O Lord and Master of My Life

A metricized form of the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, in common meter. There are a million hymn tunes for this meter; I suggest St. Anne.

O Lord and Master of my life,
Grant not that I should live
In lazing sloth, nor weak despair,
And spurn the tasks Thou’d give.

Ambition’s spirit, lust for pow’r,
Cast far away from me.
Let not my tongue spout empty words,
Nor profane man, nor Thee.

Instead of these, Thy servant grant
Thy freeing chastity,
And teach, O Christ, in pathways dark
Thine own humility.

A patient Spirit give to me,
Thy calm indwelling Dove,
And that I might Thee better know,
Lord, crown my heart with love.

Yea, Lord and King, help me to spy
My own corroding faults,
And not to judge my brother’s sins,
But serve him as I ought.

Great God, our Father, Christ His Son,
And Spirit, Trinity,
Most bless’d art Thou from age to age,
And through eternity.

Grandad’s Stories

I was spending some time with my maternal grandfather a few weeks ago, and he was telling me a few stories from when he was young.  Grandad grew up in Harlan County, KY, in the 20s/30s among the coal mines.  It seems easier to me to write these from his own first-person perspective.  The following are not exact transcripts, but I’ve tried to do my best from memory.

Snake-handlers

When I was a boy there were lots of holy rollers and snake handlers around.  I don’t think they do that much anymore; in fact, I think it’s illegal most places now.  But back then, especially up in the mountains, they would make a big event out of it, and put flyers up around town a few weeks beforehand.  So we’d all go and watch them, and someone would bring out a big box full of snakes and start handing them out.

I remember one man unbuttoned the top of his shirt and dropped a big old copperhead down in there. He walked around a bit and waved his arms, but the snake didn’t bite him.  Apparently the snake would just go to sleep.

There was another man who lived nearby to us, and he was one of those snake-handlers, and he would go around most of the time with bandages on his hands, because he was all time getting bit by those snakes.  Eventually he developed a tolerance for the poison so that he would get bit and it wouldn’t hurt him.  In fact, one time a snake bit him, and the snake died!

One of the local deputies was well-known for arresting innocent people.  [Grandad had a term for this but I don’t remember what it was.  It might have been “pay-seeker.”  Apparently they had a pay-per-arrest model in those days.]  One day the deputy went to the house of one of the snake handlers and shot all of his snakes, citing some law or another.  So the snake-handler shot and killed the deputy, because he had taken away his livelihood.  Nobody missed the deputy too much, but that wasn’t a very Christian thing to do.

Unions

The coal miners were always trying to form a union, and the coal company was always trying to stop them.  One time, before I was born, my father was going with some of the workers to meet at the store to talk about the union.  The company had caught wind of it, and they brought in a big machine gun which they mounted inside the store, and when the workers were pulling up and walking in they let the gun loose on them.  Lots of the miners fought back, and some of them died.  My father started to run back to his car to get his shotgun, but his friend talked him out of it.  I’m glad he did, because if my father had been killed, I wouldn’t have been born.

There was a union organizer who had come to live in the area with his wife and children, and I went to school with one of his sons, who was my age.  We were pretty young, but he had another son who was older, about fifteen or sixteen.  One night the company hired some men to go shoot their house up.  The union man was out at a meeting somewhere, and they pulled up in a car and let loose with their machine guns and then sped off.  The mother and her children did their best to huddle together in the kitchen.  My friend who I went to school with was shot in the arm, but it just grazed him and he got better.  But the older son was shot several times and died, and all he had been doing was sitting by the fire reading a book.  And just like that they killed him.

Alcohol

Back when I was a heathen I used to drink pretty regularly.  One day the local Baptist pastor had come to visit, and he was talking to my mother.   I came home from work and opened a bottle of beer, as was my habit, and my mother introduced me to the man and told me his name.  I didn’t know who he was, so trying to be polite, I said, “Mr. Smith, can I offer you a beer?  I’m sorry that it’s not cold.”  “No, thanks, not right now,” he said. “But when I do drink it, I prefer it warm.”  Later after he had left my mother let me have it for offering beer to the Baptist pastor.  But I didn’t know he was a pastor; I was just trying to be polite.

One time before your grandma and I were married, I went to go visit her at her mother’s house.  And I had a toothache that had been bothering me for several days.  Now Lois’ family weren’t drinking people, but when I told her mother about my tooth, she said I should put some whiskey on it to numb it.  They had a bottle of whiskey back in a cabinet under the sink, and she gave me a little bit and told me to hold it in my cheek there where the tooth was.  Well, I wasn’t going to pass up good whiskey, so I swallowed it as soon as she wasn’t looking and stuck my tongue over in my cheek so it would look like I still had the whiskey in there.  And I sat there for pretty much the whole visit with my tongue over in my cheek like that.  But you know what?  After a few minutes my tooth really did stop hurting.

Blame the Unitarians

The following snippet is from an interview with John Wiegand, who edited “Praise for the Lord,” an excellent hymnal used in many Churches of Christ.  (The metrical tune index alone has opened up many superior hymns for our congregation by letting us use familiar melodies to unfamiliar words.  The scripture index is also a great help.)

Wiegand: In a few cases, we left the words changed because the changed version had become fully accepted. For example, in 238 “Holy, Holy, Holy,” the original words to the end of stanzas 1 and 4 is: God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity.

This hymn’s first appearance in a hymnbook used by churches of Christ was in an 1882 book compiled and published by the Fillmore Brothers. One of their source books was Hymn Tune & Service Book (1879). This source book was edited by Unitarians, who would have objected to the original words. In this source book, the end of stanza 1 and 4 is the now-familiar: “…God over all and blest eternally.”

The source book does not note that its compilers had edited the text. The Fillmores apparently identified “Holy, Holy, Holy” from this Unitarian book as a hymn they should include in their own book. Not knowing that the text of the hymn had been edited, they adopted the edited version. Interestingly, the Fillmores had no objection to the term or concept of the Trinity. In fact, their hymnbooks included other hymns that referred to the Trinity. The hymnbooks of the Fillmore Brothers, in turn, became source books for most later hymnbooks used in churches of Christ. E.L. Jorgenson used the modified version of “Holy, Holy, Holy” in Great Songs of the Church, and, consequently, the modified version became the standard version in the brotherhood. We use the modified version, but note that the original text is altered and identify the source of the alteration.

I’m a bit disappointed that they didn’t revert to the original version, but they probably didn’t want to deal with the brotherhood attack dogs. In other instances, this hymnal is very faithful to the original texts, often bucking the silly abridgements and alterations that our brotherhood has accumulated over the years. (For instance, they have re-inserted the missing “Thus might I hide my blushing face” verse in “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed”, without which the last verse makes no sense. Unfortunately, they also kept Hudson’s tacked-on revivalist refrain.)

Physics and Meaning

Mark Vernon writes the following in an article at BQO:

The conclusion would seem to be that quantum spiritualities represent an à la carte approach to the science. It’s not the science that’s driving the spirituality. Rather, the science is being mined and filleted for metaphors and analogies that fit a pre-existing sense of things.

In fact, it ever was thus. When Isaac Newton published his theory of gravity, it was not just astronomers that grew excited. Astrologers did too. The theory of gravity said that bodies act upon one another over vast distances. Isn’t this precisely what astrology had long taught — that the alignment of the planets and stars at your birth had a profound and subtle effect upon the body of the newborn? Newton was saying no such thing, of course. But that did not stop quacks running away with his ideas.

So, I don’t think there is such a thing as quantum spirituality. Instead, there’s quantum physics and then there’s the human quest for meaning. They are distinct enterprises. We gain from both. But throwing them together in a spiritual mash-up creates a spiritual mess. Spirituality is not only about the search for rich metaphors. It’s also about the struggle for fine discernment. The bizarre world of quantum physics teaches us that, too: it is extraordinarily hard to interpret the cosmos aright.

On the issue of ransacking science for spiritual meaning, especially when it confirms existing notions, I agree. Consider Social Darwinism, or on a far less malevolent scale, these folks, who came to give a lecture at Vandy a few years back:

(From the Introduction). In the last chapter we explore how thinking cosmically might help us experience what it means to be the human part of the universe. Though people tend to focus on their differences – classifying others into us and them – when we humans confront the universe all differences among us become trivial: we vary no more than pearls on a string compared to what’s out there. And we pearls may be far more cosmically rare and precious than most people realize. It’s only because humans are all bunched together on one planet that we fail to see how extraordinary we are. Science is allowing us to start sketching the outlines of what it takes for a planet to produce intelligent life, and this is beginning to tell us what aliens can be like. In this way we can begin to situate ourselves among all intelligent life and see ourselves as others might see us. Intelligent life is neither incidental nor insignificant but has a place in the universe so special it could not even have been imagined before the invention of modern cosmological concepts. By understanding the universe, we begin to understand ourselves.

Traditional religious stories can still arouse a sense of contact with something greater than we are – but that “something” is nothing like what is really out there. We don’t have to pretend to live in some traditional picture of the universe just to reap the benefit of the mythic language popularly associated with that traditional picture. People around the world should be able to portray our universe with all the power and majesty that earlier peoples evoked in expressing their own cosmologies. Mythic language is not the possession of any specific religion but is a human tool, and we need it today to talk about the meaning of our universe. Big changes are happening on our planet, and shepherding ourselves through them successfully is going to require tremendous creativity. An essential ingredient may be a cosmic perspective, and such a perspective is just becoming available. Not a moment too soon.

Make no mistake: this is the seed of a new religion.  The universe is our god (or are we the universe’s god?), and when we finally build a big enough telescope, we can tell ourselves what our meaning is.  Yet the pesky thing about mythic symbols and language is that, despite our oh-so-enlightened, pass-the-hors-d’ouvres, did-you-hear-Fresh-Air-last-night detachment from them, sometimes people actually BELIEVE in them.  Indeed, that’s the whole reason they’re so powerful, and why they’re perceived as necessary.  It’s also why, as Vernon says, we need “fine discernment” when considering them.

Reading the above, one wonders why the relatively intelligent life hasn’t landed here yet so those mean dictators around the world will finally realize that it’s incongruous with our cosmic destiny to starve their citizens. Or, so that developing nations will realize that the universe could think about itself a lot better if we quit making so much CO2. Or, so that those fundamentalist wackos will realize the obvious implications from our spatial/temporal/cognitive place in the universe that (insert pet project here)…  This is like the Star Trek claim: once we made contact with the Vulcans, starvation, poverty, sexual prohibitions, and ignorance magically disappeared.

And yet.  It is imperative as human beings that we find meaning in our existence, or otherwise face the madness of nihilism.  Is it possible that the universe can point us in the right direction?  The bible seems to say so:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. (Ps. 19:1)

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Rom. 1:19-20)

As Father Stephen recently pointed out, everyone agrees that the universe is an incredible place. Some see God in the things he has made, and some do not. It would be easy for me to dismiss those who do not as having “darkened hearts,” following after the passage in Romans, above, were it not for the darkness that continues to fester in my own heart. There but for the grace of God go I. And if those in former times were without excuse, how much more so I, having in addition to their signs, the revelation of Jesus Christ, the light of the world?

O Gladsome Light of the Holy Glory of the Immortal Father,
Heavenly, Holy, Blessed Jesus Christ!

Now that we have come to the setting of the sun and behold the light of evening,
we praise God Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

For meet it is at all times to worship Thee with voices of praise,
O Son of God and Giver of Life, therefore all the world doth glorify Thee.