Friday, April 30, 2010

What Makes a Good Listener?

> See all posts tagged "Listening."

I was thinking about how to research and pass on ideas about the ministry of listening, and wondered if a good research strategy might be to find 100 people for whom listening is a significant part of their jobs and training, and find out what they have to teach the rest of us.

Could there what my friend Dave calls a "will/skill divide" here? Could be. I'd like to find out. And this might be a great project.

On the other hand - as little practiced as the art of listening may be - I am not sure there's that much to it... Did you see this week's news story about a study in which a third of married women and 18% of married men said their pets listen better than their spouses?

Read the AP story: Poll: A third say pets listen better than husbands.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Listening and Leaving a Legacy

> See all posts tagged "Listening."

Wednesday night I went downtown to hear David Isay speak. He's the founder of StoryCorps. If you're an NPR fan you may have heard their stories on the radio or read their first book, Listening as an Act of Love. Isn't that a great title?

Since their start in 2003 StoryCorps facilitators have recorded some 30,000 40-minute interviews, most actually led by someone who brings in a friend or relative to interview themselves, with a bit of coaching and encouragement from the facilitator. Nearly all are available in the Library of Congress. "We thought we'd have maybe 60-70% sign the releases to let us preserve and use their stories," he said, "There is no pressure, but more than 99% have agreed. Everyone wants to leave a legacy."

"And we've seen interviews done in dozens of languages. At one point the Cantonese community in New York heard about StoryCorps and for weeks we had days and days of interviews in Cantonese."

"People want to know that they matter and won't be forgotten, which is all we really want to know... Our facilitators - we have 100 of them who go out on the road - they are collecting the wisdom of humanity."

The new book that was just released is all stories from or about mothers. Questions or stories about one's mother or about being a mom have come up in just about every interview. Some of them are pretty gritty, or heartwrenching, or touching. He played us the audio versions of several of them. "Great, I'm crying already!" I heard a woman behind me say. "Why did I think it was OK to wear mascara?" said another. Most but not all of the facilitators are young people, and after a day of those kind of interviews, David said, their usual reaction was to lock up the recording booth and go call their moms.

He also said that StoryCorps wants to "start a revolution of listening." Hmmm. I wanted to know more about that. They are getting ready to introduce a StoryCorps program in schools to help equip kids with the StoryCorps techniques. (Would love to see that curriculum!) They do have some questions and suggestions on their website. Take a look if you are interested.

From Listening into Learning

Like many of the things I've been doing these last couple months, I went to this event expecting it would be a "teachable moment." I'm seeking those out... situations that will help me think through what's important, what's not, what's refreshing, what's stressful.

I'll tell you what's stressful: trying to find parking in downtown Denver! That and walking around there, as a woman, by yourself, at night. And finding your way back to the freeway to come home (it's a bit of a mess down there, all one-way streets and the like).

But here's another thing. David is right, that people want to know that they matter and won't be forgotten. And lacking children, grandchildren, etc. I have what feels to me like a foolish fear, that I don't matter and will be quickly forgotten. I know this is probably borrowing trouble to think this way, though; it's pretty unlikely that I'm going to die tomorrow. And if I did, well, how much am I going to still care about that? Nevertheless, if I can really find some partial resolution about that question now, and not still be bothered by it when I'm old, that would be good.

Anyway, I was poking at that place in my mind and looking through my copy of Listening as an Act of Love and realized that even if this is the end of the line for my family, leaving a legacy like David Isay's would not be a sad ending to my own life, at all. I wouldn't mind being forgotten if I had given my life to helping others listen, learn, remember, be remembered. It's such a good thing.

Could be like when I wrote Through Her Eyes, which is mostly about missionary moms. I wondered how I could possibly be the one to write that book, not being a long-term missionary, not being a mom at all. But I came into the project with a level of freedom and flexibility and a breadth of experience that I wouldn't have had if I were actually in their shoes. It really helped. I could go and sit in their kitchens and ask smart questions and document all that they had to say, and then go see other women and do the same thing, and get the whole mess organized and edited and published. I don't know if any one of them could have done it.

You know, though, what I'd like to pursue is not quite the same thing as what David Isay and his StoryCorps facilitators do, noble and fascinating as it may be. I wouldn't want to give myself to a project like that when there are opportunities that are like that but with a greater strategic focus. Listening is a start, and a good one, one we often miss.

But to our listening I want to see us all add learning. Responding to what we hear. Seeking to really understand those stories, and doing something about them. This is why I equip people to do ethnographies, not just stand-alone ethnographic interviews; why we sit for hours, not just 40 minutes; why we go back and interview people again and again and try to talk to their neighbors, relatives, and others throughout their cities. Let's learn from people, from whole communities, especially those who are part of misunderstood, oppressed, minority - and yes, unreached - cultures. Let's learn how to understand and love and serve and empower them, better. Yeah, I may love a good story and believe that every person's story matters, but more than that, I realize, I really want to change the world.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Are Women a People Group?

Social Stratification

One of the things I teach people when they go into a new culture is how to discover the community's social stratification: the "kinds" of people who live there. In whatever way local people slice it. Well, I guess your casual visitor or even a newcomer into a community will not usually have a deliberate strategy for pursuing the question - though maybe they ought to.

An anthropologist, though, or anyone who is hoping to set up an NGO or business or planting a church in a new place will usually recognize that they need to explore stratification. After all, you have to know who you are describing/reaching - or could. If certain people won't come, say, to your event, because =those= people are there, it helps to know; you'll adjust your goals, or change your approach.

You may need different strategies to find, connect with, or describe people depending on what group they belong to. Different history, behavior, values, and motivations keep people from pulling in the same direction, and we make a lot of extra trouble for ourselves if we fail to take the resulting obstacles seriously.

Bringing It Home

So, when we designed our online ethnography training course a year or so ago, I had to come up with some questions to help people get a handle on all that. After providing some teaching on the topic, I asked them to describe the most meaningful subgroups in their hometown, or maybe (since I'm teaching Christians) their church. When it's hometown, they often fall back on socio-economic factors, or maybe race/language. But what about with a smaller group, like a church? How does social stratification play out there?

Most everybody can tell me who the "people groups" (relatively speaking) in their high school were, but people can't always put their finger on what they might be in the church context.

All but the smallest churches have some kind of structured social stratification, usually by age, gender, marital status. We may have kids, and youth, and young marrieds, and young singles, and families, and old folks.

Some of the groupings are less formal, but recognized: the serious and the nominal. The tithers and the slackers (just kidding). We may have the people who like hymns and the people who want to sing the newer stuff, and the people who don't want to sing at all.

Last week I was talking to a missions pastor who, like me, is on sabbatical, and wondering how to develop integrating strategies to reach two big types of people she sees in her church: you might call them the activists and the contemplatives; the ones focused on reaching out in Jesus' name and the ones focused on walking with Jesus. (Why are those two separate? How long can we keep them separate and prosper?)

Sometimes the formal structures create "people groups," and sometimes they reflect them, but I wonder how often they do neither.

Women's Ministry

One of the most common approaches I see churches using in order to care for and develop the people in their congregations is to set up "women's groups" and "men's groups." Or at least women's groups. (Many churches have fewer numbers of men, at any rate men who are willing to be involved in their churches very much.)

It's not hard to figure out where the official boundaries of belonging are for a women's ministry. If you're a woman, it's for you; if you're not, it ain't. Yet... what fascinates me is how these things work out in practice. Some of the women who come to the women's group consider it a lifeline, exactly what they needed. Perhaps they are open enough that anything would work, but maybe these groups work for them because being a Christian woman - or a certain kind of Christian woman - is pretty central to their sense of who they are.

But for those who come, or who like these groups, there are just as many who don't. Huge numbers of the female people in the church look at the women's group and say, "That's not for me."

My theory, what I think happens, is that churches and Christian leaders try to find a common denominator for what it mean to be a Christian woman and come up with something that most of the actual women in a church look at and can't identify with. It's not what they need. I don't think we could just wipe the slate clean and find a new common denominator; I think for most women, there simply isn't one; there's no level of sameness there. There's a level of identification - as a man in a novel I read recently said, in all seriousness, 'All women is brothers.' But no level of sameness. So a women's group built around a culturally acceptable stereotype is as close as we can get.

Don't get me wrong, a lot of the stuff designed for Christian women works for a lot of Christian women. Just not most, and certainly not all. Most Christian women don't find the most meaningful parts of who they are reflected in and addressed by those ministries: "Christian women" is not a meaningful group to them.

By the way, I do think women may function as "a people group" in other societies, particular those that are more conservative and traditional. And certain women see themselves as a people group in any society. But many do not.


Is there anything we can do to respond to this in order to better serve the needs of the individuals/cultures the Christian women's stuff fails to recognize?

Adding another step of specificity may help. A single/married stratification often exists. Mothers are a tribe unto themselves, in many cases. Many is the woman whose "young moms/mums" group did, in fact, prove to be a lifeline. Our church is just launching a local expression of a national ministry called YoungLives, a spin-off from the youth ministry Young Life but just serving teenaged moms. I think it's a great idea. When Meg and I were young our mother joined a group called "mothers of multiples" (twins/triplets) that tapped into the homogeneous unit principle. (Oops, sorry to through a missiological term at you, but it fits, yes?)

I'd love to sit down and talk to some of the women in leadership of the "women's ministry" at my church. But I hesitate. After all, they are probably doing the best that they can and have a vested interest in the status quo; I'm afraid I might end up saying something hurtful or offensive. (And of course that's one of those things good Christian women are not supposed to do if I read that unwritten rulebook correctly!) On the other hand, these women have a good bit of cultural savvy too, and I think they wrestle with these same issues.

At any rate, we've got a women's brunch scheduled for this Saturday. The leaders are really hoping to attract and reach out to a more diverse crowd. Here's a good sign: 90 women (from our church of 300 or so people) have signed up. That's about twice as many as attend the two midweek women's groups at church. I've agreed to bring a fruit salad (yummy, but not the kind of thing that makes an appearance at the men's breakfast, perhaps!). I'll also be a "table hostess" to facilitate interaction. Am curious to see how it will all unfold.

Sameness v. Diversity

In the end, I'm not sure I want to be an active part of the solution. While I can cross the invisible barriers pretty easily - getting young moms, grandmothers, and others to talk to me as someone who "gets" them - I don't want to just hang out with women. I would miss men too much; I do better in a diverse group than one that seems (to me) to have a false unity.

What about you? Do you find your gender defining enough to require gender-specific grouping helpful or necessary? And if so, does what you find "work"? Why or why not?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Culture Savvy

You've probably heard about the idea of "EQ," emotional intelligence, but do you know about "CQ," cultural intelligence? It's basically the ability to read, interpret, and adapt to the behavior and expectations of people in a different culture.

A 2004 article in Harvard Business Review put it this way:
Cultural intelligence is related to emotional intelligence, but it picks up where emotional intelligence leaves off. A person with high emotional intelligence grasps what makes us human and at the same time what makes each of us different from one another. A person with high cultural intelligence can somehow tease out of a person’s or group’s behavior those features that would be true of all people and all groups, those peculiar to this person or this group, and those that are neither universal nor idiosyncratic. (P. Christopher Earley and Elaine Mosakowski, "Cultural Intelligence," Harvard Business Review, October 2004)
Some people are clearly gifted in this kind of thing, but anyone can grow in it. Maybe it's like language learning. Most people can become fluent but some have to really work at it. And people may struggle with different aspects and find different strategies help them overcome the hurdles.

As I listened to a presentation on this recently, I thought of some of the things I'd experienced overseas, both personally and in watching others. The HBR article breaks it down into several helpful components. Evaluate yourself on this simple scale and see if it helps. It probably won't work if your cross-cultural interactions have been few or shallow, but give it a try. Like many self-evaluation tools it will do more to pinpoint your relative strengths and weaknesses than to show, objectively, how competent you are.

Rate the extent you agree with each statement (1= strongly disagree; 2=disagree; 3=neutral; 4=agree; 5=strongly agree)

___ Before I interact with people from a new culture, I ask myself what I hope to achieve.
___ If I encounter something unexpected while working in a new culture, I use this experience to figure out new ways to approach other cultures in the future.
___ I plan how I am going to relate to the people from a different culture before I meet them.
___ When I come into a new cultural situation I can immediately sense whether something is going well or something is wrong.

Got it? Now, add up the numbers and divide by 4. That's your "cognitive CQ." Now try this one...

___ It's easy for me to change my body language (for example, eye contact or posture) to suit people from a different culture.
___ I can alter my expression when a cultural encounter requires it.
___ I modify my speech style (for example, accent or tone) to suit people from a different culture.
___ I easily change the way I act when a cross-cultural situation seems to require it.

Again, add up the number and divide by 4. That's your "physical CQ." Finally...

___ I have confidence that I can deal well with people from a different culture.
___ I am certain that I can befriend people whose cultural backgrounds are different from mine.
___ I can adapt to the lifestyle of a different culture with relative ease.
___ I am confident that I can deal will with a cultural situation that's unfamiliar.

Divided by four, that's your "emotional/motivational CQ."
"Generally, an average of less than 3 would indicate an area calling for improvement,
while an average of greater than 4.5 reflects a true CQ strength."
So, which area is your strongest? Your weakest? What things about cross-cultural situations scare and maybe scar you, and what ones are kind of fun?

I think what I'm most attuned to is the physical area: I count on using those skills to connect with people, to endear them to me, to get them to open up to me. I envied a teammate in Morocco who, wherever we went, skipped language learning but put on a "Mexican accent" that somehow made his English easier for everyone to understand; I learned how to dress, walk, and carry myself to avoid harassment in India; I strove to practice the "shirin gapliklar" (sweet talk) and graceful movements of Uzbek women; I now automatically pronounce my own name differently when I speak to people for whom English is a second language; and I've watched with admiration as S. (the person I've traveled with the most) has found ways to show people, everywhere she serves, that she really loves and cares about them. (For example, she can sit and drink tea with someone aaaaaalllll daaaaayyyy loooooonnnggg!)

But I've also passed judgment on teammates who seemed incompetent or oblivious to the importance of these things, without doing all that much to help them. I decided they were just not very smart, or at least that they lacked self-awareness. Slowly, along the way, I've been able to put the CQ skills into words and actually teach people how to do these things better. But I'd like to grow in that as well, and help people get past the things that hold them back or cause frustration as they go into new situations.

The people I've admired and valued the most on my teams, the ones who blow me away with how good they are at this stuff? Those who had the courage, the confidence - the emotional CQ I have to work so hard to muster up - to seek out and cultivate cross-cultural friendships and overcome misunderstandings instead of chickening out as the rest of us are wont to do.

What about you? How's your CQ? What about other people you know - have you ever seen a CQ "genius" at work? Let me know if this is any help for you.

I'm hoping to study the topic more and will probably get back in touch with the man who pointed out the Harvard article. Again, the source is P. Christopher Earley and Elaine Mosakowski, "Cultural Intelligence," Harvard Business Review, October 2004, so cite that and not me if you do anything with this.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Leaving the World Behind

A couple months ago I read this article in CT which relates to some of the things I've been writing about in my desire for a bit more serenity...A Lutheran pastor went to visit the Amish to explore the appeal of a plainer life:
"Being a Lutheran can be a cross, especially in trying times. Why insist on believers having citizenship in two distinct kingdoms—earth and heaven—when one of them, the world around us, is so dysfunctional? So I took a three-day leave of absence to join an Amish congregation whose bishop, Vernon Raber, told me, "We are citizens of one kingdom only, the kingdom of Jesus Christ!" I thought they were an excellent group to escape to, good Christians singing and praying in German, my mother tongue, and avoiding the vulgarities of politics. I liked it."
>> Article continued in Christianity Today.

What do you think, you who like me walk a media-rich, multi-tasking, ever-outward-reaching way. Do you sometimes long to get away from the fragmentation and ambiguity of modern life? Should we go spend some time with the Amish?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Products of a Celebrity Culture

Continuing the conversation from yesterday...

“I once saw a documentary about tribal people living in the Papua New Guinean highlands. They had no written component to their language, yet by heart they could recite up to twenty-five thousand relatives, both living and dead. This seemed amazing to me. But then I thought that, while I couldn’t list that many relatives, I almost definitely could remember twenty-five thousand advertising jingles or the basic plots of thousands of television shows and movies. Or I could at least recognize the faces, if not the names, of thousands of movie stars, musicians, celebrities, and pro athletes. Indeed, people today compare their successes, looks, and situations with those of movie stars, who, because of their sheer exposure, seem like close friends.” (The Vertical Self, by Mark Sayers. Nashville, TN: 2010. p. 46)

Today more than ever, claims author Mark Sayers, advertising, movies, celebrities, and pop culture provide the framework for how we should define and understand ourselves and how we should behave. We cast ourselves in, and find ourselves treating the world as an audience whose function is to affirm the public selves we have created and give us a sense that we are worthwhile as human beings.

With the help of social media, you really can live life as if it's a movie starring you. And there's a lot pressure to do that.

Even as we strive to be like the celebrities we follow – sexy, cool, glamorous – something in us still strives for transcendence, for something eternal. Sayers says it’s the influence of Christianity; so much of what we still value as a culture has been very much shaped by the Judeo-Christian world that we can’t help hoping there’s something more than the small story all about me.


I found Sayers' chapter on the role of “sexiness” in modern Western culture rather helpful. Having become a Christian partly in rebellion against the lawlessness around me, early on I developed somewhat Puritan ideas about sex. I'm not sure how much I am willing to flex on those in terms of my own behavior, but I think it would be helpful for me to consider that there may be another way of looking at these things, so as to see it from another's point of view and respond to it with less angst.

Here's where I'm coming from. When I see girls showing a lot of skin and shape, flaunting their cleavage, etc. it just makes me mad. (Could be because I'm not so endowed?) But for a woman to "dress sexy" has always seemed tantamount to asking the men around her to picture themselves having sex with her. Which is a pretty stupid, wrong, and dangerous thing to do if she’s not willing or able to oblige that desire. Not that women who do this are "responsible" for the way others react, but they ought to realize they're playing with fire. I tend to think that to the extent you can control what you project, you should only “be sexy” with someone you actually could have sex with. And my line of work has only increased my conservatism about this whole modesty thing.

Yet that’s not how most people think about it anymore; these days almost anything can be described as “sexy.” It’s no longer about being alluring and desirable for having sex, says Sayers; when people describe something as sexy, they mean that it has value and appeal, that it's worthwhile. Trying to look sexy, for many people, has come to be about valuing yourself, showing yourself to be of worth, and asking other people to affirm that (not necessarily to have sex with you). Girls especially are encouraged to harness their sexuality as power and use it to get ahead. That doesn't mean they're out having sex, or expect to be. Though they may.

“Often this very public display of sexual power is completely disconnected from one’s personal sex life. What is important is not what is going on in someone’s real life but the show she is putting on for the audience of her peers.” (p. 62)

OK, I get that. I don't buy it, I still think there are better options, but this helps me understand.


In some ways cool is the male equivalent of sexy, though women may be described as cool and men may be described as sexy, too. I think I feel more pressure to be cool than to be sexy. But it's a pretty slippery idea.

“Never before has a word been so often used but so hard to define.” (p. 66)

The idea of being cool originally comes from the warrior cultures of West Africa. A Yoruba warrior would be described as cool if he was calm and controlled, if he knew who he was and saw the world as it really was. He did not have to strive; he was not insecure. He had peace. So he could solve problems, carry himself with dignity, and be generous to others. He was cool.

Something got lost as this concept was translated from Africa into America:

“To be cool was to live on the edge of culture – to reject it by living in its shadows, avoiding convention and conformity … As cool moved beyond those who understood its original ethos, it began to change. No longer was it simply a tool of dignity and survival; it became a way of defining yourself as an adolescent growing up in the midst of modern social alienation. … In a culture in which media and marketing had made personal image paramount, cool was a way of impressing others.” (pp. 70-71)

Cool became a social mask, a cover up for a lack of character, a performance – the opposite of the authenticity and integrity, really.

“This was what I began to call the paradox of cool… That is, the more you try to be cool, the less cool you will be.” (p. 76)

What Do We Really Want?

Cool seems more "redeemable" than sexy, at least in its original sense:

“Deep down we desire to connect and be ourselves with people who are whole… Survey after survey tells us that confidence is the most attractive quality we find in other people. We value a sense of knowing one’s self and a sense of mystery that hints at both tranquility and strength. Fascinatingly, these are the same qualities we attempt to describe when we use the world cool, but we find ourselves back at the original African meaning of cool: someone who is strong, calm, and at peace; someone who “knows”; someone who is filled with grace and generosity.” (p. 78)

That's enough for now. If you want to read Sayers' suggestions for reconnecting to the "vertical self" (embracing holiness), you'll have to look elsewhere and/or get the book.

Incidentally, another recent book (this one from jazz historian Ted Gioia) makes the case that the age of trying to be cool is over, and that earnestness and authenticity are back in fashion (sic). It's called The Birth (and Death) of Cool.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

You Can Be Anything, But Is that What You Really Want?

OK. Here it is, a response to The Vertical Self, which I mentioned in my post on questioning. I would have prepared something shorter but didn't have time :-)

The Vertical Self: How Biblical Faith Can Help Us Discover Who We Are in an Age of Self Obsession, by Mark Sayers. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010.

After spending years in conversation about church and culture – and years in youth ministry – Australian Christian leader Mark Sayers came to realize that the conversation about what kind of churches would reach and transform communities was missing a key point:

“All our attempts to reshape the Church in the West will at best be sabotaged and at worst fail because there is a huge unnamed problem with people inside the Church…The people inside churches were suffering from an identity crisis. They seemed filled with insecurity about who they were and what difference their faith made in their lives. Jesus’ mandate to go out and preach the gospel in Mark 16:15 seemed to have been replaced by the maxim to ‘go into the world and convince people that you are not a Christian dork.’

“I would preach at megachurches in the suburbs, led by wonderful leaders whose hearts burned to see their community come to know Christ, yet who would tell me that they often worried that the baby boomers in their congregations were more concerned about what the brand of the SUV they drove said about them than about sharing Christ with their neighbors.” (p. xviii)

Somewhere along the way the concept of a soul – vertically defined – has given way to the concept of a self: basically the soul without God, without transcendence. Where we have little concern about our souls, we’re obsessed with our selves, trying to be happy, successful, fulfilled and constantly looking around to see how we measure up.

Sayers doesn’t come down hard on this as a heresy or travesty, so don’t picture some old preacher shoutin’. He’s sympathetic. But he does make a good case for how that has left us with a problem that people didn’t have before, and explains our higher level of self-absorption: We’re trying to define our lives horizontally.

In spite of the title, most of the book is about this idea of a horizontal self. It does propose alternatives and solutions, but its strength is in describing the cultural situation in which we find ourselves and what it's doing to us.

How Did This Happen?

“For the last one hundred years, we have been slowly rejecting the social institutions of our forebears. The dream was for the individual to be truly free from constraining cultural expectations. And for better or for worse, we got what we hoped for: today individualism reigns. We no longer look to social institutions and community to find our sense of self; rather, we seek to ‘be free,’ to ‘express ourselves,’ and to ‘be happy with ourselves.’ But how do we achieve these things? We have unprecedented personal freedom, but our freedom is accompanied by a haunting sense of being lost.” (p. 6)

For centuries, he says, Christians resonated with the story of Pilgrim’s Progress, which is built on the premise that all are created in the image of God, struggling to connect with God and dealing with the burden of sin. This was the cornerstone of human identity, and the Judeo-Christian worldview was largely built upon it. Or consider the legacy of the Greek culture, emphasizing the virtues:

“The giant of Greek philosophy, Socrates, believed that if humans came to understand what was good, they would act in a way that was good, and therefore their lives would be happy.” (pp. 8-9)

In both cases, we have human beings defining themselves in vertical terms: by how they connected to and in some sense measured up to transcendent ideals and a greater good.

Although many of our tools for evangelism and discipleship were created by and for people who lived in that Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman world, typical Westerners today find themselves “free from all that.” So the messages do not resonate, at least not very well. We just aren’t the same people. Or at any rate we don’t see ourselves through the same lenses.

“A mere nine years after John Bunyan had published Pilgrim’s Progress, the citizens of Athens found themselves under attack by the navy of Venice. To protect themselves from harm, they hid in their temple, the Parthenon. The temple represented the heights of Greek culture and thought. When Greece converted to Christianity, the temple had been turned into Athens’ cathedral. The citizens of Athens thought the Parthenon was a good hiding place because they believe the Venetian invaders would never fire upon this symbol of both Christian piety and the heights of Greek thought. They were wrong. A mortar shell was fired at the temple, and the building because the ruins that we see on tourist postcards today.

“Although no one realized it at the time, it was deeply symbolic moment. For centuries Western culture had looked backward, but now a new period in history had begun. Humans began to look forward; we had entered the modern age.” (p. 11. A footnote cites Middleton and Walsh’s 1995 book, Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be, p. 56.)

At this point, says Sayers, people began to turn away from spiritual and moral sources to find their sense of self, looking to science, the material world, human potential, etc. Add in the increasing anonymity (and normlessness) of urbanization, the elevation of productivity over character reinforced by the industrial revolution, and a backlash promoting individualism, and the deconstruction of what Sayers calls “the vertical self” was complete.

The Horizontal Self

The reason why modern Westerners have this “new” identity problem is that it appears to be up to us, looking to the world around us, to figure out who we are. It’s not a given anymore. Nor are the answers obvious, or unchanging:

“In a secular culture drenched in a worldview of suspicion, the individual cannot look higher than the self with any degree of certainty…with God playing no real authoritative role in informing identity, people look to others as the ultimate judge. Whereas the vertical self looks to heaven for favor and approval, the horizontal self looks to the world for approval and acceptance. For people who hold a horizontal sense of self, the creation and cultivation of a public image are paramount.” (p. 17)

“Reinvention is not just encouraged in our culture; it is demanded. We are told that to not reinvent ourselves is to not stay relevant. I spoke to a group of college students recently, and they said that the biggest pressure they have in their lives is to ‘keep up’ – keep up with the right look, the right music, and the right technologies.” (p. 23)

This issue of keeping up was also discussed in another book I wrote about lately, Richard Swenson's The Overload Syndrome. I think this is why it makes me mad if my friends want to take me shopping and make me over, or urge me to spend money on the latest tech tools. I don’t buy into being “fashionable,” and resent the implication that there’s something wrong with the way things were, say, last year. I don’t care what’s hot and what’s not. Yet I’m still a little insecure about it: If I wear my hair pretty much as I did in the 80s, are people going to laugh at me? If I don’t care what’s on TV or rush to see the latest movie, am I somehow “out of it”?

One result of “the horizontal self,” not surprisingly, is a form of multiphrenia: a fragmentation of the personality. We become adept at holding together divergent beliefs and personalities depending on the situation in which we find ourselves in a sometimes desperate attempt to feel good about ourselves: we try to behave like others, to be “with it.” Lacking a core sense of identity, we may put a tremendous amount of energy into defining and marketing ourselves:

“Just think of the millions of hours people across the world now spend cultivating their online identities on site such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, tweaking the images and identifies they wish to broadcast to the world. Never before has humanity spent such an inordinate amount of time making ourselves look good. Today we do not even blink at such narcissism; it has become a linchpin of youth culture. Doing such a thing even ten years ago would have meant being shunned or at least thought of as arrogant. ... In the media-drenched landscape in which we live, vanity is no longer a sin; it is a virtue.” (p. 34)

Tomorrow: Products of a Celebrity Culture

Note: I'm writing about this book not just because I found it helpful, but also because I got a free copy of it through Thomas Nelson's book blogging program. So did a lot of other people. You'll find reviews all over the place.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sabbatical and Improvisation


There's nothing like sipping a soothing cup of Nescafe 3 in 1 with an English-speaking friend while traveling across the continents... is there?

Yet I have to say the best coffee I've ever had is right here in Denver at Kaladi's, a coffee shop close to downtown. I never seem to go there anymore. So when I was thinking about items to add to my menu of tasty ideas for things to do on sabbatical, I added "go to Kaladi's!"


I'm not much of a shopper, but am not immune to the mild stimulation of browsing in shops, especially small, independent ones where you don't know what you'll find - so that's on my menu of ideas too.

When I lived in Central Asia I remember a secret feeling of delight in strolling slowly past the market near my house known, in Russian, as the "miracle bazaar." You could get anything there - maybe.

In Colorado the equivalent would be hitting the garage sales on a Friday morning. With office hours and staff meetings I've never been able to do it, but now I can. So maybe some morning I will.


When people ask me about what plans I have while I'm on sabbatical, I've had a hard time putting such things into words. I think they expect me to share something more impressive than that I'm two-thirds of the way through The Three Musketeers.

But the fact is, this season, I don't want to make big plans.

I want to do small things.

And I want to make them up as I go.

This is a long way of apologizing for not posting my response to the book The Vertical Self yet, something I said I would do. I believe I'll still get to it. It got pushed back a bit. Even though I'm not busy. And haven't gone to Kaladi's or hit the garage sales. Other things have come up. For example, Friday morning I babysat for a friend, then joined another for a trip to the Western Slope to hook up with a couple families we know there, both of which are on the path to getting themselves overseas.

Life can't always be lived improvisationally, but giving myself permission to live this way, now, has certainly reduced my stress levels.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

April 15 newsletter – Life in the Slow Lane

Note: This post was sent out by email in April but not added to this site until August. See also: February Newsletter - Lucy and the Magician's Book

This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says: In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength. – Isaiah 30:15

Dear friends,

Perhaps you’re not interested in a newsletter that’s more personal essay than ministry report, but maybe you are. I’m a third of the way through my sabbatical and thought it would be good to “check in.”

“Our hope for you, what we’d say would make it an effective sabbatical, is that you would hear from God. That you would hear from God about your past, your present, and your future.” That’s what the organizers of the workshop I attended back in February said to all of us who came. I took their words to heart.

Clearly, the “future” bit would be best saved for the end; the “past” bit sounded intimidating, not where I wanted to start. But these two months, the portion of the sabbatical focused on rest, have been so helpful in teaching me to recognize and adapt to the rhythms of my life in the present. Some people find it pretty easy to live one day at a time. But for me, I knew learning how to rest would take experimenting, some practice.

Life in the Slow Lane

Here are a couple of things that have helped. Maybe they would work for you, too.

Menus: I stopped making to-do lists; instead I bought a set of Crayola markers and a big tablet of construction paper and started making colorful “menus” of healthy and delicious-sounding ideas, each of which might be a good choice for any given day. I’ve let myself off the hook on obligations. I’ve pursued mild adventures like learning to bake my own bread, going to the movies, and reading books I’d not gotten around to before.

Margins: I’ve paid attention to what it felt like to have big margins in my life, to be relaxed instead of rushed or under pressure. I like that feeling. I’ve also tried – though this has been a bigger challenge – to honestly examine and pray about feelings of guilt, shame, or pain when they came up rather than putting up walls to keep them away until “I have time to deal with them.”

Boredom? Two words: embrace it. Well, I don’t like being bored or lonely, but am willing to accept some level of silence and solitude if that’s part of the cost (blessing?) of dodging the bullet of busyness. Not being able to say, “I’m keeping busy!” sounds un-American, I know, but I’m getting used to it. I’m cultivating my taste for a quiet, content life. Still a ways to go. But if all this sabbatical accomplishes is to teach me what it feels like to live one day at a time, it will have been a great gift.


Some of the things I’ve done might not have been on someone else’s list of “things OK to do on the Sabbath,” but everybody’s different. I served on a committee helping several hundred members of my church complete a plan to read through the Bible in 90 days (see In March alone we read from Jeremiah through Revelation! But it was great, and without all the pressures of ordinary life I was able to keep up with it and enjoy it immensely. I feel like I got to know God better, saw his passion in the message of the prophets, his majesty in the poetry and psalms, his mercy in the gospels, his guidance in the epistles, his plan unfolding throughout. Great stuff.

I’ve also been helping pull together and edit a devotional book for PIONEERS. It includes reflective writings from PIONEERS staff around the world and will be distributed at an upcoming international leadership event. Working on this has helped me feel connected to a great family of people who feel the same pressures I do and more and are learning to trust God in their own lives and the unlikely things they are attempting in their ministries.

Meanwhile, I’m happy to say the world is carrying on just fine without my efforts. Missions Catalyst e- Magazine continues to roll along and is doing well. The ethnography team I trained has been to North India and back and lived to tell the tale. They are working on some follow-up projects I hope to share with you later. I expect to re-engage with both the ezine and ethnography projects in August or September.

Facing the Grief of the Past

Back when February roared in with two 60-hour work weeks, I knew that the deceleration into sabbatical mode would probably be awkward and painful. And so it was. Staying in my own home was much easier to arrange and less risky than taking a sabbatical on the other side of the planet as I did eight years ago, but it’s been tough to establish boundaries. I’m still copied on a lot of emails, for example. Also, my neighborhood seems haunted by the absence of people I loved who moved away years ago. Do I need to get away? I wasn’t planning to travel and don’t have money put aside for it. But maybe the journey will be more metaphorical. I’ve started paying attention to the things that upset me and look for the patterns and meanings behind them.

Moving out of the office was tough. Especially sorting and packing up my research and networking stuff, the treasures and debris from so many years of ministry. What files should I keep because I may use them again? What things should be tossed out or laid to rest? Over the years, little by little, I had taken on a ministry role a friend labeled “keeper of the tribal lore.” With the tribe scattered and most of them assimilated into new communities I feel like a grieving widow, an abandoned child, or at least like a librarian or professor whose school is being shut down for lack of interest. I fear that much of what I’ve done may no longer be useful. But I still value and care about this stuff. Grief continues to wash over me in waves.

I realize part of why I’m hesitant to take on new challenges and relationships is that I’m afraid of accumulating more disappointments. Yet pain avoidance is no foundation for a life either. So, in addition to learning what it feels like to stop and rest, I think I need to learn what it feels like to “feel” and accept disappointment without giving up.

Presumably there’s something beyond grief, something that comes along after. What would it take to renew my hope and faith? You know, so I could “soar on wings like eagles, run and not grow weary, walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)?

Seems like you can’t just decide to be strong and courageous; you have to deal with the obstacles and hindrances that hold you back. The counselor-types I know seem to agree: when we react to something with strong emotions that we may not be able to control or explain, we’re responding from some pattern rooted far in the past. Is there something deep that God wants to resolve or heal? Is there something that will help me see these last few years through new eyes and face the future with renewed courage? If the first two months were about learning to live in the present, and the last two will help take me into the future, I suspect the middle section will be about revisiting the past.

Will You Pray?

I suppose I’m taking a risk by writing about “my problem,” instead of waiting until I can write a more satisfying piece about “my problem and how I solved it.” But I’d rather do the former and invite you to be part of the solution through prayer, so we can rejoice together when we see what God does, right? Huge thanks. And I’d appreciate it if you’d let me know if any of this strikes a chord with you or helps you in your own journey.

Recommended Reading

Several authors I’ve found helpful on what we might call Sabbath-keeping are Richard Swenson and Mark Buchanan; I’m hoping to track down some books by Marva Dawn and Wayne Muller as well. If you’d like to explore these topics for yourself, I’d suggest Buchanan’s The Rest of God as a good place to start. You might also check out



Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Life, Change, and Stress

The Overload Syndrome: Learning to Live within Your Limits, by Richard Swenson

No wonder that so many people are stressed out so much of the time, says Swenson: We are living lives that are overloaded. More and more of us live as if we have 10 percent more time, money, and energy than we really have. Every human being has limits, but we tend to deny them – and experience fairly predictable results.

Where does this push to do more, to achieve more, to be in control of more actually come from? It seems to be the inevitable fruit of the religion of progress. We think that more and more should be accomplished with greater and greater efficiency. And while, amazingly, this continues to work (somewhat), the cost is high. We find ourselves facing a complexity of life that is beyond our capacity to absorb and adapt to. We have tremendously high expectations for our lives. We are saturated with media, information, and choices. We turn to work, spending, and busyness to accomplish things they just can’t deliver.

“There are only so many details that can be comfortably managed in anybody’s life. Once this number has been exceeded, one of two things happens: disorganization or frustration. … Every year we have more products, more information, more technology, more activities, more choices, more change, more traffic, more commitments, more work. In short, more of everything. Faster." (p. 43)

Swenson’s comments about change and choice, knowledge and information really hit home with me:

“William Shakespeare was born in 1564. When he died in 1616, the world around him was not very different from the world he was born into. .. and so it has been from generation to generation, for century upon century. …there has been more change from 1900 to present than in all of recorded history prior to 1900. And there is no deceleration in sight.” (p 73)

“If in 1950 we had ten activities to chose from, today – compliments of progress – we have a thousand.” (p. 65)

If, as Swenson (a medical doctor) claims, stress is basically “an internal physiologic adaptation to any change in our environment,” living a low(er?)-stress life in today’s world is going to take some serious counter-cultural living. Things like deciding not to buy any new clothes, to cancel most of one’s media subscriptions, or to stay in the same house or job even if something "better" is available. Downward mobility. Ruthlessly pruning activities; deciding to give up hurry.

Frequent moves, new jobs, changing fashions, new opportunities, new products and services and programs – constant upgrades – all sound great, but each one means making changes. And we only have so much capacity for change.

Today’s tidal wave of knowledge and information is also overwhelming. This is what I've been dealing with lately, having pulled back from my job as a gatherer and disseminator of information. Even though I love it. I really needed this break.

I suppose we could just be grateful to have so much at our fingertips, but it is so hard to unplug, or to live with mystery or ignorance when so much is out there for the knowing. I don't know about you, but I feel pressure to have opinions about so many things, to make educated decisions about ever-changing and increasingly complex issues, and to simply “keep up” with the world. Yet this pursuit frequently leads to frustration.

“Francis Bacon, a contemporary of Shakespeare, is regarded by historians as the last person to know everything in the world. Since then, each of us learns a progressively smaller percentage of all the information that exists…. Furthermore, there is no reason to suspect that the situation will suddenly reverse, giving us a chance to catch up.” (p. 136)

Unplugging is increasingly difficult. Even when not tempted, internally, I feel pressured, externally. Feel as if I must defend my position on this. To truly pull away seems irresponsible or at least anti-social. There must be something wrong with you if you don’t have an iPhone, or if you aren’t on Facebook, or your computer or camera or MP3 player is a couple years old and less fashionable and can’t do what someone else’s can. Swenson was writing in 1998, but even then he marveled at the trouble and expense he saw people making in order to give away their precious privacy, silence, and solitude, primarily through our commitment to the latest communication technologies.

“We have no excuse left for not being on-call for the universe.” (p. 45)

No wonder we are – I am – so often overwhelmed. Who can keep up?

My only real criticism of Swenson’s book is that, ironically enough, it is written in an up-to-the-minute style – chock full of statistics and “current” examples that probably worked great for the presentations he was giving at the time but seem quite dated now more than a decade later. If you're looking for something more recent that to quote/reference/recommend, you might try Swenson's just released In Search of Balance: Keys to a Stable Life. I've got a hold on it at the library. My guess is it would cover some similar ground, with more recent data. Both are from NavPress and are "Christian" books though the author teaches in secular settings as well.

Monday, April 12, 2010


As we try to make sense of ourselves and our world it’s those “why?” questions that seem most compelling, most crucial. Maybe, if we could get answers to those, those answers would be key to it all. Yet I’m coming to believe that with complicated systems, we can’t answer those “why” questions satisfactorily. Or at least that accuracy and clarity are usually inversely proportional.

In other words, if someone gives you a short, simple, astounding answer that seems to explain everything, they’re probably missing the mark. (The charms of Twitter, the beauty of brevity, etc. notwithstanding.)

Still I keep asking, and the answers, if not complete, at least shed some light on the issues raised by the questions. One of my big questions is, “why haven’t I figured out how to manage my life by now?”

Oh, it’s not a total mess, but as I’ve slowed down and used the time and space on my hands to take a closer look at how I live and how I feel about it, I’m not too impressed with myself – and I wonder how I got this way. I’ve come to realize some of the reasons that the coping strategies that once (sort of) worked no longer do: (1) I’m a different person than I used to be and in a different place in life, and (2) the world continues to change rapidly and throw new challenges at us, challenges my old strategies are not sufficient to overcome.

Two books that have been helpful in reframing my questions and providing some partial answers. “The Overload Syndrome: Learning to Live within Your Limits,” by Richard Swenson is helping me understand why people like me live the way we do, and “The Vertical Self: How Biblical Faith Can Help Us Discover Who We are In an Age of Self Obsession,” by Mark Sayers, is helping me understand why we think about ourselves the way we do. Both offer some helpful prescriptions, alternatives, solutions. But at this point I think what’s most helpful is just seeing someone put these struggles into words and show me I’m not alone.

The next couple of blog posts will explore what these two books have to say.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Detour - time to write a paper

Holding back from blogging because I've got some other writing to do. I'm scheduled to present a "paper" at a meeting April 23.

Look at this paragraph sitting waaaaay too close to the top of the promotional flier:
Marti Smith is a Denver-based mission mobilizer for the mission agency Pioneers. She has trained dozens of short-term teams sent to unreached communities around the world to do ethnographic interviewing, asking open-ended, descriptive questions that invite people to teach them to see the world from their point of view. She will be presenting on the topic, "Listening as a Ministry: Empower Others by Listening Before Speaking."
Although I've taught what I see as my core material any number of times, I haven't prepared this particular presentation. Not yet.

If it were really just a presentation, no problem.

But the idea, here, is to "present a paper." If you move in academic circles very much that may seem to make sense, to be natural. But it's not my usual approach to studying and communicating things... "writing a paper" seems a stilted, unnecessary thing, compared to the act of preparing a presentation, or writing something more like a feature article.

If it sounds like I have an anti-academic bias.... well, yeah. But mostly I just feel insecure because I never went back to school. That I don't know what I'm doing, maybe.

I think I have it in me to write this paper. But I recently learned that in order to be considered for the national conference in September, the papers are due earlier: April 15. And today is - well, close, eh?

I'm planning to build it around some things I've posted here and taught in various situations over the last couple years and add in some examples from recent ethnography team reports. It's not smack-dab in the middle of this year's theme, but I think I can make it fit. The trick will to be able to make this stuff look academically credible instead of merely practical.
"We are looking for papers that (1) provide in‐depth analysis and reflection on significant diversity issues facing evangelical missionaries and that (2) document ways that evangelical missionaries are or are not attending to and coping with the challenges of diversity in mission work today."
This is a good year for me, because they're more interested in field research than book research:
"Case studies are welcome, as are research‐ and survey‐based papers. Especially desirable are studies that build upon field‐based research or in‐field missionary experience. Presenters are urged to grapple with actual issues faced by missionaries in the field and by mission agencies in carrying out their role."
The instructions also add:
"Papers should run 4,500 to 7,000 words in length, including endnotes or reference list. They should be formatted in accord with the Chicago Manual of Style. The papers need to interact with current relevant literature. Documentation needs to be complete, utilizing either endnotes or CMS’s author‐date style, whichever fits best with the paper’s subject matter."
Also, between lovely sabbatical activities like going for walks, reading novels, and trying out new recipes, I'm working on another writing/editing project - the devotional I mentioned earlier. It's coming along. Currently standing at 28,000 words. To put that in perspective, the 30-day prayer guides we've published over the years run about 10,000 words, the last ethnographic report I worked on came out at 19,000 words, and Through Her Eyes was about 70,000 words.

So, length-wise, writing a paper next week that's about 5000 words seems do-able. But writing one that's good enough to be presented at the annual conference and published, afterward, is a bit of a stretch, isn't it? So here's my plan:

1. Prepare for the April 23 presentation much as I would for giving a lecture, basing it on ones I've already given. I love this stuff, I know it works, and I've seen the lights come on in people's eyes when I present it. Even if it's not up to snuff to make it in an academic journal/volume, presenting it to an academic-minded audience should help me see ways it can be improved.

2. If there's time, I will take my verbatim-style lecture notes and start cleaning them up, formalizing the language a bit, adding in those pesky footnotes and the "interaction with the current relevant literature" that 90% of my [usual] audiences would only find stuffy but that I have to admit, would help. If there isn't time, or this doesn't happen before April 15, fine; nobody's making me submit this to the national committee. Perhaps someone else will be able to publish it down the road.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Those Who Will Not Stop

> See all posts labeled sabbatical.

In the introduction to The Rest of God: Restoring your Soul by Restoring Sabbath, Mark Buchanan paints the best picture I’ve seen yet of what happens to people who will not stop.

“It happened subtly, over time; but I noticed at some point that the harder I worked, the less I accomplished. I was often a whirligig of motion. My days were intricately fitted together like the old game of Mousetrap, every piece precariously connected to every other, the whole thing needing to work together for it to work at all.

“But there was little joy, and stunted fruit.

“To justify myself, I’d tell others I was gripped by a magnificent obsession. I was purpose-driven, I said, or words like that. It may have begun that way. It wasn’t that way any longer. Often I was just obsessed, merely driven, no magnificence or purposefulness about it. I once went forty days – an ominously biblical number, that – without taking a single day off.

“And was proud of it.

“But things weren’t right. Though my work often consumed me, I was losing my pleasure in it – and, for that matter, in many other things besides – and losing, too, my effectiveness in it. And here’s a secret: for all my busyness, I was increasingly slothful. I could wile away hours at a time in a masquerade of working, a pantomime of toil – fiddling about on the computer, leafing through old magazines, chatting up people in the hallways. But I was squandering time, not redeeming it…

“The inmost places suffered most. I was losing perspective. Fissures in my character worked themselves here and there into cracks. Some widened into ruptures. I grew easily irritable, paranoid, bitter, self-righteous, gloomy. I was often argumentative: I preferred rightness to intimacy. I avoided and I withdrew. I had a few people I confided in, but few friends. I didn’t understand friendship. I had a habit of turning people, good people who genuinely cared for me, into extensions of myself: still water for me to gaze at the way Narcissus did… I didn’t let anyone get too near.”

He goes on to say:

“God made us from dust. We’re never too far from our origins. The apostle Paul says we’re only clay pots – dust mixed with water, passed through the fire. Hard, yes, but brittle, too. Knowing this, God gave us the gift of Sabbath – not just as a day, but as an orientation, a way of seeing and knowing. Sabbath-keeping is a form of mending. Keep Sabbath, or else break too easily, and oversoon. Keep it, otherwise our dustiness consumes us, becomes us, and we end up able to hold exactly nothing.”

(The Rest of God: Restoring your Soul by Restoring Sabbath, pp. 1-3)

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

When You Reach the End of the Line…

Yesterday my last mechanical pencil ran out. (A sign I should lay off Sudoku?) Why do I share this humble detail of life with you, dear reader? It’s because, in the spirit of telling secrets, I confess: It seems I am a thief. A burglar. One who absquatulates (look it up).

You see, while I regularly stop by the office supply store – O Temple of Possibility! – to browse and to stock up on notebooks, tablets, and writing utensils for any researchers I am training – I cannot remember the last time I bought such things for myself.

Apparently, almost without knowing it, I filch all mine from the office.

It’s been almost two months since I’ve had an office to go to. Hence the lack.

Do you find your character suffering this sad flaw? Peace and integrity can be yours. For just over US$5 I purchased, free and clear, a score of pens and pencils from Office Max. And eased my conscience considerably.

Monday, April 05, 2010

If You Were to Join the Club...

For bedtime reading last night I picked up a Chesterton book, The Club of Queer Trades. Reminds me of the better-known The Man Who Was Thursday – but this one is less nightmare, more sweet dream. It’s a series of linked short stories. Each one is connected to a member of the club that gives the book its title. To qualify, he must have wholly invented a new way of making a living. For example, there’s the – no, I won’t give it away. You’ll have to read it for yourself. I particularly like “The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown” and “The Awful Reason of the Vicar's Visit.”

I suppose the premise marks the book as early modern; surprising industries are invented all the time these days, aren’t they? But then, as the narrator says, “The discovery of this strange society was a curiously refreshing thing; to realize that there were ten new trades in the world was like looking at the first ship or the first plough. It made a man feel what he should feel, that he was still in the childhood of the world.

At Easter dinner earlier in the day my friend B. told a story about his brother, a family therapist who also has a passion for candles. This man has strong ideas about what kind of candles are appropriate for various situations and seasons and dispenses his advice like a sommelier dictating wine pairings. “Does he do aroma therapy?” I naturally inquired. No, but B., an English teacher, thinks his brother should open a business that is a candle shop in front, counseling practice in back. It would be called, of course, “Scents and Sensibility”!

I suppose all of us look for vocations and avocations that combine our interests in satisfying ways. My mother – retired from software testing – now puts a lot of her energy into weaving. It provides a nice combination of math, craft, and problem solving. My sister has lately been melding her interests in natural science and fine art with some interesting drawings on paleontological themes (like this one). Me, I’m not so artsy, but am glad to find teaching and writing go so well together that I may never have to choose between the two.

What about you? If you were to creatively combine two of your passions, what would they be? Could you make a living at it? Or, where do you see striking combinations in the people around you?

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Jesus Resurrected

Along with others from my church, about three weeks ago I finished a read-through of the Old Testament and began on the New Testament, wrapping up with the book of Revelation just a few days ago. It's been quite a journey; I'm so glad we did this.

Many were looking forward to turning the page from Malachi to Matthew: finally, the New Testament! The world had sure changed in 400 years:

Not only had the Jews survived, they'd increased. The scriptures had actually been written down and disseminated - in Greek, too. Many Jewish people seemed to know the law and the scriptures. Not only that, but they had taken them further and developed a whole body of tradition based on the law (creating, of course some bigger problems!) The whole system of synagogues had appeared on the scene... social structures that hadn't existed before, and were to prove quite significant. Groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees had come along, and the priesthood had obviously gone through some significant transitions (some of which were out of step with what God had instituted, to be sure).

Greeks and Romans had conquered and reshaped almost everything. In years to come the Roman church would have good reason to argue that these changes were instruments of God, and part of what helped Christianity spread and grow as quickly as it did: Indeed, Christ had been born in the "fullness of time."

Yet in flipping the page between Malachi and Matthew I saw many other things that had not changed so much. In some parts of the gospels Jesus seems much like the other prophets, bringing a challenging message that was a threat to many, saying things that must have seemed bizarre. Of course there were all those miracles, not everyday fare for a prophet. He spoke of and seemed to belong to an outbreak of spiritual transformation that was coming on the earth. While Jesus' popularity with the masses made it clear to those in power that something would have to be done about this man, I don't see many of the people around him changed, in essence, at least not as they would be changed in months and years to come.

So if Christ coming into the world is not, quite, yet, the hinge-point of everything, what is it? What made the Christian gospel into the unstoppable force we see in the book of Acts? Is it, as many evangelicals today seem to assume, what happened on the cross?

The latest issue of Christianity Today addresses the question. Fuller Seminary's J.R. Daniel Kirk writes:
"In the spring of my senior year in college, I was deeply immersed in the rhythms of Christian life. I was a leader in InterVarsity, participated regularly in a Bible study with other seminary-bound friends, set my Sundays aside for worship and rest, and read more than my fair share of extracurricular Christian books. As Easter approached, I began rehearsing the importance of Jesus' resurrection. I knew that for Paul and the other New Testament writers, there could be no Christianity without it. Yet one day as I was walking back to my dorm, it dawned on me that the gospel as I understood it had no need for Jesus to be raised from the dead.

"The story of salvation as I had learned it was, in its entirety, about the Cross. I would teach other students about the Romans Road to salvation and the Romans 6:23 bridge diagram. What each of these captured beautifully was that we had a sin problem that God overcame with the cross of Christ. But each presentation also omitted the Resurrection entirely. And why not? Once our debt has been paid, what else could we possibly need? What is so important about Easter?"
The transformation of people is a crucial component of God's plans for the world; the good news does not end with "Jesus died for your sins" but goes on meaningful partnership with God as he re-creates the world. Kirk suggests that not only were the disciples different people - confident, inspired, empowered - after the resurrection (as becomes clear in the book of Acts), but that Jesus himself was different :

"Jesus in the Gospels is like David in the Book of 1 Samuel. He has received God's anointing as the chosen king, but another king is currently on the throne. The story of the Gospels is one in which Jesus inaugurates a new reign of God and deals a deathblow to the imposter king through his death on the cross. If the Cross is the defeat of the old king, the Resurrection is the enthronement of the new. Jesus now literally sits in the space that the kings of Israel had figuratively occupied before him: at the right hand of God. Though the preexistent Christ has always been God's agent in the creation and rule of the world, the human Jesus is now joined to that role as Lord and king over all.

"This is the logic behind Jesus' claim in the Great Commission: 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me' (Matt. 28:18-20). At the Resurrection, Jesus has become the Messiah, the Christ, God's anointed ruler of the earth.

"Only after being raised from the dead can Jesus say, 'All authority has been given to me; therefore, go!' From his first appearance to Mary in the garden to his last appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus, when the resurrected Jesus appears, he almost always sends. The vocation and mission of the church as a sent people depends on the resurrected Jesus as our sender."

Happy Resurrection Day. He is risen!

>> Read all of Kirk's article, A Resurrection that Matters.