Friday, September 28, 2007

Poetry Friday VII

I am on holidays at the moment, and back in the world of dial-up internet, so this blog is going to be more neglected than usual for a couple of weeks. However, I thought I would attempt poetry Friday. So here is a poem, previously mentioned, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. If you are unaware of his story, he was Christian German theologian who became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, being one of the seeming few who saw the hideous truth of Hitler’s campaign against the Jews. Bonhoeffer was subsequently executed himself. I think it is encouraging for the rest of us to know that these spiritual giants also had their inner worlds where all was not quite so fearless and unshakeable, and yet they acted with great trust and steadfastness regardless.

WHO AM I?

Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell's confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
Like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell me of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine,
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Eliot time

There are times in my life when what I need to do is read a George Eliot book. She is one of the masters of the English language, and one of the masters of human observation, according to me. So, I gave myself a holiday treat and bought Daniel Deronda. The very first paragraph failed to disappoint. It says this:
Was she beautiful or not beautiful? and what was the secret of form or expression which gave the dynamic quality to her glance? Was the good or the evil genius dominant in those beams? Probably the evil; else why was the effect that of unrest rather than of undisturbed charm? Why was the wish to look again felt as coercion and not as a longing in which the whole being consents?
And a few pages later:
The general conviction that we are admirable does not easily give way before a single negative; rather when any of Vanity’s large family, male or female, find their performance received coldly, they are apt to believe that a little more of it will win over the unaccountable dissident.
I read and nod my internal head and think ‘so true', 'I've felt that’, though I have never before come across so perspicacious and articulate observation of the phenomena.

Anyway, that’s Chapter 1, and there are many more pearls of wisdom to be found there!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Moving Horton

This morning my computer monitor died at work, and so I had to move Horton and get a new one. I blogged about the why of Horton at the end of this post. Another good line from Horton is "A person's a person no matter how small". In the last week I have also written off my car, and had various other small mishaps, including spilling shoe polish on the carpet, smacking my nose into the edge of a door .... Funny how these things always come in runs. Anyway, I am now going on holidays for two weeks, and am meeting Annie Rose for the first time tonight, which is very exciting. I've just been around to the new Harrogate Tea Shop in Pyrmont, to get supplies for a few nice, leasurely cups of good old-fashioned tea and conversations (I lugged, very carefully, a Royal Albert teapot back from England for my Mum once, and I think it's high time we used it). It's a fascinating shop. It's run by a lovely old British couple, who know everything there is to know about tea, and have taught me many things in my three visits. I think the art of tea is finally making it's come-back, after being left behind by the obsession with coffee. That said, I need to keep lunch short and will move on to poetry Friday.

Poetry Friday VI - When I was young

I had a number of poems in mind for today, including WH Auden's 1 September 1939 (because it's September, but it's hard work and contains references to obscure people like Thucydides and Nijinsky), one by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which I will save for a later date, and a few others, but in the end I decided to go with another old favourite from Christina Rossetti. This is a poem for the melancholics amongst us, but this excerpt is where the poem starts to lift, until it arrives at that "settled meek contented quiet" (I wanted to include sonnets 3-5 particularly, but I expect few readers would make it to the end). I particularly like the last six lines, with their "searching bitters" (cf James 1: 2-4, Romans 5:3-5).

6.
We lack, yet cannot fix upon the lack:
Not this, nor that; yet somewhat, certainly.
We see the things we do not yearn to see
Around us: and what see we glancing back?
Lost hopes that leave our hearts upon the rack,
Hopes that were never ours yet seemed to be,
For which we steered on life’s salt stormy sea
Braving the sunstroke and the frozen pack.
If thus to look behind is all in vain,
And all in vain to look to left or right,
Why face we not our future once again,
Launching with hardier hearts across the main,
Straining dim eyes to catch the invisible sight,
And strong to bear ourselves in patient pain?

7.
... Soul dazed by love and sorrow, cheer thy mood;
More blest art thou than mortal tongue can tell:
Ring not thy funeral but thy marriage bell,
And salt with hope thy life’s insipid food.
Love is the goal, love is the way we wend,
Love is our parallel unending line
Whose only perfect Parallel is Christ,
Beginning not begun, End without end:
For He Who hath the Heart of God sufficed,
Can satisfy all hearts, - yea, thine and mine.

11.
Lifelong our stumbles, lifelong our regret,
Lifelong our efforts failing and renewed,
While lifelong is our witness, “God is good:”
Who bore with us till now, bears with us yet,
Who still remembers and will not forget,
Who gives us light and warmth and daily food;
And gracious promises half understood,
And glories half unveiled, whereon to set
Our heart of hearts and eyes of our desire;
Uplifting us to longing and to love,
Luring us upward from this world of mire,
Urging us to press on and mount above
Ourselves and all we have had experience of,
Mounting to Him in love’s perpetual fire.

12.
A dream there is wherein we are fain to scream,
While struggling with ourselves we cannot speak:
And much of all our waking life, as weak
And misconceived, eludes us like the dream.
For half life’s seemings are not what they seem,
And vain the laughs we laugh, the shrieks we shriek;
Yea, all is vain that mars the settled meek
Contented quiet of our daily theme.
When I was young I deemed that sweets are sweet:
But now I deem some searching bitters are
Sweeter than sweets, and more refreshing far,
And to be relished more, and more desired,
And more to be pursued on eager feet,
On feet untired, and still on feet tho’ tired.

Christina Rossetti Later Life: A Double Sonnet of Sonnets

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Gluttony and other things deadly

The Girl Talk blog, authored by four women from one family in Sovereign Grace Ministries in the US, is a blog that I read quite regularly. They have this week asked for suggestions for an upcoming blog series on food and gluttony, which I am going to read with interest. I recently did some thinking on the subject while pre-reading the chapter Clement on Gluttony by Richard Gibson, which is contained in the book, just launched last week at the Moore College School of Theology, and essentially a festschrift to Michael Hill, lecturer in Ethics, called Still Deadly: Ancient Cures for the 7 Sins. I am looking forward to receiving a copy of the book, and thought I would just here post snippets from the forward and afterward written by Andrew Cameron, to tempt you all:

Each of the seven deadly sins represents a malfunction. Some good thing, originally given by God to be enjoyed with thanks, has filled someone’s horizon. Their desire grips them so intensely that it eats away from within like a cancer, wrecking their relationships ...

Our method will be to watch and talk about people’s habits of action and feeling. When these are good, we call them ‘virtues’, but the seven deadly sins are examples of the dark side of virtues, called ‘vices’. We have attended to these seven vices because they offer us a vehicle for examining our desires when they have gone haywire. In 1 John 2:15-17, the apostle John tells of a problem that we all carry behind our eyeballs (in what is elsewhere called ‘the heart’). He notices the way people become lost in ‘the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes’, and ‘pride in possessions’ ...

We hope then that our attention to the seven deadly sins will offer sober opportunity to assess this malfunction in our emotional world, because until our emotional world begins to be changed (with God’s help), we won’t be free to enjoy the goods that God dreams of for us ...

Attention to the seven deadly sins has been a teaching tool to enable people to begin to see what love doesn’t, and hence does, look like in several of the small moments of their lives. By arguing against various vices, we have commended other virtues. But the language of virtue ethics, which is amply attested in the New Testament, is a help to us precisely because it offers brief descriptions of the way an agent and his or her affections intersects with the order of reality that surrounds her, voiced in a supple, varied and creative language. In the heated moment of decision, virtue language offers a statement of aim: I can quickly weigh up who I want to be in the moment ...

I haven't yet read the book in entirety, but I reckon it will be worth it!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Poetry Friday V


Since I have done the unthinkable and blogged about singleness, I thought I would press on and post two poems, by two of my favourite writers, both of whom had a deep and vital faith in God, that speak of a known but unrequited love, its humiliation and hurt, and what is to be done with it. The second is written with the characteristic violent passion of a Bronte (though if you read this article, and others like it, which I found when I was looking for a suitable picture, "lovesickness" should be taken a lot more seriously as a diagnosable illness, which can lead people all the way to suicide) but interestingly portrays how the objects of love can become idols. I'll let the poems speak for themselves, but I particularly like the line "He gave our hearts to love: He will not Love despise". God will never scorn us for having loved (though we'd best guard against trust-less obsessions):

Twice

I took my heart in my hand
(O my love, O my love),
I said: Let me fall or stand,
Let me live or die,
But this once hear me speak-
(O my love, O my love)-
Yet a woman's words are weak;
You should speak, not I.

You took my heart in your hand
With a friendly smile,
With a critical eye you scanned,
Then set it down,
And said: It is still unripe,
Better wait awhile;
Wait while the skylarks pipe,
Till the corn grows brown.

As you set it down it broke-
Broke, but I did not wince;
I smiled at the speech you spoke,
At your judgement that I heard:
But I have not often smiled
Since then, nor questioned since,
Nor cared for corn-flowers wild,
Nor sung with the singing bird.

I take my heart in my hand,
O my God, O my God,
My broken heart in my hand:
Thou hast seen, judge Thou.
My hope was written on sand,
O my God, O my God;
Now let Thy judgement stand-
Yea, judge me now.

This contemned of a man,
This marred one heedless day,
This heart take Thou to scan
Both within and without:
Refine with fire its gold,
Purge Thou its dross away-
Yea hold it in Thy hold,
Whence none can pluck it out.

I take my heart in my hand-
I shall not die, but live-
Before Thy face I stand;
I, for Thou callest such
All that I have I bring,
All that I am I give,
Smile Thou and I shall sing,
But shall not question much.

Christina Rossetti

He saw my heart's woe, discovered my soul's anguish,
How in fever, in thirst, in atrophy it pined;
Knew he could heal, yet looked and let it languish,
To it's moans spirit-deaf, to its pangs spirit-blind.

But once a year he heard a whisper low and dreary
Appealing for aid, entreating some reply;
Only when sick, soul-worn, and torture weary,
Breathed I that prayer, heaved I that sigh.

He was mute as is the grave, he stood stirless as a tower;
At last I looked up, and saw I prayed to stone:
I asked help of that which to help had no power,
I sought love where love was utterly unknown.

Idolater I kneeled to an idol cut in rock!
I might have slashed my flesh and drawn my heart's best blood:
The Granite God had felt no tenderness, no shock;
My Baal had not seen nor heard nor understood.

In dark remorse I rose; I rose in darker shame;
Self-condemned I withdrew to an exile from my kind;
A solitude I sought where mortal never came,
Hoping in its wilds forgetfulness to find.

Now, Heaven, heal the wound which I still deeply feel;
The glorious hosts look not in scorn on our poor race;
Thy King eternal doth no iron judgment deal
On suffering worms who seek forgiveness, comfort, grace.

He gave our hearts to love: He will not Love despise,
E'en if the gift be lost, as mine was long ago;
He will forgive the fault, will bid the offender rise,
Wash out with dews of bliss the fiery brand of woe;

And give a sheltered place beneath the unsullied throne,
Whence the soul redeemed may mark Time's fleeting course round earth;
And know its trials overpast, its sufferings gone,
And feel the peril past of Death's immortal birth.

Charlotte Bronte

Thursday, September 13, 2007

I did once, but I think I got away with it.

(Basil Fawlty, minus the war)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Whatever you do, don't mention ...


Another reason for the state of neglect of my own blog is that I have been off thinking through things on the blogs of other people of late, and this week got into a discussion about that one thing I would probably have never mentioned on my own blog, that being singleness. Nicole, over here, blogged a post based on an article in the latest Briefing by Gordon Cheng, reviewing Christopher Ash's book Marriage: Sex in the Service of God. While I agree entirely with the ideas Nicole presented in her post, that she took away from that article, I had a few other questions about the article itself, which Nicole became the sounding board for. That discussion happened in the comments on Nicole's post.

In summary, the article, or rather Ash's book, reaches the conclusion that the purpose of marriage is "resting instead with our rule and dominion over creation", which he basis on the argument that is set up from Genesis 1:28 onwards, rather than as a cure for the aloneness we encounter in Gen 2:18.

The article then goes on to say "So the answer to loneliness may not be marriage, then, but friendship!". My question was, and still essentially is, that if we say that the suitable helper that was given to Adam was not to deal with the aloneness, then do we have theological grounds for saying that any other human being is? ie, where do we get a biblical basis for concluding that friendship is to be a cure for loneliness, if not from Genesis 2? (Though the argument made in the article is that the problem was that Adam needed someone to help him work the garden, which was the essence of the aloneness, and not a companion - but that being the case, why is anything needed as an answer for loneliness?). I got to thinking about this recently as a result of a sermon on divorce, which referred back to Gen 2:18-25, and made the point that Adam was not here given "fishing buddies" but a woman (when fishing buddies could have been just the thing to help him work - though here again, many argue that he needed a woman in order to fulfill the other command to be "fruitful"). Similarly when sermons are preached on marriage, or on homosexuality, at least in evangelical churches, the point is very often made that it is to be Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. In all of these cases it is made very clear that there is only one option contained within Gen 2:18, that being relationship with a person of the opposite sex. Yet often when it comes to sermons on singleness, if they go anywhere outside of 1 Corinthians 7 at all, they seem to smudge or expand Genesis 2, such that Steve and the fishing buddies are given a lot more value to combat the aloneness. This would actually stand, if you hold the argument that we only need someone to help us "work", but there again, why would anyone long for what is described in the very next Briefing article by Keith Condie - "We long for a deep emotional connection that makes us feel safe and loved, valued and understood" - if that were not a created part of us? And can we realistically find that in friendship? Perhaps you could argue that the making of another of the same "kind" as Adam is what counteracts the aloneness and that marriage is just a subset of that (which one would hope would include friendship), though I have run into difficulties actually building that argument from Genesis 2.

The article/book also states that if marriage is the answer to aloneness, then single people would be incomplete. Yet there are other things contained in the creation mandate of Gen 1:28 discussed in the article, namely to be "fruitful and multiply", which a single person can not fulfill, in any creation sense, either, so is that argument entirely consistent? (Though I acknowledge one or two loopholes in my reasoning here.)

Anyway, Nicole was very gracious and accommodating in being the victim of these thoughts. While I never actually expected an article, or book, on the purpose of marriage to address many aspects of singleness, as I realise they are separate issues, it has come to be an interesting discussion of that. Yesterday Nicole blogged a post on the Song of Songs and Singleness, in which she quoted from Barry Webb's book Five Festal Garments - Christian Reflections on Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther. I have to say that I think this is one of the best things I have read on singleness in a long time, in that, firstly, it refers back to Genesis as the basis of any sort of theology on singleness, which, in my humble opinion, is as it should be (though, perhaps, as Nicole suggests, certain aspects of Genesis 2 may have more to say on this than others), and secondly, simply because it does acknowledge the "limits" (for want of a better word) of singleness, which, as Barry Webb also implies, goes a lot further towards real encouragement for single people than does denial of them. For those two reasons I found it very refreshing.

I've pasted the excerpt from the book in here from Nicole's blog, so thanks to Nicole for typing it up:
Clearly, singleness is not to be seen as inferior to marriage in all respects, and single persons should not be viewed as 'incomplete' in any way that calls into question their integrity and dignity as human beings. Nevertheless, the Song of Songs has something important to say in this area, and it must be allowed to make its contribution to a fully biblical approach to these matters. I have argued in this chapter that the Song must be read against the background of Gen. 1-3. There, the statement "It is not good for the man to be alone (2:18) stands in stark contrast to the long string of pronouncements in Gen. 1, "It was good...good...very good". Here at last is something (aloneness) that is not good. The good condition that answers to this is the 'one flesh' union between the man and the woman that is reached in Gen 2:23-25.

The whole Song of Songs is in effect a celebration of that good condition, and as the Song comes to a close the word used to encapsulate this goodness is 'shalom' (8:10), which I take in this context to mean the full enjoyment of what our created natures naturally desire and long for (the NIV's 'contentment' is not an adequate translation).

The NT teaching about singleness as a state which is preferable in certain circumstances (1 Cor. 7), or which may be embraced voluntarily for the sake of the kingdom of God (Jesus is the supreme example of this), is to be seen against this background. It does not conflict with it or overturn it. In other words, singleness remains a state that is 'not good' in the sense that it is a state of loneliness in which certain natural created desires are not met. There are compensations, of course, and important benefits, but particular needs remain unmet, and the single person has to live with that fact and work through it. It is important to acknowledge this; otherwise there is a danger of moving into a kind of unreality and denial that are not helpful, either to single people themselves, or to those who minister to them.

Friday, September 07, 2007

A neglected blog

This blog has been sadly neglected of late. I never seem to find the time or mental space to distill a thought (or perhaps to have the initial thought) into a post that is more than something rather half-formed. I have spent the last three nights after work attending Oliver O'Donovan's lectures on Moral Wakefulness. I won't attempt any sort of synopsis of those. That has been done very well by Byron Smith over here, with two more posts to follow. You may ask why I went along, when the Moore College Evening Course on Ethics is about the only time I have given to a serious study of ethics, but I did find them very interesting and challenging (to say the least).

I am continuing to read the book Living the Cross Centred Life, which I am enjoying. I have just passed the chapter on Assurance and Joy, focusing on the why of the cross. In all our discussions of atonement theories and so on, it is something marvellous to be reminded of the why - that being because of God's great love for us.

Hopefully I'll be back with more later on.

Poetry Friday IV - The Listeners

Today we have a day off here in Sydney for APEC. It has been mildly inconvenient getting to work this week, and I have hopped off buses in some strange places because I was going to be able to walk a whole lot faster than a bus was ever going to get me to my destination. Yesterday morning I got off a bus, which was supposed to go through the Eastern Distributor, on the Eastern side of Hyde Park, to walk to Pyrmont. I suspect that I then participated in the exploitation of children for political purposes as I walked through Hyde Park in that after I politely declined taking a brochure from an elderly gentleman protesting against the persecution of Falun Gong in China, because I had collected that brochure the day before, I then came across a very gorgeous little Chinese girl, looking very earnest and struggling with her pile of the very same brochures and I couldn't resist taking one, with a big smile on my face what's more. Yesterday morning Bush had also decided to go to the Maritime Museum, which wreaked a little havoc in my neck of the working woods in Pyrmont. However, I am not actually going to moan about any of that, because where would be the point, and today I have the whole day off! So, I thought it a fitting day to post a purely escapist poem. I really like this poem. I couldn't even tell you why, except that it takes me away to somewhere else, and I find myself in a moonlit forest ...

The Listeners

"Is there anybody there?" said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest's ferny floor.
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller's head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
" Is there anybody there?" he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf -fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller's call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
'Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:-
"Tell them I came and no one answered,
That I kept my word," he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Aye, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.


Walter De La Mare 1873-1956