Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

29 December 2010


One of my most pernicious sins—aside from plain old meanness, to which I'm prone from time to time and for which I have myriad rationalizations, which I won't go into just now, though I'm tempted—is sanctimony. Defined in most dictionaries as feigned piety or righteousness, the word has nothing to do with pretense in my private lexicon. Rather, it is the overwhelming sense of my own moralness, often in the face of someone else's misery or despair.

I will lay it before you. When confronting a tragedy of some unknown unfortunate, my default inner response appears to be not pity or compassion or even that most generous of pomposities, indifference. Instead, a sticky, unswallowable sanctimonious ooze of fills me, collecting like snot in my sinuses in the night. However arduously my soul within me moves and twists, however hard I gasp for a breath of genuine love, sanctimony oozes and seeps, filling the passageways of the spirit and choking me with the unlovable lovelessness of thinking others’ miseries earned and myself—for not being like that—holy by comparison.

The word sanctimony is a strange one. In English, it is used almost exclusively in its adjective form, sanctimonious. Etymologically, it derives from the Latin cognate sānctimōnia, which means, simply, sanctity or holiness. The English word sanctimonious was used that way for many centuries, until it acquired, notably via Shakespeare in Measure for Measure, its current disparaging sense as not sanctity but hypocritical sanctity, not holiness but holiness feigned, not righteousness but a show of righteousness.

Many words that once denoted sanctity have become similarly disparaged in contemporary usage, but sanctimonious is the worst of all. Few these days like to be called "pious" or "righteous," but none want to be called "sanctimonious."

And rightly so, I would argue. The sense of one’s own relative holiness is poison to every holy impulse. And hypocrisy seems lamentably inherent in every conscious holy act.

Nor is sanctimony constrained to those who wcall themselves Christians. Many of my nonbelieving friends and acquaintances wax sanctimonious in matters of social justice or green living or animal rights or whatever happen to be their personal holinesses.

As for my own sanctimony, I wish there were some solvent to dissolve it or at least break it up some and let it sink below my breathways to join the other wastes I produce until the glorious day when it all passes from me entirely.

09 August 2010


I really like that there are untranslatable words in scripture. For one thing, they make you slow down and speculate and consider—which is, in fact, one of several ways scholars propose we understand the biblical word selah, an untranslatable word used 71 times in 39 of the Psalms, many of which begin with reference to the musical nature of the psalm, and 3 times in the song that concludes the short book of Habakkuk. (That Habakkuk’s final prayer was meant to be sung is clear from a concluding reference to the director of music and intended instrumentation.) The term may have some musical meaning—like “pause here” or “descendo” or “insert bridge”—that has since been lost. Or it may mean always, which is how it was translated in certain key ancient translations. Its meaning may also draw upon its apparent etymology in the Hebrew word for hang.

All these possibilities come together, it seems to me, in the way I—and, I’m guessing, many modern readers—hear the word as they read through one of those unsung songs of scripture. Selah sounds like exhaled breath, a musical suspension meaning “Hang onto that thought.” Selah seems like the most wise and natural commentary one could make on the nature of the things of this world. It reads like a sigh.

That’s, in any case, how the word seems to operate in reggae songs and in the nostalgically apocalyptic songs of Leonard Cohen I’ve been listening to of late—that is, as sighs or groans in response to a world beyond understanding.

Scriptural sighing also calls to mind, for me, Paul’s intriguing depiction of the Holy Spirit translating the groans of all creation “through wordless groans” (Romans 8:26) as well as Jesus’ frequent exhalations—in his interactions with those around him and in breathing his last upon the cross. In a favorite passage of mine, Jesus sighs in prayer:
Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of
Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to him a
man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand
on him.

After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his
fingers into the man's ears. Then he spit and touched the man's tongue. He
looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, "Ephphatha!" (which means
"Be opened!"). At this, the man's ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and
he began to speak plainly. (Mark 7:31-35)
Ephphatha. Try to say that word aloud, and you will hear that deep sigh that housed it—a different sound from selah but somehow the same. Selah. Ephphatha.

And that’s the biggest reason why I like untranslatable scriptural words so much. They mimic the wordless, word-hostile nature of our deepest prayers. Groans, as Paul says, “as in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:22). I remember those exhalations as simultaneously buoyant and unbearable, a joyous agony, an explosion of wordlessness. I felt opened.

04 August 2010


Abraham’s spiritual journey was not the steady climb from unbelief to ardent and abiding faith and holiness that I expected to enjoy when I first became a Christian. Not the ever growing devotion to God that seemed likely to make me into one of the “godly” men and women of the congregation—ancient and tireless workers and greeters and “prayer warriors”—that the pastors of churches I attended in those days were always pointing out to the rest of us sinners. Rather, for Abraham, as for me, the journey Godward comprised a series of miniscule ascents in his direction interrupted by deep descents and long flat periods of not paying attention and getting lost, the whole forming a course as jagged as an electrocardiogram.

Abraham’s moments of faith are provisional at best—and far less compelling, story-wise, than his frequent excursions into faithlessness. When God initially tells him to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household and go to Canaan, Abram responds with the partial obedience that characterizes his whole story. He leaves, but he takes his people and father and his father’s household with him. They head for Canaan, but settle in Haran before they get there. When Abram’s father dies, Abram does finally go where God directs him, but he leaves soon after—for Egypt, for the Negev, or for wherever it is wily Lot decides not to go when the land can no longer support them both. Abraham seems, in fact, to allow anyone but God to direct his wanderings.

Abraham meets God’s other promise, that his descendents will outnumber the stars in the sky, with similarly qualified trust. Despite his wife Sarah’s barrenness and advancing age, he fleetingly believes the promise that she will yet bear children. Or, in any case, that’s what the text says, and God believes he believes it. But no sooner do we read those words on the page than we find Abraham attempting to choreograph the miracle by his own methods. He apparently doesn’t trust God to keep him alive long enough to father the promised children and instead tells lies that the beautiful Sarah is his sister and pimps her to the lusty Egyptians—a trick he later repeats to protect himself from the people of the Negev—to keep potential suitors from murdering him to get her. He also goes along with Sarah’s attempt to preempt God’s plan by having him sleep with her servant, Hagar. And, as if these indications of faithlessness are not enough, when the Lord’s angel announces that the promised child will arrive within a year, he snickers to himself—surely the most compelling gesture of unbelief imaginable, one for which Sarah is sternly reprimanded.

God himself, despite having acknowledged Abram’s faith early on, appears to doubt it later in Abraham’s life. After the visions and the smoking firepot with which God makes Abram “know for certain” (15:13) that what he says is true, after the name change to Abraham (“Father of Many”), after the household circumcision instituted as the covenantal affirmation of Abraham’s faith, after the miracle of Isaac’s birth, after all these signs that should have fortified and confirmed the faith that God has already acknowledged, God “tests” Abraham—that’s the word used in the text—by demanding in burnt sacrifice the very child he has said will engender the countless descendents he has promised. Then he waits to see what Abraham will do. And it is here, in an intricate story embedded in the intricate story of Abraham’s faithlessness, in a sentence or two liable to slip right past the inattentive reader, that we can glimpse what God must have seen in that moment early on when he commended Abram’s faith and accepted it in exchange for the righteousness we humans seem incapable of putting into practice.

Abraham tells his servants, at the end of what must have been the terrifying journey to sacrifice his son, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you” (22:5). Skeptical reader that I am, I understood Abraham’s promise to return, at first, to be mere subterfuge designed to prevent the servants from knowing what he was up to and perhaps interfering with his plan. What else could he say? “Stay here with the donkey while I go over there and sacrifice my son”? Abraham knew, I reasoned, that he would be returning alone, but he would surely not want to reveal his horrific plan to anyone else, not even to servants. So he lied. And after all, it’s not as if we haven’t already witnessed him lying.

Similarly, when Isaac, who is made to carry the wood for his own sacrifice and is probably a bit suspicious about the whole undertaking, asks, “Father. . . The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (22:7), Abraham replies with what seems like another white lie: “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (22:8). I can imagine Abraham’s rationalization: Well, God did provide me with my little lamb of a son, Isaac . . . And, anyway, I can’t imagine what else he could have told Isaac, under the circumstances.

It’s instructive to consider the whole undertaking from God’s perspective, though. To look down from above on that miserable journey to a mountain in the region of Moriah that God said he would tell Abraham about: the funeral march there, sighting the spot in the distance, the horrifying ascent. Indeed, we can’t forget the other Father, watching, waiting, as Abraham struggled to believe and not to despair. “Against all hope,” Paul writes of our faith-father, “Abraham in hope believed” (Romans 4:18). Against all hope, he hoped himself forward. Step by step. Moment by moment. And God looked down on that hopeful, hopeless march from above, and he hoped, too, as any parent would, and forgot all of his child’s previous failures—the lack of trust, the misplaced fidelities, the weird attempts to take control. Listening and hoping from above, God heard only Abraham’s promises—that he and Isaac would both return to the waiting servants, that God himself would provide the sacrificial lamb—and he recognized them not as lies or even as the wistful hopes they probably were but as pure, solid faith. Faith as great as anyone could ever muster. As great as that of John the Baptist, who, while in prison and soon to be beheaded, sent to Jesus asking, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Here is Jesus’ response to John’s question, to his endgame travesty of faith: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11).

In other words, as tiny and imperfect as our faith might be, as weak our hope, God leans in and listens—not for our failure, not for yet more proof of our faithlessness, but for the realization of his own hope for us—that is, for the faith he himself provides, just as he provides everything else we need to be happy and healthy and safe. And when he finds it, he credits it to us as all the righteousness we are capable of accomplishing.

25 July 2010


I am usually under stress, I discovered years ago when I went on sabbatical. It took the experience of rest to make me recognize its opposite.

In all of the jobs I have had, most of the women I have known have figured out when they are going to retire. They know the exact year, without having to figure it up when you ask them. Perhaps the men do as well, but it is the women who talk about retiring. They fantasize about it—fantasies I like to call job-icidal ideation, the primary symptom of a mental illness whose name I have not yet invented. It is a common mental illness, I think. Perhaps the most common of our culture.

Once, in a meeting of other professional women, I mentioned a sick fantasy I have about lying in a hospital bed, rendered suddenly stress-free by cancer or paralysis some other act of God. Probably some of my listeners were struggling with loved ones laid low by illness, I thought as I spoke, and I was regretting the words even as they emerged from my mouth. I often do this. Especially under stress. But the response of my listeners surprised me. They nodded. Vigorously. Several women said that they had had the very same fantasy. The hospital bed. The silence. The IV drip sustaining one effortlessly. Visits from family and friends only during visiting hours. The hushed messages of encouragement.

Perhaps the stress of reconciling the demands of home and work is not a gender thing, but I have read somewhere that working women, contrary to men, typically eat at their desks, still working, or else don’t lunch at all, and I have noticed that this is true of most of the women I know. They can’t stop working long enough to sit and joke around in the school cafeteria with our male colleagues and eat a decent lunch. I also don’t see them walking around with gymbags, as the men do. A few women work out, of course. They give up lunch to fit in aerobics or body pump. Or they get to school early early to join the morning class. I know because I have joined them, lunging and thrusting half awake through driving songs about love and power. What’s love got to do with it, do with it? Often I would find myself singing it as I rushed to class and then a core curriculum meeting and then back to my office to be there for the two hours we are required to set aside for our students each day. By then I am starving, so I make some microwave popcorn and eat it as I grade papers or prepare class for the next day.

Two of my female colleagues do go home for lunch. Both are about to retire. They go home for lunch, I like to imagine, in anticipation of the time when they will be able to rest and enjoy life every day.

While I was on sabbatical, I ate lunch. Outside, if it was nice weather. A salad fresh-picked from my garden, most times, dressed with the merest teaspoon of olive oil, a scattering of salt and sugar, and vinegar. I could see our dogs in the outer reaches of the yard, lounging in the sun.

“Here, Tessi! Here Erica! Moe dog, come here!” I called to them. But they just lay there, or loitered a bit nearer to my iron table and dozed off again.

Who knew that dogs spent the day sleeping? It’s true that all the aphorisms say they do—a dog’s life, let sleeping dogs lie—but I knew our dogs, before that year, only in attitudes of frenzy. Jumping up at me. Wanting fed. Tripping me in their excitement at getting to accompany me to the mailbox. In my year at home, I learned the secret of their perpetual good nature, and it is this: Dogs spend their days AND their nights at rest. They live, I have come to think, as God would have us live. At rest. Worry free. Not waking at 3 a.m. to write an essay, as I am at this moment, or fantasizing about having terminal diseases, but at peace with the world, saving their frenzy for something worthwhile. Fellowship. Food. A walk in the sun.

Kris and I have been reading Isaiah. It is a grim book, mostly, hard to enter first thing in the morning, which is when we typically do it: a list of bad things that will happen to this people or that, to us, if we don’t live the way God wants us to.

For the first twenty books or so, I understood this living right as the usual sort of righteousness we are called to follow: not worshipping idols or intermarrying with idol-worshipping foreigners, not staggering from wine or reeling with beer or being “heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks” (5:22—it’s really in there!), not making widows our prey or robbing the fatherless.

It was hard to get convicted by anything Isaiah said, I found. This is nothing new, though. Isaiah’s own listeners had the same problem. Even after Isaiah took to preaching in the nude, which you’d think would make anyone perk up and pay attention, his listeners just mocked his words.

Then we got to this electrifying passage in Chapter 28. Isaiah’s listeners are mocking him, babbling his words back to him like little children, just words in meaningless-sounding streams:
Do and do, do and do,
rule on rule, rule on rule,
a little here, a little there.
In Hebrew, the jumble of words sound even more mocking, like the meaningless sounds we make when we are mimicking someone we think a fool, as indeed some scholars think is what Isaiah is recording in this passage:
sav lasav sav lasav
kav lakav kav lakav
The passage is evidently difficult to decipher, as the various English Bibles come up with wildly different translations—but Isaiah’s response to his audience’s mockery clears it all up, to my view. “Very well then,” he tells them,
with foreign tongues God will speak to his people,
to whom he said,
“This is the resting place, let the weary rest”;
and, “This is the place of repose”—
but they would not listen.
So then, the word of the LORD to them will become:
Do and do, do and do,
rule on rule, rule on rule,
a little here, a little there.
So that they will go and fall backward,
be injured and snared and captured. (28:10-13)
And that is precisely what has happened. Here was genuine prophecy. Having rejected God’s offer of rest and repose, we do and do and do and do, following our rules, adding a few more tasks and a few more rules each day, until we are injured and snared and captured in a web of doing, no longer even capable of rest, despite our best intentions. In lunging forward, we fall backward. Our best attempt to grasp the old promise becomes a dream of hospital beds and then death, the ultimate rest.

22 July 2010


The other day, on a bus trip, I sat down next to a chatty man in his sixties who had just been dumped by his third wife.

“Is someone sitting here?” I asked him, and he said, no, he was as alone as a person could be.

He had an unusually loud voice, and the people sitting around us all laughed. We were all on our way back to the Orlando airport to fly home after grading Advanced Placement exams for a week at a cavernous Convention Center in Daytona Beach with six hundred other professors and teachers. When the man asked me the inevitable question about where I taught, I lowered my voice and told him the name of the school, and then, when he didn’t recognize it, I said it was a private Christian university in Arkansas.

I waited for the usual pause that had followed this announcement all week whenever I got into conversation with someone new. I’m guessing many of my fellow academics there regarded Christian higher education as an oxymoron. Or perhaps it’s that something about me—my clothes or the way I talk—failed to prepare them for the fact that I might be a Christian, and they needed a couple of seconds to realign their thoughts. Everyone was too polite to tell me what went on in their heads in that pause, and afterwards, they typically changed the subject.

This man, however, went straight after it.

“You mean, evangelical?” he shouted. He twisted in his seat to stare at me—sternly, it seemed to me—and to see my face when I answered.

I have always been uncomfortable with the term evangelical, I have to say here. The adjective it used to be has been bandied around in the media so much of late that the noun Christian that it used to modify has been knocked off. Now it’s one of those attributive nouns that means something different to whoever uses it.

In the mouths of the people on NPR and on the pages of Time and The Atlantic Monthly, my primary sources of news and information, the label evangelical appears to be synonymous with politically benighted or bigoted or stupid, depending on the context. At best, ridiculously naïve. Time has taken to capitalizing the word, which makes it look even more embarrassing, somehow. Admitting I am one is tantamount to revealing that I am married to a man who spends his free time, together with a bunch of equally besotted men in his model railroad club, decorating expanses of plywood with spray-on grass and watching in glee as miniature locomotives pull empty cars around a circular track to return to where they started out. Worse yet, although I teach at an evangelical college and attend what most would call an evangelical church, whenever I meet fellow Christians who go out of their way to identify themselves as evangelicals, I find myself disagreeing with them on most of their pet subjects. To say I am an evangelical, in my mind, is to be the kind of push button believer my most arrogant inner self scorns any association with at all.

But, when this stranger asked so directly, so stridently and sternly, some vestige of [my] old dedication to godly embarrassment rose in my throat and demanded that I admit the truth.

“Yes. Evangelical Christian,” I said, in my softest possible voice above a whisper. I was sure all of my unseen colleagues around me on the bus were overhearing every word of what we were saying, and I sent up a little prayer, which the Holy Spirit no doubt edited out of my daily offerings to the Father, that the man would dismiss the topic and move on to something less threatening, such as what essay question I had been scoring or whether this was my first time at an AP conference.

“That’s great!” he said at the top of his voice and pounded me on the knee. “I’m an evangelical too.”

~excerpt from Confessions of an Amateur Believer (Thomas Nelson, 2007)

11 July 2010


In the early days of my adult faith, . . . I saw God everywhere. I spoke of God all the time. I bored and alarmed others with my preoccupation with matters of the spirit.

Soon, though, the business of living—which has its own jealous demands—resumed. I had two toddling daughters, a widowed mother-in-law living on our farm, a new teaching job at the local school followed by another new job at a nearby university, an additional part-time job helping my husband with big seasonal farm chores—haying, weaning, selling animals, calving assistance—and all the claims on my attention that attend such responsibilities. Soon, . . . I stopped noticing God’s presence as much, stopped looking for it. I read the Bible less frequently and nodded off at church.

Before I knew what had transpired, I found myself in another place, spiritually speaking--. . . a place of spiritual oblivion. I simply stopped perceiving all the evidence of God’s presence that I had come to cherish. Gradually, unintentionally, I began to live from one day to the next in just about the same way as I had lived before I became a believer, except that now I tacked a little prayer onto this or that worry. Father God, I prayed, help me know what to do about Charlotte’s thumb-sucking. Holy Spirit, please speak for me when Lisa and I have our talk about class scheduling. Oh, Jesus, let Kris not be so stressed all the time. As soon as I had prayed my little prayer, I was done with God. Most times, I didn’t even notice, or rejoice, when my prayer was answered. By then, another worry had already laid claim on my relationship with God, and the old one was forgotten.

I forgot not only yesterday’s problems and prayers but the very core of my own faith history: the longing, the relentless seeking, the daily discoveries of God’s involvement in my life that had made me a believer in the first place. Somehow, my faith, over time, shrank to empty habit, something I should be doing or feeling rather than the daily fulfillment of my desires and hopes.

. . . Sometime during this period of oblivion, . . . I came across a journal I had briefly kept back when my faith was still new. A fellow teacher named Mitzi—younger than I was but a lifelong believer—had given me a blank book for Christmas. Its cover was a field of watercolor wildflowers—lavenders, pinks, greens—and Mitzi had labeled it “A Blessing Book” on the first page. Although I found the book was a bit cutesy, I nevertheless used it to keep a detailed account of three weeks of my life from that time. My disagreements with my husband. Our money troubles as farmers. Childrearing difficulties. Conflicts at work. My night worries. Eleven entries just like those in the diaries I had sporadically kept as a teenager, but with one big difference: I repeatedly compared the events of my days to what I was reading in the Bible. The entries were about as far from blessings as they could be. Rather, they recounted struggles, worries, discord—doggedly accompanied by strangely peppy-sounding efforts to see meaning in my grievances. Or, more exactly, to see the direct intervention of God in the everyday details of my life.

In one entry, I interpreted my boss’s micromanagement of a program I administered as evidence of my own unwillingness to submit to authority, and I found hope in Peter’s promise that “the God of all grace” would “restore” me and make me “strong, firm, and steadfast” (1 Peter 5:10). The word Peter used for restore, I noted—I’ve no idea where I found this out—was the same Greek word he would have used for mending the holes in a net. In another entry, I considered how best to confront a coworker’s misbehavior in light of Paul’s counsel to “restore”—the same word Peter used!—fellow sinners “gently” (Galatians 6:1). Meanwhile, my husband and I were having one of those convoluted early marriage fights involving potty-training issues, his mom’s constant involvement our day-to-day routine, and whether or not to get out of farming entirely, and I blithely wrote, “I should be wanting to do God’s will in this. I still too desperately want God’s will to be the same as mine.”

If there were no record of this admonition to myself, no record of those three weeks of living by faith, they would be gone forever. In the period of spiritual oblivion in which I found myself in the years that followed, I could not even recognize the earnest person who wrote those eleven entries. Time had transformed me into a person inexplicably unaware of my constant need for God and incapable of desiring God’s will over my own. Incapable, even, of recognizing God’s ongoing involvement in my life. Although more mature in every other way—older, wiser, and by then the conscientious moral coach of my own children and whole classes of befuddled students—I was a spiritual adolescent at best. I lived in the moment. My life was too hectic to admit much of a future beyond a scribbled to-do list, and I had not yet cultivated one of the primary skills necessary for distinguishing the presence of an unseen, unheard, untouchable God: remembering.

~excerpt from A Field Guide to God (Guideposts Books, 2010)

05 July 2010


I'm still thinking about genealogies today. My Bible’s notes say that Noah's name sounded like comfort in ancient Hebrew and was thus likely a reference to his father Lamech's hopeful—or prophetic—remark that his son would “comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed” (Genesis 5:29). It seems a stretch to me, even for the ancient Hebrew reader. In any case, if Lamech was prophesying about his own future comfort, it was a limited sort of comfort at best. The comfort of the survival of his lineage, despite his own inevitable death and, in this case, the death of everyone else in the world.


Almost every time a name is mentioned in the Old Testament, the biblical writers go out of their way to impress upon us the rightness of that name to that story. And then the study Bible note writers and commentators give us their take on the name. Biblical scholars say Methuselah meant either “man of the dart” or else some grammatical permutation of “when he dies, someone will send it”—the latter leading some to think that, Methuselah’s death coming at the same time as the flood, the “it” might have meant the destruction of humankind. Or maybe—if you're a glass-half-full kind of reader—"it" might refer to the comforting survival of Noah and his crew.

There is, in other words, much meaning to be found in biblical names, and also much confusion. Focusing overmuch on them can hang you up in the kind of biblical research that makes me nervous—the kind involving totting up the years between Methuselah’s birth and the flood or the generations, corrected for the unusually long lifespans of the ancients, between Adam’s birth and our times and figuring out just how old the world is. This kind of biblical research does not seek what the actual words and sentences and paragraphs have to offer as much as what we want to find there: the sort of certainty that passes for knowledge in our half-darkened world of science and reason. Numbers. Data. Answers so tightly crocheted that you can build a house with them, a whole worldview. This is the sort of research that mires us in denominational debates and in that murky smudge in the text that lies between how liberals and conservatives vote. I will not go there.

That said, just for fun, and perhaps to get something of the flavor of how scripture may have read back when names were still direct products of their language of origin, I would like to offer here a rewriting of the genealogy in Genesis 5 with the names' meanings (insofar as they can be ascertained by biblical scholars) substituted for the actual names. Here goes:

This is the written account of Human Being’s family line.

When The Gods created human beings, he (or they?) made them in the likeness of The Gods. He (or they?) created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he (or they?) called them “human beings.”

When Human Being had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Granted. After Granted was born, Human Being lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Human Being lived a total of 930 years, and then he died.

When Granted had lived 105 years, he became the father of Man. After he became the father of Man, Granted lived 807 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Granted lived a total of 912 years, and then he died.

When Man had lived 90 years, he became the father of Sorrow. After he became the father of Sorrow, Man lived 815 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Man lived a total of 905 years, and then he died.

When Sorrow had lived 70 years, he became the father of Blessed God. After he became the father of Blessed God, Sorrow lived 840 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Sorrow lived a total of 910 years, and then he died.

When Blessed God had lived 65 years, he became the father of Shall Come Down. After he became the father of Shall Come Down, Blessed God lived 830 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Blessed God lived a total of 895 years, and then he died.

When Shall Come Down had lived 162 years, he became the father of Teaching. After he became the father of Teaching, Shall Come Down lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Shall Come Down lived a total of 962 years, and then he died.

When Teaching had lived 65 years, he became the father of When He Dies, Someone Will Send It (also called Man of the Dart). After he became the father of When He Dies, Someone Will Send It, Teaching walked faithfully with God 300 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Teaching lived a total of 365 years. Teaching walked faithfully with The Gods; then he was no more, because The Gods took him away.

When When He Dies, Someone Will Send It had lived 187 years, he became the father of Strength. After he became the father of Strength, When He Dies, Someone Will Send It lived 782 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, When He Dies, Someone Will Send It lived a total of 969 years, and then he died.

When Strength had lived 182 years, he had a son. He named him Comfort and said, “He will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed.” After Comfort was born, Strength lived 595 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Strength lived a total of 777 years, and then he died.

After Comfort was 500 years old, he became the father of Name, Hot, and Enlarged.

The meaning of Shem, the name of the son of Noah through whose lineage Luke will later trace Jesus’s own pedigree, is name. God's human self, in other words, derives—as, in some sense, we all do—from all the names in the genealogy: from Human Being and Granted, from Man and Sorrow, from Blessed God and Shall Come Down and Teaching. From When He Dies, Someone Will Send It. From Strength. From Comfort. From Name.

27 June 2010


In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Then trees and animals and such. Then people, who, sadly, didn’t love him as much as he loved them. In fact, they didn’t pay him much attention at all and went through many generations at a stretch before they acknowledged his existence or proclaimed his name.

So, to punish them perhaps, or maybe to nudge forth a like-kind exchange of sorts, God created genealogies: list upon list of people’s forgotten names that God crammed into an anthology he was busy editing that, through the voices of other forgotten people, told the story of his relationship with humankind. Thus it is that, having forgotten all these people, the tellers and the ones whose existence is recorded in the anthology, we can nevertheless not escape their names: Enosh, Kenan, Mahilalel, Eliud, Eliezar, Jeconiah, Peleg, Esli—as worthless and unrelenting as socks whose mates were lost in the wash. Nor can we escape the abiding worry that maybe these forgotten names and people and their unrecorded deeds were important, somehow, else why were they included in the Bible to begin with? That, perhaps, for some unfathomable reason, God had had these people in his sights all along—that he had loved them and kept on loving them and yearned for them, even now, centuries after their deaths.

None of which makes biblical genealogies much fun to read. The typical response is to skip over them to the stories of those among the many who by faith still speak, as the forgotten writer of Hebrews writes, even though they are dead. Abel. Enoch. Noah. Abraham. Their names appear in the genealogies, too, sprinkled among the forgotten. Rahab. Jacob. David. Jephthah.

Today I glean this from the “written account” the writer of Genesis offers us of Adam’s line. First off, unlike most genealogies undertaken in modern times, this one makes no attempt to be exhaustive. Indeed, it is highly selective. Adam had lots of kids, but only one son figures in his official line: Seth—a son “in his own likeness, in his own image,” as the Genesis writer remarks, echoing both the words and the emphatic repetition of the creation song of Genesis 1. Just as humans were God’s special creatures, made in his own image, in his likeness, so this one son of Adam is also special—mirroring Adam’s sinfulness, as my Bible notes point out, yes, but also special in that we can follow this particular vein in the genealogy of Adam (as Luke does in the genealogy he includes in his gospel) right down to Jesus, the Son of God. And of that one son of Adam’s many sons and daughters, only one grandchild makes the list. And so on. This singling of one child out of the many makes the people in the biblical genealogies significant, at least by association. Many many are called, but only a few are chosen for the written account.

The biblical genealogies are, as I have pointed out, written accounts. Presumably oral accounts—probably recited or sung in some sort of rhythm to aid memory—predated it. This selective account is, in other words, archived, not intended to be forgotten, as I imagine many oral genealogies were in the old days. And as, in fact, many written genealogies are these days, despite the arduous efforts of self-appointed family genealogists. I know, at least, that the two fat books of genealogical research taken up by relatives of mine—plus the genealogical results of my own efforts to establish my Choctaw lineage—lie amouldering in the closet.

A few names do come accompanied by enough story to arrest the modern reader. It doesn’t take much. About Methuselah, for example, all we’re told is that he lived for 969 years, which happens to be the oldest age recorded in scripture. So he lives on in all manner of hyperbolic expressions of longevity as well as in the names of a scientific organization dedicated to the reversal of aging and of a much revered bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California believed to be almost 5000 years old.

Adam’s line in Genesis 5 also includes Enoch, my mother-in-law’s favorite Bible character for no other reason than that, rather than dying like the rest of us, he was taken away by God. I would take Mamaw’s fondness for Enoch to be the wishful thinking of an eighty-five year old who has outlived ten siblings and a husband and surely seen much suffering, except that she also told me that she has always envied Enoch. Since childhood. And so I hear in her longing the voice of my daughter Lulu and my own voice as a child, the voice of every child who has contemplated death with fear and considered and ranked the ways that one might go. A pain-free dying in one’s sleep is hands down the best, but the worst can rank from long and slow—like, say, the skin cancer of the husband of an acquaintance whose name I have forgotten that rotted him from the inside out—to fast and violent. A fall from a height. A thorough car crash. Gunshot to the head.

22 June 2010


I hadn’t been a believer for very long before I started struggling with what exactly the biblical writers meant by the word love. That is, what God meant. I’m rather slowwitted when it comes to things spiritual. In any case, I started studying the word love in the biblical passages I was reading and soon discovered that there are two Hebrew words commonly translated as "love" in English translations of the Old Testament: ahab and hesed.

The first word, ahab, seemed more like our English word love and was applicable in a lot of the same situations in which we use the word. Parents and children, spouses, and lovers all ahab each other in scripture, and, in the Law, God commands his children to ahab not only their neighbors as themselves (Leviticus 19:18) but also strangers: “The foreigners residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt (Leviticus 19:34). In the most important passage of the Law to the Jews, a passage that they traditionally commemorated on doorways and gates and bound to their wrists and foreheads, Moses exhorted them to ahab God as well: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength (Deuteronomy 6:4).

The other Hebrew word for love, hesed, was more puzzling. A key word of interest to Jewish theologians over the centuries—the root of a word used in Psalms for the especially devout and of the name of a group of especially pious Jews, the Hasidimhesed is used almost exclusively in passages describing not our love but God’s. Within the translation of scripture I read in those days (the NIV), hesed was translated into many quite different English words: not only love but mercy, kindness, loyalty, faith, devotion, approval, favor, glory, and grace as well as subcategories of these like loving-kindness, unfailing love, and acts of devotion. Other Bible versions, I discovered, were just as varied in their translation of the word hesed.

Jesus himself refers to the word hesed when he quotes Hosea 6:6, a rare biblical instance when the word is used for humans. "[G]o and learn what this means," He tells his audience of hecklers and disciples alike: "‘I desire mercy’—hesed—‘not sacrifice.’" (Matthew 9:13).

In recasting the Hebrew of Hosea 6:6 into New Testament Greek, Matthew uses, possibly echoing the Aramaic word Jesus actually used in speaking, not one of several Greek words for love but eleos, which means mercy. Having studied and puzzled over for years Hosea’s and Matthew’s choices of words for what God was saying, here’s what I think God means.

Yes, I have given you lots of rules to follow, God was telling the famously obedient prophet Hosea and tells us to this day. I have demanded sacrifices to atone for every disobedience imaginable and even for behaviors I never specifically told you were forbidden. But what I really want from you is not merely that you obey my rules but that you love me. And not in the feeble way you love one another. Not ahab. I want you to love me the way I love you. Hesed.

~excerpted from my current writing project, tentatively titled Easy Burdens: Doing the Stress-Free, Guilt-Free Work of God

06 June 2010


The Bible offers us many kinds of eyes—eyes that see clearly,
eyes overflowing with tears, eyes with scales on them, eyes with
planks in them, eyes darker than wine, eyes that should be gouged
out, eyes that are lamps, eyes that hate the hands or the feet or
secretly envy other body parts, eyes that cause us to sin, eyes too
small for a camel or a rich man to pass through, and lustful eyes,
painted eyes, eyes that offend us, eyes with barbs in them, eyes
that see treasure, eyes that see destruction, eyes that are on all of
creation from the beginning of the year to the end. People make
covenants with their eyes. They open their eyes, close their eyes,
wipe their eyes, and lift up their eyes to the mountains. The blind
are made to see, and the sighted become blind because of sin or
drought or sheer stupidity. Both good things and bad things are
pleasing to the eye, and seeing is metaphorical for everything from sinning to repenting to understanding. Ironically, there are blind watchmen, as well as blind men, who are the only ones who can see. Through our eyes we are enlightened and also led astray.

What are we to make of it all? How, as Christians, do we take
on this burden—described by Jesus as “light”—of seeing the way
God would have us see? Is seeing through the eyes of faith the
same thing as what many Christians tell me they are trying to
do—that is, seeing ourselves as God sees us? And how is that,
exactly? Does he see me as I see my own children, as flawed, horrible even, but utterly lovable because they are mine? Or does he see only our sins, those bloody rags we drag after us? Does the All-Seeing One see only the part that doesn’t offend him, the purity of Jesus in us? I have been offered each of these possibilities. Just how do we go about being students of God? What do we look at? And what should we do about what we see? Is closing our eyes a correct or faithful way of seeing?

~excerpt from Confessions of an Amateur Believer (Thomas Nelson, 2007)

31 May 2010


The yoke is a powerful image in scripture, used almost always in the same way as it is most commonly used in contemporary English: metaphorically, namely, in reference to domination and subjugation. The Old Testament writers bewail the yoke of oppression and the yoke of slavery, and the Lord these prophets write of frequently threatens the yokes of slavery and oppression as punishment for disobedience and just as frequently promises to break the yokes of those who obey. The Law warns against unequal yoking, and later the Apostle Paul echoes this warning. There should be no pairing of an ox with a donkey—presumably because the variance in their strength and shoulder heights would make the sharing of work more difficult—and likewise no pairing of believers with unbelievers, who are, according to Paul, as antithetical to one another as light and darkness, virtue and sin, God and idols. In the biblical perspective, the yoke is the metaphorical antonym of freedom. So, while Paul counsels “All who are under the yoke of slavery”—that is, actual slaves—to accept their lot and “consider their masters worthy of full respect” (1 Timothy 6:1), he elsewhere declares, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1), by which he means our slavish devotion to evil.

Scriptural yokes are intriguing in any discussion of God’s work since the real world purpose of a yoke in the farming culture of biblical times was to make it possible for two or more draft animals to join their efforts on the same task, thus rendering the work easier for each of them than it would be if one were doing the work alone. In other words, yokes benefit both farmer and farm animal by spreading, or equalizing, work, rendering it possible to get more done while reducing the toil and stress of those yoked. This understanding of the word yoke is seen in cultures today where water is still carried, balanced from a yoke in two manageable buckets rather than lurched along in one unwieldy one. Yokes make work easier, and yet, semantically, they suggest anything but ease. The yoke has thus evolved from biblical times onward from a means of sharing labor with another and lightening one’s load to become the quintessential symbol of enforced labor—and, by extension, of resistance to enforced labor. No one wants to wear a yoke.

All of which serves as a paradoxical back story to Jesus’ invitation, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The One God Sent is not our taskmaster or subjugator, and the yoke he speaks of is not the yoke of oppression or slavery or even toil. Indeed, we are invited to take this yoke upon ourselves not for work at all, but for rest from work.

The yoke of the One God Sent—metaphorically, the work of God—is thus unlike anything we might normally think of as "work." It is not a burden. It does not make us weary. It does not enslave or oppress. Rather, it is the antidote to stress and toil: a source of relaxation and pleasure. What God wants of us in the way of work is more akin to what we think of when we hang up the “Gone Fishin’” sign on the door: something fun, an escape from the unpleasantness of our jobs, rest.

~excerpted from my current writing project, tentatively titled Easy Burdens: Doing the Stress-Free, Guilt-Free Work of God

28 February 2010

Grant the Glad Surprising!

I've been doing radio interviews about my new book this week—three back to back on my days off from teaching—and the discussions I've had have reignited my enthusiasm for the scriptural passage that forms the center of A Field Guide to God. In it, Paul summarizes all of scripture to a crowd of Athenian philosophers gathered to discuss the newest ideas: "From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:26-27 NRSV).

I just can't get over the promises so efficiently offered here. That all of human history, that everything that seems to divide us, that everything that happens to us, however perplexing or upsetting, is part of a divine plan to make us seek God. That God greatest desire of us is to be sought. That God is always near us, waiting to be found. Inherent in the promises is also a clear plan for what God expects of us: namely, we should not merely seek but grope for God.

In remeditating on this passage anew, it occurred to me how much God's desire for us is like the desires imbedded in any relationship. I thought of how I have gone through days, weeks even, waiting for one of my daughters to get over some perceived injustice on my part, how I long the whole time for her, how I nudge opportunity after opportunity for reconciliation into every encounter.

I thought, too, of how, when my husband Kris is depressed or when he and I have had one of our rare fights (usually these occur sequentially: he gets distant and down, and I flip out and try to fight it out of him), afterwards I get in bed next to him and feel about as far away from him as it's possible to be. Far away in my frustration and hurt, in my inability to solve his stress and dread. Far away in my inevitable anger. Far away in my regret. Far away, even, in my underlying desire to repair what I have damaged and make things right again, which I know to be impossible.

Simultaneously, I know that it is possible for us to restore our usual love, that we will get okay with each other again. We always have, after all. I know that we could even now be on the road back to each other if I would just reach across the great chasm of sheets and blankets and coldness between us, reach up across his back and pull him toward me.

But I can't do it. Can't force myself. But he..., I lie there thinking. It's his ... He should.... And so it goes until one of us gropes past anger or hurt or self-righteousness for the other. Maybe not that night. Maybe not the next day even. Each of us wants and waits and just about makes that move, while the other is never far away, wanting, waiting, just about to move, too. And eventually, in a moment of "glad surprising" I sang about in a hymn this morning at church, love is restored.

It seems to me there is no greater thing in my life than those moments of restored love. Toward a husband. Or a daughter. Or a relative or a friend or a colleague or even a stranger who happens to displease me. What a joy it is to rediscover in myself the capacity to get beyond my own meanness, if only momentarily.

From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth and allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for and perhaps grope for and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. What delightful promises from our creator and father and lover. What a call to action.

19 February 2010

Spring, Birds, Lent, Tiger Woods, etc.

"We saw a red bird," one of my students told me in class yesterday.

"It was a cardinal," I told her.

"No it wasn't. I know what a cardinal looks like, but this one was different. Its body was orange. And it sang this amazing song."

She commanded another student, the other half of the "we" who saw and heard this bird, to "do the song." He had a good memory for bird voices and made a convincing twiddle that ended in a falling whistle.

"Cardinal," I said. I knew for certain now. But the students were skeptical. "First off, there's no other red bird around here this time of year. Also, the immature ones range from brown to orange. Plus, that was the cardinal's breeding song you just heard."

Spring approaches, although it's still cold. The cardinals have quit their feckless cheeps of winter and are singing with purpose now—as, indeed, everything seems to be doing this time of year. Students linger before class in pairs, leaning toward each other. Despite the yellow ratty grass, despite the chill yet in the air, they yearn to go outside, as my girls used to when they were little: I'd look up and there they'd both be—having stripped naked when I wasn't looking and escaped—sitting in the mud puddle at the end of the drive with our dogs.

It always impresses me how spring motivates people. Suddenly, they're touching, dieting, exercising, cleaning, noticing birds, whistling, attending church services they've neglected for a long time, practicing disciplines—fasting, sacrificing, setting spiritual goals for themselves—that would never occur to them the rest of the year. It is as though the desire for renewal is built into us, just as it is in the color-tipped branches of the trees, in the surprising downpours of spring, in the woodpeckers I see chipping away at the trees to make their nests this time of year. Somehow, in spring, we all want to be new.

Charlotte called me from school on Ash Wednesday to lament that she had already failed, ten hours into the first day of Lent, in this year's goal of no texting.

"I got a text from one of my teachers, and I had to answer it. So it's not going to work. You have to help me think of something else!" she whisper-wailed. I tried to envision where she was at that moment. In the hallway between classes with her friends? In some class where the teacher let them use their *&#^^%!! cell phones? In a bathroom stall?

I suggested adding, rather than subtracting, something from her life, and she said she was already planning that, too. She had counted up the chapters of the four gospels and decided she could read it all during Lent at a rate of two chapters a day.

"I can't give up rich foods," she confided, "because I know I'd be doing it for the wrong reason—to get in shape. But what else is there?" After some more whispering—I felt as though we were planning a murder—she decided to scale down the no texting plan to the hours between 7 and 9 at night, during which time she'd read her two chapters.

I just now listened to Tiger Woods' speech of remorse to his friends and fans. Generally speaking, I have little interest in sports or celebrities and their flashy troubles, and, without a television in our house, my only way of even knowing what's going on is in the summaries of our weekly news magazines. I'm interested in apologies, though. So, when Woods' apology headlined in the Google news as I turned on my computer, I clicked on it and cried my way through the whole sad speech, his halting words doubly halting because of our slow dial up connection.

For the record, despite what the experts in matters public seemed to think, it sounded like genuine remorse to me. And, more movingly, genuine desire to be a new person. As I listened, I heard the voices of others I think about this time of year: Peter, Judas, Pilate. I savored, through this golfplayer's regret and hope, the sweet regret and hope of us all, as we grasp at new selves in the springtime.

31 January 2010

A Recommendation for Lent (coming up in mid-February)

I'm snowed in. Eight inches of snow, uncommon in our area, have shut everything down, and there's a deep freezing fog. I can hardly see the birds at the feeder beyond my window. My family has abandoned me. Kris has risked icy highways to travel to faraway Oklahoma City to help Lulu with her calculus, mechanics, electromagnetics, and chemistry homework, (I'm no help there!), and Charlotte and friend, who'd been snowed in with me, finally got sick of the entertainments of this house (and me, probably) and were fetched away from here yesterday by the friend's dad, who has four wheel drive and knew not to drive into our hockey rink of a driveway, where his daughter's car was moored.

Alone. An uncommon pleasure, although not without its boredoms. For lack of anything else to do, and because Charlotte and her friend baked cookies and left behind all kinds of teenager food, I've been stuffing myself, just like the birds at my feeders and all the rest of the animals around here, who have gone into reckless food foraging mode, apparently expecting weeks of frozenness ahead will prevent them from getting food. The yard last night was full of deer, brazenly sniffing at the ice-glazed bedding plants, and, returning through the woods from my mother-in-law's house yesterday afternoon, I came upon a fresh pile—still steaming and rank smelling!—mountain lion scat.

Just before the beginning of the storm I started listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber's rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. I hadn't listened to it in many years, not since I returned to faith in the story it narrates after many years of atheism, so it has been a revelation. Not surprisingly, the work's overwhelming focus, the stress and hectic and desires and terrors and confusion surrounding Jesus' teaching for everyone involved—for Judas and the other apostles, for Mary Magdalene (seemingly a composite character of a number of women in the gospels), for Pilate and Herod, for Jesus himself, and for the crowds that followed him everywhere—has been impressing itself upon me from a number of other sources. I've been writing about John 6, where Jesus keeps trying to escape the crowds, into the mountains and out onto the roiling waters of the Sea of Galilee, and chastises them for just wanting things from him—food, healings, magic tricks—and not really believing in who he is. Not one of them believed he was who he said. Their collective refusal to believe him seems to make him doubt himself in an interesting reading of his begging, in Gethsemane, that God take the cup from him. The turmoil and misery of Jesus' human situation is so overwhelming and convincing in Jesus Christ Superstar, I keep finding myself sobbing at different parts of it.

I told Kris on the phone that I thought I'd assign it in my English 102 (Intro to lit.) classes as a drama, since we had only short plays in the syllabus. I want them to hear it. Kris seemed to think my mostly Christian students will be offended that Jesus doesn't rise from the dead in Jesus Christ Superstar, which I thought was an interesting. Of course, I would want them to be offended by something, the better to have something to say or write about the piece. But the fact that Kris is probably right—indeed, since he hasn't himself listened to Jesus Christ Superstar in eons, I'm guessing he remembers that this was the actual Bible Belt response to it back in the seventies when it was being performed—makes me think of it as the perfect literary experience for Lent: to coexperience the rejection Jesus must have suffered from, the abandonment and aloneness he must have felt even as he was surrounded by hectic crowds of people.

I'm entering Lent early this year, I realize. It begins 17 February this year. I got all off schedule as a result of working on a Lent article for Guideposts during my Christmas break, before I was even properly in the Christmas mood. I was working through Jesus' death even as I was trying to fold my mind around his birth as one of us.

One of us. Born like us. Being loved by parents, growing up, learning, having friends, disappointing parents, hoping like us, worrying like us (It says nowhere in the gospels that Jesus never worried, and I'm certain Andrew Lloyd Webber is right that he did!), surrounded by turmoil and stress like us, alone like us. Suffering and being misunderstood like us—surely worse than most of us. Confronting death as we all will. Dying.

How I came to listen to Webber's masterpiece is this: Kris has been reading Paul's letters to me in the morning, and the word apostle keeps coming up. Paul repeatedly claims to be an apostle himself, just like Peter and the rest of the twelve. He warns against false apostles—who apparently lurked about the early church believers, trying to get them to return to their Jewish obeyance of the Law or else believe something else entirely—and even seems to disparage what the NIV Kris reads from translates as "those 'super-apostles'" ("the very chiefest apostles" KJV; "these super-apostles" NRSV), which I take to be, contrary to what the notes in my NIV Study Bible say, the big churchy names of the times: Peter, James, John, etc.

Certainly Paul puts a lot of effort into locating himself among the real apostles, I have been thinking, but he also conflicts with them on several occasions. In any case, as always with me, it was a word, apostle, that baffled me. Why were the twelve referred to as "apostles"? It's used more frequently in the post-Resurrection narrative than in the gospels, where the twelve are often presumably lumped in with the rest of the disciples.

Judging from what my American Heritage dictionary and NIV Exhaustive Concordance have to reveal, the word appears to derive from the Greek word for send and means messenger. The twelve were Jesus' messengers, sent out to tell the world the wonderful news of the Messiah's arrival and departure from this world, and the false apostles were probably also sent by someone—Satan? Herod? the Romans who persecuted the early Christians?—to deliver a different message.

As I speculated about the word, a song from my teenage years sailed into my consciousness and remained there for days. Always hoped that I'd be an apostle. Knew that I could make it if I tried. Then when we retired we could write the gospels, and they still talk about us when we died. I don't remember attending a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar in those days or listening to the song (was it on the radio then, along with Mary Magdalene's haunting "I Don't Know How to Love Him"?) or ever speculating about it. Certainly it's not one of the more memorable pieces in Jesus Christ Superstar. Nevertheless, I woke up with the wistful melody in my mind, those fame-obsessed words on my lips as I drove to work and home again. So I rummaged around until I found a copy of the CD (here it is on Amazon.com, with previews and MP3s available, in case you want to hear precisely the version I've been listening to) that I vaguely remembered someone had brought into the house some years ago.

In Jesus Christ Superstar, the senders of the different messages are some of the main voices we hear, and they are convincing and articulate and heartbreaking. They are Judas, distraught that Jesus isn't more of a people's hero for the Jews. They are Mary Magdalene, wanting Jesus to be "just a man." They are Pilate, perplexed and impressed by Jesus but too smug and afraid and angry to acknowledge his own assessment. They are the crowds of poor and sick and unhappy, shrieking out their miseries and expectations of him. They are us, confused one-time or would-be or current God-followers, each one of us determined to discover in Jesus not who he is/was/will be but whatever it is we are looking for. To be fed or healed. To be loved in whatever way we understand that difficult word. To be confirmed in our craziness. Jesus Christ Superstar is a caution to me, to us all.

So, it's my recommendation for Lent. Go out and buy it and let me know what you think. It's a great investment in a Lenten rethinking of what all was and still is involved in what Jesus identifies as the God-follower's work: believing in the One God Sent.

15 January 2010

Resolutions of a Yum-Yucker

The other day my daughter Charlotte called me a yum-yucker. I just googled this term and got, amazingly, no hits, so I'm guessing it's original to one of my colleagues, who also used it some weeks ago—the first and only other time I've ever encountered the term—in response to my response to his going on about summer sausage. It was the second or third time he'd mentioned summer sausage in a week. How he craved it. It was the season.

"I can't figure out why it's called summer sausage, though," he told me, "since it's only available in winter."

“I can’t figure out why you like it,” I told him. “It makes me feel a little sick when I eat it. Like those bottled salad dressings that have that weird aftertaste . . . ”

That’s when he called me a yum-yucker.

And Charlotte inherited the term from my telling the summer sausage story at dinner that night. I can’t remember what we were talking about, but she went even further.

“Your colleague was right. You’re a yum-yucker. You’re always yucking on people’s yums.”

Her supportive example (parenting tip: I always demand these from my girls, when they assert their views. It has made them both formidable arguers.): “Well, like, we go in a store, and I say, ‘Look at this skirt! Isn’t it cute?’ and you’re like, ‘Eeewww!’ That’s you. Totally. A yum-yucker.”

She refused to acknowledge the fact that, when we’re shopping and I like something she points out, I get all excited, in the positive direction. Or that I frequently find things I like and say, “Here, put this on. It’ll look really good on you.” And she does, and I’m right, and she buys it.

I call it being enthusiastic and honest. I’m just not into empty praise. Or vacuous or openly dishonest pep talks, like the ones my mother-in-law once told me she used to give my husband as a teenager whenever he left the house. “You look so handsome!” she’d croon, especially if he looked, as she put it, “down in the mouth”—her euphemism for depressed, a word she hates and refuses to use. I admire the impulse—to lift others up, an ambition that pretty much defines Mamaw—but, ever since she told me about those routine remarks, I’ve never trusted as genuineany word of praise she’s ever offered me.

Indeed, her praise often makes me suspicious she actually means the opposite. “Your car looks so shiny and clean!” she’ll tell me, and I’m suddenly aware that it’s way past time to do something about the salt and grime that’s been building up for months.

All this to say that my new year’s resolution—and my plan for Lent, which is coming up in a month—is to work on yumming others’ yums. To consciously seek out role models, rather than focusing, as I'm prone to do, on others' failures.

Not surprisingly, having made this resolution, I've gotten two lessons on the topic over the past few days, as the semester has started up again. One was from the head librarian at my university. I was telling her about the next book I’ll be working on, tentatively called Easy Burdens, on how the life of the believer really is supposed to be delightful, not a trial. Yoked to the powerful One God Sent, our burden, however heavy, should actually feel light. I started the book in response to an ongoing series of pep talks I’ve been giving to a beloved former student—possibly the most spiritually devoted person I've ever met, a woman whose every action seems imbued with the desire to love God back—who is crippled (as, secretly, I often am) by the worry that she doesn’t do enough as a believer. (In the book, in other words, I hope to convince myself as much as her of what I believe to be true about what God expects of us but nevertheless struggle to embrace.)

“Yes, I know a lot of Christians worry about not doing enough,” the librarian told me. “But I never feel that kind of guilt. I think it’s because of my father, who was always so encouraging and positive. There was nothing I could do that didn’t impress and please him.”

The next day, I was asking another colleague how he came to have the goal of being available to whoever walks in his door. Whether it's a student or a colleague or an utter stranger or just me, he drops everything, always, with a smile on his face. So inviting. I guessed he had been the victim of someone—probably a parent, such important formers and deformers—who was saliently unavailable to him in his past. Always too busy. Or too negative and closed. Perpetually yucking his yums. I figured he had made it his life goal to never be that way to anyone else.

“It was my dad,” he said. “He was a pastor.”

“Ah,” I commiserated. My father wasn't a pastor, but I could imagine that life: the endless flow of needy sheep, the neglected sons and daughters.

“You know,” he went on, “his door was always open—to me and to anyone else. ‘Nothing is more important than being there for someone who needs my attention,’ he always told me.”

“It’s hard sometimes," my colleague continued. "I mean, I get behind in things. But I figure, a lot of what I do”—he gestures at his computer, some open textbooks, a pile of papers—“is just fluff, and people are more important.”

I want to be like this man, the pastor’s son—and a pastor himself, though he may not know it. And like the librarian—Miss Mary, I call her, which is what my daughters called her in Sunday school—who not only never suffers from guilt but never causes it. I’m certain of this. I want to be like Mamaw, who prods and primps everyone around her out into the world with the confidence that things aren’t so bad. And I want to inspire my daughters to be like these people—to keep their doors open, to feel no guilt, to enter the world without suspicion but only buoyancy and blithe confidence.

Which is not to say we shouldn’t be wise to the dangers ahead of us. Like those potato chips coated in an oily powder that purport to taste like sour cream and green onion and that, if I break down and eat the one Charlotte thrusts at me in her enthusiasm, will make me burp artificial onion taste for days afterward.

Eeeewww yuck!