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.

05 September 2009

Great, just not THAT Great: Thoughts on the Life of Aaron, Part 2

When I left Aaron two weeks ago, he was in heaven--or at least the closest thing to it. With his brother, Moses, his sons, Nadab and Abihu, and the elders of Israel, he was resting in the presence of God, reclined on ground that looked like a sapphire sea (Exodus 24.9-11).

At the time he was the most famous man in Israel, a man whom most Israelites would have seen as their leader. His staff had created wonders in Egypt. He was the mouthpiece of Moses, his shy, stuttering brother, who was in turn the mouthpiece of God. As I wrote before, Aaron was a man of greatness, but not a man of Destiny.

Why was this? I must admit, I admire Aaron. I enjoy being in front of people; I think I would jump at the chance to lead God's people and perform great wonders. Yet time and again in my life, often at the very point where I felt that God was ready for me to take that next step in His service, I have instead been held back. The skills and talents seem to be there, but Destiny isn't. Studying the life of Aaron helps to uncover the wrinkles in God's plan, and it helps me to understand a little more of my place there.

When Moses leaves his brother--for probably the first time since their reunion at the base of Sinai a year earlier--it is to climb to the mountain's summit in the company of Joshua, his aide. Aaron returns with Hur to look over the camp (24.12-14).

The Priesthood
The next seven chapters of Exodus are all about Aaron, even if they might be the words given to Moses on Sinai. Perhaps this might be seen as the coronation of Aaron. God spends this time telling Moses about Aaron--his role as high priest of the Tabernacle to be built at the base of the mountain.

I imagine shy Moses glowing with pride at these instructions for his brother, whom God mentions 37 times by name in chapters 28-31. God also names the son of Aaron's co-regent, Hur, as the one who will craft the sacred furniture for the Tabernacle.

But a strange thing happens at the very time that God says, "Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites...so [he] may serve me as priest" (28.1). A religious festival has begun, and the faint sound of dancing echoes to the top of the mountain. How could this happen--and under Aaron's watch no less?

Aaron invites the people to the calf where he, uh, plans to sacrifice to the Lord. Everyone is too busy partying to notice a Higher Power.
The Golden Calf
The situation at the base of the mountain demonstrates a gross lack of leadership on Aaron's part.

"Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Go down, because yor people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves and idol cast in the shape of a calf" (Exodus 32.7-8)

A close look at the text reveals some interesting weaknesses on Aaron's part--and affirms one of the theses I have made to this point. Aaron, the man who had stood up to Pharaoh, whose staff had consumed those of the best magicians, is apparently unable to say "No" to the people, his people.They ask, "Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him." (verse 1, italics added). Can it be any clearer who the leader of Israel is--at least in the minds of the people? "This fellow Moses"--few have seen him, far fewer have heard him deliver an order. It has all been Aaron's leading in their eyes.

Of course this would be a good opportunity for Aaron to unveil the brains behind this operation--or at least look to God for leading. Instead he compromises--seeking a middle way between outright idolatry and public approval. He gathers gold from the people and builds the calf they wanted (some form of the Apis bulls who were mummified by Egyptians at their deaths). He also orders an altar to be built (he has been serving as a quasi-priest for Israel since long before his brother returned). "Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord," he insists (v 5). Is he clueless? I'll try to be kind and just insist that he is woefully incompetent for this interim job.

Aaron spins a 2nd story when Moses returns. "You know how prone these people are to evil," he explains. "They gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!" (verses 22 & 24). Did he wave a wand or something? The process of building any given idol could be described as "deliberate." Either a huge cast was made for the liquefied metal, or the metal had to be layered over a wooden or stone base. To a modern person, this would be like saying, "They gave me metal, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this dishwasher!"

A few hours later, Aaron begins to atone...and it involves a lot of blood--human blood. The party hasn't let up with Moses' return--few people noticed the tablets smashed or the small, angry man who stuttered with fury when he looked upon them. God knows how to end it. With the other Levites, Aaron meets Moses at one end of the camp with his sword drawn. Following God's orders they break into houses of feasting, dancing and lovemaking. They "kill...brother[s] and friend[s] and neighbor[s]," over 3,000 before the noise dies down (28). God follows this with a plague that will punish them "because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made" (35).

I may be projecting too much, but this episode demonstrates to me a fundamental weakness of Aaron--and of myself at times. He doesn't see himself as a partner. Deep down inside, he's the leader. The Israelites are perfectly willing to accommodate his vanity. Moses would have stopped this; God would have, too; maybe even young Joshua would have stood up to the people, but Aaron casts their offerings into the fire and out jumps a calf.

Of course this only widens the gulf of the people's perception of the two brothers. Moses is the one always saying, "No--says the Lord." Aaron is accommodating and friendly. Moses orders; Aaron listens. It won't be the last test of leadership for Aaron, that is certain.

The Siblings' Coup
Aaron's 2nd chance to lead begins with his sister, Miriam. A popular singer of the time and a cultural leader, she takes exception to Moses' leadership and to his dark-skinned wife. "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?" she asks. "Hasn't he also spoken through us?" (Numbers 12.2).

The writer of Numbers puts the blame on both Aaron and Miriam, but later events bear out Miriam's leadership in this coup. It was a case of greatness again. Aaron appeared to be the leader--and Miriam had had her moment--one of the all-time great moments in songwriting--with her inspired singing outside the Red Sea. Why couldn't they lead? Surely the Lord had used them, too.

That leads to this revealing note in Numbers 12.3: "Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth." This small, shy man suddenly has no one to speak for him--or to sing for him--his speaker and his singer are in open revolt.

That's why God steps in, summoning Aaron and Miriam to the front of the Tabernacle, surrounding them with cloud, and speaking directly to them. "With [Moses] I speak face to face.... He sees the form of the Lord" (verse 8).

This is the dichotomy, then. Aaron the High Priest channels the Hidden Lord, dressed in priestly robes, cleansing the Most Holy Place every year on the Day of Atonement. Moses sees God face to face. God speaks through all whom He has chosen. Yet Moses, and his unique, hidden, behind-the-scenes role, was specially chosen. Aaron was High Priest. He had the most visible leadership role in the camp. Why did he feel compelled to covet Moses' insider role, too?

When the cloud lifts, Miriam is leprous. Aaron describes it vividly, "like a stillborn infant coming from its mother's womb with its flesh half eaten away" (v 12). Again Aaron is the peacemaker. He is in his role of "not too evil, not too good." He intercedes for his sister with Moses (he himself has not been stricken, implying that his role in the plot was not as great as Miriam's). Moses intercedes with God. The brothers' roles are clear now: Aaron is minister to the people; Moses listens to God.

One Final Miracle with the Staff
Korah's rebellion, found in Numbers 16-17, mirrors the plot of Miriam and Aaron. "The whole community is holy every one of them, and the Lord is with them," Korah tells Aaron and Moses, "Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord's assembly?" (16.3).

Just as Miriam had complained, "Does not God speak through us, too?" Korah believes in the "priesthood of all believers." A Christian might consider him ahead of his time, but Moses sees another challenge to his leadership. He dares the rebels to test the Lord by burning incense before him. Then he steps back as the earth swallows up Korah and the plot leaders and fire comes from heaven to burn up the other illicit, incense-wielding priests.

The next day God summons Aaron to wield incense throughout the camp, making atonement for the sins of the self-ordained priests. This really is a walk back through Aaron's own errors. The memory of his own rebellion must be very fresh as he thinks of those consumed by earth and fire. As he walks between the tents of the suffering, he must remember the 3,000 "brothers, friends and neighbors" he and his fellow Levites had massacred as they quelled the riot around the Golden Calf.

At one time he might have led such a rebellion. Now Aaron knows his place. Moses knows it, too. Aaron is the Leader of Israel. The miracle of the twelve staffs emphasizes two points about Israel's leadership: first, Aaron is indeed chosen by God for his role as High Priest; second, Moses apparently doesn't factor into the chain of command at all. He isn't the leader of the Levites or of Israel--Aaron is. He is merely the mouthpiece of God.

Aaron's rod--the same rod that consumed the magicians' staffs, that had turned the Nile to blood and had summoned frogs from its rust-colored waters--it blooms. God has spoken--beautifully. Moses places it in the sacred box in the Most Holy Place--the sacred room entered only once a year, by Aaron alone, where a big smile must break across his face as he cleans and performs his sacred duties. More than anything Aaron had said or done, this flowering staff conveyed God's call, the sole source of Aaron's authority.

This shows me that I need to be aware of the true signs of Destiny that God provides. It may not show up in my role in the organizational chart or in awards or public accolades. It may be found in some everyday thing--my child, my talent, my smallest gift--that blooms in the light of God's approval.

Aaron and Me
Tonight Jenny and I were practicing some songs to sing at church on Wednesday night. Jenny has picked up her guitar again, and I'm always looking for an excuse to play mandolin. As we practiced the songs, Jenny said, "It always sounds better when I sing lead, and you sing harmony. It's really magical."

She's right. I love to sing high harmony. But sometimes it's a little frustrating. I want to lead. Sure, Jenny can sing alto quite well, but it doesn't sound the same. Only when I back off and sing high can we work together as a duo.

That's not the only place where I have been called to be "great, just not THAT great." There have been a number of times where I have tried to lead our family down my career course. All have ended in disaster. At best, I have found myself at career dead ends. At worst, I've lost my job.

Yet God has blessed us richly when we followed Jenny's call, first to Superior, Arizona, then to Westmoreland, TN. More importantly, I have been able to strengthen her work when we have followed her lead. It's a natural, God-led thing--yet it is one that I have resisted on occasion, just as Aaron battled with his leadership role.

I can't say that I'm particularly emboldened by my destiny, and I don't go around bragging about my meager career accomplishments. I can say, though, that I'm glad to be a part of a God-ordained team. He led me to Jenny, and our partnership has created three excellent Dittes kids, and touched the lives of literally thousands of other people.

Mount Hor
Aaron's life ends soon after the climactic moment that his brother strikes a rock and brings down God's wrath. The Israelites are ready to skirt up the eastern edge of the Dead Sea, but God summons Aaron to the summit of Mount Hor. He removes his priestly garments and gives them to his son, Eleazar.

The non-canonical Jewish work, the Haggadah contains a beautiful description of Aaron's death:

Accompanied by Moses, his brother, and by Eleazar, his son, Aaron went to the summit of Mount Hor, where the rock suddenly opened before him and a beautiful cave lit by a lamp presented itself to his view.

"Take off thy priestly raiment and place it upon thy son Eleazar!" said Moses; "and then follow me." Aaron did as commanded; and they entered the cave, where was prepared a bed around which angels stood.

"Go lie down upon thy bed, my brother," Moses continued; and Aaron obeyed without a murmur. Then his soul departed as if by a kiss from God.
Source: the Jewish Encyclopedia

Eleazar and Moses returned without the High Priest, and the entire nation of Israel burst into mourning. "The entire house of Israel mourned for [Aaron] thirty days" (Numbers 20.29). He died the most famous man among his people. Many commentators feel that the Israelites' mourning for Aaron went beyond the mourning for Moses that would take place when he died a few years later (They use a translation that I can't find in my NIV, but apparently older documents show that men AND women mourned for Aaron, while it was only the leaders and men who observed the mourning period for Moses.)

Aaron was called to a specific role in Israel's Exodus: it was a role of greatness, but not of destiny. He struggled with this role at times, he even rebelled, but in the end he was at peace with his place in God's presence and at his brother's side.

There just isn't enough space here to do Aaron justice. I want to focus on him as a father and a High Priest, but that will need to wait for another Sabbath day's meditation. It gives me something to look forward to this week.