Memorized Verses

I bet many of you had to memorize Bible verses in your youth, maybe in Bible school, maybe in a teen group.

Tom Sawyer memorized Bible verses to impress Becky Thatcher by winning a Bible as a prize for mastering 2,000 verses. Tom actually failed miserably at memorization—he cheated his way to a Bible by swapping various trinkets to other boys for the necessary number of tickets to win. His lack of Biblical knowledge is discovered when Judge Thatcher asks him to name the first two apostles, and Tom blurts out, “David and Goliath!”

I’m laughing, but I’m not boasting that I am better than Tom. I’d probably have trouble reciting two dozen verses. Memorization is not a strength of mine, and besides, I never saw much reason to memorize what I could so readily find with a reference book or—nowadays—a computerized search.

I’ve always thought it more important to think about the text, than to merely memorize it. Make that word THINK. Rote memorization is an impressive skill, but at bottom, reciting 2,000 verses is a carnival sideshow stunt, like memorizing the value of pi to a thousand places. It is not a spiritual exercise. (You are, of course, free to disagree…and some will.)

No, give me the student who asks, “What’s really going on here?” Or who observes, “Those passages just don’t seem to fit together.” Or who notices that the four gospels cannot agree on the empty tomb scene, and wonders “Why not?” Or who concludes that most of the book of Joshua seems to advocate genocide, and therefore doesn’t jibe with the key teachings of Jesus.

If he can read and think that way, I don’t much care if he cannot name all thirteen or fourteen apostles (and count ’em—there are more than twelve named!). He’s wrestling with this ancient text in an acceptable way, and wrestling with his faith in a deep and evolving manner.

I like that phrase “wrestling with his faith.” I think I’ll name him, not “Tom,” but “Jacob.”





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Old Customs

Old customs are difficult to change. I have in mind today marriage customs. I am still an officiant at many weddings, and it’s my practice to encourage couples to write their own vows, or to help me cut-and-paste desirable portions from ceremonies they find or which I supply. However varied the results, most couples end up using that traditional exchange, the “I, so-and-so, take you…for better, for worse…” etc. That exchange scene is the familiar one, and those lines are embedded in their ears from many a wedding they’ve attended, and from TV and the movies. They aren’t going anywhere soon.

So far no couple has chosen to include that “love, honor, and obey” line. I’ve not had a groom suggest it, and frankly, I cannot imagine a bride submitting to it.

However, with very few exceptions, brides still want someone to give her away: her father if available, or a brother or some other male relative, even a son (one or twice, even son and daughter!).  Now, this giving-away does surprise me. The giving of the bride is an ancient, ancient custom harking to the days when women were property: Dad’s property, or the property of Dad’s heir.

Property. An economic asset. A valuable bargaining chip. Part of a deal to be negotiated, an item to be sold for goats or cattle or gold and silver. When you put it that way, it’s a custom just as offensive as reciting that “obey” line.

Now, I have never pointed out this historical fact to any bride, nor will I. Most love their dads and want them included in the ceremony. Some might say, “Once Daddy’s girl, always Daddy’s girl.” Some brides may retain that sense of familial transition, from their parents’ household to a new one of their own, and choose this time-honored rite to symbolize that change. Some just want to include loved ones somewhere in the ceremony. Mostly, it’s a sentimental tradition.

And maybe the archaic ownership idea is a thought that just has not occurred to them.

Nevertheless, given the last century of progress in women’s rights, its longevity shocks me. Given the fact that brides nowadays are not 13- or 14-year-old innocents, but women in their 20s or 30s, I am surprised that most still favor this ancient rite. And given that so many are already independent of family and living away from home, active workers or professionals with their own incomes, I am ever more curious about the survival of this old tribal practice.

Ah, well, no harm done if the custom lives on in this attenuated form, the original hard content chipped and pared away by time. I suspect it will endure for many a marriage yet before it, like the actual exchange of goats and gold, entirely fades away.


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Hail to the Ancient Norse Gods–and Others

I don’t know whether to scratch my head or give two thumbs up or—to use the language of texts and email—SMH or “face-palm.” Recent news from Iceland says some Icelanders are building a shrine to Odin, Thor, and Frigg. As we know from grade-school history, worship of these deities went out about the time of Leif Ericson.

However, it seems that starting in the 1970s, the old Norse faith underwent a revival under the new name of Ásatrúarfélagið, however that is pronounced. ..if indeed it can be pronounced. We are reassured that no animals will be sacrificed in the new shrine—but there will be “music, eating, drinking, and reading.”  And worship services of some sort—I have not found a description of them—and the usual weddings, funerals, and the like. Apparently they believe the proclamation, “Thor promised the end of all ice giants…” (Truthfully, I don’t see many ice giants around anymore.)

ThisÁsatrúarfélagið group is not the strangest faith to emerge in recent years. Northern Ireland recently granted official recognition to a Pagan church and its priests. The Order of the Golden River claims to lie somewhere in the “traditional Celtic shamanic” tradition, and its “Sovereign and Founder,” one Patrick Carberry, is now entitled to perform marriages and other rites within that body.

You don’t have to go that far. America is about as diverse as it gets. It has its Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, for instance, which—among other benefits—allows you to get your driver’s ID photo taken with a colander on your head. And there’s the Universal Life Monastery, famous for its online ordination and allowing the newly ordained to select whatever exalted title he/she chooses. Newer than that is the Church of Bacon, rapidly becoming a favorite of mine. The church is popular with same-sex couples, holding unofficial weddings for a number of years and now, official ones since 2013.

And there’s the Church of the Latter-day Dude, possibly the only church in the world based on a fictitious church in a movie. In fact, we’ve been a very inventive people, we Americans, coming up with more faiths in 300 years than just about anywhere else on earth. Pennsylvania, long a haven for dissenting souls, is now home to the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary: “a safe and scared ceremonial space for the modern practice of ancient religion” in the beautiful Alleghenies. It has everything from Indian sweat lodges to the poor man’s Stonehenge—“47 multi-ton stones semi-circling an open-air altar.” It is basically a home to nature-centered faiths; its small permanent population grows exponentially by believers who gather to celebrate the major quarter and cross-quarter seasonal occasions: Yule, Beltane, Samhain, and the like.

New into the fray is the “Church of the Sword,” 280 strong in independence-loving New Hampshire: “Its’ hymnals are called ‘jams,’ it lets its followers keep several other faiths, and its customs—like the Ritual of Combat, in which service-goes duel each other with fake sword to symbolize the defense of personal opinions—may seem more like eccentric social club activities than sacred rituals.” It wants to be recognized as a religion, and claims it meets most of the fourteen points the IRS requires. Its home town, Westmoreland, doesn’t recognize it as such, because the “church” does not recognize a supreme being, and the case is now going to the N.H. Supreme Court. A curious stance by the city, as Daoism and Buddhism do not recognize a supreme being, either, and apparently both faiths are recognized as religions across the world. The case will go to federal court if the church (and several others which do not recognize supreme beings) loses—where I suspect it will win. And we recall that in the U.K. the highest court has specifically ruled that such as belief is unnecessary.

Closer home—Richmond, Virginia, is now home to the “Temple of the Cosmic Mothership.” Originally the spot in the Manchester area was “a sometimes-raucous performance space” named Love Bomb, but the owner-manager kept running into conflicts with zoning requirements and building codes. Observing that churches usually had a great deal more freedom, the founder, Heide Trepaniere, got ordained and founded this non-denominational “church.” She did some minimal upgrades—exits signs, a handicapped-accessible bathroom, and the like—and now holds services on Sundays, which consist of beer-drinking, gardening, quiet art shows and exhibitions—no noisy bands or raucous shows. I’ve found nothing about a “creed.” So far, the city has not bothered the group, which, if hassled, would claim infringement on their religious freedom. Likely, they’d win. America has always had a spacious definition of what constitutes a church.

We do like variety, and we’ve been known to have churches as small as a single family, or even as small as a single individual. We are the world’s great individualists, we Americans. And today’s church will not be tomorrow’s, bet on it. We may not have seen the strangest yet.

And maybe “strange” is way too negative a term. It implies that my norm is some kind of absolute, that my tribe is the one all should belong to. Maybe that is the way God or god or gods intend it to be, but for sure it does not fit human nature.  History says we are way too contrary for that. History says you yourself may occupy a different pew tomorrow or no pew at all.





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Clerihew: Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen

found his musical flow in

everything from zen to sex to hula,

for which we all say “Hallelujah.”

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Now, About This Atonement Business

 Starting as a teenager, I memorized this doctrine, including that cute little “Atone = at-one” explanation which tells us that because of Jesus’s Blood Sacrifice, we are now “at one” with God.

But I never believed it.

Oh, I tried, but it would not jibe with a God of Love. It simply was not in character with Jesus as I thought of him. It wasn’t even consistent with God as I saw him in the Old Testament—the God who, as Amos and Micah and others kept telling us, said, “I don’t want your sacrifices, your burnt offerings. I want your hearts, your obedience.” If they are right, much of the rest of the Old Testament is wrong.

Well, if he didn’t want our sacrifices, then would he build an entire redemption system based precisely upon sacrifice? Not likely. When I broached this thought to a good friend, I got the reply, “God is God.  He can do whatever He wants.”

“Including being inconsistent,” I thought to myself but dared not say.

There I was again. Most of my friends are pretty legalistic conservatives. So where could I go to try out this heretical idea? Back to the Bible for more reading and study.

And try as I might, I could not find Jesus teaching this theory, either. Not even in the earliest record of the Lord’s Supper, in Paul’s record in 1 Corinthians.

Yes, Jesus is quoted as saying “This is my blood of the new covenant…drink it.” But, to really get offensive, I wonder if Jesus said this line, or whether it was “credited” to him years later. It sounds so “churchy” and so unlike anything else he ever said. For a man who was quick to avoid legalisms, this estblishment of still another priestly ritual seems suspicious. Rather, it sounds and smells like a later addition, an extension of priestly ritual into his life by a later, priestly hand.

Moreover, in and of itself, that”s a pretty mysterious saying, and hardly something a self-respecting Jew would have said or even listened to, and I don’t really know what it means.

That’s right. I know what you say it means, but that’s different.

In fact, if today I pulled out this scene and this line and handed the text to anyone and said, “Now, pretend you have not heard an explanation of this. You are not ‘educated’ on this idea. You have no theories, no preconceptions. You have never had a teacher or preacher tell you what you are supposed to think about it. You are unbiased.  Tell me what it means.”

Bet you any amount that they would not come up with the Atonement theory on their own. Not even if you handed them every line that Jesus spoke. If they hadn’t been indoctrinated with it, they’d never originate it.

For the life of me, I don’t see it saying, “God is a vengeful god who asks for the shedding of human blood in order to give you redemption.” THAT, friends, is a gloss or interpretation. That is an add-on. And the reason that my guinea pig friends could not come up with it from the sayings of Jesus is… that Jesus didn’t teach it.

Paul came close to teaching it.  But that’s Paul, and Paul isn’t Jesus. Not even close.

Paul comes along decades after the fact. Paul, of course, claims a lot for himself. He speaks of a face-to-face encounter with the resurrected Jesus and uses that (and some mysterious goings-on in 2 Corinthians) to claim an exalted status and privileged knowledge of Jesus. And some of this may be true.

And some of it may not be.

Besides, as they say, when Paul thinks and writes, there is “context”:

-Paul, the Pharisee of Pharisees-

-Paul, who not only is Jewish but who is writing to an audience which is of mixed background, but which is primarily Jewish-

-Paul, who grew up in the Jewish sacrificial system-

-Paul, who may be teaching some version of the Noahide Laws to a mostly Gentile audience-

-His audience, an audience which in part also grew up in that Jewish tradition, and even which if partially Gentile, would probably have heard about the Jewish tradition-

-An author and audience who already think in terms of “atonement” and “sacrifice” and “burnt offering” and “scapegoat” and “sacrificial lamb” and the like-

-Paul who said that he’d be “all things to all men” in order to further the spread of his beliefs-

-Paul, who allowed (and probably wanted!) the Gentile convert Timothy to be circumcised to make him more acceptable to a Jewish audience!-

-Paul the brilliant scholar and intellectual who would know exactly what “spin” to put on the story to make it most acceptable to his audience-

That, friends, is a lot of “context.” Paul put a heavy Jewish overlay on virtually everything he wrote. And I submit this: it’s that Jewish overlay that starts the Atonement theory we now have—that Jewish overlay plus a whole lot of Augustine in the 5th century.

Again, I say: Jesus didn’t teach it. Apparently it took a number people and several hundred years to come up with it.

“What about that ‘blood shed for you’ business?” you ask.

People shed blood for friends and for beliefs all the time. Martyrs die for causes, radical teachers (like Socrates) are put to death by their critics, the Bonhoeffers of this world ransom their lives for the benefit of many—and lose. Even Elijah was threatened with death for confronting the authorities of his time, and more than one prophet was executed. We certainly could say that Martin Luther King died for his people….

I see the death of Jesus in these terms.

This reading—though you may think it heretical–makes more sense to me than the usual quid pro quo blood transaction with God, the same God who, in the words of the prophets, asked for hearts and obedience, not blood.

No, I find no direct teaching of Jesus that confirms the ordinary interpretation. Nor do I believe that it was in his mind. Did Jesus know that he was the Son of God, the sacrificial lamb who was to die like any hunk of bloody meat, the “currency” in a cash transaction?  Did he, in fact, know that pre-crucifixion night in the Garden, that he was to suffer only a short time and then rise from the death, better than new?  I don’t believe it, not for a minute.

Such knowledge—if indeed, this scenario is true at all—would have been possessed only by God the Father. Had the son, the man, the human, the Son of Man, known all this, I believe that he would have talked and acted entirely differently.

As a child, I questioned the validity of the Gethsemane depiction of Jesus…it just didn’t make sense. In Wesley’s Chapel Church, where I grew up, there hung a print of that famous scene of Jesus praying in the Garden. And I stared at that print for years, thinking that if Jesus knew the full story of what lay ahead, he’d have no need to kneel and try to pray it away. In fact, though he’d surely not enjoy the pain, he would have known it was temporary, and he actually would not mind dying that much, because the Resurrection sounded like to be quickly endured, and besides, if his death brought redemption, why, then, the quicker he dies, the better.

A common interpretation, as it turns out, for I’ve met many people who as youngsters had the same reaction to that story. Does it sound familiar to you?

Now, as a man past the verge of being called “old,” I find that my childhood instincts were pretty sound. I think Jesus realized that his days were short. After all, he had been thumbing his nose at the authorities for some time, and I suspect he knew well enough what reports and rumors were circulating, and that he was being hunted. He knew He was in danger. All that makes sense.

But did he know about the Resurrection and all that lay ahead?  I don’t think so.

Psychologically, that doesn’t make sense. It would deny his very humanity to have that sort of foreknowledge. And I think he was a man.

Yes, there are some occasional clues that speak of going to the Father and the like.  But really, we have to remember that the Gospels and other writings follow his death by some decades and no doubt show some embellishment. And the authors should have known better. They set up an impossible paradox: if he was fully human at the time, he’d have no such Godly prescience; but if he were not fully human, he was God masquerading as a man.

That dramatic scene in the Garden, the haunting night vigil, the extended prayers, the perspiration in the form of blood—all that would be superfluous had Jesus known that his suffering was a very temporary state, to be followed by a quick resurrection into a glorious new body.

For the prayer/death scene to be real, Jesus would have had to believe he was a man.

More vigorously put, if Jesus had known he was God on temporary assignment, the Garden scene, the crucifixion, the whole magilla would have been at bottom NOT a true human execution, but a fake—a staged scene to get the necessary blood for the sacrificial exchange.

And if faked…then unnecessary. The equivalent of a parent advancing a child his allowance so that he can buy his way out of a spanking by the parent.

There is no real quid pro quo here. No more than in that classic, but apocryphal and highly contrived story about the father/judge who heard his own son’s case, fined him, then paid the fine himself. A slick story, but unconvincing. And unworthy of our theology and our belief.

A puzzling notion, this Atonement.

No, I don’t think Jesus-as-human was aware of all that was going on. No, I don’t think Jesus-as-human ever taught the usual doctrine of the Atonement or substitutionary atonement or whatever you want to call it.

No, I don’t God ever created such a system. No, I don’t think he ever intended for us to get such a strange interpretation of this tragic event.

It is absolute nonsense for a good God, the God we see in action as Jesus, the God of love and forgiveness, to contrive a scenario that begins, “I need a blood sacrifice. Because I am a wrathful God and angry, I need blood.” And then to go on to produce the sacrifice…which undercuts the whole idea of sacrifice. Jesus’s death costs us nothing.  We have not sacrificed a thing. There’s a quirky sort of coherence to the Atonement theory as presently taught, but at bottom it fails. It fails badly.

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Be Careful What You Ask For

From your school days you may remember a short story entitled “The Monkey’s Paw.” A man is magically given three wishes. The first is for money and comes true when his son’s death brings him a life insurance payout. A week later, at his wife’s insistence, he wishes the son to return to him. Immediately there is a knock at the door. The father then uses the final wish to make the mysterious visitor, whom he supposes to be the “living dead son,” go away.

There are other such cautionary tales which we read and enjoy, and then promptly forget their moral. The “unintended consequences” law, one may call it. We get bitten by an action we thought beneficial.

Such is the case in recent years with a variety of Christian organizations, politicians, and lobbyists who have sought advantage for their groups. In Louisiana and elsewhere, they got the state to designate money for parochial schools, then to their shock, found that Muslim groups were also eligible. “That’s not what I meant!” they cried. Of course not. They sought an exclusive advantage, but found that, properly run, a government cannot favor one religious group over another.

Others have advocated prayer and religious instruction in public schools, only to face the daunting question, “Whose prayers? And instruction in what religion?” Again, they sought a privileged monopoly, only to find that in pluralistic America, a government properly run cannot favor one faith group and exclude others.

Still more have tried to erect various Christian monuments and plaques in public places only to find that once that door is open, then people of all faiths must be allowed in, be they Rastafarians, Pastafarians, or even Satanists. And then you get that infamous placement of a statue of Baphomet in Detroit, and even more recently, a similar statue in Arkansas.

A couple of years back, the Supreme Court conditionally approved prayer before public meetings, cautioning that all groups who seek to deliver those prayers had an equal right to be there. Immediately, applicants showed up from many and varied persuasions, and some boards are now trying to exclude those whose views they disapprove.

Similarly, in the Hobby Lobby case, the high court upheld a religious exclusion to some parts of the Affordable Care Act concerning contraception, and a dozen or more schools and religious groups are now claiming their right to similar treatment.

Even more recently, some churches are giving sanctuary to undocumented immigrants near the Mexican border. Providing sanctuary is a centuries-old practice of some faith groups, and now one wonders: if such churches are prosecuted, will they go to court and like Hobby Lobby, argue that “sanctuary” should be recognized as a legitimate, protected religious right? And if so, what faith groups can give sanctuary? To whom?

The First Church of Cannabis plans to invoke Indiana’s new religious freedom act to begin using marijuana as a sacrament in their worship services. And Missouri’s Satanists are challenging that state’s mandatory 72-hour waiting period for abortions, based on a woman’s “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Madison, Jefferson, and others foresaw the problems that “establishment” of religion of any kind could bring and tried to head them off. We should have listened and kept the “wall of separation” high and tight.

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Climate Change and Genesis

I cannot 100% be sure we are in a time of global warming, but I am about 99+% sure, the evidence is that strong. Ice caps and glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, weather patterns across the globe are changing. A prudent man would say the odds are that it’s real and behave accordingly. Even if we misread the signs, the earth will be better off for our good efforts.

Most scientists agree and only quibble about what proportion of the change is manmade vs. natural causes such as volcanoes and bovine flatulence. Most political leaders are coming around to the view that something is happening, and now debate how best to deal with it. Even Pope Francis weighs in and says no matter how much or little is manmade, we need to mend our ways.

The biggest resistance to the idea comes from the Far Right. One might ask why this group ignores or denies strong scientific evidence, but the answer is easy to find. It’s right there in Genesis, when God supposedly promised that never again would the world be destroyed “by flood.”  That, they say, is an infallible statement. Ergo, the sea levels pose no threat. We have nothing to fear from rising oceans, but rather should fear “the fire next time.” Genesis trumps all scientific indicators. Ask Marco Rubio, Senator Daniel Inhofe, and others if you don’t believe me.

Even if the doubters admit that indicators say something is going awry in the natural world, they say, “So what! These are signs that the Second Coming is imminent. And that’s a Good Thing. They are not ‘problems’—they are omens. Don’t worry about a solution. Worry instead about evangelism.” Ask the Hagees and a gross of others.

Besides, many say, aren’t we given dominion over the earth? That’s another Genesis idea, interpreted by many to mean that as God’s agents, we can do anything to the earth—anything—and it must be God-approved. Isn’t that what “dominion” means? I prefer to use that other word “stewards” and think we are to be care-takers. There is no Planet B to go to if we ruin this one.

So…we are to strip-mine coal without oversight or regulation? Burn fossil fuel with total disregard for pollution? Scrap research into solar and wind energy? Dump toxic waste wherever it’s cheapest to do so? Frack here and yon and create earthquakes? Reject biblical stewardship of the planet in favor of abuse of the earth? Enrich the coffers of this generation with total disregard for the well-being of the next? A cynic would think the Far Right was in cahoots with Big Oil and Big Coal….





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Christmas Cards

The few Christmas cards I send are secular—those nostalgic Currier & Ives winter scenes, the generic “Season’s Greetings,” snowmen with carrot noses, and the like. In truth, I am not very selective in my choices: I mail what I find on sale at the Christmas Shop in Smithfield. And because I buy in bulk, you might say—enough for three or four winters at a time—I sometimes worry that I’ll send the same card to friends year after year. Maybe I don’t. Maybe they do not notice. Maybe they are just too polite to comment.

But I don’t make any attempt to buy and send the traditional star-over-Bethlehem, manger scene, wise-men-and-shepherds, quotations-from-Isaiah sort of cards, and you may wonder why that is.

Mostly it’s a matter of truthfulness: Jesus was probably a real historical figure, but there’s no way that December 25th was his birthday. No right-minded shepherd would have been sleeping on those frozen hillsides tending his sheep. No wise man could have seen a star in the east that moved and somehow settled indisputably above a certain home in Bethlehem—or Nazareth, a far more likely birthplace. Besides, the wise men appear in one account; the shepherds, in another; and ne’er did the twain meet in a stable. In fact, a stable is never mentioned in the birth narratives. Etc. Etc.

In other words, esteem the person and teachings of Jesus as high as you wish, but accept that the two biblical accounts of his birth do not agree in a ton of details, and almost certainly are far more legendary than historical. Accept the fact that centuries after the event—which was likely in the spring—the winter date was selected to coincide with the Roman Saturnalia.

You might even have to accept the fact that old-timey worship at the time of the winter solstice lies behind all these late December celebrations. Recently I found online an imitation “Christmas” card which showed the sun and earth-in-orbit, and said, “Axial tilt is the reason for the season.” I posted it on Facebook with the added question: “Can I say ‘Happy Tilting’ without sounding too medieval?” That’s a somewhat learned in-joke for the scholarly who recall that another definition of “tilting” is combat between mounted knights with lances. About three people caught the joke, and perhaps it, like so many of my jokes, wasn’t worth the effort.

Some of you will take this whole approach to the season as blasphemous and prepare tar and feathers for me. I beg you, be a better sport than that. I love the season. It’s a grand time of the year, as Ebenezer Scrooge finally realized. My cards portray the season in a more secular way than perhaps you would choose, but that’s my decision, a considered and honest decision, I think.

After all, sending cards is not about the pictures on the front, but the message within the cards, and within the heart. They are a fine way to reconnect with those you seldom see, to add a personal line or three about your goings-on for the past twelve months, to say hello and be of good cheer and wish them all the best of the season of remembrance and good will and love.

Receiving cards like that bring me moments of grace. I can only hope that mine take a little grace with them wherever they go.










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“Batter My Heart”

John Donne (1572-1631) was an English poet and clergyman, Dean of St. Paul Cathedral (London), and one of England’s most famous preachers. As a poet, he was and is considered one of England’s greatest, famous especially for his complex and extended metaphors.

As a professional man of the faith, it is no surprise that most of his poetry contains strong religious elements.  Here is one of his most famous:

Batter My Heart

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurped town to another due,

Labor to admit you, but O, to no end.

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captived and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you and would be loved fain,

But am betrothed unto your enemy.

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste except you ravish me.

We moderns may find some of the language of the 17th century a tad difficult. Likewise, we find ourselves coping with difficult sentence structure.  Overall, you may conclude, “This is an extremely difficult poem.”

But it’s not that difficult.  Obviously, the speaker (“I”) is the poet.  He is speaking to God (“three-personed God,” the Trinity). So far, so good. It’s WHAT the poet says to and about God, and HOW he says it, that is challenging.

Try this. Divide the poem into “parts.” Lines 1-4 are part I. Lines 5-8 compose a second part. And lines 9-14 constitute the third and final part. (Yes, it”s a 14-line sonnet, in three parts.)

Now, lines 1-4 are violent lines. They speak of “battering” and “knocking,” among other less violent words.  The central image is not a familiar one to 21st century people.  It is of a “tinker,” a mender of pots and pans (see footnote on last page). In olden times, a tinker roamed the countryside like a traveling salesman, repairing kitchenware. In that process, he would indeed “batter,” or beat out dents. He would even repair small holes.  He would polish the pots and pans, breathe on them, shine them, and make them like new. He would repair the fireplace equipment.

And so the poet asks God to be at work in his own life: making repairs, fixing that which is broken, taking the old and making it like new…. perhaps in lines 3-4 to repair a broken leg on a three-legged pot, or on a fireplace stand…so that it once again can stand upright.

Lines 5-9 present a radically different image…but nevertheless, still an image of God at work. Now the speaker, the poet, is a “usurped town”: a town conquered by a wrongful ruler, by someone other than God.  That other someone is, of course, Satan, though he is not named.

The poet “labors” to make God “lord of his life.” However, “Reason,” who should govern the poet (be his “vice-roy” or “ruler”) has failed. So…the poet is still at the mercy of that “other.” Reason is NOT sufficient to win: the poet is still held captive.

The final six lines shift and present still another radical image. This time it is based on the language of love and romance and marriage. Now the poet wants to love God, but he is “betrothed” or engaged to “another”: a reference to Satan, again.

Where “Reason” failed to separate him from Satan and bring him to God, perhaps “love and marriage” will work. This idea is quickly presented, but it should be studied slowly!

He asks God to divorce him, NOT from God, but from the enemy.  He asks God to imprison him: he wants to be God’s prisoner.  He asks God to “enthrall” him, that is, make him God’s slave.

And to complete this image of love and marriage, the poet says he’ll never be “chaste” (pure,  virginal) unless God “ravishes” him (rapes him, takes him by force).

These final two lines (the “closing couplet”) uses the literary device we call “paradox.”  That means “the use of contradictory language”…saying two things that seem contradictory, but both of which are true.

In this case, the poet says he’ll never be free unless God imprisons him. He’ll never be free unless God makes him a “thrall,” an archaic word for “slave.” Is there a sense in which being a “prisoner of God” actually makes us “free”? Is there a sense in which we are, like Paul describes himself, “God’s slave”?

And we see in these last lines a familiar image, that of being the “bride of Christ: bride of God, in this case. It’s a familiar image, from the prophet Hosea, from “The Song of Songs,” from Revelation, and the like.

It’s HOW the poet gets us to this image that’s different…from the homely and mundane image of fixing a dented pot, to the final image of being the bride of God.

The theology, once we get a grip on it, is orthodox.  The poet, however, does what poets sometimes do: he does not express his ideas in the ordinary language of a newspaper, say.  He looks for and finds a challenge: “How can I say this thought in a different, original, even shocking way?

And why look for this “original and shocking” way? To wake us up…to make us wrestle with the thoughts and see them anew.

And I submit that in these images of Donne, we see God at work in a stronger, more forceful way than if we used the traditional, more ordinary language.

If we had merely said, “Let God into your life,” there is no sense of the struggle, the difficulty, the resistance, which that struggle entails.

If we had said, “Let Him be Lord of your life,” there would NOT be the sense of the epic struggle of good and evil this poems refers to.

If we had merely said, “God loves you: you love him back,” there would NOT be the overwhelming sense of passion, of commitment, of the merging of two beings into one, that this image of love and physical conquest, of “ravishment,” conveys to us.

And even in the more homely, opening lines about a tinker and his pots and pans, we find a new way to describe our lives before God redeems them: our ordinary lives are of no use, no more so than a pot with a hole in the bottom. And our lives are ugly and disfigured: like a smutty pan covered with ashes.

This is a poem worth many readings.  As you read, open yourself to the emotional possibilities.  Think of these images, and go where they lead you.  Perhaps you, too, can find yourself emotionally overcome as you see God taking you from a “cracked pot” to His very own Bride.

**(There is a quaint old saying, “not worth a tinker’s dam.”  That’s “dam,” not “damn.” A tinker’s dam was nothing more than a pinch of damp clay, formed into a small “dam” around a little hole in a pot.  Once that “dam” was in place, the tinker could apply a small amount of melted tin to the hole and repair it. The dam would hold the molten metal in place until it hardened. Then the clay, the “dam,” was tossed aside.  It was of no intrinsic worth.)





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The Date of Christmas & Thoughts on Other Holidays

First facts first: this festive season in December predates Jesus and Christianity by hundreds of years, probably thousands of years. It’s unarguable. It’s a fact. Look it up. Pagan celebrations of the winter solstice (the birth or rebirth of the sun) are immeasurably old. As some wag pointed out years ago, “Axial tilt is the reason for the season.” That was true millennia before the beginnings of Christianity. Solstices and equinoxes and quarter-days are and have been part of various pagan calendars since…whenever.

Therefore, despite the posters you see along our highways and the many bumper stickers, Jesus was not the original “reason for the season.” Maybe you should have a bumper sticker saying, “Jesus is my reason for the season.” But there is spacious room to argue he is not the only reason.

Most relevant to our point would be the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which was observed in late December throughout the Empire for centuries. Key elements used for decoration were evergreen trees, holly and ivy (recall that carol?), and mistletoe. We’ve not only kept some of these adornments—we have given them a Christian overlay by adding on symbolism they never carried in the original context.

The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday came in 336 CE (credit Pope Julius). Some three hundred-plus years after the fact is a tad late to be an accurate or reliable date, especially when we know there are no official written records of the birth.

And it’s doubtful that shepherds were in the fields in the dead of winter. That “bleak December” poem and song remind us how tough shepherding would have been at that season.

Thus it is almost without question that the seasonal celebration had a decidedly un-Christian origin. Here, as with other holidays, Christianity simply took over and adapted an existing custom—a marketing ploy, you might say—as they did with pre-Christian sites throughout Europe which they turned into churches and basilicas. If people are already regarding this or that site as holy, well, then, how easy it was to take it over and continue services there, albeit the new celebrations are somewhat different.

In a tamer example from more recent times, Christians have done the same thing by changing “Christmas trees” into “Chrismon trees.” That makes it okay to place a decorated evergreen tree in the sanctuary, once it’s been cleansed of secular adornments. If you cannot kill the custom, you adapt it.

The more fundamentalist among believers are alarmed by Halloween, seeing it as satanic and evil. This season had its origins in ancient pagan rituals, that’s true, but in early ancient Christian times, they were transformed into sanitized versions we know as “All Hallows Eve” and “All Saints Day.” And now, because of costumes and masks and concerns about goblins, witches, and black cats, fundamentalists are attempting to co-opt the night and change it once again, change it into some else altogether—a fun time for the kiddies to gather at church and play games and enjoy refreshments rather than go trick or treating. In other words, the custom is too strong and pervasive to eliminate altogether, so let’s disguise it. In today’s parlance, let’s rebrand it.

Easter is likewise problematic. How can “the body of Christ” allow playful bunny stories and Easter egg hunts when even those most ignorant of real church history see here nothing about a crucifixion or tomb or resurrected human body, but a continuation of ancient fertility celebrations? Simple—since you cannot kill the traditions, you put them on Saturday, rather than Sunday.

Let’s be honest. Christianity is a Johnny-come-lately to the religious scene. It was born in a context, not a vacuum. To survive, it had to adapt itself to beliefs and customs millennia old. To win acceptance, it had to make itself feel more familiar. And it chose the path of giving old customs and holidays—even old sites of worship—new faces and names.


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