Monday, December 31, 2007

"I may make you feel, but I can't make you think."--Jethro Tull

Alright; for the three people (or so) still checking in to see if I have anything to say about the end of the year:

I'm watching "Wag the Dog" ("I saw it on TV") and thinking about this NYT editorial where the Grey Lady finally catches up with left blogistan and reality (better late than never? Sometimes, no, too damned late), and I'm thinking: after 6 years and a movie that so perfectly nailed the manipulation of sentiment and public opinion that has become American Everything (Idol, Politics, Policy, Governance, You-Name-It; Hailey Barbour telling the good people of Mississippi that Congress was wise to let Mississippi decide how to dole out federal recovery funds for Katrina victims, and Mississippi in its wisdom denies money to victims of wind damage. Well, the reasoning is people who didn't have property insurance don't deserve a gov't handout. Unless, of course, the damage was to a major port facility; then money needs to be diverted for that. And I remember the civil rights struggle of the '60's and why we needed to take these decisions away from state governments...and here we go again)...

So, as I was saying, I'm watching "Wag the Dog" and the bathos and pathos and sentimental claptrap that even the fictional POTUS won't go along with until Dustin Hoffman takes five minutes in the Oval Office to give the speech the POTUS says is "too corny," and all the White House female staff leave the room weeping...WEEPING!....and Willie Nelson writes a "We Are the World" song and then a faux folk song about a dog and an old shoe and the CIA tries to declare an end to the war and they get the old end run run on them and....

We saw it all 4 years earlier and we still bit and we're still biting (Americans still, supposedly, think Republicans are more to be trusted on fighting terrorism than Democrats), and the NYT has finally decided this might not be a good thing but their answer? Their final, considered answer?

We can only hope that this time, unlike 2004, American voters will have the wisdom to grant the awesome powers of the presidency to someone who has the integrity, principle and decency to use them honorably. Then when we look in the mirror as a nation, we will see, once again, the reflection of the United States of America.
Um, hello? "Awesome powers of the Presidency"? Did Keanu Reaves have a say in the re-write? How about we elect a Congress which will curtail those "awesome powers" no President should have in the first place? How 'bout we all sit down and watch this movie and see just how this was done to us, since recent history obviously offers no guide at all....

So, as I say, I'm watching all this, and I'm thinking about 2007, and what I have to say about the year just past is:

Good Riddance.

2008 can get worse (it can always get worse!). But I'll have to see it to believe it. And I'm goin' on to see it.

Onward through the fog. Peace love woodstock, y'all. May it be a good and blessed one for all three of you stumbling along here looking for a blessing. Or at least an idle pastime between the celebratory Jell-O shots.

Better luck next year.

Δόξα έν ΰψίστις θεώ κάι έπί γηςείρήνη έν άνθρώποις εΰδοκίας--Luke 2:14

(You can't blame me; it's from National Geographic. So it's educational. Besides, it's Hogmanay!)

Friday, December 28, 2007

Massacre of the Innocents-2007

The Nativity story is a good story. Bound up with it is another story, one that barely gets noticed outside the liturgical church calendar. It is very short, tied tightly to the Epiphany, and occurs almost entirely off-stage:

"When Herod realized he had been duped by the astrologers, he was outraged. He then issued a death warrant for all the male children in Bethlehem and surrounding region two years old and younger. this corresponded to the time [of the star] that he had learned from the astrologers. With this event the prediction made by Jeremiah the prophet came true:
'In Ramah the sound of mourning
and bitter grieving was heard:
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refused to be consoled:
They were no more.' " (Matthew 2: 16-18, SV)

The power of the state is part of this story: for Luke, it is the census that forces Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, and her "great with child." For Matthew, it is Herod's fear and insecurity.

In the medieval play “The Play of Herod,” they take this massacre as seriously as the coming of the Magi, as the birth of the Christchild. An angel is sent from God to console Rachel, but she refuses even the aid of God. She refuses all comfort. Of course she does; she is a grieving mother; her children are gone. What comfort can be offered to her? This is real; this has happened. What else could be felt, except bottomless grief, except the sucking, horrible pain of loss?

This is not Matthew reaching for yet another scriptural reference to support his nativity story. This is not Matthew trying to shore up his tale with yet another appeal to authority. This is Matthew telling us he has no words for this horror, and he must borrow words just to be sure we feel it as it was felt by those grieving mothers and fathers. This is not Matthew telling us this is true, because scriptures predicted it. This is Matthew telling us someone else, someone earlier, described it, caught the horror of it, knew what it felt like. This is Matthew telling us this is real.

Don’t confuse “real” with “true” here. True is what the evidence says you have to accept. Matthew doesn’t offer evidence, because Matthew isn’t concerned with proving this to be true. Matthew offers us Rachel, refusing all consolation, because for this story, that reaction is real. Can you feel it? Then you know what Matthew is talking about. You know the character of the people Jesus is up against, and Jesus at this point, no more than two years old. Matthew is reaching here, not for authenticity, but for reality. If this child is truly who Matthew wants to say he is, this is how the world would react. If the birth of kings are the only important births worth noticing (and in Matthew's day, they were, an idea borrowed from the Egyptians. Even the celebration of the birth of Christ would be criticized as Egyptian, and so pagan, for the first few centuries of the church), then this birth must disturb the world, at least the world represented by Herod.

If you know Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of Carols," perhaps these words will start to insistently pound in your head, as they do in mine:

This little Babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan's fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak, unarmed wise,
The gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows made of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh his warrior's steed.
His camp is pitched in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall;

The crib his trench, hay stalks his stakes,
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus as sure his foe to wound,
The Angels' trumps alarum sound.

The words are Robert Southwell's, but Britten sets them to an insistent, pounding rhythm, gives them a sense of urgency that threatens to break with sense and almost induce panic. In Britten's version the words rush out, tumbling over each other in their potency, their sheer physical need to be spoken, rising to a crescendo on the last line as the Angel's trumps alarums sound. That is the noise that wakes Herod from his comfortable dream.

In "The Play of Herod," as I said, they took these words very seriously, and that in a day when no Christians were truly being persecuted anywhere in Europe for their beliefs. We only imagine persecutions today; we comfort ourselves with our sense of martyrdom. But if we do so, once again, it is all about us. Rachel cannot be comforted, but that is not where the play ends:

Did they somehow invent a happy ending? Nothing of the kind. The ending is not happy, it is a great mystery. For there is a Te Deum sung: "We praise you, God, we confess you as Lord." The greatest chant of praise. This is sung by Mary and Joseph, processing through the audience, but they are joined in their song and procession by the animals and the angels, by the shepherds, by the lamenting Rachel and the parents of Bethlehem, and they are joined by the soldiers and their victims and by Herod. Knowing that (Hopkins again)

we are wound
With mercy round and round. . . .

they all, incarnate God and all creation, even death, tyrants and martyrs, all process and all sing praise. And we sing too, and find ourselves in the procession.

"Today we can't imagine it. We take our Christmas with lots of sugar. And take it in a day. Though we've been baptized into his death, we have little time for or patience with how that death is told at Christmas, a death that confuses lament and praise forever. And no wonder we are careful to keep Christmas at an arm's length. What is Herod in these times?"--Gabe Huck
It isn't about us; and it isn't about our triumph, and life is not supposed to be sugar-coated and dandy just because we now "believe in God." We don't want there to be a cost to everything, especially to what we want, but that makes us Herod. We don't want to be Herod, but we don't want to acknowledge that there is a price to everything we want. We want to forget that. But Rachel can't forget. Jeremiah (whom Matthew is quoting), can't forget. Matthew can't forget. Not even Luke can forget. When Jesus is presented at the Temple, Simeon sings the last song in Luke, the Nunc Dimmitus, and it is the only song in Luke that is a song of death, but still a song of triump:

Now, Lord, you are releasing your servant in peace,
according to your promise.
For I have seen with my own eyes
the deliverance you have made
ready in full view of all nations;
a light that will bring revelation to the Gentiles
and glory to your people Israel.
And then he turns to Mary and says:

34And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;

35(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
Why does this story never wear out? Well, in this case, because it is always coming about, again and again. Much like the Massacre of the Innocents. It is a part of the world we are called to redeem; called by the child in the manger, by the little two year old who threatens kings and whose life prompts horrors as well as blessings. "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace...." No, says the Lord; not yet. Not just yet. There is still much for you to do.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Post Holiday Stress Disorder

because what I learn from the MSM and left blogistan, is that:

1) Time Magazine really loves strong men and autocratic leaders, even if they aren't really good for a country.

2) The ideal entrepeneur is a person who is good at manipulating other people into doing the work for him, so he can take all the credit and benefits arising from his manipulation.


The religious shift in America away from Christian self-identification strikes me as a demographic shift of at least equal importance to the growing income inequality gap, the rise of the creative class, and even to large the influx of Latino and Asian immigrants around the country....

I have to admit, I just don't get why few other seem to be talking about this one. Demographically speaking, this is a generational gap at least equal to anything that separated the Boomers from their parents.
Well, yeah, but let me introduce you to the work of Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist who has made a career studying just these issues. Let me introduce you to the work of T.S. Eliot, who saw this going on 60 years ago. Let me introduce you to the people in mainline churches who have made careers talking about this very issue to pastors, seminarians, congregations, anyone who will listen and has seen this happening and is concerned about it. Frankly, the issues mentioned: immigration, rise of the "creative class," even income inequality, are just buzzwords in the "national discourse," which is neither national nor a discourse (I thought blogs had already established this point?). So, speaking as a pastor and a someone concerned about the fate of the church, I'm glad church demographics is not part of the "national discourse." The "national discourse" is rich white men on both coasts talking to each other about what matters to the country, without ever asking the country's input (except via polls and election returns) and, largely, withouth the country listening (except for left blogistan, and what percentage of the country are they, really?). For this proposition, I give you "Exhibit A". By the time a topic gets into the "national discourse," its pretty much a spent force (so much safer that way, when nothing about the narrative really has to change!). Which, further, means that if it really matters to the people involved, they already know about it, and don't need the MSM telling them what's going on (I thought left blogistan had established that, too!).

And what gets said in the "national discourse" has always struck me as having about as much impact and making about as much sense as a Congressional resolution. It may be disturbing that our putative leaders are engaged in such nonsense, but at least it means that, for that amount of time, they did no real harm. Which isn't saying much, really; is it?

And speaking of the national discourse:

4) Thanks to technology, we can get a Presidential candidate who still argues about the causes of the Civil War on Meet the Press. (Video, if you want to watch this being said, is here.) Ain't the internet grand? What did we do before it came along? Watch football?

5) We can still do that, thanks to the tireless efforts of Sen. Leahy. Apparently he can do nothing about Alberto Gonzales or his toady of a replacement; he can't take a decisive stand to reinstate habeas corpus, shut down Gitmo, or protect American privacy rights, but he can make sure people in New England get to watch a football game. This is the kind of leadership we need in Congress today.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Last one out, please turn off the lights...

Athenae sent me to the Adam Gopnik story on NPR from earlier this week, and while it was a good comment, the summary of it on the website flipped my switch:

Commentator Adam Gopnik loves everything about Christmas, gaudiness included, because to him it represents an idea — that oppression can produce new beginnings, and that a light can go on in the middle of darkness.

Can I just say I'm full bore sick of the "light in the middle of darkness" stuff?

You look up the "history of Christmas," you get this kind of stuff:

The middle of winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. Centuries before the arrival of the man called Jesus, early Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. Many peoples rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight.
Well, yeah, maybe. But why then, do we, in a world so industrialized that seasons mean little more to most of us than whether or not we need a coat when we go outside, still put up lights at the end of the year? Because we're afraid of the dark? Or because it's aesthetically pleasing?

I have a book about one young Irish girl's memories of a rural Irish Christmas in the mid-20th century. For an agricultural society, the coming of winter meant rest and living off what was provided from the summer. Meat was prepared and animals slaughtered to provide food for the winter, and where there was little food storage capacity or preservation possible, most of that food had to be eaten soon. By the time spring came around larders were usually empty. Not quite so grim a story is told in that book, of course, but she makes it clear the season was an agricultural necessity, not a social or anthropological one. The solstice mattered less than the weather, and the fact livestock had to be wintered over, and crops couldn't be tended. It was also a time to celebrate after a long period of hard work; a time to rest and recover and get ready for all the demands of spring. So, when I put up Christmas lights, am I afraid of the dark and wishing the sun would come back? Or do I just think they're pretty?

And what makes me any different from people in Scandinavian country 3000 years ago? They were superstitious fools, and I'm not? Feh.

Then, of course, there's the simplistic stuff like this:

Although some evidence suggests that his birth may have occurred in the spring (why would shepherds be herding in the middle of winter?), Pope Julius I chose December 25. It is commonly believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival.
And this, mind you, is on The History Channel's website, and is the "REAL" story of Christmas. Bah, humbug. You want a real history, you look at something like this:

Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts; Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday; Arnobius (VII, 32 in P.L., V, 1264) can still ridicule the "birthdays" of the gods.

The first evidence of the feast is from Egypt. About A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria (Strom., I, xxi in P.G., VIII, 888) says that certain Egyptian theologians "over curiously" assign, not the year alone, but the day of Christ's birth, placing it on 25 Pachon (20 May) in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus. [Ideler (Chron., II, 397, n.) thought they did this believing that the ninth month, in which Christ was born, was the ninth of their own calendar.]
If you wade through that (as you should, if you want to know something verifiable about history), you reach this conclusion:

The present writer in inclined to think that, be the origin of the feast in East or West, and though the abundance of analogous midwinter festivals may indefinitely have helped the choice of the December date, the same instinct which set Natalis Invicti at the winter solstice will have sufficed, apart from deliberate adaptation or curious calculation, to set the Christian feast there too.
In other words, as that Irish family knew in the 20th century: on the farm, the time of year that falls in December is a good time for a feast!

Now, as to this information, first note that this is a Catholic encyclopedia, and yet there is no mention here of Pope Julius I setting the date. In fact, the whole question of the date is clearly far more complex than that. Looking back from 1700 years later, we tend to flatten out "the church" and forget that, for centuries, there were "churches" in, as this entry recognizes: Rome, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Constantinople, Antioch, as well as Cyprus, Mesopotamia, Armenia, and Asia Minor. Church historians, of course,know this; but who wants to listen to church historians when we can tell simple stories pagan holidays that became Christian holidays (oh, those silly Christians and their "holy days!").

This is not to neglect the great irony that most of these arguments against holidays (pagans started it!) were advanced by the Puritans in America. History abounds in such ironies.

So how did the date of 25 December get selected? Nobody seems to know, exactly, but the process was not a simple one:

At Rome, then, the Nativity was celebrated on 25 December before 354; in the East, at Constantinople, not before 379, unless with Erbes, and against Gregory, we recognize it there in 330. Hence, almost universally has it been concluded that the new date reached the East from Rome by way of the Bosphorus during the great anti-Arian revival, and by means of the orthodox champions. De Santi (L'Orig. delle Fest. Nat., in Civiltæ Cattolica, 1907), following Erbes, argues that Rome took over the Eastern Epiphany, now with a definite Nativity colouring, and, with as increasing number of Eastern Churches, placed it on 25 December; later, both East and West divided their feast, leaving Ephiphany on 6 January, and Nativity on 25 December, respectively, and placing Christmas on 25 December and Epiphany on 6 January. The earlier hypothesis still seems preferable.
I would note that the Roman celebration is the earliest mentioned here, and it comes a good 70 yearsa after the Natalis Invicti had reached its peak of popularity. So the idea that Christians took over a popular Roman holiday is a weak one, indeed. The time of year may have been remembered, but the pagan holiday had long passed its prime by the mid 4th century.

As for the Saturnalia connection; fuggedaboutit!

The origin of Christmas should not be sought in the Saturnalia (1-23 December) nor even in the midnight holy birth at Eleusis (see J.E. Harrison, Prolegom., p. 549) with its probable connection through Phrygia with the Naasene heretics, or even with the Alexandrian ceremony quoted above; nor yet in rites analogous to the midwinter cult at Delphi of the cradled Dionysus, with his revocation from the sea to a new birth (Harrison, op. cit., 402 sqq.).
So, is this the "real" story of Christmas? I'm sure it's closer than some Pope in some century appropriating a pagan holiday in order to convert everyone to Christianity. Those explanations always smack of apocryphal material for a "Lives of the Saints" story: they may sound good, but they have little to do with reality. Do people today put up lights to bring the sun back? Then its not likely they did so in "ancient days," either. The New Advent entry covers several seasonal topics, and notes, for instance, that the "yule log" didn't become a public ceremony in England until 1577, hardly pagan times in Merrye Olde England at all. How did the ceremony even get started?

...probably the Yule-log in its many forms was originally lit only in view of the cold season.
Huh! And probably we put up lights in December because it's festive, and because the longer nights mean they'll stay lit longer and cheer us up until spring comes back. And maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with Mithra...or Saturn...d'ya think?

ADDENDUM: Just a footnote, because this kind of stuff drives me crazy. Again, from The History Channel:

In Germany, people honored the pagan god Oden during the mid-winter holiday. Germans were terrified of Oden, as they believed he made nocturnal flights through the sky to observe his people, and then decide who would prosper or perish. Because of his presence, many people chose to stay inside.
Silly, superstitious people! We don't fear mythical gods who fly by night! We fear a lone Muslim living in a cave in Pakistan, who robs us of our sleep and keeps us from shopping and triggers terror alerts. We fear brown people who will cross the Rio Grande and wreak untold havoc on us and will probably give us all leprosy! At least, that's what our pundits and politicians tell us, and why would they want us to be afraid needlessly? Much more reasonable to fear these things than to fear Odin!

Hmmmm...wanting to stay inside in Germany during the mid-winter. Can't imagine why anyone would want to do that, except for fear of a god flying by....

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas to All!

Still my favorite version of the story that, as Carl Sandburg observed, never wears out:

Merry Christmas to you all.

"Blue Christmas"

Alright, blogs are personal, right? So I can get personal here, right?

I left the practice of law in order to go to seminary (although one could as well say the practice of law left me). My first church out of seminary was anything but a shining success, and after a year, I left to take my second church. That lasted three years, and I haven't had a pulpit of my own since. I've even considered changing denominations; that fell through, too.

But I did at least two things right as a pastor; two public things that is. One was reviving the Christmas Day service at the church I served as a student; the other was starting a "Blue Christmas" service at every church I served, long before NPR "discovered" it. (Which goes to my point that, if it rises to the level of national attention, it's already old news.)

What makes all this personal? Well, I sometimes think I didn't do much right as a pastor, but I did do liturgy right. It's easy to think that's no accomplishment at all, arrayed against the people at two different churches who wanted me fired. But angry, bitter, and cowardly people (firing the pastor in a church is always a complex affair) shouldn't be the standard by which you judge your fitness for ministry. If you are too outcome oriented, only the outcome matters, and you may as well preach the gospel of prosperity and hope you get rich at it. There are other ways to be outcome oriented; and a sound liturgy is one of them.

Sadly, I sat down to write this, and find my "Blue Christmas" liturgies exist only in hard copies lost in files buried in my closet. They were created on a computer from nearly 15 years ago, and never made the electronic transition, so I cannot dazzle you with my brilliance. Just as well, of course; liturgy is about worship, not about ego satisfaction. Let that be a lesson to me. Let me also just say that a good Advent/Christmas service which recognizes grief and loss at Christmas and yet affirms the presence of God, can be a very good thing. I hope if you need one, you've found one.

Perhaps soon I'll be able to offer one again; or at least get one of my versions on line.

Fourth Sunday of Advent--Soon, and very soon

Isaiah 7:10-16
7:10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying,

7:11 Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.

7:12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.

7:13 Then Isaiah said: "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?

7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

7:15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.

7:16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-1980:1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth

80:2 before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!

80:3 Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

80:4 O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people's prayers?

80:5 You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.

80:6 You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.

80:7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

80:17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.

80:18 Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.

80:19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Romans 1:1-7

1:1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,

1:2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures,

1:3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh

1:4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,

1:5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name,

1:6 including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

1:7 To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Matthew 1:18-25
1:18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

1:19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

1:20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

1:21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."

1:22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

1:23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."

1:24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,

1:25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
No angelic choirs; no visiting shepherds; not even a dramatic journey to another city under the harsh lash of an occupying power or visits from a heavenly messenger. Instead, the most human of stories: a pregnant girl, a worried man, and something learned in a dream. God does not intrude here; God steals in.

Even the birth itself is unremarkable. Joseph remains chaste with Mary "until she had borne him a son; and he named him Jesus." That's the clinching remark, the end of the story for Matthew's audience. To this day, our laws understand that the mother of the child is obvious; but the father of the child is still, presumptively, a legal relationship. Who is the father of this child? The man the mother is married to, answers the law. A "rebuttable presumption," but a presumption nevertheless. In Joseph's day that presumption was sealed by the father when he named the child. Doing so was not a casual act of patrimony; it was acknowledgment that the child was yours, and that you were responsible as the father. It was an act of acceptance. In that simple clause, Matthew tells us that Joseph took Jesus, for all the world to know, as his own. He accepted the dream.

It could have been a dream that murdered sleep, of course. Angels are disruptive and scary: not because they come trailing clouds of glory or perform awesome deeds in our sight, but because they are messengers, angelion, and only the rich and powerful employ messengers, and the messages they bring are seldom words of comfort and joy. For the rich and powerful to take notice of the lowly and humble, is seldom a good thing for the lowly and humble. And soon enough, Joseph will have to take his family and flee to Egypt to protect them from Herod, and all the families of Bethlehem will pay for this birth. No good deed goes unpunished. When the rich and powerful take notice of you, untarnished good cannot be expected to follow. The rich and powerful can be thieves, too. But this dream brings quiet and reassurance, and Joseph accepts this message by accepting his wife's first son. Good St. Joseph, indeed.

We know about dreams that murder sleep. Left blogistan has been recording them for years now, with a dreadful and relentless consistency. Consider the news today, and it seems God has stolen out, not in: New Orleans going further and further into memory as nothing changes. Pakistan, a fiscal black hole. Kentucky, where 1 in 10 people don't have teeth, because they lack access to dental care. We are better people than this. But why aren't we better? Now we know J. Edgar Hoover wanted exactly what we now have: the suspension of habeas corpus, the mass jailing of people considered "security threats." We were a better people then: we'd just fought a second world war, we faced a new threat, a nuclear threat, from an enemy who had just been, even if only of necessity, an ally. Hoover was scared, but we were a better people than that. Why aren't we better now?

Joseph, no doubt, was scared; and that fear was as real and potentially damaging to him as any fear some of us grew up with under the "nuclear shadow." Joseph was undoubtedly scared, but what reassured him? A dream; simply a dream. What wondrous love is this? Good St. Joseph, indeed.

The argument today, the topic du jour, always a day late and a dollar short, is that religion in politics is the problem. Only now is the influence of religion rising to the top of the national debate, which is a sure sign the influence of religion is ebbing, that it is going away. Once again we fear "God" is intruding, when already God is stealing away.

In fact, the most frustrating thing about God is the center of the Christmas story: God refuses to take charge. God refuses to come sweeping down on clouds of glory in an undeniable presence that would leave even Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hithchens beggared for explanation. God refuses to appear in overwhelming majesty and sweep all before Him and wipe away all resistance and establish a Pax Christiana. God, instead, steals our dreams, and replaces them with reality; a reality too wonderful to grasp, a reality impossible to accept or believe.

Good St. Joseph, indeed.

Soon enough, in Matthew's version, the Holy Family will be fleeing, not defying, earthly powers. As Rufus Wainwright will say of that trip, "And they were each one quite odd/A mensch, a virgin, and a god." We shouldn't lose the strangeness of that journey. We shouldn't lose the strangeness of this story. "Not. one. inch.," we say, to bolster ourselves to fight the good fight. God gave more than inches, Matthew says. God gave miles, and leagues, and whole countries up. The journey from Bethelehm to Jerusalem is now considered a short one. In Jesus' day, it was a long trip, and an arduous one. Imagine, then, the trip to Egypt, where you know no one. Jesus, says Matthew, began life as a political refugee, fleeing the violence of a man who thought this baby threatened his throne. How different is that from the children in Gitmo today?

We are more sensible people than this; but why aren't we more sensible? God, it seems, has stolen away again. Why do we let God do that? how do we prepare for the coming of a god who moves like a thief, and takes from us the certainty that we need? How are we supposed to prove anything from stories of dreams and miracles and new stars and massacres?

Maybe we need to take the long view. Isaiah's prophecy about the young woman who will bear a child, which the Septuagint and Matthew make miraculous by changing "young woman" to "virgin", ends on a note we little notice in our rush to the manger: "For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted." This is not a prophecy meant to come true, in other words, in the lifetime of King Ahaz. Nor is it necessarily a sign of miracles being done. It is a sign that life will go on, however, and that God's justice will prevail, because the powerlessness of justice is greater than the power of injustice, and the powerlessness of God is greater than the power of human desires. Long after the "two kings you are in dread" of have lost all power, a young woman will bear a child, as young women have been doing since time immemorial, and that child will bring new hope to the nation, not by being Samson or David, but by refusing evil and choosing good almost from the beginning. Won't this child be the Messiah? Perhaps; but there is a history of prophets and children with prophetic names, so perhaps "Immanuel" is not a designation of being, but a symbol of hope and faith. Perhaps that is all we ever get: faith, if we can claim it; hope, if we can accept it.

Advent prepares us to hope again, and it is coincident entirely with the winter solstice. We don't need assurance that light will return to our days, anymore than we put up Christmas lights because we are secretly afraid of the dark. We need preparation, though; our souls need to be stirred and rested, worked and allowed to be fallow, so that what is coming is not the end of parties and work and a brief respite before the next year starts everything over. Advent prepares us to see and accept and rejoice in the glorious impossible, in the power of powerlessness: that a helpless child is our greatest hope, that even God must flee the powers of this world in order to prevail, that retreat and withdrawal and a careful kind of secrecy, the movements of the thief, are sometimes the best plans of all. Advent prepares us for God with us, among us, like us. The first thing we have to do is to be ready, with the shepherds, with the outcast and outlaws and least regarded, to seek out the child in the manger and know who it is; and the second thing we have to do, is to be ready to protect it: like the Magi, who in a dream are told not to return to Herod; like Joseph, told in a dream to trust the messenger and take the family far, far away. Which makes Joseph like Abram, trusting a voice which tells him to take his family and travel, and the journey will be safe, the destination sure. A mensch, a virgin, and a god, refugees again by the action of the state, by the compulsion of the world. Why does this story never wear out? Because it is our story, and we see it again and again and again, every day now for at least 2000 years; and this time, we are asked to be ready, to prepare and to help, when the time comes, when we are asked.

Soon, and very soon....


Seasonal Tunes IV

This time, words and music.

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth sleep in feathers at their birth,
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.

Have you heard about our Jesus?
Have you heard about his fate?
How his mammy went to the stable on that Christmas eve so late?
Winds were blowing, cows were lowing,
stars were glowing, glowing, glowing.

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth
sleep in feathers at their birth,
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.

To that manger came then wise men,
Bringing things from hin and yon
For the mother and the father
and the blessed little son.
Milkmaids left their fields and flocks,
and sat beside the ass and ox.

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth
sleep in feathers at their birth.
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Jesus, Jesus rest your head

Following up on this post, I thought I'd try to find out what's going on now in Dallas with First Presbyterian and the homeless living on their parking lot. And I found this. No mention of business disruptions in this article; no comments from tenants near the church, disturbed by the impromptu homeless camp. But it's worse; it's the harsh reality of such places:

"These encampments are environmental disasters," [Ron Cowart, head of the City of Dallas'homeless outreach team] said. "They're cesspools of sickness like you've never seen before."
"We have found mounds of human excrement mixed in with carcasses of dead dogs," he said. "We have found that the vast majority of people who are there are physically sick with contagious diseases, everything from HIV to active tuberculosis."
"We have found women who live in the encampments, not 99 percent but 100 percent, every woman that lives in a box encampment is assaulted on a daily basis. The perception of the men there is that these women are living outside the embrace of society and they are fair game. They are raped every day of their lives."
"In very severe weather most homeless people will go to a homeless shelter, but they leave behind the sickest of the sick, the people who are completely debilitated from untreated mental illness. We have found people near death underneath soggy blankets in disintegrating boxes."
"We work our hardest on rainy, windy cold days," he said. "We found during the late spring sleet storm last year a woman wrapped up in three ice-encrusted blankets."

He told me about staph infections and gangrene. He said, "We do not believe it is morally acceptable to just walk away and leave people out there to die in those conditions. We must do better than that."
To it's credit, the city is trying to. A proposed ordinance would allow the homeless to spend the night in the Day Resource Center until a new shelter can open in February. But will that be enough?

The second crunch, however, is this: Hogan and Cowart say that in October and September of this year their outreach teams contacted 1,662 people who qualified for some form of voluntary treatment or shelter. But of those there were 227 who could not be placed anywhere because no space was available.

Dr. Clifford thinks on any given night the crunch can be far worse than even those numbers would indicate. "They put five people into beds, and the system is full," he said.

The mission of the police, as Deputy Chief Golbeck explained to me, is to enforce the law and preserve order. He cited instances in the past where the police have experimented with looking the other way. They found what First Presbyterian has found: Every loophole or rag of sanctuary becomes a gathering place and then a major problem. So their mission now is to close the loopholes.

But all the best efforts of the outreach teams and the private missions still fail to find places where all of the homeless can be safely housed and treated. The result is a cruel equation by which some of the homeless are not allowed to be anywhere. They are not allowed to exist.

It's perfectly understandable how all of this comes about. Everyone has the best intentions. But a condition that does not allow human beings to exist is evil and an anathema, and into that breach steps First Presbyterian.
Into this breach, as it has done for centuries, steps the church. Says Dr. Clifford, the pastor of First Presbyterian:

"We are called to serve them. They are the least of these in our community, and Jesus has taken up residence with them, according to the gospel, and he is to be found in their midst. We exist to serve Christ, and according to Matthew 25, that's where Christ is, so we serve them."
We like to say, at Christmas, that Mary and Joseph were homeless once, too. That's not quite right: the code of hospitality in Judea, today as in the first century, would have made the refusal to house family members anathema. If Luke's account were true, the census that compelled the Holy Family to Bethlehem would have meant some relatives lived there who would house them. In another sense, though, they had to rely on the kindness of strangers, of those they didn't know but could still make a claim on. The author of the article is right: this situation is evil. It cannot be allowed to continue. He is also right:

One of those lumps could be my former publisher's mother. My own loved one. Me. You. The lumps are people. They were all gorgeous children once, full of wonder.
It could even be the Christchild.

No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God--for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without povery of spirit there can be no abundance of God.--Oscar Romero

What if they gave a War on Christmas

and nobody came? Why, then we'd need posters to inspire them!

At this point, yes, I'm just cleaning up for the weekend. Sometimes I just love pictures (and if you can't see 'em, just click on 'em, they'll get bigger. No rude comments, please.).

And of course, we need something we can mail:

Certainly brings the War on Christmas closer to a person, doesn't it?

Now to get that little round headed kid who hates Xmas trees!

Seasonal Tunes IV

O radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal night, sun of justice:
Come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Third Sunday of Advent--My Soul Magnifies the Thief

A few days later, but better than never at all....

Isaiah 35:1-10
35:1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus

35:2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.

35:3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.

35:4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you."

35:5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

35:6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;

35:7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

35:8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

35:9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.

35:10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Luke 1:47-55
1:47 My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

James 5:7-10
5:7 Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.

5:8 You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

5:9 Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!

5:10 As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Matthew 11:2-11
11:2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples

11:3 and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"

11:4 Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see:

11:5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

11:6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

11:7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?

11:8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.

11:9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.

11:10 This is the one about whom it is written, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'

11:11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
One should tell a joke in a sermon, so this looks like a good place for one:

One World War II Quaker conscientious objector had been a professional wrestler. Once when he and some other inmates of the Coshocton CPS camp in Ohio made a trip into town, they were hassled about their pacifism by some local youths, who insisted that only force could change the German's views.

In response, the ex-wrestler took off his coat, challenged one of the local boys to a match, and promptly threw the townie across the room. He then asked the youth, "Now do you believe that force won't change people's views?"

"Heck no!" the local boy hollered back.

"That's exactly my point," said the Quaker, who put on his coat and left.
Mary's song is one of the most subversive in Scripture; which is why it is little noticed by Protestants. I knew about it, growing up, but only vaguely. Advent services in my Presbyterian church, such as they were, never focussed on the "Magnificat". The traditional Latin name alone sounded too Papist, but made it mysterious and exotic for me, growing up in Southern Baptist East Texas. Zechariah's Benedictus was more favored, with its references to the blessings Messiah would bring. We knew, of course, the Gloria, and I learned a choral version of the Nunc Dimmitus that I still wish I could find again, and learn. I only have a portion of it left me, and the incomplete music haunts me.

But the Magnificat is the crown jewel of Luke's four songs in his gospel. Interestingly, the Gospel of John starts with a song, too, the so-called "Hymn to the Logos." There are more than a few connections between John's gospel, and the gospel we attribute to the unknown "Luke." But the songs are some of the best part; and yet they are never considered Christmas songs, even though, arguably, they are the first Christmas songs ever.

The first two chapters of Luke practically read like a musical, with people bursting into song spontaneously. Angels we apparently expect to sing, especially at such a world-changing moment; but people burst into song in Luke; unfortunatly, we don't have the music, only the words. But what words he gives us:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
And all because God has chosen a teenager, a "young girl" as Isaiah originally put it, to mother the Messiah. But what does this mean? Does it mean Israel will rise to a greater power, throw off the yoke of Rome, rule the known world? No. It means God is a thief, coming to steal the comfort and security of the thrones of the powerful away from them, and to lift up the lowly. God is the usurper of social order, the one on the margins who takes away everyone's security, the burglar who scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, the thoughts of their security and power and comfort and position and authority. Thieves destroy all sense of these things. Thieves take all comfort away.

I heard a report from Baghdad this morning, about a lull in the violence, a seeming return to normal in that ravaged city, that chaotic country; but it was followed by a story of a bombing just today, in a private mosque, in a "secure" area. Thieves, vandals, murderers, sucicide bombers: they all take away whatever thoughts of privacy and security we think we have. They all prove that our comfort is an illusion, our walls permeable, our defenses vulnerable. They expose our fears, they subvert our orderly existence. They are agents of chaos. How strange they should be so much like Mary's description of God.

There are differences, of course. God does not promise death and destruction and a new order built on power and murder and ruthlessness and corpses. Mary's God comes, not to steal from us for Godself, for God's enrichment, but for our sakes. Mary's God doesn't come to take from us what we need, but to return it to us. Mary's God comes to send us into the wilderness, where we can see and hear, truth.

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?

11:8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.

11:9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.

11:10 This is the one about whom it is written, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'

11:11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
In the wilderness, no one has social power, or authority, or the trappings of society. In the wilderness, no one wears soft robes; that's the dress for palaces, for societies dependent upon hierarchies and rulers. In the wilderness, the race is to the bottom, and social order is upended. Among people, no one is greater than John the Baptist, the man standing in the wilderness, dressed in animal hides, preaching to whoever will make the trip out to the wilderness to listen. You don't hear John in the agoria, in the marketplace, in the palace or even the Temple courtyard. You leave all those places, to hear what he has to say. You have to be prepared in order to listen to him. You have to give up your comforts yourself; no one, you see, will take them from you. You have to set aside what you think is good and right and proper, and go out to where those things don't matter, in order to listen. You need a new perspective. And you have to do it yourself.

"Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."
You have to see, you have to hear, and you have to go looking for it. You, in other words, have to be the thief. God does not come in the night to steal your life from you. You have stolen it from yourself. You have replaced your life with this world, with these things, with those thoughts; and God will scatter your thoughts with God's deeds. What will you do then? Go to the wilderness? Listen to the angel? Are you so sure the angel isn't speaking now, but you can't listen? Are you ready? Mary was ready, but perhaps just barely. Perhaps she was just wise, and kept quiet. Zechariah was not ready, and he was struck silent until he saw what he could not believe. The thief comes to restore our sight, and our speech. The thief comes to return us to ourselves.

God is not coming to take away from us what we have. God is coming to allow us to give it up. God is not coming to steal from us; God is coming to restore to us what we have taken from ourselves. God is not coming to turn things upside down; God is coming to turn them right side up. We are the ones who have inverted everything. We are the ones who worship power and honor those who sit on thrones above us. God is coming to restore order, not to destroy it. God is coming to restore justice, not to subvert it. God is coming as a helpless child, not to surprise us our perplex us, but to join us. God is coming as a powerless infant because that is the only way God can do what needs to be done. God is coming in the wilderness, because that is the only place we can truly see God, and stop seeing only ourselves. Not with force; force won't change us. The Lord comes in power, through powerlessness, and undoes nothing. The Lord urges us to undo it all ourselves, and be prepared. "Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near."

We have stolen these things from ourselves, from each other. We have stolen peace and comfort and security, in the name of peace and comfort and security. What could be more topsy-turvy than that? God is coming, not to destroy order, but to restore it.

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;

the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
The Lord magnifies all our souls, so we can see more clearly what is good. And the Lord is preparing the way, by urging us to steal from ourselves all that we count valuable, so we can cling to those things which truly have value: peace, goodwill, joy to the world. God is coming in hospitality, to bring us hospitality.

Soon; and very soon, the Lord will be here. The Lord will come, and will not delay.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Good grief!

Thers is right (as usual), this is positively ridiculous:

I've heard nothing this year about the "War on Christmas," except to catch a squib of O'Reilly while flipping channels. He had a story on about a small Massachusetts(?) town (New England, anyway; hey, I ain't no yankee! They all look alike to me!)

Well, that's the map I grew up with! Now, as I was saying: O'Reilly had some story about the selectmen of this town apparently not wanting Xmas lights up in the town. Or something. I came into the middle of the story and didn't really linger to understand it, but O'Reilly let slip that some viewer had told him the "War on Christmas" had been won, and Bill agreed, but said there would still be "skirmishes," citing the story as an example.

It is all bosh, of course, and nonsense; another lame attempt to generate a controversy (like immigration) so come segment of the population will have a reason to feel aggrieved. I'd call it peculiarly American, but sociology tells me it's peculiarly human, so we just have to learn to live with it. But the odd thing is, here in one of the buckles of the Bible Belt, with one of the largest Baptist churches imaginable (five "campuses" and it brags of "the largest single adult ministry in the United States), and hardly a hotbed of liberalism, yet I've not heard one local peep about a "war on Christmas." (Heck, they're freel advertising "Christmas at Second." I wonder if they've brought in a giant chimney and are planning a huge slumber party for the 24th?) And yet here is a small Baptist church in New York (where they are supposed to be more reasonable than the Southern variety. I know the Baptist churches in St. Louis were certainly less risible) puts up a ridiculous sign like this. As Thers says: "Christmas is not a curse word."

Honestly; has anyone who reads this been treated with the opprobrium due a drunken sailor for saying "Merry Christmas!" to anybody? Have the annual run of treacly specials been removed from TV in order to not offend anyone who doesn't "keep Christmas"? Well, of course not. And I understand victimization and whinging and all other manner of foolishness; but this just takes the cake.

And it was Jesus' birthday cake, too. I mean, really!

Oh, well. As a wise child once said: "This is one dog who's not going to ruin Christmas for me!"

I'm sure we can manage to do that all by ourselves.

Seasonal Tunes III

And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,

47And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

48For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

49For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.

50And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.

51He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

52He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.

53He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.

54He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;

55As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

67And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying,

68Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people,

69And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David;

70As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began:

71That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us;

72To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant;

73The oath which he sware to our father Abraham,

74That he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear,

75In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.

76And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;

77To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins,

78Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,

79To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

28Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,

29Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:

30For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

31Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;

32A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

Seasonal Tunes II

O Key of David, O royal power of Israel, controlling at your will the gate of heave: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and lead your captive people to freedom.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

Seasonal Tunes

"Spotlight on Christmas," by Rufus Wainwright

"The Rebel Jesus," by Jackson Browne

All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
As the sky darkens and freezes
Theyll be gathering around the hearths and tales
Giving thanks for all God's graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

Well, they call him by the Prince of Peace
And they call him by the Savior
And they pray to him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
As they fill his churches with their pride and gold
And their faith in him increases
But they've turned the nature that I worshipped in
From a temple to a robbers den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why they are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

But please forgive me if I seem
To take the tone of judgement
For I've no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In this life of hardship and of earthly toil
We have need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Soon, and very soon....

Genesis 16

The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. 8 And he said, "Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?" "I'm running away from my mistress Sarai," she answered.

9 Then the angel of the LORD told her, "Go back to your mistress and submit to her." 10 The angel added, "I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count."

11 The angel of the LORD also said to her:
"You are now with child
and you will have a son.
You shall name him Ishmael, [a]
for the LORD has heard of your misery.

12 He will be a wild donkey of a man;
his hand will be against everyone
and everyone's hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
toward [b] all his brothers."

13 She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: "You are the God who sees me," for she said, "I have now seen [c] the One who sees me." 14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi [d] ; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

Genesis 18

1 The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. 2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.
3 He said, "If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, [a] do not pass your servant by. 4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5 Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant."
"Very well," they answered, "do as you say."

6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. "Quick," he said, "get three seahs [b] of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread."

7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. 8 He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

9 "Where is your wife Sarah?" they asked him.
"There, in the tent," he said.

10 Then the LORD [c] said, "I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son."
Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, "After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?"

13 Then the LORD said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Will I really have a child, now that I am old?' 14 Is anything too hard for the LORD ? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son."

15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, "I did not laugh."
But he said, "Yes, you did laugh."

Judges 13

1 Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD, so the LORD delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years.
2 A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was sterile and remained childless. 3 The angel of the LORD appeared to her and said, "You are sterile and childless, but you are going to conceive and have a son. 4 Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean, 5 because you will conceive and give birth to a son. No razor may be used on his head, because the boy is to be a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines."

6 Then the woman went to her husband and told him, "A man of God came to me. He looked like an angel of God, very awesome. I didn't ask him where he came from, and he didn't tell me his name. 7 But he said to me, 'You will conceive and give birth to a son. Now then, drink no wine or other fermented drink and do not eat anything unclean, because the boy will be a Nazirite of God from birth until the day of his death.' "

8 Then Manoah prayed to the LORD : "O LORD, I beg you, let the man of God you sent to us come again to teach us how to bring up the boy who is to be born."

9 God heard Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman while she was out in the field; but her husband Manoah was not with her. 10 The woman hurried to tell her husband, "He's here! The man who appeared to me the other day!"

11 Manoah got up and followed his wife. When he came to the man, he said, "Are you the one who talked to my wife?"
"I am," he said.

12 So Manoah asked him, "When your words are fulfilled, what is to be the rule for the boy's life and work?"

13 The angel of the LORD answered, "Your wife must do all that I have told her. 14 She must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, nor drink any wine or other fermented drink nor eat anything unclean. She must do everything I have commanded her."

15 Manoah said to the angel of the LORD, "We would like you to stay until we prepare a young goat for you."

16 The angel of the LORD replied, "Even though you detain me, I will not eat any of your food. But if you prepare a burnt offering, offer it to the LORD." (Manoah did not realize that it was the angel of the LORD.)

17 Then Manoah inquired of the angel of the LORD, "What is your name, so that we may honor you when your word comes true?"

18 He replied, "Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding. " 19 Then Manoah took a young goat, together with the grain offering, and sacrificed it on a rock to the LORD. And the LORD did an amazing thing while Manoah and his wife watched: 20 As the flame blazed up from the altar toward heaven, the angel of the LORD ascended in the flame. Seeing this, Manoah and his wife fell with their faces to the ground. 21 When the angel of the LORD did not show himself again to Manoah and his wife, Manoah realized that it was the angel of the LORD.

22 "We are doomed to die!" he said to his wife. "We have seen God!"

23 But his wife answered, "If the LORD had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and grain offering from our hands, nor shown us all these things or now told us this."

24 The woman gave birth to a boy and named him Samson.

1 Samuel

1 There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite [a] from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
3 Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the LORD Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were priests of the LORD. 4 Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. 5 But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the LORD had closed her womb. 6 And because the LORD had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. 7 This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the LORD, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. 8 Elkanah her husband would say to her, "Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don't you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don't I mean more to you than ten sons?"

9 Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on a chair by the doorpost of the LORD's temple. [b] 10 In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the LORD. 11 And she made a vow, saying, "O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant's misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head."

12 As she kept on praying to the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk 14 and said to her, "How long will you keep on getting drunk? Get rid of your wine."

15 "Not so, my lord," Hannah replied, "I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the LORD. 16 Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief."

17 Eli answered, "Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him."

18 She said, "May your servant find favor in your eyes." Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.

19 Early the next morning they arose and worshiped before the LORD and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah lay with Hannah his wife, and the LORD remembered her. 20 So in the course of time Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, [c] saying, "Because I asked the LORD for him."

Luke 1

5THERE was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth.

6And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.

7And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.

8And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course,

9According to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.

10And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense.

11And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.

12And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.

13But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.

14And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth.

15For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb.

16And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God.

17And 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.

18And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.

19And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings.

20And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.

21And the people waited for Zacharias, and marvelled that he tarried so long in the temple.

22And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless.

23And it came to pass, that, as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house.

24And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying,

25Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.

26And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth,

27To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary.

28And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

29And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

30And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.

31And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.

32He 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:

33And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

34Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

35And the angel answered and said unto her, 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.

36And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.

37For with God nothing shall be impossible.

38And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her

My cup runneth over...

Now geor3ge gets into the act, with a link to this Salon article:

The new atheists have made science the only road to truth. They have a belief, which I call "scientific naturalism," that there's nothing beyond nature -- no transcendent dimension -- that every cause has to be a natural cause, that there's no purpose in the universe, and that scientific explanations, especially in their Darwinian forms, can account for everything living. But the idea that science alone can lead us to truth is questionable. There's no scientific proof for that. Those are commitments that I would place in the category of faith. So the proposal by the new atheists that we should eliminate faith in all its forms would also apply to scientific naturalism. But they don't want to go that far. So there's a self-contradiction there.
Funny thing is, we've been here, done that: it was called "Logical Positivism." When it crashed and burned (thanks partly to Wittgenstein, partly to the fundamental errors of the school of thought itself), it left Alfred North Whitehead trying to create an alternative to Plato which wound up being the basis for process theology (which absolutely no one who responds intelligently to Dawkins, et al., has referred to; sadly enough for Shubert Ogden and company). I once saw Logical Positivism as the only philosophical school that had been thoroughly repudiated and abandoned (and it was). Too bad Dawkins and Hitchens don't know anything about philosophy; could have saved them a lot of trouble, and prevented the needless death of countless trees.

Oh, well, what else are bestsellers for?

Gӧdel, by the way, pretty much did in Russel and Whitehead's magnum opus, Principia Mathematica, by proving that even if you could map everything into the language of a mathematical system, the system would still generate sentences that it could not contain answers to. Wittgenstein drove another nail in that coffin with the final words of his quasi-mathematical Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

6.54 My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them--as steps--to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.

7 What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.
Wittgenstein was always a more moralistic philosopher than the alley cat Russell (Will Durant can barely tolerate Russell because of his numerous sexual affairs in Durant's The Story of Philosophy, even as he must acknowledge Russell's contribution to then modern philosophy, one that shrinks more and more as time goes by), proved Russell's system far too limited in a famous anecdote:

He used to come to see me every evening at midnight, and pace up and down the room like a wild beast for three hours in agitated silence. Once I said to him: 'Are you thinking about logic, or about your sins?' 'Both', he replied, and continued his pacing. I did not like to suggest it was time for bed, for it seemed probable both to him and to me that on leaving me he would commit suicide.
Russell despaired of Wittgenstein but, as I say, the communal opinion differs with him today:

There are two great men in history whom he somewhat resembles. One was Pascal, the other was Tolstoy. Pascal was a mathematician of genius, but abandoned mathematics for piety. Tolstoy sacrificed his genius as a writer to a kind of bogus humility which made him prefer peasants to educated men and Uncle Tom's Cabin to all other works of fiction. Wittgenstein, who could play with metaphysical intricacies as cleverly as Pascal with hexagons or Tolstoy with emperors, threw away this talent and debased himself before common sense as Tolstoy debased himself before the peasants - in each case from an impulse of pride. I admired Wittgenstein's Tractatus, but not his later work, which seemed to me to involve an abnegation of his own best talent very similar to those of Pascal and Tolstoy.
I suppose if you still think Pascal and Tolstoy wasted the bulk of their lives, you'd agree with Russell's assesment. Anyway, I digress; back to Haught.

It's an interview, not a theological article, so disagreeing with the details here would be churlish. Much of what Haught has to say, in general terms, is actually quite good, and makes what he might say in print, intriguing. This, for example, is fuzzy and vague but given the context, actually quite good:

By truth, are you talking about reality?

Yes, I'm talking about what is real, or what has being. The traditions of religion and philosophy have always maintained that the most important dimensions of reality are going to be least accessible to scientific control. There's going to be something fuzzy and elusive about them. The only way we can talk about them is through symbolic and metaphoric language -- in other words, the language of religion. Traditionally, we never apologized for the fact that we used fuzzy language to refer to the real because the deepest aspect of reality grasps us more than we grasp it. So we can never get our minds around it.
What he doesn't say is that the real problem is that he's talking about metaphysics: about being and existence and all the "squishy" things which Anglo-American philosophy has basically squeezed out of consideration in order to natter over whether or not Hume's categories of "analytic" and "synthetic" statements are valid, and what should fit into them. That is the real, unspoken break between Continental philosophers and Anglo-American ones (and the reason Russell despaired of his former student), unspoken at least in this discussion. What we are really arguing about is which philosophy should rule, should determine the terms of the debate. But, as Haught points out, even within the terms of the Anglo-American school, there are ways of understanding metaphysics:

What do you say to the atheists who demand evidence or proof of the existence of a transcendent reality?

The hidden assumption behind such a statement is often that faith is belief without evidence. Therefore, since there's no scientific evidence for the divine, we should not believe in God. But that statement itself -- that evidence is necessary -- holds a further hidden premise that all evidence worth examining has to be scientific evidence. And beneath that assumption, there's the deeper worldview -- it's a kind of dogma -- that science is the only reliable way to truth. But that itself is a faith statement. It's a deep faith commitment because there's no way you can set up a series of scientific experiments to prove that science is the only reliable guide to truth. It's a creed.
Creeds, of course, being those things you must assent to in order to be admitted as a member of the community or society. It is the marker of distinction between those who are in, and those who are out. And faith as "believing what ain't so" is an idea at least as old as William James, and as often since his work on religion, repudiated by both theologians and philosophers of religion.

The freedom to ' believe what we will ' you apply to the case of some patent superstition; and the faith you think of is the faith defined by the schoolboy when he said, " Faith is when you believe something that you know ain't true." I can only repeat that this is misapprehension. In concreto, the freedom to believe can only cover living options which the intellect of the individual cannot by itself resolve; and living options never seem absurdities to him who has them to consider.
Or, as Wittgenstein said (again): "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence." But silence, of course, doesn't sell books; neither, however, does it kill trees.

Haught's argument is actually that there are serious and dangerous questions to be asked, and his answers come from Tielhard de Chardin. I must admit at this point I am unfamiliar with Chardin's work, so I don't comment directly on the legitimacy, or lack thereof, of Haught's theology (which I don't know, either; so, two reasons to remain silent.) However, I'm not wild about the idea that either science or theology has to rest on the idea that the universe is "progressing" toward anything. I do agree, of course, that since the Enlightenment, we cannot have the same ideas about God as we had before. But, without meaning any offense to Mr. Haught, that is hardly a knew idea. Rudolf Bultmann, who should have remained famous for working alongside Martin Heidegger and for producing a magisterial analysis of The Gospel of John (if you ever want to read a thoroughly Germanic piece of scholarship....!), struggled to answer the theological questions of the "modern age," and courted controversy and notoreity with his work on Christianity and mythology (also a thoroughly Germanic work of scholarship, but in this case that isn't as much of a compliment). Probably much of what critics of Christianity declaim as "mythology" was first identified by Bultmann, the theologian. Ironies abound.

So not only is Mr. Haught not plowing new ground, I'm not sure his furrows run all that straight. I'm not, for example, at all comfortable with this:

Are you suggesting there's some kind of cosmic consciousness -- a consciousness pervading the universe that has some connection to God?

I'm looking for an explanation that's robust enough to account for the kind of universe that is able, from within itself, to develop and unfold in this ongoing process of complexification. So the idea that some sort of providential presence is accompanying this process seems not at all irrational. And I like to think of God in these terms.
When we start dividing the world into fundamentals of "irrational" and "rational," with one good, one bad, well....I'm not willing to be so Hellenistic about the cosmos. The Greeks were quite happy to let their gods be bastards, and even be agents for the chaos they thought would eventually return and subsume all; but I still think the Hebrews were more realistic about the nature of the universe and the deity who created it. which is not to say their "god" is either Aristotle's unmoved mover or Plato's "good," or even the perfection of Plotinus. As Haught puts it:

This is the fundamental thinking about God in the Quran and the Bible -- God is personal. Theologically speaking, personality is a symbol, like everything else in religion. Like all symbols, "personality" doesn't adequately capture the full depth of ultimate reality. But the conviction of the Abrahamic religions is that if ultimate reality were not at least personal -- at least capable of everything that humans are capable of -- then we could not surrender ourselves fully to it. It would be an "it" rather than a "thou" and therefore would not reach us in the depth of our being.
There's a nice touch of Buber there, but that's still more Hellenistic than Hebraic. I think the Hebrews weren't too concerned with God presenting rationally in the world. They thought God had God's reasons for doing things, but didn't limit the actions of God to only those they deemed "rational." They were more concerned with God presenting justice and compassion in the world, for us to model. That's a God I'm more interested in looking for, and in worshipping.

But about Mr. Haught's theology I could be wrong, so we'll leave the matter to rest. Far more interesting are observations like this:

We have to distinguish between science as a method and what science produces in the way of discovery. As a method, science does not ask questions of purpose. But it's something different to look at the cumulative results of scientific thought and technology.
The question of results: is that entirely a scientific enquiry? Thanks to antibiotics, certainly a very good thing, we now have staph infections that eat flesh and "super bugs" such as forms of tuberculosis which send health care officials (who are mostly "scientists," no?) into a blind panic. Thanks to technology, the handmaid of science, we have pollution and now, global warming. Do we approach these results from a purely scientific standpoint, or is something more called for? Science, as I mentioned earlier, has also made our ability to kill each other in war even more devastating and "efficient." Does science have a comment on that, an approach to it that might be a solution? Perhaps a scientist does, but I don't think science per se has much to say to these situations at all.

Sometimes I really do think we need to go back, take Hume seriously, and start again.