Monday, March 27, 2006

heart, mind and soul, part 1 (a lent lesson)

For years I sorted through the separation and hierarchy of the physical, emotional and spiritual. It was presented to me that these three elements of our being were very different, separate, and ascending in terms of levels of consciousness. We talked a lot about them in a musical context in grad school. Music causes responses in people, the lowest of which is physical, a bit higher would be emotional, and of course the highest level response one could have to music would be spiritual. Perhaps because of the context of discussion, I tried to relate these elements of being to the elements of music. Rhythm, melody and harmony. These are certainly ascending in complexity, rhythm simplest, and standing alone, melody next, but always has rhythm, and finally the highest level, harmony, which requires and implies rhythm and melody.
It would make sense then that with physical, emotional and spiritual, each higher level would imply the lower levels as well.
But also in grad school, I was exposed to a lot of zen thinking and questions concerning highest levels of learning, doing and being. It seemed that a lot of religious philosophical pursuits were concerned with reaching spiritual levels that transcended the body, left the physical completely behind.
This was all very interesting to me, and in fact, a revisit, because as a kid I saw lots of emotion in church. In fact, I felt lots of emotion at church. I felt emotion and heard talk of the Holy Spirit, of his presence, and I wondered at where the line was – where is that place that crosses from emotion into the spiritual, and is it manifest without emotion?
Thus my pseudo hierarchy with each requiring the one below it. I felt, operated and pursued like this for years until, Peterson (of course) seemed to confirm my feelings when he talked about our only access to the spiritual being the physical. Now that I think of it, he may have been quoting someone else. This would seem to apply at whatever menial context. If the spiritual is the highest response to music, for example, how would we access the stimulus if not through our physical ears? Of course the music may only cause us to move our feet, but to respond emotionally or spiritually, we have to hear the music.
It would seem that while on this earth, we have access to the emotional and spiritual, only through the physical. Though we may not react emotionally to something physical, it is very common for us to respond physically to emotion. We shed tears at both sadness and happiness, but of course, tears aren’t merely an emotional response, we also cry from physical pain or discomfort. Anxiety or fear changes our breathing pattern, raises our blood pressure, increases our heart rate, induces nausea. Likewise, the spiritual, may cause an emotional response, which manifests itself in the physical. Granted, I believe that the spiritual is an enigma to body-bound humanity, and in fact, is a reality completely separate from the physical. Jesus expresses this to Nicodemus who tries to understand Jesus’ ridiculous words in a natural context. Jesus explains that the spiritual can’t be explained, or understood. But, here we are, in a natural state, groping at understanding, feeling what we don’t understand, and can’t explain, and our only access for the time being to any experience of the spiritual is through are physical selves.
Though, it seems to me that the traditional teachings of Christianity have skewed this truth a bit, or a lot, it is apparent in Jesus’ teaching and lifestyle that at this point in our eternity, the body is not intended to be separate from the soul. Even the statement that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, suggests that though the Spirit can’t be understood or harnessed, it is only through our senses, emotions, and intellect that we have any spiritual knowledge at all. I wonder if in fear of our inability to overcome our urges, desires and temptations, if we have too narrowly interpreted Paul’s reference to the carnal as something to be denied, killed and forgotten, as an alternative to bringing our physical selves under the Lordship of Christ and giving our bodies as a living sacrifice to him. Paul uses words like carnal, and worldly it seems, to differentiate between our fallen, disobedient, natural wills, and the will of God accessed through our submission to him in all areas of our being. His use of the word carnal seems more encompassing than a mere reference to the evil of our flesh. He is referring also to pride, greed, covetousness, etc. It is much easier entirely to ignore a problem than to make it subject to Christ. If God asks us to present our bodies to him, surely he doesn’t mean to throw it away. Jesus put on flesh to come rescue us. Was his body evil? Of course not, he was without sin. A burden, no doubt – full of temptation, he had to make it subject to his Father through discipline. He fasted, he feasted, he denied it sleep in prayer.
We avoid the need for spiritual discernment and subjection to the Holy Spirit by throwing the baby out with the bath. We have taught that the flesh is evil, and that any happiness it might feel is a warning that we are drifting from God. As a result, we have denied ourselves the only access we have to the spiritual in this life, have redefined faith because we can’t have it without the spiritual ability to believe the unbelievable, and have depended entirely on our intellect to try to know God. We look for evidence and proof where there is no proof because God has required of us faith.
It seems to me that Christianity has become about the least spiritual religion that there is, ironically, because we try to cast off the body to attain the spiritual, and render ourselves incomplete and not completely subject to the Lordship of Christ.

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Saturday, March 25, 2006

high maintenance

There are several reasons why I drive a falling-apart, 14-year-old truck. Some of the reasons, I only share with close friends that I trust to still love me when they know the dark parts of my purple – that’s why I only ever mention them

on my blog. Some of them I’m willing to tell anyone. One of the less honorable reasons is that I have a difficult time trusting garages. I’ve heard, witnessed, and experienced too many horror stories. Another is that for most things that I’ve had to have done, I realized that I could have done it better. In fact, often I have to tweak, adjust, or do over a job after we’ve had a pro do it, as was the case when I had to redo the wiring on Al’s power windows just a few weeks ago after the pro had installed it and it didn’t work. Three times, I’ve taken cars to the shop only to have them returned in the same condition they were taken in. Only once, the garage didn’t charge me for the job they didn’t do.
One of the more honorable reasons is that I actually enjoy working on and maintaining vehicles if I have time. It is very stressful if I don’t have time to get it done. Now I have less and less time and my truck needs more and more care. I have been nursing it for longer than I’d realized.
Tonight, I looked back at some blogs about my wonderful truck and realized that its been a year and half since it stepped forth with its last leg and I thought I was going to have to shoot it. But I bandaged up the leg and bottle-fed it, and kept it going. That is until just before Christmas when it pulled into the driveway steaming and hissing, and refused to go another step. All fall, I’d been trying to prevent that day from happening. I’d replaced the thermostat, the water pump, the radiator, but it was still overheating and leaking coolant. I knew that there was only one choice, and that was going to be major surgery. I left him sitting on the street and procrastinated all through Christmas break because I just didn’t want to get started, and frankly, doubted seriously that I could do the job.
But after 3 months of feeling like a 15 year old, with Allison having to take me everywhere I went, and pick me up, both our lives increasing in stress from the tight schedules that resulted, I had to start turning bolts. Layer by layer, I scattered engine parts and components around the property. Manifolds in the back seat, alternator in Al’s truck, valve covers in the back, rocker arms and push rods neatly labeled in a model cardboard engine in the garage. I labeled every wire and vacuum hose so that a kindergartner could put it back together. I took the cylinder heads to the shop and had them pressure checked and resurfaced, stopped by the store and bought the gaskets and bolts, and went home to begin reassembling. I could write a separate blog of the story of the circus juggling act I had to do to install the heads and intake manifold simultaneously while torquing the 24 bolts in three stages with two different wrenches and 3 different sized sockets. The final values were 90 lbs for the heads and 15 pounds for the manifold. My arms ached.
Reassembly was finished on a Sunday afternoon, and I was sure that I could send Allison to work in her own truck and drive mine to church. But when I started it, I had 3 perfectly water-gun-like streams of coolant jetting from the side of the engine, spraying the exhaust pipe and billowing steam all about the neighborhood. I shut the engine off, got in Allison’s truck and just started driving.
I felt sorry for myself. I SO didn’t want to start taking things apart that I’d just put back together. Eventually, I returned home and just as I was pulling in the driveway, I realized that what I’d done wasn’t the problem. This was something else. So I started the engine again, and sure enough the water battle was happening below the surgical area. Dad, via the phone, diagnosed the problem but offered no help or even hope, in getting the rusty freeze plug out. After several hours spread over the course of a week, I managed to punch it sideways with a golf club handle inserted through the wheel well and pounded with a hatchet, and then pull it out with pliers. Replacing it was easy. I started the engine and let it run, no leaks. Yee haw. But when I turned it off, the coolant was boiling and hissed and bubbled back into the expansion tank. I thought it was going to explode.
This time Allison’s dad said, “did you put a new radiator cap on?” No. “Probably all you need.” Sure. But it was the absolutely only thing I hadn’t replaced. So 30 minutes later, I’ve got a new cap. Start it up. All is well. Smiles all around. He and I test drive around the block a few times. No problem. We decide to go to Lowe’s to supply the next project. We got about a half-mile from home when we’re riding in a cloud of anti-freeze steam. I stopped the truck thinking the new freeze plug had blown out, but find the heater hose loose like the end of a water hose, and antifreeze spraying all over the engine.
Ok, guess what? I fixed it, and two days later, everything seems to be ok. Oh yeah, except my heater still doesn’t work. But it drives and stays cool. Oh, yeah, the gear shift is still floppy, oh yeah, the power steering fluid leaks. Oh yeah, the clutch master cylinder leaks, oh yeah, the rear window leaks…

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Friday, March 24, 2006

jack, tap your cane

Have you seen Jack-In-The-Green?
With his long tail hanging down.
Quietly he sits under every tree ---
in the folds of his velvet gown.

- j-tull

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

missedteria mysteria

A few weeks ago, when the crocuses first peeped out, Allison and I were talking about spring and blossoms and my affinity for them. She mentioned that the wisteria wouldn’t be as magnificent this year as last, because it alternates years of brilliance. I did remember only making one comment two years ago, but last year I was overwhelmed by it. I even had to promise to stop blogging about it. It was everywhere in unbelievable abundance.
I remember 12 years ago, we had a tornado at the end of January and it did so much damage that the wisteria was all but annihilated that spring. I was sad that wooded areas around town had been changed, but I felt deeply for the missing wisteria that wasn’t there to surprise and lift me around every corner.

So Allison had warned me, this year wouldn’t be as purple as last. “It will still be there,” she told me, “but you’ll have to look for it.” Just like me, I thought. I know there is purple in there somewhere, but it is not bursting to get out like it did last year. I’ve got to dig deep. Look under the khaki and green.
But I wasn’t looking for it two weeks early, when it first called to me last Wednesday afternoon off North Main Street. It was sparse, but present. We turned around to go back and see it again. Over the past few days, it has popped up here and there – a couple blooms along Farming Creek Road, a spray along Irmo Drive. So tonight, as I took Allison downtown for a dance class, I grabbed my camera to get a pic of the purple along Irmo Drive. Once downtown, I realized that it would be dark by the time I got back and wondered if I could find some down there. I drove south of the Vista and found it abundant in a small area among some warehouses.
As I mentioned last year, I have an affinity with wisteria. I identify with the beauty that can come of melancholy. I understand the gorgeous falling melodic sighs of the madrigal. I understand the catharsis of the Greek tragedy, and I understand the beauty in the flowing purple tears. How, when everything is being reborn, can there be tears? But there they are, no less beautiful than any of the other new birth. They are tears of childbirth, tears of the neonatal. Everything given life in this fallen world feels pain. There were tears in its fall and tears in its redemption. They are tears endured for the joy that is coming.
As beautiful as they are, they are fleeting, like all blossoming symbols. Life is made of seasons, life is a season. As the tiny purple teardrops fall, and dry on ground, I am reminded that the sorrow only lasts for the night.
Last year purple flowed and oozed and ran along every roadside, from every tree and bush, it dripped down fences, over evergreens, guardrails, and trellises. Intentional purple, accidental purple, surprising purple, bubbling up and overtaking the baby greens. This year it is seeping and dripping among the earth tones. It’s pushing its way to the surface and dotting the plainer colors with splashes, but not overtaking. I have to choose to focus on the purple or all I can see are the surrounding grays, browns and greens.
I’m reminded that joy finds its source outside ourselves and therefore can’t be extinguished with sadness. Too bad we’re taught that joy is an emotion, something that is only there if we feel it. Joy is something we have, we’ve been given, it is hope. It is the purple in the dripping tears.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

equal night



With a photo, you can capture expressions, with luck, emotions, a snapshot of a bigger span that can be remembered in its entirety when prompted with the snapshot. But some moments are as fleeting as the moment captured in a photo. On a clear and beautiful day, that may be as fleeting as 1/1000sec. On an overcast, cold, dreary day like today, one can capture a longer moment. If you hold very still, perhaps you can capture as much as 1/60sec. On a dark night, one can capture a very long moment. But no matter the moment captured, the looking at the photo is frozen, condensed – a span that doesn’t pass.

The moment that these pictures attempt to capture was the moment that the sun passed directly over the equator. That seems so abstract, distant, conceptual, to try to capture on film. Is anything actually affected by such a moment? But of course. I brought Allison home this afternoon at nearly 1:00 o’clock. The sun passed over the equator at 1:26. In that span of 26 minutes, the dogwoods opened their petals to greet the arrival of Spring. Something shifted in me as 1:26 approached. An anticipation, hope, an inner smile. I roamed about the yard as the earth’s tilt reached a place where the poles were equidistant from the sun. I contemplated our path. I thought backward and forward. I thought about last week’s 85 degrees and today’s 49. I thought about how many factors play together to produce the conditions we identify with the seasons.

The waning days of winter yielded summer temps. The advent of spring is announced with chilly overcast skies and occasional tears from above. For the next few weeks we will enjoy, or endure fickle temps and precarious precipitation. But the results of the arrival of spring are begun and will continue to mature regardless of those factors. The trees are sporting baby green. The dogwoods are opening, the azaleas are bursting their fireworks display. One after another, the cycle that is le sacre du printemps, will run, and each new birth, in its turn, will color my world with hope, promise, and smiles.

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Sunday, March 19, 2006

XLII

For the past couple years on this day, I’ve mentioned a first in my life. Lifelong dreams come true. Two years ago, I woke beside a 40-year-old woman for the first time. Last year, I woke beside a 41-year-old woman for the first time in my life. Today has come and gone, and I’ve not yet awoke beside a 42-year-old woman. All my life I’ve dreamed of waking beside a 42-year-old woman, but that dream has not come true. This morning I woke alone and met a 42-year-old at the church. She was the prettiest woman I’ve ever seen. When I saw her, I dreamed of waking beside her sometime, but tonight. I’m alone again, and therefore will awake alone in the morning.
Weekends are tough on me. It’s really hard to go to bed alone. Though Allison does it nearly every night, I always crawl into a warm bed, save these two nights. Weekends leave the bed cold and barren, uninviting even for the exhausted. So I roam and read and write, wander and wonder, gaze upward from the deck, clean and mess things up, ponder and percolate, waft wisps heavenward, and climb into cold sheets scented with memory. Rumpled covers where she’s been, pajamas on the bedside floor, stepped out of heading to the shower.
Eventually, I’ll give out and crawl into the rumpled covers, pull her pajamas up under the covers, lay my head on her pillow and breathe deeply - deep as my lungs can open, and try to catch the scent of her afternoon nap, a scent to stimulate a dream that will simulate my love beside me. I’ll continue to dream about waking beside a 42-year-old woman for another day.

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

out of water

I guess there are advantages to being one of only a handful of men among a couple thousand women. One can certainly draw a lot of glances. But I think they really are saying, “what on earth is he doing here?” Regardless, the awkwardness outweighs any advantage that one might think of. Oh wait, there is absolutely no one in the men’s restroom. That’s an advantage.
I’m at High Point Theatre in High Point, North Carolina. Molly is here to participate in a competition with her lyrical dance company. Actually, my predicament is a disadvantage for Molly as well. She doesn’t have her female parent who can go with her into the dressing room and help her get ready for her performance. I've found myself in many such situations since the advent of children in my life. No changing tables in men’s restrooms, strange glances from women who think you can’t possibly know what you’re doing, comments about the way the kids are dressed, assumptions that you’re divorced and this is your weekend.
Things have gotten much better for men parents since then, even in the past few years, but there are still definite disadvantages. And people can’t figure out why men are less apt to get involved.
When situations like this arise, I realize that I have issues with gender bias. I take it hard, for example when my boys are frowned upon for being boys, I take it hard when they are subject to female learning style bias in school, and the list goes on.
So this evening, my poor male-parented daughter is sent into the dressing room among 100s of other girls, and I wait outside. But that’s not enough. While I’m waiting outside, I’m asked to wait somewhere else, because "some of the parents are concerned that there are men hanging around outside the dressing room." I apologized and left, but inside, I was furious. Inside, I analyzed the terminology of gender bias. Parents really means moms and men?, well obviously not parents. Inside, I said, would you please tell the women that there are parents waiting outside?
Funny thing is, these girls are wearing no more on stage than they wear under their street clothes. So either I shouldn’t be banned from the dressing room, or the mothers should feel very awkward that I’m even watching their daughters dance. I don’t know if they feel awkward, but I do now.
I told Allison today that I was taking Molly up here to try and plug into this part of her world, but evidently, I’m trying to plug into an ungrounded outlet, my plug has one prong too many.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

another sign of Jonah

The next phase of my Jonah connection, comes when I become encouraged by missions emphasis, and moved by missions stories. Evidently, being so post-modern means I am subject to the intense need to balance all things hopeful with discouragement. So as I hear about strategies and sacrifices and passions, and efforts, and prayers, and training, and going, etc. to cultures all over the world, I am encouraged and moved, and extremely discouraged, and at times angry that this attitude, conviction, and effort is completely lost on the culture immediately around us. Our “Jerusalem” of Acts 1:8, has become our “Nineveh” of the book of Jonah. At one point during last week, I actually began making a world missions map that labeled North America as Nineveh, and the entire rest of the world as Tarshish. I don’t really mean that. I don’t think being missional overseas is fleeing from God - that is, unless God has sent you someplace on this side of the pond. Then we’re just as much in the wrong place as if God has told us to go, but we stayed.
But the Jonah factor is much more subtle than simply going or staying or going to the wrong place. In fact, Jonah did eventually go where he was told to go – physically. But he didn’t go there spiritually. He didn’t get on board with God’s plan. At all. His story, as we have it, ends with him being angry with God, and God asking him, “what right do you have being angry? Should I not be concerned about a people that I made?”
My mind inserts, who are you not to rejoice in the salvation of a people who don’t know their right hand from their left?
We are living at a time, when the evangelical church has so defined itself culturally, socially, racially, economically, that we target evangelism markets that look exactly like us. We begin to equate culture, finances, race, class with morality, or at least as indicators of receptivity to our message and worthiness of our efforts. There is an emerging culture around us that we are not only disinterested in reaching, but when someone does express the desire to reach them, we criticize them for lowering the doctrinal standard, or selling out their theology.
Heaven forbid that any of those people should become believers, because it doesn’t sit well with the indicators we’ve created to know who is among our own. When we see a Ninevite in church we accuse the church of trying to “look like the world”, rather than considering that church is made up of people from the world. So we begin to resent people who look and think differently. We mock the look of the folks who serve us our coffee at Starbucks, so when those folks find their way into the church, we mock the church.
God is building his church out of every tribe and tongue and nation, yes, even our own. We’ve been sitting in the pew under a worm infested, withering plant grieving the changing make-up of the church for so long that we’ve grown faint. We, like Jonah, are very skeptical of God’s mercy shown to people whom we don’t understand.

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

lent filter

Temps were about the same today as yesterday, but it was sunnier. It is only slightly cloudier tonight so far, so the moon has really pretty interaction backlighting cumulus beauties. The frogs are singing again.
I came in from church this afternoon, and ate a bowl of cereal before heading to the driveway to finish reassembling my truck. Ok, it wasn’t A bowl of cereal, several bowls of cereal. Ok, it wasn’t several bowls of cereal, a BOX of cereal. I’ve really abused the break-fast for Resurrection day today. This is a huge confession - I’ve also had 3 hot dogs and a bag of microwave popcorn today. It’s a good thing the kids found my bag of potato chips that I’ve been hiding since last weekend. There was no trace that it ever existed, or I’d have had more to confess. I guess I do have to confess being upset that they’d eaten it. Who am I to complain? In ordinary time, the poor little ones can go to bed with their futures secured, their cares cast upon him without a thought as to the sustenance of their developing, growing bodies secured in well-stocked cupboards, only to wake and find that I’ve done everything in my power overnight to render scripture void of truth.
Last weekend I was so religious that I ate at midnight on Satur- uh, Sunday morning. Letter of the law. The spirit would have waited until it was honestly Sunday, but the religious in me said midnight was ok. But I didn’t gorge myself on Sunday last week. As I ate moderately, I considered how it feels to be without. I considered how it feels to be dependent on and provided for by Christ. As a result, each morsel tasted like a measure of grace and mercy.
A box of cereal, 3 hot dogs, and a bag of popcorn. What an abuse of grace. And cheap grace at that. Not a veggie in the day. Shall I eat more so that grace may abound? Ma genoito! Tonight, I’m thinking of those poor folks out in the wilderness sneaking extra handfuls of Manna and stuffing it into their pockets, only to find it putrid and worm-infested later.
What does it take to learn to rely on the daily spoonfuls? His grace is sufficient. His mercies are new every morning, I know that, I’ve experienced his new mercy every morning, but here I am trying to stuff myself with mercy to save for the rainy day. Trying to cover new sin with old mercy when new is available.
Lord, help me to walk in confidence that your spoonfuls will be there and be filling when I need them. Teach me to accept each freshly prepared batch as I wake and bask in the day and lie down with confidence that I’ll wake to find you fresh and new with the sunrise. It’s a long week and you’re in it.

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Saturday, March 11, 2006

preview

I was outside the entire day today. I worked on my truck from 10:00am to 6:30pm. It was 80 degrees with forecast thunderstorms. The thunderstorms never came, so I worked through the day. Got my first sunburn of the year. I had no idea until Jack told me I was burned. Bees were out, bumblebees and yellow jackets. The mosquitoes arrived at dusk.
At dark, I was still an hour from having my truck back together. When I came inside, my back was sore on the outside from the sunburn and the inside from bending over the truck all day. My arms were sore from cranking bolts and my hands ached from too many rapped knuckles. I had grease under my nails and in all the rough places on my hands. I ran an extremely hot bath, cranked up the jets and jacuzzied my self to relaxation and cleanliness.
I’m on the deck now under a three-quarter worm moon and listening to the frogs SING for the first time in over a year. They’re back.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

a sign of Jonah

At the end of January, when the controversy over “End of the Spear” was rippling the evangelical community, I found myself on the way home from church stewing over some things I’d recently read. In a quiet moment, coming down Broad River Road, it struck me that these people at whom I was so angry were sincere. They too, were angry at what they sincerely believed to be wrong. So much of the information they’d gathered to form their opinions was false, but they sincerely believed that they were speaking out about what God wanted them to speak on. They mocked passions and prayers of Christian brothers who desired to reach out and show love, but they believed they were speaking the truth in righteousness.
This occurred to me because I’d been thinking about Jonah. Jonah refused to go to Nineveh because the people there were so far gone. He would be mocked, possibly physically harmed, who knows? But it was assured that he’d go and suffer all this and be run out of town by an unchanged, mocking people. So much trouble, unfruitful, in his mind, they were beyond the grace of God. He could just go to Tarshish and no doubt do the “Lord’s work” there. He’d be doing what he was supposed to do, and perhaps these people would respond. He could even tell them about how evil the people of Nineveh were.
So there I was, with a slightly more understanding, tolerant and less angry feeling about the folks, a bit of insight into their passion. But at the same time, I was consciously bewildered that though I’d found a connection to their misguided convictions and those of Jonah, they had learned absolutely nothing from Jonah’s story, that taught them about God’s grace and ability to work the seemingly impossible.

Several weeks later, I’d pretty much weaned myself from the need to visit those blogs, and find who or what was receiving their scathing criticism. But one night, recently I was browsing and couldn’t stay away. Lo and behold, the object of the wrath was the movie “Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie.” I HAD to read. Basically the post was simply a reference to an article by another writer who was warning of all the loose treatment of scripture, the liberties taken with the script, the irreverence, the humor juxtaposed with the dealing with sin, etc. These are all legitimate concerns, but evidently didn’t make for a long enough diatribe.
In order to pit the seriousness of taking a animated treatment of the story, Jesus was quoted to establish Jonah as a prophet of God, and a symbol of Jesus own atoning act. This seemed to be noted so that it would be obvious that Jonah, once spewed from the fish, behaved in heart and action according to God’s will. The movie however, depicted Jonah at the end, sitting on a hill, sulking at their repentance, waiting to watch God drop the bomb on Nineveh. The movie showed him as an immature, selfish, self-righteous grump, when Jesus had called him a “prophet of God”. Sheesh.
When I read this, I was reminded of all my rants about primary sources, especially our dependence on oral tradition. It seemed obvious to me that the writer of this critical theological review of an animated children’s movie had NOT read the book of Jonah, on which it was based. She obviously didn’t understand the significance of the movie character, Khalil, a worm.
Sure we don’t find him sitting up there sulking in our Sunday School versions from when we were children. That doesn’t make for an inspiring lesson in changed hearts, and obedience. The book of Jonah, in fact doesn’t exhibit a prophet restored with a changed, merciful,understanding heart. The changed and forgiven are the Ninevites. The suffering and prideful is Jonah – at the END of the story. How many 1st graders know about the plant sent to shade Jonah even in his sinful, selfish sulking? How many know about the worm sent to kill the plant that was giving him shade?
I don’t see this “liberal” movie tainting scripture as the problem. I see the story tweaked beyond its meaning in Sunday School, rendering adults unable to recognize the real story when it’s presented even in cartoon form.

In reality, Jonah had been severely let down. Everything he understood about righteousness, justice, God’s wrath and sovereignty, divine cause and effect, the deadly wages of sin, had all been dashed by the one thing he didn’t seem to understand – God’s mercy. Surely, also, Jonah had to now realize that the Ninevites were loved just as much as he was. Although he’d done right, followed God, kept himself clean (to the point of not wanting to even be around those Ninevites), Nineveh was being treated with favor just like he was. He obviously didn’t see the severity of his immediately prior disobedience though he’d spent 3 days in death’s belly and had been spared.

Of course I’m speaking of these things out of selfishness, I want to use this illustration as evidence of our reliance on oral tradition and secondary sources rather than reading and mining, and devour the text ourselves. But Jonah, is a fine topic to discuss because we seem to have missed the point from our big fish story. Yes it is about forgiveness and changed hearts. But it was the Ninevites that illustrate this. It is about failure to see God’s mercy and grace though confronted with over and over, and THEN actually to be offended by God’s mercy bestowed on someone else, while it is also being poured all over me.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

creating, accumulating and chipping away


There is a famous quote, attributed to Michelangelo Buonarroti, in which, when asked how he creates a statue of a horse, he answers that he simply takes a block of marble and carves away everything that is not a horse. Of course, I paraphrase. There are versions in which he says he sees what the rock contains and then carves away everything else.
This is certainly a beautiful, romantic picture of the need, possibility, desire to chip away everything that is not what it ought to be.

Often though, or maybe usually, it is impossible or unfeasible to simply chip away at an existing piece of stone to reveal what is there. It is ever so difficult to know when you’ve removed everything that is not a horse, or maybe even gone beyond and removed part of the horse. One interesting problem is, that in seeing that the marble contains a horse, one can mistake the entire chunk of marble for a horse. Because we visualize the horse in the marble, we eventually become convinced that a horse looks like a chunk of marble.
But also, maybe the marble is just too troublesome, unyielding. Perhaps it cracks at unintended places. Perhaps there is nothing there worth revealing by chipping away. Sometimes it’s necessary to build from scratch, with clay for example. A clay piece is not chipped away to reveal everything that is not a horse, it is a glob of nothing that is formed and shaped and molded into the desired work.

Even what becomes degrades and gets dirty over time. I am fascinated at the meticulousness of the cleaning process for these works of art. Though Michelangelo's David is certainly an amazing representation of perfection of marblehood, over these past centuries, David’s skin has become somewhat dull and ruddy. Though he is still, evidently, the ultimate hard-body, his surface has become tainted. And so the experts set about cleaning away everything that is not Michelangelo’s David. No doubt, they took nearly as much time cleaning away what had accumulated on the stone as the artist had spent carving away the stone itself until he had exposed what was contained therein. And “expose” he did, but that is not the point of this post.

Perhaps, if a completed clay piece becomes dull and ruddy over time, it will need to be rid of everything that is not it, as was done with the restoration of David. But first, originally, the clay had to be formed into something new, from scratch.
People usually have to be re-created from scratch. Made new. Demolished and re-formed. Over time though, having been made new, they tend to accumulate junk and must be cleaned or restored.

When people create and clean, it is of enormous difficulty to strip away what doesn’t belong. We have a natural ability to become attached to accumulation even if it was not desired in the first place. God creates, forms, and molds things from globs. He assembles and builds. He makes all things new. Sometimes his pieces are astounding, sometimes they don't seem like much. His creations are beneath him, less than him. Though it is very difficult, people who make a difference create from what we’ve been given, we chip away at what is, and create new things. Our creations are above us, bigger than us, beyond us. That’s why one of these can create one of these. But the majority of us tend to take what has been created from a glob and add on and add on and on, until at some point, it is hardly recognizable as what it first was.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

primary sources 4.0: oral tradition

A short while ago, I wrote a series about our failure to garner the information that shapes our beliefs, convictions, apprenticeship, and formation from primary sources. As an illustration, I mentioned having spoken with my class about The Da Vinci Code, and as expected, found that everyone knew much about the book, but few had actually read it. I was reminded of all this more recently when End of the Spear received so much harsh criticism, and the criticism spilled over to the individuals who were part of the story or the making of the movie. I read post after post of repeated slander, hatred, accusations, but little of it was based in truth or knowledge. I commented on one to point out that it was far from the truth, but was censored and banned from commenting at all. Of course, later, some of these folks were confronted with the truth and felt compelled to apologize for their knee-jerk reactions that weren’t founded in knowledge. The folks who repeated their falsehoods, however, just seemed to avoid the subject altogether, and go on to some other third-hand subject to spew venom about.
Still more recently, the original illustration I used with the Da Vinci Code was refreshed in my mind by an article in last week’s New Yorker. The article is about Mary Magdalene. In order to give a bit of a background for the article as to how the Magdalene has become who she has become, the author Joan Accocella, spends some time explaining the oral tradition that spawned the written accounts in the Gospels. She also points out that after the accounts were set to paper, the oral tradition and the adding to the story never really stopped. She uses Magdalene as the example and explains that although she is mentioned only a few times (though her role is great), we certainly know an inordinate amount about her. This is precisely because most of what we think we know, we’ve made up. During the past 1500 years, much of the addition to the recorded information appears to have been intentional, to create a Biblical disciple that would suit our political needs.

Any of my students can tell you that one of my most frequented rants is that we spin our wheels discussing and attempting to implement spiritual formation methods, while we dreadfully neglect teaching the teaching of Jesus from the pulpit. We do a ton of teaching other peoples’ teaching about Jesus. And of course, this teaching about Jesus is arrived at by great study and contemplation by others, but it is manmade and in many instances, conjecture.
In his brand new book, “Eat This Book”, Peterson agrees with my years-old rant. He says that renewed interest in spiritual formation has not brought us more interested in the text necessary for shaping the souls. Likewise, only care about the text leaves no souls to whom it can be applied. Has the bible become a source for information on what to believe, but completely unhelpful in showing how to let our beliefs change our lives? We study the scripture for theology and doctrine and for discipleship, we conjecture what would Jesus do? What would jesus eat?
But when is the last time we actually, read and contemplated what is actually there and why it is actually there? I was telling Allison about the Acocella article and ended up reading some of it to her. We both sat at the kitchen table and looked up the passages that include Mary Magdalene. Of course I didn’t expect to find most of the stuff that people are now claiming about her, but I was amazed at how little is actually there, and at what assumptions I’ve added to the text based on what other people ponder and wonder about.
I was angered by reading about how, in a mostly illiterate culture, things were added to the story that served the purposes of those in power. I thought more about how livid the Christian community was when the Da Vinci Code was published. In no time, there were numerous books debunking the premise. Numerous editions of the Gnostic Gospels were published, and countered with books debunking them. Mary Magdalene became a star again, in much the way she was in the 15th century when she became a character that could inspire a book like the Da Vinci Code.
Then I thought about how much we add today. The biblical record is still just as much an oral tradition as it ever was. We extract verses and portions of verses and implant them in other contexts, and slap it all onto a powerpoint slide. We have Magi and animals at the nativity, we have… It is actually difficult to pick up the text, read it for yourself and notice what is there. We still add, even in our reading, what we assumed was there but isn’t. We don’t notice much of what IS there, because we’ve so many aurally gained notions that we no longer know how to read to learn.

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