Piecemeal Peace

egg-nestRecently, prompted by Hebrews 3-4, I have been thinking and preaching about rest. These chapters make clear that God has made us for rest but experiencing that rest is no easy matter.

Concurrently I have been reading a biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins as well as revisiting his poetry. I was struck by this short poem on peace. As usual, Hopkins’ phrasing and word choice are initially daunting, but the piece rewards patient attention.

WHEN will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I’ll not play hypocrite
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
        He comes to brood and sit.

The first two and half lines express a desire for Peace to move from being a bird that flits around Hopkins to being something firm on which he can rest. It is not that he never experiences peace, he makes clear, but that the peace he experiences is fleeting and partial. The alliteration and wordplay of the fifth line almost comes out as stuttering: That piecemeal peace is poor peace. Piecemeal peace is his experience while he yearns for a perfect peace yet to come.

In the second stanza he considers both what happens in peace’s absence as well as in its coming. First, he expresses the expectation that if God withdraws (reaves) his peace, he doesn’t do so without leaving some good behind. And indeed, Hopkins explains that in the absence of peace, one may grow in patience. Recalling the avian imagery of the early lines he says that patience itself “plumes to Peace” in time.

By the last two and a half lines the imagery of Peace as a bird is fixed. And here is perhaps the most thought-provoking concept Hopkins offers. What happens when peace comes? We often think of peace as an absence of conflict or stress. But Hopkins imagines bird-Peace actively; it “comes with work to do.” It does not merely sit and sing–“coo“–in a tranquil, passive soul. Rather, it “comes to brood and sit.

What does Hopkins mean? The brooding and sitting bird broods and sits over an egg. Perhaps he is suggesting that Peace births something within us. It is not an end in itself but comes to create and bring some new thing, some new life within us.

Too often our images of peace and the way we pursue it is in terms of an absence and as an end in itself. But the rest into which God calls us is not a passive rest. It is an active and re-creative rest. The peace of absence–absence of conflict, of noise, of stress–is poor piecemeal peace. The peace of presence plumes beauty and lays and hatches new life.

 

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In a dry and weary land

518era9qecl-_sx331_bo1204203200_In his book The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan chronicles the soul crushing reality of the Dust Bowl. The book is depressing and thought-provoking, equal parts cautionary tale and testament to human perseverance.

He narrates that after years of drought, when rains did come it was hardly helpful.

It rained fast and furious, but the water hit bone-hard ground and drained to long-dry indentations in the earth, filling ravines until they rose in a muddy torrent and smashed sheds and took a horse and then disappeared. It was as if it had not rained at all. 230

Might what is true of soil be equally true of souls? Might neglect and circumstance so parch a person’s soul that the refreshing rain of the grace does as much damage as good? I believe so and it stands as a lesson to ministers of the Word. What might this look like?

When someone has been cut off from life-giving truth from the Word and relationships with others, when truth comes they may not be able to receive it. Rather it may run swiftly through their minds only compounding the damage done by their drought. This could be in the form of reinforcing self-condemnatory thought patterns or highlighting what they already perceive to be their insensitivity to God’s presence and grace.

What can be done? Slow and steady rains are needed. Grace and truth must be ladled out consistently and in small quantities rather than unloaded in sermonic downpours. Ministers should be sensitive to the possibility that people in this condition are not helped especially by the sermon or the small group; the rush of water is too great. Rather, simple, personal watering of their souls is the remedy. In time they will be ready to receive the heavier rains.

Who’s speaking?

Much hay (and, frankly, money) has been made in recent years by authors playing the humanity of Scripture against its divinity. The human element in the production and preservation of Scripture is without a doubt a challenge to many Christians who hold to some concept of the “Inspiration of Scripture.” Most reject simple dictation but articulating the nature of the divine-human synthesis in the inspiration and canonization processes in particular is challenging and therefore open to reductionist critiques of the “the canonization of Scripture was a thoroughly political process oppressive of minority opinions” type and the like.

The source-book of science–nature–has no such convoluted origin, we are told. Rationalist scientists merely read the facts off the face of nature. Human involvement is purely observational. However, upon closer inspection, perhaps it is not that simple.

In We Have Never Been Modern, Bruno Latour reviews the conflict between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes concerning the scientific investigation of vacuums (as narrated in Steven Shapin and Simon Shaeffer’s 1985 book Leviathan and the Air-Pump). Hobbes rejected Boyle’s ‘new’ scientific approach in which  phenomena were experimented on and observed in the laboratory. The fledgling scientists maintained that this was superior to previous science because it allowed the facts to speak for themselves. But is it as simple as that?

Latour picks up this notion of the facts speaking. He writes…

[Boyle] invents the laboratory within which artificial machines create phenomena out of whole cloth. Even though they are artificial, costly and hard to reproduce, and despite the small number of trained and reliable witnesses, these facts indeed represent nature as it is. The facts are produced and represented in the laboratory, in scientific writings; they are recognized and vouched for by the nascent community of witnesses. Scientists are scrupulous representatives of the facts. Who is speaking when they speak? The facts themselves, beyond all question, but also their authorized spokespersons. Who is speaking, then, nature or human beings? This is another insoluble question with which the modern philosophy of science will wrestle over the course of three centuries. In themselves, facts are mute; natural forces are brute mechanisms. Yet the scientists declare that they themselves are not speaking; rather, facts speak for themselves. (28-29)

Latour is calling the scientists’ bluff. In what meaningful sense can it be said that the facts are speaking for themselves without human involvement, when the very machine (in this case the vacuum pump) that created the ‘natural’ state being examined, was designed and manufactured by humans?

And we could go on. The systems of measurement used in science were defined by humans. The devices with which the measurements are taken were designed and built by humans. And, of course, the languages used to articulate nature’s facts are human artifacts. (This list doesn’t even begin to touch on the problem–so helpfully pointed out by our postmodern friends–of the effect of one’s human vantage point on observations–“there are no uninterpreted facts.”)

So perhaps with both Scripture and science there is an unavoidable “speaking together.” Humans speak and God/nature speak and defining precisely where the speech of one ends and the other begins is an impossible task.

This is humbling and ennobling. On the one hand it points up our limitations as humans. On the other, it shows God’s intention to catch us up in his creative, life-giving speech.

One Summer or One Reality?

I recently finished listening to One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson. It is a fascinating look at one busy summer which included a catastrophic flood of the Mississippi river, Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo crossing of the Atlantic (and the failed attempts of a few others), Babe Ruth’s record-setting season, a widely publicized murder trial, the invention of television, a highly anticipated boxing match, and a variety of other events of historic interest. Bryson’s writing is always brisk and informative. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It did, however, prompt some thought both about how little things change and also about how blind we can be to our own era’s problems.

We have a tendency, I believe, to idealize the past. Conservative Christians can be particularly prone to this giving the impression that the whole world was Christian and holy prior to the 1960s. What Bryson shows, however, is that the 20s were no era of Christian family values. Tabloids purveying salacious material were booming. The trial of a woman and her lover for the murder of her husband captured the nation’s attention in a way quite similar to the celebrity escapades of today. And the politicians of the day were regularly engaged in corruption and relational improprieties. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

And things have changed. Though Bryson avoids editorializing much throughout the book, he shows a noticeable and justifiable disdain when writing about some of the eugenics rhetoric of the era. For a brief, sad period, many across the cultural spectrum were calling for the forced sterilization of those deemed unfit to reproduce, principally criminals and the insane, in an effort to improve the population and purge it of “undesireables.”*

While Bryson’s discomfort with this way of thinking is justified and would probably be shared by most of his readers, it is more than a little ironic that we live in a society in which doctors routinely advise parents to abort babies with Downs Syndrome or other birth defects. The arguments are different but the result is the same.

There is no Golden Era of the Church or humanity. Each age shows both the glory of humanity’s imaging of God and the shame of human depravity. Looking carefully at the past can help us see ourselves and our tendencies more clearly.

*Amy Laura Hall chronicles the unfortunate collaboration of the church in this movement in her book Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction

The Gift of Prayer

I am slowly reading through Jacques Philippe’s small book on prayer: Time for God.* What I have read so far has been simple yet helpful, so I thought I would pass it along.

Philippe’s first declaration is that the life of prayer comes to us as a gift from God not as a result of our efforts nor the application of techniques. He contrasts Christian prayer with the meditative practices of other religions that seek to achieve mystical experience through the performance of specific practices. But these are based in the efforts of humans. Christian prayer is a gift from God. This does not completely remove a human part to play. He writes:

Although–as we shall see later–a certain human initiative and activity has its place, the entire edifice of the prayer life is founded on God’s initiative and on his grace. We must never lose sight of the fact that one of the constant and at times most subtle of temptations in the spiritual life is to base it on our own efforts and not on the free mercy of God.

I particularly appreciate that Philippe brings in the aspect of human personality. He notes that there are always some people who are much better at employing techniques, being disciplined, or forming ‘spiritual’ language (‘hermosos pensamientos’ in his phrase). But since the reality of a prayer life is a gift from God, these abilities are not the sum and substance of a good prayer life. “Each one, by cooperating faithfully with the divine grace according to their own personality, with all their gifts and weaknesses, is able to have a deep prayer life.” Each of us has a God-given personality that has features that both help and hinder our prayer life. We must learn to work patiently with our own graces and limitations to receive God’s gift of himself through prayer.

While there are not “tricks” or “techniques” for the Christian prayer life, Philippe suggests that there are attitudes, certain dispositions of heart that set us up to receive God’s gift of prayer more readily. About those anon.

*For the record, I am reading it in a Spanish translation of the original French. Therefore, any of the English quotes you read below are my clumsy translations. The book is available in English. Since I have not yet read the entire thing I cannot at this time make a blanket recommendation.

(This post was simultaneously posted on the website of Union Christian Church).

Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Meyer

Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design by Stephen C. Meyer

In a semi-technical yet readable volume, Meyer expands on his case for Darwins-Doubtintelligent design which he began in an earlier volume—Signature in the Cell. Whereas his focus there was on DNA, here he turns his attention to the so-called “Cambrian Explosion”, the sudden appearance of many complex animals as testified to in various fossil finds. Throughout the book Meyer takes on the various attempts to explain (or explain away) the apparent sudden appearance of these animals that are on offer in the scientific community. In short, he makes it pretty clear that the standard Darwinian and Neo-Darwinian accounts of animal development from a single ancestor through natural selection acting on random mutations are completely inadequate to explain the vast injection of new biological information necessary to generate these animals. The discussion must address technical issues but Meyer does so clearly and makes use of images and illustrations to engage the reader. In the later part of the book Meyer makes his case for the reasonableness of the inference of intelligent design in the development of these animals. He defends intelligent design with reference to the Cambrian Explosion in particular but also more generally as a legitimate scientific option. This book could be an excellent resource for science teachers in both Christian and public schools. The range of literature that Meyer references secures his work against accusations of scholarly cherry-picking. In particular the first and last parts of the book could be useful as they detail the growing dissatisfaction in the evolutionary community with the standard Darwinian model as well as the legitimacy of intelligent design as a scientific position.

The “Inconvenience of contrition”

I love/hate it when someone puts something bluntly and directly. In reading A History of Sin by John Portmann I came across the quote below. It concerns the discomfort of confession and contrition. I don’t know if the author intended it to be cutting, but it was.

Worshipping God takes time, just as repenting for sin does. Time gets increasingly scarce in the modern world, and atonement fatigue creeps into the picture. Traditional Jews read aloud from the Torah at least three times a week, and good Muslims face Mecca five times a day to pray. What do ordinary beleivers have to show for themeslves, other than some bumper stickers and lip service to “family values”? Part of the Western sin fatigue stems from the inconvenience of contrition. Saying we’re sorry for somethign we really wanted to do gets in the way of our enjoying life. Further, one of the difficult questions sin poses is why people regret it so deeply – is it to show love for God or to protect ourselves from a more severe punishment? (p. xxi)