek across the country to pursue their respective dreams. Job opportunities open and close, and relationships there must be pursued or ended, released or revisited.

And that is why I am writing today. I will be taking a different job in August, and today is my last day at InterVarsity Press. The decision to leave was a difficult one, and my tendency to shy away from change made it even more difficult to choose to go. I love the vision of the company and the ministry that flows from the work that we do in this office. Above all else, I love the people in this publishing house—there are wonderful souls within these walls. The Press has become a home for me, steady in the midst of all of the other changes I have been experiencing in this last year.

But change comes, and I am trying to embrace this one. The job that I am taking in August will simplify my life—instead of a twenty-five minute commute to and from work, I will be walking three minutes to my new office. This job will also give me the opportunity to work on the same campus where my husband and my sister attend school, deepening my relationships with them. I am sad to leave InterVarsity Press, but I am trusting that the Lord has opened this door and will enable me to walk through it well.

I know that it is only one of many changes I have yet to experience in my life, but I also know that there is one source of rootedness in my life that cannot be moved: Christ himself. He is unchanging, immovable, unshakable. He is the cornerstone that cannot be removed, he is the vine that will never be uprooted, his is the kingdom that cannot be shaken. Christ is the constant that I cling to as I move into these changes, the one who leads me through that which is easily shaken in this world.

So wherever you are in life, and whatever change you are inevitably experiencing, God’s peace to you. I would receive the same blessing from you as we move forward into the change that must come. May we cling closely to Christ as we embrace whatever he brings our way.

Posted by Ann Swindell at 2:10 PM

June 5, 2007

Moving in the Direction

I've had directions on the mind since Memorial Day weekend because, if you'll remember, I am not so good with directions and because, I'm proud to say, I successfully navigated myself from my safe, familiar neighborhood


into the Big Scary City of Chicago,
from said Scary City to a bridal shower in an Unknown Suburb
and from said bridal shower to O'Hare Airport--

all while my personal GPS (my sister) was on a plane and therefore out of my "I'm lost and starting to panic" reach. I'm still feeling the glow of accomplishment. Some credit for the successful navigation, admittedly, has to go to MapQuest (okay, maybe a lot of credit), but there is something to be said for following directions well--so feel free to post your ooohs and aaahs of awe and congratulations. (Also feel free to send money.)

A need for direction is inherent in our being, I think. And we seem to crave movement, though I'm pretty sure this is not inherent in us but rather a result of the culture we live in. As inconvenient and stressful and frustrating as it is to be lost, in American cities built for driving we don't have to drive too long before we know we missed our road or took a wrong turn, so we can regain our direction and keep on moving relatively quickly.

Being lost figuratively, however--whether it's trying to discover what career we should pursue, struggling to build meaningful relationships, testing gifts to see where we fit in ministry--is often not nearly as easy to fix. In those cases we can easily wander (move) directionless for a few years or more, unsure even what destination we're trying to reach.

I hate being lost. But even more, I hate being stuck. Stuck means no direction and no movement that we can detect. We can get stuck in recurring sins, negative thought patterns, unhealthy relationships, jobs we feel no personal investment in. It's a scary place to be in; often we can't see when or how we'll get unstuck. Frustration and exhaustion mount.

I've been lost and stuck. Neither is fun or easy. But I've learned, and am still learning as I go, the importance of moving toward God in those moments.

That's a nice Christian answer, right? Conveniently vague, something that's easy to tell other people when they're struggling but that means nothing to you when you're actually stuck or lost? Moving toward God is, of course, what I hope to be doing all the time. I have very noble desires about what direction I want to move in in general: more holy and distinct from the world, more compassionate, more generous, more patient, more affirming, more truthful, more . . . But when I'm stuck or lost, the list seems large and overwhelming and, if I'm truthful, not so desirable. In the moment when I'm stuck I'm not sure I even want to be more patient or compassionate. I want someone else to be those things toward me!

The way I'm learning to move in the direction of God right now is to tell him everything. I think about things all the time. I worry about things most of the time. But I don't often talk to him about the daily, nitty-gritty details of my life, which are what mostly consume our thoughts, especially when we're lost and stuck.

I'm a little ashamed to admit it, honestly. I've been a Christian pretty much my whole life, and talking to God is such a basic principle, one I've heard over and over and over since I was young. But it's harder than it sounds. It's hard to be honest with God, even though he knows everything about us. And it is especially hard to talk to him honestly about where we're at when we're feeling


Stuck.
Lost.
Detached.
Doubtful.
Broken.
Tired.

But, after years of being a Christian, I'm finally learning to do it more--and finding that it actually works. It's much better to tell him what I'm thinking about (and even that I can't see how he'll help) than to not tell him at all. And much better to tell him I'm angry (even with him) than to not tell him at all. And better to admit that I'm worried than to worry and not tell him at all. Because telling--especially at the point we feel most detached from him--keeps us moving toward him, in his direction. And I suspect that, as I move toward him through communication, I'll start to move in the direction of some of the other good-but-sometimes-overwhelming list of virtues.

So, after a successful weekend of moving in the right direction, here's to MapQuest and arriving safely to see friends. And, after years of getting lost and getting stuck (and more years of it to come), here's to talking to God in the midst of it, about all of it, wherever we are.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 12:58 PM | Comments (4) are closed

May 24, 2007

Mix It Up Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 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 25, 2007

Confessions of a Wild Tongue

As a writer, I've been accused more than once of being "elliptical." In my defense, though, I think that particular accusation has always come from the same person. Her less elliptical friend chose to describe me with the less charitable label "nuanced nincompoop"--which I suppose is pretty much the same thing.

To be honest, I think I write in an elliptical fashion--that is, I swirl around and around a theme like other things that swirl around and around in the process of completing their work--because that's how I think. I look at any number of problems like some sort of daisy chain of Gordian knots, and I'm enough of a failed Boy Scout that I can't bring myself to take a knife and cut through to the solution; I must untangle these morasses and thus untether myself.

Beyond my own issues, there's a cultural bias toward oversimplification that it's appropriate to resist. As Brian McLaren writes in the foreword to Neil Livingstone's Picturing the Gospel, "the habit of 'boiling things down' or 'putting things in a nutshell' . . . makes certain things clear and accessible, but it can obscure and distort other things." Life, I feel entirely justified in saying, is irreducibly complex, and quite frankly is getting only more so, so to treat it as simple is to be dangerously simplistic.

But there's what goes on in my head, and there's what comes out of my mouth. I went to lunch with my pastor yesterday in an attempt to give some of my inner perplexity some air, and as I listened to myself articulating the complexity of relationships and missions I see in play at our church, I found myself thinking, I sound like an idiot. And then there's the article I wrote about how Batman as a character has oscillated back and forth between serious and silly to match the vicissitudes of American culture; the one bit of reader response I got was "You make no sense."

So as a writer I face this challenge of acknowledging and authentically representing the complexity and nuance present to the human condition, even to celebrate it in artful expression, without wallowing in--and miring my readers in--nincompoopery and ellipticalness.

A friend at IVP reminded me this week that the curmudgeonly godfathers of English style and grammar, William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, have come across this particular Gordian knot and took a pretty effective whack at it:

There are occasions when obscurity serves a literary yearning, if not a literary purpose. . . . Even to a writer who is being intentionally obscure or wild of tongue we can say, "Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!" . . . "Be cagey plainly! Be elliptical in a straightforward fashion!"

Well sure, when you put it that way. E. B. White made a talking spider into an icon of maternal comfort in Charlotte's Web and a talking rodent into an icon of adolescent self-discovery in Stuart Little, so I guess he knows how to pull off the impossible. But as for me and my writing, I fear we will continue to, umm, serve a literary yearning.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:26 AM | Comments (6) are closed

March 29, 2007

The Sublime & the Sick

I've got a thing for spring. When I first moved into my house, the above-ground pool in the back was covered in snow and served no real purpose until spring sprang, at which point the snow melted and the pool became a temporary home to a family of ducks. I took out the trash one morning and found myself face to face with a lackadaisical duck, waddling around my driveway, minding his own business, being wondrous. I got over my buyer's remorse in a hearbeat.

I've since junked the pool, so the ducks don't come around the house anymore. But this morning I noticed a family of ducks crossing the road (to get to the other side, I'd imagine), and then I noticed a mother in a car pointing out the ducks to her young son. He became quickly overcome with wonder, and my day started to perk up a bit.

Ducks and, really, let's admit it, all waterfowl are wondrous. The sleekness and vividness of a duck's feathers, the casualness of its waddle, the dignity of its beak, the intricacy of its webbed feet--I'm awestruck by it when I come across it. I don't really know why, except that having grown up in Iowa and now living in the suburban midwest, waterfowl remain mildly foreign, faintly exotic.

After my commute I stepped into the office and noticed, perched high above me on the building's skylight, a goose freshly returned from its wintery exile. I'd never seen webbed feet from below, and it was wondrous. I called my friends to come give witness to this sight, to mark this moment. But then, somewhere between the call and the response, the goose decided to mark the moment on its own.

That's the seedy underside of the wondrous waterfowl. They poop. Everywhere. All the time. I know peaceable people who get positively serial in their desire to kill waterfowl, based solely on the animal's propensity to poop. And really, who can blame them? Goose poop is gross to look at, gross to smell, gross to accidentally step in. And in some areas (say, for example, our parking lot), it's nearly impossible to avoid.

So there I stood, trying to avoid direct eye contact with the slowly rippling stain above me, while simultaneously transfixed by the wondrously webbed feet mere inches away. It was sublime. It was sick. It was irreducibly complex.

Yesterday I started reading the book Becoming Who You Are, a series of reflections by Jesuit author James Martin about the spiritual process of Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton and Mother Teresa. What I've read so far is a fascinating exploration of Merton and Nouwen, both celebrated for their spiritual depth and profound humility, yet both remarkably confessional about their inner pride and pettiness. Readers of Nouwen and Merton are generally awestruck by them and inclined to see them through the lens of that depth, but in reality humility and pride are there in them both, tightly commingled. Merton and Nouwen are sublime, but they're also sick. In a word, they're complex.

So am I, of course, when I step back and think about it. The psalmist recognizes both the inherent wonder in being human and the wickedness that so tragically attends to us. "I am fearfully and wonderfully made," he writes, only to admit shortly thereafter that he can't clean himself up: "See if there is any wicked way in me" (Psalm 139:14, 24). We're sublime, but we're also sick. In a word, we're complex.

Not so complex, however, that God can't see us for who we truly are, and not so complex that God can't take delight in us. I'm unwilling to suggest that God is awestruck by us, but I do think he's willing to endure the gross in us out of love for the grace in us.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:26 AM | Comments (3) are closed

February 22, 2007

What's in a Name?

What follows is a recap of my Valentine's Day evening:

My Valentine's Day this year is spent with fourteen one- and two-year-olds at my church. Offering free Valentine's Day baby-sitting is a youth-group tradition, and this year, whether out of guilt or out of a noble spirit of Christian love (I'm not sure which), I decide to help.

In the first fifteen minutes of the evening, our adult (me and teenagers)-to-toddler ratio in the giraffe room is about seven to two, and I am ready to send students to other rooms to help. By 7:30, however, our ratio is more like seven to twelve. Diaper bags are popping up all over, sippee cups have appeared on various shelves, and I am trying to remember such details as "Rachel's diapers are in the Bunny room with her sister" and "Nick has allergies so I've brought a snack for him," while holding Little Screaming Ellie and trying to look calm and responsible so parents will trust me.

At first I stand near the door, greeting parents, asking toddlers their name and telling them mine. But soon there are too many kids and too much going on around the room to stay at the door and greet. Also, from pretty early on I am, as I mentioned, holding Little Screaming Ellie, which is not a very comforting way to welcome toddlers ("Hi Ethan, I'm Lisa. I know Ellie here is screaming her lungs out, but I promise you'll have fun!").

So, as the room fills up, I have to try to learn the kids' names from the security tags on their backs as they and I move around the room. Often the cursive is not very legible. Does that say Annie or Anna? I wonder, crawling after one girl and squinting at the name scrawled in pen. Nolan or Nate N.? At one point, in the midst of kids crying and me and the students enthusiastically trying to convince toddlers "how fun!!' puzzles truly are, another adult volunteer stops by to ask if we have Sadie. Sadie? I blankly look around at the waddling nametags and then scan the students' faces. No one seems to be reacting. "I don't think we have a Sadie," I say. An hour later, after traveling to all corners of the room in an attempt to distract Little Screaming Ellie with some kind of toy and temporarily succeeding (a big shout-out goes to Big Bird and to Sesame Street's puzzle industry), I am sure there is no Sadie in the giraffe room.

By the end of the evening I think I've learned all the names, and all the kids seem to end up with the right parents. I make a mental note to request the three-year-olds next year, so that I'll already know who they are. If I help next year.

The evening helped me see two simple facts that I often ignore: existence transcends naming and naming is important. The kids were all there whether I knew their names or not. But knowing their names made it a lot easier.

I am actually a big proponent of naming material things. Particularly cars (my car is Lucie) and household plants. I am not, however, a fan of having to name what's going on inside of me. Because in order to name it I have to face the fact of its existence. And looking at it means I have to deal with it. And dealing with it will be hard. So I often fool myself into thinking that if I don't name something (a sin, an emotion, a conflict, etc.), it must not exist--or will cease to exist.

But as author Kim Engelmann writes in a forthcoming IVP book called Running in Circles, "Stating [naming] the problem is the first step toward healing." This was made even clearer to me from sermons at my church on mourning--not the most popular topic these days. But that's the point: we all experience loss--loss that affects and changes us--but we don't usually choose to name it, face it, mourn. Naming and mourning take time, and we don't want to stop and be silent long enough to recognize and name what's going on inside us. But if we never mourn and face what's inside, we can't move forward.

The same is true on the flip side. This past Sunday, while I was in Illinois listening to a sermon on mourning, my dad was in Pennsylvania preaching on just the opposite: celebration. I'm guilty of not naming in that area too. I don't stop long enough to recognize and celebrate the goodness and grace God gives in moments. By not naming these, I'm missing out on learning to trust God more as I see his love and care for me, and he's missing out on the praise he so abundantly deserves.

Two days ago we entered Lent: the forty days leading up to Easter that remind us of the agony Christ suffered. Can we set aside some space to slow down, to start recognizing what's going on inside of us--the good, the hard, the ugly that exists already and needs to be named? I think we'll find, as we name things, a richer understanding of God's grace, deeper knowledge of ourselves and courage that comes as we become more aware of the Holy Spirit in us, with us. And there's a name for what comes after, and often in the midst of, that discipline: it's called redemption.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 1:29 PM | Comments (6) are closed

February 13, 2007

Nothing to Say

Last week, just one month in to this blogging venture, I started to panic that I wouldn't be able to keep it up. I was overwhelmed by commitments outside of work and stressed out by projects at work and short on sleep. But mostly (yes, after just a month): I didn't have anything to say.

Now, I'm all for being quiet. I really do think silence is golden, and not just at the movie theater. But "silence" (read: nothing to say) doesn't work so well for a blog, for obvious reasons. I was feeling the pressure and starting to sweat.

My mild panic reminded me of an experience I had a few weeks ago during a daylong personal retreat at my church. Most of the day was spent in individual time with the Lord. Very rarely do I set apart that much time to spend with God, completely away from the normal routines and activities of my days. I didn't go into the retreat with specific expectations or individual questions I wanted God to answer. However, as a college mentor honestly expressed once after a day of personal retreat, when you intentionally set aside that much time to be with God, you want to have something to show for it: some epiphany, some word God spoke, some insight and direction. In addition, I was also feeling pressure to use the time wisely, to make the most of the time I was setting aside, so that God and I could get the fullest possible benefit out of the day. (I clearly have completely escaped the influence of a consumerist, production-driven culture!)

The reality is, epiphany or not, setting aside time to be with God is invaluable; I'm reminded of it every time I do it. And, among other invaluable moments during the retreat for me, one that stands out most was a point in the morning when I sat before the Lord in silence and felt his almost overwhelming delight in my simple presence, nothing else. In that moment, I felt the worth of my being apart from any doing or knowing or speaking. I didn't have anything to say--and I felt the freedom of not having to think of something to say. I was free to simply be.

Don't get me wrong; words are necessary and powerful. I wouldn't write or work at a publishing company if I didn't think so. But the relief and grace I experienced in that moment of retreat made me aware of how often I feel pressure not just to say something but to say something clever, or funny, or thought-provoking, or revolutionary. If we kept track of our words, I think we'd find that, based on what actually comes out of our mouths, we value humorous or informative words even over kind, encouraging, affirming words. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I more often speak to try to make others laugh or to give information than to affirm others. But what a valuable reminder God gave me of the worth of my being, even in my silence. It's a gift I couldn't have received without having nothing to say.

Sometimes having nothing to say is the most valuable gift we can give each other too. Author and pastor John Ortberg preached a sermon on the book of Job a few years ago. He takes a different angle on the book than other sermons I've heard. His focus is on Job's friends who, granted, will not win any "Great Friends in History" awards. However, he expounds not on their hurtful counseling attempts or jabbing accusations but on their first response to Job's pain: they weep, and then sit with him for seven days and nights in ashes and sackcloth and--silence. At the sight of his grief and pain, they have nothing to say. So they don't even try. I don't think anything else could have spoken more grace and healing into Job's raw and broken soul. Their folly came when they said something in an attempt to sound wise and spiritual.

So, at the risk of contradicting myself by writing about the goodness of not saying anything at all, maybe these words will help us reframe our thoughts on why we speak. Words, of course, are good and valuable and necessary--fallen, too, but able to be redeemed and to bring great redemption through Christ. But probably more often than we realize, the greatest gift we can give to God, to others and to ourselves in a given moment is the gift of having nothing to say.

Nuff said.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 9:22 AM | Comments (4) are closed

February 8, 2007

Slippin and Slidin

(Note to reader: to liven up your reading of this entry, try clenching your teeth and furrowing your brow.)

This week I received a citation for a traffic violation. The suspect (me) allegedly failed to come to a complete stop at a stop sign. The scene of the crime was two blocks from my desk; the time was 7:45 a.m. Good . . . morning . . .

So I endured the humiliation of the drawn-out ticket-writing process, as countless cars passed me and, I might add, failed to come to a complete stop at the stop sign immediately in front of my car. I think they were just rubbing it in. Then I hurried, as fast as I could go without allegedly violating yet another traffic law, to the parking lot of my office building, where I accidentally banged my head on the roof of my car and then very nearly locked my keys in said car with the engine still running. Then I went inside the office with seconds to spare for a morning prayer meeting. Good . . . morning . . .

It was an odd juxtaposition, moving so quickly from hurling epithets at the universe for the rotten luck I'd experienced on my way into work, to begrudgingly thanking God for the gift of a good job and nice people to work with. Perhaps I hadn't had enough coffee, but I was not in the ideal frame of mind for praying.

I was reminded of a psalm of Asaph:

Surely God is good . . .

to those who are pure in heart.

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;

I had nearly lost my foothold.

For I envied the arrogant

when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (Psalm 73:1-3)

Now, I tend to read this psalm and think, Ah yes, I mustn't envy the arrogant; I mustn't covet the prosperity born of wickedness. It's a quick way of reminding me not to get so mired down in envy and bitterness.

But when I invoke this passage and cast myself as the pure in heart, I'm effectively casting anyone around me as "arrogant" or "wicked." That could be a relatively harmless exercise, I suppose: all those people rolling through the stop sign in front of me couldn't read my thoughts, so far as I could tell; and I'll likely never see them again, since I will never drive by that intersection again. But then there are the folks I work with, who I know to be far from arrogant or wicked (most days, anyway), but whom I look at with different eyes on a day such as this.

Not to mention the fact that casting myself as "pure in heart" is a somewhat arrogant thing to do. I mean, let's be honest: I have a pretty enviable life. I have a house and a car and a job where I get paid to read. I have a nice family life and a nice church community and a safe neighborhood to live in. I have broad political freedoms and, relative to the majority of the planet, a ridiculously extravagant life. Given the right circumstances, any number of people could steal a passing glance at me--particularly when I'm being exceptionally twerpy--and find themselves losing their foothold.

The fact is, I wasn't envious so much as I was bitter. So perhaps in the future, when I find myself slipping, I should skip about twenty verses and direct my mind to a later verse in the same psalm:

When my heart was grieved

and my spirit embittered,

I was senseless and ignorant;

I was a brute beast before you.

Yet I am always with you;

you hold me by my right hand. (Psalm 73:21-23)

That's probably about as much as I could call to mind on a particularly irritable day, but who knows? Maybe it will be enough.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 3:43 PM

February 1, 2007

Rabbit

Something you should know about Lisa and me: for the better part of a year we've been playing a silly ongoing game that I learned from my brother.The game is simple: whoever says the word rabbit to the other first on the first day of each month, wins. To be honest, I've been secretly plotting this post since Lisa joined Strangely Dim.

My brother played this game in college with a classmate who happened to have the same last name, grow up in the same town and belong to the same church. I always enjoyed watching them play this little nonsense game from month to month, a regular opportunity to be silly together set against a backdrop of trying to track down your calling and be faithful to it. College, I found--and now life, I've since discovered--is hard enough that it virtually demands a bit of silliness now and then to take the edge off.

Lisa and I and our coworkers here seek out silliness in a variety of ways: by how we decorate our workspace, by which e-mails we choose to forward, by what subjects we deem blogworthy. My department takes a break together each week to eat popcorn and catch up (not "popcorn and ketchup" but "catch up and eat popcorn," in case you're inclined to podcast this entry). It's a nice time together, a kind of "tea and sympathy," and almost invariably the time is at least one part meaningful and one part silly. Sometimes the two are so commingled that I daresay the silliness is what gives the time meaning.

Likewise with the game "Rabbit." You're all welcome to play along; it's a nice distraction from month to month, much like rabbits themselves. They don't labor or spin; they just hop along and twitch their noses--they live and move and have their being. We could learn a lot from them, actually: I'll leave you with a line from an old folk song titled "Mr. Rabbit":

"Bless God, I'm made that way! Every little soul must shine."

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:15 AM | Comments (3) are closed

January 29, 2007

The Risk of Asking

Here's something you should know about me: I hate to ask for help. There are certain instances I've deemed worthy. One is stopping to ask for directions. I've gotten so lost a few times since moving out here that I have no qualms about asking for directional help. My sister is my first choice; she's my personal GPS: always gracious, never says "How did you get THERE?" and has never failed to lead me safely out of wherever I've gotten myself into. If she's not available, gas-station and convenience-store clerks will do.

I'll also ask for help if it will save me significant time, such as when I'm shopping. You don't want to tell people you spent your entire Saturday afternoon wandering around the grocery store looking for wheat wraps because you wouldn't ask a store clerk where to find them.

But in most other situations in my life, I have a very hard time asking for help. I'd rather take the task on myself than involve other people who already have enough going on in their own lives. Or sometimes I'm not sure who to ask to find the answer I need.

I know the main reason I don't ask for help, though: I'd have to admit that I don't know the answer, that I'm so clueless about a situation I can't even begin to sort out my options, that I'm ignorant or naive or incapable or weak. I can't get around two details that asking for help always involves: first, I have to name and face my limits. I know I have limits, of course. I accept my limits in many areas (such as in swimming); there are hundreds of skills and tons of information I don't need. But asking means I recognize both my limit and my need in that area. And then comes the second detail asking always involves: recognizing another person's strength or power in my area of weakness and need. That's when things get risky.

But asking, I'm realizing, is powerful. I recently studied Matthew 8 and 9; they're full of people whose lives were changed by Jesus because they dared to ask him for help. And for most of them, asking took immense courage. Take the leper in chapter 8. He had to walk through a crowd of people who'd been taught since birth to scorn and reject him. He couldn't hide his disease, his neediness. And he likely had never met Jesus before, so he couldn't have been sure what sort of answer he'd receive. But he asked anyway, and found a compassionate Savior who was eager to help.

Admitting my own limits and neediness, my dependence on God and others, is the way it's supposed to be; it's how God created us. I know that in my mind and can see the practical value of it lived out. But my individualistic, be-independent, American self tries to fight it, and often wins. I'm amazed when I read David's psalms how natural and deep his dependence on God was; in many ways he was such a strong person (brave warrior, powerful ruler), yet in his psalms he freely and frequently admits--without shame--his utter helplessness and fear, his complete dependence on God. He accepted that that's how it's supposed to be.

Jesus reminds us of this in Luke 11: "Ask and it will be given to you. . . . For everyone who asks receives. . . . Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" Asking and receiving are a natural rhythm of any healthy relationship. Especially in our relationship with God, who loves to give help.

And really, figuring things out on my own isn't all that much fun. Easier? Sometimes. Less complicated? Sometimes. Less humbling? Sometimes. But it's often lonely. It keeps others from opportunities to use their areas of strength. And the sense of accomplishment that might come when I do something myself can't ultimately be as satisfying as the connections nurtured when I do something with others. Because at the core of who we are is a need for relationships.

But asking is still hard. When I do take the risk, I often feel the same way I imagine the leper felt: unsure of what reaction I'll receive (scorn? ridicule?) and acutely aware of my need. Usually, though, I receive what he did: compassion, and the help that I need.

So why am I so afraid to admit how much I need others, afraid to accept that as part of what it means to be human, afraid to accept my own limits? And how do I get past my fear? Just asking. I suspect that's the only way I'll find the answer.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 4:03 PM | Comments (5) are closed

January 23, 2007

Mixed Blessing

My fellow blogger Lisa Rieck found this Franciscan blessing in the book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? by Philip Yancey. She shared it with me, and I wanted to share it with you. The Franciscans are known best, perhaps, for living simply out of solidarity with those in need. But they also have a way with words that I regularly covet:

May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
So that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war,
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and
To turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness
To believe that you can make a difference in the world,
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.

I like the blessing; it gets you thinking in a way that requires a response. I'm reminded of the words of the less artful Henry Pym, Marvel Comics' "Ant-Man," in the epic miniseries The Kree-Skrull War: "Think! And, having thought, act!"

So, how has God been blessing you lately? With discomfort? With anger? With tears? What do you hope will come of those blessings?

For myself, I'm hoping for an extra shot of foolishness.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:16 AM | Comments (3) are closed

January 16, 2007

Go Ahead--Pass Me

In the last few months I've started swimming for exercise. I'm not really a swimmer; I just do it once a week to cross-train. However, at 6:00 a.m. at the YMCA, there are many Serious Swimmers. They bring bags of props. They wear caps and goggles. They time themselves. They do the same stroke for an hour. I, on the other hand, am too weak to do the same stroke two laps in a row, so I alternate between four: freestyle, side stroke, back stroke and, um, "kick board stroke." And I never time myself.

The pool is divided into four lanes, in theory to separate the fast from the slow. The "slow lane" is on the far right and the "fast lane" is on the far left. Helpful signs also tell whether you're supposed to swim clockwise or counterclockwise in each lane. At first I assumed (with relief) that the "slow lane" is for people like me. But "slow," I've discovered, can mean anything from swimming laps to treading water to draping oneself over brightly colored noodles. It's difficult to navigate around people with noodles, even if you swim laps as slowly as I do.

So I tried out the second slowest lane. One day I thought I might manage to stay out of the way of the only other person in that lane (a middle-aged man), but he didn't notice me until he ran into me. And of course, he was fast. I moved over to let him go by, but he took that to mean I was bucking the system by swimming clockwise in a counterclockwise lane. When we reached the wall he informed me of my directional error. Well. I wanted to say that I may not be fast but I can read (and get paid to do it for my job, thank you very much)--but I said okay and tried to swim a little faster in a perfectly counterclockwise kind of way.

Last Wednesday the second fastest lane was open, so I jumped in and was soon joined by a pregnant woman. I thought I might have a fighting chance of keeping up, since she was swimming for two. I was wrong. She swam freestyle, lap after lap, while I had to be particularly careful on the side stroke, because I did not want to kick a pregnant woman.

As more people arrived I moved to the second slowest lane so the faster swimmers could have their speed to themselves. There was just one man in the lane then; once I joined him, though, I realized he was wearing: flippers. Twice the kicking power. We fell into a rhythm that worked, however; he passed me every five laps or so.

When he finished, two even faster men joined my lane. Unfortunately for them (and me) it's much more difficult to pass a slow swimmer when there are three people in the lane. I started to panic. I tried to swim faster. I paused at the end of the lane to let them go by me. I might have prayed.

My self-consciousness about my slowness didn't really surprise me. It just reminded me how much I hate to get in the way, to draw attention to myself by hindering others. I don't think others should have to deal with my weaknesses, especially two guys I never met who just want to have a nice (fast) morning swim.

But as I was about to cut the workout short and escape to the locker room, I was struck with a thought: it's all right to get passed. I don't have to keep up; it's okay and even good to have to cooperate with others to make things work. I don't have to buy flippers or leave early when faster swimmers come. In fact, staying and swimming at my own pace can serve as a reminder to me on a broader scale that I'm not called to fit in by keeping up, or to follow a pace set by a culture addicted to speed.

So--I think I'll go for a swim this week too. You can look for me in the pool. I'll be the one doing the side stroke, getting passed.

Posted by Lisa Rieck at 9:19 AM | Comments (7) are closed

September 7, 2006

Beer Shirts and Bumper Stickers

Once upon a time Christians wore hair shirts. Nowadays I'm considering wearing a beer shirt.

A few weeks ago a DJ answered my e-mail on the air. Yesterday I received my reward: a radio station t-shirt and bumper stickers, a CD, and a Miller Genuine Draft summer survival kit. In case you expect to be stranded on a desert island next summer, don't count on the MGD kit to help you survive: it contains no first aid materials, no food--no beer, even. It does, however, contain a bottle opener and a beer shirt. So, I suppose, if you found yourself stranded on a desert island next summer you'd be able to open a bottle and tear off a portion of your beer shirt to write a message. BYO bottle and pen.

This isn't the only shirt I've been given recently. On my vacation I answered a trivia question correctly and had thrown at me a shirt that says something to the effect of "I Heart Gambling." I'm quickly assembling an entire closet of vice; all I need for the hat trick is a shirt that shouts "Legalize It!"

I'm faced with a dilemma: what do I do with my new wardrobe? I work for a Christian company, as does my wife, and I fully expect that at least some of the people around us would be scandalized by such shirts. So to wear one or the other of them would be to invite trouble on myself. But I won them fair and square! And let's be honest: I've been known to enjoy a beer or two in my lifetime, so to wear the beer shirt at least would be somewhat authentic. (For the record, I categorically don't heart gambling.)

Ancient monks wore hair shirts to remind themselves that they were sinners, and to compel themselves to sin less. I wonder if such a shirt as this would serve a similar purpose: to remind myself (and others around me) that I'm not as cool or as purified and pious or as ascetic as I sometimes purport to be. Maybe it would compel me to live more consistently in the truth.

That, after all, is the value I see in those fish bumper stickers. I doubt that too many people are throwing themselves on the mercy of God because there's a fish crossing the road in front of them. But for me at least, the prospect of driving around with an "I Heart Jesus" bumper sticker causes me to consider just how responsible, deferential and respectful a driver I am. How we adorn ourselves, I think, has some impact on how we conduct ourselves.

Or, maybe it's just a stupid, gaudy t-shirt and I should stop thinking about it and just hand it over to the beer-based Bible study ("the Brew Crew") my friend is running. Summer's almost over, after all, and so far I've survived nicely without it.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:04 AM | Comments (1) are closed

August 21, 2006

Doing My Part by Doing Nothing

Word from two blogs I frequent and the New York Times, no less, is that people have lost the will to take vacation. Read the NYT article here.

Finally, I'm countercultural! I'm going on vacation next week. I'll get to see a good friend I haven't seen in a while, I'll visit a family member we see only occasionally, and I'll eat myself silly on a big ole boat. Mildly embarrassing, but oh so tasty.

I understand the inner compulsion to stay at one's desk, of course. By all rights I should be home from work by now, but here I sit, typing madly away about resting. Meanwhile, the work keeps piling up, the minutes keep whirring past, and my compulsion to prove my worth keeps nipping at my heels.

The church has forever warned against sloth, but it's also warned against the self-exaltation that takes place when we see ourselves as indispensible. The apostle Paul may have written to the Thessalonians that if you don't work, you don't eat, but the prophet Moses wrote to the world that we're to remember the sabbath and keep it holy, just like God does.

Frederick Buechner defines sloth as distinct from laziness:

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

So next week I'll be working on my senses of taste and smell. When I get back, if you're good, I'll answer your e-mails.

Peace out.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 4:31 PM | Comments (2) are closed

July 21, 2006

I Wanna Be Your Manager

I’ve had lots of conversations about management this week. Not the management, of course—in case my boss is reading this. I’ve actually been discussing the concept of management—as a challenge, as a calling—with some friends of mine.

*One friend used to manage a team of people, but his new responsibilities have him working mostly on his own.
*Another friend has an opportunity to manage a couple-hundred people after working for years mostly on his own.
*Still another friend loves her work and the people who report to her, but struggles with being the boss.

Meanwhile, my wife and I are doing some soul-searching to figure out what the next season of our lives is going to be like. She’s a manager, and I can barely manage to stay awake, so her vision-quest is taking on a very different character from mine. Still, I find the idea of management pretty intriguing.

Organizations often group people according to task, and then stack them according to tenure or job experience. That makes sense to me—the person on top is most likely to have already done what everybody else can’t figure out how to do—but what if the person on top is a jerk, or a recluse, or a werewolf, or whatever? What if that person’s tenure came through well-timed acts of character assassination and kissing up to the boss? It’s not all about the steady execution of tasks; the atmosphere that a team operates in is established at least in part by the manager, and I for one would find it hard to breathe with someone like that stacked on top of me.

On the flip side, some people train specifically for management and find jobs in industries they know nothing about: they take care of the people so the people can take care of the work. That seems pretty dis-integrated to me—why would you willingly subject yourself to work you’re not passionate about?—except that the people best suited to that type of job are passionate about managing people. One friend of mine has switched industries two or three times and supervised a team of people at each place; he finds meaning not in the product his work is pumping out so much as the act of management. To hear him talk about it, his staff—even the ones he’s had to discipline from time to time—are like his family.

I read an article earlier this year that profiled a department store chaplain. I’d never heard of such a thing. This woman walks the aisles of her store with an eye toward helping people find what they need. Could be customers, could be customer servicepeople. In some cases what they need is toilet paper or a tennis bracelet, but every so often they need someone to give them a break or lend them an ear or offer them up in prayer. This chaplain is practicing the ministry of what Henri Nouwen once called “pastoral presence.”

I wonder if the role of a manager is at least one part chaplain. You can train yourself to do it, I’m sure, but I suspect that it’s at least one part instinctive: you either want to be pastorally present to people, or you don’t.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 12:33 PM

June 16, 2006

Of Surnames and Pseudonyms

I recently met someone with a famous name. I don't mean a bank teller named Thomas Jefferson or anything like that; I mean someone who is blood- and name-related to somebody famous. And now having talked with her, I have a new respect for pseudonyms.

There's all sorts of weight attached to your name. My mother's name was Grady; her mother's name was Brady. One look at her driver's license and you would have pegged her as Irish Catholic, and then you would have imagined her regularly overindulging in potatoes and whiskey while reciting the Rosary. Then my mom married a Zimmerman, took my dad's name, and encountered an entirely different set of presuppositions.

Now, imagine if my dad were famous, let's say for inventing Vitamin C. My mom would go from enduring irrational expectations of her to bearing the mystique of a famous spouse: "Oh, Mrs. Zimmerman, you must be so healthy. What's your favorite fruit? Do you miss potatoes?"

My mom would be spared all that scrutiny and false expectation if only my famous dad had taken a pseudonym. "Miss Potatoes" would be a good one.

I'm told that surnames originated out of people's vocation. "Zimmerman" means "innkeeper"; presumably someone deep in my family's history kept an inn, and the name stuck. Over time, of course, those connections became so distant as to be meaningless. Now our names are simply one way we organize our society--how we alphabetize our phone books.

But proximity to celebrity complicates our self-understanding. Fame transforms a name into a commodity; people are judged by their famous relatives, and their name becomes a brand that they must protect. Roger Clinton has lived a relatively normal life, but in the shadow of his brother, President Bill Clinton, that normal life starts to look pathetic. Even worse, Roger's foibles reflect badly on Bill's reputation, so the pressure on Roger amps up.

You can ride the right name into a supremely comfortable life. Names open doors that otherwise would remain closed; names grant us access to the most power and the best parties. But what if you're not interested in the life afforded you by your name? What if you're a Kennedy who wants to vote Republican? What if you're a Bush who wants to vote Democratic? What if you're a Gates who wants to use a Mac? What if you have something completely fresh and distinct to say or do, but all your advisors and even complete strangers are steering you onto a path carved out for you before you were even born?

So my new friend with a famous name (let's call her "Misty Meanor" just for kicks) faces a number of challenges, among them living up to the fame of her name while simultaneously carving out her own destiny. "Who am I, and what am I about?" she might ask. "What has my lineage contributed to the legacy I'm trying to produce? At what point does Meanor end and Misty begin? How do I handle my second-hand fame responsibly and ethically?"

I heard a song by John Lennon that proved especially poignant to me, because he sings about my surname--Zimmerman--in reference to a pseudonym, Dylan. When you peel back all the layers, Bob Dylan is really Bob Zimmerman, but all those layers are so important that to think of him simply as Bob Zimmerman is to not really know him. Lennon's song, "God," is an attempt to get past the layers to the core of who we are, and to rebuild from there. He sings from the far side of his career as a Beatle, and you can hear the tiredness in his voice as he deconstructs his lineage in search of a meaningful legacy. It's a sad song, really;I'll digest it to reflect what made me hit the brakes:

"I don't believe in Zimmerman . . . I just believe in me."

Ultimately, "me" is not all I believe in. I believe in God, for example--the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. Et cetera, et cetera. To believe in a God who is a Father, to assert my sonship as a foundation of my belief, is an audacious claim: in doing so I am positioning myself out in front of all of creation. But it's not just a power grab; it also prompts a great deal of responsibility: my legacy will reflect back on the Father I have so audaciously claimed. I call God Father; how then shall I live?

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:52 AM | Comments (10) are closed

April 27, 2006

Cooler Than Thou

Believe it or not, as an alternate name for Likewise Books (the new line discussed in an earlier post), people at InterVarsity Press were at one point seriously considering “Cool Books.” Naturally I, the resident authority on comic books, was designated point person for such a line.

In fact, I’m in the process of editing a Likewise book titled Blessed Are the Uncool, which is in part a challenge to American Christians to pick the road less traveled by in how we conduct ourselves with others under God, but is simultaneously a stinging critique of American culture as a product. Ironically, I met the author and began discussing his book idea just a few short months after we began discussing the possibility of publishing “Cool Books.” Being a great fan of irony, I pursued the book with its author, Paul Grant, and we signed the contracts a few months later.

By then, of course, InterVarsity Press had realized that “Cool Books” is a dangerously foolish name for a line of books we hope people will consider cool. Ah, irony, how you continue to bless me with your presence.

The premise of Blessed Are the Uncool is that cool is a cultural force, a concoction made up of disparate cultural values from diverse sources: West African concepts such as itetu (the ability to defuse hostility and tension), hipi (a kind of savvy intelligence) and dega (“to understand”), mixed with the European democratic impulse and the American frontier spirit. Stir it up and add a dash of personal sin, a dollop of systemic injustice and a pinch of supply-side economics, and you have “cool,” defined as "a private performance of rebellion for rebellion’s sake." You can almost taste it, can’t you?

The problem with cool is that it runs effectively counter to Christian virtue.

Christians are meant to be communal, not perpetually privatized.
Christians are meant to be authentic, not preening posers.
Christians are meant to engage in revolution—acts of defiance against unjust principalities and powers that progress inevitably toward repentance and reconciliation—rather than just rebel for kicks.

Cool runs so counter to Christian virtue, in fact, that one could imagine Jesus adding to his blessings in the sermon on the mount: “Blessed are the uncool.”

The problem with me, I’m learning, is that I’m a slave to cool. Seriously—you should see how I’m dressed. I’m not tucked in. I’m wearing a Batman watch. I’m listening to Jewish reggae. I’m trying to be edgy, witty, cooler than thou.

I’m in the right job to be a slave to cool: I get to deconstruct other people’s writing all day every day. I get to weigh in on what will be pitched in the marketplace as “required reading.” I am building cool’s pyramids even as we speak. And I work for a Christian publisher. Ah irony, my constant companion.

Pretty insidious, this “cool.” It’s like a little serpent whispering in my ear. Thank God that he has not left us to overcome it on our own. If we’re willing to endure the social desert of cool-forsakenness, we may just find ourselves stumbling into the promised land of authentic reconciled community, flowing with the milk and honey of human kindness. That’s why God calls us out of cool and into communion with him. You can almost taste it, can’t you?

***

Keep an eye on ivpress.com for an early peek at Blessed Are the Uncool and other Likewise books. And stop by Loud Time if you're in the mood to deconstruct stuff with me.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:34 AM

November 23, 2005

Coerced by Pizza

I'm feeling the social pressure to help decorate the IVP office building for Christmas. The problem is, I HATE decorating for Christmas. But now there's pizza on the table.

Decorating together isn't just a task, it's a cultural endeavor, in much the same way that eating together is a cultural endeavor. The idea that we at work should eat together and decorate together emulates what will happen in my house and many other houses this weekend, in what's become part of the Thanksgiving ritual as much as asking the question "What are you thankful for this year?" So my work is asserting itself as a kind of family, which I can certainly affirm. But consequently, this new family obligation only adds to my internal sense of responsibility to participate.

I've been running across the concept of "creating culture" a lot lately. Andy Crouch did a whole workshop on it, and I've seen a few authors hint at it in their writing, and it's percolating in my brain as I think about my job as an editor for a particular community of people. And I guess it boils down to the simple fact that if I want to feel at home at my work, I need to treat work like a second home, which means I GUESS I should treat my coworkers like brothers and sisters and honor my family obligations.

Or, I could be the whiney family member who gets out of everything. Tough call . . .

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 11:36 AM | Comments (1) are closed

October 19, 2005

Attention All Spammers

I found out today what type of subject heading works on me:

Expel Disgusting Fats rlPR

I must have deleted fifty e-mails when I got to this one, and in some kind of Ouija board moment my mouse moved from the "Delete" tab to the "Open" tab. Here's what I proceeded to read:

Revolutionary "Hoodia" which works effectively burning fats without hunger, chemicals intake or heavy exercise. Suppress your appetite and enjoying your very nice V-Shape body in just a week. You won't regret.

I'm trying to decide what letter my body resembles currently. For some reason I'm torn between "U," "W" and "B." If we could all figure that question out, we could line up together and send messages to space.

That seems like a good plan, but most of us will have to do without "Hoodia"; otherwise the message we send to space will be "VVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVVV." I'm pretty sure that's offensive to Klingons.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:19 AM | Comments (2) are closed

September 9, 2005

Old School Jazz

A friend of mine sent me two CDs this summer. He had stumbled across long-lost recordings of us from back in the day when we were in our high school's jazz ensemble and members of the best David Bowie cover band in the entire state of Iowa. I'm serious--they loved to hear us play "Young Americans" and "Panic in Detroit" from Des Moines to Ames. We were called Little Queenie, which is the name of an old light-rockabilly blues song, I believe written by Chuck Berry. He, along with Muddy Waters, Sam & Dave and countless others provided the source material for Little Queenie's barnstorming career. But I digress.

Back in the day I fancied myself quite the musician, an idolater of my own mythology. I embraced the "band geek" identity thrust upon me by the more socially Darwinian students in my class. I was a saxophonist with a paying gig, so I could afford to be typecast. I made plans to study music in college and make my living as a musician.

That was a long time ago. Now I fancy myself a writer, so much so that I blog, endure rejection or neglect from any number of print or online publications, and anxiously track the day-to-day sales of my book while fantasizing about my still-forthcoming appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman . . .

Sorry, drifted off there. Anyway, as I listened to these disks I was struck by a few things, one of which being that I wasn't much of a saxophonist. Oh, I know that in comparison to my peers I was decent--I got a fair amount of affirmation from people who ought to know--but in comparison to my mythology, I was just awful. I played the same tricks over and over. I never ventured beyond simple scales and rote arpeggios. I fancied myself the Eddie Van Halen of saxophonists. Just awful.

However, I was surprised while listening to these disks just how good the bands were. This little high school jazz band, this little white-bread blues cover band--we were really good. The music was filled with energy, the collected individuals played in near-perfect harmony and rhythm, the band members had fun, the spirit was infectious.

I walked away from these disks with a more humble sense of self and a more intelligent appreciation of the talent I'd observed in my friend, my brother and my long-forgotten bandmates. But I didn't go to the closet and pull out my dusty old alto sax; I started writing about it. I guess I have completed the metamorphosis from band geek to writing geek.

But the whole experience gives me pause, frankly. I know I'm a decent writer--I get opportunities to write from people who know bad writing--but twenty years from now what will I think of this very sentence? What regrets will I have for the words I've put together and put before the public? Even more distressing, though, is the fact that twenty years ago I was convinced that twenty years later I'd be playing saxophone all over the world. I gave up that mythology long ago, but what's to come of the mythology I'm making today?

The core of a young person's mythology is that they'll live forever, and for as long as that forever endures they'll love what they love and be who they are. The young make their moments into eternity, and they generally have fun doing it. We get older and we discover that we are now what we once weren't, that we no longer love what we once couldn't live without, that time has lured us away from our pastimes. It's dangerously easy to lose sight of the joy of eternity.

When those suspicions weigh too heavily on me, it's time to listen to some old school jazz--to remember how long a beatcan be, and just how much you can fit into it.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:52 AM | Comments (1) are closed

June 29, 2005

Happy Birthday, Mr. President

Now that I'm thirty-five, I'd like to officially announce my candidacy for the U.S. presidency in 2008. I want to be really careful not to violate any campaign finance laws, however, so whatever you do, don't send money. Instead, buy yourself something nice, then put it where you'll see it come election day three-and-a-half years from now, and then vote your conscience. Till then I'll be busy picking out presidential china patterns.

If you'd like to apply for a cabinet position, feel free to post a comment. I'm open to creating new cabinet positions once I'm the leader of the free world, so use your imagination.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 12:25 PM | Comments (8) are closed

June 22, 2005

Cedar Journals

by David A. Zimmerman

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 doing the type of writing that I rarely do--journaling, for example, or in the case of today's post, poetry. I feel like such a hippy.

I present these poems for your amusement, but keep in mind a couple of warnings:

1. These poems don't rhyme, so don't lose sleep trying to make songs out of them.
2. I'm no John Donne, so don't hold me to a poet's standard. I couldn't bear the scrutiny. To quote another would-be-poet, folk singer Jewel, "Please be careful with me; I'm sensitive, and I'd like to stay that way."

***
Tuesday, May 16, 2005
The Chaos of Water

I am an island surrounded by water.
Water frustrates my efforts to extend beyond myself.
Water erodes my landscape
threatens to whittle me down to nothing.
I am reined in
and rained on
by water of my own mind
chaos of my own creation.
And I sink.
And I dissipate.
And I am carried away.

But God's Spirit hovers over the waters.
And God speaks
"Peace, be still"
And the waters recede.

God separates the ground from the water.
God puts the water in its place.
God puts me in my place
And calls it good.

Wednesday, May 18
If Adam Fell, Why Do I Hurt?

It hardly seems fair.
I didn't do anything to him,
And now I'm

dispossesseddislocateddisheveleddisrespecteddiscombobulated dishonoreddisgusteddisguiseddischordantdisreputablediseased disengageddisturbeddisinteresteddistantdisillusioneddisappointed

Let's face it: I'm distraught.

I could blame those who hurt me.
I could blame those who betrayed me.
I could blame those who corrupted me.
I could blame this world that forsakes me.
But it hardly seems fair.
They may have hurt me,
But they didn't hurt Adam.
And we can all trace it all back to Adam.

Still . . .

They did hurt me.
And I suppose I have hurt them.
And Adam is nowhere to be seen.

So . . .

Is Adam our greatest enemy,
or our greatest excuse?

***

My exploitation of superhero movies continues; I'm working on a discussion guide for Batman Begins that I hope to post at an online magazine in July; in the meantime, the same magazine is considering whether to post the discussion guide I wrote as a companion to my book. Trust me--you'll hear all about it when something happens.

I'm biting my fingernails in anticipation of the Fantastic Four movie--here's hoping it doesn't stink.

By the way, my thanks to Rick Stilwell for linking his blog to my Pop Matters article "Cape Fear." Rick has renamed and reconceived his blog, now known as "Caffeinated Adventures." Always worth reading.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:34 AM | Comments (4) are closed

June 10, 2005

The Cedar Journals

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.

Monday, May 16, 2005
It’s quiet this morning, which is nice. I’m finding it hard to know how to talk to people here. It’s not so much that people are unwilling to share themselves with one another. It’s more a dilemma of the blank slate.

When you’re unknown, everything you do or say figures into the image of you these new friends are forming in their minds. I know because I do it: I see a woman who wants to be a grownup but still likes to play dress-up. I see a man dominate all his conversations while painting a picture of himself as marginalized. I see a man who would rather be with his wife and kids at any given moment but knows he can’t and feels he shouldn’t be sad about it. I see a man who manages expectations of himself by self-deprecation while simultaneously presuming his superiority over everyone else.

Oh wait, that’s me.


***

Coming up Wednesday is the release of Batman Begins, the best film of summer 2005. I'm doing a signing at midnight at a local theater, which should be a wild adventure. My guess is I'll be dressed more normally than anyone else in attendance.

Come join me if you'd like.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:43 AM

June 3, 2005

The Cedar Journals

by David A. Zimmerman

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.

Sunday, May 15, 2005
I’m here alone, surrounded by four hundred students and staff from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I am an outsider—neither staff nor student—and though several staff and even a few students have made welcoming gestures toward me, I am feeling alone.

When I’m alone by myself, I do pretty well. But when I’m alone in a crowd I regress. I’m childishly protective of my space and my stuff; I’m desperately clingy to people who have left me an opening. I eat too much; I don’t think straight. Even my jokes suffer—they’re too forced, too contrived, too desperate.

My cell phone doesn’t work here. I don’t have access to the Internet. There’s no town within range for me to console myself with the trappings of suburbia—no movie theater, no shopping mall, no Starbucks. There’s no TV to watch, and I just read the last page of the book I brought to read.

My only hope against this encroaching sense of isolation is God and the four hundred staff and students he has surrounded me with. My hope—and my fear—is that I will go to him, and he will send me to them.


***

In other news . . .

This summer's theme for youth services in Illinois public libraries is "Superheroes--powered by books!" As a result, I'm getting invited to speak to a number of library groups. It's a book geek's dream, but I suspect I'm going to get shushed by many a librarian before it's over.

If you're bored in the next several weeks, it's not for lack of sweet action movies. Three (count-em) superhero-themed films are coming out between now and the end of July: Batman Begins, Fantastic Four, and Sky High. I'll have articles online related to these films: two on Batman (at Pop Matters in June and In the Fray in July) and one on the Fantastic Four (at Christianity Today Online in July). What can I say? I babble about superheroes.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:47 AM

April 20, 2005

The Soundtrack of a Long Silence

Some songs, I think, are meant to be heard after a long silence. I recently heard such a song probably for the first time in years: “Lean on Me.” I’m not talking about the “pump it up, homeboy” version of the 1980s; this was the classic, with Bill Withers singing over a slow, deliberate piano, with a soulful chorus joining him intermittently and the gradual fade “Call on me . . . Call on me . . . Call on me . . .”

Songs get overplayed these days. Pop radio formats require frequent repetition of the songs of the moment, so that even the most moving piece of music quickly starts to get on your nerves. Add to that the song-as-soundtrack phenomenon that means every time a movie ad or a truck ad or a shoe ad crosses your television or radio, so does that same mind-numbing song. It’s often taken completely out of context, so that it ceases to mean what it meant to you the first time you heard it. A song that once spoke to your soul now causes you to grimace.

But after a long silence, such a song can still reclaim its spot in your soul. Maybe it’s how I was feeling when I heard it, maybe it’s what the DJ said in the lead-up, maybe it’s the conversations I had the night before or the subconscious worries that plague me every day unawares, but that day when “Lean on Me” came on the radio, everything else came to a halt.

A song like that, in the right moment, reminds me of the friends and family who might just need to lean on me right now; I’m reminded of the people I know whose burdens are more than they can carry but whom I only occasionally help to carry on. I’m reminded of the weariness of the world, and I’m struck by how the weary world of 1972 must have reacted when the first four measures of “Lean on Me” hit the airwaves. After a decade of strife and turmoil, finally came three minutes of rest, and an offer of more where that came from.

Lots of songs can do that: “Everybody Hurts” by REM is one, I think, and even peppy songs like Billy Bragg’s “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward” will get my head nodding in reflective agreement. These are the types of songs that, at age eighteen, I would have fought to the death to have as prom themes or played ad nauseum on my record player alone in my room, to the point where their poignancy would be eclipsed by their nagginess. But after a long silence—when I’ve had time to learn more by experience than by declaration that everybody does occasionally hurt and that waiting for the great leap forward can be a devastatingly discouraging time and that there really are, if you’re lucky, people to lean on when you’re not strong—that’s when I’m ready to hear what they have to say to me.

***

Read a great review of Bill Withers at PopMatters.com.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:29 AM

April 15, 2005

Deep Calls to Deep All Over the Place

By David A. Zimmerman

I catch a lot of grief for a suggestion I made once, in a meeting that was supposedly a free-flowing brainstorming session, for the title of a book: Deep Calling Deep.

You're probably having the same reaction my colleagues had: "What in the world is that supposed to mean?"

Well, I could be a jerk and say, "If I have to explain it to you, you wouldn't understand." Or I could be an even bigger jerk and say, "What? Don't you read your Bible? It's from Psalm 42, you moron!" But that would just be deflecting the question, because I actually don't know what it's supposed to mean.

Nevertheless, I'm seeing the phrase all over the place these days. I first started hearing it in song lyrics in the mid-1990s, but lately I've seen it featured prominently by books and magazines and websites. It's probably on a t-shirt or necktie somewhere too. It may be too early to tell, but I think it's in the running to become the theme verse of the emergent church.

Lots of people have theme verses, some biblical phrase that has proven particularly meaningful or inspirational to them. Ministries tend to have a particular passage of Scripture in mind when they organize, and that passage becomes their institutional theme verse. But as those organizations will tell you, an important ingredient of a theme verse is intelligibility: ideally, you know what you're saying to the world.

I've been told that The Wittenburg Door, a satirical magazine about American Christianity, picked for its theme verse 1 Chronicles 26:18: "At Parbar westward, four at the causeway, and two at Parbar." But even picking a verse so arbitrarily makes a statement: "Theme verses are for chumps."

So, to redeem myself among my colleagues and to support the theme-verse-challenged among us, I welcome any and all insight into what "Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls" means, and more specifically, what it would mean for someone wearing it on a t-shirt. I do like the rhythm of it, and it could well be a fine theme verse, perhaps followed immediately by something like "It's an emergent thing, you wouldn't understand."

Meanwhile, if I were to give myself a theme verse, I think it would have to be one that is not so much inspirational as descriptive. I can aspire to all sorts of things, but ultimately I am anchored by the reality of who I fundamentally am, complete with all my failings and foibles.

I actually have a verse in mind, and it just so happens to come straight from the mouth of my namesake, King David, in 2 Samuel 6:

"I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes."

***

Don't think that's a good theme verse? Check out the streaming video at ivpress.com. I'm sure you'll see the sense of it.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 10:16 AM | Comments (8) are closed

January 28, 2005

If I Could Talk I'd Be Whining

by David A. Zimmerman

I finally have an idea of what a vow of silence feels like: it feels like a prison sentence.

I have lost my voice. (If found, please e-mail dzimmerman@ivpress.com.) I was talking to a room full of junior high students about my book, and now my vocal cords are essentially nonvocal. I can still wheeze out a syllable here or there, but for the most part I'm effectively mute.

You'd think that not having a voice would prohibit me from participating in conversations, but you'd be wrong. I sang "Happy Birthday" to my mom (it sounded more like "Abby Earth Day"), I cracked jokes during a break with my colleagues, I directed a sketch for my church's drama team, I talked about a book idea with a woman from Nashville, and I scheduled two meals intended for catching up with some friends. If my publicity agent hadn't exercised some restraint on my behalf, I would have talked on the radio about superheroes for half an hour.

What I've learned is that I, like U2's Bono, "love the sound of my own voice." Right now no one else does, of course, since my voice sounds like gravel scraped across a chalkboard. Still, you can't tell by looking at a person that their voice is dead and can kill, and people continue to engage me in conversation until I respond. Then they apologize and let me go on in silence--which is, ironically, the last thing I want to happen.

I was told once that I should take a retreat of silence to confront my need for attention. I did, and it was good, but while my mouth kept silence, my mind kept chattering away. I took all sorts of notes so I could talk about my experience with all my friends. My experience of voicelessness is quite a bit different from that retreat, however: whereas I could have ended that retreat at any time, I'm currently at the mercy of my throat. I can't talk, and I won't talk well until whatever has taken my voice gives it back.

In the meantime, I'm missing out on a lot. I have tried to acknowledge people in passing and have failed to make a peep; I have tried to make jokes but couldn't articulate the punch line; I've tried to engage my loved ones but have had to simply listen.

You can learn a lot from listening, it turns out. People generally have a lot of stories to tell, and when you're not jockeying for the chance to take the reins of the conversation, they actually have the opportunity to tell them. But we're conditioned to practice dialogue, an equal distribution of talk-time, so when your voice is gone your conversation partners don't know what to do with you. Ironically enough, when you're best suited to listening without interrupting, people stop talking to you.

So here I sit, at least temporarily voiceless and friendless. At least my mind still works, so to speak.

***

Happy birthday, Chris!

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:54 AM

January 21, 2005

How My Book Got the Better of Me

by David A. Zimmerman

Bless me, blogger, for I have sinned. It's been several weeks since my last confession . . .

I do look at Strangely Dim as a sort of confessional, in the sense that a confessional allows you to reflect on your missteps and try to calibrate your next steps. I was told once by a professor that the early church practiced open, communal confession until wealthy and influential Christians pushed for more privacy. At that point the church moved the sacrament of confession into booths, and confessing publicly became passé. Eventually, in the name of the "priesthood of all believers," some Christian movements abandoned the practice of confession altogether.

I have to say, I'm pretty comfortable with the idea of never confessing. I bawled like a baby when I made my first confession--and I've been a much badder boy since then. But on the other hand, we lose out on something precious when we decline to acknowledge--to ourselves, at least, but more urgently to God, and arguably just as urgently to the people in our lives--that we have sinned in our thoughts and in our deeds, in what we have done and what we have failed to do.

For example, since my book's release I've come to expect anyone who claims to care about me to read it, relish it, follow the links to all the supplemental stuff, and tell everyone they know about it. In my mind, Jesus has told his followers: "Go therefore into all nations and sell people of every tribe and tongue copies of Comic Book Character."

Since the book's release I've become unusually sensitive to the argument that comic books are lowbrow literature. Some of my defensiveness is understandable, of course, but I tend to take such an attitude as a personal affront, even though prior to and even since the book's release 99.999999999999999999999 percent of the earth's inhabitants had no idea that I exist.

Since the book's release I've exploited many of my relationships. I've sent free copies to a good number of people in hopes that (a) they'll tell everyone they know how awesome it is (and perhaps, by extension, how awesome I am) and (b) they'll invite me to speak at their events so I can look and feel like an expert, sell more books and shore up my apparently quite fragile self-image. I've actually, as part of the publication process, categorized the people in my life as either "influencers" or not so that I could make the most "strategic" use of a budgeted "influencer mailing." Some of the people on my list I don't even know; I simply know that they're "influential."

Since the book's release I've been distracted from my job, my wife, my parents, my siblings, my church, my friends, my hobbies, myself, my God. I've googled myself countless times, I've snuck a peek at all sorts of sales data that I ought not have access to, I've even forgotten to tend to my cats' litterbox--and trust me, after a few days that's almost impossible.

It feels good to give all this some air. Not that I've changed my habits at all, but at least I'm not hiding from the truth anymore. And really, once you've pranced around on film in a spandex body suit, hiding anything is pretty ridiculous.

Thanks. I feel better now. Buy my book.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 3:08 PM | Comments (2) are closed

January 4, 2005

Do-Be-Do-Be-Do

by David A. Zimmerman

"So, how was your New Year's Eve? Whadja do?"

That's a relatively safe question for casual acquaintances to ask one another, which means you'll likely be hearing it a lot till the statute of limitations runs out--probably shortly before February 1, when the default question switches to "So, whatcha got planned for Valentine's Day?"

Whatcha do says a lot about you. In my case, I went to a New Year's Eve get together with some friends. They played cards upstairs while I played Spider-Man II on the X-Box downstairs. Shortly before midnight I was utterly destroyed by Rhino, so I went upstairs to play what is essentially the Star Wars version of Yu-Gi-Oh! while my wife cleaned up after me. An hour later we went home. Five hours later I woke up to finish preparing a couple of short talks to introduce two of the three Lord of the Rings films during a New Year's Day marathon.

Spider-Man II, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. What's that say about me? All three of these brands--not to mention playing video games or card-based war games--are the domain of the supergeeky. And I suppose that's a fair brand to label me with; I did, after all, write a book about comic books. I and a group of friends took an online quiz once to determine how geeky we were, and I scored lower than some but higher than many, so I don't have much of a nongeeky leg to stand on.

But from another angle, my actions over the New Year might convince some people that who I am is something less forgivable. I'm not generally known as someone who sits aloof from other people playing video games or watching movies or otherwise indulging in sedentary, passive entertainment. I like to be around people, mixing it up in noncompetitive play. But for forty-eight hours I was aloof, competitive and sedentary. So I suppose one thing my New Year's experience says about me is that I'm easily distorted.

Fair enough, I suppose: I am, after all, human, and to be human is in a sense to be distorted, if you take the biblical account of the Fall to be descriptive of the human condition as I do. Two humans--the only two, for that matter--are made perfect and given a perfect creation but find a way to screw the whole thing up. And being part of the whole thing, they get screwed-up themselves. In the subsequently distorted reality, as Job puts it, "man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward."

Even Job is distorted: it's pronounced "jobe," and it's a guy's name, but on first glance everyone pronounces it "jahb," like whatcha do. Which is almost appropriate for the whole, distorted lot of us, since we tend to think that whatcha do is who you are anyway.

Happy new year, by the way. Whadja do? Post a comment!

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 3:22 PM | Comments (3) are closed

December 17, 2004

Your Name Here

By David A. Zimmerman

Earlier this week I finished the third of my three big book-signing events for Comic Book Character. Boy, are my arms tired. (Ha! That's hilarious!)

Actually, it is funny that people will wait around to have you sign your name on something that already has your name on it. Prior to these signings, the only time my signature has had any value in the eyes of anyone has been when it's applied to a check or a contract--usually a contract that will ultimately involve my signing a check.

My first signing event was in Dallas, Texas. I was there for Thanksgiving with my family, and I thought, You know what might be fun--having a book signing! So I called a bookstore and set it up. Then I sat in the store and put together a puzzle while a throng of customers avoided eye contact with me. We sold about five copies--all to people who owed my mommy a favor.

A couple of weeks later I rode the coat-tails of the massive marketing juggernaut that is InterVarsity Press to Wheaton, Illinois, where my book signing was heralded by a guy wearing a cape and a spandex body suit. Fortunately for me and for everyone in the store, that guy was not me. Counting infants and my coworkers--who have different developmental capacities but similar purchasing power to one another--about eighty people showed up. Some of them even bought books.

Five days later my wife and I, after making a prodigious amount of food, watched our home fill up with friends and family to celebrate the release of my book and the birth of our Lord and Savior. All in all, sixty people came by--we've got the food on the floor to prove it. (Note to self: sweep.)

The common denominator of these events is that I had to write something pithy in each copy of the book that sold. Considering that I filled up 160 pages saying essentially "Comic books are cool; you should read them," I think it's fair to say that pith isn't one of my strong suits. But there's a fundamental weakness in books that is at least slightly overcome by a handwritten signature from the author: we read books by our neighbors, for the most part, in the same way we read books by fifth century theologians--one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one page at a time, utterly detached from the people who wrote them.

We're not free to interact with authors; we simply accept or reject what they inject into our lives. Likewise, in most cases authors get no opportunity to hear their readers. An author casts an idea out into the world and hopes that it's given some attention, that someone somewhere will take the idea to heart and make some use of it. For all their depth, books are two-dimensional artifacts in a three-dimensional world.

My three-year-old niece offered me a strict warning at one of my signing events that continues to perplex me: "Uncle Dave, don't write in books." She's speaking from experience, having learned in her short life that librarians don't look favorably on such behavior. But if books are anything, they're written in, and for that matter, what do you do at a book signing if you don't write in books?

Perhaps a three-year-old born into a postliterate world has some ideas on the matter, but until she writes a book on the subject I'll be left in the dark, nursing my poor, carpal-tunnel threatened hand back to health.

***

This may well be my last Strangely Dim of 2004. I am suffering severe writer's block. So unless my muse strikes next week, I'll say Merry Christmas today and Happy New Year next year. Thanks for reading and God bless.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:34 AM | Comments (3) are closed

November 18, 2004

Mind Your Business

By David A. Zimmerman

"Thanksgiving for every wrong move."
--Poi Dog Pondering

One thing I’ve learned over my many decades: if you find yourself mentioned by name in a sermon, you’ve done something either really, really good or really, really bad.

You can avoid that kind of scrutiny in a big church, such as the big church I left earlier this year because I wanted to be involved in a smaller church. In a big church you’re pretty safe if you want to be, because the vast majority of your fellow church attenders don’t know that you exist. But in a small church, people know you. By name. And if you’re not careful, by your deeds. And if you're not really, really careful, by your misdeeds.

I learned all this firsthand, all of a sudden, when I was mentioned by name in my pastor’s sermon—and for the record, I didn’t do something really, really good.

I brought this outing on myself, I must confess. In fact, I did confess just minutes before the sermon was delivered, in front of the whole congregation. Our church was in the midst of its annual “stewardship” program, which is fancy talk for how we manage our money. I’m on the stewardship committee, so I got to make an announcement, during which I shared my complete lack of self-control regarding money. Along the way I confessed my having brought significant credit card debt with me into my marriage, for which my incredibly gracious wife has incredibly, graciously forgiven me. Then I invited people to a luncheon and sat down.

My pastor saw an opportunity and took it: my confession became an illustration of the power of money in our culture. And I must confess, it makes for a pretty good illustration. I certainly felt convicted by it.

I don’t have any illusions—or at least no longstanding illusions—that I am perfect or that my successes in life outweigh my failures or failings. I’ve learned at least that much in my many decades. But I do find it somewhat gratifying that, even when what I do causes profound difficulty or even pain to me or someone I love, my mistakes can have some redemptive value—even if only as a cautionary tale.

I’m reminded of a verse from Scripture, advice given from the apostle Paul to his student Timothy: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). Our life, however it is lived, has influence on the people around us. And how we persevere in our living and our believing has its own influence.

They say confession is good for the soul, that when we live in the truth about ourselves we are freed from the image management that keeps us from knowing each other and knowing ourselves. I don’t know about all that, but I certainly survived my confession, and I’m certainly motivated now to do something really, really good right in front of my pastor.

* * *

My book’s now in stock. Look for it in stores, and be sure to check out the sweet flip animation running up the right margin.

No Strangely Dim next week, which you can include in your thanks-giving if you like. Catch you in December!

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:33 AM

July 30, 2004

What’s in a Name

By David A. Zimmerman

I think I signed something I shouldn’t have signed. Or maybe I should have signed it. I’m all “engh” about it.

I was sitting at my desk, minding my own business, when a coworker “invited” me to sign a petition to amend the Illinois constitution. And I signed it, mostly because I was still waking up and not in the mood for a fight.

But as soon as he left I remembered that I don’t support such an amendment. It’s not that I was unsympathetic to the thought behind the petition; it’s that I don’t think such an amendment is a responsible use of a constitution. Constitutions govern how a government is to be run and ought to deal with issues such as term limits for members of Congress or definitions of voting rights. Constitutions do not typically dictate how people are to conduct themselves on a day to day basis. If we amend the constitution to prohibit, for example, the sale and distribution of alcohol, then we really ought to amend it to forbid murder, theft and any number of violations of natural law.

But I digress. The real issue is that I don’t support the amendment, yet I signed the petition. I signed the petition because I hate conflict, but the petition will likely generate more conflict, which—as I mentioned—I hate.

It’s not as though I expect this particular petition to sway the will of the Illinois state government or the state’s dozens of living voters. I don’t think this issue will hold the attention of the American people for very long, and the amendment process takes a long time.

But now my name is on a petition that I don’t agree with, and that means that my words do not correspond with my actions. It’s one thing to say “I believe this”; it’s quite another to take steps to do something about that belief. And when I take steps to do something that I have said I don’t support, I am not—as former president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, might put it—living in the truth.

All this just to avoid an uncomfortable conversation about what I believe about, of all things, the telos of the Illinois constitution. As if anyone in the known universe cares about the Illinois constitution. But it points to larger issues: what am I willing to sacrifice to maintain peace, and what am I willing to sacrifice in order to be myself.

So I’m ashamed to say that I let a moment of discomfort color my identity. I’ll never be Václav Havel, apparently. And unless I get some gumption, I may never be myself either.

***

Read about my forthcoming book, if you have any remaining respect for me.

Get on my e-notification e-list. E-mail e-me at dzimmerman@ivpress.com. No e-spam, please.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:25 AM

July 23, 2004

Your Time Was Then

By David A. Zimmerman

I suppose I wouldn’t mind aging so much if we all did it together—or at least if the word generation actually meant something. I mean, really: I’m Generation X, but so is the little weasel who works down the hall from me and keeps stealing all my office supplies. So are those jerks down the block who keep blowing up sticks of dynamite on the street as acts of patriotism. And then there’s Generation Y or the Millennials or whatever, and they’re starting to take entry level positions in my field and write the theses I wish I’d written and move into my neighborhood—my neighborhood. Two generations breathing down my neck, and the older I get, the more of them there seem to be.

I’m much more comfortable with the age difference between me and my oldest niece: thirty-one years. She’s cute; I’m funny. She climbs on my back and sprays me with water; I carry her around and wipe the food off her face. I don’t have to worry about my niece taking my job from me, at least till I’m comfortably close to retirement. I don’t have to worry about her kids tromping on my grass and picking all my flowers. We’re free to enjoy one another without feeling threatened by one another.

Not so with these yuppie interlopers. They’re breathing my air, touching my stuff, stealing my thunder. That may be how King Saul felt about up-and-comer David. If Saul was anything like me, he had already developed a pretty clear idea of how the rest of his life would unfold—more eating, more drinking, more merriment, more glory. Here was Israel’s first king ever, the glory boy of the people of God, and suddenly all the girls were swooning over some punk kid instead of him. David burst on the scene and started stealing Saul’s press.

It didn’t help that David was so likeable. Nothing is more perplexing than liking someone you hate—or, perhaps more appropriately, someone you wish would just go away and let you enjoy yourself in peace. And that’s my problem: I really like all these folks who are the age I wish I were, but just being around them reminds me that my time was then, and what’s left for me now? Their present is familiar to me, and I get all nostalgic about it. Meanwhile, my future is an open question. I hate open questions.

Maybe I could take some small comfort in knowing that I’ve prompted a similar perplexity for the people who went before me; I’ve been a thief of their own youth, and they’ve been the same to their own antecedents. Maybe some comfort, but not much, because I’m still aging at an alarming rate, and I’m watching myself move from the center of the universe to its periphery, which in reality is where I’ve always been and where my usurpers are too.

Time is, after all, simply a construct, and the true Center and Source of it all exists outside of it. At some point even my niece will be looking over her shoulder as another generation breathes down her neck, at which point I’ll be happily sipping prune juice through a straw, watching Wheel of Fortune and laughing at the absurdity of it all.

But that will be then. For now, I hate prune juice and want the universe to revolve around me. Is that too much to ask?

***
Listen to the June 28, 2004, installment of Lin’s Bin, an audio-essay by Chicago DJ Lin Braehmer, for another perspective on aging.

Check out my last lunge at adolescence in my forthcoming book, Comic Book Character.

Read about my secret identity at www.ivpress.com.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:04 AM

May 21, 2004

I Got Nothing

By David A. Zimmerman

It was bound to happen. You write five hundred words a week and eventually you'll run out of things to write. I'll call it writer's block, demon oppression, whatever, but I've got nothing, and I've got 464 more words to go telling you about it.

You come to regard yourself as a deep thinker when you spend as much time as I do putting your thoughts on paper--or more accurately, committing them to digitized memory. (Nice move--eight fewer words I have to write.) And so, when you can't think of anything, you come to pretty much an identity crisis: If I don't have this, what do I have? If I can't do this, what can I do?

When I first toyed with the idea of a weekly column, I was on fire. I kicked out four months' worth of mini-essays in a couple of weeks. Several months later I started posting them online, and the thrill of that new horizon spurred even more frantic typing on my PC and scribbling of graffiti script on my PDA. But several months after that, I find myself struggling to move beyond a witty headline. Even this confession buys me only a measly seven days--then I'm back to scratching my head and doubting my calling.

They tell you to always write something, to keep writing no matter how frustrating or exhausting or absurd the experience or the end product is. The newness of writing wears off dreadfully quickly, and when your dash becomes a walk, you either keep walking or you get nowhere. Strangely Dim is my exodus, I'm coming to discover. Inevitably, it seems, it has become pretty much a long walk.

I could carry the analogy forward, but I can't figure out what the golden calf would be. What's the quick payoff that would make giving up on Strangely Dim when I run short of ideas sound like a reasonable thing to do? Even the golden calf cost something, after all. Gold doesn't come cheap, and before the Israelites had a calf to worship, they had to throw all their gold in the fire. What could be worth my doing something stupid like that?

I guess it boils down to three possibilities: (1) I'm stroking my ego by maintaining Strangely Dim, and I ought to take advantage of my lapse of imagination to walk away and not look back; (2) I'm trying to protect my fragile ego by using this lapse of imagination as an excuse to quit, and I need to suck it up and keep going; (3) my ego has nothing to do with this, and there's really little consequence to whether I keep writing Strangely Dim or stop doing it, so I might as well do what I really want--which is to keep writing and keep posting. Strangely Dim, for all the work it's caused me, has always been a gift, a luxury item I could never have acquired without someone else's generosity (like the gold the Israelites carried into the desert), and one I can hardly see myself casting aside so frivolously.

Hey, look at that: I made it past the five-hundred-word mark! See you next week.

***

What's in my hopper? Check here.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:16 AM

April 23, 2004

My Lowbrow Dinner with André

by David A. Zimmerman

"When you go out to dinner with an influential person, mind your manners." Proverbs 23:1 was on my mind as I drove to the House of Hoity Toity to share a meal with my boss and the editor of two recent thousand-page reference books. I was understandably anxious for a couple of reasons, not the least significant of which is the fact that I'm not the most graceful eater in the world.

I can hold my own when it comes to fast food--I've gotten to the point where I can shift gears without spilling ketchup on myself--but I'm out of my element when they only give you one napkin, particularly when that napkin is made of cloth. True to form, I dropped my steak knife on the floor five minutes into the meal (narrowly avoiding the editor's toe) and spilled my drink onto my steak. True to form, I reused the knife to eat the steak.

All this was survivable though--even charming in a goofy sort of way. The real anxiety for me surrounded the conversation more than the food. Here I was breaking bread with people each twenty years my senior, both having overseen the publication of several seminal works in religious publishing--and I was one degree removed from having my napkin tucked into my shirt collar.

Again, this isn't unfamiliar territory for me. I'm one of the only members of my family without an advanced degree. At work a colleague and I devised a word game to play during departmental meetings because we never understood what anyone was talking about. I have become, you could say, comfortably dumb.

Imagine my relief though when our conversation quickly turned to comic books. Here was sumphin' I could talk good about. We talked a while about the character-shaping influence of superheroes while I chewed with my mouth open and spoke with my mouth full. Then we moved on to discuss--you guessed it--reality television. By the time the check came, I had potato all over my shirt and we had finished a delightful conversation about professional wrestling--which, in case you were wondering, originated in Minnesota.

I can't begin to tell you what prompted such a pedestrian flow of conversation, but I do think it's an interesting commentary on the influence of contemporary mass culture--which I serve happily as priest. I feel bad, though I haven't mentioned their names, outing my boss and my reference editor friend, but in a sense I am unapologetic. If there is a purpose to religious publishing, it surely involves the exploration of meaning in a contemporary cultural context. And that means asking questions of culture. And that means being conversant enough with our culture to know which questions to ask.

I felt at this dinner the way the punk rock group The Ramones may have felt when National Public Radio counted their song "I Wanna Be Sedated" one of America's most important pieces of music: a little embarrassed, a little amused, but otherwise right at home. I've reconciled myself to being strangely dim, and it's always nice to have company.

* * *

Look, look! I'm writing a book!

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

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:10 AM

April 2, 2004

Squeaky Shoes on Silent Retreat

by David A. Zimmerman

I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut, but I can usually get the job done if I have a compelling reason to stay quiet. I can't speak for the rest of my body, however.

Get your mind out of the gutter. I'm thinking of my feet in particular--or, more precisely, my shoes, which seem to have a voice of their own. That's not typically a problem: I spend most of my days among the same group of people, and it's often to our mutual advantage that they can hear me coming. I can't tell you how many times my squeaky shoes have saved me from a head-on crash with my company's director of production and fulfillment, for example.

But there are times when a loud walk is counterproductive, even self-defeating--for example, when you're supposedly on a silent retreat. I made the mistake of wearing my squeaky shoes during my recent visit to the Cenacle retreat center, where I spent my day working through exercises in the book Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition.

Big mistake. Try forgetting yourself when every move you make is accompanied by a patent leather soundtrack. Any luck? Didn't think so.

I did my best to work around my noisy soles. I took my shoes off while I was in my room, and when I was in common areas I moved slowly, deliberately. Whenever possible, I walked on carpet.

Unfortunately some tongues refuse to keep silent. In this situation, my squeaky shoes were in good company; they joined a chorus of unusually verbose deacons-in-training. They chatted in the halls, they laughed at each other's deacon jokes, they debated theology. With all the squeaking and all the squawking, my "silent retreat" could hardly be considered silent.

Ah, ambient noise, how you vex me! I came to the retreat center in order to escape, to forget about everyone and everything while I learned to forget about myself. But the unceasing squeaking kept me constantly aware of my own presence, and the conversations that penetrated the paper-thin walls kept me constantly aware of the presence of others. The absurdity of my "silent" retreat was most apparent as I ate my lunch in the "silent" dining room, staring across the table at other "silent" retreatants, listening to them scrape their forks across their plates, hearing every chew and swallow. Let me tell you something: there are some sounds you never forget, no matter how hard you try.

And yet my retreat was surprisingly illuminating. Despite the noise generated by myself and others, I did indeed learn about the aspects of my life that distract me from the business of being who God made me to be, doing what God made me to do.

I suppose that's the way of all personal growth: it happens in real time in an active world. Any commitment to silence is at the mercy of all nearby noisemakers, and it would be tragic to forget ourselves so effectively that we lose track of who we are and where God has placed us.

So I'll keep the shoes and bless the deacons, and someday I'll take another retreat--though next time I'm bringing my slippers.

* * *

Make some noise! Post a comment about noises that annoy you or silence that drives you crazy.

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

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:13 AM

March 12, 2004

AU, Idiot!

By David A. Zimmerman


We're far enough removed, I think, from my last Christmas letter for me to own up to an embarrassing error I made in it.

I was riffing on a theme--abbreviations--and in my enthusiasm I misrepresented the abbreviation for gold from the periodic table of the elements. It is, of course, AU; I think I inadvertently stuck lead in its place, a kind of reverse literary alchemy.

I was embarrassed for all sorts of reasons. First off, the periodic table doesn't contain abbreviations per se; it's more precise to refer to the elements' representations as symbols. Beyond that, I wouldn't expect to know any of the periodic table by heart because I am by any measure completely disinterested in things scientific--landing on the symbol for lead would have been entirely accidental--except that I had no excuse for not knowing the symbol for gold. As a student of late-twentieth-century American social/cultural history (they actually let me major in this), I should have remembered that political campaigns from the 1960s represented the name of Barry Goldwater using symbols from the periodic table: Goldwater = AU-H2O. (I'm pretty sure that AU = gold and H2O = water, though I've given up on making such bold assertions.)

Not to mention that I make my living as an editor, which involves (make that "should involve") checking facts. The periodic table is prominently displayed in my dictionary, which I supposedly use every day. I would insert my mea culpa here, but I'm too lazy to make sure that means what I think it means.

The weird thing is that only one person pointed out the error, even though very nearly everyone I know received my Christmas letter. I don't know which scenario I prefer:

1. All my family and friends are embarrassingly uneducated about the periodic table of the elements and late-twentieth-century American social/cultural history.
2. All of my family and friends have come to expect such errors from me as a matter of course and see no reason to comment on them.
3. None of my family and friends reads my Christmas letter.

In any event, I'm not sure if I'd rather have my mistakes pointed out so I can become a better person or remain blissfully ignorant of any fallibilities I might suffer from (such as, for example, ending a sentence with a preposition, which I narrowly avoided here by inserting this parenthetical comment).

Needless to say, I intend to be a bit more careful with this year's Christmas letter. The news that I had potentially embarrassed myself in front of my whole universe of relationships was not my favorite gift this past Christmas, but it's also the only gift I haven't been able to return for money.

Oops--did I just print that?

* * *

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

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:56 AM

February 20, 2004

How I Shall Seize Control of My Company

By David A. Zimmerman

Call me Absalom--that's the name of the role model for my upward mobility.

Wait--I'll save you some needless Googling. Absalom is a prince of ancient Israel, a son of King David who temporarily usurped his father's throne. You can read about him in 2 Samuel, which you can find at www.biblegateway.com.

Anyway, Absalom successfully unseated the most popular king of Israel's then two-king history, which makes him a highly practical model for my own naked ambition.

Now, banking on the likelihood that nobody who might challenge my meteoric rise to the top actually reads Strangely Dim, I'll share my strategy with you so you can pray for me and even apply it to your own relentless pursuit of power. Absalom made his play in three simple acts.

1. Absalom acted nicer than everyone above him; therefore I shall act nicer than everyone above me. Absalom and his father each won the hearts of the people at different times. David did it by being just a little bit crazy; Absalom did it by being a "man of the people."

This will be a bit difficult for me, since I actually am a little bit crazy, and the people above me are actually very nice. (Wink, wink--just in case they do read this.) Nevertheless, one of the cool things about being out of power is that the people in power have to make all the difficult decisions and (this is important) announce those decisions. I can simply commiserate with those affected by the decisions and "let them know I'm there for them." This was Jerry Seinfeld's strategy as he courted a woman in a troubled relationship; eventually he moved from "being there for her" to "being there." Brilliant.

2. Absalom acted smarter than everyone above him; therefore I shall act smarter than everyone above me. Absalom had opinions about everything, and his opinions usually made his audience feel better about themselves. Since I don't have to make the decisions for my company, I'm free to critique the decision-makers from the sidelines. This, by the way, is also my principal strategy for taking over my church.

3. Absalom recruited his father's staff and even slept with his father's harem. I'm reasonably confident that the powers that be in my company don't have harems, but there are plenty of other ways I can contribute toward a polarized work environment. Ask anyone. Once I take over, people will quickly shift their loyalties to me--if, that is, they know what's good for them.

That's it: three easy steps to a coup d'etat. Absalom pulled it off and enjoyed supreme power for a couple of weeks, until he was, of course, executed.

Like I said, pray for me.

***

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

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:15 AM

February 6, 2004

Haiku: No Sweat

By David A. Zimmerman


Legend has it that Elvis Presley earned a black belt in karate in an unprecedented twelve days. That's eleven days, twenty-three hours and thirty minutes more training in karate than I've had in haiku. Enjoy.

***

I have a fireplace.
I used it two years ago,
But I'm cold right now.

Whoa.

Tammy Faye Messner:
Reality TV star
And sister in Christ.

[No response.]

Breakfast: what to eat?
A bowl of cereal or
Some nice, hot oatmeal?

Mmmmm . . . Oatmeal . . .

On my book table:
The Purpose-Driven Life; How
To Be a Villain.

[Snap-snap, snap-snap.]

I'm very busy.
Why am I writing haiku?
And yet I still write.

[The sound of a hand stroking a goatee.]

This is the coolest.
I want a haiku Bible.
I'm sure one's coming.

***

Check out my secret
Identity on the Web at
www.ivpress.com

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:16 AM

January 23, 2004

A Generation Gap of Three Car Lengths

by David A. Zimmerman

I worry that I'm becoming more a Chicagoan than a Zimmerman. I started feeling this way while leading a two-car rush hour convoy, with me in front and my dad behind me, from one Chicago suburb to another.

There I was, weaving in and out of traffic, angrily decrying the overaggressive driving going on around me, pushing my way through yellow lights dangerously close to turning red, reading the liner notes to my current favorite CD, writing notes to myself in my organizer.

Behind me was my dad, white-knuckled and out of his element behind the steering wheel of a nondescript rental car, trying desperately to stay within my field of vision without attaching himself to my bumper, probably praying he would be raptured somewhere slightly less populated--Des Moines, perhaps, or the Mojave Desert.

All around us were people tired of their days and eager to get where they were going. Public transportation has not won a majority audience in Chicago, and suburban roads fill with hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans each business day. On this particular day, they were joined by one Zimmerman and one guy riding the fence.

Zimmermans, historically, have been what I like to call "Iowa drivers": the kind of drivers who wave you through at the four-way stop, who scrupulously leave three or more car lengths before them, who see speed limits as a maximum, not a minimum. Moreover, my dad--a Zimmerman from way back--believes strongly in God's "original design": two people, one planet.

But these days I live in a city where drivers honk their horns as Jesse James might fire a gun and where three car lengths are two-and-a-half lengths too many. From the start of this journey I felt the tension of nature versus nurture; I wanted to take my car where my dad's would never go.

Once you're in the car, you might expect that the questions of where you came from and where you're going have been settled already, but days later I still wondered. Who I am is not defined solely by where I am, but where I am does have an undeniable influence on who I'm becoming.

Fortunately, my past keeps catching up with me, and my father is still willing to go to great lengths and great trouble to be present in my life. I'm sure that on our next convoy he'll be back there somewhere behind two SUVs and a VW Beetle. I'll make a note in my organizer to check my rear-view mirror.

***

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

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:37 AM

October 2, 2003

Pools, People and Other Works in Progress

by Dave Zimmerman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 1:27 PM

September 22, 2003

Emotional Disciplines

by David Zimmerman
“The heart is devious above all else; . . . who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9 records the word of the Lord, no less, about the hazards of human emotions. Woody Allen offers us the flip side of God’s lament: “The heart wants what it wants.” You can imagine why God would be upset about the untamed human heart, which has led to, among other things, Allen’s betrayal of his wife in favor of her daughter, and a chosen people’s betrayal of their God for gods of wood and stone.

The heart—the seat of emotional life—certainly seems uncontrollable. When I’m angry to the point of rage, appealing to reason just irritates me. When I’m depressed, I withdraw from attempts to bring me out of my depression. Whether I’m happy, sad or mad, I’m generally not interested in feeling any different. The heart wants what it wants.

Our emotions affect others more than our intellect, our physique or our spirituality. People can tell with one look what emotions I’m processing from moment to moment, and my feelings have immediate impact on them. Happy people steer clear of sullen people, and misery loves only miserable company. We make judgments about people based on their emotions, sometimes temporary (“I wonder why she’s so upset”) but sometimes permanent (“She’s so crabby”).

Unchecked emotions can rule over us, no question. And yet, emotions are part of the human package—we are never emotionless, and suppressing emotions can lead ultimately to bad health and broken relationships. We have mental, physical and spiritual disciplines, but what we’re missing, and what we really need, are emotional disciplines.

Often we can’t recognize what we’re feeling. The first emotional discipline is thus to engage our feelings—to learn what prompts them and sustains them: “Search your hearts and be silent” (Psalm 4:4 NIV).

But emotions are politically potent, affecting not only how we perceive reality but how we engage it. To discipline our emotions we must strike a balance between emotional honesty and emotional tyranny. Psalm 4:4 speaks to this balance as well: “In your anger do not sin.”

Some situations call for anger (or a host of other emotions), but no situation calls for sin. When I’m so happy I avoid unhappy people, I allow my emotions to reign in the place of God, who may be asking me to minister to their suffering. Or when you give full vent to your anger without thought of the consequences, you betray your calling to live at peace with everyone “as far as it depends on you” (Romans 12:18).

Indulgence is not the only unhealthy engagement of emotions, of course. There’s a reason emotions are political: to stifle emotions in the interest of a superficial peace is to avoid a confrontation God may want you to make. Once we recognize what has triggered our emotions, we must consider their purpose and respond adequately. God created us to exist in community with him and each other, and emotions are a tool for building that community.

Once we get in the habit of disciplining our emotions, we will be better prepared to engage the world around us in the manner God has prescribed for us. And instead of betraying God in our deceitful hearts, we can respond to the calling of every Christian heart: to want what God wants.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 3:01 PM

September 8, 2003

Why Strangely Dim?

by David Zimmerman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 10:53 AM

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Behind the Strangeness

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

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

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

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

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