The Hope of Humble Explicitness

Welcome to the new look. I hope you like it. Many thanks to Casey Fulgenzi at www.Caseyis.me for the design and coding. Also notice that GodPeoplePlace.com is the URL now – please bookmark, pass on to interested friends and add to your blogrolls.

If you find a broken link, or experience problems with flow from page to page, let me know and I’ll pass it on to Casey.

It’s only been a couple of weeks since beginning the blog and already I’ve learned much. Another good reward is meeting new people and reconnecting with old friends. Here’s a brief summary of my thoughts on re-entering the public square as a person and writer who prays to know the love of God, people, and place seriously:

  1. Writing in public, where anyone can read over your shoulders, is hard work! It takes time (and for me, prayer) to choose words with care – to give thought and empathy to a variety of potential readers. I want to get better at it.
  2. It’s a huge challenge to critique, compare and contrast, in public and not marginalize or dis-member anyone. Negating/dismissing a person, institution, worldview etc. in order to put our own thoughts/agenda on offer comes too easy to the human family. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for us to see this when we’re in the middle of doing it – especially when it feels like such a winning tool for argument.
  3. Wrestling with how to create loving and issue-explicit public speech/text in the post-internet/information age is a challenge worth facing. Knowing and being known, hearing and being heard is neighbor love in action. And for our time in history, it’s bringing the already expansive neighborhood near – literally taking all people in all places seriously.
  4. Writing in public (including reader blog comments) involves a varied and mixed bag of the related “ologies” such as theology, philosophy, sociology, psychology, epistemology, ontology, as well as politics, gender and sexuality, and of course communication and conflict resolution, manners and civility, hermeneutics, postmodernism and literary deconstructionism (should I keep going??). Even in a passionate blog entry or comment, it helps to be aware of the place of all of this in setting the stage for a winsome public conversation, and writing with magnanimity so that anyone, anywhere might read and engage. Turning back to #1 – this is hard work, but worth it.
  5. To live on the planet in our time is to live in a neighborhood composed of the most exaggerated hyphenate pluralism and syncretism the world has ever known. Because of this, to get particular about our love and language may mean re-imagining what it means to speak and write with integrity – old words and phrases may need to be replaced and thought through afresh. While in the midst of learning new ways, there is potential for confusion and anger. For example, taking great care with language for one person becomes evasion of confession for another. Refusing to clearly nail down what team you’re playing for can really anger some people! Contrary to how we sometimes bear witness, living with each other gracefully is not a competitive, contact sport.
  1. Sometimes words are simply worn out for over use and collect associations that shut down communication. And even more complicated is that the words are no longer solely buttressed by etymology (though personally I wish we’d all revisit this), they are now, often times more about perceived (though etymologically inaccurate) meaning, and emotion. Such as how people feel about the words they hear and read, not what the words actually mean etymologically.

Finally, I very much want all of life and language to be an explicit, holistic witness to God, people, and place, seamless and interconnected, void of bifurcation. If you do as well, please keep reading and joining in. I’ve been using the phrase humble explicitness to get at this hope. And, as I’ve already written above, I’ve also found it helpful to think in terms of writing in such a way that the whole world could read over my shoulder. I’m always looking for new inspiration though and would be eager to hear anything you have to add. Many thanks to family and good friends here in Nashville and beyond that have engaged me on these topics. Shared desire for good is a holy membership. All are welcome.

The Prison of Presumption

prisonI recall with great shame the many presumptions I’ve made over the years. Perhaps you know a little bit about this too. People come into our view or friendship with their self-identifying labels or names (e.g., Christian, LGBTQ, Democrat, agnostic) and we often presume much about them. We also give labels to people we don’t know and yet presume much about, (e.g., liberals, fundies, non-believers, idiots and of course much worse). The names and labels are almost always related to race, sexuality and gender, politics, and matters of religious belief or the lack thereof.

After publishing the first essay (Ending the Decade of Quiet) I received a kind note of encouragement on Facebook with a gentle request that I not paint all the Religious Right with the same brush. I had written: “People and place need devoted voices expressing the third way between the noise of the religious right and the silence of the privately embarrassed, disillusioned follower of Jesus.” I felt that “noise of the religious right” was sufficient and accurate enough. It wasn’t. So I changed it to “far right.” I’m confident the new edit is open to criticism too.

This is the challenge of expressing our thoughts in public and wrangling words to be as accurate and graceful as possible. Sometimes our best efforts and words fail. I do believe there are noisy, unhelpful voices on the left and right of most societal issues. Rather than naming names and giving reasons beyond presumption, perhaps it’s more helpful to attack presumption head on. It’s a problem we can do something about even while we agree, disagree, and work out what we believe about being citizens of the planet.

The poison of presumption: Writing, speaking, and acting out of presumption poisons our relationships – existing and potential ones. We end up interacting with each other at a deficit, one that affects our communication for the worse, e.g., “I’m so sorry for not asking. I just presumed because you’re gay you wouldn’t want to go to church with us.” Yes, gay people trust in God, even go to church and temple. This is a fact. And contrary to the culture/media clichés, people of various religious beliefs, including Christians, enjoy sex, are the most learned intellectuals in the world, and don’t believe the earth is only 10,000 years old. Knowing and being known is the most effective antidote to the poison.

The power of presumption: Presumption has the power to delude the one who presumes. Presumption + Social Media is rocketing culture and civility back to the Dark Ages. Repeatedly, people post as if everyone reading is just like them in race, sexuality, belief and worldview. Ironically, if people really believe that life on the planet is best summed up as Us vs. Them Culture War, they ought to cease posting their battle plans on Facebook. We are all reading over each other’s shoulders. This is the world we live in. With presumption comes a kind of inability to see and hear, to truly know, and to understand where you’re at and what time you’re in. I have seen this power interacting with Christians who wrongly presume everyone in my recording studio is Christian and Republican – simply because I profess to follow Christ and produced for a Christian record label in the 1990s. We are all more complex than the presumptions people make about us. The real, life-giving power is in listening, getting to know people, and leaning into the similarities and not the differences.

The politics of presumption: Untrue presumptions about others are lies and convenient half-truths. Never forget that presumption is a political tool and the dark side of politics uses it to its shame. Presume, label, lie – is no recipe for life, despite such inhuman behavior written off as “just politics.”

The prison of presumption: It’s a caged life, presuming and judging, with little to no relationship with the actual subjects of our presumption and judgment. Freedom is found in pursuing deeper, personal knowledge through relationship. Then continuing to love because of, and in spite of, what you discover in relationship. My friend Steve Garber often asks, can you know the world, truly know it and still love it? I believe you can and so does Steve. This direction of thought may be complementary to other beliefs, but I know it’s right at the center of Jesus and his ways of being and doing. And so I follow. I invite you to as well.

Dirt, Chicken, and the Reimagined Rose

The Chickens of Yuba City
The Chickens of Yuba City

I was gifted with a childhood defined by dirt. I recall living in a small white house next to the Yuba City livestock auction. Cattle grazed to the left of our home while peaches ripened across the road, their rootstock drinking deep the irrigation held tight by a patchwork of checks. Further away, fertile clods gave way to varicose earth, hot and unfriendly. Everywhere a chicken – even today. Jackrabbits bounced like kick balls through the foxtail barley and star thistle. Three miles as the crow flies, my grandma’s house hosted a walnut orchard and almonds. The hopeful dirt, wet from pump water faded away into cracked crust and barley stubble. Always one spark away from destruction. A mile further great-grandma’s farm continued the dirt’s earthy work supporting Banty chickens, nervous goats, and watermelon vines. All the way to the Sutter Buttes, field after field of continuous dirt. Some of it chapped and sun-abused, the balance well loved. Every square foot of the dirt farmed by a community of belief, collectively trusting the land would give food if they gave effort to the land. And that’s the way it was. As a young child I only saw dirt. Then I saw the land, and eventually place, a place of significance and meaning – a place that was in me and I was in it.

My wife Andi was recently at Laity Lodge, a magical, oasis-like locale in a canyon on the Frio in Central Texas (overseen by our friend Steven Purcell). The family behind HEB and Central Market set the whole thing in motion years ago. We have visited there often and count the people and place essential to life. This time, Andi and Kathi Riley Smith attended the Food Retreat. Along with Laity staff, they cooked the late Judy Rodgers’ famous recipe for roast chicken. Judy and Kathi came up in the nascent farm-to-table movement with Alice Waters, and both cooked for Alice at Chez Panisse in Berkeley – later working together at Zuni Café in San Francisco where Judy’s chicken came to fame – and where Kathi is a chef once again.

One of the guest speakers at the Food Retreat was Ellen Davis, a biblical scholar from Duke Divinity School. Ellen’s most beloved riff is encouraging an agrarian reading of the Bible, specifically that part of the 66 books of the  Bible Christians share with the Jewish people, the Torah. I heard a podcast where Ellen talked about being a teenager living in Israel. She said the land became so familiar to her that even today she cannot read the Bible or exegete a text without seeing the land in which the story took place. Readers unfamiliar with Ellen Davis may know poet/farmer Wendell Berry. In America at least, he is a clear, sane agrarian voice weaving together God, people, and place in a farmer/artist way. For Berry, the Bible, and certainly the agrarian view of reading it, is “the story of a gift.” What Ellen Davis, Wendell Berry, and others like Wes Jackson and Norman Wirzba have in common is a deep respect for the land and the Giver of it. To hear from any of these people is to hear clues to a faithful way forward stewarding all that God has entrusted to the human family, including dirt, land, and place.

Today I opened my email to see a NoiseTrade advertisement for My Brightest Diamond, the recording moniker of artist Shara Worden. I’ve watched Shara from a distance for several years. She is one among a few recording artists of her generation that are truly unique in thought and execution. She has contributed to an artist retreat at Laity Lodge and I’ve met her parents there in years past. Her story is also unique. She moved to Detroit when people were fleeing its troubled decline. She bought an abandoned house. Had a baby. Made some music. According to a Huffington Post interview, Shara moved to Detroit so she “could be a part of the urban gardening movement that is happening in the city.” Shara’s friend, artist Erin Martinez, digs up roses from empty lots where houses were torn down and replants the roses in a garden. That way all is not lost, and what someone once loved and cared for is loved and cared for again – and the dirt holds it all together.

Jesus spoke of a way of rightful being and living with God, people, and place. He gave it a name that the people of the time would understand – the Kingdom of God, and then he turned their notions of kings and kingdoms upside down and inside out. His talk of the Kingdom was not a once for all, clear as a bell theological declaration. It is however a creative means to reorient, even reestablish what it means to be God’s kind of fully human person. That is, a person alive to healthy relationship with God, his people, the land and all that is in it.

I see in the land of my youth, the farm-to-table movement, Laity Lodge, Judy Rodger’s roasted chicken, Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard Project, Ellen Davis, Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Norman Wirzba, the greening of Detroit, Shara Worden and her friend’s reimagined roses – the story of a gift, for our time. And for this man, all good reasons to say thank you to God through Christ Jesus.