Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Χαίρετε, νικῶμεν

Unforeseeing one! Yes, he fought on the Marathon day:
So, when Persia was dust, all cried "To Akropolis!
Run, Pheidippides, one race more! the meed is thy due!
'Athens is saved, thank Pan,' go shout!" He flung down his shield,
Ran like fire once more: and the space 'twixt the Fennel-field
And Athens was stubble again, a field which a fire runs through,
Till in he broke: "Rejoice, we conquer!" Like wine through clay,
Joy in his blood bursting his heart, he died—the bliss!
-Robert Browning

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,---
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere
-William Wadsworth Longfellow

[Can someone (more talented than I) do a mash-up of these two poems?  My God the two poets were even contemporaries – within five years of each other – albeit an ocean apart.]

The human spirit is indomitable – that is the rallying cry of ancient Athens, of the running of the Marathon, of colonial Boston, and of America.  Not a cry of fear.  Rejoice! We conquer!
You cannot take our peace from us.
You cannot take our grace from us.
You cannot take our spirit,
not if we will not give it to you.
And we Will Not give it to you.

God weeps at the death of any of us.  God weeps at the death of a child.  God weeps at the chaos and fear in Boston.  God weeps for the fifteen Sunnis assassinated in Iraq.  God weeps for those swallowed by the earthquake in Iran.
God weeps, and we weep.
But we do not despair.  

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." -Matthew 5:9
"Repel evil with good.  And he who is your enemy will become your dearest friend." -Surah 41:34
"Let there be peace in Heaven; let there be peace in the atmosphere; May peace fill the four quarters" -Yajur Veda

We fling down our shield, run, ride, cry out.  A cry of defiance, a knock at the door, a word that shall echo forevermore – Χαίρετε, νικῶμεν.!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Translation

Woman your fine ointment, brand new and expensive 
Should have been saved for the poor. 
Why has it been wasted? We could have raised maybe Three hundred silver pieces or more. People who are hungry, people who are starving They matter more than your feet and hair!

Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to Problems that upset you, oh. Don't you knowEverything's alright, yes, everything's alright, yes.

Surely you're not saying we have the resources To save the poor from their lot? There will be poor always, pathetically struggling. Look at the good things you've got.

--Matthew 26: 7-11 (Andrew Lloyd Webber Translation)

I like Webber's translation of this verse not only because it's in 5/4 time which gives it a wacky swing, but also because of Jesus' line "pathetically struggling."
I. LOVE. this. verse.

I love these verses because they humanize Jesus.  I was involved in a bible study once that I often steal, in which we simply discussed which name of God with which we are most comfortable.  Are you a "God" person, a "Jesus" person, or a "Spirit" person.  And then, the study continues, what does that say about your experience of divinity.

I am NOT a Jesus person.  I don't often use his name in worship or in study or in prayer.  To be honest, invoking the name of Jesus gives me the willies.  I get God (as much as we finite beings can) and I get the idea of the Spirit.  The infinite is greater than I, more mysterious and transcendent than I.  I get that.  But Jesus was a human.  Fully human, according to the church of 300AD.  I am uncomfortable with a human being so divine, so flawless.  We are supposed to be flawed.  Maybe it's my post-post-modern, twenty-first century, white male guilt, but we are supposed to be flawed.  I understand flaws in people.  I forgive myself and my neighbors for our flaws perpetually.  We are supposed to be flawed.  So how am I supposed to understand Jesus?

I like this verse.  I get this verse.
Jesus is being selfish, and I love him for it.  Mary spends around 300 denarii, the wages of a well compensated laborer for a whole year - let's adjust to around $15,000, just to get a level - on a single jar of perfume, and she dumps it on Jesus.  Judas makes a perfectly valid point - "We could have fed a lot of hungry people with that money!"  Jesus - human, scared, vulnerable, about to (literally or figuratively) go through hell - tells Judas to let Mary be.  He, for ten beautiful minutes, allows himself to be anointed and washed and pampered by a woman or a friend or both.
Let somebody say 'amen.'
And, lest we forget, Judas was right.  Judas hit the nail on the head, identifying one of the foremost points of the new testament.  But Jesus needed to feel human, if only for a little while.

I can get a man who was almost perfect - a man who had the Christ, the spirit, the essence of God, descend into him with great force when he rose out of a baptism.  I can get that man because I see a little piece of that Christ in you. in me. in my wife. in my kids. and in you.  I see a Jesus who was not THE Christ, but had a greater portion of The Christ in him.  And as such he was divine, but as such he was also human, and occasionally selfish, and occasionally made mistakes (Matthew 15:26.)  I see a man who was selfish and occasionally made mistakes, but then apologized from them, learned from them (Matthew 15:28) and went on to do the right thing, the necessary thing - no matter how selfish and no matter how much he begged not to.

Not my will...

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Have A Smooch

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LordIs not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  -- Isaiah 58: 5-6 (NRSV)

There can't be a worse day to follow Ash Wednesday than Valentine's Day.  What percent of fasts were broken today because someone forgot to look at the calendar?
"I'm giving up chocolate and smooching for Lent!" [twenty-four hours later] "Chocolate and kissing for Valentine's Day!  God Loves ME!"
Or an even better question what percent of people looked ahead and said to themselves, "I want to give up something for Lent, but I know I'll be having fondue and smooches tomorrow, so I can't very well give those up, can I?"
First World Problems, I suppose.

Really, there is no better day to follow Ash Wednesday than Valentine's.  At least for me, Valentine's ends up being one of the most self-less days of the year, maybe second to Mother's Day.  This is a day when we forget about ourselves and focus on somebody else; a day when we are more concerned with giving an experience than receiving one; a day when the demonstration of love is most evident in the western world.  What could be a better sign of the kingdom?  What could be a better sign than the daughter who takes her mother out for brunch, the son who sends his parents tulips, the countless boyfriends who write trite but well-meant poetry and send stuffed bears to cubicles around the world?  If you gave up five minutes of your coffee time or your video-game time or your any-kind-of-me time to give a happy express love to another person today, you have celebrated Lent.
I release you from your fast for today.

Some people once came to Jesus (rather indignantly, as, it seems, was usual) and asked him why in the world all the people around him weren't fasting.  John (the Baptist)'s followers were fasting.  The people who followed the church leaders were fasting.  Why wouldn't those around Jesus.  And he told them: "The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they?" (Mark 2:19)

We don't fast when we should be celebrating.  We don't fast on Sundays, and we don't fast when we should be celebrating.
So I release you from your fast, if only for a couple of hours.  Go ahead, have a smooch.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lenten Dusting

Everything’s smoke. We all end up in the same place—we all came from dust, we all end up as dust. -Ecclesiastes 3:20 (The Message)

It carries a different message when it comes in Ecclesiastes than when you hear it from Genesis.  In Genesis it's God (Almighty) thundering it at you in a quasi-James Earl Jones voice - YOU ARE DUST.  It sounds very threatening, condemning; God kicks you out of Eden, tells you how much your life is going to suck and then tells you that you will end up as dust.  Good threat.
In Ecclesiastes, it's a man - the teacher.  I hear it as  an elderly Yiddish man from the Lower East Side shrugging and saying, "Eh, what are you gonna do?  We're smoke.  I'm dust, you're dust, it's all meshuggina"

You are dust.  You're dust.  And if you aren't now, you will be.  No heaven, no afterlife, no warm light at the end of the tunnel.  Not in this scripture.  You're dust.
And lest you think that this is terrible news, don't.  It's liberating.
You. Are. Finite.  and this is bigger than you.

This is the Lent that is worth following.  this is bigger than you.

Not "New Years II - Return of the Resolution," Not "Piety Show-&-Tell."
this is bigger than you.

You're dust, and it 60, 90, 99 years your resolution won't be here.  The Coke that you may or may not have drunk won't be here; the radio in your car that you turned off for 40 days (plus Sundays) won't be here.  That's dust.
But something will still be.  Goodness will still be there, Humanity will still be there, God.  And you have a chance to contribute.

God is in all things good, and all goodness is in God.
this is bigger than you but not than Goodness.  So when you give something up, don't give it up for men, to be seen by them.  Don't give it up for Facebook, to be seen by Facebook.  Don't even give it up for God, to be seen by God.  God doesn't need to see your piety any more than Facebook does.  God will be fine.  When you fast, give something up that will contribute.
Don't give it up for yourself, to be seen by yourself.  This is bigger than you, and, let's face it, what isn't.  After all, at the end of it all
You're dust.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Philosophy of Language

The argument that Stevens is making here is one of empiricism against rationalism. Are the pears a priori or are the a posteriori?

Let me back up.

I have a daughter who is three months old. She is beautiful and strong, innocent and perceptive. But most of all she is inquisitive. Her eyes take up half of her head, it seems, and she looks at everything with a piercing gaze, moving methodically from the starboard side of her head to the port, locking on to any object she can make out. When something truly interesting catches her eye, she will cock her head slightly and squint her eyes just a fraction, as if she is trying to discern its reality.
But she has no words. At her age, she barely has sounds. So how does she define what she sees? When she sees her mother her eyes light up and she grins. But how does she define mother? She doesn't know what a mother, mom, mommy or mama is. She can't understand me when I tell her that Mom is home. How does she define mother?
And does Mom exist? She is young enough that objects have no permanence to her. She believes in mommy, indeed love mommy, only as far as she can see her, smell her, touch her. Her world is entirely a posteriori - known by experience; sensed. She is an empiricist. She knows only because she can see.

I love my little girl. She is my daughter, my princess, my angel and my joy. I have more words for her than this blog will allow me to write. I remember every moment... from the first time I held her to when she fell asleep in my arms this afternoon and I let my hand fall asleep because I didn't want to disturb her. I can tell you what she sounds like when she is happy or hungry or lonely. But right now she is up stairs in her swing... away from any sense I possess. I know for certain that I loved her before she was even born, before she kicked... just as I love her now, not seeing, hearing or smelling her. My world has elements of a priori - things I know before I can perceive them and things that remain after my perceptions are passed. I can be either empirical or a rationalist.

Back to the pears.

Stevens forces us to engage in a battle of language. How do these pears exist and what is the nature of their existence. They are not violins, models or any other manner of still life. Stevens takes away the use of metaphor in describing the pears in the first stanza. We are forced to confront the pears as they are, not in comparison to other things. Stevens then begins to describe the pears as a painter would, noticing color, form, shading and shadow. The pears may be on a canvas for all we know. These pears do not have scent or taste or texture, the do not even have a third dimension. We know of their top and their bottom, but not what is on the back of them. But always it is only the pear being described. Even the color of the pear, yellow, is described using only itself: "The yellow glistens. It glistens with various yellows..."

But without language, how do we understand these pears. They are not described as fruit or organic matter anywhere in the poem. They are not compared to anything else. And Stevens forces us to confront this reality in the final stanza. He tells us that the pears are distinct from our will. They exist beyond our perception... even their shadows are only non-descript blobs.

Stevens poem is an empiricist who has recognized the boundary of his realm, and is now searching for a way to understand something without senses, and without comparisons.

New Wine for New Wineskins

Three saplings and a skin of wine

    Grapes freshly crushed and newly fermented

Lambs blood on the door mixed with the smell of bread that can now never rise

and the crap shoot for whipped rags

A lance carrying an acidic sponge

The market value for 30 pieces of silver

Now the old temple curtain blankets the pale horse


The line I appreciate most in all this is the Magi's quip, "But there was no information, and so we continued…" I think that Eliot is telling something of the nature of time – that it was all there in the beginning. His references to biblical events that the magi witnessed on their journey include the book of Exodus (some fifteen hundred years prior to the birth of the Christ) to the gospels (thirty years after the birth) and up to Revelation, which was written some hundred years later but prophesies events that may or may not have occurred even now. Eliot seems to be claiming that the summation of existence was fundamentally changed by this birth, and that all that was and is and shall be was present.

The change is present in the other stanzas of the poem as well: in the change from a land of death to a land of life between stanza one and stanza two, and in the longing for the "hard and bitter agony" of the birth which the Magi longs for once he reaches his home.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Twas Brillig

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.