Monthly Archives: April 2011

Meditations on baptism (part 2)

The apostle John writes, quoting Jesus:

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3:5-6, ESV)

I grew up believing that being born of water was a reference to being born from the mother’s womb. The idea here is that Spirit = Spirit and water = flesh. Nicodemus has just questioned Jesus how someone can be born again. He had in mind re-entering his mother’s womb, which he rightly saw as an impossibility. The argument, as I was told, is that Jesus says one must be born from the womb first and then again of or by the Spirit. It’s like saying, “Well, first one must exist, that is, be born, then one must be spiritually born.” But why would Jesus need to say one has to be physically born from the womb? That seems a bit strange. And if Nicodemus says womb, why would Jesus say water instead of womb? Maybe it refers to amniotic fluid, but that seems a stretch to me (though that was the teaching I grew up with).

Now, as I take a step back, I wonder if water is actually a reference to baptism (as so many others have argued). If given the choice between being born from the womb and being born via baptism, it seems to make the most obvious (on the surface) sense that Jesus had (water) baptism in mind. The idea here is that repentance and baptism are required to enter the kingdom of God, not merely born of the flesh, that is, not merely being a physical descendant of Abraham. Remember that entering the kingdom of God for Christians is akin to being a member of the nation of Israel for a Jew; to be counted among the saved is everything. If one wants to truly gain the inheritance of the Jew, one has to be physically circumcised as well as circumcised of the heart. It is both an internal and external reality. Could it be that to be a true Christian, to be a citizen of the kingdom of God, one also has an internal and external reality, that is, repentance and baptism? Of course repentance is outward as well. It is a turning of one’s life from one direction to another, from darkness to light. So repentance may not be internal as much as an outward sign, like baptism, that one’s heart has changed. In other words, if one truly has turned to God for salvation, and has embraced the gospel, then one should repent, that is, live differently. If that formula is true then one should get baptized too. Right? Is it not commanded?

The apostle Paul writes:

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7, ESV)

What does “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” mean? For some the washing of regeneration is the act of water baptism. I think this is the view most common among the “church fathers” and has remained so in many Christian quarters. That the act is also spiritual is because it is combined with the renewal of the Holy Spirit. Is this the right way to understand Paul? Is he saying that water baptism and renewal by the Spirit make us heirs? If so, is the logic then that baptism is a part of the process of “being justified by his grace?” My sense is that the washing of regeneration may be referring to water baptism, but the washing and the renewal may be the same thing, that is the work of the Holy Spirit is in changing us because of God’s mercy and grace. Still, there are enough verses in the Bible linking baptism to the process of salvation to warrant consideration that baptism is in view here.

It is important to know that a sacramental version of Christianity will tend to see “washing of regeneration” as clearly indicating water baptism of some kind, and that a non-sacramental version of Christianity will tend to see it as clearly not indicating baptism. Each will view these words through their own worldview, their own theo-logic. I was raised non-sacramental. Baptism and communion, along with all the sacraments are, in my training, only outward symbols of an internal reality. Though powerful, these symbols are not required of the Christian. In these meditations on baptism I find my non-sacramentalist positions to no longer be air tight as I once thought, but I am not yet, not fully at least, a sacramentalist. (By sacramentalist I mean someone who believes the sacraments are commanded, are necessary to our salvation and are, in some way, causal in our growth in sanctification.)

The apostle Peter wrote:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. (1 Peter 3:18-22, ESV)

It seems that baptism, according to Peter, corresponds in some way to Noah and his family being brought safely through the flood, which may correspond to Christ’s death in some way. I find this a bit confusing. And then, in language surprising to the sola fide crowd, Peter claims that baptism saves us because it is an appeal to God for a good conscience. How can baptism save anyone? We see that Noah was saved by God and by the ark, that is, by divine providence and by the natural laws that make boats float on water. How, then, does baptism correspond to this, if it does? Or is the corresponding only to Christ’s suffering and his preaching to those in prison (which I take to be Hell or some kind of purgatorial limbo)? Or could the correspondence be that through baptism we make the appeal to God in the same way those in prison must have after meeting Christ face to face and hearing his proclamation? The fact is Peter says baptism saves us. How? If baptism is “only” symbolic, how can one be saved by a symbol? If (water) baptism comes only after turning to God, then how does it save us?

I am convinced that salvation is a gift from God. I am convinced that I came into this world with a deadly allergy to the truth of God, His gospel, and all things eternal. And I am convinced that were it not for the work of the Holy Spirit—against my very will—I would never have seen my need for salvation and never have turned to God for mercy and never have believed the foolishness of the cross as the great wisdom that it is. And yet, though I have always considered the classic Reformation creed of salvation through faith alone, I cannot help but notice that the apostles also included baptism as part of the process. Have I misunderstood the process of salvation? James says faith without works is a dead faith. I believe that too. Could faith without baptism be an incomplete faith? If so, would it be incomplete only if there is a community of faith within which the believer participates, and in which baptism plays a similar role to what a wedding ceremony plays? Is faith without baptism like a common law marriage, it’s real at one level but un-confessed or un-established at another?

Tentative conclusion: Though there can be no faith apart from God bringing it about, that is, causing faith in the individual as a gift, baptism is proclaimed by the apostles as important to the process of salvation. The correlation of baptism with salvation beyond mere symbolism is not clear to me. Could baptism be like Christ on the cross in that what I do with it, how I understanding it and it’s relationship to my faith, says a great deal about my faith. Christ on the cross is a touchstone of faith. If I look at Christ and do not see that he got what I deserve then my faith is nothing. Can we say anything similar about baptism? If I say I have faith but refuse baptism is my faith suspect? Is baptism a kind of touchstone? If so, is that it’s primary purpose?

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Meditations on baptism (part 1)

Baptism of Jesus, Andrei Rublev, 1405
(Cathedral of the Annunciation, Moscow)

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2: 38-39, ESV)

I have been thinking and wondering about these verses. Peter has just proclaimed the gospel and the hearers have responded positively. They ask, “What shall we do?” That is, we have heard the message, know that it is true for it has convicted us, and now we want to become, like you Peter, followers of Christ. What steps are required now? The verses above are Peter’s response. I like Peter’s response, but I have come to realize that my Baptist training makes me do a little mental shift as I read it. That shift is kinda like when one reads about how people lived and thought in centuries past, and where one holds simultaneously the ideas of reverence for those people, but also judgement. In other words, I hold in the highest esteem Peter and the other apostles, but I “know” that baptism is really just a symbolic act, something that was popular then, in that culture, but not necessary for either salvation or receiving God’s grace. Is that true? That is my training. Is that how Peter saw it, or how he would see it now if he had the wisdom and clarity that has come to us? Or, and I fear much more likely, are my beliefs somehow skewed? I do not want to believe that having an apostolic faith means that I come up with the arguments that make most sense to me and then claim the apostles meant what I believe—because they must have, because my argument is air tight, because I revere the Bible, right?

The irony that I have inherited is that my Baptist training may have actually taught me an un-apostolic understanding of baptism. My desire is to correct my understanding and to follow Peter’s (and the other apostles’) teaching. I want to sort this out not only for my sake, but for my family’s as well.

The issues for me with these verses are:

  1. “Repent and be baptized every one of you…” I have always believed that baptism is optional. I know that in some way it must be. If someone does not have the opportunity, or has never heard of baptism, then they must still be able to be saved, for it is God who does the saving. But here is Peter combining repentance and baptism as interlinking requirements. Possibly baptism could be understood as a culturally proscribed public act and therefore it could be substituted in some way with another act, but there is still the combination of repentance and the public act (and maybe repentance is understood as a public act as well, though I tend to think it is more internal to the individual). Regardless, Peter says everyone of them must be baptized along with their repentance. I wonder what many Christians today would say in Peter’s stead. I think many, at least many lightly-reformed Christians would not include baptism—either as forcefully or at all. But Peter seems to require it. Was he merely a product of his culture?
  2. “…for the forgiveness of your sins…” Having been excellently trained in reformed thinking about such things I have always known that what Peter really mean to say is, “Repent for the forgiveness of your sins, and then publicly display your new heart commitments with the external, ritualistic act that has cultural meaning for us today, that is, be baptized.” Is my reformed thinking right? Peter, as we read, actually says something closer to repentance+baptism=forgiveness of sins. How do we sort this out, or do we? Even repentance isn’t really a matter of the heart as much as it’s a result of a heart change. We repent because we have had our hearts invaded by the Holy Spirit and our eyes open to the truth from which we find no escape except in Christ. Repentance is the act of turning to God, of turning away from what it was we were worshiping before, of being contrite; their response shows they are already chosen by God. Thus, when the crowd asks what they shall do, they have already been convicted by Peter’s message. The Spirit of God has already worked the beginnings of salvation in their hearts. Peter. looking over the crowd, would realize the crowd’s response indicates that God has chosen to save them. Given that, the proper response is repentance and baptism. Why not just repentance? Why not just a welcoming embrace? What does baptism do? Why does Peter require it? Or should I merely do my little mental gymnastics and “know” that that is not what Peter really meant, at least outside of culturally bound expectations.
  3. “…and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Now Peter really messes with my head. He seems to be saying something like: repentance+baptism leads to the forgiveness of sins and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. In other words, if I repent and get baptized I will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (As an aside, is the gift of the Holy Spirit something different than the Holy Spirit? Do I receive the Holy Spirit or the gift of the Spirit? Is there a difference?) Again we are in that position of wondering if there is a direct and even necessary connection between baptism and being saved. If I must both repent and get baptized in order to have my sins forgiven and to receive the Holy Spirit, then I must repent and be baptized. And again I am left with the same questions: Why not just repentance? Does not the response of the crowd indicate they have already received the Holy Spirit, at least in some fashion? What does baptism do? Why does Peter require it? Or should I merely do my little mental gymnastics and “know” that that is not what Peter meant.
  4. “… the promise is for you and for your children…” These words are popular amongst the crowd that practices infant baptism. I do not know anything of the theology or arguments for infant baptism, but I do wonder at these words. I can understand the words, “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” That makes sense to me, and who is to stop God? But why specifically say, “the promise is for you and for your children” instead of “the promise is for you and for anyone who believes?” How is this promise made to the children? Is this merely Peter’s way of saying the promise is for everyone who is of the age when they can understand what the sinner’s prayer really means? Even then it would seem that Peter is saying the promise is that everyone who repents and gets baptized will have their sins forgiven and will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit; and that this gift is even for children. (This part of the verse is less of an issue for me, in that it can be understood rather easily in different ways. Or maybe it’s even more of an issue because it’s too easy to just plug in what I want it to mean.) Does baptism apply to the whole family? Imagine a family where the parents have heard the gospel preached by Peter, their hearts have been made soft by God, and they want to take the next step. Peter says to repent and be baptized. (He does not say, “Ask Jesus into you heart,” or anything so formal as the sinner’s prayer, btw.) So the parents say let’s do it. And then they think of their children, and they are reminded of the words of Joshua, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” They turn to Peter and ask if their whole family can be baptized. (Or maybe this issue never came up because it was just assumed.) How would Peter have replied? And if he said yes, would he believe that the children, who we imagine were too young to truly understand what is happening to them, would still receive some benefit, some grace, because of the act? I am inclined to think that Peter would have said yes to the family being baptized and that he would believe in the benefit of baptism, even to the children. This way of thinking flies in the face of my particular reformed training which denies infant baptism.

So here I am with all these questions. I am steeped (have been brewed in) a concoction of reformed thinking since I was born. And the particular version of that brew is a mix of evangelical, fundamentalist, Calvinist, and Baptist. Curiously, I find myself fascinated with Catholic theology these days. All the classic rebuttals against Catholicism have been gradually turning into questions again for me. The answers I was given are not so self-evident anymore. I feel less affinity with a number of the classic reformed arguments. Thus I am swimming in the zone between. I do not fully accept the Catholic position, but I no longer fully accept the reformed position. To the chagrin of any Bible thumping fundamentalist I am, as we tend to say these days, in process.

I grew up with something like this perspective on baptism (from the Southern Baptist Convention): “Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water. …It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus.” This perspective falls within the concept of “believer’s baptism.” As you can see from the statement, baptism is an act of obedience and it is symbolic. I am not sure why an act of symbolism is also an act of obedience, especially if it symbolizes faith. I mean, I know all the arguments since I grew up with them, but it seems to me we are back at the mental gymnastics of not wanting to say that baptism is required, but still wanting to say it is. And I know from past experience (though I can’t say what it is today) that to become a member of a Baptist church one must be baptized, that is, fully immersed before witnesses.

So what about symbolism? We use symbols to stand for larger or more complex ideas or beliefs. The cross, as a symbol, stands for the death of Christ, which is part of the gospel message, which is much bigger than the symbol of the cross. But the cross is a kind of shorthand, something that powerfully stands for a total. But symbols only have meaning in a corporate context. Symbols bind us together. Thus baptism can be a powerfully symbolic act within a body of faith, that is within a corporate context of belief. But then I think of the verses from Acts 8:35-38, where Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch and teaches him the gospel from Isaiah. I pick two translations to highlight verse 37, which is missing from the ESV, but included in brackets in the NASB:

Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. (ESV)

Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” [And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him. (NASB)

Why does the Ethiopian need to be baptized? What made him think he should be baptized. It makes sense that Philip said something to the Ethiopian like what Peter said earlier, that one must repent and be baptized, which raises all the same questions as before. But in this situation we also have only two people present, at least from what we can tell from the text. Today an evangelist will lead someone to Christ, then rejoice when they accept Him, then maybe hug them, then encourage them to join a church. What we don’t get today is the evangelist saying repent and be baptized. Billy Graham didn’t call people to come down, say a prayer and accept Jesus into their hearts, and then get baptized in some mass baptism ritual the way they did after hearing Peter’s preaching. Does Philip need to see the Ethiopian rise out of the water to know he has been saved? For whom is this symbolic act being performed other than Philip and the Ethiopian? In the context it would seem to be a rather private baptism. If this is the case then this baptism is not sending a symbolic message, at least not for others to see as it happened. It did get recorded, so we “see’ it, and presumably the Ethiopian told others. But given the situation it would seem that the need for the Ethiopian to be baptized is that it was thought by Philip as a necessity for becoming a follower of Christ, an important requirement, along with repentance, to be saved. In other words, it would appear that the apostles did not see baptism as merely a ritual, even an important ritual, but saw it as an essential part of the conversion process; one would not receive the Holy Spirit otherwise. Does this mean that baptism coveys something to the believer, something spiritual, something tangible? Are we saved in some way through baptism? Are we made better Christians in some way? Paul says in Romans:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5, ESV)

Here Paul links the act of baptism to Christ’s death. This makes sense, even if only at a symbolic level. But then Paul says that we were buried with Christ into death by baptism. This language seems rather forceful to me if we are only to see baptism as an optional and symbolic act. If Paul did not see baptism as anything other than a symbolic act tacked on to faith, then why draw such a strong link between the act of baptism and the theological point of our being buried with Christ? This baptism, according to these verses, links us to Christ’s death. Paul then goes on to argue that if we are united with Christ in his death by our being baptized, then surely we will also be united with him in the resurrection. Here then baptism is also linked to our resurrection. In other words, baptism is a part of the process we believers must go through if we are to be finally united with Christ, resurrected, attaining glory, saved. Right? Or is Paul writing only of an inner spiritual reality? If so, why the emphasis on baptism, which is something external, public, administered by someone else? Does this imply that those who have believed the gospel message, but have not yet been baptized, have not yet been baptized into Christ’s death? What are the implications of not being baptized? And is Paul referring strictly to a water baptism or some other kind, such as a spiritual baptism? In Colossians Paul says, “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith…” If the circumcision is made without hands could also be the baptism Paul refers to?

In both cases (in Romans and in Colossians) I am inclined to see baptism as being a typical, water immersion kind of baptism. That is the kind of baptism, I believe, we see elsewhere in the Gospels and the book of Acts. It makes the most sense to me that the apostles and other disciples, as well as the rest of the early church, understood baptism as a physical act of immersion in water. The apostles saw the gospel as beginning with the baptism of John (see Acts 10:36-38) which was in the river Jordan. And consider John’s baptism. In Luke we read: “And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He proclaimed a baptism. I find that language interesting. It would seem either that the apostles saw baptism as being more than merely symbolic, or that today we tend to have an anemic understanding of what symbolism means in God’s creation—or both.

Here is the tension for me: I have come to believe, at a deep level, and from my evangelical Baptist training, that baptism is not essential; that it does not impart anything, at least not in the way some see the sacraments doing. Then I read scripture and I see, at least on the surface, the apostles proclaiming baptism as essential. I want my faith to be that of the apostles. I have also come to realize that so much of my understanding of the Bible has been presented to me with a kind of formula: “Yes, it does say that n the surface, but let me tell you what it really means.” In other words, what I get from so much reformed teaching is akin to how we psychoanalyze people: we are always looking for the hidden meaning below the surface. Reformed theology, it seems to me, is based upon, or at least fosters a view of perpetual skepticism, including and maybe especially, the “obvious” meaning of scripture. Even my quotes around the word obvious speaks to this skepticism.

Tentative conclusion: It seems obvious to me that the apostles believed baptism is essential to the life of the Christian; that repentance and baptism go together, are tied to the receiving of the gift of the Holy Spirit, and that a whole family can receive baptism, including the children, and that, in some way, that is good and proper. However, in the long run, and like circumcision, baptism does not save us by itself, rather it must accompany a heart oriented toward God and the eternal. Thus baptism, like circumcision, may be more an act of entering the communion of believers, the church. Baptism may also be an act of entering into a right relationship with God. It may also impart some spiritual gift, of which I am still unclear. Therefore, I am beginning to see baptism as more important, more relevant, and more powerful than I have believed in the past.

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To show life, to save one’s soul: Tarkovsky on filmmaking and faith

From an interview* with Andrei Tarkovsky by Charles H. de Brantes in 1986:

de Brantes: Some folks have questioned the intertwining in your work, especially in THE SACRIFICE, between Christian motifs, for example the recitation of the “Our Father,” and ideas more archaic, more pagan, such as the character of Maria, the “good witch.” This leads to a certain confusion . . . Are you or are you not a Christian filmmaker?
Tarkovsky: I believe that it’s truly not important to know if I subscribe to certain beliefs, whether pagan, Catholic, Orthodox, or simply Christian. The important thing is the work itself. It seems to me better to judge the work from a general perspective, and not to be searching for contradictions which some wish to see in my work. A work of art isn’t always a mirror reflection of the inner world of the artist, particularly when it comes to the smallest of details. While it’s true, there exists a certain logical connection . . . it’s possible for there to be an opposition to the personal beliefs of the artist.
     Also, when I directed this film, I was convinced it had to address itself to all types of audiences.
     When I was very young I asked my father, “Does God exist—yes or no?” And he answered me brilliantly: “For the unbeliever, no, for the believer, yes!” This problem is very important.
     I want to say in relation to this that it’s possible to interpret the film in different ways. For instance, those who are interested in various supernatural phenomena will search for the meaning of the film in the relationship between the postman and the witch, for them these two characters will provide the principle action. Believers are going to respond most sensitively to Alexander’s prayer to God, and for them the whole film will develop around this. And finally a third category of viewers who don’t believe in anything will imagine that Alexander is a bit sick, that he’s psychologically unbalanced as a result of war and fear. Consequently many kinds of viewers will perceive the film in their own way. My opinion is that its necessary to afford the spectator the freedom to interpret the film according to their own inner vision of the world, and not from the point of view that I would impose upon him. For my aim is to show life, to render an image, the tragic, dramatic image of the soul of modern man. In conclusion, can you imagine such a film being directed by a non-believer? I can’t.

Later in the interview:

de Brantes: You’ve said that man should create in the image and likeness of the Creator . . .
Tarkovsky: It’s all together important and not important. For me, it’s like breathing air . . .
de Brantes: But how do you distinguish the artist from the monk and from the saint?
Tarkovsky: These are truly different paths. The saint, the monk, refuses to create because he’s not participating in life. The banner of the saint or the monk is non-participation. This has a lot in common with Buddhist and Oriental philosophy. . . . But the artist, the poor artist . . . he finds himself again in the mud amidst everything that happens. But we also know about the example of the French poet who rejected being a poet, Rimbaud. There are a lot of people like that.
     For the monk, I fee a sort of compassion, because he lives with only part of himself. As for the artist, he has a tendency to scatter himself, to make mistakes, to sully himself, jeopardizing his soul. But this isn’t to characterize the saint and the poet as angel and devil. It’s quite simply people who find themselves in some very dissimilar situations. The saint will have salvation, the artist perhaps not. In this sense I believe in the grace which descends upon you from above, just like that . . . Herman Hesse had this thought: “All my life I aspired to be a saint, but I am a sinner. I can only count on inspiration from on high.” What he’s saying is that he’s unable to be consistent.
     There’s a parallel between the saint and artist, but there are some different problems. . . . The essential thing is that one live in a just and proper way; seeking to imitate the Creator, or seeking his salvation, saving oneself, or searching to create a far richer spiritual climate for the entire world.
     Who knows how much time remains for any of us? One must live thinking that tomorrow we may have to deliver our soul up to God. You ask me a question to which some geniuses have dedicated their whole life. That’s what it is to make a film. I want to speak to this in my film about Saint Anthony,** in order to understand and explain this unbearable problem for man. In the end to die or not to die isn’t a problem, we all will die, either together or one after the other . . .

* This interview was found in Andrei Tarkovsky Interviews, ed. John Gianvito, 2006, Univ. Press of Mississippi.
** Andrei Tarkovsky died before he could make his film about Saint Anthony. He was fascinated with Saint Anthony because, for him, the saint represents the choice to forsake “everything for the desert.” That includes forsaking communion, which is important in the Orthodox Church, for the purpose of saving himself. Tarkovsky was an artist fascinated with that kind of religious tension.

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Odd Words

(to be spoken out loud just for fun)
HOBNOB
BARLEY
DOG-EARED
HOPSCOTCH
WINDWARD
OAF
EGG
OBOE
NUTMEG
OBLONG
~ from Ounce, Dice Trice by Alistair Reid

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Master Class

What does it mean to master something?

You know the phrase, “Practice makes perfect.” In college I had a friend who what a music major. He is a very talented musician and composer. He had spent most of his life practicing. He taught me that practice makes really good, but doesn’t produce perfection; something else is required beyond “mere” practice for perfection. That perspective rings true for me. It is not only because to speak of perfection in the arts is to miss the point at some deep level, but that practice must be combined with something else, maybe several things, in order to reach its highest level. What are those other things? Love for the subject? Passion for knowledge? A broader perspective? An appreciative audience? Specific DNA? The grace of God? Certainly the grace of God.

Better than speaking of perfection, I would suggest it is better to speak of mastery. Mastery implies both process and variability. I might master something and so might you, but we would arrive at different end points. That is why there are many great artists in every field and they are all unique. But the idea of mastery also implies a potential series of end points, a process that never really ends. Maybe we should more liberally use the term “practice” the way we say one “practices law” or “practices medicine.” But then have we given up on perfection? Maybe. Mastery is a process, not necessarily an end. But when mastery is an end is is a different end than perfection. Or is it? I am not sure.

While thinking about mastery I was drawn to discover the video clips below. They are from Andrés Segovia‘s Master Class. The first clip is of Brigitte Zaczek being instructed by Segovia. Here is a master guitarist being instructed by an even greater master:

I do not understand all the various nuances that Segovia is working on with Zaczek, but I love the idea that even a master like Zaczek can still improve. Are there different levels of master? There must be. I am fluent in English, which means that as some level I have mastered the language, yet I am not a master of English in terms of grammar, or poetry, or many of the other aspects and possibilities of the language. There are many masters of English that far outshine me at every possible level.

We are a mildly aspiring musical family. Though our knowledge and proficiency is rudimentary, we love the idea of playing music. In music none of us are masters in any sense of the word. I have been playing guitar for many years, but never studied the instrument like I should, so my skills are poorer than they might be. My eldest has been studying piano for several years. She is beginning to get quite good for her age. Now she is likely to take up guitar in addition to piano. I just bought her a guitar, really one for the family since I will use it too. It is a classical guitar, which means it sounds beautiful, but it comes freighted, in a sense, with the tradition of classical guitar, a kind of guitar playing that is of the highest standards. Some say the classical guitar is the most difficult of all the orchestral instruments to master. I can believe it, though I am not fully convinced. Regardless, it is not the guitar that becomes the master, it is the player, and the player will always fall short somewhere.

When we think of mastering something like an instrument we are using the word to mean something like a person eminently skilled in something, as an occupation, art, or science. What makes the idea of mastery somewhat of a mystery is that being “eminently skilled” is not something that can be definitively measured. We tend to know it when we see it, but defining mastery is difficult and maybe impossible. Probably the best way to know what it is to master something is to seek out someone who has. And likely the best way to know if one has mastered something is to seek the judgement of another master. This can be tricky for even masters are often committed to their own perspectives and experience, and we know that mastery can be rather flexible. Below is another clip from Andrés Segovia’s Master Class. This time with Richard Johnson taking his final exam.

The pressure on Johnson is palpable. Without pressure there can be no mastery. Someone like Johnson can impress most all of us, but he is not going to impress Segovia quite as easily. That striving to be deemed worthy is both nerve wracking and required for mastery. But I am stuck by the idea that Johnson would not be there, feeling the pressure, working hard, demonstrating the results of thousands of hours of practice, if he did not also love playing the guitar, and love all the rest that goes with it.

Which makes me think of my kids. I want my children to be masters at something, or several things. I recognize that I can easily live vicariously through their triumphs, and therefore I can push them too much for my sake rather than theirs. But I also know there is a value to mastery that is generally unknown to children. A parent is in a tricky situation trying to determine what subjects are best for his or her children, and how much to push them towards excellence. Even with traditional subjects, like math and grammar, we know one can get through life just fine without being a master of those subjects. So how far should one go? And to what purpose? And, as a Christian parent, what value do I place on mastery of anything in light of faith?

At some level mastery has to be organic. True mastery will come at that intersection of hard work, dedication, capability, and curiosity (and maybe other factors). Apply oneself, include sufficient resources, along with a good teacher, and one has a chance at becoming a master. But it is that organic element that is critical. It must arise, at some level, from within the individual. It must come forth naturally. And when it does it can last a lifetime. Here is Segovia many years later, not long before his death, performing live in Spain.

There is an old man, doing what he has done for most of his life. He will always be one of the greatest masters of the guitar. As a parent I want my children to find that thing which they will master. I want them to become great at something. On the other hand, none of this matters in the big picture. If they do not love others and do not love God all their mastery will be nothing.

Lest we think classical guitar is for old men, here is another master showing us her skills on the guitar:

Brilliant.

I know this post is mostly a lot of questions. But such topics bring out a lot of questions, and there are many people willing to provide answers. I, however, am still fumbling my way through those answers, but I can say that, for the most part, and though I have trouble with definitions, I can still recognize and appreciate the mastery of some masters.

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>count to ten…

>From Ounce, Dice Trice by Alistair Reid:

If you get tired of counting one, two, three, make up your own numbers, as shepherds used to do when they had to count sheep day in, day out. You can try using these sets of words instead of numbers, when you have to count to ten.

OUNCE
DICE
TRICE
QUARTZ
QUINCE
SAGO
SERPENT
OXYGEN
NITROGEN
DENIM
INSTANT
DISTANT
TRYST
CATALYST
QUEST
SYCAMORE
SOPHOMORE
OCULIST
NOVELIST
DENTIST
ARCHERY
BUTCHERY
TREACHERY
TAPROOM
TOMB
SERMON
CINNAMON
APRON
NUNNERY
DENSITY
ACREAGE
BROKERAGE
CRIBBAGE
CARTHAGE
CAGE
SINK
SENTIMENT
OINTMENT
NUTMEG
DOOM

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>Just read the lives of the saints

>On the beginnings of The Catholic Worker newspaper by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin:

     Since I came from a newspaper family, with my two older brothers working on newspapers at that time, and my father still a writer though no longer an editor, I could see the need for such a paper as Peter described.
     But how are we going to start it?
     Peter did not pretend to be practical along these lines. “I enunciate the principles,” he declared grandly.
     “But where do we get the money?” I asked him, clinging to the “we,” though he was making clear his role as theorist.
     “In the history of the saints, capital was raised by prayer. God sends you what you need when you need it. You will be able to pay the printer. Just read the lives of the saints.”

I have to say this reminds me of reading the story of L’Abri, the ministry of Francis and Edith Schaeffer in Switzerland. Many times they faced situations that only God could solve, which He did. I am reminded of how important having heroes of the faith can be. Who are the saints of whose lives we should be reading?

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