Pop Goes the Easel

28 October 2018
{Written on an easel positioned near the speaker is a poster board with (1) a black ” Zig”, (2) a blue “Zag” and (3) a red Pop.}

***
This reflection has three components: the first is a long Old Testament “zig.” The second is a short New Testament “zag” and the third is a concluding “pop.” I hope you will find the “zig” and “zag” interesting. If you find the “pop” offensive, we can certainly talk further since I live here, too.
Let’s zig over to the Book of Daniel, chapter 7.
In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon, I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. And four great beasts came up out of the sea. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand upon two feet like a man; and the mind of a man was given to it. And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, “Arise, devour much flesh.” After this I looked, and lo, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back; and the beast had four heads. After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a fourth beast, terrible and dreadful and exceedingly strong; and it had iron teeth; it devoured, and broke in pieces, and stamped with its feet. It had ten horns and behold there came up among the ten horns a little horn in which were eyes like the eyes of a man and a mouth speaking great things.
These words are, and have been for many centuries, Holy Scripture, which means that every Christian needs to understand their message, including the hanging-fire issue of the date of their composition. Traditionally, the Book of Daniel was assumed to be written during the Babylonian Captivity of the 6th century BC. However, the modern scholarly consensus accepts the Maccabean period four centuries later. Curiously, only a handful of scholars are sufficiently learned to have a justifiable opinion on this topic. The rest of us who are not learned enough will have to 1) ignore the issue or 2) accept the scholarly consensus or 3) find, and choose, an expert who supports our convictional predilection.
You see the issue, of course. If the earlier date is correct, the Book of Daniel is an historical prediction, a prophesy of the future which came true. That is the traditional view. If the later date is correct, as the modern scholarly consensus holds, then the Book of Daniel describes, and interprets, events that had already occurred.
On the date of the Book of Daniel today: Divided We Stand.
Backing away from the fire and more calmly considered, we should be able to agree that the Christian Bible contains two apocalypses. The first, and most famous, is the Apocalypse of John–the New Testament book of Revelation. The second is the Book of Daniel, which contains the night visions you have just heard.
In any case, interpreting an apocalypse presents special difficulties that most ordinary Christians are unwilling, and perhaps acceptably unwilling, to engage. Additionally, many pastors who dip into the apocalypses just as quickly dip right back out. For example, I cannot imagine that an accurate identification of the four beasts of Daniel seven is a high priority for most American Christians. Nevertheless, for the record and for what it is worth, the best theory suggests the beasts refer to the empires of Babylonia, Media, Persia, and Graeco-Macedonia. For the visual learners among us something like these beasts can be seen in the Assyrian room six of the British Museum and on the magnificent Ishtar Gate of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
So much for the Old Testament zig. We resume the reading at the zag.
As I looked thrones were placed and one that was ancient of days took his seat; his raiment was white as snow and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him.
Then I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
Like a lion, like a bear, like a leopard. There are seven “likes” in this passage which sounds like the speech of a contemporary teenager. Here they are not verbal tics, but already mentioned important historical similes.
You have probably noticed that historically we Christians can read the ‘zig” part of this text with our Jewish friends. You have certainly noticed that theologically we cannot read the “zag” part with our Jewish friends because Christians understand the “Ancient of Days” in Trinitarian terms and the “Son of Man” in Christological terms.
You will be inordinately relieved to learn that I do not propose to discuss these central mysteries of the Christian confession in the few minutes remaining. Instead, I hope to offer a POP conclusion by way of challenge.
***
Let us pause to mark the POP. I ask you to imagine a monkey chasing a mulberry bush. Pop goes the easel. {At this juncture the speaker took in hand a bunch of explosive “Pop Pop Snappers” (available at toy stores) which being thrown at the easel demonstrated, “Pop goes the easel”.}
***
The popping point is this. Your Christian faith is based in history but it is determined by encounter. Only in part do Christians see the Messiah through historical insight. More crucial, the eyes of faith encounter the risen Christ by the mighty and miraculous power of the Holy Spirit and recognize his glory through his self-description.
The seventh chapter of Daniel refers to history, of course, but even more importantly it presents Christological reality demanding personal commitment. Obviously, both Scripture and Faith are nonnegotiable components of every Christian life. Therefore, most likely every Christian here present already knows that for Our Lord, Jesus Christ, the phrase “Son of Man’ was his favorite self-description. The words “The Son of Man” appear 81 times in the canonical gospels and only in the sayings of Jesus Himself. He said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:35). “The Son of Man is come to save that which was lost” (Mt. 18:11). And most clearly reflecting Daniel 7: “And then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven, and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Mt. 24: 30).
“God the Son” is a special Christological affirmation, but the phrase “Son of God”, while applied in the New Testament to Adam, Jesus, and the followers of Jesus, is also applied to (1) angels, (2) pious men, and (3) Kings of Israel. Thus, quite contrary to ordinary English usage, “Son of God” is a human title and “Son of Man” is a divine title
Once more let us sharpen two points. First, God’s chosen people who preserved and cherished the Book of Daniel historically do NOT understand the Son of Man to refer to Jesus of Nazareth. Second, Christians, who do so claim, should understand that their identification of the Son of Man is not primarily based on superior historical acumen but on personal theological encounter. Christians recognize that Jesus of Nazareth taught his disciples that the phrase applies to Him. To this day that application is debated historically pro and con between the Old and New Israel, but NOT theologically for us. For Christians the defining Messianic reality is that Jesus reached back into the history of his original people to bring this phrase forward to describe himself. In other words, Christian faith, however connected, is not anchored in historical understanding but in personal encounter with Him in whom, we live, and move, and are (Acts 17:28).
The question has always been, “Who do people say I am? And the correct answer has always been, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16: 13). Christians do not really see the seventh chapter of Daniel in the early light of the Babylonian Exile or the middle darkness of the Maccabean Rebellion. Rather, we see by the dawn of Easter Day.
In Him was life and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it (Jn. 1:4-5) Jesus said, “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8: 12).

Advertisements

A Wedding Address

This message was taught on the occasion of the marriage between my tastefully named eldest son, Charles, and his lovely wife, Denise.
5.30.2010

Our marriage text for today is Ephesians 5:32 (see also Col. 3:18-25, I Pet. 3:1-7). which reads, “This is a great mystery.” “And I take it to mean Christ and the Church.” These words are embedded in a passage (verses 21-33) which forms the basis of the vows you will witness later, but in full context reads uncomfortably for us today because it reflects the very much out-of-date views of household economy taught by the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, of the 4th century B.C. (I think it is only fair to point out to Denise that her wedding is almost certainly the only one this summer to refer to Aristotle).

According to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (8:10 and Politics 1.12) household management has three parts: First, (slavery not yet abolished) the management of the slave by the master, which takes the political form of tyranny; second, the father’s rule over children, which takes the political form of monarchy (Father asking) and third, the husband’s relation to wife, which takes the political form of aristocracy. The final basis for Aristotle’s embarrassing conclusion is his conviction that, “The male is by nature fitter for command than the female.” However, he admits there are notable exceptions to this so-called order of nature. I imagine Aristotle would be astonished to find gathered in this one room so many commanding females.

In any case, these three classical definitions of household management were accepted for centuries and are not yet entirely exhausted of influence. However, the result to be observed in this passage is not the obvious Aristotelian basis of the background, but the real introduction of powerful, new themes that will shape the future. First: mutuality — “Be subject to one another.” Second: the mandate of male commitment, employing the famous verb agape. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Third, these mandates are to be followed not because of the supposed rational superiority of the male, but “out of reverence for Christ.” In short, the classical concept of the “reasonable man” (still applied in our law courts) is being replaced by the Christian concept of “loving person.”

In a sense reason is something we control; love is something that controls us. “This is a great mystery” to which the dichotomy of “universal” and “special” may be applied.

It is a universal grace that the Creator made the human creature in two kinds – “male and female created he them.” We do well to remember how wonderfully complementary and how wonderfully contrary created he them. This universal grace is universally expressed in Proverbs 30.18:

Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand:
The way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a serpent on a rock.
the way of a ship on the high seas.
and the way of a man with a maiden.

I should remind Charlie the proverb just preceding that one says, “The eye that mocks a father … will be pricked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures.”

The second dichotomy is a special grace associated not with the creator but the Redeemer. In the natural world there can be loveless marriages but not in the Christian community. We are commanded to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” “For this reason a man shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.”
The universal Western intellectual tradition from Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Dante testifies that love makes the world go around. The special tributary to which we belong insists that faith is the mother of love, but we can all agree, “This is a great mystery,” “And we understand it to refer to its basis in Christ and the Church.”

A Tribute to My Mom

by Jonathan F. Partee

Margaret McClure Partee was born in 1935 in Khartoum, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. She spent the first 17 years of her life in Africa, coming to the United States only on her parents’ scheduled furloughs. During most of those years, the McClure children attended boarding school in Egypt, a four week canoe and Nile steamer ride from their parents’ mission station. Mom never felt entirely comfortable in the traditional role of an American girl. Before one memorable New Wilmington Missionary Conference meal, bored with the unexciting activities of the rest of the girls, Mom caught garter snakes down by the creek and give them surprising new homes in the cafeteria sugar bowls.
Mom returned to America for her senior year of high school, intending to complete her college education, a medical degree, and then return to Africa as a medical missionary. At college, she met a slick and smooth-talking young man named Charles Partee,who convinced her to do something else for which my brothers and sisters are grateful.
Mom had a life-long love for Christ’s commission, teaching us kids an abiding love and concern for the world, and especially East Africa. Mom regularly used words from various languages like Arabic, Amharic, and Hindi around the house. All of us kids, at one time or another, found ourselves on the losing end of arguments with classmates and teachers as to whether words like saket, nunga-punga, or ishee were to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Although generally quiet and reserved, Mom’s upbringing and Scottish heritage made her a fierce opponent in the face of injustice. When the school district in Storm Lake, Iowa and Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania refused to follow federal law regarding handicapped children, she took them on and won both times.
Her legendary toughness, iron will, and refusal to give up affected all of us, but perhaps no one more than Dad. In the early 70’s Mom informed Dad that the roof of our house needed to be reshingled. Dad was just beginning his career as a college professor, and agreed that he would employ some roofers to take care of it. Mom, who always watched the finances, told Dad that there was not enough money to pay for materials and labor, and if he would not shingle the roof, she would. After a decade and a half of marriage, Dad knew this was no idle threat, and if he did not want his bride up on the roof for all the neighbors to see, he would have to learn quickly how to shingle . He asked enough questions of local roofers to realize what he had to do, but either Dad did not hear, or the roofers did not say, that on steep pitches beyond the reach of the latter, when you hammer a standing platform onto an inch of rotten wood, you need to nail into the joists. Needless to say, when Dad stepped on his platform it immediately pulled out of the roof and down he went, catching himself two stories above the ground by sliding into the ladder with his legs through two rungs. In this precarious position, he thought that he could recover if he could get an adult to stabilize the ladder at the ground level. Looking down he saw wide-eyed Charlie staring up at him. Dad quickly ordered, “Go! Call your Mother!” Charlie ran off, then returned and shouted up, “She said to tell you she is busy.” Mom was always busy, and regularly outworked the rest of us combined.
Although for the last 15 years Mom was hampered by the progression of Parkinson’s disease, she never complained. The most I ever heard her say about her disease was, “My stupid hand is not working today.” When Rebecca and Elizabeth were born, years after the initial diagnosis, she came out to help us and even at that time could outwork a normal human.
In the last five years, communication had become more and more difficult, and verbal communication had become rare. However, when one of us was crying beside her bed a few weeks ago, she opened her eyes and said, “Buka (buck-ah).” This is the Ethiopian word for “Enough.” I believe this to be her last instruction to us. She would not want to be excessively mourned; she was utterly confident in Christ’s promise that nothing could separate her from the love of God. She never looked backwards, ever forwards, and would entreat us to do likewise. It is now to those of us who remain to pick up these earthly burdens and carry them as courageously, as tenaciously, and as resolutely as she did.

Memorial Service for Margaret McC. Partee

A Reflection by Andrew H. Purves

On this Pentecost weekend, the Gospel text for Sunday will guide my reflections. At John 16:13 where Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure following his resurrection and ascension, he says that he will send the “Spirit of truth” who will guide his followers into all the truth. Margaret McClure Partee was exceptionally well-gifted with the Spirit of truth. This Spirit of truth, both speaking it and living it, guided her life.

I have the sense that the Spirit of truth did not descend upon Margaret gently and serenely; as a dove, inducing passivity. Rather, I suspect the Spirit of truth came upon her, in an image familiar to the Scottish Celtic Christian tradition, as a wild goose: fierce, at times awkward, uncontrollable, uncompromising, convicting, restless, and ever on the move, challenging and provoking. The Spirit of truth within Margaret was not tame, but was at times, at least to me, a bit unnerving. When the Celtic church chose the symbol of the wild goose to characterize the Holy Spirit at work within believers, surely it was to characterize such spirit-gifted and truth-centered people as Margaret Partee.

As a woman of faith Margaret believed in Jesus Christ with conviction and determination. Jesus Christ was her truth. She knew what she believed. Her boundaries were clear and secure. A child of the mission field she had evangelical clarity and missionary intensity. Her faith had nothing of triviality or sentimentality. It was solidly built on the sure foundation of the one who is the Truth, Jesus Christ.

As a wife and mother she understood that there could be no space between truth and love. Truth at home meant loyalty and commitment. And home was not just Charles and their children, but included many foster children who were swept into her fierce embrace as she reached out to the least of the little ones. And for her truth could be demanding. If a retaining wall was imperceptibly off, for Margaret it was just off and had to be rebuilt. If a paint job was imperceptibly off, for Margaret it was just off and had to be repainted. Her commitment to truth was undoubtedly exacting for those around her. But truth was always fully informed. Charles, as you know, is a man of many maxims. One has stood the test of time: the sign of an intelligent man is that he marries a woman brighter than he is. Charles, no doubt, learned that at first hand. Margaret was a woman of truth.

The loss of someone dear is painful indeed. And pious words fill no space where once a beloved woman lived her life. As we look back and remember with thanksgiving so also as people of faith we look forward in hope to the great mystery promised for those who die in Christ Jesus. And as people of faith we are confident that the Spirit of truth has led Margaret to rest in the One who is himself the Truth, unto ages and ages, Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen

Squirrels in My Attic

On August 11, 1991, after 37 years of devoutly offering burnt offerings to heaven, I smoked my pipe for the last time, quitting, as they say, cold duck. I had taken up pipe smoking in my university days because I thought it denoted a kindly, reflective, manly person such as I considered myself to be.

In those days the shelves of tobacco shops were stacked with products for theologians. For regular clergy, there was a tobacco called “Parson’s Pleasure.” For students of the 16th century, the famous “Sir Walter Raleigh” (naturally my favorite). Biblical types smoked “Revelation” and ecumenists could associate with “Four Nuns.” There was even a mouth-searing aromatic called “Presbyterian Mixture” which out of denominational loyalty I tried to like but without success.

Once I got into the habit, as the Catholics say, I found I really enjoyed my pipe. I was amused to learn that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church thought the tobacco plant grew from the intestines of the archheretic, Arius. I could not see anything heretical, Satanic, or Freudian in lighting a pipe which immediately cleared my room so I could think — a pastor’s study being the closest approximation to Heaven on Earth. In addition to several calabashes and briars, I had a water pipe, but I thought it best not to tell anyone that the pastor kept a hookah in the manse.

Nevertheless, I said a sad farewell to all my pipes on Aug. 11 because I am an honorable man. In 1955, I had promised Margaret that if she would marry me I would quit smoking, but I did not tell her when I would quit. Thus, being sensitive as well as honorable and reflective, I began to get the decided impression that after 35 years her patience was wearing a trifle thin. Women are like that. I figured this out after three years of finding newspaper clippings on my desk at home about the hazards of secondary smoke. So, while I had never smoked cigarettes, I decided it was time to “kick butts.”

I found that quitting was a terrible struggle about which I gripe on every possible occasion. I also learned that you can precisely calculate the compassion of another person by how long they will listen to you complain about nicotine deprivation before they change the subject to why they never started smoking or how easy it was for them to stop.

Now, you will not be surprised to learn that one summer some many years ago I discovered I had squirrels in my attic. I tried to convince Margaret that they were a friendly presence, but she insisted they were noisy, unsanitary and dangerous since they might chew the insulation off the wires and set the house on fire. Obviously we had to get them out of the attic and seal the hole. Easier said than done since our house was built on a hill with enough basement above ground to make it a three-story climb to eaves (or Adams — if you prefer). The ladder standing on a slope is a further hazard. Under those conditions, and with the added fact that I am considerably heavier than she is, Margaret refused to let me make the climb because she did not think she could hold the ladder with my weight added if it began to slide down the side of the house. My assigned task then was to scare the squirrels out of the attic from inside and then to run outside to hold the ladder for her so she could seal the hole.

Nothing is more certain in my life than that I love my wife. I love my children, too, but they did not choose me above all others and she did. The wonder of that commitment made long ago and still kept today is as much a mystery to me as it is to you. My love I simply assert, believing that any effort to convince you of the fact of its reality would be not only ridiculous but contemptible.

This is the woman who climbed a 30 foot ladder, anchored on a slope, carrying a foam canister to fill a squirrel hole. When Margaret was three stories high, with one hand holding onto the gutter and the other directing the foam into the hole, a squirrel from inside the attic suddenly launched itself through the hole at her face bouncing off her hair before falling three stories to the ground.

Horrified, as I saw that squirrel falling, the first thought that rushed through my head was: “If she falls, I can smoke my pipe again!” As this thought sped through my brain, I was dismayed, disgusted and outraged. I have believed in the doctrine of total depravity for more years than many of you have been alive. Yet I cannot believe that even I am so vile as for a single second to contemplate harm for the one person on this Earth I cherish beyond all others.

Presbyterians still have a good, strong doctrine of personal and corporate sin. However, I believe we need to account for a ferocious evil reality beyond our ordinary self and society. In other words, while in our undoubted total depravity we do not require outside malevolence, I think we get it all the same. To say nothing about the Bible or John Milton, the great John Calvin devoted an entire chapter of the Institutes to angels and devils. The recent and excellent Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith does not contain an article on either. My question to modern Presbyterians is this: “What in hell happened to Satan?”

Getting the Schaff

According to the polymathic Philip Schaff, Lutherans produce the best scholars but the Reformed community produces the best preachers. I grew up agreeing with Schaff about the latter but not the former. Our small Presbyterian Church – located at the beginning and the end of the road for ministers – nevertheless provided appropriately learned pastors for our little fellowship. In those days, forced to live without television, computers, or cell phones, we read books. Being unfledged, I was less skeptical about American intelligence because I had not yet read Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. I was also less cynical about the behavior of Protestant clergy because I had not yet read Peter de Vries’ Mackerel Plaza nor Schrader’s Dear Charles: Letters to a Young Minister. Moreover, I never suspected Presbyterians would eagerly embrace the dumbing down of America nor willingly celebrate the carnival culture. It never occurred to me that Presbyterians would participate in “the competitive de-escalation of standards” (a wonderful phrase I attribute to my colleague David Willis).

Obviously, I am full of nostalgia – not to consider other possibilities. I thought then and now that ministry in the Presbyterian Church required a profound knowledge of Scripture, a solid grasp of theology and its often truculent companion, philosophy. In addition, Presbyterians, I assumed, expected their ministers to possess a comfortable familiarity with all the classics of Western literature and a considerable mastery of many.

These congregational expectations included keeping up with new and important books being read by intelligent parishioners. Under that conviction I purchased By Love Possessed, a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in 1957. The result was a dissatisfaction so strong that I decided my parishioners would just have to tough it out with a pastor not current in current literature. Keeping up with contemporaries did not seem nearly so important to ministry as trying to catch up with the classics.

This serenity was shattered a few years later when some expert excitedly trumpeted that the whole purpose of studying the classics was to prepare us to read Giles Goat Boy. Touted as a brilliant fantasy of (1) theology, (2) sociology, and (3) sex (three subjects of great interest to me) I bought the book. At page 50, and thoroughly befuddled, I concluded again that books designated as “new and important” would receive from me only the most desultory attention.

However, when a colleague mentioned that John Updike’s new novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, featured Presbyterians, I peeked at the book because I was piqued by the possibility that Updike had peaked. One accurate and delightfully sly description locates the Presbyterian manse at the intersection of Broadway and Straight Street. Presbyterians are still very much cornered between the liberal broad way and the conservative straight and narrow. Also memorable is the wicked caricature in which a Princeton Seminary educated pastor leaves the ministry because he has lost his faith. His executive presbyter, educated at Union Seminary in New York, cannot understand why the one should involve the other. I appreciate Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter” and his interest in Karl Barth, but in my judgment Updike’s novels sell too much soft porn.

I have no idea whether In the Beauty of the Lilies is an important novel. Updike’s view of theology and sex is not novel, which means I think I understood all his references. However, I am interested and puzzled about his sociological employment of Presbyterians as a subtext. My tentative theory is that for a modern novelist American Presbyterians splendidly illustrate the dramatic theme: “How are the mighty fallen” (I Samuel 1:19).

However, not being currant, I am only raisin the question before pruning my library of The Gripes of Wrath.

My Classical Music

My Classical Music
(submitted to National Public Radio)

According to the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the intellectual love of Mozart’s music is a liberal education on the meaning of Beauty.

For many of us, Mozart, like Shakespeare, is not of an age but for all time.  For times of joy and for times of sorrow. Conjuring only the magic of Die Zauberflote, what could be more glorious than the Queen of the Night’s aria, more sublime than Sarastro’s “Oh Isis”, more delightful than the duet between Papageno and Papagena?  Additionally, my cell phone rings out with the happy introductory notes to Zerlina’s dance from Don Giovanni.

However, humankind is also born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.  The ominous sound of our landline telephone in the predawn cold of an Iowa winter delivered the terrible news that my wife’s father had just been murdered by Somali guerrillas who crossed the border over into Ethiopia.  A rifle shot stopped a heart that had beaten for almost half a century in selfless service for some of the most hidden peoples on the African continent.

After a few moments I walked slowly to the phonograph to hear once more Mozart’s great 40th Symphony in the tragic key of G minor.  I hear in this great symphony all the depth of human tragedy clearly and compellingly expressed, but within a harmony so marvelous and mighty that the result is pure joy.  I am comforted by the hope that the dreadful events that occur in all our lives may likewise and somehow find a place in such a beautiful harmony.