Calling on a host of angels

During the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, Satan urges him to call on angels to catch him after a flying leap from the pinnacle of the temple. Jesus refuses, but when the devil leaves, “angels came and ministered to him.”

In the garden during the betrayal, Peter pulls out a sword and starts hacking away at the captors. Jesus stops him and reminds him that he could call on twelve legions of angels to save him. But he won’t do it of course. It’s another temptation. “Get behind me Satan” all over again.

Later, on the cross the crowd taunts him to get down himself, a task that I think would involve some more angels.

Apparently it is not for the Son of Man to command armies of angels during his time on earth. Notice what exactly he says to Peter in the garden, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” He would ask his father for them.

A host of angels present themselves to the shepherds at Jesus’ birth, but they were sent their by the father.

I think this is all because Jesus’ first advent was entirely peaceful. He enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey. He enters the world as a helpless infant. He has no army, only a few close friends. Someone commanding angels would be a general. He has denied himself that role from the start and isn’t about to pick it up out of order, though it must have been a distinct possibility or it wouldn’t be mentioned as a temptation.

It’s a temptation for Jesus to call on an army of angels NOW, because he really IS going to call on them later. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.” At his second coming, he rides a while horse and brings the hosts of heaven with him. The sin would be to jump the gun. But he’s waiting until the fullness of time that more might be redeemed.


Some passing thoughts on efforts to “fix” Africa

Isn’t it wonderful that everything you want to know is on the internet now? Just surf Wikipedia and Google topics to your heart’s content. It’s always worked in the past, and if I want to dig a bit deeper, there is usually an obvious list of books to grab on Amazon, just a click away. This year, for the first time, that strategy completely failed me.

In my efforts to learn a lot more about Ethiopia I discovered the net to be shallow waters. I finally had to face the fact that most of the stuff I wanted to know simply does not exist online in any form. So I started casting about for travelogues and other books about the country. By the third one, I was throwing it across the room in disgust. They all contained the same touristy information. They all talked about how neat the rock-hewn churches at Lalibela were and made passing high-minded comments about the poverty or recounted the same miniature history lesson about the birth of coffee. Yawn. And so I’ve had to get off my butt and track down some much more raw sources. I ordered several obscure scholarly works and dissertations from the interlibrary loan office. I emailed several people living in Addis Ababa in hopes that they could give me the real skinny on the current state of the religion, language, and culture. It’s been hard digging through these books from university professors of “African Studies”. There really IS interesting information in all of them I’ve waded through so far, but it’s buried amidst the rubble that often passes for ivory tower research. Some writers try to keep their own opinions out of their text as much as possible. Others just can’t help it. One such recent case was a study of the daily lives of school-age children in the capital by Swedish scholar Eva Poluha. Though the book contained some gems, passages like the following one really drove me nuts.

First of all, the [children I interviewed] took it for granted that everybody had a religion. In one of the interviews 12 year old Judith asked me ‘Excuse me, please eva, but what is your religion?’ I told her that actually I had been baptized a Christian but that I no longer believed in any of the religious systems. I had seen so many people commit harmful acts towards their fellow human beings and yet, they not only called themselves but were also thought of by others, as being very religious. So I said, “I respect those who in their acts show respect for other people, what they say is less important”. Both Judith and her friends Rebqa (12) and Manassebesh (10) were shocked Not so much at what I had said about respect for others in your deeds, as at my no longer believing in any religion. ‘But Eva, you must have a religion’, all three of them told me together. ‘If you have no religion you dont have friends’, said Rebqa. ‘You won’t know how to behave’, said Manassebesh. ‘Many people will come and try to forcefully pull you into their religion’, said Judith. I tried to calm them, saying that I had lived like this for many decades without problems. They did not look convinced however.

-Eva Poluha, The Power of Continuity: Ethiopia through the eyes of its children, p.160

This is so rich. The author believes she has no religion – she is so high above that nonsense. But her religion is clearly secularism – man in conglomeration is deity and the credentialed scientists are the priesthood. The young girls are right to say “You must have a religion!”. It’s right in front of everyone’s own face. The Ethiopian children were worried that people would try to force a woman with no religion into their own. This won’t happen though since the author already DOES have a religion. In fact, throughout the book I find the author frequently proselytizing for her own godless western materialism. In another section of the book where she is interviewing teenage girls about sex and abortion, she constantly reassures them that abortions are safe medical procedures. The girls are skeptical. They are convinced they are dangerous. The author shakes her head at their backwardness. In several other cases, she tries (usually in vain) to inject some modern feminist ideas into their dialogue. In trying to stir them up about the fact that men don’t typically have to help with the household chores, the girls reply with something like, “Why would I want a man to help in the kitchen? He would ruin the stew!”

The authors point throughout the book is that the culture of submission to hierarchy throughout the centuries has allowed the Ethiopian people to be serially abused by their rulers. She talks about how the reign of the emperors was not so different than that of the communists in the 1970s and that the new (technically democratic) government of the last twenty years isn’t that different either. I have to agree with most of these points. The new guys in charge look a heck a lot like the old guys in charge.

The emperors forcibly moved people off their ancestral land to prop up the wealth of the elite families. The communists forcibly moved people off their ancestral land to build communal farms. The current government forcibly moves people off their ancestral land to rent it to the Saudis. Is anything REALLY that different? Some, but not near enough to make any outside observer (short of bankers) happy. The difference is that I think many of the cultural and religious heritage that ties the people together is mostly a GOOD thing. I am not in favor of dissolving them in favor of radical individualism. The author thinks if we could inject a bunch of this “fight for my rights!” ethos into the country, everything would get a lot better. I’m not so sure. I think it would probably just get a lot bloodier. I think a reformation within the church would ultimately ease the oppression of the people from the inside out while maintaining the best existing aspects of their culture. That’s a hard sell though and can only be observed over generations. Tons of development money from the Saudis and the Chinese will seem to make a great improvement in general welfare in the short-term, but it cannot save anyone.

Discerning the true poverty line

The “poverty line” here in the United States was defined last year as households with an annual income of less than $23,050. Context matters. It’s been pointed out by many that this is still ridiculously more than billions of people in the world make. But their expenses (and expectations!) are also lower to match.

In my studies on Ethiopia I’ve discovered another line of sorts. Nearly everyone in Ethiopia is poor. People aren’t generally ashamed to be poor – it’s such a common condition. However, there is still a line nobody wants to cross. Apparently, if you are too poor to buy a chicken to eat on Easter, then you’ve crossed that line. It was shameful to not be able to prepare any meat on the most holy day of the year. Even the poorest people would usually be able to scrape together enough coin to buy a hen for holy week. The same was somewhat true of Muslims on certain feast days.

Who is really poor in America? Even single moms who can’t work and are on full welfare have a place to live and food to eat and a TV. They often have a working car too. I think in the U.S., the real line is not having a stable place to sleep. It makes family life untenable. The homeless are the true poor. If you live under a bridge, you have effectively crossed the line.

The err of using power casually

Here, Kathleen Norris (The Cloister Walk, p.127) summarizes a teaching by the 4th century monk Evagrius:

Anger is given to us by God to help us confront true evil. We err when we use it casually, against other people, to gratify our own desires for power or control.

I really like this idea that we sin when using something powerful in a “casual” manner. I think this works for all sorts of things. I’ll give it a shot.

Morphine is a powerful drug perfect for numbing the pain of a wounded man or putting someone to sleep during surgery. We err when we use it casually to relax and have a good time or temporarily forget our worries. That’s what beer is for. It’s weak and well-suited for casual use. Opiates are not.

The F-word is a potent curse or expression of outrage. We err when we use it casually after the pizza delivery guy is 5 minutes late.

Sexual intercourse is given to us by God to use our bodies to relate intimately with another person. We err when we use it casually to gratify ourselves, make money, or withold it to control others.

The sword (or machine gun) is a powerful weapon that we have been entrusted with for the defense of our families and the striking down of actual deadly foes. We err when we use it casually to take property we are envious of or aggressively control others.

Oaths are powerful words that bind our consciences up front so our resolve will not fail during the unseen trials later. We err when we use them casually as some sort of public display of honesty or intentions when our true loyalty lies elsewhere.

Smart phones are powerful tools capable of many things… and they are nearly always used casually to chat with friends, play video games, take fun pictures, brag subtly on social media sites, watch cat videos on YouTube, and listen to Taylor Swift (thankfully on headphones). We err when we… oh nevermind. I guess this doesn’t work for everything.

Update: My wife read this and put forth the idea that the theory doesn’t hold for the smart phone because it actually isn’t that powerful. I think she’s right. Despite all their sparkle and utility, they are terribly overrated in their ability to affect substantial sociological or interpersonal change.

Listening to see what Adam names the animals

I thought about how listening to Genesis once in a monastery choir, I’d suddenly heard Adam’s naming the animals as a form of play. God does not command Adam to name the animals; God brings them to Adam “to see what he will call them.” This implies that God wants to be surprised and wants Adam to play along in the continual surprise of creation.

-Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, p.307

This sort of thing drives some theologians nuts. God can’t be “surprised” by something in his creation. That’s Open Theism heresy! To hell with that! They imagine God as a either someone participating in the sit-down read-through of a long screenplay he wrote himself and everything follows the script exactly. It’s all glorious of course and has a great ending, but he’s yawning half the time. Nobody will say their lines wrong since he made their tongues and breath too. Handy.

Either that or they imagine God to be like an impossibly deep-thinking chess computer that can see 40,000 moves ahead into any game. Of course he would know Adam’s neurons would fire at a certain time and analogies would present themselves to him in such an order that OF COURSE he was going to call that critter a “giraffe”. Yawn again. I think if that were really the case, Jesus would have needed a lot more coffee to keep himself engaged with humanity long enough to have to cultivate real friendships. Not when they could just be literally be analyzed away.

I’m not saying I have a better model for understanding the mind of God – just that here are two examples of things that I don’t think work. They don’t contain the Father well at all. He’s spilling out the sides of the container while having fun listening to Adam name the animals.

Faith as prose and poetry

In The Cloister Walk (p.61), Kathleen Norris quotes liturgical scholar Gail Ramshaw:

“If faith is about facts, then we line up the children and make them memorize questions and answers. But if we are dealing with poetry instead of prose the we do not teach answers to questions. We memorize not answers but the chants of the ordinary; we explain liturgical action, we immerse people in worship so that they, too, become part of the metaphoric exchange.”

Of course faith is both prose and poetry. Catechesis is very good, but it is only a part. That is why baptism and the receiving of the Lord’s supper don’t involve any talking on the part of the partaker. There is nothing to say; nothing to answer to. You get wet. You eat.

Worship is of the same sort I believe – it is more metaphor than logic. It is muddled when too many words are used or when too many propositional ducks need to be in a row before it can take place. The word for “worship” in all the old languages just meant “to bow”. That is enough. When we participate in that way, we become part of God’s new world.

Lost in the loop

For all you out there who have never heard a fiddle player that can actually use dynamics to great effect and with incredible dexterity – run, don’t walk and listen to Liz Caroll play her “Lost in the Loop” reel. I’m dead serious. With a groove like this (created entirely with loud and soft articulations), you could fire your drummer.

The “mania for credentials” versus a calling

This is an excellent and rich passage that deserves at least two readings.

Walter Brueggeman, in a book on the prophets entitled Hopeful Imagination suggests that “a sense of call in our time is profoundly countercultural,”, and notes that “the idealogy of our time is that we can live an ‘uncalled life,’ one not referred to any purpose beyond one’s self.”

I suspect that this idol of the autonomous, uncalled life has a shadow side that demands that we resist the notion that another might be different, might indeed experience a call. Our idol of the autonomous individual is a sham; the truth is we expect everyone to be the same, and dismiss as elitist those who are working through a call to any genuine vocation. It may be that our culture so fears the necessary other that it has grown unable to identify and name real differences without becoming defensive about them.

I think this explains our mania for credentials, which allow us a measure of objectivity in assessing differences. Credentials measure what is quantifiable; they represent results. A call, on the other hand, is pure process; it cannot be measure, quantified, or controlled by institutions. People who are called tend to violate the rules in annoying ways.

-Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, p.41

On the legitimacy of placebo healing

Leithart quoted today from a book titled The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake.

“Modern medicine works very well,” especially “with mechanical aspects of the body, like defective joints, decayed teeth, faulty heart valves and blocked arteries, or infections curable with antibiotics.”

But it has “tunnel vision” since it focuses all its attention to physical and chemical processes and ignores what doesn’t fit. As a result of its “failure to recognize the power of minds” it is weakest “when dealing with the healing effects of beliefs, expectations, social relationships and religious faith.”

Alternative therapies, it is often charged, work by the placebo effect. But that means that the placebo effect is effective, and it’s not effective for any mechanistic reasons. Sheldrake observes, “Placebo responses show that health and sickness are not just a matter of physics and chemistry. They also depend on hopes, meanings and beliefs. Placebo responses are an integral part of healing”.

In college, I went to hear a series of lectures by charismatic/pentecostal leader C. Peter Wagner. He spoke mostly on the topic of divine healing and he had something to say that was fairly jarring to many in attendance. He said that he believed that in his opinion, probably at least half of all “healings” that occur in charismatic religious gathers are in fact, placebo. That is, they are not something mechanical, but rather “all in your head”. But, he was quick to add – does that make them any less real?

To someone living by the dehumanizing creed of modernism, the answer to that question is, “Of course not! They’re still diseased!” But are they? If their pain is gone, then what’s the problem? Perhaps it was never so mechanical to begin with. That’s why the MRI found nothing substantial but the patient went away in agony.

General physicians who have had to deal with the legion of people pejoratively called hypochondriacs out there know that a lot of the suffering going on around us really is in our heads, or at least not perceivable by outsiders. Chiropractors have to constantly defend the legitimacy of their practice since their results are difficult to quantify. A lot of scientists think chronic fatigue syndrome is essentially “fake”. Well, fake by whose definition? To the person trapped in bed every other day, the fact their blood test comes back clean from the lab every time does nothing to light a fire under them.

I don’t necessary recommend you look to Harry Potter as a source for much philosophy, but sometimes Dumbledore is a pretty wise fellow.

“Tell me one last thing”, said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
-Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Many of the folks in the room where Wagner was speaking that day were incredulous. They were not ready to admit that God didn’t “really” heal people half the time. Didn’t that give their atheistic and cessationist critics too much credit? I think they were still stuck thinking like modernists. They were giving science too much credit and trying to get everything to fit into a materialistic post-enlightenment mold. I remember being pretty confused myself at the time. These quotes from Sheldrake just now brought this all back to mind.

I’m really a big fan of modern medicine. My father was a doctor after all and I considered the career myself on several occasions. Only tomorrow afternoon I’m traveling to the big city and entrusting my youngest daughter to the hands of a surgeon. But I think we need to start our research and understanding right up front by acknowledging our limitations. Everything is not always going to fit into our model. We are but children playing with fancy toys.