It’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom. That everyone is a critic means, or should mean, that we are each of us capable of thinking against our prejudices, of balancing skepticism with open-mindedness, of sharpening our dulled and glutted senses and battling the intellectual inertia that surrounds us. We need to put our remarkable minds to use and pay our own experience the honor of taking it seriously.
– A. O. Wilson, Better Living Through Criticism, 12
This brings to recollection a recent conversation with a friend who said that listening to a sermon is one particular time during his week in which he brings the full measure of his mental focus to bear upon an occasion, an event, noticing every word, the tone, nuances, and inflection. He listens, deeply and carefully. The stakes are high. That is why, for him, it is so important that the sermon contain a thread he can follow, one he can learn from. In doing so, not only is he seeking to take the sermon and the person delivering the sermon seriously, he is also putting his mind to use and paying his own experience the honor of taking it seriously.
He’s engaged in criticism. Criticism notes what is lacking, but it also elevates what is worthy of attention, lest we miss it. It is possible to engage in the practice of criticism while being charitable, civil, and even kind. In other words, everyone can be a critic, and in some sense should be. But criticism must be accompanied by other virtues if it is to be Christian.
The sermon is art. So is the essay, the blog post, the photograph, maybe, also, the caption. The job of the sermon, as well as these other art forms, is not only to fill the mind or inform the soul, but to offer and invite us toward freedom–to think, to change, to grow. To be serious.
Once that freedom is received, what we do with that freedom is up to us. The possibilities begin when we put our remarkable minds to use, when we get serious.
I can think of no other subject about which we should be so serious, as well as so joyful, as that of contemplating God and the things of God.
In his essay “Equipment for Living,” Michael Robbins asks, “What are we doing with all these films and songs and novels and poems and pictures? Why keep making them? Don’t we have enough, or too much?”
Robbins wrote a new essay to pose that question to us, and then makes his argument with the help of old poets, philosophers, writers, singers, and filmmakers. We make art, dearly beloved, because it helps us “get through this thing called life.”
The composition of verse is part of what it means to be human. It is, in one formulation and according to Robbins, “a response to threat.” It is a consolation in the face of suffering and our eventual death. It crosses chasms and creates bonds. It renders meaning and brings forth a shared language. Art appeals to the affections as well as to our rationality. It evokes a visceral response, one we cannot help but attempt to articulate, no matter how vain those articulations might be toward accurately conveying our experience.
Drawing from an insight of Harold Bloom, Robbins agrees that a text is “good for something.” Robbins writes that “we can make them do things for us.” We keep making texts and poetry and other works of art because they are “of use.” A thing that is of use is otherwise known as “equipment.” Robbins forwards this idea with a phrase from Kenneth Burke, who wrote “Poetry…is undertaken as equipment for living, as a ritualistic way of arming us to confront perplexities and risks.”
Robbins cites examples from Boethius and Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He draws from Nietsche and Cameron Crowe. He shows how poetry and song provide forms that offer both consolation and community. He is carefully to say that “Poetry does not kiss the boo-boo and make it all better.” Poetry does not solve or minimize our problems, but it does provide “strategies” for us as we confront the human situation. Poetry offers us ways of responding. “It’s like in the song…”
Robbins notes how the various forms of poetry and pop music also serve to distinguish one community from another, citing the example of different Christian communities. Robbins writes, “The televangelical JAY-sus, the sober Jesu Christe of the Latin Mass, the radical Jewish peasant Yeshua of Nazareth of Guy Davenport’s translations, and the Gee-zuhhs of Norman Greenbaum’s “gotta have a friend in” are not the same sort of equipment.” And he’s right. They are not.
In this very same essay Robbins notes pop music captures and relays some “ideal” that is commonly known to everyone, which I understand to include notions about love, friendship, sorrow, adventure, tragedy, and others. Or, that is the intent. Some artists succeed, and others fail miserably.
My thoughts as I read this essay turned to the Psalms, which come to us as both poetry and song, and then more: prayer. They convey meaning; they create community. The psalms bind one heart to another in their recitation, in their singing, in their praying. Monastic rhythms are built on the Psalter, as are liturgical rhythms. Poetry becomes song, which then becomes prayer, or perhaps it is prayer that becomes poetry which then becomes song, or song becoming prayer that is then experienced as poetry. You get my drift.
For the Christian person, the wider testimony of Scripture is also text, a work of literature, God-breathed, around which a community has been formed. It contains wisdom and narrative that provide “strategies” for life. It is also a text, read differently by different communities, that has spawned multitudes, offering diverse forms of “equipment” for understanding the Divine and best stewarding the creation. This is why we continue to need the theologian, the prophet, and the critic, who can help us to discern the good, true, and beautiful from the wicked, false, and ugly. Useful tools can be taken up toward destructive ends, as we sadly know.
We also know that Christian communities continue to bring forth something new, all while drawing from the old. This is for good reason. We continue to live. We continue to face reality, and it continues to bring forth joys and sorrows. Most human beings want to live well. They continue to ask, “Who is well off?” and “What does it mean to be virtuous?” and “How do I become a person who is well off?” They make their best run at the answers, while holding out hope that the answers they find are good ones. Thomas Merton understood, “The spiritual life is first of all a life. It is not merely something to be known and studied, it is to be lived.” This is why all theology, in the end, is practical. It is to be “of use.”
Which is why I think Christians continue to write, and preach, and to “work out” salvation. We must continue to make, to create. Life offers us no other choice.
It is one thing to proclaim that God has given us all the equipment we need for living. It is another to put it to use.
I’m writing to ask a favor. It’s a strange favor. So, please, hang in there with me.
I’ve been writing online for many years. You may have read something I have published, and if so I thank you for your kindness. Reading requires time and attention. When a person tells me I have written something they found helpful or insightful I am both grateful and amazed. Just the fact they told me they read leaves me floored. I wrote something. They read it. Wow!
You may not have read anything I’ve written. Maybe this silly appeal is your first foray into my prose. For that, I am sorry. But we’re connected. And because we’re connected, I have a request for you too.
I’d like you to invite you to subscribe to my website.
You’re probably saying, “That’s it? That’s the favor? But that’s an invitation!”
I know. That’s a problem. But I’ll level with you. This is an invitation, but if you grant me permission to drop something in your inbox every time I publish an essay, you’re doing me a favor. Let me tell you how.
If my memory is correct I’ve been using Facebook since the fall of 2004. I’ve been on Twitter since April of 2008. Those services have changed. The news feed used to be chronological. It is not anymore. It also used to be algorithm free. Now, the items we see first, at the top of our feed, are curated by a complex formula based on our past likes, comments, and scroll rates, or the likes and comments of friends in our network.
The goal of services like Facebook and Twitter is not, foremost, to connect us to one another, but to connect us to their service, and then to convert our likes, profile information, commentary, and other contributions into data that can be crunched, analyzed, packaged, and sold to marketers, sales teams, and product developers. Signing up is free of charge, but there is a cost. The extraction is found elsewhere, and it is covert.
As social media services have changed their algorithms and redesigned their news feeds, they’ve made things more difficult for people like me. I’m a writer. I focus on theology and church related concerns. I’ve written devotional material, and I’ve also composed serious essays on pastoral ethics and spiritual formation. I don’t enjoy yelling about it. I have a strong dislike for click-bait and controversy. I’m more dove than hawk. That’s a problem on social media, which rewards the bombastic, confrontational, and flashy types.
I once read a quote from Arnold Schwarzenegger who said that every industry, every endeavor, requires a bit of salesmanship. So, in a way, this is my bit of salesmanship, despite the fact I’m not much of a salesman. I’d like you to do me the favor of subscribing to my blog in order to decrease our shared reliance on social media algorithms to ensure we remain connected. I’d also like to invite you to engage with me and my writing in web space other than that provided by the major social media services.
For all their promise and wonder, and for the many fantastic ways these services do keep us connected (there is some benefit), I think we can all admit that there is a downside to the medium. Most of us are still here because if we weren’t continuously scrolling, we fear we’d be missing out.
Question: What are three things you’ve seen on social media in the past three days that drastically impacted the course of your day which you wouldn’t have heard about through another channel? Question: How many items did you scroll by that occupied mental space which you didn’t need to know and could have done without? If we all logged off for good, we wouldn’t miss too much.
The rise of social media created a scene of sorts, a place to see people and a place to be seen. It is still a scene, as we all know, that people occupy in many different ways. But I’d like our minds to meet elsewhere, preferably in a quieter space that I curate online. If social media is the rave, I’d like to invite you over to the coffee house, a place to clear your mind, think, sober up, detoxify, and maybe learn, exchange ideas, and strengthen a tie with someone you have shared history with. I write this assuming it is more likely than not that we’ve hung out, played a game, been on a trip, or sat in the same room together.
I’m hoping you’ll come over to my website, click follow, and submit your email.
You can still catch me on Facebook. I have a Facebook Page you can like. Make sure you click on the settings wheel and opt to follow or receive updates. Links will also be posted to my Twitter feed. I can’t promise a lot of interaction on those services—I post most of my content through Buffer. I don’t have social media apps on my phone. But if you come by the website I’ll try to interact in the comments, especially if you are someone I know.
Finally, Facebook Friend, most of you are people I have known through school, camps, or church stops. A few I know through writing and publishing. I thank God for you all. Community is a gift, both the strong and the loose ties, and I have no doubt (even if you do) that the God of heaven has bound us together in eternity and time for some good purpose, however mysterious and elusive that purpose may be.
I don’t think there’s an artist of any value who doesn’t doubt what they’re doing.
– Francis Ford Coppola
This is reassuring. Or perhaps not! Maybe I should spend more time doubting what I’m doing!
The problem with any endeavor that is worth doing, artistic or otherwise, is that showing your work can be terrifying. One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced in writing, speaking publicly, or in leadership has been the fear that my work will be rejected, that it won’t be received well, and that I’ll be labeled a flop or failure.
But paradoxically, that same fear has often led me to work harder, to pay greater attention to detail, to be open to correction and change, thus making sure my future efforts are of more value, not less. The result has been improvement and growth. Growth requires risk, vulnerability, boldness, daring, and courage. A little bit of doubt can foster humility. There’s always the chance that even your best efforts will fail. The odds are you have failed , and you will again. Keep going.
While viewing a documentary I saw a sign above the desk of a journalist which said, “True is better than done.” I searched the web for the phrase and the top results were a series of links offering and explaining a different saying: “Done is better than perfect.” The former fits well with journalism and other forms of knowledge work. The latter jives better with creative enterprises like the visual arts, creative writing, or graphic design.
In creative work, it is possible to become so obsessed with imperfections that one never ships and never shows. Fear and doubt prevent completion, even if the work itself is excellent and all that is lacking is the click of the word “publish” or “send.” The artist holds off on sharing, believing the work could be perfect with one more tweak, a little more time, and one additional, elusive dash of inspiration.
But the work may be done. It may never be perfect. Done, rather than perfect, might be the state of affairs. All that is left is to unveil the work, take criticism, and refine your craft before telling the next story, composing the next image, or shooting the next subject. Creative work involves the viewer, the reader, as a critic. The critic helps the artist take the next step.
In knowledge work, such as journalism, you desire to write in a way that coheres with and explains reality. You want it to be true, not perfect, and not just done. There is only one way to be confident you are done: the story you have told is true. A true story does not have to be perfectly told. Journalism is meant to inform the citizenry, to put the truth to the public. It involves the citizens. The citizens help the knowledge worker take the next step, offering new leads, a new chapter, a follow up, another project.
Both the theologian and the preacher can learn from the knowledge worker and the creative worker (speaking of the arts; all work involves creativity). Theologians are like journalists, in this instance an example of the knowledge worker. They labor hard for the truth, and they help preachers and the whole of the church to familiarize themselves with the best of the tradition, the times, and their text, which in the Christian tradition is the Bible.
Preachers are theologians. Yet, there is a sense in which their vocation involves elements of the creative worker. Every sermon, every new venture, if it is led by the Spirit, will have a mysterious element, an element that is hidden and yet to be revealed, an outcome and a reception that can only be discovered in the sharing. Work may be presented as done but not perfect, yet also true. Once the Word of God is proclaimed by the preacher, delivered prayerfully and humbly, it is hoped that there is an illumination, a revelation of what God is up to in the midst of the world.
The theologian and the preacher, both, are doing work that involves the congregation, the church. The church helps the preacher and the theologian take the next step, using their voice to discern truth from error, and their lives as a testing ground for that which is offered, a place to explore and to discover the mysterious and manifold ways of the Spirit.
I made a decision seven days ago to delete the Instagram app from my iPhone.
The newsfeed algorithm.
For every one image that I see from a friend or family member, I see one advertisement, three posts from news outlets or businesses or Instagram personalities that I follow, suggested follows, and other junk. I’ve also found that the Discover feature has been bad for my browsing habits, turning Instagram into a black hole.
The next decision I’m mulling over: collecting my images, deleting my account, and spending more time with a point and shoot and imaging software.
I made a conscious decision to delete Facebook from my phone and I never installed Facebook Messenger. I deleted Twitter from my phone, though I access it on my tablet. I limit my Facebook exposure to five minutes a day on my home computer. I’m not only worried about my attention span and the effects social media can have on my anxiety levels. I’m also worried about my privacy.
I suppose that Instagram’s non sequential algorithm (and that of other social media services) is designed to show me more of what I like to see based on my scrolling habits, likes, comments, etc. But it turns out I don’t like what I see. Which has led me to use these services less.
The only service I still enjoy, and only for specific purposes, is Twitter. I’ve been totally disinterested in Facebook for three or four years, hanging on to it because I peddle in words, and I’ve been beaten over the head with the message that being active on social media is essential for getting people to read your stuff.
I’m beginning to think that the clearest path to greater creativity, deeper human connection, increased privacy, and increased quality of life is to shut down social media. If I don’t delete accounts entirely, I may choose to update them by proxy through a service like Buffer. I’m also thinking of relegating everything to this space, to my website, which I set up, maintain, and manage. Pictures, quick missives, essays, etc.
I mentioned above that one of the reasons I’ve remained on social media is so that I have an outlet to publish links to stuff so that you, dear reader, might scroll, spot, stop, and click. I’d like to bypass all that stuff, and I’d like to give you the chance to remain one of my readers without having to turn a data point over to a corporate giant. In the right hand column, subscribe and receive my posts via email. Add my blog to your reader service, if you keep one. And let’s stay in touch.
2018 is no longer new, but a great deal has happened since the calendar rolled over January 1, bringing a flurry of opportunity. It is time to write about it.
If you’ve seen me at First Methodist or have spoken with me, the following will not be new. But for my own sake and for friends who have wondered, this is the press release, coming your way via the World Wide Web.
First Methodist Waco: Interim Director of College Ministries
First and most significantly, since February I have served as the Interim Director of College Ministries at First Methodist Waco. It has been wonderful to be with students and to be preaching, teaching, and equipping others for life in Christ.
How did this happen? First Methodist has seen significant changes in the past twelve months. Reverend Steve Ramsdell, who was absolutely wonderful and has blessed our family, retired this past summer. Other wonderful members of the church staff stepped away from leadership or found new roles. Reverend Ryan Barnett was appointed as Lead Pastor. Change is challenging, but the church has done well, welcomed new visitors, faced new challenges, and made several wise decisions.
Last fall Reverend Brandon Frenzel shifted from his position as Associate Pastor of Student Ministries, where he worked directly with youth and college students, to a position of greater responsibility. He now oversees all of First’s ministry to families and works with an excellent team of people who coordinate ministry to children, middle school, high school, college students, and their families. Pastor Hayley House, who now works with high school students, previously helped Pastor Brandon in college ministry. These moves happened in succession.
Pastor Brandon and Pastor Hayley continued to work with college students, but because of their changing responsibilities there was a need for an interim person to come and share the load. Brandon spoke to me about the position in early January, and I was glad to help the church.
I’ve been on duty since the beginning of February and it has been a joy to get to know the students and serve them as they grow in faith.
Truett Seminary: Covenant Group Mentor // Spiritual Director
Truett Seminary launched a program for training in spiritual direction last fall, and I have had the privilege of meeting with those students one on one for discipleship, listening, and conversation concerning the spiritual life. Dr. Angela Reed directs the program, and she is absolutely wonderful. I met her students during one of their class sessions last fall. That work has continued this spring.
At the the invitation of Professor Bill Walker I was given a second opportunity to serve the seminary community in January. I now serve as a Covenant Group Mentor. The Covenant Group is an important facet of the seminary’s approach to spiritual formation, or how Christian character is developed.
These groups consist of a small number of seminarians who meet together weekly for prayer, directed conversation, discipleship, the practice of spiritual disciplines, accountability, and for guidance in growing more like Jesus. It is my responsibility to care pastorally for the students, offer wisdom and guidance, keep our sessions on track, and encourage the students as they pursue their education.
The work has been delightful. It is truly one of my favorite things I do each week. It is a privilege to serve in higher education and to serve Baylor.
Central District – Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church: Speaker
Another surprise came my way when Reverend Leah Hidde-Gregory, the District Superintendent of the Central District of our Annual Conference, invited me to speak to the United Methodist clergy in our area on the topic of spiritual formation on several occasions this year. As you can imagine, pastoral ministry can be challenging and taxing on the soul. It is my hope that my time with clergy will help them experience renewal for the task of ministry, to be encouraged in their work, and to discover new avenues for growth in their spiritual life so that they might remain strong and steadfast as they do their work “unto the Lord.”
I met with the clergy in January and again in March. In our first meeting we discussed the Wesleyan Class Meeting with help from a resource by Kevin Watson. In our second we prayed the Scriptures and then discussed the Triumphal Entry in preparation for Good Friday. I also presented a few truths I wish someone would have shared with me prior to beginning pastoral ministry on how to abide in Christ, grow in faith, and serve others.
I’m looking forward to the rest of the year. As part of this commitment I have resolved to remember all sixty-six area United Methodist Churches and their pastors in prayer each day. I pray God would bless our region through them.
Coaching Youth Sports
Of all the new gigs I’ve had this spring this one pays the best. They keep doubling my pay, too! This spring I’ve coached youth basketball, soccer, and t-ball. It’s been a blast and a great way to be part of the community.
Wait, Weren’t You Planning to Go Back to School?
That’s right. I was. And up until last fall was still considering it. But after a few conversations and plenty of prayer, I discerned that an advanced degree was not my calling at this time. So I turned the matter over to God in prayer and have experienced peace ever since.
Are You Still Writing?
I am still writing. I continue to contribute to Burlap. I received some kind feedback from congregants at First Mansfield following my work with their congregation on Mark.
I have a couple of other projects that are in the works. There are plenty of possibilities, and among them is a book, an extended treatise on the spiritual life. An idea has been with me for some time. We will see where that leads.
So, What’s Next?
Reading, family, teaching, serving, and playing basketball about once a week.
I’m long overdue for a fresh start online, and after dragging my feet for months I finally pulled the plug on my old site and moved to WordPress. Thanks for visiting the new space, taking a look around, following along, and supporting my work.
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