Monday, May 4, 2015

Against the Flow: Retreat or Remain?


This week, as I read Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism  by John Lennox, I came upon this observation, which set in motion a chain of thoughts:

“They (Daniel and his friends) sought the wellbeing of Babylon by living in that city as salt and light for God. That stance involved sticking their heads above the parapet and protesting against the world-view that underlay the Babylonian system – and taking the consequences of doing so.”

That “Babylonian system,” Lennox says, was remarkably similar to the cultural system that now is in place in what we think of as Western culture – scientism and materialism, or science as religion and materialism in the sense of everything is material in the here and now and there is nothing after the here and now.

A child in the suburbs of New Orleans in the 1950s, I grew up in a time and culture strongly influenced by surging and often conflicting changes.

The post-World War II Baby Boom was continuing to explode, straining hospital and school services alike. The civil rights movement was gathering steam throughout the decade. The national religious revival associated with Christian leaders like Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry was ongoing. An almost religious reverence for science was created by the advent of the polio vaccine. And then I had the more immediate influences of family and what it meant to live in what was then (and now) what is perhaps the most different city in the United States, more an outpost of the Caribbean than an American city.

The 1960s were different: the civil rights movement; Vietnam and the antiwar movement; the proliferation of a lifestyle and philosophy summed up in almost a single word, “hippie;” the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy; the broadening sweep of the drug culture.

By the time I entered college in 1969, it seemed to my parents that there were two Americas existing side by side, and one of them had become unrecognizable.

Billy Graham remained popular and the counsel of presidents; the hippie movement along with the growth of para-church organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ fed into the stream of what had become known as the Jesus Movement. I became a Christian in 1973 at the height of the Jesus Movement, directly through the influence of Campus Crusade for Christ. That was the same year the Supreme Court issued its decision on abortion in Roe v. Wade.

One thing I understood from the beginning of my Christian faith: Christianity was, at its most basic, countercultural. That point was driven home with a video series my wife and I saw at the church we attended in Houston in the mid 1970s – How Shall We Then Live by Francis Schaeffer.

The films, and Schaeffer’s books, were a revelation to me. First, they emphasized the importance of Christians being in the culture – not only for the growth of the Gospel message but also for the good of the culture. Hiding from the culture in figurative fortresses and Christian “ghettos” was bad for both the Church and the culture. Second, Schaeffer described over and over again how much of what is good about the culture has come from generations of the Church.

Over the years, I took Schaeffer’s message to heart, and found myself involved in a number of programs and efforts (and a controversy or two) that aimed at being salt and the light in the culture (including work).

Francis Schaeffer
Over the course of my lifetime, the United States has moved from a culture of shared Christian belief to what some charitably describe as “more pluralistic” and others less charitably as “increasingly pagan.” There’s no doubt that the Church’s influence in the United States has declined. And there’s no doubt that the culture has become more coarsened, violent and polarized. Christians might place the blame for this on the decline of the Church’s influence and the growing hostility of those espousing progressive politics. The opposite perspective increasingly points the finger at “evangelicals” for being the last roadblock for freedom and equality for all.

The debate is going to get worse. The hostility is increasing. Christians are becoming increasingly “objectified” by our political, cultural and media elites. This isn’t going to end well for Christians or for the country.

The temptation for Christians will be to retreat. I don’t believe that is an option any more. It’s certainly not a solution. We no longer enjoy the de facto protection of shared belief.

So what do we do? Lennox argues that we do what the Church has always done – give reasoned arguments, engage, answer questions, and “defend the Christian message against misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and vilification.” And he says this: “It was (and is) part of the convincing power of the Christian message that it gave credible answers.”

We have our work cut out for us.


For the past few weeks, I’ve been discussing Against the Flow. This post is based upon chapter 6, “The World-View of Babylon.”


Painting: St. Paul preaching to the philosophers at the Areopagus in Athens by Raphael (1515).

Sunday, May 3, 2015

We are the ten


After Matthew 25:1-13

We are the ten
ten who follow
who believe
worship
serve
we are the ten
working, living
to meet the one
ten
we are the five
with oil sufficient
we are the five
without
we are ten who wait
for when he comes
we are the five who are ready
we are the five
who are not
we are the five
inside
we are the five
shut out
the door closed


Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Saturday Good Reads


Mike Duran takes up a favorite theme at Novel Rocket – the unstated do’s and don’ts of Christian fiction. David Rupert meets the families of the martyred. Tom Good takes his camera for an early morning walk. Matt Appling discovers that we have a new national religion (food). And Seth Haines learns something about video games.

Faith




A question of prayer – Billy Coffey at What I Learned Today.

Unsettled: Face to face with families of the martyred – David Rupert at Red-Letter Believers.

Art and Photography

Canyon Pool and Other New Watermedia – Randall David Tipton at Painter’s Progress.

Early in the Morning – Tim Good at Photography by Tiwago.

Writing

No Zombies Allowed (in Christian Fiction) – Mike Duran at Novel Rocket.

Glimmers of Possibility – Travis Thrasher at The Journey is Everything.

Poetry

Broken Flowers – Robbie Pruitt.

What the Beloved Heard – John Blase at The Beautiful Due.

I Thirst – Martha Orlando at Moments and Musings.


Sustainability – Paul Willis at Curator Magazine.

Culture

Purging Baltimore and The Unraveling of the Common Good – Rod Dreher at The American Conservative.





Painting: Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, oil on canvas by George Caleb Bingham (1845); Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. The painting is part of the exhibition “George Caleb Bingham and the River” currently on display at the St. Louis Art Museum. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

An Umbrella and a Bible


I look around my office at work, and all that’s left is an umbrella and a Bible.

Today is my last day of work at the day job. It’s a strange feeling to be looking straight in the face of retirement.

We’ve been planning this for more than a year. It takes a lot of work to retire – all of the things that have to be lined up, including at least some thoughts as to what I’ll be doing after tomorrow. Retirement is a cultural concept, not a biblical one. Abraham tended flocks until he couldn’t tend them any more.

I will continue to work. It will just be different. Less structured. Less routine. Less hectic. Less crazy. Less crisis-ridden. The article I wrote for The High Calling this week summed up what my working life has been like.

I told the company last June. I nailed down the date in January. The planning and work have been intense at times. This is where my ask-every-question-and-then-some wife steps to the fore. We’re able to take this major step in our lives because she is a wise, capable woman who planned for our future. My wisdom came solely in heeding what she said.

I had planned to work longer, but a number of different things happened, and by last March, the path forwarded became a lot clearer than it had been.

My office has slowly been stripped rather bare. It helped that our offices were reconstructed, and I moved from an office to a half-office and then to a cubicle. Files have been sorted. The computer has been largely emptied. Documents have been transferred. I have two messages left in my email inbox, both reminders to do something. Personal items have been taken home.

Left on the walls are two posters for Tweetspeak Poetry’s Poetry-at-Work Day (one for 2014 and one for 2015) and a poster for National Poetry Month. I’ve turned in my iPad, stripped back to factory standards, with my phone and computer to follow shortly.

I will miss the people. I work with good people on our Digital Team. I have two good people reporting to me. I’m leaving our social media channels in good, competent hands. I’ve also arranged for ongoing management of the corporate archives – a small part of my job but one that’s interesting and often important. (I’ve often joked about being responsible for the “alpha and omega” of the company – the social media channels and the archives.)

Do I have plans? Yes, absolutely. It will be a different life, but it will still be a full one. I’ll continue to work with The High Calling and Tweetspeak Poetry. I will likely find myself doing some babysitting with the grandsons. I will continue to write fiction and poetry, and I want to do some volunteer work. I may even do some freelancing.

So it’s not exactly retirement as commonly perceived. (And I don’t play golf.)


So today I will attend a few scheduled meetings and have lunch with the digital team. At some point in the afternoon, I will get my Bible and my umbrella, and walk to my car.


It will be good.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Rod Dreher’s “How Dante Can Save Your Life”


You’re standing in the poetry section of a Barnes & Noble bookstore. You don’t usually read poetry, or fiction either, for that matter. But a book caught your eye; you pull it from the shelf, open it and begin to read.

Without realizing it, a random act of browsing in a bookstore leads to you changing your life.

The “you’ in question here was writer Rod Dreher, author of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming and Crunchy Cons and a writer for The American Conservative. The Barnes & Noble was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And the book was Dante’s The Divine Comedy.


And what a story it is.

What a fascinating story it is. If you love poetry, and even if you don’t, this is a remarkable book.

It’s a story about how Dreher worked through serious physical illness brought on by his family, himself, his and his family’s history, and the sense of place. He tells it so well that the reader beings to see in Dante what Dreher found, and more – the reader begins to recognize himself in the journey.

Of all the things I expected from this book, that turned out to be the most surprising, although in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been. That’s what good writing does. And it says something about both Dante and Dreher, and Dreher’s candor, openness and vulnerability in telling a story that is often painful.

With Dreher and reader for the journey is Dante, himself guided by the Roman poet Virgil.

Dreher takes the scenes and lines that connected most with himself and the situation he was trying, and largely failing, to deal with. Along with his Orthodox priest and his therapist, he works his way through his own personal Inferno and Purgatorio. He doesn’t necessarily reach Paradiso (Dante does, however), but he does find healing.

How Dante Can Save Your Life is a much larger story than one man’s journey. Dante is one of those writers not studied much any more – a dead, white, European male. While he often criticizes the church and the popes, he is very much in the Roman Catholic tradition. The Divine Comedy is a profoundly religious book – and that alone might be sufficient eliminate it from the curriculum.

Rod Dreher
That is criminal. It’s one of the great works of Western literature. It will still be read and treasured long after the more contemporary and trendy stuff is forgotten. What Dreher does in his book is to explain how meaningful and important Dante is for many of the same things that bedeviled us in late medieval and early Renaissance times that still bedevil us today. For that is the genius of Dante and The Divine Comedy – the poet and his great work still speak to the human condition.

The Divine Comedy has been translated by numerous authors and writers over the years, including Dorothy Sayers, Clive James, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and many others (and that’s just a few of the English translations; there are many others in other languages). Dreher prefers the translations by Robert and Jean Hollander and Mark Musa; the only translation I’ve read myself is by John Ciardi.

Read How Dante Can Save Your Life, and you will read of how a great work literature helped guide one man on what was at times a harrowing, life-threatening journey.


Painting: Dante Illuminating Florence with His Poem, fresco by Domenico de Michelino; circa 1465.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Joy Happens – Unplanned


I’ve been reading Margaret Feinberg’s Fight Back With Joy: Celebrate More. Regret Less. Stare Down Your Greatest Fears, and I find this:

“Joy flows out of unsuspecting, and often daunting, places,” she writes. “It’s illogical, irrational, downright crazypants to think that great adversity could possibly lead to a fuller life. Yet that’s what I’ve discovered over many months of being poisoned, burned, injected, sliced, and diced.”

I pay attention to what Feinberg says, because she is writing as a breast cancer patient and survivor. She has been through the “cure is worse than the disease” treatment, and she pointedly says she does not consider cancer to be a gift.

But she finds joy, sometimes in the very belly of the cancer beast. Like when she handed out red balloons to other cancer patients and their families.

Joy is a word that we Christians often associate with their faith. Both we as children sang and with our own children sing “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart / Where? / down in my heart / down in my heart.”

The fact is that joy is something that we can’t plan for. It’s something that happens as a result, often the unintended result, of something else.

Standing in silence Canterbury Cathedral in 2013 for the 3 p.m. prayer time, I was nearly overwhelmed with joy by saying the Lord’s Prayer with 27 Japanese tourists.

Sitting in a church in Erfurt, Germany, interviewing a young pastor in 2002, joy flooded me, the pastor and the video cameraman to the point of tears.

At a church service at London’s Westminster Chapel, the time of “silent prayer” was replaced by speaking individual prayers out loud at the same time, and the church felt washed by joy as the voices rose and fused upward.

Or the first time I heard my first grandchild say something that sounded remotely like “Grandpa.”

Or during a particularly dark time, receiving an unexpected note that said simply, “I’m praying for you.”

Joy comes unexpected and unplanned, often sneaking in and upending you.

I can remember years ago, sitting next to my young wife and mother of my five-month-old son while she awakened from surgery to remover a possibly cancerous thyroid. When she awoke, her first words were, “Am I OK?” And the joy I experienced telling her YES! was a wonder, for both of us.

Feinberg is right. We find joy in often daunting places. It arrives unplanned. It brings with it the ability to bear often great hardship.

It is a gift.


Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading Fight Back with Joy. To see more posts on this chapter, “Where I Never Expected to Find Joy,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.


Photograph: Westminster Chapel in London, where the spoken aloud prayers went up and the joy came down. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Faith at the Firing Line


At the end of this week, I’ll be retiring from my day job, and I’ve been looking back at some thirty-seven years in corporate communications.
Most of my work has centered in the oil, chemical, and agriculture industries; none of them lack controversy or crisis. My career has largely been spent on the firing line.
At times, it felt like the firing squad.
Government and regulatory issues. Environmental problems. Product crises. Transportation accidents. Public protests. “He said/she said” litigation. Even the short time I worked in a non-corporate environment for the St. Louis Public Schools, it was much the same. There, I dealt with restructurings, school closings, layoffs, protests at school board meetings, and teacher sick-outs.

To continue reading, please see my post today at The High Calling.

Photograph by Any Bay via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.