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First page of Genesis (Hebrew: Bereshith) from Xanten Bible 1294 CE. Modified from on-line photo: New York Public LIbrary, http://exhibitions.nypl.org/threefaiths/node/19?highlight=1

First page of Genesis (Hebrew: Bereshith) from Xanten Bible 1294 CE. Modified from on-line photo: New York Public LIbrary, http://exhibitions.nypl.org/threefaiths/node/19?highlight=1

From my earliest years I was curious about the things I saw and heard about. “Why?” was a question that my parents heard all too often from this child. “Why does the sun always come up over the bay and set in the swamp? Why do the seasons come when they do? Where did the dinosaurs come from? How old are the rocks?” I looked for answers everywhere: in the encyclopedia, in library books, in magazines, everywhere—even in the field; and since we were church-going folk, I looked in the Bible for answers to my questions as to how the natural world worked.

I Misunderstood the Bible

The picture I took away from the big black leather-bound family Bible, after sifting through the “thees” and “thous,” was that the sun moved across the sky daily like a “bridegroom going forth in his chariot,” that the earth was like a large circular, but flat, picnic cloth that floated on nothing and that God would on occasion take by the edges and shake out in earthquakes. I also read in the margins that—according to a Bishop Ussher—the world was created on October 22, 4004 B.C. That was, to my young mind, inconceivably ancient; even older that my Grandpa, or his elder brother Uncle John A. Moates, the oldest man in the world, according to my reckoning. But I was soon presented with evidence that I had severely underestimated the antiquity of the “Ancient of Days;” I had overlooked His unimaginable patience; and I had discounted God’s supreme cleverness at building mechanical universes. I had misunderstood, it seems. I learned that the sun did not orbit the earth in his daily trip across the sky, as I naively envisioned, but rather it was the earth that revolved, carrying me under the sun; moreover, while the earth and the sun did indeed dance, it is not the sun that gyrates but it is the earth, like a small child, that orbits yearly the grandfather sun.

Later as I read again the beautiful words contained in the Psalms, I understood them this time as descriptive of the same experience I shared with Iron-Age readers and the profound truth that interprets this majestic universe as both a paean and a signpost to the Maker. Thus, when I considered evidence of the incredible antiquity of the physical universe at 13.7 billion years, I did not discount what I read in the Word, but instead came to understand that God is so much more senior that I had appreciated and that while old, the universe is not eternal. Furthermore, when I learned of genes, DNA and the unity of life on this planet, I was humbled. That I shared common ancestors with other primates did not make God seem smaller or less capable to me, but, on the contrary, it was an even more impressive miracle in Natural History that instead of arriving in a “poof” and a cloud of magical dust, events were shepherded in just the right way and at just the right time over eons so that mankind, “Adam” and I came to be, distant relatives to the chimpanzee but very much different, imbued with a spirit, the very spiritual breath of God.

A Humbling Thought

I thought “Who am I to tell the Maker of the universe, of the heavens and the earth, how He should have done it?” I find it all so astonishing that God did not perform a colossal magic trick in bringing the myriad forms of life on this water world, but by patience and clever means intentionally formed and animated all earthly life, even humanity. Perhaps he could have done it more straightforwardly, but the evidence indicates otherwise, and I doubt that He would deceive us by putting false evidence in our path to lead us astray.

Instead, I have concluded that God is just far more subtle than I first thought. He is considerate, as well, to let us in on who He is, speaking to us down the millennia through his spokesmen in words and mental pictures we could understand. But to understand His message clearly we must translate the story, its language, its cultural idiom, its cosmology into words and images that make sense to our child-like minds. When we do that job well we see that the truth about God in the book is richer, more nuanced, more exciting than we thought at first. God is far more than we had initially imagined and is even more worthy of our worship than we anticipated at the outset.

Solar Flare May 5, 2015. Photo Credit: NASA/Goddard/S. Weissinger on-line at http://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/nasas-sdo-observes-cinco-de-mayo-solar-flare

Solar Flare May 5, 2015. Photo Credit: NASA/Goddard/S. Weissinger on-line at http://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/nasas-sdo-observes-cinco-de-mayo-solar-flare

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A “Caesar Cipher” side rule that substitutes one letter of cipher text for another letter of plain text. Photo credit: ciphermachines.com/pictures/SlideRule/sliderule.jpg

As a pre-teen I became fascinated by ciphers and codes. The idea that one could transmit a secret English language message by means of a simple substitutionary cipher intrigued me. Indeed, the “Caesar cipher,” in which the alphabet is shifted a fixed number of spaces was great fun to play with; for example, a two space shift replaces C for A, D for B, E for C etc. Thus, the plaintext, “YOUR FATHER LOVES YOU,” became in ciphertext, “AQWTH CVJGT NQXGU AQW,” grouping the encrypted letters in clusters of five. The fun came in trying to break the code without the help of a key.

I, like Ralphie Parker of A Christmas Story, was enthralled by the Ovaltine decoder ring. Unlike Ralphie, however, I was not disappointed by the messages I received. The deciphered text did not urge me to “Drink Ovaltine,” a crass exploitative and inane message. As I grew more mature, I realized that coded messages lay hidden everywhere. In letters of written languages are coded sounds and thoughts. I marveled at the alien scripts of other tongues: Greek, Hebrew and, most strange to me, Chinese ideograms such as Tiān 天, the heavens, that sensibly enough is a modification of the symbol for large: Dà 大 , formed by the addition of a bar at the top. This was a visual code that fascinated me then and still intrigues me today. Thus, I had to acknowledge that other systems of communication, so foreign to my experience, were as valid as my own. And I saw coded text everywhere in other ways.

Caesar Cipher decoder ring. Photo credit: ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/310W9ajtasL.jpg

Caesar Cipher decoder ring. Photo credit: ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/310W9ajtasL.jpg

I discovered science early and realized that all around me were puzzles written in code that, with effort and cleverness, we could decypher. My life has led down the path of science to the life of a physicist. Physics is more than a career that I have chosen; it is who I am. I have an innate urge to understand how things work. To my delight, I have found that the universe, large and small, can be decrypted. What a gift to humanity: a comprehensible world! Even as a youth in the swamps of Alabama, I could see and understand the fall of an acorn from an oak or the progress of a ripple on the stream.

Friends and strangers have often asked me with wondering looks how I, as a rational scientist, can be a Christ-follower, a theist. Such queries from others and from myself prompt me to reflection and (typically) to read. Last year, I finally read a work of Blaise Pascal, one of my scientific heroes. La Penseé, “The Thoughts,” are a compilation of this eighteenth century natural philosopher’s metaphysical musings and notes for a treatise he never completed. Among his notes is the fragment in which he speaks of the principal character of the Bible “Dieu est un Dieu caché,” that is, “God is a hidden God,” he remarks. Hidden, like a treasure cached or stored away out of sight, but accessible to the blessed. Following Pascal’s lead, I see that science may decode the cypher of natural phenomenon only to reveal a plaintext in a language unknown to science. Just as the breaking of the infamous Enigma Code used by the Nazis during World War II, required both advanced cryptologic analysis and German language translation, in the same way science may review “facts” about the Kosmos but be inadequate to provide any sense of the meaning hidden therein. Yet, it seems to me that the meaning of it all is of primary importance.

Indeed, many scientist observe the elegant universe with its exquisite laws and intricate workings and see no meaning or purpose in it, at all. I, on the other hand, see the wonders around us and my heart rejoices. Viewed through the lens of the gospel, the night sky speaks to me and my soul sings with the Psalmist: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork./Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge./There is no speech, nor are there words whose voice is not heard.” (Psalm 19:1-3)

My heart hurts for those who, like my color blind friends who cannot appreciate the beauty of the sunset, seem to be blind to the riches of God toward us. I suspect that this is what the doctrine of election in Christian theology “looks like” in reality: those who are not graced by God, “just don’t get it.” In response I can only offer three suggestions: (1) the testimony of my life proclaims that all creation recounts the glory of a Creator who loves us and desires fellowship with us, rebellious though we have been; (2) the witness of giants in the faith and culture throughout the ages declares His existence, the evidence of men who like Pascal faced an uncertain future as do we and lived triumphantly; (3) the ultimate Rosetta Stone of the Kosmos: the collections of little books known as the Holy Bible provides a reliable lexicon for an alien tongue exposed in the plaintext of decrypted science.

Thus, in fact, we have a grand and holy decoder ring at our ready disposal to help us make sense of the meaning of it all. A helpful hint to the meaning of the decrypted message? A key to unlocking the true meaning of it all? “God so loved the Kosmos that he gave his only begotten that whosoever believes in him will have everlasting life.”

诸 天 述 说 神 的 荣 耀, All the heavens天recount God’s神dazzling glory. (Psalms 19:1) Photo credit: risalahmujahidin.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Space-Wallpapers.jpg

诸 天 述 说 神 的 荣 耀,
All the heavens 天 recount God’s 神 dazzling glory. (Psalms 19:1)
Photo credit: risalahmujahidin.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Space-Wallpapers.jpg

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Functional MRI of human brain (amygdala in red) Photo credit: wikipedia/ amygdala

Functional MRI of human brain (amygdala in red) Photo credit: wikipedia/ amygdala

Johnny’s sailor hat, atop his Mexican head, is an image that always reminds me of a truth I only realized later in life: inevitably it seems we resent those who come late to the party. We congregate with “our kind” and divide the world into “us” and “them.”

Perhaps it is just our “nature.” Deep within our brain lies a small but powerful organ in the most primitive part of our brain. This master of emotion is called the amygdala. Evolutionary biologists explain that it is a remnant of our hunter-gather past. This feature of our cognitive equipment, they argue, was selected for by the preservation of “our” kind, a drive to protect the gene pool embodied in our family and clan from the danger posed by the “others,” who do not value or bear our genotype. The amygdala is source of the unthinking start we experience when we see out of the corner of our eye a sinuous shadow in the woods. Before we can think “stick” the primitive part of our brain shouts “Snake! Run!” and our heart races and our muscles contract with an unannounced rush of ephedrine. This is the famous “fight or flight” syndrome.   Thus, we might say, “It’s only nature” when we wish to justify our fears of others, just as we might claim it is natural to feel our heart race at slithering shadows.

I call for a new resolution: Question instinct! Examine intuition! I challenge what is “natural.” I contend that all that we call “natural” is not necessarily good, healthy or right. Too much adrenaline will stress the heart and other vital organs unnecessarily.  Moreover, morality is decidedly unnatural. Much of ethics is counter-intuitive. Consider the Judaeo-Christian injunction to empathy and doing good to all, even those who would harm you. Indeed in the Levitical law the Almighty enjoins us, “When an alien lives with you in your land do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens.” Apparently, divine admonition is insufficient to cause us to modify our behavior. The problem is not that we do not know what is the right thing to do; rather the problem is simply in doing the right thing. It often is amygdala versus cortex, fear against reason. Too often our lower nature wins.

Sad that, while we live in a different technological world that is so distant from the archaic horizon where our brain arose, we are still captive to the automatic, instinctive, intuitive “natural” brain of the first humans. What Jeffrey Kluger wrote about worry is true about our unreasoning xenophobia. He remarked in a Time feature article, “The residual parts of our primitive brains may not give us any choice beyond fight or fleeing. But the higher reasoning we’ve developed over millions of years gives us far greater—and far more nuanced—choices.”

Ironically, the very clannishness of our species may have made possible a way to reveal who we really are and where we have come from. I am fortunate to know my lineage, the genealogy of the “Matteson’s,” at least in America. Thanks in no small measure to the research of cousin Porter Matteson, I am aware that ten generations ago, Henry Matteson (1646-1690), called “The Immigrant” arrived in Rhode Island around 1666 at age twenty. Two or three years later he married Hanna Parsons recently arrived from England. I am designated J.411.a in the family record, tenth generation three hundred forty years here on this continent.   Most who bear my family name in the United States are descended from Henry, who is reported to have originated in Denmark. It gives a strange irrational satisfaction to know where one’s forefather lived so long ago.   Yet, the plain fact is that no matter how long one’s family has been in the America’s they immigrated here at some time.

A Genetic Decoder Ring  Recently I read that a project was underway to determine where all of humanity migrated from the first reaches of prehistory. I gave myself a sixtieth birthday present when I purchased on-line a participation kit. I was as expectant as the time that I sent off box tops for a decoder ring.

I went to the mail box expectantly every day. I had a premonition that the kit would arrive soon, and there it was, in the over-sized compartment of the communal mail box. I was sure what it was from the return address: “National Geographic Society.” I could barely restrain myself from tearing open the brown cardboard box immediately, but my prefrontal cortex did its work and reigned in my impulsiveness with an appropriate, rational inhibition. “Later when you can give it my full attention,” it told me. The rest of me agreed reluctantly.

Later that evening, I did allow myself to unpack the shipping box. Inside was a strikingly illustrated carton, six by nine, that bore the silhouetted image of a lone man walking an empty landscape. This figure suggested to me the unknown ancestor or ancestors who more than two thousand generations ago fathered all who would live today, all we could call human. From what I read, I concluded that this earth, the Adamah, is such a harsh place, at times, that only one family has survived from that time 60,000 years ago. Gone are the thick muscular children of the cold dwellers whose bones were first found in the Neanderthal; gone, too, are the tiny children of Florens; and gone are all the other hominids, all the other man-like creatures that have walked on two legs on this unforgiving and lethal planet. What is more, only one clan, the offspring of one Homo sapiens survives, a man who lived in north east Africa about sixty millennia ago. We humans are the children, the great-many-times-over grand children, the progeny of one individual or a small family. For good reason geneticists call this man “Adam.” The word is a Biblical Hebrew name that meant originally both “man”-kind and “earthling.”

Hnry Matteson was a follower of the non-conformist religioous leader Roder Williams, shown here meeting the previous tenants of Rhode Island. Phot source NPS www.nps.gov/rowi/learn/historyculture/images/roger-williams-Welcome_Colony.jpg

Henry Matteson was a follower of the non-conformist religious leader Roger Williams, shown here meeting the previous tenants of Rhode Island. Photo source NPS http://www.nps.gov/rowi/learn/historyculture/images/roger-williams-Welcome_Colony.jpg

I conclude after deep reflection that, no matter how superficially different the “other” earth dwellers that I encounter on my way, we are family, the Family of Man. In fact, “they” are actually “us.” This is what Johnny’s hat taught me those many years ago, and for that additional gift, I thank him.

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Crucifix at Nuremberg Cathedral Photo by Sam Matteson 1978

Crucifix at Nuremberg Cathedral    Photo by Sam Matteson 1978

Easter is coming. I can tell from the Cadbury Bunny’s sudden appearance in TV ads. In addition to the mythical egg-laying leporid, we can look forward in a few days to hidden colored eggs, abundant candy and new spring outfits. The time is awash in pastel hopes for sunshine and the promise of warm days. Easter-tide is a sweet-toothed springtime celebration of the cyclical nature of the rebirth of the world after the cruel winter that seems more like a fairy tale than history.

Perhaps, lost in all the fun is a horrific historical event. Friday, next, April 3, 2015 Anno Domini, is “Good” Friday. A day when Christians of the western tradition (Roman Catholics and Protestants, for example) will observe the anniversary of the crucifixion of Jesus called the Christ. Those of the eastern tradition (Eastern or Greek Orthodox for example) will wait a week more, due to a difference of opinion that dates back centuries about fixing the annual celebration of Easter relative to the full moon in spring. Many may assume that with all this calendric shuffling, we cannot know when the first Good Friday or Easter happened. Indeed, some even assume that the holiday is merely a cultural relic from a more pious era that has no relevance to our time or any basis in a real event that happened on a particular day in history.

Was Jesus an Actual Historical Person?

There are a few who might claim that the date of the crucifixion is moot because they are skeptical of even the reality of a historical person called Jesus (Yeshuah in Hebrew, a variant of the first century common name that has also come into English as “Joshua”) of Nazareth, called the Messiah (Meshiach in Hebrew) or the Christ (Christos in Greek). I found both fascinating and accessible an article written by Lawrence Mykytiuk in Biblical Archaeology Review1 dealing with extra-Biblical historical evidence for the existence of this remarkable person.

Mykytuik concludes that there is ample secular textual evidence to persuade most scholars that there was indeed a Jesus called the Christ, who lived in the Roman province of Judea in the days of Emperors Augustus and Tiberius, and was executed on a Friday that was also the eve of the Jewish Passover festival. Jesus suffered crucifixion because he was a threat to the Pax Romana, as was customary in such cases. This travesty of justice was perpetrated by Pontius Pilate, who was governor or, more precisely, prefect of Judea in the period 26-36 AD. These details are so familiar to those who have heard the story repeatedly that we risk the events seeming to be folk lore set adrift from the grim realities.

Eyewitnesses to History

History has witnessed other violent deaths of public figures. I will never forget another Friday, November 22, 1963, where I was and what I felt. That was 52 years ago. Nevertheless, many are alive today that were there in Dealy Plaza in Dallas to witness the event. I was in my algebra class, three states away, but I experienced it too. The public address system crackled to life with my high school Principal’s voice: “My apologies teachers, we interrupt your class for this important announcement.” Then we heard Walter Cronkite’s familiar and trusted voice, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: ‘President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.’ (a pause as he glanced up at clock) 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”

The very public death of our president recalled a similar incident that occurred 150 years ago this month. On April 14, 1865, just days after the end of the great American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was shot in the very public venue of Ford’s Theater by the well-known actor, John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln died the following morning. We know these facts because of eye witness accounts. Yet, this event seems already so ancient and out of touch. Can we know anything with reliability? Indeed we can. In fact, the last witness to the terrifying event, Samuel J. Seymour, himself died April 12, 1956, when I was nine2. Even a century and a half after the events there are individuals of my generation who could have chatted with living witnesses.

But what of an event that is reported to have occurred almost two millennia ago? We have treasured documents that purport to share eyewitness testimony. One history written in the Greek language of the day begins “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses [emphasis added] and ministers of the word have delivered them to us.” (Luke 1:1) The work, called the Gospel According to Luke, is traditionally ascribed to Luke, the companion of the Apostle Paul, although the document itself does not identify directly its author. Scholarly opinion variously dates the writing of this document to between 80-90 AD or 90-110 AD, that is, as early as fifty years or as late as eighty years from the events it details. What is impressive to me is the claim of reporting eyewitness testimony of the events.

This document and its volume two, The Acts of the Apostles, that are attributed to and generally agreed to be by the same hand, provide wonderful insight and detail that can help fix the chronology of the final days of the remarkable individual called Jesus Christ. According to the author of the gospel, whom we will call without further apology “Luke,” Jesus began his ministry in “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea . . . .” (Luke 3:1) Scholars have variously understood the 15th year of Tiberius to be 26 A.D. (assuming one counts from Tiberius’ regency while Augustus was in semi-retirement) or 28-29 A.D. (assuming one counts from the Caesar’s death on August 19, 14 A.D.). Depending on how one interprets the gospels Jesus’ ministry lasted from one to four years. Thus, the crucifixion of Jesus must have occurred in the time period of from about 27 A.D. to 34 A.D.

Humphreys and Waddington date Crucifixion to 3 April 33 AD

In 1983, I read an article in Nature by Humphreys and Waddington3 that argued very persuasively (to my mind) that the most probable date for Jesus’ crucifixion was April 3, 33 A.D. I subsequently corroborated their calculations myself using an astronomical ephemeris program with up-to-date corrections for changes in the rotation and orbits of the earth-moon system. The authors have revisited the topic both in a festschrift book3 and a decade later, successfully answering all of the credible criticism.4

They argue, in essence, that–on examination of the dates of Passovers that began on Friday evening during the period Pilate was prefect–only two dates emerge as calendrically possible: 7 April 30 A.D. and 3 April 33 A.D. Citing much historical evidence, they declare that the later date is significantly more likely than the earlier.

Moreover, it is especially moving that Good Friday 2015 also occurs on April 3 and that a very special celestial event will reoccur that recalls one of 33 A.D. I refer to what Peter alluded to in his Pentecost sermon, fifty days after that first Easter, in which he quoted the prophet Joel:

“In those days I will pour out my Spirit . . . I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood . . . . Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know. . . .This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.” (Acts 2:19, 20, 22, 32)

Blood Moon April 3, 1996  Photo: Preston Starr

Blood Moon April 3, 1996         Photo: Preston Starr

Thus, Luke reports a “Blood Moon,” that is, a lunar eclipse. Humphreys and Waddington point out that just such a celestial event occurred April 3, 33 A.D. at sunset. This year on April 4, 2015 A.D. the morning of Holy Saturday, just before sunrise (from about 6:00-7:00 am CDT) the moon will be “turned to blood” on the western horizon. If you are an early riser you, too, can witness this celestial reminder (weather permitting) of that fateful day 1982 years ago.

[Please note that contrary to what some have posted on-line, Humphreys and Waddington do not claim the darkness at noon is due to an eclipse. Lunar eclipses do not cause a darkness at noon. It was Thallus the Samaritan, in a first century history now lost, who was quoted and refuted by Julianus Africanus as dismissing the darkness as due to a solar eclipse. As Julianus correctly point out, no solar eclipse is possible at Passover when the moon is full.]

First Century Eyewitnesses Accounts Confirmed by Astroastronomy

I find it noteworthy that a reporter (Luke) of eyewitness testimony recounts a confirmed event (a blood moon) that did, indeed, occur as reported. This is indirect but compelling evidence that Luke shared eyewitness testimony, not folk tales.

For a self-identified calendar-and-history-nerd who loves a good mystery like me, the topic is fascinating. However, the historical debate can obscure the most important point: the gospel is a report of historical events that changed the lives of the people who experienced them and that have continued to impact people who subsequently listened to the news. We are the recipients of that good news story. In John’s gospel we read that Jesus, after his resurrection, said to “doubting” Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

What is more, the Apostle Paul reported

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that we was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, [emphasis added] although some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15: 3-8)

Thus, if the witnesses are to be believed, Easter is, indeed, a day to celebrate, after all. It is a day to dye eggs, a sign of new life, to revel in the vernal rebirth of the earth, and to put on new bright clothes—in short, to party. We do not celebrate the deaths of Presidents Kennedy or Lincoln. Too many hopes died with them. The good news that Paul delivers to us is echoed in the Easter greeting of the Orthodox tradition: Christos Anesti! Christ is risen! Alithos Anesti! He is risen indeed!

In that historical truth, hope is reborn—reason enough to party large.

References:

  1. Lawrence Mykytiuk in BAR On-line:

http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/did-jesus-exist/

  1. Wikipedia Samuel J. Seymour

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_J._Seymour

  1. J. Humphreys and W.J. Waddington, ‘Dating the Crucifixion’, Nature 306 (1983) 743-6; idem, in Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies Presented to Jack Finegan, J. Vardaman and E.M. Yamauchi (eds.), (Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns 1989) 172-81.
  2. Humphreys and Waddington Tyndal Bulletin

http://www.tyndalehouse.com/tynbul/library/TynBull_1992_43_2_06_Humphreys_DateChristsCrucifixion.pdf

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Wei Yang

Wei Yang--"Not yet finished"

Wei Yang–“Not yet finished”

I arrived too late, too late for Dad to say a final “good-bye.” When I raced up the corridor of the hospital to my stroke-stricken octogenarian father’s bedside after an eighteen-hour drive, I realized that I was too late. The light had gone out in his eyes; he could not acknowledge my presence even if he were aware of me; the shades of his eye lids were drawn half-way down, and I sensed that he was no longer home behind his body’s gray-green stare. The man I had known for my sixty-plus years had unceremoniously departed a few hours before, felled by a stroke, although his breath still came paroxysmally in shallow and rapid gasps. It was small—and I must say bitter—comfort that millions of other “Boomers” faced the same scenario each year. Indeed, thousands I realized, were probably sharing the same experience at that very moment. I was glad that I had visited on a whim a few weeks before, but that, too, was little comfort now.

A “Good” Death

The next week was unforgettable, even if excruciating. The transfer to the hospice facility, the execution of his “directive,” the vigil, the final breath, all shouted “mortality!” In those hours watching Dad’s body incrementally shutting down, I saw not him but me lying abed there, slowly sinking down with each breath, each feeble cardiac palpitation, until in the early morning hours of Good Friday, March 21, 2008, the vernal equinox, a day for turning to the light, although it could have just as well been the longest and darkest night of the year, at last we arrived—at stillness. Even as ugly as is death, I could not look away. I had ignored it until then, until it was impossible to deny, but then I was forced to look at it full face: I am inevitably my father’s son, son of Adam. Indeed, it is difficult to escape your genetics, and it is impossible to cheat death in the end. It comes on, welcome or not.

In the year after his departure (“death” seems too harsh a word to utter even if it is all too real), I felt my own mortality acutely. I pondered the meaning and significance of Life, my life, in particular. I reflected on the rumors of a future hope, and wondered. I slipped into a perpetual sadness over the possible futility of human existence. I did not smile as often as before life and death had orphaned me. My typical bravado was shaken just as when, as I child, I bravely scaled the high dive ladder until the kid before me had taken his turn, disappearing over the edge of the platform, and I stood staring down into the depths below, a lump in my throat. I had suddenly realized when my children and grandchildren were assembled at a table per stirpes for thirteen that somewhere along the line I had imperceptibly grown into a patriarch, the elder son, a scion of a complete branch of our family tree. The realization was unnerving.

Wei Yang

I was helped somewhat by sympathetic friends and family, but the grief work was mine to do alone, since the only answers that are relevant to our deepest questions are the ones we discover for ourselves. Christmas came, the first Christmas without Dad. My eldest child Carrie and her family gave me a high-tech walking stick to use on our hikes in Colorado. She also included two books on theology, in recognition of one of my hobbies. Over the next few months these items came to mean more than I understood at first. Indeed, they bespoke that my life was not over; there are trails and other journeys that I have not explored. On impulse, I decided to give my walking stick a name and looked up the Mandarin characters on-line for “not yet finished.” Thus, I stumbled upon the phrase “Wei Yang,” a classic literary phrase, little used today, as I learned from my Mandarin-speaking friends. The elegant connotations of the ideograms suggest that life holds more possibilities in its unfinished-ness than we can foresee. I prepared a wooden plaque with the characters in calligraphic form to remind me of this truth and to provide a daily encouragement, when quite by accident (or God’s providence) a Chinese student noted the sign and amended an insight.

Dad and Sammy Gene 1948

Dad and Sammy Gene 1948

“Have you been to Wei Yang?” He asked. “. . . in China?”

“Been?   No.” I replied.

He explained, “Wei Yang was the largest palace ever built. Its name means: ‘Never ending. . . .” How do you say? . . . ‘eternal’ palace.”

In an inexplicable way it is comforting to my spirit that part of the eternity of life is its unfinished, never done character. Indeed, when my days among you have expired I suspect that I will be on my way somewhere and must leave much unfinished. Until then, I will not sit and wait for the end. It must and will catch up with me on the way, as it did my father.

In Memoriam

Lewis Edward Matteson
(August 13, 1919 – March 21, 2008)

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1943 Copper Cent valued at $80,000 Photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/

On Saturday March 7, I auditioned for a slot in the cast of Listen to Your Mother—Nashville, an evening of readings of stories in honor of mothers. Since March is National Women’s History Month and today is International Women’s Day, I offer a tease of what I shared: “The Mycophagists,” a recounting of the great mushroom soup insurrection.

Listen to Your Mother

Behold I show you a mystery: it seems to me, that the greater my distance from home, the better I understand my mother’s voice. After sixty years, I can still hear Audrey, my mother, speaking to me: “For a hungry man, no bread is too stale; for a starving man, no soup is too thin. So, drink your soup! Eat your toast!”

The trouble was that in my family we did not willingly eat mushrooms. . . .

Dream or vision?

You will have to be patient to hear the rest. Either hear me perform the piece in person May 2 at the TPAC in Nashville, Tennessee or read it here in my blog, sooner or later. We will shortly know whether my dream will come true.

I mean that statement more than metaphorically. A few years ago I had a vivid dream that I was standing before a group—reading aloud. I gradually recognized the words as my own. I was reading my story, my memoir, the child of my memory and of my childhood. My gaze lifted to look into the eyes of my listeners. I was at Barnes and Noble for a book signing! Perhaps it was a gratuitous wish fulfillment, but perhaps it was actually a vision of what lies ahead. The Lord knows and we shall see.

But the question comes to me as I ponder the future and my compulsion to scribble: why do I tell stories? In the years that I have worked at the craft of teaching and communicating, I have studied and practice the art of the well-turned phrase, of the clearly expressed idea, and of the fresh glimpse of reality. What scientists and professors do in my discipline is exposition and argumentation. Only rarely do we deploy narrative to illustrate our point, and then it is often considered an ornamentation.

Homo narrans

Humans are narrators. Homo narrans, I have heard our species called. We love a story. Oliver Sacks, a consummate story teller as well as clinical neuroscientist, has taught me so much. He has illuminated neuropsychology for us all by his stories of the bizarre and poignant behaviors of his patients in works like The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and many others. Sacks makes the point that the inner self of a human being is his stories and his memories. So I tell stories because they are me, at least in part.

And my stories are gifts, from the hand of the Father, I believe. They are like treasures we pick up along the way. I once was inspired in 2002 to express that thought in verse that I will now inflict upon you, dear reader, as my admonition.

These are Lines Scribbled

These are lines scribbled
with a blue pen
Found on the concrete,
Picked up on the way
To somewhere.
‘Forget where.
Discovered letters, these.
Stumbled-on words
Scratched on an envelope back
Lest they be lost again forever.

They spill out the ball
As if a thing alive,
A skipping, undulating scrawling wave
That carries meaning on its back
Like flotsam or flying fish
In a gray-green sea
That romantics would call blue.

Truth is found like green pennies, too,
On the pavement, snatched up,
That nothing be lost.
Heads—I keep it;
Tails—I give it away.
But never leave it lie.
Someday it might be a copper ’43 Steelie’s twin
Lost somehow ‘til now.

So do pick it up,
Unafraid as you go by,
Gold is where you find it.

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Moments of pure and unalloyed joy are rare. But the glow of their memory lights our way in the dark, lonely, struggling days when our determined head is down with clinched teeth and our shoulders strain against the ropes of our responsibilities.

I have always loved flying things: birds—geese as they vee across the sky or sparrows that explode at the threat of an arm-waving child, only to coalesce again on the wind; clouds, like cotton wads that scrub the blue overhead; even leaves that dive from the branches in fall in a last bravura show, to swirl and dance for a few seconds becoming earth-bound; and kites.

I love kites.

Kites are magical

Something magical uncoils when a kite goes up. A fresh breeze is an invitation to flight. I hear the rattle of paper. A short dash with your hair combed by a gust until the string pulls hard against your finger. Pay out the line fast and get the paper bird up a few more feet where the wind does not stumble on the trees or the houses or the concerns of people. Bliss.

I first learned of kites before the sleek technology of rip-stop nylon and carbon fiber struts. Paper and balsa and cotton string were the materials of the sky-yearner. And rags for tails. Diamond kites were the way to go. A cross of balsa sticks tied at the junction; string around the outside with newspaper laid over and glued at the edges. A tail and a string bridle, and you were set. Except you had to have the tail; and it had to be just right.   Too short and the kite would whirligig and crash into the ground, too long and the weight would keep it on the ground. The tail bothered me. An elegant airfoil dragged down by a trail of rags somehow did not seem right.

Box Kites have no tails!

Then I read about a box kite. No tail! I dreamed of it: launching the device and seeing it sail, higher and higher, to the edge of space where the sky turns dark indigo and the stars and sun share the sky. I had to have one. I saved every penny I could wangle or earn until I had a fist full of coins. I searched the aisles diligently every time we went to market at Delchamps and one Friday it appeared: a 36 inch Monarch box kite, multicolored stripes, fabricated of the finest polyethylene and balsa. Somehow the money I had saved was exactly enough to buy the kite and six balls of string when I gave it to my Mother.

Saturday morning came so late. I hurried through a breakfast of hot cereal and milk. My mother made the predictable remarks about going to a fire and slowing down, but I was not restrained. The kite was assembled in minutes and pockets stuffed with balls of string, I took to the fields behind the house. The wind was just right. The air was falling over the cool earth and rising over the warmer bay churning off shore in the sea breeze that sailors had ridden for centuries out to sea in the morning home again at night. But my thoughts looked higher up. I held the kite up and the wind gently took it from my hand. I heard the plastic panels crackle with anticipation and felt the tug of a river of air dragging the kite down wind and up into the sky. I unrolled one ball of string until I reached the end and then I wrapped around my hand for a while. The string sang a soft tune, whistling a high wailing melody.

A Mile High

I tied on a second ball of string and let it out six inches at a time. The kite rose higher and higher. It grew smaller and smaller. The string ran from my hand in a graceful arc into the blue then disappeared. A tiny rectangle hovered high, dark against a cloud. I shielded my eyes and smiled. Another ball of string, and another. At last, all six balls of string were tied, end-to-end, over six thousand feet of twine between me and the flying thing I had launched. The kite was a barely distinguishable dot a mile away.

I stood still a long time and tasted the air. It was salty and smelled of sunshine. I half-closed my eyes and half-saw the houses and roads and trees, all transformed then into prismatic points of blurry light. The string pulled against my hand and I knew that this thing I had assembled looked down on all that concerns us and everything looked to it so small and unimportant. And I was flying with that kite that had no tail.

Moments of pure joy are rare enough to remember.

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