Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Last thoughts of the night....



Or "Before I go to bed" thoughts. Or maybe even: "If you can't welcome the stranger because he doesn't believe as you believe: screw him!"

Perhaps it's because I was up until 3 a.m. Sunday morning (don't ask), and got up at 7 to take my daughter and two of her friends to the Texas Renaissance Festival. A splendid time was had by all, and simply being out of the daily/weekly/monthly/annual routine (although this is the second year in a row we've gone) was enough to make me see life again as something definitely worth living.

Then I came home and read the intertoobz. Or rather, the comments to this post at Huffington Post. The third time I read some "atheist" insisting atheism had no doctrine (and yet insisting "God" is a "being," and so cannot have existence, or have it's existence proven, or something: an article of faith among all atheists who have no clue about theology OR philosophy of religion), I threw up my hands in despair over the number of people who couldn't see the author's point for their own personal myopia about how THEY WERE RIGHT and anyone who disagreed (ANYONE!) COULD JUST SUCK IT!

So I went to Whiskey Fire, to re-read a post I'm going to use in the future, and again, I made the mistake of reading the comments. And after about the fourth person talking about how "the most wonderful time of the year" actually SUCKS!, I decided real life really was like high school, and we're all trapped in a perpetual adolescence that the intertubes let us talk about and enjoy publicly and endlessly.

I mean, I know you can't expect truly intelligent conversation from any open forum where any person with access and a keyboard can respond to the topic, but honestly: "THE STUPID! IT BURNS!!!!!!"

I just gotta stay away from that stuff. And from eating chocolate covered espresso beans after downing a whole pot of coffee. No, that wasn't the reason for last night; but this experience brought back those memories.

I'm gettin' too old for this....*


*adding: everytime I read these yammering idiots (the uninformed atheists, I mean), I reflect on the fact that I am much more comfortable with ambiguity than they are, and much more aware of the complexities of existence, and none of this is a reason to feel superior in anyway. I tell myself that, anyway.

The Kids are Alright



I'm not an "evangelical Christian" in the contemporary understanding of the term. But if young "evangelicals" are saying things like this:

“Jesus, when he lived on this earth, was with the poor and the outcasts,” Ms. Liao said in an interview. “And I want to be where God was at.”
Then I stand in unity with them. We may still disagree on abortion or school vouchers, but we can agree on that. And they are putting their faith where their keister is.

“It’s not that we’ve rejected the issues that our parents were concerned about,” Mr. Soerens said. “We’ve widened the spectrum of issues that can be dealt with on a biblical basis and that our Christian faith speaks to.”
And how did this happen?

While still a student at Wheaton, Ms. Liao took part in a national conference about AIDS for young evangelicals. She volunteered on a weekly basis at a homeless shelter for gay men in Chicago. She met her future husband, Richard Liao, literally over the ladle at a soup kitchen.

Every experience served to confirm what Ms. Liao thought of as her scriptural mission statement, the passage in the Beatitudes that blesses the poor, the meek, the mournful, the oppressed.

As Ms. Liao’s conscience stirred, so did the community of Wheaton’s. Starting with a sprinkling of Vietnamese refugees in the late 1970s, the town and its scores of churches welcomed a growing stream of refugees — few of them white, many of them not Christian. World Relief opened here in 1984 and now has an annual budget of $3.7 million and a caseload of 5,000 immigrants and refugees.
God moves in mysterious ways. And it's almost always personal. As Wendell Berry taught me, you can't think globally and act locally. You can only think and act locally. You work with what is right in front of you; and that is the world, for you. To tell yourself otherwise, is to fool yourself. To act on that truth, is to be a Christian indeed.

Or enough of one, anyway.

"Welcoming the Stranger." A good lesson for Advent. A good lesson, indeed.

Do you see what I see?


Speaking of Biblical interpretation, via Raspberry Rabbit comes this review of R. Crumb's illustrated version of Genesis. Already I want to find room on the masthead for Gershom Scholem's observation "that the imperative for interpretation is the hallmark of all canonical texts."

"The imperative for interpretation." What a wonderful phrase....

And then we could have an interesting discussion about Crumb's interpretations. If only this were a book club, and we all had copies of the text....

First Sunday in Advent 2009: "A Day on Which Absolutely Nothing Happened."


Jeremiah 33:14-16

33:14 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

33:15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

33:16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."

Psalm 25:1-10
25:1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.

25:2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.

25:3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

25:4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.

25:5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.

25:6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.

25:7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness' sake, O LORD!

25:8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.

25:9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.

25:10 All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
3:9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?

3:10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

3:11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you.

3:12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.

3:13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Luke 21:25-36
21:25 "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.

21:26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

21:27 Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory.

21:28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

21:29 Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees;

21:30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.

21:31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

21:32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.

21:33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

21:34 "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly,

21:35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth.

21:36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."


What is a 'day'? Sidereal? The period of time between sunrise and the next sunrise? The 24 hours between midnights? How odd is that, that day ends and begins while we sleep. How, then, do we know the day has come? Because we believe the clocks? The calendars? The sun?

We know these things, but how do we know? We may not 'believe', yet the most common, everyday occurences which order our lives, are the matters of greatest faith. When is it midnight? When is it a new day? Without clocks, how do we know? Without calendars, how are we sure? And why do we accept that clocks and calendars are right? Who told us it was so?

So the day that is coming, the day that we will know the kingdom of God is near: what 'day' is that? And is it a day for all of us, a cosmic day, a universal day? Is it a sidereal day, one to be noted in red on a calendar for generations unborn to learn? Or is it an internal day, a personal day, a day you, or I, or someone in particular, will always remember, even if no one else noticed anything.

My friend in high school kept a calendar, and the year he married it was full of important dates related to his wedding day. His was in June, mine in May. Though he was in my wedding party, and I was his Best Man, nothing was recorded on my wedding date in his calendar. So one day I wrote on it: "Absolutely nothing happening" on the date of my planned wedding. And later he gave me a book of photographs from the wedding, photos he had taken. He titled the little book: "A day on which absolutely nothing happened." It did, of course. It changed my life, and the lives of my friends, and of my family and my wife's family. But was it a day? Did it matter to anyone except those involved? Could it be knowing the kingdom is near is like that?

Look again at what Jesus says:

"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
The Son of Man will be seen coming in a cloud...well, that's what they will say. And when these things take place, stand up. After? or before? And how will it come, again? Signs in the moon, sun, stars? No; like the leaves on the fig tree. Like an annual occurrence you can read from experience, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Except it will be unexpected and something no one has experienced, and so unlike anything you've ever known, and it will mean not the end of the time but that the kingdom of God is near. But the kingdom of God is already here. And surely it would be an apocalypse, a revelation (it is all that the Greek word means), to even know that kingdom was near, much less to know it was already and always here. And the Son of Man? How will you know it is the Son of Man?

Perhaps because he will look like that Magritte painting above. That's how Magritte imagined him. Perhaps he will look like that. Why not? It has a certain logical symbolism about it. Why could not God make it so? If the signs are going to be as simple as reading the leaves on a fig tree, who can say how the Son of Man will appear? Will you know him? Are you sure? What makes you think you can read the signs? Those in the sun and the moon and the stars seem to portend evil and great things. But the leaves on a fig tree? Doesn't anybody know what those mean? So which signs do we read? The cartoonish omens from a bad movie? Or the quotidian ones that indicate all is as it was before, and will be again? Is the Son of Man who we will recognize? Or who we will wonder about? And will the kingdom of God come in power and be forced on all the unbelievers, like every other kingdom humanity has ever known? Or will it be different this time? Is the Lord who is our righteousness going to establish a reign like the Pax Romana? Is the kingdom of God the imposition of the ultimate cosmic power?

Or is it the return of summer? The Psalmist says God is the one who instructs the student. Paul tells the church at Thessalonia that he prays for God to direct them. Where is the hand of God in this, the hand that coerces and commands and controls and brooks no argument? Where is the "Biblical" God of the "Old Testament" in "righteous anger" that we all know is the "real" God of Christianity, or at least of those "old" books of the Bible?

Why is Jesus telling us we can read the times as easily as we can read tree leaves? And notice what he warns us about:

"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."
This is an advent text, which means it is about keeping awake. That is the first call of the church every time the liturgical year comes around and begins again. Keep awake! And Jesus warns us not to get lost in the quotidian, "the worries of this life." He doesn't warn us against the dangers of war and earthquake and famine and cosmic disaster. He warns us against daily living, not "2012." Nations "confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves" is not a prediction of hurricanes and tsunamis: it's a mockery of how easily disturbed we are, how lightly we are thrown off our comforts. The sea and the waves always roar. If we are confused by them, whose fault is that? There are always signs in the sun and the moon and the stars, but what do they really mean? The Mayan calendar stops at 2012 because they cycle of their calendar ends then, not because time comes to an end. What signs are you reading? Those you think are in the stars? Or what the new leaves on the tree mean?

"Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man." It's a joke, not an admonition. A joke worthy of a Magritte painting, which allows you stand before the "Son of Man." What are you waiting for, the kingdom of God to come near? It's here. Proclaim it! What are you waiting for, God to act first? God has! The adventus is coming, it's only four weeks away. It returns every year at this time, have you not heard, have you not seen? What are you waiting for, a reason to act? You have it! Act now, avoid the rush, beat the crowds to the manger! What are you waiting for, a sign from the trees?

This could be the day. Or it could be another day on which absolutely nothing happened. The choice is yours. If you would be awake, be awake to that. And be aware the Son of Man could come looking like a surrealist painting. After all, it's almost a dream concept.

Amen.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Anticipation



Somewhere in late October or early November, the hits at this blog start piling up: people searching for information on Christmas or Advent, and often passing through here (Google loves me, this I know/For Sitemeter tells me so!). Long before Advent has begun, someone wants to know something about Advent. Long before the weather has started to turn toward winter (at least here in Texas, where the signal Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat is the turn from highs in the 80's to highs in the 70's), people are already turning their thoughts to the future. And then, this morning, reading the hometown paper in my parent's den, I note this headline:

"America Gives Thanks as '09 Gives Way to 2010."


Really? November 27 and it's "Happy New Year" already? I'd better get the Valentine's Day Decorations up, then! Time's a-wastin'!

I get the same increase in hits before Lent starts, and again weeks before Holy Week. Admittedly twice nothing is still nothing and my sampling is so small as to be statistically insignificant, but we do seem to have created an entire culture to living in a future which is supposed to be better than the present. Today, at 4 p.m., the stores were still open in America, so it was "too soon to tell" if Black Friday presaged a good or ill omen for America's retailers. This a reporter informed me with all seriousness. The reporter might as well have said it was too early to tell how the 21st century would turn out, but with a promise that, with the end of the first decade in sight, we'd know soon. Why must the future be known now, in the present? What happens to the future then? By the time we experience it, it isn't even the present any longer: it's already the past, we've already been there, done that, and we want the future we anticipated to hurry up and get here!

I suspect this is a "liberal" disease, too, one created by spending two much time imagining perfection, and turning away from a world that consistently fails to present it. Late that same evening I came across this post at TPM, which notes that Republicans are more likely to vote in 2010 than Democrats by 81% to 56%. Josh Marshall's sage conclusion?

On the one hand you've got very gunned up conservatives, who make up an even greater proportion of the diminished GOP. On the other you've got a mix of demoralized progressives and other Dems who feel like they got the job done in November 2008 and have checked out on politics ... at least for now.
Apparently we liberals conclude that either we voted for 'em, now they should do the dirty work for us (and PDQ, too!), or we voted, and now we turn away from the messy world to continue imagining the perfect one we'd have if only everyone thought as we did. Which is not to say we should all turn into Alan Grayson, either.

There's something peculiarly American about this, it seems to me, this constant rushing toward a future we can never catch up with, running away from a present we can't quite stand. I can understand not wanting to languish in times slow-chapped power, but this is ridiculous. Of course, hits to my blog are no sign of anything; a smaller sampling is harder to imagine. And the Xmas decorations going up earlier and earlier every year at the stores is understandable: today has become known as "Black Friday" because it supposedly puts retailers "in the black" for the entire year. But do we really dwell so much in the future that even the future is not here quickly enough for us, and the present is just an obstacle to our future happiness?

Everyone feels that way about Christmas by now. It's supposed to be the blessed event of the season, the perfect holiday family gathering which heals all wounds and makes good all expectations; and we start anticipating it in October. Not just in the stores, but on the TeeVee. Christmas TV "specials" crowd out Thanksgiving. A new version of "A Christmas Carol" could hardly wait for October for release. I think it may have already left the theaters. TV specials will crowd the airwaves (if there are any TV stations still actually broadcasting) between now and mid-December, in mad haste to get on and over with before December 25th. I hadn't expected to be looking toward New Year's Day until December 26th, but already I'm wondering if by then we won't already be done with that. Why the rush? Why the hurry? Why have we learned to hasten to the future as if the present was an unlivable reality and the future a place we could actually live if we could only get there in time?

I think there are two related sentiments here: one is a desire for perfection that can never be achieved, and so leaves some of us permanently frustrated with the present. The other is a desire for a future where we finally achieve that mythical "pursuit of happiness" Thomas Jefferson unfortunately, and certainly unintentionally, saddled us with. Jefferson undoubtedly meant, at best, that the pleasure was in the pursuit, but as a nation we've turned happiness into the Questing Beast, and cast ourselves all in the role of King Pellinor. It's something we will never catch, but we all seem to feel it is our ancestral duty to pursue it. The pursuit of perfection leaves us half-crazed with frustration, but the pursuit of the Questing Beast leaves us forever on the quest, and never at rest in the present. Indeed the future, the goal to be obtained, becomes a perpetual present, and while time doesn't come to a halt, it effectively ceases to exist, leaving us in a sort of limbo where we keep looking for temporal boundaries: Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Christmas Eve, Ash Wednesday, the first Sunday of Advent or Lent, the end of school/beginning of school, as measures of, at least, our progress. But rather than observe them, we constantly anticipate them, and by the time they arrive we've rushed past them, looking perpetually ahead to the future that is never coming and never arrives, but pulling it into the present so that present and future are obliterated in a constant Now experienced as Then. Except it isn't experienced; at all. Or just barely.

What would it be like, for once, to slow down? To not anticipate the future, even it's only December, or only Advent, or only the shopping days before Xmas; to not anticipate them, but simply to experience them? What would that feel like? Instead of judging the quality of the days, just to relish their quotidian nature? Instead of rushing to accomplish the future, we think only of the present, and what it requires of us? "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." "Give us this day our daily bread."

What if, instead of asking for so much, we asked for less? And then realized we already had it, and everything we need? What then?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009



Joel 2:21-27
2:21 Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the LORD has done great things!

2:22 Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield.

2:23 O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God; for he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.

2:24 The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.

2:25 I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent against you.

2:26 You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.

2:27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I, the LORD, am your God and there is no other. And my people shall never again be put to shame.

Psalm 126
126:1 When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

126:2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them."

126:3 The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

126:4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

126:5 May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

126:6 Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

1 Timothy 2:1-7
2:1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone,

2:2 for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.

2:3 This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior,

2:4 who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

2:5 For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human,

2:6 who gave himself a ransom for all--this was attested at the right time.

2:7 For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

Matthew 6:25-33
6:25 "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

6:26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

6:27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

6:28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,

6:29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

6:30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith?

6:31 Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?'

6:32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

6:33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

PRAISE AND HARVEST

Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, from whom cometh every good and pefect gift, we call to remembrance thy loving-kindness and the tender mercies which have been ever of old, and with grateful hearts we would lift up to thee the voice of our thanksgiving,

For all the gifts which thou hast bestowed upon us; for the life thou hast given us, and the world in which we live,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the work we are enabled to do, and the truth we are permitted to learn; for whatever of good there has been in our past lives, and for all the hopes and aspirations which lead us on toward better things,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the order and constancy of nature; for the beauty and bounty of the world; for day and night, summer and winter, seed-time and harvest; for the varied gifts of loveliness and use which every season brings,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For all the comforts and gladness of life; for our homes and all our home-blessings; for our friends and all pure pleasure; for the love, sympathy, and good will of men,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For all the blessings of civilization, wise government and legislation; for education, and all the privileges we enjoy through literature, science, and art; for the help and counsel of those who are wiser and better than ourselves,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For all true knowledge of thee and the world in which we live, and the life of truth and righteousness and divine communion to which thou hast called us; for prophets and apostles, and all earnest seekers after truth; for all lovers and helpers of mankind, and all godly and gifted men and women,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the gift of thy Son Jesus Christ, and all the helps and hopes which are ours as his disciples; for the presence and inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, for all the ministries of thy truth and grace,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For communion with thee, the Father of our spirits; for the light and peace that are gained through trust and obedience, and the darkness and disquietude which befall us when we disobey thy laws and follow our lower desires and selfish passions,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the desire and power to help others; for every opportunity of serving our generation according to thy will, and manifesting the grace of Christ to men,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For all the discipline of life; for the tasks and trials by which we are trained to patience, self-knowledge and self-conquest, and brought into closer sympathy with our suffering brethren; for troubles which have lifted us nearer to thee and drawn us into deeper fellowship with Jesus Christ,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the sacred and tender ties which bind us to the unseen world; for the faith which dispels the shadows of earth, and fills the saddest and the last moments of life with the light of an immortal hope.
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

God of all grace and love, we have praised thee with our lips; grant that we may praise thee also in consecrated and faithful lives. And may the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.
AMEN.


THANKSGIVING

Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, from whom cometh every good and perfect gift, we call to remembrance they loving-kindness and they tender mercies which have ever been od old, and with grateful hearts we would lift up to the the voice of our thanksgiving.

For all the gifts which thou has bestowed upon us; for the life that thou hast given us, and the world in which we life,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the work we are enabled to do, and the truth we are permitted to learn; for whatever of good there has been in our past lives, and for all the hopes and aspirations which lead us on to better things,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the order and constancy of nature; for the beauty and bounty of the world; for day and night, summer and winter, seed-time and harvest; for the varied gifts of loveliness and use which every season brings,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For all the comforts and gladness of life; for our homes and all our home-blessings; for our friends and all pure pleasure; for the love, sympathy, and good will of men,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For all the blessings of civilization, wise government and legislation; for education, and all the privileges we enjoy through literature, science, and art; for the help and counsel oj those who are wiser and better than ourselves,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For all true knowledge of thee and the world in which we live, and the life of truth and righteousness and divine communion to which thou hast called us; for prophets and apostles, and all earnest seekers after truth; for all lovers and helpers of mankind, and all godly and gifted men and women,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the gift of thy Son Jesus Christ, and all the helps and hopes which are ours as his disciples; for the presence and inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, for all the ministries of thy truth and grace,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For communion with thee, the Father of our spirits; for the light and peace that are gained through trust and obedience, and the darkness and disquietude which befall us when we disobey thy laws and follow our lower desires and selfish passions,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the desire and power to help others; for every opportunity of serving our generation according to thy will, and manifesting the face of Christ to men,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For all the discipline of life; for the tasks and trials by which we are ained to patience, self-knowledge and self-conquest, and brought into closer sympathy with our suffering brethren; for troubles which have lifted us nearer to thee and drawn us into deeper fellowship with Jesus Christ,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

For the sacred and tender ties which bind us to the unseen world; for the faith which dispels the shadows of earth, and fills the saddest and the last moments of life with the light of an immortal hope,
WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD.

God all all grace and love, we have praised thee with our lips; grant that we may praise thee with also in consecrated and faithful lives. And may the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.

AMEN.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How shall we sing the LORD's song in a strange land?



Psalm 109:

1Hold not thy peace, O God of my praise;

2For the mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the deceitful are opened against me: they have spoken against me with a lying tongue.

3They compassed me about also with words of hatred; and fought against me without a cause.

4For my love they are my adversaries: but I give myself unto prayer.

5And they have rewarded me evil for good, and hatred for my love.

6Set thou a wicked man over him: and let Satan stand at his right hand.

7When he shall be judged, let him be condemned: and let his prayer become sin.

8Let his days be few; and let another take his office.

9Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.

10Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.

11Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour.

12Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children.

13Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.

14Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the LORD; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.

15Let them be before the LORD continually, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth.

16Because that he remembered not to shew mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy man, that he might even slay the broken in heart.

17As he loved cursing, so let it come unto him: as he delighted not in blessing, so let it be far from him.

18As he clothed himself with cursing like as with his garment, so let it come into his bowels like water, and like oil into his bones.

19Let it be unto him as the garment which covereth him, and for a girdle wherewith he is girded continually.

20Let this be the reward of mine adversaries from the LORD, and of them that speak evil against my soul.

21But do thou for me, O GOD the Lord, for thy name's sake: because thy mercy is good, deliver thou me.

22For I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me.

23I am gone like the shadow when it declineth: I am tossed up and down as the locust.

24My knees are weak through fasting; and my flesh faileth of fatness.

25I became also a reproach unto them: when they looked upon me they shaked their heads.

26Help me, O LORD my God: O save me according to thy mercy:

27That they may know that this is thy hand; that thou, LORD, hast done it.

28Let them curse, but bless thou: when they arise, let them be ashamed; but let thy servant rejoice.

29Let mine adversaries be clothed with shame, and let them cover themselves with their own confusion, as with a mantle.

30I will greatly praise the LORD with my mouth; yea, I will praise him among the multitude.

31For he shall stand at the right hand of the poor, to save him from those that condemn his soul.

I would say, in the beginning, that this is a "difficult" psalm for worship, because it refers throughout to an individual. There is little room here for the collective voice, the corporate spirit of the body of believers. That's not an insurmountable obstacle, of course. Psalm 22 is in the first person, too, as is Psalm 23. And really, it isn't the personal narrative of the Psalm, it's the call for retribution; the same problem that keeps Psalm 137 from being heard regularly in worship, even though almost everyone knows the first six verses:

1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

4 How shall we sing the LORD's song in a strange land?

5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
We generally cut if off after that, and for good reason. It's not a universal psalm; it's a psalm of Exile, a lament of the homeless, but "home" here means, not a dwelling or a fixed abode, but an entire country. In that context, the desire for brutal vengeance is understandable, if still shocking. Out of that context, well....

But take Psalm 109 a few verses at a time, and notice the logic of its narrative:

1Hold not thy peace, O God of my praise;

2For the mouth of the wicked and the mouth of the deceitful are opened against me: they have spoken against me with a lying tongue.

3They compassed me about also with words of hatred; and fought against me without a cause.

4For my love they are my adversaries: but I give myself unto prayer.

5And they have rewarded me evil for good, and hatred for my love.

6Set thou a wicked man over him: and let Satan stand at his right hand.
The wicked man has beset the psalmist, and despite showing love and good, the psalmist has been paid with evil. So what does he ask for, except that the evil man be paid in like coin? Not a remarkable sentiment, but not exactly a vengeful one, either. What the psalm asks for is justice, and while Christians understand the plea for justice to be one that falls on the just and the unjust alike, it's still not an un-Christian sentiment to turn to God and ask for it, especially in the name of the poor.

7When he shall be judged, let him be condemned: and let his prayer become sin.

8Let his days be few; and let another take his office.

9Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.

10Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.

11Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labour.

12Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favour his fatherless children.

13Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out.

14Let the iniquity of his fathers be remembered with the LORD; and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out.

15Let them be before the LORD continually, that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth.
Now that's pretty clearly the "difficult" part, and while C .S. Lewis and St. Augustine might prefer more metaphorical, and thus "theological," interpretations, that won't do. For one thing, I still remember the first lesson I learned in seminary, from the first day of my first class in studies of the Hebrew Scriptures. The professor, the dean of the school, announced that the scriptures we were about to study were not written as a prelude to the Christian scriptures of the "New Testament," and shouldn't be understood that way. It was an invaluable lesson, and obviously one I've never forgotten. This stands several centuries of Christian exegesis on its head, but it also undermines (and underscores) the hoary seminary joke about exegesis bringing "extra-Jesus" to the scriptures. So let's take the words of the Psalm at face value and in context, and try not to import, any more than necessary, an outside frame of reference (and certainly one as foreign as Christianity would have been to the original psalmist) into them.

What these words ask for is obliteration, the removal of the wicked from the earth. And really, who can argue with that? The argument with this call is almost entirely Christian (which does not negate it; but in fairness, this argument must be held in abeyance for a moment): such an obliteration would wipe out all, since in Christian humility all have sinned and fallen short. But that is Augustine's theology, from the 4th century. Already we are engaging anachronism to apply it retroactively to words that couldn't possibly presume Augustine's Platonic Christianity. Set aside that frame, and the words become less remarkable, or notable only for their seeming vitriol. But we already know the sin of this person who should be condemned, and the claim by the psalmist is not entirely personal (although it is the psalmist who has been beset):

6Because that he remembered not to shew mercy, but persecuted the poor and needy man, that he might even slay the broken in heart.

17As he loved cursing, so let it come unto him: as he delighted not in blessing, so let it be far from him.

18As he clothed himself with cursing like as with his garment, so let it come into his bowels like water, and like oil into his bones.

19Let it be unto him as the garment which covereth him, and for a girdle wherewith he is girded continually.
What is being asked for is the reward for evil, a reward brought on not by the curse of the psalmist, but by the actions of the condemned. And notice what this person has done; he has persecuted the poor and needy man, and "he might even slay the broken in heart." This is a man who "remembered not to show mercy." And this violation is not upon the psalmist, but against the covenant. The right understanding of these words is not that an individual seeks vengeance, but that a member of the group seeks to preserve the order of the community. As Krister Stendahl put it:

It is pointed out that for the Jew the Law did not require a static or pedantic perfectionism but supposed a covenant relationship in which there was room for forgiveness and repentance and where God applied the Measure of Grace.
That "covenant relationship" is not between me and God, but between the nation (understood as a familial or tribal relationship, not in the post-19th century geo-political sense) and God. As a member of that nation, it is the responsibility of all to uphold the covenant. Think of the inverse of Abraham's famous argument with God: if only 10 people are found to be just in Sodom and Gomorrah (where the sin was failing to show hospitality, not homosexual acts), then surely the cities should be spared. This is not, in other words, collective guilt, but a sense of collective responsibility. The evil man has defied the basic rules of the covenant. Of course he should be expunged from the community; not to keep it pure and holy, but to establish basic justice. By the same token we all want to see the criminal punished, if only to establish that crimes against society (i.e., other persons) cannot be allowed, lest all order and justice decay into chaos and anarchy.

The nature of the punishment, of course, is still the central issue. I'm not trying to re-write this Psalm, even as I try to understand it.

The Psalmist goes on to make this attack by the evil man a personal one, again. But no attack by an evil person is ever without impact on someone; all evil is ultimately personal to some victim:
20Let this be the reward of mine adversaries from the LORD, and of them that speak evil against my soul.

21But do thou for me, O GOD the Lord, for thy name's sake: because thy mercy is good, deliver thou me.

22For I am poor and needy, and my heart is wounded within me.

23I am gone like the shadow when it declineth: I am tossed up and down as the locust.

24My knees are weak through fasting; and my flesh faileth of fatness.

25I became also a reproach unto them: when they looked upon me they shaked their heads.
That last line is perhaps the most telling. How do you become a reproach to someone, if you are not also, in some measure, their responsibility? And how do you become their responsibility? Who, as the lawyer asked Jesus, is my neighbor? The answer under the covenant was clear. The answer given by Jesus, is equally clear, if somewhat broader; or at least less open to limitation. But here also is a person about to be obliterated, and what justice exists in that? Even Job's life was not taken from him; surely the psalmist is justified in asking that he be spared, as he is faithful, and that the wicked be removed, as that is all they deserve. And included in this prayer for vengeance, is a prayer for salvation:

26Help me, O LORD my God: O save me according to thy mercy:

27That they may know that this is thy hand; that thou, LORD, hast done it.

28Let them curse, but bless thou: when they arise, let them be ashamed; but let thy servant rejoice.

29Let mine adversaries be clothed with shame, and let them cover themselves with their own confusion, as with a mantle.

30I will greatly praise the LORD with my mouth; yea, I will praise him among the multitude.

31For he shall stand at the right hand of the poor, to save him from those that condemn his soul.
A prayer not all that distant from the concluding verses of Psalm 22, a psalm which gets heard in many churches during Holy Week.

There is the issue of sin in this psalm. Our modern understanding of the term is complex (to say the least), but it is also almost entirely the product of Augustine's Confessions; which is to say it is not at all the understanding that a pre-Christian, and more particularly pre-Augustinian, psalmist would have. What Krister Stendahl wrote about interpretations of Paul equally applies here:

...it is exactly at this point that Western interpreters have found the common denominator between Paul and the experience of man, since Paul's statements about 'justification by faith' have been hailed as the answer to the problem which faces the ruthlessly honest man in his practice of introspection. Especially in Protestant Christianity--which, however, at this point has its roots in Augustine and in the piety of the Middle Ages--the Pauline awareness of sin has been interpreted in the light of Luther's struggle with his conscience. But it is exactly at that point that we can discern the most dramatic difference between Luther and Paul, between the 16th and the 1st century....
And, of course, the even more dramatic difference between Paul in the 1st century, and the Psalmist, in another country, another age, concerned with other problems than the conversion of the Gentiles.

It's the opening that intrigues me: "Hold not thy peace, O God of my praise;" It seems to me a gentler form of this cry from Isaiah:

64:1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence--

64:2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil-- to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

64:3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
A familiar sentiment at Advent, it turns out. It's the plea to God that is most interesting to me, because it sets this call apart from a mere cry for vengeance. This is a cry for justice from the author of justice, and yes, the person calling for it is not disinterested in the outcome, but who among us could be, and call the result, or the demand for it, justice?

So after all that wandering through the lines, where do I come down on this? I agree with Stephen Chapman of Duke University: "Imprecatory prayers were meant to remind the faithful of the covenant they held with God and the consequences that would follow if that covenant was broken." Although I have to say I made it all the way through seminary with ever learning the term "imprecatory prayers," and I don't put much stock, as a theologian, in the concept of categories of prayer. I understand it's use as a scholarly or even literary term, or a term of Biblical studies; but I don't understand the categorizing of any prayer made sincerely. Maybe it's the Pietist in me.

What of the psalm itself? What is a Christian reading of it? Well, you have to begin with the context of the prayer, which is the covenant with Israel. Misunderstand that, and you misunderstand the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures. Even the term "Old Testament" used to pay homage to that concept, if only slightingly. Put the psalm back in that context, and what do you have? A prayer for God to do justice. But Christianity reminds us that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, and any prayer for justice is a prayer against the interests of the one praying, as well as against those the "imprecation" is called down on. Ultimately this is still, in a Christian sense at least, a prayer of humility: the imprecation called for is pressed upon God. For Christians, it is a prayer offered like any prayer: in the context of "the Lord's prayer." So whenever we ask that a sinner be punished, we ask that we be punished, too. "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." You can pray this psalm as a Christian, so long as you end with those words; so long as you keep those goals in mind; so long as you remind yourself your anger can be taken to God as well as your praise, but God is not you, and you are not God. This prayer asks for justice; so does the prayer of Our Savior. This prayer asks for God to rule; so does the prayer of Our Savior. This prayer asks that the poor be saved. So does the prayer of Our Savior. And both prayers remind us: be careful what you pray for; because you might get it.

If we remember that, there is no evil in this prayer, and no room to offer it as an "imprecation" against Barack Obama, or anyone else, because we realize we do not stand outside a charmed circle, or inside one, and what we asked for is always visited upon us first. Are prayers of imprecation, then, Christian? Only if they are prayers that begin with "God have mercy on me, a sinner." Any Christian prayer that does not begin there, cannot truly be said to be a prayer.

IMHO, anyway.

There's a Biblical warrant for that humility, too; warrant that pre-dates the Gospels. Psalm 19:14:

14Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.
Which is why it helps to read the whole, and not just the parts.

Amen.

Inconclusive unscientific postscript: Southern Beale (via Bouphonia) finds the source of the original "prayer", and makes the point for both of us.

Monday, November 23, 2009

War is Peace


Bumper sticker seen on the back of a Lexus also sporting two very faded magnetic "ribbons" and a John Cornyn sticker:

If you want peace
FIGHT FOR VICTORY!


The irony should speak for itself; but apparently it can't. Of course, it wasn't that long ago that a pistol was called "The Peacemaker", and then a missile system got the same appellation. As we prepare to enter the holy season of Advent (well, "we" being some Christians, and not all of us, even then), the appeal to a Pax Romana is especially appropriate. And trenchant.

1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

2(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

3And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

4And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

5To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

6And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Pearls Before Swine


I suppose I should say something about Psalm 109:8; or rather, all of Psalm 109. Or perhaps all of the Psalms. Well, why not all of the Scriptures?

I agree that Psalm 109 falls into the "difficult" category* (though I'd never go to C.S. Lewis for exegesis), along with Psalm 137:

1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

4 How shall we sing the LORD's song in a strange land?

5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

6 If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

7 Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

8 O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

9 Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
It made a fine Bob Marley tune, and a nice song for the eucharist scene in "Godspell," so long as the last five verses weren't used. There are many such Psalms in the Psalms. Matthew puts one, the first lines of Psalm 22, in Jesus' mouth on the cross. And while it ends with hope and reassurance, and leads almost directly to Psalm 23, Psalm 22 is certainly a song about the depths of despair. Which is a modern malaise we all identify with (or think we do), whereas the quest for vengeance, for justice on the level of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, is not supposed to be in our hearts or even in our scripturs anymore. So this is a "difficult" psalm; and made more difficult when it is taken out of context, chopped into little bits, and sprinkled on our civic discourse like so much parsley or seasoning or, in this case, like sprinkles on a political ice cream cone. The problem is not just the abuse of this psalm in this way; it's the abuse of scripture in general.

As I grow older and move deeper into what it means to be a minister (especially a minister without pulpit, a sort of rojin pastor), I reflect more and more on how Scripture, the holy texts of Christianity,* should not be used among people who do not understand the context of the words. If it weren't such an offensive image, I'd use the Biblical image of casting pearls before swine: except the people who are casting the pearls in the case of linking a prayer for the President to Psalm 109:**, are the swine, and the scriptures, even this "difficult" psalm, are the pearls. So the metaphor falls down; yet if I apply it as Jesus did, I'm as offensive as Jesus originally was; because, outside of Luke's gospel, there's little evidence in the gospels that Jesus was that concerned with the sensibilities or even the concerns of Gentiles. That concern comes from Paul, who never mentions the teachings of the historical Jesus, and from Luke, who is basically Paul's biographer. (This isn't to say Jesus scorned Gentiles, but he clearly gave them little attention or concern in the other synoptics, or in the Gospel of John, where Jesus is actually "schooled" by a non-Jewish woman!). The metaphor, you see, comes out of its context; and perhaps even in it's context it is "difficult" today. But that's only another reason not to throw it around freely, or to blithely use Scripture as if the audience one addresses all knows and understands those words as you do. As a pastor of a church I found out all too often that assumption was invalid inside the four walls of the sanctuary (and all too often the error was assumed to be mine; everyone is sure their interpretation of Scripture is the right one, and the pastor should mainly reinforce it. It's quelle scandale, as we say in Lubbock, when he/she does not.) Outside the confines of the believing community, it's getting harder and harder to find people who even know the "Bibilical stories" of Adam and Eve, or Jonah and the whale, or Noah and the Ark; much less any who understand the Psalms as the "prayerbook" of the Bible. In Calvin's church the only source for sung verse was the Psalms; but after 19th century America and Charles Wesley, almost no Americans know any of the Psalms beyond "The Lord is My Shepherd" (which everyone knows, like "The Lord's Prayer," only in the KJ version. Which is another matter....) But as I learned over the course of four years in seminary: unless you understand the scriptures from a confessional basis, you don't really understand the use or meaning or import or proper approach to the scriptures. They may be read as literature (I've taught them as such myself), but that is not the understanding of the Church Universal. While some passages in Scripture may be "difficult" (Psalm 109 is hardly the only one), that difficulty is changed by a confessional approach to those same passages. It's an approach only available to, and only understood by, the members of a community, and meant to be communicated only to those members by other members, be they ordained or lay. Even then, it is usually poorly understood, or even misunderstood. As time goes by, however, I become more and more convinced that, especially if the scriptures are "holy," heilige, set apart to remain pure, they must be handled as such, and not bandied about in secular discussions or political arguments as if they had only one meaning, one interpretation, one understanding, and we all, believer and non-believer alike, agreed on it.

The Scriptures, especially when used in an exhortation to prayer (itself a heilige practice which has no place in the public arena, be that arena a former basketball court, or in a TV studio in front of a camera crew), are misused when they are taken out of the community of believers and used to persuade or assault persons outside that community (which can be another community of believers as surely as it is a secular and wholly non-religious, or at least non-Christian, community). The problem with this "slogan" is not just the other verses in the Psalm, or the "difficult" nature of the words, or even the non-Christian application of those words to another person (who is permitted by "judge not, lest ye be judged," to judge another worthy of death from the hand of God, and ask for that death?). The problem with this slogan is that scripture is, to the believer, the living Word of God and a source of light and life to the believing community. It is a source of finding and understand the most Holy God. It is not a commodity, and it should not be treated as such. Those that do, damage all of us; and perhaps themselves, most of all.



*Though I will point out the Psalm tells a story, and ends with these words:

30 I will greatly praise the LORD with my mouth; yea, I will praise him among the multitude.

31 For he shall stand at the right hand of the poor, to save him from those that condemn his soul.
It is, in other words, a Psalm seeking vindication by a righteous person, a person faithful to God. And part of the rebuke here is of the rich who condemn the poor; a hard attitude to disagre with, for me; though I suspect the people using this Psalm don't think President Obama is abusing the poor. The question of righteousness, as Krister Stendahl has pointed out in the context of understanding Paul, is a vexed one, almost a cross-cultural and anthropological one. Suffice to say in this short space that Psalm 109 should not be read out of its original context, nor read so simply as to be merely the words of a crank or an angry person. As Kathleen Norris reminds us, the Psalms are probably the most human document in the Scriptures. Reading them, we see ourselves, warts and all. Difficult, yes; but what would be more appropriate in a collection of books about the relationship between Creator and the Creation?


**and Judaism, but I only speak as a Christian

Thursday, November 19, 2009

It's mighty reckless....


Schools in Texas are adept at inculcating positive attitudes toward capitalism. A study conducted in the Dallas area suggests that children start school holding rather naive notions about economic matters. At an early age, they believe in economic equality and support government-sponsored efforts to redistribute economic resources across society. As they progress through school, they come to value private property, private enterprise, and private possessions and become suspicious of labor unions and government. Moreover, they believe that the poor, if they so desired, could improve their economic status and climb out of poverty without any government assistance. One observer concluded that Texas's schools serve "primarily as a mechanism not only to legitimate the corporate order, but also the general structure of social inequality in American life."
--James W. Lamare, Texas Politics: Economics, Power and Policy. 7th edition. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, Belmont, California 2001, p. 18.

I keep telling people I was never that good a student in school....

Christmas is coming....


In their observances of Christmas, Americans had begun to create a symbol of non-denominational Protestantism that fit well into the pluralist culture in which they lived. The festive air of churches, draped with nature's greenery, shining with candles, and filled with music, invited wary strangers to enter. Inside, they could imagine a haven in which old and cherished values survived, a world removed from an ever more complex and confusing temporal one. Church visitors and members alike could bypass the theological questions that divided them along sectarian lines and participate together in the pomp and ritual of the services. Synthetic, short-lived, and to some degree superficial, this association of believers at Christmas helped satisfy a vague but growing need to identify and solidify a sense of community that went beyond the confines of church walls.
Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America. New York: Oxford University Press 1995, p. 33.

Ms. Restad is writing about America in the early 19th century, not America in the early 21st century. I thought the context might need that much explanation.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cake? Or Death?



Because this is a little too bitter to leave standing alone for long:

I'm driving in this morning, and get this information on the radio as a "teaser" for a show I don't normally listen to, and I don't have the information at my fingertips for a link, which means you'll have to take my word for it; but it makes sense to me. It seems the greatest worry of the people of Afghanistan (remember them?) is not violence or the Taliban: it's poverty. Good ol' grinding, wearing, "Third World" poverty. In Afghanistan the strength of the central government, if this teaser can be trusted, doesn't matter nearly as much as the inability to feed themselves, or provide for their families.

Gee, maybe they're like us after all, huh?

Somewhere alone the line we decided, as a people, that poverty matters far less than security. We came to the conclusion that prosperity literally flows from the end of a gun, because without security nobody can own anything or rely on the future to provide more than today's daily bread. Security is what society must provide first, and then prosperity will flow from all the freedom all those guns and guards and walls provide freedom for.

Or something like that.

And yet, just off the top of my head, I think of the USSR, and how secure it was, across Russia and into Eastern Europe. Stalin especially made everyone secure, except, of course, his enemies. And that security continued up until the fall of the Berlin Wall. That Stasi of East Germany was notorious for making sure everyone was secure; and yet who was more prosperous: East Germany, or West Germany? Who was more prosperous? Europe, or Russia? Anarchy and chaos are hardly conducive to prosperity, except for the criminals, but do law and order command prosperity, bring it along in their wake? Even a quick glance at recent history belies the notion.

But we worship "the market" as if it were a great, green god, and an inscrutable one: a god completely oblivious to our prayers for intercession, to our pleas for benison. "God helps those who help themselves," we say; but we don't mean the God of Abraham, we mean the market when we say that, and we mean the market is a god, but one of the old gods: one of the gods who rains blessing and curses apparently indiscriminately, apparently without regard, building up and tearing down on a whim or a plan we can never discern. Law and order is a plan we can discern. Law and order is something we can use to impose control. Law and order makes things, well...orderly. Or at least we think it will, if we just have enough of it. And if there is no order yet well, then, just a little more, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.

Or shall it?

Prosperity flows, not from our control, but from mystery. Prosperity is recognized in faith. We have a long history of humanity that teaches us this, a history that stretches back to the very roots of our Western civilization, a history that teaches social justice leads to prosperity, not force of arms or military power:

Woe to him who says,
"I shall build myself a spacious palace
with airy roof chambers and
windows set in it.
It will be paneled with cedar
and painted with vermilion."
Though your cedar is so splendid,
does that prove you a king?
Think of your father: he ate and drank,
dealt justly and fairly; all went well with him.
He upheld the cause of the lowly and poor;
then all was well.
Did not this show he knew me? says the Lord.
But your eyes and your heart are set on naught but gain, set only on the innocent blood you can shed,
on the cruel acts of tyranny you perpetrate.

Jeremiah 22: 14-17 (REB)

And as I've noted before, citing Walter Brueggemann, Solomon's reputation for wisdom was purchased, not earned, and his interests were in being a military power, not in being just:

Jump ahead about 400 years, to the impending Babylonian Exile. Now comes Jeremiah, descended from a long line of priests, from that very village where Solomon exiled the priest who had supported his brother. And now Jeremiah tells the reigning king:

Let not the wise boast of their wisdom,
nor the valiant of their valour;
let not the wealthy boast of their wealth;
but if anyone must boast, let him boast of this:
that he understands and acknowledges me.
For I am the LORD, I show unfailing love,
I do justice and right on the earth;
for in these I take pleasure.
This is the word of the LORD.

There is a direct rebuke of the descendants of Solomon there. Solomon who purchased his wisdom and his palace and his power and even the Temple, with his central concern for Solomon, and what Solomon could obtain, and own, and control. Solomon who used his control of horses and chariots to exact tribute (read: taxes) from others; who used the location of Israel along the trade routes to exact a toll for what passed through the land, and made sure the money went to Solomon, not to the community. Solomon cared about Solomon, not about:

How good and pleasant it is to live together as brothers in unity!
It is like fragrant oil poured on the head
and falling over the beard,
Aaron's beard, when the oil runs down
over the collar of his vestments.
Is is as if the dew of Hermon were falling
on the mountains of Zion.
There the LORD bestows his blessing,
life for evermore (Psalm 133)

The LORD bestows the blessing freely. Solomon makes sure the blessing is recovered and rewarded to Solomon. Solomon, like the Pharoah, says there isn't enough to go around: not enough money, not enough power, not enough wisdom, and I, Solomon, must control it all, must deal in it, must buy and sell in all the marketplaces, of arms, of ideas, of palaces, even of religion. Because of this, says Jeremiah, comes the Exile.
And, just because I've said it before, and there is no need to reinvent the wheel:

It can't be said too often: the Exile that shattered Israeli history like a brick through a window, that set Western civilization on the course to expect an apocalypse and an eschaton and a Messiah (from Christianity to Star Wars to the Matrix), did not come about because of the apostasy of Israel, but because of the injustice of Israel. Solomon wanted to preserve Israel by military force, too. That way, however, is always the path to injustice and failure. Ezekiel gives us the picture of God's spirit leaving the Temple because of the abominations performed there, because it is no longer holy.
We needn't consider ourselves a holy country, the chosen of the God of Abraham, to take the lesson to heart. Security is never achieved first, and prosperity second, and social justice a dismal third or fourth. And we should note that, not only did the Exile become the defining feature of Israelite history; it became one of the defining events of Western civilization. The prophets promised the people of Israel that one day all nations would stream to Zion, drawn by their justice and righteousness as the true children of Abraham, as a people blessed by God the Creator. The yin to that yang, if you will, is that the nations are just as affected by the unrighteousness of Israel, which caused God to leave them to their own plans and schemes and their own dreams of prosperity achieved through military power, not faith and trust in justice.

When will we ever learn?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"This is an outrage, it's an abomination; and there is a moral duty here."

1000 people in New Orleans at a free healthcare clinic. 90% have two or more diagnosed problems; 82% diagnosed with life threatening conditions. 4 taken directly to hospital: do not pass "Go," do not collect $200. Not all of them "poor," but none of them with insurance.



And tonight Keith adds that only 1000 were treated because New Orleans, 4 years after Katrina, still doesn't have the medical equipment necessary to treat people who are ill or injured. The equipment the clinic needed was simply not available to borrow, not even for one day, not even for 1000 people. As Gene Robinson said to Keith, this is an outrage and an abomination. And there is a moral duty here.

And we should be ashamed, but we don't even notice. We should be appalled, but we don't even care. Personally, socially, perhaps as Christians or Jews or Mustlims or atheists or simply human beings, we care. In small groups, perhaps we care. But politically, as a nation? We don't give a shit. The pictures of New Orleans drowning, those horrific pictures of 4 years ago, aren't on TV anymore; and we don't care. We never did. The poor of New Orleans existed because we didn't care. The drowning and abandonment of New Orleans happened because we didn't care. Four years later, we still don't care. New Orleans lacks medical facilities, medical equipment? Who knew? Who cared? Who cares now?

Individually, perhaps we do. As a people? We don't care enough to not even give a shit. We're obsessed with Sarah Palin, or whether Obama bowed to a foreign leader, or even over what he's doing or not doing about health insurance reform (it isn't health care reform now, everyone has admitted that). We don't care. We don't care. We don't care.

Thanksgiving is coming, and we will once again congratulate ourselves on how much we care. It's a lie. We don't care. Men and women are dieing and suffering and being injured and broken in Afghanistan, ruined for life; and we don't care. New Orleans is still recovering, New Orleans has been abandoned, the poor in this country have been abandoned: and we don't care.

Give thanks for what you have this year. Give thanks because it is yours, and you have it. Give thanks you aren't poor, in New Orleans, or anywhere else in America, or in the world. Give thanks, and don't consider for a moment that while we might be compassionate, as a nation: we just don't care.

Government of the people, by the people, and for the people, is only for the people we care about. Give thanks you are among them. That's all it means, anymore.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Soup's Still Hot!



I could blame Wounded Bird, and give this immediate relevance, but I should rather confess the limitations of my education, and admit I just found this poem today, though its application seemed immediately obvious.


Show me dear Christ, thy spouse so bright and clear.
What! is it she which on the other shore
Goes richly painted? or which, robb'd and tore,
Laments and mourns in Germany and here?
Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?
Is she self-truth, and errs? now new, now outwore?
Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?
Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights
First travel we to seek, and then make love?
Betray, kind husband, thy spouse to our sights,
And let mine amorous soul court thy mild Dove,
Who is most true and pleasing to thee then
When she'is embrac'd and open to most men.


--John Donne

There's more than one interpretation of that closing couplet, and Donne certainly loved paradox and contradiction. But I can't read it at least as a reference to that Protestant shibboleth, the "Whore of Babylon," which puts quite a twist on Dr. Donne's sentiment that the church must be a place of true hospitality, open to all*

*Yes, it is my hobbyhorse. And hooray for Dr. Donne!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

November 11, 2009


I like this picture. It reminds us that in the midst of life, we are in death. It reminds us that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, and what we know of those witnesses are their bones. Their bones, and our memories. Hamlet in the graveyard would say that's all that's left:

There's another: why may not that be the skull of a
lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillets,
his cases, his tenures, and his tricks? why does he
suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the
sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of
his action of battery? Hum! This fellow might be
in's time a great buyer of land, with his statutes,
his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers,
his recoveries: is this the fine of his fines, and
the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine
pate full of fine dirt? will his vouchers vouch him
no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than
the length and breadth of a pair of indentures? The
very conveyances of his lands will hardly lie in
this box; and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha?
...
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?
Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come; make her laugh at that. Prithee, Horatio, tell
me one thing.

HORATIO

What's that, my lord?

HAMLET

Dost thou think Alexander looked o' this fashion i'
the earth?

HORATIO

E'en so.

HAMLET

And smelt so? pah!

[Puts down the skull]

HORATIO

E'en so, my lord.

HAMLET

To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may
not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander,
till he find it stopping a bung-hole?

HORATIO

'Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.

HAMLET

No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with
modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as
thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of
earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he
was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!
But the fact that we are here to remember it proves him wrong. One cannot blame Hamlet; he is a young man just facing the prospect of mortality, struggling with whether or not to give death (donner le mort, "the gift of death") to Claudius, whether to accept death himself. That we are dust and bones cannot be denied; that that is all we are, can.

This picture reminds us that it is through this material world that we know what we know, and it is through this material world that we know who we know. The absolute dichotomy of dualism is false, especially when it leads to what Dom Crossan labels "sarcophobia." This image reminds us of that, too. The bones that once saw and spoke and mocked and grinned, also bore witness to the incarnation represented by the Madonna and Child that sit before them. And they still bear witness to it. They bear witness to it's reality in time as well as in space as well as in flesh and blood. Reality, which is not to be confused with existence. The bones bear witness to existence, but where is that? Present only in memory, present only as a memory. And if there is no memory, was there no existence? Was their existence insignificant, unimportant, pointless? Did they suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to no purposeful end except to avoid what might come after? Did conscience indeed make cowards of them all?

Or did they bear witness to what they bear witness to now? Being dead, is their communication "tongued with fire beyond the language of the living"? And how do we know they are dead, or were ever alive, except as they were, and are, still a part of this world?

PEACE

O Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon us.
Thou that sittest at the right hand of the Father, have mercy upon us.
Arise, O Christ, and help us,
And deliver us for thy Name's sake.

AMEN.

O Christ, when thou didst open thine eyes on this fair earth, the angels greeted thee as the Prince of Peace and besought us to be of good will one toward another; but thy triumph is delayed and we are weary of war.

SAVE US AND HELP US, O LORD AND MASTER.

O Christ, the very earth groans with pain as the feet of armed men march across her mangled form.

SAVE US AND HELP US, O LORD AND MASTER.

O Christ, may the Church, whom thou didst love into life, not fail thee in her witness for the things for which thou didst live and die.

TEACH US TO DO THY HOLY WILL, O LORD AND MASTER.

O Christ, the people who are called by thy Name are separated from each other in thought and life; still our tumults, take away our vain imaginings, and grant to thy people at this time the courage to pro-claim the gospel of forgiveness, and faithfully to maintain the ministry of reconciliation.

TEACH US TO DO THY HOLY WILL, O LORD AND MASTER.

O Christ, come to us in our sore need and save us; 0 God, plead thine own cause and give us help, for vain is the help of man.

SAVE US AND HELP US, O LORD AND MASTER.

O Christ of God, by thy birth in the stable, save us and help us;
By thy toil at the carpenter's bench, save us and help us;
By thy sinless life, save us and help us;
By thy cross and passion, save us and help us.

SAVE US AND HELP US, O LORD AND MASTER.

Then all shall join in the Lord's Prayer.

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

--The E&R Hymnal

Friday, November 06, 2009

What Happened near Killeen


First, the story itself is horrific: a man armed with automatic weapons does the maximum amount of carnage/damage one can do, in the amount of time between the first shot and the "first responder" who brought him down. There is a reason military bases maintain very tight control over weapons on base: they know what those firearms are capable of.

But imagine trying to set up metal detectors at a military base covering nearly 160,000 acres, with a population of over 33,000. I've lived in town smaller than that, attended schools smaller than that. Establishing a "gun-free" zone in such an area is literally impossible. Yet the military does everything it can to do so, anyway.

The horrific irony of the location is that Killeen, Texas was almost single-handedly responsible for the concealed weapon law in Texas. In 1991 George Hennard drove his truck into the Luby's in Killeen, got out, and went on a shooting spree. As Wiki notes, Suzanna Hupp, one of the customers in the Luby's who survived, later testified to the Texas Legislature that, had she been allowed to carry her handgun into the restaurant, she could have brought down Mr. Hennard and ended the carnage. Of course, had Ms. Hupp and several other customers been armed, who would the shooter be, and how could anyone be sure there weren't accomplices?

Yesterday, on a military base with people trained in first aid and combat, the scene was total chaos. The alleged assassin was brought down during the shooting, and yet, per news reports this morning on NPR, it was several hours before officials realized the man being operated on with four bullet wounds was the suspect in the crime, not a victim; and that the woman being treated for gunshot wounds was the person who stopped him. There were, for hours, stories of multiple shootings and multiple assailants and suspects. The scene, in other words, was chaos, in a place where people are trained to handle chaos as well as any of us can.

So consider how much worse it might have been had everyone on that base been armed, and able to respond. We are so accustomed to shootings in the movies that we are sure if it happened near us, we'd already know who the shooter was, and so who to shoot. But real life is not a movie, and our eyes are not the camera which tell us who to pay attention to, and who is going to pull out two automatic handguns and begin firing. Underlining my point:

Officials are not ruling out the possibility that some of the casualties may have been victims of "friendly fire," that in the mayhem and confusion at the shooting scene some of the responding military officials may have shot some of the victims.
Which, of course, is the kind of thing that never happens in the movies!

The sad irony of Killeen, one noted in news reports yesterday which mentioned the Luby's shooting from 18 years ago, is that once again we find out guns are the problem, not the solution. But we will praise the police officer (rightly) who stopped the crime, and pay little attention to the criminal's ability to commit the crime in the first place.

In the meantime:

1 God is our refuge and strength,

a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore will not we fear,

though the earth be removed,
and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
3 though the waters thereof roar and be troubled,

though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof.
Selah.
4 There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God,

the holy place of the tabernacles of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of her;

she shall not be moved:
God shall help her, and that right early.
6 The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved:

he uttered his voice, the earth melted.
7 The LORD of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Selah.
8 Come, behold the works of the LORD,

what desolations he hath made in the earth.
9 He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth;

he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder;
he burneth the chariot in the fire.
10 Be still, and know that I am God:

I will be exalted among the heathen,
I will be exalted in the earth.
11 The LORD of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our refuge

May the wars indeed cease unto the end of the earth, and the bow be broken, the spear cut asunder. God's peace and mercy to those who died, who were wounded, to their families, and to all the families on Fort Hood.