Aleph

When I emerged from my young-adult cocoon, I ambled my way back into my old childhood church. The precursors that took me there are another story completely, so the point here is, our Senior Pastor was on study leave in Scotland that week, and our retired Parish Associate was preaching a multi-week series on Evangelism from the book of Matthew. There was a second-career seminary intern there too. She approached on my second visit and introduced me to Reverend Shute.

“He’s been coming here a couple weeks,” she said.
“Oh I know, I saw him,” he smiled.

From various sermons over the years, and the Disciple Bible Study, I learned how fond John was about the teaching influence of Rev. Dr. Kenneth Bailey, Th.D (1930 – 2016).

Bailey was born to missionary parents who served in Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. When Ken married Ethel Jean Milligan, before attending seminary in Pittsburgh, the couple returned to the Middle East to begin their own career. They served the church in Cairo, Lebanon, Israel, and Cyprus over four decades, and Bailey taught at Dubuque and Princeton as well. “We preferred living in local villages and dense apartment buildings over communities reserved for ambassadors and expatriates,” he shared in an interview. His passion was always mingling with native people at their homes, markets, on the streets, and speaking in their own language. Bailey was familiar with Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac, and Greek. He was most excited by folk customs, and how they related to the teachings and parables of Jesus, as he unceasingly re-read scripture in it’s cultural context.

Some of John’s favorite lessons to share about Bailey’s insight included a review of Chiastic Structures found in the Bible.

  • In the modern West, we’re accustomed to climatic storytelling that resembles climbing a mountain, where there’s a great conflict near the end followed by resolution. “Finis”.
  • Shute and Bailey said verbal cultures, and especially Middle Eastern ones, had a more prolific arsenal of narrative strategies. The most telling method of entertaining and teaching was the Chiasmus, which means ‘crossing’ and is often diagrammed using an ‘X’
  • Chiasms are A,B,B’,A’ relationships found in stories and poems. The pattern relates the first idea to the last, the second to the second to last, and so on. What’s related can be words, like in rhyming poems; synonyms; or ideas and events, like in the great epics
  • In Semitic cultures they said, stories are better compared to a canyon than a mountain, where you start on one cliff, hike downward to the stream, then climb up the other wall. Think of Odysseus and Hercules here
  • The focus happens at the center
  • The first half of the story is build-up: you don’t see a relationship yet. Then, instead of the punch-line coming at the end, you stumble upon it (often as a gift) mid-course. Everything thereon is reinforcement of what you just heard when you were either half-asleep or hooked-in. It’s familiar listening this time so your imagination can walk and float along (experimenting with predictions) more freely

Or you might envision our typical model of climbing a mountain, but shifted left, and pierced by an inverted triangle of understanding with overlap. Homonyms and loanwords make the story even more fluid. I most remember John explaining the Chiasms of Lydia, the woman at the well, and the parable of the knock at midnight. In the latter he said, “the point of the knock is not the neighbor’s persistence, but that the sleeper needs to become aware of and overcome his/her shame-based motivation” … or maybe a little of both.

“happy are those whose way is blameless” – Psalm 119:1


Mending Wall
by Robert Frost, found in North of Boston (1914)

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Title: Stitches
Artist: Shawn Mendes, Handwritten (2015)

“As winds change direction,
some people build walls
while others build windmills”
– Chinese proverb

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