Thursday, April 30, 2015

To the Holy Spirit and to us...

Acts 15:22-29 (NET)
15:22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided 67  to send men chosen from among them, Judas called Barsabbas and Silas, 68  leaders among the brothers, to Antioch 69  with Paul and Barnabas. 15:23 They sent this letter with them: 70 
From the apostles 71  and elders, your brothers, 72  to the Gentile brothers and sisters 73  in Antioch, 74  Syria, 75  and Cilicia, greetings! 15:24 Since we have heard that some have gone out from among us with no orders from us and have confused 76  you, upsetting 77  your minds 78  by what they said, 79  15:25 we have unanimously 80  decided 81  to choose men to send to you along with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul, 15:26 who 82  have risked their lives 83  for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 84  15:27 Therefore we are sending 85  Judas and Silas 86  who will tell you these things themselves in person. 87  15:28 For it seemed best to the Holy Spirit and to us 88  not to place any greater burden on you than these necessary rules: 89  15:29 that you abstain from meat that has been sacrificed to idols 90  and from blood and from what has been strangled 91  and from sexual immorality. 92  If you keep yourselves from doing these things, 93  you will do well. Farewell. 94

What a curious thing to say.  It seemed best to the Holy Spirit and to us.  How remarkable that the author (traditionally, Luke), would say it in such a way.  Remarkable and enigmatic.  It is Scripture after all.

I would love to know how they knew that it seemed best to the Holy Spirit.  In a similar vein I would love to know what Jesus was writing with his finger in the dirt (see note 10).

I would have written it this way today:
"For it seemed best to us, after we prayed over it and discussed it amongst ourselves not to place..."

How fortunate we are that I was not entrusted to write Scripture.

NET note:
88 tn This is the same expression translated “decided” in Acts 15:22, 25. BDAG 255 s.v. δοκέω 2.b.β lists “decide” as a possible gloss for this verse, and this translation would be consistent with the translation of the same expression in Acts 15:22, 25. However, the unusually awkward “the Holy Spirit and we have decided” would result. Given this approach, it would be more natural in English to say “We and the Holy Spirit have decided,” but changing the order removes the emphasis the Greek text gives to the Holy Spirit. Thus, although the similarity to the phrases in 15:22, 25 is obscured, it is better to use the alternate translation “it seems best to me” (also given by BDAG): “it seemed best to the Holy Spirit and to us.” Again the scope of agreement is highlighted.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Poets lately

I dig poetry; I love the ambiguity.
                                  It is art and you can interpret it how you like.
Everyone can make it--but not everyone does.  The world is terrible and wonderful and deserving of poetic justice from everyone.

Today I listen to Famous by Naomi Shihab Nye, read by Alise Alousi:

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,   
which knew it would inherit the earth   
before anybody said so.   

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds   
watching him from the birdhouse.   

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.   

The idea you carry close to your bosom   
is famous to your bosom.   

The boot is famous to the earth,   
more famous than the dress shoe,   
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it   
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.   

I want to be famous to shuffling men   
who smile while crossing streets,   
sticky children in grocery lines,   
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,   
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,   
but because it never forgot what it could do.
I desire to be famous to you, because you are famous to me.  We all know, say, and express this.
This is poetry--and it is accessible--because it was written that way.  Some ideas aren't accessible by their nature, others are made inaccessible for some reason, for a reason.  I like both.

Recently a good friend of mine recommended a poem by Marie Howe: What the Living Do

An excerpt:
I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss—we want more and more and then more of it.
This grips me because it is every day.  Life is a poem waiting to be written.  Sometimes I write those poems--the important poems that aren't about battles, tragedies--the poems about the spaces in between.  These poems aren't gaudy because life isn't gaudy.  Life is in your details and in the details you share.  I love your details and I love my details--even the painful ones--and I want to share.  We all want to share on some level.

Mary Oliver writes Bone, an exerpt:

lest we would sift it down
into fractions, and facts
and what the soul is, also
I believe I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing,
truly I know
our part is not knowing,
but looking, and touching, and loving,
which is the way I walked on,
through the pale-pink morning light.
 and from The Journey:
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.
Thank God we have no choice but to keep ourselves company.  What kind of company do you keep?

Finally, Oliver again from House of Light:
“Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts 
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking 
into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—
that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and falling. And I do.”
Life.  People are great fiery mysteries.  I believe it too.

A couple of personal thoughts in conclusion:

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Who we call friends

Today I think about race relations.

Since I'm from west Michigan and have gone to university elsewhere I have friends and perspectives that show up from all parts of the country on social media.

Just observing their reactions, I feel like I'm in the middle of a war.  I'm shocked.

In general I find that my White friends tend to decry the rioting, and my Black friends tend to be promoting awareness of police brutality.

How segregated are our lives though?  When I moved to Pennsylvania I had one close friend who was Black, I had maybe two friends who were openly atheist, and I only knew a couple people who were gay.  My circle of friends that I spent time with was exactly like me.  It's easy to point at other when you are surrounded by essentially yourself.

Over three years I became close friends with only three Black people, maybe 10 or so atheists, and acquainted with perhaps five outwardly gay people.

The fact that I can count these other people groups on my hands is telling (I say other in the sense that they are not White Protestants)--it's telling because I'm progressive by west Michigan standards.

For your own life, maybe do an inventory of your close friends--friends you would call to get a cup of coffee with--not acquaintances.  How many of your friends aren't like you?

This isn't a guilt thing.  What does it matter?  Why do I bring this up?

You will never be empathetic with an other until you don't consider them an other.  It's not about not seeing race.  It's about befriending and spending time with people that are different than you in some way--you'll find that they're the same in many other ways.

When I see images on television I picture my friends taking those places.  When homosexuals don't have rights to marriage, I have friends in my life that don't have rights to marriage.  When Black men and women are killed by police, I have Black men and women friends that could be unfairly targeted or suspected of something because they are Black.

That's why I get mad.
That's why I get mad when others don't get mad, and when they start calling my friends, or those like them in skin color "thugs".

Lack of empathy--it is maddening.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Molly the hermaphrodite

I started running again this week.  Very painfully and lugubriously, since it's been over 4 years since I could call myself a runner (the glorious past).

At the end of my jog today I saw that my neighbor was out monkeying around in his garage--and I hadn't introduced myself yet, so it was the perfect opportunity to meet!

Rog (not real name) grew up around GR and went to Western for school, now he's living next to me with his partner B.J. (not real name either!) in Hudsonville.  Rog has a great story.  He drives bus and does various and sundry other work at a GR area school.  He's even owned a furniture company already!  Nbd, just a super handy sound & audio engineer that knows his way around furniture and is super handy.  Oh, and he's an opera singer with an epic beard!  Holy jack of all trades Batman!

Anyway, Rog has a couple beautiful little rescue dogs--a pug named Molly and a brindle Boston Terrier (not sure on name...).  The pug has the greatest and most interesting story I've heard in a while.

Rog wanted two male dogs, so he didn't have to deal with any shenanigans.  So he bought Molly, a male dog.  Molly's jewels never dropped though.  It turns out that Molly had BOTH sets of parts!  After some surgeries she is now essentially a female, with no real defects (unusual for hermaphrodites).

Rog said they decided to get the surgery and let her decide what she wanted to be.  I guess she alternates behaviors sometimes with respect to bodily function, but tends to gravitate toward being a female.

That was too cool of a story not to write up.  Plus it turns out I have some sweet neighbors!

Friday, April 24, 2015

The clock that couldn't

My clock sits on a bookshelf--next to a print depicting a Chinese spring scene that I picked up cheaply in Shanghai.

The juxtaposition is charming; a jigsawed cutout of mishigamaa neighboring the crisp green still.

In a tragic twist of fate, the newly minted timepiece struggles at each second to capture past time.

The torque gods are cruel.  Each second a battle against gravity.

My heart goes out to the hand that barely reaches New Holland,
                                                          fails to mount Founders
                                                     and falls back to Saugatuck.

Soon, a precious 16 hours will be lost forever to the ravages of forgotten time, unrecorded.

What would make you believe?

I am an atheist. I am not an atheist because it's cool. I am not an atheist because of religious extremism or oppression in some depraved corners of the world. I am not an atheist because I don't think evil can exist in a world with a god. I am not an athiest because I think science can disprove god. I am an atheist because of one simple fact: The burden of proof lies on religion. If you propose the existence of something, you must follow the scientific method in your defense of its existence. Otherwise, I have no reason to listen to you.

I love everything about the above graphic except the last two sentences. That is Scientism. And curiously, it is espoused by many who would call themselves atheists. The two are not in disagreement necessarily, but interestingly it is mostly non-scientists who believe in Scientism--likely because of a lack of understanding of science and reductionism. That critique aside...

This post is an attempt to help Christians explore what it means to be an atheist (from four of my friends), and also, what it might look like to be an agnostic Christian (me, briefly).

This hopefully goes without saying, but I am not an atheist.  I lean toward agnostic Christianity, with respect to existence sometimes, but with more of a Kierkegaardian position:
"If I am capable of grasping God objectively, I do not believe, but precisely because I cannot do this I must believe."
Edit: After further consideration, I think this position describes the nature of belief--not the nature of what is believed in (I am not a scholar of Kierkegaard, and thus very capable of misunderstanding his meaning in a first readthrough).  Why is belief necessary?  Because I am not capable of grasping God objectively.  What is belief then, how does the Christian/Kierkegaard regard subjectivity?
See Jamie Turnbull (Kierkegaard's Influence on Philosophy: German and Scandinavian Philosophy, pgs 156-157):

--I love Jesus and I think he is the best thing for everyone.  Wikipedia actually puts it really well:
Christian Agnostics practice a distinct form of agnosticism that applies only to the properties of God. They hold that it is difficult or impossible to be sure of anything beyond the basic tenets of the Christian faith. They believe that God exists, that Jesus has a special relationship with him and is in some way divine, and that God should be worshiped.
This deviates somewhat widely from the Calvinism I grew up with.  In any case, I do know atheists and find that their view is often misrepresented, as the graphic above in part illustrates.

Atheism can be a vague concept for people around west Michigan to engage with--in the church, not many people know or have friends that are atheists, in my experience.  I have the pleasure of knowing several atheists/agnostics/etc from my time at Penn State as well as from west Michigan--they are dear friends of mine. We're not afraid of talking about spiritual things together either.  In this post I've compiled a few perspectives from friends that I highly respect and admire.

It turns out to be a difficult question to answer--who has context for the divine?
(I'm not looking at you human.)

D. C. 4/7/15:
I have a hard time trusting claims about God. All the knowledge I have currently acquired indicates that such claims are just that, claims. A claim in itself that requires belief without proof is potentially dangerous. For you see, a claim is inherently a true or false statement. The claim is either true, or it is false. As far as I am aware, wishing alone will not turn a true statement false or a false statement true. (I could be wrong though, maybe enough people wishing God to exist could cause God to exist. If that is true, could we then collectively wish hard enough or other things? Technically I don’t know the answer to this, but I am more apt to think that wishing does not affect existence or truth.) Therefore God or gods or some other god could exist, but for me to believe I would need a reasonable amount of evidence.

What is reasonable amount of evidence? My best answer, and possibly my annoying answer at this point, is “I don’t know.” If God exists, and God is omnipotent, omniscient, etc…. then God would know what would be a reasonable amount of evidence, strictly by the definition of God.

Ash H. followup question: How would I feel if I knew definitively there was a god or God?

I don’t think it would matter how I felt about it, if God were there. There would be nothing I could do to change the fact if it was true. It would just be like another piece of information I would have about the universe/everything. I would have lots of questions for God…why is it this way? I would have a lot of why questions. If the Judeo-Christian God exists: I might be honestly shocked. There would be a lot of information I would need to sort though and figure out.

A. C. 4/23/15:
It's an interesting thought of what would make me be theistic, either believe in god(s), or for some higher power in general. Without racking my brains, the first thought that comes to mind is to use the same empirical evidence-based inference method I use for any other thing. I would (or should) believe in god if I observe reproducible evidence (hopefully scientific) of the same. However, this turns out to be an oxymoron, as "belief" is the term we associate to things that lack factual evidence. Therefore, I think the logical thing for me to say is: "I would know of a theistic universe if I find evidence of the same". Till that time, I am certain (in scientific terms) that the universe is not facilitated by a deity.

I find it very fascinating of how different people are motivated by different things, and is something worth discussing. It's good that we are thinking and discussing about it.

L. S. 4/29/15:
Like I mentioned earlier, I’m more than happy to talk about anything in regards to my atheism with you. I personally find the subject matter incredibly important, in addition to being extremely interesting. So my straightforward answer to your question is “I don’t know”. However, allow me to expound on that a little.

The first problem is that to really answer that, I’d need to have you define which god. For example, some people say that the universe is god, others that love or energy is god, etc… If there is a god, depending on what characteristics you want to give it, I would say that this being should have the power to know what it would take to convince me, even if I don’t. And I think it is possible, though extremely unlikely, that I could be convinced (again), that some god exists.
As I see it, there are two main problems that would need to be overcome before I could believe in any god:

The first is sufficient evidence. You touched a little bit on this when you mentioned faith. I usually ask people to define the word faith for me to understand how they use it because not everyone uses it the same. Personally, I define faith as believing in something without a good reason. What it boils down to is - if you have a good reason then you wouldn’t need faith. So for me, evidence and reason is essential in understanding truth. (Truth being defined as – that which comports to reality). The reason this is so important is that without evidence and reason, a claim of faith in a Christian God bears no more weight than a claim of faith for the Muslim God, Bigfoot, Santa Clause, or the flying Spaghetti monster. I should mention that this only matters if you actually care about if your beliefs are true. So as far as I can tell there simply isn’t sufficient evidence that any god exists. And the evidence that does exist is unreliable at best.

The second problem is that we have no way to confirm causation on a supernatural level. In the physical world, physical objects obey physical laws. When I push a ball with X amount of force it rolls Y distance. However, even if we could confirm a miracle happened (so far 0 confirmed), we couldn’t necessarily attribute it to god. There is no yet discovered way to test for a supernatural intervention and no way to determine who or what caused that intervention and why.

M. C. 5/8/15:
If God came down to earth-- in a form humans could perceive-- and started to actually help us, then I would believe.
Wholeheartedly, cause the intuitive part of me does believe.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


Today I was reminded of my mortality through two events which I participated in willingly.  Each one on its own is a signal and the two together acted rather like a hammer.

  1. I filled out a recommendation for two friends of mine (peers, married, both a little younger than me) to be foster parents.  They'll be great.  I'll try to keep this jade plant of mine alive.
  2. I went to an event in Grand Rapids called: [RESTORATION & REVITALIZATION: An Ongoing Community Conversation Series: "Gentrification with Justice"]--and I was complimented on my socks by another adult.  To be fair my socks were totally on fleek, so it was justified.

Thomas the agnostic disciple

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (Caravaggio)
 Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle ... Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.
// Thomas Henry Huxley
 The apostle Thomas is an agnostic from his first response to the news that Jesus had risen:
The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the wounds from the nails in his hands, and put my finger into the wounds from the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will never believe it!”
// John 20:25
It's not an uncommon response.  In fact, it has been my response at one time (and time again...).  Many of the people that I met in graduate school had this mindset, rather unsurprisingly.  It is essentially the practice of science.  Without evidence, there can be no worthwhile claims.

One of my best friends at PSU called himself an agnostic-atheist.  He does not believe there is a god, but perhaps would given enough evidence.  In practice, he is an atheist--I find it difficult to conceive of an event or circumstance that would validate his belief in God, though I of course cannot rule it out (nor would I want to).  He has a valid view; it's not one that I hold personally for a number of reasons, but it's nevertheless valid.

We can learn a lot from Thomas--for instance, how to respond to unbelief.  The disciples didn't convince him...Jesus did, with his appearance.  Perhaps this is why we see Christian apologetics fail to "convince" atheists, agnostics, etc.--because we are placing the burden on our reasoning and logic (often from premises that one party DOES NOT ACCEPT!).  Letting the Spirit work through us, as Jesus worked in Thomas is a much more fruitful exercise.  I pray often that God will work in spite of the words from my asinine lips.

Show me the parts of scripture where the disciples browbeat someone into belief before you go about evangelism that way.  Do life following Jesus; do it unapologetically (different meaning of the word, haha!); and do it unafraid to talk about inconsistencies and things you don't yet understand--God will show up.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Cheating the Polygraph

Gavin Harrison, drummer extraordinaire, has done something pretty awesome with his favorite Porcupine Tree tracks.

We're talking about a big band arrangement.  If you were one of us spellbound by floating, spinning and kaleidoscopic codeine pills during will probably appreciate the new album.  The tracks are able to stand on their own, yet pay overwhelming homage to the originals.

As someone who grew up playing trombone in band for years, this album really appealed to me--it's a great mix of big band, classical and jazzy styles all within one.  Each track has its own kind of life and direction.  Want some exquisitely played flute?  Try "What Happens Now".  Interested in a jazzy fugue?  Maybe go with "the Start of Something Beautiful".  A fleshed out big band hit is "Anesthetize.  GET SOME!

It's not something I would have ever thought to ask for, but I'm really glad it was made.

Here is the original "Anesthetize" live:

And here are some select bits from Cheating the Polygraph:

Gavin does an interview (with Laurence Cottle, arranger) on the album:

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Janelle Monáe

I'm on a huge Janelle Monáe kick right now (even if she's not for male consumption ^o^...she is universally appealing and her message applies to everyone!).

She's talented, beautiful, thought-FULL and thought-PROVOKING!  Her fashion is clean cut and straight dirty--classic and refined.  I mean, c'mon, does she not have the best hair you've ever seen?  Hot damn.

You may be familiar with her work in collaboration with Fun.--she sings in "We Are Young."

But she is a prolific solo artist.  Some of my favorites lately are: Q.U.E.E.N. and Yoga.

Q.U.E.E.N. is brilliant and has a beat to die for.  This track is smart lyrically and actually has a message.  How odd.
And is it true we're all insane?
And I just tell 'em, "No we ain't" and get down
I heard this life is just a play with no rehearsal
I wonder will this be my final act tonight

Are we a lost generation of our people?
Add us to equations but they'll never make us equal
She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel
So why ain't the stealing of my rights made illegal?
They keep us underground working hard for the greedy
But when it's time pay they turn around and call us needy
My crown too heavy like the Queen Nefertiti
Gimme back my pyramid, I'm trying to free Kansas City

How does Yoga do for a sexy hook?  Uh, really?  Yeah.'s also an anthem for equal gender standards!
Crown on my head but the world on my shoulder
I'm too much a rebel, never do what I’m supposed ta
Bend it never break it, baby watch and I’ma show ya
Stretching on my cash, got my money doing yoga

Sometimes I'm peachy, and sometimes I'm vulgar
Even when I’m sleeping I got one eye open
You cannot police me, so get off my areola
Get off my areola
If you haven't heard of her, you're welcome.  If you had, you're welcome.  It took months of my friends Vince and Jade posting about a Janelle lady before I finally checked her out.  That's on me.  But here we are.  Let your booty do that yoga!

Baritone ukulele versatility

I don't have a lot of experience playing the ukulele.

It was in 2011 that I started playing around with my sister's concert ukulele.  I was new to guitar at the time, and didn't know any chords on the uke, but it was pretty easy to play when she showed me a few.

It was 6 months later, in the spring after my first semester in graduate school that I bought my first ukulele, to go along with the acoustic guitar I'd been playing to relax myself after work/school at night.

My first uke was a little Kala Makala tenor (MK-T).  I played it with the stock strings for a few years before finally replacing them.  My guitar playing is not great by any stretch of the imagination, and I loved that the uke let me play chords like 'F' much more easily than on the guitar, so I could play many more songs without dealing with crazy transpositions.

The fingerings for the chords were all different of course, since the tenor/concert/soprano are all tuned differently than the guitar.  No problem though, there are only 4 strings, so it came pretty quickly--the nylon strings were much easier to play in comparison to steel too!

I finally picked up a baritone after a few years of searching.  And I've found that it's basically the perfect instrument to act as bridge to both the guitar and the other sizes of ukulele.

  1. The baritone ukulele is tuned the same as the highest four strings on the guitar.  If you learn chords on the baritone, you will have an easy transition to the guitar, only needing to add two more strings.
  2. If you learn chords on the baritone and want to play other ukuleles, YOU CAN!  The chords will be different, but the fingerings still all correspond to chords.  Perhaps you learned a song on your baritone, but want to try your friend's concert--you can play the song exactly the same, it will just be a transposed version.
  3. Ukes tend to be a little cheaper than guitars.  The first one I bought was around $80 and I've been playing it non-stop for three years now.  I opted to go with a higher quality one for my baritone and have been very happy with it--you get what you pay for, but the barrier to entry is pretty low.
P.S. the Kala KA-B sounds like magic.  Gives me shivers.

Political gospel

This is a bit of a quiet rant.  And it's a little vulgar, so if you're offended, that's on you, because you read further or listened.  Of course if you have some beautiful thoughts to share that fly in my face, please feel free to do so.

Political gospel
I'm sick of all this fucking shit.
I'm tired of living in a country with an uninformed electorate (of which I am a member).
Let's elect leaders, career bigots, hypocrites and panderers, Saints of Latter days that uphold "family values".

Our system of governance is propelled by campaigns that smear instead of advocate.
Polarization and extremism are in vogue, and bipartisanship is worth fuck-all--it means you're weak.
The religious right has conflated gospel and conservatism--if you lean left, you don't love Jesus.  Because Jesus said to love those just like us and above all else to preserve our way of life.

Do you remember when we prayed to bless Reagan and the Bushes?  Now it's, "fuck the Clintons and Obama."  Why should God bless people just like us?  Didn't you hear, Obama's a Muslim and hates Christians?
Do you find it hard to believe that we have gay marriage and women pastors?  How far have we slid as a nation to bequeath human rights?

Americans aren't God's chosen people--some of God's people are Americans.  Now, stop rank-ordering sins and listen:
"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God." // Romans 13:1
And just remember:
"...not my will, but yours be done." // Luke 22:42

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Sloats and Frains: Johannisnacht memories

It is tremendous to recall,
     at any instant,
          the way you felt and the atmosphere and the warmth of a summer night
               and the wine and the conversations that became fluid yet deep and the wine
          and the second languages that somehow transcended fluency and the wine
     and the two next to you who started spontaneously yet sloppily making out
and the wine and a great rendition of "American Pie" at a Mainz festival and the wine
     and the train you missed as you were stumbling back helping to half-carry
          the woman who made out with someone she never would have 3 hours prior
               and the wine and the expensive taxi ride back to Ingelheim
          and offering to save some money by running back from Gau-Algesheim to Ingelheim
     but that being shot down because you were being stupid though chivalrous.
          Of course memory has two edges, and the other edge can make you bleed
               5, 10, or 1000 times
                    from the same raw wound--
that is why humans share with those we care about.
"And to the glorious past:

You've opened my window but broken the glass.
And I beseech thee, 'shed thy beauty.'
For as a child leaves the womb and learns the cold,
you have taught us perils in the present,
and you will bring us peril in our surely-soon-to-be. Unless…

The river's not flooded this time."
// La Dispute, Said the King to the River

Monday, April 13, 2015

Cancer, cell culture and time management

When I was a graduate student at Penn State I studied chemical engineering, but really I did cell biology.

My project was to understand better how tumor cells, such as melanoma, interact with normal cells in our blood vessels.  In specific I looked at the way A2058 melanoma used soluble and mechanical signals to induce changes in HPM-EC and HUV-EC endothelial cell behavior (the paper is linked on my About Me page if you're interested).

Studying this interaction poses an interesting logistics problem: tumor and endothelial cells grow at very different rates and to different densities, and we want to study them together--a lot.

For this to happen:
  1. Both types of cells must be ready on the same day at the same time.  Not only that, but the testing scaffold that has endothelial cells growing on it takes a different amount of time to grow together than the cells do growing in a normal dish.
  2. The experiments need to be completed at roughly the same cell age each time.  Both types of cells needed to be taken care of at least every three days, and usually more often, depending on if they had grown fast enough, and what they were for.
  3. Sometimes the cells need to be grown for a special period of time, before the media they were grown in could be harvested.  This was a different growth density.
  4. Experiments must be continuously started, worked up, stopped and analyzed--and many experiments require results from the previously completed one to inform the conditions of the next one.
    Essentially, I had to have 3-12 plates of up to 6 cell types growing to be able to balance the experiment schedule my adviser and I had set up.
I am convinced that one of the most important lessons I learned in graduate school is time management.

This is not an abnormal case.  Students do this all the time.  It is simply a skill and life to be learned.  We did it day in, and day out, 7 days a week for 12-16 hours a day.

All that to say, when my time management skills are criticized at my current job, I'm somewhat skeptical.  Today it meant that there was an unexpected shortage at a client and frustration was directed my way.  Sometimes people have a lesson they just really think you need.  And I'm ok with that.  I learned exactly how I'm expected to prioritize a particular account.  There is utility there.

So, if you ever want to develop some kicka$$ time management skillz, complete a graduate program doing cell culture.  As an aside, I'm certain that I will never purposely step into a cell culture lab with the intention of working there for protracted periods of time.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Modern book of psalms?

Psalm,תהילים , is the word for praise in Hebrew.  The psalms in the Bible draw from a wide variety of themes, from lament to hymn to thanksgiving--human conditions.

The writers make their case before God, cry out and offer praise from circumstances both favorable and wretched.

The list of songs that follow are some of my own laments and praises.  They all mean something to me in one way or another, and remind me of very particular periods in my life--either of struggle or peace.  There are only three in the list that are considered "Christian music" in any real way--however all are thoughtfully written.

Seven Swans by Sufjan Stevens [lyrics]
   This album by Stevens could easily be a Psalm 119 type of chapter.  As I listen I hear wondering about how we fit into God's kingdom now and to come--what does the life in us mean?  And how are we to celebrate that?  Sacrifice perhaps--the Way has come.
Everything rises, going at it all
All the surprises in a size too small
And what if I told you
I was still in love with this?
Would you surprise us
In a size for all of me?
[from "Size Too Small"]

Be Thou My Vision, ancient hymn from Ireland [lyrics]
   Hymns make a pretty obvious choice of inclusion for a list like this.  BTMV has been a favorite of mine for many years.  It is comforting to sing of a God that is everything we need, especially in the face of our own failures, confusion and loss.
   When you sing the last verse in a church with hundreds of people around you, it's hard for your heart not to sing and swell.
Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art;
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

The Jazz (We've Got) by a Tribe Called Quest [lyrics]
   This track has a very communal feel to it.  Phife and Q-tip pay homage to their followers, fans and fellow musicians.  They celebrate the universal appeal of the music and peace/unity, in contrast to groups like N.W.A. at the time:
Do it for the strong, we do it for the meek
Boom it in your boom it in your boom it in your Jeep
Or your Honda or your Beemer or your Legend or your Benz
The rave of the town to your foes and your friends

The tranquility will make you unball your fist
For we put Hip Hop on a brand new twist

Messiah by George Frideric Handel [lyrics]
   The Messiah actually draws from the Psalms among other passages in the Bible.  It is a jaw dropping work of art.  I have had the pleasure of hearing it in it's entirety in concert, and likely several times over in my father's tan Acclaim as a child.
   Standing and singing during the chorus is like nothing else.  It can be heard, but should really be experienced.
Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of Hosts:
Yet once a little while and I will shake the heavens and the earth,
the sea and the dry land.
And I will shake all nations; and the desire of all nations shall come.
(Haggai 2:6-7)

Place to Be by Nick Drake [lyrics]
   My friend Justin put this song on a mixtape to the high school seniors in 2007; I still listen to it periodically.  Of course now I have the album, but this song alone still reminds me of the process of coming of "age".  And that it really doesn't stop--or get lighter and easier.  Sometimes it gets really, really dark--stygian.
And I was strong, strong in the sun
I thought I'd see when day is done
Now I'm weaker than the palest blue
Oh so weak in this need for you

Still Fighting It by Ben Folds [lyrics]
   This song is akin to Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle" (which I always thought was written and performed by Cat Stevens, until 5 seconds before I wrote this...).  It speaks to growing up and how no matter the way you do it, growing up isn't easy.  There will be regrets and broken hopes and dreams.  It's deliciously melancholy.  No one wants to see anyone repeat their mistakes, be it their children, or younger siblings.
It was pain
Sunny days and rain
I knew you'd feel the same things

Shall Never Lose It's Power by La Dispute [lyrics]
   La Dispute are very clear that their music does not reflect a belief in God, and that themes of spirituality aren't necessarily intended from a Christocentric perspective.  And that makes it accessible to a lot of people.  LD also point out that art is not isotropic--there are many different ways to experience a piece of art or song, aside from the meaning the writer ascribes to it.
And what's left is a heartbeat, speaking;
"hands off your fate, child, you'll bury yourself in mistakes."
Like a dream that i had of lost faith it fades away but still thunders onward
Every pulse was a hand with its palm up
Fed with bodies and bread soaked in blood
Somewhere, someday, it'll leave but tell me, someone
Where does it go?

I Don't Know by Dredg [lyrics]
   I've actually written about this song previously in 2013.  Dredg write extensively about concepts of faith, losing/lost faith and belief.
   The narrator struggles with the purpose of life, and of not knowing...anything about the nature of reality and the past.  This is essentially my anthem most days.  At the end of the song, the conclusion is: "So I'll just go on living my way".  I wish I could resolve this dissonance logically, but I can't, and no one can.  And that's where faith comes in, and why the struggle is real--if you claim to truly know, you are deluding yourself.  It's ok to be comfortable with doubts--remember Thomas?
Well I don't know what to believe anymore
But every now and then I feel a moment of awakening
But then it's gone, then it's gone, then it's gone
I'm blanketed by the warmth of ignorance

Desert Song by Hillsong UNITED [lyrics]
   DS is of brokeness and need.  It's about bringing praise when everything sucks.  Not because things are better, and not because we think they will be, but because.
All of my life
In every season
You are still God
I have a reason to sing
I have a reason to worship

Life and Love and Why by Switchfoot [lyrics]
   One of Switchfoot's more early and melancholy songs/albums really resonated with my teenage self, and still does today.  They pose real questions that deserve an answer--could it be true, can life be new?
Take away from me
This monstrosity
'Cause my futile thinking's
Not gonna solve nothing tonight
Ask me for what am I living
Or what gives me strength
That I'm willing to die for

Could it be this
Could this be bliss
Could it be all that
I ever had missed
Could it be true
Can life be new
And can I be used
Can I be used

Love and Some Verses by Iron & Wine [lyrics]
   Is love unconditional?
Love and some verses you hear
Say what you can say
Love to say this in your ear "I'll love you that way"
From your changing contentments
What will you choose for to share?

Suggestions from friends:
Hurt by Johnny Cash
Greetings from Michigan--The Great Lakes State by Sufjan Stevens
Sea Change and Morning Phase by Beck
Adagio for Strings by Barber
Great Are You Lord by All Sons & Daughters

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

A modern canon?

4/10/15 EDIT:
After going over some scholarship on the development and formation of the canon, I think it is important to clarify a few terms, times and misconceptions.

First, on the subject of timeline, the new testament canon was nearly universally accepted by the third century, as the letters (John's revelation and last 7 in particular) finally made their way around through the churches and were taken as direct inspiration.  The 1825 date I refer to is only when the apocrypha were no longer included as edifying literature by protestants.

Second, with respect to the title of this post, it would be more appropriate to title it, "Personal edifying literature", or "Personal apocrypha."  This is not only more accurate in light of doctrine of canon and its development, but it is closer in theme to what I was hoping to accomplish with this post.  My thought was to explore the literature that has been personally influential in each of our lives--that which causes us to think deeper thoughts of God.  To suggest that the canon needs an "update" or changes is not what I meant to imply.

With that, here is my personal apocrypha:

The church decided on the canon that protestants affirm over centuries.  This canon in particular has remained the same since 1825 at latest, when the apocrypha were no longer included at all (they had been often included, though noted non-canonical).

Since 1825 however, and indeed since the middle ages, a great portion of literature has been written pertaining to theological themes and the human condition in relation to God or a divine being.

I don't mean to be heretical here, but rather to give pause and think about what a modern canon might look like--divine inspiration is a mysterious topic in any case, and who am I to put it in a box?  From the meager reading that I have done, I would include the following expressions of the human condition,
     how it is to relate to "other",
          to the divine
               and our own place in the cosmos
                    (for this is what I understand the essence of the Bible to be):

  1. the Brothers K by David James Duncan
This novel is a beautiful story of one American family before, during and after the Vietnam War.  Each member responds differently to their own crises and to the rest of the family.  They are broken people--some respond in faith, others in anger and wrath, shutting everyone out--and their journey is remarkable.
  2. Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
I was given this book by my friend Justin Beck upon graduation from high school.  Miller tells a number of stories and vignettes about belief, confession, romance, magic, problems and love (the names of some chapters in fact).  It's an honest look at the journey of one man: funny, relatable and raw.
  3. Night by Eli Wiesel
Wiesel recounts his experience of the Holocaust in this dark, grim read.  Night brings to light some of the worst that humans have done to each other from the eyes of one of the descendents of Abraham.  Life is not always good.
  4. The Crucible by Arthur Miller
The Crucible is a play that recounts the Salem witch trials within a community of faith.  Miller shows both the best and most reprehensible actions that men and women claiming the cross will take in the name of their faith, however misguided they may be.  Some lines that I have always found to give me shivers:
    End of Act III
Proctor, his mind wild, breathless: I say--I say--God is dead!
Parris: Hear it, hear it!
Proctor, laughs insanely, then: A fire, a fire is burning! I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face!  And it is my face, and yours, Danforth!  For them that quail to bring men out of ignorance, as I have quailed, and as you quail now when you know in all your black hearts that this be fraud--God damns our kind especially, and we will burn, we will burn together!
     Middle of Act IV
Hale, continuing to Elizabeth: Let you not mistake your duty as I mistook my own. I came into this village like a bridegroom to his beloved, bearing gifts of high religion; the very crowns of holy law I brought, and what I touched with my bright confidence, it died; and where I turned the eye of my great faith, blood flowed up. Beware, Goody Proctor - cleave to no faith when faith brings blood. It is mistaken law that leads you to sacrifice. Life, woman, life is God's most precious gift; no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it. I beg you, woman, prevail upon your husband to confess. Let him give his lie. Quail not before God's judgement in this, for it may well be God damns a liar less than he that throws his life away for pride. Will you plead with him? I cannot think he will listen to another.
  5. Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. King writes from jail after his arrest, on April 16, 1963.  He expounds on the injustice in America that people of color face and on the systems and people that facilitate it.  The letter is written (and addressed even) to fellow clergymen, the church as a call to action and a reminder of what the church is.  Some selected portions:
But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
   6. Love Wins by Rob Bell
 I wrote this bit last and with trepidation; there is so much bitterness and division among Christians over Bell's book--it is truly polarizing.  Many say it is heretical and promotes universalism.  Many of its harshest critics have also not read it.

My reading of "Love Wins" exposed me to questions I had never thought or dared to ask about God, Heaven and Hell.  To me, that was the point of this book.  It is not to provide answers, but to ask difficult questions--some we may never know the answers to.  I don't vilify Bell for writing it.  I'm thankful he dared to ask.  I hope you'll dare to read it, and have an open mind.
   7. City Upon a Hill by John Winthrop
Part of Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity" sermon, given in passage to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  American exceptionalism aside, Winthrop calls for unity among the body of colonists, and in God:
for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world, wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of god and all professours for Gods sake
  8. Annabel Lee by Edgar Allen Poe
The memory from a lover of their beloved--the narrator blames the world and kinsmen and the wind for the death of Annabel Lee, and even scorns the envy of angels and demons.  The poem is a beautiful, lilting story of human love and loss:
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
  9. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
Somewhat self explanatory, the Chronicles are a look at the kingdom of heaven through an alternate universe.  Lewis himself denied them as allegory, writing to a Mrs. Hook (the following quotation is taken from wikipedia):
'What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?' This is not allegory at all.
10. To Be Alone With You by Sufjan Stevens

This song is simple.  At its heart is sacrificial love.  Stevens makes a hauntingly beautiful statement.  The album in its entirety could be included as modern psalms.  And that is a topic for another post.
My short list is woefully incomplete.  What would you include?  What do you hate about my list?  Add a comment or write your own and link it!

Saturday, April 04, 2015

the remainder of November's winter

I found this tidbit on a scrap of paper today, while unpacking and exterminating the contents of another box.  It's a little alliterative reminder of yesteryear's winter, during the throes of a fresh new April:

Slowly, snow's soft caress hides hills, tips trees, blankets buildings...
I wake to a washed world, and cannot contain myself.
SEP 11-27-12

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Can't. Even.

I've never actually put on a buttondown shirt completely insideout before this morning.

And for my next trick: the illusion of functional adulthood.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Engaging while absorbing: retention and friendship

Sometimes I find myself looking back over an impassible crevasse--toward the 'learning' in my past.

As a child I spent an inordinate amount of time in the universes of myriad books.  My experiences were immersive and complete.  I would feel emotional and attached to the book and characters after it was completed; there was a sense of loss.

In fact, much of my childhood learning was as a sponge.  I wanted to hear everything that could be heard, see everything that could be seen, and contain it within my brain.  But I now realize that learning was for me a drug.  Don't get me wrong, I learned a lot from reading, and as a result have a modest vocabulary--almost a novelty.  The point is, I was messily gulping down information and reading because it entertained me; I drew pleasure from the sheer consumption of it.

The rift I gaze back over separates a kind of rampant engorgement from a more self- and information-awareness.  I have found the necessity and beauty in engaging with information and novels, rather than objectifying them.  As a result my interactions with material are more meaningful and represent a collection of ideas that I am able to reference and use rather than simply remember vaguely (in an emotional sense).

My new awareness stems from my experience in graduate school.  I never really fell in love with 'the literature' because I had spent so much time objectifying it that retention was a Herculean task to me.  Only in the last year have I been able to appreciate a new understanding of 'the literature'.  One of my professors suggested that I think of it as my friend.  The scientific papers and discoveries ought to be a kind of friend to you.  You know all about them, their quirks and idiosyncrasies, and can place their names with faces (plots, charts, graphs, authors, journals, university).

When I look at my bookshelf now, I remember not just stories and characters, but ideas and themes, authors and their cultural contexts.  I am friends with these books.  They come with me and inform my new experiences--I think about them often.