Friday, February 29, 2008

Leap Day

Happy Leap Day everyone! The Canada Geese are flying north, honking as they go, a sure sign that winter is nearly over!

A couple of days ago I had the book release party for my book, Covenant and Community. It really put things in perspective for me.

It was generously hosted by a local book store, not a Christian store. In fact it is predominantly a pagan store, in the strict meaning of that word. Although the people who run it consider it an open minded store, and it carries books from a wide variety of perspectives, paganism in its many forms overwhelmingly fills its shelves. And the store has a very large gay/lesbian selection.

In fact one of the workers thought it good to warn me a few weeks before the party. "I don't know how much you know about what we carry here, it isn't exactly churchy."

Nonetheless, the bookstore offered to host a book release party for me and I accepted. They put a good deal of work into the preparations and advertising. I was pleasantly surprised at their energy and generosity.

And they did all of this simply because I am one of the community and they are proud to be part of the celebration when one in the community accomplishes something. Even a Christian.

For my part I invited many friends, and of course my whole church, some four or five hundred or so people. I also invited many of the local pastors.

No pastors came. Not even mine. A few friends and four people from my church. Only four, out of the hundreds there, people who have known me for a decade, watched my children grow up. I've taught many of their kids.

After five or six years of working on this book, while working two jobs and homeschooling my children (and many of theirs), I had hoped for a little more by way of church pride in it. But there is none. Not that I wrote it for the congratulations, but the silence is disheartening. When I told my pastor about it he neither asked the title nor the subject of the book. In fact he showed no interest at all in it.

And to underscore the generosity of the store, they didn't even want a cut from the few sales of the book. They did all of that for free.

Pagans believe in community.

Christians don't seem to.

All of which I think goes to show that the book needed to be written, and needs to be read.

So I am comforted.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Words (Pt 2)

Today two of my daughters gave me a perfect illustration for the last post, the one about words, and our need for meaning. One was being rather obnoxious and talking in nonsense words. "Schlreg mehug nopan, so ranis gelush," and so on. It ran on rather long. Got on my nerves a bit, but what interested me was her younger sister's reaction. She put her hands over her ears and started howling, "Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!"

Nothing out of the ordinary here, for our house. Perhaps not that odd for your house either. But it intruiged me because I was already thinking about the subject of meaning.

Now Hope does not react this way when her sisters and I speak in Spanish, nor when the older two girls speak in French. Instead she listens intently and always asks what we were saying, what it means. She then repeats it all to herself. She also does this with our many international friends who regularly speak Korean, Mandarin, Turkish and many other languages around her.

But she recongnizes when there is meaning in words and when there isn't, whether she understands them or not. When she has a sense that there is meaning she is attentive. When she can tell there is no meaning, but just nonsense, she is almost frantic in her desire to be away from it.

Don't we all have this inate desire for meaning? Isn't this part of what makes us turn off certain television shows and what brings us back again and again to the great writings, especially the Bible? The one seems intollerably shallow and the other reveals to us new depths of meaning every time we immerse ourselves in it.

Words, words, words

After a very long day at work I sat down and turned on a cd of Cui Jian, one of the most popular Chinese rock musicians. I love his music, the driving rhythms, the passion, and the words.

But how do I love the words? I don't know a bit of what he's saying. I can't say hello or goodbye in Mandarine. He might be saying terrible things. I very much doubt it, but I don't really know. So how can I say I love the words?

Is it just his voice? His inflection? The passion in his voice? That portion of his poetics that transcends linguistic differences?

I don't know, it probably has to do with all of these. If the same songs were played without vocals they wouldn't have quite the same appeal that they now have.

But the fact that the words do have a meaning, whether I understand it or not, is important. Lewis Carroll wrote some very fun (and funny) nonsense poems in which the voice does all of these things, inflection, passion etc., and I enjoy those poems. But they don't move me like listening to Cui Jian. If in hearing him I were to think that his words were nonsense words like in Jabberwocky then I don't think that I would respond to the songs in nearly the same way that I do.

And yet I am less able to come at the actual meaning of the words than I am in Jabberwocky.

In all this I know I am not alone. Ask any kid listening to heavy metal music, or most any rock, what the song is about and they won't usually be able to tell you. But they listen to the words, sing along and probably wouldn't listen many times to an instrumental version of the song. Same goes for the upper crust listening to opera, be it Italian, German or whatever language. Even English operas are mighty hard to follow, yet I wouldn't even begin to sit through it without the vocals. But those very vocals are only bearable because I know there is MEANING buried there. Buried beyond my grasp most of the time, but still it is there.

And while I bask in the assurance that something, be it a song or my life, is meaningful, my understanding is not really necessary. Understanding would be a bonus, but it really isn't essential. The assurance of meaningfulness is primary.

Rainy Day

Today as I was delivering my mail the weather started at well below freezing, but thank God it warmed to the point it could rain on me. Then the rain turned to sleet, ice pellets, and finally freezing rain. I was slip sliding along as the rain fell all around, and on the mail I was delivering. Turned me to thinking of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem that I've copied below. Amazing what a little poem can do to turn a nasty day into a chance to commiserate with a great poet!

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.
My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.
Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

To Love the Law

A young pastor once was troubled by a teenager asking if the law of the Sabbath were still binding in modern Christian times. What pastor has not dealt with similar queries? We are no longer under law, right? Isn’t that why Jesus died?

The young pastor mentioned the teenager in a letter to his mentor, the poet William Cowper. Cowper suggested, “I would ask my catechumen one short question− ‘Do you love the day, or do you not? If you love it, you will never inquire how far you may safely deprive yourself of the enjoyment of it.’”

How would our catechumens fare in such a test? How would we? Do we love the Sabbath? Do we love God’s law in general? Do David’s psalms in praise of the law give vent to the overflowing thoughts of our hearts?

Or is it idolatrous to worship the law? Doesn’t all of our worship belong to God alone? Did David gush so just because it was the best he knew? He didn’t know about Jesus after all, right?

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out though:

All prayers of the Bible are such prayers which we pray together with Jesus Christ, in which he accompanies us, and through which he brings us into the presence of God.
If we want to read and pray the prayers of the Bible and especially the Psalms, therefore, we must not ask first what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ.

In the Psalms we get to eavesdrop on Jesus’ prayers to his Father. And so many of the Psalms are nothing short of law worship. If Jesus is praying in the Psalms, is he an idolater? What is this law that God himself sings its praises?

[1] William Cowper, Letters of William Cowper (London: Religious Tract Society, 1870), p. 116.
[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1974), p. 14.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Deaconess and the Pigeons

A short story for your amusement.

Deaconess and the Pigeons

A bus wheezed by hardly six inches from the curb, a police car gave up on its whiny child siren and switched to its even more obnoxious song of the frustrated housewife, but neither the pigeons nor Deaconess, bending over them, took any notice. They were not so flighty as to start at the sounds of the city. Cities have their own lullabies that only the denizens of the city can appreciate. Four blocks toward the docks and the lullaby would have revolved around the drunken ramblings of the afternoon crowd as it argued its way from The Breakers to The Mecca to The Beachcomber and back. Beyond these bars began the piers at which dozens of boats prepared for the salmon opener that would begin at sundown. There the sounds were mostly of seines being coiled on decks from which they would soon be pulled out onto the ocean by the skiffs that accompanied each seiner, of holds being filled with ice chips, and of engines being checked over one last time. All these work sounds seemed to keep the rhythm of the waves that played between the docked boats and licked the wharf.

Once the seiners were out for their seven day opener, Deaconess might find her way down for a stroll on these docks, but she never had felt at home with all of the heavy work and silent men in rain gear. Even fourteen years with Alex, her silent man in rain gear, had never taught her to think of herself as a fisherman’s wife. Now, there was no longer anything to pull her from the comfort of the city sounds down to the docks. He had left her on those docks, waving his hat at her, but had not returned to them, nor to her.

Deaconess knew, if she had bothered to think of it, that a salmon opener was in the offing, but she took little interest in it. Rarely did she even get down to the bars that surrounded the docks anymore. She did not want to hear of those going out, nor of the boredom and whoredom with which fishermen’s wives waited for the boats to return. She didn’t want to watch the slow motion deaths of those who filled the barstools. Not anymore. She didn’t have to anymore.

The pigeons waddled around the sidewalk in an impromptu dance. Deaconess watched them absently, her thoughts replaying a scene from this very street many years ago.

Her name had been Darcy then. She had been walking beside her dad, clinging to his fingers. She remembered how her hand had swung beside her head in rhythm with his steps. The two had paused before crossing to the side of the street on which Deaconess now stood in reverie. Darcy looked up at her father; he squeezed her hand gently between his thumb and two fingers. A bus had rumbled by, puffing black clouds of oily smoke behind it.

“Come Darce, we can cross now.”

“Where we going?”

“Come and see.”

Darcy could hear the grin in his voice and giggled up at him. Together they crossed the street, he looking ahead, she smiling up at him. When Dad told her to “come and see,” it usually meant that he had a surprise waiting for her.

As they walked down the sidewalk past the pharmacy, her father suddenly stopped and sat down on a bench that faced the sidewalk and the street. Darcy climbed up and leaned one arm on his leg, her feet sticking out in front of her. Together they sat and her eyelids began to droop, little by little, lulled by the steady drone of traffic.

Suddenly the awning seemed to be falling, but it had whirring wings and dozens of little eyes seemed to be peering into hers. “Relax, Honey, pigeons won’t hurt you. Here, take a piece of bread and break off little bits to toss to them.”

Slowly she let go of his leg and took a slice of bread from her father’s hand. Watching him, she began to tear pigeon sized bites from it and toss them out. At first her tosses did not go far enough, and the pigeons left them alone, although Darcy felt certain that they took note of where the crumbs lay. “Throw them farther, so that they will be able to get them without having to come too close to us. Then, after they have a few bites, let the crumbs fall a little closer and a little closer. Once they start eating they will slowly walk right up to us without realizing that they are doing it. Then, if you are very patient and move very gently, they might even eat right out of your hand.”

Together they watched the mystical birds whose colors changed as they moved around, one moment gray and the next pinks blended with purples as they turned sideways to watch for more crumbs. Crumb by crumb they lured the little birds closer to their bench until Darcy could see two of them through the slats of the bench. She dropped the last of her bread straight down and watched as the two birds pulled it apart.

Again the drone of traffic took hold on her eyelids and as she slowly laid her head on her father’s leg, she felt his warm arm pull her up onto his chest. He was warm, strong, gentle, and Darcy fell asleep.

Her eyes filled with tears as his arms comforted her across three decades. Deaconess was suddenly jerked back to the present by an angry voice, “Come on lady. Your stinking birds are pooping all over my sidewalk.”

Without looking up she dropped the last of her bread into the midst of the pigeons and watched them tear it apart, colors flashing off their iridescent heads. Stinking birds he’d called them. No, she thought, mystical birds, and slowly she turned toward her empty home.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Thank God for non-Christian film makers!

Krzysztof Kieslowski neither claimed to be a Christian, nor was he Jewish; he called himself an agnostic. He was a rationalist and materialist; he was the product toward which the Polish Communism in which he lived strove. As such he was not overtly theological in his approach to life and ethics, yet he co-wrote and directed what might be the most introspective set of films on the Ten Commandments that has yet been aired.

At the risk of being cast off as a heretic, let me suggest that it is just possible that his set of ten one-hour films is as powerful as it is in part because the director did not feel obligated to them. Rodney Clapp quotes Kieslowski as explaining, “Our idea was very simple. The Decalogue is one of the ethical foundations of today’s society. Everyone is more or less familiar with the Ten Commandments, and agrees with them, but no one really observes them” (PRISM, July 2000, p6).

Taking that as the premise for a series of films, consider what a Christian filmmaker would have done with it. Would the Christian not feel it his duty to defend God’s Word, to urge its binding nature on all humanity, to chastise us all for not keeping God’s commands? In short, would he not present a sermon on film? Of course we would.

But not Kieslowski; and frankly, that frees him to move into realms that a Christian would rarely dare, and even more rarely consider.

For one thing, he feels free to not spell out the film’s relationship to the specific commandment. We are required to put a little thought into the connections. For example, in Dekalog 1, (I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other Gods before Me) a father and his son, Pawel (pronounce that as Pavel), share a common infatuation with their computer. To help Pawel become a better student, the father sets him word problems that Pawel then writes mini programs to solve: “If Momma leaves Warsaw on a train going 40km/hr . . .,” and so on.

Then Pawel opens his Christmas present early. A new pair of ice skates. Being early in the year, there is some doubt as to whether the ice on the pond is yet thick enough to skate safely. Together they work out on their computer, based on recent temperatures, how thick the ice should be and how much weight it will hold. But later, after Pawel is asleep, his father has doubts and goes out onto the ice himself to test it. Reassured, he gives Pawel permission to skate.

When he later learns that Pawel fell through the ice and drowned, we are hit with the question: Did the father sin? We assume that he must have broken that first commandment, but it is not immediately clear how. Did he trust his computer rather than praying? But he didn’t trust his computer enough to risk his son; he went and jumped on the pond himself to be sure. Did he love his son more than he loved God? Indubitably, but did God take his son away for that reason?

I think that the question can be answered, but not without a good deal of pondering. This pondering tends to result, not only in the simple answer to how the father broke the first commandment, but in a blinding realization of how easy it is to break that first commandment and that we have probably never for a moment ceased to break it. As Kieslowski said, everyone “agrees with them, but no one really observes them.” Without the freedom to leave this question open, the impact on our conscience could never be as great as Kieslowski’s films have made it.

Second, he feels free to put the viewer in the dock, not for breaking the commandment, but for not even agreeing with it. Or, perhaps, it is the commandment itself that is on trial, and the viewer is the judge. They both come to the same thing in the end.

In Dekalog 2 (Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain) we meet a doctor and the wife of one of his patients. As the story slowly develops, we learn that the woman’s husband is on the verge of death, and she begs for a word from the doctor to let her know whether he will live or not. Of course he can’t tell for sure but promises to do all he can. Nevertheless, the woman persists.

At last she explains that she is pregnant by another man, and if her husband is likely to recover she will have an abortion. However, if her husband will die, then she wants to have the baby. The doctor is thus torn, to let a grown man die so that a child may have life, or to save the man and, in effect, sign the baby’s death warrant. He hedges as long as he can, considering that Poland does not allow late term abortions, hoping to have a clear answer concerning her husband’s prognosis.

At last he comes to a very difficult decision, and assures her that her husband will die, sounding as he says it as if he has decided to make sure he dies. “Swear it,” she says. He does. She keeps the baby. Her husband recovers.

This is exactly what I had been hoping the doctor would do from the moment I understood the dilemma. It seemed such an easy answer to the unfair position into which the woman had placed him. But then as the doctor says, “I swear it,” I see a look in his eyes as if he were already experiencing the fires of Hell for violating his conscience and swearing falsely. But he has willingly taken this suffering on for the sake of the baby and perhaps more for the sake of the mother. He is suffering for them. But he has also broken the second commandment. We are tempted to negotiate out of that little commandment; to save a life must be more important than the mere saying of a few words? Really? Dare we?

As the second film ends I am uncontrollably shaking from the weight of a question I do not want to ask: Do I believe God? I rooted for the doctor to lie. He did. Was I right? Was he right? Is the second commandment wrong? Or am I so absolutely foreign to God that His ways still seem foolishness to me?

In each of the ten films the weight of sin is driven home, but each time in a very different way. The viewer time and again finds herself in the dock struggling to answer the questions: Do I believe God? Then why don’t I obey? But the films never make the mistake of acting as if this would be an easy matter of deciding to obey. Decisions are portrayed as being very difficult, the more so for the uncertainty and the dimness of our view. Indeed, quite often one is left with the disheartening feeling that perfect obedience is impossible. Agnostic he may be, but Kieslowski was not an Arminian agnostic; he was of the Reformed variety.

Perhaps the greatest difference between Dekalog and a hypothetical version of the films made by Christians is that the cinematography and artistry are absolutely second to none. The simplicity of the settings and the lack of any adornment for the characters lend themselves to a stark laying bare of the souls, both those on screen and those viewing. The camera work, the use of shadows and the tenement-scape rival or surpass even Hitchcock (Rear Window and Rope being brilliant examples of all three).

But in the end it is the treatment of the Ten Commandments that holds our attention and continues to bother our minds. Was there something irreverent about Kieslowski’s treatment of them? We would like to think so; it might ease the conscience that he has inflamed. But really his treatment shows a greater awareness of the all encompassing nature of these ten words of God than most sermons I have heard regarding them. Kieslowski portrays a Decalogue that truly is sufficient for all questions of ethics and conduct.

Barbeque Etiquette

In the hope that summer is not far away I'll post this gem from my friend Josh Vasi Ryse.

BBQ Etiquette (By Vasi Ryse)
After 4 long months of cold and winter, we are finally coming up to summer and BBQ season. Therefore it is important to refresh your memory on the etiquette of this sublime outdoor cooking, as it's the only type of cooking a real man will do, probably because there is an element of danger involved. When a man volunteers to do the BBQ the following chain of events is put into motion: Routine...
1. The woman buys the food.
2. The woman makes the salad, prepares the vegetables, and makes dessert.
3. The woman prepares the meat for cooking, places it on a tray along with the necessary cooking utensils and sauces, and takes it to the man who is lounging beside the grill - beer in hand. Here comes the "important" part:
5. The woman goes inside to organize the plates and cutlery.
6. The woman comes out to tell the man that the meat is burning. He thanks her and asks if she will bring another beer while he deals with the situation. "Important" part number two:
8. The woman prepares the plates, salad, bread, utensils, napkins, and sauces and brings them to the table.
9. After eating, the woman clears the table and does the dishes. And most "important" of all:
10. Everyone PRAISES the MAN and THANKS HIM for his cooking efforts.
11. The man asks the woman how she enjoyed "her night off." And, upon seeing her annoyed reaction, concludes that there's just no pleasing some women.


OK, so triocentric isn't really a word, but it could be. The Lutheran Church is emphatically christocentric, which is a word, because they seek to make Jesus Christ the absolute focal point in all of their theology and worship. Doctrines are typically defined in terms that point back to Jesus. Lutheran sermons typically begin with law and end with grace, that is with Christ. Thus they are christocentric. Pentecostals and charismatics are pneumocentric, focussed almost exclusively on the Holy Spirit. Thus their sermons and worship are focussed on seeing the Holy Spirit work. But I would rather be triocentric, focussing not on one or another member of the Godhead to the exclusion of the others, but worshipping all three. Doctrines can and should be defined in terms not of Jesus only but in terms of the Trinity. For instance, what is the Law? In other words, how do we Christians understand the Mosaic Law that was given on Mt. Sinai? Well, those reading the Law from a christocentric perspective generally will think of it as the Law that we are unable to fulfill, the Law that makes us transgressors. And we have and it does. But allow me to suggest that this is not enough. This is, I think, a shallow understanding of the Law. For the Law is not just rules by which we are to live but it is much more a revelation of the character of our three person God. God did not make up new rules for us but he explained in the ten commandments how we may imitate the community of the Trinity. He does not command us to do what he himself does not do. In keeping the Law perfectly we would become the image of God, and that is what the new testament tells us that we will be, for we are being transformed into his image day by day, and that by God's power and will as well as by our struggle and desire. But because the Law is a word-painting of God's image and God's likeness, a depiction of how the three who are God live in perfect unity, the Law is also a promise. From the beginning God set out to make us to be his image, a work that is not finished. But what God sets out to do, he will do! So we know that we will be his image at the proper time. Therefore we should think of the Law not as a list of rules that damn us, but as a menu of glories in which we will live together with eachother forever. The Law is our hope, it is our joy, it is our fervent desire and hunger. Or at least it should be if we took a triocentric view of the matter rather than a christocentric view. Therefore, I will call this page TRIOCENTRIC. Hope to see you here. Doug