The Kindness of Strangers

For all practical purposes, I’ve been gone for a couple of weeks, so there are a few odds and ends catch-up items that I have laying around. Among them:

This week alone, the Treasury Department auctioned off $118 billion in debt. For those that prefer zeroes, that’s $118,000,000,000.00. And that’s just this week! Who buys that much in bonds from the Treasury Dept? To be sure, Americans don’t have that much money. That leaves China, Kuwait, the European Union, and Zimbabwe. … well, maybe not Zimbabwe.

Thank goodness for the kindness of suckers strangers who are willing to finance the latest government spending spree!

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Huskers Offense – Still Offensive

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, the Nebraska Cornhuskers offense was absolutely abominable this year. The last few games they’ve started to come around and they actually played very well for the first time this season when the Huskers creamed the U. of Arizona 0-33 at the Holiday Bowl on Thursday night.

But the old Husker Offense that we all know and love managed to show its face once again at the end of the game. When it came time to pour the Gatorade on Coach Pelini the defense was out on the field, so the job was up to the offense. I don’t know if they got their signals crossed, they didn’t connect, or it was just an old-fashioned turnover. Whatever you want to call it, in classic ’09 Husker fashion, they missed. The Gatorade ended up on the turf a foot or so behind the coach and Pelini stayed warm and dry.

Now that’s pourly executed offense! (Yep, it’s misspelled on purpose; I love puns.)

The Christmas Blizzard of ‘09

We travelled south for Christmas and missed the Christmas blizzard of ’09. We planned on returning Saturday 12/26 but had to stay overnight in Omaha because the interstate was closed. Sioux City got 21″. According to the Nat’l Weather Service in Sioux Falls, that was the most snow for any city in the region.

When we got to town late Sunday morning (after a slow drive from Omaha) this is what greeted us. (This is our driveway, btw.)

We turned around, went back to town, and had lunch.

The drifts were up to my belly button and I even got snow down my pants trudging my way to the house

Fortunately, we have good neighbors. Vern, who lives behind us, pulled in with his front-end loader a few minutes later and started clearing snow. In a half hour he had the big chunks done and after another two hours I finished the job with the snow blower.

The next big project is to dig our way to the bird feeder. (The mound of snow to the far right is also a feeder. Since the drift is taller than the feeder, that one may be out of commission until the snow melts a bit.)

And once again, Vern is about the best neighbor a guy could have. Thank you! Thank you!! Thank you!!!

Godless Hanukkah?

I heard bits and pieces of NPR’s annual Hanukkah show, Hanukkah Lights, over the last few days. Twaddle such as this must drive religious Jews to despair. It’s certainly entertaining twaddle, and I confess I look forward to the annual incarnation of the show every December, but entertaining as it might be, its shallow understanding of Jewishness even gives me and my goyish sensibilities pause.

Can the Jews be a people without being a people of God? They can be a culture, they can form a society, and even come together as a nation, but being a people requires an object: A people of God. Jewishness is more than matzos, mothers-in-law, and Yiddish aphorisms, Jewishness begins and ends in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The Festival of Lights is in honor of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabees defeated the forces of Antiochus Epiphanes. The revolt occurred because the Seleucids desecrated God’s temple.

Odd how Hanukkah (the celebration of post-desecration rededication) itself has now been desecrated by the contemporary secularism and secular Jews who use this once holy season to try to be a people set apart, not from the world around them, but from the living God himself so they can be a people unto themselves.

Of course, in this sense it’s no different than Christmas and Easter in the modern West (for those that weren’t aware of it, those are historically Christian religious festivals). But the desecration of Hanukkah is more poignant because of the sad irony involved.

Faith and Theology

On the way to looking for something else (about Anselm) I ran across this definition from Daniel Migliore:

If Christian faith is basically trust in and obedience to the freely gracious God made known in Jesus Christ, theology is faith asking questions and struggling to find at least provisional answers to these questions. [Faith Seeking Understanding, p. 2]

Now that is a classic Presbyterian/Reformed definition of faith and theology. (And this slim volume is one of the great introductions to Reformed theology, by the way. A must read for anybody that wants an alternative the excessive rationalism of the Westminster divines.) I especially like Migliore’s Trinitarian emphasis (echoes of Barth at this point) that faith is not faith in Christ, but rather faith in God through Christ (or as Migliore says it, “faith in God made known in Jesus Christ”).

That being said, I was struck by how far I’ve moved from this classically Presbyterian posture rooted in Anselm and championed by Barth, and then especially the Torrance brothers. (I’m not trying to drop names by the way, but rather provide readers with my theological mentors and intellectual trajectory.)

Following Anselm’s lead (ie, “faith seeking understanding”), this approach is a very intellectual pursuit. True faith produces questions (ie, intellectual dilemmas). Active faith, in turn, seeks to answer those questions (Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding”).

But today I was struck by how far off the mark this posture is. True faith, I would argue, produces, not intellectual dilemmas (at least not primarily intellectual dilemmas), but rather relational and moral dilemmas. What I am drawn to and dance around as a result of my faith is not a struggle to find answers, but rather a struggle to find my place in this love affair I have with God in Christ. The question isn’t, “What does this mean?” it’s “Why in the world ought I do this rather than that?”

And the choice of postures profoundly affects one’s understanding of theology as intellectual pursuit or response of the heart (or more technically, response of the nous).

The Anonymous God Blogger recently linked to an article about Kierkegaard by Jamie Moran. In the second paragraph Moran observes of Kierkegaard,

“Like all existentialists, he says the distinctions that matter in life are not hard to make so much as hard to face. Facing up to faith is extremely difficult: most human beings, especially the religious, falsify faith because they want to avoid what faith asks of them in their action, what it asks them to give in their living.” [from “Faith as a ‘Leap of Passion'”].

This is the difference between the intellectual posture expressed by Migliore and the relational posture that imbues Orthodoxy:

When we come face to face with God in Christ, the posture of faith is not hunching over a desk frantically searching to find out, “What does this mean?” It’s rather falling on our face before the Master crying, “I am unclean!”

Tidbits from “The Philosopher and the Wolf,” by Mark Rowlands

I’m currently reading The Philosopher and the Wolf by Mark Rowlands. Subtitled, “Lessons in Love, Death, and Happiness,” it is a wide-ranging story and philosophical meditation of Rowlands’ years spent with Brenin, his pet wolf.

One of the overarching themes is Rowlands’ comparing and contrasting of simian and lupine sensibilities. As he says at the beginning of the book, “I am concerned with the stories we tell to distinguish ourselves not from each other but from the other animals: the stories we tell about what makes us human.  … The wolf uncovers what is hidden in the stories we tell about ourselves– what those stories show but do not say [about the dark side of our humanity]” [location 48]. For those who choose to read the book with an eye to Christian theology, he inadvertently offers a quite wonderful description of the Fall (ie, the first human sin, not the season of autumn). I say “inadvertently” because this is a thoroughly secular book and any reference to theology is no doubt unintentional.

I won’t try to explain this description of The Fall (other than the final quote from the book, below); you’ll have to read the book to discover Rowlands’ take on humanity’s fallenness, because the theme is simply too complex and subtle to try to reproduce in an essay. On the other hand, his theory about the relationship between reason and pleasure (or the passions) is more succinct, and worth quoting:

“The history of human thought – and not just Western thought – is organized around a distinction between rationality or intelligence on the one hand and pleasure or enjoyment on the other. The latter two are consigned to the realm of base or brute desires. It is our intelligence or rationality that makes us human and divides us from the rest of nature. …”

Let me interrupt this paragraph to note that Rowlands is factually wrong on this point. While Western thought does indeed make this distinction, Eastern Orthodox anthropology distinguishes between the inner man (the nous) and the outer man (the body). The body is where the passions reign and is clearly where “pleasure and enjoyment” find their home. The body is indeed “the realm of base or brute desires.” But that is also where reason is to be found. It is a bodily function and an aspect of  “our brute desires” and not a function of the inner man or “nous.” So his sweeping generalization that reason is set opposite of desires in human thought, while true in Western thought, is not reflective of Eastern Orthodox thought. With this correction in mind, I will continue with the quote.

“… I think, however, that rationality and pleasure are far more intimately connected than we have been willing to allow. Our rationality is, in part, a consequence of our drive to acquire pleasure.” [location 836, about 31% of the way through the book]

Rowlands comes to this conclusion based on his research on apes/humans and wolves. And oddly enough, by living with a wolf, he has stumbled upon one of the great distinctions between Orthodox and Western Christian anthropology: Reason is not a “higher function” at all, according to Orthodox theology, but rather a consequence of our drive to satiate the fallen passions.

I’ll offer one more tantalizing quote on this subject from the previous page of the book:

“For the wolf, pleasure is a consequence of the drive to reproduce. The ape [including humans] has inverted this relationship. Of it, reproduction is an occasional – sometimes inconvenient – consequence of the drive to acquire pleasure.” [Location 825]

… The drive to acquire pleasure …

That is the essence of original sin, even if Mark Rowlands doesn’t believe in the concept.

[Note: I’m reading an e-book, so rather than page numbers, citations are based on the e-book location numbers, of which there are 2642 in this particular book.]

Christmas Hymns During Advent (gasp!!)

As a pastor I was a bit too idealistic, too ready to do all the correct things to the letter. All of this was to the consternation of my various congregations, who sometimes suffered silently with all my correctness and occasionally railed against me for (what they considered) my quirks. Probably the best example of this was my insistence that we save Christmas carols for Christmas (Dec. 25 – Jan 12) and stick with Advent hymns during Advent (the four weeks prior to Christmas Eve).

Of course it is absolutely American, and so by extension, obviously Christian to start singing Christmas carols the day after Thanksgiving, so my quirky idea to save Christmas carols for Christmas drove everyone nuts, especially Mrs. Musil, who rolled her eyes and harrumphed whenever the subject came up.

While it is absolutely American to sing Christmas carols during Advent instead of Christmas, it is liturgically correct (according to the standards of the contemporary ecumenical consensus and the guidelines of the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship) to save them for the twelve days. … And I was a stickler for liturgically correct!

The amusing thing (at least it’s amusing from the perspective of 5 years on and one state removed from the scene of the crime) is that the correct thing to do in the Presbyterian Church is to be guided by the corporate will. (And let me make clear that I’m not talking about some sort of democratic congregationalism here, I’m rather referring to the utterly fundamental Presbyterian principal of conciliarity.) The early church was guided by the corporate will of the great Councils and that principal was applied to every aspect of Presbyterian life. The congregation was guided by the Session (or Consistory). Congregations did virtually nothing on their own, but were formed into Presbyteries, Synods, and Assemblies, which were made up of representative elders from every congregation or Presbytery. Virtually nothing in the Presbyterian Church is left to the will of an individual; everything requires council because “where two or three are gathered [Christ] is in the midst.”

This concilliar system, as it played out historically in the Presbyterian Church, gave a great deal of authority to local option. Certainly the Book of Order was binding on congregations, but until the last decade or two, the Book of Order was a slim volume, giving great leeway to local congregations and regions to express the one faith with their local flavor.

And my insistence on saving Christmas carols for Christmas was a classic example of bull-headed leadership arbitrarily applying a technically correct idea to a context where it was foreign and therefore inappropriate because it lacked the consensus of the people.

The Orthodox Church is rather different than the Presbyterian Church. While there is certainly a concilliar principle at work within Orthodoxy, it is definitely a hierarchical body where the bishop (and the clergy, speaking on behalf of the bishop) has far more say in local affairs. One of the areas where there is no local option is in the matter of worship. Both the structure and contents of worship are not negotiable. If the bishop says it’s going to be done this way, that’s how it will be done. (Not that this has a lot to do with my story; I’m just observing that things are ordered differently in the Orthodox and Presbyterian communions.)

So, here I am in the liturgically-correct-by-order-of-the-bishop Orthodox Church during the Nativity Fast (what is called Advent in the West). Imagine my surprise when I heard a Christmas hymn during the section of the service where all the “hymns of the day” are sung!? The song I’m talking about is The Kontakion to the Theotokos Prior to Christmas and it goes like this:

Today the virgin cometh, cometh unto the cave, to give birth to the Word who was born before all ages, begotten in a manner that defies description. Rejoice therefore, oh universe, if thou should hear and glorify with the angels and the shepherds. Glorify Him, who by his will shall become a new born babe and who is our God before all ages.”

Granted, the last sentence is future tense. The Word “shall become a newborn babe,” so I suppose one could argue that it is an Advent hymn because in the last sentence it is looking forward. But the theme and content is Christmas all the way. You’ve got the babe born of the virgin, the angels and shepherds glorifying him … This is every bit as much a Christmas hymn as “Once in Royal David’s City” or “The First Nowell.”

So in the end, it turns out the joke was on me. All those years I was trying so hard to be liturgically correct. I think there’s no arguing that no one’s more liturgically correct than the Orthodox, and according to Orthodox standards, it’s okay to sing Christmas carols (well at least this one Christmas Kontakion) during Advent.

Sorry about that Mrs. Musil. Turns out your smarty-pants pastor was wrong. (But you knew that already!) In my defense, I was just doing what they told me in seminary.

Stop Political Calls

While visiting my dad this week, I was sitting in the lounge waiting for something or other reading the large print version of Reader’s Digest.  (I looked for something more trendy, like the AARP magazine, but I think that magazine aims at a younger demographic, so I had to settle for Reader’s Digest.)

I ran across a short article about an advocacy group called “Citizens for Civil Discourse.” One of their projects is a political robo-dialing do not call list. This is strictly volunteer on the part of the political organizations, but it’s a start. In other words, if you sign up, there’s no guarantee that the political organizations will not call. But I figure if enough of us sign up, they’ll start to get the message.

My one irritant is that you have to give “Citizens for Civil Discourse” a lot of personal information, but I guess that’s the trad-off for trying to get the politicos to back off.

The web site is http://www.stoppoliticalcalls.org/