Monday, February 2, 2015

Professors of Trout

In the course of writing Downstream (my book on brook trout) I did a lot of research about trout and fly-fishing.  Thankfully, it turns out I'm not the only academic interested in brook trout and fly rods.  Far from it! 

Really, this shouldn't be too surprising.  Fly-fishing requires us to look attentively, seeing past the surface of the water in order to discern what is happening deeper down.  Far more than simply catching fish, fly-fishing is a practice of reading water as though it were a natural text.

Several authors, professors, and fellow-thinkers have been helping me to deepen my literacy in these streams of thought lately. Among them are Kurt Fausch, Douglas Thompson, and David Suchoff.

Fausch is one of the world's authorities on trout biology and ecology.  I had the privilege of reading a draft of Fausch's forthcoming book, For The Love Of Rivers, (see the book trailer here) and I highly recommend it.  It is a lovely marriage of science and lyrical writing.  You'll learn a lot about the life of rivers, written by a remarkable writer who loves them deeply.

Thompson's book, The Quest For The Golden Trout is next on my to-read list, but I've already snuck some glimpses at it and I am eager to get to it.  I'll post more about it when I'm done.  Meanwhile, check out his webpage

I discovered Suchoff recently when I saw one of his students fly-fishing for bonefish in Belize.  I teach a January-term field ecology course for Augustana College in Guatemala and Belize.  One morning I looked out over the intertidal flat and saw a young woman casting a heavy fly in turtle grass on South Water Caye.  I ran into her later on shore and she told me about a terrific class Suchoff teaches at Colby College in Maine.  He teaches them the literature of fly-fishing, arranges professional instruction, then takes his students fishing in California, and teaches them to write about it.  You can find him on Twitter, too.

One of the joys of research is that it gives me the excuse to write to strangers who share my interests and ask them to teach me what they know.  My acquaintance with two of these professors is quite new, but already I've learned from them.  The third, Fausch, I've known for long enough that he reviewed a draft of my book and kindly pointed out a few errors before I made them permanent in print. 

These are, as I've said, just a few of the university professors who study trout.  Are you another?  I'd love to hear from you if so.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Nature As A Classroom

For the last two weeks my students and I have been in Petén, Guatemala, studying the ecology of the region. For half that time we stayed with local families. Our homestays were arranged by the Asociación Bio-Itzá, an indigenous Maya conservation organization that runs a Spanish school to support their work in preserving a section of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. The other half of the time we spent on the reserve and hiking the Ruta Chiclera, a forty-mile trek through the Zotz and Tikal reserves, vast areas of largely unbroken subtropical forest.

These are not always easy conditions. Many hard-working Guatemalans live in poverty that is hard to conceive in our country; it is hot and wet except for when it is cold and wet; biting insects are everywhere; disease and snakes and thorny vines like bayal are constant threats.

But it is also a beautiful place with astonishing biodiversity and remarkable people whose resilience and generosity always make me want to improve my own character. They welcome us into their homes and into their lives, and they are glad to see us come to appreciate the place they live.

I expect that my students will forget much of what I say in my lectures and much of what they read in books. But I doubt very much that they will forget the people they have met here. Guatemala has gone from being an abstraction to a concrete reality. When they meet kind people of good character who have walked across Mexico and made it into the USA only to be caught and deported, "illegal immigrants" now have a face, a home, a family at whose table my students have received a nourishing and welcoming meal.

Likewise, they will not likely forget the sound of howler monkeys at night or the experience of scrambling up Maya temples still covered in a thousand years of trees and soil. They won't forget the long walk in a deep green forest and the smells of tortillas and beans cooked over a wood fire.

It is expensive to bring students so far. One could object that the money could be better spent on viewing the forest online or donating it to rainforest conservation. I disagree. I'm not in the business of dispensing information; I'm in the business of transforming lives, and not much transforms like full-bodied experience. Before we leave for Guatemala my students read papers written by wildlife conservation researchers. In Guatemala they meet those researchers in person and get to hear their stories. They hear in their tone and see in their eyes what brought them to Guatemala and what keeps them here. In such times my students go from taking in data to rethinking their lives.

It is my hope - my exuberant, perhaps not wholly rational hope - that out of such lived experience of nature my students will become people who comfort orphans and widows in their distress, who receive the foreigner into their own homes, who marvel and the world's diversity and who, for the rest of their lives, work to preserve it.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Recommended Reading: Fly-Fishing and Trout

I'm preparing to teach a course on ecology and nature writing this summer in Alaska.  One of the keys to becoming a good writer is to read good writing, so I've been asking for book recommendations that might help me prepare for my course.  

The focus of the course will be the char species of Alaska.  These species, all members of the genus salvelinus, are commonly thought of as trout.  Brook trout and lake trout are both char, as are Dolly Vardens and arctic char.

These are beautiful fish.  I think many anglers love them simply because they are so beautiful to look at. When I pull one from the water I am immediately torn between wanting to hold this precious thing closely and the urge to release it immediately, before my coarse hands pollute its loveliness.  The name "char" might come from Celtic roots, like the Gaelic cear, meaning "blood."  They are more multi-hued than rainbow trout.  The red on their sides and fins catches the eye and holds the gaze.

Over the years I spent researching and writing my own book on brook trout, I did a lot of reading.  Some books call me back again and again, like Henry Bugbee's The Inward Morning and Steinbeck's Log From The Sea of Cortez.  Neither one is chiefly about fly-fishing or about trout, but they're both written in a way that makes me re-think how I view the world.  And they do both talk a good deal about fish, and fishing.

Mayfly on my reel.  Summer 2014, Maine.
Of course there are the classics of fly-fishing, too.  Still, as I've asked for suggestions, I've been surprised by how many books there are that I haven't read or haven't even heard of.  Just how many books about fish and fishing do we need?  Are there really so many stories to tell?

If the point of writing books about fish is to give techniques, or data, then we don't need many at all.  But stories about fish and fishing are rarely about the taking of fish.  More often they are about the states of mind that open up as we prepare to enter the water, or as we stand there in the river.  Fishing is to such states of consciousness what kneeling is to prayer; the posture is perhaps not essential, but it is a bodily gesture that does something to prepare us to be open to a certain kind of experience. I won't belabor this point.  Read my book if you really want me to go on about fishing and philosophy.  For now, let me present some of my recommendations, plus the recommendations I've received:

On Nature
I teach environmental philosophy and ecology, so I begin with some orienting books.
  • Henry Bugbee, The Inward Morning. Don't try to read this book quickly, and if you're not prepared to do the hard work of thinking, move on and read something else.  But if you're willing to read slowly and thoughtfully, this book can change your life.  Bugbee was a philosophy professor and an angler.
  • Henry David Thoreau, A Week On The Concord and Merrimack Rivers; The Maine Woods. Thoreau was an occasional angler, and an observer of anglers.  
  • Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and the title essay in The River Of The Mother Of God, about unknown places.  Leopold only writes a little about fish and fishing, but those occasional sentences about angling tend to be shot through with insight.
  • John Muir, Nature Writings.  
  • John Steinbeck, Log From The Sea of Cortez.  An apology for curiosity, in narrative form.  One of my favorite books.
  • Paul Errington, The Red Gods Call. Not brilliant writing, but a fascinating set of memoirs from a professor of biology who put himself through college as a trapper, and about how the Big Sioux River in South Dakota was his first real schoolroom. He talks a good deal about hunting and fishing and what he learned through encounters with animals.
  • Kathleen Dean Moore, The Pine Island Paradox.  Moore is an environmental philosopher who writes winsomely ans insightfully about what nature has meant to her family.  

Some Favorites
  • Nick Lyons.  Nick very kindly wrote the foreword to my book, and when I first got in touch with him about this I discovered he and I had lived only a few miles from each other in the Catskill Mountains for years.  Sadly, by the time I discovered this I'd already moved away, and he was packing up to move to a new home, too.  We both love the miles of small trout streams of those mountains, though.  Nick has been a prolific writer and he has promoted a lot of great writing through his lifelong work as a publisher as well. Nick has a new book, Fishing Stories, just published in 2014.
  • Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through I
  • Ernest Hemingway, especially "Big Two-Hearted River" and the other Nick Adams stories
  • James Prosek. Several books, including Trout: An Illustrated History; Early Love And Brook Trout; and Joe And Me: An Education In Fishing And Friendship 
  • Ted Leeson, The Habit Of Rivers 
  • Kurt Fausch’s new book, For The Love Of Rivers: A Scientist’s Journey. Brilliant writing by one of the world's leading trout biologists.  
  • Craig Nova, Brook Trout and the Writing Life. I also like his novels, and will recommend The Constant Heart.
  • Christopher Camuto, who writes frequently for Trout Unlimited's journal, Trout.
  • Ian Frazier, The Fish's Eye.
  • Douglas Thompson, The Quest For The Golden Trout

These have been recommended time and again.  I'm not sure many people ever actually read the first two, though they become prized volumes in the libraries of anglers around the world.
  • Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler 
  • Dame Juliana Berners, The Boke Of St Albans, later editions of which contain A Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle, possibly authored by someone else. 
  • Nick Karas, Brook Trout (a nice collection of short works about brook trout, including some of my favorite stories)
  • Lee Wulff 
  • Lefty Kreh 

Most Recommended 
  • John Gierach.  Gierach has written a lot about angling, so it's not surprising that so many people mention him to me.  Many of those mentions are positive, but some anglers mention his name with disgust.  I haven't read much of his work, so I can't yet say why.
  • David James Duncan, The River Why.  This is a fun novel set in the Northwest, but it reminds me of the New Haven River in Vermont: there are some long dry stretches one has to plod through, but repeatedly one comes to depths that make the flatter, shallower parts worthwhile.
  • Thomas McGuane, The Longest Silence.  
  • Bill McMillan 
  • Roderick Haig-Brown  

  • Mike Valla, The Founding Flies 
  • Michael Patrick O’Farrell, A Passion For Trout: The Flies And The Methods 

One reason why there is so much writing about fishing is that fishers tend to be students of particular places.  Yes, some people fish by indiscriminately approaching water and drowning hooked worms therein, but experience tends to cure most young anglers of that method.  Fishing puts us into contact with what we cannot see (or cannot see well) under the water; experienced anglers learn to read the signs above the water and the place itself.  We return to the same place as we return to beloved passages in books or to favorite songs, to know them better through repetition.
  • Peter Reilly, Lakes and Rivers of Ireland 
  • Derek Grzelewski, The Trout Diaries: A Year of Fly-fishing In New Zealand and The Trout Bohemia: Fly-Fishing Travels In New Zealand 
  • Eeva-Kaarina Aronen, Die Lachsfischerin. A novel set in Finland, about fly-fishing and fly-tying in the 18th century. The title translates as “The Salmon Fisherwoman” 
  • Ian Colin James, Fumbling With A Fly Rod (Scotland)
  • Zane Grey, Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado: New Zealand 
  • Leslie Leyland Fields, Surviving the Island of Grace; and Hooked! Fields and her family are commercial fishers in Alaska, and her writing comes recommended to me from a number of sources.

Other Frequent Recommendations
If I talk to a group of anglers about books for long enough, one or more of these will eventually be mentioned.  Stylistically and in terms of content, they're quite different, but they all seem to speak to important moods and thoughts of anglers.
  • Sheridan Anderson, The Curtis Creek Manifesto
  • Harry Middleton, The Earth Is Enough: Growing Up In A World Of Fly-fishing, Trout, And Old Men (Memoir) 
  • Paul Schullery, Royal Coachman: The Lore And Legends of Fly-fishing
  • Gordon MacQuarrie 
  • Patrick McManus  

Other Recommendations
Most of these I don't know at all, so I'm not recommending them, just mentioning them.  Of course, if you have more recommendations (or corrections), please feel free to add them to the comments section, below.
  • Vince Marinaro, The Game of Nods 
  • Rich Tosches, Zipping My Fly 
  • Robert Lee, Guiding Elliott 
  • Peter Heller, The Dog Stars (novel) 
  • Paul Quinnett, Pavlov’s Trout 
  • Dana S. Lamb Where The Pools Are Bright And Deep; Bright Salmon and Brown Trout
  • John Shewey, Mastering The Spring Creeks 
  • Ernest Schweibert, Death of a Riverkeeper; A River For Christmas 
  • Richard Louv, Fly-fishing for Sharks: An Angler’s Journey Across America 
  • John Voelker’s short story “Murder” 
  • Dave Ames, A Good Life Wasted, Or 20 Years As A Fishing Guide 
  • Craig Childs, The Animal Dialogues, especially the chapter “Rainbow Trout” 
  • Randy Nelson, Poachers, Polluters, and Politics: A Fishery Officer’s Career 
  • Anders Halverson, An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America And Overran The World  
  • Thomas McGuane, A Life In Fishing 
  • Bob White 
  • Robert Ruark 
  • Tom Meade 
  • Hank Patterson 

I'll conclude with a few other recommendations.  First, when I've asked for recommendations about texts, a handful of people tell me "Tenkara."  This isn't a text, but a kind of rod, and a method of fly-fishing.  And yet people continue to say that word to me when I ask for texts.  Why is that?  I have a few guesses: there isn't a lot written about tenkara, but people who practice it have come to love its simplicity and grace.  I'm not a tenkara fisher (yet) but I'm eager to learn.  I have a feeling that tenkara, like so many spiritual practices or like some martial arts, is something that makes people feel they way great writing makes us feel: in it we transcend the immediacy of our environment.

Along those lines, one commenter on Facebook said this to me about my students: "Give them [a] fly rod and a stream and let them write [their] own story."   There is wisdom here.  It is one thing to read about waters, and quite another to enter the waters on one's own feet.  Even so, I think it's important and wise to learn from those who've gone before us, too. 


If you're interested in seeing some of my other book recommendations, have a look at this, this, and this.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Visible Sign

This morning my wife, my kids, and I sat around the Christmas tree and opened the gifts we gave one another.  Just as we were finishing, my wife's phone rang.

One of her parishioners was coming down from a bad high in a bad way.  The police were on the scene, and the whole family was understandably distressed.

I don't know many details, because as a priest she has to keep confidences.  All I know is that her parishioners were asking for her to come and help before things got out of hand.

Which raises the question, "How can a minister possibly help?"  She hasn't got a badge or a gun, so she can't arrest people and lock them up; she doesn't have a medical license, so she can't prescribe medications; she isn't a judge who can order someone to be placed in protective custody.

All she can do is be present with those who are suffering.  She can listen to those to whom no one else will listen.  She can pray with them, helping to connect those who are suffering with words to express that suffering.  She can deliver the sacrament, a visible and outward sign of indelible connection to a bigger community, reminding the lonely that they are not alone.

She quickly got out of her pajamas, put on a black shirt and her clerical collar, and picked up her Book of Common Prayer.  I kissed her before she went out the door, aware that she was going to a home where there was a troubled family, a belligerent drug user, and eight armed men charged with upholding the law.  Oh, boy.  "Do you want some company?" I asked, knowing there wasn't much I could offer besides that.  She said she'd be fine.

As she left, and the kids continued to examine their gifts, I sat and silently prayed (reluctantly, as always), joining her in her work in that small way.

I admit that I do not like church.  I can think of far pleasanter ways to spend my Sunday morning than leaving my house to stand, and sit, and kneel with a hundred relative strangers.

But this is one thing I love about churches: this deeply democratic commitment to including everyone in the community.  No one is to be left out.  No one gets more bread or more wine at the altar.  Everyone who needs solace, or penance, or forgiveness, or company, may have it.

The Book Of The Acts Of The Apostles, the fifth book of the Greek testament, tells the story of the early church as a place where people who needed food or money or other kinds of sustenance could come and find them.  Early on in that book we even see the story of how the church made a special office for people whose job it would be to oversee the equitable distribution of food to the poor.

I think highly of my own profession of teaching, because I think it serves a high social good.  But I teach in a small, selective liberal arts college.  Most of the people I serve have their lives pretty much together.  In general, they can pay their bills, they don't have huge drug or legal issues, they have supportive communities, they can think and write well.  Yes, most of them struggle with money and other things, but they keep their heads above water, and their futures are bright.

My wife, on the other hand, has a much broader "clientele."  She serves the congregations at our cathedral and several other parishes.  Her congregants range from the powerful and wealthy to the poorest of the poor.  Here in South Dakota more than half our diocese are Native Americans, and many more are refugees from conflicts in east Africa.  Ethnically, racially, economically, liturgically, and politically, this is a diverse group.

And again, it is a group where everyone is - or at least ought to be - welcome.

The church has always failed to live up to its ideals.  I don't dispute that.  Show me an institution that has good ideals and that always lives up to them, and I'll readily tip my hat to it.  What I love in the church is that it has these ideals and it has daily, weekly, and annual rituals by which we remind ourselves what those ideals are.  We screw them up, we distort and bastardize them, we even sell them to high bidders from time to time when we lose our heads and our hearts.  But then we remind ourselves that we should not.  And we have institutions and rituals of returning to the path we've departed from. 

We will probably always get it wrong. I'm okay with that, as long as we keep turning back towards what is right, as long as we maintain these traditions and rituals of self-examination and self-correction.  And as long as we cherish this ideal of welcoming everyone, absolutely everyone.  I don't mean just saying we welcome everyone, but I mean doing it.

Again, I work at a small college.  Colleges are places where we all talk a good game about being welcoming, and for the most part, we manage to practice what we preach, given the communities we work in.  But there's something really remarkable about seeing that ideal at work in a community where there are no grades and no graduation, where the congregation is not just 18-22 year-olds with high entrance exam scores, and where no one gets kicked out for failure to live up to the ideals of the place.

Last night we celebrated Christmas with hymns in two languages.
Hanhepi wakan kin!
Wonahon wotanin
Mahpiyata wowitan,
On Wakantanka yatanpi.
Christ Wanikiya hi!
That's the second verse of "Silent Night, Holy Night," from the Dakota Episcopal hymnal.  We sing the doxology in Dakota, and I'm happy to say that most of the white folks at several congregations in the area have it memorized in Dakota.  These are small things, but they might also be big things. If the baby Christ was the Word incarnate, surely little words can make a big difference.

My wife came home a hour or so after she left this morning.  I don't worry so much about her sudden comings and goings as I once did.  She gets calls late at night from broken-hearted families watching their beloved die in our hospitals.  Will she come and pray with them?  Will she come hold their hands for a little while, and be the vicarious presence of the whole church as they suffer?  Will she anoint the sick as a reminder of our shared hope for well-being for all people? Will she come to the jail to talk with the kid who has just been arrested, or to sit with his frightened parents?  Will she come to the nursing home where they're wondering if this is the last holiday a grandparent will see?

Yes, she will.  This is her calling, the work she has been ordained to do.  It is the work of love, and I love her for it.

As she walked in the door, I was going to greet her when her phone rang again.  I recognized from her conversation that it is a parishioner with memory problems who calls her almost every day to ask the same questions.  Sometimes it seems he has been drinking; most of the time it seems he is lonely and afraid.  I knew my greeting could wait, and as she patiently listened to her parishioner, I joined her in silent prayer, thanking God for the kindness she shows and represents, a visible sign of the ideal of our community.  She cheerfully wished him a Merry Christmas.  I think she was glad he knew what day it was.

I don't know how she does it, but she makes me want to keep trying.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Best Break-Up Ever

Last week my oncologist broke up with me.  It was the best break-up ever.

Fifteen years ago I got a call from my doctor.  He asked me, "Are you sitting down?"  Then he added, "I have some bad news from your tests."  Two days later I was in surgery having a tumor removed.

Our kids were small, we were young, and I was in my second year of grad school at St. John's College.  I earned an hourly wage as a substitute teacher at a local prep school, which I supplemented by teaching Spanish to a group of kindergarteners, giving Greek lessons to a high school student, and occasionally working as a fly-fishing guide in northern New Mexico. Like many graduate students, we lived far below the poverty level. We were fortunate to have basic health insurance, supportive families, WIC, and a great local church.  Even so, we knew we had an uncertain road ahead. 

Since then we've moved twice, I finished grad school at Penn State, and have been awarded tenure at a fine liberal arts college in South Dakota, Augustana College.

And over the years I've lost track of how many times I've been stuck with needles or made to swallow barium sulfate contrast.  Each time I drink that stuff it's worse than the last time.  It makes me feel like it's stripping my intestines of their very lining.  At first I could go to work afterwards, but the last few times I've had it it has left me too weak to walk for much of the day.

Who knows how much iodine radiocontrast I've had injected into my veins?  You feel it enter your vein, and the mild burn pulses, lub-dub, with each heartbeat, up your arm and then crashes into your heart.  A moment after it hits your heart, it explodes outward across your whole body.  It shoots up your neck, setting your throat abuzz, and then you taste metal.  At the same time it rushes downward and you feel like you've just wet your pants.  (I'm told many people do in fact become incontinent at this point.)

I've taken it all more or less in stride, because, as they say, fighting cancer beats the alternative.  In some ways, it was probably easier for me than for my family, since there wasn't much I could do about it other than submit to the treatment, and when I did, it left me too weak for worry.  My wife was nothing short of amazing when I was first diagnosed, taking care of three small kids and one sick husband.  She has a long and deep habit of prayer, and I think that was her sea anchor in a rough storm.

Each time we've moved I've had to find a new oncologist, and again, I've been fortunate to find good ones, serious physicians who really showed concern for me.  (Michael McHale in Sioux Falls always took the time to ask me about my life before he asked me about my body, and I am grateful for him like I am grateful for friends and ministers and counselors.  Our insurance wouldn't let me keep seeing him, unfortunately, so I've had a few other oncologists over the last three years.)

Last week, my current oncologist and I looked over my medical history together.  It's an annual ritual: we look at my tumor markers and my other bloodwork, my most recent X-rays or CT scan.  The doctor nods and says that nothing has changed, and he'll see me again in six months or a year.

This time, it was different.  "It has been fifteen years, and we haven't seen any new tumors," he said.  "It's possible that it will recur, of course.  You're in a higher risk group, and there could be some cells in some other part of your body that are slowly growing."  I'm used to hearing this, so I nodded, and looked in his eyes as I always do, to see if there's news I should brace myself for.

Having cancer at a young age was like an early midlife crisis.  It sharpened my focus and made me see that there was no point wasting whatever time I have left.  If there is something I should be doing, now is the time to do it, not later.  I'm trying to live fully now, not postponing life until I feel more rested, or more financially sound, or more ready for it.  I don't think I'm being reckless, but I'm trying to live well, and without regrets.  The days of my life are numbered, but I am unable to count any of them but the ones in the past, plus today.

It's not like I spend a lot of time thinking about my own mortality, mind you.  But every visit to the oncologist is a reminder that I am still alive.  My first oncologist told me, "you drew the historical long straw," explaining that only twenty years earlier my cancer was one of the least curable forms, but thanks to recent research it was now one of the most curable.

(As an aside, thanks for giving to that research, and please keep giving to organizations like the American Cancer Society.  I advise the Augustana College Chapter of Colleges Against Cancer, so I'd be remiss if I didn't put that in here!)

"But everything looks good.  I don't think you need to come back, as long as you and your regular doctor keep checking for lumps."

I think I must have looked like a cow staring at a new gate*, or a deer caught in the headlights.  He smiled at me.  "If you're okay with that, I mean."

"Yes, I'm okay with that," I stammered.

"Then we're graduating you.  No need to come back," he said.  He extended his hand to shake mine, and then he and his resident, congratulating me, left me to consider a life without coming back to his office.

I've lost a lot of friends and family to cancer, including my beautiful, wonderful mother.  A number of my friends and colleagues or their spouses are afflicted by rogue cells in their bodies right now.  It's a frightening, ugly thing to hear your body is growing itself out of its own orderly bounds, that some part of you is growing towards death, that your body has become entangled with a worse form of itself that threatens to overshadow all that is good in you.

So for now, I am still basking in the warmth of this best break-up ever.  I'm glad to hear my oncologist has dumped me.  I'm delighted to hear that those misfiring cell divisions have been banished from my body.

And I'm hoping that more and more people who long for such news will come to hear it soon, mindful that many who deserve to hear it never will.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have a fresh today to attend to.


* This is from Martin Luther.  He writes, wie ein kue ein neues thor ansihet.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

When The Court Will Not Give Justice

“They suppressed their consciences and turned away their eyes from looking to Heaven or remembering their duty to administer justice.” 
-- The Book of Susanna, v. 9. (New Revised Standard Version) 

“Just as she was being led off to execution, God stirred up the holy spirit of a young lad named Daniel, and he shouted with a loud voice, ‘I want no part in shedding this woman’s blood!’ All the people turned to him and asked, ‘What is this you are saying?’ Taking his stand among hem he said, ‘Are you such fools, O Israelites, as to condemn a daughter of Israel without examination and without learning the facts? Return to court, for these men have given false evidence against her.’” 
-- The Book of Susanna, vv. 45-49. (New Revised Standard Version)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Of Men and of Angels

"If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but I have not love, then I have become a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal."

That's from one of St. Paul's letters to the church in Corinth.  It's a passage often read at weddings, probably because it speaks eloquently about agapic love.

I like it for another reason: it has a nice onomatopoeic pun in the Greek text.  Paul's "If I speak..." is lalo; his "clanging" is alaladzon, which sounds like the noise a gong makes and sounds like it could mean "un-speaking."  (In Greek, words that begin with "a-" are often like English words beginning with "un-".)

This week, as we approach the third Sunday in Advent, I was looking again at a poem I wrote during this week a few years ago, after the school shooting in Newtown.  In it I compared first responders and teachers and others who give up so much for the sake of the common good to angels.  That is my second-most read post ever.

The most-read post is one I wrote after Ferguson, about the militarization of our first responders, and the way the tools we equip ourselves with change the way we interact with the world - and with other people.

Both of these posts are about public servants.  Taken together they remind me that what is done in love can be heroic and life-giving, and what is done in fear can become tyrannical.  They remind me that we have a tendency to revere the outward signs of badges and uniforms, when we should judge characters by the habits they embody and by the actions that show the habits.

And they remind me that we have a long, long way to go before we can say we have learned to love one another.


I should add that even the title to this post is misleading.  The word Paul uses is not "men" but "humans." I like the cadence of the old translation "men" but the word is anthropon, not andron.  Normally I prefer the more inclusive (and more accurate) "humans" but I first learned this verse in an older, poetic translation and the rhythm of it has stuck with me.