Down the mountain – The Ten Commandments as Narrative (sort of)

I once heard it suggested that the Beatitudes could be interpreted so that each statement corresponds to a stage of one’s spiritual growth; that we begin as poor in spirit and meek, grow to be merciful and pure in heart, and eventually become peacemakers willing to suffer for righteousness sake. I’m not sure if this was what Jesus had in mind when he taught the Beatitudes, but it is an interesting interpretation.

As a thought experiment, I wonder if something similar could be done with the 10 commandments. I grew up finding these strictures rather dry, despite their obvious moral value. I prefer subtle narratives and symbolism to plain rules, so this is my effort to grapple with iconic scripture.
(And I’ll assume the reader can either remember the 10 in Exodus, or look them up.)

mont sinuses

At the beginning there is God, before he issues any imperative, saying who he is and what he’s done. “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt…” His actions are put first because he is the first actor, as in the creation account of Genesis. Then he commands that we (who are only now in the picture) are not to have any other gods before him.

Next we have humans that don’t just exist but can make stuff and talk; two commandments concerning our ability to create (don’t make idols) and to speak (don’t misuse my name). Again comparing with creation, Man’s work and speech (including naming the animals) follow God’s work and speech (including naming the light, the land, etc.)

Not only can we make stuff and talk, but we can also not do those things. Here we get the command on Sabbath. And so works, speech, and rest are all to revolve around God.

In four commandments we have a Genesis-steeped crash course in what humans are like, which itself is founded upon what God is like. Now we just have to learn how to get along with each other.

It is often remarked how the first of the six people-oriented commandments concerns how we relate to our parents, which is quite fitting since how God relates to his people is likened to how a parent relates to their children. It is also true that our parents are the first people we form relationships with, which may also be a good reason to put this commandment first of the six.

Our next relationships are usually siblings, who are our first rivals, first opponents, and first people we have to be told to stop fighting. Equating “Thou shall not murder” to sibling relationships is a bit of a stretch, but then again the first murder in the Bible was between brothers.

Later in life romance and marriage become priorities and there’s another kind of relationship to figure out (and a corresponding command). Then we continue to grow into active members of our community, at which time one’s property and repute may increase in priority (making theft and gossip all the more damaging.)

The last commandment is a longer list of things you aren’t supposed to covet. The positive flip side of this portrait is a person who lives a grateful and contented life, happy with their house, their family, their animals, and all the rest – someone who has learned how to relate to others in his world.

We start by knowing God and knowing how to relate to God, then carry that knowledge forth into expanding spheres of community around us. There is both a logical and chronological sequence to the 10 commandments that has us start with the peak of God’s identity, and then works its way down the mountain into all other areas of life. Of course, most of us will spend our entire lives regularly revisiting how we spend our sabbath, treat our parents, and take care of our donkeys. All the same, it might be useful sometimes to use the 10 commandments as a kind of checklist to make sure we’re letting God’s identity sink into our own.

10 romcoms

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The Floor is Not a Toilet, and My Life is Not a Failure

My roommate has a few chihuahuas, one of which is currently swatting at my foot so that I’ll pay attention to him. Although the dogs aren’t mine, and although I’m more of a cat person, I’ve grown rather fond of the little guys. Their antics are curious and funny. Only occasionally annoying. The aforementioned dog is now barking at the landlord. He’ll stop soon.

bub

Gotta have a pic, but posting without asking owner’s permission seems rude. So: Back of his head.

They also invite a lot of contemplation. They have a lot in common with humans but also a lot of differences. They have their own reasons for doing things, but their reasons aren’t always apparent. Conversely, they don’t understand human things. They don’t appreciate any of my books, nor any of my deep existential puzzles.

just an object

“Just an object… it doesn’t mean what you think.” (If you haven’t watched Firefly, she thinks she’s holding a branch but it’s actually a gun.)

Therein lies what I believe is one of the great advantages of living with animals. If I’m anxious about someone being disappointed in me, they don’t care. They still enjoy being around me. If I’m feeling bad about the way I look or act, they’re just happy to hang out. They don’t get why I’d feel envious looking at social media feeds or nervous looking at bank statements. They just like having a friendly human to hang out with.

And it is with these creatures that I share a reality. Their experiences and perceptions aren’t less real than mine, and in being reminded of this I am reminded that my own anxious perceptions have borders. My fears, however legitimate or paranoid, don’t exist outside of my head and interacting with another creature who doesn’t share my anxieties is a calming reminder.

Of course the same can be said of other human beings. And that being so, I might try to be the kind of person who can effortlessly remind others that their fears may be smaller than they seem. But I will not do this by licking peoples’ feet!

Please excuse me while I find some socks.

Fear and Trembling for Fun and Profit

Spirituality in a moment. First: my dating life.

I have never been in a relationship or even been on a single date. I am now mostly at peace with this, but I have been quite frustrated in the past and I still hope that this isn’t the case forever.

sink

Bachelorhood

Since the end of highschool, I have sporadically given myself self-improvement goals in the hopes of making myself more date-able. “What do girls like?” I’d think. “Girls like guys who exercise.” So I cut back on ground beef and started doing pushups. Then in my first year of university, I thought “Girls like guys who dress nicely.” So I started cultivating a sense of fashion (still in progress). “Girls like guys who cook, who read poetry, who learn languages, who bake deserts…” On goes the list, and on goes the self-improvement goals.

And yet, at every turn, I remain single. Here’s why this is an amazing thing.

I grew to enjoy being in shape, not to win chicks but for my own sake. I feel more comfortable, confident, and capable being in shape. Clothes became a medium of self-respect, not a means to try to market myself. Cooking, languages, and all the rest became things I enjoy for their own sake. Each of these discoveries was originally motivated (in part) by a problem that vexed me: the tedium of singleness. Yet, my efforts to overcome that problem heave lead to fun and encouraging discoveries that now outweigh my original angst.

The presence of the problem has become fuel for a fulfilling life.

And this all reminds me of some of my pet quandaries in following Jesus. There’s the old problem of evil – how God can be both all powerful and all good in a painful world. There’s the story of Abraham going to sacrifice Isaac, permanently problematized for me after reading Kierkegaard. There’s also a more personal theological frustration of my own making – how does resurrection work, and in what way is a resurrected me still “me.” Each question is a worthy adversary for sleep, and each is one that no systematic theology book has settled for me.

isaac

Definitely Fearful, Actively Trembling

Yet each of these unanswered quandaries has lead me to make helpful discoveries. I don’t know why the omnipotent omnibenevolent God doesn’t immediately stamp out all evil, but the question makes me better appreciate his particular and gradual interventions against evil. I don’t know what I’m supposed to take away from the Binding of Isaac, but placing myself in Abraham’s shoes (Or Isaac’s) leads me to probe my own attitudes towards God. I don’t get resurrection, but my lack of understanding has forced me to pray more.

Why does Jesus have to die in order to reconcile us to God? That’s still a head-scratcher for me, but I’m happy to have something to wrestle with. Answers, while important, are not always transformative. The questions – the problems (or ‘puzzles’ more charitably) – demand that I think and act in different ways. That leads to growth.

I’d still like my theological quandaries answered as much as I’d like to be married some day, but if there are enriching discoveries to be made along the way then I am happy to wait.


 

I really tried to come up with a good title. I got squat. Ya get what ya get.

Pygmalion – An Overly Ambitious Incomplete Poem That I Am Sharing Despite My Better Judgement

This poem is incomplete. I’ve been tossing this idea around for 3 months now and been itching to make a blog post about it for 2 months. The idea behind this poem is one that greatly excites me, but clearly this will be one of those projects that takes far more time to settle.

So I’ll present this ‘pre-alpha’ draft, and then I’ll make some comments on what this poem has to do with Hebrew poetry, Greek myth, Christian anthropology, and Anime Waifus!

Dallying dust cloud,   adrift in wind,
Faring formlessly,   flutters; scatters.
Ill-conceived image   of lifeless ivory,
Formerly feminine,   floats now hopeless.
Her face was fair,   bright and unfeeling;
Her lips so lush    got lifeless kisses;
Her cheeks cheerfully   chiseled, unblushing;
Odes were rehearsed    to unhearing ears.

Her figured fulfilled    a private fancy:
Pygmalion molded    this maiden of grey.
With heart hard as rock,    he hated those girls
That charged him “Change!    Share! Show charity!”

Swift currents swept    his sweet words away,
Uttered to earthen    ears, and his gifts
Of flowers grew pale,    pedals faded,
Rings to rust yielded – misspent relics.
Formerly famed,    he floats now hopeless,
His face grown pale,    complexion faded.
He lingers alone,    lifeless in mind,
A dallying dust cloud,    adrift in wind.

While I generally prefer poems that are uplifting, this is a monitory tragedy. The subject is Pygmalion, which is a Greek myth about an uncultured Cockney girl who gets adopted by a linguistics professor…
My mistake, that’s the other one. Pygmalion is a craftsman who, displeased by the character of women around him, makes a statue of a woman to be the object of his affections. He falls in love with the statue, giving her all manner of gifts, and finally offers prayers and sacrifices to Venus that she might become real. Venus grants his request and Piggy and the Statch live happily ever after.

Pygmalion priant Vénus d'animer sa statue, Jean-Baptiste Regnault

By Jean-Baptiste Regnault, wikipedia

So, admitting my religious angle, this story makes me super uncomfortable. Judaeo-Christian tradition holds that God created humanity in his ‘image’ (a word carrying contested implications, but the statue analogy is relevant) and forbids devotion to derivative works made by human hands (aka ‘idols’), the logic being that Images of God (Humans) already exist and therefore we don’t need idols. Blah, blah, theology. Agree or disagree, this is what I’m thinking when I read the Pygmalion story.

(Coincidentally, earlier today I read Psalm 135 which says of idols, “They have eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear… Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them!” Cf. Psalm 115)

idol

When the ideological arithmetic is all done, reworking Piggy and the Statch as a didactic tragedy is obvious. Where I really wanted to be clever was in execution. I had been reading a lot about biblical Hebrew poetry so it occurred to me that this would be a great time to try baby’s first chiams.

Chiasms are basically structures where a series of images, ideas, or words are reflected and ordered symmetrically out from the center. 1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 2, 1; for example. Maybe butterfly wings are a good analogy, or you can google it. I wanted to go for something more modest. Show the ruined statue, tell the story, show the ruined man. The ruined statue matches the ruined man.

And of course I had to try writing it in anglo-saxon alliterative style because it’s. just. fun. Generally, the second of the two versets in the line only needs to throw in that third alliterating lift to complete the line. I’m enjoying trying to sneak rhyming vowel sounds into the second verset just for fun, but it occasionally makes for some contrived wordings.

As a current popular application, we might take a second to think carefully about the way we treat fictional characters. Including but not limited to Anime waifus.

zzouqc623sh21

Sorry, Currently Relevant Waifu!

This all, then, is the experiment. I’m not quite sure if I’m going to keep Pygmalion’s motive for rejecting real women as being that they would try to change him. I kinda like that the fear of one kind of transformation pushes him towards another, but maybe that’s making this project all too ambitious. I should also say that I’m sure there are more charitable readings of Pygmalion and that my experiment is admittedly born of gut-felt cynicism, but I still enjoy playing with these ideas if only as an exercise in trying to bring themes out of a story.

Faith and Rest (or ‘The Spiritual Gift of Not Being Excited About Jesus’)

I don’t really get ‘passionate’ about Jesus.

I was thinking about this while watching the worship leader at church this morning, raising her hands and closing her eyes and singing very passionately. I’m always happy to see that, and there was a time that that was me, but it’s not really my experience anymore.

A few months ago my small group was discussing how to get excited about Jesus and I wasn’t feeling invested in the discussion. It felt heretical coming out my mouth, but when I chimed in and said that I don’t really feel that way, it occurred to me that how I did feel about my faith was rather remarkable.

I feel more relaxed about Jesus. While the worship leaders soulfully belt out songs that could move the most jaded old fart to tears, I’m just quietly grateful that God is bigger than my bank account.

It’s really easy to see the expressions of faith that are colourful and loud and active. I like those expressions of faith, but sometimes there’s too much colour and too much noise and too much activity. Sometimes you get anxious and you just want to slow down.

Sometimes you look for an expression of faith that calms the storms. That says “Come to me if you’re weary, and I will give you rest.” Sometimes you need less “mourning into dancing” and more “worrying into sleeping.”

When I let Jesus make me feel relaxed, it can feel like I’m not doing enough for him. I feel like I have to be doing, feeling, or expressing something. And then Jesus comes along and invites me to slow down.

I wonder what might happen if we, as the church, stopped trying to make Christianity fun and cool and started trying to make it restful.

None of these thoughts are especially new or profound or impressive, but I need to hear it more often and I figure others must as well. It’s okay if the name of Jesus doesn’t make you want to break out into dance.

Perhaps one of the best ways we can honour him is making him one of the few things we’ll slow down for.

A Bright Side of Anxiety

Everyone’s journey with anxiety is different and I do not wish in any way to trivialize anyone’s struggle, especially not my own. That said, I’m beginning to think my anxiety might have something to teach me.

Growing up in church culture, I often had catalogues of sins and “shalt nots” recited to me. Over time, I began to wonder why certain things were considered bad. While I am generally comfortable with a trustworthy authority giving me guidelines that I cannot yet completely understand, I still believe that Christian moral and ethical teachings ought to be what they are for a reason.

A lot of the things I questioned (or still question) can be sorted under the header “It’s not like I’m hurting anyone.” Why does the Bible tell me not to envy, for example? If I’ve resolved not to steal, why is envy wrong? What I’ve come to appreciate is that some seemingly innocent thoughts and actions can, in fact, be subtle acts of violence against one’s self. Envy is agitating and unpleasant. Envy creates dissatisfaction, whereas gratitude (both for what you have and who you are) fosters peace.

My experience of anxiety often leaves me stuck in memories of feeling humiliated. Subtle and unintentional things can really impact me, whether it’s the body language of a customer I’m serving, the well-meaning criticisms of an artistic director, or the subtlest nuance of a word that a friend uses in conversation. Other times, people are actually just jerks and actively trying to be rude. In any case, I can feel wounded for months or even years after.

And in comes the voice of Junior Asparagus saying “God wants me to forgive them!?!”

gwmtft

What I’ve learned through my anxiety is this: to not forgive is a subtle act of violence against the self. It goes without saying that forgiveness is usually very hard, but for me to willingly hold on to the ways people have hurt me is to limit and encumber myself. If I want to fully enjoy the present and be my most real and uninhibited self, I need to let go of the ways people have hurt me.

Grudges and revenge are re-active. Forgiveness is pro-active.

For some reason, there were several instances when I was a kid when I was taught how physical pain is essentially a good thing because it lets you know when something is wrong with your body. If you leave your hand on a hot stove and don’t feel pain, you’re not going to have a working hand pretty soon. As I struggle with my anxiety, I’m realizing that it can (sometimes) act as a kind of compass or alarm to tell me when I’m paying attention to unhelpful things or thinking in unhelpful ways. With forgiveness, I need to remind myself that my value and dignity comes from my creator, and not from the occasional acts of rude or absent-hearted people.

Like gratitude, forgiveness isn’t just an obligation to my neighbour, it’s a gift. And though it’s difficult, I will continue to work at it.

But seriously, I’m still really looking forward to the day that my anxiety goes jump in a lake.

The Language of the Humble

Nelson Mandela is often quoted on the internet as having said “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” I don’t know if he actually said that but it’s a good quote. However, there may be exceptions.

At the beginning of the year I drafted a regimen by which I would read through the book of Psalms – 7 every week (one every day would inevitably fall apart and I’m a week behind as it is). But just reading through one translation is boring so I decided to make it more interesting. People often recommend reading two translations side by side to get the bigger picture of the translated text. If you can, you can expand on this by reading in two different languages. I got my hands on an Italian bible over Christmas, so off I went.

20190311_153051

This exercise has lead to all sorts of fun discoveries, many of a sort that I anticipated, but others that were rather surprising.

When you hear the same words over and over again from birth, they can become stuck. You stop thinking about what they mean and they become just noise. In the best of cases, I find repeated texts always have something new to offer as I encounter them in different situations. Like a gem that rotates and refracts light in different ways, or a tree that always yields fruit. In the worst cases, the words get stuck and need a jump start.

When I read Psalm 10, I skimmed the words “O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted,” without really paying attention. I think I see the words “O, Lord” and think, Okay, whatever follows is going to be abstract theology language that doesn’t reflect how real people talk or think or feel. Then I compared the Italian, which says ‘the desires of the humble (umili).’

I was comparing afflicted and humble and suddenly the words became faces. Whenever I go through the downtown there are people asking for change. I don’t carry cash and have nothing to offer, so I apologize and move on if I don’t cross to the other side of the street. I often ignore the humble and afflicted, and that’s just when they ask for spare change. Who knows what their desires are for their relationships, housing situations, etc. Apparently God does.

And heck, if he can hear their desires, surely he can hear mine!

I hear this kind of language every day and it doesn’t go to my heart. It gets stuck and it needs some percussive maintenance to get it moving again. I’m sure that God both hears us and speaks to us in our own language, but sometimes it’s worth switching that language up so that we know we’re paying attention.

Handling Lack of Inspiration

Anyone who has spent time practicing an art has struggled with not knowing what to create. Writers don’t always know what to write, painters don’t always know what to paint, composers don’t always know what to compose.

This can make anyone anxious. In a period when I struggled to know what to write, one person suggested to me that perhaps I’m not really a writer. Perhaps that’s not my real calling. I found this remark devastating, like my entire identity was being called into question. The worst part was the thought “Maybe they’re right. After all, I am really struggling to know what to do.”

In my teen years I somehow got it into my head that artists should not be slaves to inspiration. That is, an artist should be able to continue working after the passion has run out, or to do commissioned work that isn’t personal in any way. As with many principals I picked up when I was younger, I exaggerated it into a contempt for inspiration. I began to think that art should be simply the product of discipline, dedication, and patience.

If a man spent his entire wedding day preparing himself for all the inevitable struggles of marriage and never once cracked a smile, you’d probably think “I’m glad I’m not the one marrying him.”

I’ve had to rethink my stance towards inspiration because it is actually a necessity. An artist without passion or a vision doesn’t get very far; it’s passion that gets the artist through the boring commissions and onto the more exciting dreams. Unfortunately, inspiration is not entirely in the artists control. It strikes without warning. At the same time, it’s no replacement for skill and talent. Inspiration can animate talent, but when inspiration strikes where there is no talent the result will be an excited but artless mess.

All this amounts to some kind of creative paralysis.

So here’s my strategy which, after a few years of being stuck, seems to be helping: write terrible uninspired garbage. Try really hard, stretch your talent, and let each finished product be entirely unimpressive. That work gives you the material which inspiration will vivify at some random moment. Don’t fret a lack of inspiration – that isn’t under your control. Read, experiment, imitate your heroes and scribble out garbage, have fun.

Dry spells happen to everyone. The trick is to remain humble and active during that time. When inspiration rolls around again, you’ll be ready for it.

Mastering Malevolent Metaphors

I sometimes wonder to what extent other people experience and interpret life using metaphors, knowingly or unknowingly.

I tend to conceptualize my experiences and expectations in terms of metaphors, and this can have a strong impact on how I live my life. A recent sort of example tends to come around on Valentine’s day. Being single, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling ‘rejected’, a word with lots of obvious connotations. Recently I’ve been trying to think more in terms of ‘reservation’, like that empty seat in the theatre or that lonely book on the shelf in the store. It’s not that the seat or the book are unwanted or useless – they’re in fact so valuable to someone that their use must be postponed for a time.

So I try to identify, evaluate, and replace metaphors that are untrue or unhelpful. A few months back, I read “Metaphors We Live By” by Lakoff and Johnson which has a lot of helpful perspective on this. I recommend looking for it at your local bookshop (give those Amazon employees a break – they’re busy.)

At some point when I was a kid, I was introduced to the tale about the Sword of Damocles. The story goes that a King Dionysius wanted to show his friend/flatterer Damocles that being a ruler was no fun. They agreed to switch roles for a day, but Dionysius had a dagger suspended by a hair placed above the throne. So during his day as king, Damocles was surrounded by all the glamour of palace life but also under the constant threat of dying suddenly.

damocles

Source: Wikle-pikle

The aim of the story is to show how power makes you a target, but more broadly the image stuck with me as a symbol of impending disaster. Going to school where the bullies and bad grades were, going to work where the mean boss was, hearing the sound of an oncoming email that surely has to be some harbinger of woe – everything was a dagger hanging above my head and the best I could hope for was to avert disaster.

Despite the occasional real disaster, I have to admit that this life of perpetual pending apocalypse was one of my own involuntary making.

So what I need is a new image. And a quite fitting solution came in the form of a Magic the Gathering card.

ephara's radiance

Ephara’s Radiance. Artist: James Ryman, Copyright 2014 Wizards of The Coast. I don’t own it and I’m not making money off it so be cool, WotC.

Apart from the fact that this picture is totally rad, it’s also the antithesis of Damocles. Rather than a singular impersonal disaster hanging overhead, you look up and see the benevolent goddess made of stars and nebulae with a never-emptying pitcher of goodies to pour out. Not only is this a far more pleasant way of conceptualizing life, I also find it, from a Judaeo-Christian perspective, far more realistic.

How I apply this is a problem I’m still solving but on the days when it works, it works wonders. I can pay much better attention to the good things, and the bad things become outlying data rather than defining moments. I hope this continues to help.

Two Streets Formed by Two Loves (or “Doing Poetry and Theology Without Going Outside”)

Widsith spoke, unlocked his word-hoard,
he who had traveled most of all men
through tribes and nations across the earth.

Unlike Widsith, I have not traveled through tribes and nations and I really have no desire to do so. I do however envy his word-hoard, or admire it at least.

I try to look out for images from my day-to-day life that might be useful in writing. Keeping inventory of the images that seem the most powerful helps with finding inspiration. Less seriously, I like to come up with absurd “deep” interpretations of things around me that have no significance whatsoever. (One of my pens just ran out of ink: this represents my lack of motivation.)

Most of these analyses are dumb and silly and fruitless, but occasionally one will turn out quite interesting.

I live in a neighbourhood on a street that runs west to east and I’m between two major roads that run north-south (Think of a letter H shape).

locke

Locke in the summer

Locke, to the East, is a beautiful community. It features lots of locally and independently owned shops, a handful of cozy cafes and restaurants, and four churches each with very kind and welcoming communities. The neighbourhood hosts an annual festival on the street, and in the summer it’s an idyllic mix of greenery and beautiful old brickwork. I love Locke.

dundurn

Dundurn – Google street view because I don’t feel like walking two blocks to take the picture myself

I hate Dundurn. Walking down Dundurn is a chore. It’s not all bad but it’s obviously poorer and has no charm. It’s frequently littered, busy and noisy, and I’m especially nervous around the intersection that features a wine store, beer store, and marijuana dispensary all next to teach other. That street to the West is far from the best.

And then there’s where I and many others live: right in the middle. The residential streets that run between these two opposites are generally nice and peaceful. Quite lovely in the summer.

homewood

In between – Google again because lazy

I was thinking about this while reading about Augustine. One of his more salient themes in his writing explores how the world we live in is an overlap between the love of God and the good works of his children, and the brokenness of the world in all its destructivity. “Accordingly,” he writes, “Two cities have been formed by two loves: the Earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God, and the Heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.” Caritas and Cupiditas: one that builds community and one that tears community apart.

Within my own neighbourhood (which is called Kirkendall; I’m pretty sure that appropriately means ‘church valley’) I find something of a parallel to Augustine. There are two streets formed by two loves and all of us live in between the two. It then becomes the mission of the church (or Heavenly City, or Locke-ites) to take the loving community we have found and move it into places where it didn’t exist before.

I’m not sure if that image is as accessible as Augustine’s, but I’ll stash it in my word-hoard and maybe use it later. And I didn’t even have to travel through tribes and nations.

 

Side note to potential Hamilton readers: we won’t read too much into how most of the residential streets are one-way. I don’t want to get into an argument about Calvinism.