George Bailey Lassos the Moon

“Mary, I know what I’m going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that. I’m going to leave this little town far behind and I’m going to see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon…the Coliseum. Then I’m coming back here and I’ll go to college and see what they know and then I’m going to build things. I’m going to build air fields. I’m going to build skyscrapers a hundred stories high. I’m going to build bridges a mile long.”

 So says George Bailey in the Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life. As it turns out, George is wrong. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that. As it turns out, what he is supposed to do tomorrow is pretty much what he did today. God’s plan for him is to do the ordinary thing. Which, of course, is the last thing that George wants to do. Because George Bailey wants to lasso the moon.

 I thought about George Bailey last night when I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about God’s will. I haven’t thought about God’s will for some time. Not seriously. Not in that obsessive way that I used to back when I was a college student, wondering about God’s plan for my future. I don’t think much about God’s will because, like George Bailey, I know what I’m going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year. At least I think I do. Get up and go to work (if I ever fall asleep). Come home and have dinner with my wife. Take a walk. Try to think of something to write about in my blog. Goals that are, for the most part, pretty low on the horizon.

 Here is the irony. I am doing everything I dreamed of doing back when I was in college. I am married to someone I love. Teaching, writing and preaching. But not in the way (and frankly not to the extent) that I imagined when I wondered what God’s plan for my life would look like. In those days I was aiming for the moon. God’s will, revealed through the constraints and necessities of ordinary life, have compelled me to lower my expectations. I wanted to expect great things from God and attempt great things for God. His agenda for me seems far more commonplace. This has not always been easy to accept.  

In his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eugene Peterson recounts the story of the fourth century church father Gregory of Nyssa whose brother Basil had arranged for him to be made bishop of Cappadocia. “Gregory objected,” Peterson writes, “he didn’t want to be stuck in such an out-of-the-way-place. His brother told him he didn’t want Gregory to obtain distinction from his church but to confer distinction upon it.”

 Is this not what Christ wants for us as well? To lower our sights and put away our lasso? To seek the good of the small places in which He has placed us and to confer distinction upon them by serving him with humility there? The path of glory is often an obscure one. It is the way of the cross. “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8

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Playing Technopoly

I have been reading Wendell Berry on my digital reader. I feel guilty about it. Berry, a beautiful writer whose prose reads like poetry, composes all his books in longhand. His wife types the manuscript on an old Royal typewriter. He will not purchase a computer. “Much is made of the ease of correction in computer work, owing to the insubstantiality of the light images on the screen; one presses a button and the old version disappears, to be replaced by the new” Berry writes. “But because of the substantiality of paper and the consequent difficulty involved, one does not handwrite or typewrite a new page every time a correction is made.”

Berry prefers the handwritten or typewritten manuscript and compares it to a palimpsest, a document that bears the marks of its own history. “A computer destroys the sense of historical succession, just as do other forms of mechanization.” I don’t know how Berry would feel about my reading his words on a mechanical device, but I can guess. Then again, I suppose he had to give permission to have his words distributed in electronic format.          

Still, Berry’s reticence to use the computer is a stubborn reminder that technology is a double edged sword. New technologies do more than change the way we work. They change the way we think. According to Neil Postman, new technologies “alter those deeply embedded habits of thought which give to a culture its sense of what the world is like–a sense of what is the natural order of things, of what is reasonable, of what is necessary, of what is real.” This is because technology is value laden. Embedded in every tool, Postman notes, “is a cultural bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attribute more loudly than another.”

The technologies associated with email and the internet have done more than change the way we communicate, they have changed our idea of what constitutes communication and community. Immediacy is valued over contemplation. Wide dispersion is more important than personal contact. This technology has spawned new vocabularies and social customs. Some extremists even argue that it will eventually produce an entirely new humanity.           

My field of higher education, specifically theological education and ministry training, is hardly immune from this. With the exponential growth of online courses and the rise of for-profit schools like Phoenix University and DeVry, there is already great pressure to invest our energy and money in the development of technological rather than human resources. It is hard to see how this can be avoided. It is only a matter of time before schools like Phoenix decide to offer theological education. And there is far more to this shift than simply the manner in which content is delivered. Their approach reflects a fundamental change in educational ethos. The magister has become a marketer. The pupil has become a customer. You can teach a pupil but not a customer. Everyone knows that the customer is always right.

Of course, it could be argued that this change is a good thing. Shouldn’t schools be more sensitive to the needs of their constituents? After all, higher education is still greatly influenced by the medieval culture from which it sprang. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt it to lose some of its feudal trappings. Change can be good. So can technology. Even Wendell Berry acknowledges this. “It would be uncharitable and foolish of me to suggest that nothing good will ever be written on a computer” he admits “Some of my best friends have computers. I have only said that a computer cannot help you to write better and I stand by that.”

I tend to agree with him. But I use a computer to write anyway. I’ve begun writing a blog, a medium of communication in which I suspect there is more pressure to post frequently than to reflect carefully. And I am reading Wendell Berry on my digital reader. I feel guilty. I think I will put Berry aside for a while and turn to Eugene Peterson. He always makes me feel better. I’ve been listening to his latest book on my iPod.

My Tribe

This past Sunday my wife Jane and I visited a new church. Actually, we visited a church that we used to attend that moved to a new location a couple of years ago. It’s complicated. So is our history of church attendance over the last 17 years. A history that I won’t bother to describe in detail. I will say that it has involved a series of sojourns with congregations that have lasted several years and then usually seemed to end badly. Let me put it this way, if my marital life was like my church life…

I think you get the picture.  

Neither of us is proud of this. Nor do we entirely understand it. When I left the pastorate for the classroom, I was convinced that my previous vocation had prepared me to be the perfect church member. My experience as a pastor was still fresh and I was re-learning what it was like to be on the other side of the pulpit. I envisioned myself enjoying the best of both worlds over the next few years, exercising an extended ministry to the church at large and being ministered to by a faithful pastor and finding new friends among a supportive congregation.

 Instead, Jane and I spent the next several years feeling like strangers. Out of place, I realized that while I was no longer a pastor, I wasn’t a typical church member either. The church’s leaders, for the most part, kept a respectful distance. Perhaps my vocation put them off. Nobody wants a Bible college professor in their Sunday school class. Not even me. Maybe I seemed stand-offish and unfriendly. I do have one of those faces. I think the pastors felt that since I had once been a pastor, I didn’t need a pastor myself (they were wrong). But here I go, telling you more than you really need or want to know.

For years we have largely blamed ourselves for this struggle. We have been convinced that the problem is us. It must be our fault. We have expressed our grief to God, repented weekly and tried to soldier on, doing our best not to “forsake the assembling” of ourselves together. All the while living a kind of gypsy life, moving from congregation to congregation (I warned you that my story was a sordid one).

Which brings me back to last Sunday. As I said, we visited a church that we used to attend. Actually, it was the first church that we attended when we moved to the Chicago area. What impressed us the most was the sea of familiar faces that greeted us after the service. But not the familiar faces we had expected. Those we recognized were not the people we met when we first began attending the church seventeen years ago (they were nowhere to be seen), but people we had met in the host of churches we have attended over the years. This was my tribe–a band of restless wanderers looking for a spiritual home and finding it hard to settle.

I know what I would have said about this back in the days when I was a pastor. I would have preached a sermon about lack of commitment and used the illustration about the pastor’s “silent sermon.” You know the story–the one where the pastor visits an absent church member and sits in silence before the fireplace. He separates a burning ember from the rest and the two watch as it burns low and flickers out.

I have my doubts whether this old story is actually true. But if it is, I think that pastor, though well intentioned, might have done better to say a word or two to his “backsliding” church member. Perhaps ask him what he had seen in his travels the previous week. Sometimes all it takes to make an ember burn brighter is a little breath.

It’s Not About You, It’s About Me

It’s not about you! You’ve heard that before. Probably in church. Or maybe you read something like it in a book recently. Actually, the phrase you probably read was “It’s not about me.” That’s what Max Lucado says in one of his recent books, the subtitle of which promises “rescue from the life we thought would make us happy.”Or maybe you read it in The Purpose Driven Life, by Rick Warren which begins by saying “It’s not about you.”

            But I find that this sentiment extends beyond the church. After consulting Google, our culture’s equivalent of the Library at Alexandria, I found the same phrase in a wide range of books. One was about single parenting, another about rules for aging. The phrase “It’s not about you” was one of the chapter titles in a book entitled Your Money and Your Man: How You and Prince Charming Can Spend Well and Live Rich-a title that sounds suspiciously as if it really is about you.

            This sentiment was also a chapter title in another book about emotional intelligence. That book was called Selling with Emotional Intelligence: 5 Skills for Building Stronger Client Relationships, which of course means that it is a book about sales. And since the whole point of a book about sales is to help me get you to buy something from me, it seems to me that it really is about me…I mean you…well, you know what I mean.

            In fact all these books which tell us that it’s not about us could generally be categorized as “self-help” books. Their primary appeal is that they promise to improve my life in some way. What is more, there doesn’t seem to be anything distinctively Christian about this sentiment. This assertion-the fact that it’s not about you-is as much a staple in non-Christian books as it is in Christian books. Perhps this falls under the category of common grace, an example of the homespun wisdom that God grants to all of humanity. The kind of thing you might have heard from your mother when she sent you off to school and told you that talking to others is easy if you let them talk about themselves. But I suspect that it is something else.

            In his latest book, Thomas Long, professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology, observes that too much of the wisdom we hear in the pulpit today is drawn from this well. In Preaching From Memory to Hope, Long writes: “Sermons on ‘Five Ways to Keep Your Marriage Alive’ or ‘Keys to a Successful Prayer Life’ or even ‘Standing Up for Peace in a Warring World’ may possess some ethical wisdom and some utilitarian helpfulness, but they often have the sickly sweet aroma of smoldering incense in a temple from which the deity has long since departed.” Long compares such sermons to the wisdom of Job’s friends, “who can quote the Psalms and the Proverbs but have ceased to expect the whirlwind.”

            But why should we be surprised? What other kind of preaching would we expect from a church which takes its cues from the marketplace? Why should we be surprised to find that we have traded our prophets for Madison Avenue pitchmen? Our best sellers and our worship leaders may say that it’s not about us, but everything about the church’s practice proves otherwise. It’s all about us. I fear that Thomas Long’s criticism of what he calls “wisdom sermons” applies to the church’s culture of worship in general. We have become people who, as Long puts it, “have lost the sense of worships perilous heights and who have been lulled into forgetting that lightening might strike behind them at any moment.” If Long is right, then perhaps conventional wisdom is wrong. Maybe it is all about us.