Saturday, October 30, 2010

Reformation Day

October 31 marks the day when in 1517 Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The actual event, I am told, was not as dramatic as we often make it sound. It was not uncommon in those days to post items for debate on the door of the church. It had come to serve as a kind of community bulletin board, I suppose. Martin Luther, priest, monk and academic, was simply making public some things that he thought needed to be discussed.

Of course, things did become dramatic enough in a short time. Luther began writing and publishing controversial topics which challenged church teaching on the selling of indulgences, justification by faith, and papal authority. He was excommunicated by the Pope in 1520. It was at the Diet of Worms in 1521 that Luther was formally given opportunity to recant his writings. He is quoted as saying, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason…I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.” And thus Martin Luther set in motion seismic waves that would forever alter the landscape of Western Civilization.

He was a complex man whose thoughts and actions yielded a mixed bag. His magnificent hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” is sung in virtually every Christian Church today, including the Roman Catholic Church. It is said that his translation of the Bible into German was influential in standardizing the German language. He is also known for his fierce anti-Semitism and his advocating nobles in Germany to put down rebel peasants like mad dogs after having initially supported the peasants in their grievances. He even told Philip of Hesse that he could take a second wife if he kept it secret, and then advised him to lie about it when it became public. Not always given to elegant discourse, Luther is said to have declared that “If I break wind in Wittenberg and they smell it in Rome.” His “Here I stand” quote is the one we like to remember.

Wherever one stands on the theological spectrum, Martin Luther must be taken into account. I am one who has stood on both sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide. On Monday, All Saints’ Day, I will share a brief essay I wrote while making my way to the Catholic Church.

(This is admittedly a quite cursory look at Martin Luther. Anyone interested in further reading would do well to consult Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, by Roland Bainton, or Martin Luther, by Martin Marty)

For Church History buffs, here is a 95 Theses Rap:

Monday, October 25, 2010


“Imagination is more important than knowledge”
~Albert Einstein

There is a small poster tacked up on the wall near the doorway just to my left as I sit at the computer. It is a black and white picture of Albert Einstein with the quote that you see above. My wife found it several years ago and kept it as a reminder while we were trying to mold our daughter’s education. Our daughter is now in college on an art scholarship – so far imagination has served her well (I should add that she is also very smart and hard-working).

I think about imagination from time to time, sometimes glancing up at Dr. Einstein’s picture prompts a return to imagination. Sometimes things get so serious, and work becomes so necessary, and other things become so Very Important that imagination gets relegated to a back corner.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a Jungian workshop titled, “Jung, Tolkein, and the Archetypes of Middle Earth.” In the first session, the presenter, Jungian analyst Dr. Janice Maxwell, talked about J.R.R. Tolkein’s prolific imagination and how he was able to tap into such a deep inner reserve in crafting The Lord of the Rings and other remarkable works of fantasy. One need only to google “JRR Tolkein” to see how very much his imagination has inspired so many. Indeed, many writers have used their imaginations to show us what possibilities are available for our lives as individuals and as a society.

My friend David Brazzeal and his wife, Sanan, are currently living in Paris. David has a wonderful entry on his blog today about modern art and imagination. The title of the entry is "Practicing Imagination" and is well worth reading. In fact, it inspired me to spend a few moments here musing on imagination.


Sunday, October 17, 2010


Half way through last week's postings, I was referring to them in my thoughts as "the 70 faces of Torah" series. I thought I'd follow up with some words from "Rabbi" Bob Dylan. "Jokerman" is from his Infidels album, one of Dylan's best albums in my opinion. He is tapping into some deep images and symbols here. Is he speaking as poet or prophet? Is he being playful of serious? Or would you say it is "all the above?"

Saturday, October 16, 2010

When Your Gods Are Taken Away

Ceramic amulets depicting ancient Near Eastern deities

"You took the gods I made… What else do I have?” (Judges 18:24)

There is an obscure passage in the Old Testament in the book of Judges about a man named Micah who made a religious shrine. The story is found in Judges 17 and 18, right after the story of Samson and Delilah. Micah made himself some gods out of silver, “a graven image and a molten image,” set up a shrine and even found a Levite priest to serve at the shrine. He thought he was all set, but then an army of 600 men from the tribe of Dan came passing through. They had their sights set on some nice farmland which they intended to conquer and settle. Upon seeing the shrine with the gods, and the Levite priests, the Danites thought that all of that would be a plus if they had such a shrine in the new land they were to settle. So the Danites took the gods and convinced the priest to come with them to carry on with his religious duties in their new land.

When Micah saw what had happened, he gathered what force he could muster and followed after the Danites. Upon catching up with them, the Danites said, “What is the matter with you, that you called out your men to fight?” Micah replied, "You took the gods I made, and my priest, and went away. What else do I have? How can you ask, 'What's the matter with you?' "

It is a fascinating story that doesn’t exactly fit into the typical Sunday School lesson formula for Bible passages. Micah makes himself some silver idols and installs a Levite priest as if this is all kosher, when any reader of sacred scripture knows the strict injunction against idols and images. The only commentary that the biblical writers offer is that “There was no king in those days, and everyone did as he saw fit.”

There are other things that some of us may find unsettling: the Danites found some nice land, “lacking in nothing” where “a peaceful and unsuspecting people” lived. With gods in tow, they attacked with the sword, burned down the city, rebuilt their own city and settled in the land.

“There was no king in those days, and everyone did as he saw fit.” I have the feeling that this bit of commentary is more to explain the use of idols and not so much a discrediting of pillaging, burning, and conquest of a peaceful, unsuspecting people. Nevertheless, I am more fascinated with Micah’s declaration, "You took the gods I made… What else do I have?”

Micah found himself at a desperate limit with the realization that what he had thought was his God was suddenly taken away. What was he to do? We do not know what Micah did after that, but it is quite possible that he was at the most important pivotal point in his life. He had the chance to re-vision God since his old vision was no longer adequate.

Others throughout history have had similar notions that their god was being taken away. Copernicus and Gallileo made statements that the Church did not think it could tolerate. Such ideas would destroy the fabric of faith – until it became clear that those men were right, and we would just have to adjust our concept of God accordingly. Charles Darwin caused the bottom to fall out with his theory of evolution. People thought his ideas were contrary to the Almighty, but they were only contrary to a certain world view. Then along comes Albert Einstein and later the NASA space program to discredit any remaining notion of a three-tiered universe presided over by a God in Heaven.

There are still people today accusing others of taking the gods that they made, and what in the world will they do now? They still cannot abide evolution, science, philosophy, or any other modern notion that would deny the very power if not the existence of God. For all who fear that their God is being taken from them - whether they are college freshmen confronting a world of learning or church officials confronting new social structures and scientific discoveries – those people are now at the most important pivotal point in their lives. Surely it is not dark yet. Something grand lies ahead for all who will open their eyes and let go of the gods they have made. A much greater vision of the Almighty is now within reach.

Spiral galaxiy in the constellation Andromeda

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Mark of Cain

Prehistoric Celtic dagger
The emotional impetus for this poem came when I experienced having a gift rejected. Spending time with that feeling allowed me to recast the old biblical narrative of Cain and Abel. An important thing about biblical stories is not so much what they tell us of history, but rather it is what they show us about ourselves. The danger of reading scripture with the attitude of being one of the elect is that we fail to let it show us our own dark corners within.

The Mark of Cain

When God rejected Cain's gift,
Cain flew into a rage
That he had never known before.
It was a rage
Pulled, as it were, from the inside out
Because it was too large for him.
Cain named the rage "Prong-of-Able"
After the tool used in the lamb's slaughter,
For the rage had pierced him through.

Before the rage had gone,
Cain sought out his brother and slew him.
On that day,
God placed a mark upon Cain
For his own preservation.
Because of God's mark
The gift, the rejection, the rage, and the death
Would remain,
And would weave throughout everyone.
The interplay would remain intact
So that all would experience
The gift
And the rejection;
The rage
And the death.
All would know the Prong-of-Abel.

Then God-in-Christ became the gift.
He learned the rejection
And he knew the rage.
So Christ became a trinity of Gift, Rejection, and Rage
As they all three lay
Entombed in death.
Thus were all redeemed and reconciled
In the lamb that was slain
Before the foundation of the world.
And thus did all remain
At the dawn of Creation.

Bronze Age spear point

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tales of Isaac, Part II

The Blessing

Esau had been out on the hunt. He entered his father’s tent with pride and expectation. With him he carried the stew he had prepared from the fresh game he had killed. He father had requested it, and he had cooked it with great care. Esau’s father was blind, weak, and bedridden. I was time to confer the patriarchal blessing upon the first-born.

As Esau approached his father in his chambers, speaking to him of the hunt, the stew, and the blessing, the old man was at first confused. Then the pieces began to fall into place in the patriarch’s mind.

“Esau,” Isaac spoke to him in a somber tone. “Esau, listen to me carefully.” The old man paused for a moment. “Listen to me, Esau. I cannot give you the blessing.”

Now Esau was confused.

“Your brother, Jacob,” Isaac continued, “has tricked your old, blind father, feeble as I am. He came to me in your guise and brought me stew – and not very good stew, I should say. I should have known, but I thought, ‘old and useless as I am, I cannot even taste food anymore’ – but Esau, I have given the patriarchal blessing to your brother. The sacred oath cannot be reversed. What has been spoken must be. But listen to me, Esau –”

Esau was no longer listening. Anger was ringing in his ears. The wrath of one betrayed was swelling within him. Rage that can only be ignited by kin was upon him. He ran from the tent, throwing stew and hurling curses in all directions. “No more!” He shouted. “Jacob shall not live!”

Jacob had already been advised by his mother and co-conspirator to leave the scene – to flee the country. “Give your brother time to cool off – ten, maybe twenty years or so – then come back to claim your role as patriarch.”

Nightfall approached. Esau had run, shouted and cursed his rage down to a shocked numbness. He returned to his father’s tent. Isaac was asleep, but awakened at the sound of Esau’s voice. When the old man was sure that it was Esau, his body began to shake, and he could not catch his breath. Esau went to hold his father, trying to prop him up in bed. The old man continued to shake, struggling to get a breath. Finally, the shaking stopped and the old man drew a long, slow breath – then he burst out laughing, body shaking again until he was once more struggling to breathe.

Esau pulled himself back to get a better look at his father. At that point he realized that the old man was convulsing with laughter! Isaac managed to get another breath, was able to control himself a little more so that he could speak.

“Esau,” the old man laughed again. “Do you know what this means?” He said as he alternated between chuckling and laughter. “You didn’t listen to me earlier today...” More chuckling. “ just went storming out like a Moabite in battle...” Again, the chuckling broke into laughter. “Esau,” he said as he drew a calming breath, “do you know what it means that Jacob took the blessing?” He gave another low chuckle. “It means you are FREE!!” With that the old man broke into another gale of laughter. “My favorite son is now free, and you have what I was never able to enjoy.” The old man was beside himself with laughter.

“Freedom from the patriarchal promise of Yahweh! Esau, do you realize what that means? It means freedom from being the Chosen One. Freedom from carrying the promise of Yahweh. Freedom from stone altars in the wilderness. Freedom from claims to a Promised Land. Freedom from being a light to the nations. Freedom from being a city set on a hill. You are free from the White Man’s Burden, free from Manifest Destiny.” At this point, Isaac broke into more uncontrollable laughter.

Esau,” the old man continued, “you are free to live your life. You are free to walk in honesty and peace. You do not have to carry any banner except the banner of humanity. You can walk the side streets of joy, sail the seas of truth. You can live life, know love, and seek peace. You’ve got it, my boy!” Laughter filled the tent. “I would have never imagined it, but you’ve got it!” Isaac was almost breathless again with laughter. “You will be free from the blindness that comes with power and prestige.”

And so the old patriarch who had been serious all his life, the one who had not laughed or danced since the day he was tied as a lad upon the sacrificial altar in the wilderness, continued in uncontrollable laughter. The man who was born in laughter, whose name means he laughs, died laughing.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tales of Isaac, Part I

The Altar

Abraham entertained angels. Jacob saw angels parading up and down between heaven and earth. Isaac didn’t see angels – he had to take other people’s word for it. He only knew that for some reason Abraham stopped the sacrifice. The old man said the angel of the Lord came down.

Back in those days, Isaac had thought that he was well on his way to becoming a patriarch. He had felt so excited about being asked to go with his father to make the sacrifice – looking on it as a rite of passage. He had seen it as a step into adulthood where he would enter his father’s world of wealth, influence, and obedience to God. The betrayal of the sacrifice had changed everything. Even though it was prevented, still Yahweh did ask it and Abraham did agree to it. From that point on, Isaac realized that he was not really very important in whatever it was that Yahweh was doing. He was not even very important to Abraham, at least not compared to Abraham’s desire to obey God.

What an insult, then, to be expected to carry on the family quest to obey God. How hollow it was to have to love and serve Yahweh who had shown that human life, at least Isaac’s human life, was incidental to God’s intents and purposes.

For some reason, Isaac’s father, Abraham, had been absolutely sure of God and his calling. His whole life was geared toward serving God, and believing in God’s promise to make the family a great nation in a great land. It would make the old man immortal. Even Isaac’s son, Jacob, was sure about it. He was so sure that he tricked and maneuvered his way into position to carry on the promise of Yahweh; to be a patriarch.

Isaac, on the other hand, was never so sure. In some ways, he thought he had seen Yahweh more clearly than did Abraham or Jacob. That clear sight of his nullified any desire he may have had to get to know Yahweh better. Let those other two walk and talk and fight with God. Isaac had better things to do with his time.

Isaac was obsessed with digging wells. That’s what people said. He’s not of his father’s caliber, they would say. Abraham spoke as a chieftain, Isaac speaks as a merchant, people would say. He has proven to be merely a caretaker of the family fortune. He has no vision – no desire to accomplish great things. He is content to live off the old man’s legacy, adding the occasional herd or servant to his fortune. Those were some of the things that were whispered about during Isaac’s tenure as patriarch. He never defended his lands or stood by his watering rights. If his enemies filled in his wells or told him to leave, Isaac just picked up tent and started digging wells all over again.

Others may have called it an obsession, but Isaac thought the wells were needed. “Something has to be done to get water into this God-forsaken place,” he would say. Besides, he felt much more comfortable going down into the earth to find water. It occupied his time and it did give him a sense of accomplishment. Furthermore, he took nothing for granted. “I may be a patriarch now,” he would say, “but that doesn’t mean anything.” His father’s kinsman was every bit as rich and God-fearing as Abraham, and he lost all his fortune – found himself an outcast sitting at the garbage dump scratching boils. Isaac knew that you could lose your life any day of the week. He also knew from his kinsman, Job, that you could lose your wealth at any time whether you obey Yahweh or not.

No, Isaac was not about to think that he would always have Spring rains and streams in the desert for his flocks and herds. He was going to have his own water that he acquired with his own two hands. His guiding philosophy had been to play it safe, take nothing for granted, and avoid personal involvement with Yahweh. And so he lived his life: staying busy, keeping a low profile, avoiding trouble, and always living in the shadow of the altar in the wilderness.

In spite of it all, Isaac managed to keep it all together. He lived his life having preserved the family fortune with all its wealth. The servants, the sheep, the cattle and the goats, all the family traditions and all of the family influence remained intact. Perhaps it was true that he was the caretaker patriarch, but he had remained faithful to the task. He had kept the promise of Yahweh and preserved it for another generation. As an old man, he knew the time would come when he would pass the blessing on to his own son. The fullness of God’s promise to build a great nation would soon be passed on to a new generation. That time came when he lay helpless upon his bed in his own encampment, just as he had lain helpless upon the altar in the wilderness all those years before.

Tomorrow, The Blessing...


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Discovering Esau

The Genesis story of Jacob meeting Esau after his (Jacob's) return to claim his heritage is one that I find quite remarkable. Nowhere in the Bible in magnanimity pictured more fully than in the person of Esau. Usually we run with the main headline of the story of Jacob being scared out of his wits at the prospect of facing his brother, then taking his rightful place in Israel's pantheon of founders. But I find Esau quite remarkable. Either he is not the person we have been led to believe, or he has undergone quite a transformation. Here is a poem I wrote back in 1981 celebrating that meeting in the context of my own existential discoveries. It is followed by a meditation written in 1993 exploring the blessings that Esau might confer.

To Kierkegaard

When Esau met Jacob,
He embraced him and wept.
Two brothers who had been
strangers from birth
Were united in tears.

You were once a stranger to me -
Little known and scarcely understood.
But our tears have brought us together,
And in that I embrace you as my brother.


When I Met Esau

Since this was my second meeting with Esau, I knew what to expect. He gave me a welcoming embrace and put me at ease. His smile was warm, his eyes soft and inviting. The sweet earthy aroma of hay and cattle feed lingered about him as we sat at his kitchen table. I found myself telling him all that had happened in the ten years since we had first met. His interest in me was a remarkable touch of grace.

When we met ten years ago, Esau was not the man I had been told about. I had been told that he was brutish, unsophisticated, and not very bright. Instead, I found a man who was supremely magnanimous, disarmingly gracious. I freely told him my life story and found complete acceptance and affirmation in his presence.

Today we talked as old friends. As he talked, I noticed for a brief moment the brightness of his eyes fade, reminding me of his own loss. In years past, he had suffered the disregard of his mother, the betrayal of his brother, and the loss of support from his father whom he had loved. Somehow, in his loss of fortune, Esau had gained a depth of soul. He saw so clearly what was essential in life.

I found myself the recipient of his healing acceptance and encouragement. I found Esau to be a lover of life who had found blessing and had gained the power to bless. After spending time with him, I, like the patriarch Jacob, believe that if God could be seen, he would look like Esau.


How did Esau achieve that power to bless? What was the source of his magnanimity? Next I'll be posting a story about his father, Isaac, that may give us a clue.


Monday, October 11, 2010

A Blanket for an Old Man

Maybe it was growing up a tee-totaling Baptist that caused me to be puzzled by Noah ending up drunk, passed out and naked at the end of the biblical story of the Flood. I had seen so many lovely illustrations of the wise old man with an ark full of smiling animals and a rainbow overhead. When I was old enough to actually continue reading the story in the Bible, I wondered how God's chosen righteous one ended up drunk and alone in his tent, cursing his offspring. Here is one direction I gave the story as an adult:

A Blanket for an Old Man
by Charles Kinnaird

In the old days
Noah had planted a vineyard.
His wine was sweet and buoyant then
For he was much younger in those days,
And he had never saved the world.

In his new-world vineyard
His body was older and thicker,
His mind heavy with an intractable sobriety
Brought on by bearing the world on his spine
And knowing that he was too old to see it through.
Now his wine made him heavy and sluggish
Until he passed out in temporary oblivion.

Someone should have told him
That humanity's blessings and curses
Will be carried and shared by all,
And that each of us shares
The task of carrying the world
From one generation to the next.


Marginal Stories in the Bible and the 70 Faces of Torah

The Old Testament scriptures hold numerous stories, some familiar, and some not so familiar. Usually what we do is to take well known biblical stories and make them fit our theology. Whenever we read those old stories, we bring our own experiences to our understanding of the story. There is a rabbinic tradition of the 70 faces of Torah (shiv’im panim la'Torah), meaning that its meaning may vary depending upon how we approach the passage. Our psychological or intellectual perspective will affect what “face” the Torah presents to us. Another view of that concept is that in an average lifespan of 70 years, each year of our life we will present a different face to the Torah, which is why the same passage may be understood in a different light at different times. Certainly at different stages of our lives, passages can take on new meanings.

This week I’ll look at a few of the "marginal" tales from scripture, and I'll try to give a different angle on some more familiar passages. I try to make stories real by accessing the poetic, emotional aspects of the stories, so what I present will not necessarily be orthodox or mainstream. Indeed, I am often attracted to those “marginal people” and marginal incidents in the Bible that orthodoxy tends to skip over.

In my postings this week you will find a couple of poems, some stories and meditations. These are not intended to be definitive, nor are they necessarily radical. They simply reflect where I happened to be at different times when contemplating the Old Testament stories.


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Days of Autumn

Autumn Beatitudes
by Charles Kinnaird

I am happy with the leaves.
Let them fall
And let them be.
Let there be no stench of burning,
No dissonant noise of leaf blowers,
But let them rest on the ground
Covering a thousand footsteps of summer.

I am happy with beans.
Dried beans in the pantry
Assure me that there is bounty in the earth
And that the world is latent with possibilities.
I am happy with the way they swirl about
in the rinsing bowl
Like hundreds of prayers
On unstrung rosary beads.
If ever I am unsure of what to do next,
I can always cook beans.

I am happy with the sharp clear angular slant
Of the afternoon sunlight,
Reminding me that there comes a time
To slow down.
A time to not think.
A time to settle
Like autumn leaves on the ground.
Like beans in the bottom of the rinsing bowl.

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