Category Archives: Faith + Life

Christianity as it relates to life, writing and otherwise.

No Place For Hate

I love living in Clintonville. I love the owner of my local deli, Smith’s, who’ll sell me a $6 Reuben even as he’s preparing to marry off the 3rd of 7 children. I love the community center and art fairs. I love living in a place with trees, even when my house is being hit by acorns. I love the hole-in-the-wall Chinese place on Kenny that I’ll be eating from later tonight. I love my neighborhood full of dogs and little free libraries, and the bookstore just up the road. And I love the people of this community, now more than ever.

Sunday night my wife and I attended a candlight vigil. This wasn’t an anti-Trump rally, or a group of people out to abolish the electorial college. It was a group of our Clintonville neighbors coming together and saying we will look out for one another. Walking from the Whetstone Community Center to North Broadway we were surrounded by people of all ages: from families with young to children, to college students and retirees. My wife and I didn’t have mason jars for real flames, so we brought some battery powered candles (just as well since I probably would’ve set my notebook on fire).

The walk was pretty quiet at first, the group of us moving at a slow shuffle. Somewhere between Smith’s and Torrence things started to get a little more lively. Cars honked in support as they passed, marchers across the street cheered “this is what democracy looks like,” and local businesses made a show of support (the Global Gallery handed out coffee on a cold night).

On North Broadway there were drums and carhorns and cheers of “Love Trumps Hate.” A small group of police showed up to help people cross to the other side of the main road. As I stepped into the crosswalk I heard an officer remark “you guys keep being this cool we’re never going to make national news.” In truth the whole evening was pretty tame. There were a few people who shouted their support for Trump (more as a matter of fact than anything else). There some individual calls of “not my President” and “we reject the President-elect” but these were the outliers, not the rule. Mostly we chanted about protecting the rights of women, of minorities, of different relgions and love in all its forms. The police were respectful and helpful, and the mood anything but antagonistic. Frankly it was a welcome change after the strange week we’ve all had.

My favorite moment of the night was walking back to the car. We were a few steps behind a mother and her 6-7 year old son. The son was holding a big “Love” sign while his mother explained the right to protest and how it can be important to show people how you feel. There’ve been a lot of people saying that we shouldn’t protest, that we need to accept the results of the election and give the President-elect a chance. I do accept the results of the election, even if I have a hard time typing the words President Trump right now. That’s not the issue.

If you take the President-elect at his word then you have to take on board the policies he said he would enact. This is a man who advocated for war crimes, who called for a total ban on muslims coming into the country. He has appalling attitudes toward women, and only a passing relationship with objective facts. Maybe once he realizes what the job actually entails he’ll change. A lot of people who’ve sat in that office certainly have. Being President is an awesome responsibility, but we have responsibilities too. We have a responsibility to protect the rights of the people around us from those who might seek to take them away. That starts at home, in the places we love.

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Filed under Faith + Life, The Next Four Years

Jack of all Trades vs. Renaissance Man

Got into an interesting conversation with Mr. Buckley this weekend, which is oft to happen whenever we occupy the same space, about how we spend our time and interests.

I’ve focused my writing to a couple of goals: non-fiction books about math and other areas of expertise, and fiction mysteries and science-fiction. At the moment that means I’m working on 2-3 books, and this blog. There are many other projects I’d like to work on: designing a video game, getting old games to work on new systems and playing them, even singing again in a choir. But I’ve chosen to focus on a few key things that matter so I can give them my full attention, and give attention to non-project based things in my life: work, family, friends, and God.

Finding new projects is never that hard for me. It’s just a natural extension of the work I’m already doing. In fact this blog, and life the last few years has gotten me to think of everything in my life in terms of a blog post to write, a book to research and write about, or a new project. I have to make a deliberate effort sometimes just to do something with no thought of the broader project.

Brian works just as tirelessly on the things he cares about but he also opens himself up to new possibilities more often than me. The way he describes it is that he’ll often be passionately interested in something for a few weeks, then drop it. Maybe 90% of time he drops a project, and keeps going with the remaining 10%. And it can be a little difficult to tell from the outset if it’s going to be one kind of project or another.

This process by its very nature makes Brian a well-rounded person. I love going book shopping with him, in part because we have a little fun with the stranger titles in the clearance section, and because he’s willing to stay in the store much longer than your average person. But it’s always mildly embarrassing when he walks out of the store with a stack of classic literature, scientific research, and philosophical thought, and I’m walking out with comic books and DVD’s. I do buy lots of heady books for research (mostly online), but I’ll admit I don’t make much time for classics like Paradise Lost, or even more fun fare like Alice in Wonderland. And I don’t research random topics of interest, I tend to stay focused on the areas of math or pop-culture that I’ve always loved.

I’m torn between seeing certain things as distractions, or as ways to make me a more thoughtful person. I know that topics outside of my current fields of study and writing may give me insight into my work, and that it isn’t good to be so far down into the cave that you can no longer see daylight. But at the same time, I gain great relief from being the kind of person who says “I don’t have time for this, I probably won’t enjoy it, and I don’t have to read it just because its old.”

I think it’s good to examine life and the things you’re doing on a regular basis. Not Agile stand-up meeting regular, but maybe quarterly reviews. And it’s good to have friends to talk to about these things who come at them from a different angle. Adjustments can always be made. Maybe it would be good to give myself three weeks to make a game sometime. I don’t gave to do the whole thing, or even do it for the reason of selling it, but just for the sheer enjoyment. Because life is not all about work and the things you can make.

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Filed under Faith + Life, Writing Goals

I’m Still Here

Sorry for the lack of communication these first few weeks of the year. 2016 has already turned out to be more hectic than most of 2015. I’ve got several new writing projects which I should hopefully be able to share with you shortly as well as a lot of life and work stuff going on.

One weird thing from the beginning of the year was the passing of a fellow member of the OSU Men’s Glee on New Year’s Day. This was a guy who was my age, actually even a little younger. He sang at my wedding. The Men’s Glee does this tradition during tailgating that I appropriated for my proposal and reception. The guys will take a girl and have her sit in the middle of a group of us while we sing “My Evaline” to her (a little livelier than Weezer). The pinnacle of that moment is the lyric “I love you, say you love me…”. After an affirmative response, all cheer and wave our arms above the lucky girl for “meet me in the shade of the old willow tree”.

For the proposal it was “I love you, say you love Trube…”, asking my wife to marry me, then cheers.

This is the first peer I’ve lost, and for so random a reason, and it’s bound to get anyone thinking about their own mortality. But honestly for me, a lot of my time has been spent trying to remember this guy I spent some of the best years of my life around.

The Men’s Glee is like a fraternity, and it’s a shared experience that still leaves so many fond memories for me. Concerts in small towns, riding on the bus, watching Tommy Boy, going to San Francisco, and singing in the horseshoe. These were supposed to be lifelong friends, “brothers in song”.

For some of us, that’s been true. Facebook and social media can give you the illusion of contact without needing to actually see or talk to anyone. You know what’s going on in their lives, you can like a photo, maybe leave an occasional comment, and that’s enough to sate your curiosity. My circle of real friends today is pretty small, the guys from church, my writing friends, and a few people from college.

I went to the funeral, which was a Catholic mass (a new experience for me), in part to connect with some of my Glee friends from the past, and to get some sense of connection with this person I’d lost touch with. Only a few of the guys came, though it was amazing how easy it was to fall back into old relationships. A lot of these guys are still around where I live. I could see them more often. But I know that in all likelihood I will let the business of my life and the “craziness” of my schedule keep  me confined to the patterns I’m comfortable with.

I learned more about this young man’s love of the outdoors and our shared love of dogs. I sat and knelt and prayed and sang. And I mourned the loss, to his family, his young wife, to all of us. I hugged my old friends, and said goodbye to another as bagpipes played “Amazing Grace”.

I’m honestly not sure I’ve processed this. My way of dealing with most experiences is to keep going from one moment to the next. There’s so much I want to do with whatever time is left to me. And a moment like this certainly teaches you that tomorrow is never promised. And there are uncomfortable revelations about my use of time, the relationships I’ve let slide, and just how things can get away from us all.

This is probably a moment I need to do more with than just write about it. But that may be all I do.

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Surreality – Arvo Part

Music has always been an integral part of my writing process, whether it’s selecting music to listen to while working, or choosing pieces to specifically reference in the book. Surreality actually depicts several musical pieces including a Massive Attack song for one of Ms. Klein’s performances, but my personal favorite is the choral piece that Keenan hears at the Palace Theater, Arvo Pärt’s Kanon Pokajanen.

ArvoPart_KanonPokajanen

The Kanon is a modern classical masterpiece, but its origins lie in centuries old tradition. The text is taken from the Eastern Orthodox Canon which consists of nine odes centered around repentance (thanks Wikipedia). The second ode, Moses’ rebuke of the Israelites, is often omitted from recitations and is not present in Pärt’s composition (a fact my characters discuss in context with the events of the book).

My first encounter with the work was accidental. I didn’t even learn to pronounce Pärt’s name correctly for many years. It’s ‘Pear+t’ like the fruit plus a ‘T’, not ‘part’ like the widget, or ‘par’ which incorrectly assumes that the ‘T’ is silent. A two-disc copy of the CD was in the library book sale when I worked there my senior year of high-school. I had no idea what the CD was, and it smelled heavily of cigarettes, but for a dollar I sated my curiosity. The first nine seconds of the disc are silent, and I remembering wondering if there was something wrong with it. I probably turned my boom-box (yes I was still using one of those in the early 2000’s) to its maximum setting, only to met with the full blast of an SATB chorus a few moments later.

Pärt’s style is very spare, borrowing a lot from Gregorian chant, and mixing one or two of the parts together in different combinations. Large sections are sung in recitative fashion (meaning one part sings and another repeats). It’s ethereal and reflective. The piece gets your attention, retreats to the heavens, builds to an midway climax, then lets you go gently.

Pärt uses silence to set tone. The initial silence emphasizes the contrast of the entrance, and further silences throughout allow the notes to fill the cathedral space in which it was recorded. I’ve sung in old churches only a few times, the most memorable being a trip to San Francisco in 2004. Notes can carry on for seconds, long after the people have stopped singing. It’s a particular treat to study how harmonies blend and produce all the overtones and magical things that can happen when voices come together perfectly. It’s spiritual, not just to listen to, but to experience when singing.

My character’s not as fascinated by choral music as I am, but I hope that the moment is a nice space to reflect on what’s happened in the book so far, and what’s coming next. It’s still one of my favorite scenes to read, and has been present in the book in one form or another since the first draft (though Pärt’s specific selection came later I think).

My latest book, Surreality, is available on Amazon and Smashwords or wherever eBooks are sold.

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Filed under Books + Publishing, Faith + Life

Life To Writing

Writing is the ability to transform life experiences into art.

This is a bit of a paraphrase from a comment made by Lena Dunham’s father about her work. In an interview on Fresh Air I was listening to this morning, Lena Dunham talked about how she often takes experiences from her life and puts them on the screen, sometimes very soon after they’ve happened. There’s a lot to be unpacked on how you protect others with that content, and what would constitute “over-sharing” but it got me to to thinking about my own body of work.

I rarely take direct experiences from my life and put them verbatim or slightly altered onto the page. Certainly my technical and professional knowledge show up in scenes in Surreality, and a lot of the scenes with the dog Garfunkel are at least in part inspired by my first dog, Simon. Maybe a snippet of a conversation with my wife or with Brian or my Dad show up, but I treat these moments more as “easter eggs” than features that drive the narrative of the book.

An exception to this rule came at a particular moment in Dark Matter. It’s a passage I’m not really sure will make the final cut of the book, and upon reading it again, I’m not sure I’m even comfortable sharing it here, but I can give you the gist.

The majority of Dark Matter was written in a 117 day unbroken period. What broke the streak wasn’t finishing the book, it was being diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and the subsequent required surgery. Early on, long prior to this moment, I’d established that there was a chapel on the space cruise ship that’s the main setting for Dark Matter, and in day 107 or 108, sitting in Crimson Cup, I decided to have my character make use of it.

It’s not really that much text, just a four paragraph prayer. It’s at a moment before the finishing action of the book where it seems like the main character may fail in finding his family, and could lose his life trying:

“Lord,” he began quietly.  “I know we haven’t talked a lot lately, and maybe we should have.  I never wanted to be one of those Christians who only came to you when I was in trouble, but it seems like that’s what I am.  Maybe I’ve needed you before this moment but all I know is I need somebody now.”

Even though I think of writing as a form of worship, this is probably one of the few (or only) times I’ve actually been writing what I was praying at that exact moment.

Whether or not that section makes the final cut (especially considering I plan to completely redraft this book) is uncertain. I don’t like to think of writing as cathartic, as something I do to process emotions. I write because I want to tell stories. But every now and then, writing is the tool I’m most comfortable with using to organize my thoughts. There’s an editor version of myself who’s much more dispassionate about those moments after the fact. But at the time, it was deeply necessary to write those few paragraphs.

Writing about your life and your experiences shouldn’t always be comfortable. It’s not something you should do lightly. But every now and again, it’s something you need to do.

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Joel – The Locust Plague

Still working on Chapter 10 of The Sky Below, hopefully next week. In the meantime I thought you might be interested in the text of my first sermon that I talked about yesterday. If you’d like to hear it instead, you can listen to the audio here. Comments welcome. Think this is something I should do again? All verses are from the NRSV (retrieved from the Bible Gateway).

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Introduction

Hear this, O Elders, give ear, all inhabitants of the land! Has such a thing happened in your days or in the days of your ancestors? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.

The Old Testament is fun isn’t it?

Today we continue in our summer series, exploring parts of the Bible we may not know very well. I hadn’t read Joel at all before three weeks ago, and I suspect I’m not the only one. But it’s an interesting book, one that can teach us about God’s forgiveness even when we repeatedly screw up. It forecasts Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon all of us, and it makes the day of the Lord both present and yet to come.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly father, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be a blessing to you and everyone here. Amen.

First some Joel 101; Joel is one of the twelve Minor Prophets. We don’t know a whole lot about his history or his exact position, though there’s reason to believe he was a temple functionary of some kind given his concern over the daily liturgy. The book is primarily concerned with a terrible locust plague that has befallen the country and Joel’s call for a national day of prayer and lamentation, appealing to the Lord’s sovereignty to restore the land. The day of the Lord, God’s return in judgment, is central to Joel’s interpretation of the locust plague and events yet to come.

When we talk about the Old Testament there are a couple of things we need to figure out. When did these events take place? And how literally should we take what’s happening?

Joel presents a bit of a challenge when it comes to pinning a precise date on the book. There are arguments for putting the book as early as 900 BC or as late as 180 BC, and just as many for somewhere in the middle. Almost every argument in favor of one date has a counter-argument.

Some of the things commentators and biblical scholars consider when trying to place the book are the quotations from other prophets (Ezekiel and Amos primarily), the list of enemies of Israel singled out (Tyre, Sidon and Philistia), astronomical events like eclipses, apocalyptic language, references to the wall of Jerusalem, the list goes on.

Personally, in the case of Joel, I think it doesn’t matter. The story is self-contained and yet it follows a pattern in which the people of God turn away from him, letting other gods or cultures seep into their traditions, and then God has to bring them back.

As for how literally we should take the story here we have to be careful. There’s a temptation as modern readers of prophets to project our knowledge of the New Testament and modern understanding of the Bible and God onto these texts. We think they are speaking to us as much as they were to the prophet’s contemporaries. And there is something to be learned from the text as modern readers, otherwise there wouldn’t be much point to my standing up here and talking about it. But we need to be careful how we read these books. The way things were understood by a person 2500 years ago (give or take a few centuries) are different than how we understand them today.

That being said, I’m pretty convinced a locust is a locust. More on this in a minute. I don’t have an outline, but if you’d like to follow along in the book, that’d be great.

The Locust Plague (Personal Level)

Chapters 1 and 2 of Joel follow a similar structure. Chapter 1 Verses 2-12 and Chapter 2 Verses 1-11 describe the devastation of the locust plague, and its particular impact on the people of God.

Joel wants his listeners to understand the magnitude of what is happening. He calls upon the Elders to affirm that this is the worst thing they’ve ever seen, something they’ll tell their grand-children and their great grand-children about. Believe it or not, attacks by plagues of locusts were not an uncommon occurrence. In fact locust swarms still devastate farmers in Africa today, and in 1954 a swarm of locusts flew from Northwest Africa to Great Britain.

Fun fact (from National Geographic): a desert locust swarm can be 460 square miles in size and pack 40 to 80 million locusts in every square mile. A locust eats its weight (about 2 grams) in plant vegetation in a day and eats much more when in a swarm. A swarm of the kind I’ve just described could eat 423 million pounds of vegetation in a day.

That sounds an awful lot like Biblical proportions to me.

And Joel’s locusts are very thorough. As we see in verse 4:

What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.

There’s some debate about whether the types of locusts refer to species of insect or different stages of development. NIV goes with stages, NRSV goes with types, one of the reasons I’m using the NRSV text today. But Joel’s point is that the devastation is absolute. Everything on the vine, in the field, in the orchard, and in the storeroom is gone.

Joel highlights the specific impact of this devastation to three categories of people: drunkards, priests and farmers. Through each he takes the opportunity to further expand on the character of the locusts’ destruction.

For the drunkard, the sweet wine has been stolen from his lips. Wine at that time was made by pressing grapes and sweet wine was made from the first juices of that process after being fermented briefly in the sun. The drunkard’s depravation and sobriety would have been fairly immediate. If wine is a kind of God given joy, than its depravation might cause one to weep and wail.

Joel definitely had his thesaurus out when writing these passages. There is continued repetition of core ideas, things Joel wants to emphasize. He wants his audience to pay attention. In verse six the locusts have the teeth of a lion and the fangs of a lioness. In verse 7 they use those teeth and fangs to lay waste, splinter, strip and throw down the vines, fig trees and bark from branches.

In verses 8-10 he turns to the priests:

Lament like a virgin dressed in sackcloth for the husband of her youth.

This is a particularly devastating form of grief. Ancient marriages were preceded by a betrothal that formed a deeper connection than what we’d call an engagement. Effectively the man and woman were husband and wife, but would not consummate that relationship until after the wedding ceremony. If a young man died before they could marry and conceive a son, the woman would still be considered a widow, and would mourn her husband and unborn son.

I think this analogy is interesting for a couple of reasons.

The devastation of grain and oil meant that the daily rituals of the temple could not proceed. Effectively the church was cut off from its relationship with God. I think we have no modern equivalent of this. Certainly in this family of believers we don’t have a set liturgy that would affect our experience of God one way or another. We gather together in this place and in our life groups, but even if this building were to burn to the ground, we would still be able to talk to God. We would still to be able to gather together as one body.

But I believe Joel’s choice of the betrothed virgin is not accidental. In Ephesians 5:22-25 and 2 Corinthians 11:2 we get a clearer idea of Jesus as the bridegroom and the church as his bride. We are, as a body of believers, pledged to Christ in anticipation of his return, the day of the Lord. The temple in Joel’s time is cut off from God. Imagine if we were cut off from Christ, from our salvation and ultimate destiny with him. I think at a minimum sackcloth would be called for.

Here we also see how this tragedy has affected the land. The people mourn and the land mourns.

The fields are devastated, the ground mourns, for the grain is destroyed, the wine dries up, the oil fails.

The health of the land is bound up in the Israelites understanding of God’s covenant with them. The state of creation matters. Our care for creation is an affirmation of what God has done for us. I think some of us have a temptation to separate God and our responsibilities from the state of the world. There might have been a temptation to dismiss the locust plague as not spiritually driven at all, just a freak of nature. But Joel seems pretty clear in later verses that the locusts are God’s army, acting with his will, and action must be taken as a community to save themselves and their covenant with God.

The third group Joel calls out is the farmers. The wheat and barley harvests are gone. Wheat would have been valuable not only to the grain offering, but it was more difficult to grow and so it was a source of pride. Barley was a staple for the poor, and a daily food source. Pomegranates, palm trees and apples, are all symbols of joy and God’s plenty withdrawn. Indeed Joel compares the withering of these fruits to the withering of joy.

So why does Joel mention these groups in specific? One thing I’ll hope you have noticed so far, Joel hasn’t expressly talked about the sin of anyone. We can easily speculate as to the drunkards’ sin. And the priests and the farmers may have succumbed to the perennial practice of Baal worship. Farmers would often pray to fertility idols for the health of their crops. And the priests would bear responsibility not only for their own sins, but the spiritual well-being of the people.

But again, Joel isn’t really talking about the sin of these groups. Fundamentally the purpose of Joel’s words is to bring people into a spirit of lamentation, repentance, and national prayer. Again and again he details the ways in which the locust plague has devastated the land, and the affect this has had on the nation’s ability to communicate with God, and to simply survive.

Do we do this when things go wrong? Do we focus on what needs to be done rather than point the finger? I think it’s natural for us to want to find someone to blame, if nothing else so we know that we aren’t the one at fault. But while we might want Joel to do some real calling out, on the drunkards for lewd and lascivious behavior, on the priests for hypocrisy and lack of spiritual leadership, and on the farmers for growing things besides just wheat and barley, Joel does none of this.

Joel wants to solve the crisis, and to give the people a full understanding of what the crisis means as we’ll see in Chapter 2.

The Locust Plague (Spiritual Implications)

Chapter 2 begins in much the same way as Chapter 1, though the language and scope of Joel’s description has shifted in tone. Why does Joel talk about the Locusts again? There are some commentators who believe that in Chapter 2 Joel isn’t talking about the locusts at all, but rather an invading army. There are a lot of allusions to an invading force, the sounding of an alarm, the rumbling of chariots, charging warriors filing in an unstoppable wave of destruction. But I think as we’ll see what Joel is really doing is providing spiritual context for the physical destruction he detailed in Chapter 1.

Verses 1 and 11 bookend the first section of Chapter 2 and are preceded by the lament from Chapter 1 Verse 15:

Alas for the day! For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes.

Chapter 2 Verse 1:

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near…

And in Verse 11:

Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed – who can endure it?

Joel’s doing something unusual here. Often in the Minor Prophets, the day of the Lord is talked about in the context of judgment of Israel’s enemies, and indeed we see this in Chapter 3. But Joel is also very clear that God’s people will be held to account as well, for their actions in this specific crisis and in the time yet to come.

There are many parallels to the verses in Chapter 1. Joel emphasizes again the extraordinary nature of these events in Chapter 2 verse 2, a great and powerful army descends upon them the like of which has never been seen. He compares the locusts to charging war-horses in verse 4 and crackling like flames of fires in verse 5, similar to his comparison to lions in Chapter 1.

In verse 9 we get the same progression of destruction we got from Chapter 1 verse 4:

They leap upon the city, they run upon the walls; they climb up into the house, they enter through the windows like a thief.

There is no place to hide from this army. They will get in every door, every window, every crack. They will destroy everything.

Joel does repeatedly refer to the locusts as an army, and they do show martial behavior.

Like warriors they charge, like soldiers they scale the wall. Each keeps to its own course, they do not swerve from their paths. They do not jostle one another, each keeps to its own track; they burst through with weapons and are not halted.

I can certainly see how some commentators think this must refer to a human army and not an insect one. I think the weapons Joel is referring to here are those lions teeth and lionesses fangs, not insects carrying tiny spears, but what about the marching? Here’s the interesting thing: locusts do march when in swarms of higher density. They tend to keep to their own path, and don’t scuttle over top of one another, exactly as Joel describes.

No one’s quite sure how they do this, but there’s some thought it might have something to do with the same hormones that cause locusts to eat more in a swarm. It might defy conventional wisdom, but insects can move as an orderly army, and the moving of their millions of tiny wings might resemble the crackling of fire. Joel is certainly poetic at times, but I don’t think these descriptions are springing forth solely from his head without basis in what’s happening around him.

The same could be true in verse 10:

The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.

Some scholars have taken this to mean an eclipse or astronomical event, placing Joel somewhere in the 300’s BC to line up with projected events. But there’s a simpler explanation. Swarms of locusts at high density can block out sunlight, even densities as low as 40-80 million per square mile. And there’s no reason to believe that God would have been limited to that number. Billions of locusts would have made it impossible to see the sun, the moon, or two feet in front of you.

But at the same time, it’s important to notice how Joel does want us to interpret these locusts. In verse 11:

The Lord utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command.

Joel is using apocalyptic language, correctly placing the locusts as an instrument of God’s judgment. Those who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved, but for those who turn away from God there is darkness and gloom. I think Joel is speaking literally of the things they are seeing, and he’s placing them in a larger context.

I don’t know if the day of the Lord as Joel sees it would have played out to final judgment had the people not turned back to God. It’s apparent from verse 14 that he believes God will relent and bless them again if they turn back to him. The incident may have been a corrective, a way to shake up the complacency of a people who had turned away, and would turn away from God again.

What are the ways that we turn away from God? What idols do we worship? Money? Our jobs? Maybe just a fascination with things of the world? Do we place our faith in politics, in football teams, in King LeBron?

Sure it’s not Baal worship. We’re not actively praying to another god for one thing or another. We’re just relying on ourselves as the best judge of our time, our money, our work. God doesn’t tend to correct us with plagues of locusts any more, but maybe we need a kick in the shorts once in a while, something to force us to turn back to him, to rely on him like we know we should.

Joel’s Solution

So how does Joel suggest the nation regain God’s favor? In Chapter 1 Verses 13-14 Joel tells the people what they should do:

Pass the night in sackcloth, you ministers of my God! … Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.

The priests would probably already be wearing sackcloth, but to do so for an entire night signified an unusual level of grief. Sackcloth is made of black goat hair and would have been worn around the loins. It’s an outward symbol of sorrow and contrition, something it was probably unusually effective at producing as well as symbolizing.

He elaborates in Chapter 2 Verses 12-17, detailing more of the specific prayers and laments the people should offer to God, as well as highlighting a couple of particulars about the gathering. A couple of things we should notice about these verses.

In verse 13, Joel calls upon them to “rend your hearts and not your clothing.” Outward symbols of grief like the sackcloth and wailing were part of temple tradition at this time, but to Joel it was less important that they put on a good show, and more important that they cry out to God honestly and from their hearts.

Praying out loud to God in a group of people is something that has always been kind of difficult for me. I’m actually pretty comfortable coming up here and talking at you for 30 minutes, but the most awkward bits for me are the prayer at the start and the finish of the service. It’s why I had to write them. What Joel is calling for here is an extemporaneous expression of feeling, not a planned speech, though he does offer some guidance.

Again this assembly doesn’t concern itself with the guilt or sin of specific people. In verses 15-16 we see each group of people named, down to the children, babies, and recently married brides and bridegrooms who would traditionally be excused from temple services. The whole nation, the whole people of God, were to gather in the temple and appeal to the Lord, regardless of innocence.

And it’s in verse 17 where we might be tempted to wish Joel prescribed something different.

Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’

Here’s the part that sounds a little odd to the modern ear. The people are calling upon God to save them not because they’ve done something wrong, but to save his reputation amongst the other nations. To show his sovereignty and covenant care for his people.

Now it could be argued, somewhat correctly, that the wailing and rending of hearts did imply some amount of culpability, and understanding that God’s judgment in the form of the locust plague was deserved. But it still rings a little odd to not have some kind of direct repentance included in their appeal to God. We worshiped other Gods. We put the concerns of our daily lives ahead of what you want for us. We screwed up.

But this is where an ancient ear would hear this differently, and I actually think this has something to teach us moderns as well. If God did not deliver them from the plague it is very true that other nations would have interpreted this as a failure of their God, or even as reason to believe he does not exist. Again we would want them to see it at least in part as a failure of the people, but that’s our interpretation of events, not theirs.

And furthermore I think we shouldn’t dismiss the idea of God’s sovereignty, provision and glory. We’re very relational when it comes to God, and it is something that is encouraged by our accepting of Jesus Christ, and our New Testament understanding of salvation. But let’s not forget that God is Lord, and he still provides for us. We are as dependent on God for our daily bread as the people of Joel’s time.

God’s Response

After fasting, praying, lamenting and spending the night in sackcloth Joel conveys God’s response. In a nutshell God restores everything he has taken away and that Joel has taken the time to highlight. Grain, wine, and oil are being sent, the pastures are green, the trees and the vine bear fruit, and the rain restores the land. The years of plenty the locusts destroyed will be restored, and Israel shall no longer be a mockery among the nations.

Some things to notice about what God does. In verse 20 we see how he sweeps the locusts into the ocean, and fills the air with the stench of their rotting corpses. Don’t feel too bad for the locusts since they only live a few months anyway, and they got some really good eating along the way. Some commentators suggest that this is another way in which we see the Lord still holding things accountable for their actions even when those actions serve his purposes. Personally, I think it just wasn’t practical to keep a swarm of billions of locusts around. It’s a reassurance certainly that God won’t bring his army against them again, and God’s not shy about claiming responsibility for the locusts as we see in verse 25. But more than that I’m not sure is supported by the text.

God restores everything he has taken away, though not in an overly extravagant way. As we see in verse 23:

For he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the later rain, as before.

There’s not an implication here that everything was magically restored. The storehouses that were falling into disrepair would probably still need to be fixed. The grain would still have to be harvested; the grass would need to regrow. God brought more rain than normal, but he didn’t snap his fingers and set everything right in one fell swoop. I’d imagine things were restored pretty quickly, as just watching the effect of good rain on my own garden can be quite astonishing. A tiny zucchini plant can grow leaves as wide as sails in just a few weeks. A good rain could very well restore their harvests to full yield. It’s still heavenly provision, but not outside the realm of the possible.

And God shows his promise for the future, both in the restoration of Israel’s reputation, but in its eventual salvation in the final day of the Lord. He also signals the outpouring of his holy spirit in Verses 28-29:

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Not only does this provide a foreshadowing of the events of Acts, we also get a signal of God’s all-encompassing love for his people and for all who believe, regardless of age or station. This verse gives me the ability to share God’s word with all of you, and for all of us to understand scripture.

There’s a lot more about God’s provision and the final Day of Judgment in Chapter 3, more than we’ll have time for today. One thing I would caution for those of you who heard the beginning of Joel and wanted to see how it ends, remember Old Testament context. The enemies named in Chapter 3 were the enemies of Israel at that time, and could be more broadly understood as those who did not believe in the God of the Israelites. And some of these peoples did come to specific destruction, Sidon and Philistia, in the times of the Old Testament. While some of what Joel is talking about may refer to the Day of the Lord yet to come, many things he details have already occurred (as is the case with many things in Revelation by the way).

That said I don’t want you to dismiss these verses either. Chapter 3 Verse 21 (the end of the book) states:

I will avenge their blood, and I will not clear the guilty, for the Lord dwells in Zion.

I think it is hard living in this nation, in this time, to think about people other than ourselves who might be guilty. We see other Christians who say that God hates Gays, or that Muslims are going to hell, and we think those guys are jerks. And they are. God is a God of love, even the God of Joel. He wanted the people to reach out to him. But what about those who don’t, or who even actively work against God? I don’t presume to have all the answers, but I don’t think it’s a helpful attitude to say “well those people are going to hell.” Joel didn’t play the blame game, and neither should you. Rather we should think about the things we can do to bring people to God. God is patient, and so should we be. He wants to save everyone. The Day of the Lord is great and terrible, and it is near, but God still gives us a chance to do something about it.

What should we take away?

Some things I want to leave you with today. I think there’s a tendency to see the Old Testament in almost supernatural terms. God did speak directly with the people in columns of fire, but he also spoke through people. He brought a locust plague like none ever seen, and he restored it with early rainfall. The poetic verse Joel uses here is designed to evoke an emotional and spiritual response, to put the heart in a position toward repentance, but it is rooted in the physical, in the way things are actually happening. There is a wider spiritual context for the things that happen in the world, both in Joel’s time and today, and we shouldn’t see those old biblical times as completely separate from our own. Our experience of God can be just as direct as it was in those days. It isn’t just mysticism for people too simple to fully understand God without the Holy Spirit.

I also want us to remember that God is Lord, appropriate since Joel’s name means Yahweh is Lord. The relational approach to God is certainly appropriate, and healthy, both for our spiritual growth, and for illustrating the time we need to spend working on our relationship. But we should remember that God isn’t just our buddy. I think he is our buddy, but he’s also the awesome creator who made the world and provides us with everything, and who has the right to judge.

Finally I think we can see Joel as an example of God’s continuing capacity for forgiveness. Again we can see the God of the Old Testament as kinda judgy. He destroys sinful towns, floods the world, and throws a swarm of locusts at his people. But with Joel and all these Minor Prophets we see the ways in which the Lord wants to help to bring his people back to him. And when we turn back to him, everything is restored, and more.

We shouldn’t be complacent, our idol worship may not involve little statues any more, but there are still things in our lives that pull us away from God. But we can ask for forgiveness. It takes more than an outward display of theatrics, but a real change in our hearts. But if we believe that God is Lord, if we turn back to him, he will forgive us.

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Preacher Man

A week and a half ago I preached in my church for the first time. Our regular pastor is on sabbatical this summer, and a diverse preaching team is tackling lesser known or lesser read books of the Bible. Mine was Joel, a book I’d frankly never read three weeks before delivering a 25 minute talk about it. Now I’ve read it probably about 20 times and could quote you several passages from memory. One of the first things I did when preparing for Joel was to write a 43 line Python script pulling down 9 different translations from Bible Gateway and turning them into an eBook so I could compare. That web-scraping thing from yesterday at its most noble, maybe.

Writing a sermon was a very different kind of writing from what I’m used to. I’m comfortable talking in front of people. I’ve given presentations at work before, and I’ve sung, taught Sunday school and been the worship leader in my church in recent memory. But figuring out how many words I even needed to write to fill the time was a challenge (turns out for me about 5000 though some people think my delivery was a bit fast). I’ve generally contended that I’m a much better writer than an off-the-cuff speaker,but writing with the specific intention of reading aloud has a different flow. The writing must rise and fall with the rise and fall of your voice. Words that are perfectly fine in an essay on Joel can become unworkable on the tongue.

And writing a sermon should have some application to life, a point you’re trying to get across. I’m not so bad with the analysis and research bit, but this was the point that my wife kept asking me, and I was never sure I had a good answer for it until the night before the actual delivery.

And more than any other piece of writing this was something I was writing not just for myself, but for people to hear. It can be a strange thing to think about writing something as speaking for what God wants to say on a particular Sunday. You can dismiss it as putting too much stock in what people actually hear, and indeed the memory life for even a great sermon can be frighteningly short. But the writing isn’t just in your voice, it means something. This isn’t to say that I felt like I was taking God’s dictation. When God talks through people, they are still speaking with their voice, with their patterns, passions and priorities (something apparent in a prophet like Joel).

I wrote about half the sermon in a coffee shop, and the other half in our empty sanctuary, sometimes with the computer at the podium, typing changes as I practiced delivery. I still went through all the same things I do with a chapter of The Sky Below, research, rough drafts, revisions, cuts, new thoughts, and the eventual pressure of a deadline (one in this case which I couldn’t push). I listened to Moby and Olafur Arnalds which proved to be just as good at aiding the writing of scripture as they are most everything else. But I also had to think about how fast I was talking, waiting beats to emphasize something or let people laugh at the few funny points. I had to make sure I was looking at everyone as I talked while still keeping the text in front of me. And I had to figure out if I was going to stand or sit on a stool, and even how I was going to sit on that stool.

But this kind of writing is oddly energizing. First of all its probably one of the most immediate feedback mechanisms I’ve ever had (even more than blogging). People walk up, shake your hand, want to discuss the text, while your head is still spinning not sure if you even said everything you had written down. It was really interesting to go in deep on a passage, analyzing its structure, its history, its meaning. It was interesting to think about how people would hear the text 2500 years ago, and how they’d hear it that Sunday. And frankly it was interesting to be praying to God about what I was going to say. A lot of writing just happens for me, without a lot of thought about how it applies to the spiritual side. But during a lot of periods of writing this I felt unusually energized, words flying off my fingers. Maybe some of that was the thrill of trying something new. But then again … I don’t know. What I do know is that I want to try this again.

A common piece of writing advice is to write for yourself, not to worry about what others want you to say. But the more I think about it, I’m not sure if this is entirely true. You shouldn’t be trying to follow publishing trends, or writing what you think people want to hear, or what they want to read, what they can handle. But it can be really thrilling nonetheless to think about your audience, to think about how they might hear your words, and what it might inspire them to. You’re not writing or preaching to have people tell you you did a good job, you’re writing to get people to think, to convey God’s word, and to be more than just the words you put down on paper.

My inner censor thinks this sounds kinda hippy-dippy. But I’m just calling it like I see it. Writing that sermon was the most fun I’ve had writing in a while. Now I just gotta figure out how to do the same thing with everything I write.

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