Monday, December 24, 2012

A Christmas Prayer

Heavenly Father,

Christmas is a bizarre holiday - a sentimental overlay of sugary Victoriana glued onto a foundation of darker, more honest pagan traditions.  My culture's expectations are at war with the yearnings of my heart.  It's a difficult time of year.

And yet there's something incredibly beautiful about the image of two poor, first-time parents sheltering in a stable with a little baby, presiding over visiting shepherds, kings and an army of exuberant angels.  It's wonderful that the Christmas manger contains dried grass and gold, the humblest stuff of earth and the highest gifts of heaven.

Christmas is the ultimate fairy tale, in which our heart's deepest wishes come true: a poor girl becomes the queen of heaven, a poor man's honest son becomes the Prince of Peace, a kingdom is delivered from evil tyrants, and wickedness is driven away as goodness triumphs and justice is restored.  In the darkest nights of winters, Your hope shines in us.

Thank You, Jesus, for coming to us in our darkness, in our poverty, and in our ignorance. 

Thank You for bringing light, and being light; for being willing to dwell among us and for being "God with us," wherever and whoever we are.


Friday, December 14, 2012

Mayan Calendar Musings - Apocalypse Now?

Do you think the world will end on December 21, 2012?  


If so, you're not alone.  According to WDAZ, "Recent polls show nearly ten percent of the population believe the world is ending this month" (

Here's some reassurance for those who are worried about what might happen on Dec. 21st.

The scientists at NASA remind us that the end of a calendar isn't the end of the world.  Our Gregorian calendar ends each year on Dec. 31, and nothing happens (except, of course, for the personal cataclysms experienced by drunk drivers and their victims out on New Year's Eve). Per NASA:
Just as the calendar you have on your kitchen wall does not cease to exist after December 31, the Mayan calendar does not cease to exist on December 21, 2012. This date is the end of the Mayan long-count period but then -- just as your calendar begins again on January 1 -- another long-count period begins for the Mayan calendar  (NASA, "Beyond 2012: Why the World Won't End").  
Nor, apparently, is a wayward planet about to bring the world to an end:
Nibiru and other stories about wayward planets are an Internet hoax. There is no factual basis for these claims. If Nibiru or Planet X were real and headed for an encounter with the Earth in 2012, astronomers would have been tracking it for at least the past decade, and it would be visible by now to the naked eye  (NASA, "Beyond 2012: Why the World Won't End").

What Am I Doing to Prepare for Dec. 21st?


If the end is truly near, I'm with my favorite recording artist, Bruce Cockburn, on my preparations for the apocalypse:
If this were the last night of the world
What would I do?
What would I do that was different
Unless it was champagne with you?
See the video:  "Last Night of the World" - Bruce Cockburn live
Lyrics and interview - "Last Night of the World" from the Bruce Cockburn Project

Why am I not worried?  Because, as Phil Keaggy reminded us way back in 1976, God is absolutely still, always and forever in control:
For the end from the beginning,
Open to His wisdom lies ("Disappointment").

Video:  10-year-old Lisa Diaz sings "All is Well."

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

12/12/12 4179 Toutakis Comet flyby

In honor of the Comet 4179 Toutatis which passed within 4.3 million miles of Earth today

News story:

"Comet" by Pierce Pettis

      playable sample:

A comet streaked across the sky while I was sleeping,
Broke into a million pieces in the night,
Missed us by so little; passed us by so close,
It was right there, and we didn’t even know.

Doesn’t God look out for children and for fools who can blindly stumble right into the truth?
‘Til all the pieces fit into a grand design,
A brilliant accident we had it coming all this time.

Oh, seek and you shall find it – that is what they say,
Just give it time and don’t get lost along the way,
Well, I’ve been a long time waiting out here beneath the sky,
As if love could find me like that comet in the night.

Does a heart falling in the forest make a sound other than the pounding axe that brings it down?
Or is it up to me to tell the forest from the trees?
And does it matter if there’s no one else around?

Seek and you shall find it – that is what they say,
Just give it time and don’t get in your own way,
Well, I’ve been a long time waiting out here beneath the sky,
As if love could find me like that comet in the night.

I gaze up at the stars and wonder,
I could see the lights are on,
Is anybody home?

Seek and you shall find it – that is what they say,
Just give it time; don’t get lost along the way,
Yeah, I’ve been a long time waiting out here beneath the sky,
As if love could find me like that comet in the night,
Oh, as if love could find me like that comet in the night,
Yeah, as if love could find me like that comet in the night.

A comet streaked across the sky while I was sleeping.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Winter Haiku by Tina Quinn Durham

Winter Haiku

Cloudless dark, black air
ice-picks down my lungs, pricks sky
and opens up stars

Spirit chases wind
into charred maze, dead trees
fingering the moon

One planet walks south
over broken pines. What path
can blind rocks follow?

8 December 2012
©2012 Tina Quinn Durham

Monday, March 19, 2012

Books: Words, words, mere words?

Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart.
~ William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida. Act V, scene iii
Whether spoken or printed, words are ultimately, only representations, not the things themselves; or words are symbols - representations of ideas and subject to definition, interpretation, redefinition, and misinterpretation.  Yet they are the primary means by which we communicate our thoughts and experiences, and how we express our deepest values and beliefs.  Hence the two questions raised at the end of my last post:
What is the best way to deal with a discarded book?  For sacred texts, the question is even more complicated:  How do we dispose of this sacred text while respecting its content and traditions? (Beside Strange Waters, Mar. 8, 2012)
This is obviously a problem for many people and institutions.  A Google search for "how to get rid of books" will yield "about 139,000,000 results," including:
"How to Get Rid of Old Books" at WikiHow
"New Ways to Do It Make Giving Away Books a Bit Less Painful" (New York Times 2007)
"Breaking the Sentimental Attachment to Books" from
One thing these websites have in common is the idea that books should be shared, sold, or given away; as a last resort, damaged books should be recycled.  Nobody advocates the burning of books.

For an excellent overview of the negative connotations of book burning, see the Wikipedia article on "Book burning."

Book burning, in general, is bad!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The last good-bye (a respectful farewell to secular books as well as the Bible and the Quran)

These two questions haunt university libraries, famous writers and bibliophiles of all ages:

What do you do with too many books?

What do you do with a book that has become too damaged to use?

One abstract writer summed up the problem beautifully:
There is an inherent tension in most literate cultures between the idea of a book or enduring text on the one hand and the possibility of its disposal or destruction on the other. Disposing of books transgresses inhibitions reinforced by family, school, media, and government. The concern for book preservation involves respect for culture(s), veneration of traditions, and, at its root, the preservation of cultural values (Abstract: "Disposing of Non-Disposable Texts").
Even if we are disposing of a secular text, one without the weight of history and sacred tradition, educated and intelligent people find it difficult to destroy books.  Ray Bradbury's anti-Utopian novel Farenheit 451 is set in a future uncannily like our present, where people are literate, but read only non-fiction; choose shallow, interactive entertainment over reading; have lost connection and empathy; and whose government routinely burns books and kills thinkers.  We instinctively know that, when we lose books, we lose ourselves.

Nevertheless, at some point, even the most beloved books will become too damaged to repair or keep, and then we must face the hard question:  What is the best way to deal with a discarded book?  For sacred texts, the question is even more complicated:  How do we dispose of this sacred text while respecting its content and traditions?

Quotes from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (just because I love books)

Works Cited
"Abstract: Disposing OfNon-Disposable Texts." Syracuse University Library. Web. 8 Mar. 2012. <>.
Citation for actual book (not the abstract above): James W. Watts, “Disposing of Non-Disposable Texts,” in The Death of Sacred Texts: Ritual Disposal and Renovation of Texts in the World Religions, ed. Kristina Myrvold. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010, pp. 147-59.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

How should one show respect for the Quran?

To comprehend the outrage expressed by so many Muslims when the Quran is burned, we must first understand how Muslims see the Quran (or Koran).  First and foremost, it is sacred and therefore must be treated with respect:
The Qur'an is treated with immense respect by Muslims because it is the sacred word of God.

While the Qur'an is recited aloud, Muslims should behave with reverence and refrain from speaking, eating or drinking, or making distracting noise (BBC Religions, Islam: The Quran).
Not only must the Quran be respected when it is read or recited, there is a protocol for handling the book itself.
  • To touch the Quran while in an impure state shows disrespect for this holy book. Showing respect would include bathing before reading, washing one's hands, or (if a woman is menstruating or a person is ritually unclean) wearing gloves or not touching the Quran at all.
  • "Not having sexual relation in an area where the Quran is. If this must happen then one should cover the Quran. (Remember, this is a book which is a miracle, filled with light and spirituality) and Allah’s sacred and greatest words which were sent by the pure angels to the blessed Prophet (SA)."
  • "Out of great love and respect, one should not put other books upon it."
  • "One should not turn the pages of the Quran with saliva on his fingers" (Tafseer Ruhal Ma’ani vol.14 pg.155).
According to some scholars, non-Muslims should not even be permitted to touch a Quran written or printed in Arabic; rather, non-Muslims should be given a translation to help them in their search for understanding:
"It is not permitted for a non-Muslim to touch the Mus-haf (the Arabic text of the Quran) and he should not be allowed to do so even with the purpose of reading it in order to embrace Islam" (Giving Quran to non-Muslim, Islamweb).
In addition to being handled with respect, a Quran must also be stored respectfully.
Muslims never place the Qur'an on the floor, and many try to ensure it is kept higher than other books (E.g. on the top shelf of a bookcase). This would especially be the case with a copy of the Qur'an written in Arabic (The Qur'an: Key facts).
In the UK, libraries have responded to Muslim complaints by re-shelving the Quran and other books on the highest shelves:
Librarians are being told to move the Bible to the top shelf to avoid giving offence to followers of Islam.
Muslims have complained of finding the Koran on lower shelves, saying it should be put above commonplace things (Daily Mail).
Other sacred texts, such as the Bible, are also accorded great respect by Muslims.
Jesus Christ and mother Mary are considered holy and highly revered by every Muslim.... [Islam]  is a universal faith stemming from the same origins of the Judeo-Christian faith which along with Islam are recognized as Abrahamic religions. so, burning the Quran would be like consequently throwing the Bible and Torah in the same bonfire.

This is mainly why Muslims cannot retaliate against burning al Quran by burning any copy of the Bible because Islam decrees that Muslims should respect and honor the Bible and Torah as well (Dr. Ashraf Ezzat).
To summarize:  while many Americans tend to treat books as commonplace objects and have little or no understanding of the sacred, Muslims view the Quran, the Torah and the Bible as holy texts which must be treated with the utmost respect.  While these books are in usable condition, they are revered.  It is only logical that, when the texts are no longer usable, they are disposed of in a reverent and respectful manner and absolutely never burned with trash at the dump.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Quran burning and the U.S. military - a tableau of crimes & misfortunes?

Indeed, history is nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes - Voltaire.

“What experience and history teach is this - that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it" - Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

The latest "deeply unfortunate incident" in Afghanistan is the burning of Korans, or Qurans, at an American air base.  The ensuing violence has left an astonishing number of people dead or wounded.

Dead and wounded (an incomplete list):
7 dead, dozens wounded (2/22/2012)
2 American advisors dead (2/25/2012)
2 Afghans dead, 7 international troops wounded (2/26/2012)
9 die in suicide "revenge" bombing of Jalalabad Airport (2/27/2012)

This violent response has, I think, mystified the average American.  Why are Muslims so angry over the burning of books?  And, perhaps more importantly, how should we as a nation and individuals, respond to their anger?

Over the next few days, I will attempt to answer these questions.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Doing justice - to the text and to real human beings

Note:  I wrote this before the recent Koran-burning incident, and I want to preface this by saying that I don't want to offend anybody.  However, the incident recounted below has bothered me for several years, and I think the underlying principle is even more pertinent now.  TRUE JUSTICE DOES NOT PUNISH ONE INDIVIDUAL FOR ANOTHER PERSON'S CRIMES, whether that "justice" is  killing American officers or raping a Pakistani woman as retribution for acts they personally did not commit.

If you are offended by my words, I hope you respond with words and not violence!

On a practical level, if we spend too much time dealing with dissonance and ambivalence, we are paralyzed by doubt and indecision, and become less effective and less efficient.  It is possible to think too much.

Thus it's not an entirely bad thing to ignore or reject a statement that sounds too weird, wacky or just plain dumb.  It's hard get through our busy days without dissecting every advertisement, news sound byte,  op-ed article, and friends' conversations. 

Nevertheless, intellectual rigor, accurate textual interpretation and good critical thinking skills are especially important in the areas of religion and morality, because people are willing to lay down their lives, or to kill, for their religious beliefs.  Less dramatically, our beliefs influence our legal systems and corporate behavior; determine social norms; and guide or control our economic structures.  If we "get it wrong," there are long-lasting consequences for society and for the individual.

For instance, consider the debate over women's rights in the Muslim world.  In 2002, a Pakistan woman known as Mukhtar Mai or Mukhtar Bibi was gang-raped as punishment for her 12-year-old brother's alleged misconduct.  Village elders not only sanctioned this rape; they ordered it.  Mukhtar Bibi risked her life by reporting the rape and attempting to bring her attackers to justice, yet by 2011, Pakistan's Supreme Court had released all but one of the rapists.

Other, more moderate Muslims condemn the actions of the village elders and the rapists.  They do not believe that a woman should be raped, beaten, or imprisoned as the result of another person's actions, and that women have some, or even equal, rights.  Same religious texts, but different interpretations.

Similarly, in Christianity, there are horrific episodes throughout history, from the Crusades and the Inquisition to the Salem witch trials and beyond.  Millions have suffered as a result of religious texts interpreted in a manner generally be considered false today.

How can we prevent these injustices?  Only by humbly interrogating the text and questioning interpretations while extending grace to those around us.

(Journal, January 2012)

I read the Bible often
I try to read it right
As far as I can understand
It's nothing but a burning light ("Soul of a Man" as recorded by Bruce Cockburn)
Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful.-- C.S. Lewis

I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice. --Abraham Lincoln

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend. --Martin Luther King Jr.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Are we hard-wired to resist the new and the unconfortably true?

I recognize that not everyone has the skills or the desire to relentlessly question everything.  However, for me, believing everything I hear is just not an option.  I've been asking questions pretty much since the first day I could talk.

This makes ordinary group Bible studies and Sunday school classes excruciating for me.  I cannot accept what any teacher says as "gospel" truth.  In my heart, I know that easy answers are usually wrong.  Simplistic thinking might draw crowds or sell books, but it won't bring me to the fullness of truth.

Of course, if one were to be honest, most people aren't actually interested in truth.  They want just enough information to get by, and they want that information to agree with their world view.  No matter how unrealistic or convoluted their world view might seem to others, people tend to accept what agrees with their beliefs and reject what is different.

Why are we so resistant to listening to "the other side of the argument"?  It turns out that our brains are hard-wired that way:  we automatically tune out and quickly forget what doesn't fit.  Apparently, we also have a natural tendency to adapt our beliefs to conform to our circumstances and our actions.

Thus our "intellectual discussions" are apt to turn into heated arguments, our actions are apt to be labeled as "hypocritical," and all of us are bound to appear foolish at least once in a while.  And hence, no doubt, the excellent advice from James, the brother of Christ:

...everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God (James 1:19-20, NASB).

Cognitive Dissonance, Behavior and Belief

  • Wired for Hypocrisy - an article from Newsweek on how cognitive dissonance causes people to change their beliefs

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The cost of questioning everything

I don't think I could say it better than this!

I constantly try to reinvent my sensibilities and my ideas. I enjoy some of the satisfaction that I get when I feel good about what I've done. But the process is quite lonely and quite painful.  --Vincent Gallo

Or this, because walking in obedience to a new idea of God (like Jesus did) is also costly:

"Lonely Road" by Mark Heard
(Listen now -

            Not taking note of the fools or the wise
            Being a pawn of time and chance
            Not making vows when the flood waters rise
            Is simpler than nails through your hands

            Being a slave to the sultans of grief
            Keeping the hand to the plow
            Being held captive to public belief
            Is easier than thorns through your brow

                And it’s a lonely road
                And it’s a lonely road
                And it’s a lonely road
                That the Son of Man walks down

            Being immune to the war of the heart
            And never wondering why
            To bury the conflict deep in the dark
            Is safer than spears through your side

                And it’s a lonely road
                And it’s a lonely road
                And it’s a lonely road
                That the Son of Man walks down

            For him who burns with a creed and a flame
            Words are as smoke on the wind
            Some kind of volatile helplessness reigns
            And can’t fill the hearts of his kin

            To go and enlighten the doomed and unwashed
            Seized with the art of sacrifice
            To carry the weight of a martyr-at-large
            Is easier than giving your life

                And it’s a lonely road
                And it’s a lonely road
                And it’s a lonely road
                That the Son of Man walks down

            Written by Mark Heard © 1990 Ideola Music

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Why question everything?

Why not?

Okay, seriously - why should we question everything?

If you believe whatever people tell you (or if you believe what you read in your email inbox), you will believe many foolish things and, as an unfortunate result, you may make decisions based on lies which might ruin your health or cause you to lose money.  For instance, astonishingly, not only have people fallen for the famed "Nigerian scam," it has a long and successful history predating the advent of email, and it is rumored that some people have even died in pathetic attempts to recover their savings.

(Note: I cannot find a reference to the supposed murder of an American in Nigeria in June of 1995 on any reputable news web site, nor can I find the actual name of the individual supposedly murdered.  So, have people actually died?  I don't really know.)

On a more spiritual plane, history is littered with sad examples of people who blindly trusted charismatic leaders.    In my lifetime alone, I can remember the 1978 Jonestown massacre in Guyana.  In the 1990s, national news reported that dozens died in the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, TX.  More recently, polygamist sects and child brides were the scandal of the Southwest

For me, these real-life tragedies raise two questions:  "Who you gonna listen to?" and more importantly, "Why should you believe them?"

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Humility: a lesson for me to take to heart

This discussion of pride and its consequences reminds me that, whether Isaiah 14 refers to the fall of Satan or to the sad end of a mortal man, the lesson is one of humility.  I know I am not alone in this, but I struggle with arrogance and a judgmental attitude.  Humility is something I have consciously been working on for the last decade.

This brings to mind Jer. 10:23,14 (NASB):
I know, O LORD, that a man’s way is not in himself,
Nor is it in a man who walks to direct his steps.
Correct me, O LORD, but with justice;
Not with Your anger, or You will bring me to nothing.

Also this:
Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time (I Peter 5:6, NASB).

And lastly, Micah 6:8, a verse that helps keep my heart and life on track:
He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God? (NASB)

Four deceptively simple lines sum up the entire Christian life - yet mastering these concepts can occupy an entire lifetime.  Whenever I get too full of myself, this little verse blows away the pride and the cobwebs, and gets me moving again.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Isa. 14:13 "But" clinches my argument

(This is long; sorry!)

There is one last reason why I feel Isaiah 14:12-15 does not refer to the fall of Lucifer, and that is the appearance of the coordinating conjunction but in vs. 13.

Consider this narrative describing the fall and subsequent career of Lucifer.  First, he becomes proud and says all this stuff about how he's going to be just like God.  Then God kicks him out of heaven; all of human history takes place, from creation and the fall of Adam to the visible return of Christ.  The story ends with a final judgment in which Satan and all the bad guys are relegated to eternal punishment in the lake of fire.  It's a neatly organized sequence, into which Isaiah 14 is inserted as a depiction of Lucifer's catastrophic fall from perfection and heavenly favor.

One problem:  Isaiah 14:12-15 does NOT describe a pride-followed-by-fall sequence.  Look at the verses again.

“How you have fallen from heaven,
O star of the morning, son of the dawn!
You have been cut down to the earth,
You who have weakened the nations!
“But you said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne above the stars of God,
And I will sit on the mount of assembly
In the recesses of the north.
‘I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
“Nevertheless you will be thrust down to Sheol,
To the recesses of the pit.

First, the "star of the morning" is cut down to earth.  You'd expect the next word to a word like because, a subordinate conjunction which indicates causation:  "You were cut down to the earth because you said in your heart…" 

Consider other similarly constructed sentences, and try replacing because with but.  It simply will not work. "I was rear-ended because [or but] the guy behind me was tail-gating and talking on his cell phone" or "I got a C on the test because [or but] I didn't study chapter 8."

Now think about but means in these sentences:  "I was badly injured in that car accident, but I decided that I would learn to walk again, no matter what."  Or, "I got a C on that test, but I don't care.  I'd rather fail than read that stupid textbook."  In sentences like these, but  suggests an event which is followed by reflection, decision, and/or consequences. It does not imply that one event causes another.

(A)  Event 2 happens because Event 1 happens first.  
(B) Event 1 happens, but then Event 2 happens.  
Assuming the translation into English is accurate, (B) is the chain of events in Isaiah 14. 

  • Event 1:  the star of the morning is cut down to earth.  
  • Event 2:  " But you said in your heart, 'I will ascend to heaven, I will raise my throne,'" etc.  In other words, there's been a set-back, but I'm going to be like God anyway. 

Is the star of the morning going to realize those lofty goals?  No, because God is going to take this guy down even further, beyond being cut down to earth, all the way to the bottom of the land of the dead.

These verses don't narrate Lucifer's pride and subsequent fall; these verses describe the unreasoning persistence of hubris.  Apparently, humans (and possibly angels as well) can be stupid and proud to the bitter end.  Unfortunately for us, an earnest belief in the certainty of our own success will not be enough to save us from judgment (or, if you prefer, failure and its consequences).

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Isaiah 14 & the application of Occam's Razor

My experience in life suggests that Occam's razor is a good rule of thumb in science and textual interpretion.  Occam's razor, in its original form, basically states "Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate," or "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily."  The rule is often paraphrased, more comprehensibly, as:

"If you have two theories that both explain the observed facts, then you should use the simplest until more evidence comes along"

"The simplest explanation for some phenomenon is more likely to be accurate than more complicated explanations."

"If you have two equally likely solutions to a problem, choose the simplest."

"The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct"  (Gibbs).

Yes, IMHO, the explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct.  In the case of Isaiah 14, what is the simplest explanation?  That the passage refers to the King of Babylon. 

Is there any relevance to the idea that this passage refers to Satan as well?  Possibly, but if so, to what benefit?  What is gained by bringing angels into the picture?

The most important point of Isa. 14 is that God judges the cruel and the proud, and He judges them quite harshly.  "Pride goeth before a fall," so, whether you're an ordinary citizen, a powerful king, or an angel in heaven, be humble and kind.

Oh, and be consistent in your interpretations LOL.

(Journal, Jan. 13, 2012)

Gibbs, Phil. "What Is Occam's Razor?" University of California, Riverside, 1996. Web. 16 Feb. 2012. <>.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Isaiah 14 v. Gen. 1-3: Inconsistency and Confusion?

Perhaps one might argue that there is an immediate, temporal aspect to Isa. 14:12-15, referring to the death and judgment of the King of Babylon; and a second, spiritual or prophetic aspect to this, referring to an angelic being who sinned and was/will be judged.  This raises the question of consistency in applying the rules of interpretation.

Why, in some passages (like the biblical account of creation, in Genesis), are we supposed to take every word absolutely literally (God created the world in seven, 24-hour days) and in other passages, we're supposed to say, "Yeah, this talks about two things, and one is obvious and the other requires interpretation.  This is about a fallen angel and events that happened before the creation of the world."

This lack of consistency makes no sense to me.

My scholarly training as a reader of literature (and I do have a B.A . in English Literature) is that one interprets a single text by a consistent and reasonable set of standards.  While differing interpretations are possible, valid interpretations can be supported from the text.  Good scholarship is not arbitrary.

(Journal, Jan. 13, 2012)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Isaiah 14: More on parallel structure

Similarly, Sheol appears in both sections.  The first part of the chapter talks about the King of Babylon going down to Sheol (the place of the dead): 

Sheol from beneath is excited over you to meet you when you come;
It arouses for you the spirits of the dead, all the leaders of the earth;
It raises all the kings of the nations from their thrones.
They will all respond and say to you,
"Even you have been made weak as we,
You have become like us." (Isa. 14:9,10)

In other words, "Hey, king, you're gonna die and all the ghosts in Hades are gonna gloat over the fact that you're dead too.  Ha ha ha!"

Then, in the second half (the part interpreted as a reference to Satan's fall), there is a description of a king going to Sheol:

Nevertheless you will be thrust down to Sheol,
To the recesses of the pit.
Those who see you will gaze at you,
They will ponder over you, saying,
‘Is this the man who made the earth tremble,
Who shook kingdoms,
Who made the world like a wilderness
And overthrew its cities,
Who did not allow his prisoners to go home?"  (Isa. 14:15-17)

Doesn't this sound like a recap of "Hey, King, you're gonna die and we're all gonna see"?

The rest of the chapter makes it clear that there is a physical death involved, with the king being "cast out" of his tomb because he's "ruined [his] country' (vs. 19-20).  People die; fallen angels don't.  So why conclude that this passage has something to do with the fall of Lucifer?

(Journal, Jan. 13, 2012)

Isaiah 14:12-15. New American Standard Bible. Web. 16 Feb. 2012. <>.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Isaiah 14 and the Significance of Parallel Structure

Now, my thoughts on this passage, from the perspective of a person trained in literary and textual analysis rather than theology:  I have heard that Isaiah 14:12-15 describes the fall of Satan from heaven.  However, this interpretation seems flawed to me for the following reasons:

First, the passage as a whole is not a discussion of angelic rebellion, but rather, a taunt against the king of Babylon.  Earlier in the chapter, Isaiah writes that God will have compassion on Israel; the nation will "take their captors captive and will rule over their oppressors" (v. 2).  That's when the people will say to the king of Babylon, "How the oppressor has ceased, And how fury has ceased!" (v. 4).  This is obviously directed against a temporal ruler, not an angelic being. 

Significantly, the rhetorical construction of the first section parallels that of section two, in vs. 12:

How you have fallen from heaven,
O star of the morning, son of the dawn!"

Although "star of the morning" is sometimes interpreted as a reference to Lucifer, the parallel structure of the passage ("How the oppressor has ceased" and "How you have fallen") suggests that both refer to the same individual.  Same structure, same person; different structure, different person.

(Journal, Jan. 13, 2012)

Isaiah 14:12-15. New American Standard Bible. Web. 16 Feb. 2012. <>.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Isaiah 14: Intellectual rigor and biblical interpretation

I need to step away from A Spiritual Formation Workbook for a few moments, and talk instead about intellectual rigor in scriptural interpretation.  We, as believers, are often guilty of sloppy thinking.  For me, the various interpretations of Isaiah 14 is a good example of how convoluted biblical "scholarship" can become.  I'll let you decide for yourself which interpretation is the most valid, and I'll tell you which one I think is best.

Before I say anything, read the verses that are associated with the fall of Satan:

“How you have fallen from heaven,
O star of the morning, son of the dawn!
You have been cut down to the earth,
You who have weakened the nations!
“But you said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne above the stars of God,
And I will sit on the mount of assembly
In the recesses of the north.
‘I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
“Nevertheless you will be thrust down to Sheol,
To the recesses of the pit (Isa. 14:12-15)

Now take a moment to read the entire chapter, and think about these verses in context.

(Journal, Jan. 13, 2012)

Isaiah 14:12-15. New American Standard Bible. Web. 16 Feb. 2012. <>.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Should the government tell you what kind of light bulb to buy?

I just read this quote from a letter by Dianne Schram, and for a moment, I too felt enraged about my supposed loss of freedoms.  Then I started to think.

“Our freedoms of choice are slowly disappearing. The government is telling us what light bulbs to use, what kind of cars to drive, what to eat and what kind of health care is required.”

On the surface, it does sound as if our freedoms are being eroded.  However, ignore the emotional appeal and consider the facts.

Is the government telling me what kind of light bulbs to buy?  No.  The government is telling manufacturers what kind of light bulb to create, in an attempt to increase energy efficiency while reducing overall electricity usage, air pollution, and cooling costs.  Ultimately, the change should reduce your monthly electric bill as well as reducing the cost of doing business.   When I spend less per month on electricity, I can spend more on things I want or need.  And that additional spending will help the American economy just a little bit, and that extra spending might create or protect more American jobs.  Not a bad trade-off for a silly incandescent light bulb I never really liked anyway.

Consumer Benefits of Energy Star Certified Light Bulbs

More on LED's:
"The Advantages & Benefits of LED Lighting" from National Geographic
"Green Promise Seen in Switch to LED Lighting" from the New York Times (love the part about saving money in Buckingham Palace!)

So, if America can really "save enough energy to light 3 million homes for a year, save about $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year, equivalent to those from about 800,000 cars" (, why not switch to LED or fluorescent lighting? Why make such a fuss over a light bulb?

Well, maybe Schram has a point about automobiles.  After all, buying a car is a more significant choice that can affect my spending and happiness for years to come.  However, the government is not dictating my choice of vehicle, merely setting standards for energy efficiency and safety.   Who wants or needs an unsafe car?  Should Americans be forced to buy inefficient gas-guzzlers?  We're already hearing about "agony at the pump."  What would consumer choice be like now when gas prices are high, if car-makers weren't held to high fuel-efficiency standards.

A wide range of new and used vehicles appears to be readily available.  I can still buy a V-8 truck, SUV, full-sized sedan or high-performance sports car if I want one.  It's difficult to imagine what kind of car Ms. Schram requires, that the government will no longer allow her to purchase.

Unbeknownst to Ms. Schram, the real danger in the future is a lack of affordable energy, not lack of consumer choice.  This article does an excellent job of detailing the effect of rising gas prices on the U.S. economy in the year to come:

Can America adjust to higher gas prices?  (Brad Plumer, Washington Post)

Moving on to Schram's third point, I feel most keenly the pain of her last complaint:  increasing government control of food.  In 2008, I watched in horror as New York City has moved to eliminate trans fat from restaurant menus, imagining a future in which truly self-indulgent meals could only be painfully reconstructed at home.  Yet there are genuine reasons for governmental and individual concern over the American obesity epidemic:

Health Effects of Obesity (Stanford Hospital and Clinics)
Impact Of Childhood Obesity Goes Beyond Health

Overeating without exercising is literally crippling and killing us!  No wonder Michelle Obama was motivated to combat childhood obesity with her "Let's Move" campaign.  Helping the next generation to live better is a worthy cause.

Perhaps Ms. Schram sees incandescent light bulbs, big sedans and fatty food as an expression of freedom; I don't.  Ultimately, we're talking about preferences here, and preferring what destroys the planet and your own health is ultimately not freedom, but stupidity.  If every one of us 7 billion people on this planet exercise our preferences, the result will be chaos and destruction.  The reality is that all of us must limit our freedoms in order to survive.

Maybe we need to focus on our long-range goals like renewable energy and resources, energy independence, and national security.  Maybe it's more important to focus on clean air than the light bulb in my desk lamp; more important to conserve petroleum than drive an SUV; better to live longer and live well than to eat yet another carton of fries from the drive-through.

Photo from

Nettles in the garden of my soul!

More on being a spiritual tourist and attempting to be an honest Christian intellectual:

I also try to remember that other people can be right and I can be wrong sometimes, but that concept's a bit difficult for me to swallow.  It's hard enough for me to understand that both of us can be right; admitting that I am wrong is even harder.

Being humble enough to admit that I need help with prayer is another challenge.  Dealing with pride is like trying to cut the head off a hydra or trying to keep weeds out of the garden - no matter how hard I fight it, my pride keeps coming back somewhere else. 

Hmmm….  Is that one of the reasons that God keeps calling me to be faithful in prayer?  Because my soul needs daily weeding?

(Reflection, Feb. 15, 2012)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Prayer, spiritual truth and denominational differences

The first contemplative exercise in The Spiritual Formation Workbook is this:  "Set aside five to ten minutes each day for prayer" (Smith and Graybeal 35).  My goal is to try each exercise for a week and afterwards, to reflect on the experience.

Day Three:  Last night,I went to Universalis Today.  I love praying through the Psalms, and the Office of Hours is full of Psalms!  When I'm tired and I don't know what to say, the Office of Hours reminds and guides me.  If I'm without the Internet and can't get to Universalis Today, I can open my Bible to any psalm, and discover the heart of God.

Maybe it's a little weird that I worship at a Baptist church but visit a Catholic website and read Catholic books on prayer.  However, I tend to consider myself a follower of Jesus rather than a Protestant or Baptist or ________ (fill in the blank).  Sometimes, I tell people that I'm a spiritual tourist, because I really do want do know what other people think about God, and how they worship.

If God is real, omnipresent and powerful, don't you think we should see evidence of God's work in many different times and places?  If we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, spiritual truths ought to be stronger than denominational lines.  We won't agree on every point, but you'd expect us to agree on a great many issues.

For me, seeing something from a different perspective helps me to understand and learn.  I like being a spiritual tourist because it challenges me to think and to grow, and it forces me to know what I believe and why.

(Journal, Jan. 6, 2012)

Smith, James Bryan and Lynda Graybeal.  A Spiritual Formation Wookbook:  Small-Group Resources for Nurturing Christian Growth.  New York:  HarperCollins, 1993.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Prayer resources and a plea for tolerance

This week's exercise from The Spiritual Formation Workbook is to spend 5-10 minutes a day in prayer.  That sounds pretty simple, but if you're as ADHD as I am, grasshopper mind cannot stay focused for 2 minutes, much less 5 to 10. Unless I give myself some kind of structure, my prayer life basically consists of, "Dear Heavenly Father, thank You for - squirrel!"

I have some resources I've discovered online that help me stay focused.  If you're a fundie,* you may find these links controversial and disturbing.  That's okay - we all need a little shaking up once in a while.

Getting upset or being argumentative about someone else's spiritual practice doesn't accomplish much, and who knows, in a few years, you might find yourself appreciating or even embracing that other person's position.  If there were only one approach to Jesus, there'd still be only one kind of worship service; instead, there are a lot of different worship styles.  One Lord, one baptism - but a beautiful diversity of prayer and worship.

Thus, I recommend being open, not judgmental, about new experiences.  If you visit a link, and the website is useful, use it.  If something in it sounds "off," compare it to scripture and figure out why it seems wrong to you.  If the practice is biblical but the activity doesn't bring you closer to God, don't get upset - just reflect on the experience and move on. 

Our constant focus should be on the two great commandments, loving God & loving one another.   How we get hung up on all this other stuff, I have no idea; but we are fallen, insecure people in the process of being redeemed and remade in the image of Christ.  We fall down a lot.

Please try to use these links to get closer to Jesus, and if you disagree, extend the rest of us a little grace.  Thanks!

*a strict, evangelical fundamentalist  "The Liturgy of the Hours (also known as the Divine Office) is the richest single prayer resource of the Christian Church. It provides prayers, psalms and meditation for every hour of every day. It has existed from the earliest times, to fulfil the Lord's command to pray without ceasing."  Ancient and contemporary prayer methods "to help you best speak and listen to God."  My personal fav - lectio divina.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Balance in prayer

First,  a caveat:  I'm not too good at balance.  As Bruce Cockburn says,

I hold my breath forever
I never lived with balance 
Though I've always liked the notion
I feel an endless hunger
For energy and motion ("Open")

So, with that in mind, I will summarize what I've learned from my experience in praying for revival:

When I tried to save the whole world through prayer, I wore myself out.  But the resulting prayerlessness was not restful either.  Although I didn't know it at the time, a balanced prayer life would have been a better solution.  Intercession and contemplation together make daily prayer possible.

Our prayer lives, in many ways, are like eating a balanced diet or practicing a healthy exercise program.  No person can live on only protein or only carbs; we need the nutrients from fruits and vegetables as well.  We cannot get in really good physical condition by doing sit-ups without using all our muscles and giving our hearts a good cardiovascular workout.

Similarly, my prayer life needs to be balanced.  I cannot focus only on intercession, or my prayer life will become dry and empty.  I also need adoration, confession and thanksgiving, to feed and refresh the wellsprings of my heart.

Sometimes we need to speak; sometimes we need to listen.  Yes, we must focus on the needs of others, but we must also and always focus on the glory and greatness of God.

I'm glad I'm getting back into the habit of daily, balanced prayer!

(Journal, Jan. 3, 2012)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Contemplation as a doorway to the presence of God

Psalm 131 (NASB)
    A Song of Ascents, of David.

O LORD, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty;
Nor do I involve myself in great matters,
Or in things too difficult for me.
Surely I have composed and quieted my soul;
Like a weaned child rests against his mother,
My soul is like a weaned child within me.
O Israel, hope in the LORD
From this time forth and forever.

While praying for revival, I learned that intercession is warfare; it's work; it's strenuous and exhausting.  I eventually came to understand that intercession was not meant to be the focus of my prayer life.  Intercession must be balanced with restful contemplation - the practice of prayer that restores and fills the empty soul.

Contemplation is the antithesis of intercession.  It asks nothing of God.  Contemplation is the soul's communion with Him, resting in HIs presence, like a weaned child resting in her mother's arms.

When we contemplate an idea, we think about it:  what it is, what it is like compared to something else, what will happen if we do one thing and what will happen if we do another.  The spiritual practice of contemplation is similar, because it too involves reflecting on ideas and experience.  I contemplate the character and acts of God; I think about who He is and what He has done in history; I think about what He has done in my life; I pause to praise and give thanks.

So contemplation is all about being in the moment with God, about being with Him and being open to the Spirit.  Contemplation involves looking and waiting and listening.  It asks nothing; it receives everything.

Contemplation is the closest to experiencing transcendence and eternity that we non-mystical types will find in our mortal lives.  Contemplation is a very good thing, because it is the doorway to the presence of God.

(Journal, Jan. 3, 2012)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Why do I avoid prayer?

The first contemplative exercise in The Spiritual Formation Workbook is this:  "Set aside five to ten minutes each day for prayer" (Smith and Graybeal 35).  My goal is to try each exercise for a week and afterwards, to reflect on the experience.

Day One:  I turned off the computer and the television, and set aside time for prayer before going to bed.  It was healing and peaceful, which made me wonder why, so often, I avoid prayer.

Perhaps it is related to the period in my life, a few years ago, when I was praying daily for revival.  My prayers were fervent.  I felt so strongly about the need for revival that, as I prayed, I would find myself rigid with tension, my teeth clenched and every muscle in my body taut.  I felt like I was doing battle, and it was enervating rather than exhilarating.

Naively, I thought that, if I prayed hard enough, maybe God would do something astonishing.  I really wanted to see, in my lifetime, another Great Revival like that of the 1720s or the Jesus Movement  of the 1970s.  I believed that, if I just prayed hard enough, I could make it happen.

A year or two later, the world seemed unchanged by my efforts.  I concluded that praying for revival was too much work, and gave it up as a waste of my time.  But was it really a waste of time?  What did I learn as a result of those prayers?

(Journal, Jan. 3, 2012)

Smith, James Bryan and Lynda Graybeal.  A Spiritual Formation Workbook:  Small-Group Resources for Nurturing Christian Growth.  New York:  HarperCollins, 1993.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Challenge your stengths, support your weaknesses

"Three simple precautions:  First, do not be afraid to fail…. Second, keep your emphasis on God, not the method….  Third, feel free to modify any exercise to fit your needs…. Adapt the exercise you choose to challenge your strengths and support your weaknesses" (Smith and Graybeal, 35).
Take a moment to really think about that last idea.  "Challenge your strengths and support your weaknesses."  We are, paradoxically, often both too easy and too hard on ourselves.  We avoid real challenges, and castigate ourselves for every little failure, expecting too little and too much from ourselves.  Who do we think we are?  And who would I be if I stopped beating myself up, and started really growing?

The challenge, for me, is to change gradually and steadily.  In the sci-fi series Firefly, Captain Mal says something like this to the beautiful but deceitful Saffon, "I imagine when the pain fades, you'll go back to being what you are."  Sadly, that's what we usually do.  We have what we think are life-changing experiences, then go right back to being what we are.  We are, first and foremost, creatures of habit.

I want to re-establish habits of gratitude and prayer, and not slip back into habits of whining and spiritual laziness!

(Journal, Dec. 30, 2011)

Smith, James Bryan and Lynda Graybeal.  A Spiritual Formation Wookbook:  Small-Group Resources for Nurturing Christian Growth.  New York:  HarperCollins, 1993.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Think about why, not just what

"Three simple precautions:  First, do not be afraid to fail…. Second, keep your emphasis on God, not the method.  It is hard initially, but try to think about why you are doing an exercise rather than about what you are doing" (Smith and Graybeal, 35).

That's an interesting idea, to focus on why as well as what I'm doing.  In my everyday life, sometimes I am so involved in whining about how much I hate washing dishes, etc.  that I forget there's any benefit to doing chores at all.

However, my attitude changes dramatically when I remember that I'm doing these simple daily tasks to bless my husband, to be obedient to God, and to satisfy my personal need for cleanliness and order.  There are tangible and spiritual benefits to actually cleaning the house.  When I begin to focus on these outcomes - which are why I'm doing the work - the process of what I'm doing miraculously becomes pleasurable.

So this concept of thinking about why and not just what I'm doing has a spiritual application (i.e., helping me practice contemplation) as well as practical applications (getting me through the tedious or unpleasant moments in life). Woo-hoo!

(Journal, Dec. 30, 2011)

Smith, James Bryan and Lynda Graybeal.  A Spiritual Formation Wookbook:  Small-Group Resources for Nurturing Christian Growth.  New York:  HarperCollins, 1993.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Thoughts on Risk

"Three simple precautions:  First, do not be afraid to fail.  To reach a goal is not the reason you do a spiritual discipline; it is to experience God.  Even in failure, you are learning and experiencing new and valuable things" (Smith and Graybeal, 35).

That's a great point.  Like many former "gifted students," I am a perfectionist who struggles with the fear of failure, even when no human will ever see or know.   I fear failure even when I realize that God will not hold failure against me.

So much of our self-image and self-love is tied up in success or failure!  We are ridiculously hard on ourselves.

In an Archaeos0up video on YouTube, our resident archeologist says that, in science, you can sort of guess the outcome, and that you have some degree of control over your results; but in archeology, you have no control.  You can dig and find nothing.  Finding anything, well-preserved or not, is great.

Consider what would happen in my life if, instead of expecting absolute perfection from myself, I would see any positive results as a good outcome.  I'd be happier and more productive.  If I didn't achieve all my goals for the day, I'd still feel successful if I accomplished something.

If I didn't have high expectations for others (especially my own family!), I could rejoice in their successes.  I would be more encouraging, and less judgmental.

Thus I long for an archeologist's joy in finding anything in life, no matter how small or how broken it might be.  And I long for the confidence to try everything without fear of failure.

So once again, "don't be afraid to fail.  Even in failure, you are learning and experiencing valuable things."

Right on!

(Journal, Dec. 29, 2011)

Smith, James Bryan and Lynda Graybeal.  A Spiritual Formation Wookbook:  Small-Group Resources for Nurturing Christian Growth.  New York:  HarperCollins, 1993.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

To become prayer-full, you have to pray

"You are trying to become 'full of prayer,' and to become prayer-full, you have to pray" (Smith and Graybeal, 35).

Yes, well, that does make it rather challenging, doesn't it?  I'd rather be the "armchair quarterback" of some National Prayer League, and never have to risk injury on the spiritual-warfare playing field.  Who wants to get knocked around by supernatural opposition?  Sometimes, I'd rather be selfish, lazy and cowardly!

Nevertheless, to become "full of prayer," I must learn to pray, and so I shall!

(Journal, Dec. 28, 2011)

Smith, James Bryan and Lynda Graybeal.  A Spiritual Formation Wookbook:  Small-Group Resources for Nurturing Christian Growth.  New York:  HarperCollins, 1993.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

My latest adventure: bridging the gap between knowing and doing

For a couple of months now, I've been working my way through A Spiritual Formation Workbook,* because I found a used copy at a local thrift store, and it looked interesting.  I thought it might prove useful for a neighborhood Bible study - which it would, by the way. 

However, for me, it's been useful in providing me with a foundation and hands-on activities for daily practice.  When it comes to getting closer to God, knowing what I ought to do and actually doing it can be two very different things.  A book like this can help to close the gap between intellectual grasp and daily living.

*Smith, James Bryan and Lynda Graybeal.  A Spiritual Formation Workbook:  Small-Group Resources for Nurturing Christian Growth.  New York:  HarperCollins, 1993.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Poem: "Every Year Like an Empty Swing"


Your birthday returns and I push it away.
If I could climb into your lap right now.
squirm into the manly hollow
between chest and chin, and smell
clean soap on skin, the shaving cream
that said Daddy to me -
if I could hear your voice reading to me
or if I could face you again,
over the chessboard, with the worn paperback
and its sets of opening moves
lying face-down between us,
you staring down at the board
while I watched the light on your thinning hair -
if I had those last moments on your last day
to live over, I could only say again
what I say now:  "I love you."
I love you.

©2012 Tina Quinn Durham