Wednesday, December 10, 2014

a reposting: "in the image of stuff"

Article by Jill Carattini, managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.

In the Image of Stuff

I was on hold the other day trying to schedule an appointment for a hair cut. As I waited for the receptionist, I half-listened to the obligatory recordings. The announcer asked me to consider scheduling a make-over with my upcoming appointment and to make sure I leave with the products that will keep up my new look. (Apparently, when you have a captive audience of customers “muzak” is hardly strategic.)  But I was then caught off guard by a question: “What do the local communities of Chad, Africa, mean to you?”  The answer he offered was as immediate as my inability to think of one:  “Chad is a leading producer of organic acacia gum, the vital ingredient in a new line of products exclusively produced for and available at our salon.”

In a culture dominated by consumption, the commodification of everything around us is becoming more and more of an unconscious worldview. Thus, when we think of Chad, we can think of our favorite shampoo and its connection with our hair salon. The land where it came from, the conditions of its production, and the community or laborers who produce it are realities wholly disassociated with the commodity. Like soap and luggage, the nation of Chad can become just one of the many commodities within our consumer mindset.

As I put down the phone, I couldn’t help but wonder about Amos’s description of those who are “at ease in Zion.” How at ease do you have to be to begin to see the world in commodities?

In fact, at the time of Amos’s words, Israel itself was at one of its most opulent junctures. They had expanded their territory in more than one direction. Their winter palaces were adorned with ivory and their feasts were lacking nothing. They could be heard singing songs to the sound of the harp and seen anointing themselves with the finest of oils. It was in such affluence that the shepherd Amos proclaimed indomitably: “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria” (Amos 6:1).

Though unpopular words to voice, Amos’s omen is far from isolated in ancient Scripture. While Amos compares the drunken women of Israel to the fat cows of Bashan, Micah describes the rich as men full of violence, and Jeremiah cites those with wealth and power as those who grow fat and sleek. Likewise, in the book of Revelation, the church that God wants to spit out of his mouth is the one who has “acquired wealth and needs nothing,” the one who has not realized that they are “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17).

As G.K. Chesterton once noted, “Alas, it is impossible to have any sort of debate over whether or not Jesus believed that rich people were in big trouble—there is too much evidence on the subject and it is overwhelming.”(1) The pervasiveness of this evidence makes for a rough entry into the ongoing debate about the morality of affluence among Western Christians. Like Chesterton, I am at times uncomfortably aware at whom the words of Christ were aimed: I am the rich Christian to whom Jesus speaks bluntly.

I am also among the crowd he takes the time and care to caution. Among his many words about money, Jesus warned, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

How then might we live in a world of affluence? How might we fight the all-pervading atmosphere of consumerism and the attitude of commodification around us? How might we learn again to see our neighbors when they have become invisible behind our mountains of stuff? There is good reason for unrelenting words against the greed that turns communities into commodities and souls into consumers. There is similarly good reason that Christ has called the poor in spirit blessed, for those who cling to the Father know it is God alone they can eternally hold. We were not made to be at ease in Zion any more than we were made in the image of commodity. We were made in the image of God.

This God we now faintly resemble never sleeps or slumbers, perhaps in part because the suffering among us never sleep or slumber. It is this God who calls us to follow and to deny ourselves, to consider the “treasures” that might block our vision of God—as well as our vision of our neighbor. There are none seen as commodities in the eyes of the Creator; there are but children with the eyes of their Father.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

timshell -- the meaning of words

Words have meaning and the words we choose to use matter. As an English major and writing teacher I am obsessed with the purposeful use of language, of cultivating an awareness of what is used by others and why — as well as of your own choices and making sure they are deliberate. (It’s one of my “soapboxes”)

So, here is an example of how different words can have dramatically different implications:
John Steinbeck, East of Eden
“Do you remember when you read us the sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis and we argued about them?”
“I do indeed. And that’s a long time ago.”
“Ten years nearly,” said Lee. “Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word. The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me. Then I compared the translations we have—and they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. The King James version says this—it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”
Samuel nodded. “And his children didn’t do it entirely,” he said.
Lee sipped his coffee. “Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made.”
Samuel put his palms down on the table and leaned forward and the old young light came into his eyes. “Lee,” he said, “don’t tell me you studied Hebrew!”
Lee said, “I’m going to tell you. And it’s a fairly long story. Will you have a touch of ng-ka-py?”
“You mean the drink that tastes of good rotten apples?”
“Yes. I can talk better with it.”
“Maybe I can listen better,” said Samuel.
While Lee went to the kitchen Samuel asked, “Adam, did you know about this?”
“No,” said Adam. “He didn’t tell me. Maybe I wasn’t listening.”
Lee came back with his stone bottle and three little porcelain cups so thin and delicate that the light shone through them. “Dlinkee Chinee fashion,” he said and poured the almost black liquor. “There’s a lot of wormwood in this. It’s quite a drink,” he said. “Has about the same effect as absinthe if you drink enough of it.”
Samuel sipped the drink. “I want to know why you were so interested,” he said.
“Well, it seemed to me that the man who could conceive this great story would know exactly what he wanted to say and there would be no confusion in his statement.”
“You say ‘the man.’ Do you then not think this is a divine book written by the inky finger of God?”
“I think the mind that could think this story was a curiously divine mind. We have had a few such minds in China too.”
“I just wanted to know,” said Samuel. “You’re not a Presbyterian after all.”
“I told you I was getting more Chinese. Well, to go on, I went to San Francisco to the headquarters of our family association. Do you know about them? Our great families have centers where any member can get help or give it. The Lee family is very large. It takes care of its own.”
“I have heard of them,” said Samuel.
“You mean Chinee hatchet man fightee Tong war over slave girl?”
“I guess so.”
“It’s a little different from that, really,” said Lee. “I went there because in our family there are a number of ancient reverend gentlemen who are great scholars. They are thinkers in exactness. A man may spend many years pondering a sentence of the scholar you call Confucius. I thought there might be experts in meaning who could advise me.
“They are fine old men. They smoke their two pipes of opium in the afternoon and it rests and sharpens them, and they sit through the night and their minds are wonderful. I guess no other people have been able to use opium well.”
Lee dampened his tongue in the black brew. “I respectfully submitted my problem to one of these sages, read him the story, and told him what I understood from it. The next night four of them met and called me in. We discussed the story all night long.”
Lee laughed. “I guess it’s funny,” he said. “I know I wouldn’t dare tell it to many people. Can you imagine four old gentlemen, the youngest is over ninety now, taking on the study of Hebrew? They engaged a learned rabbi. They took to the study as though they were children. Exercise books, grammar, vocabulary, simple sentences. You should see Hebrew written in Chinese ink with a brush! The right to left didn’t bother them as much as it would you, since we write up to down. Oh, they were perfectionists! They went to the root of the matter.”
“And you?” said Samuel.
“I went along with them, marveling at the beauty of their proud clean brains. I began to love my race, and for the first time I wanted to be Chinese. Every two weeks I went to a meeting with them, and in my room here I covered pages with writing. I bought every known Hebrew dictionary. But the old gentlemen were always ahead of me. It wasn’t long before they were ahead of our rabbi; he brought a colleague in. Mr. Hamilton, you should have sat through some of those nights of argument and discussion. The questions, the inspection, oh, the lovely thinking—the beautiful thinking.
“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too—‘Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.”
Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story. And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”
Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”
“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”
“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.
Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”
“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?”
Adam said, “Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?”
Lee said, “These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”
Adam said, “I don’t see how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this.”
“Neither do I,” said Lee. “But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders. And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’”

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"An uncomprehensive, non-authoritative overview of the shifting nature of authority"

The title of this post is that of post done by my good friend and fellow-blogger marleerocker that I want to transcribe here (w/the addition of my comments) because 1. her post is so good and 2. it enabled me to say a few things I've been thinking about lately. (Check it out the original post here and feel free to read more of her awesome posts!)

An uncomprehensive, non-authoritative overview of the shifting nature of authority
Looking at religious or political Facebook arguments through the lens of authority and power struggles can be very useful.

It's impossible to overestimate the impact two consecutive World Wars and decades of living with the threat of nuclear holocaust had on the American psyche. Two catastrophic wars followed by over a decade of living under constant paranoia - Google search the effects of prolonged stress and fear, now apply that to a population of  millions.
When I teach a History class about the 1960's I like to teach it in context of what preceded it. At some point people get tired of being told to be afraid and tired of allowing a few men in power to send millions to the gas chambers and the trenches - and in large measure, the hippie or counter culture revolution that revolved around anti-war sentiment, was a massive shrugging off the weight of this fear and powerlessness. It's important to note that the baby boomers - turned hippies grew into adulthood during the 50's. They had to be affected by the contradiction of the constant presence of threat of war in a time of relative peace with no first hand exposure to a conflict like the ones their parents and grandparents weathered. 
The net result was a deep abiding societal mistrust and contempt for authority.
...that continues to today and permeates political and religious rhetoric.
Would you agree that:

  • A lot of people are worried about the corruption in the government?
  • A lot of people are unwilling to listen to take advice from just anyone?
  • A lot of people are leaving the religions they were raised in?
  • A lot of people subconsciously walk around with the attitude that is the equivalent of saying, "You don' know ME!" unwilling to legitimize opposing viewpoints, criticism or rejection? 
IMHO - The nature of authority has evolved in such a way that it requires a level of consent and compliance unprecedented in human history; and in a connected, affluent society it has never been more difficult to acquire and maintain. 
Everyone wants to be their own authority. I think the Bible describes it well in 2 Timothy:
1 This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. 2 For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 Without natural affection, truce-breakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, 4 Traitors, heady, high-minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God;
 That being said, shirking the confines of an assumed authority is not necessarily a bad thing.
It's not as if people are disillusioned with authority without strong reason; we are well acquainted with the devastating impact of abuse or misuse of power - you don't have to look far to find child abuse, genocide, police brutality, corporate fraud, etc. And history is riddled with proof that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. 
Growing up in the fog of cynicism and witnesses to the human suffering incurred by unbridled and unchecked power, is it any wonder people are unwilling to be vulnerable and to put their trust in power given to other humans?
Furthermore, it turns out that as a free moral agents, challenging authority is a civic duty.
Brigham Young himself said: 
“I am more afraid that this people have so muchconfidence in their leaders that they will not inquire forthemselves of God whether they are being led by him. Iam fearful they settle down in a state of blind security,trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaderswith a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart thepurposes of God in their salvation, and weaken thatinfluence they could give their leaders if they know forthemselves by the revelations of Jesus Christ that theyare led in the right way. Let every man and woman knowby the whisperings of the Spirit of God to themselveswhether their leaders are walking in the way the Lorddictates or not.”
Un-examined trust in ANY authority, even one previously found to be moral and correct can lead to moral degeneration and is an abdication of personal responsibility. Use your agency to select which authority you accept in your life, and by all means you should accept it from somewhere.  That being said, I also want to make a case for why every free moral agent should hone their capacity to think critically and evaluate the authority figures and institutions that wield power over their lives and if necessary reject them in part or in full. 
In one of my favorite books, "Choices Under Fire; Moral Dimensions of World War II" the author Michael Bess draws relevant conclusions from a psychological experiment many of you will be familiar with. The experiment consisted of actors hired to be scientists and students and test subjects who were assigned the roll of teacher. They were to administer a test and for each wrong answer give the student a progressively more intrusive and painful "shock". Many of the test subjects protested but persisted under the direction of the scientist who insisted they continue. In short, they were willing to inflict severe harm upon other humans - sometimes past the point of suspected unconsciousness or heart failure - based on the authority they perceived in the person telling them to continue. Bess quotes one subject's response from the actual transcript:
'Mr. Renseeler: No, I can't continue. I'm sorry...I know what shocks do to you. I'm an electrical engineer, and I have had shocks... Experimenter: It is absolutely essential that you continue. Mr. Rensaleer: Well, I won't - not with the man screaming to get out. Experimenter: You have no other choice. Mr. Rensaleer: I do have a choice (Incredulous and indignant.) Why don't I have a choice? I came here on my own free will. I thought I could help in a research project. But if I have to hurt somebody to do that, or if I was in his place, too, I wouldn't stay there. I can't continue. I'm very sorry. I think I've gone too far already, probably.' 
Here was a classic case of "disruptive empathy" at work. Rensaleer's reliance on critical reason to assess the situation and reject the scientist's assurances; his ability to put himself in the other man's shoes ("I know what shocks do to you"); his appeal to higher moral principles ("If I have to hurt somebody to do that..."); his unshakable confidence in his own free will; his willingness to submit his own behavior to stern moral scrutiny ("I think I've gone too far already")' his forceful rupture of the situations momentum, breaking the facade of normality by crying foul after a certain line had been crossed - all these elements paint a portrait of a highly evolved moral agent..." 
For someone who is religious this can be a very difficult paradox to navigate. How do I submit to religious authority and, at the same time, maintain my ability to evaluate it objectively and reject it if necessary (if only in part)? How do I defend the legitimacy of religious authority in a climate of such resentment and distrust towards it, and at the same time acknowledge that opponents may have valid points since, even in my own religion's history there are copious examples of the misuse and error of authority? 
It requires great effort, personal integrity, humility and honesty to maintain a capacity to fairly scrutinize external authority. That, perhaps, is the work of refining your soul. On the other hand, it takes only self-righteousness and pride to flatly reject OR accept religious authority and then put all of your effort into developing your position with clever arguments and justifications. 
The first step is to be aware. Be aware of biases and the attitudes towards authority that we inherit from our parents and the past. Know enough history to understand why completely submitting to authority is dangerous for you and everyone else, and how disrupting existing power structures can also cause unnecessary societal upheaval. Develop a tolerance for ambiguity and cognitive dissonance. Take a deep breath. Relax. Use the intellectual talent that God has given you, nurture and develop it. Reach for greater knowledge, goodness and wisdom. Above all else love. Peace and love. 
I have a deep appreciation for the idealistic contribution of the "revolutionaries" in the 1960's. Perhaps they fell short of their goal to reshape the world in their own image of community, equality, and peace. But their legacy lives on anytime anyone ever updates their Facebook status to raise difficult questions about the merit and validity of current power structures and whether or not they should be changed.

My response to her post (i.e. our ensuing conversation as of the time I published this post):

  1. So many thoughts!

    First of all: "Growing up in the fog of cynicism and witnesses to the human suffering incurred by unbridled and unchecked power, is it any wonder people are unwilling to be vulnerable and to put their trust in power given to other humans?" THIS IS SO TRUE. I think about it a lot because of how exposed we are (thanks to the internet) to the world (to good things like funny cat videos and to bad things like ISIS beheadings). Every day almost the entire world is on display and I am bombarded by human suffering via news articles, facebook posts, email fwds, etc. It certainly makes me retreat back into my protective habit of just not clicking, not reading, not listening to things -- as well as to feel more and more helpless and hopeless. (Some days it seems there just aren't enough "Faith In Humanity Restored" articles to make up for all the "I Don't Want To Live On This Planet Anymore" articles.)

    Secondly, this post totally resonated with my thoughts on how often we tend to either give up personal responsibility to follow authority blindly OR totally abandon all authority to live solely on our own personal compass. Why? Because it is EASIER than having to always figure out who to follow, what to listen to, and how to align our sense of right/wrong with what we are told. That is a lot of work! If we just blindly follow we don't have to put for any effort to validate what we are told and we have someone to blame other than ourselves when everything goes sour (no personal responsibility there!). Also, just letting go of authority makes everything so subjective, so there is less need to worry about being "right" so much as feeling good. Again, less work to do and less weight of significance. I think this is why things are getting more and more polarized -- more and more people are just giving up and taking the path of least resistance.

    Which leads me to your statement "It requires great effort, personal integrity, humility and honesty to maintain a capacity to fairly scrutinize external authority. That, perhaps, is the work of refining your soul. On the other hand, it takes only self-righteousness and pride to flatly reject OR accept religious authority and then put all of your effort into developing your position with clever arguments and justifications."

    Someone once told me they despised apologetics for this reason -- that it is basically just people trying to justify their position. In a way, I have begun to agree with this because I can see how people will decide to stick to an authority based solely on the fact that it is an authority, without personal effort to explore and question, and then from blind obedience seek to justify their position. However, I also think there are those for whom their "apologetics" are not just them seeking justification, but instead are seeking to find balance in cognitive dissonance and, like you said, "use the intellectual talent that God has given [them], nurture and develop it. Reach for greater knowledge, goodness and wisdom." What they end up with is a kind of justification, sure, but it is personal, intimate, assurance for them to trust an authority in a certain regard -- which isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes trust in something/someone beyond ourselves is a good path.

    Again, I guess it all comes down to asking yourself:
    Why do I trust?
    Why do I doubt? 

    marleerockerNovember 12, 2014 at 6:15 PM

    1. I'm so glad you made that point. I think I meant to exclude apologists, or anyone who sincerely acknowledges weaknesses in their position and/or the validity of opposing arguments, when I said "flatly" but I should have developed that idea more.

      I think what I find "unintegritable" if I can make up that word, is when people spend all their energy justifying what turns out to be more of an emotional reaction (motivated by (self) righteous indignation/pride) than a well-thought out conclusion.

    2. Absolutely. I think it's human nature to feel defensive of our positions, without taking the time to thinking critically about their origin. (When we do, we often find most of our opinions are based in some sort of personal experience, which garnered some sort of strong emotion, which cemented our idea of that experience as personal truth.)

      *and personal truth needs to be more than just emotion and experience; there has to be logic, reasoning, and even connections to outside sources as backup to bring us to a "well thought out conclusion" that is comprehensive enough to come close to "truth."

  2. Also: since I know where some of your post is coming from I want to recommend this:

    (Ahh! The last line! ‘Isn’t it interesting that today’s challenge to our faith is coming directly from the church?’)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Ye Elders of Israel

It’s amazing to think of the power it takes to convince so many 18/19/20 year olds to do everything it requires to serve a full time mission. That is a lot of sacrifice, suffering, and hard work from what is often thought of as a primarily self-absorbed and still-immature age group. 

You get a sense of that power in this performance. It's beautiful. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

my response to a Q on fbook

Question. Everyone talks about Gods timetable being better than our own, how does free agency work into that?
 — feeling lost.
LikeLike · Comment
  • Kirsten Marie Nielsen from how I understand it, we have agency precisely because we are unable to accurately determine the state of the future. the principle of uncertainty (due to many things, including the limitations of language and our ability to perceive the world) gives us the opportunity to make choices, not based on knowing how things are actually going to turn out, but instead based on who we are (what we choose is a reflection of our inner selves -- what we value and believe). The idea of God "having a better timetable" is simply a mechanism for allowing more of our choices to reflect faith in God as opposed to being all happenstance or predisposition (i.e. it helps people feel like there is some certainty out there).

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

a Sufjan Stevens quote

Sufjan Stevens talks about his relationship with his Christianity in an interview:
It’s the most important thing to me really but it’s also really important I don’t get too caught up in it. There’s a necessity for casualness, you know, because I think fear and anxiety are not elements in faith. And I think doubt is important and questioning and all that. I think there’s been too much made from fear and condemnation to manipulate people. I think that’s an atrocity really.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The hope of God's light

This is beautiful:

I especially loved this part:
“I realized that it is part of our condition as mortals to sometimes feel as though we are surrounded by darkness. That even though we may feel lost, that God promises to illuminate the way before us, no matter how long it takes. 
For two years God had nurtured a questioning soul. Little by little he had given me as much as I could handle, until the day I was humble enough to hear fully what he wanted to tell me.”

And this YouTube comment:
That whole story is miraculous as well, but not in the lightning bolt kind of way. Which I think is the whole point. God is there, waiting for us. But he has a process in which he fills our lives with light so that it means something to us. So that it sticks and actually makes real change in our lives. So good to hear that you feel gradually better. You have to just keep nourishing that and seeking it out. I know you'll do that, because now you know the difference between life with it and life without it. That's a very beautiful story you've told. It really is all about just not giving up and staying with it until you have the breakthroughs you're meant to have. 

Monday, June 30, 2014


I don't know why, but lately I've been thinking about death.

One of the most touching reflections on life and death that I have seen is the movie Wit (based on a play of the same name by Margaret Edson). It is about Vivian Bearing, "a strong woman, a John Donne scholar, a college professor and a cancer patient who is dying. And you are invited to watch her do it" (source).

I watch this movie at least once every year, because despite how difficult it is to watch, "there is an undercurrent of hope in this movie—and it comes through the kindness of strangers and long lost friends" (source). 

The film focuses particularly on a poem from 17th century by the metaphysical poet John Donne (please read it slowly and try to understand what Donne is saying): 

Death Be Not Proud

Death be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so, 
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow, 
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me. 
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, 
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow, 
And soonest our best men with thee do go, 
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. 
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men, 
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, 
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well, 
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then? 
One short sleep past, we wake eternally, 
And death shall be no more, death thou shalt die.

To explain further, I want to include a excerpt from the film. This video shows Vivian reflecting on a conversation she had with her mentor E.M. Ashford. Ashford explains the poem is about a simple human truth:

*Here is a transcription of the most important portion of their conversation, in case the video doesn't work:

E.M. Ashford: Do you think that the punctuation of the last line of this sonnet is merely an insignificant detail? The sonnet begins with a valiant struggle with Death calling on all the forces of intellect and drama to vanquish the enemy. But it is ultimately about overcoming the seemingly insuperable barriers separating life death and eternal life. In the edition you choose, this profoundly simple meaning is sacrificed to hysterical punctuation: 
"And Death, Capital D, shall be no more, semi-colon. Death, Capital D comma, thou shalt die, exclamation mark!" 
If you go in for this sort of thing I suggest you take up Shakespeare. Gardner’s edition of the Holy Sonnets returns to the Westmoreland manuscript of 1610, not for sentimental reasons I assure you, but because Helen Gardner is a scholar. It reads: 
“And death shall be no more” comma “death, thou shalt die.”  
Nothing but a breath, a comma separates life from life everlasting. 
Very simple, really. With the original punctuation restored Death is no longer something to act out on a stage with exclamation marks. It is a comma. A pause. In this way, the uncompromising way one learns something from the poem, wouldn’t you say? Life, death, soul, God, past, present. Not insuperable barriers. Not semi-colons. Just a comma.

While death is significant, it is not and end-all permanent stopping point. Like a comma, it changes the pace as we pause at it, but that is not all there is; we see the comma, and know there is more, and onward we go.

This is especially true within the context of the gospel of Christ. Through our understanding of the basic principles of the gospel we see that there is more and that we can move ever onward:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16.)
Once we have calibrated our direction through belief and devotion to the Savior, a change of pace does not keep us from our destination. We only pause and step through to the next phase. The scriptures explain beautifully how this works:

17 Wherefore, do the things which I have told you I have seen that your Lord and your Redeemer should do; for, for this cause have they been shown unto me, that ye might know the gate by which ye should enter. For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.
18 And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life; yea, ye have entered in by the gate; ye have done according to the commandments of the Father and the Son; and ye have received the Holy Ghost, which witnesses of the Fatherand the Son, unto the fulfilling of the promise which he hath made, that if ye entered in by the way ye should receive.
19 And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.
20 Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life. (2 Nephi 31:17-20)
Even though the verse uses the wording to "endure to the end" it isn't the end, it's only the end of one phrase, a train of thought that then continues.

And this meant to be something to us, which is described well in this story:
I have a good friend that has a daughter. This daughter, we will call her J, has been terrified of water since she was very young. As J grew older she continued to dislike getting wet. She had a particular phobia of putting her head under the water. My friend and her husband did all the usual things, talked to her about it, regularly took her to the pool, did swim lessons but the intense fear remained. As J approached the age of eight her parents became concerned about how J would feel about being baptized. J approached them and told her parents that she wanted to be baptized but she was still terrified of going all the way into the water. They prayed together as a family that J would be able to have the comfort and assurance she needed. As the day grew closer, J was still feeling anxious so they asked a wider circle of family and friends to pray and fast. At J’s baptism, J was afraid but harnessing a huge amount of faith and trust she went into the water and was baptized. A year later I had J in my primary class. We were discussing baptism and J shared that while she had been afraid she felt that God was proud of what she was choosing to do and that gave her strength. 
While I think while many of us probably do not have the same sort of fear and trepidation with water that J had, I think a whole lot of us may have a good amount of fear and uncertainty about death. Death is the great unknown. It’s scary. It will happen to all of us and to the people we love. 
As I’ve talked to many people about their baptisms, I’ve been impressed by how often many feel filled by the Love of God. There is an outpouring of the spirit. A great sense that God recognizes us in that time and is “well pleased” with our efforts and decision, following the same pattern Jesus Christ established when he began his earthly ministry with baptism. (Matthew 3: 16-17) 
Reverse engineering the symbolism, I like to believe that death will be a similar time for us. It will be a time that God welcomes us and receives us with Love and approval.
Historically,many in the Western world have believed that death is a dark night or even worse, a time of fire and brimstone and suffering for even the most helpless and innocent. In our time, I believe there are many that are uncertain or feel that there is an empty nothingness or haunted ghostly loneliness when we die. I believe that what we learn in our experiences of baptism refute these beliefs with an inspiring hope
Understanding and experiencing baptism, at it's core a kind of death and rebirth, can reacquaint us with the "inspiring hope" that can overcome uncertainty and fear. In this regard, death is meant to be the end of our sins, our past life. Death is a kind of progression (as we learn by studying the plan of salvation).

This makes death something different from an end (or even a kind of sleep like Donne's poem says) instead pain, struggles, fear, weaknesses, mistakes and death itself are:
"Not insuperable barriers. Not semi-colons. Just a comma."

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Something to keep in mind with everything going on these days

There are always hot-button issues and most of the time every angle has a form of plausibility and rational ground to stand on. I think we could all do a little better to remember that, as well as 1 Corinthians 13:1-8

1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

We may be in a position to speak with authority. We may have prophetic insight into the issue. We may know everything about a topic there is to know. However, if we don't use all that with charity it is nothing.

4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

We use it with charity by being willing to suffer, to feel upset and angry and misunderstood and yet wait patiently for the right timing. We do not allow what we have and know to give us a sense of superiority or rightness just because we were LUCKY or BLESSED enough to have/know it.

5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

We use it with charity by not acting out in ways that degrade who we are or what we stand for, that alienate others and undermine our cause (a message loses credibility when its messenger lacks credibility). We do not seek after our own agenda and ignore the positions/ideas/feelings of others. We don't let other's ignorance, thoughtlessness, or belligerence push us from always taking the high road. We choose to always think the best of others -- to give them the benefit of the doubt.

6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

We use it with charity by not rejoicing when difficult/bad/unpleasant things happen to others -- even when they are the consequences of their own actions (but instead, we mourn with them).

7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whetherthere be knowledge, it shall vanish away.

Doing all of this will never fail in keeping us right with God. Knowing and speaking "the truth" are not enough to save us. ONLY CHARITY.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

"Temple Worship and Temple Worthiness"

Read this article, Temple Worship and Temple WorthinessIt introduces a new way of experiencing the LDS temple endowment, where the ceremony can be:
"...a progressively unnerving reminder of how inadequate we are, how miserably we fail to live up to our sacred commitments, what a fallen world this is and what fallen and vulnerable and exposed creatures we are. And then we should experience the spiritual relief wash over us as God, on the basis of only tokens of our effort and of our having even accepted the impossible commitments in the first place, accepts us, embraces us, lets us into His presence, gives us a place of rest, considers us worthy. The failures of our lives, ritually reenacted in the temple by our acceptance of obligations we know we cannot and will not and do not live up to, inevitably propel us toward an encounter with God in which our unworthiness to stand in His presence is manifest and inescapable, a state of unimaginable vulnerability. And yet we are taken in, and once in His presence, despite our unworthiness, we desire to stay."

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Feeling "blessed"?

I wanted to share this exchange (as well as the article within it -- be sure to read that!) and solicit feedback from anyone willing.

This is an email from my brother, sent to my whole family:
I had a discussion with a friend on our way to Twin Falls on Saturday and he was saying, essentially, that with paying tithing and other such commandments you are bribed with blessings in order to fulfill it. The idea is that God reinforces positive behavior with temporal wealth. “Oh well if you just are obedient and do what you're supposed to you'll be rich, successful, and happy.” This is further perpetuated with the “Book of Mormon” cycle thats taught in primary and sunday school.

Im curious what you guys think about this:

My dad's response:
That is a very difficult subject that is wrapped in all kinds of truths and lies. Unfortunately, statements commonly made, cliches spoken, phrases used do not always convey the reality of the truth. Trying to sort through them all can be an exercise in futility. What is a person meaning? What are they trying to say? Am I interpreting it correctly? Difficult. 
I am not sure we can know how God blesses us. As Christians, it seems to me that we must acknowledge several things;(1) we are nothing, (2) God blesses us in many ways, all of which we are unworthy of, (4) as we are "blessed" we are obligated to help one another, (5) God's blessings come to ALL, righteous and unrighteous, (6) anything that is good comes from God,(7) we must not expect God to bless us as we believe he should,(7) God offers no guarantees in this life, his are all in the next, (8) God does bless us in his own way and in his own due time.

My response:

I agree with what Dad says! But I also want to respond to your points more specifically. 
As far as what you and your friend talked about, it is something that has arisen out of the shift in how/why we teach obedience. Old School christianity was all about “hellfire and damnation” and you were obedient in order to avoid that. Now-a-days we’ve shifted from obedience to avoid damnation or punishment to obedience in order to receive blessings. Neither is BAD but neither are particularly good/helpful either — and each carries a lot of baggage in the form of setbacks and misunderstandings. I think it’s milk before meat kind of obedience. Like when you’re a kid and you obey your parents to avoid punishment or to get rewards, because you don’t understand the reasons for the rules yet or why you parents set them. 
Ultimately the best reason to obey is love. Our love for God changes the desires of our hearts and inspires us to actions in accordance with His will i.e. obedience. 
The attitude of everything that is considered “good” being a “blessing” (including material wealth as indicated in the article) I think just arises out of the Christian culture of obedience for rewards. It’s not the best way to teach obedience… but we have a tendency to do this with EVERY topic (i.e. guilt you into doing it or encourage you w/rewards: think about your last lesson on service or modesty for example). To truly "teach obedience" what we SHOULD be teaching is the Atonement. The more anyone understands who Christ is and what he did the more these other things tend to fall into place.

Anyone have anything to add?

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Personal Essay

Eugene England commented on the value of the personal essay in the foreword of a book of his own essays:
Ten years ago I became interested in the personal essay as a separate art form. I had already been writing personal essays for ten years and had published others’ essays in Dialogue without thinking much about the particular literary and religious strengths of the form. But in studying Mormon literature of the nineteenth century and then analyzing what many Mormon writers of my generation were doing that might be part of a recognizable literary tradition, I became convinced, as I wrote in a review of the first anthology of Mormon literature, that the Mormon heritage “shows to best advantage in various forms of personal witness to faith and experience, genres in which the truth of actual living, of quite direct confession, is at least as important as aesthetic or metaphorical truth, [such as] diaries, letters, sermons, lyric poetry,… autobiography,… and increasingly, the personal essay” (BYU Studies, Spring 1975). Since that time the Mormon personal essay has indeed increased in availability and conscious quality.

This collection is an attempt to show by example what the resources of the personal essay can be in a Mormon’s search for self and community. (Dialogues with Myself)

I definitely have found a very strong sense of self and community through reading articles and blog posts online as well as essays in books. (For example, England's book referenced above. [so good!]) It's part of why belonging to a faith community is valuable (and how "folk doctrines" can actually be a positive thing!)

There is a lot of power in the personal essay -- it's part of why I write about things here actually; I have been blessed to read the thoughts and testimonies of others and had the spirit witness to me of the truth and power in their expressions of their thoughts and experiences -- and I hope to pay it forward in the same way. It's good to be reminded that there is a community of fellow-saints out there in the world struggling and staying faithful as I am.

So, all that being said, there's a collection of essays called Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons (editor: Robert A. Rees) that I stumbled across randomly while perusing some LDS articles online during stake conference (whoops!) a few weeks ago. The first essay was available to read in the free kindle sample and I loved it -- so I bought the whole book! I wish I had the self-discipline to write a little piece about every essay, because each one is unique and wonderful... but since I don't, I'll just say this: they all had many similarities, as we face many of the same challenges as Mormons in our current society, but they each also had their own unique tone and personality. Each resonated with me in it's own individual way.


We all have our different considerations for "why I stay"(or don't stay) and I think how we answer that question is always changing. This collection of essays does beautiful work as a resource in a Mormon's "search for self and community."

Anyhow, like I always tell my students -- to be persuasive, don't just TELL... you need to SHOW. So in order to show, I am going try and do at least one post about one essay soon (it not only resonated with me, but taught me a life-changing concept and included a beautiful hopeful prayer for the future.) Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

having a cause

“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one's neighbor — such is my idea of happiness.”
― Leo Tolstoy Family Happiness

Today my roommate and I saw a very interesting documentary. This post isn't the place to get into what it was about, but while we were talking about the film at lunch we discovered there was one line in it that jumped out at us both. It more or less stated that whatever you think is the most important cause in the world right now is the one you should be working at (and if you aren't, why not?!) It struck us both because, while we both have strong feelings and opinions on many world and societal issues, there isn't really one grand cause in particular that we feel particularly well-suited to make much of a difference in (based on our individual abilities and influence). I don't mean this to sound defeatist. I also don't want to downplay the AMAZING work being done by incredible civic leaders and inspired activists, many of whom start out as unqualified as I am, or the need to be involved in larger community causes. I just want to explain how the limit to my influence, which limits what I am able to actually DO, actually inspires me -- but in a very different direction.

I know it goes against the assurance of the american dream that anyone can do anything they work hard for. I know it goes against the idealistic motto that with God all things are possible. It's not that I don't see the reasoning behind these ideas and agree with them to a degree -- it's just that I'm also a bit of a realist and when it all comes down to it, I understand the limits of my capacities, my context, and that God's will often involves me operating within these constraints. And I don't see this as a bad thing.

Bigger causes often seem more important than those that are on limited and more intimate scale. But but small in scale doesn't equal small in influence.

I started of this post with that quote by Tolstoy not just because it is also MY "idea of happiness"* but because it is also my idea of my cause -- of my purpose and source of satisfaction (which ultimately contributes to happiness). I don't have the ethos to affect change on a grand scale. I do have a little bit of credibility however with a few close friends and my immediate family. These are the ones I can influence for good in a just cause. Within my small circle is good I can do, unique to my abilities and the particular conditions of the situation. There is useful work that doesn't change the world at large but does affect the world of those around me. There is love to be nurtured with individuals for whom that love can be life-shaping.

I have come to the realization that limits are as God-given as capacities. Mine have placed me in a unique position to understand the beauty and meaning in serving the causes found within "a quiet secluded life" and of the special focus on intimate associations it affords.

I will always want to find ways to make a difference in the bigger causes that I care about and I hope I can find and do them. But, I also hope to never let that diminish meaning I find the modest work I do to make a difference to those few God has placed within my sphere.

*as a side note: that quote really does encapsulate perfectly my IDEAL of happiness. Beauty, culture, service, work, love -- all the BEST of this life. I feel I could devote a whole post just to expounding on how how the truth of Tolstoy's words resonates with me!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

the parable of the talents

I was discussing Matthew 25:14-30 (about the parable of the talents) with my family and we all sorta realized how little we really understood this parable -- that we had always just accepted the conventional explanations and perhaps missed its secrets for so many years… 

Consider the following questions my brother raised:

In modern english, the word "talent" has come to refer exclusively to any kind of mental endowment, aptitude, or physical ability. From the perspective of those hearing the parable (and the author of the gospel), a talent was a measurement of money. Has the modern understanding of the parable been based exclusively on the contemporary definition of the word "talent"? Perhaps restricting the parable's definition to modern english's definition of the word "talent" is too restrictive? But not including that definition in the parable's interpretation could be too exclusive as well no? Is there something else here?  
The description of the "lord" in the parable is interesting and I'm not sure what to make of it if it's supposed to be a parallel to God. The man with a single talent described his lord thus: "I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strewed". This seems to indicate the master enriches himself at the cost of others. The master himself admits: "thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strewed". So he is admitting he is known to be ruthless and rapacious in business and expects the servant to have acted similarly? That doesn't seem to be a very apt description of who God is … at least not to me. 
Lastly, the amounts distributed to the slaves, at least from what I've read, are actually very large. Supposedly, a talent was equivalent to about 6,000 denarii, a denarii being equal to a day's wage for a common laborer. Thus, one talent, would be about twenty years worth of wages (no small amount). Five talents, as given to another one of the servants, would be about 100 years worth of wages. Why then does the Lord say, "Well done, thou good and faithful aservant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things"? In my mind, another way of saying this would be "you've been faithful over a little, I'll put you in charge of a lot" even though one talent is not "a little".

In consideration of these questions my dad sent us all a link to one man's interpretation of the parable -- which aptly answers these questions. I strongly urge you to read and reread this analysis of the parable of the talents. It is so beautiful and so profound, just as Jesus intended I think.

***p.s. To me this understanding of the parable is born out well with the verse (similar to the one in Matthew) in D&C 82:3
 For of him unto whom much is given much is required; and he who sins against the greater light shall receive the greater condemnation.

I always read this verse as referring to more than just talents/blessings we are given, so sinning "against the greater light" does not mean not failing to use talents/abilities, it is failing to live up to what you know to be God's will for your life -- refusing to see what has been illuminated for you, or seeing it and rejecting it. Some of us have a clearer understanding/more illumination, and so when we fail to live accordingly -- when we wrap ourselves up "with hobbies and little luxuries" and selfishness  as C.S. Lewis put it -- we fail just the way the author described in the analysis of the parable.