Thursday, September 30, 2010

What I found at the festival

It’s time for another edition of Pleasantly Disturbed Thursdays, led by the intrepid Duane Scott.

I live in the oldest incorporated suburb of St. Louis, a small city of 27,000. We have our own police and fire departments; we have a mix of housing (from about 1857 to 2010) and incomes; our Kirkwood School District also includes a couple of neighboring municipalities. Our downtown is charming (mostly two-story buildings) and we have the oldest farmers’ market outside the granddaddy of them all in the city, Soulard Market.

We also have had more than our fair share of troubles. Two years ago, a disgruntled resident walked into a meeting of the city council, shooting and killing two policemen, two council members and the director of Public Works. He gravely wounded the mayor before being killed himself in a burst of police gunfire. The year before that, Shawn Hornbeck, a boy missing from his home in rural Missouri, was found during a massive police hunt for another kidnapped boy. Both were in the Kirkwood apartment of Michael Devlin, who is now serving numerous lives terms for kidnapping, abuse, and all kinds of awful crimes.

But in Kirkwood, in spite of it all, we persist.

Each year, usually around the second weekend in September, we have the Greentree Festival. It’s a fairly typical slice of small town in the big city Americana. We have a parade on Saturday morning. Then you head for Kirkwood Park, where you find craft booths, food of all kinds, and free music (our favorite this year was a group from the Missouri Fiddlers Association playing “I’ll Fly Away”).

And there’s a small used book fair. Which I had to check out. After all, all paperbacks are a buck, and when was the last time you paid a dollar for a paperback book?

It wasn’t a huge collection of books, but it was fine. I wandered around until I found the poetry, which was contained in all of about two small boxes.

And what did I find?

The first thing was a palm-sized volume, published in 1961, of an essay entitled “Story Telling New and Old” by the Irish novelist, playwright, essayist and poet Padraic Colum. The essay was first published in a 1927 collection called The Fountain of Youth. What a cool little volume, I thought. When I got home and looked through, I discovered it was autographed by the author.

Second was Early Poems by William Butler Yeats, which was placed right next to Yeats: The Man and the Masks (1948) by Richard Ellman.

Then I picked up a rather ratty looking uncorrected proof of Nikki Giovanni's Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea: Poems & Not Quite Poems. It was prominently stamped “Not for Resale.” Tell that to the cashier.

And then I see 100 Love Sonnets by Pablo Neruda, a 1986 edition of a 1959 collection of poems published the University of Texas Press. In both Spanish and English, no less.

And then there were two books of poetry by Richard Beban, What the Heart Weighs and Young Girl Eating a Bird. Both were autographed with the inscription “To Beth - April 19, 2007. Thanks for you’re your h help with the SLWG. I figured the acronym out -- Beban had spoken or done a poetry reading at at a meeting of the St. Louis Writer's Guild.

Seven books, seven buck, and “I’ll Fly Away.” Not bad for a Saturday afternoon.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Is there a plan?

In the late fall of my sophomore year of college, I went through my fraternity’s initiation week. I had pledged the previous spring; most pledged as first-semester freshmen in the fall and were initiated in the spring. So we had a small class of five.

There was no physical hazing, but it was an emotional and physical ordeal. Some of the week’s activities included wearing a coat and tie, even to classes; carrying around a large cardboard version of our pledge pin for the active members to sign (and hoping none of them tore your pin up – that’s why you made extra copies); not wearing shoes while you were in the fraternity house; sleeping under the dining room tables; and carrying a painted cigar box, to keep in it anything any active member told you to keep in it.

I was the only one of the five who was required to keep a copy of the “Four Spiritual Laws” in my cigar box. A member active in Campus Crusade for Christ quizzed me closely before he signed my cardboard pledge pin. He asked me all kinds of questions about sin, faith, the person of Jesus and his atoning work – and was amazed I knew all the answers. I wasn’t a believer, but everything I had learned in two years of Lutheran catechism had stuck. And I remembered it, even if I wasn’t exactly a paragon of Christian virtue. He must have been suspicious, because he told me to keep a copy of the Four Spiritual Laws in my cigar box and explain them to anyone who asked.

The “law” I always remembered was this one: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” It’s a staple of evangelical Christianity. We may often forget “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” but every one of us knows about the plan, or at least that there’s supposed to be one for each and every one of us.

Not that I have lived more years than I have left to live (so say the statistics, not to mention common sense), I wonder if I haven’t been looking at this all wrong.

It’s not that I doubt God has a plan, and it’s not that I doubt that God has a plan for me. But it’s more that I’ve been looking at this from the wrong end of binoculars. Maybe the spiritual law should have read this way: “God loves you and you are part of his plan.”

I’ve spent a lot of time over a lot of years worrying about what God’s plan was for me. Should I take this job? Should I attend this church? Should I make this major move? Is this what I’m being called to do? Something would happen, and voila! An answer to prayer!

You see my problem. All the emphasis, and all the focus, has been on me. I haven’t spent as much time thinking God’s plan as much as I have mine. And I don’t think the whole point of God’s universe is a plan for me. But I do think that I’m a tiny part of the point of God’s plan – and I’m stunned that he loved me enough to include me in that.

So instead of the Four Spiritual Laws, perhaps what I should have carried in my cigar box was a pocket-sized edition of the Psalms.

Over at Faith Barista, Bonnie Gray is hosting a blog-and-comment discussion of “keeping faith fresh.” Last week’s discussion was on letting go of worry. This week’s discussion is on discovering God's purpose for each of us.

Photograph: Rainbow by Anna Cervova via Public Domain Pictures.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Canyon Dreams

Walk between walls of light gray stone.
Touch well washed sandstone, basalt,
silica, quartz; jagged
points, edges sanded smooth.
Experience strata of worn millennia;
God’s crushed calendar of
dryness and time not measured,
compacted into impermeable hardness.

Light, dressed in white, fills between the

Walk upon pebbles and tiny flakes
of rock, azure blue;
frozen sea, cooling, calming,
lifeless; a reflection of sky.
Feet bleed, leaving a trail
of dried red upon blue.
Follow the trodden bloody path;
listen to walls of slight gray stone sigh.

Waters rise into the light, now drenched in

To see other poems submitted for One Shot Wednesday, please visit One Stop Poetry. The links will be live after 4 p.m. Central time today.

Photograph: Avakas Gorge (Cyprus) by Petr Kratochvil. Used with permission via Public Domain Pictures.

Monday, September 27, 2010

An Addendum to the RAP

On Friday at the High Calling Blogs, I had a post for the Random Acts of Poetry about “The Poems We Come From.” The prompt for the poems submitted was to name a poem that you had first read or experienced in high school or school (or anywhere else) that had had an impact on you, and then to write a poem about it.

And the poems came in. We had poems representing Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Langston Hughes, Anne Sexton, Luci Shaw – and even Johnny Cash. One poet even did a YouTube video of his poem, and another submitted the video of the Johnny Cash song that had inspired her. It was amazing.

We had to establish a deadline for the submissions, but another one came in (and yet another may still come in), and I offered to note it here.

Monica Sharman at Know-Love-Obey God wrote a moving story about the poem she selected. She was not the first of her family to go to college, but she was the first to live on campus, and the reason was that her parents had separated and sold the home she had lived in since kindergarten. She became part of a Bible study, and that led her to write a poem. And that is the poem she came from.

And this is from the new poem, entitled “Nothing,” she submitted:

He began the poem with a question,
“Who shall?”
and so I questioned, I wondered:
Indeed, who shall?
I began to read a list
of potential separators
and wondered,
which of these is the thing
that shall separate me,
that shall tear me
from God’s love?
Which of these?
The list continued
and, unsure, I worried.
The answer did not come
and did not come.
It was a long list…

Visit Monica’s place to read the whole story and the rest of the poem. And visit the High Calling Blogs to see all of the poems submitted.

Photograph: Tree in Fog at Night by Petr Kratochvil via Public Doman Pictures.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Credibility -- It Was All in the Numbers

For the High Callings Blogs, we’ve been discussing Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Last week, we focused on the third characteristic of why some ideas survive –that of concreteness (the first two being simplicity and unexpectedness).

I gave an example of the company I worked for in the late 1980s, and how it dealt with a new law requiring disclosure of toxic emissions to air, and water. What the CEO did was announce a goal to reduce toxic air emissions by 90 percent by the end of four years. It was a startling goal, one which evoked skepticism from both within the industry (and other manufacturers outside the industry) and from the environmentalist community. “Impossible,” said the first group. “They’ll cheat and lie,” said the second group.

The credibility of the initiative was the key to its success. If no one believed the results, it wouldn’t matter if the initiative was successful or not.

As it turned out, the answer came from what created the issue in the first place – the public reporting of the data on an annual basis. Reports had to be filed with the U.S. EPA. The reports would be made public. If the air reduction program was making progress, the reports would show it. Numbers. Data. Examples from almost 30 manufacturing plants. Filed with and checked by the EPA.


Inside the company, there was a debate about the chemicals involved themselves. The 120 or so chemicals on the list had been derived from two different lists of chemicals, all thrown together to make one list (such is how regulations often occur). There were some materials on the list that were harmless, and those would likely be removed eventually. There were other materials not on the list, but should have been. Obviously, some things would be added. What could you do if the base from which you were measuring was going to be changing over the four-year period?

The decision was made to adjust accordingly. If a chemical was taken off the list by the EPA, it would be removed from the reduction program as if it had never been there. If one was added, it would be added to the reduction program as if it had been there from the beginning. This took careful planning and some calculated guesswork as what the EPA was likely to do. But it was absolutely critical for the credibility of the program, even if it made things complicated.

In Made to Stick, the Heath brothers cite the kinds of things that made an idea, a program, an initiative or any sustained effort credible:

• The source is reliable and believable. Few might believe a chemical company, but data checked and verified by the federal government would be.

• The information has lots of vivid details. The reports would cover 120 chemicals and, for the company, more than 30 facilities, both large and small. Reports would be made available by zip code. There would be plenty of detailed ways to measure whether the reduction program was working.

• Statistics are used. We had more statistics than you could imagine.

• Statics are brought to human scale. A billion pounds of toxic air emissions in the United States sounds large but almost meaningless. But 250,000 pounds in Alvin, Texas, made the information much more real to people who lived in that community.

• One example alone may prove the case. Early reductions were published, with details of how they had happened.

The program wasn’t easy, but it stuck. It inspired a host of similar initiatives within the chemical industry and beyond. It was extended beyond air emissions to include water and land, with the same reporting programs.

And at the end of four years, it had succeeded, confounding all the critics.

Laura Boggess is leading the discussion on Made to Stick over at the High Calling Blogs. Last week's discussion, on "concrete," can be found here.

Previous blog posts in this series:

On Simple: The One Time Something I Did Went Viral

On Unexpected: Singing Opera in Journalism Class

On Concrete: As Concrete – as the Air

Look at the Books: Something's Going On

Over at Internet Monk, Jeff Dunn posted a book review Thursday under the title of “Christianity’s Forgotten Man.” The book is Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola. As I read the review, I was reminded of another book I’m going to be reading soon: David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream.

And, of course, there’s the book we’ve been discussing (via Nancy Rosback at Bend the Page): Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality by Michael Spencer, the original Internet monk.

There are others. And there are a lot of blog posts on these and related subjects, like the one posted Thursday by author Ian Morgan Cron entitled “Christians in Exile,” about a meeting he has with someone in a coffee shop, and the reasons why the someone has left the church.

When you see a spate of books on a similar subject, that’s a good indication of (1) publishers are seeing some level of market demand or opportunity and (2) there’s something going on. In this case, it appears that people are seeking Jesus, and a lot of them are doing it outside the church, or at least outside what Michael Spencer calls “churchianity.”

This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon. More than a century ago, the philosopher doctor Albert Schweitzer wrote a book called The Quest of the Historical Jesus, and he was by no means the first or the last to do that.

It’s as if there is an understanding that we keep letting culture get in the way of our understanding of Jesus. Sometimes we try to “reinterpret” Jesus and in the process end up projecting our own doubts, questions and cultural understanding on him. Schweitzer was criticized for doing something exactly like that.

In Mere Churchianity, Spencer stakes a rather definitive claim as to what we can actually know:

• Jesus really existed.
• He was Jewish.
• He didn’t operate within a democratic system.
• He accepted the Hebrew Scriptures, with conditions.
• And, most importantly, Jesus is (note the change in verb tense) the incarnation of the One God.

That is what we can know, Spencer says. Accepting that is another story (and the next chapter).

Nancy Rosback at Bend the Page is leading a blogging discussion of Spencer’s Mere Churchianity. See also what Fatha Frank has been writing at Public Christianity. Yesterday, Fatha Frank did a cool wrap-up of all kinds of related blog posts, and has a new post called Jesus Works. Today, Bob Spencer at Wilderness Fandango had a discussion as well: My Faith Walk...For Now.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Saturday Good Reads

From homage to a mother-in-law and a bicycle accident to searching for England and a Hallelujah video, it was a good week online for prose, poetry, photography and paintings.


A Hope Burden” by Laura Boggess at The Wellspring.

Noting good is useless, especially the Sunday matinee” and “Sound your barbaric yap over the links of the network” by Marcus Goodyear at Good Word Editing.

Harvesting Fog” by Peggy Rosenthal for The Image Journal.

She Shined” and "Wheeling Meals" by Michelle DeRusha at Graceful.

Coming Up for Air” by Duane Scott at Scribing the Journey.

We Are the Tea Party” by John Mark Reynolds at The Scriptorium.

The Better Story” by Kelly Foster for The Image Journal.

Stay Hungry” by Kathy Richards.

Back Pain and Splashing Paints” by Louise Gallagher at Recover Your Joy.

Head Over Heels” by Scott Couchenour at Serving Strong.

If God Can Do That” by Charity Singleton at Wide Open Spaces.

Losing What’s Important” by Billy Coffey.

Confronting My Poverty” by David Griffith for The Image Journal.


A Hard Fall” by Steven Marty Grant at Urbanality.

Spring Song Reprise: Thank you Lucy Shaw for nudging me awake” by Jerry Barrett at Under the Door Frame.

We Treat Them Like Lepers” by Michael Perkins at Untitled.

On the Scene” by Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

Desensitized, we” and “My pen, my sword” by Brian Miller at WayStationOne.

In Search of Albion” by Pete Marshall.

Found” by Karen Eck at Karenee Art.

Random Acts” by Nancy Rosback at Poems and Prayers.

And Another One Does” by Kathleen Overby at Almost Paradisical.

Word Play” by Melissa at All the Words.

"Not Moved" by Jay Cookingham at Soulfari.

Paintings and Photographs

Joy” and “Modus Operandi” by Nancy Rosback at Poems and Prayers.

As We Walk” by ELK at Red or Gray.

Ashleigh-Todd” by Kelly Sauer at A Restless Heart.

Light in the Forest,” oil on canvas by Randall David Tipton.


Hallelujah,” video by three friends (Jodi Irvine, Alana Lincoln and Morgan Keesler), from “Why we need to sing the hard hallelujah” by Ann Voskamp at Holy Experience.

Photograph: Lamp by Nancy Rosback. Used with permission.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Random Acts of Poetry

Over at the High Calling Blogs today, I have a post for the Random Act of Poetry -- The Poems We Come From. Last week, we provided a writing prompt to consider a poem from high school or college that had an impact on you, and write a poem about it. The result was 13 poems that represented infleunces ranging from Walt Whitman to Johnny Cash. There were also some fascinating stories about the poems. So stop by the High Calling Blogs and take a look.

Simon, Called Peter

In August, my wife and I attended an exhibition of “Vatican Splendors” at the St. Louis History Museum. It was indeed a splendid exhibit, covering almost 2,000 years of religious art and artifacts. Of all the golden and gilded and painted and sculpted things I saw, what moved me moved most was a small brick enclosed in a case, purported to be a brick from the tomb of St. Paul. It was a humble display of a humble brick, and whether it was truly from the tomb of St. Paul was less important than that it truly depicted the origins of Christianity.

The exhibition gift shop had everything – books, exhibition catalogs, toys, scarves, Christmas ornaments, book markers, jewelry – the normal and familiar sight for a big exhibition. Trade was brisk. I wandered around, paying most attention to the books, and I found a little gem: Simon, Called Peter: In the Company of a Man in Search of God by Dom Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori, abbot of the Cistercian abbey of Hauterive in Switzerland. The book was published in Italian in 2004 and published in English this year. (After reading Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters, I feel obligated to say that the translator was Matthew Sherry.)

This is not so much a life of St. Peter as it is a meditation on his life, and specifically the major events of his life during the period when he followed Jesus. The events include the original call by Jesus as Peter stood on his fishing boat with his brother Andrew; the receiving of his new name, Peter; the Transfiguration; the Last Supper (“You will not wash my feet!”); the night in Gethsemane and Peter’s three denials; the empty tomb; and meeting with Jesus after the resurrection.

Peter is a totally recognizable person. He is human, with all of our human idiocies and limitations. His heart had been profoundly transformed, while his human spirit keeps throwing wrenches into everything. He’s a hothead, to be sure, full of bluster, opinions and prejudices. And he crumbles in the presence of his Lord.

Much of this mediation is imagined, but imagined realistically. We don’t have a full record of Peter’s thoughts, but how Lepori describes his reactions and thinking rings true to our understanding. When the fisherman Simon is named Cephas (Peter) by Jesus at his calling, here is what Lepori writes:

“No, Simon was not thinking about the future. Was he thinking about his family, his home, his boat, his business? Yes, he thought about all of this, and in an instant he saw it all with complete clarity and in great detail. He had never before seen his life so clearly and how important everything in it was. He felt sad about his lack of attention and concern toward his family, his brother, his people, his work, his home, his boat, his nets and himself. He realized that he was now looking at everything through the eyes of Jesus.”

Another example is when Jesus preaches the sermon that shocks most of the crowd and most of his followers, and the majority – shocked at what Jesus is claiming to be – walk away. “Gently – but as if a boundary were near that could be crossed with a single word – Jesus looked at the little group of confused disciples. ‘Will you also go away?’ Peter was surprised for a moment when he recognized in the Master’s voice the same tone that he had heard one day from a boy with leprosy, asking them for alms from the side of a country road. An immense sadness took hold of him, and the only reply he could make was a cry for help. His cry, too, was like that of a beggar: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’”

Lepori captures the sheer wonder and strangeness of what Peter and disciples must have experienced in the presence of Jesus. They’d been chosen by him; they believed him. But he said crazy things sometimes that would only make sense much later, long after he was physically gone, only when they had the mind and the heart to understand them.

That is what Lepori captures in this quiet, soulful meditation. It is not a theological treatise; it is a treatise of the heart.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A birthday

Rather than do the usual Pleasantly Disturbed Thursday (led by our fearless leader Duane Scott) with random thoughts, I’m devoting this one to a birthday.

I was 10 years old when he was born. I know it was a Saturday morning because a friend had spent the night, and when we woke up we headed to the kitchen to fix cereal. Usually on a Saturday morning, my father would have already gone to his office and my mother would be resting; she had had a difficult time with the pregnancy.

My friend and I are watching television when the phone rings. It’s my father; he says they’re at the hospital and my mother is having the baby. Total excitement. We get dressed and go flying around the neighborhood with the news. An hour later, my father calls again. It’s a boy. And we go flying around the neighborhood once again (the neighbors thought this was very cute, by the way).

My parents often said we looked like twins born 10 years apart. We both look my father; now that we are older, I’m amazed at how much my brother looks like my father as I mostly remember him – in his 40s.

One event that dates us both: One Christmas Day, I believe it was 1972, I took him to see the Poseidon Adventure. It opened on that day (I think 1972) and the lines were expected to be huge; we went at the 5 p.m. showing and nearly had the theater to ourselves (and I remember the theater – the Robert E. Lee Cinema in the West End of New Orleans; it would get about six feet of water when the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina).

My mother tells the story of what happened when I graduated from college. The family had gone to Baton Rouge for the ceremony, and the next day I left for my first day of work in Texas. When they got home to New Orleans, my 11-year-old brother was very quiet. When my mother asked him what was wrong, he said to her, “He’s really gone this time?” And then he cried.

He lives in the Houston area and works in the oil industry. He and his wife Terri have three boys – Chris, John and Sam. That’s all we manage to have in our family – boys. My older brother has two boys, I have two boys and my younger brother with his three. I have three great-nephews, one grandson and – we don’t know how this happened – one great-niece.

My brother has spent a lot of time in the last several years in Peru, with mission teams from his church. I’ve seen the pictures on Facebook, and I’m amazed to see my brother painting village walls and trying not to sway and dance to the local music. You know which one he is because he’s blond and he has a big nose. (That’s a standing family joke; we argue over which one of us most inherited my father’s nose. From pictures it’s more than obvious; my brother wins hands down. I can say this with authority because he doesn’t blog.)

He has a dry sense of humor. He loves jokes and stories as much as my father did and he often sends them to me by email. I invariably laugh out loud when I read them because I can hear him tell the joke or story. He sees the idiocy of what passes for contemporary culture and politics.

So happy birthday, little brother. Happy birthday, Jim.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Letting Go (of Worry)

The first time I remember worrying about something was when I was four years old. We were moving to a new house in a new subdivision, with a lot of undeveloped woods right across the street. I rode with my father back to our duplex to retrieve kitchen stuff like pots and pans. I didn’t want to leave my mother by herself at the new house, and I asked my father, “Will the bears get her?”

When I was 8 and in the third grade, I accidentally brought a book home that we were absolutely forbidden from taking from the classroom. I was horrified. I was too afraid even to mention it to my parents. That night, I went with them to a little theater production of “The Music Man,” and fretted about that book all through the evening.

Tests. Exams. Going to college. Girlfriends. Surgery. Getting my first job. My first run-in with organizational politics. New job. Bad boss. Decision to change cities. Trying to sell a house. Chaotic first two years in a new city. Wife’s surgery. Raising two sons (full-time worrier’s job). Fifteen years of layoffs at work. Laying people off. New job. Worst boss ever. Layoff. Upheaval at church. Running my own business. New job. New job again. More responsibilities. Laying someone off. Boss goes weird. New boss. Recession.

Worry is a theme here. I can look back and see that I worry about the kinds of things we all tend to worry about – generally, the things I have little or no control over. That, to me, is a lesson to keep learning. Just because I understand what I worry about doesn’t mean I won’t worry ever again. It doesn’t me “go ye therefore and don’t worry.” But I recognize it for what it is – a response to circumstances I think I can control better than God.

Many of these situations were serious. My wife’s surgery, for example. She had had our firstborn three months before the doctors decided she might have thyroid cancer. She didn’t, but it was scary. And we were worried. I’d like to say we cast all our concerns on God, and we did, but we were still scared. Being human isn’t something you can flip on and off light a light switch.

I can’t fling my worries to the wind. Neither can I embrace my “inner worry.” But I can understand it for what it is, attempt to keep it from consuming me, pray like a crazy person when I think I’m being overwhelmed with it, and gain perspective by talking to others.

And no, nothing happened when I quietly and unobtrusively slipped the book back into my desk.

And my mother didn’t get eaten by bears. She’s still living in that same house, and the most exotic thing that wandered into the neighborhood was the leg bone of an elephant someone discarded in an empty lot.

Over at Faith Barista, Bonnie Gray is hosting a blog and comment discussion of “keeping faith fresh.” Last week’s discussion was on unexpected encouragement. This week’s is on letting go of worry.
Painting: Morning Sun by Edward Hopper, Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Imagining a Roman Road

I imagine him walking briskly,
and it would be briskly, don’t
you think, along one of those
great Roman roads, those vias
they marvelled at but we would say
thank you for asphalt and concrete,
I can’t imagine driving on those
stones for long.

Despite the stones or because of
them, his feet and ankles are
covered in fine dust and an
occasional smear of mud when it
rains which isn’t often. His bag has
a few tools and a skin for water
because he’s nobody’s fool and
he know water is life.

He stops in small towns and cities,
wherever he finds a synagogue and
a few places where he doesn’t. When
he’s done speaking he looks to see who
follows after the elders stomp their feet,
always a few but he doesn’t keep count
because intensity matters more than number
and the journey less than the mission.

To see other poems submitted for One Shot Wednesday, please visit One Stop Poetry.

Monday, September 20, 2010

From Brokenness, Life

When he started college, he set before himself the achievement of certain recognitions and goals. It wasn’t done with cold calculation, but with simple and focused determination. I can achieve those, and I will.

When he was a senior (because it was only for seniors), he would be named to the national leadership society.

He would join a fraternity and become an officer.

He would have a major position on the school newspaper.

He would receive this and that award, and be named to this and that list, and win this and that recognition.

He would achieve, because achievement gave life meaning, and it would give his life meaning, because he kept looking at the darkness looming behind him and he knew that achievement would keep the darkness away.

And he worked on these things in his own way, in his own style. He didn’t offend people with his ambition, and most of his friends would have been surprised if they knew the extent of what he strove for. He wasn’t ruthless; he didn’t walk over people. He simply kept working at achieving things.

The cost, because there’s always a cost, was loneliness. No one got too close; he’d start pushing away if that happened because relationships were a distraction. But whether he thought about it or not, he was willing to pay the cost.

By the beginning of his senior year, his plan was successful. He had achieved all of his goals, and more: the national leadership society, president of his fraternity, major editorial positions on the newspaper, awards and lists, all of it. Every bit of it. And no one begrudged him; he hadn’t hurt anyone in the process or stolen or taken anything that he hadn’t rightfully earned.

He was sitting atop the world he had created for himself.

And he saw how empty, how broken that world was.

Something inside began to break, or perhaps the breaking merely accelerated. The darkness that had so long hovered behind him now engulfed him. He had learned the hard way how transient and meaningless achievement could be.

Inside was so bad and so broken that he reached out. A speaker came to campus, a religious speaker, a kind of evangelist and apologist who needed publicity in the student newspaper. People reached out to the senior to make this happen, and he though that this might be different, that perhaps there was an answer here. But there wasn’t. A short meeting, the wrong words blurted out, and the senior recoiled.

Within a few days, he found himself late at night sitting in the basement of a lecture hall, talking with a man, a man who cut through all the stuff and baggage and goals and human achievement and failure and brokenness, especially the brokenness, and said this is all so simple, really, we just keep messing it up, we keep breaking it and we don’t have to. I don’t have the answers, the man said. I don’t. No one on this earth has the answers. But someone does.

When the senior went home that night, he went home with one line from a letter reverberating in his head and carved on his heart: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

Out of brokenness came life.

To see other posts on brokenness, visit the One Word Blog Carnival over at Bridget Chumbley’s place.

Top photograph: Window by Nancy Rosback. Used with permission
Bottom photograph: Lockett Hall by Louisiana State University. Used with permission.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

As Concrete as -- the Air


The word suggests heavy, solid, firm, substantive. (Except in St. Louis, where “concrete” means ice cream.)

One of the characteristics of “stickiness” described by Chip Heath and Dan Heath in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” is concreteness: the idea has to be about something substantive and memorable. Then the Heaths say this: “Concreteness makes targets transparent. Even experts need transparency.”

That’s a true statement if ever there was one.

In December, 1984, a leak of a toxic chemical at a Union Carbide (now part of Dow) at Bhopal, India, killed more than 10,000 people. The worldwide chemical industry went into a kind of collective shock. There were all kinds of responses, some enlightened and some dumb. Three years later, finally agreeing on a regulatory response, the U.S. Congress passed a law with a long name but referred to simply as “Title III.”

The law was simple in concept: all manufacturers would have to report emissions of toxic chemicals to the air, water and later, and report it every year. That’s all they had to do – report it. No other action as required.

In terms of creating change, the law was brilliant. Because the information wouldn’t be stored somewhere; no, the U.S. EPA would be required to publish the data. The public would get access to it. All of it.

It wasn’t only chemical companies which be reporting. Any company in any industry that used the chemicals on the list would have to report. Chemical companies would have the biggest totals, of course. But a lot of companies no one had ever dreamed used toxic chemicals would have to report, too.

Like your local newspaper.

I was working for a chemical company at the time, and it fell to my team to deal with the communications relating to the new law and its implementation. We had about eight months to prepare. And while this is a very long and involved story, we knew from the beginning that we had to convince the company that two things would be required.

First, we would disclose our data to the public as soon as we filed it with the EPA, and not wait almost a year for EPA to report. In other words, we would have to take responsibility for our emissions by disclosing the numbers ourselves, even if everything was legal and under permit.

Second, we would have to make a public commitment to reduce those emissions.

The first requirement had unassailable logic behind it: if we didn’t, the government and everyone who hated chemical companies surely would.

The second drew blank, sometimes hostile stares. More than one executive said that “we will not reduce emissions for the sake of reducing emissions. That’s ridiculous.” The same response in presentation after presentation. Along with a few side comments about the PR department having lost its mind.

We made it all the way to the CEO. He looked at the estimated numbers. He looked at what he knew was likely to happen with public perception. And he said, “We will start with air emissions. We will pledge to reduce our toxic air emissions by 90 percent in four years.”

Shocked silence. And then he said, “And then we going to work on all the other emissions, too. Get busy.”

The CEO had lost his mind along with the PR department.

Ninety percent in four years. A concrete target whose progress could be tracked simply by reading the reports filed with the EPA.

Next week, the subject of Made to Stick is credibility. I’ll finish this story by explaining how a chemical company could make a commitment like this credible.

Over at the High Calling Blogs, Laura Boggess has started a discussion on Made to Stick. You can find last week’s discussion, on the concept of “unexpected,” here.

Previous blog posts in this series:

On Simple: The One Time Something I Did Went Viral

On Unexpected: Singing Opera in Journalism Class

Jesus and Gun Control

Some 17 years ago, I was a member of an advisory board for a congressman (I’m not trying to impress; it lasted for about a year and then stopped meeting). There were 10 or 12 of us, and we had one thing in common – we were Christians.

For one meeting, there was going to be one item on the agenda – a recent vote by the congressman that suggested he was in favor of gun control. He wasn’t at all, but there were a lot of people on that board convinced that he had gone to Washington and gotten brainwashed.

Most of the board members were angry, No, that isn’t correct. They were livid. Apoplectic. Spewing forth fire and brimstone. One of those members usually carried a small Bible in one pocket and the U.S. Constitution in the other, and he did that day. He whipped out his Constitution and read the Second Amendment to all of us. And then stared the congressman down. He was the most overt, but most of the board was right there with him.

Except for two members. One, a lawyer, said he often went to sleep at night hearing gunfire in the neighborhood to the north of his, and something needed to be done.

Icy silence.

Then I said I was actually glad the congressman had voted the way he did, because my then 11-year-old son had been in downtown area of our little St. Louis suburb, and directly across the street from a murder of an antique store owner. He had been riding his bike with friends, and he missed the murder by all of two minutes. (And then the killers had fled the scene and ran two blocks to our large city park, which is exactly where my son and his friends had gone on their bikes.)

If looks could have killed, I would have been a dead person. The woman sitting on my left deliberately moved her chair several inches away, as if to avoid contamination. The lawyer who had spoken before me, sitting on my right, smiled and said, “Good thing no one’s packing today or we’d be dead men.”

“Don’t be so sure,” commented one of the people sitting with us. That was a joke. I hope.

That was the day I learned that Jesus supported the Second Amendment and probably packed an AK-47.

The board I was on was not so much a Christian board as it was an extremely conservative board. But politics and faith were conflated.

Michael Spencer, in Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality, has a drum roll of all the ways we “culturize” Jesus – to fit our politics (right or left), our lifestyles, our buying habits, our stand on education, and even our religious views , what we believe about worship and church success, and theologies. We bend him to our will, almost as if we start with what we want anyway and make Jesus conform to it.

So what do we do? Where do we look to find the real Jesus?

Here’s what Spencer says in Chapter 6, “Jesus or Vinegar:”

“To understand Jesus and the god who comes to us in Jesus, we have to come to terms with the truth that Jesus is absolutely singular and unique. No matter how much research we might do, we can’t define him. He is remarkably exclusive compared to the phony versions of Jesus running loose in our culture.”

(Nancy Rosback at Bend the Page has been leading us in a discussion of Mere Churchianity. Check her place for the various links.)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Saturday Good Reads

From the power of songs in our lives to fainting goats, from dreaming of empire to a young family on the Isle of Palms, it was a good week for good reading on the web.


Remember, Reflect” by Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

Traffic in Hope” by Anne Lang Bundy at Building His Body.

Once I Built a Tower Up to the Sun; Brick and Rivet and Lime” by Greg Sullivan at Sippican Cottage.

Maybe it’s God who is looking for a sign” by David Rupert at Red-Letter Believers.

Wind Sails” by Ed Pilolla.

The Lost Art of Letter Writing” by Dyana Herron for The Image Journal.

When God Comes By” by Shaun Groves.

Surrender, It’s All Down Here from Here” by Jay Cookingham at Soulfari.

New Clothes” by Joel Workman at Soul Grit.

Unwrapping the Good Stuff” by Erin Kilmer at Together for Good.

Empty Seat” by Duane Scott at Scribing the Journey.

In the Shadow of Me” by Deidra at Jumping Tandem.

Love Stories: The purse – the unhiding” by Kelly Sauer at A Restless Heart.

Some Song is Gonna Jump Me” by Harriet Gillham at The Other Side of the Mountain.

Spinning and Walking” by Sandra Heska King.

Thoughts on kitsch in fiction” by Athol Dickson for Novel Journey.

Epic Mommy Fail; Also, Fainting Goats” by Rebecca Ramsey at Wonders Never Cease.


Amen” by Pete Marshall for One Stop Poetry.

Inspiration” by Steven Marty Grant at Urbanality.

Soothing Insomnia” by Karen Eck at Karenee Art.

September Sky” by A Simple Country Girl.

Final Sentinel” by Rob Kistner at Image & Verse.

Presence” by Melissa at All the Words.

Do I Love” by Heather Truett at Madame Rubies.

Four by Justinian at Delight and Glory and Oddity and Light: “The tired, lonely heart,” “On philosophy,” “The Eternal Choice” and “Talliesin’s Dream of the Empire.”

Unexpected” by Nancy Rosback at Poems and Prayers.

Fistula Girls” by Kathleen Overby at Almost Paradisical.

Letters for Dad-O” by John BlasĂ© at Dirty Shame.

In the Mist of Autumn Falling” by Louise Gallagher at Recover Your Joy.

Harmonic Sounds of Nostalgia” by Lorenzo at Crowned with Laurels.

We Walked Across the Ohio River at Night” by Laura Boggess at TheWellspring.

Curve” by Bradley Moore at And the Other Thing Is.

Writing a Poem is like Opening a Window” by Hadassah Fey at Pass the Eggs.

In a Quiet Place” by Cassandra Frear at Moonboat CafĂ©.

Imperfect Prose: Unpreservable” by Firefly.

Paintings and Photographs

East of Mosier,” oil on paper by Randall David Tipton.

H Family – Isle of Palms” by Kelly Sauer at A Restless Heart.

Photoplay – ZOOM” by Jessica McGuire at Jezemama.

Photograph: Lamp by Nancy Rosback. Used with permission.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Daily Walk Asks Me 10 Questions

Adam over at The Daily Walk contacted me a while ago and asked me to answer 10 questions about myself. So if you’d like to know my favorite book, the person I consider to be the most inspirational in my life, or what one job I’d like to do for a day, take a look.

I Hear America Singing, Still

When I attended high school, the English curriculum was rather fixed. Ninth grade was introduction to British and American literature. Tenth grade was introduction to world literature, although we studied Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that year. Junior year was American literature in depth. And senior year was British literature in depth, although the administration got rather daring that year and required that one six-week period be devoted to a masterpiece of non-English literature, which is how I met Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes.

My junior English class was taught by a wild woman. She was tall, flamboyant, and given to theatrical gestures and outbursts. Everything about her was an exaggeration. She made no secret of what she believed to be the greatest work of American literature ever published – Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. (No one in the class took that seriously, not even the people who hated to read.)

One good thing (there were others) that she did was to introduce us to American poetry. I can still remember her standing in front of the class, wearing lots of large, colorful, flowing scarf-like dresses, and reading poetry, especially that of Walt Whitman, whose work often seemed to fit her flamboyance. (She often wore turbans, too, that matched her flowing clothes.) She’d read – and often act – poems like this one:

I Hear America Singing

By Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as
he stands,
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning,
or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day--at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

With a nod to Whitman, and for the sheer creativity and inventiveness he brought to poetry, I would submit this (I should probably offer apologies, too):

I Hear America Singing, Still

I hear America singing still, songs
both shallow and deep; not the
songs by Whitman sung, less bursting
with manifest confidence, more a
timidity of tentativeness, as if we have
walked into a room of no lights, no windows,
no mirrors to reflect, only darkness, darkness
to experience, darkness to feel our way forward.

I hear the songs of the Greek choir, as they beckon
us to Odysseus’s rocks; the songs of the preacher
preaching a revival of prosperity, as if naming gave
you a claiming right. Those songs, too, join the exodus 
of the deafening songs, the roaring songs, the songs of 
steam and noise and bellows and gears and furnaces
and fires as they escape into a silence
made in China.

Only two songs heard now, only two: the distant yet
approaching, small but consuming song of the prairie
fire, the song of destructive lament; and the light trill of
the sailing, soaring dove, the song of undeserved hope.

A bit dark, perhaps; I’ve been paying to much attention to government and politics lately.

This poem about a poem I know is connected to today’s Random Act of Poetry (RAP) over at the High Calling Blogs. I have a short article and prompt posted, for next week’s RAP (I’m subbing for our usual RAPster, L.L. Barkat). The prompt is based on a recent experience I had after tweeting a Poem of the Day, “Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats. Take a look and join in.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Picture Frames, Page Views and RAP

Time for another exciting edition of Pleasantly Disturbed Thursdays, led by the famous traveler and beach aficionado Duane Scott.

For my birthday, my son and daughter-in-law (parents of Cameron!) gave me one of those Kodak digitial picture frames, with a preloaded disk of 200+ photographs. About half of them are photos of Cameron; the rest are photos of their wedding, pictures of my son as a baby and little boy, and family. And there’s one of me dancing with my daughter-in-law at the wedding. We call it the “Dad rocks out” photo, which will not be making an appearance on this blog. The digital frame is totally distracting. I love it.

I stumbled upon Stumble Upon Tuesday. I was vaguely interested in it and knew something about this post-sharing application. But then someone inserted a link to my poem “The brother who loves him” and page visits skyrocketed. When I last checked, it had received almost 500 visits, making it the most visited blog post I’ve ever done. I don’t know who did it or exactly how they linked it – but my thanks to them. (It’s also the most commented-upon post I’ve ever done.)

If you haven’t had a chance to check out One Stop Poetry, you should. Each Wednesday, there’s a “One Shot Wednesday” for linking a poem you’ve posted on your own blog. There’s some remarkable poetry to check out in all the links.

Friday, for the High Calling Blogs, I’m subbing for L.L. Barkat for coordinating the next installment of the Random Act of Poetry (RAP). What happens is that you provide a prompt, people write poems and send you the links, and then you pull together an article that features one or two of them. My prompt is based on something that happened to me last week on Twitter – I tweeted someone’s Poem of the Day (“Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats) and someone whom I never heard of before took me to the tweeting woodshed for publicizing the poems of dead people. I am not making this up. So stop by HCB tomorrow afternoon and check it out.

Finally, I have a new nap partner. At least until he starts walking.

Photograph by Janet Young. Used with permission.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Little Light Seeping Through the Darkness

If there is one thing that is always in short supply, it’s encouragement.

I don’t know why that is, but it is. And how you can tell is by the oversized reaction that occurs when someone gets encouraged.

It’s something in the water, I think. Or the culture. It’s become something of an endangered species. We hunger and thirst for encouragement.

I don’t actually think this is anything new. Encouragement is one of the spiritual gifts highlighted by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans (12:8). In other words, it was unusual enough to be classified as a special gift from God.

Over at Faith Barista, Bonnie Gray is doing a weekly jam on the topic – posing a prompt on Thursdays and then participants post by the following Thursday. The prompt for this week is unexpected encouragement which, given my opening words, is the only kind I think there is.

I think of encouragement as grace – a grace bestowed particularly in those times when life looks bleak, you’re surrounded by trouble, there are awful events you’re having to deal with, or any other of those things that comprise part of a normal life.

Like when your son has to have emergency brain surgery, and a pastor shows up to pray with you.

Or you’re a young couple, pregnant, move to St. Louis and their house in Houston won’t sell for 18 months because the mortgage industry has shut down (1979-1980), and an older couple takes them into their hearts.

Or you’re struggling with politics at work, and a co-worker comes into your office, closes the door, and says, “I know it must be bad. How can I help?”

Or someone sends you a direct message on Twitter. Or an email, telling you how much your blog post meant.

I’ve experienced all of these things, and it is always surprising, wonderful and welcome.

Little things. Small acts of grace. Gentle evidences that you care. Unexpected but experienced like a drink of cool water in the desert. Or a little light that seeps through the darkness.

Related: The link for next week's discussion at Faith Barista, Letting Go of Worry.

Photograph: Hayloft by Nancy Rosback. Used with permission.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Prison Poems”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor executed by the Nazis in 1945, has achieved something of iconic status in contemporary evangelical Christianity. A pastor, theologian and writer, he refused to take the loyalty oath to Adolf Hitler in 1939. He was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He wrote books like The Cost of Discipleship, Ethics, and Letters and Papers from Prison, which are still widely read today. And there’s a brand new biography of him, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy that has received laudatory reviews and wide distribution.

And he was a poet.

A few weeks after the end of World War II in Europe, a then 33-year-old Baptist minister named Edwin Robinson in London attended a local memorial service for a German minister he had never met or even heard of. The minister was Bonhoeffer, and what Robinson heard began a lifelong interest in Bonheoffer’s life and faith. Robinson published a number of books, biographies, translations and articles on Bonhoeffer, and in 1998 translated and published Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Prison Poems, originally entitled after one of the poems in the small collection, Voices in the Night.

Only 10 poems comprise the collection. And they present a different if complementary picture of the man who was hero to many and a martyr to his faith, and who opposed what was certainly the greatest worldly evil of his time.

In these 10 poems, Bonhoeffer describes his fears, his loneliness, the heart ache and heart sickness of life in prison. And in these poems he clings to his faith and to God, even when he questions and debates and weeps. From “Voices in the Night:”

Stretched out upon my prison bed,
I stare at the empty wall.
Outside, a summer evening,
regardless of me,
goes singing into the country.
Softy ebbs the tide of the day
on the eternal shore…
In the stillness of the night,
I listen.
Only footsteps and shouts of the guards,
A loving couple in the distance, stifled laughter.
Can you hear nothing else, you sluggish sleeper?
I hear my own soul totter and tremble…

Separation, loneliness, realizing that life continues outside the prison wall and the isolation of that realization, these are what occupy his mind in this poem and others.

In “Who Am I,” he contrasts how his guards describe him – composed, contented, confident, unconcerned and proud – with what he’s experiencing within – troubled, homesick, “Like a bird in a cage, / gasping for breath, as though one strangled me…” The attitudes of the guards serve as a further isolating influence, as if life in a cell and a prison wasn’t already isolating enough.

In “The Friend,” Bonhoeffer writes an intimately beautiful birthday poem to one of this closest friend, concluding with these lines:

At half past one, the silence ended at last,
I heard the siren’s cry, all danger past.
In that I have seen a kindly omen thereby,
that all danger will surely pass you by.

His generous heart, even confined with a prison, reaches out, speaking of the beauty of a friendship with someone he knows he will not likely see again.

These are all quiet poems, poems of meditation and thinking, poems of sadness and fear and yet also poems of faith, including the last one in the collection, “By Kindly Powers Surrounding:”

And shouldst thou offer us the bitter cup, resembling
sorrow, filled to the brim and overflowing,
we will receive it thankfully, without trembling,
from thy hand, so good and ever-loving.

This is the very human Dietrich Bonhoeffer, commending his spirit into the hands of God. This, and these other poems, teach us the simple humanity of faith.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The brother who loves him

He sits by the bed, holding his
brother’s hand, weakening,
the hand of the one who
loves him. He watches the
breathing, labored, the
eyes, sunken; the
body a fragile blue
translucent shell of the
life that was, before.
The room smells of
flowers and death, a
smell metallic, oddly hopeful.

Why did you love me so
long, he asks; why did you
love me if the face of what
everyone said, what
everyone believed, what
everyone condemned?
Because you loved me
first, because you loved me
in the face of what everyone
said, what everyone believed,
what everyone condemned.
Because you loved me first.

Do you hurt, he asks.
Only when I love, he says.
Only then.

To see other poems submitted for One Shot Wednesday, please visit One Stop Poetry.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Two Guest Posts

I didn’t plan it this way, but it happens that I have two guest posts published today.

From Brokenness, the Unexpected” is up at the Port Orange Counseling Center’s blog, New Day Rising. This is a new blog site started by Russell Holloway (aka @LuvStomp), and it focuses on relationships.

Miracles” has been posted at Michael Perkins’ blog, Untitled. If you haven’t seen Michael’s blog before, you should. (And I love the “whiteboard” posts he does.)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Singing Opera in Journalism Class

In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, the authors relate a story by the writer Nora Ephron, who described how a high school journalism teacher have her class its first assignment – to write an article for the student newspaper about all the teachers and staff would be in a seminar on Thursday. The students dutifully wrote their stories. The teacher read them and then noted they had all missed the lead, at least as far as their readers were concerned – school would be closed on that day.

It was an unexpected thought or conclusion – and the entire class had missed it. Being unexpected is one of the attributes of ideas that are “made to stick.”

I have one of those journalism stories, too.

I took my first journalism course – Introductory News Reporting (J 51, as we called it) – in my sophomore year. The instructor was relatively young for the faculty at that time – somewhere around 40. There were stories that he had been in the military, and there were stories he had been a Jesuit priest. Both could have been true.

We all knew that something would be different about this class when he gave us a week to memorize the Associated Press Style Book. And we were expected to have it for every class. After that week, he gave us our first in-class assignment: write a news article from our “Assignment Jonesville” workbook.

And then he said: “You have your style books with you, and the dictionary is right here. All the facts are in the assignment. Just so you know, if you make a style error, it’s an automatic F. Same thing for a misspelled word. And for a factual error. You can now start.”

Shock set in immediately. Then came the second shock.

He started doing calisthenics. Side-straddle hops (jumping jacks). Push-ups. When he finished, he started singing. Opera. (And he wasn’t bad.) Then back to calisthenics.

To say that the class was rattled would be an understatement. Every one of us was convinced we had fallen into the hands of a lunatic. And we had – a lunatic for writing accuracy. A lunatic for writing properly. A lunatic for learning how to do your work in a noisy, distracting newsroom. A lunatic for teaching you how to work under tight deadlines and do it accurately in the middle of chaos.

It worked. Well, it worked for some of us. But the end of the semester, 70 percent of the class was gone, most having transferred over to advertising (I'm making no moral judgments here). I stayed. I took the second journalism course with him, and a history of journalism course, and two independent studies. After that first year, he was moved from teaching the introductory courses – the Journalism School grew alarmed at how many people were switching majors. But the quality of student journalism skyrocketed.

What I learned stuck. And a lot of it still sticks, 40 years later. I can often block out the entire world to get writing done.

And all because a teacher chose an unexpected way to help us learn. the Heath brothers, I think, would smile.

Over at the High Calling Blogs, Laura Boggess has started a discussion on Made to Stick. You can find last week’s discussion on the concept of “simple” here. This weeks's discussion is on "unexpected," so take a look at Laura's post, "Unexpected Journey."

A Word I Don't Like

There is a word, a religious word that is used today to the point of mind-numbing suffocation. That word is spirituality. It means anything and everything, a veritable one-word melting pot that can accommodate every religious faith and tradition every crackpot religious philosophy from rubbing magic crystals on your forehead to channeling 10 century Chinese emperors. You can be “spiritual” and be a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, an atheist, a pantheist, a Wiccan, a consumer and even a sports fan (some sports – I’m thinking Southeastern Conference college football – have all the trappings of a major religious and spiritual movement).

It’s the word I’m having the most trouble with in Michael Spencer’s Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality. I almost wish he had used the word faith instead.

I’ll get over it. I’m actually he will, but the end of the book, enable me to rehabilitate the word in my own mind.

Spencer, having defined the problem the first four chapters of the book as one of church-shaped spirituality rather than Jesus-shaped spirituality, finally asks the question: What does Jesus-shaped spirituality look like? He’s going to spend the rest of the book answering that question, but he’s clear on what it is not.

It is not, Spencer says, a spirituality “measured by attendance figures, buildings and budget, all part of a spirituality that Jesus repudiated.” (That alone is enough to give every evangelical church in America great pause.)

It is not a culture-war spirituality, whose “kingdom is the eventual triumph of moral conservatism, and its spirituality is conflict and argument.”

It is not a spirituality of “emphasizing the Christian family as the central community in the Christina life.” Whoa!

And it is not a spirituality of worship experiences, of prophecy and seeking revival, of the “obsessive pursuit of doctrinal and theological precision,” or of health, wealth and prosperity.

Nor, I would add, is it a spirituality that equates Christianity with the United States and the Bible with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

If that’s what it’s not, which pretty well encompasses a lot of what we think Christianity is, then was it this Jesus-shaped spirituality that Spencer talks about?

He writes: “I’m looking for a spiritual experience that looks like, feels like, sounds like, lives like, loves like and acts like Jesus of Nazareth. It’s that simple.”

And starting with the next chapter, we’re going to see how Spencer begins to answer the question. And if it is, really, that simple.

(Nancy Rosback at Bend the Page has been leading us in a discussion of Mere Churchianity. Check her place for the various links.)