Monday, November 26, 2012

An Advent Calendar: alternate narrative, subversive time

"I keep expecting loud and impressive events to convince me and others of God's saving powers. Our temptation is to be distracted by them. When I have no eyes for the small signs of God's presence ... I will always remain tempted to despair." -- Henri Jozef Machiel Nouwen, Gracias! A Latin American Journal (1983)

“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.  Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.  Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.  Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.” -- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985)

"Let's do less." That's likely the one thing you will not hear in the month of December.

And you might not hear things like "Let's be more quiet." "Let's slow down." "Let's simplify our church life." "Let's spend less." "Let's celebrate Saint Nicholas Day and give away gifts instead of receiving them."

I find that one of the most difficult things to be at this time of year is a Christian. The clang and bombast of messages that blare at us from Halloween to Christmas Day, even from our own churches, generate enough psychological dissonance to make even the most sanguine among us a crabby mess.

We spend more than we can afford. We eat beyond a point of satisfaction. We keep at bay upsurges of anger during traffic jams. We grow irritable at the mobs that jostle against us in shopping centers. Joyful music seeps, metallically thin, through the gas station speakers, while a sadness gnaws at us about the actual state of our close relationships--that they're not nearly as good as we secretly wish they were. While we feel excited to purchase gifts for family, we worry that we might give an unappreciated gift.

From a breathless sprint through Thanksgiving Day, we hurtle warp speed to Christmas. Out of the euphoria of Black Friday, we plunge into a blockbuster of noise: Buy this. Be happy. Hurry up. Sing louder. Pray more. We're late. Do more. Get involved. You're behind. Call your mother. Dress up. String the lights. Just believe.

We tumble through December 25, with little sense of rhythm except perhaps that we're supposed to wear red, sing "Joy To The World," open gifts and eat another multi-course meal, then dismantle it all on December 26. But why? To what end? While the market coordinates the timing of our actions, with a subtle injection of a dominant storyline, our personal traditions sustain us as best they can.

But what we really need is to be caught up into something bigger than ourselves--bigger than our families and our churches even.

This is where the church's liturgical calendar steps in with a counter-narrative. Whereas the Gregorian calendar establishes January 1 as the beginning of a new year, Christians historically have regarded the season of Advent of the beginning of time. It's a subversion of time as we know it. For Christians, as the German theologian Karl Barth reminds us, time occurs in the “sphere of grace,” not in an economy of scarcity. At the Fall, humanity becomes lost and tumbles into lost time. Fallen into sin and isolated from God, humanity now experiences time as distorted and frustrating. But even as time begins in grace, so God in his covenant offers again to humanity the “time of grace.”

In such a grace, time does not flee but flow, it is not empty but fulfilled.

This is the kind of ecology of time that Advent invites us into, and my wife Phaedra has created an Advent calendar that offers a series of daily exercises and practices that allow this gracious notion of time to be deeply embedded in our hearts and bodies, with curative consequences for our neighbors.

I realize not everyone feels overwhelmed by this season, but if you've been looking for a way to make Advent and Christmas more meaningful for yourself and your family and friends, this is a great place to start. Looking over the exercises last night, I got excited to do them ourselves and to see what might happen to us and through us.

Advent starts next Sunday. If you put in your order today or tomorrow, Phaedra can mail the calendar to you in time for the beginning of a holy, life-giving season. Please see here for details about the calendar.


Instead of opening a gift each day of Advent, this calendar supplies an activity of prayer, service, or attention, helping you be mindful during this beautiful season. The card for each day comes with an activity printed on the back to do with your family, friends, or housemates. Each action is simple and easy to do without much, or any, planning. Focusing on giving to others, loving well, and having a contented heart, makes Advent an enriching and refreshing season.

The images on the cards for each day come from vintage Bible story books, old fashioned Christmas cards, Christian art images, Nativity scenes, and even vintage carol sheet music. The colors of the cards coordinate to be beautiful when all hung together. Browns, sepia tones, black and white, and earth colors lend a simplicity to the calendar. Advent is a season of simplicity and waiting, so having a more quiet palette for this Advent calendar seemed appropriate.

The service, prayer, or attention activity is printed on the back, along with a vintage postcard mark giving the card an old-fashioned feel. Each card is slipped inside a glassine back with a number sticker on the front. Green washi tape gives just a little embellishment to the sticker.

The cards themselves do not have numbers on them so that you can put them in the order that seems best to you and most meets your needs. The only card with a specific day attached is the one image of St. Nicholas, which is meant to be put in the 6th card in order to fall on St. Nicholas Day.

This Advent Calendar comes with: 

25 Glassine Bags with Number Stickers
25 Clothes Pins
25 Vintage Christian Christmas Image Postcards with Activities on the back
Brown Twine to Hang the Calendar
Simple Instruction Sheet for Hanging and Use

Everything you need to set up your calendar as soon as it arrives! Just put nails or hooks in your wall, or on your fireplace mantle, and you are all ready to begin Advent.

Service activity examples:

1. Make or buy your mail carrier treats and place them in the mail box. Add a note thanking them for their service.

2. Pick up trash all day long. Thank God for the beautiful earth that He made for us. Pray for those working hard to protect His creation.

3. Pay for a stranger's coffee or meal. Do this anonymously by paying for the person behind you in the drive through, or let someone standing in line with you know that you are going to treat them.

4. Light candles in your windows and pray for those who are lost without a light in their darkness. Pray that the light of Jesus will shine brightly this season.

5. Turn down your heat for a day. Pray for those without a way to get warm this winter. Pray that God will provide for them and protect them from harm.

GO HERE to see details about the Advent Calendar. And please pass this along to family and friends to help Phaedra spread the word. Thanks!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Hobbit-inspired art prints for sale

Because she loves a choice word, well said, with wit and a taste for the fantastical, my wife Phaedra has created a series of prints inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit. And, really, who doesn't enjoy hearing a thing now and then from Bilbo Baggins? Here is a selection of prints, which you can find at her shop, Phaedra Jean Art Machine. They're for sale at a great price, and if you could help us to spread the word to friends and family, we'd be ever so grateful.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

10 Thoughts for turning an Academic Work into a Public Talk

I'm not the most traveled speaker, I'm not the least, but I travel on average once a month in order to speak in a variety of settings. I've spoken to church planters in Chicago as well as to a roomful of seminary professors in Toronto. I've given a seminar to skinny-jeaned worship leaders in Waco. I've presented an address to mission leaders in Pattaya, Thailand, and I once gave a brief "Evangelicals 101" talk to a group of journalists at The Austin American Statesman.

After my recent visit to LA to speak at the Preaching in the Visual Age conference, it struck me how difficult it is in fact to turn academic work into a public talk. I revised my plenary talk nearly twenty times, up to the last moment. It took that much to get it just right, in time, on point, which turned out to be a different one than the one that had captured my imagination on the fourth floor of the Duke University Perkins library.

I'm sure other folks would have helpful things to add to this list, and I don't pretend it's comprehensive; it's admittedly idiosyncratic. But since I've yet to see anything of the sort, I thought I'd share it with the hope that it'd help others engaged in similar exercises of communicative translation. Please feel free to exchange the details of my discipline for whatever might be yours.

I offer this in the hope that it might encourage academic folk--whether students or professors or otherwise--to craft public talks that demonstrate care for the audiences which God has entrusted to them in any given case. (Read: please don't be tediously abstruse or intellectually pretentious.)


1. There is a hunger for theologically clear-headed, biblical coherent, ecclesially friendly, contextually and missionally relevant thinking about the arts (or whatever subject on God's green earth that might interest you). Full stop.

2. Ruthlessly define your terms. If there is one thing you can assume, it's that you've lived way too long with your material and have likely forgotten how much of it has become subconsciously obvious. The fact is, it's not obvious to others.  Do not assume that your audience will understand terms like transcendence, sacramental, symbol, art, mystery, mission, culture, history, the good, the true, the beautiful, the Word, the church, etc--unless you define it for them. And you might tell them again and again the context you have in mind and why your material matters for that context.

3. Ask God how you can love your audience, and do pray. One of the ways you can love your audience is by asking the organizers of the event what outcomes they hope to see as a result of the event. Say some prayers that God will grace you to serve those outcomes to the best of your ability. Really, do pray. Pray during your preparation. Pray at the end of your preparation. Pray before speaking. Pray after your talk. Pray for the people you'll be addressing. You'd be surprised how the Holy Spirit, who is alive and at large, welcomes and answers your prayers in very specific, perhaps surprising ways.  As many times as you might give the same basic talk, ask God how you might love this particular audience in this specific setting.

4. Along these lines, to paraphrase the editor-in-chief at Eerdmans, Jon Pott, do not underestimate the disinterest of your potential listener. Remember that the things that you care about—perhaps intensely—may or may not be shared with equal interest by your audience. Remember that the things that seem “plain” to you may be far from plain to the people you’re addressing here and now.

5. Do not be too proud to receive feedback from your friends and colleagues. Let me say that again, because it’s a hard one to practice (as I’ll be the first to testify): do not be too proud to receive frank, cold-eyed but not cold-hearted feedback in advance of your talk. Be like Pixar: be fearless. As Pete Docter, director of Up and Monsters Inc., said to us, it never pays “to hedge or play it safe. The product suffers and you hijack the creative process.”

Trust that this feedback will only make your talk more effective. As good as you might be at any given point of preparing a public talk, there is always a chance that you can’t see a blind spot in your presentation. Imagine your most demanding audience and craft your talk with a precision that anticipates their critique; but write your talk with language and a rhetorical style that is accessible to your actual audience. I shared my talk with colleagues at Duke prior to flying to LA, and it was terrifying to anticipate their critiques. But as always: it was so much better for it, thank God.

5a. To state the obvious perhaps (as a corollary of the above): an academic talk does not equal a public talk. Nor for that matter does an academic research paper translate easily into a public talk. It’s not apples to apples; it's apples to NASA.

6. There is no such thing as writing, as New Testament scholar Gordon Fee used to say, only re-writing. “Cut your darlings.” Less is more. Beginnings and endings are critical as are transitional statements. Use illustrations strategically to evoke an empathetic understanding of the material or to sharpen the imaginative importance of your point. Pete Docter told us that at Pixar, with 400 people working full-time, they’re able to animate on average 4 seconds per week. That. Is. A. Lot. Of. Work. Lord. Have. Mercy.

7. Practice, practice, practice. Some of us (not me) have extraordinary memory capacities and can recall our material with barely a glance at written notes. Others of us (me) have to practice repeatedly in order to remember it well. It's immensely dull to watch a speaker with his head stuck down in the lectern. Practicing out loud is also a great way to get a “feel” for the material--where it bogs down, where a point is one too many, where transitions are fuzzy or misleading, where a good story needs to be given breathing space to tell it well as well as to receive it well.

8. When you become famous, don’t be a prick (pardon the french). Don’t assume that people owe you a listening ear. Don’t play the guru (as Eugene Peterson would tell us in class, and as the guy "who wrote the Bible," he should know how tempting that is). Don't play favorites. Don't dismiss the "little people" at your event in favor of the "important people." Look people in the eye when they talk to you. Thank people generously for their questions and comments. Try to be genuinely interested in what they have to say to you. Trust that God can use anybody to make you a better scholar and a better version of yourself. Remind yourself daily that you're lucky to get to do this.

9. Be on the watch if the topic you’re addressing is an especially sore spot for you. I’ve done this myself, I’ve seen it done by others: use our woundedness as an excuse to bludgeon the audience. The point is not that we should prevent ourselves from feeling our woundedness deeply. If we have felt hurt by God or by the church or by our family and friends or by our bosses and leaders, it’s important not to shut down emotionally. Being present to these feelings can become an occasion for a deep work of God in our lives. If we’re not careful, however, we can allow our wounded hearts to justify hyper-generalizations (“All Christians are X or Y”), over-simplifications (“The church is anti-art”), finger-pointing pronouncements (“Evangelicals give Christianity a bad name”) or myopic judgments (“If Christians would only do X, then our society would benefit from Y”). Left to their own devices, wounded Christians with a public platform become dangerous to themselves and toxic to others.

10. Work hard but hold your work lightly. As Brian Moss and I talked on the first day of the conference, it’s easy to stress about the outcome of our work. We want to be liked. We want to be great. We want to be respected. Brian led the worship of the conference (to which I contributed a few bits), while I gave a plenary talk on a “Theology of the Eye.” Both of us wanted to do well. Both of us knew that we could not please every participant, as much as we might like to have done. We had to remind ourselves that it wasn’t this event or that event that mattered. What mattered was the long haul. What mattered was how we conducted ourselves "off stage." What mattered was how we treated the folks who had paid hard money to attend this conference. What mattered was how well we loved our family back home.

Because our work at the conference mattered, we sweated long and hard to make it as good as possible. This was a way to honor the people who had invited us and to love the people who had gathered for three days of conferencing. And while we gave ourselves permission to speak candidly with each other off the record, we tried not to take ourselves too seriously, which is why an adult beverage at the end of the day played a critical role in relieving us from the burden of being "indispensable to the Kingdom of God."


Pete Docter

Bill Dyrness and Betsy Halstead

Barry Taylor

Bobette Buster


Ralph Watkins

Mark Labberton

Ralph Winter

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Preaching in a Visual Age: 7 Thoughts and 15 Questions for Preachers

David Taylor, Pete Docter, Bobette Buster, Shane Hipps, Ralph Watkins, Ralph Winter: panel at PVA

Last night I returned from LA, where I experienced three days of stimulating discussion with preachers and artists, Hollywood directors and seminary faculty around the topic of Preaching In A Visual Age. As I sat in the audience, listening to others speak, I wondered what I would do if I were a working preacher (as I once was). I wondered why exactly a "visual age" mattered to the craft of preaching. I wondered, "What now?" Here is what I jotted down on the flight from LAX to Cincinnati en route to Raleigh-Durham. In addition to my thoughts, I'm including Mark Labberton's "15 Questions" that he posed at the end of the conference. (Mark is a very good man and the Director of the Ogilvie Institute of Preaching at Fuller Seminary.)

I'm also including here a pretty funny IKEA commercial that Pete Docter (director of Pixar movies Monsters Inc. and Up) showed us. Enjoy. Photos courtesy of the amazing Ken Fong.

My experience of the conference in brief: Brian Moss and company (including Michele Sudduth) did a fabulous job leading us in worship, I had a wonderful dinner with Bill Dyrness, saw friends Maria Fee and Toddy Burton as well as Jeffrey Travis and Nate Risdon, was glad to see Betsy Halstead there, enjoyed my exchanges with Barry Taylor, was moved by Bobette Buster's presentation, appreciated John Chan's panel facilitation, was stirred by Ralph Watkin's presentation, laughed and cried at the videos Ralph Winter showed, loved Cam Anderson's exegesis of a work of contemporary visual art, so appreciated Pete Docter's humility and sneak peek into the creative process at Pixar Films, and loved the way Mark lead us all the way through.

Seven Things I would say to Preachers about Preaching in a Visual Age

1.     Do not underestimate how not obvious it is what a "visual age" has to do with the practice of preaching. That's an awkward sentence, but the point is that it's not an apples-to-apples exchange. A visual age might imply technological instruments. It might imply psychological and neurological habits. It might imply sociological practices. It might imply points of connection with the late medieval age and points of disconnection with the modern age, or both as the case may be. Whatever it implies, as church leaders we have to commit to thinking carefully about our use or non-use of visual media--from the way we arrange our seating spaces to the furniture of our "sanctuaries" to the conscription of movie clips or the commentary on our popular entertainment practices which shape and misshape us.

2.     Do not underestimate how valuable it is to teach your community about the place of sight, seeing, visuality and the imagination in the economy of the triune God. Unless we get this part clearly, we won't get the so what or the how to of a "visual age" right, whatever that looks like in your context.

3.     Do not underestimate how many wonderful opportunities you have to gift your listeners with a rich treasury of verbal and mental images (which is where reading novels, poetry and great essays come in handy).

4.     Do not underestimate how powerful silence and the intentional absence of imagery is. As many would remind us from the domain of music, silence in a work of music is not emptiness but its own kind of fullness. I would say the same thing with respect to the visual design and content of the church’s public worship.

5.     Do not underestimate how powerful one good visual image is.

6.     Do not underestimate how powerful one good visual image is when experienced repeatedly. The reason why TV is powerful is that an audience is exposed to a visual story week after week after week. That’s the same reason why a movie trilogy (like Lord of the Rings) or a movie that comes out in eight iterations (like Harry Potter) is powerful: it’s nearly impossible for an audience to forget repeated visits to the same imaginative world. Whatever people look at over time—day after day, week after week, whether it’s the architecture of the space or an image that is affixed or projected in the space—is what will likely shape their imaginations, both consciously and subconsciously.

7.     Do not underestimate the fruitful benefit of working with a team to formulate your sermons. (I think of John Stott in this regard.) A team of people marked by love, mutual respect, prayerful listening to both God and the times in which our people live, a shared mission, and a common process with clearly defined purposes for meeting, is a team that can only make the work of preachers better. When Pete Docter was asked, “What’s the success of Pixar Films?”, he answered: “Not people alone or process alone but both people and process.” That, I imagine, will be true of us preachers too.



1. What is your story of the gospel? Who needs it? Why? What is the narrative line and why does it matter?
2. How does your gospel help you see? Who and what does your gospel help you see?
3. What hues describe your gospel? What dimensions? Story?
4. Where is your gospel vivid? Faint? Pixilated? Over- or under-exposed?
5. In what ways might your gospel be just another screen, or even screenshot?


6. Is our preaching an act of art restoration or is it more like life with Harold and the Purple Crayon?
7. How does your preaching refract the gospel?
8. How does your preaching currently help or hinder people seeing the gospel more fully?
9. Where does your gospel fit in the spectrum of Thomas Kincade to Jackson Pollock?
10. Is our preaching fostering vivid lives of love, creativity and courage in the world?


11. What screens or images in your congregation’s life most concern you?
12. What screens or images in our culture’s life most concern you? Why?
13. Why do you believe the gospel your congregation shows deserves attention?
14. In what ways does your congregation make the gospel visible to your community?
15. What lives of passionate faithfulness does your church display?

Preaching in a visual age in Austin, Texas.

Plotinus and Me.

Brian Moss iconized by Phaedra's art.

Not a boring panel by any means.

Cam the Visual Exegete.

The theological virtues in light of the eyes.

Mark Labberton.

Pete Docter.

A photo that our children will appreciate forever.

A gorgeous work of art hanging in the Ecclesia Hollywood church narthex.