Continuing Cultivation

From James K. A. Smith’s recent newsletter over at Image:

In May and June, my hands are dirty and I spend a lot of time thinking about sanctification.

After the danger of Michigan frost is past, usually after Mother’s Day, we return to Hillcrest Community Garden here in Grand Rapids. It always feel like emerging from a winter cocoon. Planting is making a promise to stay near. Only care and attention will coax out the remarkable potential latent in these tiny orbs we call “seeds.” So the garden keeps us placed, obligated to this patch of earth.

I’m really more of a sous-gardener; Deanna is the master. But thanks to her patient instruction, I have grown in my horticultural abilities over the past decade. For example, over the past couple of years, I’ve finally become able to distinguish plants from weeds. As you might imagine, the inability to do so is rather disastrous. Sometimes while aggressively fending off invaders, I uprooted the tender shoots of plants just emerging. In other cases, my ignorance meant I left weeds to flourish, choking out what we planted. Can you see why I keep thinking about sanctification? There is something focal about weeding. Often as I have my head down, focused on a square of garden between the peppers and eggplant, my fingers plunged into the soil, my mind wanders into metaphors I learned from parables and I’m thinking about the state of my soul.

I’ll start musing, for example, on the fact that the same conditions that cause our tomatoes grow also help weeds to flourish. As long as there is a garden, there are weeds. If planting seeds is promising to stay near, the hope of a harvest means a commitment to be here each night, weeding in the evening light while killdeers chirp and run, from May to September. Get used to it.

These last two years at school we’ve had the theme of “Cultivate,” which comes from our Expected Schoolwide Learning Results.  And while I haven’t spent much time in a garden lately, I’ve spent a decent amount of time reflecting on some of the parables that Smith alludes to.  It’s good to be reminded of the day-to-day task of cultivation and care, not just of the soil but of the soul.

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Sunday’s Best: Spacial Intelligence

Turns out there’s intelligence on both sides of the console, Caulfield and Frazz . . .

FrazzToday’s outer-space Frazz reminds me of my current fiction read: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir.  I was lucky to read Weir’s first book, The Martian, before the movie trailer spoiled things.  I didn’t read Weir’s second book, Artemis because it sounded a lot like The Martian.  But I was at Books-A-Million last week and saw that he had released a new story.  Knowing that I had 11 hours in the air coming up, I made the purchase.  It’s a good read, well-paced and interesting.  And, much like The Martian, it’s the kind of book where you feel like you’re learning stuff all along the way.

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Questionable Collaboration

Like it or not, collaboration has become a mainstay in most workplaces and ministries.  In many ways, this is a good thing.  But then something like this happens:

Peanuts Questionable CollaborationPoints to Snoopy, who reminds us about the connection between the medium and the message (if not the method).

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What We Hear before We See

Wind in the Willows CoverI’m about halfway through Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.  I’ve spent most of my life with a vague sense of the story.  The title has been popping up here and there these last few years, including a recent mention on Twitter, so I thought I’d finally check it out.

This morning I finished what is supposedly the most controversial chapter of the children’s class: “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.”  Up until that chapter, there had been hints of something deeper in the wide world of Mole and Rat.  Badger is a kind of hint in that direction (almost in a Chestertonian way).  The strongest hint came in Mole’s unexpected return to his long-forgotten home.  And then you get “the Piper.”  It’s a chapter, I have since learned, that sometimes gets removed from copies of the book.  It’s likely as much because it could be easily removed from the greater story.  Plus there’s an appearance of Pan.  People obviously respond differently to any kind of god or demigod showing up in a children’s story.  One site I visited mentioned the idea of the “numinous,” which is something that Lewis mentions a number of times when writing about God and the religious impulse.

It’s a beautiful chapter, particularly when juxtaposed with the chapter about Mole’s home.  Because the world is deeper and wider than we often imagine it to be.  Or at least we forget that fact (which is, it turns out, also part of the story for Mole and Rat).  I suppose I’ll pick the story up again soon enough with Toad in jail.  And we’ll see where things go from there.

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I think I’ve found a workable routine for summer break when I return from my trip.  Today I had lunch a new place downtown (new to me, at least).  They served a massive Cubano sandwich, much more than I was anticipating.

Beyond that, I spent the afternoon processing the news concerning Russell Moore and the Southern Baptist Convention.  One of the blessings/curses of living in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is that certain things either travel slowly or just don’t seem to make it over the water.  But this news is heart-breaking, and on multiple levels.  This just adds another level of “what comes next?” to life (though obviously on a less-immediate scale for me).  But as a member of a Southern Baptist church and a teacher teacher at a school with necessary Southern Baptist ties (and as a graduate of a Southern Baptist college and seminary), I feel a not-negligible sense of concern for things.  I suppose I should have known better.

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When Worlds Collide

WuMo by Wulff and Morgenthaler often does a great job having two worlds break in on each other.  This most recent Sunday strip is another example of that, how the allowances of times past (or imaginary) don’t quite match up with the requirements of times present.

WuMo Worlds CollideThere’s something to be said, of course, about how times change.  I think that’s one of the struggles of middle age: that weird balance of nostalgia and hope, of looking back while looking ahead, of having missed something while still missing it.  And it brings up the question of what adjustments should be made, what accommodations are allowable (because they are almost always encouraged).  Maybe I’ll think on it some this summer break.

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Start of Summer Words

Thanks to extra concurrent-learning prep during fall break 2020, the summer vacation has started earlier for me and my co-workers.  Our last official day of work was this past Friday, and that was mostly meetings and planning for said meetings.  Saturday was graduation.  And, for the most part, that’s all she wrote for the 2020-2021 school year.  While I’ve got a few things to take care of here and there, I am hopeful that most of June will be a school-free zone for me.

It’s odd, not having vague but certain things hanging over my head just out of sight.  I’ve had it easier than some, but the last school year has felt like there was always something to write or to record or to report or to work into place.  Many teachers that I’ve spoken to are deeply excited about having something close to a “normal” summer.  Same for me.  Yesterday was Memorial Day, which was low-key for me (the highlight was a win at cards after a short set of losses).  Today has been for trying out a new summer routine, an attempt to see if the gym would be as viable in the morning as in the afternoon and whether or not I could carve out some time to get some reading and writing done later in the day.  It’s an attempt at something new because I’ll be flying out in a few days.  But if I can have a sketch of a routing for mid-June to late-July, I would be very happy.

So June is mostly responsibility-free (sounds odd to put it that way, I know).  I’ll be preaching three times in July, pulpit supply since our pastor recently resigned.  And then school starts back the last full week of July.  I’ll start back earlier than that because I help plan out that first week back.

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Years ago, when I first stepped into what I called my “temporary vocational stretch,” I thought a good bit about destabilization- how things were kind of wobbly because of added responsibilities.  Covidtide has added to that.  And so part of my hopes for this summer is to do some re-stabilization.  Reconsider some commitments.  Pray through some dispositions.  Ask God for a sense of renewal in some things and a sense of finality for others.  I’ve tried to make it clear that my intent for 2021-2022 is to NOT do things the way that I’ve always/often done them.  I’m keeping that in mind as I think through some of those “first week back” responsibilities.

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Church was interesting this past Sunday.  It was our first without our pastor, who had been with us for just short of two years.  Our worship leader was also out.  It was good to hear people from the front acknowledge our new/current situation.  I imagine this will just be one more punch that we roll with.  I believe that God has some things to show us and teach us over these next few weeks.  I hope I am able to listen and able to allow for more than just confirmation bias.

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At the last faculty meeting of the year, I reiterated the gratitude for our faculty and staff that others had shared.  I also reiterated encouragement for people to take a real break.  And then I said something about taking time to process and pray through your emotions, because there are always emotions just beneath the surface of year-end excitement.  I had a co-worker ask me about it later, which I found encouraging.  I think I couched it in “don’t come back in the same shape you are leaving” (though less harsh).  Because fatigue works itself out in lots of ways over a longer period of time, so glossing over things (though easy) shouldn’t be an option.

I’ve got two “professional development” opportunities lined up for this summer.  I put PD in air quotes because it’s not so much about professional development as it is nurturing some pre-existing learning.  Next week I’ll get to “attend” a virtual classroom about Augustine and preaching put on by New City Press: Preaching the Gospel of John with Saint Augustine: A Master Class with Rowan Williams and John Cavadini.  I read a collection of essays by Cavadini a couple of years ago (Jamie Smith had mentioned the collection).  I just recently finished a book about monasticism by Williams that I quite liked, too.  So I’m hopeful.  Then, later in June, I’m starting a six-week series called “Religion and the Spiritual Crisis” with Andrew Root and Tripp Fuller.  I’ve read more Root than probably any other author in the last two years (besides maybe Ben Aaaronovich and his Rivers of London novels).  While I don’t agree with everything Root asserts, he has been deeply beneficial in thinking about Our Current Moment, particularly from a youth ministry perspective.  So I’ve got to read some more Charles Taylor for the course (just selections from A Secular Age along with a couple of chapters of a shorter book of his that I’ve already read) along with a bit of Hartmut Rosa, who book on uncontrollability I read at the same time as Williams’ monastic book.  And that will take me to the beginning of the school year.

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Learning from a Vocational Tale

I recently got around to reading James K. A. Smith’s essay on how his sense of vocation has been changing over these last couple of years.  He wrote it for Christian Century for their “How my mind has changed” topic.  Probably something all of us could write about these days.

“I’m a philosopher.  We can’t think our way out of this mess.”  Quite the punchy title.  It’s at the top of a wonderfully personal reflection that traces Smith’s journey of faith from conversion until today.  It is necessarily broad but oddly specific.  It’s a picture of growing older, of ministry and teaching and writing, of how some things change but other things don’t.  Smith has been formative for me (he’s probably why I know the word formative, really). He has been since 2009, which feels like a whole other world at this point.  Over these last few years, as he wrestled with understanding ministry, work, and depression, Smith found himself at something of a loss:

As a young Christian philosopher, I wanted to be the confident, heresy-hunting Augustine, vanquishing the pagans with brilliance, fending off the Manichaeans and Pelagians with ironclad arguments. As a middle-aged man, I dream of being Mr. Rogers. When you’re young, it’s easy to confuse strength with dominance; when you’re older, you realize the feat of character it takes to be meek. I used to imagine my calling was to defend the Truth. Now I’m just trying to figure out how to love.

It’s not that I’ve given up on truth. It’s just that I’m less confident we’ll think our way out of the morass and malaise in which we find ourselves. Analysis won’t save us. And the truth of the gospel is less a message to be taught than a mystery enacted. Love won’t save us either, of course. But I’ve come to believe that the grace of God that will save us is more powerfully manifest in beloved community than in rational enlightenment. Or, as Hans Urs von Balthasar has put it, “Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed.”

I appreciate the line he’s walking here.  It can sound a bit like a cop out (as an appeal to love often feels).  But it also lines up with his previous work: that we aren’t just brains in jars.  Granted, we need analysis.  Good analysis.  But we also need other skills and mechanisms that can work with the analysis.  And love, of course, is the answer.  But it is also our most-co-opted cultural liturgy.

Smith also mentions Augustine and the role he has played in Smith’s life these last few years.  I have to thank Smith a great deal for helping me latch on to this church father even if only a little bit.  Smith writes:

Drawing on the poetry of the scriptures, Augustine doesn’t just convey a truth, he pictures it. The very metaphor is an irreducible invitation, and extending it is an act of epistemic solidarity that no argument could accomplish. “As long as we are in this life, it is night for us,” Augustine recognizes. But even the night is illumined “by Christ’s descent into the night. Christ took flesh from this world and lit up the night for us.”

There’s a lot more to the essay.  But there’s one more thing that stand out as resonant between Smith’s current disposition and my own:

If I try to crystallize the change of mind I’m experiencing midlife and mid-career, it is some version of this question: How can I write to light up the night? If there is a pivot I’m still working through, it’s the reverberating effects of absorbing the distinct power of metaphor I see at work in Augustine’s preaching. It’s a conviction about communication, a sense of calling to be a very different kind of writer—not simply a philosopher with ideas to teach but a co-pilgrim alongside my neighbors, all of us wondering if the darkness will overwhelm us. I want to string together words that bear witness to the light in a way that people don’t just understand but can stake their hope upon.

“It’s a conviction about communication, a sense of calling to be a different kind of writer . . .” [emphasis mine]

Communication has been key for all of us these last 15 months.  A lot of it has been communication as content, whether as sermons or lessons as videos or slides.  It has forced (or empowered) a weird relationship with mass communication tools (because of necessity) even as we really needed to think smaller (like conversation).  And so while I’m not thinking in the same terms as Smith about book-writing, I do want to think about it in terms of chapel talks, sermons, and class lessons.  And also in how I read and talk about books.

Because it’s not just about minds; it’s about hearts.  And it’s about bodies.  And it’s about the spirits of people.  And it’s easy to emphasize one (or even two) to the detriment of the others.  And whatever else God was communicating to the people of Israel, and whatever else Jesus was saying about loving God and neighbor, a sense of wholeness is essential and baked-in to a real love of God.

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Sunday’s Best: On Summer Reading

You can always count on Caulfield to get something right about the current moment.  This time around, it’s summer reading:

Frazz Summer ReadingIt’s like packing for a trip: I throw in way more books than I should.  And then the one’s I do pack hardly ever get looked at.  And even though it’s not “required” summer reading, there is always this sense of “need to.”  Lately I’ve been on a “short book” kick, with most things clocking in under 200 pages.  Right now that’s The Problem of Pain by CS Lewis and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.  Thanks to a summer course I just signed up for, I get to wait a couple of weeks until I have to read a tome.

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A Quieter Place

Quiet Place Part TwoIf there’s anything that The Lord of the Rings has taught us, it’s that “Point A to Point B” stories are rarely as easy as they should be.  What’s true in LOTR on the grand scale is ultimately true in A Quiet Place Part Two on a much smaller scale, where really it feels like you’re just trying to get across town or across a few fields without being pummeled by an alien.  Which makes the story of the Abbott family that much more engaging.  It’s a story grounded in the adult actors but one that moves forward because of the kids.  And because of how things turned out in the first movie, you just never know who’s not going to make it from Point A to Point B.

A Quiet Place Part Two was my shy-of-triumphant return to Regal Cinemas at Dole Cannery.  I’ve been going to movies elsewhere in town since late last fall, but Dole has been closed this whole time.  I was surprised to find that little had changed, as they were starting major renovations just prior to the pandemic.  There were two big changes, alas: paper straws (which I should have seen coming) and Pepsi products instead of Coca-Cola (which might be unforgivable).  The seating was still stadium but wasn’t recliner-seating yet, which has its own charm (though a little less in pandemic days).  But it was still nice to get back to a place I had loved for so long.

And the movie was great.  Terse.  Taut.  To the point.  There was no fluff in the story.  Spoiler: you do get one flashback early in the movie, which is good and shows me something that I love most in disaster/horror movies: how things get started (even if they don’t get much explanation).  The rest of the movie is about moving from here to there and all that can happen in between.

A Quiet Place Part Two really is the cinema at its best.  I’m not sure I would have been as invested if I had a remote control in one hand and my cell phone in the other.  But there with the big screen and the immersive sound: it was the best movie-going experience I’d had in a long while.  It makes me more hopeful for the summer movie season.  And even though it was a year late, A Quiet Place Part Two was worth the wait.

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The Force and the Return

I don’t do remixes often, but yesterday I came across this musical remix for the big moment at the end of The Mandalorian season two (so: spoilers).  Such a great weaving together of themes.

That ending is something that a child of the 80s waited decades for: Luke doing something cinematic after Return of the Jedi.  I’m grateful that this version of the clip fades to black when it does, too.

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