Mark Your Calendars for ‘Reimagining the Sacred & the Cool’ on April 7

On Friday, April 7, Upper House will be hosting a rich discussion on how sacred tradition informs the cultivation of a shared literary and moral imagination. Historically, literature has been a central aspect of a liberal arts education and the formation of citizens in the west. And yet the study of literature, and the humanities at large, is no longer central in our educational institutions. While some blame pop-culture, a lack of funding, or technologies of distraction, others have looked within. In Lisa Ruddick’s groundbreaking essay, “When Nothing is Cool,” she argues that “decades of anti-humanist one-upmanship,” and a general “thrill of destruction,” have resulted in a sweeping malaise of suspicion that now defines academic discourse. “Nothing in English is ‘cool,’” she says, but “on the other hand, you could say that what is cool now is, simply, nothing.” Which begs the question, if nothing is cool, what can we celebrate, let alone enjoy?

In this one-day symposium, we will examine the landscape of a literary culture at the limits of hermeneutic suspicion. One path forward, according to philosopher Richard Kearney, would be to reimagine the sacred as a fundamental category of criticism, even for scholars and artists who do not think of themselves as explicitly religious. Looking to the work of 20th century atheists, agnostics, and apostates, like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust, Kearney illustrates how spiritual and moral impulses consistently inform the literary imagination. In a contemporary setting, the same impulses are voiced in the poetry of Fanny Howe, the late Mark Strand, and Adam Zagajewski, along with the novels of Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Don DeLillo, and Michel Houellebecq.

This spring we are excited to welcome both Ruddick and Kearney, along with literary critic Jon Baskin, poet G.C. Waldrep, and editor John Wilson, to help us reimagine the sacred, and the cool, and reconsider the place of the literary imagination in our world today.

Introducing William Cavanaugh

Theologian William Cavanaugh is coming to Upper House, in partnership with Geneva Campus Church, to explore questions of Christian vocation, political humility, and religious violence. A professor of Catholic studies and director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University, Cavanaugh’s research focuses on the Church’s encounter with social, political, and economic realities; especially the social implications of traditional Catholic beliefs and practices, such as the Eucharist. He is the author of six books, including Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of ChristThe Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern ConflictBeing Consumed; Economics and Christian Desire, and the most recent, Field Hospital: The Church’s Engagement in Markets, Politics, and Conflict.

Join us on February 2 and 3 for an engaging discussion around these topics.

Register today:

February 2: Dr. William Cavanaugh on Religious Violence: Phenomena, Fact & Fiction

February 3: Dr. William Cavanaugh on Politics of Humility


Save the Date! The 2017 Winter and Spring Calendars

As you begin to plan your winter/spring calendar, be sure to mark your calendars with the following Upper House events:

January 21: “Best of” The Global Leadership Summit

For those interested in receiving a taste of what The Global Leadership Summit is about, or for those hoping to be renewed by speakers from the previous year, the “Best of” The Global Leadership Summit is an opportunity to be encouraged and energized for 2017. Pre-recorded content includes Bill Hybels, Patrick Lencioni, Chris McChesney, and Erin Meyer. Register today for this interactive event. 

February 2: Dr. William Cavanaugh on Religious Violence: Phenomena, Fact & Fiction

Is religion a deeply rooted cause of violence throughout history? Are the core convictions of religious movements inherently prone to divisiveness? Dr. William Cavanaugh, professor of Catholic Studies and director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul University, will explore these ideas and unearth the typical roots of conflict throughout history. Join us for this free event, held on the UW-Madison campus, and in partnership with Badger Catholic, Geneva Campus Church, InterVarsity Midwest Region Grad/Faculty Ministries, Pres House, and St. Francis House. Registration is now open!

February 3: Dr. William Cavanaugh on Politics of Humility

In the United States, our moral and political consciousness is largely shaped by the idea that we can, and should, change the world. But looking at the absence of humility in our current political and global landscape, Dr. William Cavanaugh, professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, offers an alternative vision for political engagement that resists the temptation to remake the world in our own image. Join us for this free event, in partnership with Badger Catholic, Geneva Campus Church, InterVarsity Midwest Region Grad/Faculty Ministries, Pres House, and St. Francis House. Registration is now open!

February 7: Race & Faith Storytelling: Seeing Color (at Pres House)

27 organizations will come together to host the second annual “Race and Faith” event at UW—Madison. This year, the campus faith community is partnering for an evening of storytelling from members of the UW—Madison community on the theme, “Seeing Color.” Stories have the power to engage, transform, and motivate people to action. This evening of storytelling is designed to build community and spark new connections that will be a hopeful witness on campus. Featured story tellers include: Bobbie Kelsey-Grayson, former UW Madison Women’s Basketball Coach; Maria Ahmad, Assistant Director at the Multicultural Student Center; Mike Hughes, Blackhawk College Pastor; and two students to be announced. Join us for the large group gathering followed by dinner together. Registration is now open!

February 18: Concert featuring Mike Mangione & The Kin

Mike Mangione & The Kin are an orchestral-folk group based in Milwaukee. Mike is a graduate of Marquette University and has recorded five albums. He suggests his music might not be appropriate for church, but that it can take you there. Featured local opening musicians are Hannah Busse and Travis Agnew. This event is held in partnership with St. Paul University Catholic Center. Registration is now open!

February 25: Kingdom Justice Summit #soallmayflourish

In partnership with Door Creek Church, the Kingdom Justice Summit is an annual event that asks the questions: “What is Kingdom Justice?” and “What might it look like in our city?” Speakers include Scott Arbeiter, president of World Relief; Kathy Kang, author and speaker; and Roberto Rivera, artist and president of The Good Life Organization. This year we are giving away all registration fees to local non-profits that are doing great work in our community. The eight selected organizations (Big Brothers Big Sisters, Centro Hispano, Force for Freedom, Habitat for Humanity of Dane County, Lilada’s Living Room, Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, Shelter from the Storm Ministries, and The River Food Pantry) will be present at the Kingdom Justice Summit to share their stories and provide opportunities to get involved. Registration is now open!

February 23, March 2, & March 9: Strong and Weak Reading Group and Discussion

Do you want to become the kind of person whose influence leads to healthy organizations and communities? Are you a leader who uses your authority for the benefit of others, even in seasons of significant challenge and suffering? This fall, Andy Crouch joined us at Upper House to explore themes in his book, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing. Join us for these follow-up events as we discuss Andy’s book in three sections. We encourage participants to attend all three discussions. Light snacks provided. Registration is now open!

March 3: Luncheon with Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, astronomer and author, on Science & Faith in Dialogue

Dr. Jennifer Wiseman is an accomplished NASA astrophysicist, author, and speaker, who studies star forming regions of our galaxy using radio, optical, and infrared telescopes.  Join us for a luncheon as we hear Dr. Wiseman describe recent discoveries about black holes, distant galaxies, and even planets beyond Earth that could be habitable for life.  We will discuss how these discoveries can inspire and shape our understanding of what it means to be human beings in a vast, dynamic, and fruitful universe. Registration is now open!

March 11: A contemplative Lenten retreat considering the Passion of Christ

This morning retreat will be led by the Benedictine Women of Madison of Holy Wisdom Monastery, who weave prayer, hospitality, justice, and care for the earth into a shared way of life. This Lenten retreat will provide a window into the Rule of Benedict in preparation of Easter, with a focus on personal preparation and the Passion of Christ. Registration is now open!

April 3: Joshua Ryan Butler on The Skeletons in God’s Closet

How can a loving God send people to Hell? Isn’t it arrogant to believe Jesus is the only way to God? Why is there so much violence in the Old Testament? Joshua Ryan Butler, author, speaker, and pastor of local and global outreach at Imago Dei Community in Portland, Oregon, tackles these questions head on in his paradigm-shifting book, The Skeletons in God’s Closet. Join us for this free event as we wrestle with these topics – these skeletons – and discover how they are proclamations of a God who is good in both his actions and his very nature. This event is held in partnership with Blackhawk Church. Registration is now open!

April 4: Joshua Ryan Butler and The Pursuing God

Is God lost? Many of us feel that way – as if it is our job to search for God and to find our faith. But what if we have it backward? Joshua Ryan Butler, author, speaker, and pastor of local and global outreach at Imago Dei Community in Portland, Oregon, tackles these questions in his book The Pursuing God, highlighting that Jesus reveals a God who comes after us. The question then becomes, “Do we want to be found?” Join us for this free event as we explore the revelation of a reconciling God who is in pursuit of us. This event is held in partnership with Blackhawk Church. Registration is now open!

April 7: Reimagining the Sacred & the Cool: A Literary Symposium

At a time when the study of literature—and the humanities more broadly—have become increasingly marginalized in academic environments, we will explore the reimaginative possibilities within contemporary literary expression, criticism, and scholarship. In this full day symposium, we welcome Lisa Ruddick (University of Chicago), Jon Baskin (The Point Magazine), G.C. Waldrep (Bucknell College and The Kenyon Review), John Wilson (Education & Culture), and Richard Kearney (Boston College), who will help us reconsider the sustaining, transformative, and perhaps sacred power of literature in our world today. Registration is now open!

April 21: Luncheon with Dr. Ashley Woodiwiss on Faithful Politics in an Age of Confrontation

Dr. Ashley Woodiwiss is the Grady Patterson Professor of Politics at Erskine College (formerly at Wheaton College). Join us for this free event as Dr. Woodiwiss explores practical, gracious, Christian approaches to political dialog in our unsettled time.

May 5-12: Study Week at Upper House

Upper House, in partnership with campus ministry and church organizations, will have extended open study hours and refreshments during finals week. Group study rooms are available for reservation. Join us as we finish the spring semester strong.

June 1: Dr. John Inazu on Confident Pluralism

Dr. John Inazu is the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law & Religion and a Professor of Political Science at Washington University. Dr. Inazu’s book, Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference, provides an avenue toward civil discourse and living peaceably together in a polarized society. Join us for a conversation on how we can learn to thrive amidst deep difference.

An Interview with Tish Harrison Warren

Upper House: At a high level, let’s start at the concept of liturgy. What does liturgy mean and why is liturgy important? 

Tish Harrison Warren: James K. A. Smith talks about liturgy as any ritual or practice that connects us to a particular vision of the good life or to the transcendent or sacred. I think that definition is helpful. The term “liturgy” refers to repetitive practices that shape our loves and desires and, I think sometimes without realizing it, shape who we worship and who are.

There are churches that say they do not have liturgy or that the service is free-form, but I have a big enough definition of liturgy that I think that is impossible. All churches have a liturgy, repetitive ways of worship. I grew up in a Baptist church, which would not be considered “liturgical,” but if I stayed home from church on a Sunday, I could have a fairly good idea of what went on in service—the order of it, who did what, what people were dressed like, and what the sanctuary looked like. All of those aspects are jam-packed with symbols, meaning, and a specific understanding of the world and of worship. The question can’t be whether or not we are going to have a liturgy, because we are fundamentally people who are shaped by ritual and practice, but how are our liturgies are shaping us and who are they shaping us to be?

Part of the concept of my book is that all of us have liturgies in our daily life. We have rituals that shape us, that form how we see the world, and that form how we give and receive love.

Upper House: What’s the value of defining liturgy? From going to “This is how we do it on a Sunday” to being more specific about the importance of the symbols and rituals and what they mean?

Tish Harrison Warren: The things we do in worship on a Sunday and the practices we have in our daily life really are shaping us into who we are. I use the term liturgy because I want us to own that these rituals or habits are shaping us and who and what we worship.

If we don’t think about that intentionally, we can slide into unintentional, unthoughtful, un-theologically-rooted liturgies that are deeply shaping us and shaping our worship in ways that might actually be malforming us—shaping us to be people less rooted in Scripture and the church, and who are ultimately less able to receive and extend the love of Christ.

Consider church architecture. If people conclude there’s no meaning or symbolism in church architecture, they will put the building up with little forethought. But, space and design teach us something about what the church is. It might teach us that the church is an experience that we consume. There might be a stage as opposed to an altar. These decisions have huge theological meaning and significance. Things like what people are wearing when they worship shape the way we understand what worship actually is. They shape it profoundly. So, if we’re not thinking intentionally about liturgy, we’ll probably slide into different cultural liturgies. Liturgies of consumerism, nationalism, parts of our culture that are shaping us that we take for granted.

James K. A. Smith talks about the mall as a worship space. The way you walk through a mall conditions you to think of the world in a certain way and to regard the good life in a certain way. If we make our churches look like malls, what are we communicating to worshipers? I’m not saying at all that everyone has to worship in a cathedral. My church has folding chairs; it doesn’t look like a cathedral. But, I will say that all of these things—the way that we actually worship really does reflect and shape who we are. I think one of the problems we can have in Evangelicalism is that we think that what matters in church is solely rational content—as long as the sermon is from the Scriptures, then nothing else about our hour or so in gathered worship shapes us or makes a difference.

But what I want to say is that all of these things condition us to live in a certain way and to think about worship in a certain way. I try to recover the language of liturgy to help us think intentionally about what our rituals and practices are—as a gathered church but also in our daily life.

Upper House: What is the value of having a diversity of liturgy? What does it look like to have an understanding of a diversity of liturgy and what would that mean for a family where different people could find value in different liturgies?

Tish Harrison Warren: I am a Protestant and not a Catholic—so this may differ from other non-protestants who are liturgical—but I actually find value in different kinds of liturgies on Sunday in gathered worship. I have been in churches that, depending on the church season, will switch and do a liturgy from another culture, like a Kenyan liturgy. It’s very interesting because you can tell that the way prayers are written, the way worship is conducted, is different among Kenyan believers than American believers. It’s much more communal; it’s much more focused on Jesus as the host of a communal meal. It shapes us in slightly different ways and presses against our American individualism.

That being said, I think that diversity of liturgy, in and of itself, is not a goal or necessarily helpful. In other words, I would not say that you should go to an Evangelical megachurch on Monday and a Catholic church on Tuesday and a mainline Lutheran church on Wednesday. But there is value in counter-formation through different liturgies.

Liturgies that are profoundly thoughtful and liturgies that are historic, that have endured the test of time, are very helpful. I’m not Greek Orthodox, but the use of the Jesus Prayer as a repetitive prayer has been incredibly helpful for my spiritual life. It is a prayer that has endured generations. It is ancient. So, there’s some lasting theological rootedness to that prayer that I, as someone not in that tradition, can be invited into.

I think that being exposed to different kinds of liturgies is very helpful, but I also think that not all liturgies are equal. Not all ways of worship are equal, which is a somewhat controversial thing to say in Evangelicalism. But I think it’s true. Thinking through how you have diversity is important, but also how you remain theologically rooted, biblically rooted, and rooted in church tradition is vital too. Those questions are really important to hold together.

Upper House: Thank you! I’m glad you are a big fan of the Jesus Prayer. I want to pivot to the “ordinary” component of your philosophy. Why are daily routines important?

Tish Harrison Warren: To answer that, I am going to talk about how I came to the idea of this book. I wrestle with the everyday-ness of life. I’m from an Evangelical sub-culture that wants to have big encounters with God and emotional experiences with Jesus and to seek justice in big ways to change the world.

I struggled with the inevitable quotidian, mundane reality of daily life. Our life consists of getting up, having relationships, going to work, doing the dishes, taking care of our body. This is unavoidable. But I didn’t know how to value these parts of my life with the kind of Evangelical formation I had that values large emotional experiences and “radical” ways of seeking justice. I did not know how my daily life in America could fit in that.

And so I struggled a lot with the notion of the ordinary. I read a lot of books about how ordinary life matters. I was asking questions about why ordinary life matters and how it matters. Then, I came across James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and how liturgies, rituals, and habits shape us. Those ideas drove home two core ideas: ordinary life is sacred and ordinary life is formative.

Daily life is sacred because it is the place of our formation. The only place that Jesus has ever met us and formed us is in today, right where we are in the circumstances we are in. And I really wanted to explore the importance of the ordinary through the lens of liturgy, practices, and rituals that shape us. Because I think that Evangelicals in particular, and Western Christians specifically, can think that what primarily defines us is what we profess to believe—that the kind of doctrinal statement I make is what determines who I am. Doctrinal belief is crucial to the Christian life, but so much of who we are is found in the daily ways we spend our time, in our habits and heart.

Upper House: Do you have any practical recommendations for someone who is starting to consider what a liturgy of daily life might look like?

Tish Harrison Warren: One of the things I hear most often from people is how unaware they are of what they actually do in a day—about how they spent their time, or what kind of practices they participate in every day that shape them. This is just not a way we have been trained to think about our lives, even as Christians. We think about our lives in more abstract ways than how we actually spend a day.

We are often unsure what Christian counter-formation looks like in daily life. We can start by simply being aware of what kind of habits and rituals we participate in every day.

It may help to think about how we use our bodies every day. How do we use our bodies to worship? How do we use our bodies to care for other people? Is the way we think about our bodies shaped by our culture or shaped by the gospel?

We need to be steeped in the story of the gospel and in the symbols of the church. A lot of discipleship happens in our subconscious and in our imagination. One of the things I have realized as I have written this book is that because I am an Anglican priest and I’m in this Anglican world, my imagination has been shaped by ancient worship practices of the church and these echo into my daily life. For instance, when I see water, I often think of baptism. There is a link in my mind. We are shaped by habits and symbols so letting the gospel and Christian worship imbed themselves in our imagination is vital.

So you ask how to incorporate practices and my answer is practices. Awareness of how we spend our time and our habits of thought is key. We have to live our daily lives attentively. Also, we seek to embrace counter practices that will allow us to be shaped by the story of scripture and the church. This is daily Christian formation. I’d add, start small and concretely.

What Is Slow Church?

The slow movement began outside a McDonalds. In Italy, a land known for its care and passion for culinary delights, the quick, ubiquitous, and expedient choices exemplified on a McDonalds menu began to take root in the Italian ethos.

Facing the loss of the table, slow food emerges. Where the Happy Meal represents distance between producer and consumer, and inhalation of nutrients in isolation, slow food promotes more than just quality ingredients and local techniques. The movement seeks to emphasize and honor all of the elements that surround regional cuisine. These elements include community—people prepare, cook, and eat food together.

From these humble beginnings, the slow movement expands to many elements of culture. Core to all these positions is a simple belief—people pack too many things into the modern life. The consistent push toward busy-ness creates time poverty, a malnourishment of the community enhancing values found during times of leisure and open space.

The Church and the Slow Movement

Within this philosophy, C. Christopher Smith submits a theological position to the discussion: slow church.

Smith suggests slow church is “A vision for recovering culture that begins in the local church congregation, as we share life together and as we intentionally relearn habits that nurture culture and promote the health and flourishing of our congregations, neighborhoods, cities, and the world. These habits include both Sabbath and work (As modern industrialization has been driven to a large extent by the desire to avoid work).”

As we head into an uncertain future, one issue the church must address surrounds its ability to remain relevant and resonant in its community. Too often, when a church closes its door, the impact of such an event causes not much of a stir. What would it take, instead, for that church closure to cause widespread concern and remorse over the loss of a vital community pillar?

For Smith, such issues provide the necessary evidence to the value of creating slow church. Much like the slow food movement setting aside the expediency and ubiquity of a McDonalds for the richness the local community—not only through its culinary quirks, but also with its emphasis on relationships—slow church aims to brings emphasis to each local community, breathing life into the people who share the space, develop distinct customs, and live life together.

Introducing the STEAM Grant

We are excited to announce that Upper House has received a STEAM Grant through the support of an award from the Science and Theology for Emerging Adult Ministries project at Fuller Theological Seminary. The grant is intended to bring together churches and ministries from the Madison area to be involved in a series of lectures and symposia over the next couple of years focusing on sociology, medicine, developmental biology, cosmology, and engineering/technology. Upper House will also administer extended integration opportunities around these topics with further reading, film, and discussion groups.

Through the STEAM grant, Upper House intends to bring deeper integrative Christian thought to scientific study and practice.

This project was initiated this fall with the theatrical performance, Freud’s Last Session, and an interactive session co-hosted with Door Creek Church with UW Go Big Read author, Matt Desmond, who recently published the critically-acclaimed book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Further events are in the planning stages, with the next one scheduled in March 2017, featuring Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, senior astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Interested in learning more about what is ahead? Give us a note at

Toward a Theology of Art

When was the last time you encountered the majesty of a cathedral? Did you feel the overwhelming expanse of the place? Were you drawn to the meticulous detail of the architecture, the stained glass, and the sculptures?

Historically, the church places an emphasis on aesthetics. The beauty of a cathedral bringing heaven to earth for all to catch a glimpse of glory present and glory to come.

Where Have the Arts Gone?

But, what happened to the emphasis on beauty in Christendom? Why has a deep value for aesthetics been peeled away from so much of the human experience? For many, encounters with Christian arts sit at the periphery of church life or within subcultures removed from workplaces, neighborhoods, and other gathering places.

To consider this separation between aesthetics and Christian life, consider the label we place on art: “Christian.” When we place the label “Christian” on art—like music or film—there is a suggestion that the underlying message of the art form takes more importance than the beauty of the piece. A Christian film is a good Christian film if it communicates the right message to an audience, regardless of its beauty. This represents a different goal that representing beauty for the sake of beauty itself.

Even more, consider the bookshelf of the thoughtful Christian. You will likely find topics such as interpretation of Scripture, philosophy of justice, and normative works on a Christian ethic. But is there representation for the appreciation of beauty as an integral part of the Christian life?

Given these elements, the Christian artist faces a difficult task. What should she do with her art?

Some feel like there’s a false choice… You either pick Jesus or art.

But what if there’s vocational purpose behind art? What if God calls Christians to leverage art as a defender of beauty? What if the purpose of art is to bring order and sense to the world? What if art is meant to tell a story, so that people fully awaken to the gift of humanness?

If God is sovereign over all things, then the artist provides a key service to the world, discovering the nuances of our existence and shedding light on the beauty of who we are and the world we live in.

If we accept this premise, art is a critical component of the church and a worthy vocational pursuit for the Christian. As Nicholas Wolterstoff submits in his book, Art In Action, the artist projects a “world true in significant respects to what his community believes to be real and important.”

Artists are the defenders of beauty.

Interested in diving deeper on a theology of art? Curious to explore why the pursuit of art is essential not only to beauty, but also for truth and goodness? Join us on October 21, 4-6 pm for a celebration and discussion with Cam Anderson, as he releases his new book The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts. This event, in partnership with Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), will provide guests with the opportunity to engage with Cam, noted author and speaker, and executive director of CIVA, to explore the intersection of Christian faith and the arts.

This is a free event but registration is required. Copies of the book will be available for purchase, and Cam Anderson will be signing copies.

Power and Leadership: Andy Crouch on Strong and Weak

What illustrations come to mind when we consider examples of Godly character? For some, the Churchillian and iron will of leadership represents the pinnacle. Truth is truth. We fight for truth. We don’t back down from truth.

For others, service to the weak, hungry, and poor matters most. A missionary serving the poor might not be physically strong and wouldn’t necessarily command a room with tough rhetoric, but her consistent lifelong and selfless commitment to “the least of these” would be a living testimony to a life lived in service to others.

A Third (Blended) Approach to Leadership

In Andy Crouch’s latest book, Strong and Weak, Mr. Crouch suggests a both-and approach. He notes,

“What we truly admire in human beings is not authority alone or vulnerability alone—we seek both together.” — Strong and Weak, pg 47

We all seek a flourishing life with abundant joy. And as leaders, we expect our leadership to influence such ends in others. But the path to such a life can be clouded, even stormy.

The polarities above can (and often do) provide a roadmap toward the goal of flourishing. For some, flourishing comes from gaining strength and authority. For others, the Sermon on the Mount provides a path to true flourishing by illustrating how meekness and true humility can imbue strength and courage.

And yet, Crouch suggests a focus on one aspect without the other leads to imbalance. A focus on authority without vulnerability results in exploitation. An emphasis on vulnerability without authority results in suffering. Perhaps worst of all, a de-emphasis of both leads to withdrawal from society and an inability to influence culture in any way.

The Example of Jesus

Crouch, then, points to Jesus as the prime example of the balanced approach to strength and weakness. Throughout the gospel narrative, Jesus possessed unparalleled authority. When Jesus spoke, people listened. When Jesus acted, the world responded.

And yet, Jesus lived vulnerably. Scripture consistently references Jesus’ unswerving approach to healing and redemption, made fully manifest through his death on the cross.

So, as we seek to lead well, no matter our theological commitments, we should consider the example of Jesus, who held together in perfect form power and weakness. There is no other enduring way to bring lasting change to the people we seek to serve and institutions we commit to steward.

Interested in a deeper dive on this topic? Andy will be visiting Upper House on November 2 from 7:00 to 9:00 pm and will teach through lecture, visual imagery, and music on vital topics related to power, culture, vulnerability, and leadership. This is an open and free event, and all are invited to attend. The focus of the evening will be based on Andy’s new book, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk, and True Flourishing. You will not want to miss this special evening, so please register today!

Interview with Rick Brooks, Social Entrepreneur and Co-Founder of the International Little Free Library Movement

Upper House: Tell me about your story. How does the Little Free Library advance good in the community? 

Rick Brooks: The Little Free Library movement is an example of the kinds of things I’ve been involved in for 40 or 50 years now. It extends from an experience I had as a child in Wichita, Kansas.

My father was a doctor and we had 5 kids in the family. One day, my father and mother decided that we kids were not turning into the kinds of people they wanted to raise. They thought it would be important for us to see how the rest of the world lives. Instead of getting us all cars and joining the country club, they chose a different path. We went to India for a year and then we went to South America for a year. From those experiences, my family and I learned that there is more to life than what money can buy, how rich you are and all the things you can accumulate.

Most people get meaning from the people around them—their family, the people in their village or neighborhood. We learned that we are unable do everything by ourselves. That is a fundamental assumption of almost all religions, which I have found as a good guiding principle for a lifetime.

Upper House: Could you unpack that a little bit? How do you connect the notion of relying on each other, the Ubuntu philosophy about community building? How does that connect to the Little Free Library?

Rick: It’s funny you should ask because I am looking at a poster on my wall that says “Ubuntu,”—I am because we are.

Little Free Library began when I was giving a workshop on green practices for small businesses in Hudson, Wisconsin. One of the attendees had been unemployed for about a year and had been looking for something meaningful to do. In that process, he had built a memorial to his mother—a model of a one-room schoolhouse with a glass door, which housed books because his mom was a reading teacher. She had died several years earlier and he wanted to remember her. He showed me this model and we worked together to consider starting a number of social enterprises.

The Little Free Library was the one that stuck. This was the project that his friends and neighbors were interested in; however, they wondered why you would just give away free books. We began to realize that this was one way to cement the notion that sharing things you cherish with your neighbors makes a difference.

We learned almost right away that the value of Little Free Library wasn’t just the books. It was the friendships and the excuse to meet and discuss things in relatively neutral territory. Over and over again, people would say, “Since the Little Library came, I’ve met more people in my neighborhood than I’ve met in the past 10, 15, 20 years.”

Upper House: Could you explore the connection between the Free Library and community? There’s the idea that the smaller the town, the more you rely on the community. You can’t anger the grocer because that’s where you get your food. Why is it important to hold on to a small community ideal? What are we losing with vast urban centers, globalization, and technology?

Rick: We don’t have to romanticize neighborhoods or small towns. But, there are values that endure around the concept of being there for your neighbors and knowing or hoping that they will be there for you as well.

The danger and the fear that we’re now experiencing in the United States comes from a number of things that stem from alienation being separate. Not knowing our neighbors’, our grocers’, or our barbers’ names. Buying things online and not having interactions with local shopkeepers. As we were beginning Little Free Libraries, I was also the founder of Dane Buy Local. It was in response to the anger and frustration people felt with big box stores and WalMart. I shared their frustrations, but I believed we needed to come up with better alternatives. So we did.

We established a network that grew to include 850 locally owned independent businesses in and around Madison. It’s still, 11 years later, one of the largest metropolitan alliances of businesses across the U.S. that have incorporated this neighborliness, friendliness, and hometown feel. They urge everyone to know and support their fellow business people, not just to make a bigger profit for each business but also to nurture the local quality of life.

What we want to do is emphasize the real values of a community of any kind, which almost always has something to do with caring beyond just exchanging goods and money.

Upper House: If we consider this “free” movement and how it creates community, what do you want to see in the future and how does this movement advance good in Madison and beyond?

Rick: I would want to see more people who act on the belief that I have written up on a whiteboard here. “We don’t have to agree on anything to be kind to one another.”

Let’s say that phrase is the organizing principle, which goes along with economic development and promoting equal opportunity for all.

TimeBanking is a good example of applying these kinds of ideas. The Dane County TimeBank has the notion that everyone has something valuable to offer. And everyone has needs. Richard Rockefeller was a member of a time bank and his hour was worth the same as an hour from a seven year old who wants to help by walking Dr. Rockefeller’s dog.

Exchanging an hour for an hour among an entire community involves caring of any form for somebody else. It’s about local initiatives to keep their neighborhood vibrant and vital and part of the whole of the city of Madison. Those are examples of how this can work. Active churches are important too. You don’t just come to church on Sunday. You are fully engaged in community life.

I’ll give you one example: an assistant pastor I know in Indianapolis has a title of Community Listener. He knocks on doors, goes to barber and beauty shops, sits on street corners and in parks with chess players, and he listens to people. He doesn’t even interview them; he just hears what they say.

Locally, nationally, internationally, in politics—if we focus on our common interests, then we begin to realize that the fundamental element of our humanity is loving kindness and compassion. That issue is so fundamental. When we forget it, we fight each other, we insult each other, we disrespect each other. When we move toward love and the things that bind us, we have a better life.

The connection of these ideas to Little Free Libraries is this: if you share what you like or love the most, you will be a successful steward of a Little Free Library and of service to your neighbors. Building a library and being a good steward makes a major difference. It works best when people have a party and invite everyone to bring their favorite books. The kids run up and put their own book in the library. And they learn that giving it away is as exciting and joyful as reading the book was.

For more on Q Commons, check out an interview with John Terrill below.

Leadership Tune-Ups

The Global Leadership Summit concluded after a concentrated two days of lectures, vision casting, and inspirational stories. We are thankful for over 250 attendees in Madison who engaged in learning and community building at Upper House.

For those that attended, or even those who could not make it but wanted to engage in a deep dive on leadership, Upper House is offering a series of Leadership Tune-Ups this fall. These tune-ups include a video from a featured speaker, discussion in groups, and fellowship over lunch.

These events run from 12:00 to 1:30 on September 15 and October 20.

The first tune up features Dr. Henry Cloud discussing his book, The Power of Other. Dr. Cloud is an acclaimed leadership expert and best-selling author. His experience includes business, leadership consulting, and practice as a clinical psychologist. All of these experiences enable him to impart practical and effective advice for improving leadership skills and workplace performance.

The second tune up on October 20 focuses on The Power of Vision with Bill Hybels. Bill will discuss how vision is a picture of the future that produces passion in people and teams. Bill is the senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church and founder of the Global Leadership Summit.

Fine tune your leadership skills this fall during our series of lunch events and sign up today!