Far as the Curse is Found

December 24, 2008

Matthew’s account of the “magi” who visit the Chirst child has always struck me as rather awkward. After all, the men who are counted among Jesus’ early worshippers clearly enter into the story from well outside the Jewish tradition.

The greek word “magos” – which is the word that Matthew uses to describe the foreign visitors – is an occupational title that describes a particular priestly caste within the religious tradition of Zoroastrianism, a religion that is still practiced to this day. Their role – as I understand it – was to interpret the “signs” that appeared in the skies. Today, we would think of them as astrologers. However, unlike modern Western practitioners who go by the name, these astrologers were a part of a religious system that found its roots in ancient Persia.

Now we come to the awkward part. Astrology – along with numerous other “magical” practices – was expressly prohibited by the Mosaic law, a code of conduct that had governed the Jewish people for centuries.  In other words, God revealed himself within a religious tradition that is outside of the confines of the Bible. Later in the Matthew narrative, he will do the same thing a second time, coming to the magi in a dream.

It is common for Christmas narratives to water down this oddity. Some translations – and almost all stories that are based on the biblical narrative – attempt to describe the magi as “wise men” or “kings.” Almost never are they characterized as astrologers, much less priests of a foreign religion.

Yet the writer’s clear implication – that, at this crucial moment in history, God acted, and even provided guidance to those who were a part of “another” faith, and even within the practices and frameworks of that faith – ought not to be skipped over lightly.

Clearly, something remarkable has happened here. To the writer of Matthew, God has initiated the process by which all people will be drawn to him, a move that will become explicit when Jesus later instructs his disciples to make disciples of all of the nations. In the meantime, God has apparently gone ahead of them, preparing the nations for the revelation of his redemptive work.

Perhaps now, more than ever, a complete telling of the story of the magi is appropriate. Growing within our churches is a collective angst over the connections between other faiths and our own. Many of the tenants of Islam, Hinduism, and – to a lesser extent – Buddhism seem inconsistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yet, beyond question, each of those traditions have produced good people who have made the world a better place. We want to embrace those things which are good in other faiths, yet we fear compromising the integrity of our own beliefs.

Tonight, I find myself wondering whether part of the problem may be that we spend too much time looking for things that are wrong in other faiths, when we ought to be celebrating the ways God is already present and acting within them. Perhaps, if we look hard enough, we can find similar ideas, points of guiding light not unlike the Bethlehem star, in religious practices of all varieties – from the text of the Q’ran to the teachings of the Buddha to the oral traditions of the Navajo.

And if indeed the visitation to Bethlehem by these odd-looking men was a precursor to the day when the treasures of all the nations will be brought into the city of God, then – of all seasons – Christmas can become a time in which we celebrate the mystery and wonder of a God who is drawing all people – even quirky Persian astrologers – into his kingdom of love and grace.

After all, the announcement of the arrival of the Christ child was not only for those in the vicinity Bethlehem. Rather, as Isaac Watts reminds us in the lyrics of Joy to the World

He comes to make His blessings known,
        far as the curse is found.



December 17, 2008

I don’t know a lot about quilts, but I’m pretty sure we have only one true quilt in our house. Rachel – my oldest daughter – is really fond of it. If you ever manage to peek in her room – you will probably find it casually draped across her bed.

I’m not a discerning consumer of bedding and linen, and I don’t usually have much of a recollection of where things of this nature came from. Ask me, for example, where my pillowcase came from, and you will probably get a blank stare. But in the case of this particular quilt, I can take you to the very place where it was bought, and I can even tell you about when it was purchased.

In the late 1980s, shortly after I was married, my grandmother – “Momma Ritchie” we called her – gave this quilt as a Christmas present to my (then) new bride. It was beautiful. And it struck us as an unusually extravagant thing to give, especially for the wife of a retired farmer/preacher from East Texas. To this day, we still occasionally lapse into warm recollection of the sense of elation that she experienced in presenting it to us.

Momma Ritchie was a living expression of one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith: that of joy amidst every circumstance, even great hardship. She raised four children through the Great Depression, a period in our history that makes the current “downturn” look like a walk in the park. One of her girls, a young adult at the time, died in a tragic accident.  Yet in spite of the weighty events and struggles that she experienced during the prime of her life, and in spite of the fact that she and my grandfather no doubt continued to strain to make ends meet throughout their lives, Momma Ritchie remained a beacon of exuberance and happiness.

More often than not, she would greet me with a scream of delight, dropping everything that she was doing at the moment, then seizing the opportunity to kiss me on the lips  and pinch my cheeks (even in adulthood) while going on and on about how glad she was to see me.

During my childhood and teen years, my family – along with the families of my dad’s other siblings – would often travel to visit her shortly after Christmas. During those visits, she would work tirelessly to make sure that her children and grandkids had all of the food they wanted (and more!), and comfortable places to sleep. Often, she was the last one to bed and the first one up in the morning. And through it all, she would whistle and hum softly to herself. It was only years later that I came to appreciate how much WORK she was actually doing. When I watched her, it all seemed so effortless and natural. Service and hospitality were simply two more sources that fed the seemingly inexhaustible well of joy from which she drew.

During the last few years, Momma Ritchie has suffered from what I gather was some form of dementia. Though she could still recognize my dad, she knew very little else about when or where she was, or who was around her. Still, in spite of the loss of much of her memory and awareness, her pleasant, even enthusiastic demeanor remained.

Today, I learned that, after living for over 98 years, Momma Ritchie has passed away. Later this week, she will be laid to rest just a short drive away from the home where she lived for most of her life.

I will not be there. But thats okay. As many who are close to me already know, one of my eccentricities is that I often grieve best in solitude and reflection, a place where I find myself during these early morning hours.

As I sit here, awash in memories – many of which are decades old – I see that, like an elegant patch on the quilt that lies across my daughter’s bed, Momma Ritchie’s character and demeanor has become an integral part of my own identity. I am grateful to have known and loved her, and equally to have been loved by her. She will be dearly missed.

May she rest in peace, and rise in glory.

Best. Games. Ever. – #1: Civilization Series

December 7, 2008

If any one theme has dominated this list, it has been the theme of beauty.

For the most part, when I talk about beauty in games, I am talking about art or music. Games, like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, found a way – even in the days of more primitive graphics – to come alive, both visually and musically. World of Warcraft, my #2 game, likewise, combines colorful, stylized graphics with a serene musical score.

In the Civilization series, especially Civ IV, well-chosen graphics and music are certainly a feature. However, the thing that makes the Civ series stand above the rest – and the reason that I keep coming back to play it again and again – is that the game itself is beautiful.

Make no mistake. The learning curve for Civ, a game in which you guide a civilization through history over the course of about 5-12 hours, is a steep one. You are almost certain to wash out early during your first two or three games. Civ requires you to balance a lot of needs – resources, technology, population, military, culture – and its easy for veteran players, much less newcomers, to become too neglectful of one or the other. But when you finally “get it” – when you finally understand the way the game is put together, and begin to develop your own strategies for playing it – you will experience something that is comparable the the feeling you get when you take in a breathtaking work of art.

The strategic depth in this game is incredible. I marveled once at the diversity and strength of the opinions that were posted in Civ-related forum on the subject of when and how one’s starting city should “build” its first settler. Pages upon pages of analysis have been generated about the best ways to play the opening turns of the game. Entire web sites are dedicated to the loyal community that plays this game regularly. It is not uncommon, on the Apolyton civilization podcast, for extensive discussions to be devoted to little more than the uses of one of the dozens of military units that are generated during the course of the game.

The secret to the appeal of Civ, I think, is this: perhaps better than any other product in its industry, Civ has a way of making you feel like you are playing your game. In shooters and role playing games, there is always a sense that you are playing out someone else’s game – you are a part of a story that someone else has created for you. But in the Civilization games – from the very beginning – I have always felt like it was my world, my nation, my leaders, and my style of play – that was determining the outcome of the game.

In years to come, people may soon forget Grand Theft Auto, even the Halo series. But, like its creator Sid Meier, Civ will always be remembered for the way it transcends conventional ideas of gaming, creating an experience unlike any other in…well…history.

Best. Games. Ever. – #2: World of Warcraft

December 3, 2008

The second floor of the Inn in the village of Astranaar overlooks a peaceful, shimmering lake set deep in the woodlands. I sit there beside the Innkeeper for about five minutes doing nothing in particular other than gazing out on the lake. In the meantime, I read chatter from my Guild about impending raids on far-off “instances” (difficult dungeons that require group cooperation to complete) and efforts to acquire all of the needed materials for long sought-after weapons and armor. In the meantime, one Guild member excuses herself and logs off for the night – she has to go put her kids to bed. I contemplate the possibility of setting off to a nearby region to complete a pending quest, but feel no rush to get to it. At the moment, the peace of my favorite perch in the Inn is more than enough to keep me satisfied.

Make no mistake. The star of World of Warcraft is not state-of-the-art graphics (it doesn’t have them) or some innovative new game mechanic (though – at the time it was released in 2004 – it did have a few of those). Rather, the star is…well…the world itself.

Blizzard’s remarkable accomplishment in WoW is that it has put together a breathtaking, immense environment in which its subscribers can play (some estimate it may be the size of Manhattan Island – that may not seem like much, but when you think about how long it would take to go everywhere there is to go in Manhattan, you begin to get an idea about how much material is present).

There is so much to see and do here that it boggles the mind. And the geography of the fantasy world is burned in my mind as certainly as the streets that run through the medium sized West Texas town where I live. The seldom-visited Captain’s Quarters on the Maiden’s Fancy, a shuttle that runs between the peaceful village of Ratchet and the raucous sea-town of Booty Bay at the Southern tip of the Eastern Kingdoms. The sweaty jungles of Stranglethorn Vale. The angled, snow covered mountains of Winterspring. The dilapidated ghost town that leads deep into the Deadmines. The majestic medieval spires of Stormwind. The rivers of lava that run through gigantic caverns of Ironforge.

And… because of the number of players who are online at any time – the world is literally alive. Running and dancing all around me are players from all over the world – questing, crafting, buying, selling. Sometimes, they are just goofing off. As a result, WoW never “feels” static, fabricated, or stale – rather, it takes on a comfortable familiarity over time, kind-of like a favorite easy-chair or a season-ticket seat at the ballpark.

In years to come, I expect that WoW will be viewed as a watershed event in the history of electronic gaming because – for the first time – it showed the world the possibility of creating a game that is both wonderfully challenging and fully social.

I have probably spent as much time enjoying WoW as any other game or game series, except one.

One more post to go.