Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lessons from a Year of Preaching (Part 2) - Some Thoughts on Preparation

As I said in Part 1 I set out to write a post about lessons I learned from my first year (now, almost two) of regular preaching. The first point became its own post. So did the second.

With the disclaimer in mind from part 1, preaching quality, on the whole, bears at least some relationship to preparation. While preparation does not assure quality, neglect of preparation nearly assures unhelpful cliché and shallow reflection.[1] Here are three major ideas I have come to believe about preaching and preparation (and a few fragmentary thoughts to round the post off).

1. Quality takes time.

I am not just talking about the rule of thumb of 1 hour of prep for each minute spent talking[2], though this is approximately what I experienced. I don’t just need time to study. I need time to marinate. I need time to meditate. I could have absolutely no other responsibilities for a week and I am convinced that the results would still be inferior to a talk I spent less time on but worked on consistently, over the course of several weeks, crafting it non-sequentially, one sentence at a time, while you are doing other things.[3] While casually thinking about a talk, I tend to come up with one to three valuable sentences a day. Working 40 hrs on a talk[4] the week before it happens is not equal to working on it 10 hours a week for the 4 weeks before it happens. This means that at any given time, I have three to eight talks in various stages of study, outline, draft or editing. But this allows me to write based on insight rather than necessity. I am FULLY CONVINCED that necessity is the enemy of profundity. Necessity is a ticket to the shallow end of the pool.[5]

2. Study on purpose.

One of the consistent challenges that I have faced is how to recall the important fragments from previous study when they are appropriate. I have a few basic skills (more later) but my preaching partner, Dan, recently said that his most accessible study is always what he is currently studying. I agree with this. Good preaching can not live very long on stored up insights. It requires a steady diet of reflection.

John Stott suggests that the minimum annual study a regular preacher should commit to amounts to should look something like: “Every day at least one hour; every week one morning, afternoon or evening; every month a full day; every year a week. Set out like this, it sounds very little. Indeed it is too little. Yet everybody who tries it is surprised to discover how much reading can be done within such a disciplined framework. It tot up to nearly 600 hours in the course of a year.”[6] I have to say, I was surprised. A modest but regular study pattern is surprisingly productive.

But this is why having my passages/topics a year in advance is so important. Because If I know my topical schedule with substantial notice I can study generally with a number of pre-established topical ‘buckets’ already in place. As I encounter insights, instead of filing them away in a place I hope to recall them from, I can simply file them under the appropriate talk.[7] Each talk gets a file six months to a year before it gets a draft.[8] My talks (and blog posts for that matter) start out as a series of fragments[9] and ideas in a word document. Over time, the space between them is narrowed by other fragments and ideas until I just have to write a few transitions.

However, reliance on contemporary study still seems a little sparse, particularly with respect to illustrations (which are indisputably the hardest preaching component to execute well). So, I keep an ‘open’ file[10] of movie quotes, comics, news stories, survey and the like that do not obviously fit into an upcoming talk. Then I review the file every couple months to see if anything suddenly jumps out as newly salient in light of my study for upcoming talks. As Spurgeon says: “Work hard every available moment. Store your minds very richly, and then, like merchants with crowded warehouses, you will have goods ready for your customers, and having arranged good things on the shelves of your mind, you will be able to hand them down at any time…”[11] The shelves of my mind are way too cluttered to be accessible, but a good file can fix that.

3. Rigorous study can become the enemy of clarity and utility if it is unaccompanied by humility.

The hard work of the study is vindicated by the discipline of the cutting room. Violating a specified time limit is bald pride and diminishes credibility. Think about it. If there are 150 people listening to me I am illicitly dominating 25 hours by every 10 minutes I go over. Stott says that the hardest part of preaching is to NOT tell them 90% of what you know about the passage. The good is the enemy of the best. Becoming overly attached to material is a function of pride and does not deserve patient hearers but a repentant speaker. Cut it.[12] If half of the listeners remember two things from the talk next month and 5% remember 1 thing in 5 years, it has been a tremendous success. So streamline. I am constantly repenting of self-importance in the editing process. My enemy is not the 30 minute time limit. My enemy is my dark heart and self importance.[13]

4. Fragments on Preparation

Finally, here are a few brief thoughts on study and preparations

Pastors should have an unlimited book budget. These are the tools of their trade. It is silly to short them by a few hundred bucks (a very small percentage of our financial commitment to them) when it could double their productivity.

Of course, who reads any more? (Pause for the sound of my English professor friends scowling.) As was apparent in my 2009 book review, a substantial portion of my ‘reading’ comes through MP3 content.[14]

Speaking of MP3 content, If Keller, Chandler or Driscoll[15] has preached a passage I am going to preach on, I listen to it (even if I have to pay for Keller)…AFTER I have written my first draft. Let’s face it, Keller is better at this than I am, and if I listened to him before I had a talk, blatant plagiarism would undermine my capacity for original, spirit led, thought customized for the pastoral needs of my community.[16] But, by turning to our generation’s best preachers after my talk is formed but not finished, I can garnish it with a few sublime quotes or stunning insights, without being unduly influenced.[17]

Once I knew the Acts passages I was going to preach this year I volunteered to lead a series of studies in my small group on them ~ 7 months before I had to teach them. This was valuable in two ways. It forced me to think intentionally about the passage well in advance and it exposed me to a dozen other perspectives and readings. Some weeks I picked up 3 profound sentences other weeks I emerged with an outline for a whole point. Sometimes it was content, other times it was language, but community interaction with the text never failed to improve my understanding and presentation.

This post was written while listening to Absolution by Muse
[1] I would like to note, that, this simply puts a greater burden on the listener. I had a friend in Buffalo who used to say, ‘If you just go up there and read the text, you get a B.’ I think there is something to that.
[2] So, I have a common rant about chatty worship leaders that seems to fit here. I don’t have a problem with occasional, prayerful, spirit led exhortations by a worship leader (especially when you have the kind of wealth at the position that CL currently has in Nathan and Pearl), but, on the whole, that is not what the church gets. Generally, extemporaneous speech disproportionately relies on cliché. (Side note: this is why ‘spontaneous prayers’ are often more prone to ‘vein repetitions’ than their liturgical or premeditated counterparts). If the preacher spends an hour of preparation for each minute he preaches which, necessarily includes painful, gut wrenching cuts, to respectfully come in under time, it is a personal injury to hear a worship leader prattle for three minutes from shallow waters while ignoring his or her responsibility as the movement’s principal catechist (since most boomers, Xers and millenials sing their way to their theology).
[3] I was thrilled to find that John Stott seems to describe a similar experience: ‘My mind is usually eveloped in a faily thick fog, so that I do not see things at all plainly. (Says one of the clearest thinkers of our age.) Occasionally, however, the fog lifts, the light breaks through, and I see with limid clarity. These fleeting moments of illumination need to be seized. We have to learn to surrender ourselves to them before the fog descends again. Such times often come at awkward moments…however inconveninent, we cannot afferd to lose it. In order to take fullest advantage of it, we need to write fast and furiously.” Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Note: Those are not the study habbits of a man who writes his whole message the night before…and thus, he decidedly does not suck.)
[4] This is another thing I have wondered about. What do you call the product? Is it a sermon? That seems kind of grandiose and, honestly, moralistic and dull. Is it a talk? That seems trivial. And I will not even consider the word ‘speech’ for a range of reasons. And does context matter? Does the fact that I do what I do in a University lecture hall matter? Would the taxonomy by altered if I did it in a Sunday morning pulpit? What about if I did it in a rented bar downtown? And that’s just the noun. What about the verb? Am I preaching, talking, speaking, (or, as some of the emerging guys would derisively accuse, speaching)? I have tentatively zeroed in on ‘preaching’ as the verb (because of the rich history of the word despite its pejorative liabilities) and ‘talk’ as the noun but am open to suggestions.
[5] If I am still writing within 48 hours of the talk I consider it a breach of responsibility.
[6] Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today p 204
[7] An example of this is the quote from Steve Turner I included in the first point. There is no way I would recall this quote. But when I was reading the book a few months ago I already had a sparse word document named ‘Lessons from a year of preaching.’
[8] Incidentally, this only works because Dan, the pastor I serve under, has vision and can anticipate the content needs of our community.
[9] I really enjoyed riding with Doug Pennington (the senior pastor at my brother’s church and an excellent preacher) one day and finding his dash board covered with post it notes. He was constantly filling post it notes throughout the day with one sentence fragments and the messages take shape on his dash as he moves the pieces around (and, no doubt, discards the bulk of them). Different mechanic, same method.
[10] Both Dan and I tried the common practice of keeping a topical file where you have a separate folder for each topic and agree that this decreases the probability of filing an idea or recovering it. We are both proponents of a single open file system. Also, I only do digital. In the rare case that I want to keep something that I encounter in hard copy…I scan it.
[11] Letters to My Students 145
[12] I will often have to enlist help for this. I have no trouble making cuts in a talk I wrote six months earlier, but I often can’t make a good/best distinction close to the talk. I have had talks improved dramatically (even salvaged) by getting feedback from other preachers (Bronwyn is particularly good at this). This, of course, presupposes that a manuscript exists several days before the talk.
[13] Spurgeon has a great insight on length: “There is a kind of moral compact between you and your congregation that you will not weary them…(going over 40 minutes is an act of) practical dishonesty…If you ask me how to shorten your sermons, I should say, study them better, We are generally longest when we have least to say.” LTMS 135
[14] I am going to do a post in a couple weeks on my favorite sources of MP3 content.
[15] I will also often listen to Piper or a hand full of others.
[16] The basic rule of thumb I use for how much I will lean on a single source is: if I am embarrassed to cite someone yet again in my talk than I am probably over reliant on them.
[17] Also, I usually listen to these while in the gym rather than at my laptop. I figure, if an insight isn’t memorable enough to stay in my brain from the gym to the computer, it isn’t memorable enough to make the talk. This also limits the number of ‘garnishes’ I will lift.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Poker, Pudding and my Monthly Brush with Fame

I love poker. I think it is the perfect combination of math, strategy, risk, psychology, camaraderie and randomness.[1] 2009 was a phenomenal poker year for me. I won 3 of the 7 tournaments I played in. Some of this is just a predictable positive stochastic perturbation after a dry run that was worse than my game justified. But I also think I am getting better. The progression of my poker game included eight major conceptual thresholds. The last three didn’t really develop until this year and, I think, contributed to the success.

1. Play too many hands too long and paradoxically fold too easily (standard beginner errors)
2. Tighten up and play only premium hands. This resulted in substantial improvement.[2]
3. Start computing and utilizing pot odds statistics.
4. Loosen up a bit.[3]
5. Start playing ‘implied odds’.[4]
6. Try to put my opponent on a hand.
7. Pay more attention to position.
8. Play fewer ‘premium hands’ in early position and more ‘sneaky hands,’[5] cheaply in late position.

My friend Dave took professional looking pictures at the last tournament.

Dave has a nickname that is worth writing about. We call him ‘pudding’. About a decade ago Healthy Choice had a promotion where they gave away airline miles on their product packaging. However, they did not adjust the number of miles you got for the cost of the product. So there was a guy who calculated that if you bought the individual puddings, it was an extraordinarily good deal on airfare. He purchased $3,000 of pudding and made an agreement with a local food pantry that if they pulled the tops off all the packages for him, they could serve the pudding. He ended up with millions of frequent flyer miles and is still traveling the world on them years later. He did the major talk show circuits and was covered by most major news outlets. I was living in NY at the time and remember hearing about this. A few years ago, Adam Sandler’s character in Punch Drunk Love[6] did the same thing, based on this guy’s story.

It is an urban legend with a "true" status on and the 'pudding guy' has his own Wikipedia page. This guy is Dave[7]. I play poker with the Healthy Choice pudding guy.[8]


[1] So I am going to write about it in what must seem like my continued attempt to make this blog so thematically eclectic that it is impossible to follow.
[2] I played pretty well through this stretch but ran into a protracted period of bad luck. (As diagnosed by others since we are such poor evaluators of our own luck). At one point my friend Jason and John were picking on me about this and suggested that ‘I should try living right’ comically implying that I had suffered from such an unlikely string of 2-5% bad beats that God must clearly be against me. My response: “You guys should just be grateful that you are profiting from my character formation.”
[3] This went well at first because everyone has me pegged as a tight player, but soon resulted in nearly a year long slump.
[4] When you do the math, you need to consider not only the money that is in the pot, but how much of your opponents money you can get them to bet if you hit a sneaky hand. There is another layer to the math than straight odds.
[5] A-10 looses way more money over the long haul than 7-6. If you hit 7-6 (either with two pair or a straight draw) you hit it and if you miss it, it is easy to fold. Conversely, if you pair the ace in A-10, you could be in a lot of trouble. The point is to lose small hands and win big ones. Also, opponents rarely suspect you to be in a big pot with 7-6, so they will often try to push with A-K, A-Q or something like that if the board is uninspiring.
[6] I did not like this movie, but a great role for Sandler.
[7] Dave, incidentally, is nothing like Sandler’s character in PDL. In the movie it is a symbol of a guy with great plans but that never goes anywhere. Dave has taken full advantage of the miles.
[8] Speaking of brushes with greatness, I shared a gondola with an actor the other day. I can not reproduce his name or even anything I have seen him in…prompting my friend Jason to deem it ‘the worst story ever’ when I shared it at poker. But one of the other guys in the gondola confirmed my suspicion when he told the nameless actor that he liked his movies. It seems like I have seen him play minor villain roles or management roles (i.e. the kind of guy Bruce Willis would ask permission from to do something and then ignore it). He struck me as a poor man’s Chris Cooper, which, I guess, makes him a homeless man’s Matt Damon (in Simmons parlance).

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Fragments and Links 7

From time to time I group random quotes and brief reflections (generally on television and music) in a single post…like this one. It got longish. Skimming is recommended.


"I am obsolete. This must be what old people feel like…and blockbuster." –Topher - Dollhouse

“If Favre hoists the Lombardi trophy, Packers fans are going to react like someone just bought them a treadmill: abject fear, horror and confusion.” -Bill Simmons

“Today, a real naked woman is just bad porn.” – Matt Chandler[1]

“It is far better to be industriously asleep than lazily awake.” -Spurgeon

“Far too many people, Christians included, are self-centered preoccupied with their own marital problems and their attempts to engineer solutions to them. A theology of marriage can help them achieve a God centered look at the larger situation of which their marriage constitutes a small, but by no means unimportant part of the whole.” -Geoffrey Brinuket - God and Marriage[2]

I think I know why I enjoy blogs. It is because I find people so fundamentally interesting. Not so much people like Tom Cruise, whose life I could never imagine or be inspired by, but regular people. Take Stacey from Louisville for instance. She included this line in her second annual blog post on white elephant gifts[3]: “For a few fleeting moments it's as if Santa is just asking to be depantsed in the name of universally lame gift giving.” I mean, seriously, who is this person and why is she so freeking interesting?

“Much modern study of literature has simply rejected the idea that we have access to the mind or intention of a writer. The road to hell is paved with authorial intention.”[4] NT Wright - The New Testament and the People of God (p55)

OK, that is hilarious. But, it turns out that NT has a very high view of the author as the arbiter of meaning: “It remains, at least in principal, possible to know an author’s basic intention, and to know that one knows it…The philosophical tricks by which authorial intention has been dismissed from the reckoning are in the last analysis no more impressive than the well-known mathematical trick which keeps the hare in permanent pursuit.[5]” p 58

I have been into Cursive lately: “My ego’s like my stomach, it keeps sh$#ing what I feed it” Cursive - Recluse - The Ugly Organ

“I have heard it said, Evangelicals are people who approve of Billy Ghram.” –the late James Boice It is with great difficulty that most of us try to define the word evangelical. Boice did not believe this definition was sufficient. But I find it hilarious in its pragmatic functionality.

‘When I was young they didn’t have enough to teach us so we had to learn Latin.’ -Dr Strong (My professor for Intro Ecology and Evolution)

I mentioned in a previous post that Dr Strong articulated (presumably in jest) an unconventional form of the teleological argument.[6] Well he did it again near the end of the class. He suggested that if you were looking for evidence of a benevolent meddler in the natural world, one might want to consider that the only reason most large marine mammals (whales and sea lions) still exist is because of ‘the discovery of standard oil just as the whale population was about to go extinct.’[7]

There is actually a lot going on here philosophically. NT Wright would say that a historical exegesis like this totally in line with Hebrew providential monotheism. Mark Knoll (author of ‘The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind’) would argue that ‘methodological naturalism’ should be applied to history as much as it should be applied to biology. But I think it is interesting as a piece of advice (which is how I think it was offered). Prof Strong is essentially saying – “If you are going to try to make the case that there was a creative agent in life history then try to explain an actual instance of apparent benevolence in the realm of something I care about based on empirical data I can verify.”[8]

This quarter I am taking upper division ecology and have the venerable Art Shapiro (a Davis institution generally known as ‘the butterfly guy’), who I have heard described as looking as though he came in directly from morning chores on the farm (as well as far less flattering descriptions).[9] But he is one of the finest professors I have ever had. He thinks about science as narrative with characters and plot twists.[10] Plus, he THINKS about science, he doesn’t just do it. ‘The Butterfly Guy’ is one of the first science professors who seems to have actually given thought to the philosophy of science and is conversant with Popper and Khun. A few weeks ago, he sent out an e-mail that included this:

“If any of you are devout Christians wrestling with how to deal with evolution, you might like to read the Wikipedia article about Lack [11] . He wrestled with the problem throughout his career and even wrote a book about it.”

Providing Christian students with robust resources to help them negotiate the cognitive dissonance inherent in a field based on evolutionary theory not only demonstrates that he is one of the most reflective and best read scientists I have studied under, but, also, that he is one of the classiest.


I gave up on Community after two episodes. [11.5] The characters seemed clichéd and the pacing seemed poor.[12] I simply could not vest in the romantic story lines because they had not been given enough time to develop to a reasonable level. But I was encouraged to take another look at it by a Michial Farmer's facebook status, and have come to esteem it as one of best new comedies in years. If I was going to recommend a prototypical episode, it would have to be episode 9: Debate 109, which centers around a debate regarding whether humans are fundamentally good or evil.[13]

Well, we knew it was coming. Dollhouse has come to an unceremonious though at least a complete end.[14] I don’t suppose there will be a Firefly like uprising or cult following. But there were some scenes and lines worth noting in light of my previous post:

"Brain science is all about hardare and software - there is no mystical in between."

I think the undisputed best scene was Topher talking to an imprint of Topher about his crush on Summer Glau’s character.

Incidentally, another odd role for Summer. She is falling into the strangest type cast of all time (socially awkward, genius, understated hottie, who you DO NOT want to mess with). In fact, after Firefly, Teminator, and Dollhouse I was beginning to thing xkcd was right suggesting that what we are seeing was just ‘Summer being Summer’ (in the same way that Denzel Washington just plays himself in every movie he is in –except his brilliant turn in Training Day- but we don’t mind because we like Denzel) until…

…there was an epic scene in Big Bang Theory[15] that consisted of 4 nerds trying to hit on Summer (playing her self) on an Amtrak between LA and SF. She played herself as a sweet, kind, socially adept (if self forgetful) ‘normal’ girl who was as accustomed to the disproportionate romantic overtures of nerds as one could expect her to be.

Then there was this quote which I cut from my relationships talk…but it was my final cut because I love it. “You shared one room for months and you never slept with her, you could have but you didn’t, if that’s not love…” Alpha[16]

With Dollhouse going the way of Firefly[17] another show is playing with the idea of the mind/soul/body distinction. Stargate Universe[18] has a device that allows people in distant universes to take over each other’s bodies. So, stranded explorers use the device to consensually trade bodies with earth based military personnel and then proceed to use the bodies to make conjugal visits with their spouses and lovers. I found this startling. Does that strike anyone else as weird? Is this infidelity by any of the three parties (the earth wife, the earth body or the occupying husband consciousness)?[19] The producers have even made an interesting visual decision by using the actor whose mind is being represented (for audience reference) rather than the actor that the other characters are supposedly seeing. So, SG Universe is taking a firm stand on ‘what part of you is the real you.’ Interestingly, it is a dualism that both a skeptical philosophy of mind and an orthodox Christian theology would probably reject.

Amanda and I blew through Lost Season 5 in about 2 weeks. We liked the season. Once a show sets and end date, it usually gets better (See Battelstar Galactica). But there were two details in this season that I suspect might fit David Swanson category of ‘signs of life’:

First, they used one of my Favorite Caravaggio’s in the context of a discussion of doubt. Now, the dialog wasn’t that great. But that painting…that painting almost gave it the gravity it lacked. Second, Lost is a show that has always been fascinated with books. It has been a running theme that one thing everyone brings on a plane with them is a book so it is the one thing that there seems to be an abundance of (though Sawyer seems to be the only one who took advantage of them). But in the Jacob episode it shows him reading Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge”.

This is particularly interesting given my friend JJ’s theory that the scene in which Ben Linus is deceived into killing Jacob (essentially for his hiddeness) is full of Biblical allusions – pushing the show into the realm of cosmic morality play.


Nic and Alexi taught a series on Jonathan Edwards’ resolutions. I thought this was a fantastic idea for a series and I am almost positive that I will one day steal it. But in this one of the talks he cited a debate we have enjoyed from time to time. It goes something like this: Which thinker do you wish had another decade? So many of the great ones died young and at the heart of the debate was whether or not Keirkegaard was done.[20] But, two guys we agree on are:
1. Pascal
2. Jonathan Edwards

There has been a lot of backlash about the campaign finance Supreme Court decision. It boils down to an accusation of hypocrisy. Conservatives have been whining about activist judges for years, but now that they have a majority, they are legislating to their heart’s content. I am sympathetic to this argument[21]. But I am not sure it is right. Don’t get me wrong, I HATE this ruling. I think it is just about the worst thing that could happen to our country right now. But…I am not sure the ruling is wrong constitutionally. It seems to me that the definition of a non-activist court would be the ability to make a decision that the judges themselves hate but had to make. If a justice is constantly making decisions that they feel comfortable with, they are probably legislating.

I am really enjoying the work of Jon Forman. Switchfoot gets abused for being part of the explosion of bad Christian music in the 90’s and ‘naughties.[22] But here’s the thing. They weren’t part of the problem. I am embarrassed to admit I like Switchfoot because of the cultural baggage that is associated with them and the drivel that shows up on their Pandora channel…but it doesn’t change the fact that they have made some very good music over the last decade. That said, Jon Forman’s[23] solo work (which is stripped down, lyrically focused, and just him and his guitar) is gorgeous.

I generally boycott any site that revels in celebrity gossip. So when the Tiger stuff happened, there were a lot of links that I refused to click on. But I got some of it through sports sites…and have to admit, there is part of the story that intrigues me. I couldn’t articulate it clearly until I read this correspondence in a Bill Simmons mailbag:

Q: So I was at a bar with a friend of mine the other night and naturally talk turned to Tiger. He mentioned his "Genie in a Bottle Theory." If a genie asks a guy to make three wishes that she will make come true, what would the guy say? "I want $1 billion dollars, a swimsuit model wife and the chance to play golf every day." Tiger had all that and apparently it wasn't enough to make him happy. Now I'm just depressed.
--Lee, Washington, D.C.

The Tiger story is so intriguing because it makes the case for a principle that most of us know but few of us believe: that within reason, happiness is a function of character rather than circumstance. If appetites grow at the same pace as means, contentment remains elusive.

My last post focused on our time in youth ministry in Buffalo. But while I was scanning pictures, I found two that really captured Buffalo urban life, but didn’t really fit in the last post.

Mardi Gras on Allen Street.

Of the two years we lived downtown, the city shut down twice on account of snow. Once, part of the city got 72” of snow in 24 hours.

While I am showing pictures, we had a birthday party for our youngest. The theme was the hungry caterpillar. My wife made the cake from split bunt cakes. My friend John suggested that the best thing about the cake from a nerdy, quantitative perspective is that it is fully scalable. You can just add body segments as your guest list grows.

The Power and The Glory may be the best novel I have read not written by a tortured Russian.

This post was prepared while listening to Appeal to Reason by Rise Against

[1] Chandler was suggesting that porn has become the normative sexual experience relegating natural sexual enjoyment to a perceived sub-standard experience. In a marginally related story, Chandler was very recently diagnosed with a devastating and lethal brain cancer. This is the hardest I have taken the illness someone I don’t know, but he is standing up under it. Someone tells his story here.
[2] The implication that a relationship that is an end in itself can not bear the weight of significance placed upon it. I believe this.
[3] I linked to her first one a year ago or so…but if you haven’t read it, I can not recommend it highly enough.
[4] Wright goes on to assert that in rejecting the author as control pietism and deconstructionism become surprisingly difficult to distinguish. He goes on to quip "There are some strange bed fellows in the world of literary epistemology.”
[5] I loved this analogy since I encountered Zeno’s paradox in Jr High and was befuddled by it for nearly a decade. The answer, of course, is the very genesis of Calculus. But I think Wright’s analogy here is stunningly apt.
[6] Essentially, that most fixed carbon in the earth is too diffuse to be recovered economically. This is the only thing that keeps us from suffocating ourselves…potential evidence of a benevolent creator.
[7] Blubber lamps were the way most people illuminated their homes. The market for blubber pushed every population of blubber laden marine mammals to near extinction. Just before they were wiped out, however, oil was discovered in PA, and blubber lamps were obsolete within two years, allowing populations to rebound.
[8] OK, one final Dr Strong quote: “It is an immoral world out there. We didn’t need Darwin to tell us that.”
[9] I suspect that his disheveled appearance is partly studied eccentricity, partly intentionally ordered priorities, but mostly due to the fact that he spends about 300 days per year in the field.
[10] In one of our first discussions one of the students whined ‘does he always teach like that. It is as if he is telling a story.’ Most in the room nodded. This might be the ‘oldest’ thing I have ever said, but the Univeristy is a banquet most teenagers are just not hungry enough for. Second place for 'the oldest thing I have ever said': 'When I listened to rap the artists had social consciences. It was urban poetry on purpose.' Buy me a rocking chair and a half pint of curmudgeon juice.
[11] One of the giants of mid-twentieth century ecology, who became an Anglican in mid-life. [11.5] I was predisposed to dislike it for 2 reasons. I have never been a Chevy Chase guy and, I was sick one weekend and spent 3 days watching hulu in bed...during which I saw aproximately 300 bad commercials (actually 2 bad comercials repeated 150 times each) promoting the show.
[12] In fairness, I hold that the first two episodes were formulaic and poorly paced. I do not believe Jeff cared enough about Britta in the first two episodes for me to care about their relationship. But after eight episodes, as the characters broke out of their clichéd niches like the Hulk busting out of Banner’s optimistically restrictive every day cloths and, after countless flourishes of linguistic and comedic virtuosity, I actually care..a lot.
[13] The two episodes released since I wrote this paragraph have only strengthend the argument. I cannot remember laughing that hard or being so consitently surprised by a show in a long time. Unfortunately, the entire thing rests on the relationships and character development…so it might be better to get it on Netflix than try to pick it up in the middle on Hulu.
[14] Speaking of shows that came to an unceremonious end. Amanda and I finished ‘Pushing Daisies.’ We agreed that it was one of the finest television shows in years. Only Lost has enjoyed the same level of joint affection from us. Each episode was a piece of art. Anyway, as the final episode wound down, I was bummed that we were just going to be left hanging on so many story lines, until…they rattled through a rapid fire resolution of nearly every plot line in the last 90 seconds of the show.
[15] A show with a networky feel but that is among the most consistently entertaining visual media content out there now.
[16] Alen Tudyk’s Alpha stole the show every time he was on the screen. I particularly loved the exchange between him and Echo (both of which had been imprinted with multiple personalities)
“He’s 10X the man you are and you’re like 40 guys.” –Echo
“Get over it babies…love the ones your with.” –Alpha
[17] Though the latter, indisputably, was the greater loss.
[18] I am contemplating a post of the theology of the 10 season SG-1.
[19] Also, what about VD or pregnancy?
[20] You will not find a bigger Kierkegaard fan than me, but I argue that he was done.
[21] Full disclosure: I have been accused of being a liberal on this blog. That is fair in most senses. I lean liberal on most legislative issues. But I prefer conservative courts. I want constructionist judges. Uber-legislators destroy democracy. Fundamentally, this is a hermeneutics issue. I believe in the value of an adjudicating text…as long as it is allowed to adjudicate. But as soon as men and women speak with the authority of the text but not with its content, the system is undermined. (If you are sensing a not-so-subtle parallel to other aspects of my world view…it is intentional).
[22] I am still working on that 3 part post on Christian music…but unless it gets less bitter I’m not sure I am going to post it.
[23] Jon is the front man for Switchfoot.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Boys n the Hood: Random Memories from our Season in Urban Youth Ministry

On Tuesday, I am planning to tell the story of ‘the rib incident’ as my culminating illustration in a talk on the church in Antioch (Acts 11&13 – manuscript and MP3 should show up by midweek). ‘The rib incident’ is a piece of Gibson lore from our season in urban youth ministry at Refreshing Springs Church, on the edge of Buffalo’s east side. As I wrote up the story and waded through some pictures for the ppt I got sentimental and decided to share a series of random memories about the hugely influential years we spent leading a ghetto youth ministry.[1]

-First, some background. This is where I grew up:

-I was raised as a nice little pluralist and taught that all people were fundamentally the same and racism was bad. This was mostly a lie. (Except the ‘racism is bad’ part…racism is, in fact, bad. It is just far more pervasive than I ever dreamed, especially in my heart.) For someone raised like that, racism get worse before it gets better. I was raised to expect that the only difference between the black community and the white community was something as arbitrary as skin color and that if everyone would just wake up and get modern, ethnic tension would simply evaporate. Imagine my surprise that urban black culture was, on the whole, substantially different than my culture in ways I liked and in ways that I didn’t like. Imagine my surprise that interacting with black urban Christians revealed sin and brokenness in me that I had never seen hanging out with white rural kids and Geneseo college students. Imagine my surprise that I had something unique to offer in a predominately black church because of my cultural background. The prescription for racism and prejudice is not pretending differences do not broadly exist or to reject your culture as of no real value…it is to be quick to repent of self righteousness, quick to ‘consider others as better than yourself,’ and slow to judge intentions behind actions you do not understand.[2]

-After Calvin and Darleen (the youth leaders when we got there) moved on, the elders put us in charge of the youth ministry. There was an obvious co-leader for the women. Tanya, an electrical engineer[3], who was among one of the most faithful, kingdom possessed Christians we have met to this day.

(Amanda and Tanya 'singin the blues')

For me, there was not an obvious choice. I told the elders that I would do it, but my co-leader had to be black. The elders told me ‘We don’t usually consider that sort of thing, but in this case, we agree.’ So I got Phil. Whenever Phil is mentioned in our house, both Amanda and I just pause and smile. Phil had only recently started coming to the church and, may have only been a Christian on the order of weeks or months. But that was not the remarkable thing about Phil being assigned as my black co-leader. The remarkable thing was that he was really angry at African Americans. His father moved to Buffalo from Africa when he was young to get a PhD. It was the 70’s and Phil’s father decided that he wanted to live in solidarity with his black brothers, and moved to the ghetto. And Phil proceeded to get the crap kicked out of him every day for months, until his family moved to Hamburg (one of the whitest suburbs in the region) and Phil lived the rest of his school years and young adulthood as the only black person he associated with outside his family. Phil was whiter than I was.

He once told us a story about going to a wedding at one of the urban mega churches and said, “I walked in and looked around, and the only white person was the guy running the video camera, so, of course, I felt totally uncomfortable.”[4] It is hard to articulate the amount of affection that Amanda and I developed for Phil and Tanya. Phil played cello, watched French films and refused to own living room furniture in an act of intentional simplicity. When we joined him for a meal we would eat it on a blanket, like an indoor picnic. He told us once that if we wanted him to feel loved, we would stop by without calling first. This grated so deeply at my upbringing that I almost could not do it. But before long, it started to be fun. ‘Let’s drop in on Phil’ one of us would always say when we were in his part of town and he never failed to greet us as if he had been expecting the visit and looking forward to it for days.[5]

-Our youth ministry philosophy[6] was to build the events around a quality, pedagogically useful, fun activity and a quality, accessible, interactive Bible study. For the ‘game’ portion of the evenings I quickly tired of the standard youth mixer options. So I acquired a couple of books on team building exercises used by corporate trainers. The Bible studies were pretty good…but the games were EPIC (if I say so myself).

(yes, those are mousetraps on the floor)

-One night we got a new student. His reputation preceded him. He was a handful. He came in late and a complicated activity was already under way and several students were waiting their turn. He watched for a while and then said…’I want to go next.’ Maintaining my commitment to the rule of natural law I said, ‘You will have to wait your turn. There are at least three groups ahead of you.’ He looked straight through me. His eyes got wild. And he said, ‘You are just making me wait because I am black.’ I panicked. Was he right? I had been raised to believe that the race card was the trumpest of all trump cards. But then I looked back at him as seriously as I could and said, ‘Yes. Yes, it IS because you are black.’ And then I kind of paused and looked around and said, ‘Hold on, so is EVERYONE ELSE.’ He tensed, as if to strike, and then started to giggle and said, ‘Hey, that’s cool, I can wait.’ I never had a problem with him again. Once, when I asked him to help set up some chairs or something, he smirked playfully and said ‘It’s cause I’m black isn’t it’ and then did it.[7]
-Many of our favorite memories of Buffalo include ‘The Pearl Street.’ We would usually drop the last kid off by 10 and roll into our street parking by 10:30. We’d go up to our apartment, drop off our stuff, and then cross the street to Gabriel’s Gate. Gabriel’s was one of like 14 bars on our street, but for character, we have yet to see it’s equal. Besides the bronze angel with actual flaming torches (described in this poem) standing watch over the medieval bronze entrance and the full sized carousel horses adorning the interior, there were at least 5 wood burning fire places inside. Every Friday night, we would get a table by one of the fire places and Amanda would order ‘the Pearl Street’[8] and we would try to ‘one-up’ each other with ‘you will not believe what happened tonight’ stories (since the guys and girls met separately). I think there is a correlation between how hard kingdom work is and how sweet it seems in retrospect.[9]

-I can’t really write about Refreshing Springs without writing about Emory. He was the pastor. I am not sure I have met more humility and grace in a senior pastor. Most of what I believe about what the Bible teaches about ecclesiology I learned from him. He truly believed that the church had to be led by a group of interdependent leaders that shared authority or responsibility. He was a ‘paid, preaching elder’ but he did not run the church…even though he founded it. Emory was a fine preacher who resided in theologically deep waters and, I suspect, I picked up a fair bit insight[10] from him. But we learned far more, by watching him. That is at least one of the differences between a preacher and a pastor.

-You are not supposed to have favorite students. But I had a protégé.
I wrote him for a couple of years after we left but have no idea what happened to him. I still think about him often. His mom was devastated to see us leave and he was the kind of kid that wasn’t afraid to tell you what you meant to him. In the end, we actually asked, do we give the rest of our 20’s to Buffalo for one kid? But nothing has been as hard on our marriage as that youth ministry.[11] So, we took the job in California. We are not optimistic about where many of those kids ended up. We just hope we offered them something of value…something that changed their lives for the better and made Jesus a little more real…because that was our experience of them.

This post was written while listening to Satellite[12] by POD
[1] I am sure that several times in the course of this post I will unwittingly write something ignorant, racist, unenlightened, offensive or all of the above. Ethnocentrism, racism, self righteousness, tribalism and pride are so deeply rooted in the human heart that I am pretty sure I am unable to talk about cross-cultural events and ideas without lapsing into crass sin. But, there is so much beauty and redemption and joy in these stories for me that I consider that a cost of humanness. Most of us are all far too afraid of being labeled a racist to even broach these issues with any honesty. So let me preempt that fear. My heart bears the dark disease of self righteousness. I am probably a racist by most useful definitions. But not voluntarily, and these stories are part of the incomplete narrative of repentance and healing of my cultural self righteousness and imperialism. Jesus heals brokenness that I didn’t even know I had.
[2] Prejudice is a different story. Prejudice is simply taking a tool as useful as correlation and applying it to people. I am a scientist. Correlation is one of my most useful tools. If one functional variable is related to another, I can use the one to predict the other. But this breaks down when it comes to people. There are broad cultural trends. To suggest otherwise would be empirically absurd. To predict the behavior of an individual based on trends developed from their cultural or ethic associations is expedient (which is why it is so prevalent)…but it is also patently unfair. People are not like rocks. We can correlate them, but we must not because they are each so unique and valuable. I think this is at the heart of the famous ‘do not judge’ passages of the Bible. Jesus is not saying that we can not know right and wrong. He is saying that human motivation is highly complex and textured and cannot be deduced from a few external variables.
[3] When I talked to the boys about what they wanted to be when they grew up I was told that a young black man had three options: rapper, basketball player, or crack dealer. But a couple of the better students would replace ‘crack dealer’ with ‘or an electrical engineer like Tanya.’ What I did for a living was not inspiring to them, presumably because I was white and expected to have some stuffy job. But Tanya drove a nice car and had a nice apartment on the East side. Whatever it was exactly that she did, maybe they could too.
[4] Amanda had a similar experience moving to Davis. Between Refreshing springs and her nursing degree at ECC’s city campus, she was unaccustomed to dealing with white people (who, if you are out of practice, can be really complicated to deal with). Davis was culture shock for her.
[5] I am going to arbitrarily bring the Phil stories to an end here. They are endless. He told us that one day, he would just disappear. A few years after we left, friends dropped by to say hi and his apartment was empty. The furniture that friends had snuck into his house at one point was at the side of the road with a free sign. We could not be more privileged to know some of the people God has allowed us to co-labor with for a season.
[6] And I use this word in the loosest possible sense. I had read a couple books and taken no classes on youth ministry. We were entirely unequipped.
[7] I always feel uncomfortable telling this story. I am not entirely satisfied with my response. I am not trying to claim it as clever or wise. It is probably offensive on some level. But it is the moment that I love. In a few seconds, I watched this young man transform from combatant to friend. To this day, I am not sure why but I suspect I observed something supernatural.
[8] A chicken finger and Swiss sandwich. Years later, we returned and were devastated to find it no longer on the menu…but the waitress managed to work something out.
[9] As long as you love the people you are doing it with. My brother once made the distinction between ‘sweet hard’ and ‘hard hard.’ I think ‘sweet hard’ is when something is hard but you love the people you are doing it, you are under caring and humble leadership, and you fundamentally believe that it is something Jesus wants done. Hard-hard lacks one of those qualities.
[10] Not to mention homiletics tips.
[11] I would start dreading the Thursday phone calls on Tuesday. It was this ministry that convinced us that we were not wired for full time ministry, particularly cross-cultural ministry. In retrospect, if I had simply had someone who would make the phone calls and drive some of the kids, we could have done it indefinitely. As it was, we lasted about as long as the average youth worker…2 years.
[12](Satellite was the hands down favorite cassette when the guys were in my car. I just couldn’t seem to get them interested in Rich Mullins, who was my favorite artist at the time. I have a couple particularly fun memories of yelling “The world is a ghe-tto.” or “Boom…Boom” with the 4 kids in my car as loud as we could. Phil, a Yo-yo Ma devotee, was not impressed. Sometimes the boys would ‘battle’ in the car, but I had a no-profanity rule, forcing them to rely on word and rhyming-pairs they were unaccustomed to. The fun thing is that I would occasionally throw down and acquit myself surprisingly well simply on the strength of a reasonable vocabulary and thousands of hours of listening to old school hip hop in high school