All posts by Woodsong

Of Dragons and Slaying

Some of your dragons turn out to be kittens,
Some are there to guard you,
Some dragons are none of your business,
Some just need something to do.

A dragon that now looks like the world’s end,
May be one to become your best friend,
And a dragon that seems a mountain of might,
May be knocked down by a breeze one night.

It may take a dragon to show you your strength,
Or remind you to never stop playing,
So, have some respect and keep a safe length,
Few dragons require slaying.

– Samuel J. Lawson, 2019

Covenant of Love

     What is the significance of the texts of the Judeo-Christian religions to one who doesn’t consider them rules to be followed, or instructions for how to be good, or even the capital ‘W’ Words of God? What does ‘covenant’ mean in that situation? Does it even have meaning?

     It may be that this Bible does not condemn people whose sexuality doesn’t conform to that same preference as the majority. If it did, would that matter? Not to me, because that isn’t what I’ve become convinced is the purpose of the Bible. It may seem odd to Bible-literal Christians that those who take a different view on the authority of scripture can think of it having any power at all, but it’s even powerful enough to affect a life when a person doesn’t believe every Bible story is a literal historical event. In that context, what does ‘Covenant’ mean?

Well, I don’t prefer the same music as the majority, though the Bible recommends certain instruments, and some even interpret Ephesians 5:19 to recommend (some say require) non-instrumental music.

Rumour has it Moses hated Jazz
Rumour has it Moses hated Jazz

Various rules (or dogma), doctrine, commands are held up by some believers as holy writ. They’re free to do so, and here’s the important thing: those who take a legalistic, literal view of scripture must be allowed room to see it as they do. A person can’t be made to change their perspective on how the entire universe is composed by argument. In fact, the evidence shows that argument only solidifies an opposing viewpoint where religious fundamentalism is concerned.

     I once thought women couldn’t be ordained ministers, but then I married a woman who is possibly the best preacher I’ve ever heard. Yes, her words mean more to me because of the intimate relationship I enjoy with her. Even with my natural bias, I recognise her aptitude through those who don’t have such a close relationship, or any relationship at all with her, each of whom react as if quenched of a great thirst. Yes, women can and, if called must preach.

  keep-calm-and-meet-new-people-20   I once thought that any kind of sexuality other than heterosexuality was an aberration, an abomination to God. Then I was befriended by men and women whose same-sex relationships were loving, honest, and every bit as beautiful as my own marriage. Nothing aberrant, and certainly not abominable. Not only are such people not condemned, but openly blessed in life, marriage, and even in ordained ministry.

     I could go on at further length about how my view of scripture has shifted, but thats not the point. I’m not writing to point out the error of those who take the literal view. I’m writing to show that scripture still has meaning, even if one doesn’t believe that these are the words of God transmitted by direct dictation to writers who somehow found God’s phone number. That it still has influence is a testament to its power and divine influence.

     This is how covenant, a word with legal implications, can have meaning to those who don’t hold that the Bible is a legal book; that the biblical dogma is in no way the “Law of God.” Ancient cultures from which these words came were tribal. Life was harsh and the times were savage. They sealed agreements with marriages, livestock, and sometimes blood. Quid pro quo was just how their world worked. If one nation didn’t hold up their end of a bargain, there was nothing for it but brutal, bloody war. If just enough rain fell to provide a good harvest, if the beasts propagated and multiplied, people naturally assumed that the gods were pleased, and they continued in their contractual obligation to make burnt offerings. If the nation is conquered and its leaders are made captive, one assumes that God is angry. If your army decimates an entire race, you are justified because those people were evil and you, the true people, are expected to destroy them. This is not an indictment of any single early culture. In many early languages the word for one’s nation or tribe translates roughly to “The true people.” (http://www.native-languages.org/original.htm) This was the way of the ancient world, before the message of Love-your-neighbour-as-yourself managed to break through. What is remarkable is that, even in these early times, there are hints of the cosmic meaning of the word covenant; that even when broken, God still honours it.jud2-1_covenant

     Just a few centuries later things continued to progress. With the wisdom teachings of Hillel the Elder (100BC ~ 10AD) and Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (~30AD), a deeper meaning is revealed beyond a do-this-or-else understanding of the nature of the relationship humanity has with God. Love is the law. Love God, love people, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” This isn’t a one-verse doctrine; the over-arching story of God is a progression from human understanding of tit-for-tat, quid pro quo, to a godly love that extends beyond anything that can be broken like a childish earthly contract. It’s the divine understanding of God’s love — not just that God loves us, but that God is the embodiment of perfect love. The-Beatles-featuring-Yoda-all-you-need-is-love

     It’s almost trite… maybe it is trite: God is Love. Throughout scripture there are references to the covenants between God and humanity, between people and other people, husbands and wives and children. Love is the root of all relationships that truly affect a person’s life. What kind of covenant can one have with God? What agreement is there to be had with the very embodiment of Love? The only covenant a person can have with Love is to love. The only way to break a covenant of love is to withhold love, yet even then love sometimes breaks through. 

     That is the covenant God kept trying to get through to the writers of scripture. Many interpreted it in legal context, but in a lot of places the message made it through with blazing clarity. This is the only law, the only dogma, the only doctrine. Whatever name you use to call out to the Architect of life, if you are calling on the Author of Love, then you’ve found a covenant of ultimate freedom; what the whole idea of a covenant was meant to be from the beginning of time to the end to time-outside-of-time.

Your first Scotch done right

If learning to drink Scotch is on your to-do list, here are a few tips.

First, if you’ve never had it, try some real cheap-ass blended Scotch Whisky (note the lack of ‘e’ in Whisky – this is important – Scotch is Whisky, not whiskey). Cutty Sark should do. It will be terrible, but you will respect the drink. Now don’t fade out on me here. Get back on the horse and get some GOOD Scotch. Easiest-drinking stuff out there (that’s reasonably affordable between US$40-$60 per fifth) is the Glenmorangie “Quinta Ruban”, or my personal favourite, the Balvenie 12-year “Double wood.” Their “Caribbean Cask” is also heavenly.whisky-scotch

You also might like to try a Scotch from Islay, like Bowmore or Laphroaig (pronounced, la-FROY). Laphroiag is well described by people who enjoy it as, “Like getting kicked in the mouth by a horse who’s been galloping through a peaty bog.” Also, I’ve heard it said that, “A nip of Laphroaig is akin to licking the wet residue of a chimney sweep’s broom.”  Yumm! (No, really – I seriously like that kind of thing.) In all actuality, it is just a very smokey-tasting whisky from an island internationally known for distilleries that produce liquid camp fires and bottling it as Scotch. It is truly a phenomenal experience to try.

How to drink it:
Do not EVER put more than one ice cube in a fine single-malt Scotch, or else you’ll be wasting your money and some burly lad will show up at your door in a kilt, Tam O’ Shanter on his red mass of curly hair, and a Claymore on his hairy back,  seize your bottle of whisky from your startled grasp with a silent glare telling you in no uncertain terms that you’ve been very naughty indeed, and if you’re lucky, do you the honour of punching you in the mouth for insulting the homeland. If you must have it on the rocks, one ice cube is enough, and you won’t be run out of the Highlands for it; some distillers actually recommend a single rock. Traditionally, it’s either neat (nothing but Scotch) or a splash of pure, distilled water which is good for cutting through the ‘skin’ layer and opening up the whisky so you can have a proper taste. Don’t waft it like a wanna-be wine connoisseur. Give it just a minute to breathe, then stick your nose straight doon the glass to take in the aroma. Get a breath of fresh air, then do it again. People put their lives into this drink, some went to prison for it, and some have died defending their family distillery. It’s worth-while putting a little effort into enjoying; stories always add to the flavour.™ Take a careful sip, slosh it around, hold it for a moment, and let the gold liquor slide down your gullet into a grateful belly. Now think about what you’ve done. The malt from which it came grew and was harvested in one of the most beautiful places on Earth (Don’t believe me, bring up Scotland on Google Earth and see for yourself – better yet go there — even better yet, move there and help the economy by dutifully paying taxes). You’ve got water that’s filtered through the graves of a million Scottish and Pictish warriors, poets, inventors, and farmers travelling through your pipes. Just what the hell are you going to do with the rest of your life to compare with that one sip, eh? Now their story is a part of yours.

Quite a responsibility, aye.

Think mebbe I’ll go and have a wee dram more responsibility.

Zen Mountain

A mountain of music theory

There is a never-ending discussion about whether music theory might interfere with the natural art of making music. It tends to go like this:
The Guitar Grimoire's overtly evil-looking cover.
This circle summoned more demons than all the sigils of Hell.

Self-taught-guitarist: I have played the blues for decades. I don’t need to understand theory; don’t need to learn to read music. I’m afraid theory would get in the way of my art and make me sound too mechanical.

Academic guitar instructor: No, no, no. You must learn to read music. Only when you can turn black dots on a page into beautiful classical music will you be a truly complete musician.

Jazz guitarist: Theory is the groundwork for everything, but once you’re in the moment, you forget all that s***. You internalise the theory, but when the band is playing, you follow and sometimes you lead.

Metal guitarist: WTF are you talking about? Our amps go to 11!

(full disclosure, I know a lot of metal guitarists who joke about this, but are theory masters!)

Technical prog-rock guitarist: I am a music engineer who happens to like to play loud and fast. Could read music if I sat down with an acoustic for a few hours, but I prefer graph paper and drafting tools to chart out the sections and keep track of all the key changes and odd/compound metre changes.

tolkein-cir5ths
One circle of 5ths to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

There are a lot of different kinds of guitarists, and I’ve been most of them having played metal, 60’s & 70’s rock, blues, bluegrass, punk, country finger-style blues, 80’s virtuoso rock, prog rock, folk, jazz, and classical. Every musician inevitably fights the very natural tendency to push back against a difficulty. In nature, the path of least resistance is law. Rivers, electricity, air pressure all take the path of least resistance. Whether you realise it or not, you are part of that great natural world, and you have those same tendencies. There is a time, however, when the path of least resistance is the path to mediocrity. To say something like, “Music theory gets in the way of my playing; makes me sound too technical,” may have some truth, but it also rings of taking the easy way. It’s up to each musician to decide when the easy road is the best way to let the music flow and when the more difficult road will open it up to unexpected magnificence. 

Even when I played delta blues, knowing some theory opened up the language to a level of proficiency I couldn’t have achieved from just playing by ear, unless delta blues was all I ever did. That’s the key – if you are a one-genre musician, then you immerse yourself in that. If you’re immersed in the delta blues, then knowing the difference between a German augmented 6th chord and a French or Italian augmented 6th probably have little/no value. Full kudos to the old blues masters who maybe couldn’t tell a minor 7th from a 6add9 and yet paved a road I couldn’t imagine walking. Chances are, though, if the question has come up, you aren’t that one-trick pony. Distinctions in style are purely in the mind, and are mostly the result of era and geography or origin. Where does blues stop and bluegrass begin? Is the demarkation between classical, flamenco, and jazz a solid wall, a fine line, or a blur? We have these genres to help us know when to stop for the moment; like the boundaries between football pitches where two sets of teams play each other, but in different leagues. Someone had to say, “you play there while we play over here, and we are going to pretend the other does not exist for a while.” Just like a dozen teams playing on the same field at the same time, the full breadth and depth of music, attempted all at once would drive anyone mad.

I think we can all agree on this circle of fifths
I think we can all agree on this circle of fifths

Maybe you don’t need to know how to pick apart a sonata form movement, but knowing your relative minors, intervals, how to transpose on the fly, which chords fit naturally into a key signature, which chords might be borrowed from other keys, and how to improvise blues from 4 sharps to 2 flats is essential if you want to be the kind of musician that can drop into a jam when your moment comes.

When you first hear a song, and it’s magical. You don’t quite know what’s going on but you want to. Then you learn the song by listening to a recording, maybe slowing it down or reading the sheet music; you learn the chords and overall structure, the intervals between certain parts of the melody, the shapes and patterns of the song. It becomes a mountain of abstract theory — but here’s the thing: while you’re immersed in the guts of the song, you are just doing Music. This idea that music theory is some great mountain disappears because you’re ON the mountain. Then after practising for a long time, the theory ceases to matter. Muscle memory builds, you change little bits – sometimes intentionally sometimes not – you add expression; the song breathes and comes to life. The theoretical aspects provided a scaffold you used to build the song in your mind, but once it was there, the scaffold falls away. You’ve completed both the approach and the descent, you look back knowing the mountain is there, but at the moment of summit the elation of the last chord ringing in the air makes one forget the arduous climb… until it’s time to come back down and you are left with a desire to find the next mountain.

First there is theory. Then there is no theory. Then there is.

A story that bears recapitulating

Cm

C, E-flat, and G go into a bar. The bartender says, “Sorry, but we don’t serve minors.” So E-flat leaves, and C and G have an open fifth between them. After a few drinks, the fifth is diminished, and G is out flat. F comes in and tries to augment the situation, but is not sharp enough. D comes in and heads for the bathroom, saying, “Excuse me; I’ll just be a second.” Then A comes in, but the bartender is not convinced that this relative of C is not a minor. Then the bartender notices B-flat hiding at the end of the bar and says, “Get out! You’re the seventh minor I’ve found in this bar tonight.” E-flat comes back the next night in a three-piece suit with nicely shined shoes. The bartender says, “You’re looking sharp tonight. Come on in, this could be a major development.” Sure enough, E-flat soon takes off his suit and everything else, and is au natural. Eventually C sobers up and realizes in horror that he’s under a rest. C is brought to trial, found guilty of contributing to the diminution of a minor, and is sentenced to 10 years of D.S. without Coda at an upscale correctional facility.

Relentless Mist (Celtic Rain)

Relentless Mist (Celtic Rain)
6/8, moderately fast, a ballad of the huntress
Inspired by the legends of Niniane the Huntress and of Pwyll prince of Dyfed

The lowest trees receive the rain,
The richest lords endure pain,
The sting of love bites kings and beggars,
And Celtic Rain crowns all.

In ages past the huntress sought,
To hunt the beast of legends,
Relentless mists would be her fate,
In the hills of Wales and Scotland,
The stag appeared, but only ever,
Just beyond the huntress’ reach,
Into the mists they plunged with joy,
An ageless dance to never cease.

As with those who came before her,
Her prey had led her on,
Her way revealed, the mist uncurl’d ,
She stood in unfamiliar world.

Upon her head a crown descended,
Not of jewels, silver or gold,
A diadem of mist and moonlight,
With dreams all to behold.
Again the hart stood gleaming silver,
Just beyond the huntress’ reach,
Into the mists they plunged with joy,
An dance of love to never cease.

The lowest trees receive the rain,
The richest lords endure pain,
The sting of love bites kings and beggars,
And Celtic Rain, crowns all.

Copyright 2015 Samuel J. Lawson

Can’t Find Our Way Home

Your country of origin is an illusion created by imaginary lines drawn on a picture that inaccurately represents the geography of the area you inhabit on a minuscule ball of rock, liquid, and gas flying through space. The lines may have been drawn out of necessity for the purpose of coexisting alongside those with whom we have disagreements, but are still inarguably imaginary. Even with bodies of water that make a natural separation of regions, we decide at what point within that water one territory ends and another begins. There is a cold fact that people who argue about borders and citizenship either ignore or are ignorant of. That is, you do not live anywhere close to the spot where you were born.
 
The solar system travels around the galactic centre at a speed of 72,000 km/hour. With every passing birthday, you are an additional 630,720,000 km from the place you were born, yet in the entire existence of homo-sapiens, we haven’t even made a single revolution around our galaxy. If you’re a human talking about other humans, there is no ‘They’, there is only ‘We.’ If ‘We’ define home as the place where we were born, then none of us were born where we are, and no-one will ever return home.

Paul and the Oral Gospel

Paul wrote in clumps between 57 and 67, often in prison, and almost entirely through dictation. At varying points he shows different levels of acceptance, and not entirely in progressive order. Human that he is, his writings show possibly waffling about women’s issues as well as the degree to which gentiles were included in his ministry. Paul encountered God, and that gave him the inspiration and need to minister. However the only dictation that happened was from Paul to his scribe(s). Direct revelation provided the impetus of his journeying, but not necessarily the content. All that God tells him in the encounter is essentially, you’re blind, stop being a dick and killing people, now go to Damascus. It would be wonderful to know all that Ananias and the other disciples in Damascus taught Paul. I would guess that Paul’s short term as Ananias’s pupil was likely the time during which the entirety of the oral gospel (Q?) reached Paul’s ears. As all baby Christians, Paul got excited and taught for a little while in Damascus until he pissed people off and escapes, and then in Jerusalem where the disciples were still focused on ethnocentric ministry, and then, as with many baby Christians, he got excited and ticked people off again, and so he retreated to Tarsus. It’s something like 12 years before his first missionary journey. The only source for what was probably taught to Saul during those early days in Damascus is the oral lessons that were later written, which we call the gospels. And so, the oral Gospel message was Paul’s source, but then Paul’s teachings affected the later written Gospel. It’s not the perfect, infallible Word of God, but it is a beautiful 4-dimensional puzzle that points to deific inspiration, and a piece of the story of how people attempted to come to terms with what kind of relationship a people may have with the creator, and what a relationship with God might mean. I don’t take direct instruction from Paul. I read Paul and say, “Ah, so that’s what he thought about God.”

I’d have been hung or burnt as a heretic.

On Eternity and the After-Life

Here’s something I think is worth considering, because I at times have difficulty wrapping my brain around eternity. That is: you don’t have do believe in cartoon heaven to believe in life after the flesh. It depends on what one means by eternity. Maybe eternity isn’t endless time and space, but rather what encompasses time and space. Another way is to say that it is a space without time (different from space-time). If there is any truth to this, then every living thing is eternal because for all eternity you exist right here and right now. Through God, I believe that my consciousness extends, to varying degrees, beyond my physical experience and beyond space-time, and that this extent will be fully realised as I pass from physical existence.

If there is no Hell, what is the point?

     I have never been afraid of Hell. I’ve never had a dream that I was in Hell. I doubt I ever seriously believed in it, though it was a teaching of the church I attended as a child. For me, the doctrines of penal substitution seemed logical in the sense of a need for some kind of balance, but not in the sense of staying out of Hell. For me, the idea of annihilation has always been worse. What if there’s nothing? What if I am simply no more?

    Existential crisis much?

snoopy_exstl
Existential Snoopy
    I do feel that I have some assurances that annihilation will not be how I experience eternity. I have the experiences I call Glimpses from which I derive a personal knowing of certain deific personages. I believe that I’ve had encounters with natural spirits, ancestors, and even one I call Jesus or Yeshua Ben Yosef. In a small non-denominational Christian church in Indiana, I was taught that God is Love, that the Holy Spirit lives within me as a source of life and of counsel, and the Jesus died for my sins.
    Jesus died for my sins. What does that mean? In another post of mine, “Does God fix the problem of sin with sacrifice, or with String Theory?” I confessed that I believe the true miracle – and the point that joined all humanity with God – was more the birth of Christ than the crucifixion. At the moment of divine conception, all humanity – maybe even all of the material cosmos – was joined and imbued with the life eternal. Could there still be a Sheol, though? Logically and philosophically, yes, but as my favourite Christian author, C. S. Lewis put it, “The doors of Hell are locked on the inside,” which I take to mean that we each live in the Hell or Heaven of our choosing, figuratively and possibly literally. Since I also believe that the Bible is only the beginning of the word of God — as interpreted by both writers and readers — this quip from one of the greatest 20th-century masters of English literature is as authoritative as St. Paul, and I no more agree with Lewis on everything as I do Paul.
     Furthermore, I don’t believe one needs the Bible to provide a moral code, at least not beyond Matthew 7:12, 22:36-40. These two snippets of scripture are a complete summary of the entire subject of morality. The Bible is not a book about morality. If religion were only about morality, your Bible need be only half a page long.
    If this is what I believe about the workings of Salvation, and that being <<saved>> is the default — a sort of plenary predestination (yes, I’m Presbyterian) — then what is the point of Christianity? Why do I still claim the name, Presbyterian? Remember my reference to Predestination just a few words back? Well, that’s only part of it. I’ve never, ever thought of faith as either a reason to be a moral person or a get-out-of-Hell-free card. Get-out-of-jail-free
    All of humanity have the opportunity to pursue some kind of relationship with the greater cosmos. For Atheists, it is one of finding connections between the individual and the whole — “We are made of starstuff,” a quote attributed to Carl Sagan, is one of the most spiritually power-packed statements of our time, and yet it neither requires nor assumes any belief in the supernatural. Every religion on the planet has at its core the charge to pursue greater knowledge, greater devotion, and closer relationship to the god or gods of each faith.
    Are they all correct? That depends. Every religion is right about *something*. Even the church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is right about its assertion that you don’t need God to be a good, moral person. It is enough “to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it, too.” (Douglas Adams) I just happen to think that these “fairies” represent holding an unspeakable wonder of the universe – a personification of the spirits of nature which I do think are there. Who am I to say that those who experience science through magic are any more wrong than those who are in awe of the magic of science? If magic is merely science mixed with pure, child-like wonder, then the cosmos is full of magic; is MADE of magic! You can appreciate the garden as well as the fairies if you like.
grump_cat_fairy
Grumpy fairy doesn’t care if you believe in fairies.
    Why then am I a Christian? The traditions of the Christian church, like all religions, are rooted in the struggles of my ancestors and their experiences of wrestling with God. I could certainly experience and wrestle with other aspects of the divine through other religions, but it is this one through which my forebears prospered and suffered. My little Earthly body grew within and learned about God through these traditions. Therefore, these traditions — church on Sunday, seasonal celebrations of saints’ days, Easter, All-Hallows Eve, Christmas, Yule, and Hogmanay, as well as the celebrations of the wheel of the seasons — these have the most power to create experiences and enrich a spirituality that amplifies the more noble echoes of those who came before. Those echoes that are not so noble (the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the witch burnings, misogyny, genocides, centuries of homophobia) are dissonances important to remember and to be called out as failures so that the better parts of my past kindred can retain their value, rather than “Throwing the baby out with the bath-water.” Through participation in the rites and nobler traditions of my ancestors, I continue the line of people in laudable pursuit of God, and live alongside the One for whom my 14-billion-year existence from star-stuff to human, is as clear and navigable as a walk down to the chemist (see Douglas Adams, “Space . . . is really big”).
I agree with the atheists, I just put more emphasis on "Made."
I agree with the atheists, I just put more emphasis on “Made.”