Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Sweeter Than Honey?

"...More precious than gold, than much pure gold... sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.” Psalm 19:10

This precious and sweet commodity being described above by the Psalmist, David, is the law of the Lord, used interchangeably with his statutes (v. 7), precepts (v. 8), commands (v.8), and ordinances .  Sweeter than honey.  That comparison surprises me. 

I can understand why I should respect God’s laws and try to obey them.  But to describe them as delicious is hard to swallow, so to speak. As necessary as food?  Yes.  But, as tasty as honey?  That seems a bit of a stretch.   You could make a better case that we should obey because it is healthy, not necessarily because it scrumptious. 

That’s only reinforced when you remember that David is referring, not to the Bible as we know it, but to the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. And, my, what books they are.  Genesis is pretty good, Exodus not half bad, but after that you get Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  Open up to random selections within these books and you may find yourself stranded in seven chapters describing different types of offerings (Leviticus 1-7) or four chapters of census figures (Numbers 1-4).  This is like the gristle of Scripture, the tough part of the meat.  You could live on it, but it sure doesn’t taste real good – certainly not like honey

If I were writing this poem about the law of God to be included in the enduring canon of Scripture, I’d edit out the line about honey.  Maybe replace it with “more nutritious than potatoes.”  I owe my knowledge of potatoes to Michael Pollan and his wonderful book The Botany of Desire.  Potatoes are cheap, versatile, and nutritionally balanced.  They require minimal labor or tools to produce, grow in a wide variety of soil types, and are immensely nourishing.   Almost all the nutrients you need to survive are wrapped up in that tuber.  Many societies have developed on the sustenance of the potato. 

As far as taste, potatoes are pretty bland.  Occasionally we have baked potato night for dinner.  Truthfully, the potatoes are just a sponge for the various toppings we pile on – butter, cheddar cheese, sour cream, sautéed onions, crumbled bacon, and salt and pepper. Take away the toppings and you have a pretty dull meal.  But isn’t that how we think of the law of God.  Dull, but nutritious. Necessary, but not particularly pleasant.  It doesn’t taste like much, but you know it’s good for you.   And yet, David says the law is sweeter than honey.

In his search for an explanation, C.S. Lewis looked to Psalm 119, the longest in the collection and one devoted entirely to the Law.  Again, comparisons are made to the value of gold and silver (v.72), the tastiness of honey (v.103).  At times the Psalmist seems to go over the top with his passion for God’s Word.  Verse 131 he writes, “I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands.”

But Lewis notes that for all its passion, this is the most highly structured of all the Psalms. It's an elaborate poem composed of twenty-two eight-verse stanzas, each stanza corresponding to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  Each verse within each stanza begins with the same Hebrew letter. It’s an acrostic on energy drinks; an alphabetical poem taken to an extreme. And yet for all its complexity, it really conveys a simple message.  The Psalmist loves the Word of God.

Lewis realized that this was no sudden outpouring of the heart, composed off-the-cuff.  It's too complicated for that.  You don’t write this kind of poem in a hurry.  It’s a thing done like embroidery, stitch by stitch, through long quiet hours.  It’s labored over, as if the Psalmist finds delight in the leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship. He finds the pleasure of getting a thing just so. 

Maybe the poet felt about God’s Word much like he felt about his poetry.  Involved and exact; lovingly conformed to an intricate pattern.  Delightfully complex in it’s details, but wonderfully simple in it’s united whole.  Simple enough to teach children and complex enough that no one has ever plumbed its depths and reached the bottom.

The deeper we investigate the more we discover that God’s Word is a reliable guide to life.  It reveals truth.  Delight in the law is the delight of having touched firmness, of having grasped reality.  God’s Word faithfully directs us through the complexities of life.  In it you find stable, well-grounded directions for living. Psalm 19 points to these benefits, suggesting that the law of God revives our souls, makes us wise, gives us joy, helps us see, and results in great reward. And the more you meditate, the deeper you understand, the tighter you get your hands around it, the more delightful it becomes.

Scripture invites us to unwrap it like layers of an onion.  To find delight in seeing even familiar passages afresh as we take it one level deeper.  And to find that God's Word truly is sweeter than honey.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dissonant Death

The day after the Grammys I was listening to an NPR radio bit entitled "Why Some Songs Make You Cry".”  In the wake of Adele’s sweep at the Grammy’s, they were considering her song “Someone Like You,” and searching for an explanation for why this song is, as they put it, “an emotional powder keg?”

John Sloboda, a professor of music psychology at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama, offered this explanation. “Our brains are wired to pick up the music that we expect. So when we're listening to music, our brain is constantly trying to guess what comes next. Generally music is consonant rather than dissonant, so we expect a nice chord. When that chord is not quite what we expect, it gives you a little bit of an emotional frisson, because it's strange and unexpected. When Adele bounces around the note on "you," there's a tension that is then released.”

The key, according to Sloboda, is a delicate balance between dissonance and consonance.  There needs to be enough dissonance to create real tension and enough consonance to bring resolution.  Too much dissonance and the song is irritating.  Too much consonance and the song is predictable.

Years ago, while on a youth retreat, Dave Corsello was our cabin’s chaperone.  Dave is a gifted classical guitarist.  As we got ready for bed one night, Dave was messing around with his guitar and played the lullaby “Rock-A-Bye Baby.”  All except the last note.  “And down will come baby, cradle and…”  He packed up his guitar, turned off the lights, and settled into his sleeping bag.  Our cabin, dark and still, hung with the tension.  We lasted three minutes – maybe.  Finally, we heard rustling from Dave’s bunk, the clips of his guitar case, and the muffled thumps of his guitar, pulled from the case and settled onto his thigh.  “I just can’t do it, guys,” he sighed, and played the final note - the note that resolved all that tension that was bouncing around in our brains.  I don’t think any of us could have slept without it. 

My father-in-law passed away last Monday after an 18 month battle with lymphoma.  Throughout, I realized death was possible.  I didn't realize it was imminent.  He went into the hospital on Friday.  Four days he breathed his last.  This past week has been full of travel to Michigan, planning the services, looking through pictures, sharing memories, going to the services, seeing extended family and friends, feeling the grief, comforting others in their grief.  It has brought me face-to-face with death.  Death of a man I admire.  Death of a man I love. 

I can argue the necessity of the resurrection from an intellectual standpoint.  I know there must be some ultimate reckoning, a just resolution.  I can take a theological angle and point to the resurrection of Christ as the first fruits, an initial installment for all those who have placed their faith in him.  But in the face of death I don’t need intellectual or theological explanations.  I need some emotional relief. Something that not only sounds reasonable, but also feels satisfying.  You see, death is a horribly dissonant chord.  It sounds awful.  Like a song played many years ago, hung out without the last note.  I need the resolving chord. 

To see my father-in-law gradually weakened was hard to watch, even from afar.  He lost not only hair, but weight and strength.  My mother-in-law shared how dad was frustrated by his increasing dependance on others, as he was unable to do the things he had always done.  In the end, he couldn't even breathe alone.  He was kept alive by a machine long enough for my wife to fly out to be with him for those last moments.  This is not a fitting conclusion.

But death is not the final note.  Paul, in his powerful chapter on the resurection, says, "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men" (1 Corinthians 15:19).  To end the story at death is like ending the lullaby at “ baby and.”  That's a tune that will keep me up at night.  I need the note that finishes the song.  I need to be able to sing the last word “all.” And that is the hope the resurrection offers.  It is the promise that the song does not end with dissonance. We await the promised day when death will be swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54). All the tension of that chord is satisfied in the resurrection.

In a sense, the song doesn't end with that resolving note.  It's more of a transition.  In it, the first movement is over and the second is just beginning.  Dad hit that chord a little earlier than I did.  I'll join him in that song at some point in the future.  And our voices will be added to the throng.  "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb, be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever" (Revelation 5:13).  And that's as satisfying a song as has ever been sung.  Even by Adele.

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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Shocking Hope

Consider a psychological experiment done at Maastritch University in the Netherlands. The subjects were split into two groups and hooked up to a device that would deliver an electric shock.  Both groups would receive twenty shocks.  The first group was told that all of them would be severe, while the second group was told that seventeen would be mild and three severe. 

Imagine you could choose which group to be in.  Which would you pick? 

Cue the Jeopardy music.  My logical mind thinks this through very carefully. “Okay, let’s see.  I can choose to be jolted with twenty severe shocks, or three.  Hmmm.  Tough choice.”  Okay, times up.  My decision is made.  I’ll join the second group and take the three shocks.  Final answer.

Seems logical, doesn’t it?  If I’m going to be shocked 20 times either way, why wouldn’t I choose the group with less overall intensity?

It turns out that our reaction to an experiment like this is dictated by more than just the sum of the voltage.  There’s another variable at play that is more powerful than the jolt of electricity.  It’s the variable of uncertainty.  It’s a variable that I didn’t really give thought to while the Jeopardy music was playing.

The results of the experiment showed that those with less chance of receiving a severe shock were more anxious than those guaranteed to be shocked severely.  Their hearts beat faster and they sweat more profusely.  Getting three shocks spread out randomly over twenty was more stressful than getting blasted twenty times in a row.  Ironically, we feel worse when something bad might occur than when something bad will occur. 

Harvard psychologists Dan Gilbert, in reflecting on this finding, summarized by saying, “…when we get bad news we weep for a while, and then get busy making the best of it. We change our behavior, we change our attitudes. We raise our consciousness and lower our standards. We find our bootstraps and tug. But we can’t come to terms with circumstances whose terms we don’t yet know. An uncertain future leaves us stranded in an unhappy present with nothing to do but wait.”

In my plodding pilgrimage, I recently drifted back into a rut that I believed I had left behind long ago.  It was frustrating to find myself rehashing a pattern that I thought had been broken.  I wanted to believe I was beyond this – wiser, more mature, more disciplined.  But here I was again, revisiting this barren terrain.  When I saw it for what it was, I was discouraged.  The shadow of hopelessness was growing long. 

Then God spoke to me.  Not in audible voice, but in whisper - multiple sources echoing the same theme; converging “coincidences.” He reminded me that hope is what sets me apart as a Christian. Hope is an anchor for the soul (Hebrews 6:19). A certain future infiltrates the present and changes my outlook.  The swells of discouragement cannot pull me from my mooring.

In a previous post I talked about the entangled snare of twists and turns that is the course of my life (A Plodding Pilgrimage).  This rut revisit certainly felt like a pretty significant zig (or maybe a zag).  But hope is the assurance that this course does have a certain destination, and the destination is good.  In 1 Timothy it is described as “the life that is truly life” (I Timothy 6:19).  So this is the hope – that God can use all these twists and turns to get me closer and closer to real life.

And if that’s where I’m heading, all these set backs are surmountable.  With hope I am never stranded in the present.  Even if the electrodes suggest otherwise. 

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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Confessions of an Unsettled Introvert

Recently I went to a hockey game with my son.  Between periods he was performing with his karate demo team in the Great Hall of the Onondaga War Memorial.  The rest of the time we got to watch the game.  Toward the end of the third period, the karate instructor, who was sitting in front of us, turned and said to my son, “Your dad is getting a little too noisy.”  She was teasing, of course.  I was anything but noisy.  It’s not the first time that my quiet demeanor has been uncomfortably nudged into the spotlight.

I am an introvert.  I blush easily, get nervous in front of crowds, feel inept at small talk, and have to muster up courage to introduce myself to strangers.  In most cases, I’d rather be at home enjoying a quite evening.  It is not crippling, like agoraphobia, but it is noticeable.

I admire those who gather a crowd with scintillating stories or compelling opinions, who speak with confidence and composure, who have the gravitation pull to bring conversation in orbit around them. It is an admiration that may trespass into envy.

I wish I were the charismatic host, the amiable guest, the life of the party. Instead, I am the wallflower.  In mingling, I tend to slink into the background. I nervously fill my plate, so I can excuse myself from initiating conversation.  Finger to the wind, I approach a conversation in progress with the hope of catching the current.  I may not control the conversation, but I can at least contribute.  I wait for a lull to offer my input, too timid to interject.  The topic is changed and I’m left holding that little piece that I meant to offer.  The cycle repeats itself, ad nauseam.

I have struggled to accept this personality trait.  I tend to see it as a character flaw, something inherently wrong with me, or at least deficient.  I feel pressure to overcome it, like I feel pressure to stop biting my nails.  I can compensate when needed and push beyond the barriers of my temperament, but it feels unnatural.  I can tell I’m pushing.  Eventually I weary of it and return to my default setting.  Seems that being an introvert is something I need to come to peace with, at least on some level.  That peace may come from looking at this from another angle.

“The Power of Shyness” the cover story of the most recent issue of Time magazine (Feb. 6, 2012), addresses the “hidden benefits of the introverted temperament.”  The author, Bryan Walsh, notes that introverts tend to be good listeners, careful thinkers, strongly focused workers, and empowering leaders, each directly related to their introversion.  These are some of the qualities I most treasure about my personality.  As much as I hate my social timidity, I love that I think deeply, analyze carefully, and respond with level headedness. 

Ironic that the traits I most value in myself are directly related to the one I most revile.  They spring from the same well.  I suspect this is by design.  There is balance.  My greatest weakness may be my greatest strength. 

According to Scripture, I am God’s workmanship (Ephesians 2:10), a term used for the output of a craftsman.  In the days before mass marketing and assembly lines, everything, from the crude chamber pots to the fine red pottery of the upper class, was handmade.  A craftsman would labor over each piece, molding it by hand.  Each work had the marks of the maker all over it. 

So God has molded my personality, pressing the clay until it takes shape.  He labors over me, crafts me by hand.  Personality traits are rubbed into this vessel for good reason. There is design in this.   He knows the purposes he has created me for.  He’ll shape me accordingly.   Part of that is making me an introvert.

I find peace when I look at it from this perspective.  There are two sides to this coin. “Shy” carries an armload of negative connotations.  “Reflective” sounds more complimentary.  Both are probably accurate depictions of me, offshoots of being an introvert.  But you can’t have a one sided coin.  Recognizing the heads side makes it easier to accept the tails.   

But for the coin toss, I’ll always call heads.

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