Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best of the Blogroll 2013

Here to ring out the old year are my favorite posts of 2013 from the blogs that I read regularly:

Ancient Hebrew Poetry was on something of a hiatus this year, as were Rev Cwirla's Blogosphere and Thin Places. Here's hoping for their return to blogging.

Thank you to all of you who blogged this year. I may not say so as often as I should, but I do look forward to reading each of your blogs.

Take care & God bless,

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas: Actually, it's not all about Good Friday

Have you heard the line of thought that Christmas is really all about Good Friday? I've heard it the last few years -- and a few too many times. When we read of Jesus' birth, we hear about the innocent child, the hopeful mother, the message from heaven of peace and goodwill -- the "good tidings of great joy." The accounts of Jesus' birth show that his family had their hardships: traveling and delivering a child in a strange town, poverty, even a hostile government. But we are easily tempted to be cynical, hardened against the hope and innocence of new life -- even Jesus' life. In his birth, Jesus joins with us in the story of all humanity: after we are born, it is only a matter of time until we die. If there is good news in Jesus' birth, some people would say, it is specifically in the forgiveness that Jesus won for us at the cross. And so, the thought goes, the really important thing to remember at Christmas is that the child will grow up to die a horrific death and shed his blood for you and for me. And so the parallels are drawn between Christmas and Good Friday: the wood of the feeding trough is like the wood of the cross; he is wrapped in cloths in the cradle and again in the tomb; it is possible that both the cradle and the grave were in a cave. 

But the story of Jesus' birth is incomplete if we see only his grave. If we look ahead so many years from his birth to his death and burial, why stop there? We should look a short few days further to his resurrection. Here again we see the angels at the tomb at his resurrection, just as there were angels at his birth with good news. At Christmas Mary brought forth life by a miracle where life was not expected, so in Jesus' resurrection we see life where none was expected. And again, as in the birth, again in the resurrection, this life may have been brought forth in a cave. Jesus' resurrection reinforces the meaning of his birth: it is the beginning of a new creation, where death no longer destroys us, where God gives eternal life. The bittersweet part of every birth is that it is only a matter of time until we die. But Jesus' resurrection changes that, as death is no longer final. And so Jesus' birth changes the meaning of all of our births. We now live in a world in which God has raised the dead, never to die again. We live in a world where a new creation has started. We are told to have the same hope for ourselves and for our own children. This is good tidings of great joy.
Jesus' resurrection also gives us permission to look at the innocence that we are too cynical to permit ourselves to admire: the innocent child, the hopeful mother, the message from heaven of peace and goodwill. At Christmas, we are allowed to celebrate the "good tidings of great joy" as the triumph of life in the birth of this child.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent: Something Mary and Jesus have in common

I wonder sometimes whether Mary was the most pure-hearted, kind, or loving woman to have lived. She may have been the bravest, too. She was singled out of all women who had ever lived for a unique honor: to bear the Messiah. But it was an honor in the eyes of God only, for many years. In the eyes of people, it made her look bad. She risked the acceptance of her family, the love of her fiance, the security and status of an honest woman. She probably faced scorn and contempt for something she was assumed to have done. She may have been the best of us all, but serving God made her look like the worst in the eyes of a world that judges by appearances.

It is a lot like Jesus. He had a goodness that made others ashamed of themselves, and so he was accused of evil, tried for it, convicted of it, "numbered with the transgressors". He found himself on the wrong side of human judgment for serving the Father.

John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, and a long line of others have found that serving God is a ticket to being despised by the world, even being found on the wrong side of the law, or popular opinion, or a human court.

Sometimes I think that the church's life parallels Jesus: his life had a miraculous beginning quickly followed by persecution, some quiet years, then times of popularity and acceptance -- followed by people turning away, the leaders rejecting him and leading a persecution, starting a campaign designed to ensure his death. Jesus' miraculous resurrection started the church's story: a miraculous beginning quickly followed by persecution, some quiet years, then times of popularity and acceptance. It looks like now we may be in a phase of people turning away, leaders rejecting Jesus and leading a persecution, starting a campaign designed to ensure the death of the church. But man's opinions are not God's opinions, the world's condemnation is not God's condemnation, and the world's idea of how to destroy Christianity has backfired badly before.

At Advent, we remember Jesus' arrival some two thousand years ago, and look forward to his return. Come, Lord Jesus.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Magnificat - Adapted Lyrics

I have been toying with the idea of doing a musical arrangement of Mary's song, the Magnificat. I think I have the melody worked out. The lyrics that work with the rhythm will probably go like this:
My soul magnifies the Lord
My spirit rejoices in my Savior
   In my lowly state
   As I walk His ways
He remembered me
His eye turns towards the meek
His favor rests upon the humble
  He tells the proud to go
  He casts the ruler low
He remembered me
I'm still working to see if Elizabeth's response will fit in naturally as well. I picture it fitting in with some version of the O! Antiphons to round it out. We'll see. Wish me luck.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Simplicity. (Against bureaucracy and red tape)

(I know this is not my usual area, but there are a few things occupying my mind. It seems best to go ahead and post this so that my mind is not occupied with it, and I can move along. By the way, do not think that the take-away message here is merely against the currently unpopular complicated health care system; that is just the latest example from a government that has long seemed enamored of complication.)

Most people try to figure out the simplest way to do things. In my line of work, "simple" and "elegant" are words that often come together as a pair. When you design a new system, simplicity is a good thing. Simple things are easy to use, hard to break. When things go wrong, simple things are easy to diagnose, easy to fix. If something is simple, anyone can use it without special training or special knowledge. Simplicity empowers the average person to take care of themselves. "Simple" is the main ingredient of "user-friendly". When something is meant to be used by lots of different people, simplicity is a goal of good design.

There's a problem with standing up for simplicity, though. People have mistaken "complicated" for "smart"; those two things are not the same. Maybe you have to be smart to understand something complicated. But you don't have to be smart to make things complicated. In fact, lots of people try to fake being smart by making things complicated. Long words are used as camouflage to cover up small ideas -- or mistaken ideas. In the movie The Wizard of Oz, one final scene with the scarecrow is something like that: he is given a diploma to make up for the fact that he has no brain, and instantly declares that "The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side." On the surface it sounds impressive because it is technical and complicated; it is also completely wrong. (He should have said that "The square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the remaining sides", or words to that effect. That scene was a joke about how wrong he was.) That's another thing about complication: mistakes can get past millions of people. If simplicity is a goal of good design, then it's actually not smart to make things more complicated than they need to be.

When designing a system to be used by hundreds of millions people with different education levels, it is not smart to make it so complicated that its own designers make jokes about how they don't understand it or don't know what is in it. There is no such thing as a good law that the average person needs to understand but runs to hundreds on hundreds of pages. Our new national health care system is a Rube Goldberg device that has turned each and every one of us into a piece in that contraption -- whether we want to be in it or not. But our new health care system is just one example. Our tax system is also needlessly complicated. "Bureaucracy" is characterized by needless complexity, and our government often acts as though its goal is to create new bureaucracies. Every time the government wants to do something new, the general approach has been to create new agencies that are run through new bureaucracies. Many people frankly can't picture it working any other way.

At a high enough level, complication does a number of things:
  • It takes away the average person's ability to take care of themselves.
  • It makes the average person dependent on an expert.
  • It gives the expert a sort of status or power as a necessary piece in the system.
  • It makes the average person unable to tell whether the expert actually knows what he is talking about.
  • It gives the most benevolent experts an incentive not to question the system, since they see themselves as exercising their benevolence, and the average person couldn't understand the system without their help.
  • It gives the less benevolent experts a personal incentive to keep things complicated, in order to keep their status and power - and the accompanying financial security. 
That is, it makes most people unable to tell how well the system really works, and it makes many experts and designers unwilling to say if it doesn't.

Simple things take less time and energy. They are more efficient than their complicated counterparts. I do not say this because of some "anti-intellectual" objection to complexity. I say this because it is a fact about how energy and effort work. The more straightforward a thing is, the more efficiently it works. The more unnecessary complication you have, the more it wastes time and energy, by definition. A Rube Goldberg device is a joke -- a mechanical joke. Rube Goldberg devices are entertaining. It is fascinating to watch all the time and energy that can be wasted on a relatively simple task. But nobody wants their health care, their taxes, or the national economy to run that way. Nobody wants their own time and energy to be caught up in that kind of elaborate waste of time.

Most people try to figure out the simplest way to do things. We do that not because we are stupid but just the opposite: it is smart to want something that is efficient and works well.