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November 2008

An Alternative Thanksgiving

leaves This Thanksgiving our family opted for an alternative celebration.  Usually, Thanksgiving has followed a familiar routine:  Cook (my wife only), drive 90 minutes, gather with lots of extended family, eat lots of food, sit for another hour or two while the men watch a football game, and drive 90 minutes home.  I enjoy seeing family, but we were in a rut with this routine.  So this year, we left.  We are in Tucson, Arizona, enjoying the sunshine and time with each other.  This is a familiar place to us.  My children have grown up coming here once or twice each year since they were infants.  My wife and I have come here for over 25 years.  While my wife’s father used to have a vacation home here, after he died about 10 years ago, we have continued to come to a place with deep and wide associations for us.  We know the streets, have a church we attend, visit favorite restaurants, take familiar hikes in canyons and on mountains, lament changes, and soak up a place that is radically different than home and, yet, is so like home in its familiarity.

So, how will I celebrate this day?  I hope to do some of these things that I have tried to do in the past.  Maybe you’d like to try some of them too.

Praise God.  Read a Psalm, alone and/or with the family, and spend a few moments in prayer in thankfulness to God.  Psalm 136 is  a good one.  I like taking it and applying it to my own personal history, not just the history of Israel.

Take a walk.  Be thankful for God’s creation.  That’s easy here in Arizona, where the unusual vegetation and mountain landscapes easily call forth praise, but it can happen at home as well.  Find the beauty and provision that is around you, and thank God for it.

Sing.  As I’ve said, Christmas songs are out on Thanksgiving.  Try something like “Be Thou My Vision,” or “What Wondrous Love Is This,” good hymns to set your heart in praise.

Thank God for trouble.  If God works all things for the good of those who love Him, then even our troubles are ultimately for our good.  I don’t mean enjoy trouble, I mean that we simply adopt the perspective of faith, trusting God to bring good out of bad,

Write letters to people to whom you are thankful.  Sure, you could email them, but somehow an email doesn’t have the same weight as a short letter.  The past several Thanksgivings I have selected three people to send a thank you note to --- some from the distant past.  It’s a good remembrance.

Listen to your children.  Because I’m on vacation, I’ve been able to do some of this already, but I find that at such times as these I learn things about my children that I miss at home amid all the distractions.

Read George Washington’s Original Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.  You can find it here. He was told by Congress to “recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."  Nowadays, we have a lot of vague thanks being given, but little acknowledgement of the Giver of blessing.

In society at large, there is little left to this special day, other than turkey, a vague sense of thanks, and planning for shopping on Black Friday.  But for Christians, it can be different.   Happy Thanksgiving.


A Soundtrack for Thanksgiving

Autumn

For the last two years, I have posted a Thanksgiving playlist of songs for this increasingly overlooked holiday. Since the Christmas shopping season starts so early, Thanksgiving tends to get merged in with Christmas, a brief (but welcome) interlude in the buying frenzy. Maybe this year, with less buying going on, perhaps we can dwell more on a day dedicated to giving thanks and, perhaps, to the One who is due our thanks.

These songs don't all have Thanksgiving as a theme, because what I treasure about the day is also the gathering at home, or maybe the longing for home, or (sadly) in some cases the trials of being home. Like every holiday, its mention also brings a certain remembrance of childhood celebrations of the day. So, that too is reflected in some of my choices. In the end, it is a subjective list, of course, and yet I hope you will enjoy the music and reflect on what light it sheds on this Thanksgiving Day.

I've recorded and posted below two MP3 files, each with eight or nine songs. You won't be able to stream these, as they will timeout before they finish (a function of my blog provider). I suggest right-clicking on each one (where it says "Side One" and "Side Two") and saving it to your desktop. Each will take 3-4 minutes to download. Once you have done that, you can then click on the desktop icon and listen to the songs on your player. Enjoy!

Side One

1.  In the Bounty of the Lord, by Claire Holly.  A gospel bluegrass number that celebrates what God gives us.  The style is reminiscent of music I listened to growing up, as I find it reminds me of those Friday nights when my father's friends would come over and play music and drink black coffee until after midnight.

2. Thanksgiving Day, by Ray Davies.  Kinks front-man Davies can claim the only legitimate song about Thanksgiving!  He eschews his usual sardonic wit and writes a warm tune here, and the most rocking thing you'll hear on this playlist.

3.  Thank You, by Jan Krist.  It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without saying "thank you," and Jan manages to lace the thanks with enough melancholy and angst to keep it real.  She's a good friend, and hearing her music brings many memories.

4.  Gratitude, by Peter Himmelman.  "I'm glad that I can see the brown eyes of my daughter. . . . Forgive me if I lost a sense of gratitude."  Himmelman, an orthodox Jew, knows Who to thank.  His song is a confession of how we take things for granted and forget to be thankful to our Creator.

5. Be Thou My Vision, by Van Morrison.  It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without a hymn, and this is likely my favorite, with a very Celtic delivery by Van.

6.  Covert War, by David Wilcox.  Wow.  If you had a family like this, you wouldn't want to go home for Thanksgiving.  Fireworks at the Thanksgiving meal!  Sad, but real.

7. Come Thou Fount/ Grain By Grain, by Matt Auten.  Gorgeous hymn, and a reminder that God is the fount of every blessing.

8. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, by George Winston.  Watching Charlie Brown is a part of every holiday.  Besides, it's a bit of a pick-me-up.

Side Two

19. Wanderer's Song, by Brooks Williams.  One of my favorites by Brooks, this song is about how all roads lead home.

10. River Where Mercy Flows, by Julie Miller.  I love Julie's songs, and the tenderness and fragility of her voice is disarming.  Thank God for His mercy.

11. What Wondrous Love, by Jars of Clay.  Another hymn favorite.  Thank God for his wondrous love.

12. Thanksgiving Song, by Mary Chapin Carpenter. New to the playlist this year, this original song is from Carpenter's recently released Christmas album. "Grateful for each hand we hold, around this table. . . ."

13. America, by Simon and Garfunkel. As my Uganda friend reminds me, Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, and this is a song about America, and a nostalgic reminder of another time. This is the unique place I'm thankful for.

14. Somewhere Over the Rainbow, by The Innocence Mission. It seems like The Wizard of Oz used to come on sometime around the holidays every year as I was growing up. Thus, I identify it with home. It has a lullaby quality to it also, as sung by Karen Peris.

15. The Water is Wide, by Karla Bonoff. What a great song! This traditional tune was arranged and sung by Bonoff with some guitar and vocals by James Taylor late in the song. It's a song about trying to get home.

16. We Will Dance Someday, by Brooks Williams. A great upbeat song of hope about the Home we will enjoy someday. That hope makes me thankful.

17. Homecoming, by Jerry Reed Smith.  An instrumental coda which reminds us, I think, of where our real Home is, where it will be Thanksgiving all the time.


 


The New Urbanist: A Review of Eric Jacobsen’s “Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith”

Sidewalks

Most of us, Christians included, take for granted the places in which we live and rarely get beyond superficial considerations about traffic and congestion or good restaurants or convenient shopping. Besides, more and more we are people who do most of our living on the interior --- in our automobiles, houses, and offices. The exterior, including the built environment around us, is simply the backdrop on which our interior lives are played out. Not so for Eric Jacoben. His 2003 book, Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, is a testimony to his passion for cities, his commitment to seeing our urban areas through the lens of Scripture, and his goal of bringing us into an attentive consideration of the places where we live.

A pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Missoula, Montana, Jacobsen is also a keen observer of and participant in city life. His book is divided into two parts. First, in a section entitled "Thinking About Our Cities, he shares a philosophical and theological perspective on cities, beginning with a consideration of how sprawl has affected our lives and ending with a section on "Learning to See Our Cities: A Theological Approach," where he roots our resurrection hope in community rather than the individual, relates stewardship not only to nature but to the built and cultural environment, and encourages the discipline of seeing city places as "gift-places," as holy sites where God meets us and reminds of the future hope of a New Jerusalem. To receive the blessings of cities, he says we need to "train our eyes to see the corner coffee shop and grocery in a neighborhood as the rare and beautiful species that they have become. We need to learn to stand back in awe at the broad, tree-lined avenue that has as a terminating vista a grand public building. . . . and take advantage of the pedestrian-friendly setting of the grid-pattern layout with ample sidewalks for walking (alone or with our children), treating each corner as a fresh opportunity for exploration and adventure. . . ." What he counsels is a settledness that requires reflection for a people often too busy to see the majesty of what is at hand.

In a second section, entitled "Markers of the City," he attempts to define what makes a city, using six markers: public spaces, mixed-use zoning, local economy, beauty and quality in the built environment, critical mass, and presence of strangers. He finds the markers helpful in suggesting what is good and valuable in existing cities and what needs to be repaired, relating the existence of public spaces, for example, to incarnational ministry, noting that public space requires sharing and, thus, an opportunity to practice love and kindness, promotes relationships, and facilitates communal discourse. He demonstrates the value of a local economy to local culture and community, lamenting the narrowness of our thinking about economic decisions, noting that "[w]e compare prices, and if we can get the same product for even a slightly lower price, we will do so. What we need to learn is to take one more step and say 'What else is being impacted by the purchase of this product?'" It's a good point, as not every cost is factored into our economic decisions. In other chapters he links density with connectivity and the existence of strangers with opportunities for hospitality, weaving in and out anecdotal strands that illustrate his points and challenging us to a New Urbanist perspective, one that values a rediscovery of the classic virtues of the city.

This is not always an easy book to absorb. There is a lot being said about things we don't usually give much thought to. Having finished the book, I have the sense that I need to read it again, carefully, or make it a part of a discussion group. But that's really a testament to the thoughtfulness of the project, to the many years the author has been engaged with the topic. I recommend the book for pastors, church planters, community leaders, and city planners, to anyone concerned with the nature and shape of our cities, for the ordinary places where we all live. As Eugene Peterson says in his foreword to the book, "Geography and theology are biblical bedfellows." Jacobsen shows us why.


A Kingdom Among the Fall

Leaves

This weekend I had an opportunity to walk in my neighborhood for the first time in a few months. I have a heel spur, an invisible but quite real ailment than I've been recuperating from by not doing my usual exercise walks, so I'll pay a little for this indulgence, but I'm happy to pay for it, this once, as it is Fall and the leaves are falling and the air is clean and the sun is shining. I love this time of year.

There's still the tint of red, orange and yellow in the trees, some leaves clinging stubbornly to branches, sunlight filtering through and blue sky reappearing where it was once blocked by limbs full with leaves. Everything seems sharper --- the sunlight, the sky, the limbs and leaves, and even the sound of my feet striking the sidewalk and kicking up piles of fallen leaves, the shuffling sound they make interrupting a still morning. It's 9:00 and it's unusually quiet. No one is out. Only one car has passed me. Even the birds seem to be sleeping in. The trickle of water in the creek I pass over is almost deafening, whereas at other times of more activity it's hardly noticeable.

It's tempting to be melancholy at Fall, particularly late Fall. I know some people find it a depressing time, a time when everything is dying, with no Christmas cheer yet to brighten their souls. This Fall in particular portends sadness, or even fear, as not only leaves have fallen but stock markets, jobs, and, for some I know, health. And yet while I'm worth less on paper today than 60 days ago, a part of me is enjoying this slowdown, this economic fall, while praying for those who have lost jobs and are so deeply impacted by it. What I mean is that even economies need to rest sometime. We need to rest. The less frenetic pace is appealing. I went shopping for some clothing, and clerks were readily available to help me. Prices seemed reasonable, for once. A friend and I went to a popular restaurant the other day, and it was only moderately crowded, whereas it normally would have been packed. He said "This is how life ought to be," even while acknowledging that his business has. . . fallen. What he meant is that life should have wide margins, room to just live and enjoy simple things, like a meal, or a walk, without the compulsion to do more sell more be more live more.

So my response to the economic downturn, the falling all around me, is to take a walk, to try and remember while things are falling that there is a steady ground beneath me and that there is a lot of life going on under the surface, that God is at work in unseen ways to work all things for the good of those who love him. The media loves calamity and crisis, and sellers of goods profit on our fears. But as Jill Carattini said recently: "There is indeed an alternative, but it is neither safe nor easy. It involves laying down our fears to follow Christ with faith's daring; it involves opening our lives to a world that scares us, and rejecting the anxiety of a world convinced the sky is falling. The Christian alternative to a culture of fear is a kingdom of hospitality and abundance, vulnerability and generosity, love and self-sacrifice--the very kingdom Christ shaped with his living and dying, and invites us to do the same."

So resolve to enjoy every moment of this Fall, of every fall. Take a walk. Give something away when you feel like you can't. Don't succumb to fear. Walk on the steady ground of Jesus. Kick the leaves and make some noise to remind you that every leaf that falls also nourishes the soil that brings new life every Spring. Use this lull and temptation to fear as a door to what really matters, as an opportunity to reflect on God's economy and provision. Rest and work and hope in Jesus, because his Kingdom is here among the Fall.


The New Tribalism?

7531300213 “If you follow marketing trends, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about “tribes” lately. It’s the idea that our culture is a collection of groups with a shared identity, mission or leader. Seems obvious enough. We’ve all seen Braveheart and have a pretty good idea of what a tribe is. But what does it mean for an artist in the 21st century? I think it provides one model for how an artist can have the freedom to create their art and make a living doing it.”  (Joe, at Noisetrade 101)

I don’t intend to pick on Noisetrade, or Joe, or anyone else who is the business of trying to support themselves as artists.  I’m well familiar with niche marketing, or even tribe marketing.  Find your tribe.  Sell to it.  Develop a loyal following.  Most artists will do well to follow this as a model for trying to get gigs and sell music.  But let’s face it --- as a model for the good society, for a culture built around shared values, it’s detrimental.  To the extent it builds a following, it does so around consumption, around music, and around a person.  That model would seem to contribute to the further balkanization of society, because tribes built around something as innocuous as music (in terms of bringing about societal collapse) may also begin to look alike, think alike, and choose to associate with other tribe members.  It’s one step from that to dissing other tribe members and then, at some point, really losing the ability to appreciate and converse with one another.  This is not healthy!

Music should be a bridge across “tribes,” something that brings people of different political and social views, of different lifestyles and looks, and of different racial and social classes together.  Finding something in common, if only in music, can lead to conversation, and conversation can lead to understanding, and understanding might just lead to some consensus about what is true, good, and beautiful, about what a good society ought to look like.  Sometimes I get the sense that no one is much interested in that anymore.  It’s more about who looks like me, thinks like me, and (well) buys like me.

In the end, it’s not my tribe that matters.   The Apostle Paul said that we are not to seek our own good, but the good of our neighbor (1 Cor. 10:24), and the admonition to do good extends to everyone, not just our immediate neighbor, not just our tribe (Gal. 6:10).  Rather than reach our tribe with music, why not reach out to a larger group?  Some artists do this quite effectively.  For example, I went to a Josh Groban concert with my wife.  I saw the requisite swooning women, of course, but I also saw men and women of every age group --- all attracted by his artistry and a music that really transcended the boundaries of language, religion, age, race, and preference.  I don’t prefer him, but I came away with a great appreciation of his music and his artistry, and his ability to reach across tribes.  Frankly, that should be not just the goal of the artist but of us all.


God’s Holy Experiment: Brother Yun, the Chinese Church, and the Back to Jerusalem Movement

heaven As I gravitate toward a reading diet that focuses primarily on either theology or literary fiction, I was pleased to discover the 2002 book, The Heavenly Man, which is the autobiography of Brother Yun, a leader in the Chinese house church movement as well as one of the visionaries behind Chinese Christians’ goal of taking the Gospel “back to Jerusalem.”  Written with Paul Hathaway, Director of Asia Harvest, the book is a compelling story of Yun’s conversion and total commitment to Jesus Christ, a commitment that led him to suffering the great trials of poverty, imprisonment, torture, and separation from his family, and yet Yun’s story of complete dependence on God also demonstrates the many blessings of God even amongst suffering.

Like many of our time, I suffer from the twin plagues of cynicism and skepticism, and so I came to this book ready to question or even disbelieve its claims of miracles, looking for some skewed theology or sensationalistic claims.  Yet I found none.  What I did discover was a man who, despite his sufferings, maintained his humble reliance on God, was immersed in Scripture and prayer, was full of love for fellow prisoners and even captors, and received visions from the Lord and miraculous interventions that he did not seek and yet sorely needed.

Some examples may help give one a flavor of what life was like for Yun.  During Yun’s first imprisonment, where he was subjected to beatings and electric shocks, he was somehow miraculously able to fast from both water and food for 75 days, earning the respect of both fellow cellmates (who were generally cruel to him) and prison guards. Not humanly possible, of course, but his own account is corroborated by his wife and another prisoner.  It led to him being called “The Heavenly Man.”  Yun later escaped from a heavily guarded prison by simply walking out, past guards who did not see him, through a gate that was inexplicably standing wide open, and into a taxi that took him away into hiding.  Whenever I doubted the story, I was reminded that nothing occurred to Yun that did not have a precedent in Scripture and was corroborated by at least one (and often more than one) witness.

Yun is also forthright about his own failings.  He admits, for example, that his last imprisonment, in Myanmar (Burma) would not have happened if he had heeded his wife’s wisdom and prompting by the Lord, that he placed to much trust in his having a German passport.  He also admits that his own busyness and refusal to rest had at times alienated him from his family and led him to make unwise decisions.

Yun maintains that “how we mature as Christians largely depends on the attitude we have when we’re faced with suffering,” that the Lord “gives us these trials to keep us humble and dependent on him for sustenance.”  That being said, Yun is frank about the agony as well as the discouragement and bitterness he faced at times.  Even in this, he was Job-like, crying out to God in his distress and suffering and yet remaining faithful, continuing to trust the One who saves us from our captors (whoever or whatever they may be) and gives us joy in the midst of suffering.

The Heavenly Man is not a difficult book to read, and yet its content is emotionally charged.  It’s 347 pages of life at the edge of faith, about a life fully dependent on God.  As Western Christians, I doubt many of us know anything like what Brother Yun experienced, and yet we can be challenged to a deeper faith and walk by his example.  Read it to be challenged.  Read it to be informed.  It’s an uncomfortable, holy provocation.

[For a more detailed survey of the mushrooming growth of Chinese Christianity, I recommend David Aikman’s Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of PowerAikman, a former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine, and a Christian, believes Christians will make up 20 to 30 percent of the population of China within just a few years.  Perhaps the most arresting chapter highlights the growing role of Christians among the educated elite - artists, writers, intellectuals, even Party members.  It’s rich with detail and yet is a bit dry at times.]


Living With Style (Rule Eight): Don’t Be a Qualifier

Style

"Avoid the use of qualifiers." (Strunk and White, The Elements of Style)

Let me put it like this: I'm rather tired of this little series, and I'm pretty sure you may be also. While that sentence is meant to illustrate the rule, there is truth to it as well. I'm weary of even William Strunk's simple rules, of his "little" book, and yet just when my zeal is flagging, his vivid metaphors as well as wit and humor come to the rescue.

Try this for metaphor: "Rather, very, little, pretty --- these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words." Yeech! It's an effective way to convey his abhorrence for qualifiers. And he even manages to insert a bit of alliteration as well, with his "pond of prose." I'd stop reading his rules if they weren't such a delight to read. That's a mark of good writing: you so enjoy the prose that it matters not what the content may be.

Or try this for humor: "The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then." Strunk is having fun with us.

But I digress. The point of this helpful rule is that we should simply say what we mean and mean what we say. As the Bible says, "Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one." So qualifying our words is serious business!

Qualifiers are people who either lack confidence in what they are saying, lack the courage to stand on a "yes" or "no," or are always leaving themselves a path of retreat from any commitment --- whether from a position on an issue or a commitment to a dinner date. Some other option may present itself. Something better may come along. They may change positions because they sense the wind of opinion is against them. They don't want to be tied down. They don't want to disappoint. They are rather tiresome, aren't they, particularly when they are us.

Jesus was not a qualifier. "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (Matt. 4:8). "I am willing. Be clean," he said to the leper (Mk. 1:41). "Go in peace." "Come, follow me." "Take courage, don't be afraid." "Go, sell everything you have." "Are you so dull?" (Yes, we can be.) We can be confident that Jesus said exactly what he meant, that nothing he said was unqualified because he had no doubt of either its truth or appropriateness or any concern as to how it would be perceived. Politicians take heed!

So the next time you hear me say a qualifying word, have a little word with me, OK? A simple "Yes" or 'No' should do.


A Better Posture: A Review of Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, by Andy Crouch

Crouch

Although Andy Crouch's Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling goes on a bit too long, he provides a helpful way of looking at culture that goes beyond the paradigm of "culture wars" and provokes Christians to pursue a new and more positive roll in cultural formation. His question is what we as Christians are supposed to do in the world, and where do we begin. In three sections he looks at culture, gospel, and calling --- concluding that our role is both more modest and significant than we might think, that God transforms cultures while we humbly and communally put our gifts to work in glorifying God and serving others. The sense I had at the end of the book was more humility and awe than call to action.

There were a couple of chapters that were very helpful. In "Cultivation and Creation" he argues that the only way to change culture is to make more of it, asserting that our role is not simply to condemn, critique, copy, or consume culture, though we rightly and by necessity do all of these at one time or the other, but we are to create new cultural goods and cultivate the good that is here. The emphasis is not on tearing down but on building up what good is here. It's a helpful corrective to our tendency to spend all our time taking potshots at the bad while mimicking the culture with our own "safe" subculture (aka "contemporary Christian music"). In another related chapter, "Gestures and Postures," he posits the idea that while our response to culture should consist of appropriate gestures, sometimes condemning (as in misogynist rap music), sometimes critiquing (as with a movie that has both good and bad elements), sometimes copying (importing into church organization a helpful business principle, for example), and sometimes consuming (an inevitable part of living in the world), our default position, that is, our posture, should be one of cultivation and creation, making new things and preserving the good already here.

I found particularly unhelpful his entire Gospel section, which consists of a kind of whirlwind cultural survey of both the Old and New Testaments. My problem was not that it had any inaccuracy but, rather, that it did not seem to relate well to the rest of what he says in the book. I would rather have seen a better integration of Scripture and his sections of culture and calling, as what he had to say in those sections was certainly biblically based. In fact, I think Crouch could have made his case with expanded versions of the chapters I mention above --- making for a much shorter, cogent argument. Despite the fact that Tim Keller recommends this book (admittedly, a credible voice), I cannot recommend it for most laymen. I do commend its purpose and aim and suggest that the author continue to hammer away at this theme in more focused writing.


Living With Style (Rules Six & Seven): Be Modest

Style

"Do not overwrite. Do not overstate." (Strunk and White, The Elements of Style)

I don't know why, but some people are just given to excess. I have a good friend who used to have many opportunities to introduce me before I spoke to a group I was training. He'd say things like "Steve is the paramount authority in the nation on such and such," going on and on about my eminent qualifications. Of course, I wasn't anything of the sort. And yet he couldn't be stopped. He either believed it to be true or so much wanted it to be true that it became true for him. That's one kind of excess: exaggeration.

Make modest claims, and then you can be surprised. Don't think more highly of yourself than you ought, said Paul, "but in humility consider others better than yourself" (Phil. 2:3). Hyperbolic people are tiresome, because everything is "huge," "awesome," and "phenomenal." Such behavior undercuts credibility. Verbosity breeds contempt. As Stunk says, "Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating." As with prose, so with people.

A proverb says "a word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver," (Pr. 25:11), and yet we can be prone to overspeak, as fascinated as we can be with ourselves. Strunk says "a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for the reader, the object of the writer's enthusiasm," and, we would say, the speaker's credibility and welcome as well.

Be modest. Avoid an overwrought speech or walk. Then you (or better yet, God through you) might surprise someone.


 


Till Twitter Does Us Part (A Short, Sad Story)

Divorce

Larry knew that the world he once knew was gone when he received the divorce papers from his wife. Ripping open the envelope he found a sheet of heavy bond paper with a single paragraph headed by the word "Complaint" and a single, succinct paragraph: "She no longer loves you. She wants out. Irreconcilable. You can have the children. She wants money. See you in court. Signed, M. Kabinski, Esq." He did a quick count. 138 characters. Technically correct, but a bit cold, he thought.

He was having dinner alone, his PDA on the table beside him as he scrolled through the constantly updated feeds. Nothing from Cindy. Not one word.

He couldn't remember the last time he had a real conversation with Cindy anyway. He vaguely remembered lingering over meals and discussing all matters of things until the wee hours of morning, but as time went on and Twittering caught on, they began to simply tweet each other. "I'm enjoying the dinner." "Your mother tweeted me yesterday and said your father is ill. I'm sorry." As time went by the tweets got shorter and shorter. "More" was enough to send Cindy to the stove for seconds, or "Enough" meant change the channel on the TV. "Omit needless words," said Strunck and White in that archaic guide to the written word, and yet their words became hauntingly prophetic.

He had to admit that the Twittered world in which he now lived wasn't all bad. When politicians' stump speeches were limited to 140 characters, they could be endured. All their tweets went something like "Lower taxes. More spending on you. Actions, not words. Change. Hope. Vote for me." And by subscribing to their feed, it was able to pick up on the really important things, like what TV shows they watched, or what restaurant or cuisine they preferred. The constant connection made him feel like he. . . well. . . like he knew them, that they cared about him.

Even church was almost a drive-through affair. Let's see. . . there was a song, something like a revised doxology: "Praise God from whom all blessings flow, all creatures you know, Father, Son, and Ghost, heavenly host. Amen." And then a sermon tweet. The last one was refreshingly concise: "God made it all. We screwed up. He came down and fixed it. Trust Him and you can make it Home." He could chew on that for a week.

There were complaints, of course, when Twitter was made the national means of communication. Mostly from old folks who liked to go on and on and on about things. Talk about needless words! But most people bowed to progress. A quiet descended over homes and public places. About all you heard were the tapping of keys on PDAs, cell phones, and laptops, the people permanently bent over their screens, their bodies adapting to a new way of living.

Pushing back from the table, Larry threw the remainder of his TV dinner into the trash. He had lost his appetite. He went to bed, turning over and over in his mind that one phrase from the divorce papers: "She no longer loves you." "She no longer loves you." He fell into a fitful sleep, his Twitter still on, the feeds updating even as he slept. "I'm going to bed. Letterman is lame tonight."

In the morning when Larry woke up, he stretched his arm across the vacant half of the bed where Cindy used to sleep, and for a moment he held that vacantness. He stumbled to the bathroom. Seeing his face in the mirror, he mouthed the first word that came to his lips, "Cindy," but nothing came out. Was it possible he had lost his ability to speak? He tried again, harder, and this time heard the faint sound of his voice saying "Cindy," and yet it sounded like the voice of a stranger. He couldn't recall the last time he had spoken. He set down in front of his Twitter screen and reviewed his tweets. 648 overnight. The CEO of his company. Oh, he bought a new razor. The President. "Told Sec. of State not to wear that tie again. LOL." And then, scanning down the list, digesting the entries quickly, as he had trained himself to do, his eyes fell on the last entry. Cindy. Simply, "Jesus wept."

A tear rolled down Larry's cheek.


All A-Twitter

Twitter

I'm listening to Bruce Hornsby's song, "The Valley Road."

I'm looking out my window at a beautiful maple tree covered in yellow and red Fall leaves.

Right now I'm wondering what I will eat for lunch, and how soon it will come.

I'm watching a hilarious spoof done by Tina Fey on SNL.

Do you really care that I am doing any of these things right now, at the moment I tell you? Does it matter? And isn't it presumptuous and even a frivolous waste of your time and mine for me to tell you?

That's the trouble with Twitter, that web-based application that asks the simple question, "What are you doing," and requires you to answer it in 140 words or less. What does it matter to someone else what I am doing, particularly if I can't elaborate on it? Twitter, a word that means "nervous excitement," is now used by over a million people who daily, or even hourly, post their answer (or "tweet") to that simple question, and by even more people who subscribe to their feed and receive updates on what they are doing via the web, by text message, or by email. It's a dynamic, ever-updating feed rolled out with a stream of consciousness ease, and many people seem to love using it.

Proponents tout how Twitter builds participatory community. A recent World magazine article recited the case of one evangelical church that had a "Twitter Sunday," projecting a feed from churchgoers onto auditorium screens throughout the entirety of their three services. Isn't that sort of like everyone talking at once? Is that what church is about? I'm not sure I want to attend a Twitter Sunday, with everyone hunched over their PDA or cell phone, immediately (and perhaps thoughtlessly) reacting to the music or sermon. Immediacy is the enemy of reflection, and in an increasingly distracted society, we don't need another diversion, another concession to our cultural attention deficit disorder.

Twitter may also pander to our exhibitionist and egotistical tendencies, in that we assume others will want to know what we are doing all the time, letting them see into our thought processes and daily activities. And for those who enjoy reading such mundanities, it can be vouyeristic, allowing people some satisfaction in peeking into the thoughts and habits of others. Furthermore, knowing that you are being "fed on," would you not have a tendency to play to that audience, perhaps passing yourself off as someone more engaged or thoughtful or whatever you perceive as positive when you are not. Is this kind of chatter really helpful? Do we really want to be a party to a person's deliberative process if we don't even know them? I thik the verdicts out on whether that kind of twittering is a cultural good, simply innocuous, or even damaging to real community.

All these are concerns, and yet I'm not a Luddite. Most, maybe even practically all, technology offers something useful. So how can Twitter be sued to stimulate thoughtful reflection? If it is a distraction, how can it be redeemed and made a holy distraction, something that would provoke us to think more deeply about something, that doesn't give us answers but makes us reflect on the questions life presents?

Along these lines, I'm trying a 30 day experiment. For 30 days I'll be twittering at least once, maybe more, each day. Only you won't be bothered with the mundane events of my day but will be receiving tweets with a provocative, Godward quote, a question about a Scripture, or a question about life. I'll also tweet you when I have posted a new blog entry that you may find interesting. Maybe it'll make you reflect for a minute about something more, about how the holy lurks in all the mundane events of your day. Only I can't quite call it Twitter. A better name would be Provocations --- prompts to thoughtfulness. Care to sign up? You can subscribe to my feed here. Let me know what you think!

[For more on how and why to use Twitter, check out Thomas Nelson CEO Michael Hyatt's "12 Reasons to Start Twittering," here. He makes a reasonably good case for its use, though I always wonder about its unintended consequences. I also believe you could come up with "12 Reasons Not to Twitter," if you thought about it long enough, but I'll leave that to another day.]