17 November 2018

Active Waiting

As I wend my way through this year I have seen over and over again the power of waiting. It has not been so much a matter of 'good things come to those who wait' more a series of erratic stoppages in my life.

In the early part of the year it was waiting with, and on, my mom as she entered fully into dying. I had brought several knitting projects with me because I always bring projects down to my parents' house to work on, often times more than I could ever do in the week or two I plan to stay. Dad sometimes teases me about the number of bags or boxes in my car, but he also helps me carry them in the house when I arrive.

As I have written elsewhere, I found certain types of knitting a great antidote to waiting to do the Next Thing for Mom. I could feel like I was getting something done and keep my mind active, even as I was waiting for Mom to express her next request.

Several times she said variations on "I'm sorry to interrupt your work…" before asking me for help or to get her something. My answer was always that the project was only to fill time between requests, I was there for her first and foremost. We eventually agreed that she could say she was sorry for interrupting me as often as she wanted, as long as she went ahead and asked for what she needed with worrying. It sounds strange now, but it worked for us.

Over time, I came to realize that, for me, knitting a simple project that didn’t require my full concentration was helping me to stay in the moment. It gave my naturally worrying brain something to focus. If I was going to spend energy worrying anyway, I might as well focus that worry into keeping an eye out for dropped stitches; rather than what the next day or two might hold. I can (mostly) control the stitch count of a knitting project, I can't control how well someone will sleep or what the side effects of medications will be.

Having a focus that was outside of myself filled the waiting minutes but didn't distract me from the moment that I was needed to take action.

Other forms of waiting this year have been less fraught. I took over a crafting project to repair a blanket and for several weeks I was able to work on it actively as I figure out what stitch pattern and gauge was used to make the pattern. However, once my investigation was finished, I was left with the difficult part of the project: finding yarn that matched the existing project. Not only did the color need to match, but the fiber content, sheen, and weight needed to be close to the original. Commercially produced colors change from season-to-season and from year-to-year. Colors that were everywhere suddenly vanish into thin air. Add to that the fact that colors fade and change over time and finding a match becomes as much a waiting game as anything. I couldn't will the yarn I needed into existence, but I could keep an eye out for it, waiting as stock changed, or as I spotted new places to look for older yarn. I was actively waiting for the right yarn. Letting time pass while also keeping myself open to finding the right thing in an unexpected place.

Now I am in a new time of waiting. My favorite season of the church year, Advent, is almost up me. I have started my own tradition of getting out my Advent candles and my nativities in the week before Thanksgiving. This year Advent in the Episcopal Church starts on Sunday, December 2nd, so if I stick to my schedule, I'll be ready to light my first candle ten days early. 

I started my practice of setting up early for Advent because I frequently would miss the first week in the confusion and busyness surrounding Thanksgiving. Having everything set up in advance of the first Sunday in Advent make it easier to intentionally mark the start of the season and enter into the quiet the season brings.

Back when my own daughter was born, I wasn't a knitter. I did sew, and I made her a little, slightly weird, baby outfit of my own design. Maybe this year, I will spend some time knitting while my Advent candles burn through the dark time of the year.  They can light the way as I actively wait for the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

03 November 2018

A Road to Guide Me

He drew me up from the desolate pit,
   out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
   making my steps secure.
~Psalm 40:2

This time of year, in the Pacific Northwest the sun sets by 6:00 p.m. and it gets very dark very fast. This is in stark contrast to the late sunset and long lingering twilight of summer, when I can frequently see well enough to work in my garden past 9:00 p.m.

I was reminded of this as I drove from my home in Washington State to visit my dad on the Oregon coast. I was on the road by mid-afternoon, but typical terrible traffic meant it took 2 ½ hours to go the first 50 miles of my 200 mile trip. So instead of having daylight on my side for most of the drive, I ended up doing the darkest and most rural sections of the road in rainy, winter darkness.

The up side of being out on the road later on weekday meant there wasn't much traffic on the roads, however that also made me feel incredibly isolated. At times, it seemed as if my headlights were not just illuminating the road in front of me, but bring it into being before my eyes. This was especially true on the twisty and hilly sections of the road as I got closer to the end of my journey. As I approached a hill the road reflectors would glow from a long way off, but as I crested the hill or approached a sharp turn the road would seem to disappear, giving the impression that it would drop out from under me if I kept going.

Needless to say the lack of road was an illusion that was revealed as I started down the hill or around the curve and my lights caught the next set of reflectors. However, for the brief moment it lasted, it was disturbing.

I had faith that the road would be there. (Though I did sensibly slacken speed on some hills and curves-- there is faith and then there is being reckless).

As I was driving I thought, how in my faith, the trinity of Jesus/God/Holy Spirit is the road at night. I can't see beyond my headlights, but the road is still there. The road can't keep me from having an accident or doing something ill-advised, but it will not vanish from underneath me just because my headlights are no longer on it. The road exists independently of me, but I depend on it to keep me out of the ditch. I follow the fog line faithfully, even when I am blinded by the high-beams of on-coming cars.

And sometimes, even on an infrequently traveled rural road, I gain a companion in the darkness. For some time I am followed, or I follow another car. I can see their glowing lights in front of me and together we light up more of the darkness than we could alone. Or I am the leader and, as with tonight's drive, I spot a hazard in time to stop and warn the driver behind me with my brake lights*.

Time passes and my fellow travelers peel off to their own destinations and I am left alone again in my pool of light with the road firm beneath me. Without the road, I would be lost. With the road I am guided safely to my destination.

-=-=-=-=-

*A deer or elk was crossing the road in the dark and I spotted it in time to stop safely.

All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gateway unless otherwise noted.

20 October 2018

Eternal Stories

My daughter and I watched a lot of nature TV shows about human evolution. As a species, we seem to have been telling stories through art since the dawn of our time. Cave paintings, jewelry, body art, pigments, stone circles, and carvings are all things that have been left behind by human and proto-human societies.

We have a drive to make art, to tell stories, and to develop rituals that goes back to our beginning.

It comes to us at our end as well. One of the many things I learned as part of helping to take care of my mom during her last weeks was that it is common for people to start using metaphorical language. They talk about: going home, packing for a trip, or they might ask about their passport or airline tickets.

This happened to me when I was sitting with my mom in her last days. She suddenly asked me if she was all packed for her trip. Even though I had read the hospice guide many times over the previous week, I was still caught off guard by how clear and cogent she sounded when she asked the question. This was one of the few times I was unsure of what to say. However, since she seemed worried about it, I decided to address the worry and not the words. I told her that everything was taken care of and that she didn't need to worry. She relaxed after that.

Even though I had been prepared for the idea that Mom might use a journey or travel metaphor as she neared the end of her life, it still hit me harder than I expected. We had already had a lot of frank and sometimes difficult conversations about her coming death. She and I were able to talk about death and dying in a very straightforward (if sometimes darkly humorous) way; and, while it made me sad to reflect on losing her, I rarely had a problem talking about death and all of the related logistics. So I was surprised when I had such a strong reaction to Mom's almost unconscious use of metaphorical language to tell me that she was ready to go.

This past week, my husband heard from his parents that his grandmother has started talking about 'going home' and she pretty clearly isn't talking about trying to move back to her apartment from the nursing home.

It makes me both wonder and appreciate our human ability and need to tell stories.

Humans throughout the ages have made up stories to explain the world around them, we have created rituals to re-tell and re-enforce those stories. We use just about anything we can get our hands on to make art that tells stories. Even Jesus tried to communicate his teachings through parables, telling stories to try to get his disciples and followers to more fully understand what he was trying to say.

And when we reach the end of life, our minds, bodies, and spirits work together to tell one last story. The story of leaving everything behind and going on one final journey.

Neither Mom nor I really believed in an afterlife-- at least not the ideas of 'heaven' that seem to have grown up around Christianity over the past 2000+ years. Mom was a big proponent of living and working in the here-and-now. She said many times that we should be working to create heaven on earth and not be waiting around to go to heaven after death.

I don't have any good answers to what might happen after death. I don't know if Mom's spirit went anywhere or if she lives on only through the love of her family and the friends that remember her.

I do know, like millions before her, she set out on a journey and for once I couldn't go with her.

However, while she may be traveling beyond my reach on earth, I maintain my connection with her and with all of our human and proto-human ancestors by telling stories.

-------- Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.

06 October 2018

Why does my garden grow?

I have been fortunate enough to live in the same house for over 21 years; enabling me to completely transform our suburban yard into a haven for my family.

I turn 50 this year and have started to think about a two-pronged reality. One, even if I am lucky enough to live the classic four-score and ten, there are some plants that I will never see fully mature. Admittedly at my age, those are mostly trees, but still, the point stands. Two, if I ever have to move or when I die, I will leave my garden behind and the next people to live in our house might rip it all out and start over. Both prospects include melancholy (which my-dad-the-Buddhist would tell me is a sign of attachment and, likely, ego, so I probably should work on that). However part of the reason the idea of leaving my garden behind makes me sad is that it is not just a garden, it is memories of love made manifest.

Nothing in my garden beds or in the yard is planted just because I like it. Almost every plant has a second, emotion laden, meaning behind it's place in the yard.

The roses come from my Dad's attempt to keep roses alive in Wyoming winter after winter and from my husband's grandmother, who gave me a cutting from a rose that had been planted by my husband's, grandfather's, grandmother after she bought it from a peddler.

The twenty-plus evergreen huckleberry bushes come from my husband's side of the family. His grandfather would go huckleberry picking every fall and come home with gallons of berries to be made in to preserves for the coming winter. He had his own secret locations he would head off to each fall. Even when he needed two sticks to walk with he would climb into his truck and disappear for the day to fill his gallon buckets with berries.

The raspberries were planted after a trip to Norway with my mother where we met my grandfather's cousin. He took us to his hytta (basically a cabin) and we picked raspberries from the long lines of bushes he planted and carefully tended. Both my mother and my grandfather's cousin are dead now, but I still have the memory of that moment and it comes back to me every year when I eat raspberries from my own bushes.

The herbs in pots on the deck and nestled in some of the flower beds were planted when my daughter wanted to have an herb garden. I've continued to keep them both because they remind me of her and since I have started to do a lot more baking and it seems _right_ to have herbs to use.

There are many more, for as I say, all of the plants have a meaning beyond the fact that they are native, or good for bees and hummingbirds.

My plants allow me to commune with memories of my past, remind me of the contribution others have made (and continue to make) in my life, and ground me to the hear-and-now with the continued care that they require.

Working in my garden, reforges connections with people who are dear to me. Weeding is never just weeding. As a work around the plants I want to keep, I automatically think about why I planted them, what I love about them, and what love inspired me to plant them in the first place.

In some ways it is my own 'Communion of Saints'; a place where I go to relive memories of past joys.

I hope, when it is time to put my trowel and garden knife down for good I will remember that, while I am leaving my physical garden behind, it is the memories and sense of connection to my family and friends that I have truly cultivated.*

-----------

*Though I do hope those who come after me keep the huckleberry bushes, because nothing else will grow very well under the big evergreen trees in our front yard and it takes 20 years to grow them from gallon- sized plants to three-foot tall bushes.

27 September 2018

Change we can start now

When abusers violate consent, the burden should fall on them. Women carry a huge burden in that we are expected to restrict our lives in order to 'protect' ourselves in ways that men are not. We need to raise the next generation of women to say no to living in fear and restricting their lives. We need to teach them from day one that anyone who violates their consent is responsible for that behavior. Women as a group have been silenced and shamed by the actions of men who have treated them as props rather than people. The burden of shame and guilt currently falls on the survivor rather than on the abuser. That has got to change. We may not ever stop sexual assault but we can stop, as a culture, accepting 'boys with be boys', giving males (especially wealthy, white males) a pass when they abuse. We can start believing survivors when they tell their stories. We can press for rules that make it more likely that abuse that is reported gets investigated. We can make sure that laws actually cover all forms of sexual assault. There is a lot we can do to curb sexual assault and pretty much none of it is: make potential victims live in fear that this might happen to them and that it is their fault if it does.

22 September 2018

Whom have I in heaven but you?

A friend of mine and I were spending time together working on our knitting and chatting and we got on the topic of the things we do to try to stay healthy. We are both big women and I know I've struggled all of my life with feeling judged when I was out in public, which makes being willing to leave the house for exercise emotionally daunting.

It wasn't until I was in my forties that I realized that I carried a lot of that judgment within me and that many other people were also wandering in the world feeling like everyone who looked at them was judging them and that those same people were too busy worrying about themselves to really spend much energy judging me.

(I will take a moment here to say that just enough jerks in the world that have catcalled, make snide remarks in my hearing, or otherwise fed my feeling of being judged that there is a basis in reality for my anxieties. The seeds that it was normal for people to judge me and find me wanting were planted early, and took a long time for me to overcome.)

I carried the weight of what I thought other people thought about me for years and it weighed me down. I don't know at what moment I realized that I didn't have to carry the weight of the (mostly imaginary) expectations of others any more; but once I did it was a revelation.

Like the psalmist from the Daily Office readings for Friday, Proper 19, before I had that revelation, my focus was on other people. I worried about what they would think of me, how they would act towards me, why they would be judgmental, and what they might say to me. I had conversations in my head, trying to prepare myself to go out in the world and make a space for myself.

But when I thought how to understand this,
——it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
——then I perceived their end.
~Psalm 73:16-17

In short, I spent a lot of energy worrying about futures that never came to pass and that would not have played out in any way I could have imagined even if they did appear.

When my soul was embittered,
——when I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant;
——I was like a brute beast toward you.
Psalm 73:21-22

When I started to work on re-framing my own thoughts to let go of both projecting imaginary judgment from people on to myself and from giving too much weight to the judgment of, frankly rude, strangers, I felt like a flower opening up and turning toward the sun.

Nevertheless I am continually with you;
——you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
——and afterward you will receive me with honor.
~Pslam 73:23-24

That feeling of being able to be open to the world rather than closed off in a permanent defensive crouch is how I feel about the grace God has given us through Jesus and his teachings. God gave us a person we could relate to, someone we could exchange stories with, someone who suffered our kind of pain and passed through death just as we all will and the message Jesus brought was not one of having to be ritually pure, rule followers to win over God; rather, that it was okay to be messy, sinful human beings who flailed (and failed) around trying to find the right path.

Jesus's message, told over and over again in parables and straight from the heart was: love. Love one-another, love God, love enemies, love strangers. If you do nothing else on this earth: love.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
——And there is nothing on earth that I desire
——other than you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
——but God is the strength of my heart and my
——portion forever.
~Psalm 73:23-26
-=-=-=-

All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gatewayunless otherwise noted.

08 September 2018

Elevator Pitch

I've been a member of many organizations over the years that have had or developed mission statements. One of the concepts I learned during the process was that the mission statement should be short and pithy. It should be akin to pitching a story idea to a producer in an elevator. You have short elevator ride to get your story idea across and to get the producer interested enough to meet with you about it for a second time, aka the Elevator Pitch.

Christianity, as a religion, has had 2000-plus years to accumulate a massive backstory; starting with the basic tales of Jesus in the four gospels, adding the Acts of the Apostles, gaining a plethora of saints, staining and straining that faith by mixing it with temporal and political power, and trying to make that power accountable for the abuses that have been done in its name. There is a lot of history to explore and learn from, and it can be difficult to know what to start with when exploring even our own small branch of the Christian faith.

In the readings for the Daily Office, Year 2, Proper 17, Friday we have an example of an evangelist boiling down a huge chunk of history as a basic introduction to where Jesus sprang from:

“You Israelites, and others who fear God, listen. The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. For about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. After he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance for about four hundred fifty years. After that he gave them judges until the time of the prophet Samuel. Then they asked for a king; and God gave them Saul son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, who reigned for forty years. When he had removed him, he made David their king. In his testimony about him he said, ‘I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes.’ Of this man’s posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised; before his coming John had already proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his work, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but one is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on his feet.’
~Acts 13:16b-25

Paul covers the history of the Jews from Moses to the coming of Jesus in one short paragraph. If not quite an elevator pitch, it is definitely a quick summary of the major events that have lead to this moment in time. This summary places Jesus in a particular context for this particular audience; paving the way for sharing the good news.

We have examples of Peter and Paul customizing the message for their current audience. Given the success of the early disciples at spreading the word about Jesus and building the early church I would guess that many of them were excellent at meeting people where they were and conveying the message of Jesus to very diverse groups throughout the region.

The fact that the ideas were shared and claimed by enough people for it to grow from a small group, to a sect, to a whole new religion that survived the fall of Jerusalem, the split between the eastern and western followers and became one of three traditions that share a beginning in the stories in what became our Old Testament says something about both the effectiveness of messengers and the longing for the message.

For a story to have an effect, two things must be in place: the story must have an internal power-- there must be something compelling about it to catch the attention of the listener; and the listener must be ready to hear that particular story-- there must be a way for them to see how they fit in the story, or how it makes sense in the context of their own lives. If the storyteller does not have a compelling tale or the hearer is not ready to listen the story dies.

Something about the story of Jesus, his experience, and his followers has caught the attention of millions of people over the past 2000 years. Some people have had Paul's Road to Damascus instant conversion experience, some have been raised in the faith and have carried it on to the next generation, some have had a long and winding journey to find a spiritual home within the Christian faith.

Given that it is flawed humans that carry the faith from the time to Jesus to the ever-moving-present, it is something of a miracle that the message of Jesus still has power to speak to new generations.

Like Paul summarizing the history that linked the past history of the Jewish people to the life of Jesus, each of us has the power to carry the message of Jesus out from our churches into the world.

This does not require showing up on strangers doorsteps and asking them about their personal relationship to Jesus Christ. Honestly, I feel nothing could be more off-putting. Instead, it requires that we live our faith and be open to sharing it with people who express an interest.

Paul responded to an invitation from the officials of the synagogue who said: "Brothers, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, give it."

Like the script-writer trying to sell an idea, the elevator pitch of our faith will be most effective if it is customized, contextualized, and compelling to the individual listener.

Not everyone is ready to hear the Good News, some will never be ready, but for those who are: we have a humdinger of a story to tell.

25 August 2018

Silence

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
Job 2:11-13

Earlier this year, when I was helping my dad take care of my mom in her last weeks, there was a lot of room for silence.

One of the side effects of mom's last illness was severe shortness of breath. She was on oxygen full time and between a lack of stamina and the fact that talking was a big effort, we spent a fair amount of time with whatever baseball game we could find playing. But, even with the deluxe baseball package my dad bought for her every year, there wasn't quite enough baseball to fill the hours.

When mom didn't have the energy to talk, and didn't need me to fetch and carry for her, I would sit with her and knit. Keeping my hands busy by knitting, turned into a form of meditation. It allowed me to be present and ready at any moment for my mom-- either to talk or listen, to make her lunch or dinner, or to bring her things she wanted. I'm not very good at just being still.

Job's friends were able to be still and silent with him and for him. His suffering was so great and inflicted on him in a way that no mere human could control that their presence was the only gift they could offer their friend.

It can be very difficult to sit with someone else's suffering. But sometimes is the only thing to do. It may not help in the sense of bringing physical healing or fixing the problems a person is facing, but it can bring a person who is suffering back into the fold of humanity.

Mom had a hard time sharing the fact that she was not only ill, but that what she had was incurable. This was not because she was in denial, but because she did not want people treating her as if she was her illness. She did not want to lose her unique humanity to her illness. Most of all, she did not want people talking in hushed voices to her in the 'oh, it must be so dreadful' way.

In her last weeks, mom had a lot in common with Job. She most need just a few trusted friends and family who would treat her as a person and her illness as just a practical thing that had to be dealt with. Dad and I did our best to keep her and her choices about how to live in the center of our own lives and sometimes, what she needed most was our constant and silent presence.

11 August 2018

The People

Often in the stores told in the bible there is a main character the story revolves around and it can feel like it is their actions or their sole relationship with God that is driving the story.

However there is another, sometimes misguided, sometime powerful voice in the stories of the Old and New Testament: the people.

In the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation of the bible, there are 1558 references to "the people" listed in the Old Testament, Apocrypha, and New Testament. Sometimes 'the people' are just background characters, there to give flavor to the story. Other times they are critical to the path the story takes.

'The people' as a character in the story, are very often foolish and make terrible choices. The entire book of Exodus is full of the people as a whole making choices that irritate and enrage God; misunderstanding God's purpose for them; or sometimes, more rarely, thanking God for giving them what the needed, praising God and promising to be ever-faithful.

The people in the New Testament are just as fickle. Some days they are following John and Jesus around hanging on their every word. In others they are calling for Jesus to be put to death.

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood;[a] see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
~ Matthew 27:24-26

Later, in Acts, 'the people' have swung around to another opinion and oppose the "...rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family" (Acts 4:5) when these high-status people want to punish Peter and John for healing and speaking in Jesus's name.

There is no way to know if this group of 'the people' was composed of the same folks who shouted for Jesus to die.

After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened.
~Acts 4: 21

What we do see over and over in stories in the bible is that 'the people' are an actor in the narrative and that they frequently drive the powerful, be it God or human leaders, to distraction.

The people, either when acting as a concerted mob or just as individuals that happen to support a specific goal in the moment, often change the course of the story.

The people, by their presence in the stories, also serve to remind the readers that the 'named' characters weren't the only actors in the unfolding drama of the relationship between God and humanity.

It is never just Abraham and Sarah, or Aaron and Miriam, or Saul, or David; it is not just Peter and John, or Mary and Martha, behind all of those named in the stories is a universe of unnamed people who are sometimes central and some time peripheral to the story, but who will all be impacted by the choices made in the stories.

Just like the named characters, sometimes 'the people' get to act directly in the story and make terrible choices that must be recovered from or atoned for.

To me, the fact that 'the people' are not just passive background in the stories is a reminder that God's relationship is not just with the named characters that appear in the bible, but with all of us. The new covenant God made through Jesus is not just with the disciples but with everyone.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
~Matthew 4:23

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All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gatewayunless otherwise noted.

Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.

28 July 2018

The Book Written for Me

Because I am one of the many people who cannot read any of the ancient languages the books of the Old and New Testament are written in, I depend on the scholarship of others to translate those books into English.

Translators work hard not just to capture the meaning of ancient words that we no longer have context for, but also to phrase the meaning using a structure readers can understand. It doesn't take much of a change in wording to change the sense or emphasis of a biblical passage.

The first biblical translation I ever read was the King James Version (KJV). Here is the King James version of Psalm 40: 6-7, part of one of the readings for today.

Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required.

Then said I, Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me,

Here is the same passage from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the translation that I default to.

Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
  but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
  you have not required.
Then I said, “Here I am;
  in the scroll of the book it is written of me.

Other than updating the language from Early Modern English to Modern English, the change that catches my attention is the one from 'Lo, I come' in the KJV to 'Here I am' in the NRSV. This may only be an artifact of my own limited understanding of Early Modern English, as 'Lo, I come' might mean exactly the same thing as 'Here I am' to a native speaker of Early Modern English. However, to me, there is a difference in the energy of the phrases. 'Lo, I come' indicates movement, a sense of departure, and a decision to take action on the part of the speaker; while, 'Here I am' indicates stopping, a sense of arrival, and a past decision brought to completion.

The King James Version was published in 1611 and the New Revised Standard Version was published in 1989. In the 378 years that elapsed between these two publications there were advances in biblical scholarship and an increase in the number of original sources discovered that scholars could use. That discovery and scholarship continues to this day.

In 2007, Robert Alter published his translation and commentary of the book of psalms. His commentary includes explanations of his translation choices, notes about the meaning of some phrases, and notes of areas of the text that are fragmentary or challenging to translate.

His offering for Psalm 40:6-7 is:

Sacrifice and grain-offering You do not desire.
  You opened ears for me:
    for burnt-offering and offense-offering You do not ask.
Then did I think: Look I come
  with the scroll of the book written for me.*

The changes of note between this translation and that of the NRSV are the phrases: 'opened ears for me', 'offense-offering', and 'the book written for me.'

He notes that: "'You opened ears for me' literally means, 'You dug open ears for [or, to]'--that is, vouchsafed me a new acute power of listening to the divine truth. In later Hebrew, this idiom karah 'ozen comes to mean 'listen attentively.' It is also possible to construe this--because 'ears' is not declined in the possessive--as God's listening attentively to the speaker."

It is interesting that the other two translations give the ears to the psalmist while Alter shows that the ears have just been opened. There is no clear ruling on whose ears they are. That opens up many possible meanings for this on phrase. The newly opened ears might be those of the psalmist, those of God, or even those of a third party or parties. I love the visceral power of 'you dug open ears' giving the sense as it does of a lot of work going into getting those ears to open.

The other change of Alter's that speaks to me is the change from a book written 'of me' and a book written 'for me'. A book written 'for me' by God that I carry with me has a different sense than a book written 'of me'. If the book is 'for me' it is a gift given directly to me, something I can refer to and use as a reference going forward in life. If it is 'of me' then it is about me, making me an object of the book rather than an active user of the book.

Spending time looking at different translations made to fulfill different purposes, allows me to embrace and analyze the text from different points of view.

King James gave his committee of translators instructions that "intended to ensure that the new version would conform to the ecclesiology of, and reflect the episcopal structure of, the Church of England and its belief in an ordained clergy."+

The guiding principal for the New Revised Standard Version was: “As literal as possible, as free as necessary.”

Robert Alter is trying to capture the compact and unique poetical structure of the psalms in English while using modern scholarship.

Each of these translations is impacted by the underlying goal brought to the translation process by the people working on the project. I think there is great value in looking a different translations, not only because it is interesting and expands my idea of what a particular passage might mean, but because this multiplicity of voices reflects how difficult it is to hear the voice of God.

We are so very tiny in the vastness of the Universe and therefore in the Vastness of God. As we see in the the story of Moses in the Old Testament, meeting God face-to-face changes a person irrevocably. God is too big for us to fully comprehend first-hand.

Jesus, coming to us 'incarnate from the Virgin Mary' as we say in the Nicene Creed is something we can comprehend, even if we aren't great at always following his teachings. Through Jesus, God shows us how we can live in relationship with God and with our fellow humans.

For me, translations of the biblical texts, helps add to that faceted nature of God. The Old Testament God is one facet, Jesus another, and the stories humans have told about both of those facets are further expressions of the nature of God. There is a fractal nature to it that allows for infinite expression of our understanding of God.

The book written for me, is not just one book and not just one understanding of that book. My book is is shimmering multifaceted jewel that reflects one understanding of a story when the light hits it one way and another when the light changes.

What does not change is the stone itself, my understanding that while God, while vast, is the at the heart of the book written for me.

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*Alter, R. (2007). The Book of Psalms:: A translation with commentary (pp. 142). New York: W.W. Norton.

+Daniell, David (2003). The Bible in English: its history and influence. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09930-4. via Wikipedia

All bible quotes are from the NRSV text at Bible Gatewayunless otherwise noted.

Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.