An App from Hell

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

This past weekend I was looking at church job listings with a group of friends. We were evaluating the postings theologically, asking what these job descriptions suggested about each congregation.

Some were great. Others were not so great. Some emphasized discernment. Others emphasized excitement and opportunity. Some displayed theological reflection on the vocation. Others displayed marketplace language.

I looked at my friends and said, “Hey everyone, I have an idea for an app. We can create an app that allows people to swipe right for church job listings they like, and swipe left for church job listings they hate.”

On the other side of things, then, we’d need candidate profiles that search committees could peruse, with the same mechanism.

Maybe would be bad for everyone.

Maybe this idea was born in hell.

Our Need or God’s Pleasure?

Columbus Avenue Baptist Church, Waco, Texas

J. Hudson Taylor, the Baptist missionary and founder of the China Inland Mission, wrote a small commentary on the Song of Solomon. He read this book as an allegory of Christ, the bridegroom, and the church, his bride.

In this commentary, Taylor observes that our relationship with God is often driven by our needs. Our seeking after God is done in hopes of what we might receive, rather than for God and the joy that comes through faithfully response. Taylor writes:

Are we not all too apt to seek Him rather because of our need than for His joy and pleasure? This should not be. We do not admire selfish children who only think of what they can get from their parents, and are unmindful of the pleasure that they may give or the service they may render. But are not we in danger of forgetting that pleasing God means giving Him pleasure? Some of us look back to the time when the words ‘To please God’ meant no more than not to sin against Him, not to grieve Him; but would the love of earthly parents be satisfied with the mere absence of disobedience? Or a bridegroom, if his bride only sought him for the supply of her own need?

Union and Communion, 14-15

By all means, do not sin. But go the next step. Serve, and share in the joy of relationship with God.

Seamus Heaney: “Digging”

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The course boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts on an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

In Selected Poems 1966-1987

Writing Witty With Russell Baker

In this interview with Adrienne LaFrance of the Atlantic, the now deceased New York Times columnist and host of Masterpiece Theater Russell Baker offered a few nuggets on work, writing, politics, comedy, and journalism. I extracted a few of my favorite portions.

LaFrance: Did it never feel like a labor before?

Baker: I’m writing because I love to write, of course. It was just a pleasure to write. I’d write things for fun and throw it away. Of course, once you start making money it becomes work and it ceases to be fun, but your writing gets better.

LaFrance: That’s true, isn’t it?

Baker: I’ve always found that when writing is fun, it’s not very good.

On writing as labor:

Baker: If you haven’t sweated over it, it’s probably not worth it. So it’s always been work. But it’s the kind of work you enjoy having done. The doing of it is hard work. People don’t usually realize what it takes out of you. They just see you sitting there, staring at the wall, and they don’t know that you’re looking for the perfect word to describe a shade of light. I did enjoy writing. Also, I’ve probably said everything I’ve wanted to say.

On changes in the political scene in Washington:

LaFrance: When I covered national politics, the longest-serving senators would always tell me about how Congress used to be so civilized and bipartisan. You were around in those days. That’s not really true, is it? Because if you look back at the history, there’s always been fighting.

Baker: Well there has, but not like now. It’s another world. At one point I covered the Senate for several years. I knew everyone. The Senate’s easy to cover. There are only 100 guys. It’s just the right size.
But the Senate now has become something quite different than what it was when I covered it. It was an important body when I covered it. I started covering the Senate during the Eisenhower years. It was important in any number of policy matters. To be on the Foreign Relations Committee was to be a heavyweight. I mean, [Senator J. William] Fulbright’s resistance to the Vietnam policy had real weight in the events that followed. And that was true on the financial side. The Finance Committee chairman really had influence.

Now nobody has any weight. Nobody listens. As a matter of fact, they don’t have any respect for the job anymore. Trent Lott was the majority leader for the Republicans and chucked the job to become a lobbyist. If that had happened in the days that I was covering the Senate, he would have been disgraced. A senator giving up a Senate seat to become a lobbyist! That just wasn’t done. And they all do now. The decline of the Senate. That’s a big story.

When I covered the Senate, Lyndon Johnson was the majority leader and he was working with Eisenhower. [Sam] Rayburn was the speaker of the House. They worked closely with Eisenhower to get things done. It’s inconceivable that any of those men would have taken it upon himself just to frustrate Eisenhower.

Politics is almost a nonstop activity now. There’s not much government that goes on. But with Rayburn and Eisenhower and Johnson and Kennedy —all those people—they governed. Governing is tough. Now they don’t spend much time governing. It’s mostly posturing.

On comedic writing (I censored the curse words):

LaFrance: You mentioned your column, so I want to get your view on comedic writing generally. Do you think that humor is more parts truth or more parts absurdity?

Baker: I don’t know! I don’t know what it is. You know, you laugh, it’s humorous. I am curious about the decline of wit in humor. That may be a cyclical thing. But humor’s much cruder than it was when I was working in that area, when humor required certain cleverness. Whereas now you say a nasty word and the audience will break up. It’s a nervous tic. You just say a four-letter word.

Everyone watches Jon Stewart, right? And they have the bleep thing when he really obviously says “s***” or “f***,” and he’s cute about it. It’s a cheap laugh. It’s not funny. But the audience reacts. When you’ve got to do as much work as he does, I can understand why you go for the cheap laugh.

On the pointless, inconsequential concluding question:

LaFrance: I know we’re running out of time. Is there anything I should have asked you but didn’t?

Baker: Probably! But what does it matter?


In the Secret of His Presence

This week I’ve been reading J. Hudson Taylor’s commentary on The Song of Songs, a little book called Union and Communion. In the early pages of that little book, he quotes the first verse of the hymn “In the Secret of His Presence,” performed above by Sandra McCracken. That verse says:

In the secret of His presence
How my soul delights to hide!
Oh, how precious are the lessons
Which I learn at Jesus’ side!
Earthly cares can never vex me,
Neither trials lay me low;
For when Satan comes to tempt me,
To the secret place I go.

Hudson Taylor (1832-1905) was a missionary, and in 1865 founded the China Inland Mission (now the Overseas Missionary Fellowship) in partnership with William Berger. His parents, James and Amelia Taylor were Methodists, and when their son was born prayed, “Grant that he may work for you in China.”

The hymn Taylor cited was written by Ellen Lakshimi Goreh (1853-1937), daughter of the Rev. Nehemiah Goreh, an Indian convert to Christianity. Miss Goreh was later adopted by an Englishman, Rev. W. T. Storrs. In 1880, Miss Goreh returned to her native India as a Christian missionary. She published a collection of hymns, From India’s Coral Strand: Hymns of Christian Faith, in 1883.

The theme of “In the Secret of His Presence” is experience of Christ. In Colossians 3:1-17 Paul writes, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

Paul instructs his hearers to put off the old self and the old ways in the same way one casts off an old garment, and to now clothe oneself in Christ, to let the peace of Christ rule the heart and the Word of Christ dwell in the inmost being, and to do so in order that the body as whole might do all things unto God. “Whatever you do,” Paul writes, “whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

The hymn, in all four of its verses, testifies to the richness of this kind of experience. It is an experience all are invited to share. The final verse makes that most clear.

Would you like to know that sweetness
Of the secret of the Lord?
Go and hide beneath His shadow;
This shall then be your reward;
And whene’er you leave the silence
Of that happy meeting-place,
By the Spirit bear the image
Of the Master in your face.

Christ beckons us all. The invitation is given. The commission is clear. If you know him, if you have taken shelter in him, if he now dwells in you as you have hidden your life in him, may you then testify to this reality. May you, “by the Spirit, bear the image, of the Master in your face.”

The Friends of Friendless Churches

Waddeson Hill, a Strict and Particular Baptist Chapel

Alan Jacobs shared about The Friends of Friendless Churches in his newsletters, and I love the concept. Who are The Friends?

The Friends of Friendless Churches was set up in 1957 to save disused but beautiful old places of worship of architectural and historical interest from demolition, decay and unsympathetic conversion. Working across England and Wales, we are an independent, non-denominational charity which cares for over 50 former places of worship and has helped hundreds more.

Believing that an ancient and beautiful church fulfils its primary function merely by existing, we preserve these buildings for the local community and visitors to enjoy. Without us, all of these buildings would no longer be here, or open to the public.

Maintaining and repairing churches is a considerable financial challenge. We rely on the generosity of our members and on the willingness of groups of local Friends to fundraise and to act as our eyes and ears.

The church is a people, not a building. But the buildings do tell a story, they have a formational aspect, they reflect commitments and values, and the grounds upon which they are built do, in a certain sense, become sacred spaces, saturated as they are with prayer and worship and the memories and experiences of human beings who gathered together in such spaces in hopes of encountering the divine, of meeting with God.

Ronaldinho: Mastery and Freedom

Ronaldinho’s juggling, particularly his play off the crossbar, demonstrates incredible skill, mastery with the ball, and evidence of consistent, steady, diligent, and focused practice. I showed this clip to my kids and we talked about how one comes to possess such mastery in sport and in other arenas of life.

If you watch the entire Ronaldinho highlight package, you will see a player who demonstrates freedom on the pitch, the kind of freedom that arises from command and discipline over skills and competencies that he has come to possess through the means and modalities of training.

I once heard Dallas Willard say that there is much we can learn about spiritual formation from sport, particularly when an athlete is seen to perform at the highest level. Any person who displays such grace, creativity, fluidity, and effortlessness, any person who delivers in a clutch moment or who displays brilliance does so largely because they have been well prepared by training, practice, and the exercise of various disciplines that have become part and parcel of their chosen sport.

There is natural ability, of course, and intelligence. But that natural ability has been harnessed, refined, and channeled toward particularly ends, which the occasion of a game creates space to then reveal.

So it is with the spiritual life. I don’t know what the equivalent of playing with the crossbar might be. But there is a parallel.

Mature people, who in their spiritual lives have grown in likeness to Christ, awe us not because they appear to work so hard, but because they make it look fluid, natural, easy. They are free, free in their spirit to respond freely to the Spirit. Their mastery stems from being mastered by the Master, schooled in holiness by Jesus himself, who freely gave himself so that we might be redeemed.

Nothing about this reality comes without great cost. The Christian claim that we can live lives that are pleasing to God is not rooted in human potential, but rather a divine act, a work of God, and the operations of grace. Humans respond. God has enacted the reality that we can receive and enter. The transformation that results is driven by the Spirit’s action.

In pastoral experience, and in personal experience, I’ve come to see that this transformation takes place over time. And even as one grows, as one matures, there are missteps and mistakes, failures and outright rebellions. But as one continues to trust Christ, as one continues to grow in their knowledge of him, they come to see that it is undeniably true that if it is the Son who has set you free, you will be free indeed.

Keeping Notebooks: Artifacts of the Mind

Kleon’s Notebooks

Austin Kleon shared his year in notebooks, and I find myself inspired yet again.

I’m not as systematic as Kleon. I don’t create daily pages, I don’t have a notebook “system,” but I do have a couple of staples and go-to practices. I have a notebook I began “building” years ago with quotes, ideas, images, drawings, scratching, and lists. I glue in pictures and trinkets and fortune cookies and scraps. I put a lot of stickers on the cover, stuff I’ve collected from places through the years.

And I keep a journal. I’ve started to be a little bit more disciplined in this practice recently. My goal is to make journaling a daily habit. I use my journal primarily to process my emotions, to get what I’m feeling out there. If there is one area of my self that I sometimes keep hidden, it is my emotional life. I’m not always real clear on what I’m feeling, and journaling helps me work through that aspect of my experience.

I tote around a couple of pocket sized notebooks so that I can record ideas and passing thoughts, bit of conversation and quotes, stuff I need to take on later. I also like having my small notebooks handy so that I have something to hand my kids when they say they are bored. “Make me something,” I tell them.

Søren Kierkegaard‘s “authorship,” as he called it, was undertaken with the understanding that his writings would be read by the public, not only his books, sermons, and manuscripts, but even his journals. Portions of his journals were excised and burned in the fire. He discarded portions that were not for public consumption, that were not intended to be read as part of his corpus. His writing, even his journal, was part of his grand vision.

I’m not quite there yet. I don’t think I’ll ever go that far. But I am writing and creating while conscious that family and friends may one day read what I’ve written or look upon what I’ve made, doodles and drawings and sayings, the occasional aphorism, the more-than-occasional rant.