Monday, July 21, 2014

2 Samuel 6 - David whirling before the ark

My reading partner has suggested this as a passage that demands a close reading. So there's nothing like translating and finding an underlay for the implied music to force a close reading. It is a strange passage. David is burned up just as Yahweh is burned up at the negligence of Uzzah. The passage is framed by laughter, translated 'play' in the KJV, but it is the same laughter as the derision of Psalm 2. A rollicking good time seems to be David's command as the king of all Yahweh's people. Yet he feared also. But the critical Michal is to have no children to the day of her death. The fear of making a scene where honour is compromised doesn't cut it as an excuse for David. Humble / base (Psalm 138:6) David will be and the maidservants will still honour him.

The music in pdf form with my inimitable awkward translation is here.

I am still thinking too, especially in the light of the face saving and dissembling that is going on in the world, about the third petal - how to approach completeness. I will get there, I hope.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


My second thought-petal when I was musing on what I value as "good for you" was acknowledging error.

Good for you is, by the way, the name of a bulk food store nearby, about 7 km away. We often go there for bread flour, oats, wheat germ, and other bulk foods.

So how can one classify error? (And I note to my relief that I included the verb acknowledging.)

First, of error, there is accident, mistake, things arising from ignorance, from complexity, from various kinds of action, things having unexpected consequences, things that happen where the mechanics are broken, such as in the case of disease or other damage to a human being.  It's not an easy list!  Some of these errors are easy to correct, and some cannot be fixed. And they are not necessarily anyone's fault.

And then there's 'sin'. What is it that we call 'sin'? It is always communal, always against another. While it may be committed by the individual, there is no escaping from its origin or its impact even if one considers oneself without it. And by definition, no one is without sin. You may have a necessary belief that someone is without sin, but if anyone is short of it, he can have some of mine. So in a sense, I refuse to go to the answer before I have the questions. I will undermine a theoretical faith because theory may prevent us from actually behaving in a manner suitable to our calling in faithfulness.

It was Northrope Frye who taught me through his book The Great Code, about the problem of having answers to questions. Answers consolidate the learning at the level of the question, and prevent the development of further questions. This (one among many other causes) produces stunted growth. The doctrine of 'original sin' is an example of theory that prevents growth. We can take no consolation from such doctrine if we do not find the reality of obedience. That is the real question. And it is not quite the subject of this second thought-petal.

So, secondly, how easy is it to acknowledge error? I think you know that it doesn't even matter which kind of error we are talking about. It is hard. Honour and shame can prevent us from even considering a typo. You didn't sin. You just had a fingering problem on the keyboard, but you didn't notice until it was published!

I found one in a delightful book the other day. The book is Aleph through the Looking Glass, Yale 2006, by Jonathan Orr-Stav. It is by far the best introduction to Hebrew letters I have come across. Late in the book, an inconsequential image omits the letter resh. Resh, he describes, is a fundamental stroke in the Hebrew script. The omission of resh in the image (twice) is curious but unimportant in the overall scheme of things. It may have happened for a variety of systemic reasons, many of them outside the author's control. In a book this many years following initial production, it may even be a recurrence of an error that had been fixed already.

Books like systems are a complex process. Many people must cooperate to produce such things. And in many senses they are never finished. This should put a limit to the perfection we seek and allow us to stand away from the products we build. To stand too close is to expose our need for perfection in a way that reveals deeper troubles.

There will always be misprints. Some of them we correct as we read and we never even notice. Such self-correcting processes are an essential component to life and our ability to operate in any fashion. Life would be boring without them. (What! O happy fault!)

If acknowledging a simple error is difficult, how much harder is it to face a situation where we damage others either by accident or by design, or as a byproduct of our own pursuit of self-interest? This fear of shame, correction, or inability to change is the cause of endless governance problems in our world. In fact, the line between systemic error and sin is not at all clear. Murder happens sometimes as a result of mental illness and this in turn is caused by systemic problems in either or both gestation or social structures.

So my second thought-petal reveals a serious set of concerns. Whether it be power to build, or desire to protect, or all the myriad of conflicts that emerge from our lives, how will we deal with the power and the desire within us when we ourselves have been produced by that prior generation that we are so happy to blame? First we must acknowledge that there is a fault-line.

Perfection in the limited sense of "working towards completeness" and with a byproduct of purity and holiness is our next thought-petal.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Till by turning, turning, we come round right

So goes the old Shaker song, 'tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be .... But maybe you didn't think that turning in this song meant repentance.

What do I mean by turning, my first petal. To turn is to change, to turn from something, to turn to something else. The turn may be very slight, as for instance, seeing faith as faithfulness, an action and an attitude rather than a belief, a concrete conversation rather than an abstract belief.  Maybe turning is impossible - maybe one needs a dance partner to help.

But repent?  That word is loaded. Yet its simplest meaning is to turn towards God - to face God, to know presence. Turn, face, presence are all themes Psalm 90. In verse 3, the poet writes of God:
you turn a mortal to contrition
and you say, Turn children of humanity
In verses 8 and 9, iniquity - ours - the corporate failure, is spoken of - and we face away from the face of God:
you put our iniquities before you
our dissembling in the light of your face
for all our days face away from your fury
we consume our years as a mutter
In verse 13, the poet appeals
Turn יהוה, until when?
And be comforted over your servants.

Of course that psalm should be read in its context, as the beginning of Book 4 and the focus on Moses after the failures recorded in Books 2 and 3.

Turn - repent - is the first command of Jesus in his ministry according to Mark 1:15. This call always bothered me. As if one could be called to good news by the word 'repent'. Repent always meant bad news. It concentrates on the things we have done wrong. It has nothing to do with good news so why should I pay attention.

O poison! How loaded words get twisted and distorted. Repent turned these gospel words for me into something worth running away from. Why! Who would not want to be face to face with the One who created us, the One who loves us, the One who suffers with us and longs for us to be present, facing, fully alive, in the created and redeemed world which is so beloved? Yes - there is work to turn away from destructive behaviour, but there is joy first to turn toward love.  If love is what you are expecting, of course.

But maybe we are expecting condemnation, judgment, criticism, (and maybe we deserve it). But who knows what one deserves or not. Can we believe there is good news? (Without making it up). If one stops the things that are destroying one's life, it is possible that healing and growth might be the result. Who knows? And who has the power to stop destructive things?

Anyway - turn is my first word. As the soil is turned to prepare for a planting, so we are turned to prepare for the impregnating word that will enter into our own humus.

Simple? Yet maybe not so simple.

Monday, July 14, 2014

What's poison?

I raised a possibly disturbing question in my post on "good for you". Surely there's not poison in the Bible! Well, think about it. Even the best fertilizer will burn a young plant. And the wrong fertilizer will lead to lots of green growth but no fruit. So are these poison? Yes - truth improperly applied is falsehood.

But you can hold on to prejudice concerning perfection for the time being.

A few things I thought of while contemplating Psalm 2 and a book on the Suffering of God by Terrence Fretheim (Fortress Press 1984): Psalm 2 presents God and the human ruling jointly. One poison that can be taken from it is fear, specifically the fear that the rule of God is a domination structure, an unconditional set of orders. What kind of God is the God who is worthy of worship? How does God rule? True enough there is ridicule and derision in Psalm 2 but there is also a hint of humour, and an invitation to responsibility. The kindling with a touch of wrath is the gift of a sensitive conscience, to speak in human terms. There is refuge also and a completion of the opening command of Psalm 1 to be happy.

So hold on to prejudice but bear in mind it may need tweaking to allow some of this light to get in through the cracks. Bear also in mind that our prejudice may be a defense mechanism, designed to prevent light from entering into us because of a deep-seated dread that one prefers not to face.  To paraphrase those last few commands (invitations) of Psalm 2, fear a little in your service - tremble with joy, and kiss with purity - more on this later as we move into turning, the first of my five petals.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

What's "good for you" in Christian teaching?

Alright, you theologians and atheists out there, here's finally something you can tear apart. First maybe I will begin with a list. And why pick 'Christian teaching'?  Is it different from Hebrew teaching or Greek teaching or Muslim teaching or human teaching?  There will be considerable overlaps - but also a few radical differences. In Christian thinking particularly, we have one unique component - the death of the anointed, the death of the beloved, the death of the chosen one, Jesus' death, our death.  This component is not available explicitly to any other teaching system - but it is always available everywhere implicitly.

Obviously this is a big topic. My list is this. These things are good for you.
  1. turning
  2. acknowledging error
  3. working towards completeness
  4. recognizing connections
  5. maturing
Look at that - no square script, no Greek, no Bible quotations, no God, no music even! If I were going to associate these 5 with Biblical words, they might be (though not limited to)
  1. repentance
  2. confession of sin
  3. striving for holiness
  4. seeing the body of the assembly (congregation, church)
  5. coming to the fullness of our humanity
Again, not a lot of text - I wonder if this spontaneous 5 fold list will hold up. The difference between 3 and 5 is the cooperative action of the human and the Holy One. There, I have made a first mention of God.

How then should we live? What are say, five things that we should avoid? Like growing plants, there is poison, imbalance, and there is fertilizer that enables and soil that encourages.

The list of poisons begins with
  1. revenge. And continues with 
  2. hatred,
  3. greed, 
  4. exploitation, 
  5. self-protection, 
and the violence that these things cause. What can we do in a world with apparently limited resources to deal with the natural presence and growth of these things in our lives?

The fertilizer is the word of God in theological terms - but what does this mean in non-Biblical words?
  1. Mutual respect, especially for elders, 
  2. healthy skepticism. Ultimately this will turn to the single word of
  3. loving the other, 
  4. loving the enemy
  5. loving oneself in a new way. 
This teaching, as you might guess, is fully available in the ancient poetry of the Psalms, but it requires some unpacking so that the poisons packaged in the same poetry do not get the better of sound judgment. Now for a quote to end this beginning (Psalm 2:10-12):
So now you sovereigns, let there be insight
be warned you who judge on earth
serve Yahweh in fear
and rejoice in trembling
Kiss, each of you - pure lest he be angry
and you perish in the way
for he kindles as a hint of his anger
Happy! all who take refuge in him
I hear cries of unfair! How can you begin Christian teaching with a word from the Old Testament? The question and the cry reveal just how wrong most Christian thinking and teaching is. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Wrong in that there is always an attempt from the most junior to the most senior of teachers to wrap up the teaching and hit hard with it as if it were to be used as a cudgel for revenge on all those horrible people out there that are 'not me'.

You might ask - how can we grow in the presence of such poison?

One thought - hold your fire. All texts have their own packaging. Don't eat the package without unwrapping it. Yet eat the whole package. Even some foods are poison with the antidote included. Compare fruit juice with the whole fruit. The juice alone will be too high in sugar for the health of your body. The whole fruit will give you the necessary fibre so that your body can slough off the poisonous sugar.

Question that you may be wrong. I include myself in the collective 'you'. I will use the Scripture, and in so doing, I may simply reinforce traditional stereotypes. Let's hold our feet to the fire. Let's find out if the wheat and the darnel (poison) in the words of Scripture can be separated in us for the ultimate judgment in the here and now.

There - this essay is in preparation for next week's lessons on the parable of the wheat and the tares, Matthew 13:24 ff. Notice how in every case we have looked at so far Jesus' parables in the Gospel are surrounding textual references to the 'old' Testament (Matthew 13:52). And these are not read because these words are omitted in the lectionary reading, This is not good for you if you only hear the words that are read on Sunday.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Can you start hearing in the middle of a song?

Music and Scripture - is it really possible to hear that art-song that was finally imposed on the collected and edited words of the ancient writings in Hebrew? I cannot imagine that the song preceded the writing or even the collection. Like plainsong or Anglican chant, the writing must have preceded the musical genre, a pattern of melodies and modes created to adorn and package the text. The collected writings are so diverse and from so many times and places, it is not possible that the same musical motif would have existed without change over that 800 year period. So the music is late, imposed when it was realized that this tradition that forms the people must be preserved - not just with memory but with the technical assistance of music.

Like stones cast on the water, we have been skipping through Genesis for a few weeks. Now I will make a sudden switch to Isaiah. I am picking an alternative passage to the Bethel incident. Henry and Jody Neufeld are beginning a Google+ hangout session every week on selected lectionary readings. So I have gone with their choice in the lectionary. The reading and commenting on this strategy for reading is a complex business. It requires a two to three week planning cycle - such a discipline! No more random reads. And now I am a whole week ahead again. Liturgy has some interesting comments on the process here. It turns out that reading the Bible is, after all, rocket science.

Back to the question: The Isaiah lesson is only a few verses. Isaiah 44:6-8. A snippet, one of those where YHWH seems to 'predict' - yet the prediction is not specific and is not even in these verses. The prophesy has much more to do with the care of Yahweh for his people, both the chosen and indeed all the people of the world. Here it is.
So what does it mean? It is not that often that we have heard the low C. First, it occurs only in the prose books, not in the Psalms. In the examples I have so far, in roughly 1400 verses outside the Psalms, there are about 100 instances compared to 1400 for the tonic E or 300 for the D below the tonic. The dominant B occurs roughly 1300 times, the high C about 550 times.  We are not counting notes here - just occurrences of the sign itself. Extended recitation on the high C is frequent as can be seen immediately above. Such recitation on the low C is rare.

Here's a translation: 
6. Thus says Yahweh
with a little emphasis on says.
And the last syllable of the name is alone on the low C.
This may indicate that it was stressed on the last syllable.
the king of Israel and his redeemer, Yahweh of hosts.
The music comes to a rest at the mid point of the verse
 - a common occurrence
I am the first and I am the last 
First and last each get an ornament,
the pitch rises - it is an announcement
and apart from me there is no God

7 And who, as I do,  will call, will make it plain, will arrange it for me
to set in place the people of the age, and the things that are and that are coming,
let them make it clear to them
Who is to care for the people as Yahweh does
this is not a prediction of the future but a care for the present
but it is a challenge to anyone who would care for the world as Yahweh cares.
8 Do not be in dread and do not be afraid
Have I not from then made you hear 
and made it clear to you
that you are my witnesses
Is there any God apart from me, or any rock?
not to my knowledge.

This little section, Isaiah 44:6-8, makes little sense without reading the prior verses, Isaiah 44:1-5. [There is a pdf of the whole section in the usual place - where I store the hundreds of transcriptions I have done using the software that I have written to convert the text automatically to music.] The music does not stand alone in this case. So look at how the command to not be afraid wraps the whole chapter so far and how this chapter is to comfort the chosen people who have had such a burden to bear - that of being witnesses to Yahweh on behalf of the whole world. This is a consistent message with the Psalms. It also directly links to the NT lesson, the parable of the wheat and the tares, through the reference in Matthew 13:35 to Psalm 78:2, Israel as his parable. This phrase is also in Psalm 114 verse 2 - but no one translates it as Israel his parables except me.

Again the NT lesson has omitted the surrounding verses. It is like eating the bread of a sandwich without its content.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Generation and expiration, birth and death, musical patterns

Not only birth and children in Genesis of course, but also expiration and death. Abraham's death illustrates common patterns in the music of Torah. Here is the page where Abraham dies.

Notice the differing ways in which the diminished triad is used to approach a cadence either on the tonic or the subdominant.

We have six examples on the page:
1. D-E-F-G#-A
2. D-F-G#-F-E
3. D-F-G#-B-A
and he was gathered to his people - and then his sons buried him - in the purchased burial ground...
4. same as 3
5. same as 2
6. a new variation.

Can you see a circular pattern emerging? I wonder to what extent this is frequent in the music...