Sunday, September 30, 2018

Middling 1.3: Books

I was excited recently to read a novel called Meddling Kids. (That title, I'm now realizing, might be what put the word middling in my head.) I was sold on the elevator pitch: What if Scooby Doo and the gang were all grown up and had to return to the scene of their greatest mystery? This fan fiction premise evolved into something different enough to avoid a lawsuit, but I'm not so Gen X that I'm impervious to appeals to my sense of nostalgia. So I ran out and bought it.

The author, Edgar Cantero, does a great job of maintaining humor and developing character throughout. He was particularly effective at solving the Dog Problem: not only how does the dog talk (he doesn't ... or does he?!?) but also, um, how is the dog still alive fifteen years later?!? (It's the grand-dog of the original.) There's a real sense of urgency in this book that makes its length legitimate, and there are some spectacular descriptions of hair, of all things. But I was not prepared for the darkness—necromancy and other aspects of the occult play a central role. I'm no prude, but I don't read a lot of stuff involving the Dark Arts, and frankly, Harry Potter this ain't. Creeped me out a LOT. Also a little conveniently of-the-moment in some character decisions, even though the book is set in the early 90s.

The other book I ran to get recently was When the English Fall by David Williams. Again, credit the elevator pitch: Apocalyptic Amish—a celestial event fries the electrical grid, sending Western civilization into chaos. Nearly all the calamitous fallout takes place offstage in this found journal of an Amish carpenter. The gentleness and complexity of the simple life is evident throughout, and the costly moral imperative of loving your neighbor is on full display. I was regularly moved by this book, and while it can rightly be called a quick read, I read it slow.

Beyond leisure reading, I've edited a bunch of books recently. A couple of personal high points:

Whole, by Steve Wiens. Steve is a fabulous writer, and Whole is a heartfelt book about Shalom as a lifestyle and brokenness as a collective sigh.

When the Soul Listens, by Jan Johnson. This book was first released more than twenty years ago, when contemplative prayer still scared the bejeezus out of evangelicals. Jan's now thoroughly revised it, and it's a lovely primer on a way of praying that's life- and faith-giving.

Drawn In Bible Studies. I also had the opportunity this year to develop a set of Bible studies, featuring the text of The Message (the Bible my company publishes) and art for coloring. They're adorable!

You can get these titles at www.navpress.com or wherever you like to buy books. #shoplocal #saynotodrones

***

Every three or four months I send out a long missive to friends and family members. (If you'd like to get these missives, give me a shout.) I thought I'd post portions of those newsletters here. The theme of the newsletter is life in middle age, with a focus on what I'm reading, what I'm listening to, and how I'm living. This post is from last fall's newsletter. I hope you enjoyed it.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Middling 1.2: Music

I don't know how or why, but apparently central Iowa is a draw for some pretty cool music acts. Exhibit A is a recent show put on by Lucy Wainwright Roche with Suzzy Roche. My aunt Jeannine caught the show with her sisters, and because my aunt is the bestest (and maybe because I had recently referenced the artist online, having swapped songs on social media with a very young colleague), she bought me TWO of their records. She even had them signed for me: on one of them, Lucy simply wrote, "Dave!!!"

Lucy Wainwright Roche's music is, I will quickly aver, most likely an acquired taste. I acquired that taste thanks to Paste magazine, which way back in the day sent a CD sampler of music in the mail with each issue. Those were kinder, more tactile times. On one of those CDs was Lucy's (I'll call her Lucy now, since she calls me Dave) song "Chicago," which made me a little weepy even when I lived there and holds up nicely after a decade or so. Lucy's voice is simple and vulnerable; one might be tempted to dismiss her as overrated, privileged by her impressive musical pedigree (Suzzy is her mother and member of the great vocal group the Roches; her father is a Grammy-winning folk singer), but one should not so dismiss her. Her music does tend to be a little uniform, but so does the music of the Lumineers, and I got tired of them almost immediately, whereas I keep listening to Lucy.

Once you accept the relatively closed musical universe the songs operate within (and if you think that's a critique, listen to the blues for a day and get back to me), you notice the range of her interests. Echoes of early Simon and Garfunkel abound, but with a feminine sensibility that made me realize how masculine Paul Simon is (if you think that's a critique of either Lucy or S&G, you really need to relax). My earlier exposure to Lucy had her square in the hipster/twee column for me (see "Chicago," her cover of "Call Your Girlfriend" and "Seek and Hide," a duet with Colin Meloy of the Decemberists), but these two records make her seem older, more seasoned and sage. Maybe it's the collaboration with her mother.

The collaboration may also explain the cover songs, which were more mainstream than I would have expected: "Desperado," "Rhythm of the Rain" and "Landslide" all seem awfully popular (if you think that's a criticism, you really need to do some inner work). But Lucy is a great interpreter if other people's songs, particularly as showcased on the Beatles' (relatively) deep track "For No One" (on Fairytale and Myth) and Joni Mitchell's "Clouds" (on Mud and Apples). I tend to think you have to earn the right to perform "Clouds" (a song on my funeral playlist, for future reference), and as young as she is, I think Lucy has earned that right.

Anyway, that's the latest on music from me. If you like vulnerable, literary singer-songwriter types, you should look Lucy up.

***

Every three or four months I send out a long missive to friends and family members. I've taken to posting portions of those newsletters here. The theme of the newsletter is life in middle age, with a focus on what I'm reading, what I'm listening to, and how I'm living. This post is from last fall's newsletter. I hope you enjoyed it.

***

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Middling 1.1: Old Friends

I've recently taken up newslettering. Every three or four months I send out a long missive to friends and family members who are unlikely to send me a cease-and-desist letter. (If you'd like to get these missives, give me a shout.) I thought I'd post portions of those newsletters here. The theme of the newsletter is life in middle age, with a focus on what I'm reading, what I'm listening to, and how I'm living. What follows is a story from last fall. I hope you enjoy it.

***

These days I spend a chunk of my time in airports. My work involves a decent amount of travel, lately including trips to California, Oklahoma and, fairly frequently, Illinois. On my most recent trip there I got to steal some time with one of my oldest friends, Chris. He was significant to my faith journey and best man at my wedding, but our lives stopped overlapping years ago, so finding time to see one another has been tough. Chris is better at keeping in touch than I am, but I think we both had resigned ourselves to an essentially virtual relationship.

But this time I had some down time that happened to overlap with some of Chris's discretionary time, and so even though I was landlocked in an extreme northern suburb, and even though Chris lives in the city and had errands in the western suburbs, he did me the kindness of powering through the Chicago sprawl to come see me live and in person.

Chris is "middling" too. We first got to know one another as idiot college freshmen—once even hitching a ride in a trunk together to get to the mall just so we could purchase the new U2 album (Rattle & Hum) and a bottle of Drakkar Noir cologne. (In our defense, that was for the ladies.) But now we're older—so much older. Chris has three daughters, only one of whom is still at home. One is now a college freshman herself, another even older than that.

I don't think relationships are deeper in this season of life than in young adulthood, but I do think there's an attunement to poignancy that settles in over the course of decades. We walked the grounds of the retreat center where I was staying and talked and prayed together for a couple of hours, and even our prayers were older than they used to be. I thought I would be sad when he left, but I wasn't. Instead I felt a kind of satisfaction: This relationship, like so many others, can endure time and distance, in part because of the character of my friends (thank you, friends) and in part because friendship itself has a quality of perseverance that ages well.

We can subvert that quality, I'm sure—dramatizing and even fetishizing our relationships till they can't bear the weight of our idolatry. But to receive friendship with thankfulness and to let our friends be and become who they are and were meant to be, I think, is to experience relationship and even humanity at its most basic and natural. It is to see good, and to enjoy the goodness.

Friday, April 27, 2018

The One-Percent Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2, Abridged (with Notes)

I recently took on the audacious task of editing the Bible for the One Percent. What follows is the second chapter of Matthew without all the riff-raff. (To see what's been removed, click here. I've left the explanatory notes for context.) Care to join me in this adventure? Pick a chapter of the Bible and read it with an eye toward what might "afflict the comfortable," and strip it out! Use the hashtag #onepercentbible so I can find it and show it off.

***

Chapter 2

Now after Jesus was born in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this,* assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,**
from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And they departed to their own country by another way.

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother*** to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”****

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.

***

Notes

* Why would a king be troubled by the birth of a child? This assertion undercuts the inherent virtue and serenity of people in whom God has invested earthly authority and, more to the point, might encourage readers to treat those in authority with suspicion rather than trust and deference.

** Of course Bethlehem is not least among the rulers of Judah—it’s the birthplace of Jesus! It’s reasonable to assume that Bethlehem was as regal a place as befits a Messiah and Lord of the universe. So passages that insinuate that Bethlehem is something less are an unhelpful distraction.

*** Again, there being no reason to fear or resist those in whom God has invested earthly authority, the suggestions in this passage that Jesus' king would do him harm are offensive and imprudent.

**** Such an act of aggression by a king would only ever be undertaken with the best interests of the kingdom in mind; meanwhile, the insinuation that such an act even happened, regardless of the king's motives, would threaten societal cohesion. Hence its omission here.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The One-Percent Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2

I recently took on the audacious task of editing the Bible for the One Percent. (You're welcome! Can I borrow some money?) What follows is the second chapter of Matthew, mercifully stripped of anything that might disturb the status quo.

Care to join me? Pick a chapter of the Bible and read it with an eye toward what might "afflict the comfortable," and strip it out! Use the hashtag #onepercentbible so I can find it and show it off.

***

Chapter 2

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and* assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for
** from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee*** to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
****

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.

***

Notes

* Why would a king be troubled by the birth of a child? This assertion undercuts the inherent virtue and serenity of people in whom God has invested earthly authority and, more to the point, might encourage readers to treat those in authority with suspicion rather than trust and deference.

** Of course Bethlehem is not least among the rulers of Judah—it’s the birthplace of Jesus! It’s reasonable to assume that Bethlehem was as regal a place as befits a Messiah and Lord of the universe. So passages that insinuate that Bethlehem is something less are an unhelpful distraction.

*** Again, there being no reason to fear or resist those in whom God has invested earthly authority, the suggestions in this passage that Jesus' king would do him harm are offensive and imprudent.

**** Such an act of aggression by a king would only ever be undertaken with the best interests of the kingdom in mind; meanwhile, the insinuation that such an act even happened, regardless of the king's motives, would threaten societal cohesion. Hence its omission here.

Monday, April 09, 2018

The One-Percent Gospel of Matthew, Chapter One, Abridged (with Notes)

In case you missed it, I recently undertook the very special challenge of editing the Bible. What follows is the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (ESV) without all those cumbersome bits. The notes that follow offer a rationale for what's been edited out. Be blessed!

(For a look at the unabridged, unedited version, go here.)

***

Chapter One

The book of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.*

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. his mother Mary** was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man*** considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,****

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

* The historical context of Jesus' birth might be mildly interesting, but it is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that Jesus was, not where he was and through what ethnic lineage he came.
** It's imprudent to offer readers a means of legitimizing parenting out of wedlock, so the details of Jesus' parentage are omitted here.
*** These scandalous details of Jesus' earthly parentage are, similarly, omitted in order to eliminate any insinuation of his illegitimacy.
**** "God with us" is an assurance that is difficult to square with facts on the ground for most of the people in the world; furthermore, confidence that God is with us here, on this plane, in the midst of difficult circumstances, might encourage social disruption as less fortunate people consider that a society inhospitable to people whom God is with might be a fundamentally unjust society.

***

Coming soon: chapter two of Matthew's Gospel, in which we meet Israel's king. You're gonna love it!

Friday, March 23, 2018

The One-Percent Gospel of Matthew, Chapter One

You may have heard of it: US President Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, had a personalized Bible, one that he had stripped of (to his mind) obviously errant material - those miracles and otherworldly accounts that couldn't possibly have happened. The resulting Bible would have been much thinner, and the God it chronicled would have been similarly far less robust. Talk about a declaration of independence!

At least Jefferson was intellectually honest. It's hard to imagine anyone who hasn't edited the Bible in one way or another. Some people go so far as to add to the Scriptures, whether with more colloquial proverbs and truisms ("God helps those who help themselves") or full narratives that imagine whole new scenes and settings. But more common by far is the editing out, the removal of commands and assertions that offend our sensibilities or trouble our status quos. We may as well be intellectually honest about it.

TWEET THIS: It's hard to imagine anyone who hasn't edited the Bible in one way or another.

For example, me. From a global perspective, I'm firmly entrenched among the 1 percent of the world's wealthiest people. In my own national context, I'm historically and materially privileged by virtue of my gender and skin color. I'm a DINK - double-income household with no kids in it - and so compared to many of my neighbors I'm sitting relatively pretty. What am I to do with some nagging passages from the inspired Word of God?

I'll tell you what I'm to do with them: In the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, I'm to cut them out.

What follows is an annotated One Percent Gospel of Matthew. You'll find it much more amenable to the good life, I promise. The values of law and order and the free market, for example, are firmly ensconced. Good news for me and my tribe. As for the rest of it, everything is on the table. As for the rest of you, God help you.

TWEET THIS: Good news for me and my tribe. As for the rest of it, everything is on the table. As for the rest of you, God help you.

(Text of the Gospel of Matthew is from the English Standard Version.)

***

Chapter One

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram,[a] and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.

So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.*

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she** was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he*** considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”

(which means, God with us).
**** When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

* The historical context of Jesus' birth might be mildly interesting, but it is ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that Jesus was, not where he was and through what ethnic lineage he came.
** It's imprudent to offer readers a means of legitimizing parenting out of wedlock, so the details of Jesus' parentage are omitted here.
*** These scandalous details of Jesus' earthly parentage are, similarly, omitted in order to eliminate any insinuation of his illegitimacy.
**** "God with us" is an assurance that is difficult to square with facts on the ground for most of the people in the world; furthermore, confidence that God is with us here, on this plane, in the midst of difficult circumstances, might encourage social disruption as less fortunate people consider that a society inhospitable to people whom God is with might be a fundamentally unjust society.