Gazing Toward the Hopeful Tune

Jim Dollar

There is a kind of energy that flows out of the deep reservoirs of hope, faith and love; then there is a kind of energy that spews from the churning lava beds of fear, self-protection and anger. There is a posture of curiosity, good will and honor toward the other; then there is a posture of presumption, suspicion and damnation of the other. There is a yearning for healing and self-sacrifice; then there is a yearning for victory and personal (or tribal) triumph. There is a way of generosity; then there is a way of suspicion.

We can search for ammunition, or we can search for common ground. We can labor to discover the very best about another, or we can grasp after any conspiratorial hint of the very worst about another. We can live by narrow absolutism (all or nothing, my view of the facts is unassailable, any wise or noble or spiritual person must see it my way, etc) or we can grapple with the tensions of living in a complex world with complex questions and (sometimes) very befuddling answers. We can remain tenaciously committed to our shared human dignity, or we can succumb to our basest instincts and debase ourselves with a craven lust to win, no matter the cost.

There is a way of death, and there is a way of life. Call me a fool, but I believe (yes, even now) that goodness calls to us. Perhaps her voice is even stronger, more potent, distinct as she is amid the cacophonic braggadocio and screeching vexation. She’s a steady voice, humming a haunting, hopeful tune.


photography: Acadia coastline shot by Jim Dollar

The Church, Politics and Fear

Many have lamented that, in the current climate, political and cultural rhetoric within Christian circles evidences a lot of fear. Recently, a journalist doing a piece on this question asked me to comment. Here is my response:

Fear, like anger, most often emerges when we sense the chaos of losing control. When we believe that our power, our authority, our place at the center of the table is threatened, then we launch into maintaining (at least our sense of) control. When those who have an opposing sexual ethic, political narrative or religious commitment seem to be gaining ground, our fangs come out — all the better if we can use words from the Bible to do it.

The Kingdom of God requires that we tell the truth, that we obey Jesus, and that we live as witness to the Resurrection of the one to whom one day every knee will bow. The Kingdom of God never asks us to remain cultural or political control. In fact, Jesus, Paul and the early church were all marked by their refusal to play political games. If we truly believe that the Kingdom of God rules, then we have little angst when any of our human kingdoms begin to crumble. Conversely, if we have angst over crumbling human kingdoms, we might ask ourselves if we truly believe in the kingdom of God.

Barth liked to say that the marks of God’s kingdom were “deprivation and hope.” It seems to me that we are committed to doing anything and everything to resist our deprivation. The gospel invites us to utter deprivation, to come and die. That’s enough to scare anyone — but Jesus invites us into death, all the while saying, “Fear not.”

And how are we as the Church to respond in order to counter all this fear in our world? We need only keep telling the gospel story. We have nothing to protect. The gospel is our only allegiance – and the gospel doesn’t need our protection. And our dishonest or anger-laced response to others actually makes the gospel within us impotent. If we believe Jesus is King, then no other king, no other religion, no other political or historical reality, has any power over us. We truly have nothing to fear. If we are living in fear, it means we do not truly believe God.

The question is not so much how to handle our fear but how to believe and obey God. As the prophet Isaiah told Israel while they trembled against their foes, “If you fear God, you need fear nothing else.” We live in an anxious world, and the only way I can see to speak against that anxiety is to declare that there is One who reigns over the world.

Faith, Science…and Poets too

Though Chris Uhlman landed his essay a bit haywire (too wimpish, I suspect, no matter where one falls on these conversations), he offers some interesting wrestlings with the role of faith in the public square. 

Here’s a teaser:

The older I get the less certain I become and the more bewildered I am by the unshakable convictions of both strident believers and atheists.

However, I am certain that I have little time for those who hold believers in contempt. And I have begun to suspect that, in the West, science is assuming the altar once carved out for God.

We have steadily replaced the absolute moral certainty of theocrats with technocratic absolutism…That is not a criticism of science because real science admits uncertainty. It is taking issue with those who suffer only one kind of knowing and deride all else as cant.

And you might know me well enough to know that I loved this line:

The place where technocrats fall silent is precisely the place where poets, artists and priests take up the story. 

What can we know? And how can we know it? And who gets to decide what the ground rules are for such things? 

If you want to go further, you may want to peek at Dallas Willard’s new book, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge. Here, Dallas makes the case that knowledge grounded in faith (and defining this loosy, sometimes-sentimentalized word “faith” is crucial to his work) is a valid way of knowing.

Cafes and Public Spaces

It is almost as if every great civilization in the world had taken a brief time-out from trying to kill one another to brainstorm what a perfect public space should look like. {Michael Idov}

A friend, Andrew Albers, passed along this Wall Street Journal story this morning. It hit a few chords for me.

I should offer this caveat: I take major issue with Idov’s jab at caramel frappuccinos (my favorite is actually java chip light), and slight issue with his side-swiping of laptoppers (I get his point, but there are virtues in working in public space, I think – though I wouldn’t want my coffee-haunts to become consumed with the solitary and the utilitarian).

Getting beyond those squabbles, I’m enchanted by Idov’s hopeful recasting of coffeehouses back to their original place as open, civic spaces where ideas and friendships and the latest news (along with a revolution or two) were on the daily menu. I mean, I’d love for one of my regular shops (here or here) to be a place like the one Idov mentioned, “where a sword fight once erupted over the correct pronunciation of a Greek word.” In fact, I think next week I may just sneak in a blade or musket and see if I can’t get one of the other regulars riled up (and I have just the word – only an hour or so ago Miska corrected my pronunciation of repartee. It’s French, not Greek, but it will do).

I love to write in cafes. My first book Restless Faith was written almost entirely in the Pendleton Cafe and Coffee Company. Chunks of my last two books, numerous articles and more than a few sermons have found their voice between sips of an Americano (hot shots, little room for cream). Some writers head to the secluded cabin to write. Usually, I head to the coffee shop on Main. The coffee shop is where I have meetings, where I meet new people, where I run into friends and where I learn new bits about what is happening in our town.

Still, I read Idov’s description – and I think he is on to something. I think our coffee house cultures often lack the same level of engagement as the older spaces, the expectation that you will meet and know others, the idea of the cafe as a civic space of ideas and shared communal practices. He says, “We’ve also used [the cafe] to balkanize ourselves…cafés here tend to draw specific crowds: a hipster café, a mom café, a student café…we use our coffeehouses to separate ourselves into tribes.” Whenever that is the case, it’s a shame.

Someday, I would love to help form (or participate in) a public space of the older sort, a place where I would read the paper, talk about the issues, write, expect to see old friends, welcome in new friends, share a sense of civic identity – and maybe even start a revolution or two. I have a measure of this now, but I want more.

I also wonder if it might be possible for the church to foster this sort of place (a guy can dream, can’t he?). We should be the first ones to carve out this kind of public space, but unfortunately, if anyone has balkanized itself…but I digress…

What might space like this look like for you? Do you have it now?

A Few of the People…

I bet you if I had met him and had a chat with him, I would have found him a very interesting and human fellow, for I never yet met a man that I didn’t like. {Will Rogers}

Here are a few of the interesting people I’ve encountered today:

A courier standing in line with me at the bank. As we talked about his job, I asked him if he had ever transported something really weird. “A body chopped up into parts,” he said.

A friend at breakfast. I discovered he likes peanut butter omelets.

A guy waiting, as I was, for the bus. He calls himself “turtle man” because, as he told me, he moves slow – but always forward.

Everywhere we turn, we encounter people with stories and hopes and fears and interesting names. We discover people who will help us see our world with more richness and texture. We find people like us, people different from us. We find strangers who may turn into friends.

Tell me, brother, how do you see the sun standing from where you are today. {Michael Houser}

Embarking on the Ludicrous

I recently read a piece from a well-known figure in the church leadership world. He wrote of a zero-tolerance policy for any language or practice within their church that did not make sense to those who were uncommitted to the story of God. I think I understand – and agree with – some of his concern. I am beyond done with caveman Christianity, practicing the faith with near total disregard for the questions and realities of our friends who are among the unconvinced. I too share irritation at flat, tired Christian lingo, the entire ghetto mentality prevalent in many of our Christian subcultures.


I’m actually drawn the opposite direction. Rather than railing against those things that make little sense to those outside faith, I believe the gospel calls us to live toward realities that don’t make a single bit of sense to any of us, no matter what angle we come from.

Truly, the kingdom of God is laughable, if we take it seriously.
~the way to save your life is to give it away
~love your enemies
~seek the peace of all, even those you despise (or who despise you)
~live for others above self
~take risks and abandon control
~believe that Jesus rose from the dead – and one day will bring all dead things to life
~give yourself to the long, hard work of community
~abandon the droning, captivating sounds of selfish consumerism
~care for the least among us
~live as though success does not determine our identity

Based on the cultures we have breathed in and on the selfish nature of our own heart, we would have to say that those lines are idyllic nonsense, complete poppycock.

And yet, this is precisely the life Jesus calls us to. If we seek to be communities of people living in Jesus’ way, we are embarking on the ludicrous. If the way we live and speak and love makes sense to those around us – or to ourselves – I fear we are wildly off course.

Here’s to the ludicrous life…

Jokes on Me

This week, I feel as though I entered into a cliche, Christian subculture joke: You know your kids have been raised in an emerging* church if

On Tuesday, the fam went into Starbucks on The Corner at UVA. When Wyatt went into Bucks’ upstairs, taking in the warm, earth-tone walls, the ambient light, the numerous chairs around tables, the art on the walls, the leather couches, he said, “Mommy, is this a church?”

I’m still pondering what I think about that, a lot there actually.

*for those fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with all the nuance of Christian subcultures, emerging has often become a catch-all world for new forms of Christian theology and worship – a word that, in actuality, mainly means nothing. But emerging does own the annoying stereotype of being fascinated with all things hip and trendy, a “relational authenticity” that can very much be its own version of plastic.