So. I have been thinking about the change of seasons. I don’t want to miss spring this year. I want to distinguish the last winter frost from the out-of-season one, the frost of spring. I want to be there on the spot the moment the grass turns green. I always miss this radical revolution; I see it the next day from a window, the yard so suddenly green and lush I could envy Nebuchadnezzar down on all fours eating grass. This year I want to stick a net into time and say “now,” as men plant flags on the ice and snow and say, “here.” (Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

Two Ways of Reading

…I believe that most people who read the Bible as Scripture do so in one of two ways: compliantly or conversantly…

Compliant readers are individuals whose basic instinct is to read the Bible trustingly. Those who read this way accept the Bible’s claims, adopt its values, and embrace its assumptions without necessarily giving serious consideration to the implications of their consent. Rather than questioning or challenging the text, compliant readers take what the Bible says — or at least what they think it says — for granted. Their reading is appreciative and accommodating. It is neither confrontational nor contentious. Rather, they embrace the text “as is.”  Therefore, they choose to agree with — and submit to — the Bible’s assessment of things, even when this may be difficult to understand or morally troubling…

Conversant readers, on the other hand, are not constrained in the same kind of way. Rather than simply acquiescing to the text, their fundamental disposition is one of active engagement, sustained conversation, and critical evaluation. Conversant readers are ready to engage the Bible in a genuine dialogue whose outcome is not predetermined by the ideology of the biblical text. While they might agree with the views and values on this or that Old Testament text, they are just as likely to disagree. Conversant readers are discerning readers who accept what they can and resist what they must… Conversant readers do not feel obligated to agree with texts that violate the most basic dictates of human decency, and they are not prepared to remain obsequiously silent…

From The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy, by Eric Seibert.

Obviously this passage raises a question: what kind of readers are we? What kind of readers do we want to be? It’s worth thinking about. I would have said I was a conversant reader of my Bible — but after reading Dr Seibert’s book, I realize that I have missed an awful lot.

I would like to include more excerpts here from books I’m reading. I have numerous passages underlined and highlighted for further reflection, but I don’t always get back to them. I reviewed this book earlier this week, but there is always so much more to a book than can be discussed in a review. My Kindle informs me that I highlighted or bookmarked 76 passages in this book! That’s more than I’ll ever be able to quote here. But I’d like to lift a few of them at least to help round out the very limited perspective my review provided, and to stimulate thought.

Pearls

Pearls are layers and layers of soothing ‘nacre’ intended to insulate the delicate mollusk from the irritant that has abraded it. At root, a pearl is a ‘disturbance,’ a beauty created by something that isn’t supposed to be there, about which something needs to be done. It is the interruption of equilibrium that creates beauty. Beauty is a response to provocation, to intrusion. ‘How like art,’ I catch myself thinking. The pearl’s beauty is made as a result of insult just as art is made as a response to something in our environment that fires us up, sparks us, causes us to think differently. (Julia Cameron, The Sound of Paper)

These are good words from a book I caught sight of by chance as my daughters were pulling bird books from the shelves at the library. They speak of artistic creation in the largest sense. Ultimately one’s life is a work of art, for better or for worse. I’d like to do a better job of creating beauty out of disturbance, by which I seem to be plagued lately in various ways.

Cameron recommends three disciplines for artists: morning pages (three handwritten journal pages every day), artist dates (one weekly, by yourself), and walks (3 or 4 short ones and one long one weekly). The artist date concept probably isn’t within the realm of possibility for me at the moment, but the pages and walks are.

I used to be sure I was a writer, but lately I’m not so sure. In fact, on the whole my life has an undeveloped feel. I’m not sure what I am. But these three disciplines seem like good, doable ways for anyone, not just writers, to begin kneading the undeveloped dough of daily experience — or formulating a response to “disturbance” that might culminate in beauty.

Food for Thought: Restraint

These words from Gandhi were quoted in Quiet:

I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts. A thoughtless word hardly ever escaped my tongue or pen. Experience has taught me that silence is part of the spiritual discipline of a votary of truth. We find so many people impatient to talk. All this talking can hardly be said to be of any benefit to the world. It is so much waste of time. My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler. It has allowed me to grow. It has helped me in my discernment of truth.

Could there ever be a sentiment more opposed to the whole concept of the blogosphere?

Marvelous luggage

Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, “Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.” After you have taken a good look around, you may decide that there is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. Bodies take real beatings. That they heal from most things is an underrated miracle. That they give birth is beyond reckoning. (Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Practice of Wearing Skin”)

Am I the only one who has to do this more than once in my life?

When I was in high school, I worried so much about my weight that I developed bulimia. In graduate school, I took up running and slimmed back down, but I still bear the aches and pains of my foolish refusal to stretch out those muscles before or after running. Then I went through pregnancy twice — which was really not bad; I liked the fact that my body changed, and was supposed to. (I certainly liked the outcome of pregnancy!)

Now I’m in my forties and it’s wrinkles, fading hair, freckles, slower metabolism, and other strange developments that tempt me to dissatisfaction at least, loathing at worst. It seems to be a lifelong process, this coming to peace with one’s body. I seem to depart into this or that other vision at every phase, a vision of some other Janet with some other body. But my own body never departs. There it is, patiently waiting in the mirror to be noticed and accepted.

Barbara Brown Taylor proposes that choosing to live contentedly within one’s own body can be a spiritual discipline, an act of worship — not worship of our bodies, but of the God who made and loves them. It can reveal knowledge of God, who quite purposefully took on a body himself in the pivotal moment of human history, and he keeps it still. “Here we sit,” she writes, “with our souls tucked away in this marvelous luggage, mostly insensible to the ways in which every spiritual practice begins with the body.”

These are good words. Today I choose again to accept this “marvelous luggage” as God’s gift to me. Let that be a starting point to whatever new knowledge of him he wants to impart.

Bursting with God-news

The Annunciation by Jack Mattingly

Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:

“Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.” (Luke 1:28, The Message)

This afternoon I heard the song “Breath of Heaven” on the way home from the grocery store. It’s a song I’ve always assumed I liked, but today I realized: I don’t, particularly. It’s not really in keeping with the Scriptural account of Mary’s character in Luke 1. (I’m speaking from a Protestant point of view, by the way.)

In “Breath of Heaven,” Mary talks about “a world as cold as stone.” But in Luke 1, she speaks of God’s presence in the world — of his “mercy upon generation after generation of those who fear him,” and of how he “fills the hungry with good things.”

In the song, Mary says, “Must I walk this path alone?” She imagines God is having second thoughts about choosing her: “Do you wonder as you watch my face if a wiser one should have had my place?” But in Luke 1, she’s not alone. She and Elizabeth have the great gift of companionship in their high calling. And her sense of who God is is anything but distant and aloof: “My soul exalts the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave…”

In the song, Mary says, “Hold me together.” In Luke 1, she says, “The Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name.” (And later, when Jesus goes to the cross, Mary is one of the few who has the fortitude to stand near him.)

It’s an idea we try over and over: projecting ourselves imaginatively into the Christmas story. Sometimes it enriches our faith and our depth of understanding. But in this case I think it alters the story, shrinking it down into a rather desolate, impoverished mindset.

Though sometimes (for me) The Message can have a similar effect of reducing Scripture to language that’s almost too pedestrian, I think in the case of Luke 1 it captures perfectly Mary’s spiritual exuberance and moral stamina:

And Mary said,

I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.

Recent reading: “the encroachment of the buzz”

I read this the other day in The Lost Art of Reading by David L. Ulin. I wonder if anyone else relates.

This, I think, is something on which we can agree: to read, we need a certain kind of silence, an ability to filter out the noise. That seems increasingly elusive in our overnetworked society, where every buzz and rumor is instantly blogged and tweeted, and it is not contemplation we desire but an odd sort of distraction, distraction masquerading as being in the know. In such a landscape, knowledge can’t help but fall prey to illusion, albeit an illusion that is deeply seductive, with its promise that speed can lead us to illumination, that it is more important to react than to think deeply, that something must be attached to every bit of time. Here, we have my reading problem in a nutshell, for books insist we take an opposite position, that we immerse, slow down. “After September 11,” Mona Simpson wrote as part of a 2001 LA Weekly roundtable on reading in wartime, “I didn’t read books for the news. Books, by their nature, are never new enough.” Simpson doesn’t mean that she stopped reading; rather, at a moment when it felt as if time was on fast forward, she relied on books to pull back from the onslaught, to distance herself from the present as a way of reconnecting with a more elemental sense of who we are.

…These days, after spending hours on the computer, I pick up a book and read a paragraph; then my mind wanders and I check my e-mail, drift onto the Internet, pace the house before returning to the page. Or I want to do these things but don’t, force myself to remain still, to follow what I’m reading until I give myself over to the flow. What I’m struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it’s mostly just a series of disconnected riffs, quick takes and fragments, that add up to the anxiety of the age.

I don’t spend “hours on the computer,” yet I do find myself having to make more of an effort to “force myself to remain still, to follow what I’m reading until I give myself over to the flow.” I long for the time to sit down and read, but when it comes, I find it hard to settle in and focus. Like Ulin, I can make myself stick with it till I’m immersed, but it seems to take longer, or take more work, than it used to.

Why?

Whatever the answer, I’m glad for books — partly because they confront me with questions like this.

Quiet he lies

Courtesy of Stockxchnge

Our pastor has been taking a close look at what some of our traditional Christmas carols have to teach us. It’s making this richest of seasons even richer.

Yesterday while teaching on “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” he brought some lines from a poem by Luci Shaw to our attention. I wasn’t familiar with the poem, but it’s a wonderful discovery, honing in on some of the mind-blowing paradoxes of Christmas.

Here are a few excerpts:

Quiet he lies
whose vigor hurled
a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before…

Older than eternity, now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught that I might be free,
blind in my womb to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth
for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.

–From “Mary’s Song,” by Luci Shaw. Read the rest of the poem here.

What words are bringing Advent into focus for you this season?

As little children

Victor Vasnetsov, 1887. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A few weeks ago, we finished Egermeier’s Bible Storybook. It ends with a description of John on Patmos, writing Revelation. It doesn’t summarize Revelation — just tells the story of its writing.

My older daughter remembered once hearing the Bible description of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse in Revelation 6, and she asked, “Could we read that?”

“Sure,” I said. “Why don’t you read it out of your Adventure Bible.” So she did… verse after verse of highly symbolic description of the otherworldly setting of Heaven. Her younger sister listened in rapt attention. I sweated, praying that she wouldn’t ask me to explain it.

She didn’t “understand” what it meant. (The first question she asked was, “Which horse is your favorite?”) And though she did ask what it was about, and I answered only in the most general terms, she loved reading it. We talked about other dream visions in the Bible, and how they’re hard to understand on one level, but make a kind of sense on another.

It was a picture to me of the treasures of God’s Word. If we can just get ourselves to read it, we are enriched — even by its most difficult passages. As John says at the start of Revelation,

Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.

The thing is, the symbolism of that chapter has been explained to me before, probably more than once. I just never remember it. This leads me to think that maybe that’s not what I really even want or need from such passages, and maybe it’s not why God puts them in His Word. If they could be plotted out on a symbol graph — “X equals Y, this stands for that” — then why would He bother to say it symbolically?

Maybe passages like this are there partly for the experience of bewilderment and wonder and awe they inspire. We get a glimpse of another dimension of reality, the place where God is on His throne, majestic and powerful and holy — where He is deeply concerned about what is going on on earth, and where He has a plan to unfold. This is the overwhelming impression of Revelation 6. The details of what each ingredient of the scene represents have a kind of coherence, and they reward further study. But the real wonder of the scene is its mysteriousness; that’s what always sticks in my mind.

There is a wisdom in leaving that mystery intact, and my children’s comfort level with it was encouraging to me. As Marilynne Robinson says of her experience as a child hearing the Bible stories,

No intrusion on the strangeness of these tales was ever made. It was as if some old relative had walked me down to the lake knowing an imperious whim of heaven had made it a sea of gold and glass, and had said, This is a fine evening, and walked me home again.

Living the questions

I love this quote from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet:

…Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves… Do not… seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will… gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

That seems to sum up so much of my life. Questions — about education, about nature, about faith, about marriage and parenting, about the future, about the past, about where and how to spend my life. They don’t really go away, though they do change form.

Be patient. Love the questions. Live along toward the answers.