Situational: music-arranging and letter-writing

In my experience, ensembles have rarely if ever been perfectly chosen and thoroughly balanced, so musical arrangements for those ensembles must take into account the needs of the situation.

In Paul’s and John’s and James’s experience, churches were rarely if ever perfectly taught and “thoroughly furnished unto every good work,” so letters and epistles addressed to them took into account what the recipients needed in their situations.

To illustrate further:  During June and July I took the opportunity to adapt and arrange a previously transcribed orchestral piece—Fromental Halévy’s March Funebrè (1835).  Alterations from the first phase (ten years ago) moved from D trumpet to today’s normative trumpets in C and Bb, from horn in D and and piston horn in A to horns in F, and from ophicleide to tuba.  In some cases, the modern equivalents can project and resonate more than the 1835 instruments, and in other cases, the old instruments don’t exist anymore.  My earlier transcription, then, was situational in that it was, loosely speaking, for the “situation”¹ of the modern orchestra, as opposed to the orchestra and instruments that had existed two centuries prior.

The present (2017) adaptation was for a special, one-occasion summer orchestra—actually more like an oddly constituted pit orchestra band with a pipe organ than an orchestra per se, and this reality led to numerous changes in my score.  The situation called for it.  There were to be four trumpets (five appeared on the night of the first rehearsal) but no bassoon at all.  There were five violins total instead of the 12-16 I’d hoped for.  There was no viola; there were 0-2 cellos, depending on the night; and there was no double bass at all.  The original score called for two clarinets in A, but the sole Bb clarinetist couldn’t make the rehearsal.  There was one flute at the rehearsal, then another for the first performance, and a third appeared for the final performance.  And (gasp) a saxophone was present each time.  Fortunately, she was classically trained and sensitive and did a nice job blending with other woodwinds on a part originally intended for bassoon.  As arranger/adapter-for-situation, I considered the characteristics of the saxophone in its low range and wrote the part up an octave in spots.

I had about 35 minutes total to rehearse (20 at the rehearsal proper, plus 7 and 8, respectively, during “spot checks” prior to each performance).  Fortunately, the players were all capable, and most were at least moderately artistic, so they were responsive.  But the performing space is exceptionally live², and there was that (double gasp) organ, so I had to adjust some dynamics and even re-choose instrumentation on the fly.  These decisions are part of my training, and experience, so it’s no problem, but it does require awareness of the situation.  Remember, the original composition had already been transcribed for a somewhat updated orchestral medium, and then it was further adapted for about one-fifth of the original complement of strings; too few woodwinds, and too many brass to balance the strings and woodwinds; synthesized drum, cymbal, and timpani; and (ahem) organ.  Here are the opening measures:

Arranging, much more than transcribing, takes the situation into consideration.  Here’s a summary of the arranging proposition, speaking in general terms:

Musical arrangements should take into account all aspects of the setting, including personnel and their abilities, instrument sonority and quality, balance, acoustics, and rehearsal time available.

First-century letters and epistles also naturally considered aspects of the setting, including culture, recent events, relationship and interpersonal dynamics, prior teaching, and recent/current events in the locale.³  Take for instance the churches at Philadelphia and Philippi:  they seem to have been in good health, relatively speaking, but they still needed some communication directed to them specifically.  On the other hand, the churches at Korinth4 and Kolosse4 and in the Galatian region stood in sore need of teaching and directive, so Paul taught them according to their situations.5   The written correspondence was occasional . . . situational . . . written for, or into, specific occasions/situations.

¹ More specifically, the original transcription was also for the occasion of my doctoral dissertation.

² When reading “exceptionally live,” one might legitimately translate, “objectionably, ear-splittingly resonant to the point that most spoken words, many musical tones, and a few pitch centers were lost in garbled oblivion.”  The sounds rang so much and so long that the Doppler effect was noted.

³ We might refer here to the presence of inspiration.  In the case of music, some works might be thought of as more “inspired” than others.  In the case of scripture, it’s a more thorny proposition, yet highly consequential.  I’d suggest that the involvement of God’s Spirit in the process of, say, Paul’s letter to the Galatians means, among other things, that that letter was exceptionally well targeted:  it was written for a specific situation, a defined setting.  In other words, , if a document is situational, God can in the writing just as much, if not more.

The original has the Greek letter kappa, which equates to the English K.  I believe it’s because of the later Latin influence that we have Cs in our English Bibles for the initial consonants of these and other K-words.

5 Romans and perhaps Ephesians might be thought of as somewhat general and less specifically, situationally targeted.

Horror and terror

How’s that title for an attention-getter?

Horror movies often strike me as ridiculous, and movies that are all about broad-scale terror don’t attract me all that much.  On the other hand, the dramas and suspense series I watch do involve short-lived, mostly-small-scale terrors fairly often, I’d have to say.  They say (I’m not sure who “they” are, really) that watching such things can give kids nightmares, and I worry about myself, too.  Will a diet of bad visual experiences get inside my soul?  I suppose I’ve almost assumed that watching any horrific things would make me think about horror more acutely and more often.  Now, I wonder if it’s had the opposite effect:  have the terror images almost anesthetized me, keeping me from proper wincing and fear?

Lately I’ve wondered what terror would be like if personally experienced.  What if?  And then it happened very near me.  Very recently, a small plane went down less than 10 miles from our house.  My wife brought me the news, both in the form of an image on her phone and in her eyes.  I could tell she felt it deeply, and her empathy moved me.  What was that horrific human experience like for the two who were killed?  (May God have granted that it was quick.)  One decedent was from a few hundred miles away, and one, from our little town.  People knew them and must themselves have experienced shockwaves of terror after the news broke.  The more I think about it, the more I am affected.

I’m not much on the “hellfire and brimstone” stuff that’s historically been associated with a few denominations and preaching styles.  I’m grateful never to have been subjected to regular preaching like that in the congregations with which I’ve worked.  I’ve never dug into the hell topic much but find myself leaning toward the view that God’s punishment will not be ongoing but will rather be a one-time event.  Whatever it turns out to be, it is obviously something to be avoided.  I believe it will be a terror in some sense, whether once or in perpetuity.  Otherwise, why would the inspired teachers throughout biblical history have described it in such horrific terms?

Galatians 1:10

How’s that for a nondescript, non-attention-getting title?  The thing is, Galatians 1:10 is interesting in itself (if you’re into this kind of thing)!  Here are the main things I find in this brief text:

  • two present-tense verbs and two questions in the first half of the verse
  • two imperfect-tense verbs and a statement in the second half
  • three instances of “man” in three successive clauses, followed by “Christ” in the final clause
  • bookends suggested by the use of “God” and “Christ” (and a resulting chiasm or sandwich structure)
  • perhaps one “performance” feature that would have been spotlighted in 1st-century oral reading (but no other “poetic” features such as alliteration, assonance or rhyme)

First, here is the unadorned English text from the ESV (line endings are my own, for sake of consistency):

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God?
Or am I trying to please man?
If I were still trying to please man,
I would not be a servant of Christ.

Next, below is the transliterated Greek text.  For the non-Greek-reading followers (probably 94% of you), all you need to do is notice the similar spellings, and maybe the Theon and Christou (God and Christ) in the first and fourth lines, respectively.

arti gar anthropous peitho ē ton Theon?
ē zeto anthropois areskein?
ei eti anthropois ēreskon,
Christou doulos ouk an ēmēn

Next, here is a rough translation—weird-sounding because it’s in the same word order as the original:

Now for to man do I appeal or to God?
          or do I seek man to please?
          If yet/still man (actively) I were pleasing,
of Christ a slave not I would (myself) be being.

I have intentionally indented lines two and three not because Paul would have laid it out that way with his own hand, but because the wordings and syntax suggest that layout.  We may without question assert that Paul is saying something with gusto here.  Arguably, the entire introductory text (1:6-10) includes and predicts the substance of the letter as a whole, and the specific content of v. 10 certainly serves Paul’s aims and emphases.  Clues to his emphatic passion include (1) the initial, emphatic placement of the word for “now,” (2) the repetitions, and (3) the switch from the present to the imperfect tense.  I have some question about the precise import of the imperfects, so I have the word “actively” in parentheses.  I also acknowledge the awkward “be being” at the end (but stay with me to the end here).

The final line amounts to a very strong, culminating emphasis.  Perhaps that phrase would have struck the early hearers something like the “punchline” of threefold question-and-answer with Peter in the courtyard after Jesus’ arrest—or perhaps the “Simon, do you love me” sequence of John 21, in which the third question uses a different word.  It seems to me that, in any language, repeating something two or three times and following it with something else sets up an emphasis on the last item.

It bears mention that the conditional statement (essentially an “if . . . then . . .”) in the second half of v. 10 is constructed as a so-called “second-class condition,” which means that the “then” or second part of the statement (above, the last line) is to be seen as contrary to fact.  We might paraphrase this way:  “If I were yet trying to please men and women, you might end up thinking that I was no longer being Christ’s servant, which is obviously not the case!”  The verb “peitho” has several possible renderings but is often thought of meaning “trust in.”  Paul’s sense here might involve trust, but a contextual reading seems to lean more toward “please,” “win the approval of” or even “curry favor with.”

Another translation issue appears in the third line above:  “eti” may be translated “yet” or “still,” and it can also carry a numerical connotation, i.e., “in addition to,” but this last possibility is very unlikely here.  Bob Deffinbaugh explains and interprets as follows:

The issue in question is whether Paul deliberately diluted his message to suit his audience in order to gain status among them.  Paul’s defense begins with the word “still” in verse 10.  He thus turned the tables on his opponents.  His conversion was not a change for the worse, but a change for the better.  It was not that he had begun to be a man-pleaser since his conversion, but that he had ceased to be so.  As a zealous Pharisee he was a man-pleaser.  Had he not been converted, he would still be a man-pleaser.  In verses 11 and 12 Paul gives a general answer in his own defense:  “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man.  For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”  – Bob Deffinbaugh (full article here)

Paul’s “still” or “yet” in v. 10 could perhaps refer to a hypothetical time in the mind of his audience when they thought was seeking people’s approval.  Given the literary context here (at least chapter 1 and possibly into chapter 2), the scenario described by Deffinbaugh above seems more likely.

The final verb (a “being” verb) is in the imperfect tense, suggesting an ongoing, incomplete action.  I imagine there’s a legitimate way to translate that verb directly into English, but I can’t figure out how.  In the literal-order, word-for-word rendition above, I had “not I would be being,” but that’s obviously awkward.  Although the term “servant” or “slave” (Gk doulos) is a noun, not a verb, it makes sense to me to render that concept as part of the verb (serving instead of servant)—in a moderately expansive paraphrase, that is.  Below, then, is my paraphrase of Galatians 1:10:

So . . . at this juncture, who do I appear to put my trust in or seek the approval of—people or God?  Seriously!  Do you really think I’m attempting to please people at this point?

If I were still seeking the approval of people (as I admit was the case before my conversion), then I would not be actively serving Christ.

That’s smoother than the exact-word-order version, for sure, but I consider it a work in progress.  Do you think I’ve translated the meaning reasonably well?  Does this passage aid your understanding of Paul and early Christianity?  Is there any impact on your view of your own discipleship?  Tell me what you think.


Sugar and icing as scripture-reading paradigms: a tasty but limited analogy

This was not my best analogy, so I scuttled my first version of this post.

What I had hoped to provide was a comparison of reasonably good-for-you, natural, unrefined, granulated sugar on the one hand, and artificially colored, pasty, sickeningly sweet icing on the other.  Unrefined, natural sugar would represent a granular paradigm for reading and understanding scripture, whereas icing would be the undesirable junk food we get when we mix artificial colors and flavors and butter along with organic, unrefined sugar.  I suppose artificial ingredients would denote false ideas masquerading as truth, and fat might be the concocted doctrinal systems and other things superimposed on the pure, untainted writings.

As it turns out, icing is generally made from powdered sugar, not granulated sugar.  And reasonable amounts of fat are actually good for most bodies (despite persistent misunderstandings and product-labeling practices).  Plus, I suppose that, in theory, there are tiny granules even in powdered sugar.  Alas, my analogy breaks down.  Anyway, the main points would have gone something like this:

  1. A “granular” paradigm for reading and understanding scripture regards each biblical document as a single “grain.”  The reader is able to separate each grain from the other, rather than consuming only a mess of pasty icing called “the Bible.”  Further on this point, please see the note below.
  2. We’re better off not mixing other ingredients in with scripture.  Some of the other stuff is relatively good, taken in moderation (like butterfat); some ingredients, on the other hand, are patently bad (like artificial coloring) and should be avoided.

Scripture, although often masterfully conceived and laid out, also has the wonderful quality of being “unrefined” in some ways.  When you really dig into it, it doesn’t seem like perfection—or confection!  Still, it is truly a sweet treat.

(At this point, I’m glad I stuck with this analogy after all.)

Note:  The “granular” idea has been applied to social media, e.g., in comparing Google+ with Facebook.  There is truth there, but I don’t care deeply about social media.  I’m obviously more given to interpreting scripture than social media posts.  Here are some further thoughts on the granularity of scripture:

One way of “interrupting God” is pasting a “verse” (yanked from here or there) on top of another “verse” that comes from a completely different context.  Or, as Gary Collier’s imagery has it, we get things mixed up when we put a bunch of different text-ingredients into a blender and press “puree.”  If on the other hand we get into a single text and attempt to understand what it is about, we stand to gain immeasurably.

– Brian Casey, In Praise of Exegesis (2013)

Historical insights, “position players,” and “Judaism”

I can attribute my relatively newfound affinity for history to three sets of people/experiences:

Two musicology professors second to none:  Jonathan Bellman and Deborah Kauffman of the University of Northern Colorado

As an undergraduate, I had no appreciation for music history at all, and one of my two music Publication Coverhistory courses was the only music class for which I ever earned a B.  On the master’s level, I wasn’t taught much in this area.  At UNC, though, during my doctoral studies, Bellman and Kauffman led me down paths of historical connection and insight, bringing alive for me so much more than the progression from one “style period” to another.  Presently, Kauffman is Editor-in-Chief of the journal shown here, and Bellman is on its editorial board as well.  Both of them honed my writing skills.  I seized on several opportunities in their content areas, going beyond my curricular requirements and almost earning enough credits for a minor in music history.

Historical fiction

The Blue Orchard: A NovelHistorical fiction is about the only kind of fiction to which I gravitate.  Even in my video entertainment choices, I like things that are, or at least could be, real.  In recent months I’ve read Blue Star and The Blue Orchard.  In case you wondered, neither has anything to do with the color blue (or much to do with stars or orchards, either).  These books were engaging and instructive—the former, about persons in an Appalachian town during the build-up to WWII; the latter, about an abortion doctor and his nurse in Central Pennsylvania during the same time period (expanded a bit).  Both were authored by individuals with academic credentials, and their abilities with language and with storytelling kept me reading.  Read my brief reviews of these books here.  I think my wife started me down this path; we enjoy certain historical documentaries together, and she reads historical fiction, too.

The pursuit of early Christianity’s history

Although I’d say I’ve always been interested in first-century Christianity, I began to pursue it with more energy after reading Paul R. Barnett’s The Birth of Christianity:  The First Twenty Years.  The two decades that began in approximately 33 CE constitute a period exceedingly worthy of our reach to comprehend—from both intellectual and pragmatic standpoints.  Barnett’s book laid groundwork for me in clearly presenting, e.g., these facts:  (1) Saul was blinded and converted on the Damascus Road within months of Jesus’ crucifixion, and (2) not more than two decades transpired between those events and when the first extant Christian writings were penned.

It must not go without mention that engagement with the years leading up to the time of Jesus and the apostles is also important.  I have barely begun to scratch the surface of understanding the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, the Davidic and later-divided kingdoms, and the impact on the “culture” of the people of God that resulted from the captivities in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon.  Neither may the influence of Greek culture or the Roman Empire be rightly discounted when seeking to understand Jesus’ message, the early disciples, and the teachings of Matthew, Paul, and other other writers.

Some feel that their denominations’ takes on things are as important as what happened at the beginning.  The logic tends to go something like this:  God and truth are pursued within the faith-community, so ecclesiological structures such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the Missouri Synod, or the Vatican are repositories of authoritative truth today.  I demur.  Although I support the notion of “faith community,” in the later years far removed from the first century, I find more reason for scrutiny, suspicion, and distance than for support of church conclusions and directions.  If we understood the cultural-historical setting at the time of Jesus of Nazareth, we would understand and apply the period texts better in our faith communities and personal lives.

The backdrop unfurled above quickly became too lengthy.  Rather than making this a serial blogposting, I think I will just make a couple of relatively brief observations with historical implications and then invite comments.

Observation #1:  the term “position player”

Baseball commentators these days are fond of delineating between pitchers and “position players.”  Maybe I only paid selective attention to news media and commentators in my youth, but I don’t remember ever hearing the term “position player” back then.  (For the uninitiated, “position player” refers categorically to a group of field positions including shortstop, center field, and every position other than pitcher [which is also a position, I would point out].)  The professional game of baseball is these days much more focused on pitchers:  witness all the talk about pitch count and the speeds of their fastballs.  My historical hunch is that the category “position player” has developed along with the professional game of baseball.

Whether or not I missed the sporadic use of this term in my early years, I would probably stake my (lack of!) historian’s reputation on the assertion that the usage of the term has increased exponentially since the 1990s.

Observation #2:  the term “Judaism”

Notably, Paul used the term “Judaism” twice in the first chapter of Galatians.¹  These days, depending on who is using the word, and in what setting, “Judaism” might have multiple referents.  I pick up that scholars primarily use the word to refer to the faith-system of the people of the Tanakh (Old Testament) as it developed from the 2nd-Temple Period onward, i.e., after the return from Babylon.²  “Judaism” might be further delineated with respect to the downfall of Jerusalem in 66-74 CE, and/or the rabbinic period which saw the rise of the Talmud, or other developments.  My historical hunch is that “Judaism,” as the term is used by Paul, has more to do with the faith-system and rituals of the 2nd Temple period than with faith in the God of (all) the scriptures.  I find that the term “Judaism” is best thought of as referring to the Hebrew/Jewish faith-system that (has) existed during one or more time periods after 586 BCE.

It seems to me that the usage patterns of the terms “position player” and “Judaism” may be seen as historically based signs of the times.  These terms are aptly seen as speaking within, or to, historical periods.  Specifically in Galatians, Paul appears to call attention to the system of Judaism in which he had been “advancing . . . beyond many of [his] contemporaries” (NET Bible).  With a developing (but not by any means well defined) sense of the first century, I would suggest two things about Paul as revealed in this text.  In writing to the Galatians,

  1. Paul did not denigrate genuine faith in the God of the Old Testament.
  2. Paul employed a unique or at least patently uncommon noun:  Judaism.  He appears to refer, at best neutrally, to a system of faith-related rituals and practices; in doing so, he distinguishes 2nd-Temple Judaistic practice from genuine, post-resurrection faith in God and in Jesus Christ.

The specification of positions on the baseball diamond is obviously not a big deal, but in the case of “Judaism,” it well serves serious students of Christianity to think about historical development and the implications of Paul’s term Ἰουδαϊσμῷ | ioudaismo, opposite how the term “Judaism” is used today.

Please share comments, questions, and observations.

¹ There are no other instances of this exact word in all the NT (or the Greek OT, for that matter).

² There are ethnic and political implications of such terms as “Judaism,” and “Jewish,” but I’m intentionally confining my observation here.

Group self-designations in scripture

What do we call ourselves?  Labels given to groups of humans may be mindless or revealing or something in between:

  • customers
  • employees
  • citizens
  • parishioners
  • members (i.e. of a club or a church)
  • audience or spectators
  • . . .

Along these lines, Dr. Larry Hurtado has taken note of the use of the substantive adjectival plural “saints” ( ̔άγιοι |  hagioi ) in early Christian literature.  A distinguished student of early Christianity, Hurtado finds the use of the term intriguing, in part because it was only rarely used as a self-designation for God’s people in the LXX (Greek “Old Testament”), whereas a spike in usage is found in Christian literature.  Hurtado finds two outgrowths—one based somewhat in grammar, and the other, in historical culture:

(1) The definite article, the hagioi, represents a particular claim, an exclusivity.  . . .   the term is a clear piece of evidence of a discrete group-mentality, an expression of a distinctive group-identity.

(2)  . . . The NT writers use a term that rather clearly derives from Jewish usage; but their use of the term shows a distinctive preference for it and a distinctive application of it to designate themselves.

– Larry Hurtado

You can read Hurtado’s complete post here.  After reading it, I posed the following question to him:

I found this observation helpful and also intriguing.  Having recently returned to study of the Galatian letter, and having just laid out its introduction side-by-side with that of other presumed-early, extant letters, I note dative ekklesia language without hagiois in the Gal and Thess letters, both ekklesia and hagiois in the Corinthian letters and Roman letters (although ekklesia is only in ch. 16), and an apparent preference for the hagiois language in the later Eph, Philipp, and Col letters.

Could you comment on any possible development of group self-identification terminology during the 50s, i.e., could we assert that there might have been a move toward the hagiois language as the movement progressed during that decade and beyond?  (Or perhaps I am making something out of nothing here.)

Hurtado’s reply indicated that he did not see the data as supporting my proposal, even countering that the term “saints” as a self-designation seems to drop out over time.  Yet I wonder if he passed over my emphasis on the decade of the 50s.  (I had tried to be both succinct and emphatic, not presuming on much of this scholar’s time, but there’s only so much one can do to format a comment on a blog.)  Perhaps Hurtado was responding more broadly, i.e., thinking through a century or more after Jesus and Paul.  The linguistic data to which I have access actually does suggest an increased use of the plural “saints” during the time of composition of the Pauline letters and epistles, which is roughly a 15-year period from 48 to 62 CE.  More specifically, the earliest two or three letters do not use the term much, and the last letters have the highest incidence, considering overall length.  Aided by my software, I count 86 instances of the plural hagiois.¹  At least 18 are negligible, used in senses that are not self-designations for Christ-ian disciples.  Of the remainder, there are

  1. No uses in Galatians, and only 2 in the Thessalonian letters (presumed to have been written 48-49)
  2. 20 in Romans, 1Cor, and 2Cor (presumed 51-57)
  3. 21 in Eph, Col, Php, and Phm (presumed 60-62)
  4. 4 in Acts, 2 in Hebrews, 2 in 1Peter, 2 in Jude
  5. 14 in Revelation

Not always do the plurals show up in English translations, e.g., Eph. 1:4 and 1Pet 1, and some of the above-referenced instances do not appear to be substantival (i.e., not used as noun-like designations).  Still, I wonder whether they might have carried designatory force in a passage such as Ephesians 1.  In other words, when Paul says God chose us to be “holy ones,” the plural word “holy” has an attributive adjectival function, but in this weighty Pauline communication, perhaps there was an intrinsic sense of self-designation of the Ephesian Christians.  The Revelation uses would be an interesting study in themselves, since that document draws from apocalyptic literature of the Hebrew Bible.  Most often, at a glance, I think Christ-following saints are the referents, but some of the Revelation instances mix long-past Jewish prophets with saints and apostles.

Related self-designations in the same time period include “church(es),” “Christians,” and “disciples.”   Much has been made over the first two—perhaps too much—and the last one particularly interestsme.  As for “church,” there are quite a few uses in Pauline literature, including the earliest letters.  [Caveat lector:  this next thought will be highly speculative.]  I wonder whether that (possible) early preference indicates attention or even deference to the synagogues in the Diaspora.  In other words, since Paul appears to have been in the habit of going to Jewish synagogues first, and since the earliest Christians were Jews, perhaps the earliest, most natural flow of “self-designations” was from “synagogue” to “church.”  [Again, that was highly speculative and probably makes more of the relationship between synagogue and church than should be made.]

Back to “saints.”  It should be said here that the Roman Catholic use of the term “saints” flies in the face of the NT use—which is neither (a) honorific nor (b) related to human achievement.  It continues to be necessary to clarify the intended meaning of “saints” in conversation with thoughtful Roman Catholics, since the historical meaning in that institution appears irrevocably slanted.  Even news reports, TV, and movies appear thoughtlessly to attach the Catholic meaning to the term “saint,” whether it’s heard in the singular or plural.

The Pauline use of the term—by all appearances egalitarian, not exceptional or honorific—does appear to rise during the 15 years we know that he was actively corresponding with churches.  All we have is certain pieces of literature, not an exhaustive sense of what the disciples were calling themselves, so any conclusions should be reached with caution.  Also, it’s not that saints were no longer thought of as believers or disciples or called-out ones in churches; the point I want to make is that “saints” might represent a development in Paul’s thinking about the people groups to whom he was bearing the message of Christ.  If in fact “saints” became more of a frequent self-designation during the decade or so before Paul’s death, that fact would not necessarily mean we should use an English approximation for “saints” more often today.  It does however mean we might do well to pursue the word-concept of “holy ones” in the first century, thereby enriching our understanding of who we are in God’s eyes.  More important than what we call ourselves, of course, is who we are and what we do about it.

¹ Of the Pauline references, fewer than half are found in the dative case.  Some datives, but not all, can be translated with the English indirect object, e.g., “I’m writing this letter (direct object) to the saints (indirect object) in Chicagoland.”  At first blush, I would think this fact alone is not indicative of the sense.  In other words, if Paul were to write, “The saints at Indianapolis greet you,” that would be the nominative case, and it would still be the type of “group self-designation” Hurtado discussed.

Musings on family

One summer many years ago, when I was back home from college with my family of origin, I took the opportunity to make a Wednesday evening “talk” (sermonette) at church.  My talk was based on the last part of Ephesians 3.  This was during the days of the burgeoning popularity of the NIV, but I had chosen another version of verses 14-15:

I fall on my knees before the Father (from whom all fatherhood, earthly or heavenly, derives its name), . . .                – NT in Modern English, J.B. Phillips

A man in the congregation—one I remember as good-hearted and enthusiastic—complimented my talk in general terms but mentioned his disappointment in my choice of versions.  This man was in a phase of emphasizing the congregational “family,” so he preferred the NIV:

I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. . . .     – NIV [previous edition]

It happens that most reputable English translations have used the word “family” there, but the Phillips version opted for something different.  Never mind that my growing lexical and linguistic senses now tell me that neither “fatherhood” nor “family” does the idea complete justice.  The point here is that people want to think of church (and work and other) groups as “family.”  Language like that makes us feel good.  Except when it doesn’t.

At some point in my late teens or twenties, I had learned that certain Restoration Movement churches make a point of not having Bible classes on Sundays.  These are the NC (Non-Class) congregations.  My sketchy understanding of their point of view is this:  they feel that, when the whole church comes together, it should not be divided.  Perhaps that is another way of saying, “We’re all one ‘family,’ and we don’t split up and live in different Sunday-school-room “houses.”  I would counter-assert that, while it would seem natural to be together every now and then, the sense of family does not necessarily vanish when the members are not in the same place.

A couple decades after college, a preacher raised a rather thoughtful challenge within the church settingwhy do we insist on calling church “family” (a) when it is not really described that way in scripture, and (b) when in fact that language is likely distracting or harmful to a great number of people in the pews?  Could there be more people who have negative associations with “family” than with the term “father” to describe or address God?  (I think I’m doing justice to this preacher’s gist here.)  In other words, many people don’t have very positive experiences with earthly family, so it’s probably a bad idea to insist on family language to refer to church.

Every day of every week of every year, divorce impacts people.  Families are divided and re-divided, and as a result, the family—the unit that could be a bastion of devotion and love—has crumpled in the experience of way too many.  While divorce was relatively unknown in my childhood neighborhood or in the church in which I grew up, the number of divorces I know of personally increases exponentially as each decade passes.  I think of the kids my age or slightly older as I grew up, and I realize there is a higher and higher incidence of divorce . . . how few have had “normal” nuclear families of their own.

Within the last month, right here in our town, vandals in their early teens have been caught multiple times on top of buildings.  They have done damage amounting to tens of thousands of dollars.  Apparently these youths are notorious characters with the town police.  Family is either absent or incapable in each case, and the police say there’s nothing they can do about the vandalism, because of legal limitations on criminal charges.  Things could be different for these boys if broken family were not a factor.

After someone dies, some families are never quite whole, while others seem to grow closer.  A teen-aged boy’s father dies, and the boy’s life takes a different direction.  Estate settlements may  bind siblings together, or they (the settlements and the siblings!) can turn ugly.  A young husband or a young father dies, and life is forever changed for the survivors.  Some falsely hold to a false legacy, and others honorably try to honor.  Some of us are more resilient than others, but the effects of death in a family—whether untimely or not—are deep.

At just about any juncture, family can be a sphere of loss . . . and it can also be a beautiful part of human experience.  Family can be broken for a while, and the most stubborn may go to their deathbeds feeling justified about something or other while estranged from those who should have been family.  Other times, renewed relationship or reconciliation may occur.  Family can be made of “blood” ties (plus my adopted sister!), or, whether or not that kind of supposedly familial tie fails, we may find family in other ways.  Just yesterday, my wife referred to our study-partner friends as “family,” and told them where the glasses were so they could help themselves.

During this holiday time, some readers will be at large family gatherings.  One generous family in our town is hosting a come-all pancake breakfast.  Various members of my extended family are roughly 8, 15, 20, or 24 hours away, so the three of us will be enjoying a little day trip and some sights by ourselves.  Wherever you are, and whoever you’re with, you might consider both the benefits and the failings of families.  Turn from the not-so-good, and be thankful for the good.

Of distance and connection: speaking transparently

Reconnecting and staying connected has always been important to me.  Long before Facebook, and even before personal computing and the WWW, I had lists of friends and contacts, not to mention an alumni directory that helped me find college friends when I traveled.  Sometimes I would try to squeeze in too many visits, but my pace has slowed over the years.  On a family trip last month, we did spend some good time with three extended family members and five sets of friends.  Each visit was rewarding and had distinct value—for instance, meeting the fiancée of a dear, longtime friend a month before their wedding.  It is enriching and energizing to talk face to face with anyone I care about.

I do long for more/deeper/better friendships.  Through the years, some people have played highly significant roles in my life (and/or I in theirs) as we worked together on long-term projects, or because we were there at just the right time for each other.  In some cases, lengthy discussions about the scriptures, the church, or serious personal concerns seemed to cement our friendships.  My family and I are fulfilled in having maintained some relationship with most of the people in this picture, but where there has been this type of connection, a later sense of increasing distance can be more stark.  I can think of another group (from a dozen years prior to the above) in which one person has unilaterally and without explanation rejected the prior relationship, and there are other cold shoulders, as well.  Thoughts of that group led to thoughts of another group of eight or nine in which only three have shown any interest in building on the closeness we once had.

A couple of my friends, independently of each other, have confided to me that they value our friendship in part because they have few other friends.  I have a similar feeling.¹  I’ve had a couple of “best friends” and have been devoid that relationship “level” for a while now.  For various reasons, I have not stayed in any one place too long in recent years.  In most cases, it takes years to develop magnetic, deep friendships, whether or not they are of the “best friend” type.  If one moves away, not even Herculean efforts can keep the relationship from changing.

It’s been well said that the worst lonely feelings come in the middle of a crowd.  (Not everyone will understand that.)  I would add the modifier of all sizes to “crowds”:  physical proximity with even one other person might suggest, but does not guarantee, connection.  When the actual relationship lacks closeness, the appearance of being part of a friendship or “team” is painful.  A once-upon-a-time friend once looked at someone else and me and said “You are such a great team,” but we were actually very personally distant.  Being a part of an educational or Christian small group while feeling like an island has probably given me more emotional pain than can be imagined by those with more sanguine or phlegmatic personalities.  On the other hand, the relational ease and richness of conversation and relationship that sometimes does come in small groups (as in the one shown here) and one-on-one conversations can be incomparably rewarding.

There has been a lot of aloneness in my life . . . yes, a great deal of goodness and relational presence, but also a lot of absence² and a lot of wishing . . . a lot of wondering about connections that were, that might have been, or that might yet be.  Having a generally melancholy temperament, I over-think (brood?), and I create.³  I am not a natural smiler, so it might look like I’m unhappy when I’m just thinking deeply, pondering.

It is from these ponderings that the following passage comes.  I don’t suppose it’s really a poem; it’s more a piece of structured prose.  It is chiastically arranged, and I’ve indented to show the arrangements more clearly.  Here, a matched indent level indicates a related pair of passages, and the middle is central within the whole.  You might even read it that way, starting from the outer edges and progressing inward.  I will resist the urge to provide commentary on the piece.  On the other hand, if the chiastic arrangement is curious to you and you want to critique it or ask questions about what I have in mind or the intratextual relationships, please comment!  You and I might even enhance a connection….

I don’t like feeling alone.  For about a decade, I felt very (and increasingly) lonely, and no one seemed to understand enough to come alongside me.

On the other hand, I have often needed more alone time than I get.

Gene Edwards’s unusual book The Divine Romance paints a verbal tapestry of a pre-creation “time” in which God longed for a counterpart, an “other.”  At some point, Edwards imagines, God had a startling realization—that there could be two.

If I am in some sense made in God’s image, perhaps I experience, on some level, whatever God experienced that led Him to create humans.  Did He feel aloneness or loneliness?  I don’t think it’s quite appropriate to suggest that God “needs” people, but He certainly desires relationship.  And I, too, need connection.

James Weldon Johnson’s “Negro” literary classic God’s Trombones purports to quote God:  “I’m lonely.  I’ll make me a man.”

I tend to be both energized by, and accomplished in, alone time.

Blessedly, I have a wife and son who love me, and they encourage me.  Oddly, I still often feel alone.

¹ Grammar note:  I initially had “I feel similar” here, and that would have been technically correct.  The intransitive linking verb “feel” does not take an adverb, so it was “similar,” not “similarly.”  If I had meant to comment on my sensation of touch, i.e., how I feel a countertop surface  with my fingertips, comparing that to someone else’s feeling ability, then I would have said, “I feel similarly.”  Being technically correct is not always the best choice, so I opted for “I have a similar feeling.”  🙂

² For meditation-provoking posts based on Martin Marty’s book A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart, start here.

³ In my case, these days, creating primarily means writing.  Besides blogs, I have mounds of correspondence, some “therapeutic writing” that no one sees, a few poems, and a lot of music.  For about 20 years, I wrote songs (a handful of love songs and 100+ Christian songs); later, the musical creativity was directed more into mostly instrumental works, including compositions, transcriptions, and arrangements.  I don’t write much music of any kind anymore.  My creativity has moved more toward verbal prose, which means blogposts and the 5.5 books I have in print (Amazon Author Page), plus major contributions to 2 more books, and a few materials for teaching scripture.

Of distance and connection: prologue

I have decided not to post the first version of this post.  It dealt with connections and relationships in terms of Facebook, and it was long.  Facebook does have implications as a connective relationship “tool,” and it was of some value to me to take stock of my Facebook friends, the highly valued connections there, my perceptions of others’ use of Facebook, and more.  In the end, I have decided all that was of little value to anyone else, though, so I’m not posting the whole thing.  The excerpts below, about 1/4 of the original, can serve as a prologue to the next post that will include a relatively transparent poem.

When Facebook came on the scene, new possibilities for connection arose.  I myself was a little slow on the draw but once asked a close friend to show me the merits of FB.  Soon after, I signed up and began to use it.  I had long been one to reach out to connect and reconnect, and this was a tool that could be used toward that end.

. . .

From my vantage point, the primary reason for FB is relationships with people (not faces).  There are relationships undergirding it all.

. . .

Some share personal things, including health-related situations, and that can connect us with one another’s struggles despite physical distance.  Being a somewhat private person, I tend not to share much personal stuff very often myself, not wanting to appear to be crying for help or publicly revealing one of my many weaknesses.  I acknowledge, though, that what I might find borderline inappropriate may actually indicate strong senses of relationship for others.

. . .

Some, ostensibly the “FB introverts,” like to keep their lists relatively small, while others have thousands of “friends.”  One personal friend I was fairly close to for about a decade only uses FB for family.  Others, such as yours truly, have little to no family as FB friends.  This might seem odd to many, but less than 3% of my FB friends live within an hour of me.

. . .

Facebook cannot by itself satisfy the need for relationship; it is but a fragment of a vast matrix of varying levels of connection in today’s human existence.  Connection . . . and distance.  Yes, distance.  I can sometimes scroll through my FB feed and feel almost isolated.  I don’t have values similar to a lot of people out there—perhaps even the lion’s share of my own FB friends.  We all have some background, mutual friends, or some other connection—musical and/or Christian and/or school-related or what-have-you—but people travel their own paths. . . .

I could write of telephones and Bluetooth while traveling, of letters and e-mails, of visits and wished-for visits—and regrets about visits.  Each person has his own set of experiences, of connections, and of distance, whether they are all recognized or not.

Relationships are funny things.  Relationships can be the glue of life or a daily curse—and everything between.

~ ~ ~

Soon I’ll share a transparent quasi-poem (chiastically arranged! . . . that’s especially for the few friends with whom I’ve connected deeply around scripture).  I’ve been stressing over sharing this poem for a couple of months, and I’ve been slow to post it because of thoughts of . . . you guessed it:  relationships with others.

Early summer potpourri

Summer Camps
For two extended periods in my personal history, Christian camping played a very important role in my spiritual and social life.  I began my summer Christian camp experience as an eight-year-old at Camp Hunt, a fairly small camp in upstate New York.  I was stomach-sick that week and had a bad time, transferring the next summer to a much closer camp with burgeoning loyalty.

Camp Manatawny in Southeast PA always offered something to look forward to.  From age 9 through 17, I annually spent a week there as a camper, and I also served a few weeks of my later years as a staff member (dish washer and counselor).  In 1998-2001, I returned as an adult and counseled and led hymn sings and devotionals, forming some lasting relationships.  My memories include cabin devotionals, hymn sings, campfires with equally rich silly and spiritual sides, and girlfriends.  It was an athletic experience, too, actually:  I have a few athletic awards to my credit, notably including placing in the softball accuracy throw and winning the push-ups event at least one year.  I don’t think I ever placed higher than 4th in a track event.  Manatawny and I parted ways (arguably its choice, not mine), but I still have many fond memories.

I was pleased last year to learn a little of my nieces’ Christian camp experiences.  They are growing similarly at other camps.  Last year, my son Jedd went to a day camp at Camp Wyldewood and enjoyed himself.  This year, baseball and a theater camp are filling the first half of the summer for him.  At some point within the next year or two, I want to find a good camp at which he can grow relationally with God and with others.  I want to start him fairly early, not waiting until the pre-teen or teen years for this important part of summer.

Naming Rights
Academic buildings, dorms, and fields, etc., are often named with the largest donor’s name.  This practice has always bothered me a bit, feeling that the “money talks” principle could end up compromising academics.  The problem becomes more acute when it’s a church room or building that’s named for an individual.  I’m such a purist about this that I don’t even think church facilities should be named for one of the twelve apostles.  Of course, this problem doesn’t occur when a Christian group owns no real estate.  Keeping it simple is better.  And living rooms are more homey and comfortable, too.

Time was when more pro baseball stadiums were named for their teams (Dodger Stadium, Astrodome, Yankee Stadium, Tiger Stadium).  A couple 1970s-built parks were named for their settings near rivers.  These days (see complete list here), only three stadiums use their teams’ names, and the rest appear to have large corporate sponsors that presumably paid for naming rights.  The ballparks now sport such names as Comerica, Miller, Citizens Bank, Minutemaid, and Target.  Having some knowledge of the Kauffman Foundation’s work in the Kansas City area, I don’t mind that the Royals stadium is named Kauffman, but I end up doubting the philanthropy of major insurance companies and banking conglomerates.  Incidentally, we’ve enjoyed one Royals game already and look forward to another.  Kauffman is my second favorite stadium experience, just behind Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, but Kauffman is easier to get to.

Kids’ baseball teams also have sponsors, and this scene is good for the community and for the kids.  Personally, I’m glad that my son Jedd’s team is sponsored by the River Cities Credit Union and not by a denomination or para-church organization like one of the other teams is.  I wouldn’t prefer to play a role in advertising for churchy business concerns.

Mulberries Revisited
The mulberries have just about stopped attracting the birds, which probably spend half their time now nesting in diabetic comas.  It is almost safe to park our cars in the driveway again.  See Mrs. Shuck and the mulberry tree for the backstory.  I’ve since learned that Mrs. Shuck did indeed have quite a Christian legacy, and that she passed from this life a year or two ago.

Summer Sounds
Time was when a friend and I attended a few Philly Orchestra concerts at the Mann Music Center.  One could often get cheap or free tickets to sit on the lawn.  Good times.

This year, I’ll again be missing the summer Concerts Under the Stars at the Garden Theater at UNC.   There is really only one UNC, by the way, and it’s in Greeley, Colorado, not in North Carolina.  Since I was a UNC grad student and was able to participate in one or two of said outdoor concerts, I’ve only been able to attend one or two other concerts there.  It’s always a nice time.  For some reason, I feel more loyalty to UNC than I ever did to my high school or to two other universities I had attended prior to my last degree.  I’ve never been a rah-rah type, but hey, “Once a Bear, always a Bear.”

Summer sounds in eastern Kansas have so far involved raucous, sporadically nocturnal neighbors who don’t handle the clock or their booze very well.  On the plus side, Jedd and I heard the Kansas City Symphony a few weeks ago, and I look forward to hearing a local jazz group and a children’s folk singer in July.

Bonus:  the Android “Gumdrop” ringtone sound
And now for a cool sound that has nothing to do with hot summer.  At some point while listening to this “Gumdrop” ringtone on my phone, I realized it included asymmetric meter.¹  I couldn’t resist writing it out.  For us rhythm geeks, the fun is built into the 7/8 bar, which makes it seem like the repeat comes an eighth-note too early.

Here is a recording, too.

¹ Since none of the first six WWW sources I found had a very good definition of “asymmetric meter,” here is my simple one:  a unit or measure of music in which not all pulses (beats) have the same duration.  

In the above case, the 7/8 bar

  1. contains one eighth note less than the 4/4 bars
  2. theoretically has a final, or fourth, pulse that’s only half the length of the others (one eighth vs. one quarter . . . or one quaver vs. one crochet, for the two Brits or British-trained musicians who might be reading this), but it
  3. would be conducted with three pulses—beats one and two are “simple,” containing an evenly spaced two eighth notes each; whereas the final pulse is “compound,” comprising three eighth notes, and requiring 50% more time than each of the first two pulses