24 March 2018


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 in the Gospel.

11 March 2018

Sketchbooks and Caged Birds

“...The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.”
—from Maya Angelou's “Caged Bird”

When I moved to Oklahoma City, I used to frequent the Barnes and Noble on May, north of Northwest Expressway.

I don't remember buying poetry, except for the texts in Mary Kinzie's “A Poet's Guide to Poetry” and Burton Raffel's “How to Read a Poem.”

I had to drive past the Full Circle Bookstore to get to Barnes and Noble. Later at Full Circle I bought T.S. Eliot's “On Poetry and Poets” but not “Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats.” That book I found used at the now-closed Hastings in Wenatchee, Wash.

But this year in Seattle
we walked into Open Books and made our introverted way around the perimeter of poets, starting on the left with “A.”

That's where I found Kelli Russell Agodon's “Hourglass Museum.” 

Opening with the “Dear Serious Museum Patrons” and sorted into collections and a current exhibition, “Hourglass Musuem” taught me to keep reading...the whole collection in one weekend...and then pause or come back to meditate on what stood out.

“Surrealist Angel” was the first I lingered on, then “In Praise of Staying Married” a few pages away—its waxwings and blackberry vines—and
“Sketchbook with an Undercurrent of Grief”:

“I escape disaster by writing a poem with a joke in it:
The past, present, and future walk into a bar—it was tense.
There's everything to kill with laughter. I browsed
the magazines in his hospital room. At my father's
last breath, I saw an ad for sky....” 

Last weekend I read our library's copy of “The Complete Poems of Maya Angelou,” from “They Went Home” at the beginning and “On the Pulse of Morning” at the end...until I met myself near “Caged Bird,” not quite in the middle.

One hears the caged bird's longing in lines like these from Angelou's “After”:

“...The market leers
its empty shelves
Streets bare bosoms
to scanty cars
        This bed yawns
        beneath the weight
        of our absent selves.”

One feels the rage in “Family Affairs”:

“...My screams never reached
the rare tower where you
Lay, birthing masters for
My sons, and for my
Daughters, a swarm of
Unclean badgers, to consume
Their history....”

Yet for the caged bird—if I'm understanding—freedom is an extension of what humans are at best, as Angelou ends “On the Pulse of Morning” in the voices of the Rock, the River, and the Tree:

“...Here on the pulse of this new day,
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes,
And into your brother's face,
Your country,
And say simply
Very simply
With hope—
Good morning.”

If for no other reason than that I read them both this year, these two...from their different places...inform each other in my mind.

It's hard to imagine poetry without Angelou's intuition...

“of things unknown
but longed for still.”

And it's hard to imagine
poets if it were not, as Agodon says in “Sketchbook of Nudes”...

“...the poet continues questioning after the bottle
is empty

after the audience has gone home....”

In that there is hope.

13 January 2018

Believers or Not: Pastor Shawn

Pastor Shawn Neider and I discussed our way through Martin Luther's “Small Catechism,” spring of 2013. He remains a tolerant friend and patient interlocutor. He took time for this interview during last October's 500th anniversary commemoration of the reformation.

Could you describe your growing up experience and how you became a Lutheran pastor?

My father was Roman Catholic. My mother was Lutheran. They felt that it was important to attend church together so they planned to go back and forth through life.

I was born while they were Lutheran and baptized by a pastoral friend at home as an infant.

While I was young, another Lutheran pastor helped my father to understand that saved by faith alone meant that he didn't have to hope that he was a good enough person, but his hope was in Jesus's death and resurrection and promises.

So we stayed in the Lutheran church. Faith life, devotions, bible reading, and the church were very important in our life.

My dad had considered the priesthood as a boy but wasn't willing to take the vow. As a Lutheran now, he could be ordained; so he entered Concordia Seminary in St. Louis when I was in 5th grade.

I watched him work through the classes and thought that I would never want to move to a city again or go through that myself, but as they say, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. So while I didn't want to go through the experience, God was planting seeds.

I was confirmed in 8th grade, part of the Lutheran tradition, before my Dad was called to St. Paul Lutheran Church in Ontonagon, Mich. Life was not too different than before he went to seminary except that now church life was also his career. We still did daily family devotions and participated in many activities at church.

After high school, I studied forestry at Michigan Technological University on an Army ROTC scholarship. The Lutheran campus house was one of the first places that I visited, and many of us were active in the local congregation, in Sunday School and choir, as well as our own activities at the house.

I also started reading the Bible on my own, continuing what my parents taught me, and as I was reading through Romans 15 one morning, the words struck me: how can they believe unless they hear and how can they hear unless somebody preaches to them.

I could do that, even though I wasn't a natural public speaker. I wasn't comfortable in front of people, but how could they believe unless they hear? My girlfriend wasn't interested in that idea, and I liked forestry and working in the woods, away from people, so I dismissed the idea.

We got married, and I worked in forestry for several years. The Army was reducing in size, and I had lost interest in that, so it was easy for me to ignore my commitment to them.

With my work and my wife's school and work, we spent a lot of time apart and didn't develop a shared routine of devotions....

She decided that we had grown apart, left me, and asked for a divorce. We tried counseling, but she had made up her mind already. So I moved away and took a job for the Forest Service in Washington state.

Regular bible reading became very important to me during that time, and I decided that whether we could reconcile or not, I would look into going to seminary, after a couple of years of fighting forest fires.... We couldn't reconcile.

I met Tonya who had grown up Lutheran, but had stopped believing and practicing in college. We started attending church when we were together. She wasn't real excited about my idea of being a pastor either, but she had an experience that brought her back to faith, and she was reluctantly willing to be a pastor's wife with me.

That was about the time that the Army called to remind me of my commitment to them in the reserves.... I looked into becoming a chaplain, but that process involved seminary and would take longer than simply serving my time, so I stayed where I was.

Tonya and I got married with the understanding that we would work in Winthrop, [Wash.] for 2 years before we made the move to seminary.

Six months later, I was activated to Fort McCoy, Wis. to support the mobilization effort there. I was there for almost 2 years, not loving the Army, but there was a great church in Tomah, [Wis.] with several Bible studies and an active faith community.

Tonya spent several months each year in Winthrop so that she wouldn't lose her job...uncertain of how long I would be on active duty. But we talked everyday, and our faith was central in our life.

Finally, we were able to spend those 2 years in Winthrop, working for the Forest Service. And I studied Greek to prepare for seminary.

My brother left active duty with the Navy, and we talked about trying to go to seminary together, but I had promised Tonya 2 years. So he went ahead without me.

Then he was called up to active duty during his second year [of seminary so that when I arrived on campus, my commitment to the army finished, he was in Kuwait.

The third year of seminary is normally vicarage, a practical internship away from campus. He returned early in the fall and then delayed his vicarage a year so that we ended up spending 2 years together at Seminary.

I didn't love the city, but the academic work wasn't so bad. It was harder than I realized watching my dad go through it, but easier than I had imagined since I wanted to learn the material. I followed the traditional path of 2 years of study, I had passed the greek entrance exam from my self study. So I started with Hebrew class.

Besides the languages, we studied doctrine, systematic theology, history, and practical theology. And each student was assigned to a local church in the area for practical experience. My third year was vicarage back in Washington state so that Tonya was able to support us with her job that she had continued working about 6 months a year while I was studying.

And finally I finished school and received a call to Grand Coulee and Coulee City, [Wash.] where Tonya was able to transfer to a position with the Park Service and continue her career.

As I look back, I can see where God was planting seeds and preparing me all along, and I kept saying I wasn't ready. Then when I thought that I was ready, God said, no, you have commitments to keep first. Finally, my timing and God's timing lined up and things fell into place.

You mentioned your father finding hope in Jesus's death, resurrection, and promises, and you mentioned your wife's return to faith. What doubts have you experienced?

I had a day when I was about 5 when I wondered if the Bible had been written by a couple of brothers but decided that it was too complicated for that to have worked out. That was my deepest doubt, and there is a lot more evidence to prove that the Bible really is God's word and Jesus really did come, live, die, and rise again as we know.

I've had moments when I am closer to God or farther away...but I just remind myself of all of the evidence to support the Bible's claims, that it is too complicated to be made up. Faith is a gift from God, and I would say that the Holy Spirit has blessed me with a steady, lifelong faith.

I watched PBS's "Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World." How do you relate to Martin Luther? He is to me at once relatable in his experience of shame and depression, remote in his certainty of things, and confounding in his effect on the relationship between conscience and tradition.

Yes, I often feel the same. Would I have liked him if I was living at that time?

I doubt that I would have stood up and spoken out publicly if I had been in the same position, or remained steadfast if I was challenged by the highest authorities when I did.

We must all struggle with the relationship between conscience and tradition.... We should examine what our motivations were in the past and determine—even if the intention was good—were the actions of our tradition wrong.

The church must constantly be working through the same process.... Tradition wasn't necessarily wrong. They started something based on the influences of their time, but times have changed....

We have to understand the traditions and evaluate them against God’s word which doesn't change, to determine if the traditions need to be retained or adapted or abandoned. It isn't good to get rid...or blindly follow [traditions], without understanding them.

There are some things that Martin Luther wrote that we don't agree with today or [that] need to be understood in his context but not repeated...today....

What are some examples of things Luther wrote that we would disagree with now or that need to be understood in his context?

The simplest example would be that Luther believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary, but even he said that he wouldn't hold anyone else to that.

The most popular example would be his treatise against the Jews from 1543, which was used by the Nazis to justify their actions. I would bet that even he wishes that he hadn't written that.

...most people don't realize that 20 years earlier, he had written two treatises encouraging Christians to befriend the Jews and welcome them and try to tell them about Jesus, the Messiah. He...seems to have been disappointed that they refused to see the gospel fulfilled in Jesus...so it was a life of frustration coming out, not towards an ethnic group, but to try to get them to believe in Jesus.

Unfortunately it is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied writings, and continues to be a stumbling block for us to witness to Jews today. So we try to understand why he wrote this, and obviously...we wish that he didn't think, or say, or write these later things and had only left his earlier writings.

What do you make of the continuing divisions in protestantism since Luther's time?

The division of the church today is a very sad thing. Certainly God wants us to be united, but we are also all sinners. So we do not properly understand scripture or the other group's understanding of it.

Paul did write that it was necessary for there to be divisions so that it could be shown who had the truth. So the different churches are often times closer together than some think, but also farther apart than many others think. Some churches minimize the differences in order to sign agreements, overlooking true differences, while others make theological points out of unimportant things.

This has been going on for the entire history of the church when you look at the church councils from Nicaea.... There were always discussions between the different churches and bishops and regions dealing with different issues and cultures, but they did hold things together, taking months to talk things out.

Today we can communicate all over the world instantly but we hardly listen enough to understand each other. The church is too often, a reflexion of the world that we live in.

On the other hand, I think that the nondenominational, independent churches only add to the divisions and lack of union between Christians rather than rising above the denominational issues.

It is nice to imagine the benefits of one united worldwide church, but few people take time to consider the challenges.

It's a good thing that God uses our sins and mistakes and keeps moving his kingdom forward, even when we try to get in the way.

Luther's Small Catechism sees Jesus as “the heart and center of scripture and therefore the key to its true meaning.” And as you know, the distinction—or tension—between law and gospel is something I struggle to find a satisfying resolution for. Could you unpack how seeing Jesus as central to scripture relates to the distinction between law and gospel?

Both Law and Gospel can be found throughout scripture.

The Law has three functions: First, to show us our sin and point us to our need for forgiveness and a savior. We call this a mirror, to see our own sin.

Second, even for unbelievers, to behave in a moral way either because it is the right thing to do or to avoid punishment. We call this a curb, as a curb on the road keeps your car going straight either because you steer to avoid hitting it or it bumps you back in line after you hit it.

Third, for believers, to show us how God wants us to live. When we want to live as God's people, we need a guide to show us how to love God and our neighbor.

Gospel is the promise of God's grace and forgiveness.

So this can be seen in Genesis 2 and 3. After God creates the earth and man, he sets a law, don't eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you do, you will die. So he sets it as a guide for them and also a curb, if they don't follow it out of love and trust, then follow it to avoid being punished.

They decide to break the law so God returns and pronounces on them the punishments that He had warned them of, but He also promises to send a savior to fix all of this.

That promise is the first Gospel [and] is repeated to Abram/Abraham, and Moses, and David, and the prophets.

Since God always keeps his promise, the faith in God's promise that he would send this savior is the same faith that we have now that Jesus was that promised savior. [Believers] before and after are believing in the same promise for God to provide the way of forgiveness from sin and to eternal life, undoing the curses brought on us by Adam and Eve.

Some scripture is just historical story.

Sometimes whether a passage is law or gospel depends on your perspective. “I am with you always, even until the end of the earth.” As a believer, that sounds good, except when I want to sin and don't want God with me. For an unbeliever, that always sounds like law, a policeman following them around, writing down every sin that they commit....

Your friendship and a growing appreciation for the sacraments was what attracted me to Lutheranism. What unique contributions do you believe Lutherans can make to other Christians and the culture today?

We hold a connection to the older tradition that many newer churches have lost and a faithfulness to scripture unbound by human reason, particularly with God working in the sacraments....

We see the sacraments as God working through the physical elements, not as our own works.... As physical beings, we need physical reminders of God's work of forgiveness. In the water of baptism, God is washing us clean of our sins and preparing us to be clothed in the robes of righteousness on the last day. In communion, we receive Jesus body and blood also to forgive our sins, washed again in his blood, and to be strengthen in our faith that he is with us always. When we feel like he is far away, we can go to communion and be physically reminded of the spiritual truth. Yes he is there. I tasted it.

I don't need to make up any other ways to help my doubts, God has already given me these.

Also, our focus on law and gospel reminds us that even though we may not feel it or think it, we need to be regularly reminded of our sin, our need for a savior, and that God has kept his promise. He did send his own son, and he will take us to be with him.

I think that can be lost at other churches.

I think that being connected to the older traditions can give us an opportunity to disconnect from the world of immediacy and quickly changing fads and remind us of the things that are timeless, even before Christ. In a more and more hectic world, hopefully, an hour a week can give us an opportunity to let God refill us with his peace and grace.

If you were going to recommend three books to represent your understanding, what would they be?

First off would be the Bible, where God has revealed himself to us. Especially his son whom John calls the Word. God is bigger than the Bible, but everything that we need to know he has revealed to us in his Word.

Second would be “The Book of Concord.” The Lutheran confessions that guide us to understand the Bible. They help to cut through the confusion and put forth what the Bible teaches and what it does not, starting with Luther’s “Small Catechism,” which can be read separately and is usually presented as the starting place for young and new believers.

It is hard for me to choose another book that represents my understanding anywhere close to those two, but I do enjoy C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. He interweaves the atoning death of Jesus into the story of the wardrobe. He also drops other Easter eggs of theology throughout the books, baptism in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” and eschatology in “The Last Battle.”

05 January 2018

The Poetics of Christmas

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

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.

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.

25 November 2017

Believers or Not: Mount Athos

Nima Duncan and I met while he was on staff at Saddle Rock Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Wenatchee, Wash. Though our paths crossed relatively briefly, it was long enough to spark this conversation. He graciously agreed to share his story.

Could you start by summarizing your growing up experience and the steps along the way to Orthodoxy?

...My mom and biological father came to the U.S. after the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970's. I am full-blooded Iranian and a first generation U.S. citizen.

Growing up I felt estranged from the world around me. I had tan skin, black hair, and an odd name...living in a mostly black neighborhood.

I did not grow up religious per se. Rather, my mom and step father had connections to religious types of people. Most of them were Christians of some sort, either Protestant or Catholic. There was also some Muslim influence from our Iranian family, mostly from my grandmother. But because of the radical and militant Muslim extremism reported in the news, Islam never seemed attractive to me.

In middle [and] high school I became good friends with an evangelical. He invited me to a teen rally where the message of Christ's life, death, and resurrection was presented. I don't remember all the details of the event but I do remember being concerned about my eternal destiny and very interested in the person of Jesus Christ.

It did not take long for me to get very involved at the local church and learn more about the spiritual experience I had.

...The next step I took was to attend a popular evangelical college where I studied philosophy and Christian theology. Those years were tough because I was not prepared to deal with the kind of intellectual issues that would arise...the origin and history of the Bible, theodicies of various kinds, reconciling modern science with conservative religious beliefs, etc.

Coupled with the intellectual concerns I had was the greater concern for spiritual depth....

The “spiritualites” I observed in the evangelical world were confusing and frustratingly shallow. Our worship services were indicative of this: full blown rock concerts, revivalist rallies, pseudo-intellectual presentations, political speeches, and more. The experiences were either bombastic, overhyped, and sensationalistic or intellectually combative, hoping to preserve modernized Christian conservatism.

By the time I took a break from school halfway through my master's degree, I was thoroughly disillusioned.

Somehow though, I did not give up on my desire to go into full time ministry! …

Somewhere inside of me I thought I could make a real difference. It felt like the right thing to do. And so I became a Protestant pastor.

In total, I spent seven years in ministry, five working with teenagers and two in an associate role.... As I took my own spiritual life more seriously and observed the kinds of problems that arose in the lives of teenagers, families, and even older adults, there was an emerging pattern that proved concerning to me.

Most of the problems I observed we’re the result of teachings that meant well but ultimately never helped people: 1) face their personal shortcomings and damaging behaviors and 2) know that God was real through a genuine encounter that was distinguished from mental artifices and personal feelings.

These issues are a very big deal! If we cannot face our broken selves and also have confidence that we can and do interact with the triune God, then why pretend to believe anything at all?

At least, that was my conclusion.

After some years of study...what I stumbled upon was the ancient faith—with its dynamic exposition of humanity, our fallen state, the Christological means to healing, and so on.

These Eastern Christian teachings were most acutely presented to me when I discovered the spiritual practices of Mount Athos, a community of monasteries preserving the faith through the very dedication of their lives.

I was challenged and enamored with what I saw. There was no question. I had to convert!

Could you unpack further what you mean by facing our personal shortcomings and encountering God? It strikes me different people might hear those ideas in very different ways.

I want to be careful in my analysis here because some of what I say will undoubtedly be taken as judgmental. Please overlook my unrefined disposition on this matter.

I found that I was (and am) an emotionally and spiritually immature person. But I also found that many other people suffered from the same generalized malady.

As a pastor, I felt a real responsibility to offer sound wisdom that could solve the deepest troubles that people encountered in life. The troubles I came across included: dysfunctional family dynamics (adults and teens), church politics, theological disputes, and psychological issues. To be specific here is difficult because the gamut is wide. But a few concrete examples I regularly saw included: blame-shifting in marriage, depression and phobias of differing kinds, obsessive church-growth schemes, disputes over supernatural spiritual gifts and worship experiences, substance and cyber addictions... I could go on but think you get the gist.

What I mean to capture with a description like "mental artifice" is that...what we want to be true of life and religious practice often supplants the objective reality.

The means to solving this problem of subjectivism (the "personal feelings" I refer to) was supposed to be biblical studies. To be crude, the evangelical Protestant teaching goes something like this: if one studies the Bible hard enough then the mind of God will be revealed in matters of personal, intellectual and ecclesial importance.

In practice, I found the Protestant notion of sola scriptura and biblical exegesis to be an incomplete teaching that either weighed people down with the burden of biblical scholarship (a confusing proposition) or led to debate on matters as essential as salvation (what is justification?), communion (is it essential?), prayer (tongues or written prayers; is kneeling or standing even important?) and church services (Can't I “be with God” on a Sunday hike or listen to a podcast?).

In my assessment, Protestant Christianity was strange because the diversity of opinions and experiences left it devoid of any legitimate spiritual gravity.

In contrast, what I found in [Eastern] Orthodox Christianity was an organic tradition that consistently preserved New Testament faith from one generation to the next and included within it the full life and teaching of the church. Part and parcel to this was the restorative power of repentance, ascetic struggle, sacramental life, and the culminating result of union with God. These teachings are obvious within the New Testament but also fleshed out through the ages in the life and writings of the saints.

Are there any parts of Orthodox tradition and teaching that bother you or that you have had to wrestle through?

[Eastern] Orthodox Christianity is beautiful, sublime, demanding, foreign, and deep in comparison to other things in the western world, especially in the U.S. This combination (among other things) has contributed to our relatively small influence in an increasingly secular world. I don’t know if it is a bad thing to be unnoticed, at this stage of history anyway. But sometimes it is difficult to deal with mass ignorance.

Before we decided to become catechumens I had my share of struggles. Our veneration of the Saints, especially the Mariology, was difficult at first. Evangelicalism demonizes such practices and the English language (though highly adaptable) does not sufficiently convey nuance in meanings at times. Once I made it a point to understand the teachings it was not difficult to wholly embrace veneration and saintly intercession. I cannot imagine my life now without it, to be quite honest.

Several years ago, I went to a Greek festival held by Saint George Greek Orthodox Church...mostly just for the tour of the building. The gospel narrative and description of worship woven into the architecture encompassed everything I find beautiful about Christianity. But less than two miles away from Saint George's stands Saint Elijah Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church. So I have for Orthodoxy the same question I have for other denominations and for myself—what to make of divisions within Christianity.

...Greek, Antiochian, Russian, Serbian (etc.) Orthodoxy are all the same communion.... The church has a strange presence in the U.S. where various communities of the world found themselves here from the old world but needed priests and bishops to continue their faith. The problem is administrative and has nothing to do with any break in communion. Just this morning a Greek priest served at the alter with our priest at the Antiochian Church we attend....

...I will be honest here. This has not been a big deal to me (though it is something that needs to be resolved). I am not sure why it has not bothered me the way it has other people. Maybe because of my foreign roots? I am not sure....

These questions have intensified for me because of how American Christianity is divided by race and even personality. How do you think divisions might be resolved in Orthodox tradition?

Everything I say in response to this question is out of personal study and is not intended to [speak for] Orthodox Christianity.

...First, I would like to say, differences do indeed matter. Race, religion, worldview etc....

The question I assume you are posing..."how do we appropriately set aside differences of race, personality (and other things) to unite under one banner of faith?"...is a fair question....

If we look at the ancient or medieval world, Christianity certainly had to overcome ethnic barriers...and diverse people had to figure out how to befriend one another.... But this was usually done under...an established culture ruled by emperors and kings (or something like them) and established social mores...whether pagan or Christian.

...Relative to a "free" and democratic modern society, the ancient world (and some pockets of the world as it has been preserved to this day) had a wealth of continuity, order, and health missing from the "progress" we have made.

As contemporary Americans, we have reached a societal precipice.... On the one hand, we want to refashion the old order of people and customs into something new we call the black, white, minority, gay, transgender, or privileged experience of life. And we ask ourselves, "how do we get along as these diverse groups?"

But on the other hand...behind this new grouping of peoples is [the] principle...that encourages each of us to be "true to ourselves." Here people fashion themselves into unique expressions that defy grouping altogether....

Does our new approach collapse in on itself? Time will tell.

And so as Christians, I believe our duty is to concurrently introduce people to the sustaining metaphysical order of life in God while at the same time encouraging them to sift through the rubble of post-modernity and get in touch with a real order, grounded in history. Simply put, each of us should recover our ancestry and history, identify with it as best we can and celebrate the compatible elements that exist with the faith.

How do we reconcile differences? I believe that we need to recognize that differences exist and, with that, similar peoples naturally draw together.

Does this equal moral failure on the part of the church? I don't think so.

Could someone construe spatial divide as hate? Perhaps they could, but that would hardly be a thorough analysis of the matter.

The way forward is to dialogue across differences without assuming to change someone else. Honest dialogue is the first step before anything else.

How have those in the Orthodox tradition worked out the interaction of church and state, since so many Orthodox believers have historically lived in regions dominated by Communism or Islam?

From what I gather we still have a ways to go before better assimilating into the “New World,” so to speak. Parishioners from foreign countries like Syria, Ukraine, or Greece seem enthusiastic about western democracy, and with it the separation of church and state.

Historically speaking, Christians have not lived under Enlightenment political schemes… be it capitalistic, communistic, or some fusion of the two. It is modernity that is the new kid on the block and causing all kinds of problems for various religions, Orthodox Christians included.

What is funny is that I have encountered a small but growing group of established Americans in the “High Church” context recovering valuable aspects of pre-Enlightenment politics. These folks are more critical of an irreligious state, which after all, is the logical conclusion of separation.

We talked briefly a couple years ago about the nature of truth and how western ideas of truth and knowledge have perhaps not been adequately critiqued in Evangelical circles for example. How does the Orthodox tradition see the nature of truth and our relationship to it?

In many ways I feel like "knowing" has been the very theme of my life and study. How do we know? What do we know? Is knowing really possible? If so, to what extent?

...our current cultural climate would have us believe that the most supreme knowledge is information attained through scientific investigation. Material reality is all that is "real" and if we could only master it then maybe we could also solve our [worst] problems (which change, depending on who you ask). What is invisible and mysterious is not cause of celebration, respect, or humility but just another "problem" to be "solved."

...Kierkegaard (under one of his pseudonyms) once wrote...in his “Works of Love”...if all that is real is merely sensory experience, then perhaps the first thing any reasonable person should do away with is love.

His point is that the greatest truth of life is somehow shielded from a so-called "scientific" way of knowing.

I have always found him to be right on this point. In some sense, epistemology and spirituality converge. How can I claim to know anything metaphysical and have no spiritual experience of it? Conversely, how can I ever claim to have a legitimate spiritual experience and yet not be concerned with how it is known...?

So for example...in ancient Christianity the experience of the light of God was (and is) vital in discerning the truth....

When you talk about the light of God and epistemology it sounds like the idea some hold that people can't understand the Bible rationally but the Holy Spirit reveals it to them? You are referring to a 14th century debate regarding God's transcendence and eminence?

As I understand it, the divine, uncreated light of God is the culminating experience of Christian truth. Orthodox Christianity teaches that the way of salvation and life puts a person on the trajectory to encounter [God's] light. That is to say, "light" is not merely a metaphor for knowledge but something much more, something inextricably tied to pursuing and knowing God.

The nature of this light is what was debated in the 14th century, between the eastern and western Church.

The context of the disagreement was among monastics that had been experiencing God's light on Mount Athos in Greece. Was this experience an emanating, exterior creation of luminous activity? Was this God himself? And if it is God himself, then dare they think of the light as the very essence of God Almighty?

...Our Eastern Father, St. Gregory Palamas, defended the encounter of God's light as the very experience of God's uncreated energies.

...The reason this is important to epistemology is because it recovers the most important aspect of our faith that has been lost, noetic experience.

As we understand it today, to know something really well means that we have a discursive mastery over the information related to the object of knowledge. We "know" mathematical formulae, the layout of a city, each word of Shakespeare's prose, etc. This way of knowing is something good and helpful...but also limited to an aspect of reality that is conducive to it.

To put it simply, discursive thinking is an incomplete approach to reality...inadequate in apprehending the divine.

In contrast, Orthodox Christianity teaches that the highest knowledge one can attain is by the human nous—transliterated from the Greek and variously meaning "mind," "heart" or "spirit." The nous has been called the "eye of the soul." It is the immaterial piece of each of us that must be cleansed by God in order to "see" reality for what it is.

To "know" something in this way is immediate (or so I am told, for I have certainly not attained to any manner of spiritual mastery... Lord have mercy!). When the nous is purified, then a person's spiritual perception is heightened. The summit of this experience would be things like clairvoyance...in terms of gifting...and the experience of God's light in terms of encountering truth.

Outside of Christian Orthodoxy...various...spiritualities...claim similar things, I know. So, one might rightly ask, how is this different?

The Eastern Church has...a matrix of conglomerate ideas and practices aimed toward cleansing the nous and helping Christians prepare themselves to encounter God. These things include (to name a few things) confession, ascetic struggle, spiritual reading from scripture and tradition, the Jesus prayer, and the litany of virtues that lead believers toward a spiritual ascent.

The goal of these things is righteousness, which results in sobriety of mind. Ecstatic experiences, of themselves, are not the point. Our goal is to draw near to the source of light and life, God himself. Yet from the Old Testament to the New Testament and throughout the age of the Church, there is a continuity of experiences that testify to this truth, a bonafide spiritual science.

And so, getting to the particulars of your question, "knowing the Bible" is something possible on multiple levels. On the one hand, there is the fact that, let's say, the Canaanite people really existed. Through archaeology, linguistics, and historical analysis, we can critically assess and sometimes further explain the reality of this people in the Bible....

But on the other hand, accepting moral instruction from St. Paul, learning to love God with all one's mind heart and strength, accepting Christ as "light from light, very God of very God," these things are apprehended differently. One has faith in their truth and with the cleansing of the nous, one comes to experience them also.

It is from this perspective that St. Maximos describes the immediate and qualitatively different experience of "seeing" the transfigured Christ on Mount Tabor.

"By the bright garments, they were taught, in a divinely fitting way, in an undifferentiated, simultaneous moment, both the magnificence that lies within created things consistent with the principles whereby they were brought into being, and the deeper meaning hidden in the words of Holy Scripture, into which the intellect may be initiated, and this happens because together with the knowledge of God comes the spiritual power of Scripture and the spiritual wisdom and knowledge of creation, through which God is manifested in ways that are proper to each." — St. Maximos the Confessor on the Transfiguration, from “The Ambigua” (On Difficulties in the Church Fathers)

I'm reading Alexander Schmemann's "For the Life of the World, have Timothy Ware's "The Orthodox Church," and have the Orthodox Study Bible. If you were going to recommend one or three books that represent your understanding, what would they be?

Those are excellent resources...with one caveat. The faith is meant to be experienced. And there is simply no substitute for the Eastern Orthodox Christian services. The very grace present in the whole of reality is gathered up in the rites of the church, especially in the the diving liturgy.

Having said that, here are three books that are dear to my heart:

Fr. John Romanides' “Patristic Theology.” Fr. John is...an academic [who] also preserves a traditional monastic teaching of what Christianity is and how it is to be approached. His “Patristic Theology” is a compilation of lectures that explain the nous (as we discussed above, the Greek word for: “mind,” “the eye of our soul,” or what the New Testament calls the human “spirit”). It also describes the encounter of God’s uncreated light, the divine essence/energies distinction and the Christiological teachings that dovetail with these spiritual issues. The work sharply delineates the differences between Orthodox Christians and others.

Fr. Seraphim Rose’s “Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future.” Fr. Seraphim is a brilliant man that also knew how to write to a general audience. This book is one of his most important works...because it keenly discerns and anticipates the religious ‘spirit’ of the age, especially in America, in light of the Orthodox Faith. “Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future” covers the growing movements of Hinduism, Charismatism, UFO encounters, globalism and more. This is one of my favorite books of recent memory and a veritable prophetic work from our current vantage point.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”...is considered a literary masterpiece by many (and, of course, I agree), but I am picking it as a testament to Orthodox Christianity because of its very real depiction of faith, despite a broken world. The problem of evil presented in the grand inquisitor section is especially of great importance. There are answers but perhaps not the kind that any of us expect.

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.