Thursday, June 30, 2016

Presenting CWWN v06 - The Christian (4)

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

Volume Six of The Collected Works of Watchman Nee (CWWN) is a fourth volume of articles drawn from The Christian, the journal he published from 1925 to 1927. The two sections contain nine Gospel Messages and fourteen Spiritual Teachings. These were articles he wrote for Issues 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 14, 16, 19, 22 and 24. In most of the other issues he used translations from Christian literature he had gathered from extensive reading. It is said that during the 1920's and through most of the 1930's he spent about one third of the money that passed through his hands on books ordered from overseas Christian booksellers. His dwelling was filled with books. Fortunately, he could read, in either Chinese or English, very, very fast.

The Gospel Messages are impressive for their breadth of scope. Some are edited transcripts from spoken messages. Here and later his written and spoken evangelism was intended to reach every kind of human personality. Thus the message, "Can Morality Save Us" is intended for those well-behaved ones who are not apparently sinful. Dwelling on what Jesus said upon observing how a Pharisee prayed, and how a publican prayed, Nee shows that the super-moral Pharisee was left unredeemed after his self-righteous prayer, while the sinful, possibly extortionous, tax-collecter "went home justified" because he admitted his sinfulness to God and asked for mercy. Three of the messages describe fifteen of "The Paths to Hell". They show how easy it is to go to hell, and in each case, describe and the remedy for such hell-bound practices as self-confident pride or making excuses to delay accepting Christ; more serious practices such as habitual adultery are also addressed. The ironic approach was intended to get the attention of those who had a ho-hum attitude toward the ordinary gospel preaching of the day.

The Spiritual Teachings were intended to instruct believers with any level of experience in truths that were being neglected by the standard Protestant theology of the time. The first article, "Assurance of Salvation," was revolutionary. Throughout the "Christian world" of the early Twentieth Century—and even into the 1960's in America, in my experience!—hardly anyone dared to proclaim, "Jesus has saved me," or "Jesus is my Lord. I am a child of God." Instead, at the most they might weakly proclaim that they had "hope in God's mercy", or, if they actually knew some scriptures, "the hope of eternal salvation." Nee uses the clear proclamations of the scriptures to show that we can indeed know that we have been redeemed and that we are secure forever; and even the more, he shows that we must know these things in order to grow in our spiritual life. In another wonderful message, "The Source of Faith," he expounds upon Eph. 2:8, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God." We are not born with faith. God gives us faith, and it is then ours to use. How tragic to neglect so precious a gift! I am reminded of a story I read, in which a preacher is urging his friend to receive Christ. The friend is part owner of a soap manufacturing company. As they walk they pass a very dirty child playing in the dirt. The preacher asks, "Why is this child dirty? Your company makes many tons of soap." The friend replies, "He has to use some to clean himself." "Yes indeed," the preacher says, "And you have had faith made available for you to use. Use it to believe and claim the redemption that Jesus Christ already produced for you!"

By the time Watchman Nee wrote articles for Issue #24 of The Christian, he had just turned twenty-four years of age. He had been a Christian about seven years. Few indeed are those men or women of God who have seen as deeply, and expounded so clearly, even during lives of sixty or eighty years, what this young man was enabled by God to do by an age that a typical "minister" graduates from Seminary.

Monday, June 20, 2016

A big old Turbine shell

kw: natural history, natural science, museums, collections, photographs

 A large collection (almost 40,000 shells), donated to the Delaware Museum of  Natural History years ago, has been cataloged little by little over the years. At present the Collections Manager and a few volunteers are working with certain fossils, including this immense snail shell. It is a bit over a foot long and weighs a few pounds. The animal must have weighed 20 pounds or more when alive.

The species is Turbinella angulata (Lightfoot, 1786), also known as the West Indian Chank Shell; "chank" comes from a native word for "divine conch". This specimen is a Pliocene fossil collected in Florida, so the animal lived about 5 million years ago. The species is still found in waters off Florida and around the Caribbean and the western Atlantic Ocean.

The many holes in the shell are from calcium-consuming organisms that gradually destroy any shell left lying on the bottom long enough. When you find a shell, or a piece of one, that is ragged and full of holes, it has been on the sea floor for several years or decades. This specimen and those with it were sitting around for some time before an underwater mudflow covered them and preserved them so they could "hang around" a few million years until erosion exposed the fossil beds known as "marl pits" in southern Florida.

This view of the same shell shows that the pearly inner layer is still largely intact, with some of the original pinkish color. The main structure of most mollusk shells is the calcite form of calcium carbonate. A slight change in the chemistry of deposition can produce aragonite instead. Aragonite forms mother of pearl and the smooth inner surface of, for example, clam shells. The mantle of many, many kinds of mollusks can perform this chemical trick to lay down mother of pearl, and also to deposit pearls. Notice also that there are no holes in the pearly lining. Aragonite is a lot harder for the calcium-eaters to attack.

This particular specimen has a chunk knocked out, as you can see at the right. This allows us to view the columella, the central structure that supports the whorls of many snail shells. I gave the shell a quarter turn and played around with light and focusing until I could get a picture of part of the columella, seen here:

This species is characterized by the three spiraling ribs down the columella. Different species have different numbers, so if you can't distinguish which kind of conch you are collecting, you can either x-ray one of the shells, break one open, or if you have a small "borescope camera", spin it up inside and have a look!

The largest shells of this species are more than a foot-and-a-half long, only a little smaller than the largest American snail, the Florida Horse Conch (which is not really a conch; we can dig into that another time).

Friday, June 17, 2016

The man behind the Vulcan

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, actors, acting, television series, space, space aliens

My family and I all loved Star Trek when it was first aired in 1966-69. By mid-1967, my mother would get dinner prepared in time for us to rush into the den and watch the show while eating on TV trays. It was her favorite TV series, as it was for most of us. Over the years of reruns, we re-viewed many of our favorite episodes. But none of us became an overt "trekkie", going to conventions or wearing costumes.

At times I have read articles about the cast and how they got along. The main thread was often how arrogant and generally unliked William Shatner was, and how beloved was Leonard Nimoy. Apparently, the only cast member to hold on to his dislike was "Scotty" James Doohan. Maybe; that could also be hyped. But it became apparent as co-appearances and co-interviews worked their way into the press that a real friendship developed between Shatner and Nimoy.

Now William Shatner, with David Fisher, has written a posthumous biography of Leonard Nimoy, Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship With a Remarkable Man. Let's see: 2015 (the year Nimoy passed away) minus 50 is 1965, the year that they began work on the promotional first episodes of Star Trek (they'd appeared in an episode of The Man From Uncle in 1964). As Shatner tell it, though, they were both accustomed to "show friendships" that last for the run of a series, and then end amid promises of eternal fealty. A real friendship was kindled once they were thrown together by the unexpected popularity of the Star Trek franchise in reruns, the conventions, and cemented while making the first movie in 1979.

It is apparent from Shatner's own telling of many stories, and his take on things he admits remembering differently from others, that the charge of arrogance is true, but he was not, is not, self-blind, and has a bit of a list of re-do's he wishes he could perform. However it happened, a real and even close friendship developed between the two men. They had similar backgrounds, were of the same age, and had worked equally hard to perfect their acting skills and develop a career. To get roles that some might call "lead and supporting", but were really co-leading parts, they had to be very accomplished actors by the time they were chosen for the Star Trek series.

With his somewhat brooding appearance and solemn manner (though not as solemn as Spock), before Star Trek Nimoy played the heavy or the villain about 2/3 of the time. Spock was not, as some suppose, his first "positive" role. As any actor will tell you, the villain's part is usually the most interesting, so he had developed a wide range of skills before he first put on the pointy ears to become a half-human First Officer on the Enterprise.

Without the book, it would be hard to gather all the elements of Leonard Nimoy's life, to see how remarkable he really was. As hard as he worked at acting, he also explored poetry and professional photography, and took time (but, he admits not as much as he'd like) to raise a family. The financial cushion of success and his "star power" after 1979 enabled him to finally "major in family". He no longer felt obligated to take every acting job that came his way. Like any other task he set himself, he worked conscientiously to heal the relationships with his children, who'd felt neglected and had drawn away. Perhaps this is why my favorite image of Spock is this stock image from the 2009 remake of the Star Trek movie, in which "Spock Prime" lends advice to his younger self. He has passed on, but while he was with us, he did indeed live long, and he prospered.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

More investigative journalism, and reverie

kw: article reviews, nonfiction, fiction, essays, collections, anthologies, magazine writing

It took no more than a couple of days to finish reading The Best American Magazine Writing 2015, edited by Sid Holt. To avoid further disturbing my sleep, I did more of the reading in the second half of the volume during the days! Articles worth special mention:

  • Love and Ruin by James Vernini, first published in The Atavist. At 52 pages, this is probably the longest. It chronicles the lives of Nancy and Louis Dupree during their decades in Afghanistan, and the turmoils of that poor nation from 1949 onward. In 1978 Louis was expelled, but surveyed the Russia-Muhajideen war during frequent visits to Pakistan. Some say he participated in training anti-Russian fighters. But the memoir is more about Nancy, who carried on after his death in 1989. She became a beloved mother figure to many in Afghanistan, where she continues to spend part of her time even at age 89. It is a very touching survey of the changes she has seen, too frequently tragic and too seldom hopeful, in a country the world will not leave alone.
  • Jackie's Goodbye by Tiffany Stanley, first published in National Journal. The author's aunt Jackie began to manifest symptoms of Alzheimer's dementia in her fifties. She was cared for by her increasingly over-stressed brother—the author's father—until 2012 when he suffered heart failure and Ms Stanley had to take over the care of both of them, but primarily of Jackie. Amidst a heartbreaking story of her aunt's decline and death after little more than two more years, Ms Stanley frankly describes the heartbreakingly banal indifference of every facet of the "health care" industry to these most needy ones. While many assisted-living and nursing-home facilities have "dementia care" units with very caring, and sometimes even well-trained nurses, few can afford to pay $6,000 - $9,000 per month. If you can't afford that, you're on your own. There is a big, big gap between "not affording" such horrendous costs, and being so totally broke that Medicaid will pay. But while awaiting Medicaid approval, from a few months to a year, you are still on your own. You can't take the time to hold a job to make the money to pay a half-time helper and still keep your own sanity together. Far too many places will admit someone who cannot show sufficient assets to pay for at least the first six or more months' residence. This touches a chord with me: my father spent half his net worth hiring caregivers during the last few years of my mother's life. He had seen what a supposedly "good" nursing home was like when his uncle had to be in one for his last few months. Dad was determined that his own wife would never enter such a place. She didn't. But he was in pretty poor shape by the time she died. Somehow, the little help my three brothers and I could offer, none of us living closer than a day's drive or a day's plane ride away, could suffice to give him more than a day or part of a day of respite. One of my mother's caregivers, a lovely woman named Mary, bonded with Mom so much that she had a nervous breakdown near the end of Mom's life and needed care herself. She got out of the nursing/caregiving field entirely.
  • This Old Man by Roger Angell, first published in The New Yorker. Roger Angell is 93 (maybe 94 now), and wrote of how things really are for him. You could call this 16-page piece an extended answer to, "How are you?" The short answer is, "Not too bad, not too good." He writes about the paradox that many of the very aged are happier than those a generation younger; of the growing invisibility of the elderly, as if the young think, "You've had your turn. We'll be polite, but we don't care what you think"; about sex and companionship, which makes those who are "only 50-60" or so very squeamish: what, we're supposed to become neuters at some defined age? Ask my 94-year-old Dad about that; he wishes he could return to the facility he stayed at until early this year, where he had a girlfriend, and he still phones her almost daily. Her 100th birthday was last week. She craves his company also. I remember, when I was 35 and Dad was 60, asking him, "What is it like to be 60?" (It seemed pretty old to me at the time). He said, "It is pretty much like being 25, except things take longer. Now that I am just a little shy of 70, I agree. The mind and our attitudes don't change much, and because our body changes gradually, we get used to it, if a little chagrined sometimes. Should I live to be 95 or so, I hope to do it with the grace of Roger Angell and the vigor of my father. When Dad says, "Don't get old," I reply, "It beats the alternative." We both know it is true.

I applaud Sid Holt and his helpers on this and the prior volumes in the series, for gathering articles that make me think, make me feel strongly (sometimes against my will), and make me say, "I'm glad I read that."

Friday, June 10, 2016

The pleasures of investigative journalism

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, fiction, essays, collections, anthologies, magazine writing

Sometimes I read two or more books and journals at a time, and then I don't tear through a book in my usual 3-4 days. This is the case with the latest edition of my new favorite nonfiction anthology, The Best American Magazine Writing 2015, edited by Sid Holt. While reading a volume of CWWN, I also read articles in the two journals I subscribe to, Wired and Scientific American. The 2015 edition of TBAMW was kept on my bedside table, and I confess that, while I usually read to put myself to sleep, sometimes an article kept me up quite a bit longer than I expected!

I am currently halfway through the volume, having read 8 extended articles, with 11 slightly shorter ones to go. A few that I wish to discuss particularly:

  • The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates, first published in The Atlantic. The essay is nearly 50 pages long, and probably occupied about 30 pages in The Atlantic. The author's subject is not just reparations for black slavery, which went on in America for more than 300 years. He focuses on a more modern phenomenon, one that is still occurring at such a rate that OECD cannot afford to adequately enforce existing laws: Redlining in real estate markets in Chicago. Chicago is Coates's prime example, but the practice is rampant in cities of all sizes throughout the country. When I took the "Real Estate Course" a few years ago, they discussed redlining, but the attitude was dismissive, as though "it doesn't happen here". But I know it does. The article's ten sections connect the attitudes of slave owners toward their slaves with the attitudes of bankers and real estate brokers and agents, and others who continue to profit from the so-called "sub-prime mortgage crisis". This article did more than anything else I have read—and I confess I have not read very much—to give me a more favorable attitude toward reparations. I still suspect that any large and sustained effort to actually provide reparations could do more harm than good, perhaps much more. But we do need to answer these questions: To whom are reparations to be paid, and in what form? From whom will the funds come? In the case of reparations targeting Redlining over the past 50-80 years, I'd be in favor of requiring forgiveness of all the mortgages made to African-Americans in the Redlined neighborhoods. But the hard part would be the followup education and training of the new landowners; most would be overwhelmed and at an entire loss, and likely to lose their windfall. The bankers who participated in this—that is, nearly all major banks' officers—have grown obscenely rich from the predatory practices that Coates outlines. They, more than any, must absorb the blow. But other measures will be harder to determine, harder to implement. Broad-brush approaches don't ever work out like you expect. It is not a subject we can safely ignore any more.
  • I Don't Care if You Like It by Rebecca Traister, first published in The New Republic. This is one of three of Ms Traister's articles in TNR that together attained a Finalist award. It is a concise (~10 pp) and excellently written slam of the male attitudes that keep women objectified. It focuses on a signal event in which Amy Poehler put Jimmy Fallon in his place for chiding her with an "I don't like it" statement. What she said was a rather profane version of the article's title; naturally it contained the F-bomb. But how much of the dancing on eggshells that women must do to be accepted is predicated on male acceptance? My wife reads Women's Day, mainly for recipe ideas. But most of the articles are about becoming better and better at pleasing men. No wonder the recent case of the Stanford swimmer raping an unconscious woman garnered only a 6-month sentence. After all, the victim's function is to please men, right? The current news ties this event to "white privilege", but it is really about "male privilege". I read an article by a woman who had tried in vain to get her husband and sons to "help around the house." Finally, she bought a bunch of 2-ounce Dixie cups, a big box of plastic flatware, and a big pile of paper plates, and announced the following. She would make her own meals, eat off the good china with the good silverware, and clean up after herself. The men were on their own, but were not allowed to touch anything besides the paper and plasticware unless they washed it immediately thereafter. She would do only her own laundry. They could not use the pots and pans for cooking unless they washed them immediately after the meal. She would not clean up after them. I'd like to have seen a follow-up article by her a year later. I thank God for two things in my life: a no-nonsense Japanese wife who continues to train her husband, and a compliant nature in that I accept her training. It took a few decades, but our home is comparatively peaceful and we're a happy couple. 
  • Inside the Iron Closet: What it's Like to be Gay in Putin's Russia by Jeff Sharlet, first published in GQ. I am appalled, but I suppose I should have expected it. Russia has always been one of the least-accepting of demi-Western cultures, towards homosexuality, and towards sexual expression in general. Frankly put, being gay or lesbian in Russia right now is very similar to being a runaway slave in Alabama in 1850. Though the lack of a black skin makes it slightly harder to detect a gay Russian, otherwise, it is the same: every hand is against you, police just smile should you dare to report being attacked, and if you have children they are likely to be removed from the home and raised by others with "better moral probity".

Does all that seem like good bedside reading? I'm the sort that relishes good, thought-provoking writing, even when my reason for reading is to lull myself to sleep.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Presenting CWWN v05 - The Christian (3)

kw: book summaries, watchman nee, christian ministry

Volume 5 of the Collected Works of Watchman Nee concludes his "Meditations on the Book of Revelation" from Volumes 3 and 4. The meditations on the letters to Thyatira and to Sardis each take up about fifty pages, while he treats of the letters to Philadelphia and Laodicea in something over sixty pages each.

Throughout these Meditations he stresses repeatedly the dual interpretation of each letter. Firstly, each was a letter to the "messenger" of a particular local church. Thus, there is no gospel message in any of them because each church consisted entirely of believers. The late First Century was not like today, in which it is rather easy to be called a Christian while having no reality. The Western countries abound with church-goers for whom this activity is primarily a social function. In about the year 95, when John was exiled to Patmos, to become a Christian and to present oneself as a believer in Jesus was to take a deadly risk.

On the other hand, Nee dwells upon the historical interpretation, for each letter has something to teach us today. The eras represented by the first three letters, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, and to Pergamos, have come and gone. The era represented by Ephesus was ending as John wrote. In the later letters by Paul thirty years earlier we can see that many were forsaking the way of Christ, and the love of many was already growing cold. The era represented by Smyrna (=Myrrh, representing suffering) occupied the Second and Third Centuries, and the first part of the Fourth Century, the era of official persecution of Christians. The era represented by Pergamos (meaning "fully married"), in which the Christian church became wedded to the world, particularly to the Roman Government, lasted about another two centuries.

Although these eras have ended, these three letters have something to say to us, no matter what kind of "church" we may attend or adhere to. Do we love the Lord with the first love? We may have many works, yet be motivated either by a desire for other's good opinion or by a self-righteous sense of duty. The first letter is for us. Maybe our love of Christ has not waned, or has been rekindled, and we are suffering persecution. In America and other Western countries it is less likely that you could be killed for your faith, but not entirely out of the question. But more subtle works of Satan induce others to exclude us or humiliate us, or some might lose jobs "for being too religious". The second letter, with its lack of rebuke by the Lord, and its many words of comfort, can sustain those suffering for their faith. But are we instead someone who loves to attend the richest congregation, the one filled with political and business leaders? Do we love hobnobbing with the great of the world, "even at church"? The third letter has significant warnings of the spiritual peril we are courting, and remedies to induce in us a pure love for the Lord and a straight walk in His presence.

The latter four churches represent expressions of the church that coexist now. They began at different times, but the later ones did not replace the former ones. Thus, the local church in Thyatira had characteristics that made it the prototype of worldwide Catholicism. This is primarily the Roman Catholic Church, but in principle it includes the eleven other Orthodox, or "old Catholic" churches. Sardis represents the churches that arose out of the Protestant Reformation, particularly the State Churches: Lutheran, Dutch Reformed, Anglican, and so forth. Other "mainline denominations" would also be included, such as Methodist or Presbyterian, but not Congregational, which we'll get to in a moment. The weak but faithful church in Philadelphia represents those expressions of the church that are characterized by love among the believers ("Brotherly Love"), holding fast the Lord's name and keeping his word. For this the Lord appreciated that they had "a little strength", and a little is all that is needed. The fourth church, Laodicea, had become quite "democratic", replacing revelation with elections. The name means "rule of the laity", and in a certain way, it harks back to the proverb of the times of the Judges, "Each man does what is right in his own eyes." The Congregational denomination is the epitome of this kind of expression. But the "Christian world" abounds with denominations of all kinds, rampant division of the body of Christ, such that division is the "new normal", and those who separate from divisions and attempt to attain Biblical unity are considered heretics. Modern Philadelphians experience a taste of Smyrna! But this "new normal" kind of church expression is most hateful to the judging Jesus Christ, who promises—it was no warning this time—to vomit them out of his mouth. Though shut out of the church, He remains near the door, knocking, and blessing any who answer and let Him into their own heart, though the church door remains shut to Him. Thus we can discern a third mode of interpretation, the personal. It is possible to be sitting among faithful believers in a church that primarily expresses the love and faithfulness of Philadelphia, while inside being a lukewarm Laodicean or a chilly Sardisite (as some even boast, they are "God's frozen chosen"!).

In these Meditations we see a measure of incipient maturity in one who was about the age at which I received Christ. Is it not true that nearly all of us spend most of our lives as a mature adult? So why is spiritual maturity so rare? These seven letters, each with their call to the overcomer, and each with a remedy given by Christ for the local situation, contain the "supplies" we need to overcome and to mature in Christ, loving Him first, relying on Him, and living a life of faithful testimony to Him. May the Lord at His return find us doing so!