patty kirk

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

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.