30 Come Sunday

I’m listening right now to The Ancient Muse. Last time I was fixated on this album was about 3.5 years ago, right after I started blogging. I remember sitting in Silos cafe listening to “Never-ending road” while wrestling with Live Journal. Now, 840+ posts deep, I have a better idea what I think about many things. A scratch on the surface is now visible, even if it be just a divot in a gold course the size of South Dakota. I hope so anyway. I turn 30 come Sunday.

The old Ralph “Ray-FFFF” Van Williams wind ensemble orchestration of English folk tunes contains a fun rendition of “Seventeen Come Sunday”. Who? What? Anyone who played a band instrument with any fervor past high school knows exactly what I speak of. The rest can just forget it. This gem belongs to adult “band geeks” alone and cannot be wrested from them. (Half points if you sang the Percy Grainger choral arrangement.) Now the tune was set with words extolling the excitement of youth and the hope of romance (and later dashed romance, if you make it to the last verse).

I must hum a different melody come this Sunday, when I turn thirty. I have past the days of being cynical or disillusioned about love, romance, sex, or being a rock star or an astronaut. About these we have been lied to so steadily that when a true word is spoken, it is difficult to discern over the ringing in our ears. By God’s grace, and that alone have I grasped some sense of what steadfast love is really analogous to in my mortal flesh on this broken earth.

In addition, my faith in God, and Christ in particular has never slipped. Nay, it has more traction than ever. I am glad to have this as I tackle the remaining decades. I no longer believe in what my elders called “the saving knowledge”, as if I could think my way into God’s arms. If I am in his arms, it is because he has reached out and embraced me. What I know of his Trinitarian ways is also a gift. I am thankful for it immensely. Thinking is so exciting!

What has been a bit slower to die is the naive strength of youth. My body doesn’t kick like it once did. I no longer dream of living in Manhattan. Pulling an all-nighter now has consequences. Each day the horizon shrinks to hold a sun the same brightness and luster as the real sunrise in the true east – not a false glory. Still, I am much motivated to complete more than one lasting work before I die. Chief of these are my children, though they are in God’s hands more than my own. The rest is yet to be determined, though I am fairly confidant that by the “full stride” of 40 some of these will be fully formed.

With me is my loving wife, who has had to grow much in patience just to bear living with me. I am glad she has stayed as without her, so many hopes would be dashed. God has all of human history to work his redemption, but I have only a sliver of the timeline to act. He has compelled me to act. I can not deny him.

I have what seems to be a pretty good idea of where I need to be in 10 years, but I don’t know if I can do it. I feel that I lack the motivation to push through all the hurdles. If Luther was right, and I highly suspect so, then I DO NOT HAVE the motivation to push through all the hurdles. This can be a comforting thought and not a despairing one. It is not yet. I know what to pray for. Does He have other plan then to grant this grace? I doubt it.

Unthinkable sin

As a youth, I remember being fascinated by an idea that a preacher once presented. He said that in heaven, it won’t be that everyone has good behavior all the time, but that sin will be unthinkable.

How is that possible?

OK. I say to you, don’t think about elephants. What are you thinking about?


(From the movie Inception, but used in various forms much earlier.)

How could sin be unthinkable? By brainwashing us? That would be dehumanizing. It doesn’t seem to jive with “the knowledge of good and evil” which was arguably for mature man (though not the infantile man who grasped it unlawfully in the beginning.) I think philosophers of language may be on to something though.

Words sitting in a dictionary sit still and stale. They are the husks of meaning. Put into action, they take on life and animate. They can not do so without drinking the water of their context and breathing the air that passes through the lips of the one speaking it. In this way they change. In this way will evil be undone and Christ Jesus redeem all of creation. Even the words used to describe evil and the void – HE has the power to subvert even these and make it so that sin becomes even unthinkable. the knowledge of him will go through all the earth, hovering like the spirit did over the waters – hovering over his children warming the tiny seed in them that will grow into the new creation.

It was … declared by Aquinas that it was of the nature of God to know all possibilities, and to determine which possibility should become fact. “God would not know good things perfectly, unless He also knew evil things … for, -since evil is not of itself knowable, forasmuch as `evil is the privation of good’ as Augustine says, therefore evil can neither be defined nor known except by good.” Things which are not and never will be He knows “not by vision”, as He does all things that are, or will be, “but by simple intelligence”. It is therefore part of that knowledge that He should understand good in its deprivation, the identity of heaven in its opposite identity of hell, but without “approbation”, without calling it into being at all.

It was not so possible for man … To be as gods meant, for the Adam, to die, for to know evil, for them, was to know it not by pure intelligence but by experience.

-Charles Williams, He Came Down from Heaven, Quoted by Sayers in the preface to Ch.7 of The Mind of the Maker

I like very much how Williams puts it. God can “know” evil without bringing it into being. We, on the other hand, to know it is to give it pneuma. Without the law though, we could not articulate it. It seems that in some sense, even the law will be undone.

Keeping “sacrifice” intact

This is for some of my favorite (and not so favorite) Girardian scholars.

“In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loves us and sent his son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins” 1 John 4:10

I hold the apostle John in pretty high regard to say the least. If he says Jesus’ death was an atoning sacrifice then I am not going to participate in textual, linguistic, or typographic gymnastics in an attempt to show that that’s not precisely what he meant. Sorry “no violence in God” folks. Try again. Jesus is awesome. He can die and come back on HIS OWN TERMS. These are the terms he has chosen. He is not so misunderstood as to render “atoning sacrifice” theological nonsense.

Designed to end

What is the chief end of man?

To create a Utopian super-race perfectly at balance with nature, reproducing itself at exactly the proper rate to keep the population in equilibrium with the earth’s ecosystem and rate of resource renewal? Only tyrants dream of enforcing such a utopian dream of domination – if they think their subjects so gullible as to trust their leaders in the face of oppression.

Only immortals, like Tolkein’s elves could manage to find such a proper balance with nature, but they lived for thousands of years. Man was gifted with a “strange doom” and fueled with an urgent creative ambition that, given enough time, the whole earth could not contain. What more evidence is required to prove that this age must end? That it was in fact DESIGNED to end with the first puff of air that inflated Adam’s lungs? Our age has always been a terminal one. Even after death be vanquished, the creator has a place further up and further in for us, his children to thrive. Not an unwordly place, but a hyperwordly place, even more earthy than our own earth.

Lying spirits did not fashion Plato’s cave. Only the Lord could make such a place and the sun shining outside its mouth. Plato just got so many details wrong because he wasn’t Trinitarian.


Ethiopia journal: Epilogue

What I am seeking is not here, and for that very reason I believe it. Faith expressly signifies the deep, strong, blessed restlessness that drives the believer so that he cannot settle down at rest in this world.

-Soren Kierkegaard, Uplifting Discourses in Various Spirits p.218

Just like coming back from a week of summer church camp and entering the fog of real life again, so has been the return from this trip to Africa.

I really didn’t think anything as an adult could be the same way. I wasn’t expecting it to be. It was. It is. I’m in the middle of the fog right now, wanting to hold on to all that I experienced in Africa, but it is being quickly overcome by the return of the day-to-day. All the silver Spanish doubloons that I found on the seashore are quickly being covered over again with the tide as I scramble to stuff as many in my cupped shirt as I can before the water fills up every cranny that I dug out.

I remember a particularly wonderful summer camp when I was about 14. I made good friends, love the speaker and the times of worship twice a day, and even got up for the early prayer meetings a few times – and not just to impress one of the girls there either. Coming home, I remember my mother (God bless her) shattering my new found fervor on the drive home by reminding me that I needed to mow the lawn and wash both the trucks as soon as I got back. In the same way my children trampling me at the door and on Monday, my boss, seek to return me to my “normal” place in the order as quickly as possible. The pressure to maintain the status quo is stiffing. Is there any way to overcome it? It seems that with enough of the proper motivation or change in thought pattern (I hate the word paradign shift, it’s completely overused, but this is probably where it should be used.), with enough of that, we should be able to reach an escape velocity of sorts and make a genuine change on course, not just a minor adjustment of preference, like a raft riding the rapids, but to steer down a completely different river – something that involves some sustained paddling.

Am I going to do anything about Africa? Was I nothing more than a tourist acquiring a daughter? That in itself is not to be taken lightly and I have no intention of taking it lightly. But it is just one thing – another child. Here, in America, in this house, learning the same sorts of things, becoming a similar kind of child – not that that is a bad thing. It’s fine. It has become her place in life, for better or worse. Many good things await her.

But do I change at all? Do I do anything about Africa? Send some money to feel better about myself? Send some money to help some specific people (a better motivation). Go back? I want to go back, but I’m not quite sure what to do. I could find a tech job there and move the whole family. Crazy! I could go back on a mission trip (imagining this seems utterly unsatisfying, bleh). Go back and learn the language, crack the code, be a lay minister and add some grace-magnifying reform into some of the fast-car “pentay” protestantism to stave off the prosperity gospel? Build bridges with the Orthodox? Learn the history? Do something with coffee? Work with the farmers? I had never really considered these possibilities and now there seem like so many of them! Wow.

People often come back from mission trips to the third world and talk like this. I must admit I’ve often poopooed it. Now I think I understand one part of it. In America, it seems like you have to invest SO much time and energy and money into an endeavor to see any results at all. A minister can preach his heart out to a crowd of spoiled young people for years on end and see no results. None. In some parts of Africa, you can preach for a day and have throngs of excited listeners. In America, it can cost $20,000 to dig yourself a modest well for your little cabin in the woods – half of your salary after taxes. In Africa, you can spend a couple days digging a well for much less and immediately see it tangibly change the lives of hundreds of people. Here, a visit to the doctor and some medicine will run you $500. In Africa, that $5 bottle of anti-parasite pills can dramatically change someone’s life, right in your face! I can see now that if you want to have impact on your world, living in the rich west can be immensely frustrating. Just look at all the people scrabbling over a priceless few tenured positions in academia. It’s temping to say, “Screw that!” and opt to serve in some unknown corner of the globe where you can see the fruit of your labor multiplied immensely. That, at least, must be some of the draw.

But I’m back in the fog. These possibilities will all die as I go back to writing code and trying to come up with enough money to pay for an iPhone 4 or something. Barf! Do I have to live like that? Can I reach any sort of escape velocity? Or does God wish me to just stay the course – ho this long row. There are quite a few good reasons why he might wish exactly that. But I don’t want to deceive myself. Once again, I have too many options.

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom before the yawning abyss of possible failure.”

-Soren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, p.61

Still, even if, from the outside, nothing seems to come of this week-long journey, I am much grateful for it.

Photo credit. (Addis in the fog, from a close by hill.)

Ethiopia journal: Winding down

We think we have everything in America, but there is one thing we have largely thrown away: courtyards. You’ve seen them in Mexico and in cloisters in Italy. Here in Addis, the are everywhere and often beautiful little gardens, butted up against the next house or hovel. Shady except at high noon. The one next to our guest house contained two shy cats, flowers we recognized from home, and giant cactus, and a satellite dish, a pleasant lawn and laundry. My wife says that people back home could learn a thing or two about landscape architecture.

It’s fascinating to see so much cut marble. Even the lowliest houses and office are covered with it. It must come from a quarry close-by. Back at home, only the swankiest of places have it.

The busy city life is taking its toll on my wife. If anything, I think perhaps what she (or anyone else) doesn’t like the most is pressure to do stuff she doesn’t want to. Isn’t this the classic theme of family vacations? Dad dragging everyone along to see and do stuff they don’t want to? Even if there are some big things in the mix that everyone does enjoy (Disneyland for example), that is still overshadowed by other coercions. In the woods, she enjoys so much around her, and is motivation to push through her lack of sleep, food, of oversupply of bug bites. Here though, since the important agenda is past, why not just nurse wounds and sleep in a bit? And a pox on anyone who tries to make me do otherwise! (That would be me. Oops.) Knock it off! 🙂

It was shockingly nice to have internet at the airport. Also, I’ve changed my mind about Bole airport. It’s just fine, at least when departing.

Checking my email on the way home, I see an email from Groupon on my inbox proclaiming “two man-hours” of house cleaning for only $40 – half off.

In Addis $40 would buy 40 man-hours, or far more.

On my bookshelf at home I have a recent coffee travelogue called God in a Cup. I reread the chapter on Ethiopia afterwards. These guys stay at fancy hotels, but take dangerous trips to the country and get sick all the time. They went to the exact same traditional restaurant that we did – the one with all the traditional dancing. They also wonder why people play foosball and ping-pong on the side of the road. (To be near the action?) Virtually none of them (in the journal) are tied to kids or marriages. They want to be kind and generous and humanitarian, but they are there for money far more than anything. Still, the west is not quite the same when they get back. They are frustrated that nobody wants to know what is going on in Africa. It is far easier for their acquaintances to just ignore it all.


Ethiopia journal: Time warp

While waiting for take-out “tekeway” food to bring back to the guest house:

It’s amazing to me how much closer to the past I feel here. The distance is surprisingly (geography + time lapse), not just (time). I feels as if I have stepped back thousands of years, even though there are still cell phones ringing around me. This is the sort of thing poets try to stretch language to capture. I dare not. If the nations are a drop in the bucket and a thousand years like a day to the Lord, then only a few days have past to the holy spirit breathing inside me.

Speaking of breath, the car has stopped, breathing that is. Yosef, the driver, suspects an electrical problem. Distributor cap maybe. You can light a candle with a small match. You can light a fireball of petrol with a spark. But you need two thousand sparks a minute to drive across Addis and for that you need a spinning lighting rod, fit tight together like the marble stairs of the temple – and not one stone was left on top of the other when Titus Flavius was finished with Jerusalem. They are ground to powder now at the foot of mount Horeb. But our poor automobile may yet not have the same fate. The stroke of it’s reckoning has not yet landed – will not land tonight. I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet. But I am the son of a mechanic and I hear it beeping its horn through the crowded alleys of Bole sub city before the sun sets again.

Ethiopia journal: Churches

Nearly everyone I have spoken here with is from Addis and has no vision to leave. Americans move too much I tell the driver. He agrees. The riches of the west are not accepted at face value. The people here are interested but rightly skeptical. A friend of mine who visited Addis a few months ago said a local told him that the prosperity gospel was a terrible disease recently imported from the USA – how dare we bring that crap here? (Or some variation on that with strong language.) This, said in the context of all their kindness and hospitality just made it more striking. Our vending machine Jesus who rewards faithfulness with nice cars deserves harsh words.

I wrote this after attending the early morning worship at Holy Trinity Cathedral (though I had to stand outside in the cold like most of the crowd since the place was packed out.) Back in my town in the US, many church-goers pride themselves on their 4-part harmony congregational singing. I hold it in high regard myself. Still, I was struck by a certain consternation when Africa forced me to zoom out a bit:

In what a ghetto does the reformed high harmony psalm singing American intellectual dwell! He studies the classics but the rest of the earth studies him as a freak of nature. If the eschaton is indeed a good thousand or two thousand years away, who will our great great grandchildren study as classics of the faith? We assume it to be Calvin or Edwards but only someone who couldn’t see past their own nose would make such an immediate assumption. The throngs gathered around this one church on this cold morning, chanting holy scripture is more than the whole of all CREC presbyteries combined. And despite our best efforts back here in the states, they still baptize more than twice as many children each year. Who, WHO is the instrument of God on earth today exactly? Are you sure? They are hemmed in on 2 sides by Islam and by a corrupted gospel of greed from our own land. We may be left with a barren wasteland of secularism here back in the states. They face their own great challenge.

Visited a protestant church tonight called “You Go City Church”. Even though it was a weekday, we sat in the over-over-over-over-overflow seating. The service reminded me of a comment N.T. Wright made during a lecture that I listened to on the plane over here: One definition of a white person is someone who can sing without moving.

Ethiopia journal: The orphanage

I had never seen an orphanage before. Now I have. My parental mode of thought wants to be a father them all! I immediately feel overwhelmed. Still, I am glad for the life they have. It is a certain brand of stability and safety that in many ways, is enough. The infant room, sixteen on the floor or in arms or in bumble chairs, none with a home. Scratch that. They have a home, but no true mother and father. They have little resources and money, but lots of nannies.

Regarding Abi: She put blocks together quickly into so many configurations, very fast like a soldier assembling a gun. She sang the alphabet. She sang the little “hide the napkin” circle game. She sang the little orphanage song about her friends who one-by-one go away forever. She knows she is the special one today. She gets the new shirt with the shiny crystal buttons. She gets the little plush teddy bear. She rubs it against her head. She approves. She calls the nurses “mommy”, including now her permanent mommy. She will fit in with our other kids really well I think. She and Seth can build tracks together and pretend to put dolls to sleep. She has enough punch to stand up to Cody! (Whew!) She and Natta can chatter too. In her next home though, we can axe the one orphanage song – none of the children will go away.

Later, I asked Solomon, who helps run the orphanage where Abi is living: Where do you find these orphans? Um, right across the street! It turns out there was a young boy living with a family in a shack across the alley from the guest house where we were staying. He says his parents are dead. Solomon is trying to figure out exactly who he is and where he came from so he can process the paperwork and get him sponsored by the Kingdom Vision aid organization. That was his agenda for that particular Thursday.

We met several Canadians who were adopting, aye? Some on the plane, some at the guest house and some at court. It sounds like the paperwork there is even worse than in the U.S. I later discovered the same was true for France and Italy.

Ethiopia journal: Religious tensions

Its 3:00 AM. The loudspeaker on the Minaret down the road has been chanting 24/7. Just last week a group of Coptic Christians north of here were murdered over attempting to install a bell in their church. It reminds me of Jenkin’s comments about the control of the city skyline and public sounds has being significant throughout the history of religious conflicts. In our town, we simply have scientific rules about how loud anyone can be before or after 10:00 PM. That, and the rule that no one may build a structure in D.C. higher than the capital dome. And they say that secularism isn’t religious. Bah.

Why are Ethiopians so chill? Do they just envy on a smaller scale? Obey the 10th commandment more than we, without realizing it? It is a grace from God. Can I pray and ask the Lord to bestow such a grace upon my own children? Perhaps, if he bestowed it on me, it would rub off. My wife and I have been referring to this as our “African lesson” – to chill out and leave behind our unnecessary impatience.

In Ethiopia, Addis is a philadelphia, a city of brotherly love. The Orthodox Christians, Protestants, and even Muslims all get along. The conflicts are in the rural areas, where the Muslims feel the need to murder the Christians in the next village, the Orthodox are especially strict and intolerant, and the Protestants think they are better than everyone else. I am wrestling with how to explain this in Girardian terms. Is this because of proximity or lack of?

“This town ain’t big enough for the two of us” versus “This is on big heck of a town” or perhaps, “I can’t pretend that I’m a big fish in a huge pond like this” or something else entirely? Some dynamic of peace is at work here. It’s a good thing. I hear about the same thing in Jerusalem too, where there are pockets of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish neighbors who get along. The fighting is on the border towns.

This is from a recent piece by journalist Daniel Greenfield:

“Instead of dreaming of Bin Laden’s head on a platter, we [the west] began entertaining lunatic visions of the patron saint of democracy climbing down the Muslim chimney to leave presents of civil rights under the big Eid tree. And the root cause of that fallacy is that we thought that if we made them like us, there would no longer be any reason to fight them.”

Girard knows the opposite is more likely true. If we make them more like ourselves, then we actually increase the potential for fighting. “Reason” has little to do with it. Religion trumps everything. That peace can be bought by conquest (militarily or ideologically) is and tried-and-true fallacy.

Kartoum’s lit streets are all in straight lines, its roads in proper grids. In this way it looks nothing like Addis. Instead of a sprawling spider, we see a contrived machination of zoning and asphalt. Is it newer? More Muslim? (Sudan is 97% Muslim, Ethiopia 33%) More capitalist (oil)? Why more modern? Maybe the topography alone is a valid explanation. It is flat desert, not high desert mountain. Still, I doubt it can be attributed to one thing.

In one thing it is alike – the spotty streetlight of its residential areas. These must be just as poor as the rest of Africa – more shack than house. I wonder what it looks like from a car on the ground.