Still Waters Run Deep

About fourteen years ago, I had a ten hour layover in Amsterdam and if I had not been particularly destitute after several weeks at a United Youth Corps project in Ghana, I would have gone to the Anne Frank House. Instead, I stayed in the airport and unsuccessfully tried to sleep. In recently reading a novel that discussed that same tourist spot [1], I was struck by something that Otto Frank is reported as saying about his daughter. Apparently, despite knowing her and being a good father, and being around her for a couple of very stressful years in very close quarters, it was only through reading (and redacting) her journal entry that Otto realized the deep and rich emotional life that his daughter had. I suppose the same might be true for me, in that people probably have to read what I write to understand my own emotional life in context given my own habits of restraint. Still, it seems sad that a man would have to find out about his late daughter’s deep heart by reading her private musings.

This appears, though, to be a common issue. For whatever reason, the depth of people tends to lie far beneath the radar of most people. There are some people who use this to their advantage. There is, for example, a certain type of woman who is blessed with good looks and extreme ambition who goes out of her way to avoid showing intellectual and emotional depth, the better to be underestimated by others, which can be taken advantage of. I don’t wish to look down on other people, though, nor do I wish to underestimate them. I’d like to know the true measure, at least, of what is going on inside the hearts and minds of those I know, at least to enough extent to map the general terrain and to know what steps to respond to treat them thoughtfully and with understanding. Likewise, I don’t want people to assume that because I am a restrained person that I am someone who lacks deep feeling, and I would generally prefer others to be at least somewhat sensitive and thoughtful about that part of life, although it seldom seems to be the case.

Why is it that we seldom recognize the surprising depth of still waters? I think we tend to trust our eyes too much and not verify enough of what they tell us. If we see someone on the outside who looks friendly and bubbly, and does not go out of his or her way to speak about subjects at depth, or to talk about his or her own emotional life, we tend not to assume any sort of intellectual or emotional depth. This is often very untrue–practically everyone I have ever spent a lot of time around has shown me a great deal of emotional and mental depth, which has led me to greater respect them as people because I have seen at least a glimpse of who they are under the mask and respected them all the more for it, even if I did not always like what I saw. It is a shame that we are content to judge on mere appearances, and so casually dismiss people on superficial and mistaken judgments without ever having taken the time to see what makes them tick and to hope that their lives fulfill the destiny and purpose that God has set out by giving them the qualities that He has.

What are we supposed to do? We can react in a combination of a few ways to this reality. One, we can go into interactions with others in the expectation that there is more depth than we see. Simply mistrusting our initial and superficial judgments may at least allow us to give others the benefit of the doubt before we find out the sort of depth that lies in others. Simply granting that others have more than meets the eye will encourage us, when we get to know other people better by reading their thoughts, or by spending time with them and hearing and seeing them face to face, to have more understanding with where others come from. Given the fact that we can use all the encouragement to be understanding and gracious in our treatment and thoughts of others, this is something we can all bear to do, especially when we consider that it will allow us to treat others with respect and at least potentially help make the world around us at least a little bit better, and help us to be better people in it.

[1] http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/book-review-the-fault-in-our-stars/

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Book Review: My Breaking Point, God’s Turning Point

My Breaking Point, God’s Turning Point: Experience God’s Amazing Power To Restore, by Ricky Texada

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Bethany Books in exchange for an honest review.]

In many ways, this was a difficult book to read. The author presents his experience with suffering by talking about how he met a wonderful woman when he must have been about seventeen or eighteen, enjoyed fifteen years of marriage with her, and then lost her to an accident when her life was taken by a drunk driver. After what must have been a difficult few months, he met another woman, his current wife, and married her with support from his family, her family, and even his former in-laws, as well as his congregation. The author seeks to use his experiences as a way of showing compassion with others in suffering and to show how God worked it out for him, but given the fact that the author spends a lot more detail talking about how wonderful his marriage is with his second wife, including the fact that God blessed him with two kids, even after a miscarriage, the book feels more like bragging than compassion. Of course, any memoir written after the fact of loss runs the risk that it will seem like bragging to someone who is still in the midst of a difficult situation. In all sincerity, I would have much rather read the memoir of the author’s second wife, who seems to be a woman I could much easier relate to: she worked ten years as an engineer, married at 33 after considering herself a bit past her prime as far as relationships were concerned, wrote and performed her own music, and had a complicated and unhappy family background that gave her a host of daddy issues, but that was not an option.

Despite these problems, this book has much to commend itself. The author is honest, painfully and openly so, and strives to understand his life and act based on the statements of the Bible, seeking to provide encouragement to others from scripture as well. The author recognizes that his good life, even with its seasons of sorrow, makes it hard for others to think of his own suffering, and reminds us that all of us have suffering despite the fact that we may feel that others are far more put together than we are. To some extent, many of us are simply trying to cope the best and put the best face forward, and the result is that we often fail to connect with others in times of suffering because we do not recognize how others would understand. To the extent that the author discusses his own life, honestly and passionately, he gives us a useful reminder of the need to be sensitive to others and to recognize that behind a smile can lie a great deal of experience with pain, a theme that is the subject of much recent reading [1].

It seems a bit melodramatic for the author to describe his season of suffering as a breaking point–for although he had a great deal of resentment against the man who killed his wife by driving drunk, he did not spiral into a dark depression lasting for years, and ultimately God did grant him a second wife, very quickly, to help him with his loneliness (and hers), and granted him children and hope for the next generation. Quite a few of the readers who read this book will probably find that scenario, even as harsh as it is, as far preferable to the state of their own lives, especially when their struggles do not end so quickly and in such a satisfactory manner. The author’s writing is candid, and he certainly strives to encourage others in suffering, but it does appear that has not suffered quite enough to write the sort of memoir that would make it the best of its kind [2]. Still, one can give him an A for effort in at least trying to relate to a very large potential audience, even if he manages to strike a few too many of my own personal sensitivities in the subject. As an aside, this wasn’t even the book I had originally requested from the publisher, but rather it was sent to me in error, and not a very flattering error, I might add. Nobody’s perfect, though, I suppose.

[1] See, for example:

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/10/30/book-review-if-god-is-good/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/book-review-the-fault-in-our-stars/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/10/10/book-review-the-reluctant-journey/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/09/26/book-review-ripples-of-battle/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/book-review-love-letters-from-the-edge/

[2] See, for example:

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/book-review-jesus-my-father-the-cia-and-me-a-memoir-of-sorts/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/09/27/book-review-christian-by-disguise/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/09/10/book-review-tables-in-the-wilderness/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/07/16/book-review-sidelined/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/06/27/book-review-i-almost-gave-up/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/book-review-insideoutside/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/03/06/book-review-all-the-way-home/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/book-review-unstoppable/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/11/05/book-review-under-the-rainbow/

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Argumentative Reflection: Thoughts On The Prisoner

[Note: This post is part of a series of argumentative reflections, short views on a given subject, for one of my online coursera class. You may see the other notes here [1]:]

As someone who has had the misfortune of living around prison towns [2] and who has been concerned about the relationship between prison and the exploitation and further damaging of vulnerable people (even if many of them are evildoers) [3], I find a great deal that troubles me about the emphasis modern societies place on prison terms as an expression of the seriousness of a crime as well as the fact that prison is viewed as making someone pay a fictitious debt to society by either being involved in unsafe or unproductive labor or by enforced solitude and idleness. Worse yet, this sort of imaginary debt to society often leaves the criminal more crippled by abuse and other mental and emotional issues, and even less equipped than before to live a productive life, after having been put a way for years at considerable public expense (often greater than the price of sending someone to college). Considering the waste that this involves, it is remarkable that the practice is so common, not only in the United States but around the world.

What would be much preferable would be some sort of constitutional guidance that did not pretend that a prisoner was paying a debt to society, but that focused on a real debt to the victim. Although money cannot compensate entirely for the losses suffered, for example, by the family of a murder victim or by someone tormented by anxiety and trauma because of kidnapping, rape, or abuse, it is important that at least in some crimes (like theft, for example), the payment of the real debt to the victim allow for greater justice on at least two counts. For one, by focusing on the real debt that criminals owe for their crimes, we can help to minimize the damage that results to people from crimes and also reduce the reliance on insurance as a way of repaying the damage suffered from others. Additionally, by providing a real debt that can be paid by the criminal, we can ensure that once a criminal has paid his or her debt, there is a restoration of privileges and of respect as an honored member of society, rather than a lifetime of reduced privileges and second-class status because of the mistakes of the past. Focusing on real debts rather than making society the wronged party for the evil actions of people protects both the victim as well as the criminal, and also manages to overcome some of the worries about the creeping and overweening power of the state.

What would be necessary, besides an obedience to biblical law, which is admittedly unpopular in contemporary society, for such a view to prevail? For one, much of the current focus on having prisoners as slaves does not serve to the benefit of the people at large, much less serve to compensate those who have suffered as a result of crimes. However, the fact that the 13th Amendment of the United States [4] still allows for slavery as a punishment for crime means that theoretically the potential exists for there to be recompense made to victims, if the political will allows for it. Perhaps a more drastic shift that would need to be made is the recognition that while God is the primary victim of sin, as the Creator of the universe, that the state is not the primary victim of crime but rather the servant of the citizenry in order to restrain evil and provide justice. When the state can do its job properly with regards to recognizing that it is a servant and to stop trying to usurp the justice that is due to victims, then perhaps we may see a more just criminal system than the one that now does such harm to so many for so long.

[1] See, for example:

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/10/23/argumentative-reflection-the-lot-falls-in-the-lap/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/10/17/argumentative-reflection-thoughts-on-the-stranger/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/10/07/argumentative-reflection-luck-equality-and-freedom/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/argumentative-reflection-justice/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/09/23/argumentative-reflection-do-we-need-a-state/

[2] See, for example:

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/12/30/the-prisoner/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/07/19/prison-towns/

[3] http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/slavery-through-the-back-door/

[4] http://constitution.findlaw.com/amendment13.html

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Book Review: If God Is Good

If God Is Good: Faith In The Midst Of Suffering And Evil, by Randy Alcorn

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Blogging For Books/Multnomah WaterBrook Press in exchange for an honest review.]

There are some people who might think that it is blasphemous to even imply, via the conditional title of this book, that God may not be good. Yet this book honestly and exhaustively (in about 500 pages of text) deals with the complexity of God’s role in the evil of this world. Yet anyone who reads this book will recognize quickly that the author is particularly harsh on the arguments and worldview of the famous but fatuous New Atheists who argue against God using smuggled and unrecognized moral standards and arguments that depend on the existence and goodness of God. Likewise, on the other side, the author takes a strong aim at health and prosperity gospels and their superficial agreement with Job’s friends that physical blessings equate with spiritual and moral wealth in a straightforward way. Nevertheless, although this book spends a fair amount of time dealing with the arguments over the justice of God, it does not spend a great deal of time (except in a few chapters towards the end) in comforting those who are struggling with the problem of evil in a real way.

To be sure, a book this large is going to have some flaws. Among the flaws of the book, some are worldview-based, such as the fact that the book is written by a moderate Calvinist. Although the book does at least attempt to present a biblical worldview, and manages to avoid some of Calvinism’s more obvious and lamentable extremes, such as total depravity [1]. That said, this particular work, like many other works written by Calvinists, has a harsh tone that cuts against its ending, which urges compassionate and gentle listening. A book written by a Calvinist cannot seem to help pushing the idea that God ordains and predestines suffering and torment for children, and as this book spends a lot of time talking about horrors like rape and child abuse, it cannot help but feel more than a little uncomfortable for those who are survivors of child abuse or rape or other similar evils. In addition to this, there is the author’s unbiblical views about heaven, which are conflated with biblical beliefs about the Kingdom of God and the new heavens and new earth, as well as the author’s frequent comments about his career as an anti-abortion activist [2]. Additionally, there is the author’s unbiblical belief in the Trinity as well, which is very common in such books.

Even with the book’s flaws, though, this book has much to offer, at least as a reference book. Because the work offers so many different strands of the explanations for why evil exists, ranging from the fact that good is in fact the majority and that we notice evil (mostly) as an exception to the rule rather than the rule itself to the fact that evil results from freewill as well as from the real enemies of humanity (namely the demonic world), there are many chapters here that are worthy resources to go to, with often reasonable scriptural exegesis to back them up. If this book is not exactly comforting on a tone level or emotional level, it is a very excellent book on an intellectual level and a reasonably good book on a scriptural level. Most of the hard edges of the book seem to be due to the fact that the book is written by a fairly tough-minded Calvinist (as if there was any other kind), and as a result, the book seems much harsher than it actually is on a theological level. Given the fact that the book seems to go out of its way to provide a broader perspective of suffering, and points out that those who have suffered a lot are often the most understanding and gentle and patient with others, there is much to ponder and reflect in this book, and a lot of encouragement to focus on the larger picture when it comes to suffering and not merely ourselves. Additionally, on the plus side, the book manages to quote thinkers such as C.S. Lewis [3], Scott Peck [4], and Nick Vujucic, who are generally more sympathetic in their prose style than the author himself is. It is a wise move that improves the book immensely.

[1] See, for example:

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/09/17/book-review-abraham/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/book-review-a-godward-heart/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/11/08/calvinisms-cold-comfort/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/10/25/all-things-work-together-for-the-good-the-political-implications-of-predestination/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/06/30/the-five-point-biblical-covenant-model/

[2] See, for example, the author’s previous work:

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/12/27/book-review-safely-home/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/06/29/book-review-why-pro-life/

[3] See, for example:

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/04/a-musing-on-the-purpose-of-christian-fantasy-through-the-works-of-c-s-lewis/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/01/does-god-keep-his-law-a-novel-application-of-cs-lewis-trilemma/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/11/18/c-s-lewis-logic-and-fantasy/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/07/02/book-review-c-s-lewis-mere-christianity/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/03/01/book-review-if-i-had-lunch-with-c-s-lewis/

[4] http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/book-review-in-search-of-stones/

[5] http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/01/31/book-review-unstoppable/

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How Much Do I Invest?

Yesterday I read a thoughtful and extremely bittersweet romance novel, which had a profoundly worthwhile quote close to its end:

“You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers.”

The quote, and the book it came from [1], seemed to strike a nerve with readers, many of whom are just as romantic as I am, if it causes less difficulty in their lives than it has caused in mine. At any rate, the context of the quote, and how I thought about the novel as a whole and how it is that we allow people in and give them the chance to hurt us. In life, we will all be hurt in many ways; we will be hurt by rejection, we will be hurt by misunderstandings and misapprehensions, by unmeant cruelties and careless words and deeds. To suffer as a human being is inevitable, and to suffer in our relationships with others is also inevitable, yet we do exercise at least some choice in who we allow to hurt us.

There are some people who do not allow others to hurt them, as much as possible. Such people build mighty walls to defend themselves from intimacy with others. Yet there are two truths about such people that point to the reality of pain in that situation. The longing for intimacy and connection is so intense that for others that for others to shut it down completely usually means that they have already suffered so much pain and suffering from their relationships that they are too wounded to let anyone else in. It is not a sign of self-sufficiency and a lack of need for relationships, but usually a great deal of fear. Additionally, it means that such a person lacks trust that others will deal with them in compassion and gentleness, and is more sensitive than they would like to let on. Such a thing can happen to any of us in the aftermath of great betrayal.

Yet even after suffering a great deal of pain, most of us long for connection so much that we open our hearts even in the knowledge that we will hurt, and probably hurt a lot, because of it. This sort of longing often makes life complicated, and yet we seem compelled to make it so. Perhaps we mistrust what is simple, perhaps our longings are what inspire us to make anything useful and productive out of life. If we were not aware that something was missing in our lives, we would not be driven to fill those needs. And yet the needs we have can often be fulfilled in ways that make our lives more hazardous, and so it is an immensely difficult matter to trust others not to hurt us when we have shown our vulnerability to them, and to trust God to meet our needs, even if it is on His schedule and not ours.

Yet nothing about love is easy. Nor is anything worth having in life. It is often the length and difficulty of the quest, as well as its worth, that makes it so treasured. If it were less difficult, we might not appreciate how wonderful a thing it is to be loved and to love someone else. If it were less worthwhile, perhaps we would easily give up on it and never see it through until the end, and perhaps we would miss out on the personal improvement we make as we examine our life in the context of our relationships with others. For it is our connections with others that give us the perspective we need to improve our lives, to wrestle with our weaknesses, and to see how much better we can be with the help of God than we can on our own, unaided by anything save our own resources. When it comes to what we seek most in life, we need more than we can do on our own, though, and that is not a bad thing at all.

[1] http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/book-review-the-fault-in-our-stars/

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The Judgments Of The Lord Are True And Righteous Altogether

Today I would like to comment on some of my rather complicated and intense personal thoughts about a matter discussed in Psalm 19:8-10, the issue of the judgments of the Eternal: “The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, tea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.” When we think about the ways of God in our lives, we are not always of an optimistic mindset. Indeed, those of us who have lived difficult and often traumatic lives look at the judgments and ways of God often in a way that is deeply dark and serious, reflecting the seriousness of the evils that we have had to deal with. Yet the intimate personal experience with horrible evils need not destroy our faith, but can rather strengthen it, even if it leaves us broken. I think it necessary at this point to warn that I am going to discuss this aspect of the judgments of God, and that my discussion will not be pleasant. For those who quail at reading about the dark evils which people can endure in life, now would be a good time to stop reading. For those who continue, caveat lector.

As I have commented on from time to time [1], I am the survivor of early childhood sexual abuse, rape, and incest, which occurred during the first three years of my life. After this, until today, the scars of that abuse and the horrors that I have experienced have deeply shaped me in ways that have tended to make me deeply vulnerable to the cruelty of those around me, who most often viewed my sensitivity and high levels of nervousness and anxiety as an opportunity to tease and torment me throughout my life. Sleep has long fled from my eyelids, and even when I finally achieve unconsciousness I have been subject to an alarmingly large number of nightmares over the course of my troubled life. I say this not to arouse pity, but rather to say that the problem of evil is not a matter of armchair theorizing, but rather a problem I have to face as I wrestle with the darkness of my own memories, and the intensity of my own compulsions and complications, and grieve over the sufferings of others that I see when I recollect the extent of my own suffering.

God promises that the sufferings that we endure in this life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that we will enjoy in the world to come. This passage was written by a man who suffered intensely, and so he was not writing Hallmark cards with mere platitudes, but had an intimate experience with intense suffering. It is possible that this comes from a variety of sources. For one, knowing the bigger picture when we are able to handle it and recognize it will put the horrors of our lives into some sort of context, when we know the reasons and see the good that has come out of the evil we have suffered. Additionally, the suffering of our lives is but for a moment, a brief flicker of the candle when compared with the expanse of eternity. It is possible, even likely, that both of these are true, that our suffering is related to our perspective and is part of a grand plan that we can only glimpse fitfully and partially as human beings, through a glass darkly, and that the limited duration of our suffering compared with the blessing of eternal life is a major aspect of what makes our present sufferings not even worthy to be compared with our future glory in the Kingdom of God.

I often wonder, even if such pondering is rather dark, what sort of grand plan would make the sufferings of my life worthwhile. Surely, there must be a glorious fate in store for me if it means being a survivor of ghastly sins by a close male relative and being rather seriously scarred for life would not even be worthy of comparing to that glory. If to achieve that glory it was necessary that I not be whole with my talents and abilities so that I would be entirely aware that I was not self-sufficient and that I was in need of a Savior, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. If it was necessary for me to be broken and deeply scarred to be sensitive to the horrors that others have suffered, to be understanding to the weak and vulnerable, and to be a tender and gentle soul in dealing with others, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. If it was necessary for me to stare into the heart of evil and to wrestle with it from my earliest days so that I would have an unquenchable longing for God’s kingdom and an equally intense hostility to the hold of wickedness and evil on this world, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. If it was necessary that I should be gripped by inconvenient compulsions and wracked by fears and anxieties that I might have compassion on other souls in torment under compulsion, and that I might be understanding to those whose lives are filled with fears and anxieties, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. That is not to say that they are easy to deal with, only that they are worth it in the end.

I do not say this to imply that God was Himself responsible for that evil, or that He coerced or forced anyone to sin, whether to me or to anyone else. Rather, God allows evil, sometimes horrible evil, in large part because freedom is so precious that He does not wish to coerce love or obedience but will give mankind every opportunity to seek Him and His ways in their own hearts. The fact that human freedom, as limited as it is, is worth such a price ought to make us appreciate that freedom, and take responsibility for it, and to seek that as best as possible we may not use that freedom to hurt others. For knowing the suffering that human beings have to endure in this life, it is a terrible thing to be the person who causes others to suffer, who leads others to grieve and to wonder why God has allowed such things. God does not view highly those who cause His little ones to stumble, even if He allows them to act for a time according to their compulsions and according to their will. And for all that we do, we will be held responsible, even if God promises that all will end up working to a good end.

Ultimately, it is to that end that we must look. For we must not let the suffering of our lives be wasted. Our deep weaknesses do not remove us from the love and concern of God. Rather, they allow God to make his work of restoration even more glorious by taking that which is the most broken and the most shattered and turning it into a work of the greatest beauty [2]. If we see deeply into ourselves, we know that we are deeply broken. We know that without His blessings and His sometimes incomprehensible grace, we would be deeply dark and twisted souls, even more than we already are. Much of our fire for justice comes from an intimate knowledge of injustice. Much of our tenderness and gentleness comes from the painful experience of abuse and harshness. Much of our dignity and self-command comes from our walks in deep shame. God is a master of the curious alchemy that transmutes the ugly into the beautiful, the bruises and cuts of our lives into wholeness and soundness, the darkness into light, the evil into good. We are but the clay in His hands being shaped according to His will even as we work out our own salvation choice by agonizing choice. In light of all this, who can but say that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether, even when they are not especially enjoyable at the time.

[1] See, for example:

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/a-week-to-remember-a-week-to-forget/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/01/11/no-child-is-a-mistake/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/04/14/root-causes/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/tyranny-is-a-school-from-which-no-one-is-ever-permitted-to-graduate/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/08/28/on-the-implications-of-causality-in-mental-trauma/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2010/12/28/all-that-heaven-allows/

[2] See, for example:

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/10/02/book-review-the-beauty-of-broken/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/the-breathtaking-beauty-of-pain/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/beauty-in-the-breakdown/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/book-review-misfits-welcome/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/09/06/hope-for-the-hopeless/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/04/21/kintsukuroi/

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Book Review: The Fault In Our Stars

The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green

I tend to be somewhat late to reading books that are massive pop culture phenomena because of the large backlog of works I read on a regular basis, and admittedly reading this sort of romance is not something I do often, and for good reason. I really hate reading books like this, not because the books are bad (because this book is actually very good) but I hate what books like this say about me. The characters in this novel are witty, cynical, romantic, clever, and are precisely the sort of people that I would be friends with. The fact that they are [spoiler alert] dying of cancer only makes their romance more poignant, their love more futile than the sort of futile romantic longings that most of us (myself definitely included) have to wrestle with over the course of our lives.

This book is difficult to review because there are large parts of it that remind me all too much of my own past and present. One of the chief difficulties, for me, of reading a book like this is it reminds me that for all of my cynicism, I am a romantic at heart, something that causes no end of trouble in my life and in my interactions with others. Over and over again, the book reminds us that the two protagonists are in love, in a real love, with people who are awkward, who like serious books and think deeply about mortality and the meaning of life even as they face their own inexorable demise, and yet despite the fact that they know they are doomed, they still fall in love anyway, still open their hearts to someone else, still long for intimacy and connection in a world where those are immensely hazardous and very ill-rewarded for most of us. Most of the people who read this book will not have cancer, but most know what it is like to be gripped between fear and longing, and to choose to love even when it is inconvenient, even when it is doomed to produce immense stress and difficulty in our lives and the lives of others, because, as the author says towards the end, we do not have a choice to be hurt or not in this life, but rather we chose who we let hurt us.

As is often the case with novels that strike a chord, this novel has achieved a great deal of success as a book and as a film (I have not yet seen the movie), and this success is well-earned. Not only has the author constructed two memorable and sympathetic romantic leads, but each of the secondary characters adds something to the plot as well, as well as to the struggle over fulfilling our longings for love and intimacy even if we know our lives on this earth are but a brief vapor leaving us to be forgotten and consigned to oblivion. Despite the fact that we are beings doomed to death and suffering and sorrow, heartbreak and pain and agony, we are driven by our longings to seek friendship and romantic love, to stare into the heavens to curse them or reflect on them, and to hope against hope that we have lived a life worth remembering by someone, if only for a little while. Clearly that longing for love, for meaning, for significance, is a longing that drives many of us in our lives, and books like this serve to remind us of the intensity and universality of those longings, providing comfort only in the fact that we are all struggling against the same fate, and that we are all at least potential friends and allies in the struggle against despair. As a book that combines humane storytelling with witty references to literature and pop culture, this is a book that is a treat for both the head and the heart, a book that traffics in heartbreak even as it provokes the longings it deals with so grimly and so realistically.

Posted in Book Reviews, Love & Marriage | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

In The Presence Of My Enemies

Among the most difficult and challenging verses of the Bible are those that deal with the care and concern that is required for one’s enemies. Here are a few scriptures that give the general feeling of how the Bible would have us treat our enemies:

Exodus 23:4: “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again.

1 Samuel 28:16: “Then Samuel said: “So why do you ask me, seeing the Lord has departed from you and has become your enemy?”

1 Kings 21:20: “So Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” And he answered, “I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do evil in the sight of the Lord.”

Esther 7:4: “For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. Had we been sold as male and female slaves, I would have held my tongue, although the enemy could never compensate for the king’s loss.”

Job 13:24: “Why do You hide Your face, And regard me as Your enemy?”

Psalm 7:3-5: “O Lord my God, if I have done this: If there is iniquity in my hands, if I have repaid evil to him who was at peace with me, or have plundered my enemy without cause, let the enemy pursue me and overtake me; yes, let him trample my life to the earth, and lay my honor in the dust.”

Psalm 13:2: “How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? How long will my enemy be exalted over me?”

Psalm 55:3: “Because of the voice of the enemy, because of the oppression of the wicked; for they bring down trouble upon me, and in wrath they hate me.”

Proverbs 24:17: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.”

Proverbs 25:21: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.”

Jeremiah 15:11: “The Lord said: “Surely it will be well with your remnant; Surely I will cause the enemy to intercede with you In the time of adversity and in the time of affliction.”

Matthew 5:43-44: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”

Galatians 4:16: “Have I therefore become your enemy because I tell you the truth?”

2 Thessalonians 3:15: “Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”

It is not my intention to give a lengthy commentary at this time to any (much less all) of these passages, as any one of them could be the subject of a post, and I might find reason to write about these passages at more length later. What I am more interested in is the flavor of the overview of what the Bible has to say about enemies. From the beginning of the Bible to the end, there is constant admonishment to be kind to enemies, to seek their good, to be kind to them and generous to them, even if they bring trouble in our lives. Believers who long for God’s presence and involvement feel his absence as a kind of abandonment and as a hostile act. These moments are not unknown in our own lives, so we ought to expect to see them in scripture, and so we do.

What is it that makes someone an enemy in the first place? Throughout my life, I have had a rather straightforward rubric for enemies–those who did me harm. If someone sought to attack me, speak badly about me, ridicule me, exclude me, or seek my harm, they were my enemy. Throughout my life, I have known plenty of people who fit those definitions for a variety of reasons, some of whom were as sensitive as I am, some of whom attacked in a preemptive way because they were concerned that I was a threat, and others because I was quite a vulnerable child and quite easy to target once upon a time. The Bible itself looks at enemies in the context of oppressors, those who bring trouble, and the like. At times, Paul himself wonders if as an honest truth-teller he will be counted as an enemy of the church in Galatia, which is a fair question in some contexts. There are really two elements that go into what makes an enemy, how someone behaves, and what we think or feel about someone. Often there may be a disconnect between the two–we may dislike people who have no hostile designs whatsoever, or we may be minding our own business when someone causes trouble out of the blue. Either way, being an enemy to someone is not always a reciprocal matter.

There are many ways in which having enemies can be an area of character improvement, even if (like many such aspects of life that refine our character), they are often unwelcome. Sometimes we need to be reminded of what sort of conduct makes someone an enemy. Sometimes mere carelessness or heedlessness can be enough to create serious enemies, rather than actual malice aforethought. Nevertheless, it is harder to win over an enemy than it is to take a strong castle, and that ought to encourage us to behave in such a way that we do not go around making enemies carelessly in the first place, as that is something that is sure to bring upon us a great deal of unwanted trouble. Yet if we have been foolish or unwary enough to make enemies, there still remains something to do, and that is to seek their best interests and to show concern for them even despite their hostility. In doing so, we become like God our Father and Jesus Christ, who loved us when we were still enemies of His, before we were reconciled to him. The least we can do is show the same sort of love for others, even if they fail to see it. For if we must be in the presence of our enemies, the least we can do is be gracious about it, and to use whatever circumstances we find ourselves in as an opportunity to practice virtue, no matter how much we want to crawl under a rock and hide from our troubles.

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Book Review: The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner, by James Dashner

Having already seen the movie [1] for this book, I was curious to see how the movie interpreted the book, and when a friend of mine who is a fellow fan of dystopian fiction loaned me the series, I figured reading it would be good. I was pleased to see that with some understandable differences, the movie conformed to the general tenor of the book, including the ambiguous nature of its hero, Thomas, whose role with regards to the Wicked company who has taken the orphans of the world after a massive ecological disaster and put them through a horrible series of tests is certainly questionable. Indeed, this is the sort of book that would make anyone who is uncomfortable with authority rather upset at its abuse and manipulation against vulnerable members of society for some sort of Machiavellian and utilitarian goal, and long for authorities that are not abusive.

In many ways, the audience of this sort of book knows who they are [2]. This book bears all the hallmarks of a successful dystopian series–it has compelling drama, characters that one can easily root for, a struggle among competitive people to realize that the real enemy is outside of the maze, and clear and chilling relevance for the corrupt and abusive nature of authorities on this earth. The story itself progresses in a straightforward but compelling way–a fish out of water is introduced into an area with stable equilibrium and immediately there is a lot of drama and change as the stranger (and his companion) prove themselves to be disruptive elements into a dysfunctional environment that has gotten a little bit too comfortable for many of its inhabitants. Who among us cannot relate to that sort of situation? The fact that the characters of this novel are so easy to relate to, and their portrayal so poignant, only increases the emotional states of the novel as a whole.

The metaphor of the maze for the troubles of life is itself also worthwhile, showing a deep concern for the fact that our trials seem to be tests, from which there often appears to be no mistake. The only way the characters are able to survive is to refuse to surrender and to face peril and immense risk. And this is only the beginning of their struggles, as this is the beginning of a four volume novel series (three novels in the main plot line and a prequel) that promises to test these characters in immense ways. One gets the sense in looking at these characters, and others in novels like this one, that one senses a sort of massive societal test of great adversity. One sees oneself in a dangerous world, and one hates to see others tested in such a cruel fashion. Recognizing these characters, and their search for an exit from constant peril and degradation and cruelty is a sort of instinctive aspect of self-defense. This mood of fast-paced but reflective material is aided by the book’s short chapters and absolute economy of style, avoiding anything that would distract the reader from the momentum of the story, propelling it to a shocking end that is clearly a false dawn before an even darker follow-up. Sometimes life is like that too.

[1] See, for example:

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/10/06/wicked-is-good/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/10/06/the-only-way-out-is-through/

[2] See, for example:

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/05/05/the-rigidity-of-dystopian-identity/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/09/17/book-review-the-world-of-divergent-the-path-to-allegiant/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/09/15/book-review-allegiant/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/08/14/book-review-sand-omnibus/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/07/04/book-review-inside-divergent-the-initiates-world/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/book-review-divergent/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/05/17/book-review-wool/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/we-dont-need-another-hero/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/10/05/the-hunger-games-trilogy-and-the-perils-of-adaptation/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/05/23/book-review-the-hunger-games/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/book-review-insurgent/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/remember-who-the-real-enemy-is/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/11/05/the-weight-of-the-world-upon-such-slender-shoulders/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/03/28/panem-et-circenses/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/05/27/book-review-mockingjay/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/05/26/book-review-catching-fire/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/how-can-we-save-the-world-when-we-cannot-even-save-ourselves/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/05/23/book-review-the-hunger-games/

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A View Of The Institutional Framework Of The Composition And Publication Of The Psalms

In our intensely individualistic age, anyone with an opinion, some kind of keyboard or keypad, and an internet connection can share their opinions and thoughts and feelings with anyone who is inclined to read them. Whether we are sharing our own personal creations on the world wide web, or whether we are praising or criticizing the creations of others, we are used to viewing ourselves as public figures even if we have no institutional backing whatsoever. At times, companies are so aware of this individualistic bias that they even allow or encourage, or even direct, their artists to engage in what appear to be individualistic efforts as a way of gaining credibility with an audience that views corporate products with institutional support with a high degree of criticism and skepticism. Yet if we are sensitive at all to historical realities, we must come to realize that the composition and publication of the Psalms does not coincide with our own intensely individualistic idea of singer-songwriters.

We should note, after all, that the Psalms are often viewed as the subject of intensely personal reflection [1], although that is not the context in which they were originally written. In order to understand the institutional legitimacy of the authors of the Psalms (at least those we know about), let us examine several aspects of the Psalms. First, let us look at the authors of the psalms, to see what sort of people wrote the psalms that ended up being recorded in the Bible. Second, let us look, as much as we can, at the notes that the Psalms themselves give about their composition. Third, let us look at the process the Bible itself shows for the context of the publishing and recording of Psalms. Once we have laid this groundwork, we can better understand the role of institutional legitimacy in providing a framework for the psalms as we know them, which tends to counter the individualistic use we make of the psalms today.

First, let us examine the authors of the Psalms. Based on the superscriptions provided to the Psalms themselves, here is the exhaustive list of the authors of the Psalms. To that list we may add Miriam (who composed part of the victory song of Exodus 15), Hannah (who composed a poem in 1 Samuel 2 [2]), and Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ [3], as well as several of the prophets in whose books there are poetic forms (like Lamentations, traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah). Yet, as we will see, even these additions to the following list will only confirm the general patterns of institutional legitimacy:

David (Psalm 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 68, 69, 70, 86, 101, 103, 108, 109, 110, 124, 133, 138, 139, 140, 141, 142, 143, 144, 145)
The Sons of Korah (42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 84, 85, 87, 88)
Asaph (50, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83)
Solomon (72, 127)
Heman The Ezrahite (one of the sons of Korah; 88)
Ethan The Ezrahite (89)
Moses (90)
An afflicted person who has grown weak and pours out a lament before the Eternal (102)
Unknown (the rest)

With the possible exception of the unknown afflicted person, those psalms which have an author ascribed to them, and those aforementioned psalms which appear elsewhere in scripture come from people who have legitimate offices granted by God. Some of the people named were civil rulers (Moses, David, and Solomon), some were prophets (the author of Lamentations, and the prophets like Habbakuk [4], and the others (including Moses and Habbakuk, as well as Heman, Ethan, Asaph, and the Sons of Korah, as well as Hannah) were a part of the Levite religious establishment. Even Mary, as the mother of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, would fit into the “civil ruler” category. In short, we do not find the psalms being composed by people who have no connection with the offices of Israel, but rather we find that the psalms came from people who had some sort of institutional legitimacy either through their ordination by God or their position as a recognized official of church or state. As might be imagined, this legitimacy gave their creation a weight that simply cannot be matched by those of us who write without that kind of institutional office.

Second, let us note what clues the psalms themselves give about their composition. Given the large number of psalms that exist, and the fact that many are silent about details, it is not possible to be exhaustive, but there is sufficient information given about the patterns of how psalms were composed and published that we can understand the process from the information that is possessed in the often ignored superscriptions to the psalms. Some psalms, like Psalm 100, have a purpose for the psalm stated (“For giving grateful praise”). Psalm 67 is a psalm that provides a good bit of information, including who it was submitted to by David (“The director of music”), what sort of instrumentation the psalm had (“with stringed instruments”) and the fact that the psalm was specifically a song. Some psalms, like Psalm 62 (dedicated to Jeduthan, another name for Ethan the Ezrahite), give either a personal dedication or a note for a soloist who was originally written into the song. Other psalms, like Psalm 63, and most famously, Psalm 51, give a story of the context in which the psalm was written (Psalm 63 says it was written by David when he was in the desert of Judah, and Psalm 51 says that David wrote the psalm when the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba). Other psalms, like Psalms 56, 57, and 59, give the pre-existing music the lyrics of the psalms are set to (“A Dove On Distant Oaks, and “Do Not Destroy” for the latter two of those psalms). These notes again provide a context not of individualistic psalmists writing for themselves, but rather people who are writing psalms and following a particular process, involving public worship as well as a consistent body of Levite musicians who were responsible for performing the songs (with choruses sung by the people) as part of the tabernacle and temple worship.

This process, which is already clear enough when one looks at the psalms themselves, is even more clear when we look at what biblical evidence exists about the process by which psalms were submitted and performed in scripture. In 1 Chronicles 16:4-7 [5], we read the behavior of the public performance of a psalm when the Ark of the Covenant was brought into Jerusalem. As might be imagined, it was a choreographed affair with the institutional backing of church and state: “He [David] appointed some of the Levites to minister before the ark of the Eternal, to extol, thank, and praise the Eternal, the God of Israel: Asaph was the chief, and next to him in rank were Zechariah, then Jaaziel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattihiah, Eliab, Benaiah, Obed-Edom, and Jeil. They were to play the lyres and harps, Asaph was to sound the cymbals, and Benaiah and Jahaziel the priests were to blow the trumpets regularly before the ark of the covenant of God. That day David first appointed Asaph and his associates to give praise to the Eternal in this manner.” After this comes a version of Psalm 105. We see here that the psalms were not seen as private devotional material, but rather as public worship material that included the institutional support of church and state.

Although in our present age we see the psalms in a largely individualistic light, that was not always so even in Western culture. A major, if unrecognized, aspect of the Protestant Reformation was the appropriation of the psalms for reformating into metrical psalms in four-part harmony that were used in the corporate worship of God in churches. Indeed, this tradition (itself at least partly based on scripture) survives in at least some churches to this day, including my own particular denomination. Seeing the public nature of the use of the psalms, and the way in which they were recorded in thematic sets, with a sense of larger structure and with the purpose of public worship by an institutional body of official musicians and singers, we can be struck by the tension between this institutional legitimacy as well as the intense personal nature of some of the psalms. To be sure, the psalms were probably written (as most writing occurs) in some solitude, but that individual composition was certainly done in the context of public proclamation, after some delay of time, where the personal praise or lament of the psalmist was transformed into an act of public devotion by which people were able to participate in that worship and also come to understand the complicated nature of mankind’s relationship with God and others. Far from leading to a great deal of praise and attention for the psalmist themselves, the psalms became a way for the building of a sense of community within the institutions of the tabernacle, temple, and church. Let us not forget to appreciate this purpose even in our much less communitarian age, so that we too may find the psalms of God bringing us together with other believers in giving the praise and glory to God that is due, and not using our God-given creative abilities merely to bring glory to ourselves.

[1] See, for example:

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/11/18/an-introduction-to-the-psalms-commentary-project/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/an-introduction-to-the-sons-of-korah-project/

[2] http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/04/16/1-samuel-2-1-10-hannahs-song/

[3] http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/luke-1-46-55-my-soul-magnifies-the-lord/

[4] http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/habakkuk-a-bible-study/

[5] For a fuller account, see the following:

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/04/29/1-chronicles-15-1-29-the-sons-of-korah-sing-at-the-placement-of-the-ark-of-the-covenant-in-the-tabernacle-part-one/

http://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2011/04/29/1-chronicles-16-1-6-37-43-the-sons-of-korah-sing-at-the-placement-of-the-ark-of-the-covenant-in-the-tabernacle-part-two/

Posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Music History, Musings, Psalms, Sons of Korah | Tagged , | Leave a comment