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.

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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.

What Would Ewe Do?

For a number of years in the 1960s my missionary father-in-law sponsored a  small program for theological students of Haile Selassie University in Addis Ababa.  His primary purpose was to provide room and board for 30 young men who had no money and no scholarship support for the summer months.  The secondary purpose was to provide instruction in Bible and theology.  The tertiary purpose was to provide American Presbyterians with an unpaid Christian evangelistic opportunity overseas.

In 1969 my family traveled to Ethiopia and our baby, Jonathan, took his first step on the African continent.  That summer Margaret and I constituted the entire faculty of the summer institute.  However, after a week on the job I decided that a grander title would provide a useful boost for my self-esteem.  I explained to Margaret the advantages she would derive from being the entire faculty and asked if she would vote for my appointment as dean.  The look she gave me I had seen many times before and have seen many times since.  As always (and this is the secret of our long and happy marriage) if she does not say, “No,” I assume she means “Yes.”  In the midst of acclimation to Abyssinia, I was elected by acclamation in Abyssinia.

I enjoyed my deanship because it involved a silly distinction and no additional work.  In fact, being dean of a one-person faculty so tickled my sense of the absurd that I later included the honor on an application submitted for a job I really did not want.  I thought someone might ask about the entry:  “Dean of the Summer Theological Institute, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1969.”  The question would give me an opportunity to discuss the role and value of whimsy in human life, which would ensure that I not be offered the job.  Since then my several weeks of deanery has taken on a small and random life of its own in that it occasionally reappears when I am introduced.  I don’t suppose my African deanship compares with St. Augustine’s African bishopric, but to hear it solemnly cited reanimates my sense of the ridiculous in application to myself and requires stifling a chortle that puts me in an exceptionally good mood for whatever follows.

Thirty years later Margaret and I returned to Ethiopia to visit that first-step African baby who was finishing his missionary service as a professor of physics at the renamed Addis Ababa University.  For him the Great Commission “Go therefore” (Matthew 28:19) was translated into “Come back.”  By then Jonathan and Sara spoke Amharic well enough to allow us to go way off the usual tourist roads.

Our conveyance came about this way.  Some years earlier Jonathan had determined to add to the Presbyterian flock by sneaking up on the Lutheran fold and capturing the fairest of their Norwegian lambs.  I suppose our family should feel a bit sheepish, but I will not pull the wool over your eyes.  I think it would be a mutton-headed son who could not effect such a rescue.  If that is stealing from one fold to another, what would ewe do?

At the conclusion of the wedding service as the officiating ministers watched the new bride and groom recessing, the Rev. Gunderson, representing The Formula of Concord and father of the bride, leaned over to the Rev. Partee, representing The Book of Confessions and father to the groom, and said, “I hope this mixed marriage will work.”  The truth is pretty Lutherans make wonderful Presbyterians.

For their years in Addis Ababa, Jonathan and Sara expected to get around on public transportation, which is very inexpensive.  However, while blue-eyed blondes stand out everywhere in the world, they are especially noticeable in Africa.  Waiting on street corners for buses and sometimes late at night Sara was getting punched by both men and women.  Once, walking with Jonathan, a well-dressed woman doubled her fist and hit Sara.  This gratuitous violence was inexplicable among the noble and gentle Ethiopians.  Jonathan was, of course, beside himself in being unable to protect his wife.

Ethiopia has no domestic automobile industry so imported cars cost triple the U.S. price.  In no way could recent university graduates afford a new one.  Even old cars are expensive.  Addis Ababa has more foreign embassies than any city in the world (except for Washington, D.C.).  Diplomats bring cars from their home countries and leave them in Ethiopia when their term is over.  1940s Cadillacs and ancient Mercedes still ply the streets in Addis.  At one time France was strongly allied with Ethiopia, and much of the city’s commerce still moves around in rickety old trucks that proclaim on the windshields:  “Peugeot.  Number One in Africa.”  Some Anglophiles swear by Britain’s Land Rover but everyone else knows that only the Toyota Land Cruiser can consistently withstand the punishing African roads.  A few miles outside the capital city, a Ferrari is completely worthless.

When Sara’s plight became known, one of the great Pittsburgh churches took a special offering for her.  With this gift Jonathan was able to buy a very-much-used 1986 short-wheel base, four cylinder, diesel Toyota Land Cruiser II.  It was not much to look at.  The interior was tattered and the paint chipped by stones and scraped by thorns.  But the engine was strong and the suspension taut.  With a snorkel venting above the roof, a Land Cruiser will take you under water through a small but fast flowing river — an experience I am not eager to repeat.

During our short visit we took pictures of the world famous rock churches of Lalibela, the stele of Axum, the palaces at Gondar, the Blue Nile source and the rare and endangered Abyssinian wolf (or Simean fox).  If it is not immediately convenient for you to invite us over to your house for coffee and to show our slides, you may see some of them at http://www.partee.net/mission.html.  The coffee we prefer is Yirgacheffe from the beautiful Ethiopian highlands.  Please make a note of it.

Throwing in the Towel

Our son Gary was born in a hospital connected with the prison where his mother was serving time for grand theft. With a birth weight slightly more than three pounds, Gary could whimper softly but was too weak to cry for his first year on Earth. We were told Gary would never walk because to his mental retardation was added cerebral palsy affecting all four limbs.

As a little boy, Gary was very sweet, very verbal, and very brave. He struggled mightily to learn to walk with the aid of cuff crutches and in the process developed upper body muscles that a weight lifter might well envy. When other children were toddling around, Gary was on all fours dragging his crippled legs along the floor.

One day he looked up and inquired, “Dad, why can’t I walk like other kids?’ The medical answer is that his legs are crippled. If there is a theological answer, I am reminded a hundred times a day that I do not know it. All of us — but some more than others — “are born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7).

Still Christians know the day will come when “many with palsies, and that were lame,” will be healed (Acts 8:7 KJV). In the heavenly kingdom, we will see the lame walking, the mute speaking, the crippled whole, and the blind seeing the Glory of God (Matthew 15:31). In the meantime, Gary, as a man of 40 years, is engaged in regular and meaningful, if lightly paid, work.

Gary is a genuine churchman. He can be counted on to be present every Sunday and while he cannot read, he sings many memorized hymns. He looks forward to the offering. He says his prayers, and there is no parishioner who loves and trusts his pastor more. Gary has been a 40-year blessing to the family that adopted him.

When I was growing up, foot-washing sects, based on John 13, abounded. I assumed that Calvinists washed their own feet with some regularity, but washing other people’s feet was not part of our order of worship. I was curious that nobody seemed to know why. Indeed I was so persistent in asking questions about this and other theological subjects that a lot of the congregation got extremely annoyed and told me I should go to a seminary as soon as possible or some other place approximating a seminary but with a much warmer climate.

In seminary I learned from John Calvin that Christians are not enjoined to re-enact every action of Jesus and the foot-washing ceremony is one of these events which is not presented for our exact imitation.

However, Calvin continues, he who is the Master and Lord of all did give an example to be followed by all the godly, that none might think it a burden to stoop to a service to our fellow human beings, however mean and lowly it might appear to be. What counts toward greatness among Christians is not person, power or position, but service.

The problem for me is that, like most Calvinists, I have a deep suspicion of all pleasure. Therefore, I am afraid that when I am doing what I enjoy, like reading and writing theology, I may just be serving myself and not the Lord. I sometimes wonder if there is anything I do as a Christian that I would not do otherwise?

For many years, after Gary became too heavy for St. Margaret (my wife) to lift, it became my daily task to help him with his bath. I didn’t always enjoy this activity, but when it became a burden I imagined my Lord’s voice saying in gentle reproach, “Charles, do you really have anything to do today that is more important than washing the feet of this child of mine?”

When I get to Heaven and the Lord asks whether I have tried to serve him, I will not dare to refer to what I have read or written, nor to the classes of brilliant students I have known, nor to the remarkable people I call friend. I will hold out a towel and point silently to Gary.