A Short Story about a Conflicted Prophet

Published / by kathleen

JonahI’ve been thinking about Jonah. If you want to understand Jonah, think of it as a short story. A short story can be read in an hour but remembered for a lifetime—which certainly fits Jonah. Study of Jonah has been skewed because discussion of it as a story has commonly focused on whether it is historical or fictional/parabolic. But God likes both history and parable, as the Gospels show, and Jonah is inspired and authoritative either way. Telling the difference is actually really hard.  I do think that the prominence of irony and humor and hyperbole suggests that the Jonah scroll is an imaginative short story. But fortunately it’s not important whether Jonah is history or parable. The insight, importance, truthfulness, and reliability of Jonah are the same either way.

If one asks what message the author of the Jonah story was intending to convey, there are many possible answers. The problem of deciding which of these understandings might be right attaches to the Jonah scroll in a distinctive way because of its distinctive nature, as a short story. The nature of a story is not to tell you what you are supposed to get from it.

The observation has been applied to the book of Jonah that understanding what a great man is saying is made easier if you know what he was opposing. And we don’t know what the answer is. Accepting the usual critical view that it was composed in Judah in the Persian period doesn’t help, because widely divergent understandings of its background and aim have been held within that framework. The narrator of the story doesn’t articulate its implications. The story is content to raise questions and not answer them. It works on us by making us think. Its closing with a question symbolizes its approach.

Leaving interpretation to the people listening to the story leaves them free to bring ideas or assumptions or questions from outside it and see how it illumines them. For instance, people may read the scroll on the assumption that Jonah stands for Israel as a people, or that he stands for the individual Judahite, or that he is a type of Christ.

Within the scroll itself, there are three key themes. First, the story is about God’s relationship with a great and violent city. God is prepared to act against it for its waywardness but glad to remit its punishment if it turns from its waywardness.  (It’s often been said that the message of Jonah is that Israel should be more open to other peoples, but there’s no reason to think that the average Israelite was more xenophobic than the average Christian, or that the average Prophet would object to the idea of Nineveh repenting and finding Yahweh’s forgiveness. One has to be wary of anti-Judaic inclinations finding expression in this understanding.)

The story is about the sort of person God is. He’s insistent on his moral authority but also characterized by grace and compassion, and he’s capable of being flexible about his intentions in interaction with nations over which he is sovereign. The story portrays Yahweh’s manifold involvement with nature (the storm, the fish, the animals, the plant, the worm, the wind, the sun. The theodicy question presupposed by Jonah is “Are God’s compassionate actions just?” Jonah’s problem is that Yahweh doesn’t fulfill his declarations of judgment on the great oppressor (Assyria, Babylon, Persia). The people of God have to hold onto the reality of both God’s judgment and God’s compassion, and both God’s sovereignty and God’s flexibility.

The story is about the kind of person a prophet can be. Prophets can be resistant to their vocation yet also willing to do what God says; they can be quite conflicted people; they can be simultaneously knowledgeable and slow on the uptake. Prophets need not to take themselves too seriously, and people in general need not to take them too seriously.

John

Chet Baker and the Old Jazz Guys

Published / by kathleen

There’s a new movie about Chet Baker which is on our Netflix list, but somehow I also put there the old documentary about him, Let’s Get Lost. So we watched it thinking it would be the new movie with Ethan Hawke as Chet and found it was the old movie with Chet as Chet (apparently the new movie is a movie about the making of that old movie…).

Chet Baker

It started with scenes in clubs in Los Angeles in the 1950s and reminiscences about those clubs from the era of the West Coast Sound, where Chet played in little store front establishments with people such as Dizzy Gillespie, before he became the victim of his drug habit, and aged and waned before our eyes.

Old jazz guys in Los Angeles bemoan the fact that the jazz and club scene isn’t what it once was, and when they do that, I roll my eyes, but the documentary enabled me to see what they mean. They complain regularly about the places that have closed down, and I can make a list from the time I’ve been here. The third night after we moved to Pasadena, we went to the Pasadena Baked Potato (yes, that’s what they serve) and I noted there weren’t many people there; the next day it closed. We used to go to the Hollywood Baked Potato; it closed. We went to Charlie O’s, and one evening found it was closing that very night (the singer for the evening was pretty bewildered, too). The Pasadena Jazz Institute lost the plot and closed down. The Vic in Santa Monica just closed. While sometimes the places lose clientele, as often as not it’s because the owner gets bored.

I am as struck by the new places that open. On Monday we were at the Blue Whale in Little Tokyo (don’t ask me why it’s there), in a street called after Ellison Onizuka, the Japanese American astronaut who died in the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Vocalist Jessica Vautor was celebrating her birthday and her CD with the most original and creative arrangements of standards by Vardan Ovsepian on piano and extraordinary jazz cello playing by Artyom Manukyan (there were non-Armenians in the band as well). That was only Monday. Tuesday there was the New Breed Brass Band from New Orleans doing a free outdoor concert, and on Thursday Sara Gazarek and the New West Guitar Group doing another free outdoor concert, and on Friday Asian American Connie Han’s lively piano trio at Red White and Bluezz. Don’t listen too much to the old jazz guys.

Jessica Vautor

On Translating the Old Testament

Published / by kathleen

I’ve just finished translating the Old Testament. “Excuse me?” you ask. Well, about eight years ago Philip Law (then of Westminster John Knox) invited me to write a series of commentaries called “The Old Testament for Everyone.” When I was nearly done (the last ones will come out this year) he asked if we could bring together the translation elements in each volume and produce the complete translation on its own. It would also mean my translating the remaining twenty per cent that wasn’t included in the commentaries.

It didn’t seem a big task, but it took much longer than I thought. The bits I had omitted were often the difficult bits. But also I hadn’t needed to worry about consistency when I was working book by book. When the translation was in one volume, there needed to be consistency. So I’ve spent several hours almost every day over the past year or so just working through the translation of the Old Testament again with nothing much on my desk but the Hebrew text and a dictionary.
It’s been an extraordinary experience. The depth and the wonder of the words I have been reading have come home to me more and more. I’ve sat there marveling that I’m privileged to let this sacred text soak into me. I’ve felt more and more that I have been on hallowed ground. Yes, they are holy scriptures. Of course it’s because they’re all about God. So simply reading them for hours every day has made we wonder at the God whose activity lies behind them and who is the most prominent character in them.
(Until it’s published next year, the translation is on my website, under the tabs for different parts of the Old Testament. There’s also a paper about translation which includes some reflections, under the “Interpretation” tab.)

John

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Who Are the Poor in Spirit?

Published / by kathleen

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the reign of heaven” (Matt 5:3).

Who are the poor in spirit to whom the reign of heaven belongs?

Here as elsewhere Jesus is picking up the language of Isaiah 61. There, they are the people to whom Isaiah 61 declared good news of freedom, vindication, and restoration. Isaiah 61 was an important passage for Jesus; he quotes in his sermon at Nazareth. Luke includes that story at an equivalent place in his Gospel to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (Luke 4:16-21). Jesus echoes it in describing his ministry to John the Baptizer (Matt 11:2-6). The poor in spirit are people who are neglected, ignored, put down, insignificant, and powerless. They will no doubt thus be materially needy, but also oppressed and depressed.

It’s impossible for someone like me or for most readers of this blog to be poor in spirit. That’s not something to feel guilty about, though. Arguably it’s something to thank God for. But it’s also something to be wary of. The poor in spirit are the people to whom the reign of heaven naturally belongs. People like us are the rich for whom it’s hard to enter to the reign of heaven (Matt 19:23-24). Fortunately it’s not impossible to get in (Matt 19:25-26).

We can redefine “poor in spirit” so it applies to us. But do we then take the description away from the people to whom it belongs? That might well mean we can’t get in.

How has Studying Isaiah affected my own faith?

Published / by kathleen

Here’s the big idea in this connection for me.

Isaiah 40—55 works in linear fashion and it simply declares that God’s purpose is about to be fulfilled. Isaiah 56—66 works chiastically: it goes round in circles. It is set the other side of the events that Isaiah 40—55 heralded and it knows that they had not brought the consummation of God’s purpose.

Isaiah 56—66 is prophecy for a time when nothing is happening, when all a prophet can do is reaffirm God’s promises and reaffirm God’s expectations and model the kind of prayer one prays in such a situation and equip the people of God for the long haul.

The importance of its message has come home to me in our own context. Isaiah 1—39 promised the coming of a reign of peace and justice, and Isaiah 40—55 promised the consummation of God’s purpose, and the New Testament declares that in Jesus God has fulfilled those promises.

Seven hundred years passed from the time of Isaiah ben Amoz to the coming of Jesus. Three times as many years have passed since the coming of Jesus, and (as 2 Peter 3:4 puts it) things continue as they were from the beginning of creation. While a countless host all over the world has come into a relationship with God since Jesus’ coming, and they will be the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, here in this world Jesus’ coming has made little difference. As Jesus put it, wars and rumors of wars continue. Slavery on a vast scale continues. Poverty on a vast scale continues.

Isaiah 56—66 was designed for a time like our time. It reminds us to hold onto God’s promises, to re-commit ourselves to God’s expectations, and not to give up on prayer like that of the woman in Jesus’ parable who is making trouble with the unjust judge.

John

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Reason 3 to Pray “Set Prayers” – God Hears Us

Published / by kathleen

Every day John and I say set prayers out loud together from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.  A good reason for doing this, as opposed to free-forming our own prayers, is because we forget God’s love and God’s instructions. Set prayer from God’s Word reminds us what God promises and what God asks. Next, this discipline is servant behavior and helps us ‘take on the mind of Jesus.’ (Phil 2:5).  And the third reason is – God hears us.

The scriptures overflow with examples of people crying out. The slaves in Egypt cried out. Noah cried out. Hannah cried out. Job cried out.  Apostles cried out. And God heard them and God answered them.

John points out that when we read set prayers, we are adding our voice to the voice of many others who are offering the same prayers all over the world, crying out together. This puts our lives into the context of the wider church and reminds us that we are part of the overarching bigger story; we are a part of God’s life.

God hears us and remembers us as God’s beloved people.

The people who cried out in the Bible were not always answered in the way they expected or had asked for.  But they were heard. This fact is reinforced for me when I know I am praying the same words they said; this doesn’t happen when I am making up my own prayers.

But will we hear God?

We are sometimes prone to identifying culturally dictated impulses or personal rationalizations as something “God said to me.” Through the set prayers, especially those taken directly from Scripture, I come to know what God has promised and what God’s “voice” sounds like.  I am less prone to put my own words into God’s mouth. And many times the answer I need is right there in the prayers.

In Conclusion: Set prayers provide a frame you can depend on.

It may seem that praying set words is shallow or doesn’t take enough creative effort or is too simple. However, when I am focused on the tasks of the day, or trying to sort out my relationships, I can easily forget what is important.

Here is a sampling of important reminders that are included in the four Episcopal Daily Devotions:

The morning prayers remind us that we have been born anew into a living hope through the resurrection.

At noon we are reminded that our blessed Savior stretched out his loving arms on the cross for us.

In the early evening we reflect that it is not ourselves we proclaim but Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as servants for Jesus’ sake.

At the close of the day we are reminded that the Lord is merciful and almighty and can drive away all the snares of the enemy.

These things are a frame we can live in and depend on. They are true. They convey God’s love for us. They are God’s answers to our prayers.

I See Hawks in LA

Published / by kathleen

In about 1915, we were told, four years before women got the vote, a band of suffragettes whom the L.A. Times dubbed rabble-rousers used to meet in a house in South Pasadena. In 2015 we went to hear another band do a concert in the garden of that house, not knowing this story but always keen to hear I See Hawks in L.A.

The name comes from one of their first songs, which with typical originality, quirkiness, and sly humor imagines the predatory birds hovering over our city as they sense that the “big one” is imminent. The Hawks are a country trio, but theirs is “California country,” not country as played by men in big hats. The guitar expertise comes from Paul Lacques, he with the very long grey hair. The vocals come from Rob Weller, who is a dead ringer for one of my faculty colleagues; I often do a double take on the latter. The other indispensable Paul, Paul Marshall, plays bass.

Hawks couch

Rob is younger than the others. My favorite Hawks song is actually called “California Country.” It tells the story of someone’s lifetime journey from green fields to urban sprawl, but the singer is still rejoicing to be “living in California country.” Rob explained one time that Paul Lacques had to revise the dates in the song so that it became plausible on Rob’s lips. The song goes on to recall getting stuck on the freeway in Glendale near where we live, on the way to trying to see the annual meteor shower. Lo and behold, that shower is to happen tonight, and Kathleen and I will look for it, but we’ll avoid the Angeles Crest.

Through the music of the opening acts at this particular show, I realized more clearly two things about the Hawks. The first opening act was a teenage singer-songwriter whose songs were confessional and musically loose, though therefore not very hummable. The Hawks tell stories but their songs are hummable, singalongable. Indeed, their songs are indulgent or wasteful in the sense that they throw in extra melodies and don’t develop them. They know another will come along in a minute.

The other two opening acts were striking in a different way. In both cases the bands were playing songs that some players had never played before (and without music charts). How could they do that? Because most country-type music (like most pop music and much jazz and rock) utilizes one of a number of standard formats in terms of the number of bars and the chord sequence. So though the tune may be unfamiliar, you can know where the song is going structurally and musically, and you can join in even if you’ve never played it before. You couldn’t do that with many Hawks songs. They’re not illogical or disorganized. But you commonly can’t predict where they might be going. Yet when they get to the end, they have been somewhere, lyrically and musically. It’s a mark of a musically great band, I’d say.

Photo from http://www.iseehawks.com/

Reason 2 to Pray “Set Prayers”- Obedience

Published / by kathleen

Two or three times a day John and I say set prayers out loud together from the Episcopalian’s Book of Common Prayer.  Reason one for doing this (see previous post) was because we forget- we forget God’s love and God’s instructions. Prayer from God’s word can remind us in ways that prayers we make up about our current concerns can’t.

One of the reactions we get is: “I pray often, but don’t feel a need to be legalistic about it.”

Reason two: Prayer is servant behavior.

“To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” Isaiah (45:23 NRSV) This command is very clear and doesn’t appear to be optional. Scripture leaves us with little doubt that Jesus is Lord and is to be acknowledged as Lord.

Paul reinforces this message in Philippians (2:10-11) and Romans (14:11). The confession that “Jesus Christ is Lord” is part of our set prayers; this recognition establishes our human status as servant. We are not to be our own Lord. We are subject to the Lord our God.

But what does this mean exactly? Philippians gives us some instructions.  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (2:5) and “(He) emptied himself taking on the form of a slave.” (2:7) and “Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.” (2:3)

We find daily set prayer a way to remember and fulfill these instructions.

When we use set prayers from scripture, saying out loud the word of God, we are “taking on the mind of Jesus.”  As we repeat the words we remember. We remember who we are in relation to Jesus and our neighbors; and we remember God’s instructions about those relationships. We are reminded again who God is and how Jesus served with uncompromising humility.

We find it is a light yoke and one that gets easier to bear with practice.

Willie and Alison

Published / by kathleen

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No one makes Kathleen sing along like Willie Nelson. He was having that effect on most people at the Santa Barbara Bowl last week. Why the Santa Barbara Bowl, you ask? Because we could get cheap tickets for $50, and that’s as much as I will pay. There were 5000 people there; I guess the concert took in $500,000. The cheapest tickets for the Los Angeles concert were $80 in a 7000-seat venue—you can do the math. Anyway, it’s nice to have an excuse to go to SB. And sitting at the back in the cheap seats you can see the ocean. In addition, why is it called the Santa Barbara Bowl, Alison Krauss asked. Yes, why?

Maybe they had an excuse to charge a lot because the concert was a double-header. Alison Krauss is not your average opening act, though the people in the expensive seats were the average expensive-seat-audience in failing to arrive for the opening act. This was unwise because Alison and her band can carry a concert on their own, and usually do – they were the main act the previous time we saw them, four years ago, a couple of weeks after I had my prostate out, but that’s another story.

Record

Alison has the world’s best player of the dobro (a lap steel guitar), Jerry Douglas. She also has Dan Tyminski, whose voice you hear coming out of George Clooney’s mouth in Oh Brother (Dan’s wife says that her husband’s voice and Clooney’s face constitutes her dream man). But most of all she has her own pure, subtle, elegant, mesmerizing voice. I’m still humming “Baby, now that I’ve found you.” But she sang fewer songs than I expected; I think because she is careful about not overdoing it because she has had vocal chords trouble. But anyway she is also a formidable fiddler. She is bluegrass for people who don’t like bluegrass.

07222015_Willie_Nelson_08_r175x200When Willie Nelson came on, a giant Texas flag dropped behind him. One also has to comment on his age (82), but over against Alison its significance lies in one’s sense that he has lived in his songs for so many decades. The voice that’s husky or gravelly (not pure like Alison’s) helps to convey that impression. The songs come from deep inside. Maybe that’s especially true of On the Road Again, but it’s also somehow true about the songs that don’t necessarily relate to his own experience.

Kathleen and others were especially vocal during Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys with the telling line, “They’ll never stay home and they’re always alone, even with someone they love.” A striking aspect of Willie’s set was the way he letting one song flow into the next seamlessly without missing a beat, song after song. Another striking aspect was that most songs lasted two minutes and twenty-five seconds, presumably because they were written by people such as Hank Williams back in the days of 78 r.p.m. records when every song had to get itself over in that time.

Willie’s band was only himself plus two percussion (!), bass, harmonica, and keyboard, which made for a crisp, clean sound. It gave great prominence to the virtuoso harmonica, and it also exposed Willie’s guitar work in a way that made clear what a virtuoso he himself is.

SB-Bowl-Eve

Reason 1 to Pray “Set Prayers”: We don’t get it

Published / by kathleen

Is saying the set prayers from the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer boring? This is like asking if marriage is boring…maybe sometimes, but then it’s boring in a good way, and sometimes we find it anything but boring! The basic framework for our marriage is our prayer life, and even though prayer is emotionally grounding, that is not the only reason to do it.

Here is the first of three reasons prayer is much more profound than a balm to help you sleep at night:

We just don’t get it

From the very beginning we haven’t gotten it. When God walked with the first humans in the early evening breeze, it was the sweetest time of day in the most luscious garden imaginable, but that wasn’t enough for us.

In spite of the perfect setting and knowing God was there with them, people forgot what God imparted to them on those walks. They forgot both God’s love and God’s instructions. The result of this forgetting is powerlessness and severe jeopardy. I know this from my own experience and because the same story, different characters, is repeated over and over in Scripture. And just understanding the story doesn’t help me remember it.

Scripture uses repetition to help us remember.  God begs us over and over in various ways to listen. God formed an entire people to serve as an example. Remembering the overarching story of their life with God was perhaps the most important part of being an example. They remembered this out loud together by repeating the story at festivals. Set prayers help me remember this same story.

God sent us prophets who used familiar bits of scripture, poems and prayers as lectures and warnings not to forget the big picture.  The prophets also begged us to cry out to God for help. An entire book of Scripture, the Psalms, instructs us in remembering and crying out.  I doubt the psalms were given to us only to be read once and then put away as irrelevant.

But we rarely call out to God in this way unless we are really suffering like Job or Hannah.  The set prayers use the Psalms. The first words I pray each day are from Psalm 51. “Open my lips, Oh Lord….” Reminding me I need God even to speak and that there is a larger story that my life fits into. The story of what God did for us and will do for us, most profoundly in Christ.

When God came to walk with us again, to tell us directly the good news of God’s love for us, did Jesus have instant mind-meld with the Father? No, Scripture tells us Jesus regularly turned to prayer.

Jesus thought that prayer was important enough that he gave us specific instructions about it and a specific set prayer.  Jesus thought that prayer was powerful enough that it was the very last thing he did on the cross. And Jesus thought crying out through scripture was worthy enough that his last prayer was also recognizable set prayer, a psalm.

I hope you will consider joining us in daily set prayer.

Blessings, Kathleen