17 April 2010

Catching Up: End of Break, the Psalms

A friend of mine at church here mentioned that he’s been reading my blog.  He seems like a cool guy, so I was surprised to discover that he has no life.  (Just kidding, Martin!)  And then I decided that I’ve been neglectful of the ol’ blog, and I should write something.

There’s one measly week left of my break.  It’s been a good one – I enjoyed an Easter trip to the Belfast area with my friend Amy, and the rest of my time in Oxford has been pretty low-key.  I took walks, read books, played games, tried out a new pub each week with friends (sort of a gradual pub crawl!), baked bread (and devoured it! Yum!).  I even got a little work done… not as much as I’d like, but hey, there’s still one week left!

I have yet to write that thesis proposal, but I have definitely found a topic that I’m interested in.  I’m waiting for the ‘okay’ (or ‘nay’) of a faculty member.  As I was reading in the library several weeks ago, I came across an article about a 6th century figure named Daniel of Salah.  In the midst of a rather tumultuous time for his church community, Daniel was commissioned to write a commentary on the Psalms.  Daniel wasn’t just interested in creating something scholastic: he wrote his commentary as a series of homilies, crafting one sermon per psalm, so they could shape many people at once and be easily disseminated.  It’s the oldest extant Psalm commentary that we have in the Syriac language, and it made a huge impact on the generations after him.  Daniel’s was a minority Christian community, persecuted by the Byzantine orthodox authorities because of their theological differences, and his commentary helped to shape their identity.  That influence lasted longer than Byzantine rule – soon the Islamic conquest swept the historic home of Syriac-speaking Christians out of Byzantine hands forever, and this commentary continued to inspire generations of marginalized Christians in a new era.  

As I was reading about this, I also discovered what a pivotal role the Psalms played in Syrian Christianity in general.  In the Syriac-speaking churches, a person couldn’t even be ordained as a sub-deacon without knowing and reciting the entire Psalter by heart.  (Being able to sign one’s own name was desirable, but negotiable!)  Monastic life was characterized by the daily recitation of Psalms, and memorization of the Psalms formed the cornerstone of Christian education. The language of the Psalms is the prayer language of this community, so imagine the kind of impact that Daniel’s text would have had on those who gathered to hear it and ruminate on it, homily by homily, and who then passed on their knowledge to a wider audience.

Studying this has challenged me personally in several ways.  Why don’t I try to memorize the Psalms, too?  I presume that these would have been sung or chanted by these churches, aiding memorization.  Maybe I could find a Psalter adapted for plainsong chant to help in that task?  (Any recommendations?)  Those of you who’ve spent any amount of time with me know that I hum/sing/whistle incessantly – why not harness one of my irksome personal habits for good?

My own Christian fellowship has been going through a long period of identity-shift.  We’re mostly content to argue about fairly surface level stuff – what happens in our worship services and who does it.  It seems like pretty sandy ground for us to build our house on.  I wondered – what books of the Bible do we turn to in order to remember who we are?  (For the C of C, my guess is Acts. What’s yours?)  What communication tools are effective for shaping communal (not just individual) identity today and how can we use those best?  

14 March 2010

A Break of Sorts

Hilary Term, the second of Oxford's three terms, just finished on Friday. I still have an essay to complete, and a catch-up German Reading class (ugh!), but other than that my load is considerably lighter.  That is, it's lighter in that I don't have classes to attend or prepare for, but I still have a lot to do. I'll spend a good chunk of time actually trying to learn to read academic German (since I can no longer run from this eventuality), and the pile of Greek and Syriac texts that I need to work through for exams next year appears to be bottomless.  I'll also be spending a lot of time in one of the many other buildings that belong to the Oxford University Library system.  (Pictured here: the Radcliffe Camera, home to the general theology section, among other diverse topics. It's lovely, but a bit cavernous.)

Here's my big goal for the break: I have 6 weeks in which I intend to hunt down and take captive the elusive prey of every graduate student - the thesis topic! It's not that I don't have ideas for topics or interests. It's that I have too many of them, and most of them are too nebulous or possible dead ends. It's possible that this sounds like a rather drab task to undertake during a break from classes. So, I'll reframe it a bit: I get to take a 6 week romp through one of the world's best libraries exploring whatever topics strike my fancy. (And that, my friends, is a nerdy dream come true!)

So, I'm hoping that at some point in this wild, bibliographical (bibliophilical?) spree through the Bodleian, things will just magically click in place, and I'll at least have a clear enough vision to write a research proposal and start digging in. I'll probably have to completely rework the research proposal at a later date, but it'll be nice to have a place to start! (I'd like for it to be something like the first part of this comic, without so much of the second part!)

But that's not all: I'm going to do fun, normal-human-being things during this break, too. Tomorrow I'm meeting up with friends from California for lunch. (Shout-out to the Wilsons and co.!) I also get to take a little trip to Belfast for Easter weekend with my friend Amy. I'm hoping to actually visit some of the free museums that I pass every day on the way to classes. I'd really like to continue learning to make bread (maybe I'll post about my experiments?). And I'd like to take a couple of long walks in the nearby countryside. Perhaps I'll even take a short trip to London. I also have some budding friendships to invest in. All in all, I think it'll be a nice 'break'!

28 February 2010

This is for you, Amber Joy.

It seems that I’m even an insufferable, pedantic nerd in my dreams.  It’s pretty rare for me to remember my dreams, but I did this morning.  Here’s what happened, as far as I can now recall:

My dear friend Amber and I are walking through a field of tall grass with a scraggly, leafless tree in the middle of it.  For some reason, there were a lot of birds in this dream, and I think they could talk.  They were plump and mangy.  The mangiest birds I’d ever laid eyes on.  [Come to think of it, the time when I lived with Amber was full of birds – mourning doves in the house and chickens in the yard – so I guess it fits somehow.]

Amber turns to me and asks, “Is there any evidence in Genesis chapters 1-11 for the existence of Smurfs?”  I look quizzical, so she explains further,  “My friend says she believes God created Smurfs and that Genesis says so.”  She gestures vaguely toward the birds in the tree.  I look at them and raise an eyebrow – one of the birds told her this?

I think for a minute, giving her question due consideration, then I cock my head slightly to the right and respond very sensibly and seriously, “Well, I guess since we’re not really sure what range of colors the Hebrew word translated as ‘blue’ really encompasses, it would be hard to argue for the existence of Smurfs in Genesis.”

Amber willingly accepts this explanation, and we walk on through the field, out of hearing range of those mangy, delusional birds.  

It's nice to know that such penetrating theological questions fill my dreams as well as my waking hours.

14 January 2010

Snow: Atlanta and Oxford

I’m back in Oxford, and it is a winter wonderland.  Meanwhile, I cannot get "You Can Never Hold Back Spring" out of my head.  (Thanks, Amber.)  Is this delusion or optimism on the part of my subconscious?  There can be such a fine line between the two.  Or maybe a cruel joke?

Here’s a little fact that may surprise you (at least, it surprised me): people, in this part of the country at least, deal with snow accumulation with about the same amount of panic as people in the Southern United States.  Since I left Georgia just hours before some wintry weather settled in, it’s been natural to compare British and Southern reactions to snow and ice. 

Similarity #1: If there’s a chance of snow in the forecast in Atlanta, everyone immediately rushes to the supermarket to buy milk, eggs, bread, etc. – all the staples.  This week, I picked my way through the snow to the nearest grocery store and discovered that there had been a similar ‘run’ on milk, bread, and fresh vegetables. 

Here, however, is an important, yet related point of contrast.  When it snows or ices in Atlanta, chances are it’ll accumulate overnight, be extremely treacherous for the morning commute, and vanish by mid-afternoon.  If you sleep in too late, you might miss the opportunity to see white stuff.   In Oxford, the snow has been on the ground and roadways for over a week now.  I’d say the run on the grocery store here was a little more justified than the ones in ‘Hotlanta.’

Similarity #2: No one knows how to walk in the snow.  I’m picking my way over sidewalks with the same amount of caution and nervousness as a local.  There was even an article on the BBC’s website about how hospitals are swamped with cases of snow-related injuries, particularly fractures, because people are just ‘falling over.’  (Plus the requisite injuries due to reckless stupidity: Exhibit A.)  I suspect that Atlantans would have the same issue if we walked more places.

Similarity #3: As far as I can tell, people don’t really know how to drive in snow here either.  That’s just judging from news reports and driving advisories.  Aside from a sleepy bus ride from the airport, I haven’t been on the roads to test out this theory properly.  In Atlanta, there are two ways drivers navigate “Rush Hour on Ice.”  (Sounds like a spin-off of a Jackie Chan movie, doesn’t it?)  Some become slow-motion drivers, maintaining the minimum amount of speed necessary to inch forward rather than slide backward.  They start to brake approximately a quarter mile away from a green light, anticipating that it will surely turn red before they get there.  (In actuality, it will likely cycle back to green before they even reach it.)  Others pretend like nothing has changed and drive like raving maniacs who think they are immortal.  This is, of course, how most Metro Atlanta drivers get from point A to point B on a normal day, and, while it’s always risky, it is particularly perilous on ice.  Get the slow-mo drivers and demoniac drivers out on the same 6 lane freeways, and… well, you can imagine the consequences.  Maybe those runs on the grocery store are justified, if only in the interest of not being on the road with these people.   No one wants to become a traffic statistic.

Similarity #4: Abundant snow sculptures.  Because it doesn’t snow much here, when it does people rush out and create all sorts of snowpeople, igloos, epic snowball battlegrounds, etc.  I didn’t see it, but I heard there was a snowman next to a bus stop with its arm extended as if hailing the driver.  People have especially had fun supplementing Oxford’s monuments and landmarks.  Albeit, the snowpeople in Georgia tend to be smaller in stature, since we usually only get a ½ inch or so at once, but I couldn’t help but notice a similarity in enthusiastic snow creativity.  I suspect that the excitement wears thin more quickly where it snows more frequently.

Alas, I must get back to work.  Anyone else have a snow-related anecdote to share?  

07 December 2009

A Walk in the Rain

My first term is officially over.  Actually, it was supposed to be over on Friday, but one of my tutors extended a deadline for me and another student out of the kindness of his heart.  Our tutorial is tomorrow afternoon, but I finished my paper this morning.  (The "Oxspeak" for tutorials is "tutes." It makes my inner 12 year-old giggle. My mom's, too.)  So, I'm relatively free!

A story from my day offers some circumstantial evidence that still have a lot to learn about adjusting to life in the UK:

Today I got to indulge in that delightful end-of-term activity: return my library books!  Woohoo!  There's nothing like feeling literal, physical weight lifted off your shoulders at the end of a semester (or term, in my case).  It's an ordinary sort of 'sacrament' to me.  Anyway, it was raining this morning when I finished my paper.  I waited until after lunch, and I thought I saw a relatively dry window... well, it was a drier than it had been.  I grabbed my bag of books, slipped on my rain jacket, and set out.  The rain picked up a bit.  I consider pulling out my umbrella, too, but decided not to - if there's any wind my trousers usually get wet anyway.  (It's very, very important to say 'trousers', by the way - say 'my pants got wet' here and it sounds like an indirect confession of incontinence.)  Besides, if the wind is strong enough, it's better to just get wet than to have to chase your inside-out umbrella down the street.

This time, forgoing the umbrella was a misstep, and it led me down an odd path of decision making.  The rain gradually became harder.  At first I thought, "It's not that heavy, I have on my rain jacket, and my pan-trousers! are probably going to get a little wet with the umbrella anyway." This went on for a while as the rain became heavier. There was some turning point at which my reasoning had switched to, "Well, I'm soaked through now, so there's really no need to bother with the umbrella."  Rationalization: it's a slippery slope, my friends.  

The take-away here is, if you have the occasion to ask yourself, "Should I get out my umbrella?" the answer is nearly always, "Yes."  If you think about the umbrella, you probably do, in fact, need it.  Otherwise, you end up returning books, picking up something for dinner, and trudging a mile back to your flat with your slightly-too-big trousers sagging lower and lower until you feel like you're impersonating a penguin.  It's like that scene in Mary Poppins, but without the animated characters, innocuous flirting, singing and dancing.  Just waddling in the rain and whistling "Wade in the Water."  (Actually, not much like Mary Poppins at all, I guess.)

On my way back to my flat, I finally decided to go ahead and get my umbrella out anyway.  The other thing about umbrellas is that they limit your field of vision.  I also had my hood up - now I was soaked and in over-kill mode.  That's right, Kel: at least look like you tried your best not to get soaked.  With the hood on, I have to pivot my entire torso to spot oncoming traffic.  Adding an umbrella means I have to do a pivot-duck combination to peak out for cars.  Anyway, I was approaching a crosswalk on a major street, and it's near a bus stop, so it's usually busy.  Just as I was about to cross the street, in the very little peripheral vision that I had left, I noticed a rapid, dark streak of movement.  It looked like someone was running extremely close to my back, enough that we would probably collide.  Even though I knew I wasn't the one who put us on the collision course, I did what any person adjusting to British culture would do.  I offered a profuse, preemptive apology to the reckless stranger as if our near-collision was entirely my fault.  (They'll apologize for anything here! And apparently, I will, too.)  Oddly, the other person said nothing in return, and we did not end up colliding at all.

It wasn't until I got to the other side of the street that I realized I had apologized so politely to the black piece of velcro that holds my umbrella closed when it's not in use.  When the umbrella's open, it hangs freely, and its flopping around is obnoxious, so I usually rotate it to the back where I can't see it.  I'm an abnormally bouncy walker (I think it's the product of my irrational, die-hard optimism), so the little black strip of cloth had dangled briefly within sight and then disappeared just as quickly. It made enough of an impression that I actually thought it was a person.  (I wonder if anyone heard that?)  Maybe I should start keeping that little annoying strip of fabric in sight.  Or just not use the umbrella, get soaked and waddle home.

22 November 2009

Pecan Pie

I just got back from a Thanksgiving celebration with the ACU Study Abroad group.  They were so kind to invite me to participate.  I volunteered to bring something, and they said, "How about pecan pie?"  I said, "Yum! You bet!"

Now, there are many traditional foods that no Thanksgiving feast should be without.  The obvious ones are turkey, stuffing, homemade rolls and anything with pumpkin or sweet potatoes.  A good Southern Thanksgiving will nearly always include someone's great-aunt's recipe for green bean casserole and, of course, that Southern delicacy, pecan pie.

There were any number of potential issues: changing from Farenheit to Celsius, an iffy college 'cooker' (oven, for my American friends), using golden syrup instead of Karo, my general lack of experience baking pecan pies, recipe doubling, using a new-to-me recipe instead of Grandma's.  Plus, I couldn't ask Mom, "Is this right? Do you think it's done or does it need more time?"  I have no idea which of factors (or combination thereof) conspired against me, but I can tell you this: the two pies I made are a disgrace to Southerners everywhere.  One didn't set (a common enough problem), and it got burned a little on the top because I didn't have any tin foil.  I left the other one in a bit too long... and it was oddly gritty.  Also, it was shaped a bit like a crater in the end.

At this point I imagined reporting to Grandma Bryant on my latest cooking fiasco.  While we were both in Abilene, I used to share my cooking experiences, good and bad, with her.  I would exaggerate my failures in a ridiculous, Lucille Ball-like manner.  She always chuckled at me and said something endearingly colloquial in her West Texas accent, like, "Oh, land!"  I think she may also have responded that way the day I ran over the water spigot with that beast-of-a riding lawn mower.  (It's been 2 and a half years since her death, and I still think of things to tell her.)

Anyway, I decided to go on and take the pies, despite their probable inedibility.  I bundled up in my coat, stacked the pies, and set off for the ACU houses, about a 15 minute walk from my college.  After a couple of minutes, my arms got tired from holding the pies out in front of me, so I pulled the edge of the pan against my belly for added support.  This proved disastrous.  About halfway there, I glanced down to find, to my consternation, that the pie that didn't set well had been leaking copiously down my front the whole time.  There was a stream of golden syrup cascading down the front of my jacket that branched at my jeans and ran down each leg to the top of my tennis shoes!  (Ew, I hate being sticky.  I want to take a shower just thinking about it.)  Walking with my oozing pies extended in front of me, I glanced sheepishly at the people I passed.  

All this, you'd think, would add up to a very un-Thanksgiving-ish attitude.  And I was certainly a little grumbly when I finally arrived at my destination.  But here is the wonder of a feast shared in community - almost immediately, I forgot about my embarrassment, I sponged off my sticky jeans until they were merely tacky, I sang and laughed and prayed and communed, and I ate my fill.  Nobody worried about my fumbled pie attempt (there was a whole table of dessert to choose from anyway), and I stopped worrying too.  They welcomed me to the feast, even though I had little of value to give.

A good community accepts us in the midst of our messy humanity, and not just in innocuous mistakes like bad pies and sticky clothes.  I'm thankful to have been a part of several communities who have been bearers of the love and grace of Christ in my life.

21 November 2009

Thanksgiving Special

Seriously, what's Thanksgiving without this?

Whenever my brother, Russell, is feeling up to it, he cooks our turkey in the backyard in an (unused) aluminum can (sort of like Oscar the Grouch's abode).  They call it a 'litter bin' here.  'Garbage' is strictly an American word (apparently), and 'trash' has stronger negative connotations than at home.  I usually end up calling it a 'traaaaa ---- litter bin?'  Anyway, Russ's turkey is wonderful - cooked to perfection, very moist, and done in about half the time of a traditionally baked turkey.

Even though I'll be missing Thanksgiving dinner with my family this week, I'm looking forward to enjoying a little Thanksgiving celebration with the ACU Study Abroad folks this Sunday evening.  (They have trips coming up, so they opted for celebrating early.  Plus, we naturally don't have the holiday off here in Oxford, so it'd fall right in the middle of 7th week.)

I'll be home 3 weeks from yesterday, thanks to the generosity of Janis and Brian.  My Christmas gifts this year are mostly "the gift of family."  It's probably the best Christmas gift I've ever received.