Sunday, January 22, 2006

God Speaks in the Vernacular: Some Thoughts on Pentecost

The second chapter of the biblical Book of Acts describes the Spirit coming to the first followers of Jesus. What did they do? "They started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them."” The response from the watching crowd was astonishment: "Then when they heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck." These Galileans, they exclaimed, "They're speaking our languages, describing God's mighty works!"

The description is certainly miraculous and astounding--—so much so that we might miss another significant point for today: Everyone would have probably understood one common, though second, language, Greek. What'’s most significant in this giving the Spirit? The first Christians were given the ability to speak in the language of the people. God wanted to speak to people in their native tongue, their vernacular, and the language of their dreams.

What are those languages today? Popular music, film, science, business--—you name it, Christians are called to speak in one of those languages. More on this in future postings...

Saturday, January 21, 2006

C.S. Lewis: When He Speaks, We Still Listen

Clive Staples Lewis would have celebrated his 107th birthday last November 29th. Thinking about the enthusiam over the release of his fantasy "Chronicles of Narnia" as a film just last month, I realized his life and work present a puzzle. How is it that this professor, who died over 40 years ago, did not come to faith until age 32, and spent virtually his entire adult life in the 200-mile stretch between Oxford and Cambridge, still moves so many different types of people?

The responses vary on many specifics, but they all point to Lewis’ way of making the Christian faith reasonable and comprehensible. As the actor, Rene Russo, described her own religious search: “I picked up a book, ‘Mere Christianity’ by C. S. Lewis, and it really helped. That started me sort of on a path that included God in my life. And that’s the way I was able to finally sew in a little self-confidence.” Perhaps Francis Collins, Director of the Humane Genome Initiative put it best—and it’s important to remember that he oversees a multi-year, multi-billion dollar project that maps human genes, which frightens many believers. As 27-year old medical intern, Collins encountered the writings of Lewis and found they spoke a language of faith that appealed to his scientific mind. He can now conclude, “My own faith is not based on childhood exposure or emotional experience, but rather on the kind of logical argument for the reasonableness of Christianity which Lewis presents so well.” (Among other names that could be added: Charles Colson—notorious for his work in Watergate, now head of Prison Fellowship, and Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza.)

Lewis, though dead, remains the most popular contemporary theologian. Enjoying one of my favorite pastimes, I have never passed by a bookstore’s religion section without seeing his many titles. In 1994, one of the largest religious magazines, Christianity Today, polled its readers: “What theologian or biblical scholar has most shaped your Christian life?” The number one answer was Lewis. It’s no surprise that his books still sell two million copies each year.

Why so many types of people? Why is Lewis still popular? He was certainly brilliant. He was after all an eminent scholar of medieval and renaissance literature. Lewis in fact believed in a reasoned and reasonable faith, and his writings provoke thoughtful response: “God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you, you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all.”

Good so far. But so many other religious thinkers and theologians are also intelligent. What makes Lewis different? First of all, he spoke in a language that laypersons could understand. As Lewis himself once advised Anglican priests and youth leaders, “You must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular…. A passage from some theological work for translation into the vernacular ought to be a compulsory paper in every ordination examination.” And “translate” he did. Not interested in jettisoning the cargo of orthodox belief, he was convinced that the Christian faith could be believed if it could be expressed in appropriate logic, metaphor, and story.

Which brings me to the second point: Lewis never rounded off the hard edges of Christianity. The clarity of his prose only made the hardness more apparent. He preferred a conservative, “straight-up,” but ecumenically minded, “mere Christianity” to a more modern, but diluted “Christianity- and-water.” And his message was compelling simply because the messenger believed it to be Truth. “If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about.”

There are a variety of lessons to be learned for any of us who write about religious themes and want to be heard, but two are most important. The earliest Christian writers—following Jesus himself—took great pains to be comprehensible, using street language and rough-hewn stories. In their drive to speak clearly, they never left the scandalous demands of Jesus’ message. Too many theologians speak in impenetrable language, hardly caring whether any public can understand them. Lewis’ legacy—even after 100 years—is that he believed the strange hardness of Gospel remains its greatest strength and that he cared to be understood. Both still make good sense.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Bonhoeffer after 100 Years

As Bidwell Presbyterian is set to begin a series on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, I turned again to the powerful commentary on that passage by the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What struck me once again--in an age of "Christianity lite," in which any hint of demand on the lips of Christ is resisted as unmarketable--is that Bonhoeffer took the full impact of Christ's commands and sought to step in his shoes. Where Would Jesus Walk? The German title of that commentary on Matthew 5-7 is simply "discipleship," or more literally, "following after." Following after Jesus meant for Bonhoeffer that he explored the growing secularism of Western culture and responded with a provocative concept of "religionless Christianity." Following after Jesus meant for Bonhoeffer that he had to leave his privileged Berlin life and create a community intentionally modeled after the words of the Sermon on the Mount. Following after Jesus meant that Bonhoeffer ultimately decided to resist Hitler--even to the point of taking part in an assassination attempt--and thus he walked to the Nazi gallows, meeting his death at the hands of the SS. For Bonhoeffer, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, following after Jesus meant not simply writing books and pondering Jesus' words--and it never meant "cheap grace"--but the costly grace of discipleship.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Lizzy's Manhattan Reflection

My daughter, Lizzy, was born in Manhattan and has never fully forgiven my wife and me for moving in 2002. Not only that, but she continues to describe herself as “a New Yorker” even though we’ve relocated to California. (And who can blame her for retaining that moniker?) The question came up recently of what she actually remembers about New York City since she only lived there for her first five years. Lizzy’s reply was decisive and compelling: “I remember it well. Everyday, I would wake up and look outside, and I’d see walkers walking, taxis taxing, and New Yorkers newyorking.”

Friday, January 13, 2006

No'ing the Changes

Improvisation, N: the art of thinking and performing music simultaneously
Grove Dictionary of Music

I learned a priceless lesson about jazz from Miles Davis, Diana Krall, Steve Gadd, and Susan Muscarella. (The final name represents my first real combo teacher.)
Know the changes,
Master your instrument,
And listen to others in the group.
Then you can improvise.

Here’s what that means: When I first started improvisation, I labored under the illusion that it meant being completely spontaneous, unstructured, and free. It signified “just playing what you feel.” (I’m a drummer, and you know what that sounds like.) Thankfully—especially for the families that hired me for their wedding receptions—I quickly found out that jazz improv is not energetic chaos. What I’ve also learned instead over the past three decades or so is that improv requires structured chords that offer the backbone of the tune. In jazz terminology, that’s “the changes.” For example, a blues song in the key of F generally follows a twelve-bar pattern, four bars on F, then four on B flat, one on C, one on B flat, then back to F for two bars. Only certain notes sound good when played over an F blues set of chord changes. It also means a dedication to the instrument, a commitment to play your “ax” (in jazz slang), that is, drums, sax, or piano skillfully. And finally, jazz is a community event, played out among the various members, creating a synergy that is (by definition) greater than any one member. When all those come together—knowing the chord progression, mastering your instrument, listening to others in the group—then you can both think and perform music simultaneously. You can improv.

In this sense, life is jazz improvisation. From a commitment to structure and form, extemporaneous expression happens. Put more broadly, good planning and spontaneity together make a beautiful life. There’re the changes over which we can improvise. That is to say, saying No to chaotic ineffectiveness while affirming spontaneous, creative effectiveness implies a Yes to learning our skills, to listening what’s happening around us, and to creating plans.

What’s true in jazz remains critical to succeeding in sports. In my earliest years of life, I played a lot of tennis. I spent summers in a white cotton hat, on hot asphalt courts, drinking from metal Wilson tennis ball cans filled with fuzzy water (tennis ball fuzz, that is). That’s not a bad existence for a California kid. I even managed to improve my overhead, collect a handful of trophies, and get a tan in the process… all by age 8.

Nevertheless, an element of those years was failure, and here’s the worst one I ever experienced experience. It wasn’t losing to an opponent. Or breaking a string. It was this: I had a match to play two hours away. Our family knew it was an 11am. So we all woke up early, my brother and I jumped into the brown bench seats of our Mercury Monterey, and my parents drove us to the match. I arrived a full 20 minutes early, waited ‘til about 15 minutes ahead of schedule—when players checked in with the tournament desk—and didn’t see my opponent. “What’s wrong with this guy? I guess it’s time to tell the desk that I’m the winner because of a no-show.” I arrived triumphantly at the desk with this information. Here’s what I heard:

We already defaulted you. You’re ninety minutes late. Your match was at 9:30. I’m sorry.
(No way, you idiot! Can’t you keep track of the draws? I mean…) I’m not sure I understand you. Are you saying I missed my match? I thought it was scheduled for 11:00.
Check the draw sheet. You’ll see that the match was scheduled earlier.

We consulted the draw sheet, the schedule of all the matches in the tournament. Yes, the match was an hour and a half earlier. After that day, “check the draw sheet” became a Cootsona family motto because we had painfully realized the significance of preparation. (I was still a few years away from learning it via jazz.) We need order because life is a chaotic system.

So check the draw sheet and know what’s coming up. Figure out in advance how to respond to what lies ahead. If you not, you might drive four hours to Clovis, California and never play your tennis match.

I draw several implications. On the one hand, preparation is important and not something just for the tennis “set” (as it were). Unfortunately, I see so many people who have no plans and flit from one impulse to the next (a tendency inflamed by MTV-generated attention spans). And with the Power of No, I’m trying to help you circumvent undirected kinesis, the kind of very active, but essentially unproductive life a speaker once described: “I strapped on my jet pack in the morning, bounced from project to project, and hoped no one got hurt.”

Or to draw another sports analogy: Bill Walsh, football coach during the glory days of the San Francisco 49ers when they took home three Super Bowl titles, developed the concept of “scripting” the first fifteen plays of the game. Here’s what Bill Walsh instituted: Before the chaos of twenty-two bodies flying at each other took over, the ‘Niners would begin with fifteen plays that they had drilled in preparation for the game. That way the Forty-Niners set the agenda. In reality, they never actually did every single play in the script, but it offered a means to start the game well. It’s akin to memorizing the changes and knowing your instrument before the improv begins.

So back to jazz: Each morning I like to prepare my personal daily “chord changes”—that is, to look over the flow of the day’s activities and figure out what tasks I must accomplish, what tasks I’d like to accomplish, and where the spaces are in the day. Then I “script” the day’s changes, offer a prayer for peace and strength, and begin the game! I’ve found that once I’m in the midst of a day in full gear, then I know what to hold onto and what to let go. As the jazzers would say it, I know the changes, listen to the world around me and respond, and then begin to improvise.

Incidentally, I’m focusing here on managing your own professional performance, but the harmony of form and flexibility is also critical to managing others. If management is central to your work, you can apply the same principles with minor changes. For example, allow others to improvise through personal expression and the particularities of their skills and personality, but also offer structure—through clear guidelines and realizable objectives. Encourage them to hone their skills and respond to their environment.

On the other hand, we need spontaneity. As the legendary jazz guitarist, Joe Pass, phrased it: “If you hit a wrong note, then make it right by what you play afterwards.” Not every note is played perfectly. And not every part is written out. So now I’m speaking to those who have just a slight control issue: We cannot expect our life to play out in a predetermined, classical mode. There are simply too many factors that we would never be able to foresee and over which we have no control. Partly, I take this insight from the startling discoveries of quantum physics, which by the 1920s revolutionized contemporary science through emphasizing the openness of all physical systems, where one step necessarily and inexorably follows what precedes it. In the subatomic (or quantum) world, nothing is absolutely determined and predictable, only probable. Quantum theory threw out the clocklike, deterministic world of Isaac Newton’s 18th physics with its precision and reliability, replacing it with an improvisational universe. In other words, jazz describes the nature of the physical world. And what science knows as the fundamental structure of nature corresponds to our individual lives. It is open-ended, a bit scary, and quite often exhilarating.

What I’ve discovered is that the best parts of the day usually do not result because of planning. Instead they’re gifts. For example, I hate to wait—it still doesn’t make sense to me that when I go to the doctor’s office that they’ve prepared my time with boatloads of magazines because they’re planning on my waiting. But I’ve learned to see waiting as an unexpected gift of time and I always try to bring a book, a pencil, and a place to write notes. Similarly, I also get bothered my interruptions at work. As a pastor, my need to revise the budget may be slightly less important than counseling a member in marital crisis, right? What proper planning for improvisation allows is to see (some) interruptions as serendipities. Henri Nouwen, the spiritual writer I’ve already mentioned glowingly reframed this aspect of work for me: “My whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.”

So there’s a need to harmonize spontaneity with planning, which is the essence of improve. An excellent musician has been “in the woodshed” (a phrase associated with Charlie Parker who used to practice for days on end in—guess what?—a woodshed). Musicians woodshed as they dedicate themselves to their axes. I remember my first piano lesson with Susan Muscarella (after she had taught my combo how to play jazz). She had instructed me, “Learn all the scales on both hands, and then you can start on the piano.” I arrived and knew about seven out of twelve on the right hand and one or two fewer on the left. She looked at me a little astonished and stopped the lesson right there. At that moment, I learned that despite how sweet Susan is, there would no second lesson without those scales in hand. Do you take the time to excel at the skills needed to improvise? Have you learned only half of the basic scales in your profession? How else do you expect to find the freedom to express your individual skills and passion?

Likewise, we master our instrument when we know our own particular style and make-up. Our lives are successful when we allow for “regional variation.” Some need more form. Some need more flexibility. The pianist Bill Charlap, for example, is quite meticulous in preparation: he studies a song’s history, who and how it’s been played, and how they’ve arranged the tune. Others desire more freedom to “be in the Now” (to quote the philosophically sophisticated movie, Wayne’s World). Or as Miles Davis expressed it, “I'll play it first and tell you what it's called later.” In other words, take time to learn your particular voice.

Jazz improvisation illustrates some keys to a successful life. Say No to both over-planning (because life is not fixed and completely predictable), say No to chaos (master your instrument and know the changes). Say yes to improvising a life of spontaneity, creativity, and beauty.

Practicing Your Changes
One final note: Jazz is all about getting your “training your ear,” listening to jazz masters so that you can intuitively hear when it “swings” (that’s good) and when it doesn’t. I close this chapter with ear training—put another way, exercises to improve your improv.
Ponder these quotations on jazz improvisation—and the ones embedded in the previous chapter—and see which best fits your improvisational style. Why? Write down three to five ways you might change or deepen your daily life accordingly.
• “Learn everything, then forget it all.” The “monster” (a positive expression in jazz) of be-bop alto sax, Charlie Parker.
• “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn.” “One more once” (to quote the great band leader, Count Basie) from Charlie Parker.
• “Don't play what’s there, play what's not there,” from the cryptic and protean trumpet master, Miles Davis
• Next list the essential items daily that constitute the changes for your day and for your week. Ask yourself, “Do these tasks define the way I spend my hours each day? Or when I review a day or week do I see a random variety of impulses?”
• Ask these questions and make adjustments: Do I want more structure of less?
• Each day for four weeks, review the daily “chord changes.” Adjust accordingly.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

On Rockettes, Bonhoeffer, and the Gospel

I’m thinking about some words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who would be 100 this year: “I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weakness but in strength.… God is beyond in the midst of life.” It comes from Letters and Papers from Prison, written in the years before his death at the hands of the Gestapo. By my reckoning, Bonhoeffer’s death in 1945 at 39 was untimely. It was also confusing: it left most of his ideas without sufficient elaboration and me, like many, pondering the insights of his realistic, kindred, searching spirit. And so I ask here, What does God “at the center” look like?

Did I see it one December in New York City when I trekked with my family to Radio City Music Hall? There we sat, enchanted by the world-famous Rockettes. There we watched the Christmas Spectacular—set that season to entertain its fifty millionth customer right at Rockefeller Center, right in Midtown Manhattan, certainly a great cultural and financial center. And there we heard the Gospel.

The Christmas Spectacular pulls out every theatrical and technological stop. Through video, we ride with Santa on his sleigh through New York City. We watch a lovely pair of skaters suddenly appear on an ice rink that gradually rises before the astonished audience. We view the orchestra disappearing from the front of the stage only to re-emerge behind the synchronized Rockettes.

In one sense, this is simply Broadway theatrics. But I wasn’t prepared for the finale of the Christmas Spectacular, the point to which the entire show was leading. The show slows and becomes more patient at its end as it presents Jesus’ birth. Naturally, live manger animals fill the stage. They surround Jesus and a stunningly beautiful Mary, attended by a handsome Joseph. But the hype has significantly quelled when, on the enormous video screen, “One Solitary Life” scrolls down.
It begins,
He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman.
He grew up in another obscure village,
where he worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty.
And ends,
All the armies that ever marched,
and all the navies that ever sailed,
and all the parliaments that ever sat,
and all the kings that ever reigned
put together
have not affected the life of man
upon this earth as powerfully as this “One Solitary Life.”

This is not a Times Square evangelist in a faded and tattered tweed jacket on a wooden box, shouting “God is ready to judge the world.” No, here the Coming of God in Jesus is proclaimed through fabulous costumes, spectacular sets, and fifty dancers in perfect synchronization.

I had to pause after the show and reflect: Did this dazzling display of technology serve the Gospel? Some doubt that it’s possible for technology is a greedy servant, either demanding allegiance from its master, or more often becoming the lord itself. Along these lines, I spent a couple of days in Missoula a few years ago at the University of Montana in a consultation with the contemporary philosopher of technology—and Christian—Albert Borgmann. Borgmann expresses significant concerns about the power of technology and the “device paradigm.” Do we want dinner? Nuke some prefab, individualized portion in the microwave. Want to be entertained? Turn on the tube. Want to exercise? Jump on a Stairmaster. Technology seduces with the dazzling power of manipulating our environment. To put it at the service of the Gospel is oxymoronic at best. Borgmann offers instead habits that focus us on real life, “focal practices,” such as preparing a meal together, talking as a family over dinner, and jogging through nature.

The Bible also expresses an uneasiness about worldly power in the service of the message of Jesus. Paul clearly spoke of God’s power in weakness to the power-happy people of cosmopolitan Corinth. And what Christian can be totally serene about the joining of the Rome and Christianity by Constantine, an emperor who saw a vision of the cross over sun with the words “in this sign you will conquer”? Following a Messiah—unjustly crucified by the duly installed powers of religious and political justice—does not make an easy marriage with earthly powers of any sort. In fact, the Nazis hanged Bonhoeffer because his active resistant to their demonic political regime led him to collaborate in an assassination attempt on Hitler. Bonhoeffer would certainly hesitate to call Broadway glitz prophetic. (Sometimes it’s actually more pathetic.)

Still—and I say it guardedly—I glimpsed something in the Rockettes as they brought God’s coming in Christ to the center. I was reminded that God is the Lord not only in weakness, but also in strength. And since God gave us the mandate to exercise dominion in Genesis 1, we have a clear call to change our environment for the good, and thus a call to use technology. In fact, I have found it tough for many to imagine God in strength at the Center—to bring God into the moments of the heights, the moments when joy overwhelms our attentiveness to the Spirit, when bodily pleasures of food, or music, or sex overwhelm and mute our prayers, when we develop some new technological wonder and we hear Satan’s alluring words to “become like God.” In these moments, Bonhoeffer—and the Rockettes—lead us to the simple truth: God is there, in strength, in technological discovery, at the center.

Clearly the Christmas Spectacular is not the whole story, and no one should portray it that way. If there’s anything clear about Jesus’ message, it comes first to the lowly and the marginal, not those who can afford $75 tickets. At the same time, it would be criminal for Christians—with theatrical tools at their disposal—not to use them at the service of the Gospel. (I, for one, think that Christmas cartoons are richer and truer to the message because Charles Schulz insisted that Linus read Luke 2 in A Charley Brown Christmas.) Sure, there are inevitable distortions that this project can bring to the Gospel, to bringing God to the centers of power. And yet, there are inevitable distortions to leaving God only at the margins—in second-rate theatre, for example—because God fills every part of creation.

Bonhoeffer, Rockettes, and the Gospel—perfect together? Perhaps not. But at least compatible. They’re even connected by the God who came, yes, in the weakness of a baby, but who is not too proud to be displayed in the dazzling power of theatrical technology.

A Time for No

An April 2002 New York Times Magazine questioned a number of executives on their desire for luxuries. Specifically, do female executives yearn for exotic cars as much as their male counterparts? The response from Andrea Jung, CEO of Avon, surprised me because it took the question in a whole new direction:
“Time. Right now, time is the only luxury I covet.”

Time—Every human being has 168 hours each week, but the way we use those precious hours varies greatly. And sadly most of us haven’t learned the secret of luxuriating in time. Here it is:
Take time every day and one day every week where you say No to obligations and Yes to rest and renewal.

In other words, let’s find a time for No. In this, we’ll realize the power of one simple sentence: “No, I don’t have to do anything.” We’ll learn to rest from what obligates us and become rich with time.

Put another way, we discover the secret of sabbath. Rabbi Michael Lerner has written that sabbath is the time we focus not on what we haven’t yet attained (like most of the week), but “on what is already there.” Through sabbath, we cultivate gratitude, that beautiful secret of a happy life. Gratitude… One day I found a message in my inbox with unusual wisdom for an email: “We call this moment the present because it’s a gift.” I know of no better way than sabbath to free us from the tyranny of time and to free us for the goodness of the gift of the present.

Ecclesiastes 3:1 reminds us that “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)”—times beyond our control, like birth and death, and times that we choose, like speaking and keeping silent. Through all these, we find the rhythm of life, a rhythm of activity and rest. In order to hear these times, we cannot attend to the mechanized hum of our technology, but ultimately to God’s heart.

For that reason, I’ve added to those fourteen “times” two more: “a time for No, and a time for Yes.” Why? Because I know too many people who do not let our great Yes to God find a boundary of No’s. A world that is frenetically busy longs to see an alternative pace of life, one that has rhythm and health. In the magazine of Jewish spirituality, Olam, Shimon Peres has written that ancient Jewish sages noted “the correlation between the Hebrew spelling of the word rest [nofesh] and the word soul [nefesh].” What a difference it’ll make for our souls and for our world, when we simply say to ourselves once a week and some time each day, “Relax and renew.”

Sabbath creates space in our schedules, space to breathe, space to return to human rhythms, space to return to your true center, and space to find God. Abraham Heschel, wrote that it takes only three things to create a sense of significant being: God, a soul and a moment. The three, he reminded us, are always present. And so we return to this potent little word No and its power to bring the three together.

What exactly do you do with sabbath time? The basics of Scripture, prayer, and worship are critical. Wayne Muller, who authored Sabbath (the best book I know on the topic) has added sabbath walks, lounging in bed late on Saturdays, and sabbath meals with friends. If you’re sedentary all day, maybe it’s reserving your lunch hour for Rollerblading or tennis. If you work in a noisy office cube, maybe it’s silence in the park. For busy parents of young children, it may mean “adult time.” It could be sitting on a bench with no other thought than the beauty of the sun dappled by redwood trees or the taste of mint chip ice cream. The variety is endless because sabbath is ultimately about freedom.

Making time for No is the secret of the good life. So let us remember to set aside time each day and a day each week to say No to what we “have to do.” There we’ll enjoy the luxurious gift of time.