Saturday, November 26, 2016

Bible Road Trips: Mary Visits Elizabeth

The Bible has many stories of roads and highways. This is an occasional series of meditations based on those scriptures.

Mary Visits Elizabeth
Luke 1:26-56

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and a few Scriptures can take us through the Advent season as stories of biblical roads.

In our lesson today from Luke's Gospel, Gabriel visits Mary and announces that she would be mother of "the Son of the Most High" (vss. 26-38). The text continues that "In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth" (vss. 39-40).

Let's call this Mary's road trip. To paraphrase that On the Town song "New York New York," Nazareth is up and Judea is down--quite a way down, over eighty miles. One wonders if Mary traveled with a caravan or by herself. A map that I found online shows a possible route from Nazareth over to the River Jordan, then down the river banks to the Jericho area, then over to Jerusalem which is just north of the Judean hill country.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (vss. 41-45).

Several things we can gain from this story, including the lovely words of the Ave Maria, Benedicta tu in mulieribus et benedictus fructus ventris tui, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” When I wrote about this passage elsewhere on this blog, I wrote about Elizabeth's gift of the Spirit. In those days before the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered only certain people to prophesy, and when Elizabeth heard Mary coming, she was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (verse 41). By the Spirit’s power, Elizabeth preached the Gospel of Jesus before his birth! She recognized Mary as Jesus’ blessed mother. She interpreted her own physical discomfort as God’s sign.

In other words, Elizabeth was a prophet, in a long line of Hebrew prophets which, most believed, had ended centuries before. One wonders: if the Spirit came to a person who previously had been perceived as disfavored by God (as childlessness was then believed to be), doesn’t the Spirit now comes to all kinds of persons, whether favored or disfavored in society? What might the Spirit be up to in our present, distressing world that might startle us and give us hope?

Our lesson also includes the famous Magnificat, set to music by so many composers.

And Mary said,
"My soul magnifies the Lord, 
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 
for he has looked with favour 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. 
He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy, 
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever."

According to the text, Mary went back home, and the first "road trip" of the Gospel provide us with this beautiful passage.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Bible Road Trips: The King's Highway

The Bible has many stories of roads and highways. This is an occasional series of meditations based on those scriptures.

The King’s Highway
Isaiah 35:8, 40:3-4, Col. 1:12-20

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 traveller, not even fools, shall go astray (Isa. 35:8)

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 
Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain (Isa. 40:3-4).

The name "king's highway" isn’t uncommon. A large portion of the modern U.S. 1 along the eastern seaboard was the colonial King’s Highway from Charleston to Boston. In St. Louis, where I live, a major street called Kingshighway was part of old French road of the same name, Rue de Roi, renamed El Camino Real when the Spanish took over the region. This street was also once part of the larger routes U.S. 66 and later U.S. 67.

The King’s Highway in the Bible was a major route from Memphis in Egypt, across Sinai and into Moab, then north on the east side of the Jordan through Damascus and finally to Resafa on the upper Euphrates. The name is Hebrew is derech haMelech ("highway of the king") and is referred to Numbers 20:17 and 21:22. A derech was a built-up road, compared to a path worn by use; this famous passage from Isaiah 40 refers metaphorically to a road that has been created with effort. The idea of a "royal highway" is, in Isaiah, a lovely, eschatological image of God's victory.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, a day created fairly recently (1925) in the Roman Catholic Church, and moved to the last Sunday of Ordinary Time (that is, the Sunday before the first Sunday of Advent), in 1970. Several Protestant Churches have adopted it. The two scriptures from Isaiah connect to Jesus' kingly office and also to our upcoming Advent season of expectation for the Lord's birth. Christ himself becomes a royal "way" by which we walk and live (Matt. 7:13, John 14:6, Acts 9:2, 19:9, 19:23, 22:4, 24:14, 24:22).

It’s a Christian truism to say that Jews expected a king like David but that Jesus is a different kind of king. The history of the Israelite and Judahite monarchies is interesting if you want to do (as one friend puts it) Bible study on steroids. When Solomon died, the kingdom split into the northern (Israel, or Ephraim) and the southern (Judah). The northern kingdom was more susceptible to idolatry because of its location among other kingdoms, and only lasted two hundred years before the Assyrians took over and assimilated those Israelite tribes. Judah lasted until 586 BCE, when the Babylonians conquered the kingdom, destroyed Jerusalem, and brought the people into exile rather than assimilating them. During this history, we read of a dual line of kings, most of whom led the people astray, and the major line of Davidic monarch ended. Another Davidic monarch, Zerubbabel, was much heralded during the post-exilic period but did not finally reestablish a monarchy. And so a Davidic king became a hoped-for idea, someone who would restore the people to the land but also bring lasting peace. That’s not something to snicker at!

Jesus’ followers realized that his kingship encompassed impossible things, like sin and death and all of creation. Among the lectionary readings for today were Luke 22:14-23:56, which is the story of Jesus' betrayal, suffering, and death, and also Colossians 1:11-20, the great affirmation of Christ as the purpose and authority of all creation.

He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (vss. 18-20).

Normally, if a king (or any other authority) bleeds and dies, that authority defeated (even if heroically) and replaced by someone else. Jesus' death, on the other hand, confirms and extends his authority and brings reconciliation with God, so that there is no more unclean upon the Holy Way, and God's love is poured out for the wise and foolish alike. 

What a wonderful message for uncertain times such as these, giving us strength and confidence as we seek to do Christ's will among the poor and suffering of the world, and to proclaim Christ's good news. 

Monday, November 14, 2016

Landscape: Ginner

Charles Isaac Ginner (1878–1952), "Hampstead Heath, Spring" (1932).

Copied under fair use principles. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Bible Road Trips: Out and East of Eden

The Bible has many stories of roads and highways. This is an occasional series of meditations based on those scriptures.

Out and East of Eden
Read Genesis 2:5-4:17, Romans 5:15-17

Do you sometimes feel that you’ve lost your way in life, that something happened and you can’t regain a sense of purpose?

We all know the stories of Adam and Eve and their sons. The beautiful story of creation, created good in all its vastness and variety, becomes despondent, tragic when humans are on the scene. How long were Adam and Eve in the garden before they made their fateful, foolish choice? A few minutes? Several years?

In my imagination, I picture a road or path from the garden, that Adam and Eve took when God sent them out of Eden. How far on the path of banishment did the couple go? Where did they find land fertile for farming? Filling out biblical details, I think they could have worked a farm only a short distance from the garden, in sight though blocked from further access, the light of the angel shining on their work in the twilight hours. But they may have gone farther, out of sight, and the journey was more painful.

There was a more painful road yet. Their son Cain leaves the crime scene of his hurt and jealousy and takes the road of escape, the way east of Eden. There, Cain travels the land of wandering, where he builds a city. It’s a deep oxymoron: cities are stationary, but this one is in the land of no rest, no “roots,” though he tries to find roots by naming the city for his son.

Many writers and artists realize (and develop in their art) a key point in these stories: Cain in his wrongdoing is traveling the way of his parents. He did not escape their guilt and wrongdoing but he takes it to a different place.

Of course, we know what that is like. The Hebrew word “adam” means “human,” and this is one of the most human stories: the mistakes of our parents become our mistakes, too. We try so hard not to repeat our parents’ heartache but do so, anyway. Nature and nurture shape our personalities, character, and journeys of life. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus puts it, character is destiny.

But thank God we are not helpless in the face of destiny; God is always at work in our lives, guiding and leading, nudging us, holding us by the scruff of our necks, filling us with the Spirit that convicts, reminds, and creates opportunities.

Turn the pages of your Bible from Adam and Eve’s story, across hundreds of pages to the book of Romans, chapter 5, where Paul connects Adam theologically with Jesus and thus promises the grace of Christ, greater than human sin.

For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ (Romans 5:15-17).

Bold words, considering the enormity of human sin! Read all of Romans 5:12-21, where Paul contrasts Adam and Jesus. These words are hard to believe, considering the horrors we read each day in the news, considering the fears we have about the future.

But God has sent his son Jesus to provide us the abundant grace and help that brings us back from whatever far country we’re lost. That gift is free!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Charles Lyell and Principles of Geology

Charles Lyell in 1840
I love antique books, and this past year I decided to collect a few notable science books from the nineteenth century. Over these autumn weeks, I plan to write about them on this blog, teaching myself many new things in the process.

I was one of those little kids who loved rocks and geology. I used to know the different types of rocks by sight, and working on poems for my upcoming poetry book, I studied articles from the Illinois State Geological Survey to learn about the geological history of south-central Illinois. It's a fascinating field! And Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) and his wife Mary (1808-1873) left us a tremendous legacy.

In my earlier posts about Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, Lyell's name came up. As this site puts it, the "Scottish geologist largely responsible for the general acceptance of the view that all features of the Earth’s surface are produced by physical, chemical, and biological processes through long periods of geological time. The concept was called uniformitarianism (initially set forth by James Hutton). Lyell’s achievements laid the foundations for evolutionary biology as well as for an understanding of the Earth’s development."

"Moses and Geology"
by Samuel Kinns (1882) was
a popular book of its time. 
The following mostly derives from that article. Lyell enjoyed science as a child and at Oxford he grew in his fascination for geology. One of his professors, William Buckland, sought to demonstrate Noah's flood on the basic of cave fossils. Lyell went on to study law and was admitted to the bar, but he continued to pursue his geological interests. During these early years he traveled to North America, France, and back to Scotland on naturalist studies. As this same site indicates, "Lyell was rapidly developing new principles of reasoning in geology and began to plan a book which would stress that there are natural (as opposed to supernatural) explanations for all geologic phenomena, that the ordinary natural processes of today and their products do not differ in kind or magnitude from those of the past, and that the Earth must therefore be very ancient because these everyday processes work so slowly."

Thus "uniformitarianism," contrasted with "catastrophism" that described geological phenomena in terms of catastrophes that altered the planet. Catastrophism was complementary with biblical accounts like the Flood, but the Bible had no information about ancient species and geological data that was becoming known in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As this site puts it, "Lyell emphasized natural law. It makes sense, he said, to assume that geological processes acting in the past were much the same as those we see today — forces such as sedimentation in rivers, erosion by wind, or deposition of ash and lava by volcanic eruptions. This is the principle of uniformitarianism, the reasonable assumption that the forces that acted in the past are of the same sort as those we see acting today."

An 1847 printing, with the
Temple of Serapis on the front cover.
Lyell's book published the first volume of his groundbreaking work, Principles of Geology, in 1830, with exhaustive data to illustrate the new uniformitarian principles that he was developing. Volumes 2 and 3 appeared in 1831 and 1833. Importantly, too, the young Charles Darwin was thrilled with this book, took it with him on his five-year Beagle voyage, and used Lyell's ideas to help him conceptualize his own ideas of the origin and development of species. Darwin also dedicated his journal of his voyage to Lyell, who in turn gave him much advice and help.

Lyell married Mary Horner in 1832, and she also had interests in geology and participated in Lyell's studies, joining conversations with other scientists like Darwin. Lyell became a recognized authority, revising his Principles and also publishing another very popular book, Elements of Geology, that went also went through several revisions and additions. He also wrote two travel accounts of his 1840s visits to North America, and they became classic descriptions of the continent. He was knighted and received other high honors, while continuing his geological work. As the Britannica author writes, "Expanding reputation and responsibilities brought no letup in his geological explorations. With Mary, he travelled in Europe or Britain practically every summer, visiting Madeira in the winter of 1854 to study the origin of the island itself and of its curious fauna and flora. Lyell especially liked to visit young geologists, from whom he felt “old stagers” had much to learn. After exhaustive restudy carried out on muleback in 1858, he proved conclusively that Mt. Etna had been built up by repeated small eruptions rather than by a cataclysmic upheaval as some geologists still insisted. He wrote Mary that 'a good mule is like presenting an old geologist with a young pair of legs.'"
Lyell condensed his large book
"Elements of Geology" into a shorter guide in 1874.

In my previous post about Alfred Russel Wallace, I learned about how Wallace sent Lyell an essay about his work in the Malay islands, which led Lyell to share Wallace's work with Darwin and then to publish Wallace's and Darwin's essays together. The Britannica author: "In 1859 publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species gave new impetus to Lyell’s work. Although Darwin drew heavily on Lyell’s Principles of Geology both for style and content, Lyell had never shared his protégé’s belief in evolution. But reading the Origin of Species triggered studies that culminated in publication of The Geological Evidence of the Antiquity of Man in 1863, in which Lyell tentatively accepted evolution by natural selection. Only during completion of a major revision of the Principles of Geology in 1865 did he fully adopt Darwin's conclusions,
The dark green cover featured a flint ax and
mammoth molar
that had been found at the same level. 
however, adding powerful arguments of his own that won new adherents to Darwin’s theory. Why Lyell was hesitant in accepting Darwinism is best explained by Darwin himself: 'Considering his age, his former views, and position in society, I think his action has been heroic.'”

Mary Horner Lyell (c. 1870)
was a skilled geologist
in her own right and contributed
greatly to Charles' work. 
Sadly, Mary died in 1873, and Lyell survived her only two years. Again, that author summarizes: "Lyell typified his times in beginning as an amateur geologist and becoming a professional by study and experience. Unlike most geologists then and now, however, he never considered observations and collections as ends in themselves but used them to build and test theories. The Principles of Geology opened up new vistas of time and change for the younger group of scientists around Darwin. Only after they were gone did Lyell’s reputation begin to diminish, largely at the hands of critics who had not read the Principles of Geology as carefully as had Darwin and attributed to Darwin things he had learned from Lyell. Lyell is still underestimated by some geologists who fail to see that the methods and principles they use every day actually originated with Lyell and were revolutionary in his era. The lasting value of Lyell’s work and its importance for the modern reader are clear in Darwin’s assessment: 'The great merit of the Principles was that it altered the whole tone of one’s mind, and therefore that, when seeing a thing never seen by Lyell, one yet saw it partially through his eyes.'"

Here is another interesting article: about the way Lyell disseminated knowledge of hominid fossils:

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Landscape: Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough, "Mr. and Mrs. Robert Andrews," c. 1750.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Out of Control GOP

Here's a good recent article from the Washington Post. I've tried to be sparing with posting political things on Facebook, where myself and several friends are posting things. But among the concerning things about this election is, while folks are genuinely concerned about rising insurance premiums, etc. we may start seeing problems in the stock market with our retirement funds, etc., in the future---because GOP leaders have been showing for years that they don't give a damn about traditional and proper workings of our democracy if they can't get their way. I don't know how Republican voters can hold their leaders accountable for ruining what once was the Grand Old Party. We can only hope and pray that a leader or leaders with moral integrity and a love of democracy can arise from the party and turn around its 25-year destructive trend.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Women Composers: Emma Lou Diemer

In my August 23rd post about the composer Barbara Harbach, I quoted an online interview of her, where she listed the names of several other women composers whom she appreciates. I'm no expert in music; nevertheless, I was chagrined that I knew only one name she mentioned, Jennifer Higdon. Serendipitously, the latest issue of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal (issue 67, October 2016) had a list of women composers---and among those, I was familiar with only a few. Yet, as that same article indicates, Aaron Cohen's International Encyclopaedia of Women Composers has over 6000 entries.

I love to explore music, so I thought I'd teach myself about women composers and do an occasional blog series, starting with those whom Dr. Harbach named. Emma Lou Diemer (born 1927) taught for many years (and is emeritus professor) at UCSB. According to good ol' Wikipedia, she is a keyboard performer and has written numerous works for keyboard, orchestra, chorus, and others.  Here is her website:

Here is her "Toccata": 

Here is the lovely "Three Madrigals": 

And here is "A Summer Day":

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Wallace and Darwin

I love antique books, and a few months ago I decided to collect a few notable science books from the nineteenth century. Over the next several weeks, I plan to write about them on this blog, teaching myself many new things in the process.

Are you familiar with Alfred Russel Wallace?

The website devoted to his life and work has a good biographical summary. Wallace was born in Monmouthshire, in what is now Wales, in 1823. His father may have been descended from the Scottish hero William Wallace. As a child, the family moved to his mother's native Hertford.  He received some schooling there, and later worked with his older brother in land surveying. Engaged in that work, he learned to identify plants and began to collect specimen plants. In the early 1840s, when he lived in Leicester, he continued to learn on his own about natural history and met Henry Walter Bates, a naturalist who introduced Wallace to varieties of beetles and insects.

During the 1840s, Wallace read an anonymously published book by Robert Chambers, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, in which the author argued for "transmutation" of species---what later scientists would call evolution. Wallace got the chance to travel to the Amazon region during the 1840s, during which he hoped to explore the idea of species transmutation. He also was able to survey the Amazon and create a map that was a long-time standard. Unfortunately, on the return trip to Britain the ship caught fire and destroyed his notes and specimens and set him and his companions to sea on lifeboats, where they were discovered after over a week.

After that, I would never have gone to sea again! But Wallace regrouped and embarked on another long adventure, to the enormous region of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and East Timor, known as the Malay Archipelago. Wallace and his assistant spent eight years there, collecting many thousands of samples---plants, insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals. As the Wallace website author indicates, Wallace discovered thousands of species previously unknown to science. The book that he later wrote, The Malay Archipelago, is a classic of nineteenth century travel and scientific writing, containing a wealth of information.

During this long journey, Wallace developed more of his ideas on evolutionary change and wrote a paper on the subject. He said that the idea of natural selection came to him as a flash of inspiration while he was very sick. His paper came to the attention of noted geologist Charles Lyell, who in turn shared it with his (Lyell's) friend Charles Darwin in 1856.
Wallace in 1862. (This photo
and the other are from

Darwin, meanwhile, had made his own epic scientific journey in 1831-1836 and was sketching out his own hypotheses about natural selection, but he'd lately been more occupied with studying marine invertebrates. Darwin was startled by the news of Wallace's work and began to write down his own ideas for publication. Soon, Lyell arranged to have Wallace's article published (without Wallace's permission and thus without his ability to make corrections) alongside Darwin's writings about natural selection, at the Linnean Society of London meeting during the summer of 1858. Both Darwin and Wallace were suffering at the time, Wallace with illness, and Darwin from the death of one of his children. Darwin did not write a large book that he had planned but, instead, published his basic ideas in his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species and presented more data in his subsequent books.

Needless to say, Origin of Species made an impression, becoming one of the most important scientific books ever written. Wallace does not seem to have been chagrined by all this, evidenced by the fact that Wallace dedicated The Malay Archipelago to Darwin. Darwin had already been at work on natural selection and by no means stole Wallace's ideas, but Wallace's paper did prod Darwin to set out his own researches for publication.

A few of Wallace's books
that I found online.
Darwin was of the aristocracy while Wallace's background was working-class, which gave Darwin certain advantages.  The magnanimous Wallace was not eclipsed, however; during his lifetime (he died in 1913), he was famous as a great authority and received honored in fields of biology, geography, and others. He wrote over a thousand articles and nearly two dozen books, including called Darwinism, which are essays on natural selection. In Island Life, he explored topics in biology and geography. In other books, Wallace continued his work in the natural sciences but also looked into subjects that empirical scientists disdained, like miracles and spiritualism.

Another legacy of Wallace, is that he was very forward thinking in his social ideas. He supported women's suffrage, analyzed the root causes of poverty, criticized militarism, addressed the environmental destruction caused by colonialism and capitalism, and other issues.

Evolutionary theory fell out of some favor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and, when it regained traction and gained wide scientific acceptance, Wallace's name became less familiar than Darwin's.

But if you regret Wallace's loss of prominence, remember that Darwin "takes the heat" in circles that (wrongly) reject or disparage evolutionary theory--and Wallace won't be caricatured as Darwin has been, as in this cartoon from the time. Nor will we speak with dark humor of "Wallace awards" when someone does something foolish and fatal. Wallace's position in the history of science is less well known but secure.

Much of all this this information comes from The Alfred Russel Wallace Website; please read the several wonderful articles and browse the information there! Among other topics, the site's author delves into key differences between Darwin's and Wallace's theories of natural selection.

Here are some quotations from Wallace's books:  And here is a review of one of several recent books about Wallace:

Folding map of the Malay islands, photo bombed by cat