Archive for August, 2008

Since, the Misses is away this weekend, I thought I’d cook up something yummy. Well, something that I think is yummy, but that wifey would never eat. I really enjoy a good stew or soup. She won’t have anything to do with them though. Oh well! So I went looking for recipes and I found a beef stew that called for Guinness stout beer as the base instead of water. It’s originally from a cookbook called The Complete Book of Irish Country Cooking. I’d never had anything like this before, so I decided to give it a shot:

The recipe called for 2 pounds of stew beef, but no taters. What the heck? I only had one pound of beef, so I supplemented with some Yukon gold taters.


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Tonight, on the front page of Yahoo, I was scanning headlines and saw:

Price of rat meat quadruples in Cambodia as inflation bites

Wow. Slow news day I guess. I’m sorry if you live in Cambodia and like yummy rats. I really am. But this headline sounds like it came straight out of a Mad Libs book!

Price of _________________ (an animal)
__________________________ (a multiplier)
in ________________________ (a foreign country)
due to ____________________ (a negative event).

You might end just as easily have ended up with:

Price of hamsters doubles in Canada due to power shortage.

or

Price of rubber duckies in Botswana triples due to flooding.

Forget the past. Those failures that make you timid now? Screw them. Today is a new day. So you lost a great deal of what you had. So what? The future is before you. Press on.

Learn from the past. Be aware of those who have gone before or you are doomed to repeat their mistakes. They were not really that much different than you. This is how you approach life with wisdom. Don’t start a new church with your Bible and disregard 2000+ years of church history, as if all the saints were clods and all the reformers nothing but axe grinders. The ancient past is rich. Dig deep.

You don’t have to be defined by them. You need not carry on their curses, nor keep your own curses alive.

You are not alone. You are the next thread in a rich tapestry. Do not despair.

And this from Billy Collins:

Some Final Words

I cannot leave you without saying this:
the past is nothing,
a nonmemory, a phantom,
a soundproof closet in which Johann Strauss
is composing another waltz no one can hear.

It is a fabrication, best forgotten
a wellspring of sorrow
that waters a field of bitter vegetation.

Leave it behind. Take your head out of your hands
and arise from the couch of melancholy
where the window-light falls against your face
and the sun rides across the autumn sky,
steely behind the bare trees,
glorious as the high strains of violins.

But forget Strauss.
And forget his younger brother,
the poor bastard who was killed in a fall
from a podium while conducting a symphony.

Forget the past,
forget the stunned audience on its feet,
the absurdity of their formal clothes
in the face of sudden death,
forget their collective gasp,
the murmur and huddle over the body,
the creaking of the lowered curtain.

Forget Strauss
with that encore look in his eye
and his tiresome industry:
more than five hundred finished compositions!
He even wrote a polka for his mother.
That alone is enough to make me flee the past,
evacuate its temples,
and walk alone under the stars
down these dark paths strewn with acorns,
feeling nothing but the crisp October air,
the swing of my arms
and the rhythm of my stepping-
am man of the present who has forgotten
every composer, every great battle,
just me,
a thin reed blowing in the night.

Photo credit

What do we desire the Christian community to be? What do we believe Jesus wanted it to be? A vibrant community where the people care for each other with their time and money. Nobody is left hungry. Pregnant mothers are not alone. Sinners are accepted but also challenged by accountability and propelled by forward momentum. Everyone is also fed and strengthened with solid teaching and friendship. Sounds nice, eh? Make’s being a Christian pretty easy too. Maybe too easy… What about when it doesn’t work out that way? What if it’s a disaster or a circus where you’re at? Where do you turn?

We must certainly know how to take care of ourselves and make use of first aid in our own spiritual life. And when we are unable to be carried along by the stream of a fervent simply observance that is completely ordered according to the best and most living tradition, then we must know how to help ourselves. When the stream is dry, we must know how to leave our boat and walk. The fact remains that it is simpler, easier, more secure, and ultimately more perfect if a monk can live purely according to the spirit of his vocation, interested in his monastic conversation more than in his own interior reactions, and more concerned with te love of God and his brethren than with the incessant quest for signs of virtue in his own conduct.

-Thomas Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters, p.158

In Thomas Merton’s survey of Buddhism titled Mystics and Zen Masters, he takes on the difficult task of explaining Zen to the western mind. In fact, during the discourse he regularly expresses how problematic the task is. For starters, the primary “scripture” or text that Zen adherents study are the koans. They are seemingly nonsense sayings on which they regularly meditate. You may have heard some of these before:

Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?

A lot of them tell like stories though:

Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing to steal.

Ryokan returned and caught him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.”

The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.

Ryoken sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.”

Anyway, what are you supposed to get out of meditating on these? Western scholars have been confounded for hundreds of years when they visit the east to try and figure this stuff out. Merton warns against several ways NOT to interpret Zen, but is hard-pressed to find a solution. He tries though and I found this passage he quoted from a respected Zen teacher to be helpful:

Jade is tested by fire, gold is tested by a touchstone, a sword is tested by a hair, water is tested by a stick. In our school on word or one phrase, one action or one state, one entrance or one departure, on “Hello!” or on “How are you!” is used to judge the depth of the student’s understanding, to observe whether he is facing forward or backward. If he is a fellow with blood in his veins he will immediately go off shaking his sleeves behind him and though you shout after him he will not come back.

– Hekigan Roku quoted in Miura and Sasaki

He goes onto explain:

The last lines of this quotation must not be understood to mean that mere rudeness is an adequate indication of Zen enlightenment. It refers to the student’s ability to “move on” and not stop at the question or the answer or the logical implications of words and acts. If he is alive, he will move. To study a koan is to learn not to be stopped by it, not to hesitate in the presence of a difficulty which is only illusory. To know where to go next without interminable figuring and discussions. To have no plans for “causing effects” and “getting results.”

I find that this is not at all unlike the walk of the mature Christian. There are the big questions: Why is there so much suffering in the world? How can I trust God if he allowed my child to die? And the more sticky doctrinal questions: Did God predestine me to salvation? How the heck is the body of Christ actually present in the bread and wine? And so on. But the disciple of Jesus, the one devoted to the Triune God, he has moved on from being troubled by all these. Not that he doesn’t have beliefs and opinions about these difficult questions. He may even be passionate about how they should be answered. But in his heart, they matter not.

Nothing life can throw at him, no logic or circumstance, can shake his faith. Throw him in prison and he will not despair. Threaten her with death and she won’t even consider renouncing any of it. These people aren’t crazy. They aren’t fanatics. But their love for the Lord, (or his hold on them, whichever you prefer) is not shaken by someone shouting after them. They will shake it off and keep walking.

The words of Jesus from John 8 43-44:

Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies,he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

And Rene Girard’s commentary:

Here the essential point is that a triple correspondence is set up between Satan, the original homicide, and the lie. To be a son of Satan is to inherit the lie. What lie? The lie that covers the homicide. This lie is a double homicide, since its consequence is always another new homicide to cover up the old one. To be a son of Satan is the same thing as being the son of those who have killed their prophets since the foundation of the world.

This takes some explanation. I’ve been astounded by Girard’s brilliance ever since discovering his work earlier this year. The problem is, it’s incredibly difficult to boil down to just a couple of paragraphs for a blog post. It’s remarkably simple, but not so simple you can sum it up in just a few sentences without using too much jargon. Other breakdowns I’ve found on the web seem to spend too much on the core of his theories and fail to expound on why it is so significant to Christians. (And it is!) Alas, I’m not going to try to do that here…yet.

Attention spans are getting shorter, thanks to clutter.

In 1960, the typical stay for a book on the New York Times bestseller list was 22 weeks. In 2006, it was two. Forty years ago, it was typical for three novels a year to reach #1. Last year, it was 23.

Advise and Consent won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960. It’s 640 pages long. On Bullshit was a bestseller in 2005; it’s 68 pages long.

Today is last weekday before the univeristy goes back in session. The sidewalks are packed with wandering freshman. They may seem to have short attention spans, but how many of them are going to stay up ’till 4:00 AM playing World of Warcraft? I can think of more than a few. We can stay engaged with anything if we cultivate the skill.

It has been calculated that each copy of the Gutenburg Bible required the skins of 300 sheep.

– from an article on printing

Nearly 600 years ago in 1439, Johannes Gutenberg unvieled his movable-type printing press and revolutionized the western world. In those days, though, they still used parchment made from animal hide. It was still a while before paper technology caught up. Billy Collin’s reflects on this in his poem Flock:

I can see them squeezed into the holding pen
behind the stone building
where the printing press is housed

all of them squirming around
to find a little room
and looking so much alike

it would be nearly impossible
to count them,
and there is no telling

which one will carry the news
that the Lord is a shepherd,
one of the few things they already know.

Photo credit

Thomas Merton on meeting modernism and the secular culture with the Gospel, not something else:

The important thing, therefore, is not for Christians to be found ready, once again, with a glib religious answer for another modern question, but for us to reaffirm, in terms at once contemporary and deeply serious, the Christian message to man’s liberty. We must reemphasize the call of the Gospel to healing and to hope, not merely reaffirm that everything is going to be all right because man is smart and will meet the challenge of evil with the best possible solutions.

And on Christians in politics. That is, not off-loading the work of the church to the feds:

…any claim that this or that policy or strategy deserves a “Christian” sanction and the blessing of the Church must be examined in the light of the principles we have seen. If in actual fact it amounts to the support of the abstract organization, granting or blessing a destructive power to coerce the individual conscience, it is to be rejected as fraudulent, as incompatible with Christian truth, and as disobedience to the Gospel commandment of love. In one word, the Church must not implicitly betray man into the power of their responsible and anonymous “public.” If it does so, it will destroy itself in destroying true freedom and authentic human community. We must certainly recognize the danger of individualism, but we must also be fully aware of where this danger really lies. (Emphasis mine)

(Thomas Merton, Mystics and Zen Master’s, p. 273, 274)

The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing.

– Archilochus (Greek Poet ~640 BC)

The fox is clever and multi-skilled. A jack of all trades.

The hedgehog is a master of one discipline.

A frustration I see in a lot of people, places, and also in myself is the tension between these. Life demands that we be excellent (or at least decent) at a long list of things: parenting, computer skills, car mechanics, lawn care, cooking, reading, socializing, and so on. But it seems nearly all the great people that have gone before us were hedgehogs. They did one thing super well. They made a real difference in the world because they poured their life into one passion and discipline. We KNOW deep down that we could do something just as great, if only we were “allowed” to specialize.

Beethoven was brilliant, but he wouldn’t have written those piano concerto’s if he was busy painting his house. Einstien probably would have never published his works on physics if his job demanded he figure out how to format his data in Excel 2007 and attend that faculty meeting. Itzack Pearlman can play violin like no other because he was still practicing when his fellow violinists were working out at the gym, walking their dog, or what have you. A lot of these “greats” have horrible track records with relationships. They were often lousy husbands, wives, and parents. But if they HAD put the effort in to be a good parents, you and I would not even know they existed. They likely wouldn’t have ever made it to their magnum opus. Your 8-year old daughter inspired by watching the Olympic gymnasts on TV last week? Sorry. She should have started training 5 years ago for it to be anything more than a hobby.

People hoping for a career in high academia especially feel the heat of this. But Rene Girard chuckled when other philosophers scorned him for diving into too many subjects:

People will accuse us of playing at being Pico della Mirandola – the Renaissance Man – certainly a temptation to be resisted today, if we wish to be seen in a favorable light.

(Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, p. 141)

My thinking has been all wrong on this though. Comparing ourselves to others does not bring glory to the Lord. It is a wellspring of despair. Instead, I think we CAN be foxes and still make a difference in this world. We must open our eyes wider. Go kick it hard at work today then come home and fix the mini-van, play with your kids, and do something special for your wife.