patty kirk

patty kirk lying down, getting up, sitting at home, walking down the road doing deuteronomy 6:7

Thursday, April 4, 2013

you get what you give

Continuing on in Jesus’ interminable mountainside sermon, this morning I read, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2 NIV). Or, put more succinctly, you get what you give.

Thinking I’d invented a pithy aphorism, I googled it, but, alas, “you get what you give” was one of “About 3,280,000,000 results” in “0.25 seconds” of searching. Most of the results seemed to be references to a cheesy 1990s song by the New Radicals, a probably cheesier Glee rendition of it (apologies to my daughter Lulu, who’s a secret fan of Glee), and a 2010 Zac Brown album that didn’t appear to have a song by that name in it. So much, in any case, for originality.

Jesus’ comment is basically the upshot of the Golden Rule: Do to others what you’d have them to do you, ’cause, if you don’t, all the bad stuff you did to them is going to be done to you.

One might read this as a curse, a punishment, but it occurred to me as I was thinking about it that maybe it’s more of an existential rule, one of those invisible traits of God Paul says that everyone can see God’s creation. One gets one’s comeuppance.

In my experience, in any case, this is surely so. I once, with the blithe cruelty of a ninth grader, asked this girl Elaine why her arms were so hairy, and within weeks I’d grown a dark pelt on my own arms. A coincidence of our adolescence, perhaps. For me, though, it was clearly the result of my own judgmentalness. If you're mean to people, people are mean to you. If you let your bad mood stink up the room for everyone else, they get in bad moods too and you suffer their stink wherever you go. &c.

So, Jesus' pronouncement upon judging others is like a those first curses of scripture, for me: not so much a punishment as the natural consequencs of being out of sync with God’s way of doing things. Eating poisonous fruit leads to pain and death. Passing your own bad decisions on to others wrecks your relationships with them. That’s just how things work.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

life stinks

Having questioned Jesus’ rhetorical skills the other day—in regard to his serving two masters analogy—I would like to laud them in what I read for today: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34 NIV).

I just love the personification of tomorrow here! That days worry and have trouble. How true that seems.

And how pessimistic and human-sounding, especially when he says, “Each day has enough trouble of its own.” It makes him into a more pragmatic and gloomy guy, more down-to-earth, than I typically think of him.

When I said so to Kris at breakfast, he said the line reminded him of those old Jewish “life stinks” jokes, like that one Woody Allen told where two old women go to a restaurant, and afterwards one of them complains, “Such bad food!” and the other one says, “Such small portions, too!”

It amuses me to think of Jesus like that. A real guy, quipping wise, sour truth about this life he emptied his godself to take on.

Friday, March 29, 2013

pond-water creatures

Since it is spring, I took my run v-e-r-y slowly this morning so that I could pay attention to the birds. I counted thirty species in six miles. The exciting ones for me were a female northern parula (took me a while to identify it), numerous yellow-rumped warblers (I only ever see them in early fall, when the poison ivy berries are ripe), a yellow-bellied sapsucker, a flock of cedar waxwings (I’ve seen lots this year, for some reason, but they always excite me), and a pair of what must have been purple martins and not house finches because they were red all over.

My reading for today from Jesus’ mountainside sermon mentions birds:  “[D]o not worry about your life,” Jesus advises, “what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:25-26 NIV).

It’s good advice but, in my experience, hard to follow.

I do take comfort, though, in God’s apparent love of birds. Surely he’s not only feeding them but observing them, as I do. Keeping track of their songs and habits. Admiring them. Watching them mate. (Disturbing thought, given the analogy.) Perhaps counting them. (There were forty-two cedar waxwings.)

Spring offers so many reminders that God cares about every part of his creation: the smallest animals—birds, bugs, pond-water creatures. God values “the flowers of the field” and even the grass that springs up everywhere and that, as Jesus points out, we mow off without so much as thinking about it, tossing the clippings into the fire (Matthew 6:28-30). And, according to Jesus, God cares about us humans even more.

Imagine it: Right this second, the maker of all creation is thinking about you! Having a look at what you’re up to. Paying attention.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

slinging the slang

I started out with the plan of arguing that the basis of Jesus’ analogy about money and God—the one cannot serve two masters, that “Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24 NIV)—for me really only works for God and money. Not for any other two masters I can think of. For example, I currently have two bosses, and I don’t hate either one of them. I don’t really even prefer one to the other. I mean, I get it that having money as my master would significantly interfere with having God as my master. No problem there. It’s just, the analogy doesn’t work for me as an analogy.

Then it occurred to me that it’s Maundy Thursday, the day before our traditional commemoration of Jesus’ execution—a bad day, it seemed to me, to be finding fault with Jesus as a rhetorician in this instance.

So, I’m not going to go there. Instead, I will tell you where the word maundy comes from, as I’m sure you’ve been wondering that ever since you read the word here, maybe ever since you first heard the news. I know I have.

It is a shortened form of the first word of the Latin phrase, Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos, the first sentence of the Mass said on that day back in the Middle Ages. The Middle English word maunde—which came to refer to the Last Supper and also to the ceremony of washing feet which Jesus performed at the Last Supper—derived from the French word (remember, after the Norman Conquest in 1066, they were there in England, massively influencing our language the way they refuse to let us do these days) mandé, invented in the days when Latin language for all things religious was so ubiquitous that people made up little shortened versions to sling around. Religious slang, as it were.

The Latin phrase is the Vulgate translation of what Jesus says to his disciples when he’s washing their feet: “A new commandment I give you: Live one another, as I have loved you.” Mandatum—or, for short, maunde or mandé or maundy—is the word commandment.

My research of this matter took me back to—no surprise when the Holy Spirit’s involved—this business serving two masters. Here’s the explanation of footwashing—or, more generally, the love one another mandé—that Jesus offers after Peter first balks, then gives in, saying, “Then, Lord…not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” (John 13:9): “Do you understand what I have done for you?...I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 3:12, 15-16).

We are to be, in other words, servants to one another, to treat one another as our masters—just as Jesus treated all of us as his master, in some sense. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am,” he explains (John 13:13). But he is also our servant. As our master, he serves us, just as we should do to one another. That’s Jesus’ definition of love.

Not too sure if I got to a point, here, but it’s been fun trying.

PS: The noun slang, as I’ve suggested here, really does derive from the verb sling. I checked. I love etymology. (But I love God more, just to make that clear.)


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

is alligator fish or meat?

Fasting seems to be out of fashion anymore. Even during Lent. Or, did fasting use to be—like during Jesus’ forty day fast in the desert—something other than what I think of when I think of fasting: namely, eating nothing?

Here’s the evidence. Used to, Christians fasted, apparently. Otherwise, why would Jesus go on about how to do it right? Here’s what he says: “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18 NIV).

Fasting was once common, evidently. And reward-worthy (if performed correctly).

But what was that fasting? Was it, as today among Catholics, that people abstained from meat every Friday during Lent. Or ever Friday throughout the year, as was the case in New Orleans, when I lived there? Or did people, regularly and ostentatiously refrain from eating altogether?

I’ve been hearing, lately, of hunger strikes in the news. And it’s Lent, so there was a report on the radio about whether, for Catholics who don't eat meat on Fridays during Lent, the alligator was considered a fish, and could thus be consumed on Fridays, or a mammal, and thus couldn’t. (Answer: fish; can be eaten).

And, in my yoga class, I recently underwent a fast of sorts: we were only allowed to eat fruit for three days. They called it a fruit cleanse, but I refused to use that terminology, which makes me think of defecation and anorexics.

The fruit fast was hard, especially on day 2. My stomach growled even as I was eating. But day three was better, and afterwards, I felt so different. Clean.

Not saying much of anything here, I fear. I feel all blogged up. And I missed a day, yesterday. Oh well. Just a few more days till Easter!

Monday, March 25, 2013

gute nacht

Tonight my yoga instructor read from a book written by her yoga teacher, Baron Baptiste, who was raised without faith of any kind and then apparently, in adulthood, became a Christian.

In the passage my yoga instructor read, Baptiste was going on about how growing up he had thought all that was important in life was power and sex. Then, he figured out that didn’t fill him. There I was face to the floor in child’s pose, not really paying attention but just concentrating on my breathing and wishing she’d quit reading stuff and make us sweat, and she’s going on about how this guy discovered that “the real toughness was living from my soul, not my muscles or macho-ness” (or something like that). Then, suddenly, she quotes this guy quoting Jesus: “Be therefore transformed by the renewing of your mind from within.” It made me, there in child’s pose, my fleshy body sandwiched between thirty something skinny souls, cry real tears.

Afterwards I discovered that it was actually Paul, not Jesus, who said that (in Romans 12:2), which was distressing, and that the “from within” part isn’t in any translations I can find. But still. That is my scriptural gift to you tonight, via Baron Baptiste, via my yoga instructor. It is a good thing to think on and cry about.

Gute Nacht.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

cross-country in my semi-trailer

Me: So why do you think Jesus says we shouldn’t go on and on about what all we need since God already knows what we need anyway but then, immediately afterward, gives us the right way to pray, the ideal prayer, in which he has us praying for God to provide our various needs. I mean, isn’t that a contradiction?

Kris: Only if you think prayer is for God’s benefit. Which it’s not. It’s for our benefit. You know, like how he said that man wasn’t made for the Sabbath but that the Sabbath was made for man? It’s the same with prayer. Prayer, just like the Day of Rest, is for our benefit, not God’s.

Me: But how does it benefit us to pray?

Kris: Well, articulating it, putting it into words, helps us know what we think.

(He then gave me a made up example that didn’t help me—as made up examples never do—about how every time I take off cross-country in my semi-trailer it always makes him so mad and how saying that he’s mad helps him realize that’s what’s going on. There ensued a little argument in which I said he wouldn’t ever pray his anger to God—he can barely admit it to me—and he said that the psalmists and Job often prayed their anger, so it must be okay, and I said, it’s not about whether it’s okay or not but that I knew he’d never do it, that the only prayers I’ve ever heard him say were for things he needed—or wanted, in any case, and the argument ended, as our arguments generally do, with his saying, “You’re probably right.”)

Me: So, then, how does it benefit you to pray for what you need?

Kris: Because it’s good for thought. Good to say it and think about it, rather than just live from moment to moment without ever thinking about all the things you need that God takes care of.
Me: Ah.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

a good closet prayer

Although it utterly baffles me why Jesus does it, I really appreciate that, having given us all sorts of advice on how not to pray—not standing up in church, not in a public place, not babbling wordily like a pagan, not asking for anything since God already knows what we need—Jesus then pretty much contradicts himself in giving us what we have come to call the “Lord’s Prayer” (or, in the Catholic tradition in which I was raised, the “Our Father”).

“This, then, is how you should pray,” he tells us:

Oh Father of us all, up there in heaven, your name is holy. Let the end come, so that we can be with you in that heavenly place and, like everyone else does up there, do what it is you want us to do. In the meantime, please make sure we have what we need from day to day and forgive us when we mess up, just as we forgive—or at least try to forgive—those who mess up in our lives. Protect us from being tempted to do the wrong thing, as we are so prone to do. (my paraphrase of Matthew 6:9-13).
It is, surely, the most commonly prayed prayer. One hears of people automatically reciting it in response to some emergency or disaster. Believers often pray it corporately—usually standing in church, I might point out—but it also makes a good closet prayer. It covers everything there could be to say to our Father in heaven: praise for his holiness and that he deigns to be our Father in the first place, eagerness to join him in heaven, and acceptance of his will, and it closes—despite Jesus’ prohibition against asking for things God already knows what we need—with three comprehensive requests: for daily provision, for forgiveness, and for protection against our own messed-up-ness.

Nevertheless, when overcome—as I often am—by prayer-inertia, I often forget that I can pray this prayer. That Jesus takes care of even that for us, the praying, just as he did on Gethsemane.

Friday, March 22, 2013


I’ve never felt very confident as a pray-er. I feel guilty praying only for things I want to happen, but, if I don’t say those things, what else is there to say? You can only say “I’m sorry” so long before it starts to sound insincere. I hate praying aloud: it’s always so embarrassing and what I say is always so chaotic. And, whether in private or public, I can never think of enough to say. I typically find myself ending with an apologetic “Well, that’s all I have to say.”

Jesus’ various teachings on how to pray, while not particularly obscure or difficult to translate as far as I can tell from the commentaries, vary considerably from version to version. Here Matthew 6:5-8 in the NIV:  “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Okay, I think. Don’t pray standing up in church.
Um, so, when you’re told to stand, you just sit down and refuse to participate? It sounds like how I used to have to do with the Apostles’ Creed when they got to the harrowing of hell part. I couldn’t pray it forth if I didn’t believe it, and, no matter how hard the Presbyterian pastor tried to talk me into believing it, I couldn’t, since it’s not in the Bible, as far as I can tell. So I would always stop praying at that part, which embarrassed my daughters, who argued I was doing it to show off.

But then, Don’t pray in the street. Yay! One thing I do right. Or that is, that I don't do wrong. I've never once had the urge to pray in the street, though I did use to have the urge at Weightwatchers meetings. So much pain and struggle there. I was often overwhelmed with the thought that God needed to come down and be there for it. But I never prayed it out loud, thank God.

Pray in private. Check. Unusually in bed.

But then comes the tricky part: Get to the point! Don’t babble like a pagan! Oh. My. God. That is such a description of how I pray. I babble. Pointlessly. Exactly like some wacky pagan. The only part that’s to the point is that valediction: “Well, that’s all I have to say.”

In the same passage in the NRSV, Jesus counsels us not to “heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do.” That makes way more sense to me. Don’t use that same old empty, emptied words that we tend to resort to in these situations. Words that don’t make me think. That roll right past me without engaging my brain and heart.

As a kid, my husband Kris, whose family did not attend church, grew up reading the King James Version nightly with his parents and took to heart Jesus’ admonition in that translation, “when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” As a result, to this day, he kneels in our closet, in the dark, whenever he thinks I’m not around. There, I’m sure he painstakingly avoids the “vain repetitions” of “the heathen.” But he prays for things, that I'm sure of, even though he knows, as I do—as surely all who pray to our all-knowing Father do—that God already knows what we need before we ask.

But if that’s so, one might ask, what’s the point?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

what then should we do?

Today I was preparing talking points for an interview on my new book, The Easy Burden of Pleasing God, which is about our spiritual work. It had occurred to me recently, long after the book was written and revised and revised again and copyedited and printed, that we approach our spiritual work so differently than the other work we pursue in life. For the latter, we choose options we might like to do, jobs we think we’d be good at. We expect that work to give us not only money with which to support ourselves but pleasure.

Even my first job, which I got at fifteen years old—yes, I lied about my age)—and stayed with on into college, demonstrates the role that enjoyment played in my choice: I worked for minimum wage (then $3.15/hour) at a fancy bookstore at South Coast Plaza. Others I knew worked at Albertson’s supermarket, where, for exactly the same work of ringing things up and organizing things on shelves, made, because supermarkets in California were unionized, $7.50/hour. Why? Pleasure, for them, meant whatever it was they wanted to do with two and a half times as much money as I made. In each instance, though, it was worth it. We were motivated by enjoyment.

We select our spiritual jobs so differently. We are motivated by duty and guilt. We regard God’s work as a sacrifice, a duty, not as something we deep down want to do or even are good at doing. For me at least, even when I’m doing some worthy spiritual task I’m certain is what God wants and expects of me, I’m typically deep down resentful. I’d rather be doing anything else.

Not only that, but when I’m doing whatever it is, or having done it, I feel, most times, like a failure. I never love or give or pray or share the good news or humble myself as well as I think I should.

Anyway, as I say, I was working on talking points and thinking about this business of the difference between our regular worklives and our spiritual worklives, and it occurred to me that I didn’t really know a good way to refer to what it was I meant by our spiritual work. It was, I decided, our response to the question I vaguely remembered people asking Jesus: What then should we do?

So I looked it up, and lo, I discovered it was not Jesus they were asking but John the baptizer. (Hence this momentary foray out of Jesus’ mountainside sermon into another time in Jesus’ early history we’ve already visited.) John was preaching, in this case, going on, as Jesus would soon be going on, about how evil they were.

“You brood of vipers!” he rails at them. “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. . . . The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:7-9 NIV).

The crowds surrounding John are so dismayed! “What then should we do?” they ask him, clearly horrified. Then the tax collectors ask the same thing: “What then should we do?” Then the soldiers ask the same thing: “What then should we do?”

It is, I’m guessing, Everyperson’s question. Given all the rules of scripture, and recognizing that our best efforts are dirty rags, what, oh what, should we do? And how do we go about it with the same enthusiasm with which we do other worthy work?

That’s what my book’s about, I decided I’d tell the radio host, if I got the chance.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

down in the basement

Having established that we’re to practice righteousness—which, as I say, I prefer to understand as practice in the sense of practicing the banjo, with the view that, even though we stink at it, we should keep on plugging away at getting little by little better—Jesus spends a sizeable chunk of his sermon exhorting us not to practice our righteousness in front of others in order to be honored by them. Instead, we should practice in private, keeping our holy efforts secret—even, ideally, from ourselves.

For each example he gives of the show-offy righteousness we should avoid—ostentatiously giving to the needy, praying in church, or fasting—Jesus repeats the same line: “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:2,5, 16 NIV).

There used to be this guy at my church who, whenever someone was lauded by the pastor or anyone else for godly behavior, would comment, archly, “Well, he got his reward.”

(Can’t figure out a way to be gender-inclusive here, but it’s probably not really necessary, as the ones I remember being lauded and commented upon were the men who led us in prayer and handed out Bibles at the Hurricane Katrina refugee camps, not the women down in the basement teaching and cleaning up after everyone else’s kids every Day of Rest.)

Anyway, that guy used to crack me up.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

practicing right-wise-ness

The artificial separation of the original books of the Bible into chapters, perpetrated back in the thirteenth century, often troubles me, as do most paratextual decisions made by others about my own books. How did Stephen Langley, Archbishop of Canterbury, know where the ancient writers wanted their work broken? More specifically, why break in the midst of Jesus’ mountainside sermon, of all places? And, even more specifically, why break midsermon at precisely the place he does break?

The last sentence of the end of Matthew 5—“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 NIV)—does have, I admit, a certain culminative feel to it after all Jesus’ smaller “You’ve heard it said that…, but I say that…” behavioral instructions that precede it. Still, to me the first sentence of Matthew 6—“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them”—seems unnaturally separated from the directive from which it derives: the call to be perfect as God is perfect, or to be utterly and totally righteousness.

If I might be momentarily afforded as much license as that old archbishop to shape how we’re to understand this part of Jesus’ sermon, I would like to paraphrase Jesus’ sermon as follows:

You’ve been told lots of things about how to be righteous. But I’m telling you, being righteous is a much bigger enterprise than those measly directives. Indeed, to be truly righteous, you need to be perfect as God is perfect. (I won’t add the caveat I think Jesus implies here: namely, that being as righteous as God is impossible for us humans.) But when you practice this sort of righteousness, be careful not to do it to show off…

Jesus then goes on to give examples of how one might show off one’s righteousness.

Suffice it to say that, for me, this is a crucial moment in Jesus’ teaching, where the apparent call to perfect righteousness and our inherent unrighteousness collide. Is Jesus really expecting us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect? If so, why does he point out, in the very next breath, that our very attempts at righteous behavior will be poisoned by pride? The two sentences, read sequentially, house the dilemma of Christian living: how to reconcile our goal of perfection with our inherent imperfection.

Later in Jesus’ life he will make clear his own role in resolving that dilemma. In dying for us and then coming back to life, he does our righteousness for us. What does that mean, though, in terms of daily living? Should we, or shouldn’t we, strive for perfection? Is Jesus’ command to his listeners then still valid for us?

The operative word in this early sermon, it seems to me, is “practice.”* It helps me understand Jesus’ instruction if I read the word “practice,” here, in the sense of practicing piano—as in, learning how to play better.

No matter how much we might like to, independent of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, we can’t be perfect as God is perfect. But we can practice.

*The Greek word translated as “practice” in the 2011 NIV is ποιέω—poieō, the source of our word poem. It means, very broadly, to do, which is how it was translated in the original NIV of 1984: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them.” In the 2011 NIV, in addition making of this passage gender-inclusive and getting rid of the mysterious quotation marks (hooray!), the massive group of NIV translators and editors called the International Bible Society changed “do” in this sentence to “practice” and “acts of righteousness” to simply “righteousness.” So, instead of talking about when we “do “‘acts of righteousness,’” Jesus in the newer translation is talking about when we “practice righteousness.”

Monday, March 18, 2013

therfore be ye parfit, as youre heuenli fadir is parfit

Before I go on to chapter 6 of Matthew—the next big chunk of Jesus’ mountainside sermon—I thought I’d read back through chapter 5 in John Wycliffe’s translation (made in 1382) to see if I discovered anything instructive or interesting.

Here are some of Wycliffe’s turns of phrase from that I especially liked:

“Blessid ben mylde, for thei schulen welde the erthe.” (Matheu 5:4). Or, to spell it according to modern English, “Blessed be the mild, for they shall wield the earth. To wield, in those weapon-wielding days, meant to control, rule, or manage.

And, “Blessid ben thei that hungren and thristen riytwisnesse, for thei schulen be fulfillid" (Matheu 5:6). Riytwisenesse = right-wiseness. What a good word for righteousness—that is wisdom about what’s right!

And here’s the last sentence of chapter 5, pretty much the same as modern translations but just so wonderful-sounding, and somehow slightly less impossible-seeming, in Wycliffe’s original spelling: “Therfore be ye parfit, as youre heuenli fadir is parfit” (Matheu 5:48).

Sunday, March 17, 2013


When I read the Bible all the way through for the first time, I found the Psalms irrelevant to my life and, frankly, boring. Sometimes lyrical, it’s true—insofar as verses in translation can be lyrical. And reputedly prophetic of Jesus (though that remained a doubt area for me).

But all this talk of enemies! A hundred or so references to them in the 150 Psalms. The psalmist is surrounded by them, oppressed by them, persecuted and gloated over and mocked by them, ignored by them. He begs God to scatter them, destroy them, crush their heads, make them lick the dust.

Who in the world prays such prayers? Who in the world, for that matter, has so many enemies? The only enemies I could remember having had in my life thus far were the girls in my seventh grade home ec class who cut up the culottes I had just about finished sewing, and I had ended up being best friends with their ringleader a year later. Don’t people grow out of having enemies, once they grow up? Not a single adult I knew was plagued by enemies—certainly not an enemy like old crazy Saul was to David. Soldiers maybe were, but I didn’t really know anyone in the military. I decided that the days of David and Saul were past, at least for ordinary non-militants like me.

Many years after that first Bible read-through, though, I ended up seriously on the wrong side of most of my colleagues over a matter of an invited speaker. I won’t bore you (and possibly het myself up) with the details. Suffice it to say that my concept of being surrounded by enemies changed that semester, as did my understanding of the word enemy.

An enemy, I discovered, was not some crazy aggressor who inexplicably had it in for me, some enemy combatant I could depersonalize with some curse-name, but a former friend or well-wisher that I was on the outs with. Someone, in other words, that I was in conflict with. And God knows I’m surrounded by such everyday: colleagues, bosses, friends or siblings who’re upset with me or with whom I'm upset, my church pastor maybe, my daughters, my husband. Name a person in some way related to me, and that person has probably been my enemy at one time or another.

So I arrive at the culmination of Jesus’ little treatise on anger: Not only is calling someone an idiot a serious sin, not only should you offer your other cheek to someone who slaps you and give those who sue you even more than they ask for, but, in general, you should “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 NIV).

Having come to a more relevant understanding of the word enemy than what I started out with, I believe what Jesus is saying we should do here is both a smaller and a more difficult enterprise than it might at first seem. To be perfect, to be God-like—which, in the next breath (Matthew 5:48), Jesus calls us all to be—we need to operate out of love by seeking reconciliation always. Not with some impersonal enemy that we probably won’t ever have but with the enemies who surround us all: the adversaries we daily make of those around us.

Even when we’re legitimately upset. Even when we feel wronged. Even when—especially when—we know we’re in the right.

(I’ve written a lot more on this topic, in case anyone’s interested, in my new book, The Easy Burden of Pleasing God.)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

don't resist an evil person: theology and stuff from my husband

Me: What do you think Jesus is trying to tell us when he says, “Do not resist an evil person”?

(I showed Kris the passage: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42 NIV)

Kris: Well, of course, Jesus often hyperbolized.

Me: Yeah, but even if he is hyperbolizing here, his meaning is still along the lines of what he’s hyperbolizing about. I mean, hyperbole’s just an emphasizing tool; it’s not like irony, where you’re saying the opposite of what you mean. What’s he trying to tell us?

Kris: Well, you could take him literally, of course. Then he’d be talking about pacifism to the point of not even defending yourself from an attack. Like not responding to Pearl Harbor. (Kris always goes to history in his responses to my questions about scripture. History, for him, is the primary repository of knowledge. For me, it’s personal experience.)

Me: That’s not what I’m wanting to do. Take it literally. What I’m trying to figure out is what Jesus is wanting me to take away from all this.

Kris: Well, Jesus himself wasn’t all that much of a pacifist. He turns the tables over in the temple on two occasions. He constantly offends people, calls them broods of vipers and not Abraham’s children. He says they’re fit for hell. And, you know, his disciples keep asking him, “Don’t you know you’re offending these people?” but he keeps on doing it. And, you know, Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek,” but he was hardly meek himself. After he has offended the Pharisees on more than one occasion, he slips away. And Jesus says it’s bad to call people “Raca,” but he calls them worse than that. He says people are evil. He says, “Woe to you.”

Me: (I can’t remember what I asked him here; I was too busy transcribing Kris's response.)

Kris: No. I think Jesus is saying, in a given situation, we should respond first with generosity, not anger and violence. That, in the end, we’ll be measured by the same measure we use, so we should respond as we would want to be responded to.

Me: So, you’re saying, it wasn’t wrong to respond to Pearl Harbor?

Kris: Well, pacifists—like the Amish and the Mennonites—might say it was. But, you know, they have some pretty severe punishments. Like shunning and exiling people.

Me: (I said something here. Don’t know what.)

Kris: Well, as I say, Patty. That panel discussion I went to years and years ago, when I was an undergraduate, about religious views on war, violence, was it justified? And there was this Mennonite on the panel. He wasn’t a typical Mennonite, I guess, because he was a theology professor or something and I don’t think Mennonites even have theology and stuff. Anyway, he thought that war was wrong in general, but that, in his opinion, some wars were justified. In the end, though, he said, “When we go to war, we should do it with great regret, with a heavy heart, and as a last resort.” But he also said, when we go to war, we should do it brutally and inhumanely. Because that’s what war is: killing people.


Friday, March 15, 2013

if anyone

Honesty time: Today I am not in the mood for another one of these “You’ve heard it said some sort of extreme way things are to be done, but I say some even more extreme way things should be done.”

Just can’t hear it. Resistance. Irritation.

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well” (Matthew 5:39-40 NIV).

And if some guy wants to hold you up at gunpoint and rape you, let him; &c.

I can’t think about this today.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

swearing by almighty god, the searcher of hearts, &c.

Jesus little dissertation on how we shouldn’t make oaths—not by God or heaven or earth or Jerusalem or by the hair of our heads—is pretty straightforward. The “You have heard it said…but I say” construction he uses here and many other times in his mountainside sermon establishes the degree of perfection God expects of us. Soon he’ll sum up this sentiment by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 NIV)—a charge that points up the impossibility of its fulfillment. We should strive for such perfection, but we will fail.

That said, I’ve never much had the urge to make oaths. I have, on occasion, said an intention-empty (and regrettable) “I swear to God.”

The only situation in which I can imagine even undertaking an oath of any kind would be if I were asked to put my hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God in court as they do in TV court dramas. Which got me wondering, does that really happen anymore and how—this country having been established by some pretty legalistic Bible devotees—did it ever get started in the first place?

So, I did some research and discovered the following:

The phrase about telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing has been standard trial language in Britain since the Middle Ages, and the Puritans brought it with them to the New World. In his 1787 essay “On Test Laws, Oaths of Allegiance and Abjuration, and Partial Exclusions from Office,” Noah Webster both referenced the phrase and, if I get his meaning at all (which I may not: I struggle, in this passage, with the legal or moral or philosophical ramifications of the word new), more or less dismissed its demands: “An oath creates no new obligation. A witness, who swears to tell the whole truth, is under no new obligation to tell the whole truth. An oath reminds him of his duty; he swears to do as he ought to do; that is, he adds an express promise to an implied one. A moral obligation is not capable of addition or diminution.”

Nevertheless, both the language and the practice of swearing on the Bible made it into John Bouvier’s Law Dictionary, the first wholly American, as distinguished from British, dictionary of legal terms and practices, published in 1839. Bouvier defined an oath as “A declaration made according to law, before a competent tribunal or officer, to tell the truth; or it is the act of one who, when lawfully required to tell the truth, takes God to witness that what he says is true. It is a religious act by which the party invokes God not only to witness the truth and sincerity of his promise...”

Bouvier went on to say “It is proper to distinguish two things in oaths; 1. The invocation by which the God of truth, who knows all things, is taken to witness. 2. The imprecation by which he is asked as a just and all-powerful being, to punish perjury. 3. The commencement of an oath is made by the party taking hold of the book, after being required by the officer to do so, and ends generally with the words, ‘so help you God,’ and kissing the book, when the form used is that of swearing on the Evangelists.”

There were, according to Bouvier, various other forms that such an oath might take that I found enlightening—both about the habits of our early country and about oath-taking in general. He details two variations—“the witness or party promising holding up his right hand while the officer repeats to him, ‘You do swear by Almighty God, the searcher of hearts, that,’ &c., ‘And this as you shall answer to God at the great day’” and what’s referred to as an affirmation, when “the officer repeats, ‘You do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm, that,’ &c.”

(I would like to get in the habit of using &c instead of etc., by the way. Looks so oldfashiondy-nice.)

Bouvier was also careful to stipulate that “The oath, however, may be varied in any other form, in order to conform to the religious opinions of the person who takes it.”

Though the habit of putting one’s hand on a Bible to swear an oath has survived into modern times, Quakers have been objecting to since the country’s early days—citing, according to an excellent Slate article I read, not Jesus in his mountainside sermon but his brother James’s more emphatic encapsulation of it: “Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Otherwise you will be condemned” (James 5:12)—and it’s now possible, as Bouvier suggests it may in theory always have been, for you to use a different book or, I’m guessing, none at all.

That’s what I guess I’d do, upon all this consideration, if I had to testify in court and were asked to put my hand on the Bible or say "so help me God."

“No thanks,” I’d say. “I don’t swear oaths on God or books. But yeah, I’ll tell the truth, to the best of my memory. That'll have to be enough.”

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

victims of adultery

It’s astonishing to me how quickly after establishing the big matters of faith—the nature of true contentment, the call for us to be salt and light to one another, the role of scriptural commands in salvation—Jesus turns in his mountainside sermon to what seem like fine points of Christian life. I guess what he’s saying is, “Here’s how to live in general. Now let’s look at how that’s likely to play out in the day-to-day.”

First he takes up our tendency, from earliest childhood, to get mad at one another. For this oh-so-common everyday offense, reconciliation is the only answer. Being salt and light to one another.

Then he takes up how we make victims of those around us through our infidelities to those whom we ourselves committed to love and cherish—specifically through lust, adultery, and divorce. Jesus tells the crowds around him that “anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32 NIV).

This is, nowadays, hard teaching. So many of us are divorced or have married someone who is divorced. And we live in such a hypersexual society that lust, adultery, and divorce seem too normal to be all that serious. Close to half of all high school students in the U.S. report having had sexual intercourse. Our society’s various lusts—for porn, for hook ups, relationships outside of our primary relationships—are fueled and facilitated by the immediacy of the internet. Porn statistics are all over the place; suffice it to say it’s ubiquitous. Somewhere between thirty to sixty percent of all married Americans will be unfaithful at some time in their marriage. Half of Americans who marry these days divorce. Infidelity of all kinds is so much a part of our culture that we don’t even see it. And yet, according to Jesus, though, infidelity is serious business—so much so that even just fantasizing about it merits being “thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29).

Even in Jesus’ own times—judging from the consternation Jesus’ listeners seem to display on the subject of divorce, though, as well as from accounts like that of the woman with five husbands that Jesus meets at the well—infidelity was probably pretty widespread and normal-seeming. Jesus speaks, then as now, right past the normalcy of infidelity to the problem at its root: it makes victims of everyone concerned, not only the adulterer’s spouse but the person who may later marries him or her and most especially the children of all the marriages involved, who are not only emotionally and relationally but economically damaged by divorce. Even adult children of divorced are very often deeply distraught when their parents divorce.

These victims, I think Jesus is saying, are the ones we need to be concerned with, not ourselves and our desires—or, as we like to say these days, our needs. He doesn’t offer any sort of counsel on infidelity beyond that word victim. Think of your victims, he seems to be preaching.


Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Next up in Jesus’ mountainside sermon is anger, which he says is tantamount to murder, one of the ten worst sins referenced on Moses’ stones.

He starts with what is seemingly the tamest case—“anyone who is angry with a brother or sister” (Matthew 5:22 NIV)—and renders it even tamer sounding in the concrete: “Anyone who calls a brother or sister ‘Stupidhead!’” (Matthew 5:22, my paraphrase). The potential punishment, though, is anything but tame: being subject to God’s judgment, even hellfire.

Sounds harsh. If you grew up with siblings or watched your own children closely, however, you are familiar with the secret ferocity of the rage he’s talking about—how, though it begins in earliest childhood, it truly is akin to murder. Indeed it would be murder more often, I think, if small ones were more adept in their violence. When I think back on the wraths of my own childhood—I remember, especially, an instance involving a handful of my or my combatant’s hair, ripped out by the roots—I see what Jesus is getting at. I honestly can’t remember whose hair it was, my own or my sister’s, but I remember the spongy pink underside of the scalpskin and, beneath that, the rage. It’s not merely the severity of the action, Jesus is saying; it’s the intent, the attitudes and feelings, that merit eternal punishment.

Also those without siblings are subject to anger on occasion. Rage spans our lives, beginning on the playground and ending in court. We fume against our parents, our employers, our spouses, our children, our closest friends. Even the total strangers who ring up our purchases in stores can kindle our annoyance, frustration, impatience—all synonyms for wrath. Anger is, hands down, the most common symptom of most mental illnesses. It is, on occasion, every person’s sin.

It would have been nice had Jesus iterated, here, what we believers know to be true: that we can’t escape our angry selves, that the only way to avoid hellfire is through genuine shame and acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice to pay for our murderous rages. But, of course, Jesus hadn’t yet made that sacrifice that day on the mountainside, and the sermon he preached is less about the next life than it is about this one—how we might live better, happier lives while we’re still here.

There is a cure for the inevitable rages of this life, and it is this: conciliatory heart.

Jesus is uncommonly clear about this. “First go and be reconciled,” he counsels (Matthew 5:24). And again, “Settle matters quickly with your adversary” (Matthew 5:25). Reconciliation is not only the wisest solution—you can’t win against someone else’s anger, he argues—but the best one, from God’s point of view. Even church attendance isn’t as important as getting along.

Such a simple cure, and yet so difficult to learn and do. To be reconciled. To settle matters when someone has it in for us. To give in.

Jesus’ gargle of a curseword, raca—“Fool!” but meaner sounding—sums up all sin, it seems to me. It is my father’s growl of annoyance that I have inherited. It my daughters’ arrogance, inherited from me. It is my certainty, in every situation, that I am right and whoever else is wrong.

And, in this early sermon, Jesus seems to be saying it’s up to me to do something about it.

Monday, March 11, 2013


At my conference, someone directed my attention to a postcard featuring a photo of one tattooed man embracing another from behind with the caption, “Mexico: Where ‘Jesus Loves You’ takes on a whole new meaning.”

That got me to thinking about how, in English at least, even Jesus’ name has lost almost all of its original meaning. For one thing, it has lost, as most names (both in the Bible and out) have, its meaning as a regular word—in this case, as a diminutive form of the Hebrew name Joshua, which once meant Jehovah saves.

I don’t know how common Jesus was as a name in Jesus’ time. Apparently not nearly as common as Simon or Joseph or Judas or even Joshua, since the Bible offers many with these names but only one person named Jesus. (A magician mentioned in Acts 13 who was blinded for trying to pervert a new convert from the faith comes close with Bar-Jesus, or “son of Jesus,” but he may have intentionally taken on the name in order to cash in on Jesus’ reputation, as another sorcerer named Simon the Magician, mentioned in Acts 8, tried to do.)

For most people today, though, the name Jesus isn’t really even a name in any normal sense. Few (with the important exception of Spanish speakers) would even consider naming their son Jesus. It is a name reserved for one and only one person who lived here over two thousand years ago: Jesus of Nazareth.

All of which I find interesting. That God chose a diminutive form of Joshua—that is, a nickname, along the lines of Joshy!—as his son’s name. That no one else in the Bible gets called that. That Spanish speakers name their sons after Jesus, but virtually no one else does.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

jesus at barnes & noble

I just now read this passage of scripture aloud to my daughter Charlotte in which Jesus says, first off, that he has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, not to abolish it.  

“I’ve actually been thinking a lot about that passage,” Charlotte interrupted before I got any further.
“Why’s that?”

“I thought it said Jesus says I didn’t come to break the commandments but to fulfill them. That’s what my professor of my C. S. Lewis class said about that place where the stone table breaks when Aslan dies.”

"Well, it goes on to say that whoever breaks even the least commandment and teaches others to do the same ‘will be called least in the kingdom of heaven’ but that those who do the commands ‘will be called great in the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 5:19 NIV).

“Here’s the part I don’t get, though,” I told her. Jesus finishes up by saying, ‘For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:20).What does he mean by that, do you think?”

“I don’t get whether Jesus thinks the Pharisees and teachers of the Law are in the first group of those who don’t follow all of scripture or those who do.”

We tossed that around a bit, getting nowhere. Are there two groups (lawdoers and lawbreakers, of which the former comprise the righteous) or are three groups (lawdoers, lawbreakers, and the righteous)?
Then my husband Kris joined us and the three of us fought about it a bit. We landed, hesitantly, on there being two groups: the lawdoers and the small lawbreakers, both of which will have a place in the kingdom, apparently. None, however, are righteous. In other words, whether or not you do all the law or just part of it will not determine whether or not you will enter the kingdom but merely your place in the kingdom once you’re there.

Of course, we know what does determine entrance into heaven, but Jesus doesn’t explain that quite yet. Or, only obliquely references it. In some very confusing statements about scripture adherence. I wonder if anyone at all got it.

inside my mother's uterus

Every year I attend the biggest professional conference in my field of creative writing, and, on the first day of the conference last Thursday—didn’t manage to post that day or yesterday, sorry—I attended one of the two scheduled sessions (out of some 500 sessions) on writing as it relates to faith. It was about teaching students who want to write about matters of faith, a big interest of mine since I teach a course called “writing from faith” every fall.

As usual with faith-related sessions at this conference, two of the four panelists prefaced their presentations with the announcement that they themselves are atheists and a third claimed agnosticism (although he did say that the best he could do was hang as tightly as he could onto Jesus, which, I would say, is the best any of us can do).

Anyway, the fourth guy, a believer, led the session, God love him, and gave a really wonderful little talk on the difficulties presented by the language of faith: that it’s hard to talk about the supernatural, that the best we can do is talk about it in terms of the natural world. Thus, just about all the language of faith starts out as metaphors. He used the example of breath, the metaphorical source of our word spirit in the ancient languages of scripture. (Arguably, if life and spirit are synonymous for you, then you  might think of the connection between breath and spirit as literal, not metaphorical, but the guy didn’t get into that.)

After a word's genesis as metaphor, though, it usually stops meaning that way—that is, it loses its link to the original natural world word it was derived from—and starts to just be what we call that thing when we talk about matters of faith. So, spirit mostly isn’t thought of as breath or even breathlike. It has lost its referential nature and becomes, in a crucial sense, meaningless, merely a label.
I totally agree with this assessment. I love to go back to the original meanings of the words to refresh my faith language in my writing, and I recommend doing so as a way to avoid “Christianese,” as I call it, to my students.
Along the way in the guy’s presentation, he mentioned how much he liked the story of Nicodemus—which comes early in John’s biography of Jesus and is thus where I am in scripture in my chronological progress through Jesus’ life—because Nicodemus’s response to Jesus’ explanation that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3 NIV) is so insistent on the real words of Jesus’ metaphor.
“How can someone be born again when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4).
I love this passage too, and for pretty much the same reasons. in discussing it with my students, I like to go even further into referentiality, past even the Bible translators’ Christianese.
“When was the last time you used the word womb not in the context of faith?” I ask them.
When no one raises a hand to give an example of talking to a friend or a gynecologist or a parent or a professor about a womb, we go on to talk about the word they’d actually use in any such conversation: uterus.
“How would your understanding of Nicky’s question be changed, honed, if he asked it that word in English—which is precisely the way he asked it in Greek?”
They titter, consider, discuss. For many, even the word uterus makes them uncomfortable when used in the context of faith—which, I tell them, is good.
“Just as it’s good to be uncomfortable when Jesus says he wants you to eat his body. If that statement makes you squirm, it means you’re really taking in those words. Really hearing them. Really thinking about them.”

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

taste good; be bright

Context is everything, as they say. The next little clump of mixed metaphors in Jesus' mountainside sermon—“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house” (Matthew 5:14-15 NIV)—seems to resay the salt one and is easier to follow. It also has a built in explanation: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Good move, Jesus.

So, so far the sermon goes: Seek me, and I will fulfill your longing. I have made you salt—the most essential of flavorings—and light in a dark world. Your job is to go out and show what it’s like to be filled: to go out and taste good and brighten the darkness.

Note to self on plane flight today and for the next few days among strangers: Taste good; be bright.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


After establishing the States of Blessedness in that early mountainside sermon, Jesus next characterizes us blessed, or happy or fortunate, ones who long for God as the “salt of the earth” and make the first of many demands this long sermon makes of believers: not to lose our saltiness because, if we do, how else will we be made salty again?

“You are the salt of the earth," Jesus tells his listeners. "But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13 NIV).
Forgive my blasphemous critique of Jesus’ rhetoric here, but to me this makes little sense. Bear with me.

First off, it doesn’t work as a metaphor. As I often have to explain to my students, metaphors are made of two parts: the tenor (the thing we’re talking about) and the vehicle (the comparison that is supposed to help us see or understand the tenor better). For an effective metaphor, both sides have to work. Here, the tenor is “you” and the vehicle “salt of the earth.” All is good.

However, if the metaphor develops beyond the simplest x = y comparison, both sides need to keep on working. In the next stage of the metaphor, the salt of the earth becomes salt that has lost its saltiness—an impossibility except hypothetically, because, as far as I know from my extensive experience as a cook and as a frugal saver of even the oldest condiments, the only way salt can lose its flavor is if it stops being salt. The entire substance of salt—which means everything that makes its salty taste—is NaCl. (Which is what, by the way, the weirdos in my family refer to it as, pronouncing it "nackle," as in, "Pass the nackle.")

Anyway, as usual, I read around about the verse and found,  also as usual, all sorts of science-defying rationalizations about the salt of Jesus’ time and region, how it could in fact lose its saltiness, and so on. Sorry. I’m not buying it. Salt is salt. And, indeed, the sheer zeal of biblical experts to say it's not evidences, to me, the insolubility (pardon that pun!) at the core of this metaphor, which is, in effect, saying, “You are salt, but if salt stops being salt, then it won’t be salty anymore and is thus worthless.”

Then I got to thinking about salt. About how, as Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, was saying in an interview on NPR the other day that there are “as many as 40 types of salt that are manipulated, created, sort of reformed and shaped in order to maximize the allure—or what they call in the salt world the flavor burst.” Salt’s shape, in other words, can intensify or reduce its saltiness. That helped a bit, giving me the idea of dissolved salt being useless—in which case, however, it’s not really trample-able. So that was a dead end.

“Um,” I would ask if a student had written this passage of Jesus’ sermon, “what happened to your tenor? If I’m salt, what am I in this hypothetical instance of not being salt anymore? What does that even mean? It’s nonsense at best. At worst, a tautology.”

“That’s just it,” I can imagine that student arguing in the metaphor-maker’s defense, surrounded as I am by the once-saved-always-saved. “It’s an argument for the eternal security of the believer! Jesus was telling those people that believers can’t stop being salt.”

“I never would have gotten there without that explanation” would be my answer. And, as obtuse as Jesus often is, I always struggle to believe he was intentionally setting out to buffalo his listeners and me. Certainly he doesn’t seem to be in this sermon, anyway, in which he clearly sets out to teach the fundamentals of faith.

Trusting Jesus to at least mean to make sense, my next attempt to solve the riddle was to look at alternative translations. Most English translations said about the same thing: if salt loses its saltiness or taste or savor…. (Luther’s early German translation says if salt becomes dumm, as in deaf and dumb, but I don’t have time to research whether dumm had some other use back then or was, God forbid, a mixed metaphor to boot.)

There was one translation that, I thought, sought to make the whole thing work, and that was good old Wycliffe’s of 1382.

“Ye be salt of the earth; that if the salt vanish away, wherein shall it be salted?” he wrote (employing what could be understood as unclear pronoun reference implicit in the passive construction “be salted”). “To nothing it is worth over, but that it be cast out, and be defouled of men.”

If the salt vanishes—by dissolving, for example—in other words, how’s anything going be salted? The “it” might, as Wycliffe suggests, refer to whatever’s being salted, and not to the salt itself.

That’s as far as I have the energy to consider this salt business tonight. Maybe I’ll get enlightenment overnight.


Monday, March 4, 2013

for theirs is

I sat down this morning with thinking to select the blessing I’d most like to have out of all those Jesus offers in the Beatitudes.

What would I most like to have? I wondered. Heavenly tenure, comfort, inheritance, or justice for wrongs I have suffered? To be filled with righteousness or to be shown mercy for my unrighteousness? Would I rather see God or to hear God to call me Daughter? So hard to choose.

It occurred to me that Jesus’ message is this: Seek me, and I will fulfill your deepest longing. Or longings, I hope. Because, as I say, I can’t choose.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

poor in spirit

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus preached from the mountainside, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3 NIV). Who these poor in spirit are—the first and, by that placement, seemingly most important blesseds in Jesus’ poem that opens his mountainside sermon—has always intrigued me.

It’s such a weird turn of phrase, used nowhere else in Jesus’ teaching. And, however central to the overall message of the Beatitudes its initial placement in the poem may make it seem, none of the many writers who rehashed Jesus’ teachings in the letters and accounts that make up the rest of the New Testament ever repeated this expression. What, exactly, does it mean to be poor in spirit?

Not poor in the usual sense, obviously—although that’s how Luke puts what he remembers  Jesus teaching. “Blessed are you who are poor,” he has Jesus starting off an analogous sermon—this one preached on “a level place” (Luke 6:17) rather than a mountainside—“for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Luke’s rendering notwithstanding, I don’t think it’s the poor in money or poor in housing or poor in opportunity who are at issue here, although such poverties often plague the poor in spirit. Indeed, for many, it is through the related desperations of socioeconomic poverty—through drug or alcohol addiction, through imprisonment, through messed up relationships—that they eventually find themselves in a state of spiritual impoverishment. Poor in spirit. Poor in—to tap the Greek and Hebrew incarnations of the word spirit—breath. Lacking the breath, that source of life that comes to us all from God, the spirit necessary to keep on living.

On some level, I’ve always felt I knew, intuitively, who the poor in spirit were—perhaps because, not to claim holiness where none is merited, I spent a good part of my adult life spiritually deprived. Having lost my faith as a teenager, I spent the next couple of decades on my own, spiritually speaking. I wanted to believe—I wished I could pray and feel heard as I had as a child and was jealous of those I met who seemed confident of God's existence—but I couldn’t seem to get there, couldn’t convince myself that any of what I had known as a child was true, and thus I perceived myself to have been abandoned by the God I no longer believed in rather than the other way around. I was, in those years, indisputably poor in spirit, and I knew it.

If there was one belief in those years I still carried with me from my childhood faith, though, it was this: Faith itself, if it was real, had to come from God.

This was not something I was ever taught. Indeed, the Church’s and the Bible’s and even Jesus’ own messages about the source of faith often seem to say quite the opposite. People are encouraged to have faith throughout the Bible and in every Christian church, and even Jesus himself complains, again and again, about the miniscule faith of even those who follow him. The belief that faith comes from God came to me, I think, entirely experientially. I never believed in God because I chose to—not as a child and not since. Nor did I believe because I was told to. We never really spoke of matters spiritual in my family, though we were taken to church every Sunday. Even at church, even in the catechism classes of my childhood, I was never commanded or persuaded to believe the good news that God had sent Jesus to us. Or, if I was, I have no memory of it.

Instead, faith just seemed to inhabit me, effortlessly—the way that, later, love for my daughters would. The way genuine thanks does on occasion or deepfelt forgiveness or remorse. Believing was never a choice for me. I just believed. And then I didn’t.

Still, I never perceived the ability to believe as a divine gift until it left me.

Losing my faith was like what I am finding the gradual loss of sight to be like as I grow older, but more sudden, less fixable, more devastating. As with eyesight, I was utterly unappreciative of the gift of faith till I lost it. But by then, I secretly grieved, it was too late. God was gone.

The poor in spirit, I think, are those of us who come to a point of longing, of desperation, for God’s restorative, revitalizing breath—whether as the result of losing track of God, as I did, and misperceiving my inattention as abandonment or as the result of other miseries and poverties, other traumas and terrors.

Once, during one of those many unbelieving years ago when I was teaching English in China, my assigned mentor teacher—unbeknownst to me a Christian—offered to make me a calligraphy as a going away present.

“Find a little line of poetry you like and I will translate and paint it,” he told me.

I couldn’t think of a snippet of poetry small or meaningful enough to suit me, so I borrowed a King James Bible from my Mormon neighbors and leafed through it and immediately, having never really read the Bible before, lighted on two that seemed to speak for me: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb and naked shall I return thither” (Job 1:21) and “Bow down thine ear, O Lord, hear me: for I am poor and needy” (Psalms 86:1).

As a foreigner in China in those days, I was regarded by all I met as amazingly wealthy, and I knew this assessment to be true. Unlike many I met and heard of—not least the famous calligrapher father of my mentor teacher, who was taken from his family and made to suffer unspeakable miseries for having been an intellectual and an artist—I had everything I needed in life. Not just food and money and opportunities but the freedom to enjoy them.

And yet, in the most elemental sense, I was poor. Needier than my mentor teacher, certainly. Indeed, utterly bereft, the very breath of me plundered and lost. And, though it would be years before I fully rejected my lot and let God's breath fill me again, somehow—thank God!—I knew it.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

blessed are those who never had children, etc.

I was reading around about the Beatitudes and came across this statement that the Greek word that ends up translated as “Blessed” in virtually all translations is actually more accurately Happy.

I sort of liked that idea, so I looked Blessed up in my exhaustive concordance with the goal of seeing how the same Greek word, μακάριος (makários), was translated in other passages, which is how I generally make up my mind in such matters of translation. Here’s the breakdown of what I discovered: of the 50 uses of μακάριος, 44 were translated in the 1984 NIV as blessed, 4 as good, 1 as fortunate, and 1 as happier. So, I concluded, while “Happy are the…” (or“Fortunate are the …” or even the synonymous “Lucky are the …”) might be a useful way of jerking ourselves out of our usual nonthinking about what the Beatitudes are actually saying, it probably wasn't any more correct.
That said, in case you want to be jerked out of your usual nonthinking about the passage, here’s how it might sound with a different word than Blessed:
Fortunate are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Fortunate are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Fortunate are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Fortunate are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Fortunate are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Fortunate are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Fortunate are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Fortunate are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Fortunate are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 
(Matthew 5:3-12 NIV with the word Blessed changed to Fortunate)

While I was researching μακάριος in my concordance, I got sidetracked into perhaps a better way of reseeing the States of Blessedness. Have a look at all the others that Jesus identifies as μακάριος— that is, as blessed or or happy or fortunate—elsewhere in his teaching:
Blessed are the poor (Luke 6:20).
Blessed are the hungry (Luke 6:21).
Blessed are those who are crying (Luke 6:21).
Blessed are those who never had children (Luke 23:26-31).
Blessed are those who never got to see the One God Sent in person but who nevertheless believe in him (John 20:26-29).
Blessed are those who pay attention to what God tells them to do and then do it (Luke 11:28).
Blessed are those who accept from God the power to recognize him as God (Matthew 16:16-17).
Blessed are those who look for the One God Sent and actually see him, who listen to him and actually hear him (Matthew 13:16 and Luke 10:23).
Blessed are those who aren’t offended by or embarrassed about the One God Sent (Matthew 11:6 and Luke 7:23).
Blessed are those who, as he does, lower themselves to serve others (John 13:12-17).
Blessed are those who love the unloveable (Luke 14:12-14).
To find out why Jesus considered such people fortunate—how, in other words, their current situation rewards them—you’ll have to look up the passages yourselves (which is why I went to the trouble of citing the passages I paraphrased). Have fun!