10 December 2009

Review: Rob Bell's Drops like Stars Tour, Nashville, TN

Jenny and I joined four of our friends from the Bethpage Church at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville Wednesday night to see Rob Bell, one of the few American pastors who can "tour" 1,000-seat theaters to promote a book in this day and age.

If you've seen Bell's "Nooma" videos, or you've read some of his books, you know what to expect. I've always been drawn to his intellectualism--his 'Everything is Spiritual' tour really spoke to me with its incorporation of physics and extra-dimensionality. But what has helped Bell to become one of the most widely recognized voices in Christianity is his embrace of 21st-century media.

I don't know of any channel where I can watch his sermon's every week. I do know that four or five times a year, NOOMA integrates a sermon into a compelling film which is then circulated among churches and Sunday schools of all denominational stripes--for those of you who don't know Nooma, it's basically a sermon delivered over a cool soundtrack, highlighted by a well-filmed backstory that elaborates on the sermon's themes.

Bell is media; he is message--and he integrates both sensationally.

In Drops like Stars, Bell tackles the thorniest of theological issues: suffering. It seems like a reach. It is one of the most written-about themes in Christian literature, from the book of Job to Bonhoeffer to Phillip Yancey's recent addition to this ouvre, Where is God when it Hurts. Bell's take isn't to reach for the big answers, but tries to propose a new context to suffering--to ask new questions about what suffering can accomplish in the believer's life--rather than why it occurred in the first place. Not "Why This?" as Bell puts it, but "What Now?"

I liked this approach. It testifies to Bell's creativity--his live presentation is a feast of the senses, something that evokes his fascination with music, art, film, and all manners of the creative process. It provides hope for all of us--not hope in a world free of suffering, but of hope in a community in which our own suffering, along with the shared suffering of those around us, spurs us to find more in ourselves than we ever would have expected.

While he used a host of well-chosen anecdotes about everything from Pope John to the Will Farrell movie, Old School, his message was grounded in solid biblical principles: Paul's exhortation to the Corinthians that he and his evangelizing companions had been "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything" (2 Cor 6.10); Jesus' tale of the prodigal son.

I especially appreciated his meditation on the cross--the ultimate sign of suffering in Jesus' day. When Christians wear this--when we display it in our churches--we are saying, "I embrace suffering: I adore the man who suffered here; I am an instrument to embrace those who suffer around me."

How I wished Bell had gone on. The presentation lasted a solid two hours, yet it opened up so many more areas of the Bible for me. The Beatitudes call us "blessed" when we suffer, when we are poor, when we are meek. They embraced suffering two years before the Cross, and they prescribe a fair amount of suffering for those who choose to follow Christ.

Perhaps true suffering is where real Christianity begins and all the fake forms of the religion evaporate. The Prosperity Gospel, the Medieval crusades, inquisitions, premillenial and hellfire-and-brimstone brands of Christianity go to great lengths to either ignore suffering that goes on in the present or contribute greatly to it.

I can't wrap up this review without commenting on the media. In his "Everything..." tour, Bell had used a whiteboard, which he had filled over the course of the sermon with illustrations of the theories he was describing. The "Drops..." presentation was far more media-driven.

Early in his sermon, Bell said, "Someone tweeted before we started that he had the worst seats in the house, and from the picture he posted, he was somewhere up there." He pointed to the upper balcony, high above where Jenny and I were sitting in the front. A guy waved his hands.

"Come on down," Bell said, pointing to two empty seats on the front row of the floor.

"I want a better seat, too," a female voice cried from another side of the balcony.

"Bring her with you," Bell said. I was amazed that he would have been checking his Twitter so close to the presentation.

As Bell spoke, there was a huge screen on the stage. At several points of the presentation, Bell interacted with the image on the screen--standing in the middle of a pictured hospital hallway, for example, and walking from door to door. At other times the screen showed texts, quotes and video. I thought he used the illustrations in a unique way, interacting with them, using them as powerful parts of his stories.

He also used a couple of kinesthetic tricks that appealed to the teacher in me. He gave each member of the audience a bar of soap. Then he demonstrated photos of images that sculptors had found within similar bars of soap--this is a great technique, and I plan to use it when I teach Greece and Rome. However, there wasn't anything to carve the soap with, and onlookers were merely encouraged to take the soap home...and...carve away.

The second stunt was better. When we suffer we identify with others who are suffering. Bell described how an injury to his writing hand had provided him with empathy for all who are injured. He had us write, "I know how you feel," with our non-writing hand. Then he asked everyone for whom cancer had impacted to stand. They exchanged cards. He did this with those suffering from addictions, those struggling to pay bills, several other scenarios, and the room was filled with empathy as cards were exchanged. We knew how others felt. It was a cool display.

There were a few things about the presentation that are unique to Rob Bell (I'm not sure why this is part of his style, but I noted them).

He didn't cite scripture. He used scripture, but you would need a concordance to figure out which ones. "Jesus tells a story about a man with two sons" is how he begins the story of the Prodigal Son. "A man named Paul once said" was the prelude to the text to 2 Corinthians 6.10. I'm assuming that he's used to talking to unchurched people like this, but I--a rather overchurched person--found it difficult to follow along sometimes.

Comparing notes with Jenny after the service, it was interesting how our differences had affected what we had seen. Jenny is really going through a challenging time at the clinic now, and she encounters tremendous suffering on a daily basis in the stories of her patients. She really identified with Bell's message. Admittedly I am not as emotional as Jenny, and I didn't feel as blessed, although I picked up some great ideas and some fuel for further Bible study.

In my opinion, Drops like Stars stretches the media in creative, unpredictable new ways, but it didn't feed my mind and my spirit in the ways I have seen other messages do.

09 December 2009

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, the Birth of What?

I'm preparing a lesson on Randall Jarrell's classic World War II poem.

As so often happens, I've found something new; something that I hadn't noticed before; something I wanted to share with you.

From my mothers' sleep I feel into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

I have always recognized the caustic reference to the State and the ultimate sacrifice it demanded.

For some reason, I have always missed the imagery. "Mother's sleep," "hunched in its belly," and "loosed from its dream of life" are all images of pregnancy and childbirth. Now that I think about it, the ball turret rests on the belly of a B17 much like that of a fetus, hovering innocently "six miles from earth."

So what happens? There is "black flak" and "nightmare fighters." The child awakens to the weapons of death.

It's an abortion that Jarrell is describing, isn't it? Read the last line again. It's an abortion.

Why didn't I understand that before?

30 November 2009

A Long Distance Merry Christmas from Grandpa

I must admit that the Christmas Season hasn't caught on with me yet. We had a great Advent service at church this week. I hear Christmas carols every time I turn on the car radio--and I don't turn them off as I did before Thanksgiving.

Today I even took my mandolin out in the hall at school, but all I could play was "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." Is that even a Christmas song? It certainly didn't feel that way.

I have been busy with Christmas things--picking out gifts, preparing Christmas cards. That's all on pace (or ahead of pace). One project I took up was scanning in my Grandpa's war letters. Between December of 1941 and September of 1943, he sent my Grandma hundreds of letters and telegrams, sometimes twice a day. She saved every one.

Tonight I was scanning letters from their first Christmas apart. I found this handwritten letter, and I just want to share it. Those of you who knew Grandpa and loved him like I do, will quickly recognize him and miss him all the more (he died three years ago).

Modoc, Cal.
Christmas Eve --'41

My dearest Elinor,

This is a little note to tell you that I still love you very much and that I will be home tonight. It was impossible for me to make any arrangements to come during the daytime. I will be lucky if I get in much earlier than we did the last time. The boy that drove the car in is Liutenant Binkley, the new medical officer. He knows Dybby quite well from the Hollywood Hospital.

I hope you are having a better X-mas Eve than we are. We are having another terrific sandstorm here, with the tent practically being blown away. Since you are not with me, it makes little difference what the weather is. We did have 3 wonderful days together, and will have many more.

I was glad to get Lt. Binkley to drive the car in tonight, because of the danger of the car freezing up out here. I will have a few hours in the morning to rush up to March Field again to transact some very necessary business.

I hope you had a pleasant and grand time on X-mas Eve and day. I am sorry that world events prevented our being together this year. Better luck next year, Babe!

Well, Elinor, be nice. I will be home tonight (Christmas night). Hope you are well and happy.----

Mucho Love o -----------Al

Those of you who don't know him will recognize in his spirit a little glimmer of Christmas. I know that when I lived far away from Tennessee, how fond I was of the song, "I'll Be Home for Christmas." Perhaps we will all realize how fortunate we are, thanks to the effort--ages ago--of men like Lieutenant Albert G. Dittes.

A few notes.
1. From the tone of the letter, Grandpa will come down to Glendale (where Grandma lived) on Christmas Day. I checked on the maps. Modoc is almost 700 miles away from Glendale, up in the northeastern corner of California, near the borders of Oregon and Nevada. That must have been quite a trip in the days before interstate highways.
2. I'll check with Grandma about the details of this visit. If you want to see why Grandpa was so lovesick, just look at her!
3. I got these letters before Grandpa passed away, and I remember asking him, "Why did you tell Grandma, 'Be nice!' Did you think she every wouldn't?" Grandpa just gave me a funny grin, and I realized that he couldn't help teasing her--even from hundreds of miles away.

15 October 2009

Priestly Inheritance: Final Thoughts on the Life of Aaron

The life of Aaron has taken me on a fascinating course through the Bible—it has opened many chapters to me (particularly in Numbers and Leviticus) that had previously been closed. It has given me new insights into the story of historic Israel, it has been a revelation about my role within my own family as a father.

There are just a few chapters left to reveal about this fascinating man and his descendants.

God's Gift to Aaron

I have already written about Aaron's death upon Mount Hor. I want to close with God's blessing of Aaron, found in Numbers 18. This follows quickly after Aaron's rod had bloomed, confirming his ordination as Father of Israel.

God begins by reminding Aaron of his sacred obligation. "You, your sons and your father's family are to bear the responsibility for offenses against the sanctuary" (Numbers 18.1). One can read echoes of Nadab's ecstasy in these lines. "But only you and your sons may serve as priests in connection with everything at the altar and inside the curtain" (verse 7).

With this prologue out of the way, God's graciousness shines through. He had given Aaron God's own children to father—and Aaron had kept the faith. The oil on his head must have burned at the sight of his fallen sons—he must have felt so tempted to rip apart his holy garments and throw off the headplate and breastplate of the people. He had remained silent. He had remained the ordained father of all.

"I am giving you the service of the priesthood as a gift," God says, "I myself have put you in charge of the offerings presented to me; all the holy offerings the Israelites give me I give to you and your sons as your portion and regular share. You are to have the part of the most holy offerings that is kept from the fire" (Nm 18. 7-9).

God goes on to list the gifts: the finest olive oil, the new wine and grain, "all the land's firstfruits…everything in Israel that its devoted to the Lord is yours" (verses 13-14). In fact, Aaron as father will receive the "first offspring of every womb" or rather he must "redeem" them with a price of five shekels of silver. Basically, God is not only telling Aaron that "everything I have is yours," but he is also admitting that "everything I get is yours, too."

This isn't meant to make Aaron rich. He will have enough. His wealth won't be measured in shekels or property—in fact he and his sons are directed to own no property—"you will have no inheritance in [my children's] land, nor will you have any share among them" (Nm 18.20). But in a promise that is breathtakingly generous and loving, God promises something beyond riches:

"I am your share and your inheritance among the Israelites" (Nm 18.20).

Notice the use of the words, "I am," to begin the promise. They are the same words from the Burning Bush. Aaron might have remembered this promise and translated slightly, "God is my share and my inheritance."

This would become Jesus' theme in the New Testament, too. He counseled his followers to keep very little property. Their "inheritance" would be eternal life: "The the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world" (Matthew 25.34).

When I think if my kids, I see how fatherhood changed my priorities. I spent money—and saved it—in far different ways than I had before they were born. More importantly the inheritance I sought—the legacy I wished for—became inextricably caught up in them. Their success became my "share," their future became my "legacy." I wasn't judged any more on my performance as a teacher or a writer—I would succeed or fail through them.

It's a tough order, I have to say, being a father. That's one thing Aaron teaches me again and again and again.

That Inheritance Thing

The seventh chapter of the Book of Ezra begins with a list of Ezra's ancestors

After these things, during the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra son of Seraiah, the son of Azaraiah, the son of Hilkiah, the son of Shallum, the son of Zado, the son of Ahitub, the son of Amariah, the son of Azariah, the son of Meraioth, the son of Zerahiah, the son of Uzzi, the son of Bukki, the son of Abishua, the son of Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the chief priest—this Ezra came up from Babylon. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given (verses 1-6).

In this important moment of Jewish history, Ezra takes time out to identify his place in God's plan for Israel. He is a descendant of Aaron—but he is not high priest. That role belongs to his brother, Joshua (an account of their father, Seraiah's capture by Nebuchadnezzar can be found in 2 Kings 25:18). No, Ezra sees himself in the role of Moses, dispensing the law and almost single-handedly rescuing the Jewish faith. He rebuilds the law and the scriptures in the same way that Nehemiah rebuilds the walls and the temple. His reforms are effective. Judah never turns to idols again after Ezra, as they had done so often before the Exile.

The restored priesthood would endure in Israel four another 300 years, until the time of the Arch-Villain, Antiochus (IV) Epiphanes, who would interrupt temple services in a vain attempt to Hellenize Judea. Aaron's descendant, Onais III, would prove to be the last of the Aaronic line to serve as high priest. He was removed by Antiochus in 175 and subsequently murdered in 170. The two men who followed Onais were named Menelaus and Jason. These are Greek names and certain signs of efforts to install government-friendly high priests. (Having high priests named Menelaus and Jason would be equivalent of having a Pope named Abdullah or Siddhartha.) The high priesthood of Aaron's line lasted over 1,000 years. And it stretched further still.

An Interlude about Moses' Descendants

What about the lineage of Moses? Last Sabbath I was paging through the book of Judges, and I found a reference to Moses's progeny. It's found in one of those "What the….?" sections of Judges, chapters 17 & 18—you know, the ones where terrible deeds seem to go unpunished or noteworthy efforts seem inexplicable to the modern, religious mind.

An Ephriamite named Micah takes 200 shekels of silver and makes an idol. He sets up a shrine, and he hires a young Levite named Jonathan to run the services at the shrine for a sum of ten shekels of silver every year, clothes and food. The shrine draws a regular business of visitors. Micah even says, ironically, "Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, since this Levite has become my priest" (Judges 17.13).

Business goes well at Micah's shrine. A group of Danites arrive to get a blessing for their raid on the Canaanite city of Laish. "Go in peace," Jonathan tells them. "Your journey has the Lord's approval" (18.6). When the raid is successful, the Danites return to Micah's house, take the idols from the shrine, and entice Jonathan to continue his ministry with them.

The story closes with these words,

"There the Danites set up for themselves the idols, and Jonathan son of Gershom, the son of Moses, and his sons were priests for the tribe of Dan until the time of the captivity of the land. They continued to use the idols Micah had made, all the time the house of God was in Shiloh" (Judges 18.30-31)

True, Aaron's sons are struck down before his eyes. But his descendants ministered in Shiloh and Jerusalem (and Babylon and Persia) for almost 1,300 years. Moses's descendants ministered before idols in Dan for 600 years, or until the time of the captivity.

Aaron in the New Testament

So what happened to Aaron, then? How could the first ordained leader of Israel be a mere footnote—a cautionary tale—for modern Bible readers? His legacy stretched longer than David's, and his descendants' loyalty seldom wavered.

Most sources give Ezra credit for setting up the Great Assembly, a body of priests who would arbitrate Jewish law after the exile. In Christ's day, this body would be known as the Sanhedrin—the very group that accused Jesus of terrorism and begged Pilate for a death warrant. I know of no evidence that Annas or Caiphas were descendants of Aaron—by that time the position of High Priest was based on political considerations not lineage—but this connection would still be a painful reminder to writers of the New Testament nonetheless.

Another group within the Sanhedrin also had a strong connection to Aaron's lineage. As I have shown, Ezra traced his heritage through Zadok, King Solomon's high priest. The Zadokites would run the temple until the time of Antiochus (IV) Epiphanes. Some sources I've found say that the group known as the Sadducees were these same Zadokites, again the conservative, priestly ruling class. These, too, were among Christ's sharpest critics.

So Aaron's descendants didn't exactly roll out the welcome mat for Jesus Christ. Perhaps this is why Aaron is so overlooked in by the writer of Hebrews, whose goal was to portray Christ as the high priest for all. But he bypasses the first high priest and places Jesus squarely "in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron" (7.11). It's the only mention of Aaron in the whole book—despite the fact that it covers Christ's duties as our high priest.

Maybe it was the enmity between the first Christians and the last of the Sadducees (who would disappear after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70) that would color the writer's thesis. Maybe it was the New Covenant—the ripped curtain between Holy and Most Holy Place symbolized the end of the high priest's role in spiritual atonement.

05 October 2009

Is the Bible CONSERVATIVE Enough? Let’s make it that way, then

If you're a Conservative, apparently, the Bible has a lot of problems. There's Communism throughout Acts and 2 Corinthians. There is a level of defiance of authority found throughout the gospels. There is unpunished rape in Genesis and Judges. There is also John 3:17.

If you're a Conservative, apparently, this isn't going to stop you. Really, it's an opportunity to reframe these meddlesome texts into something more wholesome. Now, mind you, no Conservative is going to change the Bible, per se. You just want to get rid of Hippie-style translations like the Living Bible, The Message, and the NIV(!).

These are the goals of The Conservative Bible Project, a forum on "Conservapedia—The Trustworthy Encyclopedia" (you have to love the 'truthiness' of that tagline). Citing "liberal bias" as the "single biggest distortion in modern Bible translations" [sic], it sets out a pretty ambitious agenda for bringing the Bible to heel:

  • Raising the reading level from the NIV's 7th-grade level to a language dense enough to impart conservative principles and avoid touchy-feely.
  • Expelling gender inclusive language
  • Minimizing passage in Mark and John where disciples are commended for being "open minded"
  • Bringing out examples of free market principles found in some of Jesus' parables
  • Expunging "liberal" additions such as the story of the woman caught in adultery. This was no doubt added by 4th-century "liberals," right?
  • Hell—get it in there, even when it isn't in there

There are other goals for creating a Conservative Bible, too. When you think about it, there are dozens and dozens of reasons. For example:

  • There is too much socialism, apparently, in modern translations—why is the term, "volunteer" used only once in the ESV, when "comrade," "laborer," "labored," and "fellow" are used 3, 13, 15, and 55 times respectively? What the Bible—and our economy today—really needs is more volunteers.

Is this a liberal addition to Luke 23:34—Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing"? According to the CBP it is, and it is a "favorite of liberals," so there you go.

For would-be translators of the Bible there is not necessarily a need to know Koine Greek or Hebrew, but here is a list of "Conservative words and terms" that you do need to know and that you should use, um, liberally in your translating.

A Conservative-worthy translation of the Bible!!! It's coming online, soon, and no doubt it will have a cool tagline like "The Trustworthy Bible ™" or "Fair and Balanced ™."

By the way, this isn't unique. The King James Version of the Bible was composed in 1616 in part to counter a "liberal" English translation of the Bible—the Geneva Bible which included notes in the text preaching against the evils of kings and potentates. The version of the Lord's Prayer that includes the phrase, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us," is a relic of that translation.

I don't know, the KJV did pretty well. Who knows, 400 years from now our great-great-great-grandchildren will be avoiding the evils of liberalism by logging onto the Internet to read the Liberal Free Version of the Bible.

01 October 2009

High Priest, Father—Same Thing: Thoughts on the Life of Aaron, Part 3

For the past month I have been immersed in the life of Aaron, dynamic leader of Israel, forgotten brother of Moses, the first ordained High Priest. What a wonderful experience this has been, and I have especially enjoyed finding connections between his life—his strengths, his flaws—and my own.

I have looked at God's call to him—which probably preceded his brother's more famous Burning Bush experience—and the central role that he played in the events of Exodus. I have shown him welcomed into the presence of God Almighty, and I have shown the grievous mistakes he made before the Golden Calf and with his sister Miriam's coup against Moses.

At every step of this study I have been blessed by Aaron's example. I have seen in him many of the same frustrations I experience with my Destiny—when my view of myself begins to overshadow God's plans for me as a partner in His greater plan.

This last commentary is most difficult for me to write, then, because it touches on issues most important to me: fatherhood and priesthood. I just can't describe how important each of these roles is to me—and they meet in Aaron; they shine in his greatness and writhe in his weakness. I feel greatly the responsibility I have for raising and educating my kids. I feel deeply the desire to raise them as committed Christians—to consecrate them to God for lives of worship.

When I join Aaron, it is 2nd-greatest moment of his life, the dedication of the Tabernacle—an event that mirrors the dedication of Solomon's Temple 400 years later. As he has been for the past year, Moses is with Aaron, dressing him, giving him words to go out and speak to the people, reviewing the carefully given directions that dictate nearly every move he makes within this holy place.

Moses drapes straps over Aaron's shoulders called ephods. He connects to them a breastplate with twelve stones. On the stones and on the ephods are written twelve names—the names of all God's children. The stones seem to glow—and it's not just the Urim and Thummim, the oracles of God's will—all the stones shine, for today isn't just an ordination of one man by One God. It's an adoption ceremony: God is entrusting his children to Aaron, High Priest, the only God-ordained title that will exist in Israel for the next 400 years, the only dynasty established through covenant with God, one that will last longer than David's line.

But Aaron doesn't know this, not now. He bends forward, and Moses places a turban on his head. At the front of this turban is a plate that reads, "HOLY TO THE LORD." Sashes and tunics complete the outfit, with white undergarments and a blue mantle.

I want to linger on this image of "HOLY TO THE LORD," though. After all this is the high priest's duty, interceding between God's children and their true father, ensuring their holiness through sacrifice and ritual. But it is more than that to me—it is every father's duty, this duty of holiness and sacrifice for the children God has entrusted to him.

Now think upon the breastplate, the glowing Urim/"blessing" or Thummim/"curse" lighting the way. There is a reason these oracles are on the same plate as the names of the Children of God: Aaron has given up his will in order to serve God's will to his children. In this day of ordination, Aaron's mind and his heart will be redirected as he steps into the role of 'Father' to a nation.

God called me a month ago, trapped as I was in a morass of despondency, and He said, "Study the life of Aaron. This is what you are."

And I thought, 'Are you kidding me, Lord? A high priest? An over-reaching second fiddle perhaps.'

But this is what I am—it is what every father is, and Aaron shows the way.

The Ordination

Aaron adjusts the band around his head. The plate is gold. It weighs upon his brow. "Holy is the Lord," he thinks, he feels, he is. As he moves toward the door, he jingles when he walks. These tiny bells are the signal to those outside that Aaron walks with God—that he brings atonement. In later days, when faith waned, a rope would be tied to the priest's ankle. If the bells fell silent, Israel would know that atonement had failed, that their Father was dead. But on this first Day of Atonement, Aaron's bells had a far more inspiring sound: Father is at work, he is gaining atonement for God's children.

Outside the Tabernacle, Moses raises a small jug of oil to the cloud hovering above, then he anoints the Tabernacle and its furnishings. With the last of the oil, he anoints Aaron and his sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, in much the same way that Saul, David and Solomon were later declared kings in Israel.

The sun is higher in the sky now. The ordination continues. A bull shuffles forward. "Place your hands on his head," Moses directs. Aaron and his sons obey. The anointing oil is slowly spreading down the sides of their heads, and they feel the fur of the beast in their palms. Moses explains that all of their sins are flowing out of them into this bull.

The bull bellows. Moses has taken a sword and cut open its neck. Aaron and his sons kneel as the animal falls, unable to pull their hands away. Unsure of what to do next.

They watch as Moses collects the lifeblood in a bowl, anoints the horns of the altar outside the Tabernacle and pours the blood around the base. Now Moses butchers the bull before them, carefully removing only the fat, which sizzles on the altar's fire. The rest of the bull is dragged away.

A second animal, a ram, comes forward. "Place your hands on his head," Moses says again. Again Moses slaughters the beast, but after it is divided it is burned completely on the altar—a burnt offering to the Lord, Moses says.

By my estimation, it has been two or three hours now since Aaron put on the breastplate and the turban. The sun has probably risen close to noonday. A third animal comes forward. This second ram is the sacrifice of ordination. Aaron and his boys place hands on its head. This time, when Moses collects the blood of the slaughtered beast, he touches it to each man's right ear, right thumb, and right big toe—in much the same way, Christ, at his ordination on Calvary, will bleed at his ears (from the crown of thorns), his hands, and his feet. This time, when Moses divides the portions of the ram, most of the meat is set aside for Aaron and his sons to eat (it's quite detailed, and it's found in Leviticus 8.22-29).

A final anointing—this time oil mixed with blood—leaves dull read smears on the sleeves of the consecrated robes worn by Aaron and his boys.

The mood is somber—the bellows of the slaughtered beasts still ring in everyone's ears. Aaron and his sons must be a strange sight with blood dripping from their ear lobes, oil streaks in their hair, and blood stains on their clothes. "What has been done today was commanded by the Lord to make atonement for you," Moses tells them. Now they must wait at the door of the Tabernacle for seven days "and do what the Lord requires, so you will not die; for that is what I have been commanded" (Lv 8.34-35).

I have often heard it said that 'anyone can become a father.' There is no ordination ceremony to prepare a man to take on this role. There is no list of qualifications a man must have to 'fit the bill.' In recent generations, fathers seem almost expendable—as if the "accidents" weren't the unplanned children that are conceived but the dads haplessly trying to blend a lack of commitment with fatherhood. As society's emphasis of the holiness and exclusiveness of sexuality diminishes, the responsibility and exclusiveness of the father in the family diminishes, too.

Maybe fatherhood would regain some of its luster if it were ordained—as Aaron's fatherhood was ordained in Leviticus 8. What if men had to give up sinfulness in order to hold that precious baby at the mother's bedside? What if men sacrificed something precious to God in order to bring baby and mama home from the hospital? What if men entered fatherhood with the blood of ordination on their ear lobes, their thumbs, their toes?

Bringing a baby into the world involves pain and sacrifice on the part of the mother, after all. When my children came into the world, I supported Jenny as best I could, coaching her to breathe, letting her fingers dig into my hands with every painful contraction.

I made sacrifices, too. After Ellie was born, I gave up a part-time job as a journalist. After Owen was born, our dog, Hero—the "firstborn" animal of our marriage—died. After Jonah was born, my career goals in nonprofit administration were shelved. I know a little of what it means to sacrifice for a child, but I know nothing of ordination.

Yet well I know of the effects that my sins have upon my children. They are mirrors of my 'holiness,' and they reflect my sinfulness as well—my occasional bouts with anger or frustration, those times when "For the Holiness of the Lord" is clearly absent from my forehead, even the sins I think no one will notice, these are often reflected in Owen's own tantrums, Jonah's petulance or Ellie herself shutting herself off away from the family.

For seven days, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar wait at the entrance to the tabernacle. The Bible doesn't say what they do. They eat food from the sacrifices. They pray. They certainly don't go inside. They wait at the door and do "everything the Lord commanded through Moses" (Lv 8.36). Hadn't God said, "You will die," if they didn't follow Moses's explicit instructions?

The Greatest Day

On the eighth day of their sojourn, Moses returns. It is time for more sin offerings, only, this time Aaron and his sons will carry out the rites—as their ancestors will do for another thousand years. "This is what the Lord has commanded you to do," Moses tells his brother, nephews and all the Israelites assembled before them, "so that the glory of the Lord may appear to you" (Lv 9.6).

(In much the same way, Jesus will pray on the night before his crucifixion, "Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you" (John 17.1). The symbolism of crucifixion was purposefully intertwined with the act of ordination. While I doubt the Romans realized what they were doing at the time, the writers of the gospels certainly understood.)

Now Aaron slaughters a calf, another sin offering for himself. Now Aaron slaughters a ram, a burnt offering for the people. Now Aaron kills a goat, a sin offering for the people. It is Aaron who touches the horns of the altar with the blood of sacrifice. It is Aaron who places the approved parts of the butchered animals on the fire. His sons assist him. "His sons handed him the blood, and he sprinkled it against the altar on all sides," the Bible says, "They handed him the burnt offering piece by piece" (Lv 9.12-13).

The ceremony builds to its climax. There is no doubt, this is the most significant religious event in the Bible. It is covered twice in the Pentatuch, Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8 and 9. In brilliance, significance and meaning, it far outpaces the dedication of Solomon's Temple in 2 Chronicles 3-7.

After the rites have been performed successfully, Aaron raises his hands in blessing. The crowd of Israelites—the entire nation—falls silent as he utters these immortal words:

The Lord bless you and keep you;

The Lord make his face shine upon you

And be gracious to you;

The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace (Numbers 6.24-26)

The people shout for joy. They are united, they are one—just as God is One. A few minutes later, however, fire pours out of the sky and consumes the offerings roasting on the altar. Everybody ducks. Everyone falls to their knees. A few minutes later, they will rise—in reverence this time—and continue the festival. It is important to remember that in a culture of poverty and nomadism as Israel faced in Sinai, religious sacrifices coincide with the few times each year that people had meat to eat. Their tummies were as satisfied as their hearts.

The blessing is an important part of fatherhood. I've learned that my kids have ways of meeting the goals that I use to bless them. As I walked Jonah to the bus this morning, I blessed him: "May you listen to your teacher and find ways to help her." I've been repeating that blessing (or some form of it) for weeks now, and he has now started to get his behavior under control.

I bless Ellie, and I tell her, "You can be anything you want to be in life, as long as it's a writer." What does she do? She gets onto the NYU web site and outlines her college major (magazine writing) and minor. My children's blessings are limited only by what I'm willing to wish upon them.

That's how powerful the fatherhood/priesthood is.

Do father's bless their children? Do we share with them our fondest hopes or how we have tried to overcome our darkest fears? Do we put our hands on them—I usually touch my sons' chests when I bless them—and confer our wishes and God's wishes upon them? "I bless you, my son, my daughter." Those are powerful words, even today.

This would be a great place to stop—with Aaron the father of Israel, with people rejoicing, eating, partying. It's like the Norman Rockwell painting of the father cutting the Thanksgiving turkey with eager, happy faces of his family looking on. This is the kind of priest I could be: happy and fat, blessing not cursing. But Aaron has a dual role now. He is the God-ordained father of Israel; he is also the father of four boys. These roles will come into conflict immediately.

Nadab & Abihu

In the excitement of the moment—the sound of their father's blessing, the roar of the crowd, the heat of the heavenly fire—Nadab and Abihu enter the highest form of ecstasy. Maybe the seven days of waiting at the door of the Tabernacle has caused this, I don't know. They grab their priestly censors, light the incense, and rush into the Holy Place to offer praise (Leviticus 10.8-9 indicates they may have been drunk). Fire comes down again—or maybe it emits from the Most Holy Place, the Bible just says that "fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord" (Lv 10.2).

Uncle Moses rushes to the scene. He seems heartless. He quotes a previous law, "Among those who approach me I will show myself holy…I will be honored" (Lv 10.3). The specific instructions—the laws upon which Aaron and his sons had meditated for seven days at the Tabernacle door—had said that priests could offer incense only at dawn and dusk (Exodus 30.9).

Nadab, in his ecstasy, had forgotten the rule. Abihu, in his enthusiasm, had misjudged the holiness of the Lord. These two young men, who had only weeks before had seen God and feasted in his presence, had "offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command," and were dead (Exodus 24.9-10, Leviticus 10.1).

What is Aaron to do? Is he going to be a father (of Nadab and Abihu), or is he going to be a father (of Israel)? I'm sure he's heartbroken, seeing his two oldest sons lying dead in the Tabernacle. I'm sure he may even be angry—at them, at his brother, at God.

"Oh my precious sons," I hear him say, "Oh dear Nadab, oh sweet Abihu, oh what could have happened?" Aaron longs to weep, to tear his clothes.

Uncle Moses summons two cousins to carry the body outside the camp. (He gives no directions to bury the bodies.) He tells Aaron that he may not mourn.

"Do not let your hair become unkempt, and do not tear your clothes, or you will die and the Lord will be angry with the whole community…. Do not leave the entrance to the Tent of Meeting or you will die, because the Lord's anointing oil is on you" (Leviticus 10.6-7)

What a dilemma! Ordained by God, Aaron's sons are…not his sons. The people are his sons and daughters. With the anointing oil upon him, with the names of God's children upon his breastplate, Aaron must remember that he serves a greater family now—that his every action conveys God to God's children. No child of Aaron's is greater than every child of God.

Aaron utters not a word. He obeys. He waits at the Tabernacle and lets his family mourn these two, precious boys of his.

Moses seems heartless to me in this episode. Twice (in verses 12 and 16) he uses the words "remaining sons" in his directions to Aaron, twisting the knife of heartache even deeper. I mean, if one of my children died, would I ever want to hear the words, "remaining children"? No way!

Moses even finds another part of the law that Eleazar and Ithamar have violated. They had burned the whole goat instead of eating its meat at the door of the Tabernacle. This time Aaron intercedes. "Such things have happened to me," he begs (I imagine a little desperation in his voice). Moses backs off. There is enough suffering in the Aaron family for this day.

This is where Aaron continues to get back to me. Aaron is a man of greatness, not a man of Destiny. It seems that every time he gets close to the brass ring, he gets stricken. Days after he reclines on the slopes of Sinai in the presence of God, he finds himself setting up an altar to the Golden Calf. No sooner has his staff bloomed with roses than his sister, Miriam, dies. This is the greatest blow of all: the cheers of a thousand blessed Israelites are silenced by the sounds of his sons' lifeless bodies hitting the floor of the Tabernacle.

This is a sacrifice too great—far too great for most men. In becoming a father to a nation, Aaron loses his sons. It's ironic, isn't it? I'm not saying that this is a quid pro quo. The Bible places the blame on the boys themselves for breaking rules they had meditated upon for seven consecutive days. This is a great loss—but a much greater gain.

As I reflect on fatherhood, I wonder again what one gives up to father a child given by God. Fatherhood isn't an addition—adding another room to the house, adding a bed to the room, etc. It is an upheaval that rightly establishes new precedents and extinguishes old priorities. This makes me want to review my life now—and wonder about the time when my kids were born. What changed? What was lost? How has my responsibility grown?

Am I strong enough to see the bigger picture? Or do I want to pull out my hair and tear my clothes at the loss of professional advancement, pleasures (Cincinnati Reds baseball and backpacking for me), and freedom?

Am I burdened…or blessed? Am I harried…or kept?

Do I stumble in darkness…or is something greater shining on me?

Is God gracious?

Do I see the loss, or do I see God's face smiling upon me? Do I feed the chaos of parenthood or sense the peace?

That's what Aaron makes me wonder. That's what his priesthood makes me feel.

I keep thinking this series will wrap up, but there's more. I'll put it together this weekend in Part 4.

Laughing at Dads

We stayed home from church last night to care for Owen. This gave me a chance to rest—I've been busy every night with meetings and movings it seems—and to check out some of the new fall shows on TV.

One of my big pet peeves is the way dads are portrayed on sitcoms. It bugged me back when I was a kid, watching the hapless Mr. Keaton on my favorite show, Family Ties, stutter and bumble his way through situations, consistently outsmarted by his teens or his wife. It really bugs me now when I see the way Disney Channel divas talk to their dads—or those who apparently don't have dads at all like Sonny with a Chance. What's going on there?

Last night I caught two new sitcoms: Hank and Modern Family.

My one word review of Hank is this: "Crickets." I didn't laugh a single time. Huh? I liked Kelsey Grammar in Cheers and Frasier, but his character is woefully unprepared for fatherhood. Did anyone ever think, "Wouldn't Frasier make a great dad?" Never. Instead the comedy was high-brow, and the writing and acting was top-notch. Hank has a great concept—a dad is downsized and forced to move from Manhattan to small-town Virginia. I didn't stick around to the end, and I just turned it off.

Modern Family, on the other hand, had me rolling on the floor with a busted gut. The quartet of dads on this show are flawlessly acted. They are very human—and very, very hilarious. The show is shot mockumentary-style, so there are plenty of uncomfortable looks at the camera and uncomfortable pauses to bring out the humor. Only, this is funnier than The Office, in my opinion, and I'm a big Office fan.

A few highlights:

  • Cameron trying to dance like a "straight dad" at Lila's play date
  • The look on Phil's face when the sexy, next-door divorcee returns his bike, says to him and his wife, Claire, "They put this in my garage while you were climbing in my bedroom window."
  • Anything that follows the words, "We have a saying in Colombia…" Trust me, it's funny.

26 September 2009

Do Things Really Change?

I'm not opposed to the "race mixing" that has everyone stirred up in the first picture above, so I guess it's not surprising that I'm juxtaposing pictures of angry white protesters fifty years apart.

This is the way I break it down:
  • The ideas: pretty much the same--reactionary to the Nth degree
  • The logic: "Change is Communism," "Change is Socialism," "People who bring change are the Antichrist." 1959 = 2009
  • The anger: I think it was probably worse in the 1950s
  • The handwriting: better in the 1950s
  • The spelling: the unfortunate spelling of "Public Option" might be a Freudian slip, I don't know. It was probably better in the 1950s.
  • The use of the word, "NO:" better and more comprehensive in '09.

21 September 2009

Pump Up the Outrage

Great comparison in the New York Times this week about the connection between Gangsta Rappers and Talk Show hosts.

Segal, an admitted Gangsta Rap fan, sees four connections between the diametrically opposite entertainment genres:

Ego, Feud, Haters, and creative Verbal Skills.

I'll look forward to his follow-up article on how rap concerts are similar to Tea Parties;)

18 September 2009

Mankind is … some metaphors

From a recent assignment on metaphors, I culled the following comparisons:

  • "Mankind is a busy ant hill that has no fear of being stepped on."
  • "Mankind is Kanye West."
  • "[Mankind is] a llama."

It's great to teach such deep—and weird—thinkers.

Health Care Access: More deaths than Murder & Drunk Driving Combined?

That's what the latest Harvard Medical School study says, placing the figure at 45,000 preventable deaths a year.

Great quote: "For any doctor ... it's completely a no-brainer that people who can't get health care are going to die more from the kinds of things that health care is supposed to prevent," Dr. Steffie Woolhander, HMS faculty member and Cambridge, MA, physician.

Most studies I have seen have put the number at half this number—still an alarming number. I'm not sure that I'm entirely convinced by this study's numbers.

But the fact is that a massive gap in America's health care system affects all of us. As we're finding with H1N1, we're not immune to disease just because most of us can go to a doctor. Untreated illnesses are catastrophic for those who die—or the 700,000 Americans a year who are bankrupted by health care costs. They are also dangerous for those of us who are immunized, treated, and healthy—for now.

17 September 2009

Improvements to Moby Dick (As If)

Eighteen months ago my principal and English department head conspired to do something that would shake my teaching to the core: for the first time in 12 years of teaching, they assigned me to teach 11th-grade American Literature.

It seems strange that it took me 12 years to get to this point. I had always considered myself a "Brit Lit" kind of guy, having studied for a year in England, and I enjoyed the basic essay-writing skills taught in 9th and 10th grade. I really didn't care to teach American Lit—until I had to care.

What was I to do? I took on the task with gusto. Soon my love for American history and my passion for my country was pouring out. I was reading great American books for the first time like The Great Gatsby, Walden, and Moby Dick (What took me so long? The education I received in American literature had been far inferior to that I received in the Brits. Enough said.) I even made Moby Dick the theme of a Summer Road Trip in 2008 to Plymouth and New Bedford, Massachusetts.

This week has been "Whaling Week" in my English 11 standard class. Today we capped off the week with the conclusion to Moby Dick, an 8-page excerpt of the chapter, "The Chase—Third Day" in our textbook. Melville has always been tough—and unpopular. Why else would an English major like me have avoided it for 20 years? But Moby Dick is worth the effort. In plot, characterization and philosophy, it is unequaled in Ame

rican literature. I think it's a lot like The Odyssey or The Bible: its meaning and impact get greater every new time you read it. I remember getting to page 450 in my first read and realizing, "I'm going to have to read it again to really, really get it." And you know what? I wanted to do it.

That's not to say that standard-level English students will feel the same way. That's why I break the Moby Dick lesson down to two days—and I precede it with a day reading non-fiction excerpts from In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, the real-life whaling story upon which Melville based his novel, and watching a video. I have a scale model of a harpoon in the class. This year I even had these landlubber students of mine practice knot-tying. By the time we started they were ready.

I read the first excerpt, from The Quarterdeck, out loud, pausing to help students wade through the language. I give voices to all the characters—Ahab always has a really raspy, "pirate" voice—and I try to do a little acting and add some sound effects. By the end of this reading, the kids have a vivid view of Ahab: god-drunk with hubris, exhorting the men, "Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!" Truly, the only other character I can compare to Melville's Captain Ahab is Shakespeare's Richard III.

And the comparison doesn't end there.

On the 2nd day of the reading, I have arranged a choral reading. I have highlighted the parts of Ahab, Stubb and Starbuck. Students read these from the front as I read the non-dialogue parts. This year I added sound effects. A student at my computer played sea waves, bird calls, hammer sounds—even the theme to Jaws during the bits where the whale is bearing down on boats or The Pequod.

Did it work? I think it did. It was clear to the kids what had happened to Ahab—and to the whale. More importantly, I had many more kids taking part in the reading. I felt that it held their attention.

But as I read it aloud, one name kept coming back to me: William Shakespeare.

When I hear Moby Dick read out loud, I hear Shakespeare. I mean it. I'm here to say that Herman Melville is the closest American writer to Shakespeare's characterization and his cadences.

Consider two of the sections I read today. First, Starbuck's growing awareness that death lurks as he sees Ahab row away from the ship a final time:

Heart of wrought steel! Canst thou yet ring boldly to that sight?—lowering thy keel among ravening sharks, and followed by them, open-mouthed to the chase; and this the critical third day…? Oh! My God! What is this that shoots through me, and leaves me so deadly calm, yet expectant—fixed at the top of a shudder! Future things swim before me, as in empty outlines and skeletons; all the past is somehow grown dim. Mary, girl; thou fadest in pale glories behind me; boy! I seem to see but thy eyes grown wondrous blue. Strangest problems of life seem clearing; but clouds sweep between—Is my journey's end coming?

Aside from the brilliant image that is caught, "fixed at the top of a shudder," this is a heartbreaking line. If it were performed on a stage, even a middling actor could wring tears from an audience. It's almost better when it is spoken than read. Maybe that's why Moby Dick was considered a failure after it was published. Maybe that's why no one "got" Moby Dick until America's primitive movie industry put it on a screen in 1926, over 30 years after America's Shakespeare had died in obscurity.

When you hear it, you know.

When you read Moby Dick, it is easy to get bogged down. Every chapter of plot is followed by highly symbolic, highly philosophical treatises on the whaleboat, the line, the whiteness of the whale, etc. This is the stuff that makes the novel great (John Steinbeck uses the same tactic to intertwine the story of the Joads and the Dust Bowl in The Grapes of Wrath). This is what makes the novel worth reading again and again—as we unwind the puzzle of antebellum America Melville has hidden for us.

But the sounds of Moby Dick bring it to life. I want to introduce one more speech—the last words of Captain Ahab. This time I'll break it down to pentameter to see how it works:

I turn my body from the sun. What ho, Tashtego!

Let me hear thy hammer. Oh! ye three

Unsurrendered spires of mine; thou uncracked

Keel; and only god-bullied hull; thou firm

Deck and haughty helm, and Polepointed prow—

Death-glorious ship! Must ye then perish,

And without me? Am I cut off from the last

Fond pride of meanest shipwrecked captains?

Oh, lonely death on lonely life!

Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies

In my topmost grief. Ho, ho! From all

Your furthest bounds, pour ye now in,

Ye bold billows of my whole foregone life,

And top this one piled comber of my death!

Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering

whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's

heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake

I spit my last breath at thee.

Sink all coffins and all hearses to open common pool!

And since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces,

While still chasing thee, though tied to thee,

Thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!

Why didn't I teach American literature until I had been at this twelve years? Maybe I wasn't ready yet.

Why did I teach Shakespeare dozens of times before I taught Melville. I think it's because you have to know one to love the other.

15 September 2009

Teaching Whitman...Like Clipping Grass with Fingernails?

If there’s such a thing as a Rorsach test for English majors, it has to be the poems of Walt Whitman. Every year I face the choice of either trying to create a framework by which students “get” his rambling, free-verse poems, or I skip him. This year in English 11 Honors, I chose the latter, but when rain canceled my exciting “Romantic” walk outdoors, I had to fall back on Whitman.

I decided to focus on metaphor—a real strength of the Romantics. In the first 30 minutes I had introduced the kids to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “giant transparent eyeball.” I had 50 minutes to cover “Leaves of Grass.”

Walt Whitman is one of the messiest writers in American letters: a Romantic’s Romantic, he broke all the rules of writing. He never rhymed. Rather than publishing new works, he simply re-published Leaves of Grass every time he had a new batch of poems to add to it. For the unprepared, his writing is tedious, confusing, totally baffling.

For the English major, the love of Whitman begins with the sound of the ideas spoken aloud. His love of language is ebullient, outrageous. A perfectly good line of poetry is interrupted by onomatopoeia like Ye-Honk or Yawp. Personally, I can’t read it without getting glassy-eyed--that's glassy-eyed in the case of "wow, my mind is really percolating."

I decided to try to rip a chapter from "Dead Poets Society" and see if I could "gut" the Whitman lesson. I figured, if I acted like this was the most incredible poetry ever written, maybe the kids would fall for it. I set up a table to compare the metaphors, then we got into excerpts from "Leaves of Grass."

By the end of the first poem, I thought there was hope. "For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you," Whitman wrote. I made the connection with Transcendentalism. A slam dunk, I thought. I looked up. I saw glassy eyes, but they weren't inspired, they were confused.

To me, Whitman was firing on all cylinders. Who else could turn an everyday hay barn into a playful commentary on death?

The big doors of the country barn stand open and ready;
The dried grass of the harvest-time loads the slow-drawn wagon;
The clear light plays on the brown gray and green intertinged;
The armfuls are pack’d to the sagging mow.
I am there—I help—I came stretch’d atop of the load;
I felt its soft jolts—one leg reclined on the other;
And roll head over heels, and tangle my hair full of wisps.

I point out Dickenson, and I try to contrast Whitman's optimistic view of death with her dark brookings. I feel like I'm firing on all cylinders.

I look out. Students' heads are down. They just aren't getting it. Sigh--or rather YAWP!!! No, that doesn't work either.

Tomorrow is Thoreau. This has been a tough crowd. I need some inspiration--maybe a walk in the woods will help.

12 September 2009

A Nation Tested: Thoughts on Numbers 14

Franklin Roosevelt famously claimed the "freedom from fear" as one of his four freedoms. For a long time I thought that freedom and fear were opposites--that places where freedom existed were those that kept fear out. For example, the fact that I am free to speak and practice my religion in America gives me an absence of fear for being imprisoned or persecuted for my opinions and beliefs.

But I am beginning to see a stronger antonym to fear. Freedom is a chain-link fence when it comes to fear. Freedom is a word I associate with my marriage, my kids, my relationship to God, but I cannot say that fear doesn't creep in from time to time. There must be a better antidote--a stronger wall to keep fear out. I need it in my marriage; I need it in my walk with God; and I truly feel that my nation needs it now as we lurch into the 21st Century.

The antonym to fear is faith--at least that's what I've learned. When I look back at the times I was really scared, it's pretty funny. I laugh about them now, because the roller coaster wasn't that bad, or, I should have known that my friend was hiding in the dark waiting to jump on me. But when I look back at the true dangers I have faced in my life--hitchhiking across Europe, going under the knife for brain surgery, or hiking through Mammoth Cave National Park in pitch darkness--I feel an incredible peace. I don't remember being afraid. I was convinced I was going to make it through.

The Apostle John writes that "There is no fear in love. But perfect loves drives out fear" (1 Jn 4.18). I understand this at a deep level. This 'perfect love,' then, is faith, isn't it? A perfect love of God drives out a fear of destruction, even unto death. This, then, is faith, and faith is the antonym to fear.

It was last weekend's Bible study that really brought this issue to the fore with me. We focused on Numbers 14, the story of the Israelite spies' return from Canaan. As we studied, I was transported back and forth in time with this realization: these people are my people, these leaders are my leaders. This isn't fear that we're talking about anymore. It is a crisis of faith.

The Hebrew title for Numbers means "Wilderness." I think it should be renamed "Impudence." Throughout the book, Moses faces challenge after challenge to his leadership. Just prior to the "Grapegate" incident of Chapter 14, his own brother and sister organize a leadership coup against him (Chapter 12). I'm sure that Moses is ready to get this journey over with--enter Canaan, as God had promised, and get out of this Wasteland of Grumbling. Let's just scout out the terrain, cross the Jordan River, and get on with fulfilling the promise of God.

Moses waits forty days for the spies to return. When they do, it's incredible: two men are struggling to carry a huge bundle of grapes stolen from a vineyard. They carry a basket of figs, another basket of pomegranates--and remember the Israelites haven't eaten fresh fruit for a number of months now.

The people's mouths must be watering even before the spies report, "We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is the fruit" (Nm 13.27).

"But..." (Nm 13.28a).

It's the next word. Look at the transition from verse 27 to 28: "...fruit. But..." Remember these people haven't eaten fresh fruits or vegetables for months. To me, it's like "...a brand new Lexus. But..." or perhaps it is more "...an all-expenses-paid trip through France and Germany. But...." Whatever it is, I want to pause here, partly because the denouement of the story is so depressing, partly because I want to linger on that fruit. It will be forty yearsbefore I'll see that sight again. Forty years. Forty, four-oh, forty years.

There has been division as the men struggled through the canyons along the Dead Sea, returning from their expedition, carrying this bounty. The division comes from fear, the absence of faith. Perhaps it was Palti who saw them first--the people, taller than him by a foot or two. They moved in and out of fortified cities with confidence, projecting wealth and strength. Sethur, son of Michael, remembered legends of the Anakites he had heard on his mama's knee--giants who had roamed the earth since the days of Noah. As they made their way back into the desert, Gaddi, son of Susi, saw those men grow to the size of cedars; Gaddiel, son of Sodi, saw those city walls grow as tall as cliffs.

Before the people can taste the grapes and pomegranates, one of these men utters Verse 28: "But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there."

By the end of Chapter 13, the descriptions have turned into fairy tales and outright lies: Nahbi, son of Vophsi, becomes the spokesman for the Stop Where You Are Party: "The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim* there. We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them" (32b-33).

What explains this behavior? Would anyone really fall for the line about grasshoppers? Did followers of God, believers in Genesis, really believe that legendary creatures like centaurs, giants, and Nephilim roamed the earth ready to devour them? I think the only explanation isfear. Fear casts out logic, even as it triumphs over faith.

"That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud" (14.1). I'll point out here that the night is lighted by a bright pillar of cloud that hovers over the Sanctuary, but it only makes the scene all the more maddening. Fear is master here, and his henchmen, aggression and stupidity, are closing in for the kill.

"Wouldn't it be better for us to go back to Egypt?" we ask. Why would we choose slavery over freedom? Why would we give our babies to the river instead of raising them in the Promised Land? It's fear. It's fear. It's fear.

In graduate school, my professor gave me a scholarly look at the leadership of Moses entitled, "The Nursing Father: Moses as a Political Leader." Describing this scene, the author, Aaron Wildavsky, assesses Moses's view of this and writes, "The truth is out. It is not Canaan but YHWH the people reject" (page 116).

This is why Caleb and Joshua tear their clothes at the sound of this. This wasn't merely a way of saying, "I'm upset." It was stronger. It meant, "Someone I love very much has died." The people who had chosen to identify with Yahweh in order to leave Egypt had rejected him. In realization of this, they have already admitted, "We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt" (4).

Caleb, son of Jephunneh, tries to cast out the fear. "Do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them" (9). As he says this, men are picking up stones to silence him for good. Aggression is the henchman of fear, even as stupidity is his herald.

This is the nadir of the history of Israel, and it is a poor example for any nation for that matter. Yes, I know that they take possession of the land forty years later, led by Joshua and Caleb, but it's hard to find another place in the Bible where God's promise is so openly humiliated. It's worse than the scene at the golden calf (the only other time God offers to wipe out the entire nation and begin again with Moses and his half-Jewish sons).

And this is also what comes to mind as I see folks acting out about health care reform. I wonder if the vehement fears of some might actually bely a crisis of faith in our own country--the ability of "We the People" to solve our own problems and provide a better life for our children.

This charade has many of the same elements. For folks like me, the Promised Land looks like this: Americans live three to four years longer, infant morality drops to the level of well-developed countries, families like mine have $3,000 to $5,000 more every year to invest in our families instead of health insurance (basically the prices we were paying when things were already too expensive in 1999). Entrepreneurs can start their own businesses without the threat of losing health care for their families. Bigger businesses can thrive because their profits aren't being sucked away by out-of-control health care premiums for employees (one of the factors that sank GM). No one is bankrupted by health-care costs in this land; the 20,000 Americans who die each year because they put off health care no longer have to die. My health insurance bill is closer to what I pay for groceries and less what I pay for my mortgage.

But there are giants in this land, too. Health insurance CEOs have to settle for six-figure incomes and doctors are paid about 40% more than public school teachers. There are taxes in this land, so that everyone in America can be covered. And there is also the strong chance that illegal aliens benefit from these services.

In recent weeks, those who believe in giants have made the leap into fairy-tale realms where government panels decide who lives and who dies. Dark fairy tales about Nazis are retold, and hyperbole like "government takeover" and "socialism" gets bandied about. If you thought "grasshoppers" was a whopper, you should hear about how physicist Stephen Hawking wouldn't survive in the British Health Care system (somehow he has managed to live in Cambridge and survive with ALS for decades).

And it leaves our nation at a key point: do we move forward under the leadership of President Obama, or do we go back to Egypt--the free-wheeling health care days of President Bush? Some are reaching for stones; a man stood outside of an Obama town hall forum last week with a handgun strapped to his leg. Others are ready to tear their clothes.

Again, it's about fear, and fear is about faith. For me, it's more than faith in one person. Many of my friends on the other side of the aisle didn't support President Obama last fall, and they would love to see him fail, whether it be tripping over a shoelace or losing a legislative battle like this one. The lives at stake are not those of President Obama or members of his family; they are the lives of Americans whose work disqualifies them from public assistance but whose incomes are not high enough to pay exorbitant insurance premiums. The fortune at stake is not Joe Biden's but thousands of families who face hospital bills for care that will bankrupt them.

It's about faith in my country and its ability to solve problems. As I look at my country's history, I see tremendous problems that we confronted and eventually overcame thanks to great leadership. From President Jefferson's determination to expand the country westward to President Lincoln's push to end slavery, there was opposition, much fear, some violence (great violence in Lincoln's case). I think of Teddy Roosevelt taking on the trusts or Dwight Eisenhower sending the National Guard to Central High School in Little Rock. These men met incredible resistance, and my nation is better for their courage.

I guess that's how I'm able to read Numbers 14. I see my country's leader tested like Moses was tested. I see the people of my nation scared in the way the Israelites were scared. I hear monster myths, but I see grapes. I know the past, but I think I can see the future, just over that next range of mountains. I don't want to wait forty more days, much less forty more years, for that future to become real.

*See Genesis 6 for information on the Nephilim, who were basically all the demigods of other cultures who got inserted into the Old Testament and forgotten about. Hercules, Gilgamesh, Perseus, these come to mind from the descriptions found in those first four verses of Genesis 6.

"Go and tell this People:" Thoughts on Isaiah 6

I was raised to see the Call of God as something majestic, phenomenal, awesome.

My dad was a pastor. He got no job offers in his line of work; he got "calls." And when the calls dried up, he didn't look for new preaching jobs; he simply moved on to a new profession. God had called; no, He had not. I never questioned it. I looked forward to a call of my own.

Throughout high school and into college, I searched scripture to find and to follow this certain Call. Sometimes I thought it looked like me teaching kids in a public school classroom. At other times, it looked like I was a missionary or an administrator. Whatever it was, it seemed glorious, impressive, noteworthy.

Looking back, it's pretty clear that I was reading the Bible with my eyes closed, filtering out the reality--the deeply serious and unpopular nature of any given Call of God.

Consider the call of Isaiah in the 6th chapter of his (their?) book. It's one of the coolest "calls" in the Bible. An angel takes a coal out of the fire, touches Isaiah's lips, and takes away his sin. A voice calls, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" (verses 7 & 8).

Isaiah answers, "Here am I, send me!" I can imagine him raising his hand like an eager student, wriggling in his desk and preceding his answer with the words, "Ooh, ooh, over here!"

Now that's a capital-c Call! How does it compare with other calls?
  • It's not quite as cool as the Call of Elisha, who is plowing a field when Elijah throws his cloak around his shoulders. Elisha immediately slaughters his oxen and burns them as an offering on the remains of the plow. Awesome!
  • It's better than the small voice in the darkness that awakens Samuel.
  • It tops David's return from the hills to be anointed with oil by that same Samuel.
  • Yes, it tops "follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" and "I saw you while you were under the fig tree," the calls that Christ made to his disciples.
  • I think it comes close the Call of Paul: a bright light from heaven and the words, "why are you persecuting me?"
  • (If you can think of others, leave them in the comments.)
But what comes after a call? That's something that isn't so glorious. For every miracle, a prophet faces hundreds of cases of rejection. For every vision, there are many nightmares.

For Isaiah--and for my country today--there are these words: "Go and tell this people: Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving" (verse 9).

Isn't this a politically correct way to say, "You're doomed!"

Isaiah is called, he has a ticket to the palace of Hezekiah, AND he gets to tell the king that he has it all wrong--that Judah doesn't "get it" anymore, and they won't "get it" ever again. It's over.

God continues:
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears, understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed (verse 10).
When I spotted this passage in church last weekend, it really hit me. It wasn't so much the "call of God" thing that did it--that was what Bishop Morris was speaking about--it was this warning. It struck me because the Call of God hit me at that moment, and it said, This is your country I'm talking about.

It hurt like a flaming coal. I love my country. I see it with red-white-and-blue-tinted lenses. The idea of words like "calloused" describing America is as surprising as dull ears and closed eyes. Surely this is some other country, Lord. Let it be Nazi Germany you're describing or some abominably socialized nation. I know that's the great hope of many Americans today, at least.

But it is my country. Consider the following issues if you don't believe me: income inequality, climate change, national defense, immigration and access to health care. These are the most important issues facing the world today--and issues about which far too many of my fellow citizens are calloused, deaf and blind.

Just look at the 9/11 anniversary and how quickly our nation closed its eyes to the causes of the real crime, slaking our vengeance with war and outrage. Eight years of war later, according to a TIME magazine poll last week, people don't feel safer, even though the tragedy could have been averted with some basic, inexpensive law enforcement cooperation.

A better illustration of these verses is climate change--a high priority around the world, except in the United States, where vast numbers of people believe it's a myth. Incontrovertible scientific evidence, you say? We keep our eyes firmly closed, thank you, with help from alternative scientific studies sponsored by oil and gas groups.

Or look at the Iraq War. Alarms were raised long before we blundered into that trillion-dollar quagmire. Intelligence had been fixed, we heard, there were no WMDs, no reasons to invade and occupy that country. Our ears were dull. Look what happened.

It almost makes me believe two new things about my country: Americans will believe any lie as long as it leads to destruction elsewhere, and Americans will believe any lie as long as it sustains suffering here.

Look at the same approaches popping up in current debates about health care, stimulus and debt. Americans don't see with our eyes anymore; we don't listen with our ears; we do not understand with our hearts...no, understanding is what is most lacking.

I guess that's the redeeming factor here, if any. It's not that Americans are bad or amoral. Maybe we're just cursed. Maybe God is looking down and saying, "I've given you unprecedented prosperity and security, and what have you done with it? I see billion-dollar football stadiums, skies full of airplanes jetting to and fro, and roads filled with cabin-sized cars. But I also see terrible suffering and incomprehensible waste. Your time is up."

"For how long, O Lord?" I ask in reply (Isaiah 6.11)

He answers:
Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant,
until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged,
until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken (11-12)
Is this what the capital-c Call of God is like? Is this what it takes to be a prophet? Don't tell Isaiah, but the prudent answer might be, "Send someone else."

Revving up the old 'Point Pleasant' Again

Before my post here yesterday, I hadn't blogged on Point Pleasant since March.

I'm not sure if anyone noticed. I have kept up a frenetic pace of writing, but I've been posting all on Facebook, where I can "share" ideas with a few people at a time. I really thought Facebook might have been the engine to unify disparate portions of the web like blogs, photos, Twitter (which I have successfully avoided so far), etc.

In fact, I have an app in place that automatically uploads my Blogger posts to my FB profile. But a few days ago I added my first ideas=based 'friend.' He had read one of my essays on the Book of John and wanted to compare notes. It dawned on me, as we chatted, that he had found the essay through the Blog, not FB (where it would be blocked to all but my own 200 or so friends).

It really caused me to look at FB in a new way:
  • It's good--no great--at getting information "out there" to friends, but it is limited. Blogger posts can show up on Google searches and things like that, whereas FB notes cannot. For a time I thought the wider audience for my ideas was Facebook. Now I know that it's Blogger/FB.
  • The Facebook Note is very difficult to edit. If you've ever saved a draft, trying to find it again is nearly impossible. Good writing takes time, often several drafts, and editing. Blogger is better set up for that. I think FB Notes are probably ideal for 100 words or less things.
This post will show up on Facebook in about an hour, so I don't want to sound like I'm complaining. Call it revelation, and a new lease on writing my ideas for the few--if any--who care to read.

11 September 2009

Not that F-word, Mr. Dittes!

Some questions aren’t worth the asking.

That’s not a very good thing for a researcher to write—particularly someone like me who spends several months out of the year teaching high schoolers how to research.

But it's true. Sometimes it's better to have never asked at all...than to have asked and known.

I gave my honors students a research assignment: find origins of family and ethnic groups that immigrated into the United States. At the least I was expecting students to trace the migration of Italians, Irish, Germans and Africans, from which we are all descended.

These being honors students—and among the best students that I’ve had the privilege of teaching, they quickly gravitated to family history sites, finding family crests and detailed data about their family origins. Amidst the thrill of this discovery, one student—who I’ll call “K-“—raised her hand.

What exactly is a “faggot?” she asked.

That’s not a word I like to hear in class. I write detentions for students who use it as a pejorative. But K- wasn’t the kind of student to get detentions. She’s smart, well mannered, a cheerleader; she’s the prototypical all-American girl.

She directed my attention toward the web site on which she had found her last name, Womack. “It says ‘faggot’ right there.” (It also says, “applied as a nickname for a thin person.”)

I stammered for a few moments. I tried to explain the real meaning of the word, “faggot”—how it was still commonly used in England to describe a cigarette or a bundle of twigs. I speculated that one of her ancestors had been a woodcutter who sold bundles of sticks in the village. I wasn’t making any headway. I felt like I was making things worse. K- still looked quite disappointed (although if she had been a male, about 2 years younger, she may have faced a total emotional breakdown). I encouraged her to do her best and ignore anything difficult, and she did.

The next day she turned in a wonderfully detailed report, showing the county in Wales where the Womacks originated, and even their settlement rates in individual American states. It was a complete presentation--a tour de force of research talent. There was nothing, I might add, about woodcutters or skinny people or 'faggots.'

Should I teach this assignment again? Do I dare peer further into my own name's origins?

Maybe I should just learn my lesson. Maybe I should just stop the questions...right...there.