Daily thoughts on aesthetics and theology, and the entire world in between.

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This Christmas, treasure up

This Christmas I am thinking of Mary. Over the centuries Mary has gotten a bad deal. The Catholics make her almost divine; they even pray to her. We Protestants go the other way: we keep her out of prime time. She's rarely held up as a role model like other women in the Bible: Ruth, Esther, even Dorcas.

Churches have Dorcas Funds to help those in need. But I’ve never heard of a church with a Mary Fund.

But Mary had a Fund. She had treasures in her heart. We all know the story. Shepherds came to worship the baby Jesus – and Luke says Mary "treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart." Later on, they lose the boy Jesus for three days only to find him in the Temple. Imagine the panic: You’ve lost your kid, not for three hours, but for three days! What was Mary’s response? She treasured all these things in her heart.

But you say: she was Jesus’ mother! Of course she treasured things about her boy!
But this is what’s so remarkable. She was the mother of God; you’d think heaven would keep her in the loop about things:

“Okay these are the wise men … this is a planned visit … we’ve got sharpshooters on the roof … don’t worry …”

You’d expect her to be treated like royalty. Think of Queen Elizabeth, mother of Prince Charles. No mean life here. No stables for her. What? Lose her son in a crowd? No!; secret service would be all over the place.

But not Mary the mother of God. One visit as a young girl by the angel Gabriel, and that’s it. No more heavenly visits. No more inside scoop. She’s left to her own natural wits to raise this child. She’s not given a palace to live in; not even the Davenport Hotel. She gets a stable. She loses her son and has to go find him. She goes to a wedding and frets about wine. She sees her son die on the cross, and gets handed off to John to be cared for. That’s it.

Brothers and sisters: if this for the mother of God, how about for us? Better than Mary, we have the New Testament to guide us. Better than Mary, we have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. We have it much better than the mother of God.

And yet do we treasure up in our hearts the circumstances of our lives?

Perhaps because of our comfort we take everything for granted. We forget that we are the continuing story of the advent of Jesus Christ into the world. Luke, who wrote the report about Mary, also wrote in Acts that he was recording what Jesus began to do in the world.

We continue to be part of that story.

We often pray to know the will of God. Jesus IS the will of God. But how his life unfolds in us is often unclear to us. We are not given a preview. We are simply brought into the circumstances of our lives with Jesus in our midst, in our hearts, in the Word. And far from taking our circumstances for granted -- or even griping about them -- we need to do some treasuring up.

What should we treasure? Not the circumstances themselves. But we treasure the mystery of Jesus Christ in our circumstances. Because he is in the midst, there is something about these circumstances I am going through that is right at the heart of God’s counsel for Christ in me the hope of glory.

In this sense they are holy; in this sense I need to give my best, my all, with humility and worship, and free from complaint.

Treasure up … this word in the Greek means to preserve, to keep from perishing, to protect from being lost. It means to value. This Christmas, thank God for the circumstances of your lives, because Jesus is in the midst.

And that is something worth treasuring up for.


Luke 2.19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

Luke 2.51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.

Acts 1.1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach...

de Tocqueville on Christianity and Islam

The Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville traveled in this country in the early nineteenth century. I came across this observation he made in 1835, and I think it makes for good discussion in light of current events (I break up his paragraph for easier reading):

"It has been shown that, at times of general cultivation and equality, the human mind does not consent to adopt dogmatical opinions without reluctance, and feels their necessity acutely in spiritual matters only.

This proves, in the first place, that at such times religions ought, more cautiously than at any other, to confine themselves within their own precincts; for in seeking to extend their power beyond religious matters, they incur a risk of not being believed at all. The circle within which they seek to bound the human intellect ought therefore to be carefully traced, and beyond its verge the mind should be left in entire freedom to its own guidance.

Mohammed professed to derive from Heaven, and he has inserted in the Koran, not only a body of religious doctrines, but political maxims, civil and criminal laws, and theories of science. The gospel, on the contrary, only
speaks of the general relations of men to God and to each other -- beyond which it inculcates and imposes no point of faith. This alone, besides a thousand other reasons, would suffice to prove that the former of these religions will never long predominate in a cultivated and democratic age, whilst the latter is destined to retain its sway at these as at all other periods ..."



Alexis de Tocqueville,
Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve, B&R Samizdat Express, 504

This is what it's all about ...

"What is Life?"

"What is Love?"

Big questions like these take up a lot of time without producing answers. Or they occupy huge tomes nobody reads. Some people, having talked long enough about them, might even earn tenure at an institute of higher learning. But the questions only get bigger.

At the Mission, I've been getting to know a man named Art; and Art tends to ask the big questions. Like last night over dinner ...:

... the dining room was overflowing with people and noise, the aroma of dependency freely mixing with the warmth of caring. In addition to the guys staying at the Mission, many had come in from the dreary cold. They were served hamburger patties smothered with chili, with curly fries and salad on the side.

As usual, it was a miracle:
hundreds of servings ... with leftovers.

And Art blurts out:

What's any of this about anyway... ?

Art is a deep thinker in faded blue jeans; I'd even say he's tortured by his thoughts. That's why I find him a kindred spirit.

But I'm chomping down on my hamburger and mildly irritated at having to do philosophy at the same time.

"Pass the salt and pepper."

Yea but what's any of this about anyway ... I mean look at us ... nobody's interested in anything but eating and the basics ...

It was one of those moments when the jigsaw puzzle of thoughts aligned with insight from above; so I blurted out, probably helping myself more than helping him:

This is what it's all about: you are here; I am here; we are eating this meal together; this moment ... together ... here ... and we are thankful. All of this, NOW, is by God's grace. This is what it's all about, and we must capture the moment ...


John 6.29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

water turning into wine

Oil pastels on board.

Logos2Go John 2.9 When the master of the feast had tasted the water that was made wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew) ...

starry starry night

We came home last night after dark. "The stars are out tonight!" said Valerie, as we walked up the drive.

Yes, they were. They were splashed across the sky in a virtuoso display of generosity.

"It's one of the pleasures of living out here," I said.

Even this short distance away from the artificial lights of urban Spokane, the night sky is un-embarrassing in its beauty.

Then I said as we walked into the house, against the inklings of creeping old age that seem to always be near my mind these days:

"We know nothing ... absolutely nothing about how any of this really works..."

And I had a vague sense of having something to look forward to.


Psalm 19.1-2 The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, And night unto night reveals knowledge.

Downsizing and dying

These days I've been in Los Angeles helping my parents downsize.

They are on in years now -- in their late 80s. The one can only walk very slowly; the other, well, she asks me the same questions over and over .

The move to a senior community comes with its own exertions; the weight of moving their things is quite different from the weight I carry inside me.

In midst of moving, I get a call telling me that a good friend's father just passed away in New York.

In midst of moving, I know I'm probably myself headed for a biopsy for another spot on the roof of my mouth. What can these spots mean? I've few people to talk to about this here in Los Angeles; and my parents don't know. Why worry them?

All of this in midst of:
"... do you still want this old bookcase? can we put this stuff on the curb? when is the donation truck coming ...?"

The piano I learned to play on is taken away to some Catholic church.

I've been thinking a lot about death and dying these days. How absolutely OTHER death is! And yet, and yet ...

This is what it's all about. If all of our confession merely stops short on this side of the divide, then there really is ... nothing. Better to just enjoy all these Lexuses and BMWs that seem to flourish here in Southern California. (But the drivers don't seem all that happy).

What is it going to be? Dirt ... or GLORY?

What is it going to be? Everything I've ever read in the Word: TRUE ... or ... nothing.

In midst of a thousand other displaced objects in the house, I see an old calendar with a trite saying for each month: February: Live Each Day to the Fullest. April: Help Me to See it's All Been for Good.

Help me to see it's all been for good.

I wonder: why do we humans have an instinct for better-ness? An instinct that life can be lived to the
fullest, which can be missed. An instinct that assumes that, beyond this messy reality, there must be a better reality? It must be an instinct God put there. Animals don't have calendars that say: "Help Me to See it's All Been for Good."

But we have calendars that say that.

I pick up an old book about a trip the book's author made to Ephesus. The place is all a ruin now, he writes as he sits on a knoll overlooking the old city -- and he was there in 1897. There's a lot of old books laying around here.

But he then says that the words of Paul's letter written from Ephesus are still new every day. Oh may it be so! And I do take comfort that I'm all of a piece with Paul's vision; that, somehow and I don't know how, at some point in my existence I'll be able to see Ephesus as Paul saw it. And that would not be a place Northwest-KLM can fly me to.

I'll be flying some other way.

I think of old Ralph Gwinn. Ralph was so confident he was about to see God that, with joy in his voice and energy in his failing body, he led us in a Bible study from the bed he would die on a week later.

I find myself wishing for more examples like Ralph: role models of people who knew how to die well.

I hope you're reading this Ralph, or whatever it is that passes for reading where you are.


Philippians 1.20 ... it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not at all be ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.

The part I miss the most is the power of the Wind

Not all my friends know this, but speaking from a church pulpit has been a fairly regular part of my life since the 1980s.

Changing churches several months ago has significantly reduced my opportunities to do this. In fact, presently, they are nil.

It's been an adjustment. There's the freedom of not having to prepare throughout the week; that's true. But after several months, the thrill of that freedom is getting a bit old.

It's a freedom I'm not sure I'd like to be enslaved to.

The bottom line: I easily get to feeling like I've been sidelined.

Sidelined at 26 or 36 is one thing. Sidelined at 56, well, it feels like the cleats have been hung up for good. The thoughts are too complicated to describe in words, at least on a blog post.

These days I sometimes critically evaluate my preaching in the past. How hard it is to do well! That's because, besides all of the prep, there's one thing you can't control. It's what I call the anointing of the Holy Spirit while delivering the message. Some times you have it. Other times you don't. And it is
never formulaic, because the Spirit is Wind.

All there is is humility and hard work. If ever given the chance again, I would want to learn that humility more than in the past.

But the part I miss the most is the power of the Wind.


John 3.8-10 "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus answered and said to Him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?

A whiff of snoot

I finally see what struck me about a recent event Valerie and I attended.

It was one of those financial seminars with the offer of a free dinner at a good restaurant. Free food at Luna is hard to turn down; so we went.

The minute I stepped into the foyer I realized this was for "high income" folks. (Duh ... when it comes to money I'm not the brightest).

So then, how did
we get selected? This was my question. Well, we don't know, they said, your names just cropped up on our list. Anyway, heeere we go ...

Over the aroma of the great food, I caught the whiff of something else ... what was it? What was it?

It was ... it was ... it was a whiff of Philadelphia.

But why? Why did that evening remind me of Philadelphia?

Well, it wasn't just any whiff of Philadelphia (and Philadelphia has its share of odors).

It was a whiff of the Philadelphia Main Line: MONEY.

It was a whiff of snoot, that's what it was.
Swimming pools, movie stars ... you know how that Jed Clampett song goes.

There in a room at the Luna in Spokane, it felt like I had been transported again to Philadelphia, rubbing shoulders with a particular kind of snootiness I knew so well...

My! How money can make people a certain way! What way?

Well, I was invisible to them. They walked right by me. I didn't exist. They sat right next to me and ne'er a smile, ne'er a hello, not even a look in my direction. I love Valerie because she just simply engaged the people to her right in conversation. I felt like they put up with it. I wasn't that way with the folks on my left; I just couldn't get it up to bother them in their self-sufficiency.

(So I'm totally willing to say it was
my arrogance ... I know how complicated these things can be. One can be arrogant in having less money as well).

The wine was not included in the free meal, by the way.

When the folks next to us left -- they left early -- their signed check was on the white tablecloth for all to see. For two, they spent near 50 bucks on wine that evening.


Jeremiah 9.23-24 Thus says the LORD: "Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, Let not the mighty man glory in his might, Nor let the rich man glory in his riches; But let him who glories glory in this, That he understands and knows Me, That I am the LORD, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight," says the LORD.

Looking for the Word for the Day

This is a new concept for me: instead of reading the Word in the morning (only), look for it in conversations through the day. For example:

"Why not rather suffer wrong?"
This came up over dessert with friends.

Later I found it in the Book: it is 1 Corinthians 6.7, where Paul is chiding believers about taking one another to court.

In our case, it was over a relational dust-up in which, if the offended party stood by his guns, he would be correct on principle but probably damage the other person. But "why not rather suffer wrong?" was advice that later led to healing in the relationship.

It was the WORD FOR THE DAY. It did not come early in the morning in the privacy of my room, sitting on my recliner with a Bible in my lap. It came in the hubbub of conversation late one evening.

And the advice wasn't even given to me. But I witnessed the working of the power of the Word.

Or this: "Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger ... for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God..." It is James 1.19-20.

This came in a conversation with a former drug addict at the Mission. Meth, coke; he did it all. Now old and grisly, he sat there in his tattered green jacket, with half his teeth missing. But a well-thumbed Bible was in his hands.

As we sat talking the thought crossed my mind: who's ministering to whom?

That morning I tried reading the Word, but felt empty and dry. So I started surfing the net and checking my email. Later I went to the Mission wondering what good I can do. That's when a former drug addict hit me with the WORD FOR THE DAY.

Looking for the Word through the day enriches each conversation. It takes me out of my bookish ways, as if reading the Scripture by rote in the morning -- and then forgetting it -- has any sanctifying power.

One last example: "it is better to give than to receive."

I haven't even looked up the address for this passage as I write this.
But "it is better to give than to receive" has been on-again-off-again on the radar of my consciousness the last several days.

It gives me a quiet joy, and a willingness to infuse the fabric of daily events with a spirit of giving.

It makes the ho-hum a little more special.


Okay I just looked it up: Acts 20.35: In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, 'It is more blessed
to give than to receive.'"

James 1.19-20 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

1 Corinthians 6.7 To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?

Wasteful grace

The East Door is where a homeless man first enters the Mission; it is the gateway to the Rescue portion of the Mission's work.

Of all the men who come through the East Door -- not to mention the women and children who also walk through for free meals -- only a very small percentage go on to benefit from the Mission's Recovery and Restoration programs.

The overwhelming majority of them -- I would say 90% -- are simply there to freeload. And it is a very good deal; they get better food and shelter than many "middle class" folks have in other parts of the world.

When I first volunteered at the Mission, I felt these guys were just using the place -- and often with ungrateful attitudes. Not a few of my conversations with the men in the Day Room (which is what the East Door opens into) have to do with their gripes: how restrictive the Mission is; how holier-than-thou the staff is (they are not); how daily life at the Mission is boring; yada yada yada.

Then they are the first in line for three hot meals a day.

Besides a free bed, there's free showers daily; free laundry, free medical consultation; free legal advice; volunteers come to sew their clothes. Hosts of volunteers attend to these guys' every need.

Last year, the Mission served over 230,000 meals. Food was always on the table.

Who says that the miracle of feeding 5,000 people with no guaranteed supplies no longer happens? It happens every day, three times a day.

Nowadays I am simply struck by the on-going miracle that is the Union Gospel Mission.

I've learned that grace, in order for it to be grace, must be wasteful.

Love is wasteful. It is not measured. It gives and asks nothing in return.

Perhaps we see so few miracles these days because we keep too many accounts.


Mark 14.3-4 And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head. And there were some that had indignation within themselves, and said, Why was this waste of the ointment made?

Luke 17.12-17 And as he entered into a certain village, there met him ten men that were lepers, which stood afar off: And they lifted up their voices, and said, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us. And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go shew yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, And fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan. And Jesus answering said, Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine?

Matthew 18.12 "What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying?

Way, Truth, Life

These are three characters written with one continuous stroke:

Way (dao-4), Truth (li-3), Life (ming-4).


John 16.4 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Oil pastels on paper.

Why Chinese conceptions are more artful

Here I've stylized two Chinese characters, and compared them with a well-known sign from American culture.

On the left is the character for "love," normally written:
愛. In the middle is the character for "virtue," normally written: 德. The I-love-New York, of course, is on the right.

What all three have in common is the red heart.

In both
-love and -virtue, notice how the character for heart is embedded in each word. So my stylized rendition substitutes the conventional way of writing "heart" with a Valentine's heart.

Love, already and concretely, includes heart. Virtue, already and concretely, includes heart. The aesthetics of each character emits a penumbra of meaning, as it were, that entails connotations of heart. Each character is a pool of meaning.

English works in a different way: abstract units, whether letters or words made up of abstract letters, convey meaning. Here, the N and the Y are additionally abstract because they are only the first letters of abstract words that are actually not there.

In this case, the Valentine's heart is something from an order of things totally separate from the order of words.

The aesthetic value of I-(heart)-N-Y is that something from another order of things -- the artwork of the heart -- has replaced the abstract arrangement of lines that mean LOVE.

Put another way, if all we had was I-L-N-Y, the sequence would be incomprehensible. It would not only have minimal aesthetic value; it would have little value of any kind. What is aesthetically striking about the I-heart-N-Y is precisely because the English tendency to abstraction has been breached with a symbol that more directly means "heart."

But in the Chinese cases,
心 is already and concretely in each character.

So in the Chinese cases, the use of the Valentine's heart for "love" is a symbol-to-symbol transformation. In I-heart-N-Y, the use of the Valentine's heart for "love" is an abstraction-to-symbol transformation.

In the Chinese cases, the art-value is intrinsic.

In the English case, the art-value had to be added.


Note: contemporary Chinese script used in mainland China deletes the heart from the word for love (). When some folks of my parents' generation bemoan the use of the "simplified" script, they are feeling the loss of the richness of meaning of some of these more utilitarian characters.

Frozen frames

The most meaningful memories I have of people are frozen frames:

A moment, a look, an action; single instances in which the complexity of a person is summed up in a frozen frame.

Like that one instant, when he was about 10, when we were playing touch football in our side yard in Blue Bell. There was a dispute about a rule -- I think it might have been how many 1-1000, 2-1000s to count before rushing the passer; it doesn't matter because the dispute is not part of the frozen frame.

Ten year old Jeremy stood me down. I can still see the determination in his eyes. At that moment I realized I might have a handful of a son here ... a fact that never occurred to me before.

He is almost 30 now, but that frozen frame endures.

Here is an incident in Ayn Rand's
The Fountainhead, a father thinking about his now-grown daughter:

But one picture came back to his mind ... It was a picture of her childhood, of a day from some forgotten summer on his country estate in Connecticut long ago. He had forgotten the rest of that day and what had led to the one moment he remembered. But he remembered how he stood on the terrace and saw her leaping over a high green hedge at the end of the lawn. The hedge seemed too high for her little body; he had time to think that she could not make it, in the very moment when he saw her flying triumphantly over the green barrier. He could not remember the beginning nor the end of that leap; but he still saw, clearly and sharply, as on a square of movie film cut out and held motionless forever, the one instant when her body hung in space, her long legs flung wide, her thin arms thrown up, hands braced against the air, her white dress and blond hair spread in two broad, flat mats on the wind, a single moment, the flash of a small body in the greatest burst of ecstatic freedom he had ever witnessed in his life ...


Citation from Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, Book I, Chapter XII

Jack of all trades, master of none

This is how I'm feeling these days.

Oil pastel on board.


1 Corinthians 1.26
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.

Smooth ... like Keith Stone

One intersection away from the Union Gospel Mission is a large billboard advertising beer. It sports a picture of Keith Stone with a box of Keystone beer.

Keystone ... Keith Stone. Got that?

And both are so smoooooooth.

You can see variations of this smoooooth ad campaign here and here.

At the Mission, I meet many men who have a different tale to tell about beer. Once they start on a can, they can't stop until 6, 8, 12, 16 cans later. As a consequence their lives have been anything but smooooooth.

Rocky, bumpy, broken; these are better words to describe what they've been through.

I can't count the number of men who've lost everything because of beer: wives, homes, kids, businesses, self-esteem.

What most troubles me about the ad is the "look" of Keith Stone. His attire is everyman blue collar -- like most of the guys at the Mission. His eyes are focused on something far off, projecting a rugged but dreamy look, full of confidence that the future -- well, if not the future, at least the weekend -- will be going his way no-doubt-about-it.

So long as he lugs along that oversized box of Keystone beer.

This post is not about abstaining from alcohol; I enjoy my pizzas with beer and my meals with wine.
Okay: I love margaritas.

But there is such a gap between the ideal worlds advertising paints for us ... and the nitty-gritty reality of this world, this life.
To keep the nitty-gritty smooth, often the smooth spin of advertising must be denied.

That's all I'm trying to say. Nothing profound.

When I see that ad, I make a right turn to hang out with the guys at the Mission; nothing profound.


The believing ones: how language hinders faith

The Greek sentence, if directly translated, goes something like this:

But the Scripture consigned all things to sin, so that the promise out of faith of Jesus Christ might be given to the believing ones.

It reads a little bumpy, because it is not how we normally speak English. So, in contrast, here is the translation from the popular New International Version (NIV):

But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.

This sounds more "normal."

But let's do something. Let's imagine standing in relation to the transaction described in the first sentence, the one that is more of a direct translation of the Greek. Where do we stand in relation to the action?

Well, we see something (the promise of faith of Jesus Christ) being given to a group of people (the believing ones). Neither the promise, nor the group of people, have anything to do with you and me.
We do nothing, nor do we feel any suspense, in observing the action of the first sentence. Neither do the group of people -- the group called the believing ones -- need to do anything nor feel anything. They are merely the recipients of this promise. The giving of the promise to them is a done deal; nothing prevents it from happening.

But now imagine us standing in relation to the action described by the NIV translation. Read it again above. What do you feel? If you are like me, you feel some doubt as to whether or not the promise would be given, don't you? Why? Well, because, first of all, that promise needs to be given through faith IN Jesus Christ.

What faith IN Jesus Christ? The English language is ambiguous about where this IN is. Is it my faith that I need to place IN Jesus Christ? Is that what needs to happen before the promise is given? Well, then, I'd better drum up some of this faith so that I can place it IN Jesus Christ.
But ... what if I'm not up to the task?

And what about that group of people? In the NIV translation, they are no longer "the believing ones". Instead, they are "those who believe."

Those who believe? Well, what if they don't believe? What if, today, they believe just 75% of what they believed yesterday? How much do they have to believe ... before the promise can be given?

You see how the NIV translation -- which is far and away the more common "take" of this passage in English translations -- makes the entire transaction something of a "maybe" situation?

There is no faith IN Jesus Christ in the original. There is only faith OF Jesus Christ in the original.

And never mind "the whole world" and "prisoner to sin." None of these phrases are in the original Greek. The NIV translators were just moved to put them in -- just so, in their view, the English can read a little more smoothly.

The original language of the sentence tells us that, if you are indeed a Christian, you are among THE BELIEVING ONES
-- and that is independent of whether or not you feel like you believe today. It's a done deal. The promise is yours.

This is the scandal of the gospel.


Galatians 3.22
ἀλλὰ συνέκλεισεν γραφὴ τὰ πάντα ὑπὸ ἁμαρτίαν ἵνα ἐπαγγελία ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ δοθῇ τοῖς πιστεύουσιν.

ensuing and glomming

Now that football season is here, we'll all be hearing this word ad nauseum on ESPN or approved equal:

" ... with 15 seconds left, he fumbles the ball! And on the ensuing play ...blah blah blah..."


I guarantee you'll hear this word an average of 3.5 times for every 20 seconds of replay footage this football season.

It's not simply: "... and on the next play ..."

No. It has to be: "...and on the
ensuing play."

What a heady word! These guys must be taking a correspondence course.

Ensue. Get used to it. Take a bite of the chips and salsa every time ensue is uttered. You'll need to give up on Weight Watchers.

I noticed this out of the corner of my awareness several years back.
Ten years ago, no play ensued after the previous play. For crying out loud, it was just the next play.

I bet it was Chris Berman who started to use
ensue; it wouldn't surprise me. Berman of the "back-back-back-back" coinage. That's another one: back-back-back-back -- although this one is so unique no one else could use it except Berman.

But everybody now says, "and on the ensuing play ..."

It really is a study on language: how a word becomes fixed in usage, and what it describes somehow becomes wedded to that word so that no other word would quite do.

Another such word is glom, meaning to latch on to somebody or something, as in: "She really glommed onto him during the trip." Ten years ago, nobody was glomming on to anybody. Now, teenyboppers glom all the time.

(Nobody's ever glommed on to me that I know of; shucks).

Another emerging word is meme. Watch out for this one; I think it has a future. Meme means the thrust of a general narrative someone wants you to believe in. As in, "The Obama Administration's meme is that it's all Bush's fault..." Meme is roughly equal to spin, although I would say meme is the germinal concept for which spin is the action.

Am I getting just a little too OCD about this stuff?

OCD ... that's yet another one. More and more people are somehow OCD ... as in: he's just a little too OCD about that stuff ...

Ten years ago I wasn't OCD.

But now, hey, I am.


An early example of collaboration

From Augustine:

They [the Romans] decided that responsibility for the land should not be entrusted to any one god; they put the goddess Rusina in charge of the rural countryside; they consigned the mountain ranges to the care of the god Jugatinus; the hills to the goddess Collatina, the valleys to Vallonia.

They could not even find the goddess called Segetia adequate on her own, to the responsibility for the crops from start to finish. Instead, they decided that the corn when sown should have the goddess Seia to watch over it as long as the seeds were underground;

as soon as the shoots came above the ground and began to form the grain, they were under the charge of the goddess Segetia;

but when the corn had been reaped and stored the goddess Tutilina was set over them to keep them safe.

Would not anyone think that Segetia should have been competent to supervise the whole process from the first green shoots to the dry ears of corn?

But that was not enough for men who loved a multitude of gods -- and so much so that their miserable soul disdained the pure embrace of the one true God and prostituted itself to a mob of demons ...


City of God, Book IV, Section 8. Translated by Henry Bettenson (Penguin, 1984), 143-144

When CNN and FOX agree ...

... there must be a hurricane coming.

They do the same thing:
Hey, let's send our reporters down there and have them talk into a mike while getting blown sideways:

"Shep ... this is Geraldo ... I'm ... I'm ... wait ... whoa ... [picture jiggles as cameraman dodges a falling palm tree] ... you can see ... you can see Earl ... is picking up steam ... wait ... Gotta send it back to you ..."

Yes I can see. I'm seeing it on MSNBC, CNN, FOX, ABC, NBC, CBS. It's probably on the Shopping Network...

All other news stop: it's 24/7 hurricane coverage.

(Note to Congress: now's the time to spend even more money we don't have; nobody will ever know).

But what they say about Chinese people -- which isn't true-- is definitely true with hurricanes: they all look alike.

Wind. Rain. Waves.

Reporters blown sideways.

And it's on 24/7.


Ecclesiastes 1.6
The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.


You don't really see them while they happen.

Of course most barbershops have the mirrored wall, but I bet most people (at least the guys) don't spend their time on the chair looking at the progress. I usually have my head down, thinking about the next paper I'll write that nobody will read.

And there, with my head down, askance off both sides, I see the snips of hair falling to the floor.

I've seen that sight for over fifty years.

Haircuts are one way you can mark time.

"You have a
lot of hair," is a remark I've heard over the years from barbers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and now Washington.

When I was a kid living in Ohio, I'd bike down to the barbershop, next to Avellino Drugs. Afterwards, the barbershop floor would be covered with black hair.

It was different yesterday.

While sitting on that chair, askance off both sides, I saw tufts of white fall to the ground.

Oh there was still some black. But mostly I saw white.

When I left, it was all over the floor, like clumps of dirtied snow on a trafficked street.


Luke 12.7 But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.

A culture of commentary versus ... a handful of quietness

There is only one Apostle Paul; but there are endless commentators on what he wrote. Endless.

You can't count all the commentators. Not only those who
write about his epistles (which, indeed, comprise about 50% of the New Testament).

But also those who every Sunday preach on passages he wrote -- from Ephesians, for instance, or Galatians, or Philippians, and so on and on. Let's listen in:

"Ah ... Our text this morning is Ephesians 2.10 ... Last Sunday we spoke on such and so ... and today I want to further elaborate on
just what Paul meant when he said that we are the workmanship of God. You see, this word for workmanship is poeema. What a wonderful thought ... we are God's poetry!!!"

And he's off to the races... with all the good people in the pews taking notes ... because there's going to be a midweek discussion group on the passage ...

I don't mean to demean any earnest commentator or preacher, or Bible discussion groups. Of course not.

But I am suggesting that a
culture of commentary substitutes -- actually inhibits -- genuine ability to live out the truth of the Word of God.

In a culture of commentary, everybody is reading the Word not so much to humbly receive from it, so as to humbly submit to it, so as to quietly live out the truth of it, in daily life, minute by minute.

I'll say it again:

In a culture of commentary, everybody is reading the Word not so much to humbly receive from it, so as to humbly submit to it, so as to quietly live out the truth of it, in daily life, minute by minute.

NO. None of that. I've got a Bible Study to lead on Ephesians chapter 2, and I've got to
PREP for it. Oh my goodness, it's tomorrow and I've got nothing to say ... Well, lemme check these commentaries ...

I wonder how much of American evangelical culture is more a culture of commentary than a culture of quiet submission:

The radio programs; the piles and piles of study guides; the endless conferences and retreats; and so on and on.

It fosters ambitions and aspirations to comment; to be an expert commentator. (Maybe someday I'll be a conference speaker ...!).

But when you quietly submit, nobody notices you. Or at least very, very few will. But it may be at the heart of godly living.

And then there are those who
blog about this problem ...


Ecclesiastes 4.6 Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.

Augustine on political gangs

I found this segment from Augustine's City of God striking enough to cite it here with no additional elaboration:

Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms? A gang is a group of men under the command of a leader, bound by a compact of association, in which the plunder is divided according to an agreed convention.

If this villainy wins so many recruits from the ranks of the demoralized that it acquires territory, establishes a base, captures cities and subdues peoples, it then openly arrogates itself the title of kingdom, which is conferred on it in the eyes of the world, not by the renouncing of aggression but by the attainment of impunity.

For it was a witty and truthful rejoinder which was given by a captured pirate of Alexander the Great. The king asked the fellow, 'What is your idea, in infesting the sea?' And the pirate answered, with uninhibited insolence, 'The same as yours, in infesting the earth! But because I do it with a tiny craft, I'm called a pirate; because you have a mighty navy, you're called an emperor."


Augustine, City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4, trans. Henry Bettenson (Penguin, 1984), 139.

Universal nature

Here is a chart for "universal nature" from the 11th century. It was devised by a English monk named Byrhtferth. Note how it makes connections between natural phenomena and personal temperaments.

Well before the 11th century, ancient models of how things were put together all assumed that the behavior of nature and the behavior of humans answered to a single underlying structure.

From the mists of time in ancient China, for example, we have the five element theory: Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal. These elements comprised universal nature -- which incorporated human moral conduct: Fire is inquisitive; Water is insecure, etc.

The ancient Greeks posited a
four element theory: Air, Water, Earth, Fire. The early thinker Hippocrates (of the Hippocratic Oath) assigned these elements also to personality factors.

It wasn't until the Enlightenment -- let's say this began in the 17th century; it's hard to pinpoint exactly when "enlightenment" came to the West -- it wasn't until the Enlightenment that the behavior of natural elements (air, water, etc) and the grounds for human moral conduct were divorced from each other.

If you dealt in "science," then you weren't dealing in "morality," and vice versa. This was one of the innovations of the Enlightenment.

In the process was lost any sense that a single system cohered together both natural and moral phenomena.

Sure, we now have such "master theories" as evolution. But the tendency here is to celebrate randomness and the unpredictable workings of impersonal forces rather than the workings of an orderly system conforming to higher, even if mysterious, powers.

This is somehow less comforting than earlier models of universal nature.

I am not promoting a return to ancient Chinese or Greek theories of universal nature; nor am I persuaded by Byrhtferth's 11th century model. I am merely bemoaning the loss of a phenomenological awareness in our culture for any organic and orderly universal nature at all.

A loss of wonder at the mystery of how all of this got here, and works beautifully, rather than there being nothing at all.

Recently I came across an essay by Wendell Berry entitled "Solving for Pattern." Written in 1981, the essay is prescient in its discernment that "big business agriculture" not only degrades the corn and the meat it produces, but also degrades the land, ultimately the society it purports to serve. Here is Berry (the bold is mine):

The real problem of food production occurs within a complex, mutually influential relationship of soil, plants, animals and people. A real solution to that problem will therefore be ecologically, agriculturally, and culturally healthful...

This is one challenge to today's environmentalist movement. It is difficult to be respectful to nature -- which is a moral disposition -- when morality itself is something of an optional, because ungrounded, reality.


Colossians 1.17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

歌 罗 西 书 1.17 他 在 万 有 之 先 , 万 有 也 靠 他 而 立

The image for the 11th century model comes from R. W. Southern, "England in the Twelfth Century Renaissance" in Medieval Humanism and Other Studies (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), 165.

The citation from Berry is actually from Chapter 9 of his book The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural & Agriculture. The chapter can be found here.

Offices versus Creativity

I don't know if this is just me, or if it is common experience:

To get serious work done, I need to be out of my office.

For serious writing or lecture prep, I have to hit the Starbucks, or the Rocket Bakery, or simply go driving somewhere -- in other words, I have to get out of my office before the juices can flow.

Even as I write this a colleague emails me an interesting article. After printing it out, my knee-jerk response was: "I need to go out for lunch so I can read this ..."

And I usually don't go out for lunch.

At home it's the same thing: serious reading takes place on my recliner; serious writing at the dining room table. None of it in my home office.

As for art work, absolutely no artwork is ever done in my office. (Well, once. This was done in my office, drawn on the back of a note card; and it is the most-visited blog I ever posted. So there's always an exception).

But the minute I sit down in any place called "my office," doing anything other than surfing the internet -- or snacking -- is a major stretch.

Or blogging.
That can be done in my office.

Or goofing off: yesterday I had to delete a computer scrabble game off of my home office computer just so it wouldn't be the main attraction. It was a major decision. Because: what else would I do??? I would be faced with the stark whiteness of the WORD document on the screen in front of me, with no escape -- and no ideas what to write.
But I took the plunge anyway.

For me it raises questions about names and roles and creativity; about functions we associate with physical spaces verses what we actually do in those spaces.

We humans are limited creatures, and every culture develops special ways to limit itself. In our culture, "going to the office" is a well-accepted limitation. And like any limitation, it comes with expectations. When you go to the office, that's when you're supposed to "work."

"Work." This is another limitation.

And so there are many businesses that thrive off of the limitations of "office." Like all the clothing stores to help you "dress up for work." But I don't recall the last time I produced anything worthwhile dressed up in my office best.

Like Office Depot. This is where you purchase things for your office; all sorts of things from pencils and pens to computers and hard drives to office furniture.

Office furniture.

Nothing can be more stifling to the creative imagination than having to create surrounded by office furniture.


Mark 2.23-28
One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

The point behind the image of God

In the introduction to his translation of Homer's Odyssey, E.V. Rieu said this (the underline is added by me):

He (Homer) does believe in his gods ... but whereas the Christian conception of godhead is based on our creation by God in his image and likeness, with imperfections introduced by Satan, Homer regards his gods, though immortal, as made in the image and likeness of man. Mixed with his deep respect of their almost unlimited powers and his aesthetic appreciation of their beauty, he betrays a very tolerant understanding of their motives and frailties ... These powerful beings, who were so intimately connected with men's passions and desires, were there to administer, not necessarily obey, man's moral code. Christian apologists of a later age made a mistake when they suggested that the pagans had invented the gods and their iniquities as an excuse for themselves. Homer never censures a god nor lets a mortal use a god's misdeeds as a pretext for his own ...

And so this is Rieu's appreciation of Homer's virtuous character. Never would Homer countenance misdeeds among men -- just because the gods he (Homer) admires indulge
their misdeeds and iniquities!

So on the strength of Homer's example, according to Rieu, Christian apologists "make a mistake" when they claim that a weakness in the theory that the gods are created in the image of men is none other than that it provides a license to sin. (e.g.: After all, the gods do it! etc).

No No No, says Rieu. Homer would
never stoop so low!

But I think this misses the point.

The point is this: Where does the very meaning of "iniquity" or "misdeed" come from?

Put another way, Rieu seems to think of iniquities and misdeeds as a moral consideration quite separate from the logical consideration of whether men are created in the image of God (the Christian view) or gods in the image of men (the Greek view).

Thus, in Rieu's thinking, Homer's moral uprightness in the face of his god's misdemeanors is used as a kind of
independent evidence that the Christian critique of the Greek view is wrong.

But this leaves the independent nature of the moral category in question. Where does morality come from? Who regulates it? Rieu uncritically says that, in the Greek view, it is
men who came up with the moral code; that the gods' job was to administer this moral code that men set up, but not necessarily to obey it.

But this is a logical nightmare. If indeed men -- who are frail and inquitous; this is not in question (it is precisely why Homer's virtuous character is viewed by Rieu as so extraordinary) -- if indeed it is men who came up with the moral code, and gods are created in the image of men, and so the gods engage in iniquity (because they are created in the image of men), but Homer rises above it all and does not accept the gods' immoral conduct as a license for such conduct himself, then Homer -- himself a man -- is basing his moral virtue on
neither human nature (which is iniquitous) nor the nature of the gods (which is also iniquitous).

So where does Homer's virtue come from? What is it referencing? This is left unexplained.

If, however, men are created in the image of God, then the seat of moral virtue is in Him. And so this conforms with the logical argument that His image is what we humans reflect: His moral character is what determines good and bad deeds (misdeeds) among men.

The Christian theory is so much more simpler, with no contradictions.

Rieu is actually using Christian measures in his admiration of Homer's virtuous character.


E.V. Rieu, "Introduction" to
Homer: The Odyssey (Penguin, 1971), 15.

Genesis 1.26-27 Then God said, "Let us make man
in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

In praise of fitting things

Daily life often gives us our deepest questions, like this one:

Why don't things fit?

Clothes don't fit. Jobs don't fit. In America one of two marriages end in divorce ... in other words: marriages don't fit.

Here's something that doesn't fit: see the daylight coming through the wood framing at the top corner? The 2x4 wall frames on the greenhouse I'm building don't exactly fit.

Who cares? one might ask. The wall sheathing will cover it, so nobody will know.

Nobody will know.

In the 1990's the influential computer scientist and polymath Herbert Simon coined the term to satisfice, a combination of to suffice and to satisfy:

All any solution has to do is to satisfice. In other words, just get the job done in an okay way; forget about everything fitting perfectly.

In a highly utilitarian / consumerist culture such as ours, satisficing is highly valued. We not only have technologies to fit things together; we have technologies to cover up things that don't.

Studs don't fit? We have sheathing.

You look ugly? Cosmetic surgery.

Can't get along? No fault divorce.

I think one fallout of covering up things that don't fit is the disappearance of praise.

In our culture, we've lost an ability to praise because we've lost an ability to marvel. To marvel at amazing things that do fit -- in fact, that fit so well it is downright unbelievable: Microscopic mitochondria that are veritable factories of life. No covering up there (even though we don't see it).

And I can't even align 2x4s.

I came across an article the other day that reports nature itself -- in the form of bacteria in the water -- is doing her own job at cleaning up the oil spill in the Gulf.

This is not to take away from the magnitude of the disaster.

But come on, as I struggle to align 2x4s, my larger struggle is why I'm not filled with praise at this news.


Psalm 146.1 How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him! (NIV)

Note: This word "fitting" is translated in other versions as "comely" (KJV) or "seemly" (RSV) ... or simply beautiful (NKJV)

Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, 1996, MIT Press

Dorothy Sayers on the original vision

The original vision for the painting
was this, drawn on the envelope of a bank statement. Compared with the final outcome, there is some likeness, but not much.

In the original impulse, I wanted to abstract the undulating fields of the Palouse into curved lines. The lines would be pronounced, acting somewhat like the cames (the black lines) of stained glass windows. So in the original vision, I saw something sectional; a kind of Mondrian with curves: solid colors each framed within lined boundaries.

The haziness of the outcome was not planned; it is something that the painting itself wanted to be.

But the tension between what I wanted, and what the painting wanted to be, left the work unfinished on my desk for weeks. I was tempted to discard it -- abort it -- and forget about it. It was only resignation (not inspiration) that brought me to finish it.

The process became more cheerful, although still suspenseful, when it occurred to me that it might have a direction of its own.

The whole exercise raises questions about the nature of creativity, about the creator and what is created. Does the artist "see" the thing whole ahead of time, and just bring it into being? For example, tradition tells us that Handel wrote the entire Messiah in 24 days, going almost non-stop, eschewing food. Upon completing the Hallelujah Chorus, it is said that he exclaimed he saw "all of heaven before me, and the great God Himself..."

But conversely we know that Beethoven struggled for years with some of his musical ideas before they took their final form in his compositions.

Here is Dorothy Sayers; she is writing about the literary art:

"The lay public ... rather like to believe this inspirational fancy; but as a rule the element of pure craftsmanship is more important than most of us are willing to admit. Nevertheless the free will of a genuinely created character has a certain reality, which a writer will defy at his peril. It does sometimes happen that the plot requires from its characters certain behavior, which, when it comes to the point, no ingenuity on the author's part can force them into, except at the cost of destroying them ... In such dilemmas, the simplest and worst thing the author can do is to behave like an autocratic deity ..."


Dorothy Sayers, "Free Will and Miracle" in The Mind of the Maker (1941). Harper San Francisco, 1979, 67-68.

Ephesians 2.10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

See this for a traditional account of how Handel wrote the Messiah.