Wednesday, February 25, 2009
"Lent should never be morose -- an annual ordeal during which we begrudgingly forgo a handful of pleasures. Instead, we ought to approach Lent as an opportunity, not a requirement. After all, it is meant to be the church's springtime, a time when, out of the darkness of sin's winter, a repentant, empowered people emerges. No wonder one liturgy refers to it as 'this joyful season'."
-- from the Introduction to Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter
Two months ago I dreaded the arrival of Lent. I simply felt no desire to give up anything. I feel tired. I'm pathetic at fasting. And I like to keep my options open. But that's the one thing Lent, and a Lenten way of life, will not brook: to live as I please when I please.
I'm better today. I spent a good deal of the morning washing dishes and tidying up the kitchen after last night's dinner party. We'd invited our friends the Van Dykes to celebrate Shrove Tuesday with us. We ate spicy sausages, homemade hashbrowns (yum yum), scrambled eggs, fresh strawberries and gluten-free pancakes that totally rocked (that is, they tasted great, not like rocks, which unfortunately often describes the taste of gluten-free substitutes). We washed it down with fresh-squeezed orange juice, and over a game of Farkle we nibbled at a crisply cold mango sorbet.
As I washed the dishes this morning I prayed. I prayed for a right heart. Outside the window above the sink I watched our blankets on the clothing line swaying back and forth under a gusty wind. They looked like multi-colored dancers come to announce the new season. I want to embrace this year's Lent, despite my begrudging heart. If there is something God wants to bring to light or change significantly, I want to be obedient.
Which of course is not always easy.
Phaedra and I will be observing our Lenten abstinences in common. I might do the Master Cleanse on my own--get my gut cleaned out. She'll work through exercises in The Artist Way by herself. But mostly we fare much better when we share our "sufferings" together. Here are the disciplines we will be embracing with God's help.
No sweets, spirits or dark drinks. We are foregoing all desserts and anything that obviously looks like a sweet thing. Brown suger in my granola doesn't count. Nesquik Chocolate Milk does. There'll be no wine after dinner or margaritas with our Mexican food. And we're letting go of our common love of black tea. It's all Rooibos from here to Easter.
Computers off at 7:00 pm. I told Phaedra that my computer is robbing me of my evenings and it is all of my own doing. I have no need really to be doodling through the internet after dinner. I've got all day long. Why suck my evenings dry?
"And when at last we drag our wearied bodies home, we give ourselves just one more glance at the benevolent dictator we call the internet to rummage around for things we think we need, we’re not sure why, when we should be under our covers, eyes closed, mouth shut, prayed up."
Why not instead turn the computer off and spend our evenings sitting in our lovely living room reading or listening to music. Phaedra can knit. I can meander without guilt through art books that I constantly buy but never make time to read.
I can't tell you how happy, happy, happy I am at this new nightlife that awaits us for the next "forty" days.
Memorizing Scripture. I used to memorize truckloads of Scripture. I was an Awana kids after all, at least for all of fifth grade. The guy who discipled me in high school, Matt Fries, made me memorize entire books of the Bible. In Guatemala as a kid I memorized Bible verses for cookies and lemonade. David Adam in The Rhythm of Life says that the result of committing Scripture to memory is that it has a chance to "vibrate" in our minds throughout the course of the day.
I got lazy in my twenties and now I'm on the backside of my thirties with nary a Scripture vibrating in my head. I know a good deal of it. I got a degree in it for crying out loud. But there's no substitute for having Scripture at the tip of your tongue. I want to masticate the Word.
Writing Thank You Cards and Other Notes. We stink at writing thank you cards. So we're taking this one on as an act of engagement. We're going to give up time and energy to tell people how much we do care for them. It does folks no good if our sentiments stay in our head.
Special Monetary Gifts. We're not rolling in the dough by any stretch of the imagination. But there's nothing like giving away money till it hurts to see if ole Mammon is hanging out anywhere in the house.
Right now I'm putting together a Lenten devotional for Christ Church. I'm late. I should have had it prepared for tonight. I told Cliff I was so sorry. I'll have it ready by Sunday. But I do think it's a wonderful thing for an entire congregation to be praying the same prayers all through Lent.
I just found out that Christine and Cliff (that's my sister and brother-in-law) are giving up electricity for Lent. More precisely, they're giving it up after 6pm. Just when I thought Phaedra and I were awesome for giving up our computers. They're giving up electricity!
Friday night Phaedra and I will travel to San Antonio to hear Conspirare's performance of Rachmaninoff's Vespers. As the director notes on Conspirare's website.
"Rachmaninoff's Vespers is universally regarded as the crowning achievement of the "Golden Age" of Russian Orthodox sacred music, as well one of the greatest works of choral music ever written. It was, in fact, one of the composer's two favorite compositions (along with The Bells). [Conspirare's] chamber choir will expand to 38 singers, with added weight in the bass section in the tradition of the Russian basso profundo."
A friend gave us the tickets as a gift. It is a gift that we received very gratefully, as it will help our souls enter more fully into Lent with the aid of beautiful music.
"The boy was very proud that he had been born in a wreck. He had always felt that it set his existence apart from the ordinary one and he had understood from it that the plans of God for him were special, even though nothing of consequence had happened to him so far. Often when he walked in the woods and came upon some bush a little removed from the rest, his breath would catch in his throat and he would stop and wait for the bush to burst into flame. It had not done it yet."
From The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O'Connor
(IMAGE: Tyrus Clutter, "Plan," Color Viscosity Intaglio (2007)
Friday, February 20, 2009
"I always knew I'd accomplish something very special - like robbing a bank perhaps."
--Mickey Rourke, actor, who is up for an Oscar nomination for his role in THE WRESTLER
It’s two months till the retreat for pastors to artists. A really great group of people have signed up already. There’s still room if you're interested. If you’re hemming and hawing, I say, come. It'll be restful, beautiful, encouraging, edifying, free of cell phones, you'll have access to two fully supplied art studios and you'll get a chance to meet your vocational kith and kin.
Somebody recently asked "Who's this retreat for again?" I said, it’s for...
- Worship & Arts Pastors (or any pastors, really)
- Chaplains at Christian colleges (or movie chaplains or rocknroll chaplains)
- Anybody involved or wanting to be involved in an “Arts Center”
- Teachers and educators with a heart to love artists
- Anybody who wants to take care of artists and aid their spiritual formation as well as artistic, relational, and vocational formation
If you know someone who might be interested, please help us get the word out. There's no way we'll know all the folks who would want to come to something like this. Here's the link to the original blog notice.
A couple of weeks ago Dal Shindell wrote me an email. Dal works as the director of publications at Regent College, a seminary in Vancouver, British Columbia. He asked, Why should Regent and our precious Canadian Loonies and pennies send anybody to your retreat? He said the VP for budget needed a good reason. This was my response.
Please convey the following crude bit of mathematics to the VP for budget.
- Let’s say 100 pastors receive their primary educational formation at a seminary, say, from Regent College. It could be any seminary.
- These 100 pastors are inspired with a vision for Kingdom of God culture-making and cultural transformation via the arts (by cult. tran. = your personal culture, your family culture, your church culture, your neck of the neighborhood culture [east side, west side, etc], your city culture, your neck of the country culture [Yankees, Deep South, Texas South, Midwest, Cali, etc], your national culture, your ethnic culture, etc, etc, etc -- this is for you, Andy Crouch!).
- These 100 pastors go home, wherever that is.
- They stand up in the pulpit, week after week, and tell their congregants the good news according to the 9.4 billion dollars that North Americans spent on movies in the year 2006. They declare how amazing it is that the average child watches 20,000 30-second commercials in one year.
- They tell their congregants that they, the congregants, are probably not paying any attention to what they, the pastors, are saying because they, the congregants, have been amused to death--by American Idol, the Oscars, The New York Times Magazine, Twitter, and so on.
- Then these 100 pastors, with rough-hewn cowboy grit, marshal the resources of their congregations in order to patronize 1 artist in each congregation. That's putting the bar short: 1. 1 outstanding, highly skilled and motivated artist. But let's say each congregation pulls together $100,000 in order to help that 1 artist produce one piece of great art. Businessmen and lawyers join in. Grandpa and grandma along with the kids ministry make casseroles and bring them over at night to cheer the artist sinking into a colorful depression. The whole church family is in on the project.
- Out of this measly number of artists, all 100 of them, three of them produce a masterpiece: one, a novel that jumps to #1 on the New York Times books' list; one, a piece of jazz music that Obama just loves and requests played at the UN gala happening in a few weeks; and one, a movie that becomes a Top Ten Movie of the Year and that changes the way masses of people think about, well, for starters, the Bible, God, creation-care, spirituality, work, human personality, Christian history or any number of things that Regent College cares about.
- And that's putting the bar short.
And how did this rollicking, landscape-altering, grace-based, Jesus-infused, Spirit-empowered trans-formation happen? By sending little ole Dal Shindell down to the middle of nowhere in Texas for a little ole retreat for people wanting to get clear in their heads how to shepherd artists so they can make beautiful art that becomes a thing of irrepressible joy, to paraphrase Keats.
Please tell the VP that if Regent wants to continue being at the vanguard of this artistic renewal thing, that this is a great way to confirm it.
Tell her that she also should come down and get a little air and drink a little Scotch.
Tell her that she’ll be contributing to the economic recovery by purchasing goods: plane ticket, rental car, retreat fee.
Tell her, finally, that this retreat, by virtue of the domino effect, is a direct result of my studying at Regent College.
Tell her we'll send her a thank you card.
That's my two pennies.
I sure hope it works.
Blessings all around,
PHOTO: The photograph above is of the Chapel of St. Gildas. Built like a stone barn into the base of a bare rocky cliff, the Chapel rests on the bank of the Canal du Blavet in Brittany, France. The Chapel marks the site where where Gildas, an Irish monk, preached Christianity to a mainly pagan population during the 6th century.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
I just sent the manuscript off to the editors at Baker Books. Phew. Let's try that again: Phew!!! I've never spent so much time with adverbial phrases and killing off the passive tense. The passive tense is (see, there it is!) needy, pushy, attention-grabbing, promising the happy life of easy, comfortable writing (It is and he is and she is and they really is) but delivering the most unsatisfying sentence-constructions known to the sons of Chaucer. And daughters too.
Check out what my friend Kate Van Dyke said about my chapter after she gave it the ole editorial slash-n-burn.
The chapter needs work. Mostly the boring task of refining and sharpening the language. You have really good things to say and I applaud your getting this far!
I hope this is helpful. I am always nervous about telling writers what I really think about their writing, but I am trusting you to listen/read knowing I support you 100% and want this to be the best you can do. And of course, you'll chuck what you don't agree with!
Kill passive voice!!!
Did you notice her tactic? She gives me the bad news first. Then she butters me up with loads of affirmation and approval lest my self-esteem wilt. Then she lowers the boom. It's a pretty good tactic to practice with the rest of our artist friends.
But kill the passive voice I did--savagely.
I honestly didn't think editing a book would be hard. IT'S WORSE THAN HERDING CATS. How do you retain each person's distinct voice while editing their content? Mind you, these are sharp cats--Eugene Peterson, Lauren Winner, Andy Crouch. Jeremy Begbie--the sly-cat Englishman. John Witvliet--the Dutch peacemaker. Josh Banner--rockstar. And the wittiest, edgiest cat of them all: Barbara Nicolosi. I love her blog. And I love the folks I've been fortunate to work with.
But they have busy lives.
And they can't be bothered with too many adverbial phrase issues.
But I can.
I have grown in my respect for editors the world 'round. Editors deserve lavish paeans. They deserve servants who will bring them platters of cookies and milk--and vats of margaritas--and a nine-hundred-course Italian meal. If all of us could hire a personal editor--to edit not only our papers but also our speech, closets, and mannerisms--the world would be infinitely better off. Humans are a wasteful lot.
Not in the way God is a "wasteful" Triune lot, meaning euphemistically, in His case, superabundantly gracious, profligate, and gift-giving. Humans usually need to improve in this department. We humans are wasteful in the wrong ways. We waste time. We waste money, often unknowingly. We waste our life in too much of the wrong thing and not enough of the right.
So God created editors for all of our benefit, at least in the realm of books, magazines, journals, festschrifts, plays--but not blogs.
Anyhoo, God gave me the opportunity to edit this book so He could sanctify me. And I shouldn't turn down an invitation to sanctification.
But I'm also thrilled. These folks are all topnotch people. Eight people. Eight chapters in all. 51,130 finely crafted words, with enough instances of the passive voice to keep it exciting. Every one of these writers makes Christianity look good, not merely because of what they write but for who they are as persons. They're smart. They're humble. They're funny. (Eugene is a joke machine.) And they have an obvious love for God. I'm honestly moved when I think about the enormous privilege God has given me to work with them. It won't come again any time soon. I don't think.
The editors tell me my book will see the light of day around March of 2010. Ooph. I'll be old by then. And in school, God knows where.
Today I turned in the last part of my Cambridge application. Today I turned in the book manuscript. I'm pooped. I need a drink. Phaedra and I will be giving up spirits, caffeine, and anything with sugar for our Lenten observations, so we better live it up between now and Shrove Tuesday.
I don't have a certain title yet. I've suggested for the time being, Evangelicals and the Arts: A Vision for the Church. It could change. The fine folks at Baker might like instead: Eight Thoughts by Eight Really, Really Wonderful People: Art, Church, the Usual.
I tossed around the possibility of calling it Blue Like a Shack: But Better (and oh yeah--it's about the church and ART!).
Who knows. We'll know in the summer.
Tomorrow I need to get my taxes in order, take my Honda to get inspected, then to Jiffy Lube to get an oil change, call my insurance company, sprinkle fertilizer on the back lawn, and make time to work on our Will. I can't put off the practical parts of our life any longer.
For now I leave you with a paragraph plucked from the mid-section of my Introduction. It describes basically what I'm trying to get at and what I'm praying will result from this book, along with all the other books that have been written and will be penned in this vein of the church's work with the arts.
"But my point—my confession—is this. As a pastor of an arts ministry, I defaulted to an experientialist and shrunken traditionalistic approach because I lacked a larger vision. Evangelical Protestantism handed me neither a big picture (a theology) nor a sense of how art and the church ought to hold together (a tradition). What I was left with were strategies and programs, and pretty good ones.
But they failed to pull me and my artist friends and our congregation and our brethren throughout the city and world into something bigger than ourselves. Dorothy Sayers, novelist and friend of Lewis and Tolkien, writing in the 1950s, put it sharply: “The Church as a body has never made up her mind about the Arts, and it is hardly too much to say that she has never tried.” If her judgment verges on exaggeration, her lament is nevertheless shared by many of my contemporaries.
Many of us, in fact, feel the lack of a comprehensive, systematic, integrating and grounding vision."
And on it goes.
PS: the awesome posters that appear at the beginning and end of this blog come courtesy of a company that's run by my friend Laura Dunn's husband et al. The posters can all be found safely at Despair.com.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
ONE: ANNIE DILLARD
"We could, you know. We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience--even of silence--by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn't 'attack' anything; a weasel lives as he's meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity."
--"Living Like Weasels," in Teaching a Stone to Talk
TWO: A DREAM A CATHOLIC FRIEND OF MINE HAD LAST NIGHT
February 11, 2009
This may sound strange, but I doubt it could do any harm. And it just might be the Spirit…..
Monday night you made your annual appearance in my dreams. This dream was set in a unique building which I suspected might be your art center. More about that later. You were walking down a hall talking about weasels – they had something to do with a talk you had just given. I asked if you had ever read Annie Dillard’s essay, “Living Like Weasels.” You replied that you were familiar with Annie Dillard, but couldn’t recall that essay. I was excited as I always am when I have opportunity to introduce that essay to someone who might appreciate it.
By this time our conversation had moved to a sitting room. As we were talking, I found myself distracted by the carpet. There was a swirling green pattern which seemed to be moving. As I looked more closely I saw that the carpet was not really carpet. We were sitting on a clear acrylic surface which was directly over a tidal pool. The movement was caused by waves washing in and out over little sea plants. (Why is my mind so colorful and creative when I’m asleep?)
Anyway, if you haven’t read “Living Like Weasels,” I do recommend it – it is a great metaphor for the pursuit of God. It is included in Teaching a Stone to Talk which also has her most famous essay, “Expedition to the Poles.” I first read “Expedition” when I was in my twenties. There were some memorable images and a few great lines, but I really didn’t get the essay. I read it again when I was 30 and God was turning my spiritual world upside down. I thought it was brilliant!
Blessings to you and Phaedra!
THREE: HOW I RESPONDED TO THE EMAIL
They say the spiritual life is like gardening. But how do you hold prayers in your hand like you hold clods of dirt?
This fall we planted baby lettuce, wild kale and purple-crowned broccoli. We planted seeds. We plunged our fingers, slender probing shovels, into dark glistening dirt. We patted the earth as if it were the belly of a baby. We looked. We waited. We waited some more. We poured water from a yellow-green hose over the 4'X8' square that is our suburban garden.
But how do you hold your prayers like you hold your clods of dirt?
With gardening there is waiting. There is attending. There is listening and nursing and pruning and protecting. And more waiting. And all the vocabulary of Wendell Berry. And Jesus. And it works. You persevere in the daily work of visitations. You visit your garden and look. Here you pluck a worm. Here you loose a truculent weed. There you grapple tomato vines to chicken wire that rises to heaven like an oblation, like an inverted obelisk of prayer: Here, Lord, take our humble offering of tomato vines and cause it to bear fruit. Please.
But gardening is not like prayer. Gardening is material. You can touch it, you can taste it. Our bodies are material and we are at home and strong in our ability to live as a material, physical, skin, bone, joints, movable-appendages creature. Using the muscles of our body to walk to the garden requires no mental effort.
The physical effort expended to traverse the twenty yards from back door to boxed garden is kinetic pocket change we can afford to throw away.
But prayer is hard work and living in our spiritual bodies is hard work. These things fight against us like strangers that frighten us if we look at them too closely. Prayer is frightening because we really have no control over it.
We cannot see prayer with our physical eyes. We cannot hold it and feel safe with it and not threatened by it like we feel unthreatened by a clod of dirt. We know what to do with bad dirt. We know what to do with dirt that is full of worms. But we do not know what to do with prayers that do not get answered. We do not know what to do with prayers that have been prayed a thousand times and turn into irritating, distasteful cliches.
We understand what the preacher means when he talks about a calling that God has upon our lives. But it is not easy to live into it. It is easier to close our ears to that calling. "It is impossible." We prefer to do things that we know we are good at and that we can control: laundry (whites only), utility bills, lesson plans, blog entries, chocolate and cold cereal, our Netflix cue, computer code, getting the kids to school on time, lunch appointments, reading our Bible. But it's not easy to read our Bible and to incline our ears to listen to God. Just read the Bible and get on with your day. Just read. But don't let your heart ache again to sense--spiritually? actually?--the nearness of God
A calling is a wild and frightful thing. And powerful, very powerful. It entails dominion over the earth. God offers us real, powerful, earth-altering dominion. That is why it scares us so often. That is why it's not given to us, en toto, without a humility that suffuses and governs every molecule of our body and soul. It would destroy us otherwise. A calling comes into being one day at a time. It unfolds through the baptismal cycle of death and resurrection: we die with Christ, we rise with Christ, day after day after day. A day that is not given over to God in humble, listening dependence is a day that will not open up to us the fruit and power of our calling. It cannot.
Gardens grow from one day to the next. Our mustard greens grow continuously. They do not grow capriciously. They do not grow when they feel like it. Growing is demanding work. Our calling is demanding work.
Prayer is demanding work.
But our mustard greens do not grow on their own. They have help: the earthly community of the faithful: sun, rain, dirt, air, an occasional grace of all-natural fertilizer, and God. All working together. All working, in their own way, daily. So too our calling and prayer, it is daily work. It is the daily work of the spiritual community of the faithful: family, a friend, a pastor, books, beauty, the occasional grace of a really good day brimming with really happy news, and God.
I told Phaedra last night that I'm struggling to put the worth of my identity on the right things. So much of what I am doing feels intangible. Some days I restlessly and recklessly crave more: more affirmation, more achievement, more attention, more and better than. It embarrasses me. It is a dark thing that tempts me to assert my worth over against God. My terms. My rights. Over against the way of Jesus in a way that excuses me from being wholly dependent on him. It is diabolical and it is nothing new.
So I have to pray for deliverance. "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." Today. And again tomorrow. And I hope, Lord, you do not tire of hearing us say these same words over and over as much as we sometimes tire of saying them. The spiritual life is a confessional life, lived confessionally day after day after day. Like our daily bread.
The worst thing that could happen to us is if we had to figure out our calling on our own. The weight of that work is too great and we will give up before long. We will give up hope. That is the worst thing to lose: hope.
The spiritual life, they say, is like gardening.
You cannot hold prayers in your hand like you can clods of dirt.
But you can choose to let others help you. You can choose, day after day after plodding day, to give yourself to living, breathing, mutually dependent relationship with others who walk the pilgrimage with you.
You are not alone. There is hope. Juntos podemos.
FOUR: ANNIE DILLARD
"There is no such thing as a solitary polar explorer, fine as the conception is."
Wednesday, February 04, 2009
"In drama we celebrate our impotence before the gods. In comedy the gods say I'm going to save you anyway."
--David Mamet, playwright, essayist, filmmaker who received a Tony Award and Pulitzer for Glengarry Glen Ross, and Oscar nominations, as screenwriter, for The Verdict and Wag the Dog
Wednesday afternoon I sat at the Subway's shop near campus editing Lauren Winner's contribution to the book. What book? The book I'm editing--for Baker Books on art and the church. The book that's due in a week. The book that's coming out of the Transforming Culture symposium from a million years ago. With limited time I work as I can, where I can. Today it was Subway's. For the record I ate a six-inch veggie on flatbread.
Thursday evening I drove back down to the University of Texas campus in order to hear David Mamet get poorly interviewed by the president of the university, Dr. William Powers Jr. Dr. Powers couldn't stop listening to his own opinions. Oy vey. My friend Jeffrey Travis and I sat together and kept whispering to each other in Spanish, "Ay, Dios mio, que me esta matando." But Mamet was a character, and he's stinking smart.
He had some pretty good one-liners too. During the Q&A time, one smartaleck with his red pullover cowl thrown over his face stands up and says: "So, uh, yo, what are your top two favorite cuss words?" Half the audience laughs. David grimaces, then smirks and says, "Well, I probably say golly too much," then promptly marches on to the next questioner. The other half of the audience laughs.
Ok, this is the blog where I dump all the things I've been collecting in my inbox, labeled "Blog Material." It comes in no logical order. Use whatever you find useful or curious.
1. A massive bibliograph of books on worship that includes art-n-worship books: here. It's compiled by the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. I'm still grieved that Robert died last year. The man who compiled this list is Mark Torgerson. Funnily enough, I reviewed his book An Architecture of Immanence for Books & Culture.
2. A CD with 100 images of (sacred) contemporary art: here. Sandra Bowden has been working on this project, "Images of faith," for three years. She's finally done. Well done,Sandra! It'll be an excellent resource for churches as well as people who want to look like they know what they're talking about in (part of) the contemporary art scene.
3. A Redeemer Pres. church in Indianapolis with what looks like a good thing going on with the arts: here. See also here.
4. Leanne Martin: She keeps a pretty active blog on arts and Christian faith. She's interviewed folks like Jeff Overstreet, Dale Savidge, Luann Jennings, Jill Pelaez Baumgartner, and Tyrus Clutter.
5. Sample alt-definitions from the annual Mensa Invitational:
- Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.
- Karmageddon: It's like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's like, a serious bummer.
- Dopeler Effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.
- Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.
- Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)
- Decafalon (n.): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.
6. A Swedish philosopher says art needs spirituality. (passed along by my friend Kate.)
7. Josh Harris' pretty funny advice on how to write a book in 16 easy steps.