01 November 2018

Confessions: Rainy Evenings

Balsam root and lupine bloom along the glacier view trail on
Horse Lake Reserve, Wenatchee, Wash.
You hang in my mind
Like the scent of wet trees,
Or like distant thunder,
And rewater the promise of spring;

You whisper and sing
To the rhythm of rain
On the hood of my coat
And turn into the laughter of streams.

You seep into my heart
Like the drops on my face
Or the damp in my socks
And remind me, again, to live.

31 October 2018

Confessions: Ashes

Cathédrale de Notre-Dame de Paris, Holy Saturday, 2011.
It seems like I was stronger once;
    I thought I could understand.

Now I'm too lonely to remember taste;
    too tired to recompose;
    too busy to believe in doing things.

I've lost my faith in what will happen next.

    “...you are dust,
        and to dust you shall return.”

I miss Grandma, her spotless house, and running walk,
    her “age is a state of mind.”

I think of her hunched over,
    whispering back and forth,
    “Oh, God, help us.”

Tears rolling down her cheeks.

    “...you are dust,
        and to dust you shall return.”

We are the suicidal and less able,
    left behind by admonition to prosperity.

We are the rich in shame,
    the living dead
    oppressive self-consumers.

Unwanted by ourselves.

    “...you are dust,
        and to dust you shall return.”

Dreams blow away like smoke,
    and those gold touches turn to fools.

Yet I am not amazed that there are ashes
    but that there are trees;
    surprised by promises.

“Remember also your Creator....”

    “...you are dust,
        and to dust you shall return.”

In place of fame a cross and tomb,
    An unexpected fellow sufferer.

The king of thorns, dead on a tree;
    Lamb not passed over;
    Day turned to night, the veil split.

A psalmist's and a pagan's intuition.

    “...this was the Son of God...”
        “Repent and believe....”

29 October 2018

Confessions: The Lake

Orchards and vineyards along Lake Chelan's eastern end.
The south shore of Lake Chelan,
Stehekin, Wash.
We pass through doorways in the hills
amid the vineyards and fruit trees,
as though into a chapel close.

Behold the sometimes shrouded peaks;
the vaulted sky reflects off waves,
like off the aisle of a nave.

Hear stillness cracked by falling rock,
the whispers of winged messengers,
the echoed music of the clouds.

The crystal lake turns turquoise blue
as we approach the glacial seat,
from whence the water's flowing down.

Rainbow Falls, Stehekin, Wash.

27 October 2018

Confessions: I Want to Live

Though we inhabit sorrow, pain, and toil,
Oppressed by things we think we should do well,
I want to rest, hunger, thirst, and wander
And need and wonder and not be alone.

Though we walk through loneliness and shadow
And fight these broken battles in our brains,
I want to try and touch and go and see
And breath and taste and make and come to know.

Though fear seizes the heart and shakes the mind
Strangling the light and breathing in despair,
I want to glimpse the sacredness of life
And be surprised by music and by truth.

Though death whispers to us it's false relief
And sometimes drives all other thoughts away,
I want to hold your hand and not let go
And talk and choose and feel and live...with you.

26 October 2018

Confessions: How can we talk about character and ethics?

The Oklahoma County Courthouse facade, facing Park Avenue in Oklahoma City, Okla. 
Several role plays in the new prison curriculum lacked realism, she said. And she wanted to know how I got a job writing character-training material for prisoners.

It was family day for the faith and character pods at the Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ Mabel Basset Correctional Center. She had a tear tattooed in the corner of her eye, and I had a feeling her...balogna...meter was finely tuned.

The DOC had contracted with my then employer, Character First, to see whether character-based programming could―in connection with anger-management, cognitive behavior change, and other programming―change the culture for long-term prisoners.

Apparently it was obvious I didn't have much experience in prison.

But her question triggered two questions in my mind. First, on what basis can we talk about ethics? Because we talked about various character qualities―aspects of personal integrity―we had to give some rationale for what makes good and bad behavior. Most of the other curriculum I’ve seen focused on other variables.

“Thinking for a Change” uses terms, such as "action plan―a chosen plan for dealing with a particular problem" or "thinking choices―different attitudes and thoughts I could have had." As participants work through each unit of the curriculum, they add additional vocabulary focused on the social and thinking skills needed to change behavior patterns. These approaches have merit, particularly when verified by research. And by defining goodness essentially in terms of prosocial behavior, the writers avoid a lot of philosophical debate.

But avoiding a philosophical debate is not the same thing as avoiding a philosophical position. Teaching people to relate to one another in terms of prosocial behavior makes certain assumptions about what it means to be human and how the individual relates to others.

These approaches also involve assumptions about the nature of reality overall.  

Character First's approach seems to assume we live in a broken but ethical universe governed by a set of laws―something like the laws of physics―with which humans can be more or less in tune. 

Character First defined faith as “confidence that actions rooted in good character will yield the best outcome, even when I cannot see how,” discernment as “understanding the deeper reasons why things happen,” and virtue as “the moral excellence evident in my life as I consistently do what is right.”

But there are always questions when desired results tend to benefit those who have power...employers or prison managers for example...and that brings up my second question: who benefits from the ways we talk about character?

In the day-to-day work of developing a curriculum, it’s easier to tell people what to do than to walk beside them through their challenges. We think we understand. So we stop letting them explain.

David Vishanoff, associate professor in the University of Oklahoma religious studies program, has been one of my primary influences as I've wrestled with these issues. As part of his personal experience as a Christian believer in conversation with secular academics and others in his field of religious studies, he has articulated an approach based on the idea of loving one's neighbor rather than defending one's belief system.

He points out in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus describes the other not only as someone to whom his hearers can give, but also as someone from whom his hearers can receive—not just someone whom they can teach, but someone from whom they can learn. In conversations I've been privileged to have with him, he's stressed not studying books that tell how others think but studying others...and allow them to explain themselves, whether through texts or in person.

Not long after we started work on the Character First prison curriculum, Character First hired Jeffery Boothe. He had been in prison for a couple of years and was serving his remaining time in work release when another client sent him our direction. We had the obvious conversations―“Is this a realistic situation?” “Is that even an issue prisoners struggle with?”―but the greatest benefit Boothe brought to our team was the opportunity to know him, to hash out the finer points of the “no snitching” culture, to hear him wrestle with his experience.

In many ways, a discussion of character lends itself to this kind of engagement because it emphasizes the intersection of ethical concepts and lived experience. In his book, “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement,” David Brooks presents a narrative of human experience, incorporating the insights gained from recent neurological research.  

In the “morality” chapter, he questions common rationalist assumptions about thinking and acting, and he points out the influence of the intuitive, subconscious mind in shaping the way an individual sees and feels.

Brooks points out the sense of justice small children display. He stresses how institutions teach people all kinds of little rules for getting along. And he observes how conscious choices can nudge and shape the direction of the subconscious mind.

In “The Abolition of Man,” C.S. Lewis uses the word “Tao” to refer to the traditional ethical standard found in various cultural and religious traditions. And he answers both those who would seek another basis for human behavior and those who would do away with ethical standards altogether.

On the surface, Lewis' argument appears similar to Brooks' argument, but where Brooks sees a synthesis created by the sometimes contradictory pull of various moral intuitions—sacrificing one's life for a cause and preserving the species for example—Lewis sees evidence that instinct is an inadequate basis for morality because a person must appeal to some moral standard in order to weigh any synthesis.

The difference can be more subtle than it first appears. Brooks leaves open the question of whether human moral experience is capable of infinite variation. Thus, we could argue Brooks merely describes the origin of the “Tao.” 

Lewis seems less concerned with how ethics come to be. So we might argue that a scientific description of how humans experience ethics isn't necessarily out of line with Lewis' “Tao”—or natural law as some call it. 

But Lewis' fundamental objection remains—the variability of human “instinct” makes it a difficult basis for any idea of rightness. Brooks admits some contradiction between particular moral intuitions. But he argues these rational contradictions point to the inadequacy of the rational approach at least as a guide in daily decision making.

In “Ten Theories of Human Nature,” Leslie Stevenson and David L. Haberman develop a critical theory with which to compare religions, philosophical systems, and more recent theories. 

In the introduction, they write: “In our wide sense, a 'theory of human nature' encompasses: (1) a background metaphysical understanding of the universe and humanity's place in it; (2) a theory of human nature in the narrower sense of some distinctive general claims about human beings, human society, and the human condition; (3) a diagnosis of some typical defect of human beings, of what tends to go wrong in human life and society; (4) a prescription or ideal for how human life should best be lived, typically offering guidance to individuals and human societies.”

Parts three and four of their analysis involve more specifically ethical questions, but it also places ethical considerations in a context that deals with what is real and what is human. Granted, some “theories of human nature” might give ethics a stronger position within their understandings of what is real and human, but this approach gives us an opportunity to engage those ideas too.

In his book, “Naming the Elephant,” in which he critiques his previous work, “The Universe Next Door,” James Sire observes, “All worldviews have at least some operative concept of the passing of time and its relation to both human and nonhuman reality. Folklore, myth, and literature around the world from the ancient past to the present tell stories that put present human reality in the larger context of universal cosmic and human meaning. They act as orienting patterns.”

He takes as an example the Apostles Creed:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth;
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, Our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into Hell;
the third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into Heaven,
and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty;
from thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Christian Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body
and the life everlasting. Amen.

In just two lines, this ancient statement of belief brings together what H. Porter Abbot in “The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative” calls the basic elements of a story—entities and events.

When a person assents to this story, he or she is not making theoretical statements but claiming a particular relationship to the story and adopting a way of perceiving the world—in this case seeing God as the ultimate entity and all things in the context of God.

Sire also argues, “How we view life affects the life we live; it governs both the unconscious actions we engage in and the actions we ponder before acting.” As Sire quotes Wilhelm Dilthey as he's quoted by David Naugle in “Worldview: The History of a Concept:” “Every true worldview is an intuition which emerges from the standing-in-the-middle-of-life.”

I suggest this intersection of moral perception and lived experience forms the narrative whereby we understand our ethical obligations and is formed by the narratives within which we see ourselves. Thus, examining these narratives can help us more fully understand disagreements such as the one between Lewis and Brooks and can help us interrogate our own ethical understandings.

25 October 2018

Confessions: Worthwhile

Riverfront Park, Leavenworth, Wash.
In all our happily ever afters
lives this irony.

Love—unconditioned knowing
and valuing another—will involve
all kinds of sacrifice;
Expectations will be shattered,
perspectives reframed,
proclivities restrained;
Love's survival will depend on promises
kept through circumstances

There is a givenness to life;
A giftedness we share
rooted in more than either
self-discovery or denial.

But there is brokenness
in myself and the world,
what saints call groaning
in creation, a disordering
of my affections, hardness of heart,
tension between things' givenness
and my seizing them.

There is beauty all mixed up
with the daily inconvenience of decorum,
that gets broken down
to ego and mechanics.

There is a dignity and grace
in friendship and unrequited love
that gets lost when all I know
is “putting myself out there”
or “feeling like a fool.”

There is a time beyond control
when even what is best in us
is not enough.

Love is the humanizing cost
to which we do not measure up
but come to find

23 October 2018

Confessions: On the Occasion of a Wedding

I woke, dreaming of brides and grooms,
Moses and shrubs, strange, unconsumed,
Souls shocked by unexpectedness.

Called to experience by name
Deliverance begun, unearned,
In promise given and received.

Rooted in ancient history,
Promise-created memory,
Lived faith before these witnesses.

Amid laundry and forgiveness,
Joy, sorrow, and forgetfulness,
Find hope...your unexpected rest.

22 October 2018

Confessions: Darkness I Sing

Dad would wake us up, Mom would pause fixing breakfast, we'd work our way out to the table...and read the Psalms.

I don't remember how “successful” we were in terms of chapters read per day, but these morning readings gave me words for the beauty of a frosty morning, “...he scattereth the hoarfrost like ashes....” (Psalm 147:16) and the fears I felt around my paper route, “Help, LORD! for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men” (Psalm 12:1).

Years later as I struggled to understand relationships and a changing vocation...a friend pointed me to the Psalms again...and gave me Derek Kidner's two-volume commentary.

I started noticing poetic forms in the Genesis creation story, in blessings and cursings throughout Genesis, in Exodus—when Moses and the people burst into song on the far side of the Red Sea—and in the time of Judges when Deborah, Barak, and Jael defeated king Jabin and Sisera.

In the introduction to his translation and commentary on the Psalms, Robert Alter dates the writing of the Psalms between the eleventh century—around the time of David—and the fourth centuries BCE—after the Babylonian deportation.

Part of this history is recorded in other parts of the Bible. King David brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem in 1 Chronicles 15 and 16, “...and he appointed certain of the Levites to minister before the ark of the LORD, and to record, and to thank and praise the LORD God of Israel: Asaph the chief, and next to him Zechariah, Jeiel, and Shemiramoth, and Jehiel, and Mattithiah, and Eliab, and Benaiah, and Obededom: and Jeiel with psalteries and with harps; but Asaph made a sound with cymbals; Benaiah also and Jahaziel the priests with trumpets continually before the ark of the covenant of God. Then on that day David delivered first this psalm to thank the LORD into the hand of Asaph and his brethren.”

When Hezekiah cleansed the temple in 2 Chronicles 29, “...he stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king’s seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from the Lord through his prophets....And Hezekiah the king and the officials commanded the Levites to sing praises to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshiped.”

The account of King Josiah's Passover in 2 Chronicles 35 listed King David's worship instructions in parallel with the office of the priests: “When the service had been prepared for, the priests stood in their place, and the Levites in their divisions according to the king’s command.... The singers, the sons of Asaph, were in their place according to the command of David, and Asaph, and Heman, and Jeduthun the king’s seer....”

By the first century CE, the Psalms were sufficiently regarded that the New Testament gospel of Luke records the resurrected Jesus citing the law of Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms concerning himself.

Kidner explains Hebrew poetry is not measured out in syllables or feet as in English poetry, but “heard in the sound of, say, three or four stresses in a short sentence or phrase, matched by an answering line of about the same length....” and “What we have called a couplet...can build up at times to the higher climax of a triplet....”

“...it is the exception rather than the rule to find stanzas of equal length or even any clear definition....” Kidner says, “But the fundamental characteristic of this poetry is not its external forms or rhythms, but its way of matching or echoing one thought with another.”

We see this form in Psalm 88...here with text from the King James Version and line breaks adapted from Robert Alter's translation and commentary.

O LORD God of my salvation,
        I have cried day and night before thee:
Let my prayer come before thee:
        incline thine ear unto my cry;

For my soul is full of troubles:
        and my life draweth nigh unto the grave.
I am counted with them that go down into the pit:
        I am as a man that hath no strength:
Free among the dead,
        like the slain that lie in the grave,
whom thou rememberest no more:
        and they are cut off from thy hand.
Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit,
        in darkness, in the deeps.
Thy wrath lieth hard upon me,
        and thou hast afflicted me with all thy waves. Selah
Thou hast put away mine acquaintance far from me;
        thou hast made me an abomination unto them:
                I am shut up, and I cannot come forth.
Mine eye mourneth by reason of affliction:
        LORD, I have called daily upon thee,
                I have stretched out my hands unto thee....
Wilt thou show wonders to the dead?
        shall the dead arise and praise thee? Selah
Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave?
        or thy faithfulness in destruction?
Shall thy wonders be known in the dark?
        and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

But unto thee have I cried, O LORD;
        and in the morning shall my prayer prevent thee.
LORD, why castest thou off my soul?
        why hidest thou thy face from me?
I am afflicted and ready to die from my youth up:
        while I suffer thy terrors I am distracted.
Thy fierce wrath goeth over me;
        thy terrors have cut me off.
They came round about me daily like water;
        they compassed me about together.
Lover and friend hast thou put far from me,
        and mine acquaintance into darkness.

Its formal flexibility allows Hebrew poetry to express a wide range of human experience...and express things in uncomfortable proximity to one another. Psalm 88 ends...without resolving the darkness it describes. The beautiful lament that begins Psalm 137 ends in a scream for vengeance.

The psalmists are honest in ways we moderns perhaps experience but don't often express. So honest that it's hard to identify a theme uniting the entire anthology...at least in the way we think of themes, prone as we are to confine particular emotions to particular genres.

One stream that does run through all this wildness...is a relatedness to the God of Israel.

Which is a point...I'm not sure I'd have noticed if the Psalms were less wild.

Alter says, “The prose narratives of the Hebrew Bible, despite the sundry links with the surrounding literatures that scholarship has identified, are formally innovative in striking ways. Indeed it is arguable that at least as a set of techniques and conventions, they constitute the most original literary creation of the biblical writers. Psalms on the other hand, or psalmlike cultic hymns and celebrations of the gods, were common in Egypt and mesopotamia, and Syro-Canaanite literature....”

Alter continues, “Many of the psalms, then, derive some of their poetic force from the literary antecedents on which they draw. But the Hebrew poems were manifestly framed for Israelite purposes that were in many regards distinctive and at best no more than loosely parallel to the polytheistic texts that served as poetic precedents.”

Returning to the text of Psalm 137...

By the rivers of Babylon,
        there we sat down, yea, we wept,
                when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive
        required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth,
        saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the LORD’S song
        in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
        let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee,
        let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;
if I prefer not Jerusalem
        above my chief joy.

Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom
        in the day of Jerusalem;
who said, Raze it, raze it,
        even to the foundation thereof.
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed;
        happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee
                as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth
        thy little ones against the stones.

To frame a context for the imprecatory Psalms, we can observe the psalmists lived under conditions more like Syria's civil war than like American suburbia. Betrayal meant annihilation of family, the disappearance of culture, and deportation to an alien place.

We might also observe that King David, founder of the Psalmic tradition, refused to take vengeance against some who wronged him at a time when such restraint was odd.

In “Song of Exile: The Enduring Mystery of Psalm 137,” David W. Stowe quotes Miroslav Volf, “In the imprecatory Psalms, torrents of rage have been allowed to flow freely, channeled only by the robust structure of a ritual prayer. Strangely enough, they may point to a way out of slavery to revenge and into the freedom of forgiveness.... rage belongs before God—not in the reflectively managed and manicured form of a confession, but as a pre-reflective outburst from the depths of the soul. This is no mere cathartic discharge of pent up aggression before the Almighty who ought to care. Much more significantly, by placing unattended rage before God we place both our unjust enemy and our own vengeful self face to face with a God who loves and does justice. Hidden in the dark chambers of our hearts and nourished by the system of darkness, hate grows and seeks to infest everything with its hellish will to exclusion. In the light of the justice and love of God, however, hate recedes and the seed is planted for the miracle of forgiveness.”

Though I have not experienced genocide or deportation, there have been times my first step toward forgiveness came while pacing a parking lot in tears, praying that God would break someone's teeth out....self-reflective enough to admit they might not deserve it...but confessing in the bare act of screaming, my dependence on the justice of God.

21 October 2018

Confessions: Emanuel

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris
The Light with whom existence is shot through
Stands in our night, knocks at the door.
Amid the bloody aching mess of birth,
All that went wrong, that's left, and still might be
Met there as Mary held her child:
The promised son instead of Cain and Abel.
Creator into His creation comes,
“The express image of His person”
Becoming creature, Son of Man,
Yet Stranger, 'mid a family scandal.
He, sharing sister's grief, called brother forth,
Instead of stench, the glory of the Lord.
He took on Him estrangement and our death,
Bore Adam's thorns, the scourging, and the cross,
And with the wheezing thieves beside him,
Pulled up to breathe 'gainst spikes in hands and feet.
This gory spectacle of suffering—death,
He shattered and renamed.
His love retook, redeemed, reconsecrated
Every kingdom of mankind.
And by the grace of His forgiveness,
We hope our stories too can be made new.

20 October 2018

Confessions: The Poetics of Christmas

First came the faint crackle vinyl records make, then Alexander Scourby's voice reading the King James Version. His voice painted the stories of Adam and Eve and Abraham and Job and Job's wife across my mind.

When we were kids, Mom tucked us into bed and turned on the record player.

There were two Christmas stories.

"The First Nowell," in "Christmas Carols New and Old,"
edited by Rev. H.R. Bramley and Dr. John Stainer.
Public domain, courtesy of Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Christmas stories—both St. Luke's and St. Matthew's Gospels—appeal to Hebrew authority.

Matthew begins with genealogy—with Abraham—picking up almost as if where the Chronicles of Israel's kings leave off. Matthew cites Hebrew prophecies fulfilled in events he records.

Luke starts with the temple in Jerusalem, a priest named Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. They were both “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” 

Zechariah's Silence

The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah as he burnt incense. “Your prayer is heard,” the angel said. The child would not drink alcohol and would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb. Then, in the words of the prophet Micah, the angel says: “And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Centuries earlier, an angel of the Lord also appeared to Abraham and Sarah before the birth of Isaac and to Manoah's wife and then Manoah before the birth of Samson. Both Sarah and Manoah's wife were barren too.

But Zechariah had prayed so long, perhaps, he could not believe. So Gabriel tells him he won't speak again until these tidings come true.

When Zechariah returns home to the hill country of Judah, Elizabeth conceives and hides herself five months. Why did she do that? Had she miscarried before and wanted to be sure? How much could Zechariah spell out for her? Did she see Zechariah's silence as a sign?

When John is born, the relatives converge to circumcise the child according to Abrahamic tradition. They call him Zechariah, but Elizabeth says—and Zechariah writes—“His name is John.”

“And [Zechariah's] mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God. And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judaea. And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, 'What manner of child shall this be!'” 

Thus, Zechariah's silence becomes a sign not just to him but to the neighbors too. He's filled with the Holy Spirit and bursts into song.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel;
     for he hath visited and redeemed his people,
And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us
      in the house of his servant David;
As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets,
     which have been since the world began:
That we should be saved from our enemies,
     and from the hand of all that hate us;
To perform the mercy promised to our fathers,
     and to remember his holy covenant;
The oath which he sware to our father Abraham, that he would grant unto us,
      that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear,
     In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.
And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest:
     for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;
To give knowledge of salvation unto his people
      by the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God;
     whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
     to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Zechariah expresses the tension between promise and experience—“To perform the mercy promised... to remember... to them that sit in darkness....”

Something of the longing and weariness of God's people makes the promised grace of God more merciful.

His song becomes two parts: “Blessed be the Lord....” and “And thou child....” He reaches back in history, recalling David and Abraham and the Exodus. Then, he turns to his son and recalls the angel's reference to Malachi and the prophet Isaiah's words—“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.”

Mary's Psalm

In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, an earthy way to measure time, the angel Gabriel is sent again, this time to Nazareth, where Mary lives, a descendant of King David and espoused to Joseph.

Like Zechariah, Mary is first startled by the angel's greeting. Then Gabriel tells her she has found favor with God and “...thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.” and “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” The words Nathan the prophet spoke to David.

When Mary asks how this can be since she is a virgin, Gabriel uses language reminiscent of Genesis where the spirit of God moves on the waters and creates—“the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”

Then Gabriel gives Mary a sign—Elizabeth—and uses the same words Sarah received when she first laughed at the thought of Isaac—“For with God nothing shall be impossible.”

Mary responds, “Behold the [servant] of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”

Elizabeth comes out of hiding when Mary arrives. Maybe Elizabeth saw Mary as a third witness that what she was experiencing was real. She is filled with the Holy Spirit, blesses Mary and Mary's child and concludes: “And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.”

Then Mary sings.

My soul doth magnify the Lord,
    And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden:
    for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things;
    and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him
    from generation to generation.
He hath showed strength with his arm;
    he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats,
    and exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
    and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He hath holpen his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spake to our fathers,
    to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

Mary begins with the words Hannah sang centuries before as she dedicated her son Samuel to serve the tabernacle. Hannah in deep distress had prayed to have a son, and Samuel was the answer she received. Hannah sang of God's vindication of the feeble, the hungry, the barren, and the poor. Then she concluded,

“...the LORD shall judge the ends of the earth;
    and he shall give strength unto his king,
    and exalt the horn of his anointed.”

In the prophet Nathan's delivery of God's promise to King David, this idea came into fuller flower: “I will be his father, and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men: But my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee.”

Mary's song expresses this covenant-keeping mercy. Her response is not resignation or resolve but praise.

In Psalm 89 there is perhaps a parallel to Mary and Zechariah. That psalm begins like Mary's song.

“I will sing of the mercies of the LORD for ever:
    with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations....”

It celebrates who God is and God's promises to David.

“...Blessed is the people that know the joyful sound:
    they shall walk, O LORD, in the light of thy countenance.”

It includes God's promised love, despite his people's unfaithfulness, and the psalm concludes with this Zechariah-like plea for God to remember.

“Remember, Lord, the reproach of thy servants;
    how I do bear in my bosom the reproach of all the mighty people....
Blessed be the LORD for evermore. Amen, and Amen.”

The Angels' Gloria

In Matthew's account of Jesus' birth, Herod gathers the chief priests and scribes to ask them where the King of the Jews is to be born. They reply with the words of the prophet Micah,

“And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    art not the least among the princes of Judah:
    for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.”

Writing, perhaps, for a Greek, or hellenistic, audience, Luke sets events in the Roman historical context—“there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.”

So Joseph and Mary went up to be registered in Bethlehem, the home of their ancestor, King David.

While they are there, Mary gives birth.

An angel appears to shepherds in the fields and says, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord....”

Centuries earlier, at the death of Joshua, successor to Moses, the angel of the Lord rebuked the people of Israel for their failure to possess the promised land and their idolatry. Now at the birth of Jesus, an angel of the Lord announces to the shepherds—and all people—a savior, Christ, the Lord.

When Luke turns to genealogy, he will trace Jesus' lineage back through Adam. And Luke's sequel to this account, The Acts of the Apostles, will include the unconfusion of languages at Pentecost so that all people—Jews, proselytes, and gentiles—could hear.

Speaking on that occasion, Peter explains to his hearers what is happening in the words of the prophet Joel because Mosaic law measured a prophey's credibility by the truthfulness of its predictions and its consistency with what God had already said.

He recalls the signs and wonders Jesus performed because signs and wonders were signs of prophetic credibility. And Peter sees the resurrection of Jesus—of which he offers himself and his companions as eyewitnesses—as fulfillment of King David's longing expressed in Psalm 16.

“I have set the LORD always before me:
    because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth:
    my flesh also shall rest in hope.
For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell;
    neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.
Thou wilt show me the path of life:
    in thy presence is fulness of joy;
    at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.”

Peter further sees the work of the Holy Spirit that day—promised by Jesus before his ascension, and obvious to his audience—as further confirmation of Jesus' presence at the right hand of God as in Psalm 110.

“The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand,
    until I make thine enemies thy footstool.”

Peter concludes with the same announcement the angel made to the shepherds, “...Jesus...both Lord and Christ.”

The angel also gives the shepherds a sign—“And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

The angel is joined by a heavenly host, saying,

Glory to God in the highest,
    and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Here “good tidings of great joy” explode in the mind and heart. Glory to God and good will toward men.

The intuition of Psalm 85 is coming true:

“...Wilt thou not revive us again:
    that thy people may rejoice in thee?
Show us thy mercy, O LORD,
    and grant us thy salvation....
Mercy and truth are met together;
    righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring out of the earth;
    and righteousness shall look down from heaven....”

The shepherds went and saw and spread the news. They were eyewitnesses. In Mosaic law, events are only established by two or three witnesses. And as a historian, Luke writes so that his reader, Theophilus, might “know the certainty of those things, wherein [he had] been instructed.” 

The shepherds hearers marveled as perhaps those same Judaeans marveled months before when they heard of John the Baptist's birth.

And just as the angel's proclamation is followed immediately by the praises of the heavenly host, the shepherds return glorifying and praising God.

Simeon's Prophecy

Luke records Jesus was circumcised the eighth day according to Mosaic law, and when the days for Mary's purification after childbirth had passed, according to the law, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple to offer sacrifices, according to the law, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

That was the sacrifice prescribed for those with lesser means.

A man named Simeon lived in Jerusalem, “...just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ....”

When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple, Simeon was there, “Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God....”

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
    according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
    Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles,
    and the glory of thy people Israel.

We see Simeon here in “the company of prophets” known to Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha and upon whom the Holy Spirit came. His song echoes the language of light and glory used by Isaiah, and it recalls how the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel spoke not only to Israel but also to the surrounding peoples.

In the book of Acts, Luke will also record the Judaean prophet Agabus predicting Paul's imprisonment at Jerusalem.

Simeon, like the shepherds, is an eyewitness, as is Anna, the prophetess, who “served God with fastings and prayers night and day” in the temple. She “coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.”

Mary and Joseph marvel.

Then Simeon says to Mary, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."

Simeon echoes language Isaiah used of God: “Sanctify the LORD of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel....”

Many, perhaps, immediately think of the pain Mary must have experienced at the crucifixion, though Luke doesn't record Mary's presence at the crucifixion. 

The context also suggests the rending of her community.

Mary went to the passover every year. She believed the promises recorded in the Hebrew Bible. Seeing herself in the Hebrew biblical tradition as she seems to have done, and living when Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism grew out of that tradition, whole portions of her community might have seemed to become strange, perhaps people she knew and respected.

We know from Paul's epistles Luke worked with Paul, the apostle to the gentiles. Scholars point out Luke quotes the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. And Luke records Paul interpreting two pagan poets when addressing the Areopagus in Athens.

But Paul clung to the Hebrew scriptures, as he writes in his first letter to the Corinthians—“...how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen....”

Luke records the risen Jesus walking with two disciples to Emmaus and “...beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” Then later Jesus appears to a larger group of disciples and says, “These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.”

There is something persuasive...in Luke's Hebrew poetics. 

By poetics, I mean not merely rhyme, rhythm, and sentiment but a re-enchantment of language and the world—the kind of re-enchantment that recovers the psalmists' and prophets' intuitions and continues them in ways attested by eyewitnesses.

In this joy and sorrow, we find continuity with ancient Hebrew longing, and we find comfort in the knowledge we are not alone when we too feel our communities torn by truths we don't yet understand.

19 October 2018

Confessions: Stevens Pass

Wenatchee River, Leavenworth, Wash.
The smell of trees
And memories seep through the snow;

Cascading peaks
Faces obscure in vales of mist;

Moonlight falling
Slivers itself on mountain streams;

Towns, houses, barns
Shed pools of light by silver roads;

Bare river trees
And orchard rows slip past half known.

18 October 2018

Confessions: Doubt and the Material World

Dad would look through “Birds of North America” to identify Rufus Sided Towhees and other visitors outside our picture windows. He talked about each species' field marks and how bird book illustrators paint colors more vividly than they appear in life.

We kept binoculars not far from the kitchen table.

Grandma Paulsson also had a well-worn copy of that book...and eventually I got a new edition of my own. 

Green-Winged Teal pair, Dave Menke, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,

public domain.
I read biology and earth science textbooks without them being assigned, and I still amuse my wife and hiking companions, stopping suddenly to point out the Cedar Waxwings and Hairy Woodpeckers in nearby trees.

When I first wrestled with Darwin's implications, I understood religion—a spiritual worldview that depended more or less on faith—and science—a material worldview that depends on physical evidence—as rival explanations for reality. It seemed that I must be a Christian or an atheist.

Former Seventh Day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell, who blogged "A Year Without God," said in an interview with Chris Stedman, “...the existence of God seems like an extra layer of complexity that isn’t necessary. The world makes more sense to me as it is, without postulating a divine being who is somehow in charge of things.”

I could not so easily resolve the question. My lack of spiritual experiences led me to appreciate the physicality and reasonability of science. My wonder at existence made me uncomfortable with the idea that the tangible is all there is.

Henry Morris first resolved these questions—accepting the inerrancy of scripture, applying a particular reading of Genesis, and providing a plausible theory based on the Genesis accounts of creation and Noah's flood.

It was not the tension between the inerrancy of scripture and the scientific evidence that first caused me to question Morris. It was discomfort with materialism.

In the Ken Ham and Bill Nye debate, for example, one clings to inerrancy; one clings to scientism; neither questions the assumption that the first 11 chapters of Genesis speak in modern materialistic terms.

As Terry Eagleton points out in his critique of Richard Dawkins, “Dawkins makes an error of genre, or category mistake, about the kind of thing Christian belief is. He imagines that it is either some kind of pseudo-science, or that, if it is not that, then it conveniently dispenses itself from the need for evidence altogether. He also has an old-fashioned scientistic notion of what constitutes evidence. Life for Dawkins would seem to divide neatly down the middle between things you can prove beyond all doubt, and blind faith. He fails to see that all the most interesting stuff goes on in neither of these places…. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

Defenders of the faith make a similar mistake when they adopt a scientistic reading of scripture.

Genesis presents a chronological collection of stories; collected in 10 sections—more or less divided by the phrase “these are the generations of....”

The first creation account presents an objective, earth-centered, account of God's creation of the universe. The second creation story has what we might call an anthropological perspective. The scientific details are not...materialistically...the same. But both accounts fit the broader sweep of Genesis...as the narrative becomes progressively more intimate.

Adam and Eve, Cain, Enoch, and Noah appear in a context that includes all of mankind. God is talking to people, and we even occasionally know what God is thinking, but we feel a distance from the action.

Then the book focuses on God's relationship with Abram. We see God making promises and changing Abram's name. We see Abraham interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah. We read about the messiness of Abraham's family.

The patriarchs continue to function in an intermediary way—Joseph's administration of the land of Egypt to Jacob's blessing Pharaoh.

God speaks only once and only to Jacob in the last chapters. But Joseph flees Mrs. Potiphar's advances because of who God is. He tells Pharaoh it is God who gives the interpretation of dreams. When his brothers come to Egypt, he forgives them for selling him into slavery, because “God meant it for good.”

One need not claim the first eleven chapters of Genesis are merely symbolic...in the modern sense...in order to question whether Moses meant to write a technical...in the modern sense...origin of the world.

On the other hand, to see in Genesis some kind of poetry is not to deny its historicity...any more than to describe the beauty of a tortoiseshell cat without describing it's genetics is to deny the cat's existence.

Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford professor, raises bigger questions in my mind when he begins his narrative of religion by discussing schizotypal personalities—personalities not schizophrenic but somewhere on that spectrum.

The right amount of metamagical perception, he suggests, hearing a voice from a burning bush for example, might give an individual prominence in the community and be an evolutionary advantage.

He then applies the theory to other mental conditions. A mild version of obsessive compulsive disorder for example might allow religious people to invent and follow rituals. He uses Martin Luther as an example.

It's plausible to see obsession in the hours young Luther spent confessing every day. But it is hard to see how that led Luther to oppose the medieval Church's sale of indulgences. One could imagine an obsession might work the other way.

But even if the Apostle Paul didn't have epilepsy of the temporal lobe—causing his fascination with religion and his urge to write—Sapolsky's broader point remains...that biology explains part or all of what we call religiosity.

We know the nerves of some make them more sensitive to spicy food. I'm not very spiritual, at least compared to Pentecostals I grew up around. It has always been the physicality of red-wing blackbirds, mountains, and the sacraments that make them immediate to me. Maybe if we knew enough about neurology, we'd see why my brain does not experience the things other brains do.

But Moses didn't only bring the Israelites stories of a burning bush; he showed them to a burning mountain. In Deuteronomy 13 and 18, Moses gives his people criteria to discern the credibility of prophets...whether their predictions came true. In 2 Peter 1, the apostle Peter writes, “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables...but were eyewitnesses of his majesty....”

The Bible's argument is not that there are not false visions or even that the messengers are normal but that they witnessed something real.

17 October 2018

Confessions: Encounter

Mule Deer, Photo by Tupper Ansel Blake,
United States Fish and Wildlife Service,
2001 (Public Domain)
October sun,
Deep blue sky,
Between afternoon and dusk,

I had been running.
He stood just off the trail

Seen suddenly,
Yet maybe
Having been there all along.

Grass belly high,
Wild rose hips, willow thicket,
Reds, greens, golds.

His coat, a silver brown,
White collar
Underneath his chin.

Black-liquid eyes,
A charcoal visor,
'Neath his sweeping crown.

I paused;
He watched me pass
And then we disappeared again.

A whispered breeze
Tugged at the trees;
The lake lapped at its bank.

16 October 2018

Confessions: Poetic Intuition

"Portrait of René Descartes," By Jan Baptist
Weenix. Public Domain.
Respect for Descartes notwithstanding, “I think; therefore, I am,” is an odd statement.

Rocks don't think...as far as we know...but anyone who has had one in a shoe knows rocks exist, even though they don't think.

If I understand, Descartes began his search for truth by rejecting things he found occasion to doubt. He observed the senses might be deceived, and the body is mostly perceived by the senses.

The thing he could not doubt was his mind.

We realize we are because we can think. But human thought depends on human bodies for existence. And none of us thought about existing...before it happened to us.

There are different ways of discussing existence, in science and art for example. There are some things more true or more to the essence of things, but there are only real things.

Unreal things are theories or constructions or jokes that depend on some reference to what's real in order to have meaning. You can know a Muslim or a scientist for example, but you cannot know Islam or science in the same way.

Beauty, like truth, is universal. All people have beauty, but some are beautiful in this way and others in that way. Some perceive this aspect of beauty and others that one.

So meaning, as I imagine it, is the way we experience beauty and understand story. It connects the person together and connects the person to something beyond himself or herself. In that sense, maybe, meaning is an expression of relatedness to a broader idea of being. 

In all these senses of meaning...we bump into relatedness. And this breaking through of beauty and otherness...in language and narrative...is poetry.

In “Poetic Diction,” Owen Barfield critiques the narrowing of meaning in modern language, influenced as it is by the growth of scientific thought. Languages earlier in their evolution, he argues, are less scientifically precise and more naturally poetic.

Barfield describes the poet's task as something like re-enchantment, re-creating those slivers of meaning lost as words become more technical and precise.

Thus, the poetic challenges and renews our understanding of the world by refusing to speak in the categories we bring with us. The poetic is not reducible to what we call emotional or spiritual...because we must speak about real things if we want to mean anything at all...and because we are embodied beings.

The poetic also contrasts with materialism. Ken Ham and Bill Nye both read Genesis in materialistic fashion. The former thus believes. The latter disbelieves. But both, perhaps, somewhat miss the point.

It is modern to think life breaks into discreet subjects, such as poetry versus science. It is not human...or necessarily reasonable.

For example, it seems to me that we experience God through relationship. That's one reason why it sometimes appears there is no God. We attribute things to anthropology, which is partly true, like attributing being to thinking. But if God is as big as we imagine he would be in order to be God...then we would not expect to trip over him in the living room or to see him peeking 'round the moon.

We would expect him to be the ground reality of all being in the first place, which might feel to us as though he didn't exist, because we'd not be able to imagine without first being in order to imagine.

We might even expect God's activity to look like natural processes or human activity. We would experience them like we experience rivers and valleys or chickens and eggs. We might not always know which came first in particular cases, but they are all subject to the essence of being itself.

This is not to say that we only relate to part of God. If God is a being at all, we relate to all of him. We just have to expect he's a different kind of being than we are. We have our reason for existence in God. God has his reason for existence in himself, as I think Ravi Zacharias once put it.

So God does not relate to us the same way we relate to him any more than we relate to pottery the same way pottery relates to us.

It also makes sense, if God is the creator...by whatever means...that we'd find in him, as in the world, community. And if we can accept this intuition, the trinity also becomes plausible.

And that brings us to a story...shot through with strange poetry...a creation and a people and promises, burning bushes and mountains, tablets of stone and temples and prophets and kings, a manger and shepherds, water made wine, a God suffering with us...sharing our biology...an empty tomb and a promised new creation. It brings us to eyewitnesses who weren't expecting what they saw, but who staked their lives on the truth of their story.