Retaining Childhood: A Review of “Their Name is Today”

Forty hours a week is a lot for an adult, but routinely we put kindergarteners and elementary school kids through a forty hour work week and then ask them to do other activities on top of it all.

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I was lucky enough to get to preview “Their Name Is Today” by Johann Christoph Arnold. He lays out a comprehensive case for childhood on every level – social, spiritual, psychological, and physical. Every child deserves a chance at childhood and every adult should not take themselves so seriously and walk alongside or play alongside a child.

One of the greatest problems the United States faces is declining quality of education. Teachers work very hard and quite a bit of money is poured into schools, neither seems to be working. Arnold’s work and book pave an alternate way that embraces childhood.

There is no way to simply put all the different facets of this book into a short post, but I want to provide a little summary. There are in my way of looking at it three main points: First) Play with children and let children play. Second) Exchange high pressure evaluation via testing for more individually tailored evaluation during play (and trust the teacher to be competent to perform such evaluations. Third) Relational development happens during play and work together with kids.

That’s a terrible summary. The book is much better. The idea that kids need to play and engage with the world around them should not come as a shock. Nor should it come as a shock that interacting with the world through play and work teaches kids far better than textbook work. Most teachers already know this and work play into their curriculums. Most parents can work with their kids and the kids teachers to help bring out more of their kids potential, but this is key: not potential to compete, potential to be happy and happy in community.

There may be sacrifices: technology, time, high pay off careers, and more toys – but this book quite rightly points out that kids never needed more toys or things or trips to disney, what they need is relationships with their parents and the joy that comes from learning to play with and enjoy what you have right now. I know a lot of adults that could learn from kids to play with box forts and legos and forget fancy dvd players and ever expanding televisions.

It isn’t rocket science – although that might be fun to play with at well. The biggest portion of this book that struck me was the call in its pages to rediscover a sense of wonder at the world – a sense of true blue exploration born of innocence and incredible curiosity.

But this book has one unfortunate side. It dwells in the realm of the philosophical, and while many would agree with me that it is compelling and a book that is needed to help us reimagine childhood, I cannot ignore that for policy makers who dwell in the world of statistics and must mince words with a constituency for whom the bottom line has become an ever increasing priority this book does not pack enough punch. The evaluation and the exploration of childhood is there as a theory, but they need to bring it out of numbers and help policy makers explore what can be done in an iterative process to change the way we view children and childhood as a culture.

What I hope they do next is to get out there and examine the schools in this crazy big world that we have and put together something of a policy recommendation that can help the 50 million kids that use the publics schools in this country. I want to be wrong and for this book to get out there and change minds and policies so that when my girls get to school they are able to have so much more than the kids that came before them. And to that end I say good luck and Godspeed to Mr. Arnold.

Symbolism, Language Formation, and Verse

Symbolism and literary devices make eloquence possible. Without it we would be hunkered down to literal meanings. While we can make a little head way without allusion in keeping writing as something aesthetic that can truly be enjoyed we need those little bits of language that make it all worth while.

Are we declining in our use of image devices in literature?

Arguing that we have flattened our culture or dumbed it down in the US actually manages to pack some rhetorical punch. Proving it, well that’s always a bit harder, but if one were to attempt such a thing the decline in symbolism and complexity in our popular culture would seem like a good place to start.

However, I think that’s the wrong approach.

It’s impossibly difficult to get a good aggregate sense of writing across the centuries. I’m sure someone could manage that task, an imaginary elite team of people willing to read the dross from over the centuries and chronicle the transformation of literature may be able to accomplish this herculean task… But let’s face it, they would want to be paid for their work at some point.

I want to counter the prevailing sensation through what is probably falacious reasoning. First, I think it is wrong to assume the literary skill of an entire generation, and while I think there are great improvements to be made in areas like education and cognitive skill specifically for the complex problems that we face now, that does not mean that we are any better or worse off than the generations that preceded us.

Importantly, we can note that there are still insanely beautiful works coming out, and some of them are on random blogs. You might not ever be able to find them, and even when I do manage to sift through the haystack, I miss parts of the writer’s imagery from ignorance. Even in a culture that is “in decline” we find works that suggest otherwise. The complexity of our culture has even added some brilliant subcultural works that are inspirational but someone esoteric – definitely harder to get a handle on.

One of the problems with teaching in our culture is getting people to take poetry seriously. It’s why “The Dead Poets Society” or “Finding Forester” come off so strong. If we are going to form good writers we have to take time. One reaction that I will have against our culture and education system is that we spend by far too much time on science and mathematics and far to little on literature and composition.

In other words, that limerick you wrote in eighth grade probably wasn’t sufficient to teach you how to dream up and compose a poem that resonates with your soul. The sonnet you wrote freshman year, yeah that rhyme scheme and meter takes quite a bit of practice to tease out the parts of your heart that do more than move blood about. It takes time to work with these and use them in a meaningful way.

We need that language formation. It allows us to express who we are in ways that we cannot through a bit of engineering and concrete, and poetry is that which gives all that engineering a scope and a scale within human existence. While it can be beautiful to throw up a building or craft an airplane wing – those lack meaning without human beings that can share their reactions to what is going on. An Albatross is a pretty bird, but becomes something so much more in the hands of Coleridge crafting a tale of an ancient mariner.

It might not help us save the planet or give us modern conveniences beyond the dreams of avarice, but time spent in verse takes that time saved and those last moments and drapes them with the depth of human meaning.

Confession and Verse

Confession is an integral part of what it mean to be human. Everyone screws up, and people work better together if they realize that they are in an iterative process – in other words, we admit our mistakes to help us grow. Confession is a place where we can seek forgiveness and be reconciled or seek healing in our brokenness.

I’m not trying to get around the role of guilt in confession or making confession for the purpose of reconciliation. Guilt just does not offer the some total to understanding the role and purpose of confession. Human beings are dynamic and growing creatures. Confession is the fruitful soil where we recognize the parts of our personality, thoughts, actions, and feelings that restrain us from growth and affording thus the opportunity to move.

This movement comes from the work of grace and causes true growth.

Confessions come in all shapes and sizes. You could be admitting a great truth, admitting fault or flaw, or just praying. All fit within the paradigm of growth in a way that simply looking at guilt wouldn’t really allow. St. Francis and Thomas Aquinas and St. Patrick and John Wesley and Walter Bruggeman all the saints have left great prayers of confession and words to inspire us to examination, conviction, and growth.

But I’m going to deviate from them. Even my personal favorite of Thomas Aquinas is getting a second line today, because I want something different. Those prayers invoke parts of our head and our heart, but looking at verse without looking at what is coming out now misses out on works that truly engage with where we are now. Ideally, I’d reproduce some of Les Murray and some other great poets and blogs that I’ve encountered over the last few days, but I am going to stick to what I used in the workshop: Derek Web and Mumford and Sons.

Here is an excerpt from Derek Web’s song “Wedding Dress” courtesy of Metro Lyrics:

If you could love me as a wife
And for my wedding gift your life
Should that be all Ill ever need
Or is there more Im looking for

And should I read between the lines
And look for blessings in disguise
To make me handsome, rich and wise
Is that really what you want

‘Cause I am a whore, I do confess
I put you on just like a wedding dress
And I run down the aisle
I run down the aisle

Or Im a prodigal with no way home
I put you on just like a ring of gold
And I run down the aisle
I run down the aisle to you

So could you love this bastard child
Though I dont trust you to provide
With one hand in a pot of gold
And with the other in your side

‘Cause I am so easily satisfied
By the call of lovers so less wild
That I would take a little cash
Over your very flesh and blood

I remember showing this song to a person who wasn’t used to thinking in poetic imagery, and they were appropriately shocked to hear this language. After listening, they found the lyrics compelling. “Wedding Dress” is not completely recent, I’ve been listening to it since 2002 or 2003, but the impact sticks with me.

If you join in singing it, you find yourself admitting that we are not all that we are cracked up to be in the midst of easy distractions we recognize the call of the love that is still for us. Without a doubt I relate, and I think it is a confession in a modern spirit.

But I want to end with Mumford and Sons and in doing so bring culpability and guilt back into the equation. Back in 2010 these guys nearly won album of the year and in my mind they’re still better than Adele. They seem to capture the complexity and the darkness of human relationships while looking at them with a lens towards hope. Confession of sin should end in hope, and that’s why I love these guys for putting us into the darkness with an eye towards hope.

An Excerpt from Mumford & Sons’ song “Little Lion Man”:

Weep for yourself, my man,
You’ll never be what is in your heart
Weep, little lion man,
You’re not as brave as you were at the start
Rate yourself and rake yourself
Take all the courage you have left
And waste it on fixing all the problems that you made in your own head

But it was not your fault but mine
And it was your heart on the line
I really fucked it up this time
Didn’t I, my dear?
Didn’t I, my…

Tremble for yourself, my man,
You know that you have seen this all before
Tremble, little lion man,
You’ll never settle any of your scores
Your grace is wasted in your face,
Your boldness stands alone among the wreck
Now learn from your mother or else spend your days biting your own neck

Now this song offers us words in the times where we’ve screwed up a relationship that we want fixed. It’s in poems and songs like this that we can understand remorse and grief and allow ourselves to find hope in the midst. Now, I will admit, the hope comes from their other songs and their newer album. This song may not seem to embrace hope, but I think it’s there in the words the cry out for change to take up all the courage we have. Courage isn’t courage without hope.

I hope that these two songs will help you reimagine the fruitful ground for growth, and more than that, I hope these two songs and artists provide you with a vernacular that captures where you are and invites you into something deeper and greater or a place of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. In other words, I hope they are songs and words that make you hunger for more.

Ozzy Osborn prophet? Holy Verse Ctd…

“War Pigs” by Black Sabbath quite possibly comes the nearest to prophetic literature that we have in the modern time. I’m not say there isn’t something out right now that I haven’t heard about or that Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” was any less prophetic. But what if you took the lyrics of “War Pigs” and put them up against Melito of Sardis or Jeremiah and made a comparison?

That’s what I did for my Holy Verse Workshop this morning.

Why? Because Christians have become oddly saccharine – sticky sweet – about their faith. Our hymnals are full of praise songs, but there is very little lament that truly engages with human hearts. A century a go, there were still poems and writers that were willing to delve into the dark places or write from their own experiences of pain and loss to produce hymns. “It is Well with My Soul” was written by a man who had just discovered the loss of his family.

But largely we’ve decided pain is an evil or even worse ascribes evil to God. So our hymns dry up or are converted, and our hymnals, which will always be a repository of wisdom, have become 75% praise with much less mourning or trust during trial.

The psalms and the prophets don’t really have this problem. They hunker down to write with very human emotions and frustrations. They’re 75% frustration with trust and 25% adoration during frustration. The church sitting in between the resurrection of Christ and the awaited resurrection en mass may want to find a better way of articulating it’s frustration.

More than that, Christianity does not want to stand to convict the rich and powerful. The American dream has co-opted the Christian faith and made our dreams of obtaining unquestioned power and privilege replace our call for holiness or our challenge to those in positions of power and privilege when they seek to hurt the powerless and impoverished.

As a result, Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd have become better culturally and delivering messages against wars and even cutting through to and exposing the realities of war. Metallica’s song ‘One’ does the same, and Johnny Cash manages to expose prison in “Folsom Prison Blues” and addiction through his singing of Nine Inch Nails’ song “Hurt”.

It may sound odd, but I would even claim that Ke$ha and Lady Gaga speak to cultural issues in ways that are revelatory of who and what we are more so than some pop Christian Music. They definitely seem to connect to parts of our community in such a way as to reflect that group’s understanding of the good life.

But I’m not crazy enough to think that we are without voices as Christians. There are and have been artists out there that do engage with cultural issues. Derek Webb offers some great and challenging songs even now alongside folks like Mumford and Sons. I have heard of a few that did the same during the armed conflicts and during the civil rights struggles. The popularity of the rock groups may out stripe the Christian singers, although the evidence of this is simply that I have heard of the rock groups which isn’t the most convincing.

Poetry at it’s best reflects on our humanity and our experience. This is essentially changed if we are Christians writing or reading, and it’s that later bit of reading that really gets to me. See, as a Christian, I think we all have the image of God in us, and any honest true engagement with who we are in verse or song or prose engages with theology. In other words, I don’t think there’s any such thing as secular music.

There’s good music and lyrics that truly engages with who and what we are and our experiences, and there is music that fails to do that – it doesn’t ever find it’s stride or meaning. But there is no such thing in my mind as secular music.

Holy Verse: Intro

Psalm 96:1 – “Sing to the Lord a new song!”

Humanity’s work is the work of poets and lyricists. Whitman’s famous line that we are here to “contribute a verse” speaks volumes of what it means to be human. Of course some of our verses may never be found in hymnals or compilations of poetry, our verse may be that which we live and breathe by and never quite find out how to put it into words.

But there are those of us who are writers and speakers and singers, and God’s character is revealed as creative all around us. Could creation be viewed any other way? If we are created in the image of God, than it’s my belief that we are called to work along side him in making all things new, in singing new songs.

It is our job to experience the cadence of life and to write, speak, and sing according to that rhythm. However etherial it may be, the panhandle of Texas has it’s own unique interaction with God as does Durham, NC or any other place. More than that, each person experiences that rhythm, that breath of place and time and interaction with God and people. What would it be if we had poets that could put that to pen and paper to let others taste and see…?

Prose can capture a little rhythm. To this day the eloquence of C.S. Lewis impresses me, but I am blown away by the prose of F. Scott. Fitzgerald in “The Great Gatsby” and of Kurt Vonnegut in every work I’ve read by him. The rhythm and flow of their work inspires and moves. Even though Gatsby is one of the worst stories I’ve ever encountered, the writing itself is second to none.

Taste takes it’s rightful place among prose, but there are some greats out there that resonate so well with our common experiences and life that we cannot help but believe that we share something in that prose or verse. But Verse itself has a different place among writings and timings, prophets and wise men have used verse – perhaps for that very reason that Emily Dickinson writes “tell all the truth but tell it slant…. lest every man go blind.”

When we consider verse then, let us breath it in and make it part of us. Let us find or allow it to resonate within our hearts and heads and leave us changed. Be it from the psalms or the letters, the wise men or the prophets. And when we listen, may God grant us ears to hear what he is speaking to us now and hands to write to share what God has granted us.

Anticipation: Workshop Planning

A couple of friends and I are throwing together a workshop for this Saturday. Each of us are covering a couple of introductory topics and tackling a Q and A session and finishing off with worship together.

I’m teaching a section on food, faith, and fitness followed by a section on poetry.

The other two pastors are teaching on the gospel of John and the faith five (family practices of faith formation) along with reading the bible like an expert and discovering your spiritual type. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

Over the next couple of days, I’ll put some information with my thoughts on the two subjects and hopefully some resources for both. For right now, I am looking forward to the next couple of days and especially our workshop at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in Amarillo, TX.

NWTX Pastor’s School

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Nestled in a leg of the extensive canyon system of North West Texas, there’s a little church camp called Ceta. It’s a Methodist retreat center and the host of the Pastor’s School.

Pastor’s School isn’t really a stretch, you could stay in session for most of the two full days of the event. I didn’t. I took advantage of the weather to explore, read, and write. Honestly, I brought more work with me than I could do, and did more than I expected.

Unfortunately, I’ve come away exhausted which wasn’t my intention. I was hoping to feel rested and refreshed, but I really didn’t. The early morning run and extended afternoon hike may have worn on me, but I think the bigger problem was just spending too much time reading and not getting enough sleep.

Oddly, the presenter for the conference is from Renovare, and one of the points that they push for spiritual disciplines is rest. It’s a great point to push. Most people are too exhausted to actually focus on any spiritual disciplines and taking the time to simplify life to get rest provides the ground work for adding any practices in.

The idea that less can really be more is important in any believer’s life and one that is easy to forget.