Monthly Archives: April 2012

Festival Days

My soul is filled again with a renewed sense of the power of words and story – as well as their ability to nourish our souls.  I just returned from the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.  Earlier last week I was working to compress five days of work into three.  Hour after hour I was focused on planning activities, contacting people, and preparing for travel.  Then I spent six hours driving to Grand Rapids, furiously intent on reaching this conference.  As I headed to the first session my mind was still in this action mode.  With notebook and pen in hand, I was ready to sit down and gather practical suggestions for being a better writer.

But then something happened.  Words washed over me.  These words weren’t merely providing a list of additional tasks for me to do when I got home.  They were artistic expressions that drew me in and reoriented my thinking.  I relished what the individuals were saying and how they were saying it, allowing words to soak into my being.  I enjoyed having the time to listen to the words of inspiration and challenge.  This was not a time to merely gather facts or even to worship at the feet of the writers who spoke, but to come side by side in the act of creation.  The entire festival was infused with love for the words, the stories, the world – and God.

Within this world I started to gather expressions and bits of art in my notebook and soul.  Below are just a spattering of words from some of the authors I encountered.

  • Create community by observing the Sabbath. (Judith Shulevitz)
  • How do we bind ourselves to our ancestors without being bound? (Jonathan Safran Foer)
  • Live your one creative life fully, making it a gift back to God. (Ann Voskamp)
  • Stories are food, we starve without stories.  The more good stories we tell the more the world advances. (Brian Doyle)
  • People will be gracious to religious expression that is gracious to them. (Marilynne Robinson)
  • Stories change our minds, and changed minds change the world.  Become the church we dream of and stop critiquing the church we don’t like.  Engage a broken world with the creativity of our lives.  (Shane Claiborne)
  • Writing is not a tool to promote your ideas, but to allow them to flower.
  • Writing life and spiritual life require regular times of solitude and silence. (Paula Huston)
  • Art is an event first, then something to be analyzed. (Walter Wangerin, Jr.)

Leaving this festival, I wasn’t driven to add new practices to my life. Like most people, I definitely don’t need one more thing to do each day.  Instead I’m encouraged to start looking out into the world with a new lens.  One that isn’t so narrowly focused on the tasks on my many lists, but on the world in which these tasks take place and the God weaving it all together into a larger tapestry.  From this new stance I again am drawn to share the stories around me and encourage others to do the same.

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New Stories Emerge from a Store’s Closing

Borders, the bookstore, closed.  It’s been nearly a year, but I still remember the punch to my stomach I felt when I first heard the news.  What will we do with all these stores closing?  Is this indeed the beginning of the end of the corner bookstore?  I had these end times thoughts in mind, but also the loss of convenience and the effect on the local area.  Where will I have a place to explore when I’m in need of a book?  What else could possibly would move into this space?  Yet, the stories found in this space were not coming to an end.

With the closing came the sale.  At first I was reluctant to go.  It was as if I was profiting from another’s loss.  But I got over that quickly.  On the first day of the sale, I was there.  The close out signs were new and the shelves were still full and well kept.  This was only the first foray.  A week later the prices were a bit lower and I had more money in my checking account.  Again I went through the shelves.  This time they were a little messier.  People had been going through them.  I was intent on buying.  So I looked for books I had always wanted to read or have copies of – Alice in Wonderland, Paradise Lost, The Jungle, The Aeneid.  Modern novels and ancient philosophy.  Soon my arms were laden with books.  Like a kid in a candy store, I let myself go.

Two weeks later, I passed the store again and noticed yet another markdown – 30-60%.  It was time to return.  This time the books had been picked over and not always returned to their proper places.  What had been empty shelves were now filled with other items the liquidator needed to sell – slippers, blankets, and many stuffed animals.  I noticed one sign that read purchase at least 8 books would get you another 15% off.  Well, that was that.  I would find eight books.  Over to the literature section, the religion, and history.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to Plato’s Republic.  All for the taking.  I saw several books I had put off buying before, but at 40% off, who could resist.  Not I.

My boundaries were down.  It was time to consider filling life with more stories.  It felt good to hold these books.  I couldn’t wait to dig into them when it was time.  Just having a stash on my bookcase gave me a feeling of wealth.   I was nearly salivating with eagerness to crack open these books – not purchased because they are for work, but because I’ve wanted to read them.  The books I bought were soon sitting on my shelves.  Merely paper.  But when I read them, when others read and we talked, they would come to life.  The space between the covers is ripe for potential, though they seemed rather dead on the shelves of a closeout store.

Even as I was getting excited about the opportunities these books held out for me, I wondered what would happen with this space.  No longer did it have even a pretension of being a third-place, a place in which community may form.  It had become solely a place where people were consuming books, not taking time to really look at them.  I longed for a place to create and cultivate – building on the ideas in the books.  To mull over these written thoughts and talk with others.

It’s been less than a year later and last night I was again in that building, this time with a book group.  For the past four months we’ve been meeting at the new bookstore in town – Joseph-Beth Booksellers.  One month a close friend, Jana Riess, joined us to talk about her book Flunking Sainthood, a month later a graduate student from the University of Cincinnati’s Classics Department gave us greater insight into the life at Pompeii, and last night we pondered the often unheard history of the Native Americans after reading Dee Brown’s, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.  What had been a potential loss, has turned into a new opportunity to draw people to read and create places that will invite in others.  Now I’m not wondering about an empty space, but about the new stories that are generating from its re-created midst.

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Pilgrim Desire

Sitting here in the middle of April with rain coming down, I long for a journey.  A trek to a place of sun and adventure. Or, maybe a wind swept moor.  It’s time for a pilgrimage, as Chaucer and his fellow pilgrims knew full well.  Time to travel towards a sacred story.  Time to get away in order better to live the story back at home.

Where would you go?  What story would you follow?

 

When April with his showers sweet with fruit

The drought of March has pierced unto the root

And bathed each vein with liquor that has power

To generate therein and sire the flower;

When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,

Quickened again, in every holt and heath,

The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun

Into the Ram one half his course has run,

And many little birds make melody

That sleep through all the night with open eye

(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-

Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage, . . .

Canterbury Tales Prologue, Geoffrey Chaucer

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Beyond the Hunger Games

I’ve finally succumbed to cultural pressure and read the Hunger Games.  I had to see for myself what the fetish around these books, and now movie, is about.  Why would would people want to immerse themselves in a dystopian world?   Are we drawn to it because it is so different from our world?  Or maybe we’re drawn to it because it is so familiar, yet we can’t often name or see the similarities.

Coincidentally, at the same time I’ve been reading a recent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas and a history of America’s expansion from the viewpoint of Native Americans, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.  While I may be able to rail self-righteously at the fantasy dystopia of the Hunger Games as I eagerly turn to the next chapter, I want to avert my eyes as I read these other books, recognizing that I easily could have been part of  unknowingly supporting the ‘games’ of these periods and places. Compared to these two historical books, the world of Panem looks pretty tame.  At least the rules of the game in the novel are mostly clear, though horrific.

Bonhoeffer and other pastors in the German church started to catch inklings of something quite wrong during the early days of the Third Reich and even before.  Slowly, certain groups of people were excluded from activities, including serving the church.  The rules were changing quickly within this nation that was seeking to recover from the first world war.  It was difficult to know where to stand.  Should one accept the new rules and work within the institutions to make changes, loudly and vocally oppose the changes, or quietly try to live by the old rules until caught?  Citizens, the church, and even the military tried many tactics to prevent these new ways in Germany, but the momentum of this engine could not be stopped.  Bit by bit, the influence of the Third Reich expanded beyond imagination – yet it was real.

Closer to home, it’s painful to read about the slow and intentional demolition of Native American nations.  The rules that these peoples had lived with for centuries were drastically changing, and by an outside group.  They were forced to move from their hunting grounds and herded into areas not able to sustain large groups of people.  Even when they were provided new rules in the forms of treaties, they did not last.  At some level, this eradication of the nations was a strategic game for United States’ government.  As those in power looked at the the needs of this new nation, it became necessary to destroy in order that the progress of American westward movement could proceed.

Looking at these two of many dark moments in our history as humans, I wonder what  dystopia we are abetting even now.  Maybe it’s not as slick and clear as that in Panem, but it’s there.  In what game are we playing?  For some it may be named church, for others politics, or education.  In these and other institutions, good and true ideas can often become narrow ideologies that drive us to control the outcomes we desire – no matter the cost.  In the midst of these movements it is easy to become lost and forget larger truths about humanity.  A novel such as The Hunger Games may help us through our own blindness and find ways to show that we are more than pieces in the games around us.

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Study Bibles

“Study Bibles are ruining community.”  I recently heard this statement at a conference on narrative and the gospel.   I may not like a lot of the study Bibles out there, but ruining community?  Really?

It used to be that people would read the Bible and seek to understand how it related to their lives through their interactions within a Christian community.  Pastors and other teachers would lay the foundations of how to understand God’s Word and friends and family would share stories of God working in their lives.  This was an interactive, living approach to God’s Word.  However, with study Bibles available for everyone from women to firefighters to environmentalists, an individual can select one that will speak just to her, get the answers, and then be on her way.  There is no need to engage with others in our faith walk.  The answers are neatly laid out for us.

This seems like an efficient way to learn.  It is also a lot safer for my ego.  If I’m not living up to the expectations I read in God’s Word, only I need to know about it.  It’s also much easier to twist the Bible to mean what I want if I’m not reading it with other people who are aware of my weaknesses.  But as we rely primarily on distant experts and stop sharing our stories with one another there is a loss of real community in our churches.  We become a group of individuals finding our own way to live out the faith and trying to convince others that we are doing well.

So what might be a response to this focus on individual faith – whether prompted by study Bibles or a multitude of other reasons?

  • Where do we find places to dig more deeply into our lives and connect with others?
  • Places where we can learn from one another as we see how God is working?
  • Places where it’s okay to tell about the mess in our lives, as well as the joys?
  • Places where questions and failings are welcome, and forgiveness is ready?
  • Places where we can be affirmed that we are living in God’s grace and encouraged to go out and live more fully into the story where we are called?

I find that such moments occur not within programmed structures or alone in study, but in the throes of life.  Sometimes it’s around meals or over coffee.  It can also happen in a writing group,  at a ball park, or among whispered voices in a chapel  These are places where we can open God’s Word as we are with others, connecting our stories with God’s.  Such building and living in community is definitely not efficient nor focused on knowing the right answer, but it is biblical.  It’s also quite freeing.

Maybe it’s time to promote a new type of study Bible.  The added “helps” in this Bible would change depending on the group involved because they would be developed out of Christians living in the midst of one another’s stories as they center their lives on God’s Living Word – Jesus Christ.

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Writing Time

Okay, I give in.  Time to write won’t just appear in the middle of a day providing uninterrupted moments to reflect and even edit.  I don’t see anyone ushering me into a quiet writing space equipped with desk, computer, paper and pens with the admonition and permission to write.  At least it hasn’t happened yet.  And, since the days I live through recently are often scheduled to the extreme – plans to meet up with people, events to shop for, copies to make, activities to prepare, and meetings to attend – I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

So, unintentionally, writing time has slipped from my week.  I include it on every day’s to-do list, but I often fulfill that with a quick 10 minute review of a page or fast write.  Nothing that takes too much time or pain.  Yet, if I want to write, I’ll have to regularly put myself through this practice, developing ideas, writing them down, editing, and getting them ready to share through blog posts, essays, and even a book.  I don’t think anyone will be offering to do the other work for me so that I will have time to write, either.  No, I’ll need to make some adjustments myself.

If I’m going to write, I need just to write and spend the time that it takes to do it well.  Do I continue my same old pattern, a couple of hours in the midst of the weekly rush, or begin a new one, an hour or two at the beginning of my days when my mind is a bit more clear?  It’s not difficult to see which of these options may work better.  But it’s difficult to follow through.  Waking at this time is not fun.  It’s so easy to return to the warmth of the covers and hide in the world of my dreams.  Still, on the first day that I tried this new practice, though an hour later than planned, I already felt better.  I wasn’t fighting to write, but making it a priority and even having fun.

Who knows what may come of this new practice?  I’ll definitely be more actively engaged in forming ideas and remembering, developing ideas to share with others, and creating content in the midst of a usually crazy schedule.  Even if this new practice merely helps me to be more present each day, the time will be well worth it.

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Are you a Pilgrim or Tourist this Holy Week?

Are you on a pilgrim path?

What’s the difference between a pilgrim and a tourist?   For a time I struggled with exploring this difference.  Innately I knew that when I was exploring the Canterbury Cathedral in England – visiting Thomas Becket’s murder site, walking up to the altar, and even lighting candles – I was a tourist.  However, only days later, when I stepped out of a bus onto the streets of Haworth, the home of Emily, Charlotte, and Anne Bronte, I knew that I was on a pilgrimage.  I had very different relationships to the stories that drew me to both places.  One was to gain knowledge and the other to encounter the place of a well-loved novel.  On a pilgrimage, a significant, personal connection to the place and its related stories motivates the travel.  In contrast, the intention of tourists to see the sites as other and outside of themselves often keeps the journey on a recreational level.

This difference has something to say about the way we travel, but also the way we live our faith.  In the book, The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today N. T. Wright speaks directly to this idea.  While leading a group through the Holy Land, he reflects on how the stories, theology and place merge to bring faith to life.  The essence of pilgrimage especially comes to the forefront upon entering Jerusalem.

As Jesus heads to Jerusalem – and we follow in his steps whether in Jerusalem walking the via dolorosa, in church as we participate in worship services, in our homes reading the Bible, or in the community serving others – this is not a simple journey to revel in the upcoming passover holiday and see some sites along the way.  It was and is a journey into the very midst of God.  Wright explores how the “The road to Jerusalem stands for the deeply inviting, yet deeply threatening, journey into the presence of the one true God, where all is known and all is unknown, where all is asked and all is promised” (64).  This pathway requires listening, sacrifice, time, questions, and trust on the part of the pilgrim as we enter the story.  It’s possible to stand afar and watch as a tourist, but if you’re truly on the journey, you’re in the midst of the mess interacting with the reality of the people and situations along the way.

As Jesus’ journey continues to the garden of Gethsemane the story becomes more intense.  Jesus does not skip over this place of profound suffering.  He could have gone to another location, kept walking out of Jerusalem, knowing he was pursued.  He could have changed his teaching to be more in line with what people wanted.  He could have even called down legions of angels to fight.  Instead he stayed, prayed, sweated.  He remained with God in the pain of suffering.  This is pilgrimage.  Meeting the difficulties of the place and story head on.  Can we do any less?

So what does this mean for our walk today.  Those of us who have not been to the Holy Land are still on a journey of following Jesus.  As we become more enmeshed in God’s story, we go to the places that are uncomfortable, ask the questions of which we don’t know the answers or know we won’t like the answers, and seek God deeply.  Following Jesus’ path from his final meal with the disciples, to the garden and eventually the cross and tomb, where do you find yourself?  Are you a pilgrim or a tourist on this Holy Week journey?

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Opening Up God’s Story

My earliest memories include hearing by mother reading me Bible stories before bed and learning the same stories in a Sunday school class.  However, I have to be honest.  Even though I remember stories from that beloved nighttime ritual and those hour-long classes on Sunday mornings, I can’t say they really left me with any life-changing ideas.  The stories were nice – Noah surviving, Samson winning, God caring, Jesus dying and rising.  I knew the stories, and believed they were true, but they did not really change me.  They were a bit too neatly wrapped with cute pictures and closed-answer responses.

Another thing too neatly packed for me is church doctrine.  Like Sunday school lessons, doctrine can flatten out God.  Yes, it may make it simple and easy for people to know exactly what they must believe.  It helps to weed out errors and can put a person at ease.  But what kind of ease is it?  Underneath I feel something is missing when someone says don’t worry, all you have to do is simply believe in the Gospel – Jesus came, died, and rose.  This may be true, along with much well-thought out doctrine. But to me, it also leaves out something – the soul of the Bible

When I look at the Bible I see more than a list of facts, a set of dogma which leaves me cold.  Or, a nicely formed children’s story.  I see a truth – not a tidy creed – but a narrative of people living in the midst of relationships, God’s interactions, and questions.  Yes, God is there in the midst, but not in a flat, uni-dimensional way – a cardboard form that can easily be torn and manipulated.  It is a dynamic, multi-dimensional truth of God that we can’t understand, but we can trust even without knowing everything about it.

Mystery exists in this narrative.  It’s easy to see God in the victories of the Bible – Daniel  being saved from the lions and Peter escaping from jail.  However, sometimes God is hidden behind questions – when we wonder why he hardened Pharoah’s heart or question why he wanted Israel to completely decimate some of their enemies.  God’s description cannot be neatly stated once you piece together the truths throughout the Bible.  It seems contradictory at times.  Yet, in these enigmas we see God at work in the midst of unexplained suffering – the kind we regularly encounter even today. This is a story I can hold onto.

Running the race, leaving the land, wrestling, following the cloud – the images used in the Bible to describe people’s interactions with God are active.  Even those related to the law – share them with your children, write them on your hears – don’t refer to only a mental affirmation.  In the Bible we don’t have so much an end point to reach, but a story to live.  Because God can not be contained in a cleaned-up children’s story or a neatly formed doctrine, we are not alone on this journey.  God does not remain safely on our shelves.  He ventures out with us – and eventually we may even turn and venture with him.

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