Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Of Newtown and Magical Thinking

The Newtown tragedy brings to mind my experiences many years ago as an assistant district attorney when, among other things, I was assigned to cover the mental health hearings in the probate court of Bexar County, Texas. Every other Wednesday I met the probate judge and his clerk at his office in the courthouse and we drove together down South Presa street to the county mental health hospital. There we held involuntary and voluntary commitment hearings in a small conference room. At that time it was much easier to extend commitments than it is today.

Most of the inmates suffered from mental illnesses combined with related addictive behaviors. The hospital was pretty shabby but the inmates were at least housed, fed, medicated and protected from injuring themselves or others. The unintended consequences of the later movement to protect individuals from abuse of the mental health commitment processes of that day has been to drastically reduce mental health treatment and increase danger of injury to these patients and to the public. 

I read about twice as many calls for gun control legislation as I do for increases in funding for mental health. And I have not yet read or heard of anyone advocating changing the laws relating to involuntary commitments for those with potentially dangerous untreated mental illnesses. Yet the news today tells us that the shooter in Newtown may have become enraged because he knew that his mother was trying to get him committed to a mental health facility for treatment. That process is very cumbersome and takes too much time when a patient is in a potentially dangerous mental state.

As a society we tend to engage in magical thinking in times of tragedy like this. We think that the solution to tragedies like this lies in the legislative process. Pass some new laws to restrict gun possession and increase funding for mental health treatment and, VOILA, problem solved! 

I'm not saying new legislation in these areas is not needed, but neither will it be a cure. If not carefully thought through, new laws may bring negative unintended consequences, just as the well-intentioned changes in involuntary commitment processes resulted in growth of a troubled, untreated homeless population across the country.

I don't have the answers and I wish that I did. I do know there are too many  struggling with the problem of getting good, consistent treatment for mentally ill family members and that they also need counseling and training themselves in helping their loved ones manage these difficult, chronic conditions. 

It's going to take a lot more than magical thinking and political posturing to prevent future tragedies like Newtown. God help us.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Number 703 on the alphabetical chart

In answer to the question, "where are the Christian women bloggers?", the author of the blog Slacktivist at the website put together a list of 1,001 blogs by Christian women you should know. 

The list is strictly alphabetical and so Quotidian Grace comes in at number 703 here.

Thanks for the mention! Now maybe I'll be inspired to blog more regularly in the New Year?


Thursday, December 06, 2012

BSD Blogging: Lesson 11 Standing Firm

Reading Paul's letters in an ekklesia.
Here is a link to my lecture today on Lesson 11 which is the second lesson in the BSD study of Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians: Standing Firm.

I focused on giving more background and history on the culture and city of Corinth and the new Christian community there in order to deepen our understanding of Paul's message in this letter. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

BSD Blogging: A Brief Intro to Corinth

This week our BSD groups begin studying Paul's second letter to the church in Corinth--which we learned in the lesson is the fourth known letter to these early Christians, with the first and third having been lost to us. We can better understand Paul's message if we put on those "three-dimensional" glasses to see what the city of Corinth and the church were like in Paul's day.

First of all, Corinth was really a new Roman city built on the ruins of the Greek city of Corinth which was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC and resettled  by decree of Julius Caesar in 446 BC. Situated on a narrow isthmus of land, Corinth had two seaports: one leading to Italy and one to Asia. The city was a major commercial center and, like most successful port cities, attracted a very diverse population.  

That population included many Jewish refugees from Rome, who had been expelled by order of the emperor in 49 AD. Among these Roman Jews were Priscilla and Aquila, leaders in the early church in Corinth. 

Paul's letter to the Christians in Corinth were read and shared by a number of house churches, not just one congregation. At this time the church was organized by households which in Roman culture (remember this is a Roman city and the Jews in Corinth were Roman Jews) which included more than the nuclear family. Slaves, freedmen, hired workers, tenants and skilled craftsmen were considered part of the household and were expected to follow the faith of the head of the household. They gathered for worship and a shared meal in private homes, not in synagogues or separate buildings. Some of these house churches were led by women who were independently wealthy either by inheritance or through their own business dealings.

Imagine Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians being read aloud in one of the early house churches and then being copied and passed along to the next Christian household! Many of those hearing his words were illiterate and could not have read it for themselves. We are going to spend the rest of our BSD study learning this letter that gives us a window into the early church in Corinth and Paul's sometimes strained but always loving relationship with it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

BSD Blogging: Nehemiah's Tweets

What if Nehemiah had a Twitter account to tweet the events we are studying this week in chapters 11, 12 and 13? Might it look something like this....

Shout out to everyone moving into Jerusalem today! Bessings on you! #Benjamin #Judah 

Busy organizing wall dedication for tomorrow. Need more singers and harpists. @musiciansunion

Where are the supplies for sacrifices?Need offerings before nightfall brought to the temple.#priests

What a wonderful day at the dedication! Thanks to the Levites, priests, temple servants for a job well done. #praisetoYWHW

My work is done here. The King has recalled me to the capital. People, keep your covenant!
#priests #levites

On the road again back to Persia. Looking forward to reunion with friends and some great food! #nooasisinsight #arewethereyet

What's up, Jerusalem? Back in Persia and miss you all.  #emailme #friendme

Haven't heard from you Jews for several years. Keeping the covenant? #letmeknow

God calls me back to Jerusalem and the King agrees. See y'all soon! #hatedeserttravel #saddlesores

OH NO!!! #fail #EPICFAIL #covenantbreakers

@Eliashib: What the blazes are you doing? #covenantbreaker #YWHWisnotmocked

@Tobiah: Get Lost! #andyourstufftoo #anddon'tcomeback

Jerusalem's gates  now closed on the Sabbath from sundown to sunrise effective immediately--no more trading on the Sabbath. #covenantbreakers #cutitout #YWHWsaidso

Not apologizing for losing my temper with those of you who married foreign women.#covenant breakers #getawig

Grateful for Shelemiah, Zadok, Pedaiah and Hanan's honest oversight of future distributions to the Levites. #YWHWwillblessyou #standfirm

Duty calls me back to the King. Remember me with favor, O my God, for my faithful work in Jerusalem. #earnestprayers 

Monday, November 12, 2012

BSD Blogging: Link to Lecture on Lesson 8

I'm tardy posting the link to my lecture last Thursday on Lesson 8 which covers chapters 9 and 10 of Nehemiah. Sorry about that!

Chapter 9 is Ezra's penitential prayer on behalf of the people and chapter 10 is the renewal of the covenant between the people and God.

This week our lesson wraps up this study of Nehemiah, and the following week we begin the study of Paul's second letter to the Corinthians. If you've been wanting to join us, this would be the perfect time to do it! 

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

BSD Blogging: Some Sabbath Books

I'm doing the lecture this week on chapters 9 and 10 of Nehemiah and while preparing the lecture I got to thinking about Sabbath and Sabbath-keeping--or the lack of it--today.

Since that train of thought really didn't belong in the lecture, given the constraints of time, I'm going to share a couple of books on the subject that I have found worthwhile.

The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time by Judith Shulevitz is written by a Jewish author, but she has an understanding of the place of the Sabbath in the New Testament as well. This book is interesting because Shulevitz is attentive both to the spiritual and the psychological aspects of Sabbath-keeping. I wrote a full review of the book here if you would like more information. I notice it is no longer available on, but can be found from other sellers.

The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill includes some interesting passages about the concept of Sabbath as well as a fascinating discussion of the importance of the religious concepts of the Jews for western civilization.

Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family's Experiment with Holy Time by MaryAnn McKibben Dana will be of particular interest to parents of young children who are wondering how to incorporate the principles of Sabbath into modern suburban life. The author is a Presbyterian minister whose family committed to practice the Sabbath for a year and documented the experience. She also provides suggestions for families who are looking for ways to incorporate some aspects of Sabbath into their lives.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

BSD Blogging: Samaritans of the 21st Century

Modern-day Samaritans celebrating Shauvoth on Mount Gezirim

In Nehemiah we read of the enmity between the Samaritans--especially their governor Sanballat--and the Jews during the post-exilic period when the Jews were returning to Jerusalem and rebuilding it.

We know that enmity continued in the time of the New Testament, but what happened to the Samaritans and Samaria? Inquiring minds want to know.

A few years ago I looked this up when I was teaching a class on Luke and got to the parable of the Good Samaritan. Much to my surprise I learned that a small group (about 750) of Samaritans continue to live in Israel today and practice their own unique religious tradition which is related to Judaism but relies on a Samaritan Torah and commentaries. Modern Samaritans claim descent from two tribes of Israel: Manasseh and Ephraim. They live near  Mount Gezirim, where tradition says Abraham took Isaac for sacrifice and which they say is the original holy site of the Israelites. 

Samaritans believe the Jews practice an altered and amended form of religion which developed after their return from Babylonian exile while Samaritans maintained the purity of the original worship and beliefs of the Israelites. Over the centuries the number of Samaritans declined due to bloody historical events and the forced mass conversion of many to Islam in the early Muslim period of Palestine. The 700+ Samaritans remaining in Israel today are members of five family groups and there are some Samaritans scattered around the world, including some in the United States. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

BSD Blogging: Lesson 6 Lecture Link

I meant to post about Lesson 6 which covers chapter 5 of Nehemiah but life got in the way as I was preparing this lecture!

The theme of the lesson is compassionate leadership. Focus of the lecture is on Nehemiah's Economic Stimulus plan and the problem of self-serving bias. A special tip of the QG chapeau to John Ortberg and chapter 14 of his new book The Me I Want To Be for providing great food for thought on the subject of self-deception. It's timely study that almost seems taken from today's headlines!

Here's the link to the podcast of this morning's lecture: BSD Lesson 6.

Questions, comments and discussion are welcome as always!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Cutting Myself Down to Size: The Payoff !Part 3

Now that I am close to my goal I'm having the most fun ever buying a new wardrobe--from the inside out. I have lost 3 sizes and now happily shop in the regular women's section rather than the plus size department. Sometimes I have to remind myself of that because I'm not used to it.

It started about midway through the summer when my daughters started fussing at me for continuing to wear clothes that were by then two sizes too large. I eventually took the hint and began donating the largest clothes to charity and buying a few new things in a smaller size.

Then recently Daughter Babs took me in hand and marched me into stores I haven't shopped in for years. It was like having my own personal Stacy London without the notoriety of having to appear on What Not to Wear. She made me try on styles I never would have chosen in the past and to my surprise--they worked. Really well! Things like slim leg pants and jeans, pencil skirts, form-fitting blouses and tops, short sweaters, and even some heels are now in my closet. It does take a lot of mental adjustment to adjust to a new body size. 

Some old habits kept cropping up, though. Because it was hard to find clothes that fit when I was heavier--especially since I am so tall--I had a habit of buying the same item in several colors or patterns if I liked it. It's been a revelation to realize that I have far more choice now than I did before. I don't need to keep buying duplicates or shopping exclusively online. I have more choices than I can deal with most of the time. Amazing!

When I started wearing the new duds, I was almost embarrassed by the attention and compliments I got from family, friends and acquaintances. It really made a difference to have clothes that fit.

My advice for fellow travelers on this weight loss journey is to ruthlessly donate those "fat" clothes and replace them with items that fit. The first time you may want to limit  the number of purchases and their cost if you anticipate losing another 20 pounds or more. (This may vary according to your size. With my height it takes a lot of weight to make a difference in sizing while it would take less for someone who is petite.) I didn't buy "good" items until I got close to goal. But it is important not not to keep those larger sizes on hand "just in case." You don't want to allow yourself that option!

And thus endeth this series and the lesson. Next month will mark my the one year anniversary of my new way of eating. I pledge to update my status 6 months from then--in May--as a way of keeping myself accountable. Best of luck to the rest of you and let me know how you are doing!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

BSD Blogging: Community and Personal Threats

This week we are reading chapters 4 and 6 of the book of Nehemiah. It may strike you as odd to skip over chapter 5, but the themes of chapter 4 and chapter 6 are similar: threats against the community of builders in chapter 4 and personal threats against their leader Nehemiah in chapter 6. We'll study chapter 5 next week which recounts Nehemiah's fiscal reforms that addressed an economic crisis that also threatened the rebuilding effort. 

In reading some of the commentaries on these two chapters I learned that as a general rule the kings of the Persian empire did not permit cities within the empire to have walls around them. Walled cities made it easier for local strongmen to put their own armies inside the walls and rebel against the rule of the king.The Persian kings were constantly engaged in putting down rebellion in various parts of their empire and sometime it cost them their own lives when (as happened with Ataxerxes' father Xerxes) men close to them took advantage of their relationship to assassinate them. It was much easier for the king to send in troops from neighboring loyal provinces to put down rebellion and exert authority over a city if there was no wall that had to be breached. In Ezra we see the Samaritan troops easily entering Jerusalem to stop the rebuilding of the wall under orders from King Ataxerxes. We also know that the Persian kings were constantly engage

But God strengthens Nehemiah's influence with the King  so that he has reverses this long-standing policy and authorizes the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem. It's no wonder that Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem are disturbed by this change in direction and find it hard to believe that Nehemiah is being trusted to rebuild the wall and remain loyal. 

It seems to me that Nehemiah's unshakable faith in God's call to this task strengthened  both his reliance on his close relationship with the king so that he fearlessly brushes off the attempts to threaten both the builders and his own life and leadership. Which once again reminds us that God not only calls us to specific work for his Kingdom but also works through other people to support us in our tasks.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Cutting Myself Down to Size--Part Two

I chose to do Weight Watchers online instead of attending meetings and it worked really well for me. Years ago I did attend WW meetings,  but I have this besetting sin of impatience with meetings  I'm not in charge of. This time I decided that with the WW apps for the phone and IPad, which include the tracker as well as a scanner that reads the barcodes in the grocery store and tells you the points for the item and a cooking app that has tons of recipe suggestions, I could just do it electronically. I love seeing the graph that appears as you track your weight loss on the app!

For months I was very faithful recording the points and then got more lax as I repeated the same meals and got closer to my goal. But anytime I start to slip I begin tracking again. For me, the new WW points plus plan that allows you to eat all the fresh fruit you want without counting it made a big difference. If you aren't a fan of fruit, then it won't help you. I also found I had fewer cravings when I kept my carbs low and protein high. Your experience may vary. My new best friends are Greek Yogurt, apples, packaged broccoli slaw (for extra fiber in sandwich wraps and salads) and hummus.

Mary Beth asked me in a comment what Dream Dinners is. It is a national franchise that provides frozen entrees. You make an appointment for a session together with your order then go in and assemble them yourself fresh or for a small fee they will put them together for you and you pick them up. You can make adjustments to fit special dietary needs. The orders come in either 3 or 6 serving sizes. I found most of the 3 size portions worked for us so El Jefe ate 2/3 and I ate 1/3. Nutritional information is available online so I work out the WW points and that guides my orders. The food is pretty healthy on the whole so I find enough suitable items for my diet each month. I spend much less at the grocery store  because I'm not buying as much meat when I shop and the DD prices are quite reasonable. I'm very lucky to have a DD store very close to where we live. 

This is a HUGE help for me because I use the dinners two to three times a week and that frees me from having to plan meals and think about food every night. Portion control is the key to diet success and the DD portions for the WW-friendly items are perfect. I do enjoy cooking but find I am more tempted to stray from the diet path when I have to think about it constantly. And, for me, it is important not to eat out frequently although over the last 11 months I have gained more control over the impulse to indulge when we're at a restaurant.

Shedding those pounds also means shedding the old "fat" clothes, which is a great motivation to stay on the plan. More about that in the next installment.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

BSD Blogging: Allegorical Interpretation of the Gates

The Eastern Gate of Jerusalem
A number of years ago I took a course in Biblical Interpretation through the Austin Seminary extension program in Houston. The course covered different approaches to the interpretation of the Bible that students would encounter as they consult commentaries and interpretive works of different Christian authors.

One of the approaches is allegorical interpretation which seeks to find deeper spiritual truths by identifying symbolic meanings in the Biblical texts. It is an ancient method that began with   the early church theologian and write Origen of Alexandria. An example of this is interpreting Aaron, the first High Priest in the Old Testament, as a symbol of Jesus Christ, the spiritual High Priest. The Bible does contain allegories that are clearly identified in context (see Paul's interpretation of Hagar and Sarah in Gal. 4: 21-24). The allegorical method of interpretation can be controversial when it stretches a bit too far and/or when it ignores the context of the verses in the larger text. 

Which brings me to the symbolic meaning of the names of the gates of Jerusalem as described in Nehemiah 2: 11-20. There are as many interpretations as there are people who have offered them as you will see if you look for this on google! 

The gate names all have literal meanings of course. The sheep gate is where the shepherds brought the sheep into the city for market; the fish gate is where the fishermen from the Sea of Galilee brought their catch of the day for sale; the Horse gate admitted the horses; the Dung Gate was where the city's refuse was dumped and so forth. 

Some common allegorical meanings often ascribed to the gates are:

Sheep Gate =Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd
Fish Gate ="fishing" for men
Fountain Gate and the Water Gate =the fountain of Living Water (the Holy Spirit)
Horse Gate=spiritual warfare (horses were used in warfare)
East Gate = place where the Messiah will return (taken from Zec. 14: 4 which says the Messiah will return on the Mount of Olives east of Jerusalem)
Dung Gate = sin which smells bad and causes decay

Some interpreters also find in the order in which the gates were repaired an allegory of the life of faith in Christ and the shape of the wall and the gates is compared to a heart or a footprint both of which allude to Christ's presence.

Generally I favor the "plain meaning of the text" school of Biblical interpretation, but sometimes looking for allegorical meanings can deepen the power of the Word and our understanding of it. 

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Cutting Myself Down to Size--Part One

I usually shy away from blogging about personal stuff, but I'm going to make an exception by special request. Robin Craig--you asked for it, so this is for you! And also for Julie Craig, who is now traveling this same path using a different approach that is working for her. Keep up the great work, Jules!

As of today I am 60 pounds lighter than I was last November. That's when I joined Weight Watchers Online and began to cut myself down to size. I've done WW and similar programs before--in fact I lost 70 pounds after having my two daughters. As any of you who have also battled your weight know, the biggest challenge is not losing the weight but keeping it off. I've had a couple of epic FAILS in that area, so my challenge now is not to FAIL maintenance again.

Looking back now, I can't explain exactly why it all finally "clicked" for me. I meant to loose the weight before our trip to Israel last year knowing that there would be a lot of walking which would be much easier for me (and my bum left knee) with less weight. But I didn't do it then and certainly regretted it!

I owe my success to date to the unflagging support of my husband and family, Weight Watchers and Dream Dinners. 

El Jefe, who has never had a weight problem and loves dessert, never complained when I quit baking and instead gave him pies and cakes from the grocery bakery. He was always agreed to eat out where I could order food that fit my program, and encourages me to buy new clothes to fit my new figure! And sixty pounds later, that means a whole new wardrobe.

Daughter Babs who gained weight in college then lost it and has kept it off was a consistent cheerleader who suggested recipes and tips for eating out that really helped, too. She took me shopping and made me try on styles I would never have considered before but love now. Daughter Portia was either losing pregnancy weight or pregnant again and so was a very supportive fellow traveler on the diet path. 

It would be much more difficult to stay on the program without this kind of helpful support and accountability. I'm not as forthcoming as Julie who announced her intentions on her blog at the beginning as a way of keeping herself accountable. Setting up an external check like this is a key to success, whether you do it privately with family and friends or publicly on Facebook and Blogger. Whenever I kept my resolution to diet to myself, I went off the program very quickly.

Now that I've started blogging about this, I see it will take several posts since even interested Gentle Readers won't follow something too long. Stay tuned for more, if you're interested.

But next--back to our regularly scheduled BSD Blogging.

Friday, October 05, 2012

BSD Blogging: Lecture--A Burden for the Work of Rebuilding

Here's a link to the podcast of my BSD lecture yesterday on Lesson 3: A Burden of the Work of Rebuilding which covers Nehemiah 2: 1-10. This is from the MDPC website.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

BSD Blogging: Of Rabbit Trails and Red Herrings

This week's lesson covers Nehemiah 2:1-10. Since I'm giving the lecture tomorrow I don't want to repeat it here, so instead l'm going to hop down the bunny trail chasing some elusive red herrings, to share some background speculation developed in the course of my preparation for tomorrow.

Nehemiah identifies himself at the end of chapter 1 as the cupbearer to the King. This position was given only to someone whose loyalty was unquestioned. Artaxerxes' father, Xerxes, had been murdered by the captain of his personal bodyguard so Artaxerxes was painfully aware of the potential for treachery in those who were closest to him.

Interestingly, Nehemiah is not Persian but a descendant of Jewish exiles. On the principle "keep your friends close and your enemies closer" the Kings of Babylon and Persia placed members of prominent Jewish families in their court so they could keep an eye on them, insure their loyalty and take advantage of their skills. 

Four months passed between the events in chapter 1, which took place at Susa, and Nehemiah's conversation with King Artaxerxes in chapter 2. They were probably not in Susa, which was the winter palace. Courts moved around frequently to take advantage of better weather (too hot in Susa in the spring and summer!) and to reinforce their control over different parts of the empire. 

There may have been more than one cupbearer. If so, its possible that Nehemiah did not have a chance to serve the king personally until this encounter. On the other hand maybe he was in the king's presence consistently but sensed (a holy nudge?) that this was the time to invite the king to speak to him by showing sadness. Certainly you did not speak to the king unless spoken to so Nehemiah had to wait for the king to recognize him before he could make his request.

Some commentators have noted that the queen was present at the time of this conversation and speculated that her presence was helpful to Nehemiah and showed that he had a trusted relationship with her as well which would make it a good time to have this discussion with the king. Persian queens had a good deal of influence so she could have been helpful, but scripture doesn't tell us that.

In my research I found speculation that Nehemiah was a eunuch because extra-biblical sources indicate that was required for any male servant who had interaction with the wives and female relatives of the ruler. Nehemiah doesn't mention any family in his memoirs so that could be possible since it was almost unheard of for Jewish males not to marry. 

These are some interesting rabbit trails and possible red herrings. But tomorrow I'm going to focus on the two-fold call of God: to faith and service and to a particular task. See you then!

Monday, October 01, 2012

Book Review: The Treble Wore Trouble by Mark Schweizer

Calling all Liturgical Mysteries fans!

The latest book in the series, The Treble Wore Trouble, is now available!

This is a quasi-review because I haven't finished it yet.
Gentle and frequent readers know that I always pace myself slowly through Mark Schweizer's stories because I can't stand to finish them and not have another one available to read.

But so far this one is a hoot--it's Lent in St. Germaine and the new rector of St. Barnabus church wants to introduce a "blended service" which tempts our hero Hayden Koenig almost beyond endurance to break his Lenten vow of giving up liturgical snarkiness for lent. Of course there is a mysterious death for Hayden to investigate as well.

Best line so far: " My eyes went as crazy as Michelle Backman and Rick Perry's love child."

Oh, yeah.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

BSD Blogging: 70 Year Questions

The prophet Jeremiah said that the Jews would spend 70 years in exile before the Lord would permit them to return to Jerusalem. Inquiring minds in our BSD Shepherd group looked at the dates for the exile and the return and found that they didn't add up to 70 years.

So, they asked, how do you figure the 70 years of exile? Good question! Scholars do not agree on this point--surprise, surprise.

Some commentaries say that the number 70 was not meant to be literal but was symbolic of a long time or several generations. Others quibble about the dating of these long-ago events and come up with dates that fit the 70 year prophesy but are not the same as the generally accepted dates of historians of the ancient Middle East.

Jim Taylor found an explanation that calculates the exile from the an earlier date when Nebuchadnezzar took the first captives, including the prophet Daniel, several years before the fall of Jerusalem. According to this theory 70 years elapsed between that time and the first return under King Cyrus of Persia, once the different calendar systems in use at the time were reconciled. For those of you who would like to get in the weeds of this theory, here is the web page with the details. 

There is a simpler explanation that I favor and found in the Archaeological Study Bible. If you take the date of the exile after the fall of Jerusalem (586 BC) and the date that the altar was restored and the sacrifices and worship resumed under the Mosaic Laws (516 BC), you have the 70 years of exile. I like this explanation because it makes sense to me that exile is not over and restoration complete until the altar was rebuilt and worship taking place. Also it meets the KISS principle test!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

BSD Blogging: What's In a Name?

Our daughter is expecting a second child in February so there has been a lot of discussion around the family about names for the baby. Since we won't find out its gender until next month, we've been talking about both boy and girl names and how names impact the identity and expectations we put on our children.

Which has made me think about the names in Nehemiah and what they mean. In the Old Testament names and naming are very important.

Beginning with the Garden of Eden where the Lord God brought the animals and birds to Adam so that Adam could name them, the power to name something or someone confirms authority over that thing, animal, bird or person. (Genesis 2:19) God named himself to Moses-- "I am who I am. This is what you say to the Israelites: I am has sent me to you." (Exodus 3:14).

Because the name of God is so sacred, and because mankind has no authority over God, the Hebrews in the time of the Old Testament (and the Orthodox today) did not completely spell out the name of God when writing it and use euphemisms when referring to the Name.

In both the Old and New Testaments name changes signify a new identity: Avram ("father of elevation") becomes Abraham ("father of many nations); Sarai ("contentious" or "quarrelsome") becomes Sarah ("princess" or "lady"); Jacob ("supplanter") becomes Israel ("God wrestler"); Hoshea ("deliverer") becomes Joshua ("God rescues"); Hadassah ("myrtle tree") becomes Esther ("star"); Simon ("he has heard") becomes Peter ("rock");  and Saul ("prayed for") becomes Paul ("small, humble").

Here are the meaning of some of the important names we are going to encounter in our study of Nehemiah:

Nehemiah--the comfort of the Lord
Hacaliah (Nehemiah's father)--wait for the Lord
Hannaniah (Nehemiah's brother)--the Lord is gracious
Tobiah-the Lord is good

Nehemiah did personify the comfort of the Lord as he rebuilds the walls of Jerusalem. His father had to wait on the Lord to bring the Israelites out of exile, while his brother brought word of their plight back to Nehemiah which turned out to be God's way of calling him to action. Ezra the priest not only helped rebuild the temple but helped restore the people to their covenant with God.

Two of the enemies of the rebuilding effort are aptly named: Sanballat tried to exert his strength to prevent the rebuilding and Geshem certainly tried to "rain" on the effort! Tobiah was an Ammonite but his name is Hebrew. Tobiah is deceptively named because he is an enemy of Nehemiah and acts deceitfully in trying to discredit him.

Watch out for names in the Bible--their meaning usually points to a deeper truth.

Monday, September 17, 2012

BSD Blogging: Nehemiah and Exile


 1By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
Psalm 137

NOTE TO MY GENTLE READERS: This fall I am part of the Teaching Team for the Bible Study Discussion program at MDPC and plan to use this blog to share my thoughts as we go through our study of Nehemiah and 2 Corinthians. I encourage comments from BSD participants as well as my Gentle Readers.


After studying the overview of Nehemiah in Lesson One, I'm thinking about how the experience of exile shaped the faith of Nehemiah and the Jews in Babylon, preparing them for return to Jerusalem and the restoration of obedience to God. Last week Mary Fuller encouraged us to put on our 3-D glasses and immerse ourselves in the story of this book, so here are my 3-D reflections on our reading.

I had a small taste of the experience of exile when I left my hometown of San Antonio for college in New York at the age of seventeen. Excited about the opportunity to attend Cornell University,  I didn't realize how different the people and culture of the Northeast was from that of south Texas. My fellow students spoke with different accents. I couldn't find Tex-Mex, BBQ or Dr. Pepper anywhere on campus. Instead there were lots of bagels (donuts gone wrong); grinders (Italian hogie sandwiches) and codfish on Fridays (yuck).

Within a few weeks the small group of expatriate Texans in the college banded together to put Texas flags in our dorm rooms, celebrateTexas Independence Day (March 2!) with tortilla chips and bean dip from parental care packages, and watch UT football games (when available). Being from Texas was not a good thing in the eyes of many of our peers who thought we were all cowboys, rode horses and were rednecks. Really. The experience made us aware of what set us apart as native Texans, and so after graduation it wasn't surprising that we all returned to Texas for work or graduate study.

In contrast to my experience of being a Texan among Yankees, Nehemiah didn't have the experience of growing up in Jerusalem and relocating to Babylon. He was born in Babylon into a Jewish family of exiles.  In fact his parents were probably also born in exile. Yet he and many of the other exiles treasured their Jewish heritage and maintained a strong connection with the Holy City. Although they could not worship in the temple and offer the Mosaic sacrifices, they could gather for prayer, praise and the reading of the books of Moses. Priests like Ezra provided teaching and continuity so that the people would remember God's word and His promise to restore them to Himself and to Jerusalem. . The experience of being isolated within a nation that was pagan made them identify strongly with their faith and heritage and set them apart from the people around them. As the psalmist said, they could not forget Jerusalem and longed to be restored to it and to their relationship with God.

Nehemiah's strong emotional response to the news from his brother about the incomplete restoration of Jerusalem is an example of how God used the exile to prepare His people to be restored to relationship with Him. Now they know who they are and why they have been set apart by God for a purpose. It makes me wonder if we were relocated to a place where Christians were a distinct minority if our children and grandchildren would relate to Jesus or to the religion or lack of religion of the larger culture around them?

When our faith is challenged, either because we have been removed from what is familiar to us or because those around us are promoting beliefs that are different from ours, we are forced to examine our assumptions carefully. Author Ross Douthat in his recent book Bad Religion (click here for my review) observes that historically Christianity has been strengthened when it is forced to define itself against the popular heresies of the day. Likewise, Judaism was strengthened during the exile when Jews like Nehemiah defined themselves against the pagan religions of the people who surrounded them in Babylon and Persia.

Paul advises us: " Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be renewed by the transforming of your minds that by testing you may discern the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. " (Romans 12:2) The Jews were tested in exile and some, like Nehemiah, did not conform to the cultural pattern around them but discerned the will of God for them. Today we are also tested by the cultural trends around us, but it is not always easy to discern when we are conforming ourselves to the values of the world rather than to the values of the Word.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Personal Psalm

This summer the pastors at our church are preaching a series on the Psalms. Each Sunday a church member has been asked to write and read an original psalm that before the sermon. Today's psalm was Psalm 138 and I was asked to participate. It is a psalm of praise, so that is the theme I took for my personal psalm and although I haven't been posting much lately, thought I would share in on the blog:

It is so easy to praise you, Lord
As the sun sets in blazing glory behind the clouds
As majestic waves of the ocean break on rocky cliffs
As spring breaks out in riotous colors along the highways

It is harder to praise you, Lord
In the waiting room with the devastated family
In the silent home bereft of the beloved voice
In the midst of life’s doubt and trials

It is hardest to praise you, Lord
When chaos overcomes calm
When hateful speech divides brothers and sisters in faith
When Your peace that passes understanding is not present

Teach me, Lord, to see you and to praise you in all things
Even when frustrated with the tedium of everyday life
Even when frustrated with other people
Even when frustrated with myself most of all

Remind me, Lord, to be aware of your presence
To seek you every day in prayer
To seek you every day in your word
To seek you every day in the people you place in my path

Bless me, Lord, to be a blessing to others
With the gifts of your spirit
With the words of your choosing
With the acts of your grace

I praise you, Lord, for guiding me in the important things and in the small things
I praise you, Lord, for drawing near to me when I draw near to you
I praise you, Lord, for nudging my unwitting self in the ways you would have me go

In all times, in all places, with all people, let me be full of praise for you, O Lord!


Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Book Review: Bad Religion-How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat

Although the title sounds polemical, Ross Douthat's book is actually a thorough, thoughtful and scholarly study of the ways in which the orthodox tenets of Christianity are losing ground to the many popular heresies of the day and the ways in which this phenomenon affects the church and the social and political culture of the country.

My IPad version of the book now is covered with yellow highlighting and notes.  This is not a quick and easy read because it is so thought-provoking that I often put it away for a while in order to digest a new insight. 

Beginning with the fundamentalist-modernist conflicts of the early twentieth century in the mainline Protestant denomination, Douthat sets the stage for his thesis that 
"America's problem isn't too much religion or too little of it. It's bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place."

These pseudo-Christianities include accomodationism, the embrace of Gnosticism, solipsism, messianism, utopianism, apocalypticism, nationalism and the prosperity gospel.  As Douthat trenchantly observes in the prologue, heresies have always sought to simplify and eliminate the paradoxical and difficult teachings of Jesus into something that better fits the spirit of the culture and the age. 

Historically, orthodox Christianity has been strengthened when it is forced to defining its beliefs against the popular heresies of the day. As Douthat says "Pushing Christianity to one extreme or another is what Americans have aways done. We've been making idols of our country, our pocketbooks and our sacred selves for hundreds of years. What's changed today, though, is the weakness of the orthodox response."

As a Protestant I was unaware of the extent to which the cultural conflicts which roil the mainline denominations have also affected the Catholic church in America until I read this book. Douthat makes a persuasive case connecting the decline of orthodox belief in all denominations to the rise of the hyper-partisan gridlock in our government that threatens the future of the country.

Douthat is even-handed in his criticism. Readers will nod in agreement over some passages and then squirm uncomfortably as their own presuppositions are questioned. 

The concluding chapter notes that Christianity through the ages has weathered other eras of decline and revived itself with reformation and offers four opportunities for its recovery in the present age which would make great discussion for study and book groups.

Bad Religion is an excellent book. I highly recommend it to my Gentle Readers who are interested in the intersection of Christianity with American culture and politics.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Holy Week and Transformation

I'm in a nostalgic mood this morning thinking about Holy Week services of my past. 

I grew up in a Presbyterian church in San Antonio where the tradition was that the youth were confirmed as part of the Maundy Thursday service. In those days children and youth did not participate in communion until after confirmation so I took my first communion on a Maundy Thursday at the same time I was confirmed as a member of the church. Little did I know at that time how important a step that would be for my journey in life!

One Good Friday when I was in college the service consisted entirely of listening to the sound track of Jesus Christ Superstar which was then a mega-hit on the Broadway stage. The congregation departed into the bright sunny day in silence at the conclusion of the presentation with the refrain "Jesus Christ Superstar, do you think you're who we say you are?" Now I am sure: yes, He does.

Many years later I took a small group of young adults from our church to view The Passion of the Christ on Good Friday. This graphic depiction of the crucifixion and resurrection made a powerful impression on all of us. As Protestants we weren't used to thinking about the suffering of Christ as our church emphasized the joy and triumph of the resurrection. Afterwards we went to dinner together and unpacked the experience over margaritas and nachos with an intimate, meaningful conversation about how the experience deepened our understanding of the atonement of Christ.

A couple of years ago at the end of the Good Friday service the pastor brought in a live lamb and held it in his arms at the close of the service. He invited the congregation to come forward, lay their hands on the lamb and turn over to Jesus, the Lamb of God, all of their grief and sin. 

Last week at Bible study one of those who participated in doing so told us that she went up that day and turned over her grief about the tragic death of her young adult daughter from cancer. She said that she felt enveloped in light and heard her daughter's voice telling her "Mom, I'm okay." Now she continues to grieve, but not without hope and confidence in the promise of the resurrection of Christ.

As Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter observances are celebrated this week lives will be touched and transformed. Maybe even your life and mine. 


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Book Review: Revelations by Elaine Pagels

Yes, sharp-eyed Gentle Readers, the title of this book is Revelations not Revelation. In this short book, Princeton professor of religion Elaine Pagels  explores the question of why John of Patmos' book was included in the Biblical canon and explains why Revelation retains a powerful hold on the Christian imagination today despite the controversy that surrounded it historically.

Revelations is a secular, academic analysis of the historical interpretations of the book of Revelation. Those looking for faith-based study of the book will be disappointed. With that caveat, here's my review.

I'm a self-confessed Revelation fan. As a young teenager I remember browsing through it when bored by the sermons in church. I recognized the many phrases and passages that appeared in the hymns we sang but never heard any explanation of this book from the pulpit in our Presbyterian church. In 2000, I led a study of Revelation in an adult class at church, using Bruce Metzger's book, Breaking the Code. So I was interested in reading Pagels' book on the subject, especially since I have read a couple of her other books.

Apocalyptic literature takes its name from the Greek word for "unveiling" or "revelation". It focuses on prophesies relating to God's plan for the end of this world. Although the book of Revelation is the only book of the New Testament that is wholly apocalyptic, there are apocalyptic passages found in the four gospels as well, notably the "little Apocalypse" of Matthew. The Old Testament book of Daniel is full of apocalyptic style prophesies as are many of the books of the prophets. The first chapter of Revelations contains an excellent summary of the content of the book of Revelation for those who are not familiar with it.

The apocalyptic books and passages of the Bible are difficult enough, but the apocalypses found at Nag Hammadi written in the first few centuries after Christ are almost impenetrable (and I've tried to read a few of them).   Pagels has a gift for making these arcane and obscure writings understandable to the interested reader and deftly brings excerpts from several of them into her text.

An important distinction between the Biblical canon and the Nag Hammadi texts is their differing view of the relationship between God and self. As the author observes:
Orthodox adherents of monotheistic traditions draw clear boundaries between themselves and God...Yet...many of the sources found at Nag Hammadi do encourage spiritual seekers to seek union with God, or to identify with Christ in ways that fourth century "orthodox" Christians would censor".
In other words, you can become one with God through your own spiritual knowledge. Although Pagels notes that this viewpoint would eliminate the need for clergy and thus was rejected by the early Church fathers, for those of us coming from a traditional Christian theological perspective, it also eliminates the need for Christ as the intermediary, intercessor and redeemer of mankind.

Pagels is writing from an academic and historical point of view, not a theological one. The book covers an interpretive history of Revelation over the first few centuries of the church and finds parallels between the time of Roman persecution of Christians when the enemies of the church were identified as Rome to the time when Christianity became accepted by Constantine after which the enemies of the church depicted in Revelation were more identified with those holding heretical, non-orthodox theological views. It also discusses the controversy surrounding its adoption into the Biblical canon.

I agree with the author that Revelation has an enduring appeal because its metaphors and symbolism are powerfully  relevant to everyone in every age on both a metaphorical and personal levels.  It "appeals not only to fear but to hope" as Pagels rightly concludes, because it contains the promise of justice.

There's another reason for its appeal that Pagels doesn't discuss but that I picked up from Metzger. Revelation is a uniquely visual book. It was written to be read aloud (and it wouldn't take as long as you might imagine) in worship in the house churches of the day as encouragement and admonition to the faithful. Its imagery and metaphors are vivid and linger in the imagination. That's one reason why, next to the Psalms, more hymns are written using texts from Revelation than any other book of the Bible.

I personally believe that Revelation became part of scripture because of the Providence and plan of God and not merely because of the result of the success of those holding to "orthodox" Christian theology. But again, readers should remember that this viewpoint is outside the perspective of Pagels' book. I recommend Revelations to anyone with some knowledge and interest in early Christian history and the Bible.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the most disturbing book I have read in a long time.

Although it reads like a well-written novel, it is the non-fictional account of the lives of several families living in the Annawadi slum at the edge of the Mumbai airport. The slum is located behind a sign that advertises tile flooring with the motto: Beautiful Forever. That's where the title comes from.

The author, Katherine Boo, is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist. She spent three years in Annawadi where she developed relationships with several families and followed their stories. She did extensive interviews and other research for the book which is subtitled "Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity."

Residents of Annawadi are mostly refugees from rural areas who were unable to sustain themselves there and were drawn to the bustling, emergent economy of Mumbai. They literally live on the cast-aways of the more affluent as they pick through garbage daily looking for re-cyclables they can sell. Annawadi itself is likely to be recycled into middle class housing and other projects deemed more appropriate for the area around the international airport by city officials.

The families Boo follows include the good, the corrupt, the selfish, the intelligent, the greedy, the disabled, the beautiful, and the despised. Although the caste system of India is breaking down as it evolves into a modern state, the barriers are still there. Corruption infects every aspect of  their lives in ways that those of us blessed to live in America cannot begin to imagine.

In her concluding chapter, Boo writes "Poor people didn't unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional...It is easy from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in under-cities governed by corruption where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good and that many people try to be...." 

This is the message that is so disturbing that at one point in the narrative I set the book aside for a few days. Without providing a spoiler, I will only say that when I returned to finish the book I was relieved to find that my worst fears about the outcome of a tragic situation for one of the families was not realized and a small bit of hope revealed.

Beyond the Beautiful Forevers reveals the hidden and marginalized society living beneath the glittering facade of the new Mumbai. By implication, similar "under-cities" exist wherever the global economy is emerging and changing traditional cultures.

Boo concludes, "If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything straight?"  This is not a hopeful message, but it is an enlightening and important one.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

El Jefe Presents "The Brains of the Confederacy"

Judah P. Benjamin

Some of you long-time Gentle Readers of QG will recall that in those rare times when El Jefe is not dazzling his clients in his alter ego as "Dr. Debt", he is an avid amateur historian with a particular interest in the Civil War. He writes regular book reviews for the Civil War Times and has a couple of published articles to his credit.

So from time to time he is tapped as a speaker by local groups interested in the history of the Civil War. Last night he spoke to one of them on the subject of Judah P. Benjamin, the brilliant Jewish lawyer from Louisiana known as "The Brains of the Confederacy." I went along because I always enjoy his lectures and love hearing all the praise he gets for them.

Here's the story about how El Jefe became interested in Benjamin in the first place. 

As a student at Yale, El Jefe worked in the rare books library for an elderly professor. Upon his graduation, the professor, who was Jewish, gave him as a memento of their time together a two dollar Confederate bill which had the picture of Judah P. Benjamin on it. He told him that this was the only piece of American currency that featured a picture of a Jew and he thought El Jefe would be interested because he was from the South and Benjamin had studied at Yale prior to the Civil War.

My job at the lecture was to pass that two dollar bill around the audience.

Benjamin, a little-known but fascinating historical character, is particularly interesting to attorneys because he was one of the leading lawyers of his day. Before the war he was a senator from Louisiana, twice turned down appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court,  and served in Jefferson Davis' cabinet as Attorney General, Secretary of War and Secretary of State.  

When accused by another Senator of being "a Hebrew with Egyptian principles" because he owned slaves, Benjamin replied: "It is true that I am a Jew and when my ancestors were receiving the Ten Commandments from the immediate Deity, amidst the thundering and lightnings on Mt. Sinai, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain." 

Although he did own slaves, Benjamin was not a die-hard defender of the institution of slavery. He tried, in vain, to persuade the confederacy to recruit slaves into the army by promising them freedom in return for their service.

With the fall of the confederacy, he fled to London (he was able to claim British citizenship because he was born in the West Indes) and achieved great success as a barrister and Queen's Counsel. Benjamin was a man who enjoyed an optimistic outlook on life that enabled him to overcome obstacles and tragedies that crushed others.

Before last night's talk, El Jefe shared his presentation with several of his Jewish law partners who were fascinated with it. He was asked by several folks afterwards for copies for other friends. It may also make its way into a Jewish-interest publication.

If you are interested in reading more about Judah P. Benjamin than you can find in Wikipedia, I recommend this book which was used by El Jefe as his primary resource and which I also read and enjoyed.