Note to Readers: My historical fiction novel Prester John and the Brigand King is once again available to read in full. Just click on the novel's title in the "Full Series" menu on the sidebar.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Saturday Synaxis










O God, the true and only life, in whom and from whom and by whom are all good things that are good indeed; from whom to be turned is to fall, to whom to turn is to rise again; in whom to abide is to dwell forever, from whom to depart is to die; to whom to come again is to revive, and in whom to lodge is to live: take away from me whatever you will as long as you give me only yourself. Amen.

(Thomas Dekker) 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Finding God in the Smell of Mud

(This is a reblog of a post from 2014, originally written as a devotional column for my local newspaper.)
   
       I grew up here in Maine, but my wife Rachel is a Pennsylvanian. For those who are “from away,” our version of springtime here in Maine is a difficult one to appreciate. Rachel rhapsodizes about springtime in Pennsylvania as a season of green on every side, of dogwoods blooming, of warm sunshine streaming through forests that have come alive in a concert of birdsong. With such a picture of spring in mind, our version of spring—a couple months of mud and chilly rain, followed immediately by blackflies, does not seem appealing at first glance. But, having grown up in Maine, there is something about springtime here that speaks to me in no uncertain terms about the vibrancy of life. And for me, spring is not so much about the colors of green leaves or blue skies, but about smells—the rich, heavy scent of the frozen earth slowly coming back to life. Even if deprived of the main sense I rely on—sight—I could still tell you it was springtime in Maine simply by breathing in the air, by catching the scent of the ground thawing out.

Faith is a little bit like this. Many of us rely on our rational impulses and gut instincts to make sense of the world—these, like our sense of sight, are our primary way of understanding life. But in certain seasons of our life, seasons of doubt or skepticism, these senses don’t have much to offer us. Like looking for greenery at the beginning of a Maine springtime, looking for clear signs of God’s activity using only our gut instincts and a veneer of rationality might not bring a lot of results. So if you’re in that place where it seems like evidence of God is hard to find, I would encourage you to listen to your other senses. All human beings have certain intuitions placed deep within them, intuitions which we take for granted, but which provide clear signposts of God’s gracious presence in the world. We are all wired to desire justice, for instance—everyone objects when treated unfairly. We are also wired to appreciate beauty—in the natural world around us, in works of art, in the sound of a song: something in our hearts responds to beauty in a way that we wouldn’t expect to find if this were a meaningless world. Intuitions like this—our nature to be predisposed towards justice, goodness, beauty, joy—these are things  which stand as signposts in our own nature that we are created for more than merely ourselves. God is there to be found, but sometimes, like finding springtime in Maine, we find him most clearly when we close our eyes for a moment and breathe deep.

         Let me draw one more parallel between springtime and the life of faith. Some people try to grudgingly keep God at a distance, as if opening our eyes to his truth would primarily mean having to buckle down to the hard and bitter work of trying to be good. This attitude entirely misses the point. It would be as if we Mainers, having sat through a long, bleak winter, said to ourselves, “I really don’t want spring to come, because springtime brings a lot of work—raking, planting, mowing, cleaning—I’d rather just sit inside and let it keep snowing.” Rather, most of us are joyfully ready for the simple and soul-cleansing work of spring when it arrives. It’s the same way with coming to faith in God through Jesus Christ—yes, it will mean a change in some of our habits and ways of living—but just like springtime, it will be a change ushered in by incredible joy and energy and new life. The call to come to faith in God is not a subpoena that forces us into a life of gray drudgery; it is an invitation to leave behind our old, closed-up homes, step out into the spring rain, and dance.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Evangeliad (1:1-5)


Section 1:1-5 (corresponding to John 1:1-5)


That Word, which all eternal, vast, and true,
Did dwell in ageless glory none could view:
At dawn of time he was, for he must be;
And was with God, in joint aseity.

This selfsame Word was God, in unity,
And with God did this Word’s divinity
Exist before all worlds, in ageless bliss,
Aflame with undivided holiness.

By his own hand the universe was born,
And endless space stretched out, and stars were born;
No thing existing now has come to be
Except by that Word’s own authority.

He is, himself, of life the fountainhead;
Life’s source and cause, beginning and its end.
His life illumines mankind from within:
The light of men, unshadowed by our sin.

Into our darkness shone that gracious light,
Lavish and strong, immeasurably bright;
And we, in darkest shame, we hid our eyes:
Our life, our light, we did not recognize.

The Evangeliad

I'm introducing a new project that will be written, in serial fashion, for my Wednesday poetry posts. It's a long project (maybe decades long, depending on how it goes), so I'm anticipating taking breaks here and there, sometimes for an extended period of time, while I work on other poems and hymns. But the basic idea behind this project is to render the full story of the Gospels into the medium of epic poetry. I'm calling it The Evangeliad. It's written as a work of devotional literature, making no pretensions to actually be Scripture, and is in no way intended to replace one's regular practice of reading the Gospels themselves. Below is a set of links to the completed sections; and further below you'll find an explanation of the historical, poetical, and theological considerations behind this work.


1.) Section 1:1-5 (corresponding to John 1:1-5)
2.) Section 1:6-14 (corresponding to Luke 1:5-13)
3.) Section 1:15-18 (corresponding to Luke 1:14-17)  
4.) Section 1:19-24 (corresponding to Luke 1:18-23) 
5.) Section 1:25-28 (corresponding to Luke 1:24-27) 
6.) Section 1:29-34 (corresponding to Luke 1:28-33) 
7.) Section 1:35-39 (corresponding to Luke 1:34-38) 
8.) Section 1:40-46 (corresponding to Luke 1:39-45) 
9.) Section 1:47-56 (corresponding to Luke 1:46-55) 
10.) Section 1:57-67 (corresponding to Luke 1:56-66)
11.) Section 1:68-76 (corresponding to Luke 1:67-75) 
12.) Section 1:77-81 (corresponding to Luke 1:76-80) 
13.) Section 2:1-4 (corresponding to Matthew 1:18-21) 
14.) Section 2:5-14 (corresponding to Matthew 1:22-25a and Luke 2:1-5) 
15.) Section 2:15-22 (corresponding to Luke 2:6-14)
16.) Section 2:23-28 (corresponding to Luke 2:15-20)
17.) Section 2:29-35 (corresponding to Luke 2:21-27)
18.) Section 2:36-43 (corresponding to Luke 2:28-35)
19.) Section 2:44-47 (corresponding to Luke 2:36-39)
20.) Section 3:1-6 (corresponding to Matthew 2:1-6)
21.) Section 3:7-9 (corresponding to Matthew 2:7-9)

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- What does "Evangeliad" mean? - It's a combination of the Greek word for Gospel (evangel) and the Greek suffix often attached to works of epic poetry--as in the Iliad, the Alexiad, and so on. 

- This doesn't exactly follow the text of any single Gospel. Why not? - I'm not attempting an actual translation of the Gospels; my main interest is to tell all of the stories about Jesus contained in the four canonical Gospels. It will attempt to faithfully include the substance of everything said in the Gospels, but it is an artistic rendering of that substance, not an attempt at a new version of the inspired, authoritative text. The nature of this sort of project, which aims to tell a single, cohesive story, requires a measure of blending, since no single Gospel contains all of the stories, and it would be too long and redundant to try to do four such poems exactly corresponding to each Gospel. So my poem will follow a traditional "harmony" of the Gospels. The text of the Evangeliad follows the structure of the most famous harmony of the four Gospels, the Diatessaron. The Diatessaron (which means "one from four") was a Gospel harmony composed by the Assyrian early church father Tatian in the late second century AD, and it was so widely accepted in the Christian East that it actually became the standard liturgical text of the Gospels used in Syriac churches until the fifth century.

- Aren't there some textual and doctrinal issues with Tatian's Diatessaron? - The Diatessaron is a very faithful harmony of the Gospels. It does have two major exclusions--the genealogies of Matthew and Luke (which I wouldn't include in the Evangeliad anyway, because those sections would be burdensome and unnecessary in an epic poem), and the pericope in the Gospel of John about the woman caught in adultery, which was probably not original to the Gospel (but which I, unlike the Diatessaron, might choose to include). There are some doctrinal concerns which have been raised about Tatian himself, but these tend not to concern the Diatessaron. Tatian was indeed suspected in the West of slipping into heterodoxy or heresy after the death of his teacher Justin Martyr, but these claims are a little difficult to pin down. He was suspected by Irenaeus of developing some Gnostic-ish ideas; but at least one of his major works (his Oratio) continued to receive wide and favorable use in the West, and he went on to tutor one of the greatest of the early church fathers, Saint Clement of Alexandria; so one might fairly assume that the concerns about heretical Gnosticism were overblown. The claim that appears to hit closer to the mark is the accusation that his theology led him too far toward spurning matrimony as an appropriate, God-given institution, which would put him in a camp of Christianity that was, if not exactly heterodox, at least an example of heteropraxy. It should be noted, however, that much of the early Assyrian church, of which Tatian was a part, shared this suspicion of marriage and exalted the celibate ascetic life instead, so in this regard he was largely representative of his own local church culture. In the Syriac-speaking branch of the early church, he remained a pillar of mainstream theology and practice: his Diatessaron, in addition to being used in churches for hundreds of years, also had the distinction of having the great Saint Ephrem the Syrian write a biblical commentary on its text. Thus, since the Diatessaron has a long and faithful legacy of use by the church, I've opted to make it my model "Gospel harmony" on which to base my narrative poem.

- Why is it written in rhyme instead of free verse? - It's traditional for epic poetry in English to be written in the form known as "heroic meter," which is comprised of rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter. 

- Why are the sections numbered as they are? - The section numbers follow the text of the Diatessaron (I'm using the enumeration provided by the 1895 Hogg translation). If, at the end of the project, my Evangeliad proves worthy to stand on its own in some sort of published form, I will probably introduce a more standard poetic enumeration.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Photo of the Week

Praise ye the Lord! 'Tis good to raise
Your hearts and voices in His praise:
His nature and His works invite
To make this duty our delight.

- Verse 1 of the hymn "Praise Ye the Lord," by Isaac Watts

Monday, April 24, 2017

Quote of the Week

"This is why God allows such things to happen: He has ordained, in his goodness, to make us higher with him in his joy; and for this pain that we suffer here, we shall have a high, endless knowing in God, which we could never have had without that pain."

- Julian of Norwich, English 14th-century anchoress, from her book Revelations of Divine Love

(Painting: "The Children of Bethel Mourned by Their Mothers," by Laurent de La Hyre, 1653) 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Saturday Synaxis



Let us not seek out of you what we can only find in you, O Lord. Peace and rest, and joy and bliss, which abide only in your abiding joy. Lift up our souls above the weary round of harassing thoughts to your eternal presence. Light up our minds to the pure, bright, serene atmosphere of your presence, that we may breathe freely, there repose in love, there be at rest from ourselves and from all things that weary us: And thence return, arrayed in your peace, to do and to bear whatsoever shall best please you, O blessed Lord.

- Edward Bouverie Pusey