When the World Looks Back

Photo by Timothy King

Photo by Timothy King

Lent is a season of preparation. But the process of preparing for Easter does not need to be all negative commitments and focused on the things we don’t do.

One opportunity for developing new positive practices during Lent involves learning to see. The Gospels recount at least three different instances after the resurrection in which followers of Jesus were not able to recognize or “see” him: Mary at the tomb mistaking Jesus for the gardener, the road to Emmaus, and the delayed reaction when Jesus gave great fishing advice.

The truth of Easter is not always readily apparent. It requires the ability to see clearly. This means rubbing our eyes, clearing them of gunk, and focusing our vision.

Having recently shifted from spending most of my day in an office to spending almost all of it outside, I’ve been ruminating on what it might mean to practice seeing the non-human or natural world more clearly. Here are my initial reflections:

Have you ever been moved by a sunset? A star-filled canopy of the night sky? A canyon-filled horizon? A towering wooded cathedral?

What was the feeling? Gratitude for the beauty? Humility in the midst of grandeur? Inspired to greatness while experiencing greatness? Joy in celebration of it all?

Christian Leaders Should Prepare for the Long Term

Deep connected roots. Image courtesy Lightspring/

Deep connected roots. Image courtesy Lightspring/

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson’s advice to Christian leaders: Discern God’s call and learn how to sustain your inward life for the long term.

“Leaders have to know who they are,” he said.

“When everything else crumbles and when you are in situations of disillusionment, when plans haven’t worked out, when colleagues have disappointed you, there’ll come those times when you say, ‘Why am I doing this?’

“At that point, what is needed is a deep and abiding sense of God’s call.”

Granberg-Michaelson’s call led him to take on a variety of roles in his career. He served from 1994 to 2010 as general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. He is the author of several books, including “Leadership from Inside Out: Spirituality and Organizational Change.”

Before that, he served as research assistant for U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, managing editor of Sojourners magazine, co-founder of a nonprofit organization, and director of church and society for the World Council of Churches.

Q: You’ve had a really interesting career, including working on Capitol Hill and in Geneva, Switzerland with the World Council of Churches. What did you learn from those roles?

Working in the U.S. Senate with Mark Hatfield is when I first learned about how important it was to have a group that had a deep level of trust together. And that you have to work on building that.

And then in the life of Mark Hatfield as a U.S. senator, I saw the importance of giving voice to crucial issues in ways that helped empower others. The role of prophetic ministry I really witnessed in his life in the U.S. Senate, the kinds of stances that he took against the Vietnam War, stances that were rooted in his own convictions.

Those were qualities that came out of his Christian character. But those were also qualities I saw and learned in that secular context.

When I went to Geneva with the World Council, I got to see the enormous complexities of how organizations function and how decisions are made. I was very involved in a restructuring effort.

We spent a lot of time figuring out models for how church bodies can govern themselves. And the World Council was in a deep discussion — conflict, really — with its Orthodox members at that point. I was involved in a special commission on relations with the Orthodox.

One of the key issues was how we make decisions. To the Orthodox mind, it was incomprehensible that a central committee of 150 people could meet together and by a majority vote determine God’s will.

That led to a whole fascinating journey that I’ve continued on ever since, to rethink how church bodies make decisions.

Out of that dialogue came an embracing of models of consensus decision making, which the World Council still uses today, where 150 people will come to a decision that they arrive at by consensus. It’s a discussion, a deliberation that’s led very carefully, very artfully, taking into account the opposing points of view and getting to a point where either the body as a whole agrees or a minority that may not agree are willing to say, “We will step aside and allow this to go forward.” Or convictions are held so strongly that the body as a whole decides it’s really not ready to decide this.

None of these functions by majority vote. It’s a very different model, and I think one that’s much more attuned to how the church could make decisions.

Enjoy the Silence

Morning on the lake. Image courtesy kosmos111/

Morning on the lake. Image courtesy kosmos111/

Like many of my peers that weekend, I went into the retreat with some trepidation. Silence for 20 hours? What would we do? I had experienced long periods of informal silence during my 19 months of unemployment and had experienced the richness of God’s presence during that time. But that was different — I could escape the silence any time I went to a yoga class or turned on Spotify. Twenty hours of silence felt daunting.

Even more daunting? Twenty hours alone with just me and God. Sure, God had shown up and been with me during those long months of being alone, but this was different. Would I do it wrong? More importantly, what would happen? What would it be like to be alone with God without any distraction for that length of time?

Well, it felt like gazing into someone’s eyes for hours and hours and not having anything to pull you away. Which is exactly why, after that experience, I now actively seek out opportunities for silence.

Cine-Monastic Disciplines

ONE OF THE paradoxes of writing about film is the application of one form of language to interpret another. The medium we’re discussing here is visual, and despite the relevance of the word “poetic” to the great works of cinema, to interact with the movies means, as writer-director John Sayles says, to “think in pictures.” In an age with multiple ways to consume films, and the pressure to respond with the immediacy of social media, to think deeply about movies is a countercultural act.

I noticed this again after being given a record player a few weeks ago. I’ve listened to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks more than pretty much any other album over the past 20 years and now on the vinyl recording I can actually hear instruments I’d never noticed before. I can’t deny the superiority of the medium, at least in terms of what we might call “musical richness.” But digital transmission makes the sound crisper and more available.

There’s a parallel paradox with cinema, in that the experience of watching films has both diminished and expanded over most of our lifetimes. There are more portals than ever (you can watch Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story or Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo on your phone, for goodness’ sake). Yet the opportunity to see films in optimal settings (decent projection, focused audience, without 25 minutes of commercials for soda mingling with threats of prosecution directed at the people who have paid to see the film by the industrial complex that depends on them) doesn’t come often for most of us. Without conscious resistance, the flattened culture of entertainment globalization is going to continue to dominate.

So, as a modest proposal, I’m considering some contemporary cine-monastic disciplines for the renewal of the cinematic mind:

Hospitality: I’m trying to watch one non-English language film (or one from the U.K., Canada, or Australia/New Zealand) for every U.S. one.

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Walk On The Ocean: Rob Bell, Day 2

The author, watching the surf in Laguna Beach, Calif., on Wednesday. Photo by Cathleen Falsani/Sojourners.

I was standing there on the shore, jeans rolled up, my ankles in the surf.

It was day two of the Rob Bell event and people were surfing.

Yes, surfing.

Rob brings in a couple of surfing instructors and, if you want to, you can rent a board and take a lesson. It's a good time. I watched a lot of people surf for the first time as I stood on the shore ...

                   watching ...


Eugene Peterson: The Pastor on Preaching, Women Clergy

Eugene Peterson speaking Tuesday at the Q Practices gathering in New York City.

Eugene Peterson speaking Tuesday at the Q Practices gathering in New York City. Photo by Cathleen Falsani/Sojourners.

NEW YORK CITY — Today and Wednesday, I have the privilege of attending a private gathering here in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan with Eugene Peterson, the 80-year-old theologian and prolific author best known for his para-translation of the Bible, The Message.

The two-day event, Q Practices, is part-retreat, part-seminar on the theme of how we might cultivate our inner lives in an age of epic distractions.

I'll be reporting more fully later, but wanted to share with you a few gems from Peterson, who recently published a marvelous memoir titled, simply, The Pastor, from this morning's sessions.

Peterson, who is a Presbyterian minister (now retired from the pastorate after 30 years), grew up in Montana in the Pentecostal Christian tradition. His mother, in fact, was a preacher who later founded and pastored her own church.

Are Books a Thing of the Past?

Kindle 3photo © 2010 Zhao ! | more info (via: Wylio)Sales of printed books are down 9 percent this year, supplanted in part by digital versions on Kindles, Nooks, and even iPhone apps. But the real threat to long-form, hard-copy reading -- that is, paper books -- is inside our heads, according to Johann Hari, a columnist for the Independent in London.

"The mental space [books] occupied is being eroded by the thousand Weapons of Mass Distraction that surround us all," Hari told me last week. "It's hard to admit, but we all sense it: it is becoming almost physically harder to read books."

[Okay, I admit I didn't actually talk with Hari. The quote is from his newspaper column. But pop over to Twitter, and you can see how, in effect, he gave me permission to paraquote him at #interviewbyhari.]

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah, long-form reading. Hari quotes David Ulin, author of The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, who wrote that he "became aware, in an apartment full of books, that I could no longer find within myself the quiet necessary to read." Ulin wrote that he would sit down with a book, and find his mind wandering, enticing him to check his email, or Twitter, or Facebook. "What I'm struggling with," he writes, "is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there's something out there that merits my attention."

Bringing the Church Together for Justice

After having spoken at the Greenbelt Festival in England a number of times now, we at the Center for Action and Contemplation always hoped and planned that we create a similar festival for spirituality and the arts in the United States. We had nothing comparable, and it was a niche waiting and needing to be filled. Therefore, we were honored to be a part of the first Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina last June, and hope that we can convene a truly ecumenical, radical, and socially engaged crowd of people living at the intersection of justice, spirituality, and creativity -- and those who want to be!