First Impressions Of Suriname

As is sometimes the case [1], I thought it would be worthwhile to record my somewhat sleep-addled first impressions of Suriname upon arriving here early this morning.  In stark contrast to St. Lucia, there were no encouragements to participate in discreet banking or buy expensive condos.  Rather, the airport had a very simple advertisement for their local cell phone service and a lot of artwork around.  I also saw a couple of posters about the local wildlife.  At any rate, I did not get to see too much of the airport, since my stepfather was being wheeled around in a wheelchair due to his limited balance and mobility, although their customs service was quick and friendly and their bathrooms were excellent.  All of these things speak highly for a airport, even if there is limited understanding of it.

Once we finally got in our taxi on the way to the resort, by which time it was about 2AM or so, our taxi driver was a bit friendly and my mother and stepfather interested in talking about various spiritual matters.  As for me, I was listening and sometimes participating in conversation but also observing the lay of the land around me.  Suriname is certainly a lust land full of greenery, and it is striking that their international airport is about an hour away from the capital city, where most of the people in the country live.  Although, quite sensibly, the outlying parts of the area were filled with mostly rectangular and solid-looking houses, some of them colorful but most of them white and seemingly constructed for ease of cooling, we could tell when we got close to the city because at that point we heard some dance music and saw some women who appeared like prostitutes to be hanging out on the side of the street.  I also learned a new Dutch word, bremel because it appeared every time there was a speeding bump, of which there were many.  I pondered what would be an homage to the local wildlife by thinking of people running over a giant snake in the road and then calling out that it was a bremel like all of the speeding bumps that line the roads.

Although the country is roughly evenly divided between Afro-Surinamese and Indo-Surinamese, there were some striking differences in what we saw of each group of people.  When in Miami waiting for the flight, the vast majority of the people on our plane to Suriname were Indo-Surinamese.  However, once we landed, most of the people we encountered were Afro-Suriname, both in customs as well as among the taxi drivers and among the hotel staff.  I had tried to get the internet password before going to sleep, but it did not work and I figured I would mess with it in the morning.  Again, these are first impressions and not any sort of deep or profound ones, but the divisions within Suriname society is striking, and it is also notable that the country’s infrastructure is a mixture of fairly basic roads and a strong attempt in its airport to impress tourists with the beauty of the country and its art.  There is clearly much more to unravel here.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: The Seven Storey Mountain

The Seven Storey Mountain:  An Autobiography Of Faith, by Thomas Merton

In finishing this book I have completed the task of reading the books that various contemplative Christians have viewed as the 25 books that all Christians should read.  I can honestly say that I likely would never have read the book had I not been encouraged to do so by this challenge [1].  Was it a worthwhile book to read?  Absolutely.  There was a lot to appreciate about this book.  Yet, at the same time, I feel rather ambivalent about this book, specifically about Thomas Merton’s self-portrayal.  I have read Catholics complaining about the Mertonization of contemporary Catholicism, and I can understand the nature of the problem in looking at this person, who comes off as being highly conflicted and even self-contradictory.  It also seems as if Merton popularized a model of celebrity renunciation that others, like Henri Nouwen, would follow, making the contemplative orders of Christendom filled with leftists who see monasteries as places of refuge from the harshness of the marketplace of ideas where such people and their mistaken worldviews come off rather poorly, and I am not a fan of that particular phenomenon which this book brings into focus.

It takes a bit more than 450 pages for Thomas Merton to tell the story of his upbringing and his path from godless leftism to celebrity monkdom.  Some people may find that to be a horrifying thought, although those who take the chance to read this book will find a lot of exciting material and a great deal of melancholy bittersweetness.  The author is somewhat less than candid about his moral flaws and seems a bit ignorant of just how wicked his interest in communism and leftism in general was, something he never fully owns up to, despite calling his hatred of bourgeois people and mentality a sin briefly towards the end.  After an introduction and a note to the reader that seek to place the book in a context that views this strident work as a beginning and not an ending, Merton spends the rest of the book writing a three-part memoir about the period of life from birth to his mid-20’s.  The author begins with a discussion of his family background, growing up in France and England as well as the United States, having a loving but irreligious family that had notably anti-Catholic bias, and his own educational background.  He berates himself for being a cruel older brother and comments on the strange path that he took first to conversion into Catholicism, then his serving as an instructor and then becoming a Trappist priest in Kentucky, where he helps his brother convert to the Roman Catholic Church before the brother’s death in military service as a bomber pilot in Europe, which is about where the book ends.

There are some aspects of this book that really bothered me.  For one, the author seems both to enjoy privilege himself but bash it in others.  He seems particularly harsh against Wasp culture and mentalities, but his own writing career appears to have depended on his own elite education and connections made as a child of privilege.  He strike me as one of those whiny leftists who decry privilege while simultaneously and unironically enjoying it.  Wanting to get away from the responsibilities of the world, the author ends up joining a Trappist monk but instead of getting away from it all he ends up publishing notable works of writing and spending his days not only writing but also translating texts, rather than engaging in the sort of labor that would mark a true renunciation of the world and the author’s own private ambitions.  Yet even with all of these complaints, the author’s struggle for faith and to express and appreciate God’s grace is definitely worthwhile, even if the author is not a perfect model of a worthwhile contemplative Christian.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Institutes Of The Christian Religion

Institutes Of The Christian Religion, by John Calvin

I likely would never have read this book, despite my considerable curiosity about Calvin and his religious system [1], had this book not been included as one of the twenty five books that all Christians supposedly should read.  I also must state that I appreciated this book a great deal more than I expected to.  That is not to say that this was an easy book to read or that I read it quickly–it took me more than a month to read this book all the way through and at times was a very difficult book to read, yet I felt it necessarily to read it honestly and fairly, and I think that Calvin comes off as a far more sympathetic writer than many of his followers do.  Part of this has to do with the fact that Calvin is a much more honest writer than many of his followers are.  If you read Calvinist works, you will often find in them a sense of arrogance about being biblical in their nature, but John Calvin makes it clear that he is writing as a Hellenistic Christian with a high degree of dependence on early Church fathers (especially, but not only Augustine) and is not pretending to follow the apostolic Jewish Christianity of the most primitive times.

Indeed, this book makes that very clear on several grounds.  First, Calvin himself freely quotes a diverse variety of sources that are collected in one of the book’s several indices.  A partial list of these sources is instructive, as it includes Augustine, Ambrose, Athanasius, Bernard, Pope Calixt, John Chrysostom, Cicero, Cyprian, Pope Gelasius, Gregory the Great, Hilary of Poitiers, Jerome, Juvenal, Origen, Ovid, Plato, Plutarch, Tertullian, Virgil, and Xenophon, and many, many others both famous and obscure.  There are pages that go by with scarcely any biblical citation, and the author is clearly one of those who wishes to plunder the heathen by showing a command of wordly philosophy (especially political philosophy) even as he attempts to demonstrate his own views as more closely biblical than that of his papist opponents, even as he shows a great deal of scorn and sarcasm towards more pietistic opponents with whom I would find a much greater agreement in terms of our doctrinal positions.  This last is likely the least sympathetic aspect of the book, but even here one can sense that Calvin’s hostility is borne out of rivalry, and one is seldom charitable or just to a rival.

In terms of its structure, this book is about 1000 pages in length, and divided into four books.  Calvin’s mind is never more orderly than it is here, as the author spends teh first book dealing with the knowledge of God the Creator in eighteen chapters that take up almost 150 pages.  The author then examines the knowledge of God in Christ in seventeen chapters that take up a bit more than 200 pages.  This is followed by twenty-five chapters that address the issue of the grace of Christ, and twenty chapters that examine the issue of the holy Catholic Church.  After this there are 100 short precepts drawn from the work as well as a variety of indices.  The chapters themselves are organized with various bullet points that discuss one matter or another, as well as looking at objections made to the author’s views and his answers to those objections.  In the author’s own mind, certainly, this work is a decisive one and even for a reader like me who has a great deal to dislike about the author’s arguments, this book is certainly a worthwhile one to read even where there is broad and extensive disagreement with its contents.

Indeed, there are parts of this book which, contrary to all expectations, are even comedic in their approach.  At one point towards the end of the book the author includes only a single example of something in order to, in his words, avoid being prolix.  Of course, when one writes a book as long as this one, being prolix is already a given.  One would have had to have stopped far earlier than 1000 dense pages of small-text print in order to avoid being prolix, but I suppose the author was reasonably concise in his own mind, if not in the mind of anyone else reading this book.  Other comedic moments come from the author’s sarcastic sense of humor and from the footnotes with their comments in French.  Assuming you have the stomach for reading a long and impenetrably dense example of legalistic arguments from somewhat unsound and unbiblical premises, there is a great deal that one can find in this book, including the attraction of many people to the orderliness of Calvin’s thinking, even if Calvinists in general are not an appealing lot when it comes to their belief system and ability to get along with others.  Otherwise, you will probably never pick up this sort of book to begin with.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: The Biblical World: An Illustrated Atlas

The Biblical World:  An Illustrated Atlas, by Jean-Pierre Isbouts

I’m going to have a lot of negative things to say about this book, so I’d like to begin by saying that I did not think that this book was a terrible book.  It’s well illustrated, and in general it takes biblical history seriously, and isn’t a total waste of time to read.  Now that I’ve said the good things about this book, I would like to spend the rest of the time talking about this book’s rather serious problems.  At least a few of the problems can be explained by the fact that this volume was published by National Geographic [1], which has a reputation for making pretty bad visualization, which is definitely the case here.  Ironically, despite being an illustrated atlas by the National Geographic Society, the best parts of the book have little to do with geography, either being thoughtful pictures or occasionally worthwhile text.  That is not to say that either of these were stellar or amazing, it’s just that they were better than the geographical part of this book, which was a bit subpar, unfortunately.  When you are the National Geographic and your maps are this subpar, you need to re-think your reason for being, I suppose.

At around 350 pages, this book is definitely bloated with text, and it is divided into ten chapters and an epilogue.  The book begins with a look at the biblical world before Abraham (1).  After that there is a discussion of the journey of Abraham, where the author spends too much time trying to give credit to the views of minimalists and Muslims (2).  Then there is a look at Joseph in Egypt (3) as well as the Exodus (4) and the settlement/conquest of the promised land (5).  The author takes a look at the Kingdom of David and Solomon (6), taking an overly doubting view of the Davidic kingdom.  There is then a discussion of the divided kingdom period (7), the exile and restoration of Judah after Babylonian captivity (8).  There is then a move to the look at the world of Jesus (9) as well as early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism (10).  The book then ends with a discussion about three faiths in the holy land, which gives the author a chance to talk about Islam again, to the edification of no one who wants to know about biblical geography, but allows for some politically correct pandering.

Let us take a bit of time to examine how this book fails.  For one, the book fails on its face as an atlas because the book has about as many maps as the usual supplement at the end of the most contemporary Bibles.  Where the book succeeds is in its photography and less so in its text, and in this case the advantage is that there are plenty of opportunities to travel to biblical scenes to photograph them.  When it comes to looking at maps as ways to provide insight into the course of history, or when it comes to presenting a worthwhile perspective of biblical history, this book tends to fall short.  One wonders the purpose for this book existing, and the more questions one asks, the less one likes.  The author’s minimizing of David’s monarchy fails in the grounds of the Tel Dan inscription and more recent digs that have looked at the Millo of Jerusalem.  The author’s pandering to bogus Muslim interpretations as if they wished to be considered alongside biblical interpretations comes off as failed political correctness.  Finally, the author picks some really bad experts like Cline and Ehrman to promote as sources of biblical history, which demonstrates why the author fails to provide a good look at the biblical world.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Holman Bible Atlas

Holman Bible Atlas:  A Complete Guide To The Expansive Geography Of Biblical History, by Thomas Brisco

I enjoyed reading this book a great deal.  Being generally fond of historical geography, especially related to scripture [1], I have had this book on my queue of future reads from my library for some time, and I finally got around to reading it.  As is often the case with a historical atlas, this book does not only desire to present gorgeous and useful maps, which this book succeeds well at, but it also wishes to provide a historical context for those maps and to demonstrate the author’s knowledge and credibility as a writer of history.  This can be an especially hazardous task when one is dealing with scripture, and to be certain the author shows a far more cynical and worldly perspective on matters of biblical history than the biblical accounts themselves show.  To his credit, though, the author does have a high view of the historical value of the Bible and also a great interest in historical sources outside of the Bible that are complementary with it, and that makes this book a very worthwhile one to read if you have an interest in the field of biblical historical geography.

In terms of its content, this book has nearly 300 pages of maps and drawings and accompanying text.  In general, the book follows the Bible but it also covers areas outside of the biblical timeframe to make for a more continuous narrative.  The first part of the book consists of three chapters that provide the biblical setting (I) through looking at the face of the ancient Near East (1), the natural regions of the promised land (2), and life in ancient Cannan (3).  After that comes a large part of the book on the Old Testament period (II), with chapters on the time before Abraham (4), the world of the patriarchs (5), the experience of Israel in Egypt (6), the Exodus (7), conquest and settlement (8), the kingdom of David and Solomon (9), the divided kingdom period (10), Judah alone in a world of international powers (11), the exile (12), the Persian period (13), and the Hellenistic period (14), which includes the time of the Maccabees and the Hasmonean dynasty.  The third and final part of the book looks at the New Testament period (III), with chapters on Rome’s rise to power (15), the rise and reign of Herod the Great (16), the world of Jesus (17), the life and ministry of Jesus (18), the early expansion of the church (19), the first Jewish revolt (20), and the Christian Church from 70 to 300 AD, to just before it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.  After this comes a glossary, bibliography, and indices.

To be sure, there is much that one could quibble about in this book.  The author appears to have a viewpoint that strongly privileges Hellenistic Christianity–especially noticeable at the end–and the author does not appear to understand the desirability of fidelity to the laws and ways of God.  None of this, it should be noted, is particularly surprising, though.  What is surprising, and praiseworthy, is that the book takes the Bible as a text so seriously and portrays it visually on maps that provide a great deal of context and understanding for readers.  It is also striking and worthwhile that the author wishes to convey a picture of the biblical discussion of place, from the changes over time of Jerusalem to the travels of various obscure people from travelers during the Hellenistic age to that of Hoshea’s doomed messenger seeking help for rebellion against the Assyrian Empire.  It is little touches and details like this that make the book such a pleasure to read even if my perspective is different from that of the author concerning biblical history.

[1] See, for example:

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Liveblogging The Trip To The 2018 Feast Of Tabernacles In Paramaribo, Suriname

Thursday, September 20, 2018

5:45PM PDT:  Since I finally got connected to the internet here at the Portland International Airport, I decided that I would do a bit of blogging about my trip, in case there was someone who was curious about it.  Since I will not be arriving in Suriname until tomorrow evening, there will be a lot of time to write, and that is not time that will be wasted as far as I am concerned.  I had some posts in mind to write but I did not have time last night or this morning and the internet was not working at home anyway, so here it is.  Since I will be gone from Portland for more than two weeks this year, I decided not to drive through rush hour traffic to pay more than $150 for parking, and rode the MAX all the way to the airport from Hillsboro.  I have mixed feelings about that.  On the one hand, I did get to sit for most of the time and I did not have to wait too long and the trip was about as long as it would have been by car for the low price of $2.50, but on the other hand, the MAX is not made for people traveling to the airport.  The Blue Line, which goes from Hillsboro to Gresham, has some stairs which can be a challenge when one has a large suitcase and a heavy backpack as well as viola.  I ended up traveling that line through downtown Portland, where clearing seats for other passengers without blocking the aisle was a major difficulty, until I got to the Gateway Transit Station, at which point I transferred to the Red Line and met a few other passengers going to the airport, some of them with backpacks and suitcases, although none of them as large as mine.  I suppose everyone else has read The Accidental Tourist and decided to bring only the smallest bags possible, while I come from a school of that that believes in overpacking to the hilt.  Anyway, when I got through check-in and security (where someone, for perhaps the first time ever, asked me if I played the violin or the viola instead of assuming it was a violin or guitar), I met up with a local church family I spend a lot of time with who is traveling to Atlanta through Seattle.  I was asked to help the husband of the couple find his rental car reservation and then to see where their gate was located, and we found out that their flight was delayed a couple of hours while mine was on time, but they were already at the correct gate.  And so I went over to chat with them and do a bit of writing before 6PM, when it was time for me to get on my flight and finish that Bonhoeffer book I’ve been working on yesterday and today.  Aside from being a bit tired, I am very hungry and thirsty.  Since I have three hours or so in Phoenix, I will be seeing you all in a few hours, and I will see if the minimal snacks on the flight are enough to sate my considerable hunger.  Until then, I hope you are having a wonderful day.

Friday, September 21, 2018

8:55AM EDT:  I was going to write an update when I was in Phoenix, seeing I was there for more than three hours.  Unfortunately, Phoenix has particularly terrible wifi and I was unable to use the internet on my computer and I did not feel like typing an update on my phone.  So, while I sit in the American Airlines baggage claim at Miami waiting for my folks to arrive from Tampa, I will give an update on how things went.  The flight from Portland to Phoenix was enjoyable, and I managed to finish the Bonhoeffer book.  I had gotten to my gate after chatting with friends right on time to get into my flight in Group 6.  Upon getting to Phoenix, though, there were plenty of annoyances.  It was striking to me that on the flight from Portland to Phoenix that we were all traveling alone.  Although the plane had not a single empty seat, there was little interaction between people and almost everyone was focused on their own screen or drinking their bottle of Dos Equis and eating some beef jerky like the fellow next to me.  Phoenix was not a particularly friendly airport–not only did it have bad wifi but the people of my flight were so intent to crowd the area in front of the gate that it felt immensely claustrophobic for those of us that like a little bit of space.  I managed to end up waiting for my delayed flight with a nurse on her way to Grand Exhuma and swimming with the pigs on one side and a hobbled woman with a foot boot on her way back home to Miami on the other side who talked about her gimping (a subject I am very familiar with [1]) as well as her travels.  Shortly before we got on the plane I met up with a fellow UCG member who I know slightly and we chatted about my writing and his management of a group for a rival religious organization.  Meanwhile my mom sent me messages for last minute information and the friends I had talked to at the Portland Airport were still stranded in the airport as a result of a series of delays for Alaska Air.  Meanwhile, once I got on the Miami flight I was pretty sleepy and managed to sleep almost the entire flight, except for waking up in the middle of the flight when my right knee was bothering me a bit.  Of course, the fact that I got no food or even water on the Phoenix to Miami flight is bothering me, but soon my folks will arrive and we will be able to deal with such mundane affairs after we get their luggage and check back in to Caribbean Airways.

1:23PM EDT:  Although it was quite later than I expected, I ended up being able to meet up with my parents by the baggage claim for their flight, which was right next to the baggage claim for my own flight.  Miami airport is quite interesting, in that it has long distances but little in the way of people movers, large spaces but little in the way of seats for people to rest their feet.  My stepfather came to the area in a wheelchair, and my mum, him and I and the person pushing my stepfather’s wheelchair (since his sense of balance is not very well) went from the baggage claim to the ticketing area for our next flight.  This did not prove to be a very simple process, not nearly as simple as one would think, since we first went to one area and the attendant asked for directions, and then to another area, and then to the first area again, and then to the second once again, all while I was quite irritated and exhausted by the wasted effort and general incompetence.  Once we finally got to the area near the ticketing booth for Surinam Airways, we claimed some seats and put our luggage down.  Not too long after that my stepfather and I had lunch at the Chili’s Too that is nearby, and it was tasty, and I got some cash for the trip, which will hopefully hold out.  At any rate, at this point we have about half an hour or so until they start checking in and there is already a large and diverse crowd with a lot of luggage waiting in line before the ticketing crew has even arrived.  These are not people who like to waste time even if our flight does not leave for hours.

[1] See, for example:

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What Does The Lord Require Of You On This Day Of Atonement?

[Note:  This is the prepared text for a sermonette given at the Day of Atonement at the Portland congregation of the United Church of God on September 19, 2018.]

As I stand before a group of hungry and thirsty people, some of whom are likely counting the hours until they will be able to eat and drink once again, I would like to ask a question that I do not believe is often asked of this day.  What does the Lord require of you on this Day of Atonement.  When we examine the biblical record about this day, we are faced with two very different approaches to it.  On the one hand, the day is rich with symbolic meaning and deep if sometimes obscure importance.  On the other hand, though, the day is full of very practical requirements.  I will focus on the practical requirements, as we look through biblical history, and hopefully we will come to a clear understanding of what the Lord requires of us on this day.

When we look at the Day of Atonement as it appears in Leviticus 23:26-32, we get some sense of God’s expectations for this day.  Leviticus 23:26-32 tells us the following:  “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying:  “Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the Lord And you shall do no work on that same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God.  For any person who is not afflicted in soul on that same day shall be cut off from his people.  And any person who does any work on that same day, that person I will destroy from among his people.  You shall do no manner of work; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.  It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall celebrate your sabbath.””  Although these verses should be familiar ones, it is important to note that most of God’s requirements for us are things to avoid doing–namely eating or drinking on the one hand, as the passage repeats over and over again that we are to afflict our souls, and that we are to refrain from any kind of work.  The penalty for either eating or drinking or working on this day is being cut off from the people, something that has special resonance for this particular day.

When we move from the responsibility of individual believers to the congregation of Israel as a whole in Numbers 29:7-11, we see the focus on the offerings that were given by the people as a whole.  Numbers 29:7-11:  “On the tenth day of this seventh month you shall have a holy convocation. You shall afflict your souls; you shall not do any work.  You shall present a burnt offering to the Lord as a sweet aroma: one young bull, one ram, and seven lambs in their first year. Be sure they are without blemish.  Their grain offering shall be of fine flour mixed with oil: three-tenths of an ephah for the bull, two-tenths for the one ram, and one-tenth for each of the seven lambs;  also one kid of the goats as a sin offering, besides the sin offering for atonement, the regular burnt offering with its grain offering, and their drink offerings.”  Let us note that Numbers reminds people to afflict their souls and also that the sacrifices required for Atonement are without blemish.  It is important to note that the sacrifices had to be without blemish.

The most famous sacrifices that took place on the Day of Atonement are mentioned in Leviticus 16.  There were two sacrifices on behalf of the people that were done on this day.  First, let us look at Leviticus 16:15-19 to read about the sacrifice of the first goat:  “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering, which is for the people, bring its blood inside the veil, do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat.  So he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins; and so he shall do for the tabernacle of meeting which remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness.  There shall be no man in the tabernacle of meeting when he goes in to make atonement in the Holy Place, until he comes out, that he may make atonement for himself, for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel.  And he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord, and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around.  Then he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, cleanse it, and consecrate it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel.”  There are myths about the high priest putting ropes around his leg when he faced God in the Holy of Holies, and these myths have some plausibility because of the corruption of the high priests during the second temple period.  Yet there are no contemporary accounts of priests dying in the Holy of Holies, even despite their corruption, which demonstrates God’s mercy and longsuffering in allowing even corrupt high priests to sacrifice on behalf of God’s people.

The more famous sacrifice on the Day of Atonement of the Azazel goat, which we read in Leviticus 16:20-22.  In verses 20 through 22 we read:  “And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place, the tabernacle of meeting, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat.  Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man.  The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.”  While there is a great deal of symbolism regarding this particular goat, there is one aspect of this goat whose practical importance is vital in understanding God’s requirements for us on this Day of Atonement.  In order for reconciliation to take place between the people of Israel and God and with each other, the iniquities and transgressions of Israel were placed on the head of a live goat that was driven into the wilderness, never to return.  Our ability to reconcile with God and with other people depends on us avoiding the lamentable human tendency to act like historians and archaeologists digging up and referring endlessly to the past.  Instead, when we are dealing with fellow repentant, if struggling, believers, the offenses and wrongs of the past have to driven away from our relationships and overcome, so that they do not poison the relationships among the people of God.

What does all of this have to do with those of us asesembled here today?  When we see the Day of Atonement referred by name for the last time in the New Testament, in Acts 27:9, we see it called as the Fast.  Yet, as we see in Isaiah 58:5-12, the Day of Atonement is about far more than simply refraining from food. Isaiah 58:5-12 reads:  “Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul?  Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?  “Is this not the fast that I have chosen:  To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?  Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.  Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’  If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday.  The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones; you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.  Those from among you shall build the old waste places; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to Dwell In.”

The Day of Atonement is the fast that God has chosen to loose the bonds of wickedness, to afflict the soul, for us to bow down our head in humility, to set free the captive and to release the burdens.  Do we follow through on what God demands of us?  It is not enough that we refrain from food and drink alone, but it is also vital that we take away the yoke from among us, to satisfy the afflicted, to cease to point the finger at each other and the speaking of wickedness to and about each other.  God tells us in Isaiah 58 that if we fast as God wishes for us to do, to use the day to set others free like the Jubilee that was to take place on this day every 49 years, then we ourselves will be millennial blessings in the lives of others.  If we do what God requires of us in seeking to reconcile with Him and with each other, to remove the burdens that divide us and overcome the sins and offenses that divide us, then we will be repairers of the breach and the restorer of streets to dwell in.  Is this not exactly what we want to enjoy in our own lives?  Then what are we waiting for so that we may do what God requires of us on this Day of Atonement?

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Book Review: Learn Chess From The Greats

Learn Chess From The Greats, by Peter J. Tamburro, Jr.

This book feels like reading a compilation of a newspaper’s chess column.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, for someone who enjoys chess tactics [1], but it did put me in the position of reading this book and wanting more.  To want more from a book is far better than to want less from it, as is sometimes the case, but all the same it means that this book was not quite what I was expecting from it.  I was expecting more systematic lessons, and what this book provided was a partial discussion of various games, some of which may have been imaginary, and also a very brief look at the movies made, some of which were left as examples to be solved by the reader without the answer given in the book itself.  I viewed this is a copout, since the author clearly is not aiming this book at chess masters or experts and seems a bit too sanguine in his expectations for novice players such as are likely to pick up this book and others like it.  Even so, this book is certainly amusing and that is worth more than a little in its favor.

This book is divided into seven chapters that explain the author’s intents and is about 150 pages in total.  The first section of the book looks at games that serve as exercises for students and coaches (1) in such aspects as the scholar’s mate, the mating net, and the kingside attack, basic aspects that need to be known to succeed in chess at the amateur level.  After that there is a chapter about various attacks (2) including the need to look at the color of the squares as well as some unjustly ignored classic games from great romantic chess players.  After this comes a discussion of endgames (3) that encourages the reader to avoid making decisions that forfeit advantages.   The author spends a short chapter looking at various artists of chess (4) before a longer chapter that provides some exciting miniatures (5), namely games that last 25 moves or less, which make for worthwhile and quick studies.  The author then closes the book with some games by some greats, including some more obscure greats (although names like Taimanov, Kramnik, Tal, and Najdorf appear here as well) (6).  The author then closes this book with a selection of chess puzzles and games that are ostensibly for the fun of it (7).

Are these games any fun?  Yes, they are.  The author skillfully chooses among various chessmasters and their games, and does a good job at presenting their wins and draws and losses as being worth studying, in the hope that it will inspire practice or that it will be remembered in the heat of a chess battle to give one a bit of an advantage in having seen the position and worked through it before.  That is not to say that this is a perfect book.  It is more than a little bit superficial, somewhat glib even, and misses the opportunity to be deeper or more extensive in its coverage of games.  One wonders whether this book was simply a compilation of smaller articles with a strict word limit–as all of the games take up one small page with minimal diagrams.  This would certainly account for the way that the book is constructed as involving a lot of humor and generalization and very little discussion of alternate lines.  Even so, if you like a good laugh and solving various problems faced by great chess players of the past, this book is certainly an interesting one that is worth checking out.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: The Road To Chess Improvement

The Road To Chess Improvement:  A US Champion Provides Solutions To Real-Life Chess Problems, by Alex Yermolinski

As someone who is fond of chess [1], I have often wondered at the appeal for writing chess books for those who are chess champions or are looking to be considered as serious contenders for the world championship.  Most chess books come with at least the implicit promise that reading it will provide a method that will improve one’s chess rating, through the adoption of some sort of gambit or attack or approach.  This author, however, makes no such promises.  It is likely that most of the potential readers of this book would not have ever heard of the author, whose rating is on the low end of Grandmasters and who made a living as a teacher as well as through earning money in various opens, and who was a solidly second-tier Soviet player before moving to the United States and enjoying the less serious competition here.  So, if this book does not promise one is going to be a chessmaster, what does it offer?  It offers sweat, toil, and tears and the commitment to study games and play them to improve one’s understanding of the position and be willing to analyze what went wrong and what can go better next time.

In a bit more than 200 pages, the author talks about various games.  First, though, before talking about any of them he provides a discussion of symbols and looks at what this book is really about–pointing out how indecisiveness is evil and that human beings (though not computers) are ruled by emotions and not as rational as we like to think of ourselves.  The first part of the book introduces the issue of trends, turning points, and emotional shifts in games (I), and takes up about 40 pages, where the author uses various games to illustrate trend-breaking tools and questions of preserving or disrupting the status quo of a game.  After that the author spends almost 100 pages looking at openings and early mid-game structures (II), including the Queen’s Gambit Declined, the Grunfeld defense, the Benko, Benoni, Grand Prix, Sicilian, and Double Fianchetto.  The third part of the book discusses tactical mastery and strategic skills for about 50 pages, looking at the purpose of exchanges, the author’s own miseducation, and combinatorial understanding, before ending with a brief discussion about computer chess and its recent popularity.

This book is by no means a new one–it was published in 1999, and it is the sort of book that could use some revisiting, if the author is willing and able to do so, with an expansion on computer chess given its ubiquity, as well as the joys of playing chess online.  Even so, this book is a good one and the fact that the author was not a wunderkind who soared to the top of the super GM ranks allows him to speak with a  fair bit of credibility to others whose chess game is more about struggling for victory and less about being a prodigy.  Whether or not this book actually inspires its readers on the road to chess improvement is hard to say, but the tips the author provides are solid ones to improve in any endeavor:  work hard, practice well, study one’s own actions and also study the best and what they do, and be flexible and look for the best move rather than being doctrinaire in one’s approach to chess.  The advice here is generally sound, and the fact that it comes from a chess journeyman gives it a hard-worn quality that can be appreciated by those who are likely to be far from the ranks of chess stardom themselves.

[1] See, for example:

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Behind The Veil

For those people who have been to weddings, one of the more fascinating aspects of the contemporary Western wedding, even if few people stop to think of its meaning with regards to their own conduct before marriage, is the matter of the bride’s veil.  Symbolically speaking, at least, the veil serves as a temporary barrier between the bride and groom, marking the way that the bride is supposed to be off limits for the groom, until after the wedding vows are made, at which point the veil is lifted up so that the groom can kiss the bride and symbolically become one with her.  Again, the symbolism of the event is something that can easily be appreciated by those of us who go to weddings even if we have yet to have our own yet.  Even so, the symbolism depends on a certain expectation, namely that the oneness that intimacy and sexuality provide is to be limited to the married state.  Clearly, this is not the way such things work for most people in our present evil age.  It would seem that we are attracted by the romance of weddings, and at least dimly and half-aware of the sort of magical symbolism involved in the wearing of white, the importance of rings, the making of vows, and the lifting of veils, even if few people go to the altar in a state of purity, are serious about remaining with their spouses through the ups and downs of life until death parts them, or have the self-restraint to wait for oneness until after having made vows before God about their loyalty to their spouses.

Yet marriage veils are not the only sort of veil that are of importance to believers, not least on this Day of Atonement in which I write [1].  On Leviticus 16:1-5, we read the first part of an elaborate set of rituals that the high priest was to officiate on the Day of Atonement:  “Now the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered profane fire before the Lord, and died; and the Lord said to Moses: “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at just any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud above the mercy seat.  “Thus Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with the blood of a young bull as a sin offering, and of a ram as a burnt offering.  He shall put the holy linen tunic and the linen trousers on his body; he shall be girded with a linen sash, and with the linen turban he shall be attired. These are holy garments. Therefore he shall wash his body in water, and put them on.  And he shall take from the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats as a sin offering, and one ram as a burnt offering.” 

Let us briefly note in looking at this particular passage that the Day of Atonement is set apart as a day of particular intimacy between the high priest, on behalf of Israel, and God.  Let us note that this intimacy is marked by this day being the only time that the high priest was permitted behind the veil that separated the Most Holy Place from the remainder of the temple where the priests offered sacrifices or incense before God as part of the ordinary operation of that religious system.  Special clothes were to be worn, and special offerings were required to allow the high priest to enter the Holy of Holies to make a personal appeal to God at the mercy seat on behalf of the people.  It is remarkable, given the corruption of the priesthood in the second temple period, that there is no account in any source that any priests were struck down by God in this act.  Of course, more recently it has become joked that high priests were so frightened of God’s judgment that they would tie a robe around themselves so that if things did not go well behind the veil that other priests could drag them out, but these stories have no basis in historical accounts of the Second Temple period.  It appears, at least from the historical record we have, that God was merciful even to the corrupt priests of the time of Christ when they came to him on behalf of their people.

This is not the only time when the veil of the temple is mentioned.  Most memorably, as is recorded in Matthew 27:50-53:  “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.  Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”  Much can be and has been made about this incident, how the fact that the veil being torn has opened access to the throne of God to believers, who can now intercede directly with Jesus Christ rather than being kept at arm’s length through (possibly corrupt) priestly intermediaries, and the fact that the veil was torn from the top down signifies that it was God’s action from the top down and not our own actions from the bottom up that allow us to have this greater intimacy with God.

But the Bible reveals that God has always wanted more intimacy with mankind than mankind has been comfortable with.  In the Garden of Eden, God wished to speak to mankind after Adam and Eve sinned by partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but they hid from Him.  Cain refused either to heed God’s warning about mastering his anger over having his offering rejected or to repent and seek forgiveness when God came graciously and mercifully to him to give him the chance to confess of his murder.  While Abraham was a friend of God and walked with Him and Jacob dreamed of the stairway to heaven and the resulting communication and interaction between heaven and earth, ancient Israel was not so fond of God’s presence throughout its history.  At Mount Sinai Israel desired Moses to serve as a go-between with God because they (rightly) feared God’s anger about their lack of belief.  Later on, the people of Israel desired to be ruled by a king so that they could be like the other nations rather than have the special status having God be their king.  Later prophets like Hosea and Ezekiel write movingly and even graphically about the betrayal of Israel and Judah of their covenental relationship of marriage with God and God’s yearning and longing for oneness with them that they simply did not reciprocate.

It is perhaps unsurprising that a man like myself very familiar with yearning and longing for oneness with those who are terrified at the prospect of being united with me should be struck by this situation.  In many ways, we are no better than the ancient Israelites when it comes to answering the call to oneness and intimacy with God.  For sinful man, intimacy with the holy and righteous and perfect God is a terrifying prospect.  We may appreciate God dispensing favors on us, or blessing our nation, or being either helpless as a baby in the manger or a penal substitutionary offering on our behalf nailed to the cross, but the prospect of God’s leadership rebuking us for our sins and faults and calling us to repentance and the prospect of the indwelling presence of God’s Holy Spirit shaping and refining us and transforming us from the inside out so that we are remade in God’s image and likeness can be a terrifying prospect.  While we might all agree that Michaelangelo’s David is a great deal more striking and beautiful than a block of marble, we can agree that the block of marble probably does not dream of being chiseled and shaped quite painfully and dramatically according to the vision of the sculptor.  And when it comes to being made into God’s image, we are the marble and the hand with the chisel is God’s own.

What is it that makes intimacy so terrifying?  To be sure, there are parts of oneness that we greatly enjoy.  Few people in our present evil age are able to resist the lure to oneness that comes from sexual union in any form that strikes our fancy.  We long for the caress and cuddles of someone who loves us and who we hope will be loyal to us and for the chemicals to rush through our bloodstream as a result of infatuation and coitus, and so that aspect of sexuality is usually not something that bothers us.  But far too many of us shrink away painfully from showing the less praiseworthy parts of our natures to those who might judge us, or who might betray us, or who might tire of us and get bored of us from seeing the same patterns of behavior over and over again, fighting over the same things, struggling with the same problems without improvement, while the novelty and thrill of being with us fades away into complacency and disinterest, if not active contempt.  Being fickle and treacherous sorts of beings ourselves, we know that intimacy with God will make us vulnerable to a being who lacks our weaknesses and who has the power to hurt us a lot.  And yet the Day of Atonement calls us to this intimacy, while reminding us that one can only find oneness behind the veil, and that one cannot simply pick and choose the sorts of oneness that we prefer without doing great violence to ourselves and committing grave wrongs against others.  It is little wonder that the price of this intimacy with God is blood, whether the blood of bulls and goats in the sacerdotal order or the blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ Himself for believers today.  What is a wonder is that God wishes this intimacy with us, despite knowing the sort of being we are, because He knows that He can make us better if we are willing.  But are we willing?

[1] See, for example:

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