Thursday, April 29, 2010

Shantih, shantih, shantih

Some thoughts that connect back to an earlier post, “A Grateful Divvie” (Sept. 9, 2009). The other day, while watching the weather, that old phrase “April is the cruelest month” popped into my head. That made me think of T. S. Eliot., whose poem “The Waste Land” begins with the line. The poem ends:

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon
—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d'Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih

During my last year of divinity school, I spent so much time studying Eliot! I don’t remember what turned me to Eliot, but his poetry struck me with tremendous force. His now-familiar images--light, shadow, rock, dryness, fire, the dancer, the rose--and the way his poems communicated through their rhythms and sounds as much as by their words--not a new idea, but new to me at that time--awakened me and fascinated me.

I purchased a book called “A Reader’s Guide to T. S. Eliot: A Poem by Poem Analysis by George Williamson (Noonday Press, 1964) at a favorite store, Whitlock Farm Booksellers in Bethany, CT. ( The old, used paperback, which I still have, opened meanings and explained many allusions and quotations. Williamson also described the poet’s influences which made him a leading voice in modernism: Dante, the Metaphysical poets, and the French Symbolists.

Williamson quoted Eliot concerning the intersection of poetic technique and experience; both grow, but at certain intersections of the two, superior poetry results. This, too, was a new idea to me and seemed to me an excellent philosophy of life. (The end of “The Waste Land,” and of the poems of the “Four Quartets," express that challenge.) Grad school was for me, as for many people, a circumstance where both my life-experience and my professional training were very much in process. Though not a “waste land,” the time was transitional. So during that time and after, I liked the idea of artistic wholeness (whatever artistry one may be devoted to) and spiritual growth as being two sides of a process--a process of living.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Examples of Providence

The last few years I’ve been doing a midlife exploration of the Bible. Here is a list of narratives I found concerning God’s provision. The Bible does not spell out details of how God works, the Bible is clear that God does work! These stories arise from different narratives and sources within the Bible.

· Hagar has given up hope after her water has run out and leaves Ishmael to die. But the angel of God comes to her and gives her divine assurance. At that point, she realizes she has been close to water all along, and God remains with them (Gen. 21:15-21).
· Jacob is about to face his brother after many years, and he is greatly afraid. He prays to God for deliverance (Gen. 32:9-12). His prayer is touchingly answered when he meets his brother and unexpectedly is embraced lovingly by Esau (Gen. 33:1-11). Not only that, but Jacob experiences his unanticipated time of testing as he wrestles with … who? A man? God? An angel? (Gen. 32:22-32).
· Joseph experiences the betrayal of his brothers, the betrayal by Potiphar, yet another betrayal by the chief baker, and years of imprisonment before he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and became a ruler in Egypt (Gen. 37, 39-41).
· Tamar schemes and presents herself as a prostitute in order to finally become pregnant—by her father-in-law Judah. One of her offspring, Perez, is ancestor of Jesus (Gen. 38).
· David slays Goliath with what seems an extremely ineffective weapon (1 Sam. 17:4ff).
· Saul, on the other hand, has excellent means to slay David but is prevented from doing so (1 Sam. 19:10).
· Solomon becomes king of Israel, amid the scheming of his mother and even of the prophet Nathan (1 Kings 1-2).
· Elijah prophesies concerning Ahab’s death (1 Kings 21:20f). Ahab dies when an Aramean soldier simply shot an arrow at no one in particular, and the arrow struck Ahab in a vulnerable place between his armor (1 Kings 22:34).
· Elisha’s servant Gehazi cheats Naaman of money. Although not present at the time, Elisha knew and cursed Gehazi and his descendents with leprosy (2 Kings 5:19b-27).
· Ahithophel gave better advice to Absalom, to pursue David. But God led Absalom to also seek the advice of Hushai, who advised Absalom not to be hasty. Absalom followed Hushai’s advice, which sounded better but contributed to his (Absalom’s) downfall (2 Sam. 17:1-23).
· In that same story, a woman hid Ahimaaz and Jonathan, and then lied to Absalom, which allowed David to escape safely (2 Samuel 17:15-22).
· Esther, a Jewish woman in the Persian king’s harem, becomes queen of Persia and, with her guardian Mordecai, is able to save her people from massacre.
· The Assyrian king Sennacherib taunts the people of God and blasphemes God. God’s angel struck down 185,000 Assyrian soldiers (Isa. 36-37; 2 Kings 18:13-19:37).
· Jeremiah is cast into a cistern to die. He is saved only because an Ethiopian eunuch, Ebed-melech, heard about it, and the king happened to be at a place where Ebed-melech could speak to him (Jer. 38:1-13).
· The thief on the cross has not believed in Jesus and scarcely has what we’d call faith. But with the barest amount of belief he reaches out to fellow “criminal” Jesus with a word of compassion and regret. The man gets more grace than he would’ve dreamed (Luke 23:39-43).
· You could argue that the two fellows walked to Emmaus had less faith than the penitent thief. The thief knew Jesus would come into his kingdom, whereas the two fellows thought the promised kingdom was no more, now that Jesus was gone. They too, get “extra grace” (Luke 24:13-35).
· The Ethiopian eunuch studies Scripture by himself, when Philip encounters him and helps the man discover Jesus. The Spirit had merely instructed Philip to go to Gaza, and after meeting with the eunuch, Philip doesn’t even proceed to Gaza but is sent elsewhere (Acts 8:26-40).
· Peter is able to evangelize the centurion Cornelius thanks to the Holy Spirit’s “cross-referencing” of visions (Acts 10).
· Peter is imprisoned, and his friends pray fervently for him. Subsequently an angel releases Peter from prison, but when he returns to his friends’ house, they don’t believe (Acts 12:6-17).
· Paul and Timothy had success in Lystra and Iconium, and then as they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, “having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia,” they tried to go into Bithynia. But the Holy Spirit forbade that, too. So they went to Troas, where Paul had a vision to go to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10).
· Paul and Silas are released from prison because of an earthquake, which also led to the conversion of the jailer and his household (Acts 16: 25-34).
· Paul glorified God when God raised Eutychus from the dead; but Eutychus had died because he drifted off during Paul’s long sermon and fell from window (Acts 20:7-13).
· Paul wanted to go to Rome and preach; he would’ve been released by King Agrippa but Paul had appealed to the emperor (Acts 26:30-32); so Paul was sent a prisoner to Rome, but when he arrived, the Roman officials had received no charges against him (Acts 28:21). See the whole dramatic story: Acts 21:17-28:30.

These stories require prayerful interpretation on our part, for some are violent, untoward, and strange. Others are closer to our own experiences of serendipity Does the Bible spell out God’s role in these events? Not always! In some, God is scarcely mentioned, if at all. But the Bible witnesses to or implies a mysterious but real and strong guidance amid the very human course of things.

The Bible also gives us confidence in God’s ability to use us. The Bible is filled with characters God used. We should never raise ourselves to the stature of Moses, David, Gideon, Nehemiah, Mary, Peter, Stephen, Paul, and others. Remember that these people had specific roles in the history of God’s salvation, greater than our comparatively small place in God’s scheme. But, as we seek a deeper relationship with God in Christ, their stories give us confidence in God’s ability to use different people in astonishing ways. Although I strongly dislike that expression “One person plus God is a majority”—the saying sounds too much like “God is on my side, therefore I’m right and you (and everyone else) are wrong”—the expression points to the deep truth of God’s power to accomplish his will.

Be forewarned! God may use us for purposes beyond us, and that his purposes far transcend our personal agendas. God may accomplish great things in our lives, but he may use us for great things in other people’s lives; or God may use times of trouble and failure in order to bring about important things down the way. God’s providential signs and wonders happen within a context beyond our comprehension (Eph. 3:20). As we look to Christ and his Spirit, we open ourselves to God’s love and amazing possibilities.

Monday, April 19, 2010

What Language Shall I Borrow?

Some connections (and please excuse the upcoming profanity). I wish I’d kept the issue of my alumni magazine, several years ago, wherein a minister recalled a recovering alcoholic whom he met. The man had enthusiastically declared, something like, “I don’t know what that goddamned son of a bitch is doing, but it’s sure goddamned amazing!” The minister realized the man was referring to God! The man was amazed at the miracles of recovery that he was experiencing. In the article, the minister said that while the man’s language was inappropriate, it was the only language the man had at that time and, therefore, was genuine praise language!

I thought of some scriptures in which people had inadequate and even inappropriate language with which to express their faith. One passage is Luke 7:36-50. The woman who came to Jesus was a "sinner" and expressed her repentance and sorrow in a way which, in another context, would’ve been sexually provocative. This was the only “language” she had, however, to seek the compassion and forgiveness that she hoped he would provide.

Another scripture is Acts 8:9-25, the story of Simon the Sorcerer. I’ve always wondered this is another example of Peter speaking before he thought. Peter is correct: you can’t buy the Spirit. But the man had been baptised and seemed enthusiastic about the spiritual power he’d seen, but he had no other “language” to ask for it other than an offer of money. Perhaps he could’ve been guided to a better understanding--as Philip did for the eunuch in the same chapter--rather than Peter leaving him “put in his place."

Take Jacob as another example. In Genesis 28, he has his dream of the ladder to Heaven. When he awoke, he called the place Bethel (“house of God”) and vowed, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you” (vs. 20-22). Commentators have noted that, although this is not a very mature prayer (I'll do this if God does that), it is an honest prayer, and God did not ignore the prayer--or any prayer--just because it is offered with a inarticulate, even "theologically incorrect" faith.

The Bible does encourage us to grow and mature in faith; Paul and also the author of Hebrews scold their congregations for remaining at rudimentary (and also unloving) stages of faith. Nonetheless, we should also affirm that God does not wait to respond to us until we’ve reach a certain spiritual stage. In fact, we might feel so overwhelmed that we have no idea what to say to God; our language breaks down entirely. During those times, the Spirit intercedes for us--that is, the Spirit prays for us (Romans. 8:26)!

All these thoughts, in turn, remind me of that old hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”

What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Environment and the Common Good

Just as I posted my last entry (4/12/10) about ecology and personal responses, I found this article by John Bellamy Foster, “Global Ecology and the Common Good,” from the Monthly Review (Feb. 1995). Although I don't embrace the socialist outlook of that journal, I found Foster's thoughts interesting as I worked on a chapter for a forthcoming curriculum on Christian citizenship. The following are simply notes I took as I read that article.

Addressing ecological problems, Foster cites Aldo Leopold that part of our problem is that we focus upon the individual as the key to the overall society, whereas we individuals should broaden our outlook to include respect for nature and the appropriate conduct of business.

He calls “the treadmill of production” the phenomenon of business that includes:
1. The accumulation of wealthy by a few people.
2. The movement of many workers from self-employment into wage jobs that are, in turn, connected to expansion of production
3. The competitive struggle among companies that requires technologies that, in turn, expand production.
4. The marketing of products that creates desire for more products.
5. The responsibility of government to promote economic development and to ensure people’s well being.
6. The fact that education and communication have become part of this “treadmill,” too.

But resources needed to produce and sustain technologies for greater production take natural energy resources and also creates waste (in the earth and atmosphere). So we need to find a way off the treadmill.

When I read these kinds of reflections, my first unsophisticated thought is that the only solution to such a scenario is … to leave society and become Amish. But Foster seems to be thinking toward the common good for the many who aren't abandoning democracy or our production-oriented economy.

Foster quotes the sociologist C. Wright Mills that all this has created a “higher immorality.” In American we have allowed the separation of moral virtue and success, as well as knowledge and power; consequently, money and its accumulation has become the measure of success in our country, which in turn has undermined democracy because ideas concerning our social well being and democracy have been substituted for (in Mills’ words) “propaganda for commodities.” This, in turn, has increased cynicism and has decreased a sense of citizenship responsibilities. For instance, Foster notes, in 1992 (a few years before this article was published) American business spent about $1 trillion on marketing, while about $600 billion was spent in the same year on education.

Foster argues that, because our society functions this way, we should be careful not to emphasize the individual’s role in ecological improvement without also addressing the institutional realities. A call to cut down on our consumption, for instance, “ignores the higher immorality of a society … in which the dominant institutions treat the public as mere consumers to be targeted with all fo the techniques of modern marketing… It also ignores the fact that the treadmill of production is rooted not in consumption but in production”

Foster quotes Paul Hawken, author of “The Ecology of Commerce,” that argues that environmental responsibility and change can be had by targeting not just individuals generally but specific individuals--the leaders of businesses and corporations. Foster argues that this oversimplifies, because such leaders are also part of the “treadmill.” Instead he argues that we must find ways to combine issues of social justice and economic justice so that not only is the environment respected but that persons who are suffering because of our contemporary disparity of wealth. "We must find a way of putting people first in order to protect the environment" (emphasis in text).

All this makes me think, in turn, of some of the work of Eric Mount of Centre College. He has written Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1999). Mount tries to inject a stronger sense of those three concepts into American democracy and citizenship. Among other topics, he shows how those concepts that give a heighten moral and community-oriented sense to American companies and corporations, so that the "benefits" that we associate with companies are not always simply monetary but improve many aspects of corporate and social life.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Climate Change

A recent The Economist (March 20-26, 2010) has good articles on climate change. In 1989 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established “to get scientists to work out what was happening to the climate, and to get governments to sign off on the scientists’ conclusions” (p. 13). Although the scientific investigations have proceeded well, the predicated outcomes vary substantially, from a 1.1° C increase by 2100 to a “hellish” 6.4° C increase.

If you know scientific inquiry, you know that the difference between projections does not mean bad science! It simply means that the predictions are based on a number of variables, in this case uncertainties like rates of economic and population growth. Unfortunately, “Politics, like journalism, tends to simplify and exaggerate,” and so the message of climate change and its potential dangers have been sometimes been muddled and thus open to skepticism. For instance, the British government ran ads about climate change that were subsequently criticized for being sensationalistic. Plus, scientists have sometimes seemed to exaggerate findings, as when a recent IPCC report erroneously reported that Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 rather than 2350 but did not quickly correct the error. These kinds of things give evidence to skeptics that climate change is really a false crisis.

The Economist authors write, “Plenty of uncertainty remains; but that argues for, not against, action. If it were known that global warming would be limited to 2° C, the world might decide to live with that. But the range of possible outcomes is huge, with catastrophe one possibility, and the costs of averting climate change are comparatively small” (all these quotations are from page. 13).

This makes sense to me, as does the conclusion of the longer article which describes the science and the situation (pp. 83-86): “The doubters are right that uncertainties are rife in climate science. They are wrong when they present that as a reason for inaction” (p. 86).

All that being said: what should people be doing about all this? What kinds of actions should we be taking, just in case? Environmentalists recommend contacting our national leaders as well as making personal changes. I don't know about you, but I haven’t been very conscientious lately about doing environmentally sensitive things. I found a good list online, however, with recommendations worth working on.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter Road Trip

Some Easter connections from a work-in-process. I frequently drive over to visit my mother in a nursing home. She lives in the same town where I went to college, a place I’d not revisited for several years. The college bookstore where I purchased my old Bible years ago is a mailroom now, and the new bookstore, with a coffee shop that I patronize, is considerably larger.

I suppose my renewed acquaintance with the college is a subconscious reason, during the past few years, why I’ve sought out some of the jazz that I enjoyed at the time: Miles Davis (another Southern Illinois native), John Coltrane, Chick Corea, Maynard Ferguson, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, and Chick Corea. The drive to Mom’s facility is about an hour on I-70, a little farther if I take U.S. 40 for fun, still further if I take IL 157/Old U.S. 66 to IL 140. That’s enough time to listen to A Love Supreme plus most of “Pharaoh’s Dance.”

Sometimes I’ll stop at a fast-food place: a typical road-trip experience.

“[Prolonged silence] –LCOME TO CHICK’N’BURGER MAY I TAKE Y’ORD— [buzzzzz click].”

“Yes, I’ll have, um, a biscuit and a small coffee… and that’s all.”

“[buzzzzzzzzzz] –WENTY-SIX DRIVE TO THE SECOND W— [click].”

Over the years, I’ve tried to develop a habit of praying silently for folks who work at places I patronize: a simple request that God bless them. Otherwise I might get into the habit of feeling annoyed at the indifferent service you find almost everywhere these days. Why is prayer for people much more difficult to become a habit than irritation at people's foibles? We’re all so preoccupied with our own affairs and feelings, which is certainly my case during trips home. Incurvatus a se—that’s the theological term, we’re “curved in” on ourselves.

During a recent trip, I noticed a car tailing me. Someone late for work, I think, or just being impatient. Perhaps I was God’s answer to the driver’s prayer for patience. I pulled over slightly to give him a chance to pass me on the straightaway. I thought of a Bible verse which our Sunday school class recently discovered.

Again the sentinel reported, “He reached them, but he is not coming back. It looks like the driving of Jehu son of Nimshi; for he drives like a maniac” (2 Kings 9:20).

I spend a few days with Mom each visit—visits that are terribly sad for me, but helpful and cheering for Mom. We chat about local news and memories. One Saturday morning, Mom and I watched an old western on TV. I couldn’t quite place the villain (in a black hat!) but then realized he was the actor Macdonald Carey, later the star of a favorite “soap” of Mom’s, Days of Our Lives. Making a superficial connection, I thought about our own “days,” which we tend to picture as linear, one after another, in sequence until we come to the last one, whenever it may be. We look back on our days and, often, realize how fast they’ve gone, even when our lives have been happy, like mine. How long since I've been in college? Oh ... thirty-one years, for pete's sake. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart (Ps. 90:12).

The Bible also presents a cyclical idea of time, though not as strong as the linear view. Think of the well known passage Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (which I first learned via the Pete Seeger song): there is a time for everything, a season for planting and harvesting—but the word “season” implies that certain times go away and then return. We experience that movement in small things and large: we return to a place we left, we rediscover music (or other interests) that we once loved, we realize that certain difficult experiences made us stronger for later challenges; we find second chances we never expected. All of us have also had the never-pleasant experience of old wounds reopened.

The Bible also speaks of the circles of repentance: the ways we stray, backslide, return, stray, return, and through it all, God is always faithful. With its recurrences of sin, punishment, redemption, and return, the book of Judges is as much a spiral as a line of history. I freely admit that my Bible study over the years has been closely connected to my own spiritual ups and downs, and sometimes (though not always) the “downs” are the times when I’ve sought its pages most eagerly.

We speak informally of things like luck, fate, jinxes, and karma. We don’t always stop to think that, if God is our Lord, we are not subject to such things! God cares for us and guides us across our short years; God calls us not to lose heart at life’s hazards but, instead, to focus on our relationship with him. God’s Spirit teaches and matures us. God’s plans and purposes may not always be clear, and sometimes we may feel quite lost. But even the “lost” times may simply be seasons across which God provides. Easter--the conquest of death, God's great event of redemption--is sufficiently impressive and spectacular to give us confidence across all our seasons.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Miracles That Are Always Available

Some thoughts from last spring: Jesus died on Good Friday and rose on Easter, but what does this mean for us? I thought about this as I've served on the intercessory prayer team at my church.

Jesus healed several people: the blind (Matt. 29:29-34, Mark 8:22-25; John 9), a woman with a hemorrhage (Matt. 9:2-8), a paralyzed man (Luke 5:18-2), other lepers (Luke 17:11-19), a deaf-mute (Mark 7:31-37), and a woman who couldn’t straighten herself (Luke 13:9-17). He also healed some people who hadn’t approached him at all (John 5:2-9), and some people weren’t healed because they didn’t believe (Mark 6:5-6).

Today, healing miracles happen but with much less frequency (and usually in conjunction with modern medical science). If, today, I needed a healing miracle but didn’t get one, I might think: perhaps I don’t believe strongly enough, or maybe Jesus is displeased with me for some reason, or I don’t deserve God’s care. I once knew a terminal-cancer patient who felt very distressed that God didn't seem to hear her prayers (although she did find peace at the end).

We need to interpret the pre-resurrection actions of Jesus alongside his death and resurrection. In his earthly ministry, Jesus particularly needed to show people God’s power, so they could believe even greater things would happen later. And now that Jesus has risen from the dead, we have all kinds of wonderful miracles daily and forever. These miracles are always available. Jesus has given us life with God forever. He gives us access to God in prayer. He gives us fellowship with other Christians. He gives us his Holy Spirit. He gives us power and grace through the sharing of the Lord’s Supper. He has given us the assurance of God’s love. He has given us power and guidance for daily living. He has given us the guarantee of Heaven and takes us there when we die. We may tend to forget these less "showy" miracles, but actually they’re the most important of all.

Also: remember that everyone whom Jesus healed died eventually! They faced the fear of sickness and death all over again. Even the best healing miracles are temporary; no amount of prayers can make us live physically forever. That’s where the greatest miracle of eternal life because especially precious.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Maundy Thursday

Thoughts from last spring: Today is Maundy Thursday. I'd known that a possible reason for the word "Maundy" was the Latin "mandatum," or "commandment" to love, from John 13:34. But another reason may be the old English word "maund," which were baskets poor people carried to receive alms.

That reminded me of a verse that has always haunted me: "He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord" (Jer. 22:16). If we love God but begrudge care and justice for the needy, we not only fail in loving them, we fail in loving God and do not even know God! According to Jeremiah, though, the righteous King Josiah knew God.

Jeremiah 22:16 dovetails with Micah 6:6-8, and 1 John 4:20b, as well as Matthew 25:31-46 and James 2:14-17. Even the famous John 3:16 implies helpfulness to the needy, for if you believe in Christ as John 3:16 instructs, you respond to “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40).

Many churches will have communion services this evening. Years ago, I had an elderly friend who didn't take communion because he didn't feel worthy. I was a teenager and didn't know the meaning of 1 Corinthians 11:27--another passage that I wish Paul had expressed differently--and I don't know if anyone tried to explain the meaning of "unworthiness" to my friend.

Of course, the Eucharist is a sacramental means of grace for sinners. If you feel unworthy, then you're exactly the person Jesus wants to share the meal! The meaning of that whole passage (1 Cor. 11:17-34) is that the Corinthians tolerated divisions in their congregation and, at the meal, some ate and drank their fill and left nothing for the others, thus humiliating them. Not surprisingly, the persons left out at the meal were the less-well-off. Thus Paul scolded the church for missing the meaning of the experience.

When Paul talks about "discerning the body," his phrase has a double meaning: discerning the body of Christ in the Eucharist, but also discerning the body of Christ in the fellowship of Christians where, instead of insisting on our own way, we're sensitive to the needs and feelings of others.