Sunday, March 12, 2017

you are what you love

This book shifted me. Maybe I should say that in theory, it is shifting me - but whether anything happens in practice, time will tell. Lets start with a few appetizers:

'We are oriented by our longings, directed by our desires' (11).

'You are what you love because you live toward what you want' (13).

'Our primary orientation to the world is visceral, not cerebral' (33).

James K. A. Smith's You Are What You Love is very Pauline (Phil 1.9-11): 'It is not that I know in order to love, but rather: I love in order to know ... The place to start is by attending to our loves' (7).

Here are some of the shifts for me...
1. At a personal level, I need to recalibrate the way I see my journey into holiness. It is not just mustering up disciplines, it is about orienting my loves and wants, aiming them at God. 'Our sanctification is more like a Weight Watchers program than listening to a book on a tape. If sanctification is tantamount to closing the gap between what I know and what I do, it means changing what I want' (65).

As I am writing this post, I have one eye, and a lot emotion and imagination, attuned to cricinfo as I track with Kane Williamson towards another Test century. To be honest, I am being a bit obsessive about it. It is too big 'a want'. A relatively innocuous desire like this can do its damage. 'If love is both habit and hunger, then our tastes and cravings for what's ultimate will be changed in the same way' (64) - by feeding hungers and nurturing habits. 'Not all sins are decisions' (54):
... our sins aren't just discrete, wrong actions and bad decisions; they reflect vices. And overcoming them requires more than just knowledge; it requires rehabituation, a re-formation of our loves (54).
2. I need to change the way I understand (and teach) 'worldview'. Some years ago I noted the change between the first (1988) and second (2004) editions of James Sire's landmark The Universe Next Door in which he moves from a solely intellectual description of 'worldview' to one that is more inclusive of the affections. Smith is moving along this same trajectory. If we think human beings are 'brains-on-a-stick', then we will fail to see surrounding cultural practices as liturgies, 'as habit-forming, love-shaping rituals that get hold of our hearts and aim our loves' (38). These cultural liturgies are 'rival modes of worship .... that affectively and viscerally train our desires' (23, 32). Worldview is a matter of the affections and the imagination, not just the intellect. Pastors need 'to be ethnographers, helping their congregations name and 'exegete' their local liturgies' (54).

This is a poem that is quoted twice in the book (11, 91)
The case study Smith uses as an illustration must be one of the most discussed aspects of the book. It is brilliant. He takes the reader to the shopping mall and the way consumerism acts as a 'cultural liturgy' that takes over our hearts, shapes our behaviour and stains the way we encounter God (40-55). He considers the 'shopping mall through a liturgical lens' (55) and asks, in this experience, 'What are the things you do that do something to you?' - because 'the mall is 'a formative space, covertly shaping our loves and longings' (55). A bit like Calvin who spoke of our hearts as 'idol factories'...
[NB: the author speaks about consumerism here:].

This took me back thirty years. Fresh out of seminary and heading off to be a pastor and my father said something to me which struck me as odd at the time: 'Don't forget to engage with peoples' feelings because that is what drives their behaviour - not so much their thoughts.' I think he was right.

[A similar case study could be built around the immersion by a generation of Christian young adults in Friends, followed by Big Bang Theory. Twenty years of soaking it up. These cultural liturgies have so formed their loves and habits regarding relationships and sexuality that the counter-liturgy in the Story comes across to them as implausible and impossible. It is very, very sad. We are what we soak in...].

3. At one point Smith asks, 'What if education weren't first and foremost about what we know but about what we love?' (155). Now, that would cause a shift! He talks about shaping students in the same way as we shape our children: 'the faculty in loco parentis ('in place of parents')' (158). Just as the pastor's love is the same brand of love as the parent (1 Thess 2), maybe so also the teacher's love? By the end of a course I often feel that way... He talks about the spiritual practices which faculty can embrace (and shouldn't we add administrative staff as well?) in order to cultivate this direction. A bit of Bonhoeffer's Life Together surfaces. But maybe unlike it is with children, do we need to rethink the place of compulsion in the formation of students? I remained unconvinced about the value of making things compulsory with adult learners... In a lovely touch, Smith writes about the transformative impact on a class that buying a coffee-maker had, of arriving early to welcome his class with freshly brewed coffee - as 'a kind of incense for early-morning learning' (163).

4. There is one area where I find the author encourages me not to shift. This obsession we have with 'remaking the church in order to 'speak to' contemporary culture' (75). It is misguided. Later, 'we cannot hope to restore the world if we are constantly reinventing the church' (178). Such people think that it is the church's out-of-dateness that is its biggest problem. Smith sees it differently. In fact he is quite subversive. 'In order to foster a Christian imagination we don't need to invent; we need to remember' (181). It is an immersion in the Story that is needed, not an immersion in the latest trends. We are restored by being 're-storied'. Using the earlier example, rather than making church more like a mall in order to fit into the cultural flow (because if we do this, this does something to us!), we need to invest in the 'counter-liturgies'. It is going against the cultural flow, in an intriguing way, that is the key.

This approach is then taken to four combustible areas: worship, youth ministry, weddings and the home.

With worship (57-81), Smith advocates a move away from it being solely an expressive activity, something we are doing, and on towards it becoming more of a formative activity, something that is being done to us. 'Worship is not primarily a venue for innovative creativity but a place for discerning reception and faithful repetition' (78). In the following chapter (83-110) he gives some ideas on how this can be done - and even offers advice on how to persist in a church context where this is not happening (99-103). He makes a special plea for including confession in worship (103-110). Stop being so fussed about what might appear to be irrelevant or too churchy for the possible unbeliever in your midst and get on with being faithful to biblical worship. How can we expect God to be at work among us if we are not worshipping as he us wants to do? My money is on the unbeliever being drawn closer by watching authentic confession more often than we think - and, if not, that is no reason to stop doing confession.
[NB: the author speaks about worship here:].

With youth ministry (143-154), Smith reminds us that 'effective Christian formation of young people might look like a failure for a time' (146). How true. The lack of patience and the need for measurements of (numerical) success plagues youth ministry. 'We have effectively communicated to young people that sincerely following Jesus is synonymous with being 'fired up' for Jesus, with being excited for Jesus, as if discipleship were synonymous with fostering an exuberant, perky, cheerful disposition...' (146-147). Subversively, he makes a case for the love of tradition among young people and that instead of looking for the next big thing in youth ministry, 'we should be looking behind us' (151) - way behind us because 'the future of the church is ancient' (7).
[NB: the author speaks on youth ministry here:].

With weddings (118-126), Smith worries about the liturgies of narcissism that afflict the event. The 'spectacle of the wedding' is the focus: 'It is why we spend more time fixated on the spectacular flash of the wedding event than on the long slog of sustaining a marriage' (120). I've become disillusioned by Christian wedding ceremonies. Basically, I won't take them anymore ... unless there is a commitment to them being both a serious sacrament and the launch of a missional partnership.

With the home (126-136), these are my favourite pages. Smith ain't gonna buy any 'idolatry of family' ideas. He actually prefers the word 'household' ... 'because I don't want to fall into a narrow picture that assumes we are all parents. God calls some of us to singleness (1 Cor 7.8), and not all of us live in parent-child homes' (203). Good man. I love the way he calls us 'to situate our households in the wider household of God' (133). Amen to that one. We should be concerned about
the ethos of our households - the unspoken 'vibe' carried in our daily rituals. Every household has a 'hum', and that hum has a tune that is attuned to some end, some telos. We need to tune our homes, and thus our hearts, to sing his grace (127).
Smith includes some moving stories from his own household. For example: (1) On the 'formative power of the family supper table', I've read the story on pages 132-133 aloud a few times and wept every time; and (2) On the value of family traditions and memory-making, I love the story about taking his kids to a cathedral in France (150-151).
[NB: the author speaks about life in the household here:].

James K. A. Smith is a relatively new discovery for me as an author. Slowly, I plan to make my way through his books, with one other reviewed here. I like to read by author, rather than by topic - and slowly expand my list of favourites authors and read what they write. This guy is on that list.

BTW, he has a delightful eye for illustrations. Very much the principle I teach - that the best illustrations are about seeing the spiritually significant in the utterly ordinary. CS Lewis in Mere Christianity reigns supreme on this one. But likening the Augustinian quote about 'hearts being restless' with a beachball in a pool is seriously impressive (14). So also is the way a visit to a grocery store leads to a recognition that we don't 'think our way to new tastes' (59-64). I love the way he lingers with Balthasar's observation of the similarities between the way a mother is with a baby and the way God is with us (111-113).

nice chatting


PS: two (less than) 2 minute videos - and there are a set of ten on youtube...

Friday, March 03, 2017

ahh, the elderly

The other day I sat behind an older man clutching his ear with his hand during the singing. I picked what was going on. The music was too loud, but he desperately wanted to remain among the worshipping people of God. He wasn't making a fuss, and clutching his ear seemed to be his best option. As for me and my house (which is just Barby and I, to be fair), I think it is a poor option. A shameful option.

It is great to see emphasis given to youth and childrens' ministries...
BUT if we are going to build this around the compelling 'the youth and children are not the church of tomorrow, they are the church of today' statement - why are we not also affirming that 'the elderly are not the church of yesterday, they are the church of today'? Why is this not equally compelling? The logic is the same. You could even argue that the case for the elderly is even more compelling, given that, on average, they are closer to meeting their Maker than the children and youth. And eternity matters - right?!

It is great to see initiatives among people with disabilities...

Long overdue. Here in Bangalore, you can't walk far from here before you find such ministries, mostly gospel-inspired. I delight in the smile of one of the gardeners here - so uneven and limited in his walk with his disability, but welcomed and valued in this community. On our evening walks, we pass his little home - and the sunshine in his smile and the width in his wave makes my day. BUT if we are offering employment and building ramps and including sign language, why are we not also turning down the music just a bit for the elderly? Is that much lost by doing so? Is this not a legitimate disability as well?

In recent days, my heart has been inclined again towards the elderly for three reasons.
A Movie. An Exercise. A Passage.

a movie
Every now and then a movie tugs at my heart and I watch it again and again. We Bought a Zoo has been one example. I love it. I just do. And now a new one is eclipsing itHave you seen The InternRobert de Niro has recently retired (hardly elderly, I realise - but stick with me) and lost his wife. He joins a trendy, booming entrepreneurial on-line sales company as an intern, as part of a scheme pitched at retirees. He is so untrendy, starting with turning up to work in a jacket and tie - and all things technological are foreign to him. Now this is Hollywood and so not everything in the movie is praiseworthy ... but because of his servant-heart, his character, his wisdom, and his caring for people of all ages he has a transformative influence on the company. A company that is obsessive about relevance and success is subverted and improved by an odd, but intriguing, person in their midst. Methinks it is a great case study for a church leaders' retreat...

an exercise
A Langham friend of mine in Australia (Jill McGilvray) is a counsellor and does some teaching as well. I was captivated by an exercise which she does with pastors-in-training. She gives five post-it notes, from three different colours, to each student. On the five green post-its they write five things they are glad they own. On the pink ones they write five activities they enjoy doing. On the yellow ones they write five people that they love. Easy-peasy.

Then she gives her talk on ministry to seniors. Off she goes - but she has an alarm on her phone to go off every few minutes. When it does, each student picks a post-it, screws it up, and throws it to one side. This is the pain of growing old. It is the gradual sense of loss that fills every direction in which they look and live. Things and activities and people. Jill lives in this loss a bit, helping pastors-in-training feel the pain. Then they are asked to go and pick up each post-it, unscrewing them one at a time, and becoming more thankful that the things and the activities and the people that they love and enjoy are still with them.

a chaarpai
a passage
Next week I'm doing a series through Ecclesiastes for the first time in two decades. It is the first book of the Bible that I loved, as a preacher. I wrote about this recently. While it is an odd and difficult book, it is an honest one. I imagine the author as an elderly person. In NZ settings I refer to him as a kaumatua (a Maori elder). At other times he has been a grandfatherly sage. Next week, after tossing lots of ideas around with those who know far more than me, I have settled on him being a guru on his chaarpai as achhe din comes to an end. [NB: achhe din - literally, the 'good days', is a phrase used widely in India's public life]. While the scholars differ on this one (don't they always with Ecclesiastes?!), many feel that the emotional centre of the book is 12.1-7 where guruji takes us on a tour of his body as it declines into death. By this time he is pleading with his disciples to 'Remember their Creator' before the achhe din pass and the 'days of trouble' come. Eugene Peterson is so good in capturing this emotion:
1-2 Honor and enjoy your Creator while you’re still young,
Before the years take their toll and your vigor wanes,
Before your vision dims and the world blurs
And the winter years keep you close to the fire.
3-5 In old age, your body no longer serves you so well.
Muscles slacken, grip weakens, joints stiffen.
The shades are pulled down on the world.
You can’t come and go at will. Things grind to a halt.
The hum of the household fades away.
You are wakened now by bird-song.
Hikes to the mountains are a thing of the past.
Even a stroll down the road has its terrors.
Your hair turns apple-blossom white,
Adorning a fragile and impotent matchstick body.
Yes, you’re well on your way to eternal rest,
While your friends make plans for your funeral.
6-7 Life, lovely while it lasts, is soon over.
Life as we know it, precious and beautiful, ends.
The body is put back in the same ground it came from.
The spirit returns to God, who first breathed it.
To be honest, one more thing is on my mind.
Movie, Exercise, Passage - but also, today...

A person
As I write, at this very moment, one of my very favourite people among the elderly is moving home. She knows Ecclesiastes 12.1-7 from the inside, with all its pain and frustration - and losses. I have so much else I should be doing, but I wanted to write this post on this day, as a tribute to all that she and Uncle Brian have meant to me over the years. Love you so much, Auntie Audrey. God is with you.

nice chatting