Saturday, September 26, 2009

Cousins and Kinfolks

Last week I drove my mother to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia (so beautiful) to attend a family reunion for my father's family. It's a huge family and the turnout was good although not really representative of the numbers. My great grandfather Isaac Newton Graham moved from Pendleton, WVA (at the time it wouldn't have been WVA, but we figure he was typical Scots Irish coming down from PA) into that valley and scarfed up quite a bit of land and set about to have a family of six surviving children (Edward, Abraham, Isaac H., Jacob, Bessie, and John Arthur, among others who apparently didn't live too long). Each of them had huge families, and so on. My father had eleven siblings, for instance, and one of them had eight children. So West Augusta county is lousy with Grahams and their kin.

We had gone seven years ago to the annual reunion. I really should go more frequently, but it is a long trip for me. My brother came down from Maryland, so that was a special part of it.

At one point my first cousin, Mary Lynn, and some others were talking about how there really weren't any pictures of any of our parents when they were young, or of our grandparents together, or even great grandparents. We had one picture of my dad at eight, but I don't know where it is, and one of him in his uniform.

"You know how in Cracker Barrel they have those old photographs of people hanging on the walls?" she asked. "Who are those people? Where do they get those pictures?" Which led us to speculate if our relatives were hanging on the walls of Cracker Barrel somewhere.

How would we ever know?

On a very odd note, coming home through the Southwestern VA mountains, I saw something dead on the left side of I-81. It was black, so I thought it would be a dog--but it was very large. When I passed it, I realized it was a bear, and not a young one. It was disheartening.

Psalm 135 Reflections

Sometimes you read a psalm and don’t get the sense of the music behind it, but this one today seems very much like a song or poetry. Studying this has been a blessing to me because of where it took me in terms of thinking about praise.

Basic outline:
v. 1-4 God is great in character and his name
v. 5-7 God is great in the natural world
v. 8-12 God is great in military battles and history
v. 13-14 God is great in his just treatment of his people
v. 15-18 God is great in comparison to idols and other objects men might worship

Psalms are not really about doctrine, but about personal application. This psalm doesn’t teach us anything about God and His work that we don’t already know, but it calls us to reflect on these truths of his character in a new and deeper way.

We commonly hear, and sing, "God inhabits the praise of his people.” I like that, so I went looking for it. I used my concordance and the one online—and couldn’t find it! Those exact words are not there. Where do we get it? Psalm 22:3. Not just inhabits; enthroned.

Because Psalm 135 is beautiful but straightforward, I want to take a journey and come back to it. I want to take a journey of praise in the Bible.

Let’s go to Genesis 29:31-35. The name Judah means praise. How appropriate—maybe a play on words. Jesus was from Judah. Rachel’s four sons, and the last one she names praise. How would she know that the first three sons would not be the ones to take over the family name, as it were? It’s a prophecy; the whole scripture points to Christ.

Genesis 49:8. Again, Jacob prophesies, and Judah, praise, is in the middle of it. When we say God inhabits praise, Jesus is in the middle of it.

Deuteronomy 10:12-22. He is your praise. Praise is not just something we do.
Praise is not meant to be a haphazard thing. We flippantly say, “Praise the Lord,” even sarcastically. Ezra 3:10 is one of those places where we see that the OT Jews understood there was a right way and a very wrong way to praise God. I don’t mean that we have to be concerned with outside, superficial things, so much as our approach and our words and what’s behind them.

Related verses: Isaiah 61:1-3; Jeremiah 17:14; Hebrews 13:15; Revelation 19:5; Ephesians 1:6-14; Psalms 145:10. What do these say to you?

Why should we praise?
1. It’s God’s due
2. It is emotionally settling, calming to us
3. It gives us perspective.
4. It is a testimony to others

So how?
1. Name names. Be specific.
2. It’s more than just thanking. I can thank God for a person in my life, but do I praise God for that person?
3. It’s about the heart. If we get focused too much on the how (flowery language, music style), we might be focused on us. While I think there are some hows that matter, they mostly matter to me (timing, body position)
4. Use Bible words
5. Do it before prayer. It will remind you of the power you are calling on for your requests.

I don’t pretend to be a Hebrew or Greek scholar, so whenever I bring up “what it means in the original” I am only telling you what the reference books I have say. We have accumulated a lot of them over the years. The key meaning behind praise is, “to make shine, illustrious, glorious, to celebrate.”

Obviously we don’t make God shine. But when we praise, we push away the clouds of our minds that keep us from seeing God shine. God is already shining and illustrious and glorious, but we don’t see it because we don’t praise.

A similar meaning is “to commend, to add.” Scholar says, “The idea seems to be to find fresh material for praise behind all past praise.” In other words, dig deep.

Praise is not singing and lifting hands in a service on Sunday. It is everyday worship, the sacrifice we give since the sacrifice was given for us.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


If I stand let me stand on the promise that you will see me through.
And if I fall let it be on the grace that first brought me to you.

And if I sing let it be for the joy that has borne in me these songs
And if I weep let it be as a man who is longing for his home.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

New Revelation

Thanks to the eminent wisdom of Jimmy Carter, I now know that I am a racist! And all these years I worked so hard not to be! How wonderful to know I'm a failure in something so important to me. Thank you, Jimmy!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


I was talking with a colleague today (like a good academic, I don't want to act like I had an original thought when I didn't!) who happens to be a Presbyterian minister. We were discussing women in the Old Testament, and as we talked I realized how many of the women in the OT were either 1. outright liars, 2. passively deceptive, or 3. manipulative. At best, all but a few of the OT women did an end run around the truth, factuality, or directness. In fact, I'm hard pressed to find some who weren't. Maybe Deborah, Hannah, a few widows here and there, victims like Jephthah's unnamed daughter and David's daughter Tamar (but not her great-great-plus grandma). Yes, most of the women we have on record in Jewish history were deceivers.

Of course, there's Eve, Sarah, Tamar, Rachel, Rebekah, the Hebrew midwives, Pharoah's daughter, Rahab, Delilah, Jezebel. Ruth and Naomi circumvent custom, but maybe aren't deceptive--then again, there may be an argument there. Why didn't they just claim what was theirs instead of using the womanly wiles? Abigail isn't deceptive but she definitely rats on her rat of a husband, for his own good. There are other examples.

Interestingly, none of these women, save Eve, Delilah, and Jezebel, are punished for their lying, and many are commended for their faith. Why? They usually lied to evil people, or at least to men who were abusing power. Interesting thought.

This scenario dramatically changes in the New Testament. The only woman who lies is immediately punished--she has lied to God, not to powerful tyrant or foolish husband. In fact, the resurrection story turns the OT schema on its head. Women were considered unreliable witnesses in courts of law--and who were the first witnesses? Women; nobody would make that story up and support it with the testimony of women.

I can't help but see the vast distinction between the expectations of womanhood in the OT and in the New. There is a wider piece of writing here. Definitely worth pursuing, as long as it can be done without denigrating a culture.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Comments on Last Night's Speech

1. Brevity is the sole of wit. President Obama has not learned that.
2. I didn't believe a lot of what he said because it flies in the face of reason, especially the money part.
3. We are straining at a gnat to swallow a camel. Help those who want and deserve help, not the others.
4. Requiring every person in the country to be insured is totalitarian. The car analogy breaks down: only people who own/drive cars have to insure them, and it is the machine being insured, not the people.
5. I hope the free market parts get through and the rest does not.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Rights and Wrongs

This discussion (debate?furor?nonsense?) over public school students listening to the president's (revised) speech is just plain silly, but it may go further.

1. Having a right doesn't mean you have to exercise that right every chance you get. I have free speech, but that doesn't mean I have to talk 24/7. Contrary to what some might think, we won't lose our rights from underuse; we'll use them when they are not defended wisely.

2. From a cultural war standpoint, if we don't pick our battles, our credibility suffers.

3. The speech was good, as such things go, and not subversive. But it was too long for little kids and really best for middle schooler and up.

4. Do I think President Obama is a narcissist? Yes, like most politicians, although he seems to be excelling at narcissistic behavior. He knows giving planned speeches is his best modus operandi, so he uses it every chance he gets. Case in point, tonight's speech on health reform. Why is it necessary? The president is supposed to reserve those occasions for the really, really big issues. He could do this in private council. And he's on TV again! good grief. To those who have studied the history of presidential rhetoric, it's unbelievable.

5. But back to the speech to schoolchildren. It's just plain foolish to exclude your child from listening to this speech. They are in public school, for goodness sake! Do these parents think their children don't see worse influences every day in the halls? Like it or not, he's the president, and if you think he's going to say something problematic, talk about it seriously with your children. That will mean much more than any blather they hear on a TV set.

I fear if conservatives don't start focusing on the issues that matter and get off these inane, looney minor points, they'll be back out of the debate.

Dinesh D'Souza gets it right

Excellent article on why pro-lifers aren't winning.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Psalm 19

We are studying Psalms this quarter in SBS, and I was assigned Ps. 19 yesterday. I have studied it a great deal in the past and enjoyed teaching it, but interestingly enough I read Calvin's take on it this morning.
Suppose we ponder how slippery is the fall of the human mind into forgetfulness of God, how great the tendency to every kind of error, how great the lust to fashion constantly new and artificial religions. Then we may perceive how necessary was such written proof of the heavenly doctrine, that it should neither perish through forgetfulness nor vanish through error nor be corrupted by the audacity of men. It is therefore clear that God has provided the assistance of the Word for the sake of all those to whom he has been pleased to give useful instruction because he foresaw that his likeness imprinted upon the most beautiful form of the universe would be insufficiently effective. Hence, we must strive onward by this straight path if we seriously aspire to the pure contemplation of God. We must come, I say, to the Word, where God is truly and vividly described to us from his works, while these very works are appraise not by our depraved judgment but by the rule of eternal truth. . . . For we should so reason that the splendor of the divine countenance, which even the apostle calls "unapproachable" (I Tim 6:16) is for us like an inexplicable thread of the Word; so that it is better to limp along this path than to dash with all speed outside it."

Nothing like reading great prose that is both perspicacious and yet dense with ideas. I often say poetry is like candy, very rich, not you can take much of, but the analogy breaks down there, since good poetry is nutritious for the soul and candy never is more than momentary pleasure to the senses and a curse to the hips and bloodstream. Good writing of any kind means long pleasure and long nourishment both.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Just Wondering

If the whole point of football is to manhandle and tackle and otherwise inflict pain for 60 minutes in order to stop a team's runner from getting past a certain line with a ball, why do coaches and sports commentators go into a frenzy when a player hits another player after a game? These are 20-year-olds whose brains are not fully developed; why should the blowing of a whistle make them immediately stop aggressive behavior that was rewarded a few seconds before?

On the other hand, at least there's one place where personal responsibility matters.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Paul the Apostle

We finished the Beth Moore study on Paul last week, and I've been doing some thinking. People have asked me if I named my son after Paul the Apostle. I deadpan. "No, I named him after Paul Newman." (Interestingly, when I was pregnant--the best time of my life, and I felt great the whole time--my husband and I said we needed to make a decision about the baby's name. The first choice for both of us was Paul, with an "A" name as middle. He said Allen, I said Andrew, and I won, in honor of Scottish heritage, of course. That was the easiest decision in our marriage!)

Back to the point. After Paul is converted, Ananias is sent to him. Ananias is wary of this idea, and understandably protests that this is the man who has been killing Christians. Ananias is one of those unsung Bible heroes. Who of us would have gone to Paul? God's answer to Ananias is, among other statements, "Paul must learn how much he will suffer for the gospel's sake."

Of all the things God could have told Ananias, why this? And why did Paul go through so much for the gospel (well, for one reason, God just said he would). I think it has to do with empathy.

The Paul who wrote the 16th chapter of Romans, where he specifically names at least 26 people, is not the same man who stood by and watched one of his own Jewish people be stoned. Paul in Acts 8 is a zealot of the worst order, with neither sympathy nor empathy for the suffering he is watching or is about to inflict on many families and churches in the region in his hunt for Christians. In Romans 16, not only does he mention Jews, but he mentions Hermes and Narcissus, two believers obviously, from their names, from pagan backgrounds--Gentiles of perhaps the worst order.

So we go from a man who did whatever it took to "cleanse Judaism" of these heretics to a man who had deep personal relationships with all kinds of people. God built empathy into a man who had none. How? I'm sure there was some direct infusion and teaching, but it is clear that the suffering is what did it. I'm sure every time he was whipped he remembered the women and children that he himself might have taken to a lashing.

It's not that I'm saying he was being paid back, punishment for punishment for his sins. No, grace takes care of that. I am saying he had a long way to go to understand human suffering and for him at least it was not something to be learned vicariously. Thus, God's words to Ananias are no coincidence, but a prophecy of what Paul's life would have to be to extricate him from his zealotry and self-righteousness and, I think, almost pathological lack of concern for others. And it worked. It's hard to read Romans 16 and not be moved.

What true miracles grace can do in the human heart.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


I often write things down in my planner that people say and that I find cute, funny, or apt. On our trip last month, I asked my son if he ever felt that he needed counselling (over a certain family matter). He said no, and that to him, "Counselling is like getting golf lessons. It only helps if you suck."

Not that his language is all that appropriate, but his insight was, well, insightful to me as his mother.

Text of my presentation at Southern States Communication Conference on Open Educational Resources

On April 8 I spoke at SSCA on the subject of Open Educational Resources.  Here is the text of my remarks. The University System of Geo...