Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Word Candy Wednesday

The Easiness of Faith

I’ve never thought of faith as easy. My path to it was rather torturous; lots of boulders blocked the way. It stretched for seven years, from high school to my senior year in college. And then it became a rather more focused and purposeful activity, as I learned what it meant to “grow in faith.”

“Grow in faith” is a rather interesting phrase. We usually mean that it is our faith that’s growing. But it could also mean that it is in faith that we grow spiritually.

But is faith easy?

In The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer says yes.

“Now if faith is the gaze of the heart at God,” he writes, “and if this gaze is but the raising of the inward eyes to meet the all-seeing eyes of God, then it follows that it is one of the easiest things possible to do. It would be like God to make the most vital thing easy and place it within the range of possibility by the weakest and poorest of us.”

He cites three reasons why he believes faith is easy.

First, faith is simple. It’s the utter simplicity of turning our gaze from ourselves to God.

Second, it can be done at any time. Faith is not bounded by the hour of the day, time of the year, or period of a person’s life.

Third, faith can be done anywhere. It’s not limited by place. You don’t have to be in a church, or a stadium filled for a revival meeting, or in the mountains or some other physically breathtaking beauty. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Corrie ten-Boom found faith in the most of awful of circumstances, places where abandoning hope was the rational thing to do—Stalin’s labor camps and Hitler’s concentration camps.

Faith is simple. You don’t have to be a theologian or an expert. You simply have to “gaze upon a saving God.”

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been discussing Tozer’s The Pursuit of God. To see more posts on this chapter, “The Gaze of the Soul,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact. Next week, we’ll be discussing chapter 8, “Restoring the Creator-Creature Relation.”

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Of Shells, Fireworks, and Novellas 2

Over at TweetSpeak Poetry today, we’ve posted a set of six new poems from our poetry jam on Twitter earlier this month. They bring the total to 11, and (I know this because I’m the one editing them) we’ve only gotten through about a third of the total number of tweets.

The jam lasted only an hour – but there were 16 of us, and you know what happens when you give 16 poets free rein.

They tweet.

A lot.

It’s amazing how many tweets we posted in an hour.

So take a look at TweetSpeak Poetry, and let us know what you think.

The Red Rhone

It occupied its shelf, resting,
this green bottle holding
memory and promise, waiting
for its moment of glory.
The young proprietor, speaking
only a fraction of English, smiling,
had offered it, assuring
in his English-less French, nodding
his recommendation.
He would not see the two, leaving
France the next day, Americans
again, but the green glass containing
his suggestion would be a gift,
a red from the Rhone Valley, reminding
them of the young proprietor managing
his shop on the Rue des Martyrs.

In 1999, my wife and I were in Paris, and some two blocks from our hotel discovered the Rue des Martyrs, with its flower stalls, food shops, candy shops, bakeries and a wine shop with a young proprietor. The bottle, when we opened it later back home, lived up to the English-less recommendation.

This poem is submitted for the TweetSpeak Poetry prompt offered Monday by Seth Haines – Gluhwein Memories.

It’s also submitted to Open Link Night at dVerse Poets. To see more poems, please visit the site. The links will be live today at 2 p.m. Central time.

Poetry at Work: Vision Statements

In the last 25 years or so, vision statements have grown to become a staple of organizational life. Companies, universities, hospitals, government agencies – they all have their vision statements. They also routinely confuse them with mission statements.

A vision statement is, in its purest form, describes what an organization (or individual; I’ve know some individuals with vision statements) aspires to be. A mission statement is how the organization intends to achieve that vision. The shorthand version: what we want to be, and what we’re doing to get there.

You can read a vision statement, and know immediately that it was either produced by an individual, perhaps with a person or two helping, or by a committee or series of committees. An individually written one usually strives for one idea; the committee-written one (assisted by the Legal Department) tries to include everything top make sure nothing (and department) is omitted.

When done well, both a vision statement and a mission statement can read like a fine, moving poem.

To continue reading, please see my post today at TweetSpeak Poetry.

Photograph: Night Vision by Mark Coldren via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Monday, October 29, 2012

A Storyteller First

I recently read Broken by Travis Thrasher, his twelfth novel and what I think is likely his best yet. Broken is only the latest in a series of consistently well-done novels, ranging from love stories to thrillers/suspense stories. A few months prior to publishing Broken, he self-published Every Breath You Take as a kind of love letter to his daughter. And he’s published three of four novels in a series of Young Adult novels as well.

I’ve now read most of his published work. There’s not a bum story in the lot. Thrasher is always good, always entertaining and always thought-provoking, which isn’t what you usually get from terrifying suspense stories like Isolation or Ghostwriter or a love story collection like The Promise Remains. But he delivers more than a good story.

His heroes are flawed, sometimes seriously flawed, and his villains are totally evil (as a rule). In Broken, for example, Laila starts as almost unsympathetic, a character I was almost determined not to like, and then she changed and my attitude changed with her. She was flawed, yes, but more importantly, she was real.

Thrasher also explores subjects and themes you sometimes find in Christian fiction, but it’s still not typical, themes like mental illness, burned-out faith and loss of faith, dysfunctional families, prostitution, and abortion. Again, the emphasis here is on the real. He doesn’t exaggerate; instead, he creates characters and narratives that are recognizable to Christians even if we’re uncomfortable talking about them.

There’s often violence; people get shot and die; people are sometimes brutalized. With Thrasher, though, the violence isn’t gratuitous. It’s not meant to shock but instead to help tell the story.

And there are, in many of the his stories, elements of the supernatural – the ghosts of Broken and the evil spirits of Isolation, to cite two examples.

But are these “Christian” novels?

In some of his works, the Christian message is fairly explicit (Isolation and Broken, for example); it’s less so in stories like Ghostwriter and Sky Blue (still my personal favorite). But before I add more fuel to the ongoing debate about “Christian fiction,” I would say that thrasher is a storyteller first and foremost, a storyteller who happens to be a Christian and whose writing is undergirded by his faith but not suffocated by it. He doesn’t preach the gospel in his novels; he shows it, sometimes directly and sometimes implicitly.

These same themes can be found in his three Young Adult novels – Solitary (2010), Gravestone (2011), and Temptation (2012). The fourth and final book in the series, Hurt, is due out in January.

We can’t neatly categorize Thrasher as either a writer of Christian fiction or a novelist who happens to be a Christian (the usual way this discussion and debate goes). Instead, what we can say is this: he tells the story he has to tell, and in the process he makes the message of forgiveness and redemption all the more compelling.

This isn’t what we usually find in thrillers and suspense, even when they’re well written. But we find it in Travis Thrasher.

This post was originally published by The Christian Manifesto, but they revamped the site and the archive disappeared. So I’m occasionally reposting a few of the articles I wrote. This one has been modified to include his Solitary stories.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Westminster Cathedral

Interior walls smoked
by candles, votives
of hope, prayers thrust
upward. The interior
turns medieval; the priest
intones a prayer in Latin,
it is the Latin mass and
it is still a mystery.

One morning during our trip to London, I took the tube to Victoria Station, aiming for a fitness store to buy a Pilates mat for my wife. Exiting the tube station, I realized I was only half a block from Westminster Cathedral, the largest Catholic church in Britain. So I took a short detour and found myself at a Latin mass, which I had not heard in more than 40 years.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Saturday Good Reads: My All-Time Favorite Books

Slight curveball here – instead of links to the web, I thought I’d offer a list of my all-time favorite books. And yes, none of these would be officially a “Saturday Good Read” unless you’re a fast reader.

There’s not particular rhyme or reason to the list – and the books are in no particular order. But these are the books that had much to do with influencing who I am and how I think.

And a question: if you had to pick an all-time favorite book – just one – what would it be? (And to level the playing field and take the pressure off, let’s exclude the Bible).

Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown.

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.

The Habit of Being: Letters by Flannery O’Connor.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.

Great Expectations and David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.

Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters.

A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean.

Levi’s Will and Summer of Light by Dale Cramer.

The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

The Gulag Archipelago and The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

I Am One of Your Forever by Fred Chappell.

The Heart Aroused by David Whyte.

God is an Englishman by R.F. Delderfield.

Huey Long by T. Harry Williams.

Friday, October 26, 2012

“The Next Story” by Tim Challies

In 1800, people could travel no faster than they had at the time of Christ. But change – massive change – was afoot. The Industrial Revolution has started in Britain in the 1760s or so, and technology was on the march. First came Fulton and his steamboat, then the railroads, and then the single most significant communication tool since the printing press – the telegraph. And then the telephone. And the first horseless carriages.

The pace continued in the 20th century. My grandmother was 11 in the year 1900. When she was born, most people traveled in wagons and by horseback; they could also ride in a steamboat or travel by train. By the time she died in 1984, men had landed on the moon and desktop computers were appearing in offices.

If the change seems bewildering it’s because it is bewildering. A decade ago, the only social media anyone had heard of might have been discussion boards and chat rooms. Some blogs were getting established. Today, it’s more a case of “I tweet therefore I am.”

We’re still coming to terms with what this change in communications technology means to culture and society. Tim Challies wrote The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion to reflect on what the change might mean for the church, and for faith.

His point is this: No technology is neutral. Every technology carries both advantages and costs. And a second point is this: every technology has inherent biases. Some kinds of activities are favored over others. The form of the technology is just as important as the content it carries. Look no further than Twitter, which favors speed over context and understanding (and often accuracy). Certain kinds of information – quick blurbs – are favored over longer ones.

My church just started tweeting.

In less than 20 years, Amazon built a mail order empire for books (and other consumer goods) that drove book stores and chains into bankruptcy, and by moving directly into publishing it’s upending the book industry once again. Book buyers have an amazing array of choices – millions of new and used books, in fact. But fast disappearing is the personal service of the bookshop clerk or owner, who not only knew what books and authors you liked but also how your mother was faring after her surgery and whether or not your son got that college scholarship, and wasn’t that new biography of Mark Twain as good as it was said to be.

Challies provides a concise history of communication technologies (and you need the history to understand what the implications are), and then offers a series of discussions on what communication actually is, what is meant by “mediation,” and the dangers of what he calls distraction – how we seem to be unable to set our iPhones, iPads, cell phones, laptops and other hardware aside, or walk away from Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or blogs, even for a short time. He also considers the impact of communication technologies on the family and on faith.

And he asks provocative questions, for which we will have to turn our cell phones off to seriously consider. Questions like, what does it mean when social media have an inherent bias for video communication, with its emphasis upon the visual and the emotional?

To continue down the road of distraction will eventually take away our ability to think deeply. That’s where he heads with The Next Story – to demonstrate the importance of thinking, reflection, and deep understanding, and who it’s so important for faith and the church.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Discipline of Watching

There are scenes in my upcoming novel A Light Shining where a character does little except watch. In fact, the book opens that way. He’s observing two main characters, and he will continue observing them throughout the story.

His purpose in watching is to learn their habits and patterns, see where they go, understand how they live their lives, and wait for further instructions. And no, his intentions are not good.

In The Discipline of Grace, Jerry Bridges emphasizes the importance of – the discipline – of watching. But the watching, in this case, is directed at ourselves. And Bridges seems to define “watching” as part observation, part understanding and part introspection – with an emphasis on doing and not doing.

And what we have to watch for, Bridges says in this chapter, “The Discipline of Watching,” are “three different sources of temptation: the world, the flesh, and the Devil.”

I know it’s rather passé, even for Christians, to talk about the devil. We like to think we’re so much cooler than to engage in a conversation about Satan without at least sharing a knowing look of “this is how people used to talk about the devil.” The fact is, the Bible is either right or wrong about Satan, and there’s no room for smiling condescension.

And the world. “The world, or the sinful society in which we live, is characterized by the subtle and relentless pressure it brings to bear upon us to conform to its values and practices. It creeps us on us little by little. What was once unthinkable becomes thinkable, then doable, and finally acceptable to society at large. Sin becomes respectable, and so Christians finally embrace it. It is my perception that Christians are no more than five to ten years behind the world in embracing most sinful practices.”

Read that paragraph over again. My ears burned when I read it. That description may have summarized that last 50 years of American Christianity.

But he saves most of his ammunition in this chapter for “the flesh.” That means us. That means, he says, that “our greatest source of temptation dwells within us.” It is our sinful, fallen nature. As long as we live on this planet, we have to deal with the consequences of sin, and especially as those consequences play out in ourselves and our lives.

To summarize what he counsels us to do: know yourself; study your weaknesses; identify areas of strength (and be extremely careful about them – they can be as much our downfall as our weaknesses); look for the little things, “the things that seem so unimportant;” understand what the Apostle Paul meant by Christian “liberty” – it is not a license to do whatever we please; and employ the best defense we have available to us – the study of God’s Word and prayer.

This chapter may not contain the most popular things he has to say in the book, but it might likely be the most important.

Tim Challies at Informing the Reforming is leading a discussion of The Discipline of Grace. To see what he has to say and comments (and links) by others, please visit Tim’s site.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Assassin’s Lament

At TweetSpeak Poetry, we’ve arrived at the last weekly discussion of Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within. Our discussion leader Lyla Lindquist has bravely led us through a veritable forest of counsel, advice and assignments for not only writing poetry, but it writing it better, writing it well, and even applying what we learn to all kinds of writing.

It’s a book that’s well worth your while to read.

This last section is entitled “Toward mastery,” so you know the assignments are going to get really serious. Here were but a few of the possible writing assignments we could undertake (and Addonizio thinks we should do them all):

Write a sonnet (remember that old iambic pentameter your English teacher talked about in high school? Well, it’s time to dust the iambs off.)

Write a deliberately bad sonnet (which, in my case, might not be difficult at all).

Do a close reading of a poem you love.

Perform your poem (as in, stand up in front of a live audience and read your poem and perhaps perform it). (That’s what I want to do – make a spectacle of myself.)

Make a broadside (like a one-page ad or tract or sheet with your poem on it, complete with drawings or art or designs). (I’m almost as bad an artist as I am a designer.)

Collaborate on a poem. (Possible; I’ve actually done something like that with TweetSpeak Poetry. It’s called a Twitter poetry jam, and you should try it sometimes.)

I decide I would write a sonnet. And I developed an idea that I borrowed from some fictional work in progress that just might see the light of day in about four or five weeks. The form is the traditional English sonnet (abab cdcd efef gg) (and those pesky iambs pentametering around the place).

I’ll let you decide if I wrote a sonnet or a deliberately bad sonnet (hint: both answers may be correct).

The Assassin’s Lament

So much of each assignment was a bore,
to wait, to watch, to think a plan straight through;
of all the skills required to do the chore,
to see the time was right was clearest cue.

And so he watched the pair so deep in love:
a golden boy with fame so broad, so far,
a golden girl with face from far above;
he felt regret and rued this bloody war.

The day arrived when he was told to act;
the wait was done, the price was paid to kill;
a plan of vengeance to become a fact,
his role, his fate he knew he must fulfill.

He’d watched too long, he’d seen the love so shared;
His heart of ice did melt, for now he cared.

To see what Lyla is up to and if any other iambs are roaming out there, please visit TweetSpeak Poetry.

My Roman Chess Set

When I was in junior high (what’s now usually called middle school), I had told my parents what I wanted for Christmas – a chess set. And not just any chess set, mind you, but a very specific chess set: A chess set whose pieces represented various figures of the classical Roman Empire. The king was Augustus Caesar, the queen was his wife Livia, the bishop was Cicero, and so on. Chess was all the rage that year in school and in the neighborhood; five of us on our block asked for chess sets for Christmas and my school actually had a chess club.

Okay, so I was sort of a nerd.

I was fairly sure I would get what I asked for; at least, I hoped I would. Nothing was ever certain, though, and I worried that my mother might (a) place the order too late and it would be sold out or (2) pick another chess set since it was all the same game, right?


About a week before Christmas, I was home alone, and I sneaked a look into the hall closet where she “hid” Christmas presents. I found the dark blue box. It was marked “Roman Chess Set.” I should have happily placed it back in its hiding place but I couldn’t resist a peek. I opened the top of the box, and gazed upon plastic beauty. I was ecstatic. On Christmas Day, I faked enough surprise to hide my sneakiness, but I was truly delighted.

My sneakiness had nothing to do with faith that my mother would get the right chess set; but it had everything to do with a 13-year-old’s hope. Once I saw it, I was certain.

In The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer makes a rather startling statement about faith. One can find a definition of it in only one verse of the Bible, and it’s a rather “operational” definition. The verse is Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

As he points out, there’s not much there of what the essence of faith is. And so he offers a definition of the essence of faith: “Faith is the gaze of the soul upon a saving God.” Faith is not about the one having it, he notes; it’s about the one whom it gazes upon. We think faith is about us, when actually it’s not; it’s about God. He’s where our faith is focused.

I still have my Roman chess set all these years later. It was a hope, but it was first based upon something I could see (an advertisement), then something I beheld, and finally something I could hold in my hand.

Not so with faith.

The gaze of a soul,
the gaze of a heart,
upon a saving God.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been discussing Tozer’s The Pursuit of God. To see more posts on this chapter, “The Gaze of the Soul,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines. We’ll conclude out discussion of chapter 7 next week.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Of Shells, Fireworks, and Novellas

On October 9, 17 people (and a few retweeters) came together for a Twitter poetry jam, with the prompts coming from lines in The Novelist, the new novella by L.L. Barkat. We set off fireworks, we went to the beach, we roamed through the forests and probably would still be tweeting if we hadn't stopped at our one-hour deadline.

We tweeted, we responded, we counter-tweeted, we had side jams going on, we had occasional retweeters come swooping in and swooping out, we had direct messages flying around. But in the end, it all got collected.

And became poetry. To see the first five poems from the Twitter poetry jam, please see my new post at TweetSpeak Poetry.

Archtown Beer

Astride the gates of Archtown
sits the behemoth of beer,
accepting its homage of praise
by the name we know it here:
The Brewery.

It offer us a choice to drink,
versions and colors and taste;
we accept our can or bottle,
taking care not a drop to waste.
The Brewery.

The names avalanche our palates:
Budweiser, Michelob, and Busch,
Bud, Natural, Beck’s, and Bass,
Lowenbrau, Czechvar, O’Douls,
all dancing with Stella Artois;
ice, amber, amberbock, light,
select, cactus, raspberry, lime,
ale and clamato chelada,
lager and dragon fruit peach.
The Brewery.

I am a vassal of ArchTown,
I who enjoy beer the least.
I bike past blocks of brewing,
inhaling the smell of the yeast.
The Brewery.

TweetSpeak Poetry is celebrating Oktoberfest with a series of poetry prompts about wine and beer. This week, Seth Haines has asked for a poem about the beer that is known or enjoyed locally or regionally. If you live in St. Louis, that means one thing: The Brewery (although there is a small brewery here, too, the exception proving the rule: Schlafly). Check TweetSpeak Poetry to see what other regional beer poems have been submitted.

This poem is also submitted for Open Link Night at dVerse Poets. To see other poems submitted, please visit the site. The links will be live at 2 p.m. Central time today.

Monday, October 22, 2012

WWJD – and the “J” is Jack

I've read Fast Company magazine for close to a decade. I like its approach to talking about business, and the editors’ slightly but not overly edgy approach in describing the new economy or new technologies or people (and the people are usually different from the ones who find in Fortune and Forbes).  The articles lean to the counter-intuitive, pointing to innovators and entrepreneurs who often see opportunities where most people see nothing.

In December, 2010, the magazine had feature stories on the chaos in the advertising industry, Gov 2.0 promoting civic engagement at the local political level, how games are becoming common in our work and life in general – and a story entitled “What Would Jack Do,” with the Jack in the question being Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric.

It turns out that Welch, business guru James Collins, Colin Powell and other business, government, cultural and religious leaders routinely speak at annual Global Leadership Summits at Willow Creek Church in suburban Chicago, attended in person by 7,000 pastors and church leaders and viewed via satellite by 62,000 people in the U.S. and Canada, and later by videotape by 65,000 more worldwide. The goal is leadership training, absorbing lessons taught by business leaders as well as well known speakers from Christian and other religions.

The idea that the church can learn better leadership skills from business is not new, and Willow Creek hasn’t been the only proponent. The church has been hosting these summits since 1995, and there were numerous consultants and conferences before and since. For more than two decades, the language and practices of business have been absorbed by scores of churches in North America and elsewhere.

As business people (and the rest of us) are fond of saying, you can’t argue with success. Churches – especially large and so-called “mega-“ churches, have employed the lessons of business – strategic planning, vision, mission statements, management, leadership training, and long-term plans.

I don’t argue with the success of using these ideas to maintain and grow large institutions and organizations. But I do have to ask how this changes our biblical understanding of the church.

I've worked in corporate America for almost 37 years, in communication jobs – employee communications, community relations, issues management, media relations, executive speechwriting – that placed me almost at the center of what business leadership is about. The lessons of leadership clearly apply to business. They can apply, in a modified way, to academia and non-profit organizations like foundations and charities.

But the lessons of leadership are largely about the preservation and growth of organizations, like companies, universities, and the United Way. They’re not about spreading the gospel message or making disciples. (To its credit, some years back Willow Creek publicly acknowledged that it had fallen short in the making of disciples – helping people growth in their faith. It had been much more about attracting “seekers.”)

The lessons of corporate leadership do not come free of charge. They carry certain baggage, certain assumptions. Business people are familiar and comfortable with these assumptions, because this is what they know. Assumptions include: 
  • The utilitarian purpose of all resources –all are to be used, and even overused if considered replaceable, and, if necessary, jettisoned, for the good of the enterprise. 
  • The structures of governance – like the board of directors, executive teams, chief executive officers and administrators. 
  • The predominance of one stakeholder group, perhaps two; it’s usually investors for publicly held companies. 
  • An emphasis upon performance standards, and particular in the area of what sells. 
  • And measurement – quantifiable, explainable, understandable numbers.

The language and teachings of business are impregnated with these things. They form a kind of structure or business rhetoric for the specific “message” or content, and in so doing they shape both the message and its results. Embrace the teachings of business for a non-business enterprise, and you embrace all the assumptions that come with them.

Years back, I attended a church that was trying very hard to embrace the Willow Creek model. For me, going to church often felt like going to work. At one point, I was asked to stand for the office of elder. And I was told my primary qualification was my background in corporate communications. I said I didn’t recall that qualification from the list in 1 Timothy 3.

I didn’t stand for elder.

We are to be disciples. We are to be salt and light in the community and culture at large.

The process isn’t supposed to work the other way. 

This post was originally published by The Christian Manifesto, but they revamped the site and the archive disappeared. So I’m occasionally reposting a few of the article I wrote.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Bartering

The painter plays with his camera
and projector, using himself
as image, as subject, as object
to realize what a film can do
to express art by altering
reality. He learned that film
doesn’t express art but simply
exchanges one image for another,
an artistic bartering of image,
of self.

Photograph: Self-portrait by Edvard Munch (1930).