Hummingbirds and the Delights of Staying

The hummingbirds should be back any day now. This was my thought a few days ago and a quick search online confirmed it: the first ones had been spotted in Chicago a week or so earlier. So a couple days later I brought out our two feeders, washed them, and added the sugary water they can’t resist. This morning, sitting on the porch while feeding the nine-month-old, I spotted the first one. It’s one of my favorite moments of the year.

This small sequence of barely noticeable events got me thinking about staying. We’ve lived in our Chicago home for six years and for the first few I never saw a hummingbird. We put up a feeder on a whim, not expecting much. But the birds came and now we have two feeders in addition to some recently planted honeysuckle that they seem to love even more than the sugar water. I’m not sure how many of my neighbors notices these little birds – it helps to be up early – but I delight in each sighting, even the brief, darting ones seen in my peripheral vision.

The only reason I know to look forward to the hummingbirds’ return each spring is because we’ve stayed in this particular place for a few years. It’s the only reason I knew that buying a second honeysuckle plant this spring would likely attract even more of these favorite visitors later in the summer.  One of the wonderful things about staying put is learning what delights there are to anticipate each year. There are thing residents know to expect hopefully that tourists and transients will simply never access.

What if one spring the hummingbirds didn’t return? Not too many years ago I wouldn’t have noticed. Despite the catastrophe under my nose, I’d proceed with my business, ignorant of this very wrong thing. Could this be an argument against staying? After all, the person with one eye always on the horizon, keeping all the options open, is blind to the wrong that doesn’t make the headlines and so is protected from experiencing it.

But ignorance provides only temporary relief. Humans, I’m convinced, were created in the image of a God who cares for his creation and creatures. We need not simply to be useful in a general sense but, in the image of this creative and responsive God, to know our particular place well enough to delight in its beauties and respond to its needs, especially the ones others will never see. Not staying, adopting the transient habits needed to pursue the American dream, may provide protection from the pain inherent to every particular place. But this can’t be a serious argument against staying for such protection must also keeps out delight and the particular opportunities to care for God’s creation and creatures.

There are many good reasons to leave and typically when the opportunity arises these come quickly to mind. But I wonder if it makes better human sense to assume that we’ll stay- for the good of our own humanity, for the love of our neighbors, and for the many opportunities to delight in the barely visible beauty we’ll otherwise miss.

“Unclench those fingers.”


When crowds gather, to check out this new source of entertainment or outrage, to see if he’s conducting himself like a teacher or a prophet or just possibly like a guerrillero looking for recruits- when the crowds gather, he sits them down in the sheep pasture, and he says: behave as if you never had to be afraid of the consequence. Behave as if nothing you gave away could ever make you poorer, because you can never run out of what you give. Behave as if this one day we’re in now were the whole of time, and you didn’t have to hold anything back, or to plot and scheme about tomorrow. Don’t try to grip your life with tight, anxious hands. Unclench those fingers. Let it go. If someone asks for your help, give them more than they’ve asked for. If someone hits out at you, let them. Don’t retaliate. Be the place the violence ends. Because you’ve got it wrong about virtue. It isn’t something built up from a thousand careful, carefully measured acts. It comes, when it comes, in a rush; it comes from behaving, so far as you can, like God Himself, who makes and makes and loves and loves and is never the less for it. God doesn’t want your careful virtue, He wants your reckless generosity. Try to keep what you have, and you’ll lose even that. Give it away, and you’ll get back more than you bargain for; more than bargaining could ever get you. By the way, you were wanting a king? Look at that flower over there by the wall. More beautiful than any royal robe, don’t you think? Better than silks; and it comes bursting out of the ground all by itself, free and gratis. It won’t last? Nothing lasts; nothing but God.

-Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense.

Sometimes a swift kick is needed to remind me of how shocking and beautiful Jesus’ teachings are. Spufford does so repeatedly in this odd and wonderful non-apologetic about Christianity’s emotional resonance.

Playing God

Andy CrouchPlaying God by Andy Crouch is a really good book. I’d heard the author allude to this project a couple of years back, if memory serves, and had been anticipating it ever since. As a white man who serves a multi-ethnic church in a predominately African-American neighborhood, I’ve thought about power a lot. I was curious what Crouch would say about it and am happy to report that his insights are fresh, theologically nuanced, and utterly intelligible. I assume many people will read this book and be helped by it.

There will be plenty of thoughtful reviews of Playing God; rather than add to that pile I’ll share a few reasons why this book benefitted me and a few questions it raised.

As Crouch points out repeatedly, power, when it’s talked about at all, is generally perceived negatively. For most of us, power is assumed to be a a zero sum game: one’s attainment of power is equal to another’s loss of power. Crouch points back to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche as the most influential proponent of this view. In Nietzsche’s world we each strive to extend our power over all space, competing with others on the same quest. In intentional contrast to Nietzsche, Crouch describes true power as the process of creating space for others to flourish. This, he says, is the vision we find in the Bible and represents power’s gift.

Many readers, like myself, will not have realized how influenced they have been by Nietzsche’s cynical view of power until they read Crouch’s compelling case for a much more hopeful perspective. Later in the book the author helpfully (very!) differentiates power from privilege, dynamics I’ve made crudely analogous in the past. This is a somewhat common topic in our church; I’m convinced that white privilege is the achilles heel of most multi-ethnic churches. Playing God, with it’s more hopeful view of power, gives me more nuanced ways of pointing out the destructive traits of privilege while making space for the positive uses of power that are worth moving toward.

The same paradigm-shifting nuance is true in the chapter about institutions. As a church planter, I’ve interacted with a lot of people who express particular wounds from experiences with churches. I’ve come to believe that every institution and organization is bent toward this sort of wounding potential. Institutions, after all, are made up of people capable of inflicting harm on others, sometimes intentionally and oftentimes not. (A note: I was glad the author devoted a chapter to the “principalities and powers” as this theological insight about systems is often neglected by evangelical-ish authors. I’d have liked there to be more about this; perhaps some interaction with Jaques Ellul on this important subject.) While acknowledging the strong tendency for institutions to slide toward self-preservation and the harm such a slide entails, Crouch remains  – here it is again – hopeful:

Institutions are the way the teeming abundance of human creativity and culture are handed on to future generations. So posterity, not just prosperity, is the promise of GOd to Abraham: countless descendants and blessings poured out on entire nations not yet born. Posterity, not just prosperity, is God’s promise to David, a succession of sons in his line on the throne. And posterity was what the average Israelite prayed for as well – “may you see your children’s children!” – a wish that before death one would see the evidence that shalom and abundance would continue in one’s own line after death. There is nothing quick about shalom. True shalom endures.

Playing God has much to commend it, far more than the few examples I’ve pointed to here. It also raised a few questions for me.

As much as I appreciated the hope about power that spills from the pages of this book, I couldn’t help wondering about how optimistic the author is. OK, optimism probably isn’t the best word and Crouch does a great job of outlining the abuses of power with personal stories and cultural observations. But still, from where I stand, and despite the compelling case made by Crouch, it’s hard to share his hope about power. In the structures and systems of our city, power’s evil offspring (Crouch very helpfully identifies these as injustice and idolatry) simply seem to morph from one form to another over time. The results are generations of disenfranchisement, violence, and oppression. Not only these of course; there are always instances and communities of goodness and beauty. And yes, there are many, many people and churches using their power to create space for flourishing. But these individuals and institutions always seem, sometimes quite literally, outgunned by other sources of power.

I wonder too about the way Crouch talks about the distinction between evangelism and justice. While strongly affirming the need for both, he makes the same move other evangelical-ish folks do. He writes, “In short, working for justice is cool. Proclaiming the gospel is not.” This, I think, is quite incorrect. Many of the examples Crouch gives about justice work take place outside the USA. They are wonderful examples of the sort many Christians (these days, at least) strongly support. But the notion that justice is cooler or more acceptable than evangelism seems to expose a narrow (or geographically distant) view of justice. When I think of justice for many of my neighbors I think of changes to policy – education funding, gun control, law enforcement, economic development, drug policy – along with robust acknowledgment of and response to historic injustices that would be far from popular or cool with the majority of those holding the bulk of our culture’s power.

But these are mostly quibbles and I’m reading Playing God from my own biased location. I hope many will read this book, that it will start many conversations, and, best of all, call churches to steward the power promised us by God’s presence for the flourishing of all our neighbors.

Ellul on Jesus and Mammon

jacques-ellulIn preparation for an upcoming sermon on money I’ve been dipping into Money and Power by Jacques Ellul. In a section titled “What Money Really Is” Ellul makes a theological point I’d not previously considered. (Others have surely made it, but Ellul does so forcefully and provocatively, as anyone familiar with his writing would expect.) Reflecting on Jesus’ teaching on Mammon in Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13, he writes that “money is a power.” By this he means that money acts autonomously, has a spiritual value, and is oriented personally. Mammon cannot be used by people; rather, in opposition to God, it uses people.

With this articulated, Ellul moves to “What Money Does.” Here he describes the pervasive force of Mammon on society.

This power of money establishes in the world a certain type of human relationship and specific human behavior. It creates what could be broadly called a buying-selling relationship. Everything in this world is paid for one way or another. Likewise, everything can, one way or another, be bought. Such is the character that the power of money imposes on the world. Although money is only one means of this power’s action, it is the most visible and concrete sign of the universality of buying and selling. The world sees this behavior as normal. Without constant exchange, we could not continue to live.

Ellul is thinking of more than slavery – though he includes this among his examples of Mammon’s power; poverty, alienation, and betrayal are other ways this buying-selling milieu is manifested, though rarely acknowledged or challenged. We might consider the valiant and noble efforts to stop human trafficking, efforts that often overlook the economic conditions that make such injustices possible. Challenging these conditions is almost impossible as most people with the agency to oppose trafficking are also benefitting from the structures that make slavery profitable.

And then the move I hadn’t considered: Into this market-driven world steps a God whose nature is grace and gift and this God submits to being sold. Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for 30 pieces of silver may be consistent with a wold governed by Mammon but it is utterly inconsistent with God’s nature. Yet Jesus submits to Mammon for our salvation. That is, the spiritual forces that dehumanize and commodify people do their worst to the only one who successfully resisted their power. Thus, as Paul writes, we are bought with a price by the only one whose payment leads to freedom. And Jesus, because his nature is that of a giver (“I lay down my life of my own accord.”), cannot be held captive by a force that knows only the language and power of transaction.

“…Chrapitalism: the lucrative merger of Christianity and capitalism…”

Don’t expect any breadth or grandeur from the Empire’s Christian divines. Across the board, the imperial chaplains exhibit the most obsequious deference to the Plutocracy, providing imprimaturs and singing hallelujahs for the civil religion of Chrapitalism: the lucrative merger of Christianity and capitalism, America’s most enduring covenant theology. It’s the core of “American exceptionalism,” the sanctimonious and blood-spattered myth of providential anointment for global dominion. In the Chrapitalist gospel, the rich young man goes away richer, for God and Mammon have pooled their capital, formed a bi-theistic investment group, and laundered the money in baptismal fonts before parking it in offshore accounts. Chrapitalism has been America’s distinctive and gilded contribution to religion and theology, a delusion that beloved community can be built on the foundations of capitalist property. As the American Empire wanes, so will its established religion; the erosion of Chrapitalism will generate a moral and spiritual maelstrom.

What will American Christians do as their fraudulent Mandate from Heaven expires? They might break with the imperial cult so completely that it would feel like atheism and treason. With a little help from anarchists, they might be monotheists, even Christians again. Who better to instruct them in blasphemy than sworn enemies of both God and the state? Christians might discover that unbelievers can be the most incisive and demanding theologians.

Eugene McCarraher, “Love is Stronger than Debt” in Books and Culture.

Another example of why Books and Culture continues to be my most anticipated mail. You’re a subscriber, right?