16 October 2017

Autumn Trees

An elm stands by the trail dead
But for two ravens and a hawk
Perched on brittle branches
Recoiled as at the shock of doom.

Trunk shrouded now in tattered bark
Once took its shape from wind and sun
When with its autumn leaves
It testified of springs to come.

15 September 2017

Believers or Not: God and His Messengers

Scott Harrison has been my friend since we were classmates at the ELS Seattle CELTA course. He and another classmate and mutual friend have since found their respective ways to Saudi Arabia to take jobs using the skills we learned there, teaching English.

Could you start by describing your growing up experience and the steps from where you grew up to where you are now?
With regards to religion, I grew up in a Southern Baptist family. My dad was a Sunday school teacher. During my late teens, I stopped going to church on Sundays, but I went on Wednesday evenings because it was "youth night." (Like many, I went there for the girls.)

After reading about so many horrible things in the news (murders especially), I began questioning why the world is full of such injustice and crime. Working as a security guard at the time, I convinced my partner to leave his bible with me during my graveyard shift as I wanted to "return to Jesus" that night to find some answers for why the world is full of wrong.

Although I was confused with some parts of the Bible, I started telling others they too needed to return to Jesus.

One individual I spoke with explained that he had discovered a new religion (new from his perspective) - Islam. This was at a time when Islam and Muslims were not in the news daily for blowing up people, honor killings, and other atrocities attributed to Islam.

So, I asked this individual what the main point of Islam was. He explained it is simply to take the creation away from the worship of others among creation and put them in direct contact to worship the creator.

Made sense so far.

He explained that most religions either describe the creations with some attributes of God (e.g., some of creation can forgive sins through confession, hear one's supplication, etc.), or the religions describe the creator with some attributes of the creation (e.g., God is racist, loving an infant born to a Jewish mother more than one born to a non-Jewish mother, God favors one ethnicity over another, etc.).

I found that Islam seems to describe creation as creatures having no divine attributes and all divine characteristics were uniquely for God alone; there is a clear separation between creator and creation. This unique separation of God and people (which in no way necessitates a lack of intimacy or care from God with his creation) and the idea of not having to pray to an intermediary (e.g., Jesus)...attracted me. I liked the idea of a direct line of communication to the only one I felt could help or harm me (or allow others to do so).

This strict monothesism is called Tawhīd in Islam, and it is the reason I believe people were created—to worship God alone without any partners or intermediaries between him and creation.

That core belief in Tawhīd is where I am today.

Your conversion began with questions about crime and injustice, and you found your questions resolved in Tawhīd. Could you unpack that connection further?
I think the connection at that time was that if this world is so full of oppression and injustice, there must be—or at least I want to believe there is—a time and place when full justice will be realized. For example, I like to believe there will be a day when murderers, terrorists, etc. will be held accountable for their crimes, even if they "got away" with them in this life.

The Tawhīd aspect was just the only perspective of God I feel fairly describes him and distinguishes him from creation.

I've heard Islam described as practical in comparison to the emphasis Christians place on beliefs. It also seems Islam historically has drawn very direct connections between religion and politics.
It is true in Islam there are rules like in other religions, and it seems that in Islam...those rules may be followed more strictly than in other religions.

I'm no scholar, but still, orthodoxy in Islam, like in Christianity, is critical.

Without the correct belief that God is one in his lordship, his right to worship, and in his characteristics, all actions or deeds are useless. For example, if someone were to act pious his entire life and do all forms of good deeds (e.g., prayer, charity, etc.) yet he dies praying to someone other than, or along with, God, then he dies as a disbeliever.

As for Islam's connection with politics, Islam is supposed to govern all aspects of one's life, from his private, intimate relations with his spouse to his public relations with people he rules over if he were a political leader.

How do you explain the place of women in Islam?
...Since I come from a western (American) culture, I already respected women and I feel it is highly un-manly for any man to physically abuse women. Boys don't hit girls, as we all learned as children. I only mention this because, as you know, that is usually the first thing that comes to mind—Muslims are wife-beaters.

There is even an authentic report about Muhammad (despite what most people think) narrated from his wife, Aishah who said, “God’s Messenger never hit anything with his hand ever, except when fighting (actual battle against men soldiers). Nor did he ever hit a servant or a woman.” [Recorded In Ibn Majah. Al-Albani graded it as authentic].

If by your question you are specifically asking about the dress of a woman in Islam, then I can tell you what mainstream Islam teaches. Women, like men, must dress modestly according to Islam. I believe women should wear lose fitting clothes (as should men) and cover their hair with the hijab. Unfortunately, we usually see Muslim women covering almost everything while the Muslim men wear shorts and dress as if there is no dress code for them.

What cultural differences have you observed within Islam, and how do you think they influence differing interpretations of Islam?
...The belief and practice of Islam is the same no matter where a Muslim is, but of course practicing is much easier in Muslim countries.

As for cultural differences in Islam, that is an issue.

You may see Muslims from Pakistan, for example, assuming some of their cultural practices are part of the religion. Then you may see Saudis who consider aspects of their cultural part of the religion. However, the religion is only what has come in the Quran and the authentic statements and practices of Muhammad despite one's culture.

You mentioned your conversion took place when there wasn't such an automatic association of Islam with terrorism. How do you think your story would be different if you had started asking your questions at a different time...or in a different news cycle?
Of course I cannot say for certain how I would have approached Islam had I already seen years of terrorist attacks sensationalized in the news. However, I can only guess it may have affected my decision. Still, when I converted, I simply prayed to God (my concept of him at that time) and asked him to guide me to whatever path leads to him.

What parts of the Bible were you confused with?
The contradictions in the Bible and the duplicate passages specifically made me question the authenticity of the Bible. That and the numerous versions.

I just figured if God wanted to preserve his message, why would he allow the original language to be lost and only translations/interpretations of other translations survive until today?

But since I believe you are Christian, I don't want to go too much into this so as to insult your beliefs or become argumentative about it.

In adulthood, I have come to value Christianity for its ability to tell the truth about life. But I find myself challenged by Islam—with its history and its alternative explanation for the world. Do you ever find yourself challenged in any similar way? And what do you see as a model for people—and their sometimes competing narratives—to relate to each other?
I believe the main difference between Christianity and Islam is not one of historical contradictions or narratives about individual aspects of life. Rather, I think the core difference is something much greater—the concept of God himself.

In Christianity, as I understand it, monotheism is expressed but polytheism is actualized. For example, when adherents to varying versions of Christianity pray to Jesus and/or the Father and/or the Holy Ghost or Mary, saints, etc., this to me is polytheism, worshipping something other than the one God.

I know the trinity...is explained as a single entity but with three different "persons," but still, yes, I too see competing narratives. But again, I think the main opposition between the two religions is most critically about the concept of who God is and who deserves aspects of worship such as praying.

As for the model for people, this will always differ as it will be faith-based for the most part.

You will accept as the model nothing but your scriptures, me mine. But if we look at both of these models, which of the two has gone through numerous changes, versions, and interpretations with the original text being lost?

As for the Quran, historically it can be rightfully stated that not a single word has changed of the original Arabic text for over 1400 years. The orthodox interpretation (as understood by Muhammad and his companions) is also still held today.

So again...I believe the model is none other than the texts from God. But which one is his last revelation that has been preserved?

If I may, I would like to just give a couple examples of what I believe this last...revelation states about Christianity and the concept of God and Jesus as I feel it answers this question better than I can. These texts address you as a Christian directly....

They have certainly disbelieved who say, "God is the Messiah, the son of Mary" while the Messiah said, "Oh Children of Israel, worship God, my Lord and your Lord." [The Quran, 5:72]

They have certainly disbelieved who say, "God is a third of three." And there is no god except one God. [The Quran, 5:72] 

And (beware the day) when God will say, "Oh Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to people, 'Take me and my mother as gods besides God?'" He will say, "Exalted are You! It was not for me to say that to which I have no right." [The Quran, 5:116]

I said not to them except what You commanded me - to worship God, my Lord and your Lord. [The Quran, 5:117]

People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about God except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the Son of Mary, was only a messenger of God and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul from Him. So believe in God and His messengers. And do not say, "Trinity"; desist - it is better for you. Indeed, God is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. [The Quran, 4:171]

You have a website. Could you describe it?
I started a website in 2007 called Authentic-Translations.com.

Having learned Arabic from Al-Imam University in Riyadh, I wanted to translate mainstream scholars' opinions and verdicts of contemporary issues (especially terrorism and related topics). My targeted audience was Muslims.

I wanted to let them know that their mainstream scholars, whom most Muslims respect, have been speaking out against things like murdering non-Muslims, suicide bombings, even things like praying for destruction of non-Muslims—speaking out that all of that is considered impermissible in Islam. I wanted this to be known to English-only-speaking Muslims, especially since news of "home-grown" western-raised terrorists was becoming prevalent.

On Authentic-Translations, I started translating other topics not necessarily dealing with extremism, so I made a separate site, Answering-Extremism.com to focus solely on terrorism and related issues.

Again, when people comment on all those news articles on CNN and FoxNews about how Muslims never speak out against extremism, I wanted to do something to "speak out" and make it known that, for example, scholars in Saudi Arabia have been speaking out against the likes of Ben Laden since the 90's when he was inciting people against various governments.

So, yes, I still have those two sites, and amazingly enough, the stats reveal unique IPs in so many different countries access the sites.

I have a copy of A.J. Arberry's "The Koran Interpreted." If you were going to recommend three books to represent your understanding, what would they be?
Because the Quran is often interpreted in different ways (some horribly, such as the way Muslim extremists and terrorists interpret it), it is important to know how it was intended to be interpreted by God (if you believe it's from him) and/or Muhammad. I believe in a literal interpretation of Islamic texts, but that doesn't mean that texts can be applied without consideration for other texts by any individual at any time. Therefore, I believe these two books represent my understanding of my religion best:

The Noble Quran, translated into modern English by Dr. Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali, Ph.D. & Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan. (The Saheeh International translation might be a good runner-up).

40 Hadīth Qudsī (different transliterated spellings) which is another, shorter collection of hadīth spoken by Muhammad but with the words and/or direct meanings from God. In other words, Muslims consider hadīth qudsī to be the narrations from God but not part of the Quran.

As for a third book, my choice would likely be an Arabic title; I would not know an English title to suggest.


It's been a pleasure, my friend, answering your questions.

09 September 2017

Meditations at an Air Show

Last July at SkyFest 2017 we watched a P-51 Mustang perform over Fairchild Air Force Base.

It was painted with invasion stripes like those on aircraft during and after the Normandy invasion. The announcer talked about its history and drew the crowd's attention to its sound. He said those engines aren't made anymore and they can only be rebuilt so many times before these flying bits of history become permanently grounded.

The P-51 was followed by U.S. Air Force A-10 Warthogs, a U.S. Navy FA-18 Super Hornet, and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. 

People waved to pilots as they taxied past.

The technical achievement, discipline, and economic power represented by each aircraft and pilot brought back the wonder I felt when we first visited the Boeing Museum of Flight or when I read books about early airmail pilots.

A North American P-51B Mustang in invasion stripes, photographed at
the Spokane Skyfest airshow, 24 July 2010, Mark Wagner,
Creative Commons.
But this display also reminded me these aircraft are weapons.

At the air show, the announcers used phrases like “defending freedom,” but it struck me this often means “defending American interests” or “projecting American power.”

There are things unique about America—our peoples, the precise timing of certain ideas in our history, our religious heritage—but these do not confer moral heroism.

It is a good thing for humanity, that America and its allies defeated Nazism and that Eastern Europe no longer languishes behind the Iron Curtain.

But eugenics was popular in America just as it was in Germany before the second world war, and the Tuskegee airmen flew their P-51s in segregated units.

Power is not an unmingled good.

Writing for “The American Conservative,” Peter Van Buren traces the history of American air power from the carpet bombing of German cities and the firebombing of Tokyo, and he argues the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was only a more efficient, weatherproof means to the same end.

Van Buren writes, “It was only after WWII ended, when accurate descriptions from Hiroshima began finding their way back to America, that the idea of firebombing as a way to shorten the war, to spare lives in the long game, came into full flower.”

He points out the discrepancy between the public aversion to targeting civilians and the numbers of civilian dead in “surgical strikes” across the Middle East.

This history tempers the triumphalism that would confuse ideals with achievements. Indeed, it teaches us how ideals can blind us to our particular sins.

This history teaches us to recognize the mental and physical price paid by veterans. It teaches us to see those who serve or who have died in the armed forces less as saints of the republic, more as humans, having responsibilities not all of us have, yet heirs of the same mortality, corruptibility, and grace.

This history also points to something else. As John Donne wrote in his “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions”:

“No man is an island, entire of itself;
    every man is a piece of the continent,
    a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
    Europe is the less,
    as well as if a promontory were,
    as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me
    because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
    it tolls for thee.”

We see it too in the experience of Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah. He told his people to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar, which wasn't very patriotic. He told them to stay in the land, but they fled to Egypt. So he went with them because his calling was to bring God's words to them.

He is perhaps the most likely writer of the five funeral elegies in the book of Lamentations, grieving for his people and the destruction of Jerusalem.

“How doth the city sit solitary,
    that was full of people!
how is she become as a widow!
    she that was great among the nations,
    and princess among the provinces,
how is she become tributary!

She weepeth sore in the night,
    and her tears are on her cheeks:
among all her lovers she hath none to comfort her:
    all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
    they are become her enemies.”

I do not argue war might be ended just by disarmament. History paints too tragic a picture for that. 


Perhaps instead we go back to our respective work, not confirmed in our idealism but to wrestle with what it means for presidents, soldiers, airmen...and poets...to love our neighbors and our enemies.

28 July 2017

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.

16 July 2017

Reading Chesterton

G.K. and Frances Chesterton, 1911 (Public Domain) 
G.K. Chesterton wrote “Orthodoxy”—his “slovenly autobiography”—“in a set of mental pictures rather than in a series of deductions, to state the philosophy in which I have come to believe.”

He was responding to G.S. Street and others who criticized his book, "Heretics," for not supporting its arguments with sufficient examples. In “Heretics,” Chesterton held forth "On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small," "The Mildness of the Yellow Press," "On the Wit of Whistler," and other things. And since that book's chapters stand more on their own, they also provide an introduction to Chesterton's cadence and humor.

He begins "Orthodoxy" with an argument from sanity. He writes, “...as all thoughts and theories were once judged by whether they tended to make a man lose his soul, so for our present purpose all modern thoughts and theories may be judged by whether they tend to make a man lose his wits.”

He does not merely question modern materialist assumptions; he moves from example to example, turning modern categories on their heads. A democrat by taste, not just ideology, he defends tradition as “democracy across time.”

He appeals to lived human experience, drawing evidence from literature, art, and architecture as well as philosophy, and idealizing an earthy old England prior to the Puritans and materialists. His discussion of suicide is not about suicide itself but builds a bridge from the inadequacies of optimism and pessimism to the resolution he finds in Christianity.

Under the weight of all these little observations, he comes to the sensibility that Christianity is a truth-telling thing.

"...since I have accepted Christendom as a mother and not merely as a chance example, I have found Europe and the world once more like the little garden where I stared at the symbolic shapes of cat and rake; I look at everything with the old elvish ignorance and expectancy. This or that rite or doctrine may look as ugly and extraordinary as a rake; but I have found by experience that such things end somehow in grass and flowers. A clergyman may be apparently as useless as a cat, but he is also as fascinating, for there must be some strange reason for his existence."

Reading Chesterton is more like exploring a landscape than following a logical progression. One outlines in the margins only to return and scribble notes over other notes as themes emerge and re-emerge and modify one another. His writing is poetic, breaking established categories to recover or reveal the reality of things.

He does this, as Alison Milbank argues in “Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real,” through defamiliarization, the grotesque, and paradox.

In his poem, “By the Babe Unborn,” the speaker is not directly named and speaks from an unusual point of view. The effect is to re-enchant the ordinary world—grass, sea, sunlight, and hills...and give the reader the experience of seeing colors for the first time.

If trees were tall and grasses short,
As in some crazy tale,
If here and there a sea were blue
Beyond the breaking pale,

If a fixed fire hung in the air
To warm me one day through,
If deep green hair grew on great hills,
I know what I should do.

In dark I lie; dreaming that there
Are great eyes cold or kind,
And twisted streets and silent doors,
And living men behind.

Let storm clouds come: better an hour,
And leave to weep and fight,
Than all the ages I have ruled
The empires of the night.

I think that if they gave me leave
Within the world to stand,
I would be good through all the day
I spent in fairyland.

They should not hear a word from me
Of selfishness or scorn,
If only I could find the door,
If only I were born.

Chesterton uses the grotesque to contrast a saint with how he is remembered in “A Man and His Image.” But the use of the grotesque here to get at something more true also reveals something about how Chesterton saw reality...as something wilder and only partially perceived.

All day the nations climb and crawl and pray

In one long pilgrimage to one white shrine,
Where sleeps a saint whose pardon, like his peace,
Is wide as death, as common, as divine.

His statue in an aureole fills the shrine,
The reckless nightingale, the roaming fawn,
Share the broad blessing of his lifted hands,
Under the canopy, above the lawn.

But one strange night, a night of gale and flood,
A sound came louder than the wild wind's tone;
The grave-gates shook and opened: and one stood
Blue in the moonlight, rotten to the bone.

Then on the statue, graven with holy smiles,
There came another smile—tremendous—one
Of an Egyptian god. 'Why should you rise?
'Do I not guard your secret from the sun?

The nations come; they kneel among the flowers
Sprung from your blood, blossoms of May and June,
Which do not poison them--is it not strange?
Speak!' And the dead man shuddered in the moon.

Shall I not cry the truth?'--the dead man cowered--
Is it not sad, with life so tame and cold,
What earth should fade into the sun's white fires
With the best jest in all its tales untold?

'If I should cry that in this shrine lie hid
Stories that Satan from his mouth would spew;
Wild tales that men in hell tell hoarsely—speak!
Saint and Deliverer! Should I slander you?'

Slowly the cowering corse reared up its head,
'Nay, I am vile ... but when for all to see,
You stand there, pure and painless—death of life!
Let the stars fall—I say you slander me!

'You make me perfect, public, colourless;
You make my virtues sit at ease--you lie!
For mine were never easy—lost or saved,
I had a soul—I was. And where am I?

Where is my good? the little real hoard,
The secret tears, the sudden chivalries;
The tragic love, the futile triumph—where?
Thief, dog, and son of devils—where are these?

I will lift up my head: in leprous loves
Lost, and the soul's dishonourable scars—
By God I was a better man than This
That stands and slanders me to all the stars.

'Come down!' And with an awful cry, the corse
Sprang on the sacred tomb of many tales,
And stone and bone, locked in a loathsome strife,
Swayed to the singing of the nightingales.

Then one was thrown: and where the statue stood
Under the canopy, above the lawn,
The corse stood; grey and lean, with lifted hands
Raised in tremendous welcome to the dawn.

'Now let all nations climb and crawl and pray;
Though I be basest of my old red clan,
They shall not scale, with cries or sacrifice,
The stature of the spirit of a man.'

The Magi identify themselves in the second stanza of “The Wise Men,” but Chesterton employs paradox after paradox until we find ourselves included in the final stanza.

Step softly, under snow or rain,
To find the place where men can pray;
The way is all so very plain
That we may lose the way.

Oh, we have learnt to peer and pore
On tortured puzzles from our youth,
We know all labyrinthine lore,
We are the three wise men of yore,
And we know all things but the truth.

We have gone round and round the hill
And lost the wood among the trees,
And learnt long names for every ill,
And served the mad gods, naming still
The furies the Eumenides.

The gods of violence took the veil
Of vision and philosophy,
The Serpent that brought all men bale,
He bites his own accursed tail,
And calls himself Eternity.

Go humbly…it has hailed and snowed…
With voices low and lanterns lit;
So very simple is the road,
That we may stray from it.

The world grows terrible and white,
And blinding white the breaking day;
We walk bewildered in the light,
For something is too large for sight,
And something much too plain to say.

The Child that was ere worlds begun
(…We need but walk a little way,
We need but see a latch undone…)
The Child that played with moon and sun
Is playing with a little hay.

The house from which the heavens are fed,
The old strange house that is our own,
Where trick of words are never said,
And Mercy is as plain as bread,
And Honour is as hard as stone.

Go humbly, humble are the skies,
And low and large and fierce the Star;
So very near the Manger lies
That we may travel far.

Hark! Laughter like a lion wakes
To roar to the resounding plain.
And the whole heaven shouts and shakes,
For God Himself is born again,
And we are little children walking
Through the snow and rain.

His poetics take this shape it appears not as a rhetorical flourish but because this is how he gets through to what is real, as the protagonist in his novel, "The Man Who Was Thursday," experiences.

"He felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality.... Dawn was breaking over everything in colours at once clear and timid; as if Nature made a first attempt at yellow and a first attempt at rose. A breeze blew so clean and sweet, that one could not think that it blew from the sky; it blew rather through some hole in the sky. Syme felt a simple surprise when he saw rising all round him on both sides of the road the red, irregular buildings of Saffron Park. He had no idea that he had walked so near London. He walked by instinct along one white road, on which early birds hopped and sang, and found himself outside a fenced garden. There he saw the sister of Gregory, the girl with the gold-red hair, cutting lilac before breakfast, with the great unconscious gravity of a girl."

09 July 2017

Believers or Not: Journey to Rome

Michael Faber has been a friend since another friend invited us to a Facebook conversation about the sacraments…if memory serves. This last week he shared his time and story with us.

Could you start by describing your growing up experience and the steps along the way, as you say, Baptist to Charismatic to Charismatic Catholic?

I was born into a Baptist family, but we didn’t go to church much except on Christmas and Easter and a few other times a year. My uncle Vernon, who was more religious, made sure to take me to church summer camp, several times in junior high....

Despite this lack of heavy church involvement, my interest in faith increased.... I remember conducting a “Bible study” under a table in the fourth grade with my pocket Gideon New Testament for several friends. I started a Bible study club in junior high when they were no longer allowed in public schools. I was baptized at age 14 at our family church, and when I was in the 11th Grade, I had a “born again” experience and was also “baptized in the Holy Spirit.”

During my last two years of high school, I was in church or Bible study about five times a week and was ridiculed for carrying my Bible around on campus. I wanted to be a minister.... After my tour in the Army and while in college, I never stopped considering myself a Christian, but I never read my Bible and rarely went to Church.

I married my wife Mai, who was Catholic. She insisted on going to Church every week, but I would drop her off there and go hang out with my friends, and then pick her up after Mass. This pattern continued...through Law School....

Then my uncle Vernon died. I remember at his funeral, he was referred to as a “man of God” and the thought crossed my mind that no one would call me that if I were to die.... My wife and I started attending both Catholic and Protestant church together from time to time. I wasn’t Catholic, but I attended Mass and made friends with the priest and deigned to agree that Catholics were Christians too.... We also went to Capital Christian Center, an Assemblies of God church.

When I was about 30...my friend, Dominick Naso, started coming around, preaching to me and challenging me to study the word of God. Also, as a lawyer, I visited a young Vietnamese man in jail.... I went back to my office and began praying for this young man. I cried out to the Lord, “What is wrong with this kid?”

I heard an interior voice say, “He needs Jesus, and so do you.”...

I thought about all the young Asian gang members I was representing at that time, and thought, “They need Jesus too. Maybe I can help.” I prayed, “What should I do Lord?”

God spoke and said simply, “Learn my Word.”

I signed up for a correspondence Bible course through the Assemblies of God.... I did not want to be an Assemblies of God pastor, (because I disagreed with some of their doctrine) but I wanted to learn what they knew.

Quickly, I was placed in charge of a high school youth group at a Baptist church I began attending, and also led a Friday night praise and worship group.... I was licensed to preach the Gospel in 1995.... In 1999, I became the interim senior pastor for four months after the pastor retired....

In 2000, there was trouble with the new leadership, and I quit and with a group of people...started our own church. I remember, we set the time of our new church service, so that it would not conflict with my ability to attend Mass with my wife....

In 2006, I enrolled in Fuller Seminary to obtain a master’s degree in Bible and Theology. I learned Greek and Hebrew, textual criticism, lots of Bible, and lots of church history.... I graduated in 2012. By this time people started calling me “Pastor”.... I was preaching two to three times per month...and also began to write and self-publish spiritual books based on sermons that I had preached....

It seemed the more I studied the [Bible], the more I realized that “faith alone” wasn’t really backed up by scripture. Jesus and Paul and James and John and Peter all required action in addition to faith to secure salvation.... Not only that, my study of church history, made me reject out of hand the Protestant narrative that the Church was corrupted after Constantine and thus needed to be reformed by Luther.... Furthermore, the theology of the earliest Christians...was Catholic all along. My own experience with the Catholic Church showed me that Catholics were devout people who loved God just as much as us Protestants.... Everyone claimed the Holy Spirit as well as academic authority. Seminary blurred rather than clarified many things for me.

I wish I could say, like Scott Hahn, that I studied my way into the Catholic Church and conclusively proved to myself each and every Catholic doctrine before I had my first Mass. But the truth is I had been participating in Mass for 30 years, and I had come to agree with about half of what the Catholic Church taught, based on my own studies, but I still had problems. These were the Marian doctrines, purgatory, indulgences, loss of salvation through mortal sin, confession, etc....

I enjoyed people finally calling me “pastor,” and I loved preaching the Word of God. I pretty much was exactly where I wanted to be. Full time lawyer, part time pastor.

While on vacation in December 2014, we travelled to Mendocino and went to a lovely Mass Saturday evening. I felt really at home. That night, I began having nightmares with sweat, and tossing and turning.... Every time, I fell asleep, I heard this voice insisting “You need to stop preaching in the Protestant church and become a Catholic!”

I truthfully thought the voice was demonic. Why would God tell me to stop preaching and become a Catholic where my ministry would never be as fruitful as it now was? I even told my secretary how Satan was trying to trick me, pretending to be God....

Over the next year, every time I sat in chapel I heard, “You need to step down from your position and become a Catholic.”

“I don’t agree with the Catholics, Lord!”

That year, a man at my parish began challenging me because it was my practice to take Communion at Mass. His name was Bob Laywell.... I truly began to hate Bob and avoid him. Then while in prayer one day, the Lord told me, “Make friends with that man!”...

Immediately he began trying to convert me. I laughed him off. “You never are going to convert me! I know a lot more scripture than you ever will!”

One effective thing he did do, besides pray for me and keep the idea of conversion in my head was that he gave me a video about the Virgin of Guadalupe.... As I watched that video and realized that millions of Aztecs came to Christ because of this Marian apparition, I began to see her as not a false god or competitor to Christ for the admiration of God’s people but someone on the same team that God could use even now for the salvation of souls....

Finally, in December 2015, we prepared to take a trip to Cabo San Lucas. As is not uncommon, American Airlines oversold their tickets and bumped us off of their flight.... Instead of being in Cabo on the warm beach, we had to spend a day freezing at the San Francisco airport.

It was Saturday, so Mai and I decided to go to Mass. At the Church, I was enveloped in a sense of peace and warmth and joy. I knew I was home....

I entered into full communion with the Catholic Church at Easter Vigil 2016. Bob Laywell was my sponsor....

I had to lay down the title I had so coveted for so many years.... I had to lay aside my own understanding on several theological issues, and simply believe that Jesus had given his apostles authority to interpret the Bible and that if I was to believe Christ, I would have to believe His Church....

Since becoming a Catholic, my prayer life has increased, my sin life has decreased, and I am walking in friendship with Christ. I am being obedient. I am at peace, and I feel great joy during the Eucharist....

I'm intrigued you don't seem to have wrestled with too many doubts about Christianity in general. Why do you think that is?

I don't wrestle with the truth of Christianity because God speaks to me, and I feel the power of his spirit when I am filled with the Spirit. If he is not real, then I am crazy.

Further, the teachings of Christ and scripture in general speak to my spirit and I know they are true and good for me even if seemingly counter to my human nature and momentary fleshly desires....

I personally never took the creation story literally, even as a Baptist.... It is a poetic description of Gods successive creation of the Universe. Happily that is how the Catholic Church sees it as well. The Bible doesn't claim to be a science textbook.... It gives us everything we need for faith and morals and truths about God.

The way you understand God speaking to you sounds familiar from growing up in Assemblies of God churches. What connections do you see between your Pentecostal background and Marian apparitions or even the Eucharist?

Pentecostals...are taught to seek the charismatic gifts of the Spirit. It is sad to me when I run across many Christians both lay and clergy who state that they have never seen a vision or heard God's voice. I know the Spirit gives gifts as he wills, but I believe more Catholics and Protestants could hear from God if they would learn to listen and recognize God's voice....

When I was in my 20s my Pentecostal friends...all studied hearing Gods voice by reading Catholic mystics like Brother Lawrence and Jeanne Guyon and Theresa of Avila as well as Saint John of the Cross.

As for Marian visions, I was extremely skeptical of them 'till the month before I made my decision to convert.... Now that you mention it, why should I have doubted it when I believed in angels and demons?

As for the Eucharist, my fundamentalist background made that one easy. Jesus said, "This is my body," not, “this is a symbol.”... Again per your suggestion, I can see that my charismatic background probably made the switch to Catholicism easier. Both charismatics and Catholics believe in miracles....

Living as I have after the Second Vatican Council, during the pontificates of John Paul II, Benedict IVI, and Francis, I find myself drawn to a more sacramental, more historic understanding of Christianity. But how do you reconcile those ideas with the checkered history of the popes?

We are taught that with the exception of Jesus and Mary....all men are sinners. That includes priests, bishops, and popes.... I believe Dante said hell was full of bishops, popes, and priests.

We have been lucky to have better Popes in modern times. This probably is a result of the church being stripped of the Papal States. There is less motivation for evil or greedy families to promote their own into the papacy, leaving the job for idealists and true believers....

God chooses to take each of us wicked weak sinful people as his bride and to declare us holy. He does this on the macro scale with his church also, supernaturally protecting the doctrine it teaches from error.

Peter the first pope was weak, stubborn, and kind of dense, yet Jesus declares that “on this rock I will build my church.” He gave Peter the supernatural graces he needed to get the job done for the times.... We believe the Popes are prevented from teaching false doctrine while sitting in the chair of Peter....

This belief is necessary. Otherwise truth becomes unknowable, according to the opinion of each Bible scholar. The advent of thousands of Protestant denominations shows the inadequacy of "sola scriptura." The apostles and thus the Church were given the responsibility to preserve the truth, not each individual believer.

What do you make of the controversy surrounding the Second Vatican Council? Or the controversies around the Synod on the Family?

By and large I support everything done at Vatican II as good for the Church.... Because there was a change in Church culture, those vested in how things were always done reacted with various levels of vigor. Go to any Protestant church and try to change the music style or the meeting times. Even though the message preached will be the same, reaction could be fierce.

The issue with "Amoris Laetitia" is still playing itself out, and it is too early to make any assessments. Should divorced and remarried people receive communion in the discretion of their pastors? It was proposed in a footnote but not theologically hammered out. A lot of theology will go behind that simple little act, and now as a Catholic lay person I can have my opinion...but frankly it is above my pay grade.

The Pope and the Cardinals will work out an accommodation that does not do harm to the theological framework established by the Magisterium. If anything else happened, it wouldn't be Catholic. The Holy Spirit will prevent the Pope from teaching theological error.

For the time being he is proposing an act of discipline but it will have to be done in a way that fits within the theological understanding established thus far by the Magisterium.

How would you respond to someone who sees Eastern Orthodoxy as the main trunk of Christianity off of which western Christianity in general has splintered?

If you had two cousins springing from the same grandpa which cousin represents the true family coming from grandpa?

Both might have equal claim.

Now imagine grandpa has a family business, and he put one of the cousins in charge as the CEO of the business, and then due to the behavior of the CEO the other cousins took their franchises and stopped sending money to the CEO and declared him deposed. But the CEO cousin stayed in business with his fewer number of franchise stores and through good management grew the business to the largest in the world. In the meantime the other cousins who left with more franchises through no fault of their own found their businesses attacked and vandalized by competitors and ended up with a smaller market share. I would say the branch led by the CEO installed by grandpa has a better claim of being the legitimate family business both because of title legality and right as well as practicality of how things worked out.

Jesus put the apostles in charge of the church but set one higher than the others. He gave Peter the keys to the kingdom and established him as the rock. Every organization needs a single leading voice and Jesus gave us one: Peter, whose successors are the bishops of Rome....

The Roman Catholic Church looks forward to reconciliation with its Eastern brothers, describing the church as made of two lungs, east and west.

You've mentioned concluding that “scripture alone” and “faith alone” are inadequate. I've grown to take comfort in those passages that emphasize God's initiation and faithfulness towards his people. I used to say I was a Calvinist (emphasizing God's sovereignty) because I didn't have a strong enough will to be an Arminian (emphasizing human free will). I'm curious how you understand grace. 

Grace is the initiative of God. It is a gift of unmerited favor. God chooses us and gives us power to respond to Him in love. Without grace we could not believe or ever attain salvation. But God does not compel our love or our obedience. Baptism especially of babies is an act of pure grace by which, through the power of Christ's death and resurrection, we are adopted into His family. But God does not compel us to receive our inheritance.

God requires our free response to his grace to assure salvation. If we choose to follow serious sin, we are rejecting God's grace and his love. If we fail and repent, he will forgive us if we confess and seek his forgiveness. But if we persist in our sin without repentance and die in the state of rebellion against God, we are in serious jeopardy.

Thank you for taking time for all these questions and for responding so quickly too. Your answers challenge me in ways other than I expected. My doubts come less from disagreement over morality, less from difficulties harmonizing science and scripture, more from the fundamental differences between my experience and the experience you describe. I tend not to trust my impressions, except I cannot account for the good and beautiful apart from some idea of God.

Are you doubting the existence of God my friend? I know that much of my relationship with God is subjective, based on feelings, voices, and supernatural experiences. Catholics call these things consolations and counsel that our faith must be strong even if the consolations disappear. Saint John of the Cross wrote about this in his book, “Dark Night of the Soul.” Mother Theresa suffered from such a dark night at the end of her life. She kept the faith, even when she was denied the feelings of God's presence. To start, however, if you have not yet experienced God's presence, is to learn how to listen, to recognize God's voice. I recommend the book “Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ” by Jeanne Guyon.

I think the questions I wrestle with have a lot to do with what evidences can be trusted, even when those consolations disappear, if I may borrow your words.

I would recommend that you plumb the depths of Catholic spirituality, even if you are not ready to be a Catholic. Go on a retreat. Learn and practice Examen, Lectio Divina contemplative prayer.

Get in touch with your spirit. God's Spirit will speak to your spirit. That is how the Holy Spirit can touch you. Faith comes not by scientific proof, logic, or philosophy, though those things have their place to remove objections. In the end, faith comes because you are drawn by the Spirit.

We choose to believe or disbelieve, and all the "proof" follows after to justify whatever we have already chosen. Pray for faith. Pray for the Holy Spirit. God will answer that prayer. Luke 11:11-13.

Thank you for those recommendations. I've read George Weigel's "The Truth of Catholicism," and G.K. Chesterton has influenced me more than any other writer. If you were going to recommend one or three books to represent your understanding, what would they be?

The three books I would recommend would be Scott Hahn's “Rome Sweet Home,” Karl Keating's “Catholicism v. Fundamentalism,” and Devin Rose's, “Crossing the Tiber.”

01 July 2017

Art: An Unexpected Experience

Predawn light bathed the landscape blue.

I walked from the resort where we stayed toward downtown.

“Flower Dancing in the Wind” stands nearly life sized at the intersection of Woodin and Webster avenues, part of the Lake Chelan Outdoor Gallery—36 murals and sculptures in and around Chelan and Manson, Wash.



My plan was to photograph the sculpture at sunrise. I started from what seemed a respectful distance and then worked around to catch the detail of her beadwork.



That's when I realized her face was turned away. It felt awkward...like being too in her space.

It rattled me enough that I resumed walking...and kept thinking.

Seeing sculpture through a phone camera allowed focus on details I would have only half experienced otherwise.

Perhaps because it can be touched and walked around, sculpture seems more embodied. She stands in ecstatic motion, embracing the sky, her left foot touching earth...rootedness and freedom.

Sculptor Jerry McKellar says, “The original inspiration for this sculpture came from the book, 'Dancing Colors.' The following quote created the vision in my mind's eye of a carefree young woman dancing with her shawl outstretched behind her: 'It was in the springtime that my grandmother gave me her name, Flower Dancing in the Wind....'"

Perhaps also because it can be posed with and climbed on, sculpture is more susceptible to being cheapened, and that can reflect not only on an artist's work but also on the person or people it represents.

The sculpture's gravity and vulnerability took shape in my mind because of the awkwardness I felt. It lacked the distance of a painting. It was more relational.



The murals of the outdoor gallery include the “Chief Wapato Montage” and “St. Andrew's.”



Chief Wapato was an iconic Native American figure who had land on what is now Wapato Point along Lake Chelan.



Saint Andrew's Episcopal Church occupies a landmark log sanctuary originally constructed in 1898. Electric lighting has been added, the wiring concealed in wood pole light fixtures.



The "St. Andrews" mural looks over the alley from the parish hall behind the sanctuary.



Rev. Linda Mayer and her congregation welcomed me the second Sunday of Easter. I signed the guest book and sat down in a pew. The woman in the pew ahead shook my hand warmly and introduced herself. She later delivered the homily. Rev. Mayer invited me to join them in the parish hall for coffee and refreshments.


In his book, “Art: A New History,Paul Johnson writes, “Whether seeing quantities of fine art massed together in public collections is the best way of understanding art is debatable, and certainly it is a mistake to try and comprehend more than three or four—or at most half a dozen—works of high art at a time....the most judicious approach is to acquire a penetrative knowledge of one aspect of art, and on this basis develop a judgement which promotes a general capacity to evaluate quality....”

Johnson argues art “was closely associated with the ordering instinct which makes society possible, and that it has therefore always been essential to human happiness.” He returns to this theme throughout his history.

Applying Johnson's method, if not his conclusion, perhaps we could also say great art is relational; it engages viewers with something yet to be known.

25 June 2017

Birdwatching and the Psalms

Dad and I passed binoculars back and forth across the kitchen table. He looked 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 painted colors more vividly than they appear in life. Grandma Paulsson also had a well-worn copy of that book...and eventually I got a new edition of my own.

I remember identifying a Green-Winged Teal for the first time on my own and still get excited to see Cedar Waxwings and Hairy Woodpeckers.

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

By both nature and nurture, I inherited Dad's curiosities, his penchant for slightly eccentric musing, and the Psalms.

Mornings we'd read from the Psalms and—if time allowed—a Proverb.

I'd count down to the next verse I was supposed to read, put my finger in place, and wait to hear the pause that indicated it was my turn again.

Sometimes it must have felt to Mom and Dad like pulling teeth, but their persistence gave me a familiarity with the Psalms...which I sometimes used as an excuse to avoid subsequent readings...but which also gave expression to 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).

Over the last several years, my efforts to better understand were motivated first by how the Psalms relate to biblical narrative.

In the introduction to his translation and commentary, Robert 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....”

But 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.”

1 Chronicles 15 and 16 tells how David brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem “...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.”

In 2 Chronicles 29, Hezekiah cleansed the temple. “And 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....”

Nehemiah 11 records provision for singers toward the beginning of the second temple period: "Of the sons of Asaph, the singers were over the business of the house of God. For it was the king’s commandment concerning them, that a certain portion should be for the singers, due for every day."

New Testament writers quote the Psalms more than any other book of the Hebrew Bible. In the gospel of Luke, the resurrected Jesus appears to his 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.”

The author of Hebrews begins his explication of Christ and the covenant citing Psalm 2. “...For unto which of the angels said he at any time, 'Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee?'....”

This surprised me because I tend to quote historians or scientists, not poets, as authorities.

The next challenge I encountered had to do with seeing the Psalms as poetry but not seeing in the Psalms the kinds of rhyme and rhythm I expected.

Derek Kidner, in the introduction to his two-volume commentary, 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....”

The larger units of a poem are similarly flexible, Kidner says, “...it is the exception rather than the rule to find stanzas of equal length or even any clear definition.... 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 flexibility in Psalm 1.

Blessed is the man
   that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
      nor standeth in the way of sinners,
         nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

But his delight is in the law of the LORD;
   and in his law doth he meditate day and night.

And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water,
   that bringeth forth his fruit in his season;
      his leaf also shall not wither;
         and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.

The ungodly are not so:
   but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.

Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment,
   nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.

For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous:
   but the way of the ungodly shall perish.

This flexibility allows the Psalms to express a wide range of experience and, Kidner points out, also allows this poetry to survive translation better than a lot of other poetry.

The final roadblock I've encountered has to do with the work of understanding psalms.

In his book, “Poetic Diction,” Owen Barfield critiques the narrowing of meaning in modern language, influenced as it is by the growth of scientific thought. He describes the poet's task as something like a re-enchantment of modern language in order to recover the meaning lost as words become more technical and precise. Languages earlier in their evolution, he argues, are less scientifically precise and more naturally poetic.


If I'm understanding Barfield, and if his view applies here, the Psalms perhaps speak—in their content and context—to the tensions and experiences of the biblical narrative and thereby challenge and renew it.

Returning to Psalm 1, the wicked appear primarily to contrast with the blessed, who delight in the law of the Lord and who meditate—murmur to oneself—thereon.

Kidner points out this reference roots the psalm not only in the Torah generally but in God's instruction and promise to Joshua: “This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein... Be strong and of a good courage...for the LORD thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”

We see how often the verb "is" occurs in this psalm and how descriptive the tone becomes, more matter of fact than conditional promise.

And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water,

 that bringeth forth his fruit in his season....

The psalmist contrasts this fruitful tree with chaff, the ultimate picture of rootlessness. As Kidner points out, the image brings to mind similar language in Jeremiah 17, contrasting the one who trusts in man, a desert shrub in a salt land, with the one who trusts in God, a tree planted by water.

This psalm brings to my mind the plant imagery that Jesus used: "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?"

And again in John 15, Jesus intensifies the psalmist's "congregation of the righteous" by pointing out the community of the branches and by describing himself as the vine in which all the branches are: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit."

The psalmist's final couplet roots the whole psalm in a statement of the action and knowledge of God, which Alter renders...

“For the Lord embraces the way of the righteous

and the way of the wicked is lost.”

As Alter points out, the word translated "embrace" carries the idea of intimate connection.

20 May 2017

Friendly: My Life and Remaining Questions

Editor's note: Friendly completed a revision of his previous nine-part autobiography. This manuscript came to us only recently, and we publish it here. He attached this note to readers.
 

Dear Reader,
In this year of my sixteenth birthday, by human reckoning, and in recognition of the long association of our species, dating back to ancient Egypt, I submit this memoir in hopes it will further understanding of the feline way of life, despite the misconceptions portrayed in comic strips, YouTube videos, and Facebook memes.

I fear in some ways
I've followed the human pattern in tell-all memoirs, directing my acerbic wit at everyone else and confessing things I'm actually proud of, such as possessing an acerbic wit.

But I hope this one-part edition will provide a mirror in which humans can reflect on their society...and that this reflection will lead both our species to greater peace and harmony.

Sincerely,
Friendly



My earliest memories are of my mother, my four litter mates...and the doghouse in which I was born, which smelled like it's recent occupant, a middle-aged canine named Duke.



My mother, Smoki, was tall, athletic, and one year old. She loved everyone and lived a carefree life, which accounted for our multicultural birthplace. 



My litter mates and I were not particularly close. They would stay piled in the corner while I explored our house. And by the time our eyes opened, I didn't spend much time in the house at all. 



My siblings, Tabitha and Stubby, so called for their color pattern and shorter legs, were free spirits like our mother. They moved away to pursue other fascinations. “Fascinations” being the word rational felines use to explain their career choices to relatives, much as humans currently use the pursuit of their “passions.” 



Sparkle was solid gray with white paws. The dash of white on her nose resembled the brush stroke of an impressionist painter. Flash looked like Sparkle, except she dipped her whole nose in the paint.



In feline society, familial ties—as humans and even some herding animals know them—do not exist after a litter of kittens has come of age. This arrangement allows each to seek his or her own fortune. So feline society functions well in extensive environments and scales to whatever population size. You might say cats are the one species that has actually succeeded with libertarianism.

When two individuals want the same spot on a rug or want a drink at the same time, there is no reason to write angry letters to small town newspapers or accuse one's enemies of being the antichrist. It's only rational those with greater physical endowments receive the best nutrition and high quality rest. If a disagreement breaks out, the winner is always right.



Thus, feline justice works on shame and ostracism.



My cousin Patches was orphaned when her mother's haystack was struck by lightning. She escaped being burned, and my partner humans fed her condensed bovine milk. Uncle Tigger blamed kittenhood trauma for Patches' unkempt appearance, but being gray with yellow tabby and white spots didn't do her any favors. 



Worst of all, she didn't know felines are supposed to bury their...droppings. Only the very high status or uncouth lack discipline in this respect, which invites criticism—of the way one chews one's food, the grade of mice one catches or whether one really should try some organic almond milk.


We had a lot of cousins, many of them shaped by close proximity to one another. Their days were punctuated by a mad rush to the feed pan every morning, and their conversation lost the edge common in high class feline society.


Feline society is supposed to be rigorous and scientific. In feline language—a phenomena we call Felinese—there is nothing but fact.

Our chief virtuecuriositythe ability to see in the dark, smell trouble, swivel one's ears in the direction of the slightest sound, and detect how wide an opening is by measuring it with one's whiskers...involves dealing in real things.

There is no lying or political incorrectness. Felines have no need to use “downsized” rather than “unemployed.” And it never made sense to think an inanimate object would have a gender.





The difficulty when partner humans talk to feline companions is not that felines don't understand but that human speech is so cluttered with persons and concepts not relevant to the situation, concepts such as honor or destiny or history, things other than biological imperative and the physical environment.

Also… Curiosity. Never. Killed. Anyone.



I am secretly thrilled that my current subject affords this opportunity to disregard conventional English punctuation and thereby emphasize the point.



Distemper kills felines. Automobiles kill felines. Curiosity is what keeps them alive. But I digress.


For nearly a year, my mother's humans assumed I'd been eaten by a coyote, which is a common assumption among human communities. Humans have always invented or played up the shadowy threats beyond the firelight. 



I suspect that explanation deprives distemper...and boredom...of due recognition.

But I also suspect the human tendency to imagine things beyond the firelight springs from their desire for relationship.

The concord between feline civilization and human civilization works out in everyday kindness between particular humans and particular felines. We commonly prefer the company of certain humans. That is something like the love some humans profess for one another.

We tolerate the idea of being “pets” out of respect for our superior rationality, but we prefer the terms “partner cat” and “partner human.” The word “pet” lumps us together with various prey species. And even more egregious, “pet” assumes that we are dependent on particular humans.



Some humans imagine their partner cats are something like human children. A lot of partner humans think the birds or mice we discard are “offerings.” It can become a little embarrassing.

Most cats do not believe any particular cat needs any particular human in any particular way. Many felines do not have more than one partner human relationship at a time. Some choose to have none. Some choose to have several. 





I heard of one smooth operator who spent days in one human's apartment and nights in another human's apartment. The humans assumed he was out "hunting."



Then one of his humans visited the other's place while campaigning for a political cause. And the game was up.

Incidentally, I can't imagine an exercise more fruitless than politics. But humans seem fated to try getting others to agree with them, perhaps also a function of their desire for connection.

Anyway, about one year of age, I revisited my first home and found most of my cousins gone. So I held court on the porch and my partner humans opened doors for me as I came and went.



My partner humans lived across the lawn from their grandparents.



The grandfather always came out to feed the cats around 6 o'clock. I would wait on his back deck, watching the sun climb up over the eastern horizon and enjoying the fresh, unspoiled feeling of morning.



He would pour some milk into a tin can he used for the purpose. Then he would sit down on the step stool by the back door and pull on his shoes.



You would hear the thump as he finished tying each shoe and set his foot down. Then he would pick up the can of milk, straighten up, turn the doorknob, and step outside. He walked down the steps to the cellar one step at a time. He was a little stiff before he got “limbered up” in the morning.



Once he got a can of Wiskas out of the cellar, he would call us, “Here kitty-kitty-kitty. Kitty-kit! Here kitty-kitty.” Then we all walked across the garden to “the cat house.”

I say walked. When he walked, he would lift his knees slightly higher than other humans, which gave his walk a hint of marching. Come to think of it, that might also have been because various ones would be milling around his feet, claiming his shoes and pant lets as our own.



I don't know whether the “cat house”—so named because it once was a chicken house—had ever been acquainted with paint, but I never remember it being anything other than the grey-brown of weathered wood. It smelled of cat food...and of the litter box in the corner...and of the neighborhood raccoons that visited during the night.



In feline terms, this morning routine is merely a string of events—facts and smells and actions set in chronological order. The same things happen to us all, except perhaps for those who die younger and thus have fewer experiences. So an individual's experience differs from another individual's experience only in the order and combination of facts.



In this understanding, one individual is almost interchangeable with any other individual of similar background and experience. Each morning is much like every other morning, even if one has to go back thousands of years to find another Tuesday, October 15, when the sun rose at exactly the same instant it rose this morning.

Anyway, once inside “the cat house,” the grandfather would pour the milk into a bowl and give me my own plate of Wiskas. Then he would serve the others.



I occasionally had to remind them of the respect they owed me, it being only rational the strong and beautiful deserve a certain deference. But I don't think the grandfather understood.



Sometimes he called me “unfriendly Friendly,” which I took to be an example of that human foible, humor, which is the tendency to use strange combinations of words to break the tension between the way things are and the way humans think they should be.



As far as I can tell, humor and poetry and art are closely related in human brain function.



Many humans have made advances toward the feline perspective, buying “Bach for Babies” recordings in apparent recognition that making one's infant smarter justifies Bach's work as a composer. This incidentally, is exactly the reason why cats play with prey species...or play in general...to sharpen the wits.



These are often the same humans who work hardest to “learn” from their life experiences so that they can feel better about the mistakes they're making.



I cannot say I'm certain of their success. A scholarly dynasty of felines once set out to catalogue the contradictions of human behavior and unearth its underlying rationality. The data they collected most humans know as William Shakespeare's plays, and the last of that line died off before they reached any conclusions.



My own investigations have not yielded any further insight. Indeed, though some humans talk about keeping felines around as “mousers”—a term by which they equate our whole race with a sort of rodenticidal mania...like calling humans “strawberriers”—it is my observation that the irrational human desire for connection has ironically been largely responsible for the long cooperation between our species…and the comfort in which many of us live with our chosen partner humans.



Canines too possess a bias toward social connections, which explains why canines organize themselves into hierarchies and mix so easily with other societies. It also explains why you will never meet a canine that is particularly rational or dignified.



Duke, the canine in whose house I was born, possessed this monarchist turn of mind, which explains why some are so vicious—think "Game of Thrones" from human television—and why most are so...what humans call “loyal.” 



His sensitivity to human sensibilities made him adept at enforcing human attitudes toward prey species—startling my cousins so small birds could escape but leaving us alone when we captured a mouse.



He once returned from a nearby swamp carrying a duckling in his mouth—unmolested except for being slobbered on. But on another occasion, when a muskrat snapped at him, he grabbed it by its spine, shook it once, and dropped it dead on the ground.

Despite the admiration his qualities earned him among our partner humans, Duke still called them masters. And yet, he was never anything but himself.

I don't know why the idea of memory sometimes includes such a sense of missing, not just noticing the absence, of something or someone when they're gone.



Though he never saw the brilliance of feline rationality, and I could not explain him entirely in feline terms, Duke and I enjoyed each other's company, if I can use such vague language. 


My one regret is that I did not have more time to study and perhaps explain him...and the grandfather.