Tuesday, January 27, 2009

In Company with the Golden-Mouthed

"The best advice for how to get started was given by Flannery O'Connor to one of her correspondents: Sit at your desk for three hours each morning. Don't allow yourself to read, answer phone calls, tidy up, or anything else. You sit there. If you are not writing, you still sit there. Eventually, you will write.

Of course, few have the luxury of free mornings. (As to this, O'Connor recommended a life without encumbrances, or finding a wealthy spouse.) But, as a writer, you need to do what you can, as you can, and devote clear-headed hours to the task.)

--Harold Fickett, "Gushers and Bleeders," in A Syllable of Water

John of Antioch was a fourth century Greek church father. A one-time patriarch of Constantinople (398-407 AD) and an earnest advocate for the poor and needy, he gained certain popularity for his oratory skills. Not long after his death he was given the sobriquet chrysostomos or "golden-mouthed," and henceforth he has been known as St. John Chrysostom. It is in the spirit of St. John's love for good words that Richard Foster gathered a small group of writerly friends in 1986 to form a group which bears his name: The Chrysostom Society.

Once a year this group--which has added to its numbers and includes everything from Baptist to Orthodox and Quaker to Catholic--gathers to share their writings, friendship and Christian faith. On occasion they collaborate on a book. We own two. The latest is A Syllable of Water and it's all about the writer's life. The other used to be called The Classics We've Read and the Difference They've Made. Baker reissued it in 2002 as More Than Words. But it's Eugene Peterson's essay on Dostoevsky that made me choose Regent College for seminary.

This past weekend Phaedra and I were fortunate to share the same space with this group. She'd been invited by Laity Lodge to lead an arts workshop on their behalf. I was there to meet with Steven Purcell for the April retreat. Mostly we wanted to stay out of their way and let them enjoy each other's coveted company. But here and there, and usually over meals, we enjoyed brief conversation. It was a blessing to be, well, near them. As Phaedra reminded me, they're people who have paid their dues with sweat and toil.

The group includes folks like Foster, Philip Yancey, Walter Wangerin, Lucy Shaw, Virginia Stem Owens, Jeanne Murray Walker, Harold Fickett, Bill and Emilie Griffin who met in the mid-1950s in a theater class run by Edward Albee, he of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf, Greg Wolfe, the beautiful poet Robert Siegel whose A Pentecost of Finches Phaedra and I have been ruminating for the last year, John Wilson, and, though not present on the weekend, folks like Stephen Lawhead, Scott Cairns, Calvin Miller, and, as Bill Griffin put it to us, "the only one yet to die on us," Madeleine L'Engle. They've also begun to add younger people like Jeffrey Overstreet.

In short: some very good people with a very good grasp of the English language.

John Hoyte, Luci's husband, was also in attendance. Over lunch of chicken fajitas one day I asked him where he grew up. In China, he said, with the China Inland Mission. "You know," he remarked, scratching his white hairs, "it was all faith missions back then with CIM. Nobody asked for money. We were just to pray and trust. A letter could take up to six weeks to arrive home. The timing of providence was a strange thing. Now you can send emails." He laughs. "Around what time did you live in China?" I ask. "In the 1940s." Huh. "So, uh, did you ever meet that Chariots of Fire guy, you know, that running guy?" I grin. He smiles. He says, "Yes, we were in the internment camp." Oh. Wow. "How old were you?" Phaedra asks. "I was there," he answers, "from age 9 to 13." Hearing that from this cheery, inveterately kind man makes us feel humble and grateful. And it made the 20th century feel very small.

Jeff Johnson, the selah-celtic-chant-contemplative-rockstar-liturgy-dude, led the group in worship over the weekend. He is one funny guy. We like him so much. He told us a little story on our last morning as we sat in the kitchen and ate a bowl of cold cereal. He said he was talking with Eugene Peterson. Eugene asked him how he came upon the name "Selah" for the service that he leads. Jeff went on to talk about the Psalms. And blah blah blah. And there's this notation that blah blah likely signifies rest. And so on blah blah, hence a rest-ful contemplative service. Eugene listened attentively, his eyes focused. Then Eugene says, well, that's interesting.

And when the guy who wrote the Bible says that's interesting, you know there's a chance you screwed up something Biblely.

He says, well, you know, Jeff, I've done a lot of study on that word. It's a fascinating word. I read the Hebrew. I try to read behind the Hebrew. Scholars have all kinds of opinions on it. The rabbis tug it to death, this way and that. But after reading commentaries and books and articles and the speculation of liturgists and linguists, oh, you know, on and on how it goes, I found the answer in an obscure manuscript. Jeff's ears burned. Eugene's answer might throw his Selah joint into an identity crisis. Eugene leans in. He whispers in his gravely voice. "Jeff, it's a cuss word." Jeff looks at him dumbfounded. A what? Then Eugene cracks a smile. And Jeff loses it, laughing and laughing. A cuss word. Selah.

Anyhoo, Phaedra made art, I took naps and talked shop with Steven. I avoided the outdoors because of the damnable cedar pollen. We enjoyed a sweet time of conversation with Steven and Amy.

And, oh, I almost forgot ... Phil Keaggy was there! Yes, that's right, old school, nine-fingered, guileless, sweet-spirited, guitar-licking monster, high-pitched angel-voiced Mister Phil Keaggy. And he is one classy man. The Chrysostom peeps had asked him to make music for the occasion of their annual sojourn to Central Texas. Saint John C. is renowned for his "Divine Liturgy," so appropriately Phil made words sing and dance.

I first heard him back in 1990ish. I told him this past Saturday night that his music had left a strong impression on me as a 19-year old. I was a devoted fan of Michael Card, John M. Talbot, Keith Green--the folksy worship guys. But the lone tape I owned of Keaggy's was an instrumental album. And while I didn't have the conceptual language back then to describe my experience, his music--without words, without Christian lyrics to justify its worth--made my heart happy, and I know now that I was experiencing folk music as beautiful. I'd known this of classical music. I now knew it with Keaggy's finger-picking virtuosity.

So there we go. Phaedra and I celebrated a lovely anniversary, courtesy of a friend, on a houseboat on Lake Travis. We spent an afternoon in the German-flavored town of Fredericksburg. We rested out at the Laity Lodge. And we felt very grateful for the grace that God has given us to make it through one year of marriage. As Steven pointed out to us, we've been married as many weeks as Eugene and Jan Peterson have years: 51. One year at a time, I guess.

Tomorrow I fly out to Greensboro, NC, for the annual Anglican Mission In America (AMIA) conference. I'll join Cliff and Christine and a few of the pastoral staff from our homechurch, Christ Church. While there I'll be talking with bishops about my interest to pursue ordination. But when I return on Saturday night, February 1, we'll begin, God be praised, a two-month run of no travel. Ah, yes. Home. Stability. Rhythm. Garage clean-out. Tea. Naps. Ahh. Joy, joy, joy.

And now I will go kiss my wife who is in the kitchen making chili.

(The given name of the house boat. Although I think it should have been named the always sloshing back and forth house boat.)

(If you wanted to go #1 you could use the toilet in the boat house. If you wanted to go #2 you needed to go out onto the dock, into the woodshed, and use the Incinolet. Instructions are included at the top of this blog. You don't flush, you incinerate. I told Phaedra they should call it the fire crapper.)

(The gang-plank walkway didn't always align with the shore. There I am holding a pair of garbage bags waiting not to fall in.)

(Jeff Johnson, Phil Keaggy, myself, John "hobo book-reading demigod" Wilson, Steven Purcell.)

(Phaedra and I stand in front of our lunch of choice in Fredericksburg. We listened to a lot of German folk tunes with Hans and Franz-like voices going Hoo-hoo-hoo and Hop-hop-hop and Wir trinken und wir lachen und alles ist gut, yah, yah, yah.)

(And finally, just a little late-night chillin' with Keaggy.)


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Our 1 Year Wedding Anniversary Today

"Sex is good, but not as good as fresh, sweet corn." ~ Garrison Keillor

We know it borders on cliche to say this, but it's hard to believe one year has passed since we wedded at St. Luke's on the Lake. Two thoughts come to my mind as I think back on twelve months of married life.

One: It's nothing like in the movies.

Two: It's harder and gooder than I imagined.

Mike Mason, in The Mystery of Marriage, says marriage is beautiful, exotic, utterly resplendant and a profound contemplation of God's love, "but also, let's face it, it is at times an enormous inconvenience." I like that. I honestly didn't know my ego was so resilient, so inventive. But I also didn't know how resilient forgiveness was. Neither do I think I fully comprehended how much of a divine gift humility is.

And I also didn't quite comprehended how powerful and deeply needed hope was, not just for married life but for life on earth.

So many things I didn't know at the tender age of thirty-five.

Our wedding a year ago on January 20, 2008 was a ridiculously wonderful beginning. We're glad we said those vows. We can still taste the laughter of the occasion in our mouths. And our hearts are so, so, so, so, so grateful for the village of family and friends who are walking with us and helping us learn how to love--learn how to love not out of an abstraction or ideal but in en-earthed, sanctified ways. We need it.

We're also quite pleased at how celebratory the whole country is today. It's very touching. We're going to pretend they're all happy we got married on this day.

But it's a pretty stinking historical day for the US presidency. "Wow." That's my op-ed for the day.

We leave you then with a few off-beat pictures from a year ago today.

The more one-fleshy, but sometimes still two-fleshy, but yearning for whole-one-fleshness,

David and Phaedra

(St. Luke's on the Lake)

(It was a beautiful thing to have both my father and brother-in-law officiate our wedding.)

(Greg Lowry was one of our many talented musicians leading us in worship.)

(Our august wedding party sitting in the "choir")

(Having just said our vows both Phaedra and I got very, very weepy.)

(And then we were happy.)

(Family and friends raising a ruckus right after the ceremony.)

(Some mad dancing took place afterwards. In the middle is my sister Stephanie who was awesomely pregnant at the time.)

(This pictures cracks me up. I look it at and think, "Well, there goes Phaedra practicing her X-Men powers on me. She's totally pulling a Jean Grey.)

(And yes, Garrison Keillor's quote made it on to one of our cakes. How could we resist?)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Plight of the Midnight Writer

My first year of college I attended Moody Bible Institute. Sitting on North LaSalle Boulevard, in the thick of downtown Chicago, the school started out in 1886 as the Chicago Evangelization Society. To this day it remains distinguished for its firm commitment to evangelism and to the fundamentals of Christian faith.

But even nineteen years later I'm beset with a temptation to feel embarrassment. Moody's "conservative." Moody's "small," "backwards," "fundamentalist." Moody's the "Moody Bridle Institute" where people feel they've failed if they've not married by graduation.

I don't like it. I don't want to feel embarrassed; it's silly. There was much good that came from my freshman year. I was exposed to inner city ministry--which several years later directly influenced me to participate in an East Austin program. I interned with a chaplain at the Cook County Public Hospital. I trashed my pride by doing lots of street evangelism on Friday nights (not the way to cultivate coolness). I studied with professors who deeply loved the Lord and his Word. And I have very fond memories of many of my dormmates, even if I've no clue where they are today. (Facebook here I come.)

And I lived in the middle of Chicago, which I still think is pretty awesome.

I've kept a few papers from that year. One is the MBI Dress Code, and I have to say it makes me giggle. I honestly didn't mind dressing up for class. I liked ties. I dug those early 90s mock-turtle necks. I mostly endured the ban to watch movies, dance, and play cards. But then there's this: the Additional Guidelines. Here are the first three.

1. Hair is to be well-groomed and should avoid extremes. (Ok, that totally kills me. In high school I never imagined that I'd grow up and become a one-man hair circus. Besides, 9 times out of 10 my hair changes are unplanned. I wake up, decide it's time to change, we change. But I don't think my hairdos would fare well with Dwight Lymon Moody.)

2. Beards may be worn with the following guidelines:

a. The beard cannot be grown while the student is attending classes or residing on campus. (I know what they mean, but it sounds like a futile prohibition against real-time growth.)
b. The beard must be full and kept well-groomed.

(I don't think I could grow a beard at 18 and I don't think I spent much time wondering about beards. It was only four years later, during a study abroad stint in Germany, traveling without a razor, that I defaulted into a beard experiment. And mostly it worked. I cringe when I look at pictures. But then again, I may be cringing at my 1994 clothing style.)

3. Earrings are not to be worn by men at any time. (I pierced my left ear two years later. As I explained to my parents I did it to identify with my workmates at Chuy's, the best Tex-Mex restaurant in Austin. At Chuy's it was Halloween every day. Nobody, no waiter, busser, cocktail waitress or bartender dressed plainly. And when I come in with my neon "His Pain, Your Gain" t-shirts and enormous wooden cross swinging from my neck, well, I figured one gold earring might help me fit in.)

And on the list goes.

But here's why I'm writing this entry. My freshman year I was a very bad writer. Straight up. No false humility. I'm the poster-boy for latebloomers and I was late in learning how to write clean, crisp English.

In one of my Lit & Comp classes I turned in a paper with a woeful note. In the note I asked the teacher, a gallic Ms. de Rosset, to take pity on me. My printer had jammed and in consequence the ink slurred here and there. It was legible but ugly. But I'd run out of time and the note was an attempt to obviate a punishment for "presentation."

When I received my paper back Ms. de Rosset had attached a poem to the back page. My grade, by the way, was a B minus. Here is the poem which I've kept all these years. I'm not sure if my woeful note obtained her pity or severity, and no doubt she'd seen many melodramatic students like me, but the grade no longer matters and I got a great poem out of the deal.

I offer it to all who've sweated over a paper and felt the desire to express their woe with a poem.


Hark, English teacher, and shed a tear
Here's why my term paper isn't here,
The 6th of March has come so fast
As usual I was the very last
To go to the library, get some books
The librarians really gave me some looks.
I went to the shelves, there was nothing there,
I tell you, they were completely bare!
When I finish this paper tonight
I'll hang a lamp for a signal light
If my light you do not see,
Please make funeral arrangements for me.
I can't see why anyone would care
When a book was printed, by whom, or where
Ibids, and footnotes, bibliography, too
Who dreams up these things that I have to do?
Be ready to ride and spread the alarm
That I'm eligible for the "happy farm."
It is four by the clock, and I'm still here
Writing my paper with frustration and fear
I'll scream if I have to take another note.
Through the night I have written and read
By this time I am nearly dead
Under piles of references, on the work goes
I only pause ot take N0-Doz.
When all the agony is past
When the page I write is finally the last,
I will remember to be of good cheer
The ordeal is over until next year.

(One of our better hair moments.)

(A Halloween outfit that I double-dog dare Dwight Lymon Moody not to like.)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Announcing Phaedra Jean Art Machine

That's my wife's blog.

The first thing Phaedra and I talked about when originally introduced was art. My first impression of her was: this girl is an artist. Her first impression of me was: "That guy's old! That's a hick, country guy, and old, old like late 40s. He's the arts pastor?" Before speaking to me she saw me up front giving announcements in this outfit:

We've come a long way.

I felt an enchantment with her work. I loved her care for detail. I loved the sense of play and her experiments with alternate fairy worlds. I loved her titles, like "Fritz Realized the Rabbit had him Trapped."

Before she'd even moved down to Austin, before there was any notion of a future friendship, I said: "You should submit something to our next Advent exhibit." And she did, in the winter of 2003. This was it:

By summer of 2004 she had moved to Austin and, with no little trepidation, had bravely accepted the invitation to become our artist in resident for the year. I was her boss. I was not always a nice boss; but I was a good boss (mostly). I found myself energized by her passion, her sedulous craftsmanship. I sincerely and, with the passing of time, increasingly wanted to help her become all that God had called her to become. I wanted her to succeed greatly and to nourish her mind and imagination and heart with good soil.

And then, yes, I wanted her for myself. So I married her three and a half years later.

One little story. The stipulation of the residency program was for the artist to devote their time and energy to making new work. I needed to see a serious commitment to their artwork. Otherwise they would not be considered. The artist must submit a 1000-word proposal, explaining their intent and a provisional list of goals. I asked them to give me a book list. There was, in addition, a relational and spiritual component to the program because we believed that their development needed to be whole.

And what, pray tell, did Phaedra do for the entirety of the fall of 2004? She made not a lick of art.

What was she doing instead? She was reading books. Oh, ok. She's filling up the resevoir, I thought. That's good. Books are awesome. She's cultivating her imagination. She read Crime & Punishment. She read Nouwen's Clowning in Rome. She read Voicing Today’s Visions: Writings by Contemporary Women Artists, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos, Ben Shahn's The Shape of Content, Catcher in the Rye, and, my favorite, Running: A Complete Guide. And she read a lot more than that. She read and read and read.

And then I caught her red-handed. In December I said, no more. I forbid you to read another book. You're no longer reading to nourish, you're reading to escape having to make art. You're done. Nope. Not a page more. I'm giving you penance. Your penance is to stay in your studio until you make a new piece of work.

After a bout of grumbling of biblical proportion, she acceded. Days went by. Nothing happened. She despaired, in good artist manner. She worried. She fiddled. And then damn burst. She began making art, well, like a sainted maniac. She created intimate pieces made from old wooden drawers. She printed images of garden creatures. She fretted over perfectly clean lines. She created a massive installation for Easter 2005 that hung over the whole expanse of the sanctuary: 1,100 paper butterflies dipped in bees wax. I was very pleased. There are few things that make me as happy as watching an artist come fully alive.

Now she has her own blog. She told me today that it was not devoted to personal ruminations, "not like yours..." Instead it's a blog that allows her to share the creative dibble-dabble explorations, some humble, some grand.

I know it takes a lot of courage for any artist to share their work with the public, regardless even of how much they have succeeded. So I'm proud of Phaedra for doing it, for putting up her work in public. There's a link on her blog to her flickr account. That'll have the bulk of her work of recent years. Well done, I say, Phaedra Jean, ye Art Machine, who shareth the other side of my bed. I love you. (I know you're in the kitchen right now and I could tell you that in person. But it can't hurt to say it also in print.)

I leave you then with an image of a piece she created for the 2004 Advent exhibit at Hope Chapel. It measures five feet high, eight feet across. The title is "Annunciation Post."

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A Retreat for Shepherds & Lay Ministers to Artists!

[PHOTO: Myself and visual artist John Cobb out at the Laity Lodge in our beardly best.]

When I first envisioned the transforming culture symposium I actually envisioned a camping trip.

There I was, stuck in a pine forested mountain far away from the tireless thrum of society. Somewhere in the Rockies perhaps. Or the Great Smoky Mountains. Hunched over a smoldering fire, the clammy mists of dawn crawling heavily through the trees, I stir a cast iron skillet full of eggs, salsa ranchera and boracho beans. Despite the sleepy silence and the thoroughly matted hair, an irrepressible sense of joy fills our faces.

Walking around the circle I drop the Mexican breakfast into tin bowls. Here is John Witvliet, ever the gentle one. There is Luci Shaw, her eyes twinkling pure gaiety. Here is Sandra Bowden mysteriously but impeccably dressed, and John Wilson who had insisted on bringing 38 books to read aloud. There's Barbara Nicolosi, in her third day of detox from LA. Here is Jeremy Begbie, humming, fingers tapping, with a Whistler Ski Resort toque keeping his head warm.

And over there is Andy Crouch making the most divine culture from a pot of ancho chili-flavored hot chocolate. There, in an REI-constructed rocking chair, is Eugene Peterson, quietly thinking about how damn ordinary we all were and how wonderful it is.

And there all atop the flat ridgetop is everybody else who came to the symposium. Rosie and Ahna. Colin, Rory, Brie, Dal and Kim. And Erik. And Duffy. And Banner and Detweiller and Siewert and Van Dyke and Fortunato and McCoy. There are all my friends, old and new. And isn't this like heaven!

But instead of a camping trip we had a fabulous time in south Austin on the lovely grounds of First Evangelical Free Church. And now nine months later I'm happy to announce a hybrid of the camping trip: a retreat.

The Laity Lodge leadership has graciously approved my proposal for a retreat aimed at anybody who was in the business, formal or informal, of caring for artists, and for their courage and trust I'm very grateful. Here below is the basic info.

For some of you the work of caring for artists takes place in a church or educational setting, and possibly in an official capacity. For some of you it occurs in the marketplace. For many of you your shepherding of artists takes shape in informal ways. But what links us all is a sense of call: you feel called to care for the well-being of artists. And what I've yearned to do for some time is to get us pastoral-hearted folk all in the same room.

It is in light of this that I invite you to participate in a retreat sponsored by the Laity Lodge, April 20-23. Brian Moss, Mako Fujimura, Steven Purcell and I, among others, will be giving leadership to the retreat. We invite you to join your kindred for three days of talking, playing, eating, resting, and praying on behalf of our artist brothers and sisters who are serving the church and the world.

The three topics we'll explore together are: 1) our own preparation as ministers, 2) the pastoring of the artist as a person, and 3) the pastoring of the artist as a worker. Our hope is that our time together will equip and encourage us in our common work of building up the Body of Christ.

Senior pastors. Associate pastors. Lay ministers. Professional coffee drinkers. Teachers. Para-church staff. And anybody who feels that strong yearning to love artists and to help them grow strong and whole and holy. Please do pass this along to someone you think might be interested.

April 20-23 (Monday dinner through Thursday lunch). Laity Lodge retreat center in the Hill Country of Texas. You drive through a river to get there. It's great. The cost is $285. We're really getting an amazing deal on the cost. The food alone is worth the charge of admission. Trust me.

What kind of folks have visited the Laity Lodge? Frederick Buechner's been. Madeleine L'Engle's been. As have Henri Nouwen, Bishop Tom Wright, and Eugene Peterson. I know that Steven Lawhead has made the trek. So have Virginia Stem Owens, Begbie, Winner, Yancey, Tournier, Ratzinger. And Beyonce. Ok, not Beyonce, but I know she wants to. And not Ratzinger either. He's busy. But a whole bunch of wonderful people have been and reviews are roundly positive.

Go here.

If you have any questions, fire away. Again, please send this on to anybody you know who might be interested. And hopefully we'll see some of you out there on the frio river!
And a happy Epiphany to all.

[Here's a snippet of music from Buddy Green and Joseph Luptak from an artist retreat out at the Laity in 2007.]