Monday, May 29, 2006

scriptural authority

Over at, a number of scholars and clergy are presenting a document meant to draw a line in the side on the nature of the gospel. Given the growing lack of biblical literacy in Western churches, and the corresponding growth of Scriptural abuse and false teaching in churches, that's probably not a bad idea.

They make this statement on the Bible qua Word of God:

We affirm that the sole authority for the Church is the Bible, verbally inspired, inerrant, infallible, and totally sufficient and trustworthy. We deny that the Bible is a mere witness to the divine revelation, or that any portion of Scripture is marked by error or the effects of human sinfulness.

Now you know, that's a fairly straightforward statement, and it's hard to disagree with it from a faith perspective, but I think it's important to add the qualifier "within authorial intent." Why? I suppose because I've known my share of pastors and lay Christians to insist on a literal understanding of the Bible, to say that it is accurate in every detail, utterly authoritative in matters of history and science, and so on. I consider that a mistake.

The Bible is what it is -- a collection of divinely inspired writings that relate the transcendent glory and majesty of God, that reveal his desire for the nations, and that recount his plan of salvation. It includes some beautiful poetry, bewildering apocalyptic symbolism, deep wisdom, excoriating prophetic invective, fascinating histories, and above all, deeply moving stories. Those who want nothing to do with the Bible because of their experiences with the church are missing a monumental collection of literature.

But while it's invaluable for history and literature, to insist that it is the last word on history or science is to ascribe a 20th-century modernist attitude to its authors. Given that the ancient Hebrews didn't take its stories literally, and given that the accounts often differ in the order of events, provide conflicting details within parallel passages, and -- in the case of Deuteronomy and Exodus -- can't even always agree on how to perform the same sacrifice, I think we often are guilty of forcing Scripture to be something that it is not.

It is all the things that Peter said it is in his epistle -- God-breathed, inspired and useful for many purposes. Reading through it and experiencing the turmoil and tumult of its stories, the beauty of its poetry and the brilliance of its wisdom -- and most of all, encountering the God revealed within its pages -- is a radically life-changing experience.

the da vinci code

Chances are pretty good that you've heard of a new arrival at the box office called "The Da Vinci Code."

Based on the novel of the same name by Dan Brown, the movie follows a cryptologist as he investigated a murder and discovers that the Church has suppressed the truth about Jesus (gasp!), including his marriage to Mary Magdalene and his descendants, who still live among us today. Not surprisingly, there are two loud voices from the church on this movie: one that screams "Blasphemy!" and the other that says, "My goodness, this is a God-sent opportunity to reach the lost!"

It's probably obvious that I wish the Easily Offended Minions of Orthodoxy would get a grip and be quiet for a change. But let me add that I find the second group fairly annoying too.

Why? Because I am so freaking tired of the church acting as though the latest trendy movie, book or other gimmick is the magic bullet that will bring everyone to Christ. This year it's the "Da Vinci Code." Last year it was "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." Two years ago, it was "The Passion of the Christ." Now here we are, three movies, the Prayer of Jabez, WWJD bracelets and God Only Knows what else later, and the church is still missing the point and failing radically to engage the culture.

If we want to engage the culture and the people who live in it, we need to forget the Fad du Jour and start showing the gospel's relevance to things that actually matter to people, rather than to things that tickle their fancy for an hour or two.

To wit: What relevance does Christ have to a family with gainful employment and no drug addictions, but still has trouble putting food on the table and paying the rent? What matters the gospel to a nation with zero savings, skyrocketing fuel costs and an economic bubble sure to break in the next ten years? What point in believing in Jesus when people are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, when leaders jockey for power without regard for anything more than political convenience, and when all the major religious leaders can do is to moralize and blame homosexuals and abortionists for the state of the nation?

It's a sad day for us all if we're looking to "The Da Vinci Code" to give us opportunities to share the reasons for the hope that we have.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

slices of grace

My daughter met two girls at the park today, named Destiny and Nicole. This is important, so that's why I'm writing it down.

It's important, because Destiny and Nicole weren't the children we had hoped to meet. We had a play date today with several friends of my daughter's from preschool, and none of them showed. Not one. Not her best friend, not the boy who always has to have his way, not the shy girl, and not even the boy whose mother was so excited about the idea that she practically cried.

Read the rest of the essay

Monday, May 22, 2006

thomas jefferson

A friend of mine, having watched a documentary on Thomas Jefferson, contributed to a recent discussion on the nature of suffering that Jefferson once said, "The art of life is the art of avoiding pain."

This goes right along with protecting our hearts by disconnecting from the world. It seems that is exactly what Jefferson did. He lost his best friend, both his parents, five out of six children, and his wife during his lifetime. Then at a certain point, he fell in love again, but the woman was married. At that point, he wrote a conversation piece between his mind and his heart. That is where the above quote comes from. He decided to live in his "head" for the rest of his life, instead of his heart.

If so, that was Jefferson's deepest tragedy.

As much as life hurts -- and no mistaking it does, the longer you live, the more meaningless suffering you see -- it is infinitely preferable to simply existing. The only true joys of life come from being with other people.

A life spent alone is a life squandered, a lifetime of opportunities wasted.


Children have a way with words that is all their own. I don't mean that they possess a unique eloquence, although that often is the case. What I mean is that they are an engine that drives the creation of new words, both in terms of the new vocabulary we must conjure to describe the phenomena that manifest in their presence, and in terms of the neologisms they create. And there's also the words they mangle.

Back when I was a child and station wagons were all the minivan of the day, we had the back seat and the "back back," where we stowed our luggage, our coats and even ourselves, when the back seat was too crowded for four boys. For a couple years, when Ward and I were really young, our oldest brother was PJ, as B.G., his initials, was too difficult for us to say.

Our children have been full of such contributions to the language. Over the years, Evangeline has created terms like "ots" for house; employed the universal prefix yeah, as in yeah-tree, yeah-car and year-house; and vested words with new meaning like when she expressed her desire for milk by saying "computer lights," since she often nursed in the afternoon while Natasha used the computer.

She also renamed the front room of our house the "rivelling room." I admit that I rather like the sound of it, and hope it sticks.

For her part, Rachel has had a fixation on the letter K. Thus she puts on kajamas before she goes to bed, likes to get kabloons when we go to parties, and enjoys seeing korillas at the zoo.

She's also been most inventive with language at expressing new concepts. Although she didn't coin a phrase like "choo-choo bird" to relate the concept of an airplane, she has invented phrases like "tippy bottom," for the opposite of "tippy-top."

Is there a point to all this? No. But it amuses me, and so I share it with you.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


I know of four primary responses Christians have to suffering, only one of which I consider truly biblical.

The first is the classic error that suffering is caused solely by sin or a lack of faith. This is the outlook that ignores the book of Job and makes the dubious claim that following Christ guarantees us health, happiness, prosperity and a generally suffering-free life. It's poppycock, if for no other reason than Jesus warned that suffering and persecution would be the lot of those who followed him, and that's pretty much what his followers all got. What's really bad is the implication that if you suffer or fail to achieve that maximized life, it's your fault for being disobedient to God or failing to have faith. Ick.

The second error I've seen a lot of us is that fatalist approach; i.e., "everything happens for a reason." I guess this is better than the first response described above, since at least people have a stoic approach to suffering and believe that God is working in it. Unfortunately, it makes God the architect of things like the Armenian genocide, the two world wars, the Union Carbide disaster in India twenty-odd years ago, and so on. It also ignores the wisdom of the Preacher, who wrote of many of the injustices of life, "This too is meaningless." Not to mention I've seen this philosophy lead to some pretty callous responses to pain, such as "I think God let this happen to bring revival to our church."

The third error, and this is (I think) a fairly recent one, is flat-out denial. Not in the sense of the Christian Science mind-over-suffering doctrine, but more of taking Paul's advice too far to "consider it great joy when you suffer trials of many kinds, dear brethren." Under this approach, parents are forbidden to grieve for lost children, spouses to mourn their deceased loved ones, and so on, because this indicates a lack of faith and a failure to rejoice in all that God has given us. Funerals become celebrations of resurrection, where any lamentation is considered out of place and faithless, rather than an honest expression of grief.

The understanding I have reached is that pain brings us closer to Christ, no matter what the cause or nature of the pain, and that there is nothing wrong with honestly saying it hurts. When we suffer for our sin, we share in the suffering of Christ, who also suffered for our sins, and in greater part than we do. When we suffer for his sake, then we share in his sufferings, because the Cross also is the supreme example of suffering for love and righteousness. (More than that, if we share in his suffering, the Bible also says we shall share in his triumph.) And when we suffer just because this crazy fallen world is a valley of tears, we still can know him as Immanuel, God with us, because the redemption of this whole sorry world, not just our "souls," is why Jesus went to the Cross. In all our suffering, no matter what the reason, we have the opportunity to commune with him.

The other thing is that the Cross redefines all our lives, the good and the bad, in the light of God's love. Everything before Christ pointed to his coming and his Good Friday/Easter one-two knockout punch; everything since is understood in light of it. That means that all creation, from beginning to end, is an expression of God's love, including the parts that really stink. It's an unfathomable love, and it's hard to explain properly in a comment on someone else's blog, but God's love is a swiftly moving mountain stream that you can really only experience in its fullness by diving in and letting it carry you wherever it goes.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

the pain of gardening

I feel sore all over today. My shoulder aches, my wrist hurts, and even my arm has had better days. My leg is stiff and my back would like to kill me.

I am sore, but it's a good sore.

Yesterday, the girls and I spent a few hours at a garden plot we rent for $15 dollar a year. With the girls' help, over the last two days, I have turned the soil in about half a 20-by-20 plot, dug trenches and piled a hill, gives eleven tomato and three zucchini plants their new homes, and sowed four half-rows of corn.

And when I say that I did this with the girls' help, I am not exaggerating. They didn't do any of the spading, obviously, but they did pitch in at an age-appropriate level. When I pulled weeds out from the soil, they both ran the roots back to the compost pile, and they also disposed of the old sunflower stalks.

And let's not forget their eagerness to help plant the plants we already started. I honestly had to make them take turns digging holes by hand for the zucchini. I'm hoping that this translates into a desire for zucchini later in the summer, or at least into a willingness to eat it.

They've been just as involved in the gardening at home, where a sizeable portion of the yard has been converted to one flower bed after another. This is especially true of the front yard, where I have no fewer than six flower beds, although I'll concede that three of them have run together into one giant spread of color.

Directly in front of the house, running from the stoop on the right to the driveway on the left , is the first bed. This one has an azalea and rhododendron, two peonies, a hibiscus, three ferns, a mass or two of daffodils, and a handful of annuals that this year are sunflowers that Ruthie planted.

On the opposite side of the stoop, running down to the sidewalk, is a gardening bed where I grow my lettuce and some broccoli for easy picking, a strawberry patch that has a few dozen flowers, and a few wildflowers. Evangeline had such a fun time planting annuals with me on Saturday that I let her plant six impatiens of her very own in the back, directly by the stoop.

Next to the sidewalk, one touching the driveway and the other touching the walkway to the stoop, are two triangular beds where I grow daffodils, irises and hyacinths. The flowers on these have died back now, but the area is blanketed with a cover of myrtle.

And smack in the middle of the yard is a raised bed where I grow some mums and whatever annuals we happen to fancy that particular year. This year, the girls chose petunias with three different flower colors and some impatiens. The girls and I spent a nice chunk of last week digging holes all around the front yard for these flowers, and we still have a few other annuals and perennials to find homes for.

I'm telling you, this has been a great springtime for me, and for them. I'm enjoying spending the time with them, and they're not only catching my passion for organic gardening, they're developing a sense of pride and ownership in what we produce. That also will give them a greater appreciation of the environment and a greater connection to the ebb and flow of the seasons and how that affects us.

I feel sore all over today from the work, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Friday, May 05, 2006

poetry reading

Today I spent around 25 minutes at Evangeline's school, reading poetry to seventh- and eighth-graders, as a belated contribution to Read Across America.
If this sounds like a peculiar form of punishment, where both the adult and the children suffer -- the students in hearing poetry, and myself in trying to get them develop an appreciation for it -- I can assure you that it was nothing like that. When I finished the students were more than merely politice in expressing their appreciation. One of them actually came up and asked me the name of a poet whose work I had mentioned but hadn't read.
The trick is all in the approach.
So knowing that most middle-schoolers hate poetry, I started out by talking with them about how awful the stuff is, and assuring them that their teachers make them read it solely because they had to suffer it through themselves back when they were in school, and everyone knows teachers enjoy sharing the pain and misery they endured with their own students. What with the unusual language and sentence structure; the fixation on boring subjects like sunrises, flowers and love; and the glassy-eyed manner it's taught in, poetry is pretty boring -- and that's without evening considering that 99 percent of all poetry is crap.
So then, after we had established that I understand and largely agree with their sentiments on poetry, I asked them what they would think of someone who writes about death, going insane, and being buried alive. Naturally, they were hooked, and listened in rapt attention to Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven." Several of the students even chimed in on the word "Nevermore," which the raven keeps repeating.
After I finished that one, one of the students asked me if there were any poems about war. So I told him about "The Charge of the Light Brigade," some of the poems that emerged from the trenches of World War I, and suggested he do a Google search on poetry and war.
Next I read Robert Frost's "The Road not Taken," and we had a short discussion about the poem and its meaning on the choices we make. After that I suggested that the boys, who were at the age of taking an interest in girls, should try reading some love poetry to girls in an attempt to win their hearts. ("Absolutely guaranteed to work," I said.) And then I told the girls that if they wanted to get rid of a boy, they should read some of the dramatic poetry of William Shakespeare, particular the lines of Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing," since the insults there are enough to get rid of anyone.
I also suggested that if the girls wanted a good laugh at the boys' experience, they should get the boys to read Emily Dickinson. A good number of adolescent boys get their first crush on Dickinson, even though she's been dead 150 years or so.
For the last poem, I gave them a choice of T.S. Eliott's "The Hollow Men" or a poem about the end of the world. Naturally, they all thought a poem about the end of the world was a good idea, so I read Frost's "Fire and Ice."
My closing remarks were the clincher for at least one reader. I suggested that if they wanted to read a real freaky poem about dead men coming back to life and sailing a ship, and about waking nightmares placing bets on a man's soul, then they should read Samuel Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." One of the boys came up afterward and wanted to know more about it, so I think he's intrigued. Who knows?
So, chalk one up for the poets. When I started out the reading, the kids all agreed that they hated poetry. At worst, I didn't turn anyone off to poetry who had an interest. It looks instead like I might have got a child or two interested.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Evangeline officially became a Daisy Scout today.

Daisy Troop 112 started meeting about six weeks ago at the charter school Evangeline attends. Today, at the troop's third meeting, we held the investiture ceremony where the girls recite the Girl Scout Promise for the first time, and receive their Daisy pins.

It was a nice experience for the girls, I guess, though I was disappointed at the low turnout: Of the nine girls who enrolled, only four showed up, and one of them was a half-hour late. Worse, two of the girls who were on time are daughters of the troop leaders.

The meeting ran smoothly enough. Evangeline suggested a song to add to the startup ritual, and I came up with one for the end, and in-between we had the investiture ceremony and played a game to teach the girls the Spanish words for their body parts.

We're starting to get the hang of it, and we're planning a few activities for the next few months, including into the summer, when the girls will be Brownies.

Rachel enjoys the meetings too, and obviously thinks of herself as a Daisy Scout. We let her think so; really, I think we encourage it, since she takes part in all the activities and even got a Daisy pin today.

Potentially upcoming activities include tours of the library, the Police Department, Mayor's Office, a local McDonald's and a visit to a nature preserve this July.

No trips to Savannah in the pipeline yet, although I understand every Girl Scout is required to make that pilgrimage at least once.

after the meeting

After the meeting, I feel like my head will explode.
The change is not quite sudden, but it is dramatic. During the meeting, I'm all energy. I'm cracking jokes, engaging a small troop of Daisy Scouts, riffing off what they say, reminding them to take care of their Daisy badges and not treat them like cheap costume jewelry, and bearing their disruptive silliness with good grace. I'm in my zone and feeling heat. It's a good, euphoric place to be.
The meeting ends at 5:15 p.m. The last Scout not directly related to the troop leaders has gone, and now we're bustling our own children to the cars and getting ready to go. We're off to the supermarket. It's time for a quick jaunt through the aisles to get what we need for dinner, preferably ready made and healthy. Corn on the cob. Roast chicken. For tomorrow, a yellow squash, zucchini and some pasta.
By the time we get home, the girls' chatter has gone from entertaining to grating, but they haven't changed. My skin crawls at their antics, and my spirit groans at the attitude I see myself harboring. I manage -- barely -- to avoid telling them to watch a video while I get dinner ready, but I still get snippy and surly with them over their attempts to be funny, to ask me questions, to be involved.
What happened to the wild and crazy Scout leader who was there an hour ago? Is there something wrong with the stuff I've been eating lately? There has been an awful lot of sugar, is that throwing off my moods? Am I facing depression? Am I tired? Stressed? Pressured?
It isn't right. The girls deserve better than this.

i'm back

After about two months of limited e-mail access, it looks like I'm back in the game.
Back in March, I started having trouble sending e-mail. I could receive it all right, but sending it kept generating an error. I figured at first that it was a technical glitch and would go away in time. It didn't, and about a week ago, even webmail stopped working. I began to suspect a virus was to blame.
Lo and behold, it now appears that the perfidy keeping me from full e-mail access is nothing more than increased security at the university regarding who uses their Internet servers. Natasha, who gets us free dial-up Internet access through her job at the university, had got an e-mail about back when the problem started but didn't see the relevance, since she does most of her e-mail at work. She only put the pieces together a couple days ago, when I remarked in some detail about the frustrations of not being able to use e-mail any more. (Yes, it really can take a while for something to aggravate me substantially, especially when my daily life doesn't depend on it.)
So today Natasha sent me the e-mail, which contains information on how to update the security stuff in Outlook Express. I read it, made a few changes, and voila, I'm back in the game.
This explains why my blog updates have been so few and far between of late. I prefer to update via e-mail, a much faster and easier method than the WYSIWYG interface.