Tag Archives: faith

Brooding on Monsters

Forgiveness of others when they wrong me is a fundamental, though often challenging, requirement of my faith. I understand why it is so important, and why we often need help to accomplish it. I desire to be forgiven when I wrong others.

As far as extending human understanding, and even the idea of forgiveness, to some people, I seem to have limits.

Listening to the news has recently brought before me a recurring theme in my life: There is a homicidal torturer that lives under my skin. She longs to take predatory humans, especially sexual predators, into a brightly lit room and vivisect them over the course of several days.

There. I have said it. Yes, I know that many predators are also victims of predation or other horrible circumstances. I also believe that there is a predatory strain, an impulse, a siren call to dominate others, imbedded in humanity.

Obviously, I am no exception. I want to torture certain people, I want to murder them, and when all is said and done, both stem from that desire for domination.

I want to dominate and destroy an aspect of humanity (by proxy of humans that openly manifest it) that exists within me. Even more ironic is the fact that the predatory aspect I contain, that I hate so much in others, would be my motivation and means for attempting to dominate and destroy the aspect in others.

A friend said to me “but they are using it for evil. You want to use it for good.” She means that I want to use it to avenge the weak who are harmed and even killed by those who have the power to harm them. She has strong feelings about cruelty, and she has seen much first-hand as she tries to rescue animals from horrific abuses. She, like me, wishes she could pay the inflicters back, perhaps starving and beating them, then putting them in rings together and forcing them to fight and kill each other while people watching place bets.

There is a grim satisfaction in the thought. An eye for an eye is just. But then I remember that I do not believe that I am the judge. I am a fellow defendant, or at best, a plaintiff.

And yet, without that sense of outrage, that anger, that horror, I would have no motivation to act, to try and stop genocide, or human-trafficking, or rape. Great struggles against these evils are born from the anger, the sense of there being such a thing as justice and injustice.

Righteous anger is, I believe, just that. It is right, and it is anger. Some acts, and the people who perpetrate them, need to be stopped. Given the dangerous monster under my skin, I see the need for an impartial system to stop them, but sometimes the systems do not have the reach, the power, or even the desire to do so. What then? Is a mob, or a movement of the outraged better or worse than the lone avenger driven by righteous anger? A movement is certainly harder to stop, and they have achieved great things, like the Civil Rights Movement combating social injustice. But groups can easily become predators, too, or take their vengeance too far.

After all, not everyone agrees on just causes for anger and action, or the extent of just punishment.

But that is really another issue. What I am trying to process, here, are my own murderous desires. God help me, I know that though my anger may be right, those desires are not. They are understandable, but corrupt. If they are any less horrible than the acts they clamor to avenge, it is not a very great difference.

“Love the Sinner, hate the sin,” is one of those sayings that is too short to be helpful. For one thing, it has become trite, and for another, it is wide-open to all sorts of interpretations and actions. Even if I take it in what I believe to be the right way, I find it rife with complications. How do you love someone when they have done truly horrific things to others? How?!

Perhaps distance makes a difference. It is far easier to simplify matters from a distance, to empathize and demonize ideas of humans rather than real ones. But that is not the whole story. Chances are that I have met perpetrators, predators, and been unaware. I have not yet had to look someone in the eye, knowing horrible things they have done to another person, and try to separate something human from something monstrous in my mind.

I have no solution to this yet, other than the mysterious power that rests in prayer, questioning, and seeking. I am not sure I want answers from others, either. This seems to be one of those instances where I need to find the answer for myself. People vary so much in what makes them angry, how they react, and what they feel or believe is right. Everyone might have a different “answer,” and unless I find this one myself, I will not  trust that it is mine.

I am not even entirely sure why I am writing this post, but I desperately needed to vent, and one thing I do believe is that this world could always use a bit more honesty.

So here I am, raw and snarling. Today, I do not like what I see in the mirror any more than I like what I see in the news. I leave the can of worms of “News Media Bias” unopened, and I ask you to leave it closed, too. I cannot deal with that argument right now. However, I do believe that the sensationalism, the constant barrage of horrors and the voyeuristic hovering, has an effect on me, and on others.

There is good advice to be had in Philippians 4:8

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

I need a bit more of that right now. Predators must be fought, but if we forget what it is we fight for, then what is the point? Perhaps that is the beginning of an answer for me.

Perhaps the monster in me wants to fight against something it hates, but God’s will is that I fight, instead, for something I love?

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The Great Iconoclast

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Images of the Holy easily become holy images- sacrosanct. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins. And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those who are not. But the same thing happens in our private prayers.
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All reality is iconoclastic.
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-C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
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Happy are Those Who Struggle

A thoughtful and beautiful post on spiritual struggle couched in an examination of The Lord of the Rings. Stephencwinter’s blog has many great posts like this. You should go check them out!

Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings

If Sauron were leader of the Fellowship, setting out from Rivendell in possession of the Ring, what would he do? Gandalf knows that it is a question that Sauron has asked himself. Sauron knows that the Fellowship left Rivendell and that they possessed the Ring. He knows something of each member of the Fellowship and that there are hobbits among them. And Gandalf knows that he fears that the Fellowship will go to Minas Tirith and there one of them will wield the Ring, assail Mordor with war, cast him down and take his place. Boromir counselled  that they should go to Minas Tirith but not that one of them should wield the Ring. He hid this desire even from himself.  And Gandalf and Galadriel were tempted to wield the Ring as well. Remember the occasions when Frodo offered the Ring to them, first to Gandalf at Bag End in…

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Language and Perception

One moment last night can be described in similes; otherwise it won’t go into language at all. Imagine a man in total darkness. He thinks he is in a cellar, or dungeon. Then there comes a sound. He thinks it might be a sound from far off-waves or wind-blown trees or cattle half a mile away. And if so, it proves he’s not in a cellar, but free, in the open air. Or it may be a much smaller sound, close at hand-a chuckle of laughter. And if so, there is a friend just beside him in the dark. Either way, a good, good sound. I’m not mad enough to take such an experience as evidence of anything. It is simply the leaping into imaginative activity of an idea which I would always have theoretically admitted- the idea that I, or any mortal at any time, may be utterly mistaken as to the situation he is really in.
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Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them- never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?
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-C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
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This could pass without comment, and for the most part, I will allow it to do so. I read this passage, this morning, for the first time. I am sure subsequent readings will reveal other facets, but for now, two things strike me.
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One moment last night can be described in similes; otherwise it won’t go into language at all.
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Someone whose writing I greatly value and respect feels the same restrictiveness of language that I do.
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Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them- never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?
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Yes. Just… yes. If I could remind myself of this constantly, I would, and if I could teach others one fundamental rule for interacting with each other and the world, it would be this.

Christmas in the Trenches

Public Domain Image by Vera Kratochvil http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=16260&picture=poppy-flower
Public Domain Image by Vera Kratochvil

My last offering is one that I have not known for very long, but I have heard of the events on which it was based. The character of Francis Tolliver is fictional, but the event he describes is real. Words fail me at this point, but the song speaks for itself. Merry Christmas to All, and God’s blessings especially on all who, today, face war, persecution and strife. 

Christmas in the Trenches,

by John McCutcheon
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My name is Francis Tolliver, I come from Liverpool.
Two years ago the war was waiting for me after school.
From Belgium and to Flanders, to Germany, to here
I fought for King and country I love dear.
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‘Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost, so bitter, hung.
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung.
Our families back in England were toasting us that day,
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.
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I was lying with my messmates on the cold and rocky ground,
When across the lines of battle came a most peculiar sound.
Says I, “Now listen up, me boys!” each soldier strained to hear
As one young German voice sang out so clear.
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“He’s singing bloody well, you know!” my partner says to me.
Soon, one by one, each German voice joined in harmony.
The cannons rested silent, the gas clouds rolled no more
As Christmas brought us respite from the war.
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As soon as they were finished and a reverent pause was spent,
“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” struck up some lads from Kent.
The next they sang was “Stille Nacht.” “Tis ‘Silent Night’,” says I,
And in two tongues one song filled up that sky.
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“There’s someone coming toward us!” the front line sentry cried.
All sights were fixed on one long figure trudging from their side.
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shown on that plain so bright
As he, bravely, strode unarmed into the night.
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Soon one by one on either side walked into No Man’s Land.
With neither gun nor bayonet, we met there hand to hand.
We shared some secret brandy and we wished each other well
And in a flare-lit soccer game we gave ’em hell.
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We traded chocolates, cigarettes, and photographs from home.
These sons and fathers far away from families of their own.
Young Sanders played his squeezebox and they had a violin,
This curious and unlikely band of men.
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Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more.
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war.
But the question haunted every heart that beat that wondrous night:
“Whose family have I fixed within my sights?”
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‘Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter, hung.
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung.
For the walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore.
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My name is Francis Tolliver, in Liverpool I dwell.
Each Christmas come since World War I, I’ve learned its lessons well.
That the ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame
And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.
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© 1984 John McCutcheon – All rights reserved


Advent: Go Tell it on the Mountain

Here is my next-to-last offering this year. Like several of the other carols I have highlighted, I first heard this version on the “Home for Christmas” album.

This African-American spiritual was first transcribed by John Wesley Work Jr., a choral director, songwriter, and a collector/compiler of folk music, slave songs, and spirituals. It was first published in Folk Songs of the Amer­i­can Ne­gro in 1907.  J. W. Work Jr. was from Nashville Tennessee, taught at Fisk University and directed and promoted the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

The version I fell in love with was recorded by the incomparable Odetta Holmes. The words differ a bit from those recorded by Work Jr., but such is the way of folk music. It is more wandering, but still rich with imagery.

Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hill, and everywhere.
Go tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is a born!

In the time of David,
Some called him a king.
If a child is true-born
The Lord will hear him singing.

Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hill, and a everywhere.
Go tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is a born!

When I was a sinner,
I sought both night and day.
I asked the Lord to help a’me,
And He showed me the way.

Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hill, and a everywhere.
Go tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is a born!

He made me a watchman
Upon a city wall,
And if I am a good soul,
I am the least of all.

Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hill, well a everywhere.
Go tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is a born!

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Music copyright to Odetta Holmes, 1982

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Advent: Veni, Veni, Emmanuel

This is one of the few carols that is both ubiquitous and among my favorites. It doesn’t matter how many times I hear it or how many versions of it I encounter. I love it, I sing it, and it still has the power to bring me to tears. The call for help, echoed by the assurance of an answer seems, to me, the definition of the hope we have in God.

The song may have its origins as early as the 8th Century, but may be younger than that. It was translated by John Mason Neale and Henry Sloane Coffin in the 1800’s.

The hardest part of this post is actually choosing a version to highlight. There are so many beautiful renditions out there. I finally settled on the Mediaeval Baebes, from their beautiful album Salva Nos.

Veni, Veni Emmanuel

Veni, veni Emmanuel;
Captivum solve Israel,
Qui gemit in exilio,
Privatus Dei Filio.

Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
Nascetur pro te, Israel!

Veni, veni, O Jesse virgula,
Ex hostis tuos ungula,
De specu tuos tartari
Educ et antro barathri.

Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
Nascetur pro te, Israel!

Veni, veni, O Oriens;
Solare nos adveniens,
Noctis depelle nebulas,
Dirasque noctis tenebras.

Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
Nascetur pro te, Israel!

Veni, Clavis Davidica!
Regna reclude caelica;
Fac iter tutum superum,
Et claude vias inferum.

Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
Nascetur pro te, Israel!

Veni, veni Adonai!
Qui populo in Sinai,
Legem dedisti vertice,
In maiestate gloriae.

Gaude! Gaude! Emmanuel,
Nascetur pro te, Israel!

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight!

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of Might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud, and majesty, and awe.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Music copyright Mediaeval Baebes, 2003.


Advent: Third Carol for Christmas Day

I considered a more cutting selection for today because sometimes I forget, along with many others, who Christ is, who He chose to consort with, and that His warmest words were for the poor, the outcasts, and those in distress. To those in prosperity and power, his love tended to manifest in harsh words, a needed wake-up call for those willing to hear it.

We risk becoming too comfortable.  Sometimes we need a good shaking-up. I believe that God wants us comforted, but not comfortable. Sometimes we need to hear the words He spoke to those who had every worldly reason to be satisfied with themselves.

But as I began to write this post, something told me that this is not the time for shaking. Doubtless that time will come, but maybe I’m not the only one who has had a rough year, and maybe anyone who reads this is in a season where they need to be comforted, not exhorted. We need reminders, too, that we are loved and how much. That is really the message of this season, isn’t it? Love manifest in the coming of the Child of Heaven.

In that spirit, I bring you a gorgeous song that reminds me of how much I am loved, and fills me with gratitude for a gift that I could never deserve. You can read the very long lyrics here, but the version I am posting is much shorter and, I think, more to the point.

The song itself is called “Third Carol for Christmas Day” or “Ye Sons of Men with Me Rejoice” and was recorded in A New Garland Containing Songs for Christmas, by Rev. William Devereux in 1728.  It is an Irish carol, and my only encounter with it has been through Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill and Donal Lunny on The Very Best of Celtic Christmas. The album is hit or miss for my tastes, but worth its cost. This song, and “Circle of Joy” are my favorites. As always, please remember that these renditions of songs are under copyright, so if you like them and want to listen to them over and over, do the right thing and purchase them.

Third Carol for Christmas Day,
by Rev. William Devereux, 1728

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Ye sons of men with me rejoice,
And praise the Heav’ns with heart and voice,
For joyful tidings you we bring,
Of this Heav’nly Babe, the new born King.
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Who from His mighty throne above
Came down to manifest His love
To all such as would Him embrace,
And would be born again in grace.
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This mystery for to unfold:
When the King of Kings, He did behold
The poor unhappy state of man,
He sent His own beloved Son.
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An angel sent by Heaven’s command
To a spotless virgin in the land;
One of the seed of David, King,
These joyful tidings for to bring.
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He hailed this Virgin, full of grace,
And told her that in nine month’s space,
She should bring forth a Son, and He,
The Savior of mankind should be.
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Music copyright Maighread ni Dhomhnaill and Donal Lunny, 2004.


Advent: Brugundian Carol

Some carols are very imaginative. That is to say, the writers were not overly concerned with fidelity to the stories of the Christ’s birth given in scripture.

While I am wary of wandering from scripture in terms of doctrine, I am often glad that these writers dared to conjure images and stories in the spirit of the faith that are not confined to the biblical accounts. They increase our spiritual imagery and lexicon and make important connections across humanity.

Apart from the concept that Jesus was born in a stable among animals, we have no biblical stories about how these beasts might have reacted. But then again, it is clear that the following song is only partly talking of oxen and donkeys. I first heard this piece as sung by Pete Seeger, on the “Home for Christmas” album. In other places, his rendition is called “Carol of the Beasts” and can be purchased as such here along with other carols.

From what I have been able to dig up, the song was originally written in French by one Bernard LaMonnoye of Burgundy (thus the title) in the 18th Century, and was translated into English by Oscar Brand. Seeger’s rendition differs a little from others in lyrics, but such is the nature of folk songs, and that is one of the reasons I love folk music so much.

Burgundian Carol
by Bernard LaMonnoye, translated by Oscar Brand
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And on that night, it has been told
These humble beasts, so rough and rude
Throughout the night of Holy Birth
Drank no water, ate no food.
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How many oxen and donkeys now,
Dressed in ermine, silk, and such,
How many oxen and donkeys you know
At such a time would do as much?
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As soon as to these humble beasts
Appeared our Lord, so mild and sweet.
With joy they knelt before His grace
And gently kissed his tiny feet.
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How many oxen and donkeys now,
If they were there when first He came,
How many oxen and donkeys you know
At such a time would do the same?
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Copyright to Pete Seeger, 1982

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You can learn more about “Home for Christmas,” and listen to most of it here: The Basement Rug


Advent: Beautiful Star of Bethlehem

Yet another offering from the Home for Christmas album, but this one is rather different. As a kid, I mocked it a great deal, probably because I didn’t want to admit how much I liked the twang of American folk music. I’ve grown up a bit since then and gotten over a lot of my snobbishness. I still don’t like most of what passes for country music these days, but I’ve come to terms with my deep love of folk and bluegrass music. This song was important in this process.

If you want a somewhat less twangy version, check out the track on Emmylou Harris’s album Light in the Stable. I don’t offer a no-twang version because that seems wrong, somehow.

The song draws a graceful parallel between the star marking the birth of Christ, and Jesus Himself, who is our truest light.

The rendition I came to love is by Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. It is the lyrics of this version I am posting, which, in the good folk tradition, are not exact to the original. You can buy it here.

Beautiful Star Of Bethlehem
By either Adger Pace and R. Fisher Boyce in 1940
or A. L. Phipps

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O beautiful star of Bethlehem

Shining afar through shadows dim,

Giving a light for those who long have gone,

And guiding the wise men on their way

Unto the place where Jesus lay.

O beautiful star of Bethlehem

Shine on!

O beautiful star of Bethlehem,

Shine upon us until the glory dawns.

Give us the light to light the way,

Unto the land of perfect day.

O beautiful star of Bethlehem

Shine on!

O beautiful star the hope of life,

Guiding the pilgrims through the night,

Over the mountains ’til the break of dawn,

Into the light of perfect day

It will give out a lovely ray.

O beautiful star of Bethlehem,

Shine on!

Refrain

O beautiful star, the hope of rest

For the redeemed, the good and  blessed

Yonder in glory when the crown is won.

For Jesus’s now, that star divine

Brighter and brighter He will shine.

O beautiful star of Bethlehem,

Shine on!

Refrain

Music copyright Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, 1982.


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