Friday, December 16, 2005

Memoir: Love & Understanding

A few weeks ago I picked up a crossword puzzle. First, before I go on, it should be known that I hate crossword puzzles. This particular one was vicious it was like the great white shark of crosswords. I looked at each clue for three seconds or so then I went onto the next one—they were impossible clues. When I got done looking through all the clues I only had 5 spaces filled in.

What makes it even worse is that I have an inflated self esteem when it comes to puzzles. It’s a weird paradox I have this deep seeded feeling like I should be really good at them for some reason but my failure is unstoppable—and then there is the headache. It sets in unswervingly. The only metaphor worthy of describing it is vice grips, on your head just squeezing. I know what you are thinking he’s exaggerating but it is the truth. I wouldn’t use hyperbole about getting a one-two punch from worthless puzzle.

My friend Teague and I talk about how Jesus is puzzling sometimes. We will sit down for a cup of coffee and look through the Gospels and observe Jesus challenging common sense--saying things like “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God,” Or, “If any of you wants to gain his life he must lose it for my sake.” Those are puzzles, but not the puzzles that give me a headache. And after thinking about it for a while I came to the conclusion that the Bible is filled with all sorts of puzzles. And I am not talking about apocalyptic puzzles where if you read a verse in Deutronomy backwards you will know the hour that Jesus comes back. Honestly I think that those are kind of hokey and self gratifying—I mean I think people that are in to that doomsday decoding stuff really hate this world and just assume Jesus feels the same way. When I say that the Bible is full of puzzles I mean a different kind of puzzle—a life puzzle. Job’s life is a bit of a puzzle. God never gives him an answer to all his suffering but in it there is no question to God’s existence, or Job’s faith. Judas is another example Why did he betray Jesus?--especially after seeing all the good things Jesus did.

In fact I am convinced that life puzzles are all around us everyday. It may be the neighbor who is a bit out of touch with reality, or the little boy down the street who won’t climb a tree or play with a toy gun. They can be similar to the Judas riddle of betrayal—though perhaps not to the same degree. Or ones about love—how can she love him? In fact I am a kind of puzzle to myself sometimes, “Crap, why did I do that.” My grandfather was a puzzle to my grandmother for a long time. You see he is kind of like a lesser version of “A Beautiful Mind.” He taught medical school at the University of Washington, and he was a brain surgeon—or some type of surgeon. But with all his smarts he can’t manage socially. I’ve been told by some of my family that he has a chemical imbalance. My mom has told me some stories about him while she was growing up too and they aren’t pretty.

He is unnatural in conversation, sometimes he says the most random things, he often comments on my brother’s physical fitness, “My, Patrick you have some nice biceps there,” and that is his menu of conversation. It blew me away a couple weeks ago though; I was talking to my grandmother and she referred to my grandfather as her beloved. Now people don’t just call a person ‘beloved.’ I feel like that is a word reserved for people who are weird or in some type of hyper love. I thought about if for a while and I realized that my grandmother really loved this guy, my grandfather that is. This was the same man that everyone else would talk trash about at Christmas parties and other family get togethers but she loved him, enough to call him her beloved. Through the harder times when my grandfather was less than kind—and perhaps even threatening she loved him. She loved him when he was embarrassing her in public, when he acted out in rage towards his children even. She still loved him.

“Love never fails,” scripture tells us, and that is a hard thing for me to see often with half of marriages ending in divorce and so much superficiality in media, politics, and relationships. If I did not take my faith in Jesus seriously this deep truth about love not failing would be like the worst puzzle of them all. I would want to believe it but the evidence would to seem prove otherwise.

My grandmother—though she is always busy, and on the run with different social work (homeless shelter here, soup kitchen there)—has a mellowness to her, which I think is part of the reason for her success with her husband--my odd old grandfather. I was thinking about it the other day and I’m sure of it, her mellowness helps her understand.

My grandparents have spent time with each other and with time comes understanding, and with understanding love. Love and understanding are bound together, I think it is a deep and holy truth. If you understand someone you are bound to love ‘em. My grandmother with time has come to understand why my grandfather cannot operate socially, and even why he can be down right manipulative and after she came to that understanding of her ‘beloved’ it would seem that she has no option but to love him because she understands him. You see when you understand someone deeply you know their motivations—good or bad—and you see why they have such a motivation, sometimes you can even trace it back to the root like an event in the past or something. Finally, when you see from this perspective it is hard not to love the person because you understand them—in weakness and blessing.

Jesus one time had an interaction with a rich young ruler. He said, ‘you are missing something from your life. Give up what you have, all your riches and come to me.” The rich young ruler couldn’t come—he was too attached to his possessions—and the scripture says, “And Jesus looked on him with love.”

I don’t get it sometimes—‘How can Jesus look on some rich guy with love when the guy is more concerned about saving his money then Jesus saving his soul.’ I was writing in my journal the other day about this theological riddle and I think—strange as it is—my grandparent’s situation helped me to understand this scripture. How can you love someone in their weakness—that is the love that fountains forth from the wellspring of understanding. I believe that is how Jesus loved that rich young guy who was hung up on his money. Think about it, Jesus probably looked at the rich guy and knew that his Father had taught him things like: ‘put yourself number one,’ ‘do anything for a buck.’ Jesus understood the dilemma in the rich guy’s heart and because of that Jesus could “look on him with love.” In fact I believe that is how God loves us all. We all have things we are having a hard time giving to God—just like this young rich guy. And since our lives aren’t puzzles to God, but he knows why we struggle with those things he can start walking us towards healing. I feel that it is how God wants us to love each other too. We are called to love our neighbors with the love that God has for us—the great understanding love of Jesus. Then the life puzzles will be unraveled and put together and the most beautiful picture of person healed by God will be clear as day.

Friday, December 09, 2005

What's the Difference: An Authentic Look at World Faiths

The Jewish Philosopher Abraham Heschel writes, "Plurality is incompatible with the sense of the ineffable [God]. You cannot ask in regard to the divine: Which one? There is only one synonym for God: One."I agree, to some extent, with Heschel; I live in an area of the United States where the truth of religious difference isn't popular. Many of my friends have this idea that 'many rivers lead to one ocean' applies to religious difference (a belief that actually comes ironically enough from one specific religion, Hinduism). I've also read this numerous times in popular magazines; it surrounds us. I feel like it isn't very thoughful though, and even slightly arrogant. Most of my friends that have this pluralistic attitude towards religion don't even claim a specific faith, and that is where the arrogance lies. They are projecting their thoughts on a whole bunch of different faiths, none of which they are a part of. It's similar to a Republican setting limits to what a Democrat can believe to be a good government, it just seems wrong (not to mention silly).

I received my B.A. in Religious Studies from a small university in Washington state. While studying there I found, in contrast to popular opinion, that there are striking differences between religions. Sure there are congruities in the categories of ethics and wisdom but when it comes to the area of the unseen (afterlife, salvation/liberation, God) there are many incongruities. I would say that Christianity is the biggest divergent among all the faith traditions because of how it understands the issue of the Human-Divine Gap.

The Human-Divine Gap

Every faith tradition has to address the Human-Divine Gap. It, as some scholars think, is the reason for religion, because as far back as human experience has been recorded there has been the elements in human wonder at the infinite and the beyond and the human emotion of detachment from that infinite and beyond. That is the Human-Divine Gap, and that, again as some scholars say, is the foundation for all religion.

Hinduism, perhaps the oldest faith, tells us that through life each person goes through stages of purgation to get rid of desire and produce good karma. The last stage is to become a Yogi. These people are the 'spiritual-select' bunch. And, it is usually believed, that Yogis are the only people that achieve liberation from Samsara (the wheel of reincarnation) and unification with Brahman (the Universal Spirit). Since bad karma is easy to acquire it usually takes life times and life times to bridge the Human-Divine Gap.

Buddhism is what is called a Heterodox Indian Philosophy. That is, it is a teaching that came out of India but contains many differences from Hinduism. Noting that it should be mentioned that to most people not familiar with Indian philsophy Buddhism and Hinduism look rather similar. Traditional Buddhism (Theravada) tells us that only Monks (lamas) can attain liberation from Samsara (as a note for both traditional Hinduism and Buddhism maintain that if you are a woman you must be reincarnated as a man to achieve liberation). Again bad Karma is easily acquired so this takes many reincarnations to finally bridge the gap Human-Divine Gap. It should be noted though that in some forms of Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana) there spiritual beings called Bodhisatvas that assist humans in there path towards liberation from Samsara.

Judaism's manner of bridging the gap is different. Instead of a system of judgement independent from a personal will (Karma) there is a sovereign God (YHWH or I am that I am) who reveals himself to the elect (the Jews). It is God who revealed Torah (a set of 613 laws governing public and private life) to Moses and Israel. Though many contemporary expressions of Judaism (conservative, reform, reconstructionist) do not believe in, or care little for, an afterlife with God, maintaining that the present life is the only concern, traditionally Torah has been the bridged the Human-Divine gap, and consequently been the portal to eternal life. Israel is living in holiness when she submits to Torah as God's commandments--then becoming one and bridging the Human-Divine gap, likewise, when Israel does not submit she is characterized as a wayward wife (the book of Hosea).

The salient difference of Christianity is that not only is revelation dependent upon God but the act of bridging the human-divine gap is also. Salvation/Liberation isn't dependent upon one resolving one's own karma, nor is it in found in adhering to a legal code. Salvation/Liberation is found in Jesus Christ. Jesus is recorded as saying (Matthew 5:17), "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." Christianity maintains that while the law is good man will always fall short of adhering to the law in full, it is as if the human-divine gap is a canyon that no person can jump, thus man needs God to bridge the gap on mankind's behalf. Because of this Jesus the Christ (according to Christian thought: Israel's awaited Messiah) came to take the weight of Israel's and world's sin. That took place on the cross and his death and was fully realized in his resurrection from death. This makes Christianity fundamentally different from the world faiths.

Post your thoughts. Is this a fair representation of world faiths?

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Thoughts on James

A pregnancy is a time filled with the anticipation of joy. Our cultural image of the future father pacing in the waiting room paints that anticipation and anxiousness well. Kandice and I witnessed this recently when some friends of ours went through the stages of pregnancy; for our friends it seemed like each day ushered in a new level of anticipation and expectancy until the day of birth. Somewhat ironically James uses the language of birth to describe sin in our lives, "But each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death" (James 1:14-16). In the above passage James gives us a picture of the lineage of sin--how it can lead to our ruin. More than that though I think James wants to use the language traditionally used to express "joy", "expectation", and "eagerness"--the diction of new birth--to unveil the motives of our hearts when we commit sin.

Tim Keller mentioned one time in a sermon of his that when the Bible says "evil desires" the literal translation means: "over desires". That is, it isn't that I am desiring something 'evil', in and of itself, but that the ratio of desire is off: our desire for sex, money, power, intelligence (to name the big ones) outweighs our desire for God. They our overly desired.

We have such an expectancy with our sin, or over desires. We hope that they will give birth to joy. Instead they are far worse than being merely still born--they attack us. They are not just empty but they begin to tear us down. "Then after desire has conceived it gives birth to sin, and sin when it is full grown gives birth to death" (James 1:15). All our expectancy and anticipation in the face of sin is bankrupt. It's as if I invested everything I owned into a company that collapsed days after. The anticipation leads to destruction. We try time and time again to manufacture joy by following our over desires--our "fashioned idols". But there is only sin--then death.

Fortunately James gives us words of refuge. "Don't be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above coming down from the father of lights, who does not change like shifting shadows" (James 1:16-17). We should not confuse truth with lies, while our over desires fill us with anticipation and hopes of joy only to destroy us, "the Father of lights" gives us "perfect gift[s]" that grow us into the person of Christ.

Something to be thankful for.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Is there anything else?

Is there anything to add to this picture? What are some other worldviews? Are they as all-inclusive as this?

The Bible sees the history of the world in four stages—1) Creation by God, 2) Fall into sin, 3) Redemption through Christ, and 4) Final Restoration--the new heaven and new earth.

But creation-fall-redemption-restoration are not just discrete stages in time, they are also different aspects of present reality. Put another way, when we look at any object in this world, we know three things about it:

First, it is part of God’s good creation.

Second, it is fallen and affected by sindistorted somehow, broken, falling short of its original purpose.

Third, it is being, and can be, redeemed. The purpose of God is to wipe all creation clean of all the effects of sin until it is all restored to wholeness, beauty, and glory.This is the basis of the Christian worldview.

If you miss any these three perspectives, you have a distorted view of reality. For example, consider anger. Anger is inherently good. In God, who gets angry, we see anger’s original, creational purpose—as assertiveness to protect that which is good. Anger is an aspect of love. The opposite of love is not anger, but indifference. Yet sin has distorted anger and in human beings it is usually a source of great evil and is always dangerous. But the gospel of grace can redeem our anger so it becomes a source of energy for good. If, when considering anger, we leave out any of these aspects of a biblical world-view, our attitude toward anger will be out of touch with reality. We will either have too negative a view of anger (repressing and denying it) or too positive a view of anger (encouraging it as tool against ‘oppression,’ or blackmailing and exploiting others with it.)

Tim Keller

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

T.S. Eliot's The Journey of the Magi

T.S. Eliot's vision of the magi approaching Bethelehem, and consequently the new born Christ child is a beautiful picture of the season of Advent. It describes expectation and fear, life and death--the fullness of mystery. Let's approach this Advent season which such wonder in the face of the Christ born in a manger.

The Journey of the Magi
'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

-- T. S. Eliot

The Deposition by B.H. Fairchild

And one without a name
Lay clean and naked there, and gave commandments.

—Rilke, “Washing the Corpse” (trans. Jarrell)

Dust storm, we thought, a brown swarm
plugging the lungs, or a locust-cloud,
but this was a collapse, a slow sinking
to deeper brown, and deeper still, like the sky
seen from inside a well as we are lowered down,
and the air twisting and tearing at itself.
But it was done. And the body hung there
like a butchered thing, naked and alone
in a sudden hush among the ravaged air.
The ankles first—slender, blood-caked,
pale in the sullen dark, legs broken
below the knees, blue bruises smoldering
to black. And the spikes. We tugged iron
from human flesh that dangled like limbs
not fully hacked from trees, nudged
the cross beam from side to side until
the sign that mocked him broke loose.
It took all three of us. We shouldered the body
to the ground, yanked nails from wrists
more delicate, it seemed, than a young girl’s
but now swollen, gnarled, black as burnt twigs.
The body, so heavy for such a small man,
was a knot of muscle, a batch of cuts
and scratches from the scourging, and down
the right side a clotted line of blood,
the sour posca clogging his ragged beard,
the eyes exploded to a stare that shot
through all of us and still speaks in my dreams:
I know who you are.

So, we began to wash
the body, wrenching the arms, now stiff
and twisted, to his sides, unbending
the ruined legs and sponging off the dirt
of the city, sweat, urine, shit—all the body
gives—from the body, laying it out straight
on a sheet of linen rank with perfumes
so that we could cradle it, haul it
to the tomb. The wind shouted.
The foul air thickened. I reached over
to close the eyes. I know who you are.

What do you think of the graphic representation here?
Who is it about?
What can be made of the twin lines "I know who you are." (at the end of each stanzas).
Do any lines stick out to you?

What, When, Where, How?

I learned in elementary school that the essential journalistic questions were: what, when, where, how. Each covered it's own category of understanding necessary to grasping any event. If there was an earthquake that happened what would tell us exactly that, an earthquake took place, while when would indicate the exact, or approximate, timing (3:00 PM). Where tells us the location, with an earthquake it would tell us the location (epi-center) it hit hardest. How is a different sort of question. How asks something which is pre-event; while: what, when, and where deal with the event itself how asks something more profound: a reason. That too can, most times, be dealt with rather easily: two tectonic plates collide (more or less) and cause the earthquake. The distant cousin to all these questions is "why". Why is the dangerous one; it's the questions that evokes the most emotion and it's the hardest to truly pin down.

"Why" is a similar question to "how" when talking about things. It is a question of cause, tectonic plates crash together. With humans though it is much different. The question of "why" is nebulous. The question "Why did Don rob the store" can be answered only with an understanding of his personal context. If Don was poor we might answer, "He needed some money." If Don was rich we might say, "He wanted a thrill." But even among those two simple answers there are unending variations and variables leading to even more variations of the simple question, "why." This makes the question of "why" fundamentally different from the question "how".

I feel for that very reason we hold the question: "why" closest to our hearts. We silently ask questions like: "Why am I here?"; "Why is the world the way it is?"; etc. The reasons to our silently asked questions are there, and they are many. The person who believes in God says in response to "Why is the world the way it is?": "Because the earth is a hard place filled with hurt and pain, but there are seeds of love and joy and eventually those seeds will overgrow the desert of pain"--and they list many reasons for their belief. The skeptic says in response to the same question: "I don't know, this world is a soupy murk with no clear answers to "why". And the Nihilist replies, "The world is the way it is because it is doomed, and any seeds of love and joy will be trampled by the march of impending death"--and they too can list many reasons for their beliefs. All three responses acknowledge the hurt of the world while maintaining different answers to "why". What is your answer to the fundamental "Why" questions?

"Why am I here?"
"Why do rich people prosper and the poor remain poor?"
"Why do nations go to war when everyone knows war is a bad thing?"
The list goes on.

Post any thoughts.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A Kernel of Wheat

"Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over."

Monday, November 21, 2005

Christianity and Literature

"The religious doesn't not abolish the aesthetic but dethrones it."
--Soren Kierkegaard

"I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the story-teller to observe."
--Flannery O'Connor

These two quotes, it might seem, are alike only in so far as they have to do with religion and art; a closer look though can tie them together in a tight weave. One might say the aesthetic has to be "dethroned"--using S.K.'s language-- to the free the author to "observe"--to use Flannery's. According to Flannery O'Connor it is the Christian belief that is the enabler of good story telling and not a throned aesthetic. A throned aesthetic limits the writer to being creative, at the least, for the sake of being creative, and at the most, for the sake of preaching humanism. A dethroned aesthetic and a throned Lord lead to a broadness of viewpoint, almost as if one were atop a hill charting the distances.

Bryan Halferty

Is this accurate? Do you disagree? Write your thoughts.